The Buzz Factor: A Man Who Knows His Niche & Strongly Believes In Print. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Buzz Kanter – Publisher, TAM CommunicationsJanuary 26, 2015
“We keep hearing: print is dead, print is dead. Well, no, print is not dead. What’s happening is it’s shifting and the people who are on the internet, it’s in their best interests to promote the internet over print and they’re saying it as loud as they can.” Buzz Kanter
Buzz Kanter is a third generation print publisher (TAM Communications) and a man who knows his own mind when it comes to the things he believes we can do as an industry to grow our audience and breathe new life back into the print component of magazine media. His grandfather founded Classics Illustrated (comics) in the 1940s. His father worked for him and then left and grew what evolved into Penny Press/Dell puzzle magazines. Buzz worked for him for years and then started TAM Communications (as the thesis for his MBA in 1989). He now runs TAM Communications and its stable of magazines. Along with the reborn RoadBike to Motorcycle Rides & Culture, his list of niche magazines is impressive:
• American Iron Magazine
• American Iron Garage
• Motorcycle Bagger
• Motorcycle magazine
• Classic American Iron forum
With a redesign that lead to over 40% growth in readership and an increase in his magazine frequency to seven times per year instead of just six, his former RoadBike magazine was reborn into Motorcycle Rides & Culture about a year ago. And the response from readers has been phenomenal as the numbers prove.
Motorcycle Rides & Culture shares long-form articles and more exciting art and graphics that appeal to the thinking rider looking for more. And, based on the more than 40% growth in readership in the first year, the “Buzz Kanter” formula appears to be working.
I spoke with Buzz recently and we talked about the industry and the practice of discounting subscription prices to gain more readers, which he believes is not the answer. We talked about enthusiast magazines, such as his and their past, and we talked about the future and how print isn’t dead, no matter what the internet phantoms shout.
So, I hope you enjoy this very special conversation with a man who has a straightforward and clear focus on the future of print media. Sit back, relax and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Buzz Kanter, Publisher, TAM Communications.
But first, the sound-bites:
On why he thinks his formula is working: I can’t speak for news magazines because I think that’s a whole different issue. But I can speak for special interest and enthusiast publications and I believe there is still plenty of room for them in print.
On whether he believes it’s the system that’s broken and not ink on paper: I don’t think it’s black and white. There are a lot of different elements involved. We keep hearing: print is dead, print is dead. Well, no, print is not dead. What’s happening is it’s shifting and the people who are on the internet, it’s in their best interests to promote the internet over print and they’re saying it as loud as they can.
On how he responds to someone shouting: print is dead: The easy thing to do is create shock value and tell them: no, print is not dead, I’m still in business and we’re doing OK, we’re paying our bills and we’re growing our product.
On the specifics of the Buzz formula: The “Buzz” formula? (Laughs) My feeling is if a print magazine is just a print version of a digital website; why bother?
On his future publishing plans: For Motorcycle Rides & Culture we went from 6 issues last year to 7 issues this year. If our growth continues and we get the support from our readers and advertisers, then we’ll continue to increase frequency.
On the outcome of the digital piracy of his magazines: I think the company was called Issuu. Someone pointed out that my magazines were being offered free to whoever signed up with Issuu, without permission from us and they were current issues, not any they pulled out from the past. We go there once a month or so and check and the onus is on us. We’re not finding our magazines, but we’re finding enormous numbers of magazines out there.
On a major stumbling block he anticipates facing: I would say the biggest challenge we have is uncertainty of the future. And if I had a really good answer for that, I’d be calling you from my yacht in the Bahamas right now. (Laughs)
On his most pleasant moment in publishing: It’s very rewarding to produce a product that you’re proud of and that brings value to your audience. And I hope that doesn’t sound cliché.
On facts he’d like to add: I certainly hope that magazine publishers stop doing foolish things that impact the industry. I think some of them are drawn on us and I think some of them are drawn to us and by us.
On what keeps him up at night: As a third generation publisher, I question if there is going to be a viable industry for my children to become a 4th generation publisher. And if so, what’s it going to look like?
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Buzz Kanter, Publisher, TAM Communications…
Samir Husni: You’re a third generation print person. Why do you think you’re bucking the trends, doing better and enhancing your print product, while others are declining?
