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Meredith Core Media: A Strong Belief In Print As Its “Core” Business With Several New Titles To Prove It, And More On The Way – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Doug Kouma – Editorial Content Director, Meredith Core Media. A Mr. Magazine™ Exclusive…

July 5, 2017

Two New Magazines, Hungry Girl, Waste Less, Save More, To Join Eat This, Not That, The Magnolia Journal, And Forks Over Knives, In Meredith Core Media’s Stable Of New Shining Print Stars…

“I actually think the tangible magazine you can hold in your hands is a feather in the cap for a digital-first brand. It’s what says, “We’ve made it. We’re here to stay. We’re legitimate.” And, almost counterintuitively, I suspect a lot of that is being driven by millennials. For as digitally savvy, and as digital-first a generation as millennials and Gen Z’s are, there’s also this yearning for authenticity and for something real. Again, I think it’s based on the type of content. I think with that generation in particular. It’s not fair at all to say millennials aren’t magazine readers. They’re magazine readers, but they want different types of magazines and want to consume information in different ways.” Doug Kouma…

When a company puts print first, or at least at its core, no matter what the negatively-slanted pundits might say, in Mr. Magazine’s™ humble opinion, the future will be rosy indeed. Last week I wrote about Hearst Magazines and their print proud philosophy, today I am proud to highlight Meredith Corporation’s Meredith Core Media group. The group helped launch The Magnolia Journal, and with its recent phenomenal success the magazine is now been brought into the bigger fold of the Meredith Corporation. Meredith Core Media is enjoying a definite print prosperity.

From the early beginnings of the successful Eat This, Not That brand, where Meredith partnered with David Zinczenko’s Galvanized Media Group, to their extremely beneficial Chip and Joanna Gaines association, Meredith Core Media has proven that affiliations with other successful brands can certainly be major opportunities for the realms of print. And the company’s editorial content director, Doug Kouma, believes that wholeheartedly.

I spoke with Doug recently and we talked about Meredith Core Media’s success with The Magnolia Journal and its past accomplishments with Eat This, Not That, and also about the Beekman 1802 Almanac, which was a beautiful attempt to bring the unique brand to the mass market audience. From successes to even the shorter-lived achievements, Meredith Core Media has always put print at the helm of its ship and never strayed off course.

And the mission continues, as in January, 2018, the company will partner with former Food Network channel star, Hungry Girl (Lisa Lillien) to bring Hungry Girl Magazine’s premier issue to the marketplace.

And they will be partnering with the CropLife Foundation on a new magazine that will bring attention to the issue of food waste, a hot topic in sustainability circles today. Tentatively titled “Waste Less, Save More,” this annual bookazine will provide real-world strategies for planning, shopping, and cooking, as well as 50+ recipes, to help consumers use more of the food they bring into their homes and cut back significantly on what goes into to the landfill.

It doesn’t sound like print is declining in Meredith’s world at all. And according to Doug, it’s more relevant than ever, even with millennials. So, enjoy this informative interview with a man who believes the tangible nature and power of print is still a legitimizing factor in the world of media, across all platforms; the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Doug Kouma, editorial content director, Meredith Core Media.

But first, the sound-bites:

On defining Meredith Core Media: It’s something that’s evolved over the last couple of years out of Meredith Special Interest Media. I think it was three years ago that we first entered into a partnership with the Eat This, Not That brand; that’s David Zinczenko’s brand through his Galvanized Media Group. We launched a bookazine with them. At the time, the bookazine format was for—and I don’t want to use the phrase “lookbook,” but that’s kind of where we were using it—a high end décor and building side. This was a new opportunity to try something in a high quality format that was really mass market-driven and really service-driven.

On why many publishers have lost faith in print, while companies like Meredith and Hearst have never given up on their “core” product: I think it requires a change of mindset in many cases. We’re not out there trying to launch a $3.99 general interest magazine with anyone. In a lot of cases, these products are pretty niche, they already have a pretty loyal brand following, and they’re premium products. I don’t always think of them as magazines in the traditional sense of the word “magazine,” something you have sent to your home or you purchase, you sit down with it for half an hour or an hour, and then you’re pretty much done; you move on. That’s not what these are.

On how The Magnolia Journal came into being: The idea started as a seed with Joanna herself, with both Chip and Jo believing that they had a concept here that their consumers would respond positively to, and that would be unique in the marketplace. But, they didn’t have anyone on staff who had really worked in the publishing industry, or really knew anything about it.

