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Active Interest Media’s Chief Innovation Officer, Jonathan (Jon) Dorn to Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “The Challenges In The Industry Demand A Higher Degree Of Decision-Making And Being In Focus. I Want To Move Faster… I Want To Make Change Happen Faster.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

March 15, 2019

“In the case of Yoga Journal, what we’ve really been trying to do there in print for the last year and a half or so is lead conversations that are complex and meaty enough that they can’t play out in an effective way in social or in digital. Two issues ago we had a big cover story on new diversifications in the yoga teaching community. We talked about the ways in which diversity is enhancing leadership in the yoga community. That was a story that we devoted about 15 pages to and it had huge resonance from the social following and the social reaction to it. That’s a conversation that can only happen in print, I think. It’s one that makes print relevant in a very unique way.” Jon Dorn (On the role of print in a digital age)…

As one of the world’s largest enthusiast media companies, Active Interest Media (AIM) produces leading consumer and trade events, websites, magazines, and films and TV shows that reach 40 million readers, fans, and attendees in 85 countries. From its Active Living Group, Home Group, Marine Group, Outdoor Group, and Equine Group, AIM reaches a diverse group of readers, viewers and users with its various brands, whether through print, digital, social, mobile, or events.

Chief Innovation Officer Jonathan (Jon) Dorn recently announced the addition and promotion of individuals to the Active Living Group, which Jon was named president of recently. While other magazine and magazine media companies are cutting back on staff, AIM is pushing forth with new visions and innovations for its business and adding talent to its already vibrant pool of people.

I spoke with Jon recently and we talked about the profitability that allows AIM to continue growing and diversifying its interests, even to the point of selectively hiring and promoting staff. From collecting data to targeting Alexa as a potential platform to reach its readers where they are, Jon says AIM is not afraid to forge ahead and if he has his way, the company will do it adeptly and swiftly, not holding back as technology moves so rapidly, media companies must do the same to keep up. It was a lively and energetic conversation with a man who participates in Iron Man Triathlons to stay in touch with his own potential, and sips Scotch in a nice hot tub afterward to unwind.

Not a bad way to relax, if Mr. Magazine™ might say so himself.

So, please enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Jon Dorn, chief innovation office, Active Interest Media.

But first the sound-bites:

On why Active Interest Media is hiring new people while many other magazine and magazine media companies are firing or laying people off: As a company we continue to be profitable to a degree that allows us to invest in adventures and innovations that we see giving us opportunity to continue growing and diversifying our interests. We’re not hiring in every department, but we are being selective and bringing in strong talents in areas where we do see those growth opportunities.

On moving from an editor of a single title to what he is doing today as Chief Innovation Officer: It’s interesting, from the moment I came to AIM from Rodale in 2007, Andy (Clurman) started challenging me to do a lot of different things outside the editorial realm. They had a very clear vision of what the modern editor in chief role would be. And so from day one they included me in M&A discussions and they asked me to help and advise sales organizations. And then in 2010, they put me in a general manger role overseeing all aspects of our Outdoor Group, which at the time was Backpacker and two or three other titles. So, I was exposed and challenged to expand my skillset right out of the gate and given the opportunity to do that.

On the transformation from pure editor in chief to chief innovation office and whether he ever feels as though he has moved away from journalism and more toward the “other” side: There have certainly been times where I have stopped and questioned myself on that. And as a member of the ASME board I am very cognizant of, in some fashion, protecting the church and state line, even as where that line is drawn has shifted an awful lot overtime. What I’ve always tried to operate by is a bit of a Golden Rule around, ultimately at the end of the day, what’s good for our readers and customers? In making the decision to go and help sell a program that includes custom content, am I doing something that is going to trick or deceive or in some way ruin the good that we’re doing for the readers of our titles?

On whether he attempts to define the role of each of the platforms and how they relate to the audience: We do attempt to define all the channels. For instance one of my priorities right now, we’re working on Alexa, and the ways that we bring content to smart speakers and smart viewers. It’s recognizing and embracing the changing ways that people are consuming content in their homes and the ways in which they’re using technology. And to me that is fundamentally still a content experience, but it’s one that is delivered in a very different way and that has a very different interaction model, but is a direct descendant of a service department in a magazine, but delivered through a different medium.

On what role he believes print plays in this digital age: The more immersive, in depth reading experience. In the case of Backpacker, it’s going to be big adventure narratives, interviews with folks who are doing the most extreme trips, conservation issues. In the case of the Yoga Journal, what we’ve really been trying to do there in print for the last year and a half or so is lead conversations that are complex and meaty enough that they can’t play out in an effective way in social or in digital.

