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Bryan Welch: Putting His “Magazines” Where His Mouth Is… Preaching and Teaching Audience Engagement in the Magazine Business. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

May 22, 2014

Sustainability, Audience Awareness And A Love Of Print – Three Things Ogden Publications Foster & Promote Unashamedly – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Bryan Welch – Publisher & Editorial Director, Ogden Publications

“For most of the last ten years, Mother Earth News out of all the MRI measured magazines had the best and most consistent rate of growth…” Bryan Welch

There are few left in today’s publishing industry that actually put their money where their mouth is, but Bryan Welch – Publisher & Editorial Director – Ogden Publications, is one man who does. His love for print and magazines is second only to his love for Mother Earth and sustainability. And there is a reason for that.

Bryan’s first job was herding goats, so he has a good and compassionate feel for the Earth and all its inhabitants. And the second training ground that prepared him for the job he has now was taking a shot at being a stand-up comedian. The lesson he learned from that job, adapting and refining jokes based on the instantaneous reaction from the audience, made him more aware of how important audience awareness is and how vital adapting to their changing behaviors can be for publishers and magazine media.

The printed product is also very important and significant to him and he continues to place a very high value on his ink on paper products and in the people who buy and read them lovingly and loyally. He is a man close to the earth both professionally and personally. I asked Bryan about the things that are vital to Mother Earth News (just one of many Ogden magazines) and to him, such as sustainability and engagement with his audience.

His answers will engage and surprise you as you sit back, relax and think “green” and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Bryan Welch – Publisher & Editorial Director of Mother Earth News.

But first The Mr. Magazine™ Minute with Bryan Welch on his secret of success in the magazine media world today:

And now for the sound-bites:

On whether the world is getting closer to actual sustainability or farther away: We are continuing to accelerate toward a bad outcome, unfortunately and mainly that’s driven by population and by prosperity. I’ll start by saying that I am very optimistic. I think we are going to solve our problem.

On how the focus of sustainability and service is helping his magazines: For most of the last five years it has been the MRI measured magazine most likely to be reader’s favorite; it’s often had the most time-spent-reading number, so we have both engagement and audience growth.

On whether he believes print is dead and it’s an all-digital future: Every time this question comes up I just mention that there’s this print magazine that has a 750,000 rate base and is an inch and half thick and weighs about 2lbs and it’s called Wired. And it’s about the digital media. Why is there a magazine about the digital media?

On why we should focus on the audience instead of the platform: That’s such an interesting question. I think one reason is most magazines are run by people who are not passionate about the subject matter. As a result, I think that they are psychologically reluctant, or rather, reluctant for psychological reasons, to analyze the problem in terms of engagement.

On the most pleasant surprise in his career: In my career it was the acquisition of Mother Earth News because I had a stack of Mother Earth News underneath my bed when I was nineteen years old.

On the biggest stumbling block he has had to face: On a very mundane level I’m deeply dissatisfied with how we’ve communicated the value of our audience with advertisers. I think that we’ve, by and large, failed to acquaint them with the value of engagement, we have failed to acquaint them with the value of influential audiences, of profoundly passionate people.

On what keeps him up at night: You know every day I can enumerate several dozen things that I could have done better, so if you’re asking that question in the traditional sense, as in something negative that keeps me up at night, I do count off and review the things that I didn’t do as well as I could have done.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bryan Welch – Publisher & Editorial Director – Ogden Publications

Samir Husni: My first question to you is, are we getting closer to Mother Earth News with all these new technological developments or are we going away from Mother Earth News?

Bryan Welch: We are continuing to accelerate toward a bad outcome, unfortunately and mainly that’s driven by population and by prosperity. I’ll start by saying that I am very optimistic. I think we are going to solve our problem. The question is how big of a catastrophe do we need to create before we come to grips with the essential problem.

The human population has doubled in my lifetime and that’s compounded when you have the two most populace countries in the world increasing their prosperity to an unprecedented rate. I’m very happy that the people of India and China are more prosperous than they’ve ever been, but as people become more prosperous of course, they buy more stuff, and they burn more fuel; they do everything more and all of those things compound the growing problem with the habitat.

Now psychologically, every day we’re a little closer to the realizations that need to be made. And that’s the most promising sign for me, is that the awareness is growing as quickly as it is. And of course, it’s a great source of satisfaction to those of us who work in the areas where we focus on sustainability; it’s gratifying to see awareness growing and the audience growing.

Samir Husni: You publish a group of magazines that are aimed at that awareness and service; how is that helping the magazines?

Bryan Welsh Bryan Welch: For most of the last ten years, Mother Earth News out of all the MRI measured magazines had the best and most consistent rate of growth over the last ten years, averaged out. For most of the last five years it has been the MRI measured magazine most likely to be reader’s favorite; it’s often had the most time-spent-reading number, so we have both engagement and audience growth.

