Proving Legacy Media Can Flourish In A Digital Age – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Bob Cohn, Co-President & Chief Operating Officer, The AtlanticAugust 28, 2014
“I think that it would be Pollyannaish to say that print will never disappear. I do think that someday print will not be around, but I’ll have to say that it’s much farther into the future than many of us were talking about four years ago. And I don’t see it coming in the near future at all. Print is stronger than ever.” Bob Cohn
Legacy media surviving in this digital age? Not only surviving, but thriving? It must be a dream in the sleep-induced mind of some forgotten print publisher of the 80s. And if you believe that answer, then Mr. Magazine™ will now be known as Mr. Digital™…and you know that isn’t happening.
The Atlantic, first founded in 1857, is beating the odds and doing something fairly unheard of in print magazine media today: they’re increasing newsstand sales and making money from digital. While that may be hard to believe, it is nonetheless true.
I recently spoke to Bob Cohn, Co-President and COO of The Atlantic about the impossibilities or opportunities of being an innovator when your product is as old as time; his answers may surprise and perplex you, but definitely will enlighten you as to how the 157-year-old media company is jumping hurdles against the rest of the competition and proving that legacy media can be much more than a mere throwback to days-gone-by.
So sit back, relax and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with The Atlantic’s Bob Cohn… I promise you won’t be disappointed.
But first, the sound-bites…
On The Atlantic’s “secret sauce” of success: I think it’s a combination of having a great brand and a great legacy that we understand internally and that our readers understand and then being willing to be nimble and entrepreneurial and experiment with that legacy and those attributes.
On whether The Atlantic is an innovator or a renovator: I think we can control for the things that oftentimes stifle innovation in a legacy company, but we can benefit from the things that create a nucleus and a core sense of what you are that you get from a legacy company.
On what he attributes the magazine’s single cope sales increase to: The first is improved design, one that has been improving over the last few years. Darhil Crooks, who is the creative director, has taken our covers to a much more successful level than they were in the past.
On how he sees the print plus digital integration: I think one other reason that our newsstand is up is our overall brand is bigger because of our digital success. That might make a consumer stop one second longer at the newsstand.
On whether he can envision a day when The Atlantic will not have a print component: I think that it would be Pollyannaish to say that print will never disappear. I do think that someday print will not be around, but I’ll have to say that it’s much farther into the future than many of us were talking about four years ago.
On the first thing that comes to his mind when he hears of a magazine killing its print product: When I hear about magazines folding, I think it’s always a shame that they’re folding their print editions, but you know someday all magazines may no longer have print editions, including The Atlantic. But as I said, no time that I can foresee.
On his advice to other publishers about any pitfalls they can avoid in this digital age: There are a lot of pitfalls for all of us to worry about. One thing I think we’re worried about at The Atlantic as we look forward is the fast-moving shift to mobile.
On what keeps him up at night: Things that are out of my control, but are kind of existential to our world, like what if there’s an advertising industry collapse?
And now the lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Bob Cohn, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Office, The Atlantic…
Samir Husni: You’re making money from digital and you’re increasing your newsstand sales. Things are looking good on both print and digital sides; what are you doing at The Atlantic that no one else in the industry has discovered? What’s your secret sauce?
Bob Cohn: I think we are having a good run, but I would never say that there is no one else in the industry who hasn’t figured this out too. But I think it’s a combination of having a great brand and a great legacy that we understand internally and that our readers understand and then being willing to be nimble and entrepreneurial and experiment with that legacy and those attributes.
So we have something that has worked for 150 years and we know who we are and what we do and then we’re willing to take that model and be flexible with it. And take it in directions our predecessors may not have gone.
Samir Husni: But some people will say that because you are legacy media, because you are 150 years old, it becomes harder for you to become an innovator rather than a renovator. Are you innovating or renovating?
Bob Cohn: I think there are pluses and minuses. The minus of having 157 years of history is that you can’t be anything that you want and there are some structures already in place, because you’re not starting from scratch. And you’re not dealing with millions of dollars in VC money; those things separate a legacy brand from something that is much newer.
