I started writing a comment on Russell’s recent blog post, in which he explains why he’s canceling his Ensign subscription. Once the comment got past a couple hundred words, I figured a full complementary post might be more appropriate. So here goes.
I haven’t subscribed to the Ensign in over a decade. I read it a couple times a year, usually when I’m at my parents’ house, and the experience is sufficient to remind myself why I don’t subscribe, and why I don’t feel particularly guilty about it.
And yet, I spend time in the bloggernacle, where I tend to stick to faith-promoting sites with some level of orthodoxy. When I started reading and later writing for By Common Consent, it was specifically to fill the Ensign-shaped hole in my heart. A faith community needs an outlet where it can share struggles, devotional thoughts, and personal experiences with the divine, and interact with the culture beyond congregational boundaries.
In short, I fully support the mission of the Ensign. I’m sure the editors are skilled, thoughtful, and incredibly intelligent, but also limited in the amount of editorial control they have. Do they, or the PTB, feel threatened—or at least challenged—by the bloggernacle? I hope they read Russell’s post, and the comments on it, because the feedback there was fairly consistent: a lot of us come away from the Ensign with the impression that it isn’t written for us. To borrow a turn of phrase from Elder Callister’s recent Ensign article: “The church will get the type of church members it writes for.”
This is probably true of any content: Sunday-school curriculum, conference talks, missionary materials. But I don’t have experience with any of that stuff. I was an editor at a national consumer magazine for a few years, and I still work very closely with the largest media companies, so I’ll stick to the topic I know something about.
Here are a few steps the Ensign could take to get me—and hopefully us—to re-subscribe and rally around the Ensign again. I think we’d all love to, right?
1. Demand quality articles (and reject any that aren’t)
The Ensign is the second most impactful way for the leadership to speak to the body of the church, apart from conference. So why do the First Presidency messages so often feel thrown together? Ensign articles are the only regular exposure we get to the minds of living prophets, so I wish the editors demanded a higher level of content—more personal, prophetic, revelatory, or even just emotional. I also wish they were able to reject articles that didn’t measure up to the prominence of the platform. I know from experience that it’s not easy to reject an article by your boss, but it’s part of the role of an editor to protect the reputation of both the magazine and the bosses. Publishing rushed or substandard content does neither.
2. Empower your editors
Hire editors you trust, and trust them to run the magazine. They should have years if not decades of industry experience, and be able to speak to the PTB with the authority of professionals who know what they’re doing because they’ve been doing it for years. Again, I expect/hope the Ensign already has a few of these people.
3. Recruit the best LDS publishing talent
The church is full of excellent editors, journalists, writers, designers, and photographers, and the media industry tends to burn people out quickly. Imagine if the best Mormon designers spent a few years at global ad agencies and national magazines, and then competed fiercely for a spot at the Ensign. The magazine has a long way to go to develop that kind of allure.
4. Showcase the best and brightest of Mormondom
It’s a bummer that we are only now, through the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, meeting so many of the extraordinary Mormons out there, and only giving them a few words with which to express themselves. The Ensign could play such a great role here, commissioning work from the brightest minds, the most talented up-and-comers, interesting artists, and even the occasional faithful celebrity. As at any publication, it’s the job of the editorial staff to find and develop relationships with those people, and to have their fingers on the pulse of the community. I’ve seen articles over the years in which a member of the 70 superficially wrote about some topic, person, or event for which there was a Mormon expert who had spent years studying that very subject, who could’ve provided a much more informed, thought-through perspective. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Ensign provided them a platform on which they could share their expertise with the Saints?
5. Write for the members
A few years ago, I made the switch from editor to advertiser, working with big companies to develop branded content. It’s difficult work, partly because of the dynamic between editor and client (clients get what they want), but mostly because brands write for themselves, whereas media outlets write for their audiences. Media outlets have to provide audiences with content that is credible, relevant, timely and interesting. Brands tend to produce content that addresses their messaging points and corporate priorities, which leads to content that isn’t particularly engaging. The Ensign sometimes reads like it was written by and for committees of stakeholders, instead of for the readers.
6. Write for the members you want (or the members you want us to be)
Another difference between branded content and the real kind is that brands rarely want to challenge their readers with new or surprising ideas. Real media outlets (with the exception of outlets like Fox News or MSNBC) want exactly that. Give us something to chew on! And it’s OK to be aspirational. Just like Seventeen is for 14-year-olds, your readers will stretch themselves if you give them a reason to.
Ben S. left a great comment on Russell’s piece, with a quote from Hugh Nibley about a priesthood manual he authored, about which there was some concern. “Adam S. Bennion said, ‘It’s over their heads.’ And President McKay said, ‘Let them reach for it.’” Aren’t Mormons supposed to be reaching? Searching? Constantly learning new things and striving to be better? I love my favorite bloggernacle properties because they elicit that response from me.
7. The answers are in the data
I have no idea if the general body of the church is unsatisfied by the church magazines, or if it’s just me and a few other BCC readers. It’s probably somewhere in between. But every magazine has to grapple with the question of whether it’s satisfying the needs of its subscribers. That’s why they do cover tests, focus groups, and measure as much as they can. A former magazine I worked at conducted surveys to see how long our readers kept issues around the house before throwing them out. I’d be curious to see how many Ensign subscribers rip the plastic on issues that aren’t the conference issue. Heck, I’d be interested in what percentage of subscribers read the conference issue (everyone says they do, of course).
8. Add a “The”
We refer to it as “the Ensign.” It’s even called “The Ensign of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on the cover itself, above the title. So shouldn’t there be a “The” before the giant “Ensign”?
Anything I’ve missed? Anything you miss? Please share in the comments, and keep it friendly.