Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Word is dead. Long live The Word Massive!

The times they are a-changing, and nowhere moreso than in the world of publishing, where the battleground for readership and advertising is moving under our feet. Content is king and scale is crucial, as was shown this week when The Word, an independently published music magazine, was forced to close having seen its advertising revenue fall through the floor.  Loyal readers cried 'how could this happen?', but the harsh reality is that, for advertising buyers, it's all about the numbers and The Word's readership number wasn't big enough.
It seems you can't be a niche consumer publisher anymore. The Word's problem was it was appealing to a particular demographic, the middle-aged music fan, and there just weren't enough of them to sustain a healthy readership of interest to advertisers. The Word's Editor Mark Ellen said, "If you work in magazines with the market behind you, as I did in the 1980s and 1990s you have more success than you deserve. Smash Hits turned out like The Spice Girls, and Q magazine like U2, and Mojo like REM and Select like Happy Mondays. But I think The Word will be fondly regarded as some sort of Nick Drake entity: much loved, but by a smaller but utterly devoted number of people. And I'm very happy with that. We made the magazine we wanted to make until there wasn't enough money to do that any more, and that's the right time to quit."
It is unusual to find a magazine that makes such an intimate connection with its readers. Commercial reality is all the more harsh then, when it becomes clear that such a cosy relationship is unsustainable. With less money to spend, advertisers have to be more selective in their choice of media, added to which the web has revolutionised our consumption of - well - everything! The example of what happened to the music business after Napster and now with Spotify has been mirrored in the world of newspapers and magazines. In short, when people can access such a huge amount of news and feature material for free, they are less willing to pay for other content, however much they might like it. As The Word  publisher David Hepworth says, "The speed with which this news spread (via the web and twitter) and became an event in which people could happily participate, and the "disintermediation", to use a jargon word, of the traditional news outlets was a live demonstration of the same forces which mean you can't publish magazines, or indeed anything, the way you once did."

A by-product of The Word's website blog has been the emergence of a small but close-knit group known as The Word Massive. Internet chat platforms are often unruly and hostile, with bad language and personal abuse thrown about even among people with a mutual interest.  What makes The Word's blog so special is that, while the rules of engagement are clear, a robust discussion can take place with hardly any bad language and only very rarely any necessity for the moderator to step in. The site polices itself and as a result, people are willing to share their intelligence but also their vulnerability and ignorance, without fear of being ridiculed.

The Massive includes some of the most friendly and articulate people you could wish to meet in cyberspace.  They have created such a sense of community that regional meetings are a now a regular monthly event. Drinks are bought, cake is made, CDs, DVDs and books are swapped and staff from the magazine mingle amongst their loyal readers. Indeed, the loyalty of The Word's readers was such that the publishers organised a regular series of live concerts at which the magazine's readers formed the core of the audience. On one special day in the summer of 2011, we were treated to a Thames river cruise where Neil Finn performed and took part in one of the magazine's revered podcasts. They even raised Tower Bridge just for us!
I have been a member of this group for nigh-on 4 years and have attended several of their gatherings. The sense of belonging is such that the demise of the print magazine will not deter us from banding together elsewhere. Indeed, within hours of the closure announcement, a new web forum had been set up, ready to commence when The Word  blog shuts down.
The Word 'Massive'
lives on - we are stardust, we are golden...
While it still survives, you can visit the Word blog at: http://wordmagazine.co.uk/blog and you can read David Hepworth's blog which is linked to on the right of this page.

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