In the life of any media company change is the only constant. But change doesn’t happen by itself; change is always searching for an innovative, passionate visionary who can ensure a successful present, based on a solid past with an eye for an even more successful future.
And change needs a leader who knows what he wants and how to execute a plan to get it, a leader who is involved in every detail of that method to the point that he is an actual foot soldier instead of the general that merely leads the way.
William (Billy) S. Morris III is such a leader. When I flew to the headquarters of Morris Communications in Augusta, GA. to interview Mr. Morris and his president of Morris Media Network, Donna Kessler, I knew there was a story here that needed to be told.
I have worked and consulted with Mr. Morris and Ms. Kessler for years and have witnessed the evolution of a newspaper company into a multimedia institution.
What follows is the Morris Media Network story, related succinctly and passionately by Billy Morris and Dona Kessler.
But first the sound-bites…
On the evolution of Morris Communications: My father was in the newspaper business and I came in the business after I got out of college in 1956 and we continued to add newspapers until we built up a very nice cluster of papers. But along the way we started to add some magazines.
On the common thread that runs through Morris Communications: The thread that runs through them all is the mandate to excellence. We want to be the best that we can possibly be and certainly better than our competitors.
On coping with the changes in type to computers over the years: We were in front of it or up on the upper edge of it. The technological changes that occurred first in the newspaper business by the use of computers to hyphenate and justify type, we were the second or the third newspaper company in the country to use the IBM 513 computer to do that.
On following your passion and your gut instinct when acquiring titles for the company: I have not found any negative aspects to it at all. As a matter of fact, I think you do better with things that you like and enjoy, that you’re knowledgeable and passionate about and that you do yourself. I think it’s a good thing.
On giving advice when it comes to print in our digital age: Print obviously is what pays the bills and I think print is a very important part of what we do, but if I had to give somebody advice I don’t think it would necessarily be dollar and cents advice. I think it would be stay true to your passions.
On what keeps them up at night: I don’t think we have enough time to go through what keeps me up at night. If I have to summarize it would be my commitment and my concern that we continue to serve our readers and our partners and our advertisers the best way that we can.
And now the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ interview with Billy Morris and Donna Kessler – the powers-that-be at Morris Communications…
Samir Husni: Mr. Morris, for background purposes, can you briefly tell us the history of the Morris Media Network? Morris is known as a newspaper company but now you have more magazines than newspapers. Can you briefly take us through the evolution of Morris Communications from a newspaper company to a multimedia institution now?
Billy Morris: You’re right, Samir. My father was in the newspaper business and I came in the business after I got out of college in 1956 and we continued to add newspapers until we built up a very nice cluster of papers. But along the way we started to add some magazines.
We started a few city magazines, we bought some magazines of various kinds and today we have a very nice cluster of magazines that’s concentrated in visitor magazines, primarily the ‘Where’ brand. We have a cluster of equine magazines and we have a cluster of sporting magazines and we have a cluster of Alaska magazines and a cluster of city magazines.
We have four or five clusters of magazines, all of which are important, all of which serve a specific audience in a specific way. And we’re just privileged to have that opportunity. We are a free people in this country and we need lots of information. We make all of our own decisions and in order to do that we must have information — information on the small items like what movie to go to tonight and what to buy at the grocery store and infinite information on the bigger items like what house to buy or what car to buy or in the case of someone who’s reading an equine magazine, what horse to buy.
And then there’s the more important decisions which we make about our democracy, who to vote for and what to do with those important issues. So we have a real calling as journalists to provide information to a variety of different people on a variety of different subjects and for a variety of different reasons and purposes.
And what we do both in our newspapers as well as in our magazines is essentially important to the people who live in our communities or the people who have the interests that we serve. And we cherish the opportunity to serve them and we hope to be able to have the highest possible standard that we can accomplish to do that for them.
We’re continuing to improve, continuing to change, continuing to recognize that there are new people coming along all along who need the information that we have. We are honored to be in the business — magazines are critically important to what we do and we are very honored to have these magazines and we are greatly privileged to have an opportunity to work with you in different ways such as your ACT conferences as well as the many other things that you do for other magazines.
SH: Thank you. What do you think is the common thread if we are going to take all of those clusters — the national magazines, the equine, the travel, the MVP — is there a common thread that goes through the entire Morris publications?
