CHANGES IN CHESS LIFE
by John Hillery
With the departure of editor Glenn Petersen, a number of changes have been proposed (and some implemented) to Chess Life. We begin with a report by the new editor, Peter Kurzdorfer, sent to the Delegates in November. As it was part of a very large package, it is quite likely that many overlooked it (or its implications).
Submitted by Peter Kurzdorfer
November 2000 Issue -- Chess Life
My first issue as editor of Chess Life (November) is under way.
-- Sting will be on the cover prominently with pictures of Arthur Dake and Sid Samole in an insert. The Sting story isnt much -- just a bit of fun having to do with him and his band playing chess in a photo spread -- while Dake and Samole lead a number of obits entitled The End of an Era.
-- This will probably be controversial, but my understanding is that we want to attract new members and make Chess Life attractive on newsstands. I think we have a much better chance doing this with celebrities that are recognizable to people outside of chess. Sting is very recognizable outside of chess, while Dake and Samole arent. Nevertheless, the passing of so many greats and near-greats in the chess world does merit special attention.
Chess Life Redesign
Design -- There are two major areas where I plan to change Chess Life. The first is the look of the magazine., and I will be relying heavily on Jami Anson for that. Given free reign, I believe she can make it much more reader-friendly and attractive. The second is content.
As you all know, I plan to have a newsstand Chess Life, filled with stories, interviews, and pictures, and an insert available only to USCF members called Members Life. I am shooting for the January issue for this change. There are some problems involved that I hope to have cleared up by that time. Mostly, these problems involve cost. (Glenn tells me that this split run will cost more than a straight run, even though there may be less pages altogether. Jami tells me it wont. So I wont be sure until I see some actual figures.
Content -- The content change I am shooting for involves less columns, more stories about upcoming events, less intensive coverage of tournaments in general (probably many will be covered with little more than crosstables), and more up-to-date tournament coverage. I have already been involved with soliciting interviews, and have many planned for the future, including interviews with Lev Alburt, some of the New York Knicks, Winton Marsalis, Josef Dorfman, and Susan Polgar. Some historical pieces will be finding their way into Chess Life, including some pieces by Larry Parr, who I have been in contact with.
I have added a new column, one that costs us nothing. John MacArthur has graciously agreed to do a column on USChessLive each month for Chess Life.
Book Reviews -- I am not sure what to do with chess book reviews. We have not done them since I have here (three years). If we review a book we do not carry, why are we not carrying it? And if we review a book we do carry, how can it be an honest review, unless the book is so great theres nothing negative to say about it? That might be a bit rare. Anne Henry thought we might review books if there is an ad for the book. That sounds great, but again, the problem of a completely honest review rears its ugly head. This has not been much of a problem up to now, since under the old format there wasnt any room for reviews anyway. But if theyre important, I will make room for them.
Contributors Agreement -- I have prepared a letter to our columnists, and Anne has come up with an agreement/contract for our contributors. Further, there is a plan afoot to put all columns of our department contributors on the Members Only portion of our website in an interactive mode. These columns will then appear in Chess Life occasionally. We would pay the columnists the same amount we are currently paying them, and we would have their work on line as well as in the magazine. So far, so good.
TLAs -- I have been helping train Debi Sherry for her new TLA Supervisor job. Also, I have been thinking long and hard about just what to do with TLAs when the split run version of Chess Life comes out. I have exchanged several e-mails with Tim Redman on this, and have tentatively decided to aplit TLAs up into national (or perhaps national and big Grand Prix events -- if there will be a Grand Prix; if not, perhaps big money tournaments) and state (including local) events. The state events will appear in the Members Life bind-in, while the national and big money events will appear in the newsstand version of Chess Life.
School Mates Redesign
School Mates has a new look and is now quarterly. I will be making further changes, including changing the name of Test Your Tactics to Find The Zinger!, giving the whole package to Jami to give it a more fun look, and coming up with contest ideas. I have not received much in the way of feedback over the new look, which is a bit disappointing, but I am convinced that the magazine should be more kid-friendly, which Im afraid it has not been in the past. Diana Krautter has agreed to send advance copies of School Mates to the Executive Board.
