» magazines ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Jennie’s already beaten me to it, but I thought I’d share some thoughts on Ad Lib magazine, the party’s replacement for Liberal Democrat News, as it arrived in the post this morning. (I would advise reading Jennie’s post as well, of course – her points about the gender balance of contributors are very important)

To start off, it turns out that what was advertised as a magazine…isn’t. For me, magazine has certain connotations, and they tend to revolve around it being A4 size, and if it’s smaller than that it’s pretty big and sturdy. This is A5 and 40 pages, so I’m not sure it’s much more than a pamphlet. The point about Liberal Democrat News was that you could conceive of it appearing in a newsagents – this doesn’t give that impression.

As for the title, I suppose it’s better than going for something like ‘Coalicious’ or some focus group inspired ‘inspirational’ title, but is something that means ‘making it up as you go along’ really the impression the party wants to give? According to the ‘message from the editor’ inside, the answer is that it ‘is an appropriate tone for the magazine to strike’. That’s not an inspirational start, though it might explain what we find inside.

We start with an interview with Shirley Williams. Well, it’s billed as an interview, but it feels more like ‘a quick chat about the SDP’. There’s nothing new in there, and I can’t see any reason for it to be in there other than someone deciding ‘people like Shirley, so let’s put her in’. Following that, we get three pages of by-election news which read like the same story written four times. Why not just concentrate on one by-election (and perhaps even one where we didn’t win?) and tell a story, give us a feel for the area and what the Lib Dems are doing there, rather than giving us four pieces that could come from anywhere?

There’s a page on shared parental leave that really feels like it should be more – how did we achieve this? What were the challenges? What will the effects be? – but it’s just a page that reads like a press release. This is a problem that keeps occurring – everything in the magazine feels too shallow. The Nick Clegg interview that follows is the same – it should be an in-depth talk with John Kampfner, but instead it just floats over a lot of the usual topics and then ends. (Though it is the only article in the magazine to mention the Corby by-election – or indeed, any election other than council ones)

Desert Island (picture of a disc) – as Jennie says, BBC copyright lawyers ahoy! – tells us Tessa Munt’s eight favourite songs. Great, but whenever I’ve listened to the radio programme I’m sure they didn’t take the title and format from, the music is only part of the story. It’s a hook to ask the person involved more about them and what drives them, here it’s just filler for another page.

The Guardian does an interesting thing in its Saturday edition where they get two people on opposite sides of an issue to talk about it, debating points back and forth. That’s often interesting to read and brings out interesting points, whereas the simplistic ‘Should we ban page 3? Yes or no’ ‘debate’ in Ad Lib doesn’t do anything other than rehash the same old points with no actual interaction.

The rest of the magazine’s the same – articles that could be interesting just peter out into nothing. There’s an article about how a Lib Dem councillor led the process to boost recycling in Conwy council which is a subject that would interest a lot of people, but after a few paragraphs talking about that goes on to discuss elections and campaigning. The article about the American election descends into a lot of process chatter about election strategy and rather than talk about the content of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, we get an article about how it was written.

There’s some interesting content in there – Alison McInnes’ article on improving conditions in women’s prisons stands out – but the rest of it just feels hollow, far too reliant on running off to the Lib Dem safe zone of talking about leaflets and door-knocking instead of discussing actual politics or policy. Why is there a page given over to cooking? Why does the upcoming events page only detail events taking place yesterday, today and tomorrow? Even if the magazine had come out a week ago, that would still be far too short a notice for many people to make plans for.

I’m sure the team behind it are doing their best to put the magazine out while having to do a hundred other things, but that this is how the party chooses to communicate with its members speaks volumes about how the leadership sees us. Some effort and investment could have produced a magazine that people might want to read, or think about passing on to non-Lib Dem friends to show them something of interest. Compare Ad Lib to the magazine I get regularly as an Amnesty member, or the communications organisations like the Woodland Trust send out to their members, and it looks terrible. Did anyone look at other magazines before putting the basic idea of this together? I subscribe to New Humanist magazine, which can’t have that huge a subscriber base, but they manage to put together a vibrant and interesting magazine that gets read, noticed and talked about. Ad Lib feels like something that’s not going to hang about long on the journey from letterbox to recycling.

The idea of having to pay an extra £35 a year to get this sent to me monthly is something I’m not contemplating. If members are going to get two issues a year automatically, that’s asking for £3.50 an issue which doesn’t feel anything like value for money, especially when a year of Liberator‘s just £25.

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