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‘Riding Out The Storm’ With Innovation, Creativity & A Firm Hope For The Future Of Regional Magazines – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Fred Parry, Publisher, Inside Columbia Magazine.

April 22, 2015

“People still want them (Magazines). If people didn’t want those magazines, basically our business model would fail. While it’s been reduced; I think there’s still a market for that. Print is still credible; people still want that tangible experience and they still want to have that quiet time with a magazine. And I also believe there are times when people want to be on a digital diet, they want to be away from all of those devices. They just want some quiet time.” Fred Parry

Cover-4ee185aaNever let it be said that Mr. Magazine™ misses an opportunity to pick the brain of a magazine publisher. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Fred Parry, publisher of Inside Columbia magazine, as he was visiting Oxford and the University of Mississippi on a private visit.

Upon receiving word that Fred was in town, I invited him to attend my early morning magazine service journalism class at Ole Miss and then afterward we went back to my office for an in depth discussion of the future of city and regional magazines and what innovations and mind sets he has put into place at Inside Columbia (Missouri). As a University of Missouri – Columbia graduate myself, my ears were attuned to the many wonderful and inspired thoughts he had on the industry, and the city and regional category in particular.

From his opinion that traditional advertising is no longer a sustainable model for magazine publishing to the fact that he believes custom content and sponsored advertising is the new path in the woods that magazine media should take; we had a lively and informative talk that raised important questions and also answered some that have been broached over the years.

I hope you enjoy this heart-to-heart with Fred Parry, Publisher, Inside Columbia magazine, as much as I did participating in it, but first the sound-bites.

Fred Parry On whether magazine publishing has recovered from the 2008 crisis: We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t think we’ll ever see the revenue levels and the level of activity that we saw in 2008 before the Market crashed. I think for the first few years we all hoped things would get back to “normal” or what we were used to, but I believe we’re all slowly waking up to the fact that advertising is no longer a sustainable model for magazine publishing.

On how he sees the transition from print to digital and going from a monthly to an hourly publication: I think it’s pretty clear that people want an hourly publication. I think people want content updated as frequently as we’re willing to do it, so that’s a real transition for us and a paradigm shift certainly.

On whether he believes that people will pay for custom content or that the status quo of our Welfare Information Society will remain intact: We have done ourselves a great disservice by creating that Welfare Information Society and I think that it’s going to be almost impossible to teach people that they have to pay for content. Somebody will hopefully find a way to do it.

On whether he thinks we can sell a publishing future to consumers without a printed product: Absolutely, by selling sponsored content. I think that’s where the revenue model is.

On the fact that we live in a digital age, yet we’re continuing to produce magazines in the same way as we did in 2007: People still want them. If people didn’t want those magazines, basically our business model would fail. While it’s been reduced; I think there’s still a market for that. Print is still credible; people still want that tangible experience and they still want to have that quiet time with a magazine.

On how Inside Columbia magazine has changed over the years: One of the things that have changed for sure is that our magazines are much smaller than they were in 2008. And I think that we’re probably more in tune with our target reader and what his/her needs are.

On whether the future of city and regional magazines appears brighter now than for the rest of the industry: I think it’s brighter because we’re smarter than we were six years ago; it’s brighter because we’re much more efficient; we’re spending money much more cautiously and really, for most of us, there is a better return on our investment. We’re leaner and meaner, and I think we’re poised to sort of ride out the storm.

On the main stumbling block Inside Columbia and other city and regional magazines are facing today: It’s the traditional advertising model. Trying to go out and sell paid advertising and display advertising gets harder every single day. Six or seven years ago advertising revenue was 92% of our revenue. Today, our core magazine might be 50% of our revenue.

On what keeps him up at night: I think that it’s always a struggle to try and figure out what our advertisers are thinking. There’s always something shiny and new that comes along and steals the attention of the traditional marketers that have supported us over the years. So, I think the thing that keeps me awake is trying to figure out how to stay a step ahead; how to outsmart these “innovators” that come in with these latest and greatest ideas that nine times out of ten are not sustainable.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Fred Parry, Publisher, Inside Columbia magazine.

