The Mr. Magazine™ Interview: Scott Mowbray, Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Group Executive Editor, and Cooking Light’s Newest Editor: On Change, Magazines and the FutureSeptember 13, 2009
On change, now is the time to seize the moment. On magazines, they are the equivalent of long form television; a long form TV show cannot be duplicated on the web . On the future, we’re all naïve optimists here in the magazine world. Those are, in short, the headlines from Scott Mowbray, Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Group Executive Editor who oversaw the restyling of the award winning Cooking Light magazine this month and is overseeing the restyling of Southern Living magazine that will debut next month. Keeping true to the change theme, Time Inc. announced last Friday that “After a journalism career spanning 30 years, including more than 23 at Southern Progress, Cooking Light Editor in Chief Mary Kay Culpepper has decided to change course.” Culpepper is leaving the magazine at the end of the month and Mowbray will become editor of Cooking Light magazine starting Oct. 1, in addition to maintaining his role as Time Inc.’s Lifestyle Group Executive Editor.
Is it change for change’s sake or is it an attempt to capitalize on the two cash cows of Time Inc.’s Lifestyle division after a series of bad news ranging from the killing of magazines such as Southern Accents and Cottage Living to the firing of many long time business and editorial employees who have been with the company for many years?
Mowbray, a veteran journalist with a career that spans a host of magazines including, but not limited to, Eating Well and Popular Science was assigned the job of restyling the aforementioned two magazines. Under the watchful eyes of Time Inc.’s Executive Vice President Sylvia Auton, Mowbray was dispatched to Birmingham, Alabama to spearhead the restyling operations at what used to be known as Time Inc.’s Southern Progress division. Armed with Ms. Auton British imported Rapid Prototyping Process, Mowbray, in a period of less nine months, was able to overhaul Cooking Light and Southern Living magazines.
Mowbray’s long ranging interview with me (the interview took place on Sept. 2, nine days before it was revealed that Mowbray will assume the editorship of Cooking Light magazine) covered the issues related to the redesign of Cooking Light magazine and the way it was done. He offered his views on the future of print and digital and gave a glimpse of what the newest editor in chief at Time Inc. really makes him tick in this business. Mowbray also talked about the difference between readers and users and took his best shot on what the future holds for magazines. He also offered candid advice for those thinking of starting a new magazine.
What follows is my lengthy and lightly edited (in the true spirit of the Mr. Magazine’s™ Interviews) phone interview with Scott Mowbray at his office in Birmingham:
SH: Why change and why now?
SM: I think there’s a sense that in a changing and pressured market, you do need to keep up and you do need to know your readership and make sure that you offer “more choices than ever before.” In fact they choose you. When we did focus groups around Cooking Light earlier this year, I was amazed by a few things: one was the fundamental loyalty of the readers, which is incredibly encouraging, and the second was their openness to other media and other magazines. They were very much–no matter their age–into exploring new things in terms of media. And with Cooking Light, I don’t think there has been a better time for the health message in the food category than now. I think this is the perfect time and I think the business side (of our company), just saw that NOW is the time to seize the moment.
SH: You mentioned that the health message is a major chunk of Cooking Light, and yet if you look at some of the fastest growing food magazines, health is not a major chunk of their content. Do you think health is what makes Cooking Light the magazine it is today?
I think that Cooking Light is number one for a reason and I think it’s going to stay there. I was the editor, years and years ago, of Eating Well. We were seeing the first start of the complete convergence from processed food to supermarket foods and farmers markets, every part of the food movement, at least looking at the issues of not only health but sustainability. That was happening 18 years ago. And, Cooking Light was dominant then. Now, it sort of owns that category. I think it has credibility among cooks and has credibility on the health side. So, I would be very happy to have a position like this to defend. I would absolutely agree with you that it’s not the sole position at all, but it is nice to have a consistent message that is being supported, in some ways, at every turn. Whether it is the health care debate or the economic crunch, there are all kinds of reasons to be concerned about smart eating.
SH: One of the things I noticed with the re-vamp of Cooking Light, almost every single page has a recipe. At one stage, I felt like I was flipping through a cookbook.