So today, I believe we’re at a million and a half unique visitors to the website every month. The audience total for the magazine is approaching seven million. And all of these are unprecedented numbers for us. Mathematically speaking we’re having a brief significant success and I think that grows out of people’s increasing awareness.

One of the numbers that I find most promising, last year I just started asking people about their political beliefs: do you consider yourself very conservative, somewhat conservative, neutral, somewhat liberal or very liberal. The Mother Earth News reader’s index for being very liberal is about 195 and the index for being very conservative is about 185. And because so many more Americans are quote – unquote very conservative that means about 9% of our readership said they’re quote-unquote very liberal. And about 20% of our readership said they are very conservative politically.

What that looks like to me is a social overhang. It looks to me like a harbinger of a very significant change in how we behave and how we view the world if all these very conservative people are subscribing to Mother Earth News. And the mass media doesn’t recognize that any very conservative person has deep feelings about sustainability. But there you have it. They have very deep feelings about Mother Earth News and pay us money to tell them about sustainability.

Samir Husni: How is the shift taking place? Are we still talking about print is dead and the future is all digital? Where do you see yourself, your colleagues and your publishers on this issue?

Bryan Welch: Every time this question comes up I just mention that there’s this print magazine that has a 750,000 rate base and is an inch and half thick and weighs about 2lbs and it’s called Wired. And it’s about the digital media. Why is there a magazine about the digital media? Well, I can’t explain that, but as long as there is one I’m not all that concerned about the print future of Mother Earth News or Grit. You know there’s something about print.

One of my friends, a very smart person, says that the print product is an artifact. Not a historical artifact, but an artifact of your value system and you want to own a physical object because it reflects your value system. You want it in your home, on your table and within your reach. Even if you’re reading mostly on your mobile device in a completely different format, you still want the physical object and certainly we’ve not seen significant erosion of the value of our print subscriptions; we’ve not seen any erosion in the value of our print subscriptions over these last ten years and I would have expected to see it.

So I think the right posture for us is to be completely agnostic about platform and focus on engagement; to focus all of our efforts on being more meaningful to the audiences we choose to serve and deepening the relationship with those audiences and of course being there with the product in the format that they want.

But the relationship with the magazine brand and the relationship with the media brand is the fundamental unit of value in our business. And I try to get my colleagues to focus on that above and beyond all other things.

Samir Husni: It seems so just common sense for us to focus on the audience instead of the platform. Why do you think we’ve not done that and why do we avoid common sense?

Bryan Welch: That’s such an interesting question. I think one reason is most magazines are run by people who are not passionate about the subject matter. As a result, I think that they are psychologically reluctant, or rather, reluctant for psychological reasons, to analyze the problem in terms of engagement. Engagement is a complicated question and deep engagement with an audience requires deep empathy which is easier to achieve if you share their value system and their passions. But most people who wind up running magazines do not share those same passions of their audience. So I think as a result many are reluctant to analyze the problem in those terms, because that’s a more difficult way for them to solve the problem than a new consultant, a new gadget or a new platform.

Samir Husni: What’s been the most pleasant surprise for you in your career?

Bryan Welch: In my career it was the acquisition of Mother Earth News because I had a stack of Mother Earth News underneath my bed when I was nineteen years old.

And for me, I’m a business person, but I’m in the particular business that I’m in because I’m a storyteller by nature, my vocation is probably storytelling. So for me it was always important to be emotionally engaged with the subject matter and it always seemed to me, as a personal goal, that that should be paramount. And every day is very exciting.

And the acquisition of Mother Earth News for me was very lucky. It just really felt like a dream come true for me.

Samir Husni: What has been the major stumbling block for you that you’ve been able to overcome or not?

Bryan Welch: On a very mundane level I’m deeply dissatisfied with how we’ve communicated the value of our audience with advertisers. I think that we’ve, by and large, failed to acquaint them with the value of engagement, we have failed to acquaint them with the value of influential audiences, of profoundly passionate people. Because there are many categories of products: natural foods, energy-efficient automobiles that are points of really deep engagement with our audiences. And the advertisers in those categories have almost ignored us altogether.

And so that’s a disappointment and a stumbling block that we’ve not overcome yet and that we continue to work on.

Other than that, you know I suppose that I’m, like most entrepreneurs, optimistic by nature, so the vast majority of the obstacles that we face, I feel like we’re in the process of crawling over them, whether that’s the case or not. But I tend to feel that we are.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Bryan Welch: You know every day I can enumerate several dozen things that I could have done better, so if you’re asking that question in the traditional sense, as in something negative that keeps me up at night, I do count off and review the things that I didn’t do as well as I could have done. I think like a lot of people do probably.

But I’m more likely to be up at night or particularly early in the morning more often because I have something exciting that I want to do. I’ve been lucky to have had that kind of career that’s given me a lot of work that I want to get to. So it gets me up.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. […] the whole article Bryan Welch: Putting His “Magazines” Where His Mouth Is… Preaching and Teaching Au… on the website Mr. […]



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