On any conflicts that may have arisen between the Gaines, “Fixer Upper” and Meredith: As we were conceptualizing the magazine with her, we had to get our heads around what the Magnolia brand meant versus what the “Fixer Upper” brand was, and how we knew them from that show. Magnolia is far broader and encompasses far more aspects of the lifestyle, from food and gardening, to family relationships, to travel. Because of their relationship then with Scripps we were restricted in some ways, in terms of how much home and remodeling content could be a part of the magazine. I can’t say that really tied our hands, because Joanna’s vision was for something broader than that.

On whether he has a favorite “baby” or is he proud of all of the magazine children under his care at Meredith: I would say that, obviously, everybody here is really proud of the success of The Magnolia Journal, it was—I don’t like to use the cliché phrase labor of love—but I think that’s what it was for a lot of that team. I guess if I had to identify one that kind of holds a special place for me, it would probably be the Forks Over Knives launch. It was a content area where we saw a need in the marketplace. One of the leading—if not the leading—brand in the plant-based eating lifestyle, and to see how that came together and to see how successful it was on newsstand, and how it did it quietly, as some higher profile projects were hitting the marketplace around it…it’s just pretty cool to see something like that.

On whether any of his “children” have disappointed him: Yes, I would say the Beekman 1802 Almanac, mostly because I love that product. I loved working on it—Josh (Kilmer-Purcell) and Brent (Ridge) are fantastic guys to work with. We had a great time putting it together, and there’s still a little bit of sadness there that we couldn’t figure out, in the limited time we had available to us, how to make that product work in the mass market.

On any new projects in Meredith’s future: We’ve got a couple of irons in the fire that are pretty hot. Hungry Girl, who is a former Food Network personality, a cookbook author; she’s got a really good digital and social presence; we are launching a new magazine with her. It’ll be Hungry Girl magazine, coming out in January, 2018. That’s the newest launch that we’re really in the thick of right now.

On why he thinks media reporting is always so negative about the magazine industry: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I would say it probably requires a shift in mindset. You can’t even say that the big brands, the Better Homes & Gardens of the world, are necessarily struggling from a consumer standpoint. I think they’re just as relevant as ever. The rate base is just as strong as it’s ever been. When I’m cooking, I’ve learned that I don’t like to cook by trying to read a recipe on my phone or my computer, because I have to scroll back and forth and my fingers are dirty and it’s messy and it’s not convenient and I spill something. I’d rather have a magazine or a cookbook in those cases.

On whether he believes print legitimizes online media and that’s why many blogs and websites are adding a print product to their portfolios: Yes, I think actually the tangible magazine you can hold in your hands is a feather in the cap for a digital-first brand. It’s what says, “We’ve made it. We’re here to stay. We’re legitimate.”

On anything else he’d like to add: Just that we’re seeking out ideas on our own, but we’re always happy to have inbounds as well. If somebody out there has got a great concept and wants to float it our way, we’re happy to have those conversations. And, if it’s not right for us, maybe help identify who it is right for. That’s part of all of this; we’re really passionate about this. A good idea is a good idea, and I always like to see that come to fruition—whether it’s with us or someone else.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly at his home one evening after work: You will catch me cooking dinner—that’s kind of my unwind. I specifically cook something several days a week, usually with a glass of wine. I’m pretty passionate about my California Sonoma County wines. You’ll see me taking my dog out for a walk. You probably won’t see me reading magazines at home.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I would like to believe that people view me as honest, kind and authentic.

On what keeps him up at night: I think the future; the future of the industry; my own personal future. I think we’re doing a little bit of reinvention here, and that doesn’t mean everything’s a success. It’s human nature, and it’s my nature especially, to want to succeed at what we’re doing. And that just doesn’t always happen. So, I think it’s worry about whether we can really make some of these things work.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Doug Kouma, editorial content director, Meredith Core Media.

Samir Husni: Tell me, what is Meredith Core Media?

Doug Kouma speaking at the ACT 7 Experience, April 2017.

Doug Kouma: It’s something that’s evolved over the last couple of years out of Meredith Special Interest Media. I think it was three years ago that we first entered into a partnership with the Eat This, Not That brand; that’s David Zinczenko’s brand through his Galvanized Media Group. We launched a bookazine with them. At the time, the bookazine format was for—and I don’t want to use the phrase “lookbook,” but that’s kind of where we were using it—a high end décor and building side. This was a new opportunity to try something in a high quality format that was really mass market-driven and really service-driven.

That magazine, Eat This, Not That, has books publishing around that, and David Zinczenko has a pretty robust digital program around that; but the magazine is what fleshed that out and allowed it to be a true 360 brand. That was successful from issue one. It’s been solid on newsstand over the years. The product has continued to evolve as they, and we, figured out what that mass market consumer is looking for in that type of product at that price point.

