The Doctor Is In(teractive)… Bonnier’s Tom James on the Future, Magazines, Tablets and the Good Old Desktop Computer. The Mr. Magazine™ InterviewNovember 21, 2010
With the growing popularity of electronic tablets like the iPad, it seems that every publisher is doubling down on the future of publishing based on the “apps on a tablet” hand of cards. Publishers are rushing to get their own mag-apps on the market (if they don’t already have one) so as not to get left behind in this latest “as in today’s” digital revolution (no time for even calling it a trend, since tomorrow may bring another revolution). Of course, it’s all too easy to forget that consumers have been using digital content for years from their own desktop or laptop computers, not to mention those who haven’t yet jumped on the e-reader bandwagon.
Bonnier’s Skiing debuted Skiing Interactive this month, a fully interactive, Flash-based web publication which provides viewers with a unique and personalized reading experience. Using colorful infographics, geo-targeted mapping, videos and engaging articles readers can personalize to their wants and needs, skiing enthusiasts now have a brand-new way of hitting the slopes from the comfort of their own computer.
Creating the right content for the right medium is the philosophy of Tom James, who has been with Bonnier Corporation (formerly World Publications) since 1986 and is now editorial director for Bonnier’s Enthusiast Group. Last week I had the chance to converse with Mr. James, via the old reliable land line phone, regarding how magazines can move away from making digital replicas of their print titles and move toward creating compelling digital experiences.
To say Tom James is optimistic about the future of content delivery will be an understatement. He sees the publishing cup 90% full. Mr. James offers the industry a simple, yet very effective prescription to its problems. “Break out of the issue concept and the print paradigm and then everything becomes in place,” he says. As I have said time and time again, as long as we are thinking replicas (no matter how many plus plus plus you are willing to add) we are not innovating. We have to break the mold and think innovation rather than renovation.
The idea of engaging Mr. James in a conversation about the future of our industry germinated last summer when I met him in Denver, Colorado at the Association for Journalism and Mass Communications’ summer convention. He showed the magazine division of the association a preview of what Bonnier introduced this month: Skiing Interactive, an interactive publication that is not a replica for anything they have in print. After the launch of Skiing Interactive I felt it was necessary to check back with the interactivity doctor at Bonnier to try to understand, first hand, what are his innovation plans and where the future of publishing is taking us.
What follows, is the full, lightly edited, Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Tom James:
Samir Husni: What is Skiing Interactive?
Tom James: It’s our first launch into what I think is a new style of delivering content, really. The fact that we did it with skiing, it’s one of our titles and one of many that we’re considering to do it with, the style of delivering content which is more appropriate for the digital desktop format than what has previously been done for digital desktop magazines.
It’s really about all the digital magazines in the last two years, certainly the last year have been focused on the iPad and the apps and the way their app works. I’m more focused about the way the content is consumed by the consumer, the way the ads relate to the reader and the frequency. It’s a totally different strategy than, “Oh, can we make a cool app?” We’ve shown we can make a cool iPad app. I think our Mag Plus app is one of the most innovative iPad apps out there, but I still don’t think that’s the only thing that can be done with digital magazines.
SH: If we consider ourselves the most creative people in this industry, why can’t we think outside the focus of developing replicas of printed magazines? We have a new medium out there. Why can’t we just create a message for that specific medium, rather than creating a replica?
TJ: That’s my philosophy exactly. But you can’t deny everyone (who is) swept up in the romanticism of having something for the iPad. It was kind of heralded as a savior for the magazine industry and I just don’t think the magazine industry is that broke. We still know how to make great content that connects with the user. We just have to make the right content for the right medium. That’s not that tricky.
SH: You’re now the black sheep who’s doing that. You’re not following the masses. Steve Jobs has not lit a candle for you.
TJ: I consume a lot of magazines on the iPad, probably just like you do. It’s easy to carry them around that way. But, you can’t deny there’s a billion desktops and laptops in circulation being used right now as compared to under 10 million tablets, and we as publishers can get our content onto that medium in a better way. We can’t abandon that. We can’t just let our website be the way that we reach people through the desktop and laptop. I want to give them slices of content in a finite, digestible form that is pushed to them rather than a website (where) the user actively searches for what he’s looking for.
SH: How are you going to be able to take what I call our “welfare information society” we’ve created in the last 10 years, and find a way to charge and make money?
TJ: First off, I believe that we will make money from ads because we’re putting a huge focus on making the ads just as engaging and entertaining and as on target as the editorial content. A lot of our focus has been making our ads exceptional.
