Thursday, January 1, 2009

Starlog: Quo Vadis?



The beginning of the new year is as good a time as any to address the matter of my long-promised review of Starlog magazine. But instead of reviewing a recent issue of the magazine, I wanted to review the magazine as a whole, as a brand.

I know that if someone had proposed to review any of the magazine brands for which I've worked, I'd have a mixture of curiosity, bemusement, and a chip on my shoulder. For the editors and publisher of a brand such as Starlog, you could probably add "weariness," because people are always airing their opinions about the magazine and how it should be run.

That's the burden of being an iconic magazine in its field. Playboy gets the same treatment. Whenever Playboy Enterprises reports a quarter of bad earnings, the blogosphere fills up with people saying the company should ditch its print edition, ditch its executives, adapt to the Internet age, etc.

And so it is with Starlog. For more than three decades, this magazine has covered science fiction films, television, books, plays, theme park attractions, comics, and much more, and at its height (arguably in the 1980s, but possibly in the 1990s) it was the flagship of a small but thriving publishing group that produced titles on everything from horror to teens to movie tie-ins to baseball and wrestling (and astrology and cars and cat calendars and soap operas and military history and women's magazines and bodybuilding and obviously much, much more). For a lot of that time, Starlog magazine dominated a field that included weaker competitors such as Fantastic Films, Cinefantastique, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Movieland, Sci-Fi Universe, Questar, and others.

But in recent years, it has fallen behind, both technologically and competitively. I'll write more about the competitive landscape below, but first let's take a look at Starlog-the-brand's many aspects and how it's doing with each.

In Print
The May 1980 issue of Starlog was the first edition of the magazine I ever purchased. Even now, without thumbing through a copy to refresh my memory, I can recall most of the articles in it. (Interviews with two of the new actors in Galactica 1980; a report on a backyard production of Alien; an editorial reviewing Galactica 1980; a column by David Gerrold in which "Harlan Ellison," "litchi nut," and "sex" all figured prominently in the lead; and on and on....)

That issue made me a lifelong reader. But being a reader from "way back when" doesn't make me qualified to critique a magazine, for which a small merry band of individuals spend a lot of time writing, editing, designing, and marketing. As a professional editor myself, I respect their work and dedication, but I offer this constructive criticism of Starlog magazine today in the hopes that they're listening.

The magazine remains timely, including coverage of all of the big -- and many small -- science fiction media projects. They get the big interviews, they ask the good questions, and they stay on target, which is reporting on the films, books, and television programs; thankfully, they do not do what so many other film publications do and report on the bedroom details of the actors or directors. If you want that, there's plenty of such reporting elsewhere. Instead, we learn about projects that are of wide interest and others that are targeted at niche-audiences, which is a great way to attract new readers and retain older ones. (If you're the magazine where readers can be sure of getting interviews with every star of a small WB fantasy-oriented TV series, that makes it a must-buy publication for the show's fans.) It also features excellent film historians Tom Weaver and Will Murray, who provide frequent must-read articles.

Editor David McDonnell is a well-known comics fan (having worked on three different iterations of sister publication Comics Scene) who gathers a large number of one-panel comics for each issue of Starlog. There are also book reviews, DVD previews, a monthly overview of changes to science fiction television programs, short updates on upcoming media programs, and photos of science fiction and fantasy celebrities at public appearances. All well-and-good.

The drawbacks of Starlog are not in what is there. McDonnell and his team produce a slick magazine each month (10 times annually, down from 12 a few years ago, but that's par for the publishing world these days), and reading it will keep any science fiction fan well-informed and entertained.

No, the drawbacks are what is not in Starlog. First, there are no editorials or columns, either of which (preferably both) can give a magazine personality and, perhaps more important, can give readers a reason to buy a magazine even if they're not particularly interested in the articles blurbed on the cover. The examples are many: David Schow in Fangoria in the 1990s; David Gerrold in Starlog in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s; Harlan Ellison in Future Life for the second half of its short life; Howard Cruse in Comics Scene's first iteration. Or -- in the non-Starlog Group world -- the late Asa Baber's column in Playboy, William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, and many other examples. The reader doesn't have to agree with everything or even a lot of what the columnist writes, but the reader does have to be served a column that is provocative and interesting. A good column doesn't have to be more than a page or two in the magazine, so it's not taking up too much real estate. But it should help sell the magazine and help define its character to readers who pick up the publication for the first time.

Editorials can be even shorter in length, but they accomplish a lot, as long as the editor or publisher writing it is allowed to say things and not just highlight articles in that issue. Editor McDonnell has written tons of these over the years for all of the magazines he's edited, but he currently does not. Nor is there a publisher's letter in Starlog, as there used to be when Publisher Kerry O'Quinn really set the tone for the magazine in the 1980s. The magazine needs an editorial voice, something to show that the magazine has a voice of its own, to help point readers to things not covered in the magazine, to give the magazine a personality with which the reader, one hopes, identifies and thereby makes it more likely that the reader will continue reading.

