Alex Tanner is a former editor of New Media Creative. For the last two years he has worked as a freelance journalist and media consultant, working for Create Online, Blueprint, Graphics International, eDesign, Macromedia, BIMA, PRO recruitment and Doors of Perception in Amsterdam.
So farewell, then, Create Online. This week saw Future Publishing finally pull the plug. The final issue is being prepared and will appear in April.
The magazine hit the news stands at the height of the dotcom boom, heralding itself as ‘The Web Designer’s Bible’. Unfortunately Gideon held onto its monopoly of the Bible market, and Create’s circulation – which in its heyday reached some 13,000 subscribers – gradually evaporated. Its news stand sales towards the back end of last year – thought to be around the 2,000 mark – proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
At this point I should explain my ‘angle’ here. As ex-editor of New Media Creative, regarded as the closest competitor to Create Online back in 2000/2001, some may assume I have an axe to grind. However, since the closure of NMC back in September 2001, I’d been writing freelance articles for Create each month. Viewing a magazine through the eyes of a competitor then an insider gives a rare perspective on a title. Rarer still is the perspective it provides on the Web design market itself.
So where did it all go wrong? Create Online was launched with a Future fanfare and healthy budgets, allowing it to pick up at least one major publishing award for its avant garde design. Circulation soared in its first year, due largely to the number of designers eager to get to grips with what the Web had to offer. The idea, in Future’s mind, was to replicate the success of EDGE, its high-end computer games title.
But that didn’t prove quite so simple as it seemed. EDGE succeeded by launching into a market that had no serious publications. MCV was, and is, aimed at games retailers, while all the remaining gaming titles were either aimed at players or had a heavy US-bias in terms of coverage. Serious gamers and industry professionals alike flocked to EDGE for its high production values, its informed comment and for the fact that there was really nothing else out there. EDGE found its niche and grew into it.
But Create was always going to struggle in replicating this model. Admittedly NMC – the two titles launched in the same month – muddied the waters instantly. Even before that launch, digital designers had a number of magazines to choose from: Graphics International, Creative Review and Design Week served the business end of the market, while the likes of Mac User, Computer Arts and .net provided the less adept with tips, walkthroughs and software reviews. Create fell between two stools, never truly defining itself as a serious business title, or as a title for the ambitious amateur. Create was almost trying to build its own niche, but in magazine publishing that’s an almost impossibly tough nut to crack.
Of course, when the dotcom bubble burst and the advertising market collapsed things became immeasurably harder. Moving the title out of London didn’t help either, removing the majority of its editorial staff from day-to-day contact with a vast amount of designers; even those not based in London were often in the capital to meet clients. In truth, it was a triumph that Create Online stayed alive for as long as it did.
But publishing is a black art – the winners of the game can often be rank outsiders when the starter’s gun goes off, and the opposite can be true of the losers. The bigger questions are, why so many digital creatives turned off, and without a dedicated magazine in the print media space, where do they turn to now?
In answer to the first question, it’s true to say that the post-burst agency bloodshed saw many Web design agencies go to the wall. Some are still wiping the blood from the pine flooring today. But a whole market doesn’t just up and disappear. My own personal philosophy if that designers suffered from a combination of disinterest and exhaustion. When everyone was making a mint and looking at their stock options five times a day, it was the norm for staff to work late into the evenings and over weekends. Not that they don’t do that now – they just don’t see much reward for it.
Equally, fewer and fewer agencies and professionals are willing to contribute to an article without having their arms twisted to breaking point. So why the turn around in attitudes from, “My company MUST be in every magazine as often as possible,” to, “I really couldn’t care less.” They shouldn’t, but balance sheets in the red can have that effect. And, of course, as agencies cut costs many PR contracts headed for the shredder. With no one shouting for you in the market place, you have no voice.
The more worrying concern for creatives now is where will they showcase their work? Graphics International, Design Week and Blueprint still cover digital design, although often from a campaign or profile angle. Creative Review, on the other hand, seems to think there’s nothing cool enough to feature anymore. And that magazine has a point, after all, digital creativity took a downturn equitable to revenues as clients went for safety-first options, or scrapped their online budgets altogether. Even with Future’s intention to spread Create Online’s content across other titles, it will never expose anywhere near the volume of work that Create did.
The media will focus on the industry again simply because it has to. Maybe Wi Fi will do it, maybe 3G, maybe some other technological development that will get the media’s juices flowing again. But it looks like it will be a long time before a print publisher is brave enough to stick their neck on a chopping block that’s already been stained with so much ink.