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Foreign Affairs Magazine: Tapping Into The Demand For Reasoned Analysis & Real Truth In This Age Of “Alternative Facts” – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Dr. Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs Magazine…

March 1, 2017

fa-ma17“When I was thinking about going digital I decided that the last thing we should do is think about this as taking Foreign Affairs in print and putting it online. That’s not how you should think about these things. Instead, go back to basics and ask yourself why are people reading Foreign Affairs in the first place? What is the brand proposition? What is the value proposition for the brand? And can we come up with a digital version of that, which is consistent and works well together with our print magazine as well?” Dr. Gideon Rose…

Foreign Affairs magazine, the world’s leading forum for serious discussion of global issues, has for the first time passed a total paid circulation of 200,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media’s December 2016 Snapshot. This marks an increase of 30 percent over the past five years, and of 100 percent over the past twenty. Foreign Affairs is also enjoying strong single-copy sales, posting 17.5 percent gains. The magazine currently ranks ninth out of all titles in single-copy sales growth, and second among smaller-circulation titles.

Foreign Affairs’ circulation growth accompanies a period of continued success across the entire operation. Recognized by Forbes as one of “10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts,” Foreign Affairs was also recently nominated for a third consecutive finalist nomination for a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. In January 2017, ForeignAffairs.com received more than 903,000 unique visitors and 2.3 million page views.

So, what’s up with this print and digital success story? How is Foreign Affairs doing what many other political weeklies only dream about? To find those answers, Mr. Magazine™ spoke with FA’s editor, Dr. Gideon Rose, recently about what he believes is the key to the brand’s phenomenal success in this digital age of magazine and magazine media upheaval.

One thing that Gideon strongly believes in is the accessibility of FA’s content to everyone, across all platforms. And to support and serve not only FA’s readers, but the roster of professionals, experts and authoritative voices that the publication utilizes and recognizes with every page in the magazine and every pixel on its website. In this chaotic and turbulent time that we live in, Foreign Affairs magazine is the voice of reason and sanity that strives for the truth of the brand’s legacy each and every day.

And now, without further ado, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Foreign Affairs’ editor, Dr. Gideon Rose.

But first the sound-bites:

gideon-headshot_newOn why he thinks Foreign Affairs is doing better than most other political weeklies: I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that over the last several years we’ve tried to professionalize our operations more as a magazine. Foreign Affairs, for nearly a century, has been the central place for serious discussion of American foreign policy and global affairs. And we’ve always had a mix of authoritative substance and accessible presentation, or reasonably accessible presentation. In other words, the people who write for us are specialists or experts or major officials who know what they’re talking about. And we want their substance to speak to other professionals and carry on a real conversation about the most important issues in the world and what should be done about them.

On making Foreign Affairs accessible to all English-speaking people around the world: What we’ve tried to do is make that even more accessible and take advantage of the digital environment that is now possible to reach even more people and then reach anybody who wants to know what is happening in the world. What serious people debate when they talk about those things and our feeling is that should be accessible to anybody who has a basic high school or college-level understanding of English and of the world.

On being recognized by Forbes as being one of the 10 Journalism Brands Where you Find Real Facts Rather than Alternative Facts: I was delighted by that because it’s not anything new that we’re doing; my feeling is and our response to the current era is, all we have to do is be really good professionals and continue to do what we’re doing as well as possible. And what we’re doing is now in vogue, so there’s never been any doubt in our minds about what constitutes a fact and what doesn’t. What constitutes a legitimate argument and what doesn’t. What constitutes evidence and what doesn’t. What constitutes expertise and authority and what doesn’t. Our job is figuring that out on a regular basis and putting smart, serious people with real facts and real arguments inside our pages and making their views accessible.

On his view of the journalism Foreign Affairs does today: The journalism that we do comes in the presentation, but the substance is really linked more to the professional communities in the policy and academic fields that we focus on. As a journalist, we’re obviously doing journalism and writing it, but we are really a source for the professional communities that relate to foreign police, national security, public policy, more generally, and things like that.

