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Nonprofit publishing now.

Take a look at the list of largest-circulation publications, compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Schaumburg, Illinois, and two nonprofit publishers jump out of the top five - the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Geographic Society, both in Washington, D.C.

Sure, your association's magazine may not have the 22.5 million subscribers of Modern Maturity or even one tenth of the 9.7 million readers of National Geographic. Yet those titles are visible reminders of the power associations wield in the world of publishing.

Among the magazines, books, newsletters, brochures, newspapers, and countless other materials they produce, many association have publishing operations that rival or surpass commercial enterprises. That brings on head-to-head competition for readers' attention, for market share, and for advertising dollars.

Two distinct worlds

Competing in the for-profit world of publishing, while staying firmly rooted in the nonprofit world, has some unique dimensions and dilemmas. For starters, associations may have volunteer leaders or staff members for whom building revenues or analyzing operating margins is foreign territory. Trying to operate a revenue-generating company within a not-for-profit context can be a lonely business. What's more, associations usually tap their publications staffs to perform other time-consuming duties, such as managing the activities of volunteer committees.

"In an association, unlike a commercial operation, the entire focus is not on the publishing program. That means we compete internally for services such as accounting, personnel, and data processing," says Deborah L. McBride, publisher of the Journal of The American Dietetic Association, Chicago. "Yet, the revenues that come from publications often are critical for supporting other programs." Two years ago, for example, the American Dietetic Association relied on its publications program for 42 percent of its revenues, according to McBride. Such a high figure is far from usual, but even more-down-to-earth numbers aptly illustrate the bottom-line importance of healthy publishing programs. On average, associations derive 8.5 percent of their total revenues from publications programs, according to ASAE's eighth Association Operating Ratio Report, which surveyed 708 associations. Among associations with budgets of $5 million or more, the figure is 14.4 percent.

Making the decisions that affect the bottom line isn't always easy either, points out Gary Hengstler, editor and publisher of the ABA Journal, published by the American Bar Association, Chicago. "When an issue comes up in advertising or business strategy in a commercial setting, the power or authority to make a decision is limited to a few people. You can respond to business opportunities or problems faster.

"In an association environment, you deal with consensus, with boards and committees. You get a wider spectrum of input, and will probably arrive at a better decision, but the process is slow," says Hengstler.

Tipping the scale

When the advantages of an association environment are placed on the scale, however, they far outweigh these disadvantages. The biggest plus, say publishers, is the whole reason an association exists: its members. Ed McLarin, associate executive director for publishing at the American Library Association, Chicago, calls it a "publisher's dream" to have a network of members around the country who can help identify trends, needs, authors, and resources. The Journal of The American Dietetic Association and the Journal of Accountancy, published by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), New York City, for instance, both rely on members to contribute up to 80 percent of editorial, with bylines as their only payment.

At the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Virginia, it is the members' questions that the magazine staff covets. SHRM operates an information center that fields more than 20,000 calls a year; those queries help guide editorial development.

"In short, we know what our readers want to know. An association's resources are a strength that commercial publications don't have," says John T. Adams III, publisher and editor in chief of SHRM's HRMagazine. "When you get to the bottom of a commercial publication's masthead, you've seen their whole staff. When you get to the bottom of our masthead, you've seen the tip of the iceberg. Every association has other people on staff, in other departments, to draw on for information and contacts."

Pressures and pulls

But what happens when those people in other departments - or the members - try to influence what appears in the association's publication? After all, they contend, the association's magazine should promote and publicize the association's activities. The result, to borrow a phrase from Robert P. Rainier, is "association publishing schizophrenia."

"A variety of things pull at one another in association publishing: the association's interests, the members' interests - which may or may not coincide with the association's - and the field of endeavor," says Rainier, director of publications for AICPA and publisher of the Journal of Accountancy.

"For example, the association might want to tout its annual meeting," he continues. "The members might be more interested in a report on the latest professional standards. Then there's the information readers need to stay current in the industry or profession - which may have nothing to do with the president's newest project or the interests of the volunteer leaders."

