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On Audience First & The Characteristics Of A Successful Magazine… An Interview With Mr. Magazine™

February 23, 2015

“We definitely live in a digital age, there is no escaping that. And as I wrote recently in my Mr. Magazine™ Manifesto for 2015, there is no media company today that can exist without being platform agnostic. However, our audience is not necessarily platform agnostic. Some of our audience still want a printed magazine, some want online only and some want a printed newspaper.” Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni

Recently I was interviewed by one of my colleagues, Debora Wenger, a 17-year broadcast news veteran, and associate professor of journalism and director of the undergraduate program at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. She conducted the interview for the benefit of her Journalism 101 students and discussed some of the content of a new book she and I and another colleague have written called Managing Today’s News Media: Audience First. (FYI, the book will be published this summer by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.”

Within the interview we discuss what it takes to be a successful print magazine in the digital age that we live in today in comparison to the way things used to be in publishing days gone by. The information may surprise you…

So sit back and enjoy the flipside of this Mr. Magazine™ interview as the man usually asking the questions, this time around provides the answers.

You can either click on the video below and watch the interview, or you can read the sound-bites and the complete transcribed interview below.

Now for the sound-bites:

On his passion for magazines: It started as a hobby before it turned into my education and my profession. I was probably nine or ten years old when I bought my very first copy of Superman in Arabic when it first came to Lebanon, my home country. And I fell in love with the art of storytelling; fell in love with holding something in my hands that I could read on my own and at my own pace and didn’t have to depend on my father or my grandfather to tell me about.

On how he believes digital technology has affected magazines:
This is going to be very important in how we apply the usage of technology to print because for one thing the technological advances that we have now makes it possible to print the magazine a few hours before it is available to the general public on the newsstands or by mail. So, those deadlines that used to be like two or three weeks ahead of time; now Time magazine can change their cover on Tuesday night before they print on Wednesday and have the magazine on the stands the next day.

On whether all successful magazines need to have a relationship with their readers: When you hear about people falling in love with Time or falling in love with Cosmopolitan or Woman’s World; they’re not necessarily falling in love with the ink on paper, but with the content. Somebody once said that successful magazines are those that are purveyors of meaning. Add to that, say the meaning of life; ‘what is in it for me?’

On whether he believes a magazine provides information that you can’t get anywhere else:
Not necessarily that it provides you with information that you can’t get any other place, but rather explains the information in a way that you can’t get any other place, because in this day and age it is so easy for anyone to tell you what’s going on.

On whether magazines have adapted to the social changes of today:
Definitely. And we have to remember when television came onto the scene; television became part of the American household in the late 1950s and early 1960s, television fundamentally changed the mission of magazines.

On his opinion of provocative, powerful covers and whether they spark public discussion about important topics:
Magazines today are finding themselves playing the role of initiator and a lot of good magazine covers are those that ignite the discussion. Not only start it, but ignite it.

On the role advertising plays in the success of today’s new magazines: The majority of the big established magazines are still making at least 80% of their revenue from advertising, but it’s just the opposite with the new magazines, where they make 80% of their revenue from their customers who buy the magazines.

On why he believes journalism and marketing/communications students should be as passionate as he is about magazines:
One simple reason: I tell students all the time that there are three F’s in journalism that all marketing or communications people need to pay attention to, as long as they’re not part of your grades: fun, fame and fortune.

Professor Debora Wenger asks and Mr. Magazine™ answers...

Professor Debora Wenger asks and Mr. Magazine™ answers…


And now the lightly edited transcription of the Mr. Magazine™ interview conducted by Professor Debora Wenger…


Debora Wenger: Tell me a little about your passion for magazines. I know it’s been a part of your life for many, many years.

Samir Husni: It started as a hobby before it turned into my education and my profession. I was probably nine or ten years old when I bought my very first copy of Superman in Arabic when it first came to Lebanon, my home country. And I fell in love with the art of storytelling; fell in love with holding something in my hands that I could read on my own and at my own pace and didn’t have to depend on my father or my grandfather to tell me about. I could use my own tone of voice, flip the pages myself, and it was as though somehow the ink transferred into my blood. And since that day my heart began to pump ink instead of blood. (Laughs)

Debora Wenger: Obviously, you and I talk a lot about the future of journalism in particular, and you’re very passionate about the future of magazines. We live in a digital world right now and obviously digital technology has had an impact on all forms of communication; could you talk a little about how you see digital technology affecting magazines.

