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Travel With A Purpose: Smithsonian Embarks On New Journeys (The Magazine, That Is). The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Publisher Steve Giannetti And Editor-in-Chief Victoria Pope

April 15, 2015

“I’m very excited about this part of our business. I was brought up in print and I do believe that it’s the role of print and how it plays in the overall world of our media. You see it as much as I do; now we’re seeing digital-only plays that want to get into the print business and so, isn’t it right that we should actually start with the median and grow it the other way? That’s where I see the future going, creating content that can be deeper and articulated in different ways in the world of publishing.” Steve Giannetti

“I believe very much in the importance of the commercial side. I don’t feel successful without being successful.” Victoria Pope

SJ If you love to travel and you love to learn about the places and destinations you’re traveling to, then Smithsonian’s new magazine, Smithsonian Journeys is for you. The magazine could easily have the tagline, “Travel with A Purpose.” Of course, the one it has bodes well for it too, “Seeing the World in a New Light.”

Steve Giannetti is the chief revenue officer and Victoria Pope is editor-in-chief and the two together have a collaborative bond that is apparent throughout the pages of the sleek magazine. The editorial is wonderful and the ads are dynamic and only add to the energy and flow of the magazine.

I spoke with Steve and Victoria recently and they praised their new baby as only parents could and should, without ignoring the inherent pitfalls of growing up that every infant has. The power and beauty of print was a driving factor behind the powers-that-be of the Smithsonian’s decision to launch a new title. And by the deep, enriched feeling you get from just flipping through the pages, I would say they made a stellar decision.

So, sit back and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steve Giannetti, Publisher and Victoria Pope, Editor-in-Chief, Smithsonian Journeys.

But first, the sound-bites:

On why Smithsonian decided to launch a print magazine in a digital age: What a great opportunity to create a tangible, tactile, beautiful product that is able to take all of our travel resources and put them together in one place. (SG)

On why Paris was the city of choice for the first issue: Honestly, when I came into the job, I could do whatever I wanted, but within a very short period of time. And I wanted to pick a place that I felt I knew on the ground a bit. I knew a little bit about Arab culture there; I had read a lot about black American culture historically there, so I felt like I had a strong starting point. (VP)

On whether the history of the city or region chosen will play an integral part of every issue: That’s the idea. We’re in the midst of doing an issue now that will be on what’s called the “Inca Highway,” the countries of the Andes, so Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. Again, it’s trying to create a rounded, curated view of that region. We have a piece on what’s called “Astro Tourism” in Chile, which is to say it’s going to be a story on the southern night sky and about stargazing. (VP)

On whether anyone told Steve that Smithsonian was out of its mind for launching a print magazine today: I can tell you that exact quote was said to me several times. I was asked why we would do it and I explained to them that if you look at the magazine business today, Samir, where is it resonating the most? With high quality, beautiful, tactile publications and that this is far more than just a magazine print launch. And I also said wait until you see the issue.

On where Steve sees the future of print: There is no doubt the future of print, I think, is creating products that are more a part of a larger medium mix, it’s not just print alone. It’s now the launching point of a content platform that we’re going to be expanding, so I see this more as print’s role in the entire medium mix and I see us growing in, and I don’t want to call them niches, because that’s not the right word, but I see us growing in areas that can create content that is deeper and more easily articulated in other platforms. And I think consumers will pay for that. And if consumers pay for it, advertisers will follow.

On the major stumbling block Victoria felt they had to face while launching the magazine: Of course, you have to start small and by that I mean small budget as well. For me, it’s been quite an issue to find the kinds of contributors that I want in a foreign venue. I have to start from scratch basically when it’s a place far away. I don’t have the budget to send people from the states and I’m not even sure that’s the model that I want to follow.

On Steve’s opinion of the biggest stumbling block: The biggest stumbling block was really in convincing people that we were creating a beautiful product that no one had ever seen before, but tell them also that they were going to have trust and take that ride with us.

