The ACT Experience at the University of Mississippi: A Different Discussion About the Future of Magazine PublishingNovember 2, 2010
By John Harrington
Editor, The New Single Copy
There is no question that the program for the ACT (Amplify, Clarify, Testify) Experience, sponsored by the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, held two weeks ago, was different from what we expect at magazine industry gatherings. Speakers included the editorial director of a large Brazilian publisher, the CEO of a publisher launching a seven million copy newspaper supplement, the head of a major custom publishing company, the creative director of group of hotel publications, the founder and president of a national advertising sales service business, the managing director of a major Dutch magazine, the chief marketing officer of digital development company, the editor of a totally online magazine, and two consumer marketing (AKA audience development/circulation) observers and analysts.
The agenda was assembled by a Lebanese immigrant to the United States, and it unfolded in a part of the country probably best known for college football and being the scene of some of the more notable and disturbing moments of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The registrants were an equally diverse group, and they also included a good number of journalism students. Given that eclectic mixture, it is my perhaps biased opinion (I was one of the “observers and analysts”), the event provided an outstanding perspective on the state, current and future, of the magazine business. Media businesses are always in transition, but the pace of that transition increases and decreases in cycles.
Right now, for magazines, it has accelerated to a dizzying level. At the American Magazine Conference (AMC), held in early October, where the venerable Magazine Publishers of America changed its name to MPA the Association of Magazine Media, the agenda was heavily focused on digital developments, with a list speakers not quite as international, but equally representative of the onrushing magazine future as those on the program at ACT. Early this summer, not even six months ago, new CEOs were named at each of the four largest publishing companies. Implicit in those executive changes is a shift in publishing strategies, in the words of one of those publishers, from an “advertising-centric” to a “consumer-centric” economic model. Clearly, the focus at AMC, from a more corporate perspective, and at ACT, where a somewhat more entrepreneurial view was evident, was on potentially seismic changes in the publishing business.
There was a gentle irony evident at ACT, organized by Samir Husni, the professor who made the University of Mississippi’s journalism school a force in magazine publishing, and is generally thought to be proponent of the role of print on paper. Digital was part of nearly every discussion that took place, not just in the development of editorial content, but in the roles of marketing and advertising, and even in consumer marketing. The shifts moving through the business were captured in comments by Ann Russell, editor of VIVMag, an online publication, who also has considerable traditional magazine experience. On her changing role, she said, “The editor is becoming a director.” Looking ahead, she asked, “Are we there yet?,” then answered her own question, with “There is no there.” Another aspect of the shifting landscape was offered by Thomaz Souto Correa, editorial vice president of The Abril Group (Brazil). It is important as digital format are developed, he said, “to concentrate on the future of the reader, more than the magazine.” He followed that up by saying that publishers need to “maintain editorial credibility to keep reader trust.”
Both comments are central to the viability of print, whether on paper, in digital, and in the next incarnation as well. In my presentation on newsstand and its role in a future heavily influenced by digital, I raised the issue of the breaking down of “silos.” Initially, it referred to the oft-times isolated parts of circulation, subscriptions and newsstand, where my experience found promotional strategies often in conflict, and worse, counter productive. However, at ACT, in group discussions following the general presentations, the silo issue, or more properly the breaking down of silos, resonated for the broader magazine media business, especially as publisher models transition from ad-centric to consumer-centric. The New Single Copy has regularly commented on how “good” publishing economics do not always translate into good newsstand channel economics. As an example, a publisher’s decision to reduce frequency saves on production costs while spreading advertising revenues, but reduces wholesaler and retailer income with any operational savings. Further, advertising promises were often the basis, as the late Dan Capell wrote, for “most bad circulation decisions.”
Samir Husni and the Magazine Innovation Center intend a second act, and maybe more, for ACT. It has the opportunity to become an incubator of change for the magazine media business for the next decade and beyond. It will not replace AMC, but if expanded to include a few more of the “usual suspects,” without losing its entrepreneurial flavor, ACT can emerge as an influential and complementary fixture on the media calendar.
Besides Russell, Correa, and myself, the other speakers at ACT were Stephen Duggan, Athlon Sports; David MacDonald, Sunshine Media Group; Haines Wilkerson Morris Visitor Publications; Lisette Heemskerk, Mood for Magazines, the Netherlands; James Elliott, James G. Elliott Company; Baird Davis, consumer marketing analyst; and Jeanniey Mullen, Zinio. The opening dinner speaker was Roger Fransecky, CEO, the Apogee Group; and the closing dinner guests heard from Bob Guccione, Jr., founder of Gear and Spin magazines, as well as the first editor-in-residence at the Magazine Innovation Center.
Reprinted with permission from the November 1, 2010 issue of The New Single Copy newsletter.