That relationship began to show the possibilities of working with other brands, working with third parties who had great ideas or had great existing products in other spaces, and who sought to move into the print magazine space.

What Meredith brings to the table is huge scale on the backend, and some significant cost efficiencies, in terms of the printing production and distribution. Then, of course, by working through the special interest media group, we have traditionally had a team of scrappy editors who work on a wide variety of projects—who are pretty nimble, who are able to pivot from one to another across a variety of content areas.

So, we began to look at other opportunities and others began to look at us as a potential publishing partner. I would say over the course of a year / year and a half, that grew to the point that we identified the need to create a group within Meredith that would specifically take on or manage some of these projects. That’s where Meredith Core Media was born.

At the time, it also included some other Meredith brands that were unique properties unto their own; I’m talking about our diabetes publications, our quilting publications, things that didn’t necessarily align nicely with Better Homes & Gardens, which is where most of the special interest portfolio was.

At the time that Meredith Core Media was born, those were part of our group as well. I’d say it was about half managing our own brands, and half managing or working with outside partner brands. And, again, that continues to evolve over the next year / year and a half to where we are today. Those Meredith brands have realigned with other properties within the Meredith infrastructure that makes sense for them. What Meredith Core Media is today is a business entity specifically designed to work without side-brands on print magazine products.

Samir Husni: I’ve tried to think who, besides Meredith and Hearst, are actually bringing those print magazines to the marketplace and going into second printings. Forks Over Knives, a Meredith Core Media brand, had a second printing on the newsstands. Also, who hasn’t heard about The Magnolia Journal and the rapid move the magazine had from zero to one million in a very few months? The same thing is happening with Hearst’s Pioneer Woman. Why do you think, as an industry, that a lot of publishers have lost faith in print?

Doug Kouma: I think it requires a change of mindset in many cases. We’re not out there trying to launch a $3.99 general interest magazine with anyone. In a lot of cases, these products are pretty niche, they already have a pretty loyal brand following, and they’re premium products. I don’t always think of them as magazines in the traditional sense of the word “magazine,” something you have sent to your home or you purchase, you sit down with it for half an hour or an hour, and then you’re pretty much done; you move on. That’s not what these are.

So, in the case of a magazine like Magnolia, which is not quite to the full premium bookazine end of the spectrum, but it’s definitely a premium product; it has that limited frequency—it comes out quarterly—and it’s a high quality product, but it has recipes that you’re going to want to go back to on a regular basis. It has the beautiful lifestyle photography and the beautiful home décor photography.

It’s really meant to be a coffee table magazine, something that you are going to want to hang onto for a while. What we have seen with that brand in particular is those consumers, who are very passionate about the Magnolia brand and what Joanna (Gaines) does, they want to build a collection of those magazines. Even subscribers who got into the system on issue two—in pretty decent numbers—started contacting Magnolia, wanting to get their hands on issue one. They wanted to build that library for themselves at home.

I don’t know if that’s quite answering your question, but when I look at some of these brands, what they want to do, and what we’re doing with them…you’re really creating an experience for, largely, the brand loyalists, while you do look to expand the reach of the brand a bit in the newsstand space. It’s a focused, curated experience, and it’s meant to be something that the consumer is going to hang onto for a while.

Samir Husni: I understand that The Magnolia Journal has now immigrated to the “main ship” at Meredith, but you were there at the beginning. Can you describe for me that moment of conception? How did the idea of The Magnolia Journal come to fruition, and how did you team with the Gaines to make it happen?

Doug Kouma: The idea started as a seed with Joanna herself, with both Chip and Jo believing that they had a concept here that their consumers would respond positively to, and that would be unique in the marketplace. But, they didn’t have anyone on staff who had really worked in the publishing industry, or really knew anything about it.

As I understand it, because I wasn’t involved in those very early conversations, they sought out a couple of publishers to begin to pitch the idea to. At the point when they got more serious, they began discussing it with Meredith, which is the point when the conversations moved from our business development group to begin to include the editorial teams.

That’s what those early conversations were; they were sitting down with Chip and Jo and a couple of members of their staff and listening to what they wanted to do, listening to what they thought would work. Then, once we had a deal, taking ourselves down to Waco and immersing ourselves in their brand and in the Magnolia world so that we could really understand what it is that they wanted to convey to consumers.

They’re building a brand that’s separate and apart from “Fixer Upper” as a broadcast property, and that was something that we had to get our heads around very early in the conversations. I think it’s something that consumers had to begin to see differently with that first issue.

