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The Unparalleled Success Of People Magazine – Trust & Ethical Reporting – It’s Not True Until People Says It – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Jess Cagle, Editorial Director, People Magazine.

August 10, 2015

“Looking at the realities of the business now, I can’t imagine the print product going away in the next 10 years, because frankly too many people want it and it makes too much money. It’s such a gigantic part of our business and just based on consumer demand; I don’t think it’s going to go away.” Jess Cagle

07_27_15_NO_UPC Henry Luce may have said it best: “I suggest that what we want to do is not to leave to posterity a great institution, but to leave behind a great tradition of journalism ably practiced in our time.” A noble sentiment that can be observed when one considers that the number one moneymaking magazine today is in the Time Inc. family and definitely practices that great tradition of journalism that Luce was referring to.

People magazine reaches 75 million human beings at any given moment in time and according to its editorial director, Jess Cagle, in his editor’s letter from the August 3rd issue, they’re working hard to get it right. An example of that “getting it right” was offered up in Jess Cagle’s letter and substantiates Henry Luce’s hopes for the future of his company when it came to the ethics and morals of good journalism.

When Caitlyn Jenner was still Bruce and made the announcement that she was transitioning once and for all from male to female, People made the confirmation that it was indeed happening and then posted it on People.com. And while People certainly wasn’t the first to report on the Jenner transition, millions of users clicked on the story for one defining reason: If People said it was true, you knew it was true.

And that is the power behind the People brand: the careful, meticulous and respectful coverage of stories such as Caitlyn Jenner’s. Or the thoughtful way the magazine reported on the story of Brittany Maynard and her struggles with terminal brain cancer and the right-to-die issue.

I spoke with Jess recently and we talked about the foundation of People and the ethical treatment of both its audience and its subject matter. Jess described People’s focus as a magazine that reports on ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing ordinary things. And I think he hit the nail on the head with that characterization.

People continues to maintain and gain its audience’s trust and also the trust of the people it covers by never forgetting that while they may cover Hollywood, celebrities and other “people” who entertain us and baffle us and inspire us; the powers-that-be that bring us the stories, photographs and videos are journalists first and mindblowers second. They want to wow us and cause those jaw-dropping moments, but only if they’re done with taste, truth and respectful reporting.

And the man that leads that auspicious team and oversees the equally popular Entertainment Weekly group is as passionate about journalistic ethics as he is a good story.

So, grab your favorite piece of furniture and relax for 15 minutes or so and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Jess Cagle, Editorial Director, People magazine. It will definitely be worth your while.

But first, the sound-bites:


jess cagle On why People magazine is still the number one moneymaking magazine today and a highly respected source for accuracy and truth when it comes to celebrity coverage:
People magazine was launched 41 years ago covering celebrities and I think that it was the first magazine that was largely focused on celebrities that took a journalistic approach to it. In other words, it adhered to all of the ethical, journalistic rules and regulations like any good journalist would follow and applied it to celebrities. And I think that we’ve never gotten away from that and that is essentially the reason why the notion among our audience and the public in general is that it’s not true until People magazine says it. So, it starts with journalism and that’s how the magazine was founded; that was in its DNA.

On the fact that Time Inc.’s Henry Luce started the company with brands like Time, Life and Sports Illustrated, but ironically it’s the celebrity-focused People magazine that after 41 years of being published remains the number one moneymaker out of the much esteemed Time Inc. roster:
Henry Luce was very good at giving the audience what they wanted and then giving the audience more of what they wanted. And I think what we saw was that there was an appetite for celebrity coverage, and not just celebrity coverage. A lot of media outlets over the years had covered celebrities and Hollywood, but People magazine certainly brought a journalistic rigor to that coverage that was new.

On how it makes him feel when he thinks about the fact that People magazine reaches 75 million people at any given moment: If you really thought about the 75 million that we reach, it would be paralyzing because there’s no way to make them all happy all of the time. And you have many different age groups, from retirees to millennials, within your readership.

On whether he can ever imagine a day when People magazine doesn’t have a print component:
Sure, I can imagine it. Media has changed so much in the past 10 years that to say that you can’t ever imagine a certain scenario is crazy, because anything is possible. And the way people consume media now is so different than it was 10 years ago and ten years from now it’ll be so different than it is today. But looking at the realities of the business now, I can’t imagine the print product going away in the next 10 years, because frankly too many people want it and it makes too much money.

On why the People logo was recently upsized and now has the largest logo on the newsstands:
Well, because People is the Coca-Cola and the Superman of media brands. So, to make it bigger and more noticeable seemed to make sense to me. It’s so recognizable and people have such an emotional connection to that logo that I just thought let’s make it as big as we can.

