Before he founded GoSPORTn Inc. and hooked us with “The Year in Fishing” via GoFISHn’s new iPad magazine app, Ned Desmond was the head of Time Inc. Interactive, and also served as TIME magazine’s bureau chief in both Tokyo (’92-’96) and New Delhi (’88-’91), while wearing the hats of writer and researcher before that. He is a man who is grounded in print, but who became a digital enthusiast as the future of journalism began to take an exciting turn. Now he enjoys indulging his readers’ passion for hunting and fishing as president and founder of GoSPORTn and lives in the realms of the web whole-heartedly, while never relinquishing his love for the printed page. Find out what he thinks about the future of journalism, his thoughts on launching a digital-only enterprise, and of course, what keeps him up at night, in this segment of the Mr. Magazine™ Interviews.
And as is with every Mr. Magazine™ Interviews, first the video, followed by the sound-bites and the very lightly edited transcript of the entire interview.
So sit back, relax and watch the video interview, done via Skype, with Ned Desmond.
And now for the sound-bites:
On the difference between launching something that is digital only, versus using print as your web base: Well, I think when you have a big, established print business and editorial team and sales team; you have a lot to work with when you’re trying to develop an online property.
On how you make your brand’s app stand out from a million others: Well, that’s the hardest question of all. You can create something really beautiful and it’s difficult to get attention.
On the advantages and disadvantages of creating an online presence on your own, versus when you have a mega brand behind you: The advantages and disadvantages are pretty stark, I’d have to say. When you are a big company, of course, you have lots of help and you have an enormous, established base in everything, on the sales front, people return your calls, on the editorial front, you have very talented teams who are busy doing great work, on the brand front, you’re out there and consumers know who you are.
On why he picked hunting and fishing as his main focus for Go SPORTn: When we were looking at the categories, we discovered that fishing, in particular, is the largest of all the enthusiast’s categories. There’s nothing that quite compares to it, in terms of the number of people who go fishing in the United States.
On his most pleasurable moment with Go SPORTn: I would say the pleasurable moments come every few days when we discover some content in the fishing world or in the hunting world that is truly exciting, that has been uploaded by somebody who is an amateur, and all it really needs is exposure to a big audience and it takes off and you can see it go viral.
On the biggest hurdle he has to overcome to make Go SPORTn a success: Well, I’d say that we’ve been a success from a brand standpoint, and we are successful from an audience standpoint, but trying to match the audience scale to the available ad dollars is very tricky.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the interview with Ned Desmond:
Samir Husni: You know, you spent so many years trying to develop some kind of a business model that integrated the print brand and digital. Now you are at this venture, which is digital only. What’s the difference between launching something that is digital only, and using print as the base to launch something?
Ned Desmond: Well, I think when you have a big, established print business and editorial team and sales team; you have a lot to work with when you’re trying to develop an online property. There is always a lot of, what we called, untapped assets, undiscovered assets that could be re-deployed for use on the web. One of the great examples at Time Inc. was how we used the People Magazine editorial team, the correspondence, in particular, to develop a breaking news product for the website, which didn’t have any relevance in the magazine, but was enormously successful online. When you’re starting from scratch, as we did with GoFISHn, you’ve got to think about how to create content and create it in an economical fashion, so that it’s in line with the economics of an ad-supported business online, which, as you know, are pretty demanding.
Samir Husni: One of the things that I always wondered about; if we have around 10,000 different magazines on the marketplace, there is probably now a billion apps available.
Ned Desmond: Probably.
Samir Husni: How can you break through that clutter, how can people find GoSPORTn or GoFISHn apps, from the gazillion number of apps that are out there?
