What could we possibly learn from Maxim?
In the past few years, there are few publications that have rattled U.S. journalism quite like Maxim, the salacious “lad mag” that peddles cleavage the way Carl’s Jr. pushes Angus beef.
Published by a former crack addict, Maxim has smoked venerable U.S. men’s magazines such as Esquire and GQ by pumping its pages full of skin, slick humor and short articles.
Its success has spread beyond its own circles and into the broader world of journalism, where often-stodgy editors at often-stodgy newspapers sit around scratching their heads and wondering why more people aren’t reading.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because we often ignore what people want to read in favor of what tradition tells us to print. Research shows modern readers like short stories, summaries, quick updates, flashy graphics and a sense of humor.
It simply took that, blended in two parts lingerie with one part silicone, hit puree, and then started swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck.
In a speech quoted on the Poynter Institute’s Web site, Maxim Editor Keith Blanchard tossed this gauntlet in the face of the mainstream media:
“We have built a highly successful magazine by the astonishing methodology of figuring out what readers want and then giving it to them, an enterprise which in journalism is called pandering, and which in every other industry is called customer service.”
So what does this mean at The Union? What do readers want?
We have two easy ways of telling how successful any given issue is. First is pretty traditional: We see how many copies sold.
I can hear the shouting now. “AHA! Like I always said, Martha, they’re just trying to sell papers!”
Honestly, I don’t care if you buy it, borrow it, or “accidentally” take your neighbor’s. I just want you to read it.
But now we have the Internet, and it’s easier than ever to see what interests people about The Union. We simply look at how many hits each news story got on our Web site, http://www.theunion.com. We even list the most-read stories at the bottom of the site each day.
So we’ve got sales records and Web hits, and you know what? They tell us the same thing: People want to read about death, destruction, mayhem … oh, and sex.
Our most-read story on the Web in 2003 was about a 40-year-old woman who had sex with several teenagers. The most-read story in 2004 was about a guy who set his pants, and subsequently his workplace, on fire.
There’s a widely held myth that journalists just looooove writing about this stuff. But I can’t say I’ve ever known a reporter who took joy in covering a double homicide, a child molesting, or a fatal accident.
We cover crimes and accidents because they are a major consideration in any community’s quality of life. That’s probably why the Police Blotter is consistently the most-read feature in the paper.
However, no one at The Union wants the newspaper to be a graphic, sensationalist ode to carnage. We could do that, and it would probably sell more issues … but for how long? Readers would become desensitized to the huge headlines, and we’d probably have to shower three times a day to feel less slimy.
Instead, we try to balance each issue with a mix of “hard news” and features that teach you about the community’s past or future. We try to have a little fun, too, even if it doesn’t rise to the Maxim level of fun.
That leads us back to the question of what we can learn from Maxim, other than 15 pick-up lines that will “make her helpless.”
I think Maxim found the content desired by its target readers – young men, shockingly – and delivered it in a way that was entertaining and reader-friendly.
Newspapers, including The Union, are trying to do the same thing. We just happen to have a wider demographic – namely, everyone – and a focus on issues that shape and define our communities. Those issues (growth, education, wellness, etc.) aren’t quite as fun to read about as, say, surviving a hippo attack, but that’s where the challenge comes in. We have to make them readable so that everyone, not just die-hard policy wonks, can enjoy the paper.
I’ll close with a comment on the lessons of Maxim, written by Monica Moses of the Minneapolis Star Tribune for http://www.poynter.org:
“I’d love to see your average city council story boiled down to a few snippets. I’d love it if newspaper journalists were as determined to connect with readers as Maxim’s editors apparently are. I’d love it if somebody could tell me about the latest with Homeland Security in a couple of smart paragraphs. I’d love to be really well-informed; I just wish it were easier and more pleasurable.”
David Griner is interim managing editor of The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com or 477-4230.
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