On what he thinks it will take to keep media reporters from lumping People magazine into the same category as the tabloids: Well again, I’m a realist, so I realize that many of the topics we cover are going to be the same topics that the trashy tabloids are covering. I’m aware that the same top stories on People.com are sometimes going to be the same top stories on trashy websites. So, I understand why sometimes we get lumped together, but our audience knows the difference in People and the rest. They know it’s a very differentiated product and Hollywood and Washington and everywhere that we draw our subjects from; they also know that People is a differentiated product.

On combining People.com and Entertainment Weekly.com and whether or not the People brand is trying to be “the” entertainment news website:
The websites remain distinct; we have combined them into a network, called the People/Entertainment Weekly Network, in order to create the number one digital news, entertainment news site. And that really helps us with advertisers. If we can sell those two sites together and maximize advertising opportunities and maximize the reach of both of those brands, because they’re both enormous, that really helps us. From the consumer standpoint, they remain very, very different brands. They offer very, very different things.

On whether celebrities covet being on the cover of People or they’re scared of being featured on the cover:
If we call a celebrity and say congratulations, you’re going to be on the cover of “The World’s Most Beautiful” issue or congratulations, you’re “The Sexiest Man Alive,” or you know what, you have a new movie coming out and we’d love to do a cover story on you; they get very excited by that.

On how his role as an editorial director has changed since the days before the digital/mobile explosion: I would say the biggest challenge has been, just when we thought we had figured out how to maintain a print product and a website, suddenly everybody started moving to mobile. Now we have to really think about how our product looks on mobile and how we serve our audience on those little devices.

On the hefty subscription price People’s readers are willing to pay and what that says about the audience: I run two brands, one is Entertainment Weekly and one is People; a subscription to People is much more expensive than EW or Time or any other magazine in the world, not just Time Inc. It’s the reason that I made the logo bigger. People’s audience, which is very big, has an emotional connection to that brand that they don’t have with a lot of other brands. You don’t have that many people with as deep an emotional connection as we have with People magazine. And I don’t say that because I’m trying to sell you People; I say that because it’s just the truth. It’s why people are willing to pay that kind of money for it.

On what makes him click and tick and motivates him to get out of bed in the mornings: What do I look forward to? Honestly, what gets me out of bed is the fact that this job is not going to do itself. And also – how many people are lucky enough to have this job? It sounds a bit Pollyannaish, but I never want to stop being excited, because how many people get to choose the cover of People magazine and work on Entertainment Weekly? I grew up with both of these brands, so I personally have a deep, emotional connection to both of them.

On what keeps him up at night:
When it comes down to what keeps me up at night, I think it’d have to be; am I a good enough leader for this organization or how could I lead it better? That’s a better way to articulate it. How can I get all of these different people doing all of these different things and creating all of this content in all of its different forms to work together and create an environment where people are working at the top of their game and able to work at the top of their game? That’s the toughest part of the job.

And now the lightly edited transcription of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Jess Cagle, Editorial Director, People magazine.

Samir Husni: People is the number one moneymaking magazine, from circulation and from advertising; it’s by far the most successful magazine in the world. But by the same token, you edit the magazine in a completely different way. In your roadmap editorial in the August 3rd issue, you talk about compassion for the people, respect for the audience and compassion for the people you cover. Tell me a little about how you do that; what makes you and People magazine different than anything else out there?

People 3-1 Jess Cagle: People magazine was launched 41 years ago covering celebrities and I think that it was the first magazine that was largely focused on celebrities that took a journalistic approach to it. In other words, it adhered to all of the ethical, journalistic rules and regulations like any good journalist would follow and applied it to celebrities.

And I think that we’ve never gotten away from that and that is essentially the reason why the notion among our audience and the public in general is that it’s not true until People magazine says it. So, it starts with journalism and that’s how the magazine was founded; that was in its DNA.

Over the years we have set ourselves apart from the tabloids by being fair primarily; I can tell you that not every story we do about a celebrity makes them happy. I feel quite certain that Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert would rather us not do a cover on their divorce; however, I think they also know and the audience too, that we’re going to cover it fairly. We’re not going to tell you things that aren’t true; we’re not going to take cheap shots. So, I think it’s the idea of being fair.

The other component of all this is People has unparalleled access to Hollywood. And so by adhering to journalistic rules and by being fair, they trust us. And that’s really important to us. We want to tell our readers the truth, as much truth as we know at any given time. That trust is very important. The trust of the Hollywood community is also very important to us.