On how he is utilizing data in the creation of the brands: I wouldn’t say that we’re experts or have mastered the use of data, but it’s something that we started looking really hard at three or four years ago. And frankly, it was kind of a response to market demand, where we had in categories like the marine industry and the luxury home industry, both of which we have significant business in, partners coming to us and saying that people weren’t buying yachts the way they used to; people weren’t buying vacation homes the way they used to. And the partners were saying to us that what they needed our help with as their media partner was in understanding and seeing them through data and through data capture so that we have some sense of what they’re reacting to and what they’re leaning toward in terms of purchase. So, we made an investment in that case in a better data base and in regeneration expertise by bringing in two people from the B2B world, where there is, I think, a lot more expertise and regeneration.

On whether he sometimes feels he is getting too much information about his audience and invading their privacy or that he needs this personalized information to serve them better: I’m definitely in the latter camp and that’s probably because I see the data that we have, maybe not by an individual basis, but overall. And I don’t see information in our data base that I would, as a customer of a company like ours, not want us to have. We have been approached by some data capture firms that say they can do X Y or Z with Facebook information for instance, that we’ve backed off from. So, we have made some choices not to do some things that felt uncomfortable. But I think what we’re capturing now; I don’t think we’re overstepping privacy or anything close to that.

On anything he’d like to add: Actually, I’m going to follow up on that data question. I was having a very interesting conversation recently with a gentleman who runs a large and growing digital company. And we were talking about data and the reality that because of the way people protect themselves nowadays from exposing too much data, there are really only about 20 million online users in this country at any given time who are really known. And that’s known, in the sense of anybody being able to connect their online or email behavior back to a known name or a known email address or physical address or a known mobile number.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him:
(Laughs) I suppose it would be disingenuous of me to say handsome, friendly and funny. But as that relates to media, I’ll tell you what I love most and if people think this about me that’s great. I love most the challenge that requires asymmetrical thinking.

On the biggest misconception he thinks people have about him: That’s a good question. I do find that a lot of people still picture me as the Backpacker editor, and maybe he’s still that guy who’s primarily an editor. And the reality is that for the last 10 years I’ve been doing so many other things beyond that print starting point that I had.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: Typically, you would probably find me on my bike, training for an Iron Man Triathlon. And I do an awful lot of my workout late in the evening after work, so I might get home at seven and go for a two-hour bike ride. Once that’s done, if you stuck around, I would invite you to join me in the hot tub, where I end most days with a glass of Scotch.

On what keeps him up at night: It’s pace, whether we’re moving fast enough. I have reached a point in my career where I think that the challenges in the industry that we’re seeing demand a higher degree of decision-making and being in focus. I want to move faster. I want to get the decisions faster. I want to make change happen faster. I’m a fifty-two-year-old, I suppose that’s some form of middle age and the clock ticking. But also when you look at the evolution of technology, I don’t think we have as media companies the luxury of taking two years to decide whether to move on product development. I want to get it done now or maybe in the next three to six months.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Jon Dorn, chief innovation officer, Active Interest Media (AIM).

Samir Husni: Other magazine media companies are firing people and letting people go and you recently sent out a press release saying that you had hired new people. So, what’s going on over at Active Interest Media (AIM)?

Jon Dorn: As a company we continue to be profitable to a degree that allows us to invest in adventures and innovations that we see giving us opportunity to continue growing and diversifying our interests. We’re not hiring in every department, but we are being selective and bringing in strong talents in areas where we do see those growth opportunities.

Over the last couple of years we have expanded our in-studio video team, which includes, going back three or four years now, starting from zero and moving up to about eight people on our online education team. And of course, I think you’re familiar with the story of Catapult, our marketing agency, that was also something that didn’t exist three and a half years ago and now the team is about seven.

So, I think because the company has had continued success to the bottom line because of the diversity that we have through events and other channels, that’s why we selectively continue recruiting pretty strongly.

Samir Husni: How was it for you specifically, moving from an editor of a single title, from the days of Backpacker magazine, to what you’re doing today as Chief Innovation Officer? With today’s ever-changing role of editor, was it like a walk in a rose garden for you?

Jon Dorn: (Laughs) It’s interesting, from the moment I came to AIM from Rodale in 2007, Andy (Clurman) started challenging me to do a lot of different things outside the editorial realm. They had a very clear vision of what the modern editor in chief role would be. And so from day one they included me in M&A discussions and they asked me to help and advise sales organizations. And then in 2010, they put me in a general manger role overseeing all aspects of our Outdoor Group, which at the time was Backpacker and two or three other titles. So, I was exposed and challenged to expand my skillset right out of the gate and given the opportunity to do that.

