Magazine Writers Are Slow to Take Up Multimedia

    by Susan Currie Sivek
    June 25, 2010
    Image by Mike Kline via Flickr

    An ideal pitch for a magazine story today would seem to require great possibilities for text and for multimedia. Freelance magazine writers, one would think, would be honing their multimedia skills so they could pitch well-rounded stories to editors who could feature them in print, on the web and on an iPad or mobile device.

    Surprisingly, though, freelance magazine writers don’t seem to be encountering those demands, at least not yet — even as their work becomes more critical to a stripped-down, minimally staffed magazine industry.

    "Text is the least bandwidth-intensive way to communicate complex experiences to the reader." - Steve Silberman

    The fact that magazines are relying more heavily on freelancers but aren’t engaging them in discussions of how their work could best be used online might raise concerns about the slow adaptation of the industry to the digital age. Or, it might reflect a reasonable and gradual movement toward online formats that is appropriate for magazines’ audiences today. In the meantime, even the text of freelancers’ work may also be changing in more subtle ways that most readers might not detect.


    Multimedia Not Financially Rewarding

    The freelancers I interviewed all said that they had only rarely been asked to provide multimedia components, or even ideas for them, alongside their stories. Their conversations with editors rarely involved the development of multimedia concepts with the story.


    John Bowe

    “On the level of thinking through a story and planning it from the beginning, I’ve never had anyone say, let’s think about the web, let’s think about handheld. We’re not there yet,” said John Bowe, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and author of the book “Us: Americans Talk About Love.”


    For most magazines, “text remains the vehicle that pays for everything else, in the kind of journalism that I do,” said Michael Fitzgerald, who has written for the Economist, Fast Company, the New York Times, and other publications. “Doing multimedia stuff isn’t a priority at a lot of places … I just finished a story that would have been perfect for that kind of thing, and it never came up. I’m speculating that complete lack of margin is driving that lack of interest, or editors don’t have time to think of that kind of thing.”

    The data support Fitzgerald’s conclusion. Magazines aren’t making much money from online or multimedia. The 2010 State of the News Media report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that only 3.1 percent of consumer magazines’ revenue in 2009 came from online and mobile outlets. That number is projected to grow to only 6.9 percent by 2013.

    Given what may be a small and slow return on investment in multimedia, perhaps magazines are simply delaying their involvement of freelancers in multimedia projects.

    “I don’t think that position from the mainstream magazines is entirely slow,” said Bowe. “The audience is a mix of older and younger people, and older people are still reading the paper edition. When the preponderant weight of the audience is wanting [multimedia], they’ll get it. It’s a little early in the game to get all of that.”

    For the freelancers I interviewed, this situation is just fine. They feel most comfortable working with text, not multimedia, and so they are happy to focus on reporting and writing and not seek additional multimedia skills. They also note that multimedia production for their magazine projects would be time-consuming and not especially financially rewarding for them, either.

    Elizabeth Royte, a freelance writer who covers science and the environment for national publications and is the author of two books, said that although she’s had magazine editors ask her to “keep an eye out” for good multimedia opportunities or additional web content while reporting, she hasn’t been asked to produce or contribute to these projects herself.


    Elizabeth Royte

    “Well-established magazines like the New York Times [Magazine] have tons of people” on staff who specifically work on multimedia, she said, so freelancers aren’t really asked to get involved.

    Storytelling Still Critical, But Changing

    At the core of their work, these freelancers believe, is still their ability to tell a good story with words. Text alone still communicates powerfully without a lot of additional multimedia.

    “People want to be guided by a good storyteller. They don’t want to work hard” by exploring complex multimedia, Bowe said. “There’s no one so smart that sometimes they don’t want to just sit there and watch the dumb Hollywood movie. Sometimes they just want the basic experience without all these goddamn widgets.”

    However, working primarily with text doesn’t mean these writers are unaffected by the fact that their work will probably end up on the web at some point.

    Bowe said he feels writing destined for online formats needs “a different tone — hotter, quirkier, more intense,” in order to grab readers’ attention within what he calls “the essential boringness of the medium.”


    Steve Silberman

    Steve Silberman, a longtime contributor to Wired and other national magazines, argued that the changes over time in magazine feature writing go beyond tone, in part because of the web.

    “The standard of magazine feature writing used to be New Yorker features,” he said. “However, New Yorker features used to be much longer than they are now. And for many younger people, that kind of feature writing — that delayed nut graph until the second page of the story — it’s hard to pull off in a web-based environment. People want to know what the story’s going to be about in the first paragraph, and they decide if they’re going to tweet it before they even finish reading it.”

    These changes in the audience’s reading habits, Silberman said, have combined with a cultural shift — spurred in part by cable news and talk radio — to push feature writing toward a “quicker payoff, less nuance, and more controversy.”

    “People want easy polarities and dichotomies to choose between,” he said. “I have felt pressure to make my stories more simplistic, to come down hard on one side of a question or the other.”

    Is It Time to Innovate Yet?

    Today’s magazine freelancers don’t yet seem to feel the need to bring multimedia into their skill set and workflow. Editors aren’t demanding it — yet — as magazines focus primarily on recovering from the economic blows they’ve suffered and less on innovating for the future. Whether this focus will be shortsighted in the long run remains to be seen.

    Should magazines move away from print and into digital more aggressively, however, freelancers may find themselves increasingly called upon to be involved in multimedia development. For now, though, the focus is still on text.

    “Text is the least bandwidth-intensive way to communicate complex experiences to the reader,” says Silberman. “Text is always going to be with us because it’s highly efficient. It employs the reader’s own multimedia capabilities.”

    Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

    Tagged: feature writing freelance freelance writing magazines multimedia storytelling

    8 responses to “Magazine Writers Are Slow to Take Up Multimedia”

    1. I write for and freelance for magazines, and I also do multimedia production for another job, so I’m constantly recording audio, video, taking photos and designing graphics. But the crazy thing is , the magazines I write for won’t take my other stuff often even when I offer, because they have staff artists who often miss the mark entirely with their graphic content.

      It’s awful.

    2. Rebecca says:

      Interesting post. I also do multimedia in addition to freelance writing. Luckily, I found an online university that is willing to take multimedia pieces to accompany the online writing course I’m writing for the school. I get to include my articles, videos, podcasts, photos, etc…Perhaps magazines will see the light and incorporate multimedia pieces.

    3. Ellen says:

      I have a foot in both the online and print communities. I’ve freelanced for Prevention, Health, Readers Digest, Better Homes & Gardens, the New York Times, etc. I still contribute to magazines, but I also write an online column for which I do much of my own photography, tweets,etc. With every magazine story I write I suggest multimedia online material that supplements the story and engages the reader. Magazine editors, most of whom don’t seem to be working with their company’s online editors, simply don’t know what to do with my suggestions. And, of course, since it’s the online editor who gets perks and paychecks for online content, instead of the magazine editor, there’s a lack of motivation to learn. Publishers would do well to be aware they may be fostering competitive fiefdoms by the way their structure their staff and content.

    4. Isabelle says:

      For a fast read here is what I have to say, why should the big publishers pay small freelance authors? There is enough access to free blogging material that can be used just because they can.

    5. I edit a small nonprofit magazine and website in the SF Bay Area, and I’ll just confirm that lack of revenue is the main problem down at the small end of things as well. If a writer offered to do multimedia along with the core article–for free–I would take that in a heartbeat. But I don’t feel like I am in a position to ask for that without paying up — our freelance rates for text are decent but not spectacular. Throw in 10-20 hours of audio, video, plus editing of same, and my freelancers would really be making peanuts. But we make so little off our website that I can’t justify paying more for online only content (which is currently created all by volunteers and interns).

    6. AdamK says:

      Thanks for the interesting post, Susan. I am actually just venturing into this myself – offering multimedia content with my freelance services. My background is in print journalism, but I taught myself online journalism with audio and video a few years ago. I am just now starting to reach out to see what the interest is, and I hope that media outlets are receptive.

      However, I fear John Bowe is right: The movement of magazine readers toward multimedia content isn’t quite there yet because of the demographics that are usually – though not always (i.e., WIRED) – involved. I’m rooting for the iPad and similar devices to change this.

    7. Tim says:

      Thanks for the interesting piece, Susan. I read your post and the comments and wanted to think about them before I left some thoughts.

      Three years ago I left the PR world to be an intern at Backpacker Magazine. The economy was still good, magazines were thriving, and my passion for multimedia was just starting to get traction within newsrooms.

      During my internship I was able to standout due to my ability to edit audio, shoot compelling video, integrate Google Earth and other GPS mapping technology into our stories and provide compelling content for the print magazine. I introduced myself to editors as the kid who entered high school using the Dewey Decimal system and graduated college with a profile on Facebook. In other words I refused to accept the phrase “it’s not possible,” didn’t understand why change was considered threatening, and had to shift my entire educational focus as TechCrunch kept introducing the next technology slated to change the way we consume media.

      I also learned valuable lessons that have helped me make the transition into freelance writing during the recent recession. I’ve learned that being fearless when learning a new skill set is a requirement. That being able to provide value across various mediums is what opens up doors. And that maintaining a steady focus even while others say you’re wasting your time can play out in the end. But I feel the biggest lesson of all is the lesson that has catapulted me beyond the point of asking the question, ‘is it time to innovate yet?’

      In a Ted Talk a few years back, Discovery Channel host Mike Rowe talked about what made the people he profiled on his show successful. Mike discussed a variety of things, but one in particular stood out. “He didn’t follow his passion,” Mike said about a successful pig farmer in Las Vegas. “He stood back and watched where everyone was going and he went the other way.”

      While I don’t completely agree about the passion perspective, I do believe the second part is the question that journalism seems to keep asking itself: should we just keep doing what we’re doing or embrace something new? And this is where everything goes to hell in a hand basket.

      While I don’t expect the profit model to change quickly or for magazines to embrace multimedia as they have print for several more years, I do think it’s imperative for freelancers to stop contemplating why they shouldn’t learn a new skill and instead put their energy and resources into embracing it.

      I am one example of why that can benefit a freelancer. In the last two years I’ve created multimedia — videos, slideshows, interactive maps, flash info-graphics, print stories — for a variety of publications ranging from the LA Times to Denver Post to Backpacker Magazine. I’ve taught various multimedia workshops to freelancers, editors and publishers and have provided career advice to laid-off editors. And while I realize there are still much bigger fish in the sea, the ability to work in multiple mediums has opened up doors and established relationships previously unattainable in a time of great upheaval.

      Will I be successful? Only time will tell. But one thing will be for certain. I looked at an industry in pieces, nonexistent budgets and colleagues who were overworked and deflated and asked myself where can I provide value, how can I do it, and what can I bring to the table that nobody else is? And then I reached out into the industry for help and just about every time have gotten it.

    8. Nava Ney says:

      Thank you for a great article and great comments. I think this is an inportant and fascinating subject especially because the iPad is ging to change all that, not only for magazine articles but also for PhD dissertations and books.
      I think the ipad IS everything the digital revolution set out to be. Mainly because of the touch tecbnology, which really brought the ball to the park, by literally making media what Marshall McLohan said it was: an extention of our bodies.

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