The Mr. Magazine™ Interview: Mitchell Fox, President and CEO of 8020 Media…October 5, 2008
Cats Must Fail… and Other Words of Wisdom from Mitch Fox
Mitch Fox, President and CEO of 8020 Media
“There is a philosophical disconnect between most bloggers and a print vehicle”
From retail to Details, from Details to Vanity Fair up the ladder of Condé Nast publishing and then out, Mitch Fox continues to do his dream job of “building businesses and making them grow.” The former Condé Nast executive is now the President and CEO of an entrepreneurial company based in San Francisco called 8020 Media publisher of JPG magazine. He moved to San Francisco earlier this year to join the company that his old friend C/Net founder Halsey Minor has invested in.
The move from the east coast to the west coast was the subject of my first question:
How is life in San Francisco, I asked.
It is quite good. The media community up here in general is such a departure from the New York culture. The media community in New York is best typified by a cartoon that ran in the New Yorker of two dogs sitting in a bar in suits drinking martinis and one dog says to the other, “it is not enough that dogs succeed, but cats must fail.” That is exactly how the media business, particularly the magazine business in New York, is. Out here, it is not quite like that. Maybe, it is because it is an expanding pie. Here partnerships between what most would consider competitors are common place. Advice and recommendations are shared pretty openly, although no one is about to reveal their secrets, but, at least, they communicate in a civil way. If one person goes from one company to another, typically, the executive will call me and say you have got a great person. It is just a whole different culture.
How is it different to go from being part of a media giant to creating what may possibly be the genes of a media giant from scratch?
The difference is that in a big company you have more resources just by virtue of having more people to consult with. I like consulting with people. But, in a smaller company, you can be much more nimble. You can be much more creative, and there is no politics. When we make a decision to do something as the small management team here, we don’t have to worry about anybody else approving, agreeing or doing anything to undermine our success internally. We can focus 100 percent of our efforts on simply making sure that our decisions are successful ones.
Are magazine companies oversized? Did we super-sized our staff to the point of no return? Can we still hire editors and publishers in the same way that we used to hire them in the good old days?
I think that, because business was so good for so long, magazine companies’ overhead became inflated past a point that is reasonable. The expenses associated with those enormous staffs, just the shear operational expenses, have become so inflated that it is extremely difficult to be profitable.
However, I don’t think we have gotten ourselves to the point where it is too expensive to hire editors and publishers. I think what we do is expect too little of them relative to their contributions to producing the magazines.
What are the strategies and plans that you have for 8020 Media? Where do you see them going?
When I first learned about this company, I guess it was in October of 2006 right after they started, and it was from my old friend who had invested in the company. My plan for the company is relatively self-evident, especially after ceasing publication of Everywhere magazine although we keep the website going. It is to build a platform that will permit us to create communities around vertical interests and have those communities contribute content that other members can vote on, determine what the best of it is and, when we pull off that best content that the community determines, create stunningly beautiful magazines from that content. With the platform being finally developed at JPG where we can now replicate it, we are about to announce our next properties, which we can now turn out fairly quickly one after the other, because really our greatest skill, in addition to creating beautiful magazines, is community management. Growing, developing and nurturing communities are what we spend an immense amount of our time on.
So, will there be more print products, or will there be just communities online like Everywhere?
Everywhere is an anomaly because we have a pretty small online community and it never made itself into a really good magazine. We will never again have a community that does not launch or spawn a magazine. The wonderful part about the magazines is that it is a terrific reward for those people who contribute online, because it is still a rare opportunity to have your contribution and your work published in any nationally or internationally published magazine. That is a very exciting prospect for most people. Consequently, the magazine has such great tactile value. There is something about magazines and the ability they have in peoples’ lives. It is very exciting for people to be able to say they have been published. We will always have a magazine that is the result of a community’s efforts, and the next business unit, which we are planning to announce probably in two weeks, will similarly have a big magazine component to it.
The community seems to be your magnet, but what about this business philosophy? What is your plan of linking the pixels on the screen with the ink on paper? Can you expand a little on that relationship?
It is easy, because our community members interact with each other relative to the content that they have contributed and the content that their peers have contributed. We have this notion of self interest that all of the members have in playing this “game” to get themselves voted highly enough to become part of this fantastic end product, which is the magazine. The magazine is sold at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters, and really becomes a touchstone that all the members want to be a part of. Like I said, it is a very exciting notion for advanced amateurs of any kind to be able to be published in this beautiful magazine.
You make it seem so easy. Why don’t other people turn their blogs and communities into print publications?
I think there is a philosophical disconnect between most bloggers and a print vehicle. There is a very high cost associated with producing a magazine. There is also a very high barrier of professional expertise needed to produce a magazine. Consequently, it is a lot more complicated to produce a magazine than it is to produce a blog. It is infinitely more complicated to produce a good magazine, distribute it, and sell it, than it is to just get a blog up and running.
Would you please explain the name of the company 8020.
Truth be told, it changes periodically, depending on what we are discussing, because some might say that 80 percent of the content comes from the community, and 20 percent of the content is created by the editors. That is probably the best explanation, because editors play a significant role in the magazines in that they do have about 20 percent control relative to community involvement. They create the narrative for the magazines. If a photo or a story comes in too close to the deadline, and, as a result, could not garner enough votes to really earn its way in, but we love it and want to publish it, then we will pull it and publish it.
Since you joined 8020, what would you consider the biggest hurdle that you had to overcome?
I would say the biggest hurdle was sharing the understanding that we have to create a single platform from which we can launch other titles. When I joined, Everywhere was on a completely separate platform. That is it was like starting a completely separate business that ran parallel to JPG. The first thing that was important was to share the broader vision of having a platform that is replicable across other business units, so that we could create other communities and ultimately publish other magazines.
What was the most pleasurable surprise that faced you?
I am in San Francisco, so I am just delighted that the media community out here, especially within my own company, are so ambitious, driven and success oriented, but not focused in any way on politics and failure of competitors.
What makes you tick? What makes you get out of bed in the morning and say like wow?
My background is not really from the magazine business per se. I worked in retail marketing for many years, and I was a client for those years, so I like to build business and watch them grow and succeed. Growing and developing a business is really what I love the most.
This is to me the most fantastic job I could have ever dreamed of, because I get so much pleasure out of developing and growing a business. In this case, I am able to apply so much of the thinking and ambition that I held out for larger magazine companies. Larger magazine companies could benefit by what we are doing, but it would be very difficult for them to change their own self-perception to be able to take that action.
Do you think the magazine business in general is in trouble? Do you think we need to bailout?
I think that the magazine business will always exist. However, it will very shortly exist in a much smaller version. The magazine industry has to be prepared for that. I think that what we do here relative to magazines is something that big magazine companies could learn a lot from. They could build more sustainability into their businesses if they could integrate some of the community actions that we have done here. I don’t think any big magazine company is ready to do that, because it would mean that editors have to yield space in the magazine to readers and the voice of readers would become more prominent. I don’t think traditional editors are prepared for that.
What is your view or vision of future magazine publishing in the United States?
I think that it will be a somewhat smaller business than what it is now, and there will be some of those magazines that have made a terrific link between the digital platforms and the print platforms. If they make that link effectively, they can have a very exciting business. They can’t have one succeed and the other fail. They both have to be successful. While we have some magazines today that have terrific digital platforms, their magazine side is in a decline. That is not good. Also, there are so many magazines that have no digital presence of any form or of any consequence, but their print business, all be it down, still throws off a profit that is enough for the magazine company to retain the legacy that those titles hold. They are ultimately going to have to let go of that legacy if they want to reinvent themselves.