On the other hand, as I said, we know who we are and what our mission is and we know what we want to be without reinventing the editorial mission of the brand.
And the other things that sometimes stifle innovation, which we can control, is we can be purposefully nimble and innovative. We’re still a small company, even though we’re old. So we’re not caught up in the baggage of multiple hierarchies, public company problems…etc. I think we can control for the things that oftentimes stifle innovation in a legacy company, but we can benefit from the things that create a nucleus and a core sense of what you are that you get from a legacy company.
Samir Husni: What do you attribute your increase in single copy sales to? The majority of the magazines are seeing declines. But in the last six months the numbers were very good for The Atlantic. What’s going on?
Bob Cohn: We saw a 28% increase in newsstand single copy sales in the first half of the year. I think the industry was down almost 12%, so that was a very strong performance. I really attribute that to two main things with our magazine team. The first is improved design, one that has been improving over the last few years. Darhil Crooks, who is the creative director, has taken our covers to a much more successful level than they were in the past. And that’s a big part of winning the newsstand, making people stop and pick up the magazine and take a look at it. We have two things going for us on that score: our name and what the cover looks like. And then we hope that once you have it in your hand, we’ll be a compelling buy because the content is so interesting.
And the second thing that I think has been part of our newsstand success and this is obvious to all magazine publishers, and it was obvious to me in my previous magazine lives, is the fact that we have 12 issues a year and we need 12 compelling cover topics and 12 compelling cover images to use those 12 chances to capture a national conversation and you can’t waste any of those. Well actually, we have ten because we do two double issues.
Being cognizant of our opportunity there and the responsibility that we can’t waste any of those chances, I think has led to better covers, better topics and better execution of those covers in the last few years and that’s really helped us to improve sales.
Samir Husni: Is print driving the digital traffic or is digital driving print? How are you maneuvering that integration of print plus digital?
Bob Cohn: I think it’s symbiotic. I should have added to the previous question; I think one other reason that our newsstand is up is our overall brand is bigger because of our digital success. That might make a consumer stop one second longer at the newsstand. Because we just have a bigger brand presence than we’ve ever had before, mostly in the back of our recent digital success and I think that has spilled over to print and helped our newsstand.
Of course, it has gone the other direction very often; the power of The Atlantic in print drives our digital success in a couple of ways. First, the actual print stories which we post to the website do very well. The cover story outperforms most other stories in most months, not all stories, but most, and the magazine stories as a group, there aren’t very many of them relative to the number of stories we post every single day; we post more stories in a day to atlantic.com than the monthly magazine creates. So there are so many more digital stories, but the magazine pieces tend to outperform. That doesn’t really drive a ton of traffic except the one or two that may go viral, especially a cover story, but it is proof that the magazine stories can do very well in a digital environment.
But beyond that, I think that we approach this as two separate products with a common brand. We actually have three products; the print product, digital product and the live event product. And those are all tied to a core brand, but they express themselves very differently.
Then there’s the importance of our event business as the third leg of our stool, because it really is a vital component. It’s another thing that makes us a little different from other magazines. Our event business isn’t just a brand gimmick; we don’t do just a couple of events to promote our brand. It’s actually an important part of our business and it counts for about 20% of our revenue. We have a big staff; we have 30 people who work at our events. So I think that it’s another thing that makes us unique. We just finished the Aspen Ideas Festival that we co-hosted with the Aspen Institute. That was our last big event. We do more than 100 events per year.
The next big thing we have coming up is CityLab, which is an event we’re doing this year in Los Angeles and we do that with Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Aspen Institute. We have about 30 mayors from around the world and 300-400 guests. And it’s really an expansion our citylab.com, which is a third of our three websites at The Atlantic. So this will bring in politicians, city managers, city leaders, academics, commercial real estate people and infrastructure experts to talk about the issues that are most salient to the global urban environment right now.
Samir Husni: Do you ever envision a day where the print product will disappear and The Atlantic will be digital and event products only?
