I've done them. You've done them. Every magazine has done them: the year end list. Other than creating themâand claiming not to like themâI had never really given these ubiquitous lists too much thought until several years ago, when I ran acrossâand became totally addicted toâa Web site called Fimoculous.com that collects and organizes an annual mega-list of such lists. Since thenâperhaps because we discovered we not only share the same first name, but also several mutual friendsâI've gotten to know the list-guru behind Fimoculous.com, Rex Sorgatz. When not collecting year-end lists or being a weblog pop-culture maven, Sorgatz is a noted online media developer, most recently executive producer of MSNBC.com.
Over the years (he's been doing list-of-lists since 2001), Sorgatz's year-end list has become highly anticipated by the pop-culture, indie music and film community. And while the lists he aggregates are from a wide variety of sources, I've always been struck by how the majority seem to come from magazine Web sites. Recently, I e-mailed Sorgatz to ask him specifically about magazine year-end lists and to see if he had any hints for editors who compile them.
Here's our Q&A exchange:
Q: I used to dislike year-end lists -- but can't keep from reading them. Can you explain why?
A: I actually hate lists too. I find them reductive, simplistic, and cliche. But they're also elegant, consumable, and personal. I sometimes describe lists as miniature utopias -- little pictures of a reality that we wish existed. With all the crap that the culture industry creates in a single year, it comes as such a relief to actually celebrate some of it with a "Best Of" list.
Q: While you have year-end lists from a wide array of places, magazines seem a solid source. Other than being an easy-way to fill column inches, why do you think this is so?
A: Several factors are at work, but certainly the way lists deliver packets of insta-nostalgia contributes to their ubiquity in magazines. Also, nothing helps a publication define itself more than making a list of cultural objects (or sports teams, or candy) that it wants to celebrate. Like it or not, lists have become the ultimate indication of personality.
Q: What advice would you give to editors for compiling lists? Are there any tips you can pass along after reviewing thousands of them over the years?
A: Two things come to mind: 1. Go esoteric. We don't need another list of the best books of the year; however, we did need a list of the best book covers, because no one else has looked at the industry this way. 2. Add personality. Some of the best lists every year are those that are composed by celebrities. That could mean asking Stephen King or Margaret Cho for their favorite music of the year, but a better approach is probably to find micro-celebrities in your industry whose opinion people would care about.
Q: What are some of your personal favorites of lists from magazines?
A: There are too many to name, but some of this year's favorites have included New York magazine's use of multimedia to recap online video, the cross-genre quality of Sports Illustrated's Best Trades/Executive Decisions, Art Forum's annual use of specialists to recount music and film, and because I think lists are ultimately forms of prediction, The Futurist's Top Ten Forecasts. Oh, and I suppose Mr. Skin's annual Top 20 Nude Scenes, to remind me what I missed this year.
The end of the year isn't here yet though, so there's still a lot of room for surprise.
Q: What is the list you most look forward to each year?
A: The word-related ones intrigue me the most. Yahoo, Ask, and Google always target the zeitgeist by visualizing the most-searched terms on the Internet. There's an elegant, mathematical quality to the lists that seem to get at some sort of greater collective memory.
Add to that the dictionary lists that come along this time of the year. The OED, for instance, chose locavore at its "Word of the Year." Other contenders included tase, mumblecore, and bacn, none of which my spellchecker yet recognizes, which illustrates how of-the-moment lists can be.
Q: Do you have a favorite list of all time?
A: The Bill of Rights. It totally trumped The Ten Commandments.
As you know, it's a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. And as far as magazine chatter goes, it's seemingly been a long week for Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner.
Let's start here: the magazine published its seemingly four-hundredth 40th anniversary issue with something called "Indie Rock Universe," a nine-page spread-sponsored by cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds-that drew the ire of indie rock bands and those who monitor Big Tobacco (think Pacino in The Insider) for using cartoons in what they claim is an advertorial. R.J. Reynolds claims the cartoons were part of Rolling Stone's editorial and had nothing to do with them. Eight states filed suit against the company, and so far, Rolling Stone has been mum on the issue.
Then, of course, there was Britney.
America's careening pop star was reportedly in negotiations with Rolling Stone to appear on an upcoming cover for the magazine, only to back out of the deal. The reason? Last year, fellow pop star and former Backstreet Boy Nick Lachey allegedly shot a cover for Rolling Stone, only to appear on Wenner Media-owned Us Weekly instead. Spears wanted a guarantee from Wenner, but Rolling Stone apparently refused. ("It was going to be a good platform for her music to be taken seriously because it had been so long. But she refused to get screwed by Wenner," an unnamed source told Page Six. Spears has since contacted Blender magazine to appear on its cover, according to Page Six.
But the news out of Rolling Stone this week hasn't been all bad. The magazine published what should be anÂ odds-on National Magazine Award favorite: "How America Lost the War on Drugs," a 15,000-word piece by Ben Wallace-Wells about the administration's failure to curb the war before the war in Iraq. Calling it the "smartest drug story of the year," Slate's venerable, sometimes-ornery media critic Jack Shafer wrote, "If I were maximum dictator, I would force every newspaper editor, every magazine editor, and every television producer in the land to read [it]."