So, I wouldn’t say it’s been a walk in a rose garden, it’s been more of maybe a trial by fire. I’ve had the opportunity to take on one challenge or task after another, and sort of incrementally absorb my own portfolio. I have found, and I think Andy has found along the way, that some of the things that make me a half decent editor also make me capable at other types of product development throughout the company. And that has in some ways become a specialty for me with launching Online Education, with creating our film studio, and launching Catapult Creative Labs. Just starting with an idea, putting together a great plan and then executing it, that sort of project management, product development lifecycle.

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Samir Husni: During that transformation from a pure editor in chief to the general manager to the chief innovation officer to the president of this group, have you at any given moment ever felt as though you were leaving your journalistic background and crossing over to the “other” side?

Jon Dorn: To the dark side? (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too) Yes.

Jon Dorn: There have certainly been times where I have stopped and questioned myself on that. And as a member of the ASME board I am very cognizant of, in some fashion, protecting the church and state line, even as where that line is drawn has shifted an awful lot overtime. What I’ve always tried to operate by is a bit of a Golden Rule around, ultimately at the end of the day, what’s good for our readers and customers? In making the decision to go and help sell a program that includes custom content, am I doing something that is going to trick or deceive or in some way ruin the good that we’re doing for the readers of our titles?

There have certainly been times where we have had opportunities that I have pulled back from, but I think as many editors have and frankly many general managers have over the last five or ten years, we’ve been trying to evolve the way that media companies act and understand around issues of editorial independence and integrity, in such a way that they reflect the way the business has fundamentally changed. Twenty years ago when I started in editorial, I think it was much easier to draw a black and white line around what was okay and what wasn’t. But as we have gotten into things like native content, not that it’s fuzzy, but I think there isn’t as much black and white clarity as there used to be.

Samir Husni: As the Chief Innovation Officer, do you have a clear vision of what print can do today; what digital can do today; what the events and the Online Education platform can do? Do you attempt to define the role of each of the platforms and how they relate to the audience?

Jon Dorn: We do attempt to define all the channels. For instance one of my priorities right now, we’re working on Alexa, and the ways that we bring content to smart speakers and smart viewers. It’s recognizing and embracing the changing ways that people are consuming content in their homes and the ways in which they’re using technology. And to me that is fundamentally still a content experience, but it’s one that is delivered in a very different way and that has a very different interaction model, but is a direct descendant of a service department in a magazine, but delivered through a different medium.

Let me give you an example, in Yoga Journal, 60 percent of all yoga practice happens in the home. And if people maybe don’t live close to a yoga studio or just want to do a quick 10 or 15 minute practice when they wake up in the morning, or have children and they can’t make it out to a studio, we look at all of the poses and sequences and yoga instruction that we do in print and in digital and in video, and recognize that there are an awful lot of yoga enthusiasts now who absolutely use and consume that type of content through a home speaker. They might get up in the morning and say – hey Alexa, I’d like to do a 20 minute meditation. I’ve got my yoga mat and I’m ready to go. So, that’s something that we’re starting to look at – programming that as an additional channel where we meet our readers and enthusiasts where they are.

Samir Husni: So, you’re hoping when they ask Alexa, the answer will be that the experts at Yoga Journal say do this or do that?

Jon Dorn: Right. We would hope to get in the same fashion that the Yoga Journal has about 4.5 or 5 million social followers, we would hope to have a very strong number of followers for Alexa as that ecosystem continues to attract more and more customers. When somebody goes to Alexa thinking of meditation or a yoga sequence, our brand is top of mind and widely followed.

Samir Husni: Talking about the print channel, what role does the printed version of your magazines, such as the Yoga Journal of Backpacker, what role do they play in this digital age?

Jon Dorn: The more immersive, in depth reading experience. In the case of Backpacker, it’s going to be big adventure narratives, interviews with folks who are doing the most extreme trips, conservation issues. In the case of the Yoga Journal, what we’ve really been trying to do there in print for the last year and a half or so is lead conversations that are complex and meaty enough that they can’t play out in an effective way in social or in digital.

Two issues ago we had a big cover story on new diversifications in the yoga teaching community. We talked about the ways in which diversity is enhancing leadership in the yoga community. That was a story that we devoted about 15 pages to and it had huge resonance from the social following and the social reaction to it. That’s a conversation that can only happen in print, I think. It’s one that makes print relevant in a very unique way.

Samir Husni: If you look at all of the channels that are out there now, and if I look at some of the resumes of the people you just hired, how important to you is mining or knowing more about your audience and about your audience’s needs, wants and desires? How are you utilizing that data in the creation of the brands?

Jon Dorn: On a scale of one to ten, when it comes to the importance of knowing our audience, I’d say 10. And I wouldn’t say that we’re experts or have mastered the use of data, but it’s something that we started looking really hard at three or four years ago. And frankly, it was kind of a response to market demand, where we had in categories like the marine industry and the luxury home industry, both of which we have significant business in, partners coming to us and saying that people weren’t buying yachts the way they used to; people weren’t buying vacation homes the way they used to. We used to be able to see them a long way off, as they were going through the sale cycle and considering a purchase of a $2 million yacht or a $5 million home or a $20 million yacht.