Samir Husni: Well, we definitely live in a digital age, there is no escaping that. And as I wrote recently in my Mr. Magazine™ Manifesto for 2015, there is no media company today that can exist without being platform agnostic. However, our audience is not necessarily platform agnostic. Some of our audience still wants a printed magazine, some want online only and some want a printed newspaper; we have to be careful before we make a decision on what we’re going to do to identify our audience. That’s why you and I and another colleague have written the book: Audience First.

This is going to be very important in how we apply the usage of technology to print because for one thing the technological advances that we have now makes it possible to print the magazine a few hours before it is available to the general public on the newsstands or by mail. So, those deadlines that used to be like two or three weeks ahead of time; now Time magazine can change their cover on Tuesday night before they print on Wednesday and have the magazine on the stands the next day.

Technology has helped a lot in terms of the speed of printing. The cost of printing, because of technology, has become so cheap that anybody and their neighbor can now launch a new magazine. The cost of entry into our business has become so small and that’s one reason that we are seeing more magazines being published now more than ever before.

Debora Wenger: In fact, we make the point that you’re talking about in the text book: despite the doom and gloom that you hear about print, the magazine industry is very robust now and has been for many, many years. In the text we talk about a number of characteristics of successful magazines and I’d like to walk through them with you one by one and get your take on whether you believe that these are in fact legitimate characteristics or if there is anything that you would add or take away from this list.

The first one is the relationship between magazines and readers and that all successful magazines actually have a relationship with their readers; what’s your response to that?

Samir Husni: If we go back in history, magazines in the United States and the rest of the world were the very first national medium; they were the very first mass medium worldwide which connected people virtually in California, in Mississippi, in New York; so when you received a copy of your Life magazine or Look or Saturday Evening Post, there was this virtual community, you knew that people in California were reading the exact same thing as here. You have to remember radio was local, newspapers were local; so the only thing that was a national marketing tool was the magazines.

That virtual community continues to exist into today. When you hear about people falling in love with Time or falling in love with Cosmopolitan or Woman’s World; they’re not necessarily falling in love with the ink on paper, but with the content. Somebody once said that successful magazines are those that are purveyors of meaning. Add to that, say the meaning of life; ‘what is in it for me?’ When I pick up a magazine, it’s like an older sister giving me advice, a younger brother terrorizing me or a friend coming to visit; so in fact it’s that sense of virtual community that has helped magazines succeed.

If I look at a magazine as a human being, then I’m spending time with a friend; I’m spending time with a consultant, or a doctor, without actually having to go any other place.

One very successful example that people always give is Cosmopolitan. When Helen Gurley Brown wrote her book about Sex and the Single Girl, she started receiving letters at home and her husband, who was a psychiatrist, asked her: why don’t you do a magazine and answer all these questions? And that’s how Cosmopolitan came about. With the magazine, she began answering the virtual community, instead of each one individually. And of course Cosmopolitan, which will celebrate 50 years in 2015, has become one of the most successful women’s magazines in the United States.

Debora Wenger: And that leads us into what is considered the second characteristic of a successful magazine; that it provides you information you can’t get anywhere else. Do you see that as a fundamental characteristic of successful publications?

Samir Husni: Not necessarily that it provides you with information that you can’t get any other place, but rather explains the information in a way that you can’t get any other place, because in this day and age it is so easy for anyone to tell you what’s going on. What we used to call our friends of journalism: the five W’s and the H; the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How, are easily accessible now via online and social media.

But the ‘what is in it for me’ and specifically for me; the more that I can make the magazine content give me the answer to that simple question, what’s in it for me, the more my relationship with the magazine is going to be successful, because I truly believe in the magazine business, just like in any other successful business, we have to be in the business of addiction. We have to get people addicted to the advice, addicted to the way of explaining how life goes on; how you can lose weight in this way or that way; how you can get to know your husband or wife better; how you can meet your boyfriend or girlfriend and what you can do. The more we create this habitual repetition of the information and the explanation of the information, the more we are creating that relationship that when the magazine comes to your mailbox and you open it up and see the magazine in there, you say: wow, she’s back; she’s here, rather than: oh no, here she comes again.

Debora Wenger: (Laughs) I think you have already referenced this to some extent with the story about Cosmopolitan, but the next characteristic that’s mentioned is magazines that are successful have adapted to social change. Certainly, there was a societal shift about the time that Cosmo came out with the statement: it’s OK to talk about sex, and have that topic be a feature in every single magazine. Do you agree that magazines that are successful have adapted to social changes?

Samir Husni: Definitely. And we have to remember when television came onto the scene; television became part of the American household in the late 1950s and early 1960s, television fundamentally changed the mission of magazines. Magazines until that era were the only national medium and the only connectors of that virtual community. So, when television came there was no need for the magazines to be that national, virtual community. When you sat down and watched TV back then, one-third of the country was watching the same thing you were watching.