SM: There are actually plenty of pages that don’t have recipes though. There aren’t many pages that don’t give you some idea about what you can do in terms of making a food choice or a cooking choice. But, you’re right. One of the things the readers said in the research is that they wanted a photo with every recipe, which actually increased the cost, not only increased the paper stock, but increased the obligation to shoot every single recipe was a big thing. This is a cook’s magazine. Another reason why I find the position of this magazine so strong to defend, if you want to call it that, is the passion about cooking. This is not an armchair magazine. The women are usually responsible for the food choices and they have a very strong sense of wanting to nurture their children and their spouses, their husbands. That means that they’re always taking action. They’re not simply getting ideas, they’re taking action in their shopping actions and in their cooking actions. This is sort of reaffirming the fact that this all about taking action, and taking action in this case is cooking. So, there is a huge interest in recipes. Also, cooking healthy doesn’t just come naturally or instinctively, necessarily, to everyone. You need to know how do to it.
SH: Do you find it a little bit paradoxical that the healthy cooking magazine is published from the South, where we are stereotyped as the most obese region in the country?
SM: I don’t call it paradoxical, I call it brilliant. You go down to the farmer’s market here and you see that there is plenty of interest in the same issues as everywhere else. I think it’s great, I think it’s positive. I’ll tell you another thing that is a positive: I’ve been in New York for 20 years, but it is a good thing to be out in the reader’s real world, shopping from food stores that are very similar to the ones that they shop from. I think that keeps it real. I think that’s important to the readers because they are a mainstream, everyday cooking readership. They’re not cooking everyday, but they’re much more about cooking in the week than on the weekend. It comes back to this idea of wanting solutions for getting food to their families.
SH: You’ve spearheaded this reinvention, restyling. If one of your readers met you in the street and said, “Scott, what did you do to my magazine?” What would you tell them?
SM: I think that the vision is very much about providing answers to this great conundrum of modern life, which is this thing we do three times a day where it is so easy to default to junk food and lousy food, and the bad decisions. These readers were folks who were very confident; they’re fascinating women, and they’re post-diet women. These women are sophisticated, they’re mature, they’re looking for answers; but the bond is very much about helping them in the kitchen, helping them put food on the table, which is central to their lives. They see it as, in this totally chaotic world, the thing that they can do positively for the people they love. This is very, very much a visceral and emotional bond with the readership that is about helping them. But the answer is that you see their eyes light up, you see them feeling that you’ve provided them with some answers last month and they look forward to getting more answers in the next month. That’s the bond. I’ve been trying to make the magazine as user friendly as possibly as it can be in an era of chaotic media. It’s good food that tastes good that’s good for you and helping you put it on your table. That’s pretty much it.
SH: Talking about the chaotic media environment we live in… Do you see a digital future that preserves print? Or is it going to be either, or?
SM: That’s a fascinating question, and I don’t imagine that anybody has the answer. I have become a Kindle freak, not completely a Kindle freak, because when I found out that you can’t get Flannery O’Conner on Kindle, I was like, “Whoa, wait a second here.” I’m reading the complete works right now and I believe I couldn’t find only one thing by her on my Kindle. What the Kindle points to a little bit to me is the fact that the immersive experience is certainly possible in a digital device. So, then the question is, is the color, the full color, beautiful immersive magazine experience with the great sort of random access that you have in print possible in a device? With my Popular Science background, I’m a bit of a gadget freak. I don’t personally have a problem with a device playing that role. I think that it is entirely possible, that you could preserve. I don’t know if you’re preserving print, but you’re preserving the immersive print experience in an additional form. I think that’s possible. I haven’t seen anything that comes close to it yet. I think a lot of digital magazines are not at all interesting, to me. And the devices aren’t there. To me, and I’m sure you’ve done way more thinking about this, but to me the iPod and the iPhone and the Kindle have all proven that it’s partly about the pleasure of the device. If the device provides a certain pleasure, and when it’s well designed, then you’re willing, or eager to use it and to have the information in it. That to me is really important. So, where is this device? I don’t know where it is now. I know people are working on it. The waterproof, flexible, completely wireless, color, and cheap version of the Kindle, it’s going to take a little while to come up with that I think. I found the Kindle surprisingly exciting when I started to read on it. To me, it was about that immersive thing. And, I read the piece in the New Yorker about that, and I’ve read books on the iPhone as well, but that’s all straight text. The one thing that I think we overestimated was the importance of incorporating hypertext and video into the digital version of a magazine. I’m not convinced that that is the added value. If I want that, why don’t I just go to a website?
