Magazine Mis-step

By Bill Wight, NSN Vice Chair

On May 9th, your Board launched an exciting initiative aimed at extending NSN’s reach, attracting new members, and making our flagship publication, Storytelling Magazine, even better.

Immediately, we stumbled. The crash was instantaneous, and deafening.

The seeds of that crash were planted well before the event. We were unaware of our mis-step until it brought us to a standstill. Nevertheless, it behooves us to examine the steps that led to this situation and – most importantly – to rectify them.

We’re storytellers. We care deeply, feel ferociously, and there are three things we have a right to expect from the network that unites us – to be safe, to be heard, and to be included. Therein lay the source of the stumble.

As we’ve worked to complete the move to Kansas City that was initiated well before most of the current Board took office, we’ve also been working through the challenges of updating our website and carefully stewarding NSN’s budget.

Early this year, we commissioned a dedicated group from the board to see how we could address the challenge of a beautiful publication which became ever more expensive as membership declined. The group included finance and publishing professionals and others who favored both digital and print formats. Whenever past cost-focused projects have raised the prospect of digital distribution, we have consistently been reminded that print copy is highly valued by many members.

Here are the three key parts of this group’s recommendation that the Board accepted:

  1. To our membership-based print circulation, add a digital-only subscription service. Storytelling Magazine could be accessible for free via libraries and other institutional subscribers – even by non-members.
  2. Reach out to a group within NSN to help us make the content and format changes required for effective digital distribution without compromising its current attractiveness. The goal of this group wouldn’t simply be technical but also to make the magazine appeal to a broader audience.
  3. Unify all of NSN’s communication channels in one place to maximize our consistency and effectiveness.
    We stood at the starting line, eager to make our members proud, to draw in a whole new audience of digital subscribers – some of whom we were confident would choose to join our throng – and to make our proud publication even better. This new audience was expected to be the source of our fiscal salvation.

Here’s the problem: a large portion of the cost of magazine production is essentially fixed. It costs the same no matter how many copies we print. Having more members would spread this cost over a larger base, and the portion to be covered by each member’s dues would grow smaller. Our magazine doesn’t cost too much – there are just too few people sharing the “fixed” portion of that cost.

Our first move was to make a courtesy call to our editor to alert her to our plans to change how we produce the magazine, to thank her for her service, and to provide as much notice as possible that we would not be using her services after the June issue came out.

We awoke the next morning to a fresh reminder of the digital revolution. Word had spread that the Board had summarily ended the magazine and dismissed our beloved editor. To be clear: it was never the intention of this initiative to end the print magazine.

I mentioned above that our members want to feel safe, to be heard, and to be included. We’re a community. In its zeal, the Board unwittingly violated all three of those expectations. We’re all a little unnerved by change. Add to that the misperception that this change is antithetical to our desires, and discomfort rapidly morphs into anger. It’s easy to imagine our surprised, disappointed members saying “If the Board had heard us, they would never have done this terrible thing!” And, of course, it’s not enough that the Board planned to include key contributors. Our biggest mistake was that we had not yet done so when we launched the effort.

Adding non-member digital subscribers will be good for NSN. Not only can we grow our own ranks, but we can extend storytelling’s influence. We need to attract new people and previously overlooked or marginalized genres to our community.
But we understand now that you’re not looking for us to disappear for long periods only to emerge with a “final” plan that we immediately push on you. You want to be included. As we reset, will you join us in re-evaluating our methods and determining our path forward?

Janet Thompson has offered to work with us on the fall issue. We will immediately begin assembling members to help us shape this initiative. Once the group agrees on a path forward, and the Board consents, the plans will be made available to members for comment. Only then will we execute any changes. We will also look into other aspects of magazine production that may have been overlooked during our office transition.

I hope you’ll join us – especially those of you who feel strongly about Storytelling Magazine – in working to make this publication an even stronger tool for promoting storytelling and the National Storytelling Network!


Contact the National Storytelling Network

c/o Woodneath Library
8900 N.E. Flintlock Road
Kansas City, MO 64157
Telephone: (800) 525-4514

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