Samir Husni: At present, and I don’t know the latest status with the Gaines and HGTV, but does their relationship with HGTV change anything in the game? Have there been any conflicts with any of the brand’s established platforms?

Doug Kouma: Well, there’s a lot of stories out there and rumors out there that aren’t based in fact, and what Joanna has said is if you don’t see it come from Magnolia themselves, through their own properties, then view it with a skeptical eye. I can’t comment on the status of any of that.

What I can say is, as we were conceptualizing the magazine with her, we had to get our heads around what the Magnolia brand meant versus what the “Fixer Upper” brand was, and how we knew them from that show. Magnolia is far broader and encompasses far more aspects of the lifestyle, from food and gardening, to family relationships, to travel. Because of their relationship then with Scripps we were restricted in some ways, in terms of how much home and remodeling content could be a part of the magazine. I can’t say that really tied our hands, because Joanna’s vision was for something broader than that. We’ve been able to include the team and been able to include the right amount of home content for that brand, but there were some considerations there with some places we weren’t able to go because of that relationship.

Samir Husni: To specifically talk about you and your role as editorial director; is there one of the many babies you take care of that has a special place in your heart? Or do you try and treat all of your children the same? Do you think, “Wow, look at the success of the Magnolia Journal, or Eat This, Not That, or Forks Over Knives or the Beekman 1802 Almanac; I’m so proud of one of them or all of them? How do you handle being the editorial director for all of these magazines?

Doug Kouma: Well, it’s a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, I get to work with a really diverse group of brands and outside contributors and get to see things from different points of view, and I really enjoy that. On the other hand, I really don’t get to dive in as deeply or work as closely with some of the content on most of these as you might assume, or as might be interesting or fun.

I would say that, obviously, everybody here is really proud of the success of The Magnolia Journal, it was—I don’t like to use the cliché phrase labor of love—but I think that’s what it was for a lot of that team. It was a small group of us who all had—I’m not saying this isn’t our job—but we all had full time jobs when that came into our world. It was “hey, let’s all put in some extra effort here and some extra hours, and see if we can turn this thing into something. So, we’re all really proud of that.

I guess if I had to identify one that kind of holds a special place for me, it would probably be the Forks Over Knives launch. It was a content area where we saw a need in the marketplace. One of the leading—if not the leading—brand in the plant-based eating lifestyle, and to see how that came together and to see how successful it was on newsstand, and how it did it quietly, as some higher profile projects were hitting the marketplace around it…it’s just pretty cool to see something like that.

Samir Husni: Is there a child that disappointed you?

Doug Kouma: Yes, I would say the Beekman 1802 Almanac, mostly because I love that product. I loved working on it—Josh (Kilmer-Purcell) and Brent (Ridge) are fantastic guys to work with. We had a great time putting it together, and there’s still a little bit of sadness there that we couldn’t figure out, in the limited time we had available to us, how to make that product work in the mass market.

That’s the challenge here. Ultimately, the delivery vehicle we have available to us through Meredith is mass. Over the course of the last year, in particular the last six months since the success of Magnolia, we’ve had a few ideas. And there’s really good ideas out there that are not necessarily right for Meredith as a publisher, because, although we can go focused and direct, we can’t go too niche in many cases. That’s not who we are.

So, that one was hard. I think it was a gorgeous product, but we’re just not in an environment—I mean, it’s a creative lab, I’ll say that—but it’s not a creative lab that allows us to spend a lot of money or, frankly, lose money in any case. We want to know if we can break even out of the gate and build something from there; maybe we can get some longevity with something. But, unfortunately, on that one we just weren’t able to scale it. I’m really pleased that they’ve been able to continue publishing it on a smaller scale, but that one will always have a special place for me as well.

Samir Husni: What does the future hold for Meredith Core Media? Any major things in the making?

Doug Kouma: We’ve got a couple of irons in the fire that are pretty hot. Hungry Girl, who is a former Food Network personality, a cookbook author; she’s got a really good digital and social presence; we are launching a new magazine with her. It’ll be Hungry Girl magazine, coming out in January, 2018. That’s the newest launch that we’re really in the thick of right now. And I think you are already aware that Forks Over Knives is going into two more regular productions in 2018, so we’re in the thick of that as well.

Also, we recently announced another project. We’re partnering with the CropLife Foundation on a new magazine that will bring attention to the issue of food waste, a hot topic in sustainability circles today. Tentatively titled, “Waste Less, Save More,” this annual bookazine will provide real-world strategies for planning, shopping, and cooking, as well as 50+ recipes, to help consumers use more of the food they bring into their homes and cut back significantly on what goes into to the landfill. We haven’t announced a publication date yet.

