Military Mags Retreat From Print

By Chris Haire

In Maryland, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in a small-town milieu surrounded by meadows and nature reserves, lies a gated community of more than 5,000 acres. This community seems to excel at the mundane—it comes complete with its own theater, golf course, child-development center and office buildings.

But this is not a typical suburb. The gate is adorned with barbed wire. To enter, you must pass through a car-inspection station. And Google Maps is unable to locate the entrance. The reason for these quirks becomes apparent when you realize that this gated community is Fort Meade—an Army base that houses ninety-five different organizations, including the National Security Agency. Once inside the base, drive along Mapes Road and turn right onto Taylor Avenue and you will find one particularly intriguing organization that is far more complex than its suburban surroundings: the Defense Media Activity.

Operating inside a pristine eighty-three-million-dollar structure, which opened in October 2011, the DMA is the agency that oversees news and information for the Defense Department. Among its 650 entities are the well-known Stars and Stripes newspaper and the Armed Forces Radio Service. With technologically sophisticated soundstages inside the building and row upon row of servers in the basement, the DMA seems better suited to Rockefeller Center than a military base.

One of the DMA’s objectives is to make the military’s media outlets more efficient. This has, over the past four years, put those outlets into a state of flux. And none have been affected more over that time than the Defense Department’s four flagship magazines: Soldiers, All Hands, Marines Magazine and Airman.

With one magazine for each branch of the military, these publications have long served as alternatives to the news-driven Stars and Stripes, aiming to connect with those in uniform—no matter their job, rank or post—through long-form features and kaleidoscopic photo spreads. Whereas their newspaper counterpart, Stars and Stripes, receives First Amendment protections and therefore publishes some stories critical of the military, these magazines are subject to Defense Department review. Their mission, then, often becomes one of morale boosting. These publications are decades old (All Hands, the Navy’s magazine, began in 1948) and are, by the simplest of definitions, lifestyle magazines for the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

But, in a situation reflective of the publishing industry as a whole, these magazines must now confront the reality of an online-only existence.

Because of steep long-term cuts to the Defense Department’s budget mandated by former Secretary Robert M. Gates, the DMA has gone through major cost-reduction efforts over the last few years, resulting in, among other things, the cancellation of the printing contracts for the magazines. Since October 2011, Soldiers, All Hands, Marines Magazine and Airman have lived solely on the Web. Their reasoning for going digital parallels that of some commercial magazines: Younger readers increasingly prefer to receive content on the Web. No less a factor, though, is that the move will save nearly four million dollars per fiscal year. In the context of a Defense Department budget of more than $500 billion annually, that may seem like little enough, but for the editors of these four publications—and their readers—it means drastic change. The editors faced the necessity of creating dynamic, interactive websites in less than a year; transitioning from a print to an online production cycle; mollifying older veterans who for decades held print subscriptions; and coping with fewer and fewer resources as further budget cuts loomed in the future. What follows is the story of how these magazines have dealt with these new realities and what their prospects are.

“Back in the day, the only way to get information out was to flip a switch, say it over the radio, flip the switch again and go back to music,” says Roger King, executive officer of the DMA, referring to the Armed Forces Radio Service. “But now you have iPad [apps], Facebook, Twitter, online, iPhones. Right now, the magazines are that platform that has fallen by the wayside.”

The need to find the quickest way to disseminate information is a universal pursuit. Starting with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and continuing with such technological advances as the telegraph, the radio and the Internet, society has repeatedly found ways to transmit news more rapidly than ever before. Those in the newspaper-and -magazine business feared radio and television would make them irrelevant, but it didn’t affect their business models (although large media companies grew while independent publications died). But it is the Internet—and subsequently e-readers and smartphones—that many experts predict will sound the death knell for the printed word. The argument is familiar: Efficiency and speed in journalism are paramount; paper cannot compete.

The DMA is the military’s answer to that question of efficiency in communications. In 2005, Congress planted the seeds of the Defense Media Activity with the passage of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act, known more commonly, thanks to the Defense Department’s love of acronyms, as BRAC. The DMA became operational in 2008 but did not consolidate all of the publications under a single roof until the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Fort Meade in October 2011. (Stars and Stripes is still based in Washington but will relocate to Fort Meade in the summer.) Before that, the newsrooms for the magazines were scattered, with Airman the farthest away, in San Antonio.

Because the DMA’s mission, clearly stated on its website, is to become “a world-class multimedia organization,” and because of the increasing demand for online content, the editors of the publications have known for some time that moving online was inevitable. But in the beginning of 2011, DMA leadership made a decision that seemed to come all too suddenly: Print publication of the legacy magazines would not extend past the end of fiscal year 2011. The last print editions were to publish in October of that year, no later.