SH: That’s actually one of the things we’re trying to study at the Magazine Innovation Center. Are readers really hoppers? Do they want to go from one place to the other when they are reading anything? Whether they are on the web, or… Why can’t we give them the complete experience in one medium?
SM: That’s exactly what I’m getting at. I personally know that I can go to my computer and Google something if I want to, but the act of leaving the immersive article of page and going to something completely different, which is very much a web experience, hopping around like you were describing, isn’t the essence of a magazine experience. It’s more the pleasure of the page I think can be reproduced digitally. I’m not sure that it’s as three-dimensional as we initially thought it was, but I’m just speculating.
SH: What makes you tick in this business? You have more doom and gloom surrounding you from every hallway at Southern Progress. What makes you say, “Yeah, I’m doing the right thing? This is what I really enjoy doing?”
SM: I think any magazine editor who feels that way isn’t using the right metaphor. This is not the replacement of a clearly inferior technology with a superior technology. It’s the widening of a media marketplace and the finding of the right position for everything. I’m convinced of that. Radio did not go away when television came along. This is not the telegram of media devices, or the telegraph; important in it’s time and gone tomorrow. I just don’t believe that. Secondly: I’m not 24 and I do think that a lot of the happenstance discoveries that are sort of characteristic in the invention of a lot of internet businesses are not for me. I’m not of that generation. I love print and I think there is plenty to be done in it. I think it’s going to continue to thrive, maybe not be as big, but size isn’t everything. I’m not naïve and that’s why I talked about the Kindle thing. I think if you asked the right question, which is how you preserve the print experience as opposed to how you preserve ink on paper, I’m sure ink on paper will proceed, but if half of what we did ended up being some kind of digital version of a magazine, fine.
SH: Do you see any future for print on demand? We are seeing folks like MagCloud and Newspaper Direct helping folks create printed products, one at a time. Is this the future?
SM: I think any smart editor is well aware that they’re in a business that is partly about permanence and partly about disposability. We’re sort of in the middle. Newspapers were much more disposable. They came in one day and they’re gone. Magazines are in 30 days and maybe you file them away, but how often do you really go back to them? So you’re in this funny place between the tactile object and the disposable thing on one hand and the completely ephemeral thing on the other, where people don’t own websites, they just own the computers that websites appear on. It’s a funny place, an interesting, playful place to be as far as I’m concerned. I also look at young people going into media and I understand the scary part of it because it’s not as predictable as it used to be 30 years ago. You got into and did well in a company like Time Inc. or Hearst. You’d have a career. Those days appear to be a little bit different than they were but I can’t imagine a more interesting time to be pushing into media. When I was at Pop Sci and ran Time4 Media, when I had really smart 25-year-old editors who had done three or more years of good work and found themselves 28-years-old and wondering what to do next, I told them to go back. Go back and get a web job and then come back to print. Not because they had to bring their digital skills back, although that was important, but to experience the full range of the media, not just taking the same job at different magazines. The other thing that’s funny about this is that you look at the scale of business of some of these magazines and yes, in some cases they’re certainly declining, but they dwarf that of many fizzy frothy websites. That’s an important thing to keep in mind is how successful some of these things are.
SH: If somebody comes to you today and said, “Scott, I want to start a new magazine.” What do you tell them?
SM: Wow. Well, wanting to start one and having the money to start one are two completely different things. If somebody came to me and had a lot of backing and said, “I have a magazine idea.” I would give them a lot of advice about how to test that idea and how to figure out whether it was going to work or not before they went to look at the business models. Because being business smart or finding a smart business partner who has been across the 1,000 miles of bad road that you have to cover before you actually launch is incredibly important. And more so now since there isn’t as much money to go around. Let me give you one example, when I was executive director of Time Inc., I was looking at new ideas all the time and a lot of those ideas were green magazine ideas to come around. That was about three years ago in the heyday of the explosive interest in the environment, but none of them had a credible business model, because they all looked for what I consider to be either peripheral versions of mainstream advertising. In other words, every car company wants to do some green related advertising, but it’s not their core. Or you have these very small start-up green companies that weren’t yet ready to really sustain a magazine. Every one of them had not thought out the business side. So the question is “have you figured out the business model?” Editors aren’t about that, but you have to find a partner who is.
