Ad Lib: If you’re reading this, it’s not for you

The first edition of the new Liberal Democrat party magazine, Ad Lib, went out to all party members earlier this month. Future copies will only go to paying subscribers, so what to make of the first edition’s efforts to make people part with their cash for future editions?

Judging its contents I think requires bearing three main factors in mind: it’s a monthly publication, it’s one that is printed on paper and it’s probably not aimed at you.

Both the first two attributes are rather more modern than you might think at first glance, for the usual story of rise of internet, decline of printed newspapers blah blah blah omits just how well printed magazines are doing in many sectors in the UK. Daily print is certainly suffering badly. By contrast, less frequent print is often flourishing. It is flourishing when it finds a  role which doesn’t pitch itself into a losing competition with the internet for speed or multimedia.

Slower paced, with more reflection and analysis, is the mix most likely to work for Ad Lib.

On the third factor, that it’s a magazine most likely pitched at someone other than you, I strongly suspect Ad Lib’s audience is rather like the one for my monthly email newsletter.

For that I typically have in mind a core reader who is a party member, watches Newsnight, visits the BBC website and yet rarely reads a political blog. There are plenty of readers who are more into the online world than that, and many non-members amongst the readership, but the heart of the audience is one which doesn’t read multiple political blogs each day and there seems to be a large such audience out there.

Or in other words, if you’re reading this by all means subscribe to my email newsletter – and judging by others I think you’ll enjoy it – but the main value of it to me (and to readers) comes from that other audience it reaches. So too for Ad Lib – and hence if you’re reading this, I suspect you’re not the sort of person Ad Lib is primarily aimed at.

But if you’re read this far you probably do want some views on it…

First, the production quality. It’s got a much lower budget feel that that of the free magazines I get from various pressure groups. I can see why the budget for Ad Lib is tighter than for those, so personally I’d tweak the design to play to the lower budget a bit better. If you can’t do brilliant glossy full colour photos due to a shortage of such photos (and the absence of a budget to buy them in), best to have a design that minimises your need for them.

Second, the size. It’s smaller than most magazines. I like the size as it makes it very handy to read on a crowded commute. I’ve also heard others say they like the size for its convenience in fitting in handbags and the like. In that Ad Lib reflects the wider magazine market, where sizes smaller than A4 have their place.

Third, the assumed level of knowledge of the audience. Ad Lib’s pieces basically assume its readership is not an expert one. I think that’s the right call. The experience of my monthly email newsletter and of my fairly frequent talks at local party events, for example, is that many pieces of information which some would happily file in the ‘so obviously almost not worth saying’ pile are news to less digitally involved members.

Not forgetting too, how many party members are people who have joined in the last five years and also how many are young enough, for example, not even to have been born when Shirley Williams (featured in the the first edition of Ad Lib) was last an MP.

Fourth, the balance of contributors and subjects. As Jennie has pointed out in her review (see below), the pieces with named by-lines had an unfortunate split – women’s issues and non-policy stuff written by women, Traditional Serious Politics stuff by men. (Of course, as women are a majority of the electorate, women’s issues should be the stuff of serious politics, but you know what I mean.)

As with Caron (again, see below), I liked Katy Riddle’s recipe page and it reminded me of how some very successful long-term party campaigners swear by such content even in Focus leaflets. Likewise the selection of tweets printed alongside letters appealed to me. A nice mix of the old and the new – and a distraction from all five printed letters all being from white men. I know men dominate letters pages, but even so…

Fifth, it’s likely commercial future. Hard to tell, though I thought having three paid-for advertising inserts plus ads in the magazine itself from four outside organisations was a promising start. Liberal Democrat News never really cracked the more lucrative parts of the advertising market. Let’s hope Ad Lib does.

In summary? Not a perfect debut, but then no debut is and there are plenty of signs of promise.

 

You can subscribe to Ad Lib here.

For the views of other Liberal Democrat bloggers, see:

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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34 Comments

  • Mark this day down in history: a post by Count Packula that I can’t pick a single hole in. ;)

  • Simon Titley 15th Dec '12 - 4:51pm

    Come off it, Mark! To say, “if you’re reading this, it’s not for you” is a disgraceful attempt to neutralise any criticism before it is made.

    Ad Lib has no obvious purpose or direction. It is politically hollow and vapid, and that cannot be excused by claiming the readership “is not an expert one”. This is not about expertise but interest and engagement. Anyone who joins a political party (a dwindling band these days) can be reasonably expected to have an unusually high interest in politics, and they deserve better than this insult to their intelligence.

    But let us suppose that the priority is to communicate with the party’s armchair members, and that such members are as clueless as the people responsible for Ad Lib imagine. There is little here to inform, enthuse or engage them.

    Ad Lib clearly hasn’t been thought through. As Nick Barlow pointed out, “it has an air of ‘will this do?’ hanging over it”. I’m sorry but it won’t do, and Mark Pack’s desperate attempt to hype it up doesn’t convince.

  • Simon: “Mark Pack’s desperate attempt to hype it up doesn’t convince.” Good grief, if that’s Mark hyping….!

