National Wildlife Tames Design To Enliven Readership, Sales

National Wildlife publisher Tom McGuire doesn't mince words when talking about his title's recent overhaul, which became public knowledge with last week's arrival of the April/May issue. "People have asked me 'why now?' about the changes," he says. "Well, because we had to. The message we were getting from everyone was 'you guys need to get up to date.' That's the kind of message you ignore at your own peril."

Given that most publishers would sooner turn over full editorial control to Courtney Love than acknowledge the slightest crack in their title's veneer, McGuire's honesty is commendable; he seems keenly aware of the task in front of him. Although the mag's numbers have held up relatively well through the turbulence of the last few years--he can probably thank National Wildlife Federation members for that--its base of non-travel advertisers is almost nonexistent. Similarly, while NW has been well-regarded editorially for most of its 41-plus years, until the recent changes it lagged considerably behind most comparable publications in terms of design--clearly not the ideal scenario for any title whose mission celebrates conservation and natural beauty.



"Over the years, the world's changed dramatically in our sector," McGuire notes. "Look at the arrivals of the Animal Planets and other specialty channels, plus everything with National Geographic. We weren't paying attention to that as much as we needed to."

Hence the redesign, which includes a new logo and cover, more expansive use of color, and the multiple entry points that readers seem to enjoy so much. Columns like "Green Consumer" and "Your Health" have been added to help readers lead a "greener" lifestyle, and the title's trademark photography has been reemphasized. In short, it feels like a new magazine. "Up until the redesign, we were pretty much words and pictures," McGuire acknowledges.

National Wildlife has also changed its policies to be more accommodating to would-be advertisers. While the mag's edit pages obviously aren't for sale, McGuire believes that a certain amount of cooperation with marketers is necessary in this day and age. "We've revised our editorial policies to embrace the idea of service journalism," he notes. "We want to help our readers make good purchasing decisions, and I think they want that information." By way of example, McGuire notes an upcoming story about a location in New Jersey where conservationists can see literally thousands of salamanders crossing a certain road. He hopes to coordinate that coverage and similar features with advertisers, perhaps travel companies.

Predictably, National Wildlife's editorial staff didn't cheer the shifts in mindset and design. McGuire, however, doesn't apologize or attempt to make excuses for anything that's been done, pointing again to the reality that the mag had become stale. "There was a cultural change that had to happen. Over the past five, six years, we'd sort of been resting on our laurels," he says. "The editors and staff didn't necessarily see the need to change. Getting through that wasn't easy."

Now that the magazine has worked through such internal and editorial issues--and it has, McGuire stresses repeatedly--National Wildlife plans to turn its focus to the marketing community. Having worked on the buying side of the business, McGuire says he hopes to offer marketers more value for their ad dollars: better joint promotions, more play for mag advertisers on the NWF Web site, etc. Is this anything other titles haven't been doing for years? No, but it's encouraging that McGuire and his crew realize that they're playing catch-up.

Describing the mag's ad sales as "modest at best"--again with the honesty--McGuire says he hopes to triple the magazine's regular advertisers from the current 10. Financial services companies and ones that manufacture lifestyle products ("like Brita Water Filters--that's a lifestyle choice") rank high atop his advertiser wish list. He cites Toyota and Honda as top targets for the year ahead, and hopes these companies and others will view recent additions like Home Depot and L.L. Bean as a sign that the mag is heading in the right direction.

McGuire isn't under the illusion that the hunt for new advertisers will be as simple as dropping the redesigned magazine on buyers' and planners' desks, then extending his hand to accept their checks. As opposed to his peers, he's not so certain that the economic rebound is proceeding as briskly as many pundits would lead us to believe. "People are just incredibly distracted--war, elections, so much else. It's hard to reconcile what I'm seeing in the business press with the larger picture."

Effective with the redesigned May/June issue, National Wildlife bumped up its circulation to 600,000 from 525,000. Over the new few months, McGuire hopes to increase the mag's page count from its usual 76-80 to 100-104.

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