A Rant on Publishing by Dr. Frederick Ampel

Normally, my various rAVe contributions are carefully and specifically focused on a problem, or a solution or a combination of both. The articles are always written with a singular focus — providing valuable information and solid, proven answers gathered from four-plus decades of real-world experience to the kind of problems AV professionals in both the commercial and HOW markets face every day.

But after receiving the most recent monthly harvest of our industry’s primary trade magazines, it has become necessary for me to take a stand. Let me be very clear from the outset — this time it’s personal!

This column is about our professional information sources and the astonishing degradation of the content within their pages (real or virtual).

My Journey Into Publishing

I am speaking now from a special perspective. Thirty-five years ago, I made a major life transition and career change. Up until that point in early 1983, I had been gainfully employed in the recording, live sound and what we then called ‘sound contracting’ business for well over a decade. My electronic contracting company and my career were both solidly successful on a regional basis, and I had experienced a few moments of fame in the live sound and recording worlds over the years.

I was as our Japanese colleagues like to say “Happy in My Work.”

I had absolutely no intention of changing paths or leaving southern California. Then one morning, in mid-March of 1983, the phone rang. It was this guy from Kansas City offering me a job in the publishing business with a new magazine his company was starting. I gave him some kind of non-committal, let me get back to you kind of answer, and asked him where he got my name?

He said they had researched the industry and my name kept coming up as someone who actually knew what he was doing and who had solid contacts in the supplier (manufacturer) world as well. (Flattery got him an extra five minutes.)

He told me what his plan was, and said they would buy me a ticket to come visit and pay for my time. He also said to check out his company. OK. What the hell? I could spare a few days and the company (then known as Intertec Publishing) checked out as a solid 100-year-old, mid-western publisher of agricultural trade magazines. Seemed like a no-brainer and so off I went to Kansas City, a place that I had until then viewed as fly-over country.

The magazine they wanted to start had a focus, a plan but no name. Somewhere during the two days, I spent in KC the name got created and I took the job as the founding editor of Sound &Video Contractor (S&VC).

A few months later in September of 1983, the first issue rolled off the presses (yes, we still used actually printing presses in the last century!). In that first of more than 120 “From the Editor” columns during that decade, I said: “We want S&VC to be THE magazine you turn to for reliable information, intelligent and accurate discussions, useful technological information and detailed how-to or why articles.”

To accomplish this, the goal was to have a majority of the content written by actual working professionals, based on authentic projects and their knowledge of the systems and hardware — not content generated by the PR departments of manufacturers or their hired scribes.

For most of its first two decades, S&VC and the children it helped create, including Systems Contractor News (SCN) and Residential Systems, were all working from that hymnal and subscribing to those content guidelines. As the ‘father’ of those three magazines, I firmly held to those ‘rules’ and the readership growth and leading publication in their respective segments status attained by those magazines proved that the formula was something readers wanted and advertisers (manufacturers) supported vigorously because IT WORKED!

In contrast to that approach, the self-promoting, one-sided type of content, which is so close to advertising it’s very hard to see the light between the two should be in the paid advertising space, not in the ‘editorial’ content of the magazine.

Jump forward to 2017 and things are VERY different. Those content guidelines and contributor goals have vanished! To quote that famous business guru and economic sage Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal… it’s strictly business” is the new mantra. Revenue and minimized costs are the essences of defining a successful publication if the current issues of the major trades are to be used as examples. The editorial staff is an expense to be managed, not a resource to be cultivated. Ghost written ‘stuffing’ that is thinly disguised promotional content for a particular company or product, usually under the vague “XYZ Staff” byline replaces thoughtful, technically solid articles written by experienced working professionals. The vast numbers of pages are nothing more than large scale “advertorial”* splurges, even to the point of placing a paid ad opposite a “story” on that product or company. (*An advertorial in publishing speak is content that is written by an advertiser, formatted to look and feel like the magazines editorial style, and should because of ethical standards, carry an advertising logo on each page.)

