How we did it.
Earlier this year, we trialled an experiment in ‘new economy’ journalism, which we quickly dubbed Magazine 2.0. In it we asked our readers to share their best business tips on our blog, for publication in Anthill Magazine.
The response was so overwhelming, we were forced to turn the proposed piece into a series. The outcomes can be seen as part three of our column ‘168 Steps to Starting a Business’ (only available in print magazine).
Never ones to let a good idea lie dormant, we decided to take this experiment not just one step further but to its logical conclusion. Our audacious goal? To produce the world’s first entirely reader-generated business magazine.
We asked our readers to suggest the people we profile. We asked you to share business stories through case studies. And we asked you to share your expertise through opinion pieces and advice columns. To see the blog posts, click here.
We made no promises, fully aware that we may not pull it off. But agreed to ‘do our darnedest’ to turn conventional business media practices on their head.
You are reading the outcomes of this experiment. The magazine is not 100 percent reader-generated – that simply proved too difficult – although it does contain the contributions of several hundred readers, from advice, suggestions and votes to the provision of articles and artwork.
Here is what we discovered…
Finding new ways to open up channels of communication between staff and readers might seem a fairly obvious thing for a publisher to do. The interest from our readers when we announced our intention was not surprising. What did surprise us, however, was the number of ways available to make this happen.
As a magazine that champions radical transparency (talking about our ‘screw-ups’ as much as our achievements), it was genuinely bewildering to discover how few of the methods available to ‘engage’ with our readership that we were actively using.
We were also, perhaps equally, dumbfounded by the quality of the suggestions offered once the channels were open. It became a reasonably common occurrence to hear the following words quietly muttered around the office in shameful disbelief: “Now why didn’t we think of that?”
The idea to use online design marketplace 99designs.com to develop our cover came directly from its Australian owner, web-aficionado Mark Harbottle, as an inspired example of reader feedback. Asking readers to nominate which business leaders they would like to interview, using our humble blog, also uncovered some hidden treasures: We gained greater insight into reader interests and found a way to reward some of our more ardent fans. (Sorry that we couldn’t look after you all!)
You are a shrewd bunch of readers, Anthillians.
What didn’t work
While the experiment generated submissions from several hundred aspiring contributors (we thank you all), very few of these exceeded the 1,000 word mark.
This would normally have delighted us, as the average ‘How to…’ piece or opinion column in Anthill ranges from 600 to 800 words (the average amount you can fit on a full page). However, a wellbalanced magazine also needs a feature story or two – substantial items of well-researched content or investigative journalism.
This was perhaps the greatest weakness of Magazine 2.0. Most contributors, without the requisite financial incentive, it seems, do not have the time or inclination to knock out 2,000 (or more) words of well-researched and authenticated prose. As such, you might notice that this edition is light on significant features. However, you will find a greater diversity of shorter opinions.
We also noted that just because a contributor can write, that simple virtue doesn’t make them Tolstoy (or even Jeffrey Archer). While reading through the submissions, a trend quickly became apparent. Most articles fell into one of two piles: Dull articles that were well written or unconventional topics without much attention to grammar or structure. Some bridged the gap but the vast majority simply tested our under-resourced crew, creating a dilemma that plagued us throughout the process: Do we run the content that’s dull but easy to publish or spend hours-on-hours cleaning up unexpected gems of wisdom.
We’ll let you figure out when and if we chose to take each of these paths (heh heh).
We were also surprised that several of the entrepreneurial celebrities that readers nominated as people they’d love to interview declined the opportunity (although, in truth, this had much to do with the not-so-hidden hand of their media managers, who seemed a little spooked by the prospect of readers being granted uncurated access to their talent. We promise to pursue interviews in the future with the likes of Poppy King, Mimco’s Amanda Briskin and other prominent Aussies you nominated.
Tunnel Talk: This regular column is usually dedicated to three profiles, whereby we ask three successful and interesting people to provide their views on a particular topic. (How to deal with fear. How to come back from disaster.) During the development of Mag 2.0, we noticed a high number of submissions from marketing professionals. This prompted the idea, ‘Why not offer other readers a makeover?’ We put the offer out to our blog readers (over 40 willing participants responded). Then, we selected three marketing mavens to do their ‘thang’. The results can be found on page 27.
Cover story (How to… ): In the absence of a substantial feature (see above), we decided to create a way that would give a range of readers, from a range of backgrounds, the opportunity to tell their stories. We asked readers of the Anthill blog the following question: “Over the summer period, if given half the chance, how would you change your life?” The responses ranged from, “Open a bar” to “Vanish completely and start again.” Of course, we then spent a good deal of time finding the right readers for the right topics. The final piece was assembled and sub-edited by in-house reporter, Jennifer Kiely.
Think Again / Anti-Climax: These two regular sections offer a hotch-potch of interesting news from around the globe (the former) and an overview of business trends, statistics and private funding deals (the latter). These two sections were possibly the hardest to fill. While some of your submissions did fit the slots, many didn’t. As such, we were forced, in some instances, to turn back onto established paths. For example, it seems that no one was willing to research private equity deals without prompting (unless their name is David Kearney). I can’t say we were surprised.
Australia’s journalistic fraternity need not enrol into night classes just yet. The profession is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. The roles of ‘Editor’ and ‘Sub-editor’, however, seem safely assured (phew!).
We also discovered that creating a magazine around the contributions of several hundred readers involved far greater effort than simply allocating the resources of a few.
Surprisingly, when we factored into account the number of staff hours dedicated to this project, we discovered that our rudimentary ‘crowdsourcing’ efforts (i.e. blogs, surveys, forms, submissions and many, many emails) were far less efficient and ‘cost us’ a great deal more, overall, than our normal methods of publishing.
However, while acknowledging the sum total of the pros and cons, the overall learning experience was priceless. The elements that did work will help us produce a stronger magazine that is genuinely ‘engaged’ with its readership (rather than the lip-service paid by most media outlets).
Yes, the lines of communication are now more open than ever, creating a brand of publishing that combines reader input with traditional media processes. Until next time, we’re still looking for something to call this new generation of print media… Magazine 3.0 perhaps?