“We were not prepared,” says Carrie McLeroy, the editor-in-chief of Soldiers, who found out about the transition in March of that year. “Being staffed for print is different from being staffed for Web. We were looking to expand our Web presence anyway, but we would have liked it to be more incremental.”

What followed was a frenetic span of several months in which all four editors had to continue publishing in print while preparing for a quick deadline for going online and producing daily content. Happening simultaneously: the relocation to Fort Meade. As the DMA soon discovered, its magazine websites had differing levels of sophistication and each publication would react uniquely to the new realities.

Soldiers, for example, “cheated a little,” according to McLeroy, a civilian who was a Marine before entering the civilian publishing industry and eventually joining Soldiers. Each magazine is staffed by a mix of government-contracted civilians and military personnel. “We had planned content through January 2012, so right before print each month, we would publish the content online.”

Marines Magazine, on the other hand, was already a fully functioning WordPress site before diverging from print. The site utilizes a large photo box at the top of the home page that scrolls to the left, featuring several stories at once. It also prominently displays icons that link to the magazine’s YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook pages. “We tried to make sure we broke the digital divide a while ago. Back in 2003, we already had it in our minds,” says Lt. Col. Greg Reeder, the director of Marine productions. It was also the first of the four to develop an iPad app.

Airman, which hopes to launch an iPad app in June, also has a well-managed website. All Hands, meanwhile, does not—and will not—have an independent website. The Navy, rather, is revamping its main site, navy.mil, in order to allow users to search the magazine’s archives. All Hands is, for all intents and purposes, defunct. “The reason we got out of the magazine business,” says Dennis Casaday, director of Navy production, “was a lack of resources.”

It has been more than seven months since the transition to online occurred, and the editors say that, for the most part, things are working. With the relocation to Fort Meade, the editors, designers and other staffers of the magazines work on the same floor, side by side, with cubicles acting as the only barriers to complete integration. Much to the pleasure of the DMA, this has created an atmosphere of cooperation and cohesion among the previously discrete publications.

“One of the things about being under the DMA,” says James B. Pritchett, the deputy director of Air Force productions, which oversees Airman, “the sharing has been great. There has been better integration and more sharing of content.”

“We’re all on the same team,” adds McLeroy. “If I need an event covered but can’t send anyone, then I can ask Pritchett if he has anyone available. I can’t think of anything negative about the process.”

Of course, even though the transition itself has been mostly smooth—according to the editors, at least—killing the print magazines has contributed to the debate over the value of delivering content via printing presses compared with the value of the Web and the decreased costs that accompany it. Almost immediately after distribution of the magazines stopped, letters began arriving asking what had happened. McLeroy says she still receives letters—not email—from mostly older veterans who are not as technologically savvy as their younger, active counterparts. Says Pritchett: “We did have a large following in print. They weren’t happy with doing away with it.” He adds, however, “There was not as much of an uproar as you’d think.”

According to Pritchett, citing an internal, unreleasable poll, “Where Airmen Get Their Information,” most people in the Air Force prefer receiving content online. The editors for Soldiers, Marines Magazine and All Hands agree this is true for their publications as well. On this point, they have suffered the same fate as commercial publications like PC Magazine and Gourmet—the changing needs of consumers have crippled the demand for print.

But it is not just those who are inept at using the Internet who will miss the print product. Sailors at sea and service members still in Afghanistan have limited access to the Internet. Some suggest that it is unreasonable to expect those stationed in the far reaches of the Middle East to spend their ten minutes of connectivity on a military site rather than talking to their families on Skype or Facebook.

“A lot of people aren’t going to hit up a website,” says Shane McCoy, the All Hands photo editor from 2002 to 2007, now a photographer for the U.S. Marshals Service. “You’re not going to the All Hands website. All Hands was bathroom reading.”

McCoy was a military photographer for more than fifteen years, only half of which were spent with All Hands. He says that All Hands is primarily propagandist but that it serves the purpose of uplifting the spirits of sailors. It is a morale boost. “One quote I love is, one of the sailors came up to me and said: ‘I love reading All Hands. That’s the Navy I want to be a part of.’ They are going to miss that. But often, the people making the decisions aren’t in the position to understand why they would need the magazines. They don’t have the experience.”

Another argument against retiring the printed version is the traditionalists’ view that the feel of a magazine is sacrosanct, something not to be treated glibly. “There is nothing like holding a magazine in your hands and looking at the picture on the cover,” McCoy says.

His point is one McLeroy concedes. “With the aesthetics, you’re going to lose something, this is true.”

