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The Changing Role of the Consumer Magazine Editor

Editors nowadays have to produce more content, across more platforms, but with less resource. They have to be both commercial and creative, to continue taking full responsibility, whilst ceding total control. It’s pressured, writes Claire Irvin, but still a privilege.

By Claire Irvin

At the crux of every editor’s role lie a burning passion, a creative talent and the ability to communicate a single vision to captivate an audience. It has always been thus, and (hopefully) always will.

And yet… what is changing is the ways and means by which each editor communicates this vision. And is expected to do so. With ever-increasing pressures on the resources available, and the returns expected on the bottom line.

As ever, consumer editors need a forensic understanding of their brand values and an instinctive knowledge of their audience and what they want from their magazine brands. In content marketing, editors (yes, client titles sell on newsstand too) also need a fundamental understanding of the client objectives. But more so than ever, this is all underlined by a need to make this work as a business model, and to understand what else the brand can deliver beyond the print experience to this same audience in order to integrate it as seamlessly and comprehensively into their lives as possible.

Simply getting 100 plus editorial pages out every single month – accompanied as this so often is by the changing whims of celebrities and their management, the commercial requirements of ad teams and fashion credits, grey sponsorship agreements, motivating and inspiring creative teams who increasingly have one eye on the next big idea and the other on their endless to-do list, and pleasing that personal inner perfectionist that can never quite be satisfied that every page is unique / innovative / market-beating enough – is a challenging job. But add in client meetings, brand profile-building event appearances, HR issues, internal meetings, and the thankless task of trying to balance the budget, and it's even more multi-faceted. Factor in a multitude of other platforms, events, apps, and commercial partnerships, and you realise that there is much more to an editor than a way with words and pictures.

Commercial dimension

The most successful editor / publisher partnerships I’ve had are where the publishing director is living the brand too, enough to get carried along with my latest ‘genius’ idea (and indeed have many of their own), but with the insight, talent and application to commercialise it. Making creative innovation pay is one of the rarest abilities in our industries, and when it’s worked for me – from star-studded awards ceremonies, rooftop fashion shows and multiple covers to condom box covermounts with celebrity-designed artwork, it’s been due to a perfect pairing of crazy big thinking and commercial application. A case, perhaps, not of ‘how much will it cost’, but ‘how much could it make’…

Throughout my career, myself and my peers have faced myriad commercial challenges. Every magazine issue I have ever produced has come complete with the ‘exclusive’ headache, (or, how to beat your competitive set to the most relevant celebrity, ‘seen as they’ve never been seen before’). The cold sweat as you read the interview – did the writer bypass the PR promises and get the killer coverline you commissioned? There was the age of the covermount conundrum (oh how we came to rue the day we tried to top a 500k+ sale – 500k! – with a 23p polybagged gift). Then there was the mulling over whether to create a website. Would it really be worth the investment…?

Now, the biggest change to an editor’s role is that alongside all these challenges (which haven’t gone away, they simply multiply and coexist), editors don’t just have to deliver original, quality, on-brand content – to a budget and a demanding schedule – they now have to deliver it over an ever-increasing number of platforms, against many more competitors, with markedly less in-house and commissioning resource.

Editors have always been tasked with being first, and being best in their particular market, and not just producing what their readers want, but what they don’t even know they want yet; to really understand their audience and what it wants from printed content and experiential brand franchises. The difference is now, editors need to understand what content their audience wants, not just where – whether it’s mobile, email, online or social media – but how and when, too. Tellingly, River Group’s next newsstand launch (watch this space) put the online and social strategy way ahead of, say, covermounts in the planning process.

Wide open spaces

And what an opportunity these online spaces provide. The inner megalomaniac lurking inside every editor cannot fail to thrill at the opportunities these present. They are each, quite literally, one endless flat plan. Think of the possible space! The virtual pages! The creative freedom! The endless potential for new recruits! And the best bit – no brand baiting, hoping readers will be drawn to their local magazine stockist to buy – but taking the content to where they’re hanging out already.

For the editor, however, this wealth of opportunity can be tempered by the perceived dilution of their own personal input. And not just the constant nagging at their self-confidence and clarity of vision thanks to declining copy sales (we’ve all had them) and downward-spiralling readerships. For within every editor too is a control freak (no matter how well, erm, controlled) and the combination of increasing places to post content and decreasing creative resource means it is no longer possible to read every word your brand publishes, to personally tweak every headline it crafts, to read every line of comment from its users.

And in order to max out the value of any investment made, this all needs to be planned in at commissioning stage. The basis of which can appeal to the business person inside all of us, but the reality of which generally means convincing writers, photographers and stylists – many of whom are trusted long-term collaborators and friends – to agree to give up their rights to their own creative output. For fees that if not frozen, may be less that they were even five years ago (oh, I forgot to mention we’re politicians and peacemakers, too).

Barriers coming down

Not so long ago, extending your brand reach beyond physical boundaries – launching a brand, say, into different countries – would have meant a multi-million pound international operation and would have taken years. Yet with digital capability and vision comes agility, and this month, River launches Imagination, a print magazine for Visit Britain with a digital magazine in ten different foreign languages, enabling first-language reach in 21 different territories. All at the push of a button! (And several months’ expert teamwork on the translations, of course, but you get my drift.)

This blurring of boundaries extends to previously commercially defined parameters, too – Healthy, the magazine for Holland & Barrett, is not only one of the best-selling wellbeing magazines in the UK but since January, has been sold on newsstand too.

Maintaining editorial integrity and quality

The balance between bringing in brand revenues and maintaining editorial integrity has always been a delicate one, but if you are true to your brand values and careful to deliver to rather than exploit your audience, there should be no conflict in making money from them. Because alongside the role of the editor, the magazine business model is changing too and means that brand franchises now are no longer a vanity, or the result of a great idea you had at the pub at the end of an excitable features meeting - when hosting a roadshow or running your own charity race seemed like the best idea you’d ever had. They are not just crucial to profile and ‘talk-about factor’ – they are often the key to the commercial survival of any magazine brand. They mean more people can get involved – but beware! This means more people get to have an opinion, too…

Don’t underestimate the weirdness of a world where content is ubiquitous, and suddenly everyone else is creating it too. Ergo, everyone’s an editor. The wealth of content coming from 'unprofessional' sources is both exciting and exhilaratingly democratic. Talent now is not limited by geography or opportunity - as long as you have an idea and digital capability, you can be editor of your own blog. Anyone with a smartphone can create a vlog. And there are some fantastic examples of voices that may previously never have been heard – Dare for Superdrug has, for example, run exclusive cover features this year on beauty vloggers Zoella back in January and, most recently, Tanya Burr, both of whom have phenomenal and well-deserved success. But there are, inevitably, also examples of where this content does not necessarily come with experience, restraint or quality control! Take food. I love reading food blogs, but when it comes to sourcing recipes online I will only use trusted sources where I know the recipes have been expertly created, tested and tested again, then painstakingly subbed, and won't suddenly introduce an ingredient halfway through that they forgot to list at the start, or cock up the cooking times.

What hasn’t changed for me, or any other editor I know, is the joy and pride I take in what we do. I am a magazine brand junkie. I wanted to be an editor before I even knew what one was. I love print, but I also enjoy the digital journey we're all on.

Because one other thing hasn’t changed. A good editor gets the brand. A great editor lives it.

The privilege of being an editor has always been the variety - that one day is never the same as the next. Now it's just one minute to the next. Bring it on!