Trust from our audience and trust from the people we cover are keys to our success. It’s not that we just want to do the right thing, which is great and we do, but it’s also that maintaining trust among the audience and the subjects we cover is also really good business for us as well.

Samir Husni: It’s ironic; when I was going to school in the late 70s and People was just a five-year-old magazine, one of my professors quoted someone saying that when People was first launched Henry Luce was probably turning in his grave. These are the same people who bring you TIME and Life and Sports Illustrated and now they’re doing this? But now 41 years later, People magazine probably saved Time Inc.

Jess Cagle: Yes, it is funny, but I don’t know that Henry Luce would have been turning in his grave. Henry Luce was very good at giving the audience what they wanted and then giving the audience more of what they wanted. And I think what we saw was that there was an appetite for celebrity coverage, and not just celebrity coverage. A lot of media outlets over the years had covered celebrities and Hollywood, but People magazine certainly brought a journalistic rigor to that coverage that was new.

But what People really did and its real impact on the world was that we were a news magazine that focused on the personalities behind the news. A news magazine that focused on the newsmakers; so whether we’re covering Hollywood, sports or politics; we’re showing our subjects in a way that enables the reader to have a personal connection with them.

If we do a story on a politician, we’re going to show the politician at home with the kids and we’re going to talk about their hobbies and very often you can learn a lot more about a public figure, whether they’re a sports star, politician or a Hollywood actor, by knowing some of those personal details rather than hearing them talk about policy and things like that.

Samir Husni: People has an audience of 75 million, between print and digital and social media; when you wake up in the morning and you think about the fact that you’re reaching 75 million people at any given moment, how does that make you feel?

Jess Cagle: Well, first, I think about what I’m going to have for lunch that day. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Jess Cagle: If you really thought about the 75 million that we reach, it would be paralyzing because there’s no way to make them all happy all of the time. And you have many different age groups, from retirees to millennials, within your readership.

What informs what we do are really three things. And the first thing is the founding editor of People, Dick Stolley, said that People is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and extraordinary people doing ordinary things. And that still informs all of our content.

What I’ve worked on a lot since I’ve been here is to think hard about what exactly is the job of our content and the job of our content is to entertain, inspire and empower our audience. Now, you can’t do all three of those things with every single story, but you can do at least one of those things with every story, whether it’s a Tweet or it’s a post on the site or whether it’s a cover story.

And then you think we want to cover ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing ordinary things; that’s the mission, but the job is to entertain, inspire and empower. And the greatest asset, our most valuable and precious asset, is the trust that we’ve gained with our audience. And the trust that you’ve gained with your audience translates into trust from your subjects and trust from advertisers.

Samir Husni: You mentioned in your roadmap editorial all the hard work that goes into preparing the 52 issues of the print edition and the breaking news stories on People.com; can you ever imagine a day when People magazine doesn’t have a print component, when everything is digital-only and the new half-hour news program maybe becoming a 24 hour channel?

Jess Cagle: Sure, I can imagine it. Media has changed so much in the past 10 years that to say that you can’t ever imagine a certain scenario is crazy, because anything is possible. And the way people consume media now is so different than it was 10 years ago and ten years from now it’ll be so different than it is today. The site won’t look the same, our video won’t look the same and our print product won’t look the same. It’s all changing and we just have to keep our ear to the ground and evolve with it.

But looking at the realities of the business now, I can’t imagine the print product going away in the next 10 years, because frankly too many people want it and it makes too much money. It’s such a gigantic part of our business and just based on consumer demand; I don’t think it’s going to go away.

Now, I’m also a realist and I know that the digital space, that’s where we’re looking to maintain and stabilize print as much as we can. But we know that digital, particularly video, is the most exciting area of growth for us. So, we’re doing all we can to grow those parts of the business. We think a lot about that as a huge part of what we do every day.

Samir Husni: Can you tell me why you recently changed the logo of People, not really changed it, but upsized the name “People” and now it’s the biggest logo of any magazine on the newsstands?

People 4-2 Jess Cagle: Well, because People is the Coca-Cola and the Superman of media brands. So, to make it bigger and more noticeable seemed to make sense to me. It’s so recognizable and people have such an emotional connection to that logo that I just thought let’s make it as big as we can. People love it and it for some reason it makes them feel good. I think that Americans are born knowing what People magazine is.

Samir Husni: One of the biggest struggles that I’m sure you face is with media reporters. They always try to put People magazine in the same genre as celebrity magazines.

Jess Cagle: Right – as the tabloids.