Chess Coach Newsletter
With the help of Tom Brownscombe and Jean Bernice, I am putting out a Chess Coach Newsletter. In fact, it would be out now except that Jay Hastings quit before designing it. I also have some material together for the next one, which will be due out in six months.
The USCF Press has stalled from by end. I had been working on the del Rosario book, but can no longer find time for it. I will come in one Saturday and finish it up, since it is so close to completion. The other books we want to publish are in various stages of completion, and Glenn Petersen is looking into getting a free-lance editor to whip them into shape. Too bad we cant hire a book editor, but reality intrudes.
On a related matter, I have approved payment to Russ Bernice for his cartoons. He has put together wonderful characters for Morphys Triumph, my childrens book, due out eventually from USCF Chess Press. My understanding is that we can use these cartoons for School Mates and our web page as well. I am hopeful my books can come out soon, but cant do much about it at this point, since I simply have no time for the Chess Press.
I continue preparing the .pgn files for our Members Only website. Both Readers Games and Chess Life Lite are java versions of what I prepare.
A bigger problem will come up when we find a away to put our columns on line in an interactive format. That means I will have to prepare each column in .pgn (or JoAnne will eventually have to do this), as well as getting them ready in Quark. But maybe I can decide ahead of time which columns to use in each issue of Chess Life (and School Mates) as well -- those columns should also go on line in an interactive mode), thus cutting down on, if not eliminating, the double work load.
by John Hillery
As printed in the Chess Journalist, Dec 2000. For subscription info, contact Randallhough@yahoo.com.
1) Newsstand sales
The proposal for a New, Improved Chess Life, with a Members Life insert and lots of newsstand sales should be viewed with extreme skepticism.
Let's begin with a couple of well-known facts. 1) The most common cause of failure in new magazines is undercapitalization. 2) Few if any publications ever make a profit from newsstand sales; they make their money from subscriptions and advertising. I suppose I could document these with enough effort, but let us try common sense first.
To dispose of a straw man: This proposal is essentially to create a new magazine, aimed at a new audience. If it were expected to be identical to the old one, why the insert? If the expected circulation is not higher, why bother?
Now, grant as a hypothesis that there exists an audience for this new magazine. How are they going to find out about it? Divine revelation? The answer, of course, is that they will not know about it until they have seen a copy, which means that you will have to print and distribute a lot of copies until you have reached your market. This is why the usual sell-through for "growing" magazines is around 25% -- they have to print four magazines for each one they sell. When (if) they develop into "mature" magazines (ones which are known to most people who are interested in the subject), it "improves" to perhaps 33%. How do they pay for this? Well, often they don't -- the failure rate is high. What they're planning to do is pay for it from the subscription and advertising income they'll get a year or so down the road. How much is the USCF prepared to lose?
Let us suppose, on the other hand, that the USCF and Chess Life are already known to most people who are sufficiently interested to subscribe to a chess magazine. In this case, you will merely annoy your existing members, while selling the occasional newsstand copy to the casual reader. At a loss. Forever.
High-risk, high-gain investments are for those who can afford to lose the money. Does this really describe todays USCF?
2) Design and layout
We have now had the opportunity to see the November and December 2000 issues of Chess Life. While the "newsstand" revisions have not yet been implemented, a number of design and layout changes have. The results are, at best, mixed.
a) Colored pages with dropout text. They make a lovely abstract pattern, but most people find them completely unreadable.
A related problem is fine san-serif type (looks like Chisel or Eric Thin) on a gray background. This is completely unreadable, and not even that attractive.
b) Smaller type size, used inconsistently. In the November issue, there was an additional problem of tight leading, something like 9 on 9.5. December was better, but the small type was still annoying.