Like many association publications, the Journal of Accountancy has an editorial advisory board. The key word is advisory. Its 40 members review technical or professional material but leave everything else to the journal's staff. Even the high-powered National Geographic board of trustees - which includes retired astronauts, prominent businesspeople, and a former first lady - "occasionally becomes involved in editorial policy issues but always leaves the editorial decision making to the editor," says Bob Sims, senior vice president of the National Geographic Society.

A question of credibility

Balancing the association's need to communicate its party line with other information desired by members is a sensitive issue, says Donald Christiansen, editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., New York City. "Mixing the technical or professional material and the |house organ' material in one publication is fraught with hazards. The credibility of the publication usually suffers."

Just ask Gary Hengstler, of the American Bar Association, about the credibility issue. When Hengstler left a commercial publication to join the ABA Journal staff, a well-respected legal journalist pulled him aside and said, "I can't believe you're going to sell out your journalistic career to go work for a trade publication."

"In part to prove that person wrong, I want the journal to succeed as a solid, legitimate, reputable publication that doesn't carry association baggage as if it were a handicap," says Hengstler. "Some association activities are newsworthy and relevant journalism, and some aren't. The way I approach it is, |If I were a competitor and got this information, would I use it?' You need a detached, objective viewpoint, which is why associations hire professional journalists and leave the decisions to their discretion."

Not one to shy away from controversy, Hengstler has even run articles that do not place ABA in the best light. One article, for example, focused on token women in the law. It pointed out that some areas within ABA had fewer women in leadership positions than five years ago, despite the association's goal of advancing women and minorities within the profession. The story struck a familiar chord among women lawyers, while some association leaders were less than pleased.

Declaration of independence

The ABA Journal derives its journalistic independence from the association's bylaws, which give a nine-member board of editors control of the journal and its finances. Donald Christiansen, of the IEEE Spectrum, underscores the importance of protecting a publication from tampering by association leaders. He recommends having a clearly stated charter, incorporated into the bylaws if possible, that is consistently enforced.

"Because volunteer management changes periodically, the association must shield the magazine from the vagaries of this shifting leadership," says Christiansen. "The temptation to meddle is strong on the part of some volunteer leaders who have a personal agenda or whose ox is being gored, they believe, through too much |freedom' for the publication."

Like many associations, IEEE publishes most of its house news in a separate publication, keeping the magazine free of handshake-and-smile photographs of volunteer leaders and of conference and committee proceedings. "In economic hard times, like now, the house publication is in danger of being curtailed, discontinued, or - even worse - forced into the flagship magazine to save money," observes Christiansen. "The publisher must fend off this latter option, because the folding of house organ material into the magazine endangers advertising, too."

Attracting advertising dollars

Wooing advertisers is the area in which commercial publications appear to have the competitive edge as well as the larger marketing budgets. In part because of the lingering perception of association magazines as house organs, advertising agencies can be a hard sell.

That doesn't deter Kevin B. Sweeney, vice president of the National Association of Realtors, Chicago, and publisher of Real Estate Today. He goes on the offensive with volumes of professional research that demonstrate how the 760,000 readers of Real Estate Today rank the periodical's importance and value against other commercial publications.

"Just because our members don't pull out their checkbooks and send a check for $9.95 for a year's subscription does not in any way diminish the value of the publication," states Sweeney. "Trade publications, with their niche markets, are going to become very attractive once we do a better job of letting people know who we are, maintaining an editorial sense that's uncompromised, and demonstrating to the ad agencies that we have a relationship with our readers."

John Adams, of HRMagazine, agrees. He believes a lot of association publications sell themselves short by apologizing for their association connection or by avoiding it all together.

"What differentiates you in the marketplace is that you are an association publication. With a subscription book, it's a straight cash transaction. With an association book, it's a membership relationship. Your readers are more like stockholders than subscribers," he says.

Adams often encounters the same situation as Sweeney: going up against competitors who say, "The association's magazine is good, but people don't pay to get it." He counters with survey data showing the magazine as one of the main reasons people renew their memberships. "The dues cost a lot more than an a la carte subscription, so our readers are spending more money to get the most visible benefit. That's where many association publishers can really make a case for their books," notes Adams.