Samir Husni: What can you do to show or to educate media people, more than your audience, more than the Hollywood personalities; what is needed for those media-type people to see that People magazine is not just a celebrity magazine?

Jess Cagle: Well again, I’m a realist, so I realize that many of the topics we cover are going to be the same topics that the trashy tabloids are covering. I’m aware that the same top stories on People.com are sometimes going to be the same top stories on trashy websites.

So, I understand why sometimes we get lumped together, but our audience knows the difference in People and the rest. They know it’s a very differentiated product and Hollywood and Washington and everywhere that we draw our subjects from; they also know that People is a differentiated product. The president of the United States does an interview with People magazine every year, so they understand that it’s different.

Advertisers really understand that it’s different. So, when people in the media lump us into those groups or I hear my mom’s friends lump us into those categories, I sort of get it and I tell myself that where it counts, people know that we’re differentiated.

And it doesn’t bother me if I hear someone say that People magazine is their guilty pleasure. I actually take it as a compliment because you know what; it’s light-hearted and fun. We do take on some very serious stories and that is part of the appeal, but we get people into the tent with these very great, light-hearted stories. People love us so much for that.

We were able to put Brittany Maynard on the cover and really go head-on with the right-to-die issue. And I don’t know if you remember, but Brittany Maynard was a 29-year-old woman who was terminally ill and was moving with her husband and her family to Oregon, which is a right-to-die state. We did a cover on Brittany Maynard last year when she made the decision to die; People did that as a cover. And then we did a cover on her husband after her death. And people expect those stories from People; it wasn’t a crazy thing that we did. They love us; we make them feel good and that kind of story is empowering to them. And it’s inspiring to them.

Samir Husni: Recently you combined People.com and Entertainment Weekly.com (EW.com). Is People the brand, trying to be “the” digital entertainment news website?

Jess Cagle: EW.com and People.com; it’s important to me to make sure that those two websites and those two brands in general remain very, very distinct brands. And they are. People is very personality-focused; EW is very product-focused. On People we might do a cover story on Channing Tatum and his marriage and talk about all of that; whereas at EW they would do a cover story on Magic Mike and the whole cast and talk about the production of the film and the phenomenon. So, the two will go at the same area of subjects very, very differently.

The websites remain distinct; we have combined them into a network, called the People/Entertainment Weekly Network, in order to create the number one digital news, entertainment news site. And that really helps us with advertisers. If we can sell those two sites together and maximize advertising opportunities and maximize the reach of both of those brands, because they’re both enormous, that really helps us. From the consumer standpoint, they remain very, very different brands. They offer very, very different things.

Samir Husni: Back to the magazine; this year we’ve had so many different stories about the power of a magazine cover. We’ve seen one magazine cover after another gain so much publicity and generate so much social media. Matt Bean, whom you know, spoke on a panel with me in Cannes last year in France and he mentioned that when he was editor of Entertainment Weekly nobody ever called him to be on the website, but everybody called wanting to be on the cover of the magazine. Do you have a similar experience? Do people covet being on the cover of People or are they scared of being featured on the cover?

Jess Cagle: (Laughs) I think it depends. If you’ve done something wrong and People calls, well… the guy that killed the lion last week would probably be scared to be on the cover of People.

If we call a celebrity and say congratulations, you’re going to be on the cover of “The World’s Most Beautiful” issue or congratulations, you’re “The Sexiest Man Alive,” or you know what, you have a new movie coming out and we’d love to do a cover story on you; they get very excited by that. With EW, the studios and the networks are very excited to get their TV shows and their films on the cover of EW.

The interesting thing is that while cover sales have certainly gone down and there’s been a lot of migration to the Internet in media consumption as we all know, to the people that we cover, the cover of People magazine and the cover of Entertainment Weekly are incredibly important and they are as important as they ever were, particularly in the case of People. You still have hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes a million people, buying the cover every week.

WMBCvr_noUPC But the reason Hollywood likes the cover of People and EW is, besides the fact that a lot of people do buy the cover; a lot of people get it in their homes. And a lot of people see that cover in the doctor’s office and everywhere else. So, the cover is important to them for exposure and affirmation, if it’s a positive cover. It’s very important real estate, in the same reason that it’s still very important real estate to me. I would say the two things that I spend the biggest chunk of my time on are the People cover, as well as ramping up video production on our websites. Those are the two most important things to me.

But the reason that I’m so focused on the cover, and I’m focused as well on the Entertainment Weekly cover, although Henry Goldblatt does a fantastic job and he’s the editor of EW, that’s your billboard every single week, that’s what people are seeing. And they’re seeing that cover and forming an opinion of the brand. The cover is very important.