On how he decides what goes on the website and what goes in the magazine: We decide what goes into print versus what goes online only based on how timely something is, whether it needs a lot more space, and how many sets of people are interested. There is no quality difference; it’s not like the good stuff goes into print and the second tier stuff goes online. Nor is it the opposite, where the really important stuff goes online and we just put the long, boring stuff that no one cares about in print. It’s rather that the stuff that is online needs to be dealt with in real time, or tackles an issue that may not be of general interest, but is an important interest for a smaller community. Or things that could be in print, but we already have done something in print on that and it was a good piece, so we run it online as well. Where the things in print are things that can stand being, in effect, a slower moving, longer-termed drop that isn’t going to be overtaken by events; it’s something that provides some general ways of thinking about an issue or requires a long serious argument to develop.

jf17-fa-coverOn the moment he realized he had the perfect job and he was extremely happy to be at Foreign Affairs: I was the managing editor for 10 years before that; I was the number two. And even before that, the previous number two, my close friend, Fareed Zakaria, who I filled in for as an understudy a couple of times during his tenure when he went off on a writing leave. So, I have been around the magazine for a long time. What actually hit me overtime was the extent to which that now that I was the boss, I could do things even more differently, especially as we entered the online realm and really started to grow there. As I mentioned, we launched the website in the spring of 2009 and I moved into the top job in the fall of 2010. So, in many respects, my tenure has coincided with or overlapped with our making a bigger digital push.

On anything else he’d like to add: I would add one thing. The Trump era is challenging for us, but the substantive challenge this current era presents to us is really just a continuation of what we’ve always been doing. We’re in the business of providing accessible serious debates on public policy. I say that our mission is the application of reason to public policy for the greater good. That mission hasn’t changed one whit from over the years. So, we’re doing the same thing that we’ve always done. That’s the first and most important point.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly at his home one evening: Shuttling my daughter back from soccer practice, and trying to avoid my staff’s and author’s emails about the entire backlog of things that I am holding them up on.

On what keeps him up at night: Whether there is actually a possibility that this new administration in Washington can screw-up the world order that has managed unprecedented global stability, security and prosperity over the last seven decades.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Dr. Gideon Rose, editor, Foreign Affairs magazine.

Samir Husni: While most of the media appears to be struggling, Foreign Affairs is doing very well. You’re up on the newsstands; you’ve almost doubled your circulation in the last few years, things a lot of the other political weeklies haven’t seen. Why do you think Foreign Affairs is bucking the trends and doing so well?

fa-nd16Gideon Rose: I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that over the last several years we’ve tried to professionalize our operations more as a magazine. Foreign Affairs, for nearly a century, has been the central place for serious discussion of American foreign policy and global affairs. And we’ve always had a mix of authoritative substance and accessible presentation, or reasonably accessible presentation. In other words, the people who write for us are specialists or experts or major officials who know what they’re talking about. And we want their substance to speak to other professionals and carry on a real conversation about the most important issues in the world and what should be done about them.

But we also pay attention to presentation, because our assumption is that there are a lot of people beyond the experts who actually want to know what the experts think about things, and so we’ve paid attention to trying to make our content as accessible as possible for a general audience, even though it’s written by an expert author pool.

Now, that’s been our formula for nearly a century and we’ve done pretty darned well over that century with that formula. What we’ve done in the last decade or so, increasingly I think, is to take our role as a magazine somewhat more seriously and provide to professionalize ourselves as a magazine across the board. Everything from the look to the distribution, to the presentation, to the business practices. And all that means we’re upping our game across the standard, professional best-practices, which has improved our performance.

At the same time, we are in a period in which the subject matter of what we do, major public policy, international events and affairs, American foreign policy, and American relations with the world in general, are fully in the news and people are caring about them more in many respects than ever. And so, as we have been continuing to do our jobs, but to do it better as a magazine, the public is finding that they’re interested in this and they want to know more. So, I think the combination of better supply and increased demand together is what accounts for the increased performance.

