As I work to put the finishing touches on T.O.P.'s "New Camera Recommendations" list, which should be posted soon, I thought I'd add a few words about magazines.
First of all, to reiterate something Roger Hicks mentioned on the Rangefinder Forum, it takes a few issues before a new editor can put his or her ideas into practice, so it's important to resist the temptation to judge a new editor's intentions too soon.
In terms of what I'm going to say next, it's important to make a disclaimer first. I'm a regular contributor to Black & White Photography magazine, and I've been a fan of the magazine for a long time chiefly because I can almost always count on seeing interesting and rewarding pictures in it—publishing work several tiers above the usual photo-magazine chum was Ailsa McWhinnie's real strength as Editor, although it wasn't often appreciated as such. But I'm just a "contractor." I've never visited the home offices, never met or communicated with the publisher, and have no say in how the magazine is run or what its direction is. Although I've had a good and cordial relationship with my editors there, I don't speak for them in any way, shape, or form.
That said, in my opinion the most worrisome signal that can come from any niche magazine is an increase in "advertorial," which might be defined as "editorial content transparently meant to do the work of advertising." In my view, an increase in advertorial is the single worst choice a magazine can make, and the most reliable early sign of decline.
Advertorial is to ad salespeople what catnip is to cats. (You might substitute more extreme drug metaphors here.) Once an ad sales department starts feeling desperate, the temptation to pressure the editors to help make ad sales easier is almost overpowering. And once a magazine starts off down that road, the temptation—and the pressure—is always to do more and more of it, never less.
It's all too easy to hit "ceilings" with niche magazines—circulation reaches plateaus, ad sales stagnate or trend downward in tough economic times. That can be very frustrating. The temptation for the people on the magazine's business side is to do "something, anything" to break those bounds and rev up the revenue.
The trouble is that almost nothing alienates a specialty magazine's core audience more effectively than advertorial. Savvy readers know exactly who's being pandered to and why. And yet niche magazines by definition must first and foremost serve their niche! Yes, it's tempting to try to broaden the magazine's appeal, bring in whole classes of new readers, add value for the advertisers, reduce the subscribers' median age. But in the process you give up your publication's real greatest strength: its core readers. Once those people start feeling manipulated and betrayed, you trigger a gradual disaffection and a slow attrition. It might take years to play out, but it will eventually cripple the publication.
There's only one reliable way to improve the business situation of a niche or hobbyist magazine, and that's to serve the core audience as well as possible. That's hard enough, believe me. But the happier they are, the better the magazine's fortunes will eventually be. And without them, a niche magazine ultimately can't prosper.
Again, just one man's opinion.
ADDENDUM: A couple of the comments indicate to me that there might be a basic misunderstanding afoot. One commenter said, "The magazine editors should realise that this is how you lose old friends," and another said, "Let's hope [this post] is seen by the new editor at [the] magazine." (Italics mine, in both cases.)
I must not have made this clear: it's not editors who are responsible for advertorial. The editors typically fight against advertorial (note that I speak generally; I just don't have specific knowledge about B&WP). It's the business side—publishing and ad sales—that usually drive such things.
At many magazines, the business side and the editorial side are often at odds. It's not like they're enemies, exactly. They both want the magazine to do well, and of course editors are hired by, and work for, publishers. But they have different agendas as to what "doing well" means and how to go about achieving it.
It's important to understand this distinction if you want to be clear about what's going on. Some magazines even have two mastheads—one for editorial, with a chief editor at the top, and one for business, with a publisher or corporate owner at the top. Grab a few magazines you might have lying around the house and study the masthead(s) for a few minutes. See if you can separate the business people from the content people.
The traditional ideal is for the editors to stay out of the business dealings of the publication entirely, and for the publishers to give editors complete autonomy over the contents of the publication. The reason is that they serve different masters: editors are supposed to be entirely on the side of the readers, addressing their interests, taking their side, trying to please them; the ad sales people are mainly concerned with the interests of the advertisers and trying to keep them happy. The two have different constituencies, you might say.
Both "sides" are concerned with circulation numbers, but ultimately for subtly different reasons—editorial because it's a mark of the health of the publication and also because it speaks to how well their contents are serving their audience; and ad sales because it's a mark of the health of the publication and also because it's how they entice advertisers to buy space—the greater the number of eyes that see it, the better an ad might perform.
Advertorial essentially represents a capitulation from both sides. It's the business side saying, in effect, we can't move ad space without promising to deliver editorial coverage to the advertiser along with the ad space, and the editorial side saying, in effect, we're giving up control of our contents, meaning we've lost control of our independence and integrity.
The reason advertorial is such a bad sign is not only that it is essentially an acknowledgment that this mutual capitulation has taken place, but also because it's a very distinct first step down a slippery slope. That lost ground can be very difficult to regain. The situation gets worse and worse until the publication has no more integrity left, core readers drift away, editorial endorsements mean nothing any longer and aren't effective anyway, advertisers drift away, and the title goes bye-bye.
To name one example of this, I recall when a once-proud American magazine used to run one-for-one ad + editorial specials. The advertisers would buy half a page or quarter page or full page, and the magazine would "throw in" an adjacent equivalent amount of space that contained "editorial" coverage of the advertised product. On more than one occasion, I caught the editors slipping up and failing to change the case of the supposed editorial matter—in other words, instead of referring to the advertising company as "they" and "their," they'd slip and leave it as "we" or "our," thus exposing the likelihood that the advertiser or one of its agencies was providing the text for the "editorial" half of the package anyway.
That magazine no longer exists, and little wonder. Readers aren't idiots.
To end on a positive note, I'll mention a few examples of parties who know how the game is supposed to be played. At the magazine I edited, Ilford, Inc. once uncharacteristically demanded a specific ad placement...which surprised me, until I learned that it wanted to make sure its ad was not placed near a review of one of its papers, because it wanted to avoid even the appearance of quid pro quo. That was pretty stand-up, I thought. And, although I don't remember all the details, David E. Davis, former editor of Car & Driver, founder of Automobile magazine, and currently publisher of the e-mag Winding Road, once got blatantly threatened by the biggest car company on Earth, which told him to bend to its demands or it would pull all its advertising (this happened in the early days of Automobile, before the new magazine was really even on its feet). This is the kind of intense pressure that can cause even good organizations to buckle. David E. sucked it up and told them to go screw themselves. The General yanked its advertising—from all its divisions. It was a body blow to the fledgling magazine—from what I heard, it took years before its bottom line recovered fully. (And note that he was the publisher, not just the editor.)
That, folks, is integrity. —MJ