In the editors defense, this was probably done to fit more material into the same space. But the purpose of a magazine is to be read, and you have to make people want to read it. Perhaps this comes down to a question of editorial philosophy -- should one start with an article and then try to find space for it, or start with allocating space and edit the article to fit? I prefer the latter, but some might disagree.
c) Weak headlines. The newly redesigned headlines (which some might call change for the sake of change) are simply too small to draw the readers eye. If he already knows the articles are there, he will find them; if not -- he probably wont.
d) Stylistic eccentricities. This includes printing authors names vertically, occasional four-column layout (the columns are really too narrow), and the placing of (large) headlines across the middle of text pages. I find the last particularly distracting -- the readers eye naturally jumps from the bottom of a column to the bottom edge of the barrier, rather than to the top of the page. Some such design elements (e.g. the use of non-rectangular boxes for prize lists and such) are attractive when used in moderation, but more is not always better.
Few of the proposed changes have been implemented so far. However, since the editor himself raised the point, the relative emphasis given to Arthur Dake, Sid Samole and Sting in the November issue deserves mention.
While I am sure that many more people are interested in Sting than in Arthur Dake, it is more than questionable how many of those have any interest in chess. (Even more so the other musicians of whom I have never heard who were interviewed in the November and December issues).
No doubt Sid Samole was a fine fellow and a significant figure in his field, but his importance to chess (rather than the USCF "business arm") was minimal.
Arthur Dake was a truly great player in his time, the worlds oldest grandmaster at his death, and a far more interesting character (in my opinion) than Chris Botti or Jason Rebello. The editors decision to place these three stories on the same level indicates a troubling lack of perspective on what is important to chess, and to Chess Life readers.
4) Tournament Life
The editor cannot really be blamed for Tournament Life changes, as these decisions were made by the Executive Director. However, Mr. De Feis comments on this subject suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the matter.
Essentially, TLAs will will increase in cost by about 500%. There is some fine print that will reduce this a bit, but no matter how you slice it, the increase will be enormous. In his defense of the changes, the Executive Director makes several points.
a) Smaller local tournaments should be publicized locally. True, but "should" is not the same as "will."
b) The new formula will be more advantageous to large organizers. This requires some contorted logic. While it is true that, for big events, the TLA fee is a much smaller percentage of the total cost, I doubt any major tournament organizer looks with glee on the prospect of paying an extra $500. This is akin to being informed that, instead of tripling your taxes, the government has graciously agreed only to double them.
c) The TLA pages were not paying for themselves. This assertion deserves close scrutiny, since by this logic the only worthwhile pages in Chess Life would be paid ads. The problem seems to be that Mr. De Feis regards Tournament Life announcements as advertising, which should make a profit, rather than membership service, which is what the USCF is supposed to do. Never mind the organizers for now; a good many USCF members of my acquaintance turn directly to the TLA pages when their magazine arrives, looking for their next tournament. What will they do now? Perhaps look for another magazine ...
In fairness to Mr. Kurzdorfer, it should be noted that in all of this he is clearly carrying out the will of his masters on the Executive Board. In the same Delegates mailing from which we quoted above, USCF President Tim Redman wrote:
"I believe that the loss of membership is due to our following the old model, articulated by the Special Committee chaired by Don Thackrey back in the mid-seventies: that the target audience for Chess Life and for the USCF consists of over-the-board players.
"... Clearly, USCF membership consists of three, not two, major categories: kids, adult tournament players, and casual players. The current Board and Staff strategy is to appeal to a greater number of casual players."
Unfortunately for his argument, Mr. Redman elides over a crucial point: If up to half of our regular members do not play in tournaments, why did they join? One must conclude that they like the USCF (and Chess Life) as they are. To conclude that we can "better" serve these members -- and attract many more -- by reducing the "serious chess" content of the magazine requires an enormous leap of faith. Such leaps often end in great falls.
Placing emphasis on newsstand sales and the "casual player" is the type of thing that USCF has tried many times throughout the years, without success. It is tempting to think that there are umpteen million casual players out there and far fewer serious players, so why not try to appeal to the larger group. Unfortunately, the result has been poor; the casual players are apparently too casual to be willing to pay for what USCF offers.