Parry and Husni Samir Husni: As the publisher of a city and regional magazine; where do you see the future of that genre’ heading? And have we recovered from the crisis of 2008? Are you still seeing black clouds or are there rays of sunshine peeping through?

Fred Parry: We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t think we’ll ever see the revenue levels and the level of activity that we saw in 2008 before the Market crashed. I think for the first few years we all hoped things would get back to “normal” or what we were used to, but I believe we’re all slowly waking up to the fact that advertising is no longer a sustainable model for magazine publishing. And I think the sooner that we can break ourselves away from the addiction of advertising revenue, the sooner we’re going to make that transition into being really content companies versus magazine publishing companies.

As we look at ways to distribute the content that we produce every day, whether it’s through a daily e-newsletter or some type of Smart newspaper or Smart magazine that you described in one of your recent blogs, I really believe that is our future and as soon as we embrace that, we’ll stop wasting time and money trying to make the advertising model work.

Samir Husni: How do you view the transition from ink on paper to digital? And also going from a monthly publication or six times per year to say an hourly, if not a by the minute type publication?

Fred Parry: I think it’s pretty clear that people want an hourly publication. I think people want content updated as frequently as we’re willing to do it, so that’s a real transition for us and a paradigm shift certainly.

But I think there are still going to be people who want that tangible reading experience, whether it’s in the bathroom or on the beach, there will be a need for that magazine. It will just become a very small percentage of our annual revenue model.

And the custom content, the way that’s evolving; the lines between editorial and promotional content have become so blurred, and there doesn’t seem to be much of an effort to defend those lines any longer. People tend to find as much value in promotional content as they do in editorial content.

So, those of us over the age of 30 in the magazine publishing business are still scratching our heads. And the real innovators are the people who are figuring out that john Smith wants to read about wine, baseball and Manchester United Soccer, and until we are able to provide custom content for John Smith, we’re going to lag behind.

Samir Husni: Do you think if we’re able to do that, and I know that technology makes it easy for us to provide that custom content; do you think that people will be willing to pay money for that or do you think they’ll expect the free ride of digital to continue and the Welfare Information Society to remain status quo?

Fred Parry: We have done ourselves a great disservice by creating that Welfare Information Society and I think that it’s going to be almost impossible to teach people that they have to pay for content. Somebody will hopefully find a way to do it.

We’re spending a lot of time in the publishing business right now; I’ve been to three magazine conferences in the last month and the one common thread that is being woven through all of these conferences and what publishers are talking about today are these universal or integrated audience data bases, where every engagement a reader has with our magazines; we need to capture that engagement.

So, if John Smith is reading about wine in our magazine or online, we need to somehow note that engagement and to know that the next time we have some content about wine, we need to alert John Smith that there is an article coming out in next month’s magazine about wine and we think that he’d enjoy it. Or let readers know that we just posted this on our blog or on our website. Being able to capture intelligence about our readers’ preferences and being able to say we know that reader 6279 is interested in these 15 verticals, these 15 categories of interest.

There are a couple of companies that are helping publishers capture that information; it is high-minded; it is something that’s very difficult for those of us that grew up in the traditional world of publishing to get our heads around, but I think it’s very clear that’s our future.

Samir Husni: Do you think that we can monetize that future without the printed product?

Fred Parry: Absolutely, by selling sponsored content. I think that’s where the revenue model is. Once we have the audience established; once we have a greater degree of confidence about the significance and validity of our data bases; I think that we can go to marketers and say, look, I can put you right in front of and help you interact with this small cluster. And maybe that small cluster is just 150 readers or maybe it’s 15,000, but they are uniquely interested in what you’re selling. And I can make it very easy for you to interact with them.

Samir Husni: And what if that advertiser or marketer tells you that they have the same capability of reaching them directly, why would they need you?

Fred Parry: They can’t produce the same kind of content that we’ll produce. They won’t have the same creditability that we do as a content provider. I think that’s going to be our only unique vantage point that we have the creditability and a reputation for generating quality content that people are going to be interested in.

As long as we can preserve our brands and keep building our brands, I believe we’ll have that advantage over the marketer.

