Why print magazines just won’t die

Walking into his office at The University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, you are met by mountainous stacks of magazines on all sides. After your eyes adjust, one finds Dr Samir Husni, aka “Mr. Magazine”, sitting at his desk amid the magazine titles piled high.

Husni directs the Magazine Innovation Centre at Ole Miss’ School of Journalism, where is also Professor and Hederman Lecturer. He wrote for 28 years the annual Samir Husni’s Guide to New Magazines. He started a news series of books called Inside the Great Minds of Magazine Makers. He is also the author of several books including Magazine Publishing in the 21st Century, Launch Your Own Magazine: A Guide for Succeeding in Today’s Marketplace and Selling Content: The Step-by-Step Art of Packaging Your Own Magazine.

He has presented seminars on trends in American magazines to the editorial, advertising and sales staff of many magazine groups including Hearst Corp., Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, Meredith Corp., Reader’s Digest Magazine, ESPN the magazine, the National Geographic Society, the Swedish magazine group Bonnier, the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association and the American Press Institute. He is also President and CEO of Magazine Consulting & Research, a firm specializing in new magazine launches, repositioning of established magazines, and packaging publications for better sales and presentations.

Paul Glader: We live in a tech age where customer service and user interface can be so good with applications like Uber or AirBnB. But almost every single magazine I subscribe to – whether it’s The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or whatever – I can’t get a bloody receipt! I have to call the magazines and they use outsourced services. I can’t get an online receipt from them. And even though I’m a loyal, loyal customer, they don’t treat me like one. As soon as I order a subscription from The New Yorker, I start getting mail from them saying my subscription is going to run out. No! Wait a minute! I just bought a 3-year subscription. It’s not going to run out! Don’t you know me? Why don’t magazines care about their customers more?

Samir Husni: If you really think about it, we are the only business that caters much, much more to the marginal customer and we ignore the loyal customer… I mean, you get offers “Oh, get the whole year plus a swimsuit! For $5.00.”

Glader: And a tote bag.

Husni: Then you start buying the magazine, and you’re enjoying it. They send you a renewal for like, $29.95. You know, I don’t become a Diamond frequent flyer mile on Delta just because I flew one time. No, it’s because I fly always on Delta. Because they reward those people and they upgrade me. They put me in first class. They treat me like somebody who’s loyal to them. We in the magazine business are the only industry that does its best to cater to the marginal customers for one simple reason: … In the United States, in the magazine business, we are always after counting customers rather than customers who count. Unless we change the business model to customers who count, somebody who’s willing to appreciate, ‘Wow, this is the New Yorker, I’m going to pay like, $8 for the cover price.’ But then as I am opening it, the card drops on the floor and says ‘You stupid Samir, for another $20, you can get the whole year.’ Why would I buy it from the newsstand? I am insulting myself… It’s not tied to any cost point. It’s about numbers.

Glader: And advertisers?

Husni: And they cannot get it into their heads by now that counting customers no longer counts, that our business model has to be reinvented and we have to make as much money from customers as we make from advertisers. First we thought the tablet is salvation. Well, last time I was in New York last year, everybody was saying the tablet is dead. The homepage is dead. It took us 550 years before anybody said that print is dead. The tablet is less than six years old, and now we’re saying the tablet is dead? The homepage is dead? I mean, nothing “dies” forever. Nothing stays forever. When a magazine dies, it does not mean the industry’s dead. How many television programs have come and gone; good ones?

Glader: All these magazines have come and gone too, right? Like the late great Saturday Evening Post?

Husni: The Post is still there. The Post is one of the best kept secrets in the industry. They’re still publishing. But, the sad part is, I blame the media. I blame the journalists. The media reporters look at their own publications. If you’re working at AdWeek or if you’re working at those magazines that used to be big, thick publications, and all the advertising disappeared from them, they are now like a 36-page little tiny thing… They look through that prism and they judge the entire [magazine] industry based on that. When in reality if people are willing to take the time and dig and look and stuff, we’re having almost 1,000 new magazines coming into the marketplace every year. But those magazines have an average cover price of between $8.50 and $10.50 now.

Glader: So where are the bright spots right now in magazines? Internationally or in certain sectors in the U.S.?

Husni: In Europe… they are not picking up yet. They are still struggling… Last year, every major publisher in this country published a new magazine, a print magazine. Whether it’s Hearst, Conde Nast, Time Inc. or Rodale. And of course now everyone is doing those book-azines. I mean, Time is flooding the market with book-azines. Conde Nast is flooding the market with book-azines. Everybody is subscribing to the aspect of “I can’t change my business model, but I can produce something new and charge $12, $13.” You know, that is doing very well… One magazine does not work, so they kill it, like they did with Ladies Home Journal, or they changed the frequency. But then, on the other hand, they are investing in Martha Stewart Living, they are investing in All Recipes. Hearst has done such a great job in enhancing the quality of print. They increased the paperweight. They upsized all the magazines. I mean, just last month alone Marie Claire and Elle went to a bigger European size. Vogue is testing the new bigger size of Vogue this month. So there’s a lot of good things. Last year was actually the year we buried the phrase “print is dead.” Nobody is saying “print is dead anymore.” You’d have to be out of your mind to say “print is dead…” And you know, you hear now phrases like “print is changing”. Of course. Change is the only constant in our business. I mean, why would print not change?

Glader: Well, are we not moving into a world too, where artisanal brands from places like Brooklyn, Berlin also influences media and magazine consumption? People are looking for the beautiful artefact, right? We may see less of print, but it never dies because it’s still more beautiful than anything digital?