Samir Husni: I feel as though you might agree with me when I say, “We don’t have a print problem and we don’t have a magazine problem; we have a magazine business model and content problem.” If you look at all the media reporting, you would think print died in 2009. And then you hear that Rodale is putting their magazines up for sale. Then the media reporters tell you, “Oh, because print is in decline; everybody is selling.” Why don’t we see more stories about what Meredith Core Media is doing and what Hearst Magazines are doing? From a journalistic point of view and being an editorial director, why do you think people have that mentality?

Doug Kouma: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I would say it probably requires a shift in mindset. You can’t even say that the big brands, the Better Homes & Gardens of the world, are necessarily struggling from a consumer standpoint. I think they’re just as relevant as ever. The rate base is just as strong as it’s ever been.

I have my own theories on that. I think consumers over the course of the last decade, particularly in the last five years, have begun to—consciously or not—digest different types of information in different ways, and I’m the same. There’s the stuff that I want to see through my social media feeds, there’s the regular websites and blogs that I go to where I’m happy to get that information, but when I want to really enjoy big, beautiful photography, I don’t want to look at that on my phone. I want to look at that on a beautiful printed magazine page.

When I’m cooking, I’ve learned that I don’t like to cook by trying to read a recipe on my phone or my computer, because I have to scroll back and forth and my fingers are dirty and it’s messy and it’s not convenient and I spill something. I’d rather have a magazine or a cookbook in those cases.

When I’m dreaming a little bit, when I’m wanting to feel inspired a little bit, again, it depends on what it is. If I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but it’s the end of January and spring is right around the corner and you can smell it in the air, I love to get my hands on a gardening magazine and begin to get inspired. If I want to find 10 ideas on how to style my porch, then maybe I’m going to get online and look for those, because there’s immediate gratification and I’m looking for something very specific. Whether we, as consumers, have really begun to think about it in that way, I do think you’re seeing a resurgence in consumer recognition of the value of the printed product in parts of their life.

I think it’s evolving, just like every introduction of a new form of media. When television came along it didn’t kill radio. When the ability to record to VHS tape and then to record to DVR came along, it didn’t kill live TV. But everything’s evolving, and it’s therefore informing the content decisions that are being made across those different platforms. So, I suspect that’s what’s happening in the magazine space.

It’s probably also not quite fair to say that today; you know, maybe these partnerships, maybe building around these dynamic brands that were not print-first brands, that might be the future of magazine publishing—it’s certainly not what’s ultimately paying the bills and keeping the lights on today; those are the big boys, like Better Homes & Gardens. There’s definitely opportunity here, it’s definitely growing.

Samir Husni: Do you think that’s the main reason we’re seeing a lot of blogs coming to print and publishing magazines, that there is something missing in that 360 brand if you don’t have a print product?

Doug Kouma: Yes, I think actually the tangible magazine you can hold in your hands is a feather in the cap for a digital-first brand. It’s what says, “We’ve made it. We’re here to stay. We’re legitimate.”

And, almost counterintuitively, I suspect a lot of that is being driven by millennials. For as digitally savvy, and as digital-first a generation as millennials and Gen Z’s are, there’s also this yearning for authenticity and for something real. Again, I think it’s based on the type of content. I think with that generation in particular. It’s not fair at all to say millennials aren’t magazine readers. They’re magazine readers, but they want different types of magazines and want to consume information in different ways.

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

Doug Kouma: Just that we’re seeking out ideas on our own, but we’re always happy to have inbounds as well. If somebody out there has got a great concept and wants to float it our way, we’re happy to have those conversations. And, if it’s not right for us, maybe help identify who it is right for. That’s part of all of this; we’re really passionate about this. A good idea is a good idea, and I always like to see that come to fruition—whether it’s with us or someone else.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly to your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Are you on an iPad; cooking; sitting and reading a magazine with a glass of wine? What’s your end-of-day “me” time?

Doug Kouma: You will catch me cooking dinner—that’s kind of my unwind. I specifically cook something several days a week, usually with a glass of wine. I’m pretty passionate about my California Sonoma County wines. You’ll see me taking my dog out for a walk. You probably won’t see me reading magazines at home.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Doug Kouma: I would like to believe that people view me as honest, kind and authentic.

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

Doug Kouma: I think the future; the future of the industry; my own personal future. I think we’re doing a little bit of reinvention here, and that doesn’t mean everything’s a success. It’s human nature, and it’s my nature especially, to want to succeed at what we’re doing. And that just doesn’t always happen. So, I think it’s worry about whether we can really make some of these things work.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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