From the Editor: Know the Reader, Know Thyself
My favorite part of a very good keynote address from Josh Tyrangiel, editor of Bloomburg Businessweek, at this year’s Publishing Business Conference & Expo (see full coverage here) came near the end of his talk. After some personal reflections on the changes in publishing since he first joined Time magazine as a cub writer in 1999, and recounting the overhaul of Businessweek under his direction, Tyrangiel arrived at a stark observation. “When I talked to the editors at Businessweek, they confessed that the magazine had been remade and rebranded and refocused so many times in the previous few years that they could no longer remember who the audience was they were supposed to be reaching,” he said. “We alleviated that problem by quite literally tossing the market research into a garbage basket and declaring that everyone at the magazine, from editors to production staff, was a proxy for the reader.”
In other words, as Tyrangiel said a bit later, the goal was to “be the reader.” In his BoSacks: No B.S. column in this issue, Bob Sacks says Roy Reiman, founder of Reiman Publications, found success by identifying with his audience as comrades and fellow enthusiasts—by “being the customer.” As Sacks points out, this is not the same as engagement; knowing how to reach someone is not the same as knowing them. It’s easy to forget this in an era focused on collecting social media fans and followers, being first (rather than best) out of the gate with news, and trying to capitalize on the hype over the latest gadget. All of us are virtually poked and prodded dozens of times a day from every direction, without thinking too much about what makes us stop and click, watch a video, follow a feed, or pick up a magazine. Which is ironic, because it’s our job as publishers to understand motivation, not just communication.
Coincidentally, Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni also has the customer on his mind in this issue. In his Mr. Magazine’s M.O. column, he cites examples of what it means to put customers first. In 1922, DeWitt Wallace and Lila Acheson were trying to create a quick-read compendium of the most valuable books and articles of the day, but couldn’t get any established publishers interested in the idea. When they founded Reader’s Digest, they believed it would succeed because they knew it was something they themselves would buy. Publishing, as Tyrangiel said, cannot be reduced to a “recipe that you can pass from one title to another or from one editor to another. Most of it really comes down to a belief in your own judgment.”
Like Tyrangiel, Reiman and the rest, we would be wise to set aside marketing plans and platform-conquering for a moment and think about what it really means to be the reader. What made any of us care about print and digital media in the first place? Great writing, pictures and design, and their effect on us. The magazines we love understand what we want from them, and manage to deliver every time. When I’m fed up with the hype and politics surrounding some sensationalized story, and I turn to the New Yorker or The Atlantic for a measured, authoritative, 10,000-foot (if not 10,000-word) treatment of the issue, I’m more than just engaged. I’m grateful. In Tyrangiel’s terminology, those publications have made themselves indispensable. Isn’t that what we all want our products to be?
It’s worth mentioning that the “be the customer” rule also should apply to advertising, and that while publishers and marketers have long understood what pleases the beholder in print, those insights sometimes seem to fall away when it comes to putting ads on tablets. In our guest column this month, Dianne Kennedy of IDEAlliance lays out a path for creating the “good” while avoiding the “bad” and the “ugly” on this platform. The problem? Fitting tablet advertising into production workflows. The solution? A new set of terminology and standards to ensure that everyone is on the same page (so to speak).
Whether in editorial or ads, it’s all part of an effort to make process and platform take a back seat to passion—the visceral reaction we all get when seeing a great product. As BoSacks would say, therein lies the real secret to publishing success.