“The Word” Is Closing: Bad News for Good Writing

Despite all the labour relations events over the past week, the news that made the biggest impact on me was the announcement by the British music magazine The Word that it would be ceasing publication with its August issue.

I’ve bought and read music magazines for as long as I can remember – and among my biggest thrills as a writer was having letters to the editor published in the New Musical Express and in Creem.  So I believe that I have the reader experience to say that The Word, over its nine years of existence, was consistently one of the smartest and best written music magazines ever. And when I say “smart”, I don’t mean snarky – I mean intelligent, well-informed, thoughtful and passionate.

I discovered The Word entirely by chance about five years ago. I was in a newsstand at the Ottawa airport looking for something to keep me entertained on a flight back to Vancouver. In the magazine section, I saw this publication I’d never heard of, with a CD attached to the cover – and, unlike most CDs attached to music magazines, the majority of the artists on the CD didn’t appear to suck. The magazine wasn’t cheap, but I figured, oh well, even if the magazine isn’t great, the CD might be worth it. And wow, was I surprised. I clearly remember sitting on the plane, reading one of the articles and  laughing so hard my stomach hurt and tears were rolling down my face. The first words out of my mouth to my husband waiting at the luggage carousel were “We are so subscribing to this”. And since then, quite honestly, I can’t remember any issue of The Word that I felt didn’t give me my money’s worth.

Many of the articles about The Word‘s closure have mentioned the close relationship between the magazine and its devoted readership – developed not only through the magazine itself, but also through its podcasts (most of which are available for free on iTunes) and its website. I’m not sure if creating such a relationship was a deliberate strategic goal, but even if it was, it felt genuine. The Word staff had respect for their readers and cared about their opinions, which certainly can’t be said for every publication.

One of the things I admired most about The Word was its section The Massive Attacks, to which readers could submit their own reviews of concerts, records, TV shows, movies or books. The quality of writing and insight on these pages was miles above what’s produced by many professional music writers. The staff of The Word are all very experienced music journalists, so it says a lot about how special The Word was that these pros lacked the ego and had the confidence to turn several pages of every issue over to the readers. My favourite Massive Attacks article ever is probably this review of a Crowded House concert; you’d look long and hard to find something that brilliantly written in most magazines of any kind.

The cover of the July 2012 issue of The Word: the next-to-last issue. (Credit: wordmagazine.co.uk)

So if The Word was so great, and had such devoted readers, why is it closing? The Word‘s own statement gives the reasons as “dramatic changes in the media and the music business” and the general economic downturn. Other reports have noted that the magazine’s subscriber base had declined over the past year, and that might have led some of the investors, such as Guardian Media Group, to pull the plug sooner rather than later. Some reports have also suggested the influence of the Internet as making people less willing to pay for content they might be able to download for free or get more quickly than in a print version. I find it hard to believe that this would be a factor for The Word‘s devoted fans, who seemed more than willing to pay for the product – but the switch earlier this year to making the podcast free for subscribers only  suggests that lack of revenue from both products may indeed have been a problem.

There has also been the suggestion that The Word should be reborn in a hybrid print/online format similar to that of football (soccer) magazine The Blizzard. The Word certainly seems to have the fan base to support such an option; whether it’s viable, I suppose, would depend on the resources needed to staff and maintain such a venture (and to support production, if there was to be a print version as well)

I want to close with an anecdote that, to me, summarizes why the loss of The Word is sad news for publishing and for quality writing. Earlier this week I was reading the Globe and Mail Report on Business section and came across an announcement about  the York University board of governors, citing a “Mrs. Foster” as the new chair of the board. That’s odd, I thought, does she not have a first name?  I looked on-line, and, yes, she does. It looked like someone had cut and pasted the body of the biographical statement into the text of the announcement, and in the process had failed to notice that Foster’s first name was missing from the original statement. But apparently no one at either the Globe and Mail‘s ad department or at York University noticed this when the ad ran. And, apparently, no one noticed the omission a second time when the same information ran at the end of the week in the Saturday Report on Business Appointments Review. Something is seriously wrong with modern media when lazy mistakes go unnoticed at “Canada’s national newspaper” while a carefully edited and well-written magazine can’t make a go of it.

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