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JOEL Joel's Blog

I'm a four loom weaver as many a man knows...

02/19/2009 On history, changing technology, and the magazine industry

I'm a four loom weaver as many a man knows
I've nowt to eat and I've worn out my clothes
My clogs are both broken and stockings I've none
You'd hardly give me tuppence for all I've got on....

See here for the rest of the lyrics.

In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny. This was the first power tool in the textile industry and it turned making thread from a cottage industry to a factory process that helped trigger the industrial revolution. For awhile after the invention of the jenny prices of thread dropped and dropped because even if the thread was cheap you needed a hand weaver to turn the thread into something sale-able. Weaving was a highly skilled trade and hand weavers were in short supply. Their wages shot up and we have reports of weavers making lots of money and getting rich. In 1785 Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom (the actual widespread adoption of this invention along with other took a few years) and suddenly the wages of the weavers collapsed. From a skilled job it went to something where child could just tend the machine for a few pence a day.

The lyric above is a snippet from a song from this period, the weavers went from wealth to poverty and while it's easy to say that they needed to learn new skills going from a skilled weaver to another field that requires long training and pays decently is very very hard. The other thing to understand is that the change in society was permanent and not a fad. I first heard this song many many years ago sung by Maddy Prior and June Tabor on the album Silly Sisters. here's a UTube link to a performance of the song. It's makes my neck tingle to hear it.

My point- we are in the middle of yet another cataclysmic change in the economic scene. The corporations that fueled careers in the post war era now routinely shed senior workers to save cost. Too many of my friends are out of work in industries that have vanished in the past 5 years.

Magazine and newspaper advertising is way way down and on-line ads have not replaced the revenue. While some magazines have figured out what to do about it a bunch haven't. Here are a few suggestions:

The general, mass market doesn't exist anymore. Stop trying to make your publication appeal to everyone. it won't work, it costs too much and the masses don't care.

Shortening articles to make them more appealing doesn't work anymore either. Your core readership will increasingly be people who like to curl up with a magazine, they want to read longer articles that are well written. Not short caption like articles that are available free on the internet anyway.

Pictures are nice but not at the expense of text. A feature article should take at least as long to read as an average wait for a boarding pass at an airport. For lots of pictures and movies I go to the internet.

The content needs to grow along with the experience of the readers. Sure you get new beginners all the time, but it's not like the old days where everyone cycled around. Beginners these days first hit the web and get content for free. If you want people to pay you for content make sure the content is interesting enough, complete enough,original enough, and well written so that it's engaging.

By recycling simple article topics and themes all the time you start boring the loyal readership. Loyal readership is hard to replace. Please don't give us a reason to drop our subscriptions.

On every shipping label clearly tell us when our subscription is about to expire and then don't send us renewal offers every 23 minutes. It makes us throw ALL the offers out - even when it really is time to renew.

With the advent of the internet Magazine advertising is less and less effective, and with a smaller audience reading, less compelling. Think about Cooks Illustrated With no advertising they can print a lot of editorial content but have a lighter publication to mail and of course no sales department. They also don't have to worry about appealing to some mythic demographic that their advertisers like. They not only charge for a subscription to the magazine, they also charge for access to the website. It's been phenomenally successful. It's also the role model of the future. You see magazines were once a vehicle for advertising and the content for many magazines truly was secondary. Whatever got the most number of eyeballs pointed in the advertisers direction was good. Now it's different - to make money you need to keep faith with your readers. And I like to think we readers will keep faith with you.

ps - I think some magazines are doing it right but not all. There will be a shakeout and that's sad. I love the excitement of opening a new magazine for the first time and seeing what's on this month. I love reading the paper. But let me tell you the lack of advertising in the New York Times these days is just sad. The Sunday paper which used to be 4" thick is now maybe 3/4" thick, probably less.
Join the conversation
02/19/2009 Chuck Nickerson
I'd offer one amendment: no gratuitous pictures. They should be used to illustrate concepts difficult to describe in text. A couple years ago, two magazines had articles on wedged tenons in the same month. FW had two illustrations explaining orienting the wedge relative to grain direction of the mortised piece. I went back to the other article to see why they hadn't addressed the issue. They did, but did so in one sentence with no visual support. For me, the FW illustrations were worth a year's subscription by themselves. Paper is cheap, wood is not.
02/24/2009 Jeff Peachey
Where is Ned Ludd when we need him?
02/26/2009 J. M. Percy
Good points. Though I am a loyal Fine Woodworking reader (I have every issue), I have to say that Popular Woodworking has made great strides by doing what you recommend. Much credit is due to Chris Schwartz who has researched hand tool issues in great detail, rather than regurgitating the "conventional wisdom". It helps that he is a good writer, but the depth of his knowledge is what makes his articles so appealing. I wish that other magazines would follow your advice and the example of Steve Schwartz. Thanks for your perceptive comments.
02/28/2009 David
Hmmm - Methinks you're directing your comments to one magazine in particular. There are a lot of us long-time, loyal subscribers that are thinking of dropping it because of the incredible drop in quality from the eighties and early nineties issues. We've been pretty vocal that this is a really stupid business move in that mag's forum, but those comments either get ignored, or a reply is generated from one of the managing editors that "they know what they're doing". Sadly, they have no idea.
03/01/2009 Scott MacLEOD
I have every issue of one publication,you all know which one, and buy second copies as I come across them so I can take them to the shop and trash them. But thats only the old issues. I continue to buy the current issue out of what is (probably misplaced) loyalty. But I certainly dont need a second copy. Its just a shallow rehash.

Popular woodworking is a good balance of difficult and newcomer, hand and powertool. And Woodworking fills LUDDITE tendencies.

And at present there is no way I'll pay to join a website when I can get advice from acknowledged experts at the discussion groups or by joining and association or quild.

03/08/2009 John Bufton
Your points are right on target! Publishers need to realize that "Narrowcasting" rather than "Broadcasting" is the way to survive and prosper.

And it would really be interesting to see the percentage of any mass magazine's subscription renewal rates; my suspicion is that most subscribers realize after about two years that the identical topics are being regurgitated in a new format, and consequently do not renew their subscription!

Advertisers also need to realize that their products can be interesting, but by delivering their sales pitch to what they seem to think is a totally novice audience with a low IQ, they bore us, and so their ads are unread!

John B
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