CJR may be cutting its print frequency, but that isn’t a sign of flagging ambition from the half-century old review of journalism.
That’s the word from Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Elizabeth Spayd, who says CJR plans to bolster its bottom line with a new membership model and by rethinking an old printing schedule that was losing money for the magazine.
Poynter caught up with Spayd at noon Wednesday shortly after she announced the decision to reorient the magazine in a note to readers. Here’s what she had to say about that decision, and how it will affect the magazine’s future.
What industry forces contributed to today’s announcement?
I think the biggest one is what everybody else is feeling: Our audience has moved rapidly online, and those numbers continue to increase — which is really exciting when you’re trying to have impact. And our print numbers have been on the decline for probably a decade or so. It has increased in the last five years, and it just makes no sense to spend as much money as we are on print when our audience is online.
How has your online readership changed in recent times?
Visits to our site have increased by a third just in the past year. We did a redesign, which was enormously helpful, and we have a relatively new social media editor who has really pushed our content much more aggressively through all platforms.
Unlike a lot of sites, we get the vast majority of our social traffic through Twitter, because a lot of journalists are on Twitter. I would say that those are two big factors — and, of course, we’ve really been working on the quality of our content, on the number of contributors that we are signing up to do regular work for us.
Can you provide some numbers that describe how the circulation has decreased?
Our circulation is now fewer than 10,000. And it was well more than double that in the late 80s or early 90s. It hit a high point that was two or three times where we are now.
What do you attribute that to?
It’s particularly difficult to reach journalists and have impact when you’re coming out every other month. Our world works much faster than that. For example, we recently had a really smart, counterintuitive cover story on plagiarism. It was still a good piece when it hit the cover, but it would have been a lot better if we put that up closer to the time that all the discussion and all the issues around plagiarism were really happening.
You can move at a faster pace when you’re putting something out on the Web, even when you’re doing a serious piece like that. Print just takes more time. There’s a lot of work in the production process, the design, the printing, the mailing. So that’s just one example of what was challenging in our field that may not apply to other kinds of magazines, like a food magazine. There’s certainly a category of print magazines that are working well, but I don’t think they’re as driven by events in the news as we are.
Was the magazine profitable?
It was not profitable. We certainly got and are grateful for the subscribers that we have and the money they brought in, as well as the advertising. But it was not enough to make it profitable. So it ended up taking money from the amount that we have as a nonprofit, taking it away from what we would spend in the digital realm.
How do you plan to reinvest the money that you would’ve spent on printing on the digital side?
That’s a really fun problem to have. I never thought I would have it, but I do. Right now when you go on our site, there’s a lot of type on screens, which means there’s a lot of stories, but I don’t think we’re taking full advantage of the dimensions that digital offers and the ways in which we can tell stories.
And so whether that’s through graphics that can have depth to them or photo galleries or podcasts, there’s a lot that we can add that we’ve talked about. I think some of that is going to involve boring but critical issues like our publishing system — that’s probably something that we’re going to be investing in.
We’ve also increasingly moved to a model in the past year where we hire on small contracts digital correspondents on various subjects and in different parts of the world so that we can have a stable of people whose work we know and whose quality we think we can rely on to help us keep track of different components of the media. So I think that there’s more money in that pool as well to really spread our reach.
One of my big takeaways from your note to readers is that CJR’s financial ship is in good shape. Do I have that right?
We could have stayed on the course that we were on, but that’s how the other shoe could’ve dropped — by us continuing to do something that just wasn’t rational. The model that we have now is going to put us on much firmer footing, and we’re going to be pivoting toward audience growth instead of investing in an audience that was declining.
We have had great support from the Columbia Journalism School as well as (Columbia University) President Bollinger. He’s been a great supporter of ours. None of that is changing.
All of the organizations and individuals who support us philanthropically are not going anywhere. They understand the issues that we’re facing and are supporters of CJR. Throughout history, I think there are media publications that have ended up killing print, and they waited so long to do it that they were on their dying door. And that is not going to happen here, I can guarantee that. No one is going to let that happen. And I think we’re trying to be smart about our future and how we position ourselves.
So you think the comparison to AJR (which folded earlier this year) isn’t really an apt one?
I definitely don’t think it is. I think AJR was a great institution in its heyday, but we’re doing something now to prevent getting ourselves in that position.
What do you think today’s news says about the media industry writ large, if anything?
I don’t think any single model that CJR chooses for itself to make sense of what we see and what we’re doing for our audience applies necessarily across the board. All of our individual models are individual: The New York Times has a paywall that practically no one else has been able to replicate and there pop-up magazines in print that are wildly successful from an audience and a financial standpoint.
So I really feel like there are any number of ways and any number of platforms that can work for individual media companies. I hope that we’re a model in presenting ideas, presenting press criticism, and helping people think about the world of media. But each to its own platform.
What can we expect to see from the fall and spring editions that you’re putting out?
We’re looking to come out with less frequency, but with more impact when we do. They’ll be more high-concept, they’ll be thicker, they’ll include a finer design and they’ll have a heft to them. They will not feel like magazines that we used to put out — more like an object that you would keep.
Another difference is that we’ll be able to get premium writers consistently. That’s no knock on the ones we’ve had before, and I hope many of those will continue to write for us.
But we’re putting more of a budget into these issues so that we can offer very competitive rates with the best magazines to get great writers. These will be themed issues, so it’ll be all around one idea or one subject — and I’m very excited about the first one. All of them are also geared to financially support themselves.
Do you guys have an online subscription model? Do you plan to institute one?
That’s a good question. We plan to go to a membership model, and we’re not ready to talk about what the details of that will be yet. That’s really all very much in the works.
Sort of like the NPR model?
In that mode. You’re certainly going to get something physical for it, but it’s also the idea that you want to support CJR and the values I hope we represent. It’s sort of a dual pitch.
What makes you think CJR’s audience was a good fit for the membership model?
I think we’re a good fit because we are a nonprofit institution, and they tend to work well in that world. I also think that there’s a tribe of journalists and academics and people in communications that support the First Amendment. They support press criticism and value good journalism, investigative journalism, powerful journalism. They want to be supportive of those traditions. And they want to be a part of a club. That’s the thinking behind it. And I hope and think that we’ll be successful with them.
In terms of memberships, what sorts of benefits do you think members might expect to get from CJR?
I don’t really want to go into more details with that, because we haven’t figured that out. I’m not ready to talk about that yet, but we will be soon.
What will become of current subscribers to CJR?
We’re working on that. We’re going to offer them something that we hope will make them happy. We’re working out those details, we’re reaching out to our subscribers now.
Editor’s note: The questions and answers have been edited for clarity.