Does anyone remember the interminable "Chess in the Cinema" serial that ran for about six months in Chess Life about 1979? This was part of one of USCF's periodic efforts to "reach out" to the "casual player," who is presumed to be interested in chess art, chess movies, chess poems, celebrities who play chess, human interest, etc. but not in annotated master games, opening analysis, or tournament news and information. Even though it was apparently a well written article, a subsequent reader survey gave "Chess in the Cinema" a very low rating; few members even read it.
In the early 90s, Executive Director Al Lawrence proposed a "beginners insert," for newstand copies only, to help promote newsstand sales and respond to the belief that Chess Life was too technical a magazine to sell on newsstands. I was on the Policy Board at the time, and supported this idea along with the rest of the Board. But after six months or so of the magazine with the special insert appearing, Lawrence reported that newsstand sales had not increased, and the insert was terminated.
Chess Life reader surveys going back to the 1960s have always produced similar results. The most popular features are annotated Master games and opening analysis, followed by tournament news and info (yes, the now hated "TLAs" that the present administration is trying to drive out of the magazine with its huge fee increases). The least popular are chess art, chess movies, chess problems, human interest, etc.
Now we are told there will be not just a special insert, but an entire MAGAZINE devoted to sales on newsstands! I wonder if the Executive Board was aware of the failure of the Lawrence experiment when they made this decision. USCF newsstand sales have never been substantial, and even if they could be raised, say, 10% by offering special content, would the increased business be worth the added cost? I suspect that it would not even come close. Unless something spectacular occurs like an American playing for the World Championship, the idea that USCF can increase newsstand sales sufficiently to make a dent in its overall financial situation is a pipe dream.
Recently, George De Feis showed me a brand new reader survey, the results of which have probably not yet been printed anywhere. The most popular features were annotated games, opening analysis, and TLAs. Each feature had a possible positive, neutral, and negative reply. I didn't record the numbers, but noticed that not counting neutral, annotated games & opening analysis had a positive to negative ratio of about 9-1, and TLAs a ratio of about 8-1. Such categories as chess problems and human interest, though, had more negative votes than positive!
George told me that it was necessary for USCF to raise its TLA fees because TLAs were not covering their costs, saying they brought in about $550 per page under the old rates yet cost $800 or $900 per page to produce. (Former Editor Glenn Petersen has said that the costs are about half these figures, but I haven't studied the analysis George made to arrive at the $800 to $900 amount, as he said it wasn't yet available to be handed out).
Even assuming the $800 to $900 figure is correct, this means that TLAs were covering about two-thirds of their costs. Chess problems and "human interest" cover ZERO percent of their costs, and are also far less popular with readers than TLAs, to say nothing of the fact that they help encourage more tournament play, which produces and retains USCF members. Yet this Board supports the enormous increase in TLA fees, designed to diminish a category that is well liked and was paying much of its way, while encouraging features that are not popular, bring in comparatively few members, and produce no income!
George also told me that TLAs gave the magazine the appearance of a "house organ" and were hurting USCF's efforts to sell display advertising. I guess this one hasn't been tested, but I'm extremely skeptical. Let's see how the ads sell now that so many TLAs have been driven out of the magazine.
Now, I am not maintaining that Chess Life should have no human interest, no chess problems, or no artwork. There is some audience for everything, and a little variety spices up the magazine. But the idea that USCF can solve its problems by cutting back on material for the serious player, who has always represented a majority of the membership, is silly. Reaching out for new people is fine, but there is no evidence that chess art and human interest are the best way to do this, and cutting back on what most members want is perilous. It annoys some that USCF's "niche" is the serious player. There are so many others out there that play a little chess on occasion, they think- if we could only sign them up. Unfortunately, history shows that they won't enroll in significant numbers, at least not until they become more serious. How to get more of them to be serious about chess? That's a crucial question, but Chess in the Cinema and the like won't do it.
I guess it was about time to expect another episode of the ongoing "newsstand sales" and "casual player" saga, as it's been a while since its last failure, but what is different this time around is that most past attempts were viewed as experiments, but our present leadership has proclaimed that they have finally found the true path, the wisdom that has escaped all Boards that went before them. No question about it, says our President, newsstand sales and casual players will save the federation, so we don't need to run too many ugly TLAs or worry much about those pesky affiliates any more!