On whether Steve believes pricey magazines and consumer-driven revenue may be the new business model for magazines: As the chief revenue officer and I’m also in charge of consumer marketing as well, so yes, I don’t want to be reliant on just sponsors and advertisers, so the answer to that question is yes. We do feel a product has to be paid for, or at least somewhat paid for or monetized through the consumer.

On the human being Victoria feels the magazine would become if struck with a magic wand that could turn Smithsonian Journeys into a person: It’s Victoria, but it’s also the Smithsonian Journeys traveler, frankly. I spent a lot of time talking with the people on the travel side about the people they’ve met on the trips, who they are and what they are, people who are autodidacts, who are very interested in all kinds of subjects. Then I try to incorporate my personality and the things that I’m interested in and the visual sense of the art director, in with those people, so truly it’s rather a cohort of people.

On what motivates Victoria to get our bed and look forward to going to work: I really love the process of figuring out how the magazine is going to look with the art director.

On what motivates Steve to get out of bed and look forward to going to work: Having been in this business for a long time, what I really love about getting up today is that we’ve created a new product that’s amazing. I’m sitting here with the editor-in-chief, right? I believe in church and state, but what I really love is that we’ve created this arm-in-arm, not me telling Victoria how to write the edit or what to write, but us constantly talking about how we can make it better and sharing what we think about every facet of the magazine.

On what keeps Steve up at night: What keeps me up at night is very simple right now. It’s that I know we’ve created a great product, but is the consumer going to think it’s great.

On what keeps Victoria up at night: I’m kept awake by the many needs to move very quickly ahead and whether I’ll be able to make something as good as I want it to be. There really isn’t a lot of time between issues, it seems that way, and that keeps me up.

And now for the lightly edited transcription of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Steve Giannetti, Publisher, and Victoria Pope, Editor-in-Chief, Smithsonian Journeys.

Samir Husni: Why did Smithsonian decide to launch a new magazine in print in today’s digital age?

Steve Giannetti Photo Steve Giannetti: There are a couple of reasons why and the first one is that travel is in the DNA of the Smithsonian brand and our travel division is called Smithsonian Journeys. Smithsonian Journeys is a place where you can book a trip to virtually any place in the world and when you go on one of our trips a Smithsonian expert is with you. This has been around for about 30 years and it’s a really robust business for us.

From a commercial standpoint, travel has been a really large part of our advertising and sponsorship and the Smithsonian consumers love to travel; we know that from our business; they have money and they have time.

We felt with all these areas coming together; what a great opportunity to create a tangible, tactile, beautiful product that is able to take all of our travel resources and put them together in one place. That was really the genesis of this idea and then we brought Victoria on, who used to work at National Geographic, and she’s just brought a whole new perspective. As we say on the cover: seeing the world in a new light is exactly what this publication is about.

Samir Husni: Victoria, that leads me to the question, why did you choose the city that never ceases to delight and fascinate Americans, Paris, for the first issue?

Victoria Pope: (Laughs) Doesn’t that say it all? Honestly, when I came into the job, I could do whatever I wanted, but within a very short period of time. And I wanted to pick a place that I felt I knew on the ground a bit. I knew a little bit about Arab culture there; I had read a lot about black American culture historically there, so I felt like I had a strong starting point. I also just wanted a place in which we could follow very vividly the template that I think is important in this kind of journalism, which is taking history and bringing it into the modern and bringing it alive. Paris is a city that does have those connections everywhere, so it was a good model location for us.

Samir Husni: Victoria, what was your position at National Geographic?

Victoria Pope Headshot Victoria Pope: I had several positions. For most of my nine years there I was deputy to the editor-in-chief, so I was number two at the magazine.

Samir Husni: When I flipped through the pages of the first issue, I felt as though you were a curator of Paris. If someone is interested in Paris and its history and how it relates to Americans; you’ve done a great job with that curation. Is this what we’ll see with every issue’s topic?

Victoria Pope: That’s the idea. We’re in the midst of doing an issue now that will be on what’s called the “Inca Highway,” the countries of the Andes, so Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. Again, it’s trying to create a rounded, curated view of that region. We have a piece on what’s called “Astro Tourism” in Chile, which is to say it’s going to be a story on the southern night sky and about stargazing.