Of course it wasn't about music, but that's another discussion entirely.
RELATED FOLIO: VIDEO: Is Print Dead?
Iâm not sure if itâs because more of my time these days is spent meeting with media management, investigating possible acquisition opportunities, or simply doing more research. But it seems that there is a growing debate in our industry.Iâd call it the print is dead vs. âIâm not dead yetâ (Monty Python reference) crowd.The print is dead group (Steve Ballmer, who famously said that in 10 years all media will be digital, serves as the groupâs unofficial chairman) has strong revenue growth on its side, demographic shifts, and focused metrics to prove its argument. âIâm not dead yet,â knows that magazines/books/newspapers still are the preferred media for the human eye, the airplane, and also for âbrand building.âFor the Web to continue its growth, it will need to add the element of âsurprise and delightâ to its success as a search tool, research tool, news tool and social aggregation.For print to reverse recent trends, there has to be more focus on core strengths such as community (yes, print offers a clear community of interest), graphics and ease of use, and the ability to tell us what we didnât know we needed to know.
A pair of stories FOLIO: reported on this weekâthe federal suit brought against cigarette-maker R.J. Reynolds over an alleged "advertorial" that contained cartoons, and a Harper's Bazaar cover that contained 258 sponsored Swarovski crystalsârequired comment from the American Society of Magazine Editors, the arm of the Magazine Publishers of America that issues members guidelines on such foggy areas as magazine ethics.Here's ASME's response: From: Kahan, Marlene Sent: Thursday, December 06, 2007 5:52 PMTo: Dylan StablefordSubject: RE: folio: rolling stone, harper's bazaarDylan,I want to take a look at a copy of Harperâs Bazaar before I comment.On the Rolling Stone question:We donât approve of sponsored edit in general, only in specific cases (special sections, etc). Our guidelines say advertisers may sponsor certain special editorial sections, as long as the edit doesnât endorse the advertiserâs product, and the advertising and editorial pages are clearly distinguishable.Marlene KahanExecutive DirectorAmerican Society of Magazine Editors
This entry is for PWLA (people who like acronyms). Many marketers (at least in tech, when I am) chant "R-O-I, R-O-I, R-O-I" whenever a salesperson is present. And woe to the salesperson that wants to talk about PRINT! They claim to need Return On Investment, and of course the only way to provide that is with online marketing (measuring clicks, click-thru percentage and lead generation). Marketers want a Silver Bulletâsomething that turns their art into a science. They think theyâve found it. Until you start asking questions.Remember good-ole Bingo cards? Oh, I meant âReader Service Cards." How did we handle claims that another magazine outpulled ours? You broke them down with questions. What is the quality of the leads? How closely do they track results? If someone calls in six months later, do they link that back to the Bingo lead? In 90 percent of the cases, the marketers did not track leads adequately. Same is true today with online marketingâat least with smaller or medium-sized companies. They donât track whether the clicks became leads. Or later, sales. Their salespeople only follow-up on a lead once. The leads donât get followed up on at all. Nowadays, many marketers simply have a number of leads they must generate per quarter. Period. If those leads donât turn into sales, well, thatâs the sales teamâs fault. So, many times, when they tell you they want ROI all they really want you is CYA (Cover Your Ass). You should call them on it. And when you do, you can introduce another acronym to them that will also open the door for you to sell them badly needed print advertising. Itâs ROMO, and weâll talk more about that in the next post.
Even the most technology-challenged journalist has at least a perfunctory Facebook or LinkedIn profile (my wife, who is eight years younger than me was shocked I had a Facebook account before her).
But knowing how to leverage these services is the key to avoiding becoming part of the digital white noise. Brad Kenney, associate editor at IndustryWeek and the new president of ASBPE's Cleveland chapter, is trying to spread journalistic online competencies through the association (read his blog at http://asbpecleveland.blogspot.com). Kenney advises that social network profiles should be treated almost like your company's Web site-make it relevant for search terms and keep it updated. "It's like coding a Web site," Kenney says. "Not only will that force you to think about your strengths but it will let you be searchable."
In his November/December president's letter, ASBPE head and BNA Tax & Accounting senior state tax law editor Steven Roll writes about his LinkedIn experience. "LinkedIn is searchable, so I included the words âstate tax,' which relates to what I write about," says Roll. "Two weeks later, a recruiter from a big-four accounting firm called to see if I'd like to write about state issues for them. She wouldn't reveal her sources but I'm convinced she found my profile on LinkedIn."
It cuts both ways-not only should potential employers be considering your online presence, you should evaluate theirs, including LinkedIn and Facebook profiles of would-be managers. "You can tell about the quality of their site and if they've done any coding," says Kenney. "Do they have knowledge of how things should look on a Web site? Are they blog-enabled, do they have 21st-Century tools for disseminating information? Do they have bookmarking services? Not only is that important to me as a journalist but a strong Web presence bodes well for future revenue and in turn, long-term employment."