Buzz Kanter: I can’t speak for news magazines because I think that’s a whole different issue. But I can speak for special interest and enthusiast publications and I believe there is still plenty of room for them in print.
The problems are pretty widespread and they cross a lot of different areas. The three main revenue streams are single copy, subscriptions and advertising. And all three of them are under attack. Some of the attacks we’re bringing on ourselves and some of them the market is bringing to us. With single copy, the biggest challenge is that the wholesale system is badly flawed and for the most part the magazine wholesalers that are controlling it, and the national distributors that are banking it, are trying to apply the same solutions that haven’t worked for decades. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?
I hate to say it, but what’s happening is the wholesalers are asking the publishers to subsidize their inefficiencies, rather than finding better ways or smarter solutions. They’re saying that this is the best that they can do and if you want them to carry your product, you’re going to have to pay them more money.
So, the single copy is a distribution issue; it’s not a demand issue or a product issue, it’s predominantly a financial distribution challenge. The wholesalers are basically cannibalizing each other and expecting someone else to subsidize them and make them whole. And it’s a very, very dangerous game because they’re getting farther and farther extended to where the publishers are saying, “You know what, it’s more economical to put an even cheaper price on subscriptions than to deal with the single copy system.”
Samir Husni: Do you believe then that it’s the system that’s broken and not the ink on paper product itself?
Buzz Kanter: I don’t think it’s black and white. There are a lot of different elements involved. We keep hearing: print is dead, print is dead. Well, no, print is not dead. What’s happening is it’s shifting and the people who are on the internet, it’s in their best interests to promote the internet over print and they’re saying it as loud as they can.
What I find is that people don’t have as much free time or better stated they’re finding ways to use whatever free time they might have. How often have you been out in public and seen people standing at a bus stop or sitting in a restaurant looking at their cell phones? That used to be free time, where they would socialize, converse, think or observe, but now if people have a minute to spare, they pull out their cell phones and go on Facebook or check the stock market, read the latest news or whatever it is they’re doing with their cell phones.
What’s happening is these portable devices are vacuuming up all the spare time. And if that’s the case and it becomes a habit, and it is, I think; then how do you find time to sit down with a print magazine or a book? And I think that’s the issue.
Samir Husni: And we, as the magazine industry, are also to blame because we jumped onto that bandwagon wholeheartedly.
Buzz Kanter: Yes.
Samir Husni: Every time someone tells you either print is in decline or print is dead and you’re living the print process, producing a magazine and increasing circulation; how do you respond to that? What is the reality check?
Buzz Kanter: I guess it depends on what kind of mood I’m in at the time and who the person is I’m talking to. But the easy thing to do is create shock value and tell them: no, print is not dead, I’m still in business and we’re doing OK, we’re paying our bills and we’re growing our product.
What’s happening is most people are parodying what they hear, not necessarily what they’ve thought through carefully. And I think that’s not unusual. Print is not dead; there are still an awful lot of people reading newspapers and buying books and magazines. Go to an airport and look at how many people are on their tablets versus those actually reading magazines and books. Then what happens when you’re in the airplane and you don’t have Wi-Fi? Some people are reading off of Kindles and Nooks or whatever.
So, is print dead? No. Will it become more and more unusual with each generation? Yes, I think so. As the portable devices become better and easier to use, I think they will cut into it, as they already have.
It’s interesting; I talked to some of our advertisers and a number of them a couple of years ago would say, we’re cutting back our print advertising and going to the internet. We’d ask: what will you do on the internet? And they’d say, I don’t know, we’ve just been told we have to be there. We’d ask: how are you going to market there? And they’d respond, I don’t know, but I’m told I have to have a website. I’m told I have to have an internet presence. We’d ask: how are people going to find you? And they’d say, I don’t know. It didn’t matter what our ad department said, these people had to be on the internet and they had a limited ad budget which they’d pulled from print and went to online. Well, once that happened, everyone said print is dead because the advertisers were leaving. Many of the advertisers were leaving, but they didn’t know why or how.
And in the last year they’re starting to come back. They’re saying they tried the internet and it didn’t work. They got lost in the huge volume of data out there. Many of them are now coming back and saying, “Your magazine is focused and aimed at my audience, people who use my products and services.” And many of them are now coming back and pulling their dollars out of the internet because they found it was just overwhelming, whereas we can give them a targeted audience.
