Five things the new Village Magazine needs to do now

So the second issue of Village Magazine 2.0 is coming under some legal scrutiny from Declan Ganley, following the publication of a profile critical of the man himself.

This is sure to be of some concern to Michael Smith and all at Village as legal battles with millionaires are never good for a publication’s bottom line, regardless of the rights or wrongs of the case.

But Village has much more integral issues to deal with – ones that will ruin its chances of survival on a day-to-day basis, never mind in the context of legal issues.

Here are five things I think Village Magazine needs to do if it wants to have any hope of surviving 2009 and beyond:

1) Get a proper website and use it properly.

At the moment Village Magazine is using a WordPress blog with a basic template and nothing else. This makes it look like a fan-site more than anything official. At the very least the website should be re-designed to make it visually relevant to the magazine itself but really it should serve as a destination and not just a marker in the sand.

Village, as a monthly (or whatever it is) publication cannot hope to keep up with the pace of the rolling news agenda but its website can. The old Village made soundings in the right direction but was always too scared to make the leap into a truly online outlet. The magazine was kept behind a pay-wall even after it was off the shelves, the unique online content wasn’t all that unique and there was no interaction with the readers.

The new Village website needs to look at what’s going on internationally and react. It needs to be relevant to the daily news grind, it needs to provide a real forum for discussion of its published content and it needs to tap into the readership as a source of constructive criticism and information.

At the very least, it needs a real website.

2) Re-think its design and get consistent with it.

The old Village must have gone through five major redesigns in its short life, if you factor in format changes and the like. Consistency was simply not there as basic things like the logo and cover template would change dramatically from issue to issue. Not in a smart, subversive way like Adbusters but in a small and confused way that implied incoherence and uncertainty within.

One month it would have a red border, the other it would be blue. One month the logo would be relatively small and the next it would be huge. One month there would be loud, ugly yellow text detailing a story and the next it would be modest, white and neat. Internally it was just as bad and simple mistakes (like the contents pointing to the wrong page or naming the wrong writer, typos in headlines etc.) were common place.

What the new Village needs to do is pick a striking and slick design and stick to it. It needs to make it look serious, not amateur or tabloid. It needs to be eye-catching and bold and it needs to be unmistakable.

The last two covers have been very similar to the old Village, possibly to make it recognisable to the old readership. This makes some sense, of course it also works to make it recognisable to those who hated the old version for reasons other than its ideology (such as it’s design). The underlying problem, however, is that the old Village didn’t look very nice.

If you look at the Editorial page of the new issue it’s a horrific muddle of colours – it’s so unappealing and harder to read as a result. A lot of the design internally is off too; not ugly but inconsistent and bare. Some design ideas in there are good – colour-coding the sections can work very well but it needs to be done properly and the pages need to look full and professionally produced.

I’m not sure who is picking the design at the moment and whether it’s form over function in terms of how it looks but Irish magazines have a terrible habit of sacrificing design and losing readers as a result. It’s not that they’re shallow readers, its just that bad design is unappealing to the eye. It’s the reason why newspapers spend huge money researching what design works and what doesn’t. It’s the reason why designers go to college. It’s the reason why Village needs someone with a good eye, plenty of talent and enough of a voice to remind everyone that neither design or editorial quality needs to be compromised when creating a product.

3) Spend whatever it takes to get an agenda-setting story every issue and make a big deal about it.

This was a major flaw in the old Village’s strategy – it had some great investigative journalists on board at first but because it was weekly they were never given the time to really dig deep on a story. It finally went monthly but couldn’t keep these journalists on staff even though they now had time (but perhaps not the money) to properly investigate issues.

In the end the magazine became a victim of the news cycle – it was reacting to things that happened last week and was often stale by the time it got to the shelves or worse was engaging in monologues about things that had been debated on TV and radio at length anyway.

A monthly cannot try and follow the news agenda, it needs to set its own. It is not practical to expect huge exclusives every month but even a few small but unique news stories will let readers know they’re not going to be reading something stale when they pick it up.

When they do get this kind of story they should shout about it from the roof-tops too. Get it discussed on radio, TV and blogs but more importantly put it as the cover story.

In the latest issue the magazine claims to have an exclusive from Frank Connolly on corruption allegations relating to a large Dublin development. This is mentioned on the cover but it’s part of a list down in the bottom right-hand corner. The reader’s main focus is drawn to a picture of rats and a vague headline about dealing with the people that killed the Celtic Tiger. It may be an attempted link in to the corruption story and others but it doesn’t work – it’s too nondescript and seemingly irrelevant.

As well as this the image used isn’t nearly strong or specific enough to let people know what it’s about. The main headline and picture combined could lead people to think this is some kind of vermin eradication trade magazine. I say that half in jest but in reality it certainly doesn’t imply it’s a news or current affairs publication.

4) Tell us something we don’t know.

Connected somewhat to the previous point, Village needs to stop chasing the news agenda and filling its pages with cheap and repetitive opinion.

Newspapers are there to tell us what happened yesterday and will happen today or tomorrow; they’re also full of opinion and debates on what that means for the wider world. There is a place for a news re-cap and opinion in a monthly magazine but it should be in the minority. Two pages at the start with multiple 150-word pieces on the main news events of the month and a handful of columns at the end, that’s enough. The rest should be fresh, new and original. I’m not saying it has to be hard-hitting and earth-shattering at every turn, it just needs to be unique.

Features taking a new angle on an old story, oranalysing the repercussions of events would be far more interesting than someone’s tired opinion on the same.

5) Let people know it’s changed.

Village had a core readership when it went to the wall and that should be brought to the new version if possible. It also had a swathe of people who refused to read it for various reasons and more who don’t know it’s back.

These people need to be reached in some way and it needs to be made clear that things have changed and how. Not just in the editorial of the magazine because you’re preaching to the choir somewhat; it must be told to as many people as possible outside of that small base.

That doesn’t require a huge advertising campaign, a decent website and word of mouth will do most of the work for you and a new look that makes it stand out will do the rest. The problem now is that Village 2.0 is being read by the same small (or even smaller) audience as Village 1.0 and as it looks and feels like the old version it’s assumed to be the same.

Get the content, get the solid and consistent look and get the word out there. It won’t guarantee survival but repeating the mistakes of a failed project from the past will only guarantee failure.

I appreciate that some of these things don’t come cheap either, particularly getting new and unique content on a monthly basis. However while daily newspapers can get away with slashing budgets and maintaining readers – because they’re just regurgitating information that’s out there – monthly magazines cannot. There is no reason to buy a magazine over a newspaper if they both offer the same thing and people will not buy Village if it has nothing new to bring to the table.

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