A study by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) shed some light on the issue of speed versus accuracy in online journalism and the secrets to profitability. The study, “Magazines and Their Web Sites,” appears in the March/April issue of CJR. Written by Seedmagazine.com homepage editor Evan Lerner and CJR chairman Victor Navasky, the study’s results came from interviews with media experts, as well as a poll conducted by Abt SRBI of 665 consumer magazines and their websites. The 34-question questionnaire was completed between Aug. 3 and Oct. 1, 2009.
For a majority of magazine websites, the editor-in-chief of the print magazine sets the editorial tone and makes content decisions, but that may not be the best approach for the magazine’s bottom line. Among unprofitable websites, 40% have their budgets controlled by print editors, nearly double the rate of profitable websites, of which only 21% have their budgets controlled by a print editor.
The study also uncovered a resistance to copy editing for magazine websites; 11% of respondents said there was no copy editing for the online edition, and, in an additional 48% of cases, copy editing is less rigorous for online content than print content.
“People’s expectations for online sites are different than for print material,” Navasky says. “The online is more akin to a conversation and people expect the informalness of a conversation. They also don’t expect technical fact-checking the way you would in print.”
The change in tone and emphasis on speed required by a 24-hour news cycle, the source of some concern in the print industry, may be responsible for the drop in editing and the perceived drop in quality. “In the long run, it’s damaging if you don’t have standards and best practices,” Navasky says. “They may be different from standards and best practices in print, but they’ve got to be there.”
Ken Doctor, a former Knight Ridder executive and current Outsell lead analyst, is not so quick to condemn the quest for speed at the expense of quality. “You can’t set up one in distinction to the other,” Doctor says. “Speed has a whole different dimension than it has ever had in print, and [magazines] have had a bigger problem with it than newspapers or wire services. The question isn’t one or the other, but how do you balance both?”
Another important consideration for magazine websites is the proliferation of social media and other Web 2.0 technologies. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) have blogs on their websites, nearly three-quarters (73%) allow comments on posted online material.
The give-and-take of online media is a relatively new, and surprisingly confusing, phenomenon for magazine editors. A lack of standards and precedents, an integral part of print editing, is a potential problem, according to Navasky: “My own view is that there ought to be a conference. There’s not even a consensus on what a blog is.”
Editing for online has taken a distinct turn for the egalitarian now that reader feedback has increased in volume. Social media are on the rise among the magazine website crowd, with Facebook and Twitter leading the way. Three-quarters of magazines surveyed have a social media presence, and 47% of respondents describe their presence as “active.”
“Editors are used to being the gatekeepers. That’s what editing meant—what was good enough and what was worthy enough to be presented to readers,” Doctor says. “On the web, because of the infiniteness of the content, we as readers have become each others’ editors.”
Navasky says these concerns make a web-savvy editor a must-have for magazines. “It was counter-intuitive to me that at this stage, the majority of people we surveyed said they hired online editors with no previous experience on the web,” Navasky says. “I would have thought that by this time, 95% [would have had web-specialist editors].”
Doctor views web editors as brand promoters. “I wouldn’t really care about whether they understand the web that much—what I care about is the enterprise that is creating that product,” Doctor says.
While the old media/new media debate rages around the status, quality, and mission of magazine websites, the facts and standards are evolving rapidly. “This is kind of an interim report,” Doctor says. “Now we’re in the in-between era. We’ve got print on the one hand, we’ve got a long, sort of tortured interim … and now the tablet is coming. The tablet is what [magazines] see as their chance for a digital future.”