Then there will be a piece on La Paz on the ways in which superstition infuses everyday life. Charles Mann, who is the author of 1491, is going to be looking at the ecology of the region and how that ecology really gave it the possibilities of becoming a great civilization back at the time of the Incas. And several stories deal with Incan civilization.

What we do know with each issue is that we want to follow the kinds of subjects that are most important to the Smithsonian readers, meaning Smithsonian in a general sense, the Smithsonian partaker, if you will, the people who go on tours and who like the museums in the magazine. And we’re always going to try and have one science story; we’re always going to have history, whether it be deep history, like archaeology in the case of the Andean countries, or in the case of Paris, we went back to the 17th century.

So we know that these two elements will be in each issue and then also a certain amount of food history, but also some contemporary food reporting. We feel that people care about this a lot and we’re trying to do everything a little bit deeper than it is in most travel publications because I personally find that most travel magazines don’t give me enough of what I want.

I was a foreign correspondent for over 10 years and I remember that when people would visit me, tourists and friends, they really wanted to know about the places; they really wanted to know more than just what they could find out quickly in a list of places to see, such as monuments and restaurants, and that’s what we’re trying to cater to.

Samir Husni: Steve, this is a print publication in a digital age and as the chief revenue officer, you had the responsibility of trying to sell this magazine to advertisers. Did anybody tell you that you were out of your mind to bring another print publication into this digital age?

Steve Giannetti: I can tell you that exact quote was said to me several times. I was asked why we would do it and I explained to them that if you look at the magazine business today, Samir, where is it resonating the most? With high quality, beautiful, tactile publications and that this is far more than just a magazine print launch. And I also said wait until you see the issue.

The initial response was that, but after a bit it was more of, I’m really happy you’re doing this and that you’re staying committed to a platform that is very important. And as you can see, we were very successful in bringing in a quality group of advertisers to the magazine and we hope to bring in more.

Samir Husni: The whole “print is dead” marching band has dissolved and now the new group’s mantra is “print is in decline.” Where do you see the future of print?

Steve Giannetti: There is no doubt the future of print, I think, is creating products that are more a part of a larger medium mix, it’s not just print alone. It’s now the launching point of a content platform that we’re going to be expanding, so I see this more as print’s role in the entire medium mix and I see us growing in, and I don’t want to call them niches, because that’s not the right word, but I see us growing in areas that can create content that is deeper and more easily articulated in other platforms. And I think consumers will pay for that. And if consumers pay for it, advertisers will follow.

I’m very excited about this part of our business. I was brought up in print and I do believe that it’s the role of print and how it plays in the overall world of our media. You see it as much as I do; now we’re seeing digital-only plays that want to get into the print business and so, isn’t it right that we should actually start with the median and grow it the other way? That’s where I see the future going, creating content that can be deeper and articulated in different ways in the world of publishing.

Samir Husni: What was the major stumbling block that you had to face during this launch process and how did you overcome it?

Steve Giannetti: In terms of advertising or in general?

Samir Husni: In general, or in terms of what you consider the major stumbling block from the point of conception to the point of birth of Smithsonian Journeys?

Victoria Pope: Of course, you have to start small and by that I mean small budget as well. For me, it’s been quite an issue to find the kinds of contributors that I want in a foreign venue. I have to start from scratch basically when it’s a place far away. I don’t have the budget to send people from the states and I’m not even sure that’s the model that I want to follow. I felt finally, when I did get the freelancers that I wanted in Paris to contribute that I would be much happier that I had people who were based in Paris doing it than sending people that I knew from National Geographic or some other place to go over, but it’s very tricky to do that and also not have a very big budget or lead time.

Those are the typical kinds of problems of a start-up and you work on fumes a lot of the time. I’m just very pleased that the first issue has turned out well and I think the second issue will be very good too and we’ll probably be able to grow and put more resources quickly into it.