Bob Cohn: I think that it would be Pollyannaish to say that print will never disappear. I do think that someday print will not be around, but I’ll have to say that it’s much farther into the future than many of us were talking about four years ago. And I don’t see it coming in the near future at all. Print is stronger than ever. We just talked about the newsstands. Our overall circulation is the same as it’s been for ten years and the quality of that circulation is better than ever. We’re doing better at the newsstands than we’ve ever done and ad sales, which we budgeted this time last year to have roughly a 10% decline, and that’s print ad sales, we’re way up in digital; we’re going to end up this year flat on print ad sales, which I think we’ll outperform the market.
Samir Husni: Most folks that I speak with at media companies are telling me that they’re making very little from digital. What about The Atlantic?
Bob Cohn: Just as a data point, our overall ad sales, print and digital for the first time became majority digital in November 2011. That’s when the lines crossed and we did more digital ad sales than print ad sales and that was almost three years ago. This year in 2014 our overall ad number will be about 70 % digital and 30% print. This doesn’t include events which is a different model. Digital ad sales as a percent of total revenue will be not quite a third, maybe 30%.
Samir Husni: So 70% revenue from advertising is equivalent to 30% of the total revenue?
Bob Cohn: Yes. You have to remember that obviously a huge driver in the print revenue, in addition to the ad sales, is the circulation number and we don’t have that corollary in digital hardly at all; we do a little digital circulation through the app, iPad, Nook and Amazon and the Kindle, but for the most part there is a big chunk of revenue coming in from print circ and that’s just not a factor in our digital circulation.
Samir Husni: Let me move a little bit to the industry in general; when you hear of a magazine killing its print edition or folding it, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Is it the medium or the content or simply the relevancy of that publication?
Bob Cohn: I would have to look at frequency. I think weeklies have a harder time because you’re stuck between. I think monthlies are in the best position; a well-executed monthly magazine can have a longer shelf life, if you will, than other magazines and the bi-monthly even more because you are liberated by definition from the news cycle. I’ve worked at a couple of different monthlies, for years on the editorial side and you’re consigned to produce stories three, four or five months out, so you can’t be part of a news cycle, therefore you’re not competing with digital in a way that the news magazines are. I spent 10 years at Newsweek and we tried to be very, very timely in those pre-Internet days and I think that’s why weeklies have had a harder time.
So when I hear about magazines folding, I think it’s always a shame that they’re folding their print editions, but you know someday all magazines may no longer have print editions, including The Atlantic. But as I said, no time that I can foresee. But if and when that day comes and the audience tells us, not that they don’t like The Atlantic, but that they want to consume our content in other ways, it’ll be OK.
And what we’ve done in the last five or ten years is work very hard to make sure that we’re producing Atlantic-quality content in whatever format our readers want to consume it in, whether it’s on the web, in video, in live space, in print or on tablets. And if the day comes when print is no longer economical, I still think we’ll be fine, because we’ll be meeting our audience’s demands in other platforms.
Samir Husni: You’re one of the few in our industry who moved from the editorial side to assume the position of co- president and chief operating officer of a media company. Most people who reach that position come from the advertising side. Do you think it makes a big difference in today’s media marketplace assuming that leadership position from an editorial lader rather than an advertising one and if yes, why?
Bob Cohn: I don’t think it makes a big difference necessarily whether you come through the edit side or the business side. You just have to be willing to understand the entire kind of 360 degree picture and you have to be comfortable across the broad landscape of all the issues that we face. There’s really no way to be an editorial leader and not be deeply exposed to business issues, business imperatives and business opportunities. Both in my time at Wired and my time running Atlantic digital editorial – those were both editorial jobs and I had those for the last 12 or 13 years, so I received a lot of business experience as anybody in those jobs had to, kind of the modern media landscape.
So I don’t feel it’s as if I have plucked from an ink-stained print world or edit world and gone into business. There is a lot about editorial leadership that requires business savvy.