Samir Husni: My early memory of Foreign Affairs, when it was that bulky journal, goes back to my high school years in Tripoli, Lebanon, and visiting the public library there in my hometown. It was a must-read for anyone who spoke English, if we really wanted to know what was going on around the world.

Gideon Rose: I hope that’s still the case. And what we’ve tried to do is make that even more accessible and take advantage of the digital environment that is now possible to reach even more people and then reach anybody who wants to know what is happening in the world. What serious people debate when they talk about those things and our feeling is that should be accessible to anybody who has a basic high school or college-level understanding of English and of the world.

If we’re doing our jobs properly, we are allowing everybody to participate in and follow the discussion that the world’s most serious experts are having on the world’s most important public policy questions.

Samir Husni: When Forbes recognized you as one of the “10 Journalism Brands Where you Find Real Facts,” what did you think?

gideon-headshot_newGideon Rose: I was delighted by that because it’s not anything new that we’re doing; my feeling is and our response to the current era is, all we have to do is be really good professionals and continue to do what we’re doing as well as possible. And what we’re doing is now in vogue, so there’s never been any doubt in our minds about what constitutes a fact and what doesn’t. What constitutes a legitimate argument and what doesn’t. What constitutes evidence and what doesn’t. What constitutes expertise and authority and what doesn’t. Our job is figuring that out on a regular basis and putting smart, serious people with real facts and real arguments inside our pages and making their views accessible.

On the other hand, we’re also deeply, and I wouldn’t say non-political, but we’re non-politicized. And we’re non-partisan. And we don’t have any additional positions, just like our parent organization, The Council on Foreign Relations, So, our job is essentially to run a disinterested forum for serious people and let the conversations go where the logic and intelligence of the subject itself takes it.

Samir Husni: As a journalist, are you happy with the environment that we’re living in now; or are you in disbelief at the way journalism looks and works today?

Gideon Rose: This may sound strange, but for me journalism is a third professional identity. The two professional identities that in my own mind I actually privilege first for me are a potential scholar, an academic looking at the subject; I’m a trained international relations professor. And the other is a policy wonk; I had the honor of being a very junior official on the NSC (National Security Council) staff years ago when I was trained by serious professionals.

For me, the journalism that we do comes in the presentation, but the substance is really linked more to the professional communities in the policy and academic fields that we focus on. As a journalist, we’re obviously doing journalism and writing it, but we are really a source for the professional communities that relate to foreign police, national security, public policy, more generally, and things like that.

What we’re trying to do now in the wake of the current turbulence, or in the midst of the current turbulence, is do everything that we’ve always been doing, but to do it where it’s even more accessible than it has been in the past. Our feeling is we’re now supplying the set of groups that have always been valuable, but the people seem to appreciate it more because so much more craziness is going on.

Samir Husni: If you put your journalist hat on, your third profession cap, how do you decide what goes on the daily website and what is specifically for the magazine?

Gideon Rose: We were very slow to go into the digital realms. It wasn’t clear that what we did, long, serious analysis of important issues, was necessarily ideal for digital presentation. And the audiences and constituencies that we both rely on and serve as our primary core constituencies weren’t necessarily looking for us in the digital realm early on. Many of our older readers are still print passionate, rather than digital readers, so when we finally did decide to go to digital in a big way, we faced the question of how to take our brand in a digital direction.

Now, we made a couple of choices. When I thought about this very carefully; we launched the modern Foreign Affairs.com in 2009, and we redesigned it a couple of years ago, but it’s essentially our modern digital existence, which really stems from 2009. And when I was trying to think about what we should do as we were putting together our first major digital initiative, I asked myself, what is a non-commodity business? What are the barriers to entry? Why should anybody read Foreign Affairs?