BM: The thread that runs through them all is the mandate to excellence. We want to be the best that we can possibly be and certainly better than our competitors. The standard that we hold is that we’ve got to be good at what we do. We treat people fairly, we admit our mistakes when we make one and we try to stay on top of the different segments and do a great job for the readers and for our audience. The demand for excellence is the standard.
SH: One of the things that the good Lord gave you and me is that we have been privileged to see journalism change from the hot type to the linotype to the computers…How did you cope with that change?
BM: We were in front of it or up on the upper edge of it. The technological changes that occurred first in the newspaper business by the use of computers to hyphenate and justify type, we were the second or the third newspaper company in the country to use the IMB 513 computer to do that, which greatly speeded up and made more efficient the process of setting type.
We were one of the first companies in the country to connect our three newspapers — Augustus, Savannah and Athens — to one computer located in Augusta over telephone lines, this was back in the 60’s, to use that one machine to hyphenate, justify type for three different newspapers in three different communities.
So we’ve been on the forefront of technological innovation. Efficient production and good technology has been one of the keys to our success. It has given us good profit margins, which has enabled us to reinvest in the product side — the product side, the content side and the editorial side of our business and to do a better job there.
And I’m delighted to have Donna Kessler, her background is production, and she likewise has picked up our standard and gone on to an even higher level with the good production work that she and her staff do.
So doing a good, efficient job of producing what you do is important and it allows you to a better job on the front end of the editorial and the content end. You can do a better job there if you’re efficient with how you produce it.
SH: One of the things that I’ve heard you say often is you bought this magazine out of passion, you bought this magazine because you always wanted to do this magazine like in the case of Western Horseman. Are there any dangers for a CEO of a media company to run with his passion, acquiring titles and building magazine companies or do you still believe that if you don’t follow your gut you’re not going anywhere?
BM: I have not found any negative aspects to it at all. I happen to like horses, and I like travel and I like outdoor sporting events so I haven’t found any negative to it all. As a matter of fact, I think you do better with things that you like and enjoy, that you’re knowledgeable and passionate about and that you do yourself. I think it’s a good thing. This is not to say we couldn’t efficiently run a magazine on a subject that we didn’t have any interest in. We could certainly do that but I just happen to enjoy the ones that we have because I like those activities.
SH: And through the years you’ve collected a lot of titles. You’ve collected competing companies like ‘Guest Informant’ and ‘Where’ titles. You’ve acquired national magazines; you’ve acquired city magazines. And then when you had all these magazines all over the place, then comes a lady from L.A. that you’ve put in charge of the Morris Media Network. So Donna how easy was it taking all these different titles and bringing them in one way or another to Augusta, Georgia?
DK: It wasn’t easy, it was a challenge but it was a lot of fun. We started first with the ‘Where’-branded titles and probably had in excess of 25 different acquisitions. As you mentioned, they were competing titles. We had multiple offices in multiple locations. We had in excess of five or six production centers. We probably had 200 different sales compensation plans. Really the first thing that we needed to do was the travel sector. We really needed to take the company from being a bunch of licensees into really being one solid division and functioning as such.
Part of that entire process was establishing or staying true to the philosophy of what needs to be local stays local because we have 35-plus markets outside of Augusta and we have a strong local presence.
So we wanted to make sure that the editor stayed local because as Mr. Morris said it’s very important to make sure we have our finger on the pulse and we are reporting timely, accurate curated content. We wanted the salespeople to stay local because it’s very important for them to touch their customers on a regular basis. And we wanted the circulation to stay local because they needed to be able to see where the product was going and have a relationship with our distribution partners.
Once we were able to stabilize the travel side of our business and have things that needed to be local and centralize the things on the back end that did not need to be in the markets that’s when Mr. Morris came to me and the team that I work with and said, “Could you do the same thing for the national magazines?” We of course were delighted and thrilled to do that and it’s a model that has worked quite well for us.
SH: We all know that we live in a digital era yet you have millions of print impressions. I mean you still produce millions of copies of different titles and magazines. If somebody comes to you for advice and said, “Donna you’ve established this formula, you were able to do this with the travel sector/cluster, you did this with the equine, you did this with the national magazines — what advice would you offer somebody who is so lost in this digital era to help with the print aspect of the business?”
Donna Kessler: Well, I think first and foremost given where we are right now you can’t only focus on print. Print obviously is what pays the bills and I think print is a very important part of what we do, but if I had to give somebody advice I don’t think it would necessarily be dollar and cents advice. I think it would be stay true to your passions.
