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Entertainment Weekly’s Editor In Chief, JD Heyman, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “The Wonderful Thing About Moments Of Crises Is That It Brings Out The Best In Most People.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

May 13, 2020

Publishing During A Pandemic (32)

“The biggest challenge is the economic challenge that we’re all in as a country, as a world. But the content challenge has not been that difficult for us at all. There are plenty of stories to tell. What we discovered very early in the pandemic, really by late February, early March, was that we were going to need to address how to cater to people who were going to be spending a lot more time at home.” … JD Heyman

 “The words matter; the design matters. If you look at our May issue—we just closed our June issue, and I think we’re one of the few brands in today’s economy that broke new business in June from an advertising perspective, because we really believe in collaborating on the advertising side—but we really believe in giving readers a high-touched, deluxe experience in print as well as serving them digital news.” … JD Heyman

In June 2019, JD Heyman was named Editor in Chief of Entertainment Weekly, the world’s leading media brand covering entertainment and the business of popular culture. As EIC, he has repositioned EW as the voice of the new golden age of show business across all platforms, with a deluxe monthly magazine, a news driven website and growing extensions in social media, audio, television and events. But as we all know, the world has changed inexplicably with the onset and  continuation of the pandemic.

I spoke with JD recently and we talked about how EW has been operating during this pandemic and how a magazine that relies on up close and personal interviews and photographs of celebrities and others who entertain and inform us is handling the situation. JD was upbeat and optimistic about the present and the future, while remaining realistic when it came to how that future may look beyond the pandemic.

As he said, “The words matter; the design matters.” And he believes that tripling-down on the quality and relevance of the product they offer readers is vital. And with EW, quality is a given.

And now the 32nd Mr. Magazine™ interview in the series of Publishing During A Pandemic with JD Heyman, editor in chief, Entertainment Weekly.

But first the sound-bites:

On how Entertainment Weekly is operating during the pandemic: It has actually been an amazing experience as a magazine-maker, as an editor, as a journalist, a marketer and as a business-development person. It has been a challenging, but really exciting time. There were a lot of things that we were already in the process of really thinking deeply about and reinventing at Entertainment Weekly when this all happened.

On how he sees the magazine moving forward beyond the pandemic: That’s an interesting question and I think I have to use my very narrow experience of history as a guide. Earlier in my career, I went through the 2008 recession. And what we learned out of that experience as editors was that consumer habits do change and there are some permanent changes that happen in a big adjustment such as this.

On any challenges he has faced during the pandemic that he’s still dealing with: Oh sure, there were things that we really had to rethink, such as photography. A lot of what we do is experiential. In addition to doing our magazine, EW is really good at leading panels and talks, creating experiences at film festivals and television festivals where we go and interview celebrities and engage with fans. We have a big thing every year at  Comic-Con in San Diego, obviously that’s not happening, so we have to come up with alternatives for people. Looking at the medium-term, we have to create a robust array of experiences for people that replaces going out to be part of a conversation.

On anything he’d like to add: The main job of an editor anywhere, but certainly at EW, is to create great storytelling. Magazines are an interesting array of ideas, packaged in a dynamic and exciting way for an audience. And that idea is as relevant and as exciting as it ever was.

On what keeps him up at night: My son is deciding where he’s going to college, so that keeps me up at night. What keeps me up at night? Everything. No, I think as a culture and as a world we are in a very fragmented state. And sometimes our media increases that sense of fragmentation —actually quite often. And what keeps me up at night is whether the next several generations will rediscover shared experience. The best part of our media is in its opportunity to bring people together.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with JD Heyman, editor in chief, Entertainment Weekly.

Samir Husni: You’re now based in L.A., the magazine moved several years ago, then the pandemic happened. How are you operating during this pandemic since you have a publication that depends a lot on photography, celebrities and entertainment?

JD Heyman: It has actually been an amazing experience as a magazine-maker, as an editor, as a journalist, a marketer and as a business-development person. It has been a challenging, but really exciting time. There were a lot of things that we were already in the process of really thinking deeply about and reinventing at Entertainment Weekly when this all happened. I’ve been at EW for seven months and before the pandemic I was at PEOPLE running the entertainment coverage there before that, so I’ve been a long-time fan and collaborator with EW, because we’re sister brands.