Don Imus returned to the airwaves this weekâthe first time since being dismissed in April over racially-charged on-air comments he made about the Rutgers woman's basketball teamâwith a pair of female comedians, both African American. Essence magazine news editor Tatsha Robertson scored a bit of a coup with one of them, 33-year-old Karith Foster, and posted the Q+A on the Essence Web site. In it, Foster responds to claims that she "sold out" by joining him on the air.Kudos to Essence for staying on top of this, and kudos for not holding it for the print magazine.
Harperâs Bazaar recently embedded 5,000 copies of its December issue cover with âSwarovski crystal elementsââ258 of them, to be exact, hand-affixed by Swarovskiâand sent them to VIPs in the fashion, beauty and media industries, including, naturally, me.
A week ago, 10,000 copies of New Yorkâs December 10 issue were printed with a four-page cover wrap advertising the New Museumâusing part of the magazineâs logo in its design. The special copies were mailed to a select list of the city's "culturati," Andrew Essex, CEO of Droga5, the ad agency behind the promotion, told Jeff Bercovici at Portfolio. "So if you don't get a copy, you're not somebody."
The blinging, er, blurring of ASMEâs church-state guidelines aside, why do magazines print special âVIPâ issues, anyway? And why do the VIPs get all the cool ones?
Thereâs a reason, of course: advertisers. In this case, Iâm guessing that both the New Museum and Swarvoski wanted to reach these so-called VIPs, and do so in a way that was eye-catching. But what about the subscribers of the magazine? Are they not Very Important People too?
The answer, apparently, is simple: No.
In a recent test on its own newsletters, MarketingSherpa wanted to know which two- or three-word phrase could get subscribers to click through to another article. Here's what they measured:
MarketingSherpa shared, "With these results, we had a strong feeling that the front-runner, 'Click to continue,' would win in the A/B test, and it did, producing 3.5% more clicks than 'Continue to article.' Needless to say, we immediately switched the words in our link in all of our newsletters."
The next time you send out an e-mail consider how important a few words in the title can make! Also consider that the least pushy wording got the most click throughs.
Visit MarketingSherpa's site.
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"Listen, the Web is the most exciting part of a modern journalism enterprise for ambitious writers and editors. If they haven't figured it out by now, to hell with them."
Those are the words of Jon Friedman in a column published this week on MarketWatch. You can read the rest of his comments, born of a frustrating experience at the American Magazine Conference, by clicking here.
Now it's worth noting for the thousandth time that I am not one of those people who believe print is dead. Rather, I believe that some of print is dead. Some of it isn't dead yet. And some of it will live forever.
I, unlike Friedman, don't expect to read the obituary of the magazine industry any time soon. However, I do believeâstronglyâthat the careers of a great numbers of great journalists are dead. The refusal to accept the changes in journalism has turned many of the people I know in this industry from assets into liabilities. These peopleâmany of them friends of mineâare the whining editors and publishers that Friedman says "still view the Web as more of a curse than a blessing." And although it is sad, and although it is a loss to the profession, it's time to let these folks go.
Friedman is right: writers and editors that haven't figured out that Web is now the most important part of what we do aren't worth worrying about any longer.
On the other hand, I'm not ready to give up on journalism students ... at least not yet.
As I've said before, the next generation is woefully unprepared to work in today's media. But I have faith that smart teachers can undo the damage inflicted by the journalism dinosaurs that roam the halls of academia.
And even if this entire generation of college students turns out to have been ruined by print-centric, elderly people, there are indications that today's high school students may turn out just fine.
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In my capacity as Discover magazine CEO, I had lunch last week with a leading environmental scientist and blogger. After a brief but stimulating chat about the climate crisis, I steered the conversation around to my more parochial concern: Can I dramatically increase my Web traffic by adding more blogs?
He was skeptical to say the least. Incumbents in this market have significant first mover advantages. My friend launched his environment blog in 2004, a year before the Huffington Post but a good five years after Boing Boing. Since then, if you believe Technorati, literally tens of millions of new blogs have been created. At the same time, blog users' bookmarks and RSS readers have been filling up (not to mention other blogs' blogrolls), leaving less real estate for new entrants.
A quick look back to early 2007, though, shows that a magazine site can launch a new blog using a time-honored tactic-poaching from its competitors. In January, Atlantic Monthly signed Andrew Sullivan's blog away from Time, and whatever they paid him was probably a bargain compared to the ad inventory he generates.
There's a lesson here for magazines looking to expand their
blog platforms. Instead of coaxing your overworked editors to blog more, look around your competitive space for established but undermonetized blog sites who might see the benefit of hooking
up with your brand.
If that doesn't work, you can always go with the LOLCats.
Most magazine designers have come across references to the legendary Aspenâa multimedia-filled âmagazine in a boxâ published between 1965 and 1971âthough few have actually seen a copy. In addition to articles, Aspen included phonograph records and several issues came with Super-8âs. (For our younger readers, Super-8 was kind of an early Quicktime.) Well, the folks at Ubu have provided a tantalizing look at some of those Aspen pages. The images are not as large as a designer would ask for, and some of Ubuâs attempts at recreating the magazine as Web pages fall flat, but they do provide mp3s and streaming video for all of the publicationâs multimedia content.
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