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June 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The New Alert Diver Magazine

is DAN straying from its mission?

from the June, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Thirty years ago, Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) began as an arm of Duke University Medical School to inform divers about medical issues while sponsoring research through its affiliation with Duke. When DAN discovered it could sell insurance to divers, its membership took off and grew past 200,000 in the 90s. Since then, other diver insurers have entered the market so DAN, now a nonprofit corporation, took up more commercial ventures to spawn growth. Today, like many nonprofits, DAN has broadened its original focus and is now a business earning $10 million a year.

The New Alert Diver MagazineFor thousands of divers, DAN has provided superb emergency medical service. Its research into diving medical and safety issues is invaluable. DAN has endless admirers in the dive community. However, when Doc Vikingo, a frequent contributor to Undercurrent, sent us a blog for posting on our website that questioned the latest changes in DAN’s magazine, Alert Diver, we wanted to see what DAN officials had to say about it. Here is Doc’s blog, with our follow-up.

* * * * *

Diver Alert Network’s new quarterly, Alert Diver, published by Stephen Frink and company, is a handsome magazine that makes its prior incarnation appear like an ugly stepsister. Then again, it now appears DAN has a lot more money to play with. But is it straying from DAN’s stated raison d’ętre?

The back story: Stephen Frink was released as director of photography and columnist for Scuba Diving when Bonnier Corporation bought the magazine in 2009. As a recently resigned DAN board member, Frink got himself elevated to publisher of Alert Diver with a massively increased budget. Apparently Alert Diver is turning into a general-circulation, commercial magazine featuring underwater photography pieces.

DAN’s mission statement and vision statements can be read in full at about/index.asp, but I’ll highlight the most relevant content (I’m the one highlighting the words in bold):

“Divers Alert Network (DAN) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit medical and research organization dedicated to the safety and health of recreational scuba divers and associated with Duke University Medical Center.

“Founded in 1980, DAN has served as a lifeline for the scuba industry by operating diving’s only 24- hour emergency hotline, a lifesaving service for injured divers. Additionally, DAN operates a diving medical information line, conducts vital diving medical research, and develops and provides a number of educational programs for everyone from beginning divers to medical professionals.

“DAN’s Mission Statement: DAN helps divers in need with medical emergency assistance and promotes diving safety through research, education, products and services.”

“DAN’s Vision Statement: “Striving to make every dive, accident- and injury-free.”

In the above material, I was unable to find any description of the roles of DAN and Alert Diver in advancing underwater photographic skills, travel location reviews, marine conservation, dive gear, and the like. Yet the current Spring 2010 edition, while admittedly including a number of diving safety and medicine pieces, is filled with such off-topic articles, several of them as big feature pieces.

For example, photography features like the eight-page spread “Pushing the Envelope (Three Advanced Photo Techniques Taught by Pros Who Perfected Them)” and the 12-page feature “Imaging,” plus a page of Frink’s reviews on underwater photography books, are the most egregious examples. There are travel articles on California’s Anacapa Island, the Alger Underwater Preserve, the Cayman Islands, and an eight-page feature titled “The Essentials of the Maldives,” with photos by Frink and Dennis Liberson, former chairman of DAN’s board of directors who became the (unpaid) executive chair of DAN Holdings last fall.

There’s a Conservation section with stories about saving seagrass beds, how NOAA is keeping tabs on reefs, and the effect of plastic garbage on the world’s oceans. On the topic of gear, there’s an article about backplate buoyancy systems.

Now I’m not saying that such pieces don’t make for an interesting, entertaining, flashy and rather expensive publication, or that some folks don’t much enjoy it. The issue is, are such articles consistent with the mission and vision statements of DAN and a proper use of members’ dues? Are they the most appropriate use of limited DAN resources given how the organization represents itself to its members and the public? Does their primary purpose seem to be the advancement of medical services and research related “to the safety and health of the recreational diver?”