The stopping point that I came to was there are a lot of other organizations out there, a lot of other media outlets and places that are much larger, much better resourced, much nimbler and quicker, and much more dynamic and entrepreneurial. So, if we do something that’s a commodity business, we will be beaten by other people who can do that commodity business better. We can’t compete on price; we can’t compete on speed; we can’t compete on comprehensive range of everything, so why do people read FA?

When I was thinking about going digital I decided that the last thing we should do is think about this as taking Foreign Affairs in print and putting it online. That’s not how you should think about these things. Instead, go back to basics and ask yourself why are people reading Foreign Affairs in the first place? What is the brand proposition? What is the value proposition for the brand? And can we come up with a digital version of that, which is consistent and works well together with our print magazine as well?

When we thought about that we decided those things at that time which were fairly common on the digital side: headlines, blog, short and quick takes; these are all things that you didn’t need us for and that someone could probably get better from other places, because we didn’t have the staff or the mindset or the resources to do that kind of stuff.

On the other hand, running a bimonthly print magazine; it’s pretty hard to stay in touch or on top of breaking events, and, obviously, we also have very limited space in the magazine. And there were a lot of issues that we would have liked to have covered but couldn’t, because we didn’t have enough space.

So, we decided that what we should do digitally with our content strategy was to supply additional, high-quality content that was, in many respects, sharing a DNA with our print content. And that had the same kind of authoritative substance, that tackled the same kind of issues and that relied on the same kind of authors, so that our common brand propositions of authoritative substance and accessible presentation would be common across both print and digital. I wanted us to be platform agnostic, both in a business way and intellectually, while taking advantage of the opportunities that digital offered for quicker takes, rather than things that were dramatically longer to bring about. And we could go after smaller slices of things and do some micro-targeting to audiences and issues that while important and legit, were perhaps not of as mass appeal.

When we think of the difference between print and digital, for us, I kind of think of them as siblings; we have the same DNA. We get our DNA from the same parents. And all of our digital side and our print side; print first, because everything goes digital eventually, print first and online only; they’re all members and children of the same family. But they have different attributes.

These days what we’ve actually groped our way towards is that we can use the print magazine for larger, longer, more widely, perhaps desirable, pieces that are the functional equivalent of, let’s say, aircraft carriers. And our digital content is the rest of the aircraft carrier’s battle group, the PT Boats; the Cruisers; the Destroyers; the anti-submarine boats; the naval planes, etc., things that can swarm around the big aircraft and continue the fight, but do so much more nimbly and quickly.

On something like Brexit, we have not only covered something like Brexit in big pieces in the magazine, but we’ve also covered it online in real time with the same quality and the same content and the same author pool, such that the actual day of Brexit, or the day following Brexit, was our biggest traffic day on the site ever, because we had so much content that was so good, so targeted and so timely that people wanted it.

We decide what goes into print versus what goes online only based on how timely something is, whether it needs a lot more space, and how many sets of people are interested. There is no quality difference; it’s not like the good stuff goes into print and the second tier stuff goes online. Nor is it the opposite, where the really important stuff goes online and we just put the long, boring stuff that no one cares about in print. It’s rather that the stuff that is online needs to be dealt with in real time, or tackles an issue that may not be of general interest, but is an important interest for a smaller community. Or things that could be in print, but we already have done something in print on that and it was a good piece, so we run it online as well. Where the things in print are things that can stand being, in effect, a slower moving, longer-termed drop that isn’t going to be overtaken by events; it’s something that provides some general ways of thinking about an issue or requires a long serious argument to develop.

We just ran a major piece on financial reform by Timothy Geithner, and I loved the piece, it was an important piece. Robert Samuelson just did an entire column in the Washington Post where he literally just used his column to summarize the piece, but that piece is not going to be of mass interest. It will be of deep interest to anyone who does finance, but those tend to be our traditional legacy audiences to some extent. And it was 7,000-8,000 words of relatively dense prose by the former Treasury Secretary on financial reform. That was sort of a perfect example of a print piece for us, while the breaking stories about what’s happening on the travel ban, or whatever, are obviously going to be something we need to do on the digital side. And then there are some things that literally could appear in both. And the important thing for me is do readers who are looking at our content, do they think that all of this bears a familial resemblance because of a shared DNA, and displays the essential qualities of our brand, which are authority of substance and accessibility of presentation.