On the other hand, there are still a ton of new things and a steep learning curve which has been exciting and somewhat daunting. But in the end, in terms of who would make a better leader, I think it’s more about the person than what they’ve done in their previous job.
Samir Husni: Any pitfalls you can advise other presidents and CEO’s to avoid in this digital age?
Bob Cohn: For me it’s been important to not be the guy who was the editor and became the co-president and COO. I fully embraced the business side of publishing. It’s important that revenue teams have someone to work with who is fully committed to their success. So in coming from the edit side, it’s been important to think of myself and train myself to be the business guy and not just fall back onto my previous experience.
There are a lot of pitfalls for all of us to worry about. One thing I think we’re worried about at The Atlantic as we look forward is the fast-moving shift to mobile. We’ve been pretty successful in making the transition from a pen-centric world to a digital-centric world over the last five to seven years, in terms of content, in terms of revenue and in terms of overall environment and culture of the brand.
The thing for us to worry about is that we continue to make the shift to a mobile environment because half of our traffic, half of our audience, half of our monthly visitors are coming to us from a mobile platform and we want to make sure that we know how to monetize that or we can’t continue to do our journalism.
Samir Husni: And that’s probably the challenge that faces everyone in the magazine marketplace now. It was just a few years ago we were talking digital and web and now we’re talking mobile and who knows what the next five years will bring. How can you prepare for that? As a leader in a media company; how can you prepare your staff for that and an unknown future?
Bob Cohn: The trepidation I have about mobile coming in and being such a big part of our business is offset by the fact that we did make the transition from print to the web, not a full transition, print is still very important, but we did move into the digital world and what we know is Atlantic content can find an audience and find a big audience in the digital space. There’s no reason to think that we can’t do that same thing in mobile or any new platform that comes up in the next five to ten years. It’s the power of the content that we create and the brand that we have and the trick is to just be sure that you’re optimizing that content for whatever platform it’s going on, both in terms of the way you present it and all the backend technology and development that you do with it.
But I’m bullish on our future, even when mobile is the dominant delivery platform and even when there is some new platform that comes in and edges out mobile because I think what we know is The Atlantic has staying power. If, and this is the second part of your question, if first content is king, then our content will work on whatever platform gets thrown at us. And it only works if you’re entrepreneurial and are willing to throw away things that don’t work and you can’t be dogmatic about how you want to deliver your content or what your consumers want, if you really listen to your readers and viewers.
The thing that you can be dogmatic about is what your brand stands for, that you have integrity and that you are committed to maintaining what it is that people love about The Atlantic. But I don’t think that you can be dogmatic about anything else.
Samir Husni: When you go home and you want to read something, other than The Atlantic; what do you read in your leisure time and do you consume it on a tablet, on a mobile phone, or in print?
Bob Cohn: Mostly I find myself into social media and then I’m quickly reading everything that’s good on the Internet, whether it’s The New York Times or other magazines or niche websites. Just following what my Twitter feed is telling me. I still read a bunch of magazines in print and I still read books. They’re not as thick as they used to be (Laughs).
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Bob Cohn: Two sets of things: things that are out of my control, but are kind of existential to our world, like what if there’s an advertising industry collapse? Of course, I read that 2015 is supposed to be the best year for advertising led by digital, which would be good for us if that forecast turns out to be true.
But if there’s a huge collapse that’s the kind of thing I worry about because so much of our revenue is based on advertising. But I can’t really control that. You spend a lot of time worrying about things you can’t control like the Facebook algorithm which is an important driver of audience. Our content works very well on Facebook and people like to share stuff from The Atlantic. But a little tweak here or there and you never know what will happen. That’s an important part of our audience and the size of our audience is important in our business.
Those are things that I can’t control and they worry me. The other things that we can control, such as can we continue to create the kind of culture here that is innovative and can make changes and can follow wherever we need to go.
And I guess you end up worrying about individual decisions within that, but I don’t actually worry about that within the big picture, because I think we have that.
Samir Husni: Thank you.