The other thing missing from the magazine is more difficult to define, but I believe it to be very important. That is a sense of the calendar, something to make the magazine the reader's guide through the year. This can be done best with annual special issues, such as anniversary issues, seasonal previews, and other special features or editions that don't appear each month but which give the reader something to look forward to (and a reason to plan on buying the next issue of the magazine). I remember well how much I anticipated each July's special anniversary issue of Starlog back in the 1980s. No, my life wasn't so empty that this was all that I looked forward to; but it was something that in the context of my reading and purchasing of magazines was very important. Not only does this sense of the calendar help sell the magazine, but it helps define the genre for the reader, and that makes the magazine that much more of an indispensible buy.

The Design
With the redesign of Starlog's longtime logo a couple issues ago, there was an assumption by some people that the magazine would itself undergo a redesign, but none has been forthcoming so far. None is called for, necessarily, because the publication's designers do a good job, and covers have been quite good of late. (Any magazine that has published more than 370 issues is going to have some great covers, a lot of good covers, a ton of so-so covers, and more than a few boners. Starlog is no exception.)


The magazine has lots of color, but it long ago learned the advantages of letting the color photos speak for themselves without needing to overload the reader with colored backgrounds to the text. One of Starlog's strengths has always been that it is a readers' magazine; even with a lot of sharp color photos in each issue, most of the magazine is text, and that plays to the strength of print publications in the Internet age: You get a headache after reading text on the web for too long, but a print magazine is something you lie down on the couch or sit in a chair and put your feet up while you read for extended periods, which gives the reader more commitment to the magazine and the brand.

ONLINE
Starlog has never been at the forefront of the Internet revolution. Sure, one of its editors had a Compuserve address in the 1980s, and it (along with sister publications Fangoria and Comics Scene) had a presence on the early MSN network in the early 1990s. But when the World Wide Web exploded and became the obvious platform for communication and dissemination, Starlog lagged, relying on its print presence and only belatedly creating a web site.

The web site the magazine has had for much of this decade has been underfed in terms of content or even attention. And, as of this writing, the site has been down ("Under construction and coming soon") for a couple months, following the purchase of Starlog and Fangoria from its previous, bankrupt owner.

There's no e-mail newsletter, no podcasts (video or audio), no blogs. Before the site went on hiatus, there was an online forum, as well as short reports on news of the day, excerpts from print articles, and an online store. Missing was any regular presence of the print publication's editorial staff, as well as anything substantive.

In brief, Starlog has missed the boat -- and a great many opportunities to promote its brand -- by ignoring or giving short shrift to the Internet. I believe that has to change, and I have some ideas below on how that can be done cost-effectively.

Competitive Landscape
In the early 1990s, there appeared within a very short timespan several new newsstand competitors to Starlog. My thought at the time was that, though Starlog remained strong and a favorite of mine, competition would be good for it and would perhaps impel it to step up its game. But the competition proved unworthy; Sci-Fi Universe, published by the Hustler group of magazines, remains the only magazine I've ever seen to publish an interview with provocative writer Harlan Ellison that is boring. The magazine died an early death, unbemoaned. Sci-Fi Entertainment and Cinescape offered nothing new, trying to play in Starlog's yard but beating it only in terms of color pages, not in quality or new ground broken (to mix metaphors).

But the real competition has come from England, where the economics of magazine publishing clearly are different from here in the United States. SFX magazine (which usually manages to cover part of its logo so it looks like "SEX") offers lots of pages and attitude, but it has no connection to the soul of the SF fan the way Starlog did in its early years and still occasionally today. In the past couple years, Sci Fi Now and Deathray have emerged from England, both of them, like SFX, at nearly 150 oversized pages, all color. In terms of paper quality and quantity, energy, and attitude, these magazines have raised the bar in a way that Cinescape and its sisters could never do.

How has Starlog reacted? In the past decade, the magazine has gone through one bankruptcy and another implosion (which saw the former Starlog Group close something like a dozen of its other magazines when financing ran out in 2001). Most recently, Starlog has cut its page count from 92 pages (including covers) to 84.

How should it react? Here are some thoughts.

My Suggestions for Starlog
First, don't stop doing what the magazine and its editors, writers, and designers are doing well, which is offering that broad coverage of science fiction media past, present, and future.

But much more attention needs to be paid to a basic magazine need: Advertising. Time and effort need to be spent to increase the advertising. Even if the mag's circulation has dropped from its peak, it's still a good vehicle for advertisers to reach readers.