    Very good review, Mark. Constructive and to the point.

  • David Allen 15th Dec '12 - 7:53pm

    “Lurch To The Right? I Won’t Let It Happen!”

    No, Nick, you won’t just let it happen, will you? You’ll be driving it forward….

  • Simon Titley 15th Dec '12 - 8:24pm

    @Mark – If it is the case that Ad Lib is deliberately not aimed at readers of political blogs, then it would have been useful for someone at party HQ to present a clear rationale for this decision, because none is obvious. I rather suspect that there is no clear idea of the audience at all, and that your excuses are a post-rationalisation for an unfocused and frankly poor publication.

    @Stephen – “Very good review, Mark. Constructive and to the point.” Good grief, if that’s your idea of a good review, you must have lost your critical faculties.

  • Andy Williams 15th Dec '12 - 9:32pm

    I used to subscribe to LDN. Although I enjoyed the ‘Gang of Four’ history in the 1st issue I can’t see me subscribing to this as it didn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t have found elsewher

  • Richard Shaw 15th Dec '12 - 9:57pm

    I rather liked the first edition. I subscribed to it on the morning it landed on my doorstep and I was pleasantly surprised to see it when I got home. At first I felt a little short changed by the size and thickness, expecting, like others it seems, something in the A4 format. However I found that it was the perfect size to read while on the bus or walking. I have subscribed to several hobby magazines in the past, all in the A4 format and weighing in at 150-ish pages…. 50 of which are adverts and considered them to be good value for money at ~£40 for 12 issues even if I would only read half of the content in each edition. Considering then that Ad Lib is very-light on advertising I think it’s worth the equivalent of £2.92 a month, though of course I hope the content and production quality will mature as time goes on. The key to its success I think will depend on how much member-generated content is submitted and gets into it.

    Speaking as someone who, unlike some of my fellow commentors, is not a serious political blogger but merely an enthusiastic activist, I thought the content balance was ok for a pilot issue – even the recipe! If I want news then I’ll go online. If I want serious comment I’ll visit a blog. For in-depth political histories I’ll buy or borrow a book. Ad Lib offers me the armchair-supporter friendly, introductory material that might encourage one to delve further and visit blogs, buy books and so on. Now that I’ve finished issue 1, I’d happily lend it to one of our local deliverers or members.

    Ad Lib appeals to me in a way that Liberator, so far, hasn’t. (Sorry, Simon)

  • Paul in Twickenham 15th Dec '12 - 10:01pm

    “Lurch to the right? I won’t let it happen”.

    Meanwhile Clegg’s trusted advisor Richard Reeves is telling those of us who were on the left of the party to go forth and multiply in the general direction of the Labour Party: “Anybody who wants a centre-left party will find a perfectly acceptable one in Labour”.

    I’m not taking Reeves’s advice, and in the words of a million Focus leaflets “Actions speak louder than words” so after 30 months of quacking like a Tory and waddling like a Tory, I’ll treat Clegg’s words with caution pending concrete evidence to support them.

  • I’ve subscribed to Liberal News/Lib Dem News since about 1967, admittedly in recent years more out of habit and loyalty to Deidre, but I think the appearance of Ad Lib (and I quite understand the reasons for the demise of LibDem News) is where I stop shelling out £35 a year that I truly can’t afford these days. I find that painful, because I think the Party ought to have a regular publication, but maybe Mark is right that as a regular reader of LibDem Voice I can get quite enough news and intellectual stimulation, not to mention the ability to respond to what I have read, without having to wait a month to read the Party line on a story that may have become of little relevance in the mean time.

  • Typically negative comments from Simon Titley. I thought Ad Lib was a decent bash at a wide-audience publication, aimed at the armchair member (whom Titley doesn’t seem to recognise, presumably because he never meets them). I’m sure there are ways in which it can evolve and improve but it looks like a pretty promising start.

    I’ve cancelled my standing order for Liberator, not least because I resent having to pay to read some of the claptrap in each edition, but will be keeping my LDN subscription, now transformed into one for Ad Lib and wish that publication well.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Dec '12 - 1:17am

    Looking at the first issue of Ad Lib, it seemed to me to be very much the leadership of the party talking down to its members rather than something which could genuinely be considered as owned by its members. The most obvious example of this was the article on the Leader’s Speech – one would not suppose reading this article that there was a fair amount of disquiet from some senior and longstanding members of the party about this speech. Under those circumstances, I don’t think that article can be regarded as politically neutral within the party. This sets the magazine up to a bad start – if the editor really wanted the magazine to be one all party members would be happy to read, he ought to have been conscious of this and particularly in the first edition which sets the scene for the future, not run that article.

    Liberator magazine makes no pretence of being a neutral voice. It orients itself to what might loosely be called the “left” of the party. If Ad Lib is to be the “official” magazine of the party, it should not orient itself as the right-wing equivalent of Liberator. Simon Titley calls it “politically hollow and vapid”, but in some ways that works better as a propaganda distributor than a magazine which is outright on its positions. If it can subtly push one side, while giving the impression it’s light and fluffy and friendly that’s more effective than openly taking a position and being honest about it.