Samir Husni: You’re starting your seventh year as editor of Foreign Affairs; you got the job in June, 2010. During those seven years, can you pinpoint the moment in time when you realized you had the perfect fit and you were ecstatic to have the job?

Gideon Rose: I was the managing editor for 10 years before that; I was the number two. And even before that, the previous number two, my close friend, Fareed Zakaria, who I filled in for as an understudy a couple of times during his tenure when he went off on a writing leave. So, I have been around the magazine for a long time.

I guess what I’ll say is two things struck me. One is it was interesting to realize how much autonomy and freedom of choice the magazine actually had to tackle things and to go about its business. When I was the number two at an existing long time publication, there were obviously very established ways of doing things. And as the number two, I was number two for a decade; my job was not to just make the magazine as good as possible, but to make sure the trains ran on time and essentially execute the existing plans. And as you’re doing that, you think of all sorts of things that you want to do slightly differently or things that you might want to try that haven’t been tried yet. I loved my boss, Jim Hoge; I feel deeply indebted to him. I think he ran a great magazine.

When I took over, I basically ran his magazine with some tweaks here and there that I had saved up. I stopped doing some things that had been bugging me and I started doing other things that I had wanted to do. But what actually hit me overtime was the extent to which that now that I was the boss, I could do things even more differently, especially as we entered the online realm and really started to grow there. As I mentioned, we launched the website in the spring of 2009 and I moved into the top job in the fall of 2010. So, in many respects, my tenure has coincided with or overlapped with our making a bigger digital push.

The radicalness of autonomy as you approach your digital strategy; what is it that you’re going to do? It’s an entirely new realm and you have lots of choices. You have lots of things that you can do. That was a very interesting challenge to address, because you really had to make all sorts of choices to design things from scratch, everything from presentation to your business strategy to your content strategy.

At the same time, the main constraint that I labor under, in addition to institution and resources constraints, is the professional responsibility of the field. I see myself as editing Foreign Affairs on behalf of the professional communities that work on issues we cover. Readers are crucially important, but they’re crucially important as the target of our stuff. And the people who are our core constituencies, the authoritative experts, are even more important constituencies, in terms of our substance and author pool, and I need to be constantly aware of my professional colleagues, substantive professionals in academia, government; in policy realms relevant to what we do in journalism. I need to be aware of what all of those communities think we should be doing and think what is best-practices and responsible stuff, and find a way to manifest that in the magazine and execute it in a way that is effective.

There is a whole lot of autonomy and a whole lot of freedom of choice, but there’s a goal, which is to use that as wisely as possible to make these serious discussions among experts accessible in a responsible way, to as broad a public as possible. That’s the basic challenge that we wake up every day trying to do.

And then try to make all of that as profitable as possible. We are a non-profit and we are published by a non-profit. I almost like to think of us as a B corporation. I would like us to be as efficient, as dynamic, and as aggressive as any for-profit media company, but to do so on behalf of our subject matter. And that’s the challenge. In the non-profit world, it’s all too easy to take the lack of a goal of making a profit as an excuse to avoid grappling with the real challenges of giving audiences something good enough and desirable enough that they will want to pay for.

We are a non-profit; I don’t get a bigger salary if our circulation increases. We don’t go on luxury trips. We don’t upgrade our paper copy necessarily. But the fact is that the better we do, the more aggressive we are, it’s good and it’s a useful challenge to think of how can you get more people to pay for this? How can you reduce costs? I find our sort of partial market orientation a very interesting and useful and appropriately challenging mix, because the instructions from the Council on Foreign Relations, which publishes Foreign Affairs, is essentially, yes, we would like you to do as well as possible economically. We don’t want to subsidize you if possible, and if you could subsidize us, that would be great too. But your primary mission is substantive. So, do as well as you can in the marketplace and we will make up the difference as necessary, or deploy the resources as necessary.