With a circulation of 1.3 million boys between the ages of 7 and 17, Boys' Life can easily make its case, especially to advertisers eager to ingrain purchase habits early on. Getting those advertisers to sign on the dotted line is another story.

"We usually are considered along with all the other magazines - then the rate cutting starts," says J. Warren Young, the monthly magazine's publisher. "We have to drop away from that kind of competition, even in this rather difficult economic time, because we believe in a rate card that holds."

Living up to standards

Changing the rate card for one advertiser but not for all is unthinkable for Boys' Life, whose parent organization is the trustworthy, loyal, and reverent Boy Scouts of America, Irving, Texas. "Our standards must be maintained in terms of rates and editorial," emphasizes Young. "Boys' Life's quality has to be the highest to live up to the standards of the scouts. That's a very strong focus for us."

For Gloria Gordon, at the International Association of Business Communicators, San Francisco, the focus is on high standards for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and comprehension. Gordon is vice president of communications and editor of Communication World, whose 15,000 readers are professional writers and editors. One typo, and her phone rings off the hook.

"Our readers will see right through us the moment we lower our standards. We can't even get a comma out of place," she laughs. So, staff members read page proofs at least a dozen times.

Pressure from ecologically aware members has prompted the National Geographic Society to switch paper stock. "We've converted all our promotional materials to recycled paper and will soon begin printing National Geographic's covers on recycled paper," says Rob Sims. "At the moment, however, there's no way technologically we can print the whole magazine on recycled paper."

Deborah McBride, of the Journal of The American Dietetic Association, has faced the same issue. "Our members are very environmentally conscious. At the same time, our advertisers are very quality conscious because many of them run four-color food advertising. And the association is cost conscious. Recycled paper costs more right now. You have to balance the issues," says McBride. For now, she's staying with the same paper stock and watching for options.

McBride also came under fire for sending the Journal of The American Dietetic Association in "environmentally unsound" polybags. Realizing a paper wrapper would be equally unacceptable to members, she began sending the journal without any kind of wrapper.

"We got flooded with requests for duplicate copies because so many journals had been damaged badly in the mail," explains McBride. "When you looked at the amount of staff time and postage for sending another copy - plus the fact we had to increase the print run - it didn't seem to be a good balance." ADA has returned to polybagging its journal but now preprints each bag with the message "Please recycle."

Member loyalty

Association members not only keep publishers on their toes but also can prove valuable as goodwill ambassadors and even as salespeople.

The Boy Scouts of America, for example, calls upon its network of members to provide contacts and to extol the benefits of a Boys' Life subscription. Prominent alumni members, including the former president Gerald Ford, appear in ads for the magazine, and scout leaders help sell Boys' Life during conferences with parents. (A subscription to Boys' Life is not included in members' annual dues, although registered Boy Scouts pay a discounted rate.) If a Boys' Life sales representative has difficulty connecting with an advertiser or an agency, he or she taps the local scouting network for appropriate contacts.

At HRMagazine, John Adams recently discovered the extent of members' clout during the pursuit of an elusive advertiser. The company had advertised in every publication in the market except HRMagazine. Almost on a whim, Adams pulled out the association's membership directory and found 91 SHRM members employed by the company. He wrote to all the members, pointing out how their company was.missing a big opportunity to reach potential customers and encouraging them to drop a note to the corporate advertising department.

Adams got a call six weeks later from the company's advertising manager, who had been inundated with notes from loyal SHRM members. A call from the advertising agency came next, followed by insertion orders. (An insertion order is an advertiser's commitment to run an ad in a designated issue.)

Still, these situations are the exception rather than the rule. Most association publishers interviewed for this article believe in what AICPA's Robert Rainier calls "the separation of church and state" - not involving advertisers in editorial development and not involving readers in advertising sales.

Even if one of your members is a high-ranking corporate executive, IEEE's Donald Christiansen believes bypassing the corporate marketing department or advertising agency can backfire. "For a large-circulation publication dealing with major clients, such as an IBM or a General Motors, it is the kiss of death to involve volunteer members in any kind of client or agency contact for the purposes of selling advertising," he says. "You might win the battle by selling one page but lose the war by being locked out in the future."