As a media person, I’m kind of embarrassed that the only media form where the ads are as important as the content is the Super Bowl. That’s one little thing that the ads are important on and I think we can make the ads just as important in our digital push of content. So, I think that by making better ads, we have a better business model, but I really don’t have the answer to that subscription problem. There’s a lot of really smart people working on that and it’s kind of a conundrum. People don’t seem to want to pay for digital products. I think over time they will, but I don’t know when or how we’re going to reach that tipping point.
SH: Tell me how you will respond to those who will say, “Now you are mixing church and state.” Is it our job as media folks to create better ads?
TJ: It’s certainly not mixing church and state. We are very definitive and emphatic about which screens are advertising and which screens are editorial. What we’ve done is we’ve created a new engaging form of media that tells stories in interactive, lean-forward ways. We think our advertisers should do the same. Now, because we created this form of media, we’re helping our advertisers learn how to create ads for that form of media.
We are sort of seeding the ideas at first. Like, “Hey, you can do a ‘Which ski suits me best’, a personalized interactive ad, versus just a pitch of a message.“ We’re just helping them learn that this is possible now. If you invented a billboard and no one had ever seen a billboard, you’d also have to create the first billboard ad, wouldn’t you? No one would know that format of advertising. That’s kind of the era we’re in right now. I think that advertisers will quickly catch on, and this is by no means merging “church and state.”
SH: When I buy a magazine, I’m buying it for the ads and the articles. I don’t like separating the two.
TJ: You’ve been an editor, and as an editor, I’m always embarrassed when the advertisements aren’t as on target or as good as my content. I feel like it’s wasting or interrupting my reader’s time. The time that the reader is in my world, so to speak, I feel responsible and I don’t want to insult him or her with crummy ads, just like I don’t want to insult him or her with crummy editorial.
SH: As a visionary in this field, where do you think we went wrong in this business? Were we swept away because the newspaper industry is hurting and they took all of print together? Or were we so in love and romanced with the iPad?
TJ: I don’t know if we went wrong yet. It was so good for a while that we considering this more challenging era problematic. I think there’s areas we’re going wrong. I think as content producers we have to get out of the mindset that content should be delivered to consumers when we want to deliver it. I think we should deliver it more or less when they want to get it, which might be every day, for all I know. It might be every half-hour. I think that’s an area where we’re going wrong, but I think being stuck in a print-centric mindset where it’s a monthly frequency and the editorial’s great and the ads suck, I think that’s an area we’re going wrong.
I just think it’s relative. You know how good the magazine industry was for a long, long time and I think that now we’re challenged a little more; there’s people who are doomsayers about it, but it’s just a little more challenging now.
SH: You’re the doctor. What’s the prescription? How do we face this challenge now?
TJ: I think it’s pretty simple, which is remarkable to say. You’ve got these different mediums. You have to deliver the right type of content for each medium. For example, on television, if we’re going to have apps that reside on your television, we should stream video to those apps. If we’re going to do the things we’re doing on desktops and laptops, I believe interactive infographics are the best. I think in print: good long reads, long-form journalism might be great, and great photos. I think from a content perspective, making sure you don’t force the wrong kind of content onto certain mediums.
From an advertising prospective, I think it’s working with your advertisers to do the same. When you look at the ads that are in the magazine apps in the iPad, they don’t touch the potential that they could have. They’re still pitches. I think once we get our content right for the medium and then help our marketers get their ads right for the mediums, we’ll be in a fine place. Does that work as a prescription?
SH: It sounds like a good start. Like you said, it’s such a simple prescription. Why aren’t we following it?
TJ: Because we do print so well. It’s hard to get out of that mindset. Editors are in love with the great read and their contacts are really great at creating great reads, all our contributors. So, the people we know create print media. So, we try to force those people’s skills and our skills into the other mediums which I don’t think works.
Other than maybe the New York Times, who has a great infographic department, we’re still very word-centric and that’s not the right form of content for the different mediums. We’re probably going to see some kind of Renaissance in the types of people that we’re hiring. People who know how to work with data better, who are more interested in information management than words and words telling a great story. That’s what I believe. I believe it’s a form of our context and our knowledge base.
SH: If someone said, “OK, Tom. Here is your crystal ball. What’s the future of print?”
TJ: Are you talking next three years, next 10 years, or the next 50 years? To me, print has a great future for our business until it become psychologically unsustainable. I don’t know if the world is always going to want to be cutting down trees and driving boxes of magazines around the country or world. But other than that, people love having a print product on their coffee table and I think that’s good news for us.
SH: What’s the future of the Internet? Is the Internet dead?
TJ: The future of the Internet? If I could answer that question, I would be in the penthouse of this hotel (where he was staying when we spoke via the phone). I don’t know. Delivering great content that’s easily accessible, whenever the user wants it, and helping our marketers reach those users with equally great content.
SH: It seems to me you’re betting more on the desktops and on the laptops than you’re betting on the tablets, for now.