SH: Can we still, in this day and age, create a complete immersing experience in one medium whether it is in print, online, iPod, etc. or do you have to be everywhere at the same time?
SM: I think I would say a bit of both. You want to branch out into these other media partly because now it’s expected, from an advertising point of view and some degree a consumer point of view. It’s expected that you will have a web presence and maybe an iPhone app and that kind of thing. I think you should be thinking that way, you may discover things in these other media that really teach you a lot. If your core business is a print business, you should not overestimate how much revenue your website will bring or underestimate how much of a diversion and how much work and how much of a different discipline your web business is. I learned at Health.com (we launched it from scratch, beside the magazine but not really with the magazine) just how immensely different the web business is. It is important to do it, but do not think it’s easy, and do not think it’s automatic. I do think you have to do those things, but I don’t think you should overestimate how much money they’re going to bring you in the short run or underestimate how difficult and how much of a separate discipline it really is.
We assume brands just sit easily in these different media. I think that the web is about technology. It’s about understanding search engine optimization and all this stuff that everybody on the web has known for 20 years now, but that print guys would not easily understand. Yeah, you should be multimedia but pick your medium first and know which one is your natural medium. It’s a technology. Magazines in their own sense are technology too; they’re just completely different.
SH: You mentioned earlier that the genesis of the redesign came from what you called the “Rapid Prototyping Process”. Can you expand on that?
SM: I think it’s worth noting that this redesign came out of as a result of the “Rapid Prototyping Process.” Essentially Sylvia Auton spearheaded this, and it’s something that came out of her work in the UK. There if you’re a newsstand’s based magazine, you can die in less than a year if you don’t keep up with your competitors or with readers. They came up with this very accelerated way of rapidly focus grouping and doing design so it lasts a matter of a week or two. It was a very intensive development process which got in front of readers over and over again and that happened in January and February. That really was the impetus for what became the redesign and the re-launch, if you want to call it that. It’s quite an interesting process. I’ve never done anything quite like it. It was the most intensive editorial work I’ve ever done in my life. I have two groups of six to eight people designing and producing pages, often hundreds of pages over two weeks, with focus groups in the middle. You are completely immersed in a way I’ve never been before.
SH: What is in your opinion the difference between our customers, the readers of magazines and the users of the websites?
SM: That’s actually interesting. Reading vs using? I’ve always, as I think most editors do, found focus groups painful enough. The usability studies are fascinating because there’s nothing more brutal. Even the loyal user is willing to leave immediately on the web if you don’t give them what they want. As you watch them go through your website and leave in droves. You realize you are entirely a slave to the user in that sense. In the web it’s sort of like you’re in a party but there’s a million doors open to a million other parties and they can leave at any time. They have to find you, and they have to stay there and you sit there. You talk about being close to your readers, and I think web, because of the nature of instantaneous response on the web, there’s closeness to the user in one sense that’s profound. That’s what I think magazine people could benefit from experiencing because it’s like a hyper newsstand. It desensitizes you. It’s not the only thing. It’s not the only way to do things, but it’s important to see the easy brutality of the dispassionate user who will just leave you in a heartbeat. Which I suspect is affecting magazines a little bit. I bet you can afford to be less connected with your readers, less than you used to be able to. I think that’s the worst thing now. Not just because of the precarious economy, but simply because people are used to getting what they want and moving on if they don’t get it.
SH: Is there a future for magazines?
SM: The thing that I find encouraging though is if you look at the cable television industry and you see the flourishing of quality programming on all these other cable channels and it still matters that things are good and that experience can’t be duplicated on the web. A long form TV show cannot be duplicated on the web unless you are simply watching a long form TV show on the web, but that’s irrelevant to me. It doesn’t matter. That’s just the platform, it has nothing to do with the content. Similarly I think magazines are the equivalent of long form television in a sense. They’re repeating, they’re serial, they happen at a regular time and they give you certain pleasure. I don’t think that can just be torn into pieces and put onto the web. I think that there is something unique about magazines. But, hey, we’re all naïve optimists here in the magazine world.
SH: Thank you.