And the partners were saying to us that what they needed our help with as their media partner was in understanding and seeing them through data and through data capture so that we have some sense of what they’re reacting to and what they’re leaning toward in terms of purchase. So, we made an investment in that case in a better data base and in regeneration expertise by bringing in two people from the B2B world, where there is, I think, a lot more expertise and regeneration. And we really tried to put more effort into capturing, through a variety of content marketing tactics, capturing more data on those types of consumers that are in our audience.

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So, where we’re starting really is, of course, with the high net worth individuals who follow Yachts International or Power & Motoryacht or Log Home Living or Timber Home Living, four of our highest possible income titles. From there we started moving toward a more general population audience who reads our other titles and to generalize very broadly through smarter use of continuity, marketing, and cookies, understand not only what people are looking at on our sites, but when they’re looking at it and the right content.

Samir Husni: Do you feel that there is some divide in you, that journalist who thinks you’re getting too much information about those people and invading their privacy or on the other hand you need this personalization so that you can provide them with better information?

Jon Dorn: I’m definitely in the latter camp and that’s probably because I see the data that we have, maybe not by an individual basis, but overall. And I don’t see information in our data base that I would, as a customer of a company like ours, not want us to have. We have been approached by some data capture firms that say they can do X Y or Z with Facebook information for instance, that we’ve backed off from. So, we have made some choices not to do some things that felt uncomfortable. But I think what we’re capturing now; I don’t think we’re overstepping privacy or anything close to that.

We’re not the world’s best at data mining at this point (Laughs), but I would characterize us as a media company still trying to understand data, rather than a data company doing media.

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

Jon Dorn: Actually, I’m going to follow up on that data question. I was having a very interesting conversation recently with a gentleman who runs a large and growing digital company. And we were talking about data and the reality that because of the way people protect themselves nowadays from exposing too much data, there are really only about 20 million online users in this country at any given time who are really known. And that’s known, in the sense of anybody being able to connect their online or email behavior back to a known name or a known email address or physical address or a known mobile number.

And much of what the advertising industry is aiming at or fighting over is this fraction of people who exist, the 20 to 30 million people who are not including their cookies, not using ad blockers, not using browsers that allow them to remain hidden. I thought that was a really interesting insight about what the actual data could be for some people.

Of course, the other 290 million people out there, their data is being viewed and analyzed in aggregate to suggest behavioral and purchasing trends. But as the gentleman was telling me, it’s really not possible for anybody, for that 80 percent that are not known, to be able to go back and identify those individuals personally and market them correctly.

I could talk to you for an hour about data. In some respects, data appeals to me for the efficiency of it. I don’t mind giving up some degree of my privacy if it means that I’m getting a better service of some sort. And frankly, I wonder if 10 or 20 years from now we’re going to be talking about a post-privacy world. I don’t favor that idea, but to some degree it almost feels like an inevitable march toward sort of redefining what it means to have privacy as individuals.

And I also want to add a plug for IMAG. I hope that anyone who reads this knows that IMAG is an incredible hub for innovative thinking in the media space, and it’s a conference, so I wouldn’t miss it with the role that I have.

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

Jon Dorn: (Laughs) I suppose it would be disingenuous of me to say handsome, friendly and funny. But as that relates to media, I’ll tell you what I love most and if people think this about me that’s great. I love most the challenge that requires asymmetrical thinking.

Samir Husni: What’s the biggest misconception you think people have about you?

Jon Dorn: That’s a good question. I do find that a lot of people still picture me as the Backpacker editor, and maybe he’s still that guy who’s primarily an editor. And the reality is that for the last 10 years I’ve been doing so many other things beyond that print starting point that I had.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; backpacking on a walk in the woods; or something else? How do you unwind?

Jon Dorn: Typically, you would probably find me on my bike, training for an Iron Man Triathlon. And I do an awful lot of my workout late in the evening after work, so I might get home at seven and go for a two-hour bike ride. Once that’s done, if you stuck around, I would invite you to join me in the hot tub, where I end most days with a glass of Scotch.

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

Jon Dorn: It’s pace, whether we’re moving fast enough. I have reached a point in my career where I think that the challenges in the industry that we’re seeing demand a higher degree of decision-making and being in focus. I want to move faster. I want to get the decisions faster. I want to make change happen faster. I’m a fifty-two-year-old, I suppose that’s some form of middle age and the clock ticking. But also when you look at the evolution of technology, I don’t think we have as media companies the luxury of taking two years to decide whether to move on product development. I want to get it done now or maybe in the next three to six months.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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