‘The magazine is you’
Catherine, as you come towards the end of a six-year spell as Chair of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee [first issue on the right below, alongside my own!], what do you think has changed?
There’s been the changing, rebranding and restyling of the print magazine, which was quite an important thing, including the discussion around whether it should be more ‘magaziney’. We’re trying really hard to make it readable and accessible… to make it contrast with academic papers, but to still have the same level of integrity and depth. Really good science, but just make it real. That’s an ongoing challenge.
It’s maybe harder than we thought it would be, to shift people towards that style of writing. Over the years, we’ve tried to tackle that by emphasising more personal material. I’m fond of saying we’re The Psychologist, not Psychology Monthly or something… so it’s often about psychologists as rounded people, their other interests and underlying values. That more personal approach can sometimes hook people in more than the academic writing.
Absolutely. Making it personal and about people, and allowing a glimpse of the person behind the research name that you see on papers… who is the person who’s actually doing the work? I know from colleagues that they like to hear an authentic voice, from the horse’s mouth so to speak.
Yes, that’s interesting and important, because I think we’ve always been very keen as far as possible to not mediate the voices in The Psychologist too much. The Psychologist is your publication, it’s voices of psychologists coming through directly. Sometimes we take that for granted… we haven’t got a lot of journalistic resource, and the vast majority of our content is supplied by our community. Our readers are the experts. That model of publishing has only really gone mainstream in the last 10 years or so, but it’s something we’ve always done and have tried to do more and more over the years. It’s connected participatory publishing.
Yes, it’s been very interesting to watch The Conversation take off as a publication essentially doing what we’ve always done…
… and with a really neat way of describing their writing style: ‘big ideas, small phrases’.
Yes, and actually my experience of writing for The Psychologist, and having that early work edited by you, was tremendously helpful in then writing for The Conversation and other outlets. I’m sure the same is true for other people.
I think that the prominence of the readers to shape content and future of the publication, that’s one of the main changes in recent years… how the community around what we do has grown, probably as social media has afforded us that opportunity to reach out beyond our readers more easily. The staff team has grown a little, but it’s still fairly small… we’ve got more resources to handle content, different types of content in different ways, but really it’s the community around contributing to and sharing what we do and fuelling further contributions. And that can be a double-edged sword, sometimes… the larger your community, the more resources you’re spending on assessing and filtering those contributions, to try to produce something that is not overwhelming for the reader.
But I think that in the time that I’ve been involved with The Psychologist, social media has exploded. When I very first joined the committee, Twitter was only just really happening in academia. And I’d only just got an account. And you have managed that Twitter account brilliantly, as has Christian Jarrett and now Matt Warren for the Research Digest. It enables people to build community and to connect with what The Psychologist puts out there. You continually link back to articles related to current events or conferences… it’s a great way to engage people with what the British Psychological Society is doing.
I don’t want it to become a general psychology social media feed… it’s important to me that it’s always linked with our past, present and future content. I think that tight curation has allowed us to grow to 95,000 followers. Of course, it’s easy to overestimate the impact social media has. We still rarely get significant engagement through Twitter. But at the same time, it’s just a great way of putting our content out there and pointing people to the website.
Yes, and it connects people, and it extends our ‘forum for discussion, debate and controversy’. Going back to what you said before, one of the things about having the authentic voice and the members’ voices as the writers is that sometimes they’re not going to present a rounded picture in the way a journalist might.
Yes, and I think we perhaps try to aim for balance over issues rather than always within an issue. It has to be a discussion that evolves across editions, because it just isn’t always possible to put opposing views against each other. I’ve found that psychologists are perhaps surprisingly reluctant to go ‘head to head’ in a printed forum. That’s one thing I’d like to see more. Particularly given that I’ve found over the years that our discipline is so diverse… two psychologists can differ on the most fundamental, underlying values, around how they treat evidence, for example. It can be really down to that level. So producing a publication that is trying to be the place where all of those different corners of discipline come together and find something in common…
But that’s what The Psychologist has a responsibility to do – to get people to step out of their immediate bubble and recognise other areas of work which actually might have real impact on what they are doing.
And that’s always going to be a challenge, because there are always going to be readers who say ‘I don’t have time to read the material in my own area, why would I read an article about something that’s got nothing to do with my work?’ Again, that’s perhaps why we’ve gone down the route of more personal pieces, to find the hook that can lead on to the more specialist professional knowledge.
