Magnet workshop: Wring cash from your budget (not your freelancers)

How do you create the magazine I want on a tight budget? As budgets shrink and costs continue to creep up, this question has never been more important.

Jessica Ross, executive editor of Homemakers and vice president and secretary of Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME), led a workshop titled “Wring cash from your budget (not your freelancers)” at Magnet, a magazine conference being held June 2-4 in Toronto. (Come back to J-Source for ongoing coverage of the conference. And check out our story about Esquire editor David Granger‘s marquee speech about why we should still care about magazines.)

“There isn’t a lot of training for editors on the money side of the magazine business,” Jessica Ross said. “They’re trained to be journalists, they’re trained how to tell great stories, but they sometimes regard the money side as less important, when they actually go hand in hand.” The result? Every magazine develops its own system, not benefiting from the best practices of others.

There are two philosophies when it comes to creating budgets, Ross said. The closed system budget puts one person in charge of allocating the money. This “gatekeeper” becomes the point person for staff requests. The pros: nobody can compare their resources, which reduces complaining and staff squabbles. The cons: staff become more territorial, and won’t identify inefficiencies in the budget. The staff either work in conservation mode, or spend-every-cent-I-can mode, which results in under or over spending. Many people simply try not to overspend, Ross said, without knowing the budget. But how can you know if you’re overspending if you don’t have the numbers? “Hoping and being careful doesn’t really work,” she said.

The open system has one person coordinating the budget, and the staff decides as a group how the money will be allocated in order to bring the most reader value. “That way, it becomes a discussion of ‘what’s best for the reader’ rather than ‘how much do I deserve.’”

Transparency allows for issue by issue flexibility in how money is allocated. It also trains staff which helps keep the skills within the company as they rise in the ranks. This is the system Ross prefers herself. The cons: The process is more time-consuming because you have to discuss story specifics upfront in order to create realistic budgets. There’s also possible interpersonal issues when one story isn’t allocated the money same as others. “Make sure it’s not always the same people who get all the money,” Ross said. This might mean reallocating job duties so different staff get a chance to work on big-budget staff.

Cons: it takes more time up front to discuss story specifics to create realistic budgets. sheet: Status on one side, budget on other. Possible interpersonal issues when one story isn’t worth the same as others. make sure its not always the same people who gets all the money – maybe reallocate duties so different staff can work on big-budget stuff.

Once the budget amount is determined, figure out how much you can spend on which costs (I.e. overhead, stories, marketing). Figure out your book size, and how many editorial pages you have. “Look at back documents,” Ross said. “History is the best predictor of how you spend the money.” Then, calculate your per-page budget, using this equation:

(Allotment – overhead)
editorial pages

It helps to develop a template issue lineup that includes items you would typically have and how much you typically pay. I.e. columnists, features, fact-checking. With this, create a table of rates – similar to a rate card, but it’s what you’re paying. I.e. 1-page story with hed and art, a personal essay, copy-editing, half-page illustration, mileage, etc.

A lot of magazines have theme issues, but it’s important to remember that not every item needs to be on theme. If you go too theme-heavy in your editorial lineup and then later you have to cut pages, you’ll have leftover stories that might not make sense to use in other issues, and are, essentially, a waste of money.

Ross offered up some tips on building fair relationships with your freelancers and a list of money-stretching ideas.

How to build fair relationships with freelancers

-Don’t be afraid to bring up money and rights as a point of discussion. negotiate for -fairness.

-Take the time to provide honest feedback and respect the time and effort put into the work

-Craft a specific assignment letter (this saves time too). what can you offer the freelancer to make the job worth their while?

-Provide portfolio material, such as PDF of the final story

-Suggest professional development activities that can help them command a higher rate

-Share their name with your contacts when they do great work for you (and tell them you’ve done so)

-Provide a research package, interviewee contacts or other materials to lighten their load (saves time, which saves money)

-Be careful of language and be respectful of how much work has been put in (encourage them to pitch you ideas)

-Look for the upcoming “Best Practices Guides: Canadian magazine editors and writers

-Track everything, and keep staff informed. Keep lists of money-saving ideas and investment ideas

Money-stretching ideas:

-Cheaper stock photography

-Reader-generated content, personal essays, survey results, photo contests, etc.

-Develop cross-promotional relationships, e.g. doing a fashion story featuring “models” from a new theatrical performance.

-Staff-written pages, such as briefs and roundups (give junior staff opportunity to write features, for a lower fee).

-Ask writers to snap in-process pictures that help explain a process (web). Consider supplying a decent camera if they can shoot some detail shots for your magazine.

-Profile personalities where supplied images are available

-Buy long-term rights to images you can reuse. Amortize the cost over the year

-Hire interns to research, write briefs, fact check (but give back in training).

-Work with non-competes, e.g. newspapers, on shared photoshoots

-Publish book excerpts

-Stretch a story over more pages. Add staff-written charts, sidebars, photos with caption.

-Offer promotion of contributor’s products (i.e. books), in exchange for lower rates

Finally, Ross offered some all-season tips:

-When you go over deadlines, if often means you’ve gone over budget

-To prepare for emergency expenses, keep a couple low-cost features in the bank.

-Reward staff for being on-budget. Assign staff members to certain sections of the budget they’re responsible for. This helps engage the staff to get involved in budget decisions (and to understand why certain decisions are made).

-If you look for ways to add value to magazine, and pitch to your publisher, you might get more money to do those things (i.e. for $X more you can have X more pages for photography, which will decrease use of stock images and make the overall product look better).

-It’s important to develop realistic expectations. Listen to your freelancer’s complaints, involve staff in the decision-making process, and implement a system every staff member much follow. For example, when an editor assigns a story, they should plunk the information into a shared spreadsheet that is updated throughout the process.

Another tip Ross offered: make your regular content good, but focus on creating some GREAT content, the jewels in the crown. This means you should be flexible in your rates for different types of stories (Marquee content is most expensive and takes the longest to produce, regular content is middle-of-the-road and staff content is cheap and fast, great for short stories/blurbs/sidebars).