Here’s a letter to Climbing magazine. I’m posting it here because I think that the lessons Climbing is learning, especially regarding the Internet, are relevant to every print magazine.
I just wanted to address some of the issues raised in the Climbing July 2004 Editorial, where you mention that you’ve cut back on advertising as well as touching on the threat to Climbing from website forums. First off, I wanted to congratulate you on adding more content. If you’re in the business of delivering readers to advertisers you want to make sure that the readers are there. It doesn’t matter how pretty the ads are–Climbing is read for the content. I’m sure it’s a delicate balance between (expensive) content that readers love and (paid) advertisements which readers don’t love; I wish you the best in finding that balance.
I also wanted to address forums, and the Internet in general. I believe that websites and email lists are fantastic resources for finding beta, discussing local issues, and distributing breaking news. Perhaps climbing magazines fulfilled that need years ago, but the cost efficiencies of the Internet, especially when amateurs provide free content, can be hard to beat. But, guess what? I don’t read Climbing for beta, local issues, or breaking news. I read Climbing for the deliberate, beautiful articles and images. This level of reporting, in-depth and up-close, is difficult to find on the web. Climbing should continue to play to the strengths of a printed magazine–quality, thoughtful, deliberate articles and images; don’t ignore breaking news, but realize that’s not the primary reason subscribers read it. I don’t see how any magazine can compete with the interactivity of the Internet, so if Climbing wants to foster community, perhaps it should run a mailing list, or monitor rec.climbing (and perhaps print some of the choice comments). I see you do run a message board on climbing.com–there doesn’t look to be much activity–perhaps you should promote it in the magazine?
Now for some concrete suggestions for improvement. One of my favorite sections in Climbing is ‘Tech Tips.’ I’ve noticed this section on the website–that’s great. But, since this information is timeless, and I’ve only been a subscriber for 3 years, I was wondering if you could reprint older Tech Tips, to add cheap, useful content to Climbing. Also, I understand the heavy emphasis on the modern top climbers–these are folks that have interesting, compelling stories to tell, which are interesting around the world. Still, it’d be nice to see ‘normal’ climbers profiled as well, since most of us will never make a living climbing nor establish 5.15 routes, but all climbers have stories to share. And a final suggestion: target content based on who reads your magazine. Don’t use just a web survey, as that will be heavily tilted in favor of the folks who visit your website (sometimes no data is better than skewed data). Instead find out what kind of climbers read your magazine in a number of ways: a web survey, a small survey on subscription cards, paper surveys at events where Climbing has presence, etc. This demographic data will let you know if you should focus on the latest sick highball problem, the latest sick gritstone headpoint or the latest sick alpine ascent.
Finally, thanks for printing a magazine worth caring about.