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The Forest Through the Pages

Back Commentary Jun 26, 2017 By Allison Joy

California is no stranger to devastating wildfires. But did you know that our famed sequoias actually need fire? It not only helps release seeds from their cones, but it also uncovers the soil in which those seeds can take root. Sometimes, destruction leads to rebirth.

My therapist mentioned this to me last month as I lamented a round of layoffs at the Sacramento Bee and what it might mean for our local media environment. (Yes, I discuss troubling media trends with my therapist.) The industry as a whole has undergone a consistent decade (at least) of ongoing disruption. To survive, we must adapt, but no one is quite sure how. Sometimes adaptation means letting go of what has worked to make room for what could work. That’s not always easy, particularly if it means parting with bylines that feel as much a part of our city’s fabric as Tower Bridge or the State Capitol.

I don’t claim to know the Bee’s strategy for what comes next. (You can glean a deeper understanding by checking out Rich Ehisen’s interview with Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar from our May issue, featuring women in leadership.) What I do know is how we at Comstock’s are attempting to meet similar, though not identical, challenges.

First, it’s important to note that print magazines face different, and perhaps more scalable, obstacles than print newspapers. I do believe that we are seeing the end of printed newspapers, and I have grave concerns about how these daily outlets will sustain themselves in an online-only world. Subscriptions and online ads have yet to return revenue comparable to print advertising. Magazine readers are at least moving online at slower rates, and that offers a longer runway for evolution. In fact, the Association of Magazine Media reported overall audience growth of 6.2 percent in 2015 and 18.8 percent growth for business and finance magazines.

That doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows for magazines. Nationally, newsstand sales continue to decline (though Comstock’s has seen a recent uptick in retail sales) and subscription numbers have been able to plateau in large part due to special discounts or give-aways. Yet magazines are more of a luxury product than newspapers, and readers often have a special affinity for them — the same affinity that makes a reader choose a hard-copy book over their Kindle. Our readers are more engaged with and attentive to our product. That means magazines still need a print product, and yet we have to respond to reader expectations for strong digital content and an online presence.

I hear everyday how difficult it has become to be a reporter, particularly as staffs shrink and budgets get cut. Filing clean copy is no longer enough. Writers are often expected to also take photographs, edit audio clips and produce videos — in addition to cultivating their own personal brands that build awareness for the articles they write. The majority of our writers and photographers are freelancers. And while building new skills can be a great thing, we also want to create space for those writers and photographers to focus on what they do best.

A big part of Comstock’s evolution has been cross-training our in-house staff, redistributing responsibilities and investing in employee education. This includes ensuring that our editors and designers feel as comfortable working with our website as they do with our print magazine and illuminating the process for how things end up online — since there’s no online equivalent to the massive binder full of pages in which our print product is built.

We’re also working with the designers in our production department to expand their videography capabilities, which lets us avoid putting the burden of video content solely on writers and editors. Kiara Reed, who started as our ad coordinator before taking on social media and web management, graduates this month from the Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program as our marketing manager. Building a marketing department allows our editors to focus on the quality of stories, not on how those stories reach readers.

Video isn’t the only new medium we’re exploring, though you can see what we’re up to by visiting our YouTube channel (ComstocksMag). We also launched a podcast, Action Items, last March. Shortly thereafter, we introduced audio versions of our longform stories, both online and directly to our podcast subscribers. And last month we launched a digital publication, which you can find by checking the issue archive at comstocksmag.com.

We rely heavily on reader feedback to determine if and how these strategies are working, if they are enhancing your experience with our product and deepening your understanding of and connection to the region we cover. So speak (or type) your mind — we’re eager to hear from you.