Ned Desmond: Well, that’s the hardest question of all. You can create something really beautiful and it’s difficult to get attention. What we do is use our available distribution mechanisms to get the word around about the app that we created. What we did, essentially, was take the best of 10,000 posts that took place in 2011 on the GoFISHn website, that’s gofishn.com, and turned them into quite a beautiful app that has a magazine-like experience and we used all the folks whose content we included to help us promote the app, and we also used our Facebook presence which has nearly 200,000 fans to promote the app, and then we reached out to anyone we knew to download it, review it, to help us get the word out. But I’d say that we’re still in an experimental mode. We got some pretty strong initial response, we think we may have priced it a little bit too high; pricing is another function that seems to have a pretty dramatic impact on how widely-used your app might be. So, it’s tricky. It’s something that you really have to think about ahead of time. If you don’t have strong distribution ideas or vehicles, it’s really tough to get the word out.
Samir Husni: So, you’ve done it when you were a part of a major media company, and now you’re doing it on your own.
Ned Desmond: Yes.
Samir Husni: What are the advantages and disadvantages of both models?
Ned Desmond: The advantages and disadvantages are pretty stark, I’d have to say. When you are a big company, of course, you have lots of help and you have an enormous, established base in everything, on the sales front, people return your calls, on the editorial front, you have very talented teams who are busy doing great work, on the brand front, you’re out there and consumers know who you are. When you’re running a little business, like I am, all of those things go back to zero, basically. You only have the staff that you can afford, which, in my case, is almost nobody. The brand is something you still have to establish and all of those other things have to be built from scratch. So, it’s far more demanding from a kind of building standpoint. But, it’s also far easier from a coordination and communication standpoint; you don’t really have that many people to stay in touch with. Whereas, in a big company, like Time Inc., you have to reserve an enormous amount of time for feedback and explaining your plans, and making sure everybody is on board and is ready to support you.
Samir Husni: Why did you pick fishing and hunting? Your background as a journalist and the magazines that you’ve worked with, they’re as far from fishing and hunting as can be.
Ned Desmond: That’s a great question, Samir. I chose it because when I was at Time Inc. and my team was working across a lot of different properties and trying to figure out where the hidden assets were that could help revive or supplement the print businesses, and for a time we worked on some of the properties which were, at that time, in what was called the Time for Media Division of Time Inc., which included a lot of outdoor enthusiast titles, everything from snowboarding, to hunting and fishing, and all the rest. And the key insight that we had there was that user-supplied media, whether it was somebody skateboarding and making a video of it, or surfing and making a video of it, which has become a mainstay of those brands in recent years, that that was really the key to unlocking a lot of value within those brands. In other words, if you read Field & Stream, or if you read Surf, or if you read Skateboard Magazine, you wanted to be able to contribute your own exploits to that audience. We sold those properties to Bonnier. Bonnier has prospered with them; they’ve done really, really well. When I left, I thought it would be really interesting to try to build a publishing platform that would allow those enthusiasts, regardless of the category, to publish their pictures, their video and their stories. And then when we were looking at the categories, we discovered that fishing, in particular, is the largest of all the enthusiast’s categories. There’s nothing that quite compares to it, in terms of the number of people who go fishing in the United States. It was a little bit of a surprising insight for us because being Urbanites, more or less, we didn’t appreciate the depth of the passion for fishing that exists across the country, or the large numbers, or the significant amounts of money that gets spent in pursuit of fishing. So, we thought, why not begin in the biggest market? And that’s why we chose that. The platform we actually built was meant to extend into many categories, which is why it was easy to take into hunting, which has close affinities with fishing, that’s why we chose hunting. And then we stopped there in order to husband our resources and not get stretched too thin. But the plan was probably to go from there to gardening and some other arenas. So the real answer to your question is we thought that in the enthusiast’s publishing categories there was quite a big opportunity focused on media created by the enthusiast themselves.
Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasurable moment in this whole experience, in this whole creation of the app and the website?
