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The Mr. Magazine™ Interview: Giving Highlights’ Chris Clark High Fives…

January 6, 2010

Are you ready to give some high fives for two magazines that have a combined circulation of over 2 million copies a month and do not have a single page of advertising*? Are you ready to give some high fives for two magazines that concentrate on customers who count, children age 2 through 12? Are you ready to give some high fives for two magazines that were launched in two different centuries and in both cases never sold a page of advertising? Well, I guess you are ready to give high fives to Highlights and Highlights High Five magazines, two children’s magazines that have been providing “Fun with a Purpose” for millions of children since the first issue of Highlights was published in June 1946.

In this second report on “Another Myth Shattered: Kids Don’t Read” I asked Christine French Clark, the magazines’ editor in chief, seven questions about the status of children’s magazines, ink on paper, digital editions, the future of print and her efforts to unite the children magazine editors. Chris Clark wants to “create a kind of fraternity of children’s magazine people (since we don’t seem to fit with MPA (Magazine Publishers of America) or ASME (American Society of Magazine Editors)–with the belief that if we “raise the waters, all our boats will rise.”

So how does Ms. Clark view the status of children’s magazines today? “I’ve never seen such passion and determination on the part of children’s editors to create content kids want and need. We’re a resilient, determined bunch,” she told me.
Here is the full interview:

Samir Husni: With the internet taking off faster than a speeding bullet, and digital technology moving printed magazines and books out of the front page news, do you think the end is near for children’s printed magazines?

Chris Clark: I don’t think children’s magazines are headed toward extinction any time soon. So far, we haven’t seen any new technology that comes close enough to replicating the experience of reading a colorful, graphics-rich, ink-on-paper children’s magazine. And, for a kid, mail is alluring. Part of the fun of subscribing to a print magazine is finding it in your mailbox–addressed to you. For younger kids, each new issue is an invitation to snuggle with a parent or an older sibling to experience together the pleasure of turning the pages of an illustrated magazine. For older kids reading independently, their connection to a favorite magazine may be intensely personal. I remember as a 12-year-old snatching my favorite magazine from the mailbox–Calling All Girls–and going straight to the privacy of my bedroom to devour it. Many kids write and tell us that they behave similarly.

SH: Do you know whether it makes a difference for kids to read from a laptop, digital device or a printed magazine or book? Any studies you are aware of? etc. etc.

CC: I’m sure educators and researchers are scrambling to acquire more understanding of the effects of digital media on kids. I’ve read a little of this research, but I haven’t seen much consensus yet. Scholastic released a report a few years ago that suggested that the majority of kids who read preferred physical books over reading books on computers or digital devices. But we probably wouldn’t have to look too hard to find a study that suggests otherwise. Right now, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is focused on understanding the effect of digital devices for children’s mobile learning. That’s interesting and important–but maybe a little different from researching how kids want to read for fun.

Highlights, too, is working hard to understand new and emerging technologies and how kids receive them. But we’re not over here wringing our hands and fretting–maybe because we’ve long thought of ourselves as being more than just a magazine publisher. We’re a company promoting a point of view–a philosophy, if you will, about what kids need to grow to become their best selves. Right now, the best way we know to disseminate that philosophy is via ink-on-paper products, but going forward, we’ll focus more on learning how to augment our magazines with Fun with a Purpose content delivered in various ways.

SH: Highlights is approaching its diamond anniversary and High Five is almost three years old, do you think that the so called “collective ADD society” can still focus on magazines that focus on “fun with purpose?” What is the status of both magazines today?

CC: Not only can kids still focus on Fun with a Purpose, but they’re also hungry for it.

Our reader mail–and we get a lot (three or four thousand e-mails and letters monthly)–tells us that kids like to engage in content that arouses their curiosity, prompts them to think, draws out their creativity, makes them feel smart, and is fun to read. If the presentation is right, kids most certainly have an appetite for content that is substantive.

