Life, Death, and Magazines at the CRMA Conference

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What do you get when you fill a hotel ballroom with magazine editors? A whole lot of doubt, social awkwardness, and over analyzing. Ahhhh, the City and Regional Magazine Association Conference, how I missed you.

The CRMAs, or Creamas as I like to call it (it’ll catch on, I swear), is an annual ritual for destination magazines. Any magazine that celebrates a specific place, from Milwaukee Magazine to Texas Monthly, sends a delegation to the conference in order to discuss the industry, see what’s working for other people, and generally to steal as many ideas as possible.

It can be an odd affair. One thing people never realize about magazine editors is that we almost never see other people with the same job. There just aren’t that many of us. It’s kind of like when one zoo will ship its endangered species to another, just so they can spend some time with others of their own kind. This year they shipped us to the luxurious Drake Hotel on Chicago’s waterfront (never has the phrase “right by the beach” seemed less appealing). The Creamas began with a cocktail reception that eased us all into our new habitat. It was tense at first, but with the aid of a little alcohol, editors from different magazines eventually stopped circling each other, sniffed under each others tails, and exchanged business cards. The circle of life continues!

The next two days were filled with classes and panel discussions on various topics that were deemed important this year. As you might imagine, Facebook was well represented. Smart phone and tablet apps had their moment in the sun, but no one is having much luck making them profitable. QR codes got a brief mention, but the general consensus is that they might prove to be as socially relevant as Hammer pants in a few years’ time.

If you’re noticing a digital theme here, you’re not alone. The M in CRMA has become very subjective. No longer are magazines simply bundles of paper wrapped up in one slightly thicker piece of paper. No, now we have Web sites and videos and apps and indigestion. Someone figured out how to plug their computer into the phone outlet and suddenly things got all kinds of Darwinian in the print media world. Adapt or perish they told us. With the recent recession, a lot of us chose the latter route.

But things are not all bad. Having attended the Creamas the last two years, I can attest that things are getting better, though to be perfectly honest, we are rising above an exceptionally low bar. The 2010 CRMA Conference in Providence may as well have been named “Magazines: We’re All Going to Die!”

Never before had I seen an entire industry in such a panic. Older editors were walking around the hotel with beaten and cynical looks on their faces, like dinosaurs waiting around for the meteor. I had a conversation with one such editor who blandly expressed hope that his magazine would stay afloat a few more years so he could reach retirement. Then, as if just appreciating my tender 28 years of life, he declared, “I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

The classes were little better. I began replacing their benign titles with ones that better reflected the tenor of the conversations therein. “Best Practices for Making Money Online in 2010” became, “The Internet Stole My Wallet and Won’t Give it Back.” “From Crowds to Communities: Social Media and Magazines” became, “Facebook Will Devour Your Children and Burn Down Your Office.” And “Join the Digital Magazine Revolution,” was simplified down to “Why God? Whhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyy!?!”

So how was it this year? Marginally mellower. We were all a year older and a year wiser. We could report some areas where we found modest success and some ventures that were total flops. No one has quite cracked the code on the correct mix of old and new media, but this year there seemed to be fewer people claiming that magic formula didn’t exist. There was a sense that we had found a foothold. A tenuous one, perhaps, but stable enough for us to push forward. Between 2010 and 2011, the level of rhetoric calmed from “apocalyptic” to “mild panic.” If we can get to “seriously concerned” by 2012, I feel like we’ll be all right.

That might not seem like a vast improvement to you, but when you’re in an industry that has been declared dead as many times as ours has, you learn to appreciate the little victories. At the end of the day, magazine editors are a resilient bunch. If you measure our success like that of other endangered species, there is reason for hope. There were almost twice as many of us at the conference this year than last. The herd is growing and there are vague promises of greener pastures ahead.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we have some, and that’s a start. I have forty years to go before I reach retirement and I’ve got a pretty good idea about what I’m going to do.


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