* * * * * * *

Undercurrent’s senior editor Vanessa Richardson then talked with Frink and Liberson, asking about the role of Alert Diver in DAN’s organization and overall mission.

Liberson says Alert Diver serves as a method of communication with DAN members and the general public. “The predominance of content is mission-related as it has always has been. The difference now is we’ve got more commissioned content than ever before and we have professional editors. What we heard is that the old Alert Diver had useful information but it was difficult for people to read. Now it’s more reader-friendly and visually appealing. We now hear that people read it cover to cover, so we’re doing a better job delivering mission content and getting more people to read about diver safety.”

Frink says he resigned as a DAN board member last fall before taking over the publishing role. Alert Diver was being published six times a year for DAN members and was losing a lot of money. “It faced the same issues that other magazines, like Undercurrent, face – the cost to produce, print and mail issues, and the lack of advertising support. So I asked, with the support of DAN management and its board of directors, what if we put together a high-quality quarterly that offered better service to readers, was supported by advertising, and saved DAN money?”

Frink says the next issue will feature an interview with Nick Bird, director of DAN’s medical operations, about DAN’s medical education and research efforts. There will be articles from the Nature Conservancy about the Coral Triangle, and experts discussing overfishing. Overall, Frink says, 30 to 40 percent of Alert Diver pages are devoted to DAN research, education and medicine, and 30 percent is devoted to environmental issues. We’ll assume the other third is for underwater photography and travel.

“There are no reviews of dive resorts or travel providers,” Liberson says. “We focus on the diving and destinations because our members like it. And we get feedback from them that this is the only magazine they read cover to cover.”

Neither man sees a problem with Alert Diver taking ads. “We’ve always accepted ads, it’s just that in the past they had no interest in being in it because it was so poorly done,” says Liberson. Frink says ad revenues go toward supporting DAN and funding DAN projects, which can be costly. “Like DAN’s research project on flying after diving; it took 12 years of research and cost $250,000 to fund. The advertising model is funding a nonprofit that gathers the body of knowledge about scuba diving. And if we can support their business, we’re thrilled.”

Now Alert Diver is free for anyone to read online as a digital issue. Frink says the magazine doesn’t make less money but it is saving DAN a boatload by publishing fewer times and taking ads. “I hope it becomes a profit center but for now, it’s far less than a loss leader.” Says Liberson, “We want to provide safety information to members and nonmembers. Getting their contact information then lets us reach out and ask if they want to become DAN members.”

DAN has a contract with Frink’s company to publish Alert Diver, and Frink says “the publisher has day to day editorial control, [but] . . . the entire editorial team has significant influence on our final products. . . However, I clearly understand that I work for, and am answerable to, DAN Holdings management and board of directors. DAN retains the final say.”

Over the years, plenty of dive magazines have died: Ocean Realm, Fathoms, Skin Diver and most recently, Adventure Diving. Scuba Diving is still alive, though it has about a quarter of the circulation it once did. That leaves two magazines, both of which have the advantage of serving an existing customer base. Sport Diver serves newly certified PADI divers, and Alert Diver serves DAN members. So the cost of acquiring new subscribers remains low for both magazines, which is why they can exist at all as the magazine publishing world shrinks. All three magazines compete against each other for advertising revenue. Scuba Diving and Sport Diver skew their editorial content to the advertisers. Doc Vikingo is saying that Alert Diver, given its mission, dare not go there.

Like other nonprofit organizations - - e.g., the Sierra Club and AARP - - DAN has become a multi-faceted business. Its challenge is to ensure that the drive for magazine revenue from advertisers does not dilute its guardianship role for diver safety. As the mission statement implies, as a professional organization, DAN’s magazine must be an independent voice. Having watched so many dive magazines cater to their advertisers in their editorial content, I trust that the “new” Alert Diver, with the publisher having editorial control, will not weaken DAN’s independent stance.

- - Ben Davison

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