Yet many of the people who are still involved with the DMA contend that the decision was ultimately more complicated than the new media/old media dichotomy. The harsh reality of making the Defense Department, and by extension the DMA, sustainable in the long term drives down the amount of available resources. From fiscal year 2009 to 2011, the DMA’s budget increased from $236.3 million to $255.9 million according to budget documents obtained by NYRM through a Freedom of Information Act request. But that was a necessary effect of merging the media operations of the various branches under a single entity. Since then, the funding for the DMA has decreased. The projected budget for fiscal year 2013 is $224 million, a more than fifteen-percent decrease over the past two years, according to these documents. King, the executive officer for the DMA, adds that his agency is forecasting another ten-percent cut in 2016. “We’re having to look at everything we do and adjust,” King says.

There is also the changing demographic of the military. The trends suggest that as the years go by, the young men and women joining the armed forces, much like their civilian peers, will pursue information almost exclusively online. This makes creating a print product less cost-effective. “Everything is budget-driven. We need to find efficiencies,” says Col. Eric Schnaible, the DMA’s director of production. Schnaible, a member of the Air Force for twenty-seven years, oversees the content for every outlet that falls under the DMA umbrella. He understands more than most the true cost of living a budget-driven existence. He spent last year deployed in Afghanistan, and had hoped to serve his country until 2014 and then retire with three decades in uniform under his belt. But because of the Defense Department’s new austerity budget, he was forced into early retirement, effective soon after the publication of this magazine. Until then, however, he continues to lead the eight directors under him—including the heads of the four magazines—in creating content that connects with their target audience: those in uniform and their families. “I tend to be an old-school guy,” Schnaible says, noting that he likes the feel of magazines in his hands. “But we have to transition.”

Still, it will be hard for some to shake the nostalgia that is conjured up when thinking of the glory days of the legacy magazines. “It was nice to have a print publication, but it’s the fiscal reality,” says John Valceanu, the director of the Armed Forces Press Service. He is also a former staffer for Soldiers. “I’m sad to see it go.” Trying to be optimistic, he continues: “But we can do a lot of things online. People under thirty prefer online.”

Others are not as hopeful. “I read Soldiers a lot,” says Jay Seidel, the chair of the communications department at Fullerton College in Southern California. He was a combat engineer for the Army in the early Nineties. “That’s sad they are cutting the print. Not everyone will access it online.”

One fringe benefit of having a Web-oriented focus, though, is that despite possibly losing a portion of the older military audience, there is now an opportunity to expand the readership to a wider cross section of the public at large. Stories in mainstream media that focus on the military tend to relate mostly to the war effort, discretionary spending or mental strain on those in combat. But as many who have worn a uniform can verify, the military is much more than battle fatigues and M16 rifles. Schnaible points out that people who are not intimately connected with the military may not understand its diversity. He wonders, for example, how many people know the percentage of airmen who actually fly. The answer is less than ten percent. Social media and the world’s reliance on the Web allow for a more global audience—a point made many times before by media experts. “What we used to call our shadow audience is becoming bigger,” McLeroy says.

Pritchett agrees. “Our mission is to write stories for our young men and women, but we can now communicate with a larger audience. We have a lot of humanitarian missions that have a larger scope” that people can now hear about, he says.

Les Benito, the director of the Public Web sector of the DMA, which oversees Internet operations for the 650 different Defense Department sites, says another thing that will help fuel the expansion of the magazines’ influence is the ability to easily post content on multiple websites. For example, a story appearing in Marines Magazine can now appear on marines.mil and defense.gov as well. “The Defense Department gets good traffic,” he says. “Navy and Army get good traffic. So if you publish on those sites, you get good traffic.” But there is still a long way to go.  The four magazines hardly ever rank in the top twenty-five of the most-visited defense websites, according to weekly reports compiled by the Defense Department.

Benito remains hopeful. “Each of the editors has access to the analytics, so they can see who is viewing what and determine content based on that,” he says.

All of this paints a picture of journalists—some military, some former military—using the vaunted resourcefulness of the armed forces to keep their magazines relevant.  Yet they are handcuffed by the Defense Department’s inability to plan more than two years ahead, thanks to congressional budgets. Further cuts could wreak havoc on already undersized staffs or lead to restructuring in other ways. Currently, McLeroy has only two full-time writers on the Soldiers staff; she cannot afford to lose either of them.

Nevertheless, McLeroy and her fellow editors seem optimistic about the future of their industry—at least for those publications safely within the gates of Fort Meade. “We’re the Marines,” says Lt. Col. Greg Reeder, editor of Marines Magazine. “Our idea is that we get things done.”

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