Thursday, February 4, 2010

Behind the Scenes at the Fangoria & Starlog Turmoil

James Zahn, former director of new media development for Fangoria and its sister brand Starlog, has issued a statement outlining his reasons for leaving the company last month. He posted his long explanation on his Facebook page, so you can't read it unless you're his Facebook pal -- thus there's no point in my including a link to it here. (In other words, if you're in the fold, you already have read it.)

He has said that he doesn't like airing dirty laundry. I think we should respect that. But there are some items in his statement that I'm afraid are all too common in businesses, and so at the risk of spreading some dirty laundry, I want to look at some of it.

There's no way I can do proper justice to his heartfelt posting in a few words here, so I'll just pass along the major gist of the piece, at least as it affects the brands and their customers. Briefly, he contends that the company is being hobbled by unchecked egos, unprofessional behavior (conflicts of interest), unpaid writers, and cluelessness about adapting to changing media markets. I have no inside knowledge of how the Fango/Starlog offices function (or disfunction); my one visit there was a decade ago, in sunnier economic times and under a different company ownership. They seemed happy then, but even then the company was seriously missing the boat on the online business revolution.

My suggestions and complaints about the company in recent years have mostly revolved around the Starlog brand, which for the one-time "magazine of the future" has seriously missed the boat on the opportunities presented by the web, e-mail, online audio and video, and much more. Naturally, science fiction has always been of more interest to me than horror, so I did focus on Starlog rather than Fango. But Zahn's portrait of the company today suggests a company that is still out of digital touch, and that has let some editors who fear change and who have definite control issues warp its content and strategy, he alleges. A magazine badly in need of a design revamp goes along basically unchanged (except for a cover redesign) for more than a decade. Pals of the editors allegedly get too much coverage in the magazine, web site, and radio show. And so on.

The personal side of Zahn's explanation of his experience applies to far too many people in this country: overwork, unfulfilled plans, resistance to new ideas, backstabbing. Again, I don't know what daily life was like at the company, but I'm not surprised to hear a veteran say that it's poorly run.

Perhaps we'll hear the other side from insiders still with Fangoria and Starlog, or perhaps they'll prefer not to address it. It's their choice. But for a company that seems to have lurched from crisis to near-death experience to rebirth to crisis redux for the past decade, it would be nice to see some stability and wise management rule the day. As a magazine and new-media professional, I see a lot of value in those two brands. But as someone over the age of 12, I am not wide-eyed enough to expect that it will necessarily be brought out.

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