Thursday, December 31, 2009

Richard Branson Boosts Private Space in BBC Focus Guest-Editing Stint

The BBC, in addition to producing untold hours of radio and television programming around the world, owns Bristol Magazines Ltd, which -- as the name pretty much says -- publishes magazines. (It even produces them in Bristol.) The next time you're at Borders or Barnes & Noble or any other store with a big magazine area, scan through the history or science sections, and you'll find such titles as BBC Knowledge, BBC Sky at Night (an astronomy title), BBC History, and more.

Though I'm a history buff, the only BBC magazine I pick up from time to time is BBC Focus, which is a popular-science magazine. With a circulation of only about 68,000 (a level that would not even interest many American publishers), Focus produces a high-quality monthly package of more than 100 oversized (by anemic U.S. magazine standards) pages. The magazine is full of colorfully illustrated, easy-to-read articles about science in our lives.

It had been a number of months since I'd last bought a copy of Focus (I am rather falling behind in my magazine reading as it is), but the December 2009 issue caught my attention with its reflective silver logo box, a change from its usual red. The key factor in my decision to purchase the magazine, however, was the cover story package: the privatization of space. It's a favorite topic of mine, and it promised to be a nice look inside the burgeoning private space race.

The cover also noted that the issue was "guest edited by Richard Branson." Branson is the billionaire owner of the Virgin brand of companies, including Virgin Galactic, the leading private space travel firm. I am not, as a rule, a fan of guest-editing gimmicks. In this case, there was at least a compelling link between Branson and this magazine's topics.

If I have a complaint, it would be the one I've made in the past with regard to guest editors and the integrity of magazines' editorial products. Branson's issue of Focus includes at least five articles (comprising a majority of the special section on private space travel) by or about Virgin Galactic. Now, making all the necessary photo shoots, interviews, and information exchanges happen might well be a big part of what a guest editor brings to a magazine, but it still looks like BBC Focus gave Branson's company a big free advertisement in its December issue (or make that "... of its December issue.").

In a statement by Bristol Magazines, Focus editor Jheni Osman said of working with Branson: "The father of space tourism was a pleasure to work with -- full of feature ideas and Focus-esque humour. It's the first time he's guest edited a magazine, giving readers an exclusive insight into his world."

As with most BBC Focus magazines, it's a nice issue. Focus and Branson can be proud of their work on many levels. But I don't think they advanced the cause of journalism any.

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