Samir Husni: You have a specific niche. Your magazines target a very definitive audience. Your magazine has increased readership, advertising and frequency to 7 times a year; what’s your secret? What’s the “Buzz” formula that’s making this happen?
Buzz Kanter: The “Buzz” formula? (Laughs) My feeling is if a print magazine is just a print version of a digital website; why bother? We can’t do it as well as the websites. I’m seeing a lot of enthusiast publications forcing over a print version of its website. Heavy on the graphics, lots of pictures, lots of charts and graphs, pulled quotes, little factoids and not much meat or substance. And my feeling is the people who pick up the magazine want some substance, they want a good read. If there is an article about something they’re interested in; the reason they bought the magazine in the first place, they don’t want to read five paragraphs and see three photographs like you would on a website.
The delivery of content in print should be more in depth, exciting and interesting for them to sit down for a half hour or an hour to read the article in a magazine. The internet is fabulous for quick information. Does it come in blue? Can I get one overnighted to me? Those types of things are great for the internet. But I personally don’t want to sit down and read a 3,000 word article online. I want to read that in print.
So what we did with our magazine called RoadBike; originally, it was a pretty good general interest magazine about motorcycles, but it couldn’t get traction. Rather than fold it, which we were considering, I said that I wanted to publish a long-form journalism magazine with terrific art and give the articles and the photography all the space they need, rather than try and squeeze it down and condense it like a website. I said let’s try it. If it works great; if not, we can always pull the plug if we have to. Something I was hoping not to have to do.
We renamed it Motorcycle Rides & Culture. Now, I suspected those were good search engine optimization words. (Laughs) But meanwhile, it also tells the reader what the magazine is in print. And instead of putting in 30 short articles in one magazine, we cut it down to 8 or 10 longer articles, with lots of great photos, information, and emotional content and knowing it’s in print and the people who still buy print, we threw in certain cultural things. We have some artists every issue who are involved in the motorcycle world. They might be a painter or a sculptor or a photographer; we do unusual cultural pieces involving motorcycles, beyond the Hollywood bikers and outlaw stuff.
And it seems to have resonated. We’re up 46% year over year. Our newsstand and subscriptions are climbing. I just received a report recently from Wal-Mart, which is the largest seller of magazines in America. And even though we did 6 issues last year; annually we were the 6th bestselling motorcycle magazine in there, outselling several of them that come out monthly, twice the frequency of ours. On an annualized basis, we’re outselling them.
Samir Husni: What’s the plan for the future? Anything up and coming you’d like to share with us?
Buzz Kanter: For Motorcycle Rides & Culture we went from 6 issues last year to 7 issues this year. If our growth continues and we get the support from our readers and advertisers, then we’ll continue to increase frequency. My feeling is we’re going to move this gradually. If we make a misstep, we want to have time to fix it.
I wish I had a crystal ball, I really do. If I knew where the media industry would be in 3 or 4 years, I’d be way ahead of the curve. But at this point I’m producing a product that we’re all proud of and that the consumers are responding to and we’ll continue to do that. We just have to stay flexible.
One thing we will not do and I’m seeing more and more of this, is the aggressive discounting of subscriptions. Many, many years ago I learned a lesson when I was watching some competitive titles, one was called Cycle and the other was Cycle World, and this was back in the 70s, and then ended up being owned by the same publishing company. And both of them were in a war to build subscriptions. It was a race in pricing and they were getting cheaper and cheaper. Then, as I said, they ended up with the same publisher and then the ad market dropped down. So they had this massive subscription liability with no ad revenue and no sub-revenue. One ended up inhaling the other one and they merged together. It took them years to get financially stable again.
My feeling is I never want to sacrifice the future of the magazine by using aggressive subscription discounts. If the advertising declines, then you’re left holding the bag. I think it’s a very dangerous place to be.
One of the things that we try to do is instead of making money on the newsstands; we try to make money on subscriptions and advertising. Even if it’s a break-even or a small profit, and that way we’re less susceptible to market shifts that could be fatal.
Samir Husni: If my memory serves me right, you tweeted once, and linked me and others to the Tweet, about a certain entity lifting your magazine and putting it onto a digital device without your permission. How did that turn out?