  • Martin Pierce 16th Dec '12 - 7:38am

    Not received in our household- despite both me and my wife being members.

  • Robin McGhee 16th Dec '12 - 11:10am

    I side with Mark on this one. Does anybody seriously think that an all-member mailing created by the leadership is going to include anything resembling constructive policy debate? Even before the internet “official” publications were just what this one is, a vaguely readable reminder that the party exists and that it would be simply lovely and terribly helpful if you could lend a hand in the next council election. (At least, that’s my impression from having seen old party stuff. Corrections please.)

    The internet is the right place for genuine debate and discussion. Leadership propaganda should raise money and awareness; it cannot legitimately do anything else.

  • Richard Marbrow 16th Dec '12 - 11:21am

    I rather like the fact that Ad Lib isn’t negative.

    Political blogs, Liberator and all too often Focus are fuelled by anger. While I have no difficulty getting angry at many, many things I think there is an audience of those who prefer their politics optimistic. I disagree with those who say it is ‘fluffy and light’ as I think that positive would be a much better description. Serious politics does not have to be dark and miserable!

  • Richard, I think you’ve nailed it:

    Liberator is the mag for angry old men (mostly the authors – one particular contributor to this thread springs to mind)

    Ad Lib is trying to be a mag for ordinary members who don’t just get a kick out of being bitter and negative

    You pays your money …

  • David Allen 16th Dec '12 - 5:52pm

    Dominic, you’ve nailed it. It’s the old who get angry, because the party they worked for has been hijacked. The young don’t need to get angry with the Lib Dems. They just go and vote elsewhere.

  • Most of the comments above are critcising Ad Lib as if it were an all-members magazine. Whilst this issue went to all members it isn’t an all-members communiciation but a subscription publication for a subset of the membership. That is a slightly different brief.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Dec '12 - 11:36pm

    Richard Marbrow

    Political blogs, Liberator and all too often Focus are fuelled by anger. While I have no difficulty getting angry at many, many things I think there is an audience of those who prefer their politics optimistic. I disagree with those who say it is ‘fluffy and light’ as I think that positive would be a much better description

    It could be fluffy and light and positive without it seeming to be a vehicle for Nick Clegg to talk down to us. The Liberal Democrats are NOT the Nick Clegg fan club, there was too much in the first Ad Lib which was on that sort of line. It could have had more of a focus on other aspects of the party, more of a focus on ordinary members and the party’s working at local level.

    On being negative, well, it seems to me our party has been hugely damaged since May 2010 by being too positive. This constant pushing forward of the idea that the coalition was a wonderful outcome for us, and the policies coming out from it are all excellent policies, the ideal solutions to the problems of the nation, hasn’t worked, has it? I rather feel that if we had been more negative about it from the start – made clear it was a compromise forced on us by the reality of how people voted and the electoral system, that as the result was a government with five Tory MPs to every Liberal Democrat MP it would be very far from our ideal, I think we would be doing better in the polls right now.

  • Tracy Connell 17th Dec '12 - 9:42am

    My main beef with the 1st edition is that ALL the events listed were over by the time the mag landed on my doormat. I know this issue was delayed a bit, but you’d think there would still be some events listed that went beyond the week following when the mag was originally supposed to be delivered.

  • Simon Titley 18th Dec '12 - 12:11am

    @Dominic – In your first comment, you claim to have “cancelled your standing order for Liberator”. I have checked Liberator’s subscriber database for the past few years, there has only been one Dominic on it, and he remains a fully paid-up subscriber. We must conclude either that you were not telling the truth about cancelling your subscription because you were never a subscriber, or that you are not called Dominic. Either way, you have not been truthful, and in your second comment you have descended into personal abuse. But then (to paraphrase Mark Pack), if you like Ad Lib, Liberator is not for you.

    @Richard Marbrow – You say you prefer optimism but there is a difference between positive and trite. Ad Lib reads like was written by the Stepford Wives. Obviously there are limits to what an official party publication can say but it should at least be realistic and substantive, not politically hollow. Say what you like about Liberal Democrat News, but at least it found space for different and sometimes critical views.

    Generally, this whole business about Ad Lib being aimed at armchair members is highly dubious. There was no hint of such a strategy in the pre-publicity or in the magazine itself, and Mark Pack’s post (above) is the first time any mention of it appeared. Post-rationalisation seems the likeliest explanation. But let’s suppose it really was the strategy behind Ad Lib. What was the rationale for replacing Liberal Democrat News (which reached active and armchair members) with a publication aimed only at armchair members? Is it part of a coherent strategy to inform or motivate armchair members, and if so with what expected outcome? Was any market research conducted to find out what armchair members prefer (besides armchairs)? Who took this decision? I think we should be told.

  • Standing orders come out once a year, right? Don’t recall which month it is but you won’t be receiving it next year. Which is a shame in some respects, as I have every respect for Mark Smulian, Gareth Epps, Jonathan Calder et al. But I can’t carry on paying for the stuff that you write. Will gladly re-subscribe when you’re no longer involved.

  • I thought it lightweight in content and tacky-looking. I will not subscribe.

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