Summary of "Magazines and their websites" – Columbia Journalism Review study by Victor Navasky and Evan Lerner

The first study (PDF) of magazines and their various approaches to websites, undertaken by Columbia Journalism Review, found publishers are still trying to work out how best to utilise the online medium.

There is no general standard or guidelines for magazine websites and little discussion between industry leaders as to how they should most effectively be approached.

Following the responses to the multiple choice questionnaire and the following open-ended questions -

  • What do you consider to be the mission of your website, does this differ from the mission of your print magazine?
  • What do you consider to be the best feature of aspect of your website?
  • What feature of your website do you think most needs improvement or is not living up to its potential?

- the researchers called for a collective, informed and contemporary approach to magazine websites with professional body support.

The findings were separated into the following 6 categories:

Staff Structure and Decision Making

The researchers found decision making on the website to be the single most important factor in how its website functions.

Most websites were staffed by people who primarily worked on the print editions, and less than a quarter of staff were hired with web experience (29 per cent).

Independent web editors were the only decision makers in the most profitable websites, and the higher a magazine’s circulation and monthly web traffic, the more likely it was to have an independent web editor making budget and content decisions.

web site profitability

Budget decision-making and Web site traffic

Standards and Practices

The researchers found the approach to fact-checking and sub-editing for online content website standards were in general much less rigorous than for printed editions; 51 per cent of original content that appears on web sites is either not copy-edited at all, or is copy-edited less rigorously than in print.

Just under half (43 per cent) of respondents reported either a lower standard for fact-checking online (35 per cent), or no fact-checking at all (8 per cent).

Strangely, they found that websites are more likely to have lower standards in these areas as web traffic rises and when content decisions are made by independent web editors.

Many website editors correct errors without acknowledging the mistake; they are often more likely to be corrected than print, but less likely to publicise the correction – particularly when an independent web editor is involved.

The most common reason for material to appear online is because it ran in the print edition, often because it is breaking news, multi-media content or to maintain freshness and, sometimes, because the quality is not high enough to run in the print edition.

Business Model

For 68 per cent of surveyed publishers, advertising is the largest revenue source – just over half of the magazines (52 per cent) offer all their print material online for free, and profitable sites offer all of their content online for free more often than non-profitable ones.

Only about a third of magazine web sites make a profit, and magazines that publish more frequently, and those that have a higher web traffic, tend to have more profitable web sites.

However, they found magazine circulation generally has little bearing on web site profitability.

62 per cent of the web sites with between 1.5 million and 2 million unique monthly visitors were profitable, compared with 21 per cent of those with less than 50,000 unique monthly visitors.

Social media and community building

Unsurprisingly, most web sites, (47 per cent), have adopted social media tools and techniques, and do so more when independent web editors are in decision-making roles.

However, editorial standards tend to slip even more in this environment. Blogs are rarely copy-edited or fact-checked and comments are moderated at editors’ discretion.

Most magazines have blogs on their Web sites (64 per cent), and those are mostly maintained by staff members (87 per cent); 39 per cent use freelancers or contract-writers for blogs.

Web sites are more likely to have blogs when independent web editors are in charge of the budget. Most magazines allow comments on blogs or other online content (73 per cent).

Technology

The researchers found most magazines are not keeping pace with mobile display and interactivity technology.

Less than one in five are designed for smartphones and very few are formatted for e-book readers (4 per cent).

Again, web sites are more likely to have multiple display options when independent web editors are in charge of budget or content decisions.

Roughly half of magazines surveyed use metrics to guide content decisions (47 per cent), but only 8 per cent closely monitor and rely on them.

Less than half use traffic statistics (43 per cent), and those that do so regularly for content decisions are significantly more likely to be profitable.

Web sites that receive more traffic are more likely to use traffic statistics in content decisions.

Most magazines name Google Analytics as the online metric that is most helpful to their web sites.

Content management systems vary, with custom-designs proving most popular.

Mission

Most editors said their website and their print magazine shared a common mission.

16 per cent of respondents said their Web site’s mission involved community-building with readers.

Interestingly, only 5 per cent mentioned new or unique content as integral to the site’s mission, with 96 per cent reporting the primary use of content from the print magazine online.

In conclusion, the researchers call for a “Habermassian convention” to continue the discussion of issues raised by the study.

They suggest an inclusive and wide-ranging approach to help foster the democratic ideal of the public sphere in online publishing, to address the challenges for the future of journalism and of online business models.

Specifically they call for the following questions to be addressed:

  • What is keeping web experience out of magazines and why?
  • Why doesn’t the industry create codes of conduct and guidelines on matters such as online fact-checking, copy-editing, and error-correction?
  • Is it true, as one respondent said, “if it’s fact-checked, it’s not a blog,” and is this an existential or a definitional question?
  • Subject for discussion: Why have earlier attempts at standardizing the world of blogs and social media notoriously failed? Is it, at long last, possible to identify best practices for using the tools and techniques of digital journalism?

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