An article about a new CJR survey of practices at magazine Web sites that was published in the March/April issue of the magazine appears here. Click here to view the full report, containing complete results and a description of the survey methodology.
Speaking as a card-carrying member of the old media, it has been my observation that virtually every magazine (old media) now has a Web site (new media, a.k.a. digital media), and that the proprietors of these sites don’t, for the most part, know what one another are doing; that there are no generally accepted standards and practices; that each magazine’s Web site is making it up as it goes along; that, as CJR put it in our proposal to the MacArthur foundation (which funded this survey), it is like the Wild West out there.
For example, who makes the final decisions about what goes on the site, the editor of the magazine or, if there is one, the Web editor? Are Web sites fact-checked and copy-edited, if at all, with the same care as their parent magazines? On the business side, how much material is free, and how much is behind a paywall? What about archives—are they marketed, monetized, and curated in ways that differ from current content?
The idea was to conduct a survey, publish the results for all to see, and try to identify best (and worst) practices. And to see if, at a moment when the future of journalism in general and magazines in particular is thought to be in doubt, anything we learned could help fix a business model said to be broken, not to mention improve the flow of information on which our democratic society is predicated.
I’m not going to bore you here with our methodology, the validity of our sample and such, other than to say that after signing on Evan Lerner, home-page editor of Seedmagazine.com, as project director, and Danielle Haas, a member of Columbia’s Communications Ph.D. program, as a research assistant, we recruited a board of advisers and retained a professional survey research firm. After conducting a series of interviews with industry specialists and old- and new-media experts, some of whom are quoted here, we worked up a questionnaire that our survey research firm administered.
Assuring anonymity and offering a year’s subscription to CJR as an incentive, we ended up with 665 responses from a sample of about three thousand consumer magazines (including weeklies, biweeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies, with circulations large and small). A full description of those demographics and the survey process—as well as a report detailing the responses we received on advertising techniques, archiving practices, content-management systems, traffic analysis tools, and many other topics not covered here—may be found here. And the full survey questionnaire and tabulated answers for all questions asked are available there as well.
Although many of our findings might seem predictable (e.g., that Web site missions are “evolving,” that many sites are unprofitable, that advertising is by far the largest revenue source), many are not, and in any case, to see them documented can be sobering, and in some cases depressing.
- • 59 percent of those surveyed said that either there was no copy editing whatsoever online (11 percent), or that copy editing is less rigorous than in the print edition.
- • 40 percent said that when Web editors, as opposed to print editors, are in charge of content decisions, fact-checking is less rigorous (17 percent said there was no fact-checking online when Web editors made the content decisions).
- • 54 percent said that when errors were eventually pointed out, on sites where the Web editor made content decisions the errors were corrected, but without any indication to the reader that there had been an error in the first place.
And that’s taking respondents at their word!
Does this mean that Web people care less about traditional journalistic standards than print people? Well, let’s put it this way: in the online world, speed is the name of the game. Web sites are interested in maximizing traffic on the theory that that’s the way to attract advertisers, and quantity often trumps quality when it comes to that. Thus, given the prevailing business model (advertising is still king), the question arises: Is online content, with its rapid turnaround requirements, held to the same standards as its print equivalents? Survey says no! We conclude that while Web people don’t always favor speed over accuracy or elegance of style, they nevertheless seem to factor speed (i.e., who is first with the news, or the controversial views, as the case may be) into the equation in a way that tends to undermine traditional journalistic standards.