Samir Husni: I think you’ll agree with me when I say we live in a digital age. Why are we continuing to produce magazines today like we did in 2007?

Fred Parry: People still want them. If people didn’t want those magazines, basically our business model would fail. While it’s been reduced; I think there’s still a market for that. Print is still credible; people still want that tangible experience and they still want to have that quiet time with a magazine. And I also believe there are times when people want to be on a digital diet, they want to be away from all of those devices. They just want some quiet time.

Maybe I’m just fooling myself, but I’m hoping that there’s still some desire for that physical magazine.

Samir Husni: Have you changed at all? If you compare a copy of Inside Columbia from the early years to a copy from today is there a major difference? I’m one of those people who say there’s not a problem with ink on paper, the problem is with what is being put on the ink on paper. Do I still need a local guide to restaurants in town or a list of all the attorneys in town in print, or should my content change to reflect the new realities of the digital age?

Fred Parry: One of the things that have changed for sure is that our magazines are much smaller than they were in 2008. And I think that we’re probably more in tune with our target reader and what his/her needs are.

At Inside Columbia magazine we have identified a 43-year-old female, named Lisa, as our target audience. And we have painted a picture of Lisa; we have a fictitious character that’s on a poster in our office. Our editors ask what would Lisa think about this; our advertising sales reps ask don’t you want to get this message to Lisa, so that’s one thing that’s changed since 2008. We’re a lot more in tune with what our reader wants and what our reader needs. We know what Lisa’s insecurities are and we know what her frustrations are; we know what keeps Lisa awake at night. If our magazine can somehow satisfy that concern and her needs; we’re really filling a nice void.

Probably more than anything, our magazine is Lisa’s connection to her community and to the real world. Lisa is pretty inundated right now with trying to get the kids to soccer and to school and trying to maintain the house, but also finishing that degree that she’s working on and working part-time somewhere. Lisa’s plate is absolutely full, but if our magazine can serve as that connection between Lisa and the world that she wants to belong to, the world that she wants to be engaged with, that’s probably the strongest benefit that we offer.

Samir Husni: Do you think that the future of the Lisa’s of the world and of the regional and city magazines is a little brighter than the rest of the industry?

Fred Parry: I think it’s brighter because we’re smarter than we were six years ago; it’s brighter because we’re much more efficient; we’re spending money much more cautiously and really, for most of us, there is a better return on our investment. We’re leaner and meaner, and I think we’re poised to sort of ride out the storm. And as the industry evolves and continues to change and be affected by technology; I feel like we’re going to be in a much better position to either innovate or jump on board.

Samir Husni: If you had to name one stumbling block facing the future of Inside Columbia and the future of city and regional magazines, what would it be?

Fred Parry: It’s the traditional advertising model. Trying to go out and sell paid advertising and display advertising gets harder every single day. Six or seven years ago advertising revenue was 92% of our revenue. Today, our core magazine might be 50% of our revenue.

And so we’re replacing that advertising revenue with custom publishing, which has been a big growth sector for us. We’re replacing that magazine revenue with events, digital newsletters, e-blasts and different projects that really have nothing to do with the magazine, other than the fact that we’re borrowing or trading on the goodwill of our brand. And that brand opens the door for us. Inside Columbia is a very strong brand, just like 5280 is in Denver or Boston Magazine. It doesn’t really matter what we’re selling, because we have the creditability of our brand behind us and people trust our brand. I think that’s probably where we have an edge over a lot of other people who are trying to produce content.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Fred Parry: (Laughs) I think that it’s always a struggle to try and figure out what our advertisers are thinking. There’s always something shiny and new that comes along and steals the attention of the traditional marketers that have supported us over the years. So, I think the thing that keeps me awake is trying to figure out how to stay a step ahead; how to outsmart these “innovators” that come in with these latest and greatest ideas that nine times out of ten are not sustainable. But they come in and they temporarily steal our milk and bread and it’s a disruption, to say the least.

I think the thing that keeps me awake is figuring out how to outsmart those folks; how do I go in and make my relationship with that marketer, with the person who’s paying the bills, so strong, that they’ll stop looking at other places and be as faithful to me as I am to them.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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