Buzz Kanter: I think the company was called Issuu. Someone pointed out that my magazines were being offered free to whoever signed up with Issuu, without permission from us and they were current issues, not any they pulled out from the past. So we contacted them. We had our intellectual property lawyers contact them and tell them to cease and desist. And they wrote back basically saying they were just a platform and not a policing agency and if we didn’t want our product on their platform, it was our responsibility to identify them and bring it to their attention and they would remove them. They said they were a type of YouTube for magazines, where YouTube isn’t responsible for whatever postings are there.
We go there once a month or so and check and the onus is on us. We’re not finding our magazines, but we’re finding enormous numbers of magazines out there.
Samir Husni: So, who’s posting those magazines; who is putting them on the platform?
Buzz Kanter: I couldn’t say, but many of them seem to be coming from overseas and it’s similar to YouTube. And I don’t know what the motivation is. I could understand if a publisher needed to bolster the circulation numbers or get more responses for advertisers, they could use that as a marketing tool. But I don’t know why someone would do it to my magazines without our permission or knowledge.
Samir Husni: Besides that major problem with the digital devices accessing your property without permission; what is the biggest stumbling block you can see or envision facing TAM and your publications and how do you plan to overcome it?
Buzz Kanter: That’s a good question. I would say the biggest challenge we have is uncertainty of the future. And if I had a really good answer for that, I’d be calling you from my yacht in the Bahamas right now. (Laughs)
As you know, I’m a third generation print publisher. I remember my grandfather’s biggest challenge was movies and black and white TV. They were told that TV sets in the house were going to kill magazines. And yet magazines survived.
My father’s business was Penny Press. His biggest challenge was cable. And they said that magazines weren’t going to survive cable television. And yet he survived the naysayers.
Now my generation has been told the internet is going to kill magazines. And while it’s definitely having its effect on magazines, it’s certainly not killing them. As long as there is a demand for quality print publications, there will be clever publishers who will figure out ways to financially succeed in delivering that content. The challenge is identifying the efficient ways to do that and then growing them. A lot of people are trying a lot of things now, some are putting them online and some aren’t. We have to keep our eyes opened and be flexible because the rules are changing.
Samir Husni: And to go in the opposite direction; what has been the most pleasant moment in your publishing experience so far?
Buzz Kanter: Other than talking to you today?
Samir Husni: (Laughs) Yes, other than that.
Buzz Kanter: It’s very rewarding to produce a product that you’re proud of and that brings value to your audience. And I hope that doesn’t sound cliché. I started my first motorcycle magazine in 1989 and it was out of a spare bedroom in my house. It was basically a classified ad magazine for old motorcycles and parts. This was before the internet, before Craig’s List or eBay or anything, and I launched it because I was rebuilding and riding old motorcycles and I couldn’t find a source for parts and information. In my youth, back in ’89, I started this magazine. It never really amounted to much, but it gave me a platform to then grow my business into enthusiast’s books.
To this day I have people say: wow, Old Bike Journal, yes I love it. I bought a bike here, the parts there. It’s very rewarding to hear how it helped people with similar interests to mine. I still get a kick out of meeting readers who say they read something in my magazine or they thank me and tell me how something in it helped them. It just made my passions that much stronger and better.
As a publisher of an enthusiast magazine, it’s wonderful to get feedback from people saying that what we do makes a difference.
Samir Husni: Anything you’d like to add?
Buzz Kanter: I certainly hope that magazine publishers stop doing foolish things that impact the industry. I think some of them are drawn on us and I think some of them are drawn to us and by us. These deeply discounted subscription deals are silly. Flooding product into the newsstand racks that has little chance of selling is silly. Too many publishers’ long-term strategies are I can hold my breath longer than my competitor. And I think that’s both dangerous and foolish.
Samir Husni: I agree, but sometimes you feel as though you’re a profit in the wilderness.
Buzz Kanter: I’m used to people telling me that I’m nuts or that it makes sense, but it’ll never happen. I spoke on a PBAA panel years ago and I said the future of our industry is to sell more copies of fewer magazines and that we’re pushing too much product through a system that can’t handle it. And everyone basically told me I was nuts.
Years later I gave basically the same presentation and everyone told me I was brilliant. But nothing has really happened. How can we justify distributing product that doesn’t meet some minimum criteria of sales efficiency or profitability.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Buzz Kanter: Really good television shows? (Laughs) As a third generation publisher, I question if there is going to be a viable industry for my children to become a 4th generation publisher. And if so, what’s it going to look like?
Samir Husni: Thank you.