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Two media, same message

By David Wilson

When I’m discussing the content of this magazine with non-subscribers, I can expect to be asked some version of the following question: “Can I read it online?” The answer is yes, and no.

We have maintained a free website, www.ucobserver.org, since the late 1990s, updating it once a month with some, but not all, of the content from the current print edition. The practice of withholding content goes back to a decision made in the website’s infancy. The logic was sound: if people could read the entire magazine online for free, why would they bother to take out a paid subscription to the print version? Without revenue from subscriptions, there would be no Observer magazine. It goes without saying that if there were no Observer magazine, there would be no Observer website.

It made sense then, and it still makes sense today. About half of the revenue needed to publish the magazine comes from subscriptions to the print edition. Human nature remains essentially as it was back in the late 1990s. Given a choice between getting a free version of the magazine online and spending $20 on a subscription — well, you know the answer.

At the same time, however, we recognize that the online environment for magazines has changed dramatically in the last decade. In the beginning, print publications tended to view their websites as promotional tools for attracting subscribers. Today, fully developed digital offshoots are a dime a dozen. You can probably count on one hand those that are profitable or even self-sustaining, but the two-track magazine — print and online — is the new normal.

Where does this leave ucobserver.org? That’s the question behind a major review of our online presence currently under way. One of the ideas we’re exploring is whether a paid digital edition of the magazine could extend our reach beyond our traditional church borders — or even beyond our national borders — and whether it can be done without siphoning resources from the print version, which remains our bread and butter.

In the meantime, we continue to strengthen our existing website by adding more online-only content, mostly in the form of blogs and videos. The newest addition combines both. In My Year of Buying Nothing, Rev. Lee Simpson describes her efforts to minimize her personal consumer footprint. In February, she began filing new instalments every other Friday. A video about her project will be available on our website later this month. You can find links for the blog and the upcoming video on our home page.

Simpson is a retired United Church minister who has worked in pulpits and on the staff of The Observer. She was called to the ministry after a successful career as publisher of Chatelaine, one of Canada’s most profitable consumer magazines. Lee Simpson the minister is more environmentally conscious than Lee Simpson the publisher. The pride she takes in her Chatelaine accomplishments is tempered by a nagging sense that she spent so many years encouraging readers to live unsustainably. Her year of buying nothing is an effort to make amends with a planet hurting from overconsumption.

Simpson’s story might make a great magazine article, but it makes for a better blog. She has set out on a journey, and stories about journeys are often best told on the run. Think of her blog posts as epistles from a voyage of atonement.

Neither the blog nor its companion video is tied to content in the print version of the magazine. This doesn’t mean we’ve begun to turn our backs on 185 years of print. It only means that we’re harnessing the potential of the Internet for telling our stories of faith, justice and living ethically today. It means our website, conceived so many years ago, is evolving. Stay tuned. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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