I really like the letters, the to-ing and fro-ing, the slow burners… a good example of where we have been ahead of the curve was the debate between Cordelia Fine and Simon Baron-Cohen on gender differences, which continues with Gina Rippon to this day…
…who also wrote for us.
I think the Research Digest PsychCrunch podcast has been interesting as well… something we’ve had to learn as we go, but we’ve now had over 250,000 downloads of that across the 20 episodes, we recently got into the top 10 of the iTunes science podcast, and it’s great that we’ve got Routledge Psychology as our sponsors. I know you’ve got plans for expansion. But again, it’s about giving real voices, actual voices, to some of the pieces that have been in the Research Digest. Getting the people who have done the research to speak about it, and how they mesh together…
… and how they produce applied value too, so the wider public can use psychological evidence in their everyday lives.
Yes. Which, again, is a really important job that we do, in terms of promoting psychology and an understanding of the discipline and of the science and how the science can be used. Another fantastic thing has been ‘The Psychologist Guide to…’ leaflets.
Yes, we’ve had some notable successes with those in terms of how they’ve been passed on to the types of different audiences we were trying to reach for them… the very first one, on ‘you and your baby’, was picked up by Mothercare. They supported a reprint and distributed it through their in-store events for new parents.
So I think you’ve actually picked out the three things that I keep banging on about: content, community, and channels. The sheer amount of content has changed dramatically over the years, along with the diversity of what we’re trying to cover… the culture section, and books pages that go beyond simple reviews. Then the community around it has expanded and the channels that we’ve used… in particular our online presence, which is now way more than just the print edition. There’s a lot of extra exclusives on our website now.
And the video as well, the animated Guide to University Life… that was really well liked.
Yes, and we can share that sort of thing at the start of every academic year.
It’s easy to take for granted, I suppose, all the changes that have happened over even your six years as Chair, but also my 20 years as editor! When I started it was a more black and white world… literally, we only allowed ourselves a centre of four pages of colour every other month! Covers were still being couriered over in hardcopy to the printers. So I’ve seen Google, iPhone, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, all of that…
Even the wrapping the magazine comes in, we were ahead of loads of other magazines…
We weren’t ahead of David Attenborough, but we were ahead of quite a lot of magazines in changing to a fully compostable, potato starch-based mailing bag. And we moved to paper recycled from 100 per cent post-consumer waste around 10 years ago. So while producing a magazine, in print, or online indeed, is never going to be an environmentally friendly thing to do, we encourage people to reuse and recycle and I’m confident we are taking a lot of the steps that we should as environmentally responsible publishers.
So I guess that’s the last few years… I’d be interested to hear where you think priorities lie for next steps.
For me, one of the biggest challenges, and one we have the potential to address with new technology and so on, is the student population. I still feel that it’s such an amazing resource for teaching… many do that, but many don’t. How do we package it up and raise awareness of the way that it could be used in in teaching? How can we get those students engaged? If they engage with the content, they engage with the BPS, then hopefully become longer term members.
I think in some ways we’re slightly stuck in using quite an old media model in a new media world, with Generation Z students that, as an ageing editor, I’m going to get more and more distant from in terms of how they think and act. But I am proud of what we’ve done over the years on the participatory publishing side and getting a range of authors in the mag… in particular in persuading those students and early career psychologists that The Psychologist is for them. They don’t have to wait until the day they become a Professor and then they get an invite. We’ve published articles by 16-year-olds, and we’ve introduced the Voices In Psychology programme, where we’re trying to identify and then actively nurture writing talent in psychology by giving them opportunities to practice their skills and advice on how to write for wider audiences. But, fundamentally, it is still asking a load of students to write an essay. Are there better ways in this day and age? Should we be looking at different skills around how they communicate psychology and rewarding those?
I think writing is always really important. What The Psychologist gives them an opportunity to do is to write in a slightly different format. If they are going to go on being able to communicate with the world they do need these skills. But I agree that there might be some good ways to develop some things like YouTube content, which is something that we’ve toyed with. Things that are short and sharp, but in a way that is really current and fits with our approach.
I think partly that is going to come from having the right people involved on the staff side, and the honorary side… ensuring that the committee and my team in the office are representative in that way. So I’ve got a full-time Deputy Editor, Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne, and I’m really confident she’s going to bring a new voice and new skills to what we do [see box].