The biggest challenge is the economic challenge that we’re all in as a country, as a world. But the content challenge has not been that difficult for us at all. There are plenty of stories to tell. What we discovered very early in the pandemic, really by late February, early March, was that we were going to need to address how to cater to people who were going to be spending a lot more time at home.

In the first week or so of March, we came up with something called “Quaranstream,” which was our content recommendations for people who were sheltering-in-place. We started that very early and then by March 15, we decided that it would be better for us to work from home, so just right before there was mandated sheltering-in-place in California and New York. Our systems were in place, in terms of production and communication; none of that was difficult to adopt. We were very quick to move into a work-from-home environment.

As far as the entertainment community and Hollywood are concerned, the wonderful thing about moments of crises is that it brings out the best in most people. And certainly in the world of entertainment, not to be totally glib, because there are very important things going on in the world and people doing the real work of making this situation better, but entertainers have a role to play. I was sitting at home working, watching a lot of old screwball comedies of the 1930s, and I asked myself what was it about these old movies that so appeals to me? Why do I like comedies from that period?

If you know pop culture at all, you realize very quickly those films were made during very dark times in world history. There was a Great Depression; there was a fascist empire on the rise; there was genocide, and yet, you would never know that from most of the popular culture of the time. And that’s true in the late 1960s, and it’s true during other tumultuous times in our culture. People turned to entertainment as a kind of balm. I call it the healing balm of fun. That’s what we’re here to provide for our audience. We decided very quickly that we’re going to reorient a lot of our content toward that proposition, bringing Hollywood home with humor and with heart. That’s what we believe.

All of our writers and reporters, and actually all of the entertainers that we deal with, were very excited to do that. We have sort of a dual mission at Entertainment Weekly; we reach a broad audience of more than 24 million people. We also reach a lot of people who work in entertainment, who are influencers within the industry. We thought it was important to both support the industry and to give people distraction.

And the results have been huge. We’ve had a significant increase in our digital traffic, more than 20 percent, and our May issue was our bestselling monthly issue ever. So, that goes to show you that there’s some truth in this idea of being the place where people go to be lifted up, enlightened, entertained; putting on a show for people in times of trial is extremely important. The craft of magazine-making is something that I believe to be as contemporary as ever, and I think when we look at the products that we make in any platform, we have to really create a quality experience for the audience, a deeper quality experience than perhaps we have in the recent past.

The words matter; the design matters. If you look at our May issue—we just closed our June issue, and I think we’re one of the few brands in today’s economy that broke new business in June from an advertising perspective, because we really believe in collaborating on the advertising side—but we really believe in giving readers a high-touched, deluxe experience in print as well as serving them digital news. If you look at our May issue, we have a high degree of humor; we have a high degree of content that promotes engagement, interactive puzzles and games, recommendations, a whole feature full of recommended content for them; a lot of comedy and deep dives into stuff people love.

So, I wouldn’t say we’re the place to come if you’re looking for hard news about a vaccine, that’s not our job. Our place is to create some lightness, some counterprogramming for people who are in their homes and really kind of desperate for recommendations about how to make the load a little lighter, from board games to trivia to great look-backs at Hollywood moments to really fun interviews and access.

As far as your question about access goes, it’s challenging and different, but we had an unprecedented number of celebrity contributors in the last two issues. And we’ve also figured out how we may photograph people. In our June issue, we had something which was very rare for us, an illustrated cover because we thought it was important to support artists at this time. So, sort of our own WPA kind of effect. But I believe we’ll be photographing people sooner rather than later. We were also lucky in that we had shot a lot of stuff for our magazine previously. It hasn’t thus far been a problem.

Samir Husni: How do you see the direction of the magazine moving forward beyond the pandemic? Do you think it will be a new day or life will go back to the way it was for EW?

JD Heyman: That’s an interesting question and I think I have to use my very narrow experience of history as a guide. Earlier in my career, I went through the 2008 recession. And what we learned out of that experience as editors was that consumer habits do change and there are some permanent changes that happen in a big adjustment such as this.

The big lesson for us from 2008 was that you have to be as close to the audience as possible. You have to listen to them and be engaged in a dialogue with them, because their habits do shift. They shift because they have less disposable income or they get their information in different ways, so what that taught me was that while the experience of a magazine is as relevant as ever the quality of that experience has to go ever-deeper. Our job is to build an affinity with our audience in every way we can —constantly. Our job is to be really as close to them as possible. When I took over this job, I’ve been in constant conversation with readers about what they like and don’t like and I have tried to be responsive to that.