Ned Desmond: I would say the pleasurable moments come every few days when we discover some content in the fishing world or in the hunting world that is truly exciting, that has been uploaded by somebody who is an amateur, and all it really needs is exposure to a big audience and it takes off and you can see it go viral, with hundreds, sometimes even thousands of ‘likes’ from Facebook and a lot of traffic in our traffic numbers. We really created these sites with the insight that amateurs in the enthusiast’s categories today are generating and posting most of the best content out there. So, our real goal is to get them big audiences and to create a media experience on the back of that.
Samir Husni: And what about the flip side of that? What was the biggest nightmare you had to face?
Ned Desmond: Well, there were plenty of nightmares. We, for instance, thought it would take us six months to develop the site, and it took us more like eighteen months, of course. We’ve had a number of big deals that we thought we were very close to signing and those deals didn’t materialize. There are lots of disappointments along the way; a lot of them are technical, just associated with trying to get things done that proved to either be too costly or unattainable. I have a business partner who is a terrific technologist and without his help we wouldn’t have gotten very far. But there are still a lot of challenges on the technical front. I would also say that one of the most surprising dimensions of this is getting people in the categories, the big brands and the categories, who were the likely advertisers, to participate. But what I have discovered is that in fishing and hunting, and this is one thing I really wasn’t prepared for, the businesses themselves are in pretty tough shape, and they aren’t all that keen on advertising in the digital realm. So, I brought some assumptions with me that I learned from the consumer product goods arena in mainstream publications, places like People and Time, and all the usual Time, Inc. titles, where the appetite was pretty strong among advertisers to participate on the digital side. And I would say, in some of these more specialized categories, that appetite isn’t so strong.
Samir Husni: What is your biggest hurdle now that you have to overcome to make this a success?
Ned Desmond: Well, I’d say that we’ve been a success from a brand standpoint, and we are successful from an audience standpoint, but trying to match the audience scale to the available ad dollars is very tricky. In that sense, we’re not any different from any other media business, any free ad supported media business online. The world that Google has created for us is so efficient, if that’s the right word, from an ad buyer’s perspective, that the return to the publishers is really pennies, where in other worlds, in other types of media, the returns were more like dollars. So scaling is a very, very big chore. If you’re going to get significant revenue out of the website, you have to hit very big audience numbers, or else figure out how to sell premium advertising. It’s a bit of a catch-22; if you make the investment to try and sell premium advertising, then you’ve taken your cost base up pretty far. The alternative is to figure out how to drive your audience through the roof, which is a function of time and improved Google page rank, and other things that are difficult to control, or to wait out in the event of time. So that’s sort of the conundrum. It’s the same, I think, that a lot of online publisher’s face.
Samir Husni: I’m going to take you back some years in your career, you were a journalist, a foreign correspondent, you worked in writing; how’s today different than those early years when you were active in the field, actually reporting, writing and doing the work of a journalist?
Ned Desmond: I was at the tail-end of the sort of traditional era of the foreign correspondent. So when I went overseas for Time Magazine we still had pretty big bureaus that were well-staffed, and they were well-staffed for a reason, it was difficult to just use the phone. I can remember when I was in the New Delhi bureau, we had a couple of young men who did nothing but dial the phone all day, just trying to get through because it was that time-consuming. And today, of course, that’s not an issue. I can remember my hands aching from using manual telexes in places like Kabul, where even if it was well-oiled, it was still very arduous to pound out a long, yellow tape that would eventually send your telex where it was going with your file back to headquarters in New York. And then near the end of that tour, I remember using some of the early laptop computers with a bulky modem that would actually transfer over the phone lines at a rate of 300 baud, which meant that it basically took an hour sometimes to send a whole file over the phone lines, but that was pretty revolutionary. Of course today correspondents and photographers, in particular, have it so much easier than they used to. They don’t have to get back to an airport and ship film and things like that. And correspondents generally can find whatever telecommunications hook-up that they need, even if they go direct to satellite with a local piece of equipment. So, from that standpoint everything is much more immediate. But I also think that for a lot of foreign correspondents, they probably don’t have as much help as they used to, the budgets are so much smaller than they once were and, of course, they’re much thinner on the ground than they used to be, which is really a shame because, I think, readers suffer terribly as a consequence. By the same token, most of the big news organizations, I think, do a pretty heroic and determined job of getting people where they need to be and trying to support them. So a lot has changed, but I think that the core commitment, but maybe with somewhat reduced budgets, is still there trying to get the good stories overseas.