TJ: For now, I go with the numbers. You know what, there’s not an iPad owner who doesn’t have a desktop and laptop, or very few. I love the tablets; I think they’re going to be a great supplement to how we consume media, but I believe this, and I hate to say this, but I believe people consume a lot of media at work while they’re screwing around between spreadsheets or whatever and that doesn’t just have to be Facebook. It can be our magazine content or our company’s content and it’ll be on the computer they’re using at work, which is probably a desktop or laptop. Desktops and laptops, those are dirty words. Those are great ways to consume content.
SH: You’re one of the few folks that I’ve spoken to who is really talking about the need to educate the advertiser. If we are going to make money, you can’t just tell them to do it by themselves, and you’re getting out of that replica world that everybody is talking about.
TJ: Skiing Interactive, for one, doesn’t relate to the Skiing print product in any way other than to DNA, perhaps, but not in the content. The content that we do in print is not as dynamic as the content we do in Skiing Interactive for the desktop and laptop. I’m really interested in helping and bringing the advertisers along with us. I don’t know if they are aware of everything the magazine industry is trying to do, and if we create something great, we have to help them create something great along aside it.
SH: One of the reasons I created the Magazine Innovation Center is to help amplify the future of print, because I feel like we use print so much to amplify the future of technology and digital and the web. Do you think it’s a lost cause? Can we use digital to amplify the future of the printed Skiing Magazine? Or is that necessary?
TJ: I think we can really help keep the brand in front of users with the digital product and then I do believe, especially in enthusiast products, whether you’re a cook or a snow skier, you like that product lying around your coffee table, so that when someone comes to visit you, it says, “Look, I’m into food” or “I’m into skiing.” So, I think that by keeping the brand important, which is in front of people everyday in their digital lifestyles and their digital habits that will create a continuing existence for a great print product.
Now, I’ve read on your site, “Is the future of magazines the book-a-zines?” and that might be. Maybe as we increase frequency digitally, we will decrease frequency and quality on the print product. The important thing is the brand is still going to be strong.
SH: Some companies are starting to think about the web and its interactivity as a good source of subscription models and direct marketing. Do you see that as a legitimate part of the deal?
TJ: I think that ultimately subscriptions might come as a package where you get a few print products, you get access to enhanced versions of the website and you get this pushed interactive product delivered to you on a regular basis. And getting back to one of your original questions, that might be how you monetize the subscription side of it, by packaging it into a multimedia, cross-platform situation where you just get everything that the brand offers for a certain price. I hope and want there to be print in that mix. But I know that there is going to be digital in that mix.
SH: What about the reader? The more mass and general the magazine is, the less specific the knowledge about the readers. How important is it for our future to go back to the old premise of knowing your audience?
TJ: That’s probably never going to change; as far as the primary importance and what the Internet era has created, more fractionalized and specific audiences. Then it’s even more important to know your audience. If I’m a skier in Colorado, I might be different than a skier in New Hampshire, and we probably are going to need to address those specific subsets. For those big generalized magazines, I don’t know how they’re going to do it. If People magazine wants to cover everything from music celebrities to soap opera celebrities, I’m not sure how they’ll do that. I like to deal with enthusiasts and people who are very passionate about specific things, and I think our company has always addressed, as our slogan says, “Connecting people with their passions.” General interest stuff, I don’t really know.
SH: What are some of the steps to fill the prescription you mentioned earlier?
TJ: I think it’s the same stuff we’ve talked about before; making sure that you don’t force one medium’s content inappropriately onto another medium, making sure that you pay attention to helping your marketers create equally engaging content across the mediums you are entering in. I think if your product is on target with the audience, appropriate for the medium, advertising is equally that way, and then your frequency is such that it’s available when the user more or less wants it, I think those would be the steps. The No. 1 step: break out of the issue concept and the print paradigm and then everything becomes in place, so to speak.
SH: What’s your next big project?
TJ: I’m just working on helping our company forge its way into the new media landscape. I wish I were in total control of my destiny. I want to work with all the groups that are working with, making media work for the future. I know we make great content; we just have to reach the people with it and in the correct way.
SH: Do you see the cup half full, half empty, three-quarters full?
TJ: I think the cup is 90 percent full. I think we learned a lot about efficiency in this era and we have an unbelievable amount of opportunities, and that’s a pretty good formula for being profitable.
SH: That’s great. You are the first person ever who goes above the 50 percent mark. I love it.
TJ: That feels pretty good. Why would anyone be in this industry if we thought it didn’t have a good future? It’s like people living in Detroit. They say, “Look, Detroit’s dying. I’m moving.” I think if you’re going to stay in this industry, you gotta make it work, and I think we can make it work.
SH: Thank you.