Marie Claire and death by focus group

It’s probably not a surprise that hacks and editors talk about other magazines a lot – usually to damn the competition, but occasionally to praise the good stuff too. One name that used to come up a lot was Marie Claire, which stood out from the me-too world of women’s publishing with its combination of the usual suspects together with really good features. Sadly over the last few years it’s gone more and more lowbrow – a recent Paris Hilton cover was particularly bad – so here comes a redesign to rescue it.

Unfortunately the redesign is based on focus groups, and the result is awful: a huge chunk of the magazine is now devoted to shopping, and the overall magazine seems to suffer from a major case of me-tooism – to the point that my wife is cancelling her subscription. From must-read to must-bin in just over a year.

By comparison, the LA Times is also considering its direction – but instead of focus groups, it’s asking its own staff. According to UK Press Gazette:

The LAT has appointed three of its best investigative reporters and half a dozen editors to look into ideas for making the paper more appealing to readers – and advertisers.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, reporters spend a lot of time highlighting the flaws in other people’s companies – so why not get a bunch of your own opinionated sods to turn their jaundiced eye on their own publication? I suspect the reason it doesn’t happen more often is because hacks say what they see, whether it upsets people or not – and if they’re looking at their own publications, the people they’ll upset and whose strategies they might mock are the people who pay their wages. If they’re fearless, they could end up sacked; if they let that worry them, they might pull their punches and render the whole exercise worthless.

It’s an interesting idea, though. Rather than sending for the focus groups, could it be cheaper – and more useful – to commission some of your own people to do an in-depth, “what’s wrong with…” expose?