Samir Husni: And you being the guardian of the brand; how did things change for you from the days before 2007 and after 2007, before the mobile/digital explosion and after it? As an editorial director now; is your job still the same?

Jess Cagle: I would say the biggest challenge has been, just when we thought we had figured out how to maintain a print product and a website, suddenly everybody started moving to mobile. Now we have to really think about how our product looks on mobile and how we serve our audience on those little devices.

More importantly, and this we haven’t quite figured out, but we will; how do you monetize the content? You know monetizing your content in a magazine is easy, you print out the magazine and people subscribe to it; people buy newsstand copies and you sell advertising.

In the digital space it’s a lot different. People are used to getting that for free. So, how do we monetize the website; how do we monetize mobile and how do we monetize video? And I would say that has been the biggest shift for me in the last couple of years is – OK, I know how to run a brand with two platforms, digital and print; the next thing is how do we translate that to mobile? And then also; how do we tell stories in video? The trick to video, where a lot of audiences are going and advertisers are going, that’s a very different skillset from doing a magazine or a website. We’re not TV producers, we write words and show pictures; that’s what we know how to do.

But it’s exciting though to first of all think about that, but we’re also onboarding the right kind of talent to create video for us. And it’s exciting to work with those kinds of people as well.

Samir Husni: The subscription to People magazine is a hefty price; it’s around $99 for the introductory subscription for a year and then another $139 to renew, while the introductory subscription for your sister publication, TIME magazine is around $20. What does that say about the audience; we’re willing to pay $100 for People, but we’re not willing to pay more than $20 for TIME. Does that say something about the audience out there?

Jess Cagle: I run two brands, one is Entertainment Weekly and one is People; a subscription to People is much more expensive than EW or TIME or any other magazine in the world, not just Time Inc. It’s the reason that I made the logo bigger. People’s audience, which is very big, has an emotional connection to that brand that they don’t have with a lot of other brands. You don’t have that many people with as deep an emotional connection as we have with People magazine. And I don’t say that because I’m trying to sell you People; I say that because it’s just the truth. It’s why people are willing to pay that kind of money for it.

They really treasure their time with People. For a lot of the audience, getting that People magazine in their mailbox signifies the end of the week. It is their break. It is their time and their escape.

I had the same connection to People when I was growing up as a little kid in Texas; it was my window to the world. I read about how these other people lived their lives and realized that anything was possible. And then there’s always some juicy crime stories and things like that. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Jess Cagle: It’s interesting; you compare TIME and People as if maybe it means the world is silly and doesn’t care about important issues; I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s just a deep resonate, emotional connection to People that other media brands don’t have. That is the big strength of People, I would say. As I map out the future of People, I think about the emotional connection people have to the brand.

As I map out the future of Entertainment Weekly, I look at EW’s singular power to curate content for its audience. And its audience is smaller, but its audience is very passionate about what EW covers. And very passionate about what EW says about something. There’s a constant dialogue and debate that the EW audience has with it. And probably EW’s advantage is that it has the greatest access to Hollywood that any brand in the world has, because EW covers people’s product and if you’re an actor or a musician or a movie producer, you want to be in that brand and you want that brand on your side; you want to support that brand because it covers what’s important to you also.

I look at both brands and their different strengths, but it is interesting; I think that the price of People reflects the emotional connection that people have to it.

Samir Husni: What makes you click and tick and motivates you to get out of bed in the mornings and say it’s going to be a great day?

Jess Cagle: What do I look forward to? Honestly, what gets me out of bed is the fact that this job is not going to do itself. And also – how many people are lucky enough to have this job? It sounds a bit Pollyannaish, but I never want to stop being excited, because how many people get to choose the cover of People magazine and work on Entertainment Weekly? I grew up with both of these brands, so I personally have a deep, emotional connection to both of them. And the idea that I get to work on them every day is incredible. Also, there are always new challenges and things to solve.

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

Jess Cagle: Actually, I will tell you that nothing keeps me up at night, I sleep really well. But on those nights I do have a little trouble getting to sleep; it always varies as to why. Usually the things that worry you most are how are you going to get all of these different people to work together to do all of these things? We work in an incredibly matrixed organization and how do you make sure that you’re being clear enough for everyone?

When it comes down to what keeps me up at night, I think it’d have to be; am I a good enough leader for this organization or how could I lead it better? That’s a better way to articulate it. How can I get all of these different people doing all of these different things and creating all of this content in all of its different forms to work together and create an environment where people are working at the top of their game and able to work at the top of their game? That’s the toughest part of the job.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Agba Joseph's Blog.



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