Another thing to say on the writing side, particularly for early career people is that I’m really pleased that The Psychologist and the Digest have evolved into actual career paths for people who have made the brave decision to say, ‘right, I’m going to leave psychological research or practice, and I’m going to write about it’. When I started out in the job 20 years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of a route for people to do that. We’ve recruited bloggers and a new editor on our Research Digest, we’ve gone down that path. I’m so pleased when I see us getting hundreds of applications for a post, and quite a lot of them are from people who’ve said, I want to communicate psychology to a wider audience, I’ve shown I’m brave enough to make that leap.
Then the Digest can help them develop those skills and go on to great things, as Christian Jarrett has. I think the other thing that we have done a bit, but we can think about doing more, is engaging… to push forward our content and use it to engage people in having debates?
Yes, I would say that the way that print and online mesh – differentiating the styles, ensuring the best possible engagement with both – is the biggest challenge. I’ve just read Alan Rusbridger’s book, Breaking News… he’s former editor of The Guardian, and he talks about years of internal debates around the difference and the emphasis. How the functions and personnel mesh… it’s tricky.
I think we’re still, fundamentally, a print magazine that trickles out online over a couple of weeks of the month, and has an increasing amount of online content, exclusive content. We’re trying to make it different in terms of style and function, but the challenge is ensuring that we’re doing that without neglecting the print edition. That’s the primary reason for our being… we are the only publication that all members of the BPS get and they deserve a carefully curated, well thought-out print edition,
that they can sit down with.
And I think that it’s worth reflecting on the fact that every time we do surveys, we get as many people saying that they really don’t want to lose the print edition, as we have people suggesting maybe we should just be online. The print edition is important to a lot of people, they like to have something tangible in their hand, to step away from the computer. And you’ve ensured that members receive an environmentally solid, incredibly cost-effective magazine each month. That’s an important thing. Yet I know some people tend to just stick with reading online or using the app – another new thing you’ve done of course.
Yes, we were the first in the Society to produce an app. We admit it isn’t all-singing, all-dancing, but it works for a team that’s relatively small, it meshes with the way we do the web content, and it’s an additional bonus for Society members to have complete access through the app.
So I’m really pleased we’ve developed the web presence, the app, social media and all that side of things. But I have to say that of all the things I do, what I find most rewarding each month is the tweets from people saying ‘Yay, my edition of The Psychologist arrived, I’m looking forward to sitting down with a cup of tea’. I’m still a huge fan of printed magazines.
I think there will be a place for what we do in print for a good few years to come, even if the nature of it changes. We’re riding those two horses at the same time, and they’re going to have to go in their own directions more. It may be that the print edition needs to become more obviously aligned with British Psychological Society’s strategy and current activities. That makes sense to me, because we’re proud to be a British Psychological Society publication, we are a membership organisation, we should reflect the value all the BPS members get from their fees. The website can do more to face a wider public audience – shorter and more practically focused articles, making use of our huge archives… we’ve got 30 years’ worth of magazines, and we’ve got the whole, you know, 15+ years of the Research Digest archive, so let’s take topic-based collections, maybe related to current affairs, and give readers a little package of things they might have missed.
And I think that the archive is hugely important and very valuable. It says something about The Psychologist that you can look up almost any subject…
…the search function can surprise you sometimes, with what a range of topics we’ve covered. And it’s used across the world, as is the Research Digest blog, which gets more than 5 million users a year from all across the world.
I think we both accept that the Style of what we do is probably the main thing that needs to change – ensuring that what we do is not only informative, it’s engaging, it genuinely hooks people in. That’s a challenge in print and online. And I think we’ve both developed quite an interest over the years in how to shape messages and how to tell stories.
I’ve started trying to get around the country a bit more, discussing that, particularly with the early career psychologists… learning more myself about how best to shape stories of change. It’s often change that really hooks people in.
We’ve also talked about the Strategy, how we ensure our content has impact for the Society and for psychology. And then there’s the Structure of what we do, perhaps particularly in print… how different sections are organised and how things are emphasised. We’ve got work to do to ensure the print edition doesn’t just feel like a dump: ‘Here’s everything we got ready, knock yourself out’. The print redesign helped, but it also raised new questions. Rest assured, this is something we give quite a lot of thought too and we will continue to seek to improve.
It’s amazing how many conversations we have at committee meetings about this stuff, and how little agreement there is actually. So it is a challenge to get something that that works for the vast majority of people. But keep pushing forward with it.