Both of our magazines are doing well. High Five took off like a rocket three years ago, and is still flying high. Highlights and High Five have a combined paid circulation of more than 2 million.

SH: For the last two years you have been hosting a retreat for children’s magazine editors from across the country. What is the purpose of the retreat? Its goals and reasons to exist? What have you learned so far from the “collective minds” at such a retreat?

CC: Actually, last September was the third annual gathering of children’s magazine editors (and art directors). I started the retreat because I felt children’s magazine editors have been almost orphaned by the industry. Because most of children’s magazines are not advertising driven–and some titles are very small and niche–we don’t seem to fit with MPA or ASME. (In fact, MPA officially defined a magazine as a publication that accepts advertising. Where does that leave us? What is Highlights, if not a magazine?) We face some of the same challenges magazines targeted at adults face–but we also have issues that are unique to our category. I thought it was important for children’s magazine editors to have a venue where we could regularly gather to exchange ideas and network. I was hoping to create a kind of fraternity of children’s magazine people–with the belief that if we “raise the waters, all our boats will rise.” If, by working together we can strengthen the category of children’s magazines by raising our profile among parents, grandparents, teachers, and librarians, we’ll all benefit. And surely kids who grow up thinking magazines are fun and interesting and worthwhile will become adults who read magazines–so the whole industry stands to gain if children’s magazines remain strong as a category.

Each year, attendance at our retreat grows. Each year, another children’s magazine is represented. Last year, we met with more than two dozen folks from children’s magazines big and small, in the U.S. and in Canada.

SH: How would you describe today’s children’s magazine marketplace? Is it in a state of growth or retreat (no pun intended)?

CC: Certainly, many children’s magazines have struggled this past year. Everybody is trying to cut costs–whether it be by reducing frequency, trim size, page count, or staff. Sadly, Nickelodeon closed. But I have to say that in my 30-year children’s magazine career, I’ve never seen such passion and determination on the part of children’s editors to create content kids want and need. We’re a resilient, determined bunch–and, again, I think children’s magazines are going to be around for a while. And they just keep getting better and better.

SH: Will it matter where your great content is consumed? On the screen or on the pages of the magazine?

CC: Ultimately, no.

If the technology evolves to where reading on screen is easy on the eyes and affordable for most people–if it can replicate or improve upon the wonderfully visual experience of reading an ink-on-paper magazine–I don’t think it matters. We’ll be where our readers want us to be. Already, we know that the majority of our readers prefer to receive Highlights in magazine format. Some seem to have a greater appetite for finding Highlights content on HighlightsKids.com. But kids online seem to gravitate to the games and activities; they seem less interested in reading stories and articles online. I’ve heard other children’s magazine editors say the same thing about their web sites. So it’s hard to imagine that kids will really want to see a full-issue version of a children’s magazine on their computer or mobile device anytime soon.

SH: What advice you will give for someone coming to you and saying “I want to start a new kid’s magazine…” What would you tell that someone?

CC: Make sure you have an original idea for a magazine–not something already out there. And be resolutely passionate about it. Deep, deep pockets wouldn’t hurt–and neither would business savvy. But I’d also tell this brave soul that he or she would be hard pressed to find work that’s more fun or more satisfying than editing a children’s magazine.

*Highlights did sell a page or two of advertising in the early 1950s, however the founders decided not to pursue that course, unlike the majority of American magazines that shifted to an advertising driven model in the 50s of the last century.
{Truth in Blogging: I have done and continue to do consulting with the Highlights magazine company}

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One comment

  1. I so appreciated this! As a big fan of Highlights from girlhood, I can testify to the thrill of turning the pages. One of the reasons this publication is so successful is because of the non-competitive, warm and familial atmosphere of the parent company. I’m one of their authors, and I’ve been to a couple of their first-rate retreats. There isn’t an ounce of anything negative about these people. They are all about “raising the water,” and doing it with class.



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