Friday, April 27, 2012

Genealogy Journals need Writers and Readers

This morning Dick Eastman again did what he does so well. He focused attention on an issue that has potential to reshape the genealogy world. He asked: "Are genealogy journals too expensive?" (Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 27 April 2012). It is a question I've been thinking about as managing editor of the Minnesota Genealogical Society's quarterly journal, Minnesota Genealogist.


Minnesota Genealogist is a 2nd- or 3rd-tier journal that has been produced for many years as a membership benefit. Apart from rent for our library and offices, it is one of our largest single expenses, costing about $10 per member per year to print and mail. (Authors, editor and proofreaders are not paid; we do pay a small stipend to a layout and design editor).

Eastman made a strong pitch for converting society newsletters and journals to digital distribution. There is no doubt: digital distribution is cheaper than paper and post distribution. MGS went digital with its newsletter a couple of years ago. An electronic newsletter makes sense on more than cost grounds. A newsletter deals with news, and requires timely distribution. An electronic newsletter takes much less time to prepare and distribute, making on-time monthly issues possible.

Our journal fills a different niche. I think of it as a contribution to our genealogical education mission. While we include some society news in the journal, it is mostly devoted to research articles, teaching articles and other features that help our members be better genealogists. As part of our education program, it is reasonable to invest in its production. But, it does cost money.

How much it is worth may depend in part on how many people read it. If only a small percentage of members read more than one article, it might not be worth the cost. We have talked about a couple of options. First, we could go digital and reduce annual dues by several dollars (perhaps still delivering a print copy to those who opt to pay a small surcharge). Second, we could unbundle the journal from our membership benefit package, and distribute it only to individuals (members and non-members) who find it worth subscribing to.

But, it is important to think about more than money. I think there are other good reasons to publish a journal. A quality journal reflects well on a genealogy society. It says: "we know genealogy and you can get help here." And, I think there is merit in giving researchers a place to publish, and thus disseminate and preserve, their research. We want people to write up their research, and the chance to publish may give a little motivation.

It all comes down to knowing why you are publishing a journal and what it is worth to your genealogy society. With answers to these questions, you will be prepared to choose between print and digital publication. These are hard questions, and their are no cookie-cutter answers. I will be leading a discussion on these questions at the Federation of Genealogical Society conference in Birmingham, Alabama, in August. I look forward to seeing many of you there.