I have to say that the committee has been so supportive and useful over the years, particularly around those times of change. Often I’ve come to you and said I want to keep moving things on, to ensure the team is restless, looking to improve. What you do, the committee, has always been to support but to challenge as well.
I think a lot of what we’ve said here is about what psychologists, members, readers can do for us, to feed into what we do. But I’d like to think that The Psychologist can do quite a lot for its contributors.
Absolutely. For me it was actually genuinely life changing. Just writing and having that editorial input for free, becoming confident about getting my voice out and being able to write about psychology. Simply being asked to write a brief review forces you to think critically about what you’re watching, and that has shaped the way I watch everything else afterwards… in my head, I’m writing a review. So I think there’s a huge amount to be gained from people writing anything, from a letter to a feature.
I’ve got two books on my desk at the moment at work, which the authors tell me sprang out of articles they wrote for us. And we know that people who’ve written for us have gone on to do more work in the media. But it’s also research contacts and professional contacts that people make from reaching such a large audience that journal articles and more specialist publications might not reach.
That’s true of the Research Digest too… it’s been very good for publicising work.
Yes, and the really gratifying thing about the Research Digest over the years has been the number of authors of journal articles, who’ve got in touch to say that they thought our coverage was excellent. When you’re trying to simplify and repackage for a wider audience, there’s always a risk that some caveats and nuance can get lost, and that the original academic researchers might be concerned about that. But our experience has overwhelmingly been the other way. Our coverage is quality, and all of the team have that academic background in what they are writing about.
Utterly crucial, in my opinion… to maintain that integrity to make sure that the work is reflecting the science. It’s a really trustworthy resource, and that matters. If you want to pass something on to somebody else that is readable, you’ve got to know that you can trust that resource.
It’s interesting that you use the word trust, because a lot of the Rusbridger book I mentioned is about changing trust in journalism, in publishing, and the importance of that. I hope that people trust what we do. We’re never going to get it right all the time. We’re trying to be all things to all people.
Who knows where we’ll be in 10 years. Science has changed a lot, and we’ve been in on a lot of those changes from the start. New technology will inevitably change what we do. But I hope readers are on that continuing journey with us, and that the committee will be too. Reach out to us, engage via social media, via email. We’re always there. Literally, the magazine is you, and we need to hear from you all about the direction we take and the voices that you’d like to hear more of in The Psychologist.
From Deputy Editor Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne
As a reader of The Psychologist for a number of years, and having been in the role of Deputy Editor for less than one, it’s interesting to reflect on my relationship with the magazine over time and where I see likely changes in the future.
During my PhD I had quite a strong attachment to The Psychologist, reading it on the long, early morning tube journeys to school for data collection. I felt proud to have an article and a letter published in it (although I still feel slightly aggrieved that one of my letters wasn’t accepted…). But I must admit I was only vaguely aware that it was part of a whole Society, and I certainly didn’t have a sense of what the BPS did beyond the magazine. As Jon said, we’re now trying to make the most of opportunities to shout louder about the work the Society is doing on your behalf.
Upon starting as Deputy Editor I was struck by how small the staff team is – just five of us in the Leicester office gathering news, commissioning and shaping articles, talking to psychologists, putting it all on the page, online and shared on social media [below, left to right: Debbie Gordon, Ella Rhodes, Annie Brookman-Byrne, Mike Thompson, Jon Sutton]. We are excited about our other ways of engaging with audiences new and old, through podcasts, videos, and getting out and about. The monthly print cycle – in fact, daily with the website – doesn’t allow a lot of breathing space for more podcast episodes, videos, and spending more time talking to future contributors (that’s you!) and the general public. Perhaps that will need to change in the future.
The Psychologist has had a presence at Latitude Festival for the last five years, bringing key issues in psychology to a wide audience. The 2019 offering, ‘Screentime Debunked’ with Andrew Przybylski, is a perfect example where psychological insight has a lot to offer a general audience. There may be scope to extend these activities to other public events, bringing the voice of psychologists to our members and beyond.
Even more excitingly, we hope to find time to get out and talk to members more. We’ve spoken about building relationships with psychology departments through visits and workshops. We want to share what The Psychologist can do for you, we want to encourage new voices to feature in our pages and online, and we want to ensure we understand our members. However much we spread the message ‘we need you’, I think the best way to make sure each and everyone one of you believes us is if we have a conversation with you. You really don’t have to wait to be asked, but we hope we’ll be there soon to ask you anyway.
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