With competition for readers and advertising dollars increasing, publishers know they can't afford to lose many battles. Last year, for example, both the ABA Journal and Real Estate Today invested in redesigns despite tough financial times. They're aiming for "a consumer look and feel" so that they can continue attracting consumer advertising - a growing share of their advertising base. Boys' Life has also changed its look, moving toward more white space, larger illustrations, and shorter articles. The masthead carries the tag line "For All Boys," with all Boy Scouts references tucked inside.

"Our goals are to control our costs so we do not cost the Boy Scouts anything," says J. Warren Young. "It's important that we run a tight ship. If we generate funds beyond what we spend, they go back into the organization."

Bottom-line concerns

Calculating a membership publication's profitability can be difficult because in computing taxes due on advertising revenue, associations generally include a subscription equivalent in members' dues - even if that money is never transferred to the publication. In fact, few publications actually receive the full share of that income, relying instead on advertising revenues, nonmember subscriptions, and other publications revenue to meet the budget numbers. For example, the American Library Association supports American Libraries magazine to the tune of $7 per subscription. Advertising and other revenues comprise the balance of the magazine's budget. The "subsidy" the National Association of Realtors provides to Real Estate Today is even smaller, at $2.80 per year per member.

Is the association publication a member service or an income generator? Party line or independent voice? Driven by editorial or advertising? Today's publishers are balancing these questions while dealing with the traditional pulls and pressures of producing a publication that, above all, meets members' needs.

The Future Is Now

What key issues will you grapple with in the next five years? Association publishers say the seeds of change have already been planted in these fields.

Fiscal pressures. The days of subsidizing magazines as a membership benefit may be numbered. "With association resources being pulled in many different directions, publishers will have to remain vigilant about keeping costs down. The revenues they do bring in may be earmarked for supporting other activities," believes Deborah L. McBride, publisher of the Journal of The American Dietetic Association, Chicago.

Postal rates. J. Warren Young, publisher of Boys' Life, has already resigned himself to watching postal costs continue their climb. "It's a difficult issue. Either we let the Post Office slice into us, or we raise subscription prices. Sometimes you can't conscionably do the latter," he says. "We'll just have to be astute businesspeople and look for other ways to offset those increases."

Specialization. Increasing specialization among their members has prompted many associations to produce targeted publications in addition to a generalist magazine with a broader scope. To strike a balance and possibly cut costs, some groups are experimenting with selective binding to customize portions of their editorial and advertising. National Geographic, published by the National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., for example, uses selective binding for advertising. All the magazines look the same on the outside, but the advertising inside depends upon the recipient's area of interest or geographic region.

Global audience. Currently, one out of five National Geographic readers lives outside the United States. Bob Sims, senior vice president of the National Geographic Society, predicts the number will rise steadily because the international area offers the most opportunities for membership growth.

Gloria Gordon, editor of Communication World, published by the International Association of Business Communicators, San Francisco, is already well-acquainted with the challenges of publishing a magazine for readers in 40 countries. "If you tilt the editorial too much toward Europe, for example, the people in Peoria say, |I could care less,' " notes Gordon. "Yet, we get taken to task if we're too U.S.-oriented. Every time I review or edit a manuscript, I have to ask myself, |What does this mean to someone in South Africa?'"

Editorial sensitivity. The growing diversity of association memberships makes it difficult to identify the average reader, so publishers must keep an eye out for material that is potentially offensive or alienating. Gordon believes associations must become more sophisticated in how they present material. "Already we have to consider politically correct language and the multicultural point of view when assembling editorial. With an international audience, you also have to choose symbols or examples carefully."

Electronic delivery. Although the much-touted paperless world has never materialized, people have become accustomed to, receiving information on video screens and television sets. Consequently, associations may eventually deliver their magazines - complete with advertising - via cable television, on-line services, or laser disks. At the least, publishers predict, time-sensitive material such as calendar listings and employment ads will be pulled from printed publications and placed on a computer network for fast retrieval.

Surviving the Slump

Supported by HRMagazine's strong performance and growth in previous years, John T. Adams III assembled an optimistic budget for 1991. The board of directors of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management, which publishes the magazine, approved the rosy forecast. Then, several months later, the recession began.