On the other hand, the lesson is not to be led by larger trends. If you’re using your brain correctly in this business, you take the data, the information you have, and you lead. You create a place that feels distinctive. I believe that in our business it’s not a search for every single eyeball, but the right eyeballs for your brand. And to build that as a distinctive and unique home forpeople. The best magazines in history are the ones that feel like a trusted friend with a particular point of view and are in dialogue with their audience.

I kind of boil it down to making unique, memorable, shareable content. Is what I’m telling you something you’ll share? Does it feel like value added to your life? If I’m asking you to buy something that costs money to make, is it a good value proposition for you? Looking at this particular crisis I would say our job is to triple-down on making a quality product that feels enhancing to the lives of its audience; to do that in print, which is a vivid, beautiful medium and really a billboard in every town in America for what you do; to do that digitally in terms of having a sense of relevance and urgency in storytelling, and to do that in new platforms as they evolve.

I think of this content as a cloud that I take and seed different plots of earth with. I rarely think about the platform first —except for what best serves that technology. A magazine after all is just a form of technology. And it should be delightful and a deluxe experience. And for the people who get it, it should feel like a magazine for a special club. Anyone who reads EW should feel part of a club. We share a certain language; we have certain things we like; we enjoy reading and culture and art and we’re funny. The EW reader has a wiseacre kind of view, a sort of wry view of life. And while they are diverse, they share a sensibility. My old publisher used to say they are a psychographic not a demographic. They’re the cool kids in the cafeteria who always know what’s going on. We want to deepen that culture for them.

Samir Husni: Have you faced any challenges during this pandemic that you failed to overcome or are still dealing with?

JD Heyman: Oh sure, there were things that we really had to rethink, such as photography. A lot of what we do is experiential. In addition to doing our magazine, EW is really good at leading panels and talks, creating experiences at film festivals and television festivals where we go and interview celebrities and engage with fans. We have a big thing every year at  Comic-Con in San Diego, obviously that’s not happening, so we have to come up with alternatives for people. Looking at the medium-term, we have to create a robust array of experiences for people that replaces going out to be part of a conversation.

If you would have asked me a year ago where I believed a lot of growth in our industry would be, it would be in these experiences of bringing people together. Obviously, I still believe that, but the ways that we bring people together will naturally have to change. And we’re in dynamic conversation with  people all the time about how to do that.

The good thing is that the best metric of all is conversational. If you’re having a good conversation with someone, as I am with you, then that is interesting to other people. And conversation, if you look at the growth of podcasting and everything that you see in today’s culture, it’s really less about here’s a big movie star, we have five minutes of her time, we’ll do a great piece on her and spend a lot of money on photography. The audience is far more sophisticated now. They know what TV writers do; they want to know how to make movies. They know far more about the process than the public of a generation ago.

They’re much more interested in how everything works. And in feeling like they’re peers and equals in that conversation rather than the magazine editor coming up with an idea and dispensing that idea to the public. That’s an old idea of doing things.

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

JD Heyman: The main job of an editor anywhere, but certainly at EW, is to create great storytelling. Magazines are an interesting array of ideas, packaged in a dynamic and exciting way for an audience. And that idea is as relevant and as exciting as it ever was. I never think on any day that I go to work, whether it’s in my house or at my office, that I don’t have an incredibly interesting, creative job, but it really does start from the audience. All innovation really comes from the audience. And the best magazine-makers get as close to that audience as possible.

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

JD Heyman: My son is deciding where he’s going to college, so that keeps me up at night. What keeps me up at night? Everything. No, I think as a culture and as a world we are in a very fragmented state. And sometimes our media increases that sense of fragmentation —actually quite often. And what keeps me up at night is whether the next several generations will rediscover shared experience. The best part of our media is in its opportunity to bring people together. To inform, engage and enlighten people, not just to agitate and alienate people. There should be another kind of algorithm in our media that isn’t based on outrage.

What I hope for is that people who are in the media business, and the consumers who buy their products, are engaged in this higher conversation—beyond what we’re able to monetize. I think we should always remember that this is an extremely important role and we should all be thinking about how to bring community together, particularly as the world comes out of this crisis. I worry a lot about what community will look like. People being together is important. All media has a role to play in that.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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