Mr. Morris told you what he thought the common threads were that ran through our different publications. Be true to your readers, be true to your advertisers, be dedicated and committed to providing the best possible content, the most usable content to the people who have these passions. And also be prepared in any way, shape or form that they want to receive that content. So I think if you are true to that and know who you are serving then the rest kind of falls into place as long as you can offer that in a variety of different ways.
SH: You have a print background. You came from a print production background. How easy or hard was the adjustment from this print background to this digital era that we’re living in and how did you use that for your benefit in a digital era?
DK: It was a difficult adjustment for me and I think if you would have asked me two years ago or three years ago I probably would have said oh yeah I get it, I get the fact that we need to make the change. But it took me about another year to truly understand what that meant. And I think once I truly embraced it then I was able to communicate that to the team. People say it all the time: If you as a leader don’t believe that this in inevitable and this is happening and you need to touch on a number of different levels then no one in your organization is going to believe it. It was difficult for me to truly feel that I get it now and I truly feel that we are a content company-serving people with different passions. What was the second part of the question?
SH: The adjustment and how do you advise someone who came from a print background…
DK: I think it goes back to what I said to the answer that I gave the question before. Again, if you focus on the content, if you focus on the passion, if you focus on the needs of the person who is consuming your content and then take that — that’s where you start. And then take that and say how can I serve that person, that passionate person about horses for example in whatever way — print, digital, e-commerce or events. I think as long as you focus on that it leads you down the right path.
SH: Where is now, in the current Morris Media Network, the manifestation of the content. Can I find it on the web, can I find it on an app, and can I find it in print?
DK: Yes, and it depends upon which title that you’re talking about. The plan of course is to analyze each title and each passion — we’ve done some of this already — and see what adjacencies if you will make sense. If you look in the travel space, we just launched a new website. We are in the process of also getting ready to launch by the end of the first quarter a native app. If you take a look at some of the more traditional publications, some of them have Adobe DPS versions, some of them just have replica versions and some of them have apps. Some of them have really, really strong social media presences depending on the products type and the passion. Some of them are aggressively going into the events space. Again, it goes back to what is the best way to deliver content to those people.
SH: Do you think there will be a day that you will give up on print?
SH: Mr. Morris, do you think there will ever be a day that you give up on print?
BM: Absolutely not.
SH: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
DK: You have to love your job. And in addition to being committed to the products that you serve, I think you have to feel good about getting up and going to work every day. If you don’t have that then nothing else comes from it.
SH: Mr. Morris, anything I’ve failed to ask you?
BM: No, I think we’ve got a great opportunity, and a great country and great people and a great company and I’m delighted to have this opportunity.
SH: Then my final question to you…what keeps you up at night?
BM: Nothing. I believe that we’re in a wonderful business of providing a free people with information that they need and that will change form time to time. Some people want it in print. Some people want it online, some people want it on the radio and some people want it in other ways such as magazines or books.
I just think we have a great opportunity to continue to do that. We’ll make some mistakes and we’ll have to do a few things over every now and then. But the fact of the matter is that we’re in a wonderful business, in a free society and it is not going to go away. We’ve got a great business. We’re just as important as anybody else in the structure — doctors, lawyers, accountants and professional people who do important things. We do important things too. We provide important information to a free people who need it — commercial information and non-commercial. So we’ve got a great, great business and a great country in which to live, great opportunities. So absolutely nothing keeps me up at night.
SH: So just for the record, you are the first CEO that I have interviewed in my entire history as a journalist who gave me that answer — that nothing keeps them up at night. Now we are going to put the challenge to Ms. Kessler here…what keeps you up at night?
DK: I don’t think we have enough time to go through what keeps me up at night. If I have to summarize it would be my commitment and my concern that we continue to serve our readers and our partners and our advertisers the best way that we can. That’s really what keeps me up at night. And trying to make sure that my team is going down the right path to figure out how we’re going to do that, anticipating how we can make their love horses better or whatever it may be. So take that and break it down into about 500 hundred different things and that’s what keeps me up at night.
SH: Thank you.
© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2014. All Rights Reserved.
An article based on this interview was published in Press Check, Spring 2014 issue. Press Check is a quarterly newsletter published by Publishers Press, Inc.