Second, address the lack of "a sense of the calendar," as I call it above. Do something special for the anniversary issue each and every year. Have a couple special articles (featuring a special layout/design), a self-lauditory editorial (that's not as selfish as it sounds; any such editorial is doing two things: It does praise the home forces, but it also praises the readers as being a part of this great enterprise, and lets the readers know they are part of a very special breed of readers and thinkers), maybe a bust-the-editorial-budget special report on some aspect of the science fiction universe.

Other options could include devoting a portion of the December issue to a year-end review, which also lets you devote a good-sized article in January to a new-year preview. Both can be produced with little extra cost (i.e., time-willing, they could be staff-produced and not require freelance talent) and can even draw in the sorely lacking reader involvement (in October, tell readers to write in with their top-10 lists of the year, with a selection to be printed in the December issue, or with a tally to be taken and published, along with selected comments on the best/worst/whatever science fiction films/tv/books that make the collective list. Free content, but it lets the reader become a part of the magazine and maybe even see their name in print -- a not-to-be-dismissed plus) and it can be a fun use of two or three pages.

For several years in the mid-1908s, Starlog produced an annual end-of-summer issue that included reviews of the summer's movies. The theory they offered was that by then everyone's had a chance to see the movies for themselves, so they weren't straying from their mantra of letting the readers make their own judgements. Starlog could revisit this type of an issue, perhaps making the special section a collection of reviews by science-fiction writers, readers, and its own collection of the top genre journalists. With the dominant role that DVDs now play in the success of a film or television program, having a review issue that comes out after most of the big films have made their debut but before they have hit DVD (and before the new TV season gets really going) could be perfect timing.

If not those ideas, then something needs to be done to have a schedule in the year that offers the reader a map of the genre year and milestones along the way. Make them a part of that calendar, and make the magazine their official guide through it.

Other ideas for the print magazine would be (as I noted much earlier in this review) the addition of a regular opinion columnist and and monthly editorial. And the publication of the occasional episode guide wouldn't hurt, either. (Will they miss the boat by not doing a complete episode guide when the new Battlestar Galactica ends this season?)

But it's on the online front where Starlog can do some exciting but cost-effective things to build brand loyalty, market the magazine (and its related publications, such as Fangoria), and get the reader involved with the magazine in the weeks between the release of each new print edition.

First, produce a free weekly e-mail newsletter that people go to the web site to subscribe to. Sell banner ads for the e-newsletter, and come up with newsletter content that can be produced relatively easily but is still valuable to the reader. Some ideas: Short synopses of the next week's science fiction TV programs; release date in the next week of any science fiction, fantasy, or horror film, a short opinion piece (first paragraph only in the newsletter; link to the web site for the full article), an excerpt from an article in the current or upcoming issue of the print magazine, reader letters, a couple noteworthy reader posts from the bulletin boards, and maybe an original news report. I'd enjoy writing something like that. More important, I'd subscribe to it and read it, and I think thousands of other science fiction fans would, too.

Second, add a blogger or two to the web site. One could be an omnibus staff blog, as Playboy does with its editorial team. In that case, no one person is tasked with writing a blog posting every day, but every day still sees a new posting from one or another editor from a variety of perspectives and on a variety of topics. Another blog might be a movie and TV program review blog. Coming up with topics for possible blogs is not a difficult challenge.

Third, add audio (and, even better, video) podcasts. With the technology available today that ships with any new Mac, you can create audio and video podcasts and distribute them through your web site and/or through iTunes. Do movie reviews, short excerpts of talks with science fiction creators, and genre news -- it's a free or low-cost way to produce and distribute great content, and it again serves the bottom line of getting people involved and invested in the brand, helping sell the online content and the print content, which all cross-promote.

Fourth, take some of those brands that keep getting resurrected as special sections of Starlog magazine (Future Life, Comics Scene, Fantasy Worlds) and relaunch them as web sites. It'll keep your foothold on the title and logo, and it'll also let you cross-promote all of your brands to the betterment of all of them.

The Future of the Magazine
I don't know the source or sources of Starlog's current lethargy. I think I've pointed out that it has many current strengths and behind-the-scenes talent, not to mention a valuable brand name. Whether it's a lack of manpower, a lack of editorial vision, a lack of direction from the company's executives, or something else, it's simply not an excuse to let things go undone and let markets slip out from under them.

I write this article as both a longtime Starlog reader and as a publishing professional with almost 20 years of experience. I hope it's read by other readers and fans with sympathy for a great title, and by Starlog staff with an eagerness to break new ground. I'll be their biggest cheerleader.

What do you think? E-mail me or leave a comment on this blog. Thanks.
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