Samir Husni: How do you see the future of journalism today?
Ned Desmond: That’s a really interesting question. I think that the demands on full-time professional journalists are tougher than ever. I think that because the ability of audiences to respond, and even compete with journalists is so easy to pursue. In other words, anyone can start a blog, anyone can post on Facebook and anyone can come up with better information if they put their minds to it. So journalists, in one sense, are more accountable because their audience can respond to them so much more quickly, and challenge them if need be. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it definitely makes a journalist’s job tougher. I think that the real problem for journalists is that the business model that made their work possible, obviously, is under siege. And the resources available to hire correspondents, to train them, to help develop their careers, to position them in foreign bureaus, or even domestic bureaus, those resources are diminished and, as a result, there are fewer working journalists. There’s less coverage and less competition and that’s really unfortunate. And I hope very much that there are business models that emerge that allow for a return of the numbers of journalists who have good, solid careers and good paychecks working for, whether it’s the new breed of organization, like Politico, or whether it’s revived daily newspapers and magazines, or whether it’s the big guys like Thomson Reuters or Bloomberg, who are going to continue to produce the independent journalism that I think the country and the world really depend upon. But I’d say it’s not really clear how that is going to happen at this juncture.
Samir Husni: What keeps Ned up at night?
Ned Desmond: What keeps Ned up at night? What keeps Ned up at night is this conundrum that I mentioned earlier. How do you scale fast enough to derive meaningful revenue from the websites? That’s really the toughest problem for online media folks.
Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any question that I failed to ask you?
Ned Desmond: Well, I would like to mention our efforts with the app. I think they may be a little bit early for the marketplace. But I do think that the ability to take content from a website, which tends to be formatted in the way that is appropriate for websites. But it’s less beautiful, considerably less beautiful, and appealing than what you can do in a tablet, or in a mobile app. That is a very interesting pivot, if you will, or cut for a media business. I’ve really enjoyed creating “The Year in Fishing” app for the iPad because it felt so much more like a beautifully designed approach to the subject matter. And readers still respond so nicely to things that are beautifully designed. And it’s tough, as all content creators know, to do something that’s really beautiful in a browser because you end up being so concerned about other things: the performance of the page, the SEO, the navigation; all these things that tend to mitigate the pure delight of the experience. All that can come back again when you do it in an app. The simple flick of a finger and you turn the page. Every page can be packed with things that are really 100% about the visual design experience. So we’ve been really delighted by how people have responded to the app. We hope that advertisers will see the same possibilities that we see and support that in the future. We got a little bit of advertising support and we got a lot of interest. But there’s a lot of wait and see, as well. So I think that contrast between what you can really do to delight people in a browser versus in an app, is a pretty critical distinction. And I think it’s going to really serve content-makers in the future. Assuming we can get discovered at all, to your question, Samir. There’s an awful lot of content out there.
Samir Husni: So are you out of the print business?
Ned Desmond: I would say that I am out of the print business, yes, absolutely, until I am back into it. I’m a great believer in print. I just think that print in the future will have to be evermore beautiful and compelling, in order to be worthy of consumer’s attention. So I think that we can already see this… that magazines that really thrive as magazines that are beautiful, as magazines that really are perfect expressions of what the magazine designing art is all about; they are doing just fine. And consumers still want them and advertisers still want them. And a lot of other things that was just information tucked into the pages of a magazine because a distribution model or something else could support it as a good business, those have already, or will soon, fall by the wayside. And of course, digital will take up the slack. So I think that distinction will be there for a long time to come.
Samir Husni: Thank you.