Steve Giannetti: And that’s the word: resources. The biggest stumbling block was really in convincing people that we were creating a beautiful product that no one had ever seen before, but tell them also that they were going to have trust and take that ride with us. There are going to be bumps from a budgeting standpoint, and I from the chief revenue officer’s standpoint said, we’re going to bring more advertisers into this as well. Hopefully, Samir, what we’re going to find is that it won’t be just travel advertisers, but we’ll get more advertisers that are in the travel genre.

And once we overcame that and people started seeing the magazine being created and seeing it as it grew, internally here at the Smithsonian it’s become a fulcrum of “I want to see this.” I’m in D.C. and I’m carrying a copy and keeping it close to my vest so people don’t steal it from me.

It took a while to get over that first hump, but once we got there and people saw what we were creating and the type of advertising that we were bringing in and the product itself, everybody called and said let’s do it. And you get that with a lot of start-ups.

Samir Husni: I noticed that the cover price is $13.99, for one issue, while you can get almost an entire year of Smithsonian for that price. Is this the new model? Are we going to see more consumer-driven revenue generation from print than from advertising?

Steve Giannetti: As the chief revenue officer and I’m also in charge of consumer marketing as well, so yes, I don’t want to be reliant on just sponsors and advertisers, so the answer to that question is yes. We do feel a product has to be paid for, or at least somewhat paid for or monetized through the consumer. To be successful in the future, Samir, I think any print publication has to look at that model, absolutely.

Samir Husni: The new magazine that National Geographic just launched, National Geographic History, the cover price is $9.99 and published 6 times per year, so we’re starting to see these high cover prices, which to me is sending a signal that if you really like what you see, you will pay for it.

Steve Giannetti: That’s exactly right and remember, Smithsonian Journeys is all original editorial, while some launches are able to use and take into consideration refurbished editorial. So nobody has seen this before. And we felt if we were able to create this unique editorial, it would be great. And this is unique, not only in terms of the content, but also in the view that we’re looking at traveling, and I think this is something that consumers will pay for. And the consumers will talk, so knock on wood, Samir; I’m hoping you’ll buy 200 copies. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too) Victoria, if I give you a magic wand and you strike Smithsonian Journeys premier issue with it and a person, a human being, appears in place of the magazine; who would it be and how will that person, male or female, engage with the audience?

SJ Victoria Pope: It’s Victoria, but it’s also the Smithsonian Journeys traveler, frankly. I spent a lot of time talking with the people on the travel side about the people they’ve met on the trips, who they are and what they are, people who are autodidacts, who are very interested in all kinds of subjects. Then I try to incorporate my personality and the things that I’m interested in and the visual sense of the art director, in with those people, so truly it’s rather a cohort of people. I try to bring all of that into this person who represents the magazine. And I think if that’s successful, then I’ve reached a large enough readership. We don’t need to be huge; we just need to be…

Steve Giannetti: …loved. (Laughs)

Victoria Pope: By a subset of people who love to travel and like knowing about places and like the idea of reading several stories about a region or a city at once. And I have to say, I think quite a few people fit that.

Steve Giannetti: If you were going to go to Paris and you read this magazine, I think you’d have a huge head start on seeing the city in a way that probably you would not have experienced in a first-time journey. And that’s what our people want. The traveler from Smithsonian; the cultural traveler wants to learn about things that are new. Not new in the fact that they’re brand-new, but they’re uncovered. They like to discover and they’re curious and that’s the type of person that we want to read this. The ability to take this content and grow it out is something that I’m excited about as well.

Samir Husni: What is the initial launch; can you share some numbers?

Steve Giannetti: We’re putting out 150,000 on the newsstand and I have some alternate distribution going into some cruise lines as well. So, it’s probably about 170,000 altogether.

Samir Husni: Will the magazine have subscriptions or be strictly on the newsstands in the beginning?

Steve Giannetti: Good question. What we did, Samir, was a pre-launch email exchange with some of our list to see if they would buy the magazine in advance. And the response has been very robust, so that’s good. And we have a card in the magazine that asks the reader if they’d like to receive it, I want to get that feedback. I would love to grow it, but right now I think you have to establish the beat ship with the fact that if it works on the newsstand, I would love to grow it, yes. But we have to wait and see what the consumer says here first, if that makes sense.