Let me ask each one of you a question? How long do you actually spend with the trade magazines that land on your desk — five, 10, 15 minutes? Think back to the last time you stopped to read an entire article or saved an issue because it had something really worthwhile? Can you remember?

A colleague of mine who used to write regularly way back when, calls the current versions “five-minute reads” — that is, it takes five minutes to flip though the pages and throw it away or onto the lobby coffee table.

Is this what we want? Is this what we deserve? Or has our lethargy allowed this to happen, because we don’t demand better anymore, we take what we get.

Manufacturers — ask yourselves — are your ads in such an environment doing you any good? If the readers are flipping pages in five minutes, are they even seeing your ad, let alone reading its content? Did it have any impact? I think NOT! Then why are you spending the money?

Could those dollars, pounds, shekels, zlotys, yen, etc. be better spent in another way to drive business — I think YES!

Isn’t it about time we stopped opening the jars of puréed baby food that pretend to be trade journals and start looking for actual brain food — it’s still out there — mostly online nowadays. The questions you need to ask is simple — baby food or brain food? We can and must do a better job. If we really want quality we can get it, but you have to vote with your eyes and dollars.

Since this column is 100 percent my opinion, let me give some specific advice and suggest that you — readers DEMAND that we get the quality and honesty we deserve.

  1. Content that is NOT actual editorial, but supplied by an organization with a specific goal in mind (promotional, usually) should be CLEARLY marked as such, and not disguised as editorial — AND it should carry a legitimate byline identifying who wrote it or who supplied it!
  2. If a particular article is being published because of paid advertising support, it should be marked “ADVERTISING” — clearly and unambiguously — simple basic ethics and honesty demand this!
  3. If a magazine says it is going to provide information and guidelines on a topic (say in a roundup on new technology for choir microphones for example), it should actually do that by soliciting those from people with experience in that field, not by printing thinly disguised marketing hype from people who have an axe to grind on the topic.

Let me end with another quote from Mr. Corleone: “I respect those who tell me the truth, no matter how hard it is — I have no respect for those who don’t.”

 

Dr. Frederick Ampel

About Dr. Frederick Ampel

Dr. Frederick J. Ampel has been involved in the professional A/V industry for more than 40 years, working as a systems designer, consultant, sales and marketing professional and market researcher. He was the founding editor of Sound & Video Contractor and for SCN, as well as an editorial development consultant for Residential Systems Magazine, Live Sound International and ProSoundWeb. He holds a PhD in Acoustics and MS in Broadcasting and Electrical Engineering from Boston University and has been published by the Institute of Acoustics (UK), Acoustical Society of America, AES, NSCA, InfoComm and quoted in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, and numerous industry publications. He volunteered with and taught for CEDIA, NSCA, InfoComm and AES. In 1991, Fred founded Technology Visions Analytics, a consultancy and market research firm, which he still runs today. Reach him via email at fred@proaudioweb.com.

  • Ellis Angert

    Is the Irony on this lost on anyone? The same publication that published this article is doing WHAT THE ARTICLE IS CRITICIZING!!!! This is clearly a paid article http://www.ravepubs.com/learn-digital-signage-wednesday-webinar-lyle-bunn/, yet no description or anything saying it is paid in the article itself. When these links are distributed on Social Media, its impossible for someone to tell if it is an article or an advertorial, and according to Fred himself, this is UNETHICAL. Put your money where your mouth is! Stop trying to SHAME others if you are not willing to change yourself!

    Here is another one: http://www.ravepubs.com/leyard-planar-wallapalooza-need-go/

    I highly doubt this will ever make it to the comments section (I’m pretty sure they vet these), but if you are from rave and you are reading this… COME ON MAN!

    • Sara Abrons

      Hi Ellis,
      It’s not lost. We posted this because we don’t censor our columnists. However… you are correct. We have actually always labeled our posts as promoted, which is not always the case with other publications, but in my opinion, not clearly enough. We are changing this immediately and adding lines and labels so it’s clear when reading the post, and when it’s posted on social media so if you don’t want to click through because it’s a paid post, you don’t have to. Thanks for your comment.