Why I’m partly to blame for the demise of the Lib Dem magazine Ad Lib

The Liberal Democrat party magazine for members (and anyone else who wanted to subscribe, a not exactly massive number), Ad Lib, is coming to an end as Jonathan Calder has covered.

Ad Lib has covered some fun and some important stories over the years but never really established a large, committed audience either in its paid-for subscription form or in its free-to-all-members version.

The plan is to move from print to online. This has triggered the sort of reactions such moves usually generate: widespread acceptance that the world is changing in this respect mixed with continuing affection from some for the printed word.

I’m still a huge fan of the printed word yet it’s also easy to see – especially with growing postage costs – the logic of the switch.

Part of the underlying cause, however, has gone largely unmentioned. It’s where you get to blame me.

It’s simply this: unofficial news sources for parties are almost always more interesting than official ones . That’s not a slight on those who produce the official ones. Rather, it’s a reflection of the restrictions they work under.

When there is a big new policy announcement, for example, official sources have to tell us it is wonderful or else serve up quotes that get recycled in unfriendly newspapers and in the leaflets of other parties. Even the old Liberal Democrat News with its degree of editorial freedom struggled with that context.

It’s the unofficial sources which can give the more useful, the more interesting and the more rounded stories. What was the controversy behind it? Has the party tried this before? Why might it not work? That’s where the unofficial gets to trump the official – and that’s why the readers go to the unofficial so often. Nor is this unique to the Liberal Democrats: look at the success of ConHome, for example, compared with the various official Conservative blogging attempts over the years.

For the Lib Dems the main unofficial sources include Liberal Democrat Voice (which largely came out of a phone conversation I had with the chap who became its founding editor when he was waiting for a train) and, ahem, this site and my various email newsletters. Both of us solicit and are thankful for donations; we’re both also free, making charging for official news harder.

It’s difficult to measure exact readership amongst party members, but even my reasonably cautious estimates put the readership of my channels, for example at higher than the attendance at hustings meetings during the party’s contested 2015 leadership election and higher than the readership of the old Liberal Democrat News weekly newspaper.

Against this background, official news outlets are always going to struggle if there is a reasonable ecosystem of unofficial sources. So blame me…

And, if they don’t mind, one unsolicited tip for those who are running the successor Ad Lib blog on the party’s website: play to the strengths of what an official news source can provide rather than try to get into more general news where being official means necessarily being less interesting.

Note: the Ad Lib blog posts are included in my email digests which you can sign up to here.

UPDATE: Ad Lib is back, sort of.

4 responses to “Why I’m partly to blame for the demise of the Lib Dem magazine Ad Lib”

  1. Although this may well be the best choice available, I do wonder what percentage of Lib Dem membership reads LDV or any other source? Without a Lib Dem centric news source Lib Dem members will otherwise read about us from sources who understand us from there point of view rather than ours. I has this experience from contacting lapsing members, one fed back that he was thinking of lapsing because we were only interested in Brexit. (And IMHO the best response is to ask him what issues he is interested in, then I can tailor my response to his priorities). Maybe we can do better than Ad Lib but relying on the internet is not a panacea.
    Incidently when we got over 100K membership did anyone consider the advertising potential?

  2. I never subscribed to Ad Lib. During the coalition, from the tasters I saw, it was a mixture of lifestyle articles (not interested) and fixed smile explanations of why our performance in coalition was marvellous (not in agreement). I agree that much of this is down to necessary constraints.

    All members who have given an email address and haven’t requested to be left out of emails get quite a lot of posts from Party HQ, plus generally numbers from the local party. The problem is that many people don’t even open emails that don’t somehow catch their fancy and that the emails from HQ are rarely interesting.

    To simplify vastly, there are two unmet markets. One is for REGULAR, EASILY-RECOGNISED basic information mailings. Some people will get into the habit of opening them if encouraged to if they’re clearly separate from the give us money messages and are interesting in content – so upbeat, but not unrealistically so, and balanced, so not all about Brexit. These could include, for example, a few nuggets about interesting things local council groups have done. The other is for intelligent discussion, fairly free (so capable of being critical of us) but edited to exclude the few sad trolls on LDV and rein in the tendency of many regular posters, myself included, to say the same thing in several posts. This could be restricted to people asked to post (but include a range of opinions) or it could be open to edited bottom-up contributions. How about a discussion, for example, on what is or could be distinctively Liberal about our education or social care policies?

  3. Very good point Geoffrey, Liberal Democrat News could have been a successful free delivery newspaper to all members if only someone at HQ had taken up the idea of the advertising potential. The various charities obviously thought we were a good captive audience, but I doubt we charged a commercial rate for stuffing their emotive stuff in our newspaper.
    AdLib was always an HQ-centric, clique written, staff magazine, really not resonant with the ordinary membership, but they wouldn’t be told.. I expect many tried to . .
    So now we are to have an online newsletter, which someone will have to spend valuable time putting together.. so lets make sure the output is worth the effort.! Lets just have the simplest of products, a once a week a week feed, telling the latest.. maybe the media releases that have been put out from HQ and ignored by our ‘free’ press, but please not going into endless diatribe of how successful the dinner was at Little Itchington Village hall or how Arthur and Doris from Blahfield South have flogged the streets and signed up some members..

  4. I agree with Geoffrey Payne that in our case the News Source has to be interactive. Too often we are told what is rather than being asked what we members think ought to be before decisions are set in stone. Using a whole page for a recipe was an insult in my opinion.
    One of our campaigning strengths was to ask residents for feedback but we haven’t applied this to our members. I’m concerned that our much vaunted 100k membership will slip away if they don’t feel part of a movement.

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