"We had a bottom-line number we needed to make, and it didn't matter how we got there," explains Adams, publisher and editor in chief of the monthly magazine. "We weren't selling ads, so we had to cut expenses. Everything got cut - except people."

Switching to a lighter paper stock, for example, meant the magazine's postage bill went down in a year when second-class postage rates went up. Adams also renegotiated the agreement with the association's card-deck representative and moved to larger signatures to save money on prepress work.

Gloria Gordon went a step farther by changing printers and bringing virtually everything in-house. "We now spec everything on laser proofs and send a disk to the printer, who goes directly to film," says Gordon, editor of Communication World, published by the International Association of Business Communicators, San Francisco. She initiated the cost-saving changes just before the monthly magazine's ad income began plummeting from $10,000 to $3,000 per month.

"The gravy is the advertising - that's what gives us the color, the illustrations, the money to hire outside writers," notes Gordon. "Now, we've pulled back on illustrations, do more writing in-house - with a staff of only three - and publish 40 pages instead of 48."

With communication staffs at most associations already lean, publishers clearly favor cutting pages over cutting employees. The average issue of the ABA Journal the Journal of Accountancy, or Real Estate Today, for example, is 4-12 pages smaller than two years ago. Although each magazine has remained basically the same, the size of most departments and the number of feature articles have decreased.

"When you have a large circulation, there's nothing that economizes quite as much as doing fewer editorial pages," says Journal of Accountancy Publisher Robert P. Rainier, director of publications for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, New York City. Acknowledging that a publication is often the most visible and valuable benefit of association membership, he adds, "Still, you have to be careful not to cut into the bone."

Prescriptions for Success

Launching a new publication while a recession is in progress would seem a prescription for sure-fire failure. Not so for the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Library Association, both headquartered in Chicago.

ALA's entry, Booklinks magazine, is targeted not at the association's members but at elementary school teachers. The bimonthly, four-color magazine is actually a spin-off of ALA's biweekly Booklist. (Also see "The Power of Research" in this issue.) "A lot of classrooms are getting rid of Dick-and-Jane readers and using entire books, such as Charlotte's Web, instead. Booklist just reviews books, so we wanted another magazine that tells how to use the books in the classroom," explains Ed McLarin, associate executive director for publishing.

AMA turned to no less than the Hearst Corporation for expertise on reaching the consumer market. The result is Living Well magazine.

"AMA used to be in the consumer magazine business between 1925 and 1974 with a publication called Today's Health. As publishing became more sophisticated and AMA focused more on professional activities, the association felt it couldn't be all things to all people," says Wendy Borow, AMA's vice president of consumer affairs and corporate relations. "One thing we learned, however, is that The Journal of the American Medical Association translates very well to the public. The more accurate information we can give people about health care, the better consumers they'll be in their doctor-patient relationships."

So AMA is again publishing a consumer magazine. This time, however, the association is leaving the production, sales, and distribution to a commercial publisher. The Hearst Corporation supplies the magazine's editorial staff and handles other business matters, while AMA's staff reviews and approves the final product, including all editorial, layout, design, and even the advertising copy. The association connection gives the magazine a competitive edge; the editorial staff receives advance notice of research developments that will be reported in AMA's journals.

Living Well represents the newest component of AMA's consumer initiative. The association also sponsors numerous consumer health campaigns, operates a daily radio feed service, distributes 3,500 video news releases each week, and sponsors four hours of cable television programming every weekend. AMA also has collaborated with commercial publishers to produce consumer-oriented medical books.

"We want to get as much information to the consumer as possible, in as many mediums as possible," says Borow. "Living Well is just another packaging of that information."

AMA and its publishing partner have placed 100,000 copies of Living Well in doctors' offices and another 100,000 on newsstands. If the test marketing succeeds and subscriptions roll in, the four-color magazine will be published 10 times a year beginning in January.

Sandra R. Sabo is a free-lance writer based in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Publishing; includes related articles; association publications competing in a profit-oriented industry
Author:Sabo, Sandra
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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