Industry must innovate, change along with new needs of readers
By Charles Hallman
JET magazine this summer will abandon its traditional weekly print format and go all digital. According to Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) statistics, JET’s 2013 single-copy sales were 19 percent higher than in 2011. But while subscriptions “drive the largest share of the magazine’s circulation” among readers, whose average age is 44 years old (35 percent are Baby Boomers, persons born 1946-1964), the digital version will “appeal to the diverse interests and needs of information-hungry African American consumers.”
“We are embracing the future,” announced JPC Chairman Linda Johnson Rice in a released statement in May about the magazine her father, the late John Johnson, founded in 1951 for Blacks to get weekly news in a smaller format than its sister publication Ebony, which comes out monthly.
Over the years, the magazine has changed from black and white to color, in format size, and from a weekly publishing schedule to every three weeks. “The cost and the expense to try to publish a weekly, and paper and postage, is just not cost efficient in 2014,” explained Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, JPC chief operating officer and digital president, in a recent MSR phone interview. “This is a change that we have not made lightly. We thought about it for a very long time.”
Said McKissack, who joined JPC about two years ago, “I actually was brought in to take a look at all these assets we have and to figure out ways to digitalize them and put them into different formats.”
JETmag.com’s typical audience last year was 62 percent female, whose average age is 29 years, with over 112,000 monthly visits. Howard University journalism professor emeritus Clint C. Wilson II wrote in his “Whither the Black Press?”
(Xlibris, 2014) that Black-owned print publications “may face uncertain futures in the digital age.” Some critics also suggest that such publications have been perhaps too slow in transitioning to new technology.
“If we had decided several years ago that we were going to do this, I’m not sure that the technology really was in the position that would make it any easier [than] it is today,” said McKissack. “Some certainly can question whether or not [we] waited a year too long or two years too long. We know we are not going to make everyone happy, but we do hope that with the offerings that we have, there will be something for everybody.”
The “new” digital JET is one of several new changes JPC will unveil this summer, including a new magazine app for tablets and phones and an online store. “There will be a series of things on there, including the opportunity to look at some of the interviews we’ve done over the years, and to look at our image archives that contain about five million images,” said McKissack. “You will be able to purchase and look at merchandise for both Ebony and JET.”
The change also returns JET to a weekly publication, and the new app will have “breaking news” capability as well, added McKissack. She said that it doesn’t ignore the magazine’s 60-plus-years legacy in serving the Black community.
“We have been supported for a very long time by all the people reading [JET] at the barbershops, hair salons, newsstands, and wherever else that people get their JET. We are extremely appreciative of that. [But] we hope to be around for many years to come and still be delivering news and information…for our audience.
“Changes are always challenging, no matter what it is,” noted McKissack. “No one in this industry as well as other industries can stand still — you got to move on and try to innovate and be responsive to needs that are changing.”
Wilson also wrote that Black magazines on digital most likely will focus on “entertainment and celebrity features” rather than “long form investigative articles.” Asked if JET has become more entertainment-oriented, McKissack responded, “There are things that you are just not able to do in any print magazine just because of some of the limitations. Entertainment is one of the key areas that people look for when they see JET. So what we want to do is, especially in the area of entertainment, to make sure that [news] is more timely. They don’t want to know about it three weeks from now.”
Current JET print subscribers will receive Ebony until their subscription ends, said McKissack, who added that there are no current plans to change that monthly magazine, which is in both print and digital formats.
The COO foresees that JET as a digital magazine and Ebony “will really honor the mission of what Johnson Publishing has done, which is to uplift, inspire and inform about what’s happening in the African American community.”