‘It’s a mix of fear, frustration’: Confessions of a magazine editor

Traditional media companies are scrambling to modernize, but they’re often stuck in the past and don’t have the resources to make the digital transition. In our latest Digiday Confessions, where we exchange anonymity for candor, an editor laments the “institutional arrogance” that holds back one magazine. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

What’s the mood like these days?
It’s not good. It’s a mix of fear, frustration. The fear is that one day it’s just going to end, and you put out good work every day and someone three floors up might decide to sell off your title. I don’t think the management really knows what it’s doing. They’re late to a lot of parties. We’re heavily invested in Snapchat, and I was just with the core audience for [it] and almost all of them left it for Instagram. Here we are, already behind in tech and investing in a company that already peaked two years ago. It’s a shiny new toy right now, and everyone wants to talk about it.

How much of this is fear of missing out versus having a real strategy behind it?
It’s all the former. I don’t think there’s any real strategy. Our editors go to fancy conferences and they get carried away with a technology and think we’re a Silicon Valley company, and we’re not.

How does the company view cool, newer digital publishers like BuzzFeed and Mic?
It’s a little, we’re shaking our heads because we can’t do the things some of these places do because we’re constricted by our past. BuzzFeed can do “25 Reasons I Wore Yellow Today.” If we put out a story like that, everyone would lose their shit. It gets a little frustrating. We have two styles of stories that are successful for us: an in-depth journalistic piece or a short viral piece. The middle stories, the 900-word stories, it doesn’t work. In BuzzFeed’s case, the lists pay for the journalism. For us, the viral stories pay for the journalism. Some of the writers get a little embarrassed by it.

How does the company’s legacy hold it back?
A lot of people have these writers that refuse to realize things have changed. It’s not going to come back. Attention spans are shorter. The transition is really slow here because there’s a lot of institutional arrogance. Our writers across the country, they look at how their stories do on Twitter. You get this false sense of you did something good. Our readers in Detroit, Houston, they’re not on Twitter.

How else does that arrogance play out?

We have a huge separation between magazine and web. There are people who don’t write for the web. They’re not made to, and they don’t understand the value of it. It’s two different audiences. The magazine people tend to get more of the resources. The transition hasn’t happened, and [the competition] is killing us.

Every single traditional media company is embracing video, though.
Every single person here knows video is where the money’s at. The problem is, there’s a huge disconnect between what the audience wants and what the advertiser wants. They want pre-roll and autoplay, and audiences hate that. The video team, they understand it. But they don’t have the budget; we have three people on social. We autoplay. We’re told to put videos on top of stories that aren’t even related to the story. Sometimes, I just refuse to and hope my editor doesn’t see it. I don’t know what’s going to happen because I keep hearing the model’s broken. But we’re so desperate for money if we have to put on autoplay; that’s the most important thing. Nobody’s thinking about the user experience.


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