Connectivity shifted from the virtual printed medium in your hand to the screen of the television in your den. We saw the beginnings of a social movement and a change in the role of American magazines, starting with magazines like Rolling Stone, MS, Playboy, Cosmopolitan and The Advocate; all these magazines had a specialty, a goal in mind that they wanted to relate to a specific community.

We started serving clusters of communities and when social media came onto the scene, where every person and their brother can be their own publisher and have their own blog; magazines starting playing a different role; one that said: OK, I know you have a community, but you need a voice for that community that can reach more people who think like you. And that’s why we’re seeing the power of that social impact. When we put the Boston Bomber on the cover of Rolling Stone; all of a sudden all hell broke loose. Everybody in the country was talking about it. When Time magazine put the mom nursing her three-year-old child on its cover, the whole country was talking about it. Magazines still impact culture, especially with the power of the printed cover. You don’t go looking for it; you’ll see it when you walk inside the grocery store or at the airports; it’s in your face.

Magazines are adapting and editors are getting cleverer in the use of things that they know will ignite social media.

Debora Wenger: Which leads to another one of the characteristics which is they define the major issues of society. They are leaders in setting the agenda for public discourse and they take sometimes controversial and important topics and put them in the public spotlight. And it sounds like that you definitely agree that with a provocative, powerful cover; you can actually spark public discussion about important topics.

Samir Husni: When I wrote my dissertation in 1983 about what makes magazines survive and fail; I wrote that magazines have two roles: they have a commercial role like any other business, if you’re not making money, you’re not going to stay in business, but they also have a social role. Magazines have been the best reflectors of society. They initiate some things, such as when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated or Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Esquire magazine took the lead trying to ban gun advertising and trying to have all the magazines unite in the ban. When the September 11th catastrophe took place, magazines initiated putting the American flag on every cover of the magazines during their October issues.

The role of reflecting society and initiating issues is shifting a little bit; we are becoming more of the initiators because social media is now the bigger reflector of society. Anybody these days now has access to tell you what’s taking place in their lives; that they’re waking up and having a cup of coffee or they are coming to class sleepy.

Magazines today are finding themselves playing the role of initiator and a lot of good magazine covers are those that ignite the discussion. Not only start it, but ignite it. Social media can then pour as much gasoline as it wants onto the fire or they can pour water onto it.

Debora Wenger: So you touched on what is the last characteristic that’s mentioned in the text as being indicators of a successful magazine and that’s the idea that they are adjusting to current economic conditions and limitations; although advertising still plays a significant role, but there’s more than just being funded by advertisers for magazines. What would you say about that?

Samir Husni: That’s a definite. When you look at the magazines that were published, let’s say, in the 1980s, the average cover price of a magazine then was $2.50. The average cover price of a new magazine today is more than $8.00. So, we’re shifting the business model, where it used to be that a big chunk of our money came from advertisers, now we are seeing the customer, the reader is carrying some of that burden.

But the majority of the big established magazines are still making at least 80% of their revenue from advertising, but it’s just the opposite with the new magazines, where they make 80% of their revenue from their customers who buy the magazines.

That’s why you’re also seeing a new shift taking place. Where we used to have a lot of magazines published on a regular frequency, weeklies like TV Guide selling 80 million copies every week, those magazines don’t exist anymore. Now you’d need 100 magazines, if not more, to sell 80 million copies in one week.

What we are seeing is that magazines are becoming more of a coffee table item, glossier and more like what we call book-a-zines. And with very high cover prices: $14.99 is becoming more the norm and they’re published less frequently. You have a lot of new magazines coming to the marketplace now published four to six times per year. In fact, in 2014, I saw more titles being published four times per year than any other frequency.

Nobody can compete with the speed of technology or social media. Any magazine that’s trying to compete with the delivery the same way social media delivers, is going to have the same fate the magazines of 1960s did when they tried to compete with television. No matter how many copies Life magazine increased their circulation by, 7 million or 8 million, or Look, or the Saturday Evening Post; they were never able to reach the 70 million a television channel could reach.

We’ve learned our lesson and we’ve learned that the best way to survive is to create a product, create content that the readers are not only willing to pay for, but can also afford to pay for. That remains the number one cornerstone for survival.

Debora Wenger: Before we wrap up, how about a few words to students about why they should be as passionate about magazines as you are.

Samir Husni: One simple reason: I tell students all the time that there are three F’s in journalism that all marketing or communications people need to pay attention to, as long as they’re not part of your grades: fun, fame and fortune.

Debora Wenger: Thank you.

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