Interviewing Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist

Following the success of the British Psychological Society in the recent memcom awards shortlist (the BPS is in the running for Editor of the Year and Best Magazine Launch or Relaunch), we interviewed Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist about the success behind the relaunch, the importance of being the voice of the membership and sharing a bill with New Order at The Latitude Festival…


Congratulations on being shortlisted for Best Magazine Launch or Relaunch at the memcom awards. What was the main objective of the relaunch of The Psychologist?


To become ‘more magazine’ but ‘not magaziney’! You can imagine how that went down with my staff… I felt like those music producers who urge ‘play it again, but more purple’.

We felt like we’d put a lot of effort into our online presence in recent years, so this was something for the print lovers. We were aiming for a quality, professional, calm, assured, tactile, engaging reader experience.


What were the main improvements made to the magazine?


There’s a new size… lopping an inch off the top seems trivial and trendy, but actually there’s something about it which opens up the design of spreads more. The covers and contents pages are more minimalistic. There are new formats, such as our regular A to Z, and more diverse coverage of ‘books’ and ‘culture’. We’re also trying to gradually change the writing style of our main articles, to ‘academic rigour but journalistic flair’. I think that will be a gradual shift, but immediately we’ve changed how we handle scientific referencing.


Have you had feedback from readers following the relaunch?


Oh yes, lots on social media and a fair bit via email. Frustratingly, we messed up on some aspects of legibility early on… we guarded against this, but you never really know until you have a proper copy in your hands. So quite rightly our readers let us know about that. But most of the feedback was really positive. It sounds daft, but my favourite kind of feedback is readers posting photos of them enjoying the mag with a cup of tea, or on the bus. That was the idea… just a mag you can dip into and find something that will engage, personally and professionally. Later this year we’re going to do some in-depth reader research, and compare to surveys from the past decade, to check we’re still going in the right direction.


How do you ensure that The Psychologist represents the ‘voice of the membership’?


Virtually all our content is the ‘voice of the membership’, because we only have one journalist and we very rarely pay for freelance contributions. So all the views, news, interviews, reviews etc… it’s mostly psychologists in their own words. And one thing we’ve been very protective of over the years is that The Psychologist is the voice of the membership, not the voice of ‘the Society’ if by that you mean its structures and leadership… so we’ll publish debates that don’t necessarily cast the Society in a favourable light, if we believe they’re important debates to have.


In a world of websites, apps, podcasts and live events, how important still is print?


Well, I’m biased… I love a physical magazine! The truth is, I don’t know. We have very little information at the moment on how our output is consumed… something we’re looking to rectify later in the year. But certainly whenever we’ve asked the membership ‘would you be happy for this to go online only?’, we’ve got a resounding ‘no!’ in response. Of course, even as a retro romantic, I know this is changing and will continue to do so. All we can do is ensure we’re riding the crest of that wave of digital progress, while never neglecting those people who still prefer to hold an actual mag in their hands.


How do your online mediums and magazine support each other?


In the relaunch, we’ve tried to do more to point print readers to online extras and exclusives. Again, the honest truth is that this is a difficult and dynamic world. No publisher in their right mind would assemble a three-course, fine dining menu of print from a daily smorgasbord of online content; or vice versa. But when you’re putting together a membership publication with a small team, sometimes that’s the only option. We are starting to have the two channels diverge more, but too often the website/app versions become routes to promote fairly specialist content to a very wide and non-specialist audience! That’s a real challenge for the next few years.


Interestingly, the vast majority of material is contributed freely by your readers – can you talk us through the benefits of this?


Well, the budget is the obvious one! The British Psychological Society is a charity, and keeping our costs as low as possible keeps our membership fees down in turn. But it’s about more than that. I often think of the psychological research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. We have to work hard to ensure our contributors want to write for us – due to the support they get, and the audience they can reach. There’s an argument that adding extrinsic motivation on top could undermine that. Not paying also means we have to be pretty relaxed about deadlines and such… when we do pay for freelance contributions, it’s a more defined and demanding relationship.


In challenging economic times amidst decreasing readership amongst many consumer magazine titles, how can membership organisations help to ensure the profitability of their magazine?


Thankfully our readership is rising all the time. And of course, it’s important to produce an engaging read that advertisers want to be part of. But it’s not all about profitability… for many membership organisations, their magazine is the one thing that all members get, and an important part of how they portray themselves to the wider world. That’s got to be worth investing in.


Can you tell us a bit about your presence at the Latitude Festival?


I set it up in 2015 by getting in touch with Festival Republic, who put me on to Tania Harrison, who curates all the non-music content. She’s a phenomenon and it’s been fascinating to work with someone who never fails to add value to any ideas I put her way. Our sessions so far have covered ‘teenagers debunked’, ‘how to talk so people listen’, ‘the rules of unruliness’ and ‘a manifesto for psychological health and wellbeing’. Transcripts and podcasts are available. We’re hoping to do something again this year. It’s been a blast! If I could go back and tell my 13-year-old self that I’d get to share a bill with New Order! Even if it was in minuscule font, way down…


A huge thankyou to Jon for agreeing to be interviewed by memcom! We wish the British Psychological Society and all other shortlisted entries the best of luck in the upcoming memcom membership awards. Tickets to the awards ceremony, lavish lunch and celebrations can be purchased here. Tickets to the memcom morning conference can also be bought from this link. As ever, our high-profile speakers will be addressing the key issues of today and all delegates will benefit from the expertise imparted and the invaluable networking opportunities.


Interview by Anna Rivers, Marketing Manager, memcom