Samir Husni: Most good magazine launches considered the newsstand as their acid test; if it worked on the newsstand first, then they could go from there.

Steve Giannetti: That’s exactly right. We’re confident that this is going to work, that’s why we’ve committed to four of these.

Samir Husni: Victoria, would you think it was a horrible nightmare if Steve came to you and said let’s do this magazine monthly?

Victoria Pope: (Laughs)

Steve Giannetti: (Laughs too) Yes, the answer is yes.

Victoria Pope: Definitely. (Laughing) That would be an impossibility, but we do need to grow in a lot of ways. We need to grow both in having more editorial products, whether they are specials that come out of Journeys or other things. I have lots of ideas of things that we could produce. I want to spend my free time that I’ll someday have, building up our digital extensions, because I feel there is so much that I could do to help them. We want to make at lists of eating, for example, with the feature that we have on food and the history of food, a very regular and important feature digitally, so I’m trying to get people every week to write something on the subject of food history. We have many things to do beyond the print location.

Steve Giannetti: So, the growth process is to not necessarily increase frequency, it’s increasing the engagement with the consumer in different areas of this great content. And I think if we can do that, frequency will become part of it, but that’s really not going to be our barometer of growth. You don’t want to be just pumping out magazines that don’t have the quality that we have with the Smithsonian. Quality is something we always strive for, whether it’s the magazine or anything else we do. We always ask the question, is this going to represent the brand that we have to represent?

Samir Husni: Anything else either of you would like to add?

Victoria Pope: When you have time to settle down and read it; I’d love to have your thoughts about how we could make it better. Maybe it’s unfair to ask that of you, but I’d love to have your practiced eye to tell us what you think might be missing because it’s evolving; it’s definitely going to evolve.

Samir Husni: I’ll be more than happy to do that.

Samir Husni: Victoria, what makes you get out of bed in the mornings and motivates you to say, wow, I can’t wait to get to work?

Victoria Pope: I really love the process of figuring out how the magazine is going to look with the art director. I have, for probably the fifth time in my life in journalism, probably the perfect partner in my art director because we’re able to bounce ideas off of each other and we often agree about things and that to me, being able to create a product that’s so visual and written that is in harmony, where the visuals are exciting and help to bring people into the storytelling, is really wonderful.

Samir Husni: And Steve?

Steve Giannetti: Having been in this business for a long time, what I really love about getting up today is that we’ve created a new product that’s amazing. I’m sitting here with the editor-in-chief, right? I believe in church and state, but what I really love is that we’ve created this arm-in-arm, not me telling Victoria how to write the edit or what to write, but us constantly talking about how we can make it better and sharing what we think about every facet of the magazine. So, it has really re-jazzed me and reenergized me to say that I’m in a business that has a lot of growth areas.

We’re working together now and I really love that. Years ago, the church and state chasm was so big that it just didn’t work. But now, being able to collaborate on something new and come out with a great product, that’s really energizing, even for an old guy like me.

Samir Husni: (Laughs) Steve, since you mentioned the old guy and I did not, my typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Steve Giannetti: (Laughs too) What keeps me up at night is very simple right now. It’s that I know we’ve created a great product, but is the consumer going to think it’s great.

Samir Husni: And Victoria?

Victoria Pope: I’m kept awake by the many needs to move very quickly ahead and whether I’ll be able to make something as good as I want it to be. There really isn’t a lot of time between issues, it seems that way, and that keeps me up. I still have two assignments to make for the next issue.

Let me just say something about the collaboration with Steve. It’s been really nice. I remember the very first day we met on my fifth day on the job and I said, I think that we’re going to have to stream these quarterlies; it’s going to be better if we just, instead of covering the world every four months, we narrow it down to cities and regions. And Steve immediately picked up on that and was able to reinforce what I was thinking editorially from a business standpoint. And that meant a lot to me.

I believe very much in the importance of the commercial side. I don’t feel successful without being successful.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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