But that kind of challenge is really great, because the markets and competitions definitely up your game. And keeping an eye on things like newsstand sales, and asking how you can increase newsstand sales is not in the slightest bit incompatible with high-level substance and successful presentation. I remember my feminist sister back in the day having a shirt that read something like “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels.” So, that’s the way that I think of some of our aesthetics, which is that we are trying to compete with much larger, much more efficient and professional, for-profit magazines on things like newsstand sales or general journalism, while laboring being under a small, non-profit, with relatively limited resources. So, that’s an interesting challenge.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Gideon Rose: I would add one thing. The Trump era is challenging for us, but the substantive challenge this current era presents to us is really just a continuation of what we’ve always been doing. We’re in the business of providing accessible serious debates on public policy. I say that our mission is the application of reason to public policy for the greater good. That mission hasn’t changed one whit from over the years. So, we’re doing the same thing that we’ve always done. That’s the first and most important point.

And all we need to do, I tell my team, is the same thing we’ve always done, because we have a good formula and we have a good model and it works well. The increasing returns have demonstrated that, I think, because the biggest and most interesting thing that I’m most proud of is the business side gains that we’ve achieved have not come at the expense of substance in any way, shape or form. We haven’t dumbed ourselves down in the slightest, and yet still managed to increase our business. We just have to keep going forward in the same way.

But the incredibly polarized environment makes it even more difficult for us to retain, not just our sense of objectivity, but our perception by others that we are non-partisan, dispassionate and objective.

So, the challenge in a divided country and in such a divided political environment is to be a place where one hopes that everybody serious of all persuasions, all views, all serious professionals of any kind, will find us their home. That’s very difficult to operationalize right now, because it’s a lot of time, effort and care, both with me editing and the article selection.

Things are changing so fast and are still so uncertain that it’s really kind of hard. I was on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show over the weekend and I was chatting with the producers and they were saying that they had done four consecutive live shows and that they had never done that before. And I told them that they should talk to my staff because they’re freaked and stressed as well because we’ve had to basically rip up issues, redesign covers, put articles in and out, to deal with the incredible pace of events which are literally changing week by week in our area.

If we had not developed our digital side the way that we have developed it in the last several years, we would never have been able, not just have the successes that we’ve had, but to cover this era appropriately at the breakneck speed with which events are evolving.

Samir Husni: If I showed up at your house unexpectedly one evening, what would I find you doing; sipping a glass of wine; watching TV; reading a book; or something else?

Gideon Rose: Shuttling my daughter back from soccer practice, and trying to avoid my staff’s and author’s emails about the entire backlog of things that I am holding them up on.

I realized when I took over the editorial…let me put it this way; I got the top job based on my substantive intellectual and editing chops. I didn’t get it because I was a great CEO or people thought that I was the most responsible, organizational leader. When I took over the top spot, however, I realized that if I wanted to realize my ambitions for the magazine under my tenure, I would have to surround myself with people and build a team that was far more responsible, professional, efficient and punctual than I was. And so I spent a lot of time and effort pulling together a great, great team. And the result is that at this point any credit for FA’s success really goes to the fabulous and incredible hardworking staff that I’ve managed to pull together and beg to retain. They kind of see me as a crazy, irresponsible guy at the top who has the ideas, but needs to be managed to make sure things actually get done. And they’re probably right about that. So, dodging the various bullets about my deficiencies, while taking my kids to and from soccer practice is probably what I would be doing.

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

Gideon Rose: Whether there is actually a possibility that this new administration in Washington can screw-up the world order that has managed unprecedented global stability, security and prosperity over the last seven decades.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

_________________________________________________________________________________
act7Magazines Matter. Print Matters. That is the theme for the Magazine Innovation Center’s ACT (Amplify, Clarify, Testify) 7 Experience that will take place April 25 to 27. Space is limited, so check the agenda and register to join us for an experience of a life-time.

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