Husni: Yeah. As long as we have human beings, we appreciate the touch, the feel, the history. I mean, even our own history. Can you imagine, I mean, now, I still have letters from my dad, God rest his soul, that I show to my kids and say, “look what dad wrote me when I first came to America.” What do my kids have? E-mails? Text messages? What are they going to show their kids? “Oh, look your grandpa sent us a text message!”

Glader: Do they inherit your Facebook page?

Husni: Digital does not keep the heritage going… I mean, can you imagine? Can you imagine if the shepherds found the Dead Sea Scrolls on a CD? A jump drive? They would have thought they were Frisbees or something. So, I mean, there is an inherited value in print, and that’s why I say the problem is not with print. That has been my biggest problem with newspapers. I mean the word “newspaper” is an oxymoron. And I tell people, like, you know, why can’t a newspaper be a 48-hour bridge between what happened yesterday and how is it going to impact me tomorrow. You can’t just be telling me on Sunday that the Broncos won the Super Bowl. I knew that at 9:20 p.m., or like tornadoes killed 70 people in Texas. I knew that as the tornado was taking place. I mean, we have to be more in the business of what’s in it for me rather than the “five Ws” and the H.”

Glader: Hmm. Interesting. It’s tough for journalists to break out of that model.

Husni: It’s all about me. It’s all about the audience. And that’s what we have to do.

Glader: In my Entrepreneurial Journalism class our mantras include, “What problem are you solving for your readers? What are the needs your audience has and how will you meet those needs?” That’s how you build an audience.

Husni: Check out this magazine. It’s $40 bucks. Let’s Panic. It’s their second issue. I mean, you have to do stuff. Too many magazines are dull. You cannot produce print today that has that disposability factor in it, because then it’s not going to last.

Glader: Yeah. Which companies or titles are you watching right now and think are doing really cool stuff?

Husni: Hearst and Bauer, to me, the gold standard. Hearst, Meredith, Time Inc. and, lately, Conde Nast.

Glader: What are some examples of titles that you like from those companies?

Husni: Hearst for example, when they launched the Food Network magazine, they launched it right after Conde Nast killed Gourmet, almost the same month. And because they, the geniuses at the consulting firm, they shall remain nameless, went to Conde Nast, and said “Oh, you have two food magazines, the economy cannot handle two,” so they killed Gourmet and kept Bon Appetite. Hearst launched the Food Network magazine in ‘09, right when the market completely crashed. The Food Network magazine is now almost 2 million in circulation. And then, two years later, they launched HGTV, and they got the same success. Three years later they launch Dr Oz: The Good Life. So Hearst has managed to create those partnerships with the TV shows, with the personalities, with the networks. So Hearst is doing very well. Meredith is also doing well. They relaunched Martha Stewart Living. They launched All Recipes. They took it from a website to a magazine that as millions in circulation. Meanwhile, companies like Time Inc. are flooding the market with bookazines, publishing around 150 titles a year.

Glader: I guess bookazines make sense, because they paid celebrity photographers to take photos Time now owns? So they can repackage and resell that content?

Husni: Time Inc. is doing the bookazines for Hearst. So you find a bookazine for Confessions From A Cosmopolitan and on the side it says it is a Time Inc. Publication.

Glader: Sounds like they’re adapting to American consumers too?

Husni: Bauer’s Woman’s World is the number one selling magazine on the newsstands. Also Bauer’s First for Woman is the number two selling magazine on the newsstand… There are bright areas if you are willing to look for bright areas. You put the blinders on your eyes and guess what? Everything you are going to see is going to be dark. And that’s what some of our media reporters do. That’s has always been one of my biggest complaints: that media reporters either have their angle formed, like that reporter that called me one time that she thinks that all women’s magazines are becoming so bad and they only care about sex and diet, what do you think? Well, you already told me what you think, why would you want my opinion? You already wrote this story. I mean, so, what you want somebody to tell you, oh yeah, I agree with you? And so, it’s really, I mean, if you are not excited and happy to be in the journalism world today, and specifically in the magazine world today, I don’t think there have ever been more exciting, intriguing times than we have today.

Glader: Why have food magazines become so hot? It seems like we have a greater interest in food-related TV shows as well?

Husni: Yeah, the whole TV shows. I mean, it was a combination of September 11th, where we, as a nation started cocooning inside. Then, in ‘08, the economy crashed so money became tight, and so you had the food magazines, the how to do food at home. Plus, you have the luxury of eating out and the combination of the two created a fertile ground for food magazines… I mean just if you want a magazine about church suppers, you can find one. You have a magazine I saw yesterday about, “one pot dinners.” All you need is one pot, not nine or 13 pans. I mean, you name the specialization and technology has made it possible, you don’t have to print millions of magazines anymore you can print a few thousand.

Glader: By the way, how did you get so obsessed with magazines?

Husni: Who would have believed my story, that this kid growing up in Tripoli, Lebanon, falling in love with magazines and becoming his passion, would become an expert on new magazines? I’m not even from the United States of America. I came from Lebanon. I either would have gone to be a dentist or to seminary school, because that’s what my parents wanted. They pushed me more toward being the dentist. So all my high school education was scientific. I used to sit at home while other folks are playing and create my own little magazines. I used wax to rub on the paper so I can copy the images, then I rubbed the wax paper on the old newspapers. And a pastor who noticed this told me I would be disobeying God by obeying my parents and going to dental school instead of journalism school. He said, “I’m not telling you to disobey your parents, I’m just saying I’ve watched you and I’ve seen what you do is journalism.”

By Paul Glader for www.forbes.com

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