To compete in a crowded market, most magazines must have some sort of dominant position in at least one small niche of what they cover. Often, that takes the form of some sort of annual "rankings" or "best of," list which may or may not actually pertain to what the outlet covers.
These pernicious rankings - the Fortune 500, the Time 100, or even the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue come to mind - serve not only as cultural touchstones and brand builders, but they can also help anchor a magazine that's struggling financially in a difficult economic environment.
US News & World Report and its annual rankings of America's best colleges is perhaps the best example of a magazine that has staked a claim as the ultimate arbiter of one subject and is holding on for dear life. The magazine has been producing its lists for more than two decades, and they have evolved into the final word on prospective schools in the minds of many college applicants, as well as many colleges themselves.
But now - at the same time that the magazine finds itself being squeezed terribly in the newsmagazine category by competitors, the Internet, and itself (US News disbanded its investigative reporting team last week) -a backlash within the higher-education community is stirring a battle that the beleaguered publication will have to win in order to hold onto its most valuable intellectual property.
On May 10, a group of a dozen college presidents sent a letter to hundreds of colleagues urging them to stop filling out the US News "reputational survey," which asks college administrators to rank other colleges, and to stop using the rankings as promotional tools.
The letter said the rankings "imply a false precision" unwarranted by the data, do not reflect the actual quality of education, and "encourage wasteful spending and gamesmanship" among universities jockeying for position.
Among the colleges represented in the letter were Earlham College, Dickinson College, Wheelock College, Marlboro College, Trinity (DC) University, St. John's College (Annapolis, MD, and Santa Fe, NM), Heritage University, Southwestern University, Bethany College, Drew University, and Lafayette College. Since then, another 17 schools have signed on, bringing the formal total to nearly 30.
Lloyd Thacker, director of the Education Conservancy, the nonprofit that helped draft and circulate the letter, says he's been working on his "beyond ranking" campaign for more than three years.
"The academy has been worried about the intrusion of commercial interests in deciding what's important about education for a long time," says Thacker, "but we have yet to have a venue for providing a collective response. And that's what we're trying to do."
In many ways, the campaign against the rankings is just another form of the "inmates taking over the asylum" phenomenon that has allowed users of all types of traditional media to reassert their primacy via the Internet. But this revolt has less to do with exploiting a new technology than it does with a long-held grumbling belief among many schools that the rankings are too important or downright unfair.
Thacker says "benevolent collusion" among enough schools can force US News to change its ranking policies or even lead to a new, purely data-driven ranking system that emanates from schools themselves directly to prospective students.
But wait, says US News - our role as a third party is important. Cynthia Powell, the magazine's PR director, says it meets constantly with college administrators to review and revise the rankings, the methodology of which is "continually refined."
Furthermore, Powell points out: "What's the purpose of the rankings, and who is it for? It's for college applicants. We aren't doing this for college presidents."
Unfortunately for US News, its audience on this issue is college presidents. It must persuade enough of them to contribute to the rankings, or else. And if a major, prestigious school announces it is joining the opposition, that may signal the beginning of the end not only for the rankings, but also for the teetering magazine itself.