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Catherine Levene, President, Meredith National Media Group, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: The Magazines That Matter Will Survive: “It’s All About What The Consumer Wants. And The Consumer Has Told Us That Print Matters.” The Mr. Magazine™ End Of The Year Interview…

December 16, 2020

“We know and believe that print matters… Our subscription growth is over 30 percent this last quarter than a year prior. That just shows you that women really appreciate the experience of reading offline. It’s a different experience; it’s a lean-back experience.” Catherine Levene

Bloom in the Midst of Gloom and Doom… Magazine Media 2021  Part 2:  Catherine Levene, President, Meredith National Media Group

Catherine Levene, president, Meredith National Media Group

2020 is almost behind us with a brand new year just waiting in the wings expectantly. The hope is there for a return to normalcy, a return to sanity, where life doesn’t seem quite as different and complex as we all have recently experienced. With this in mind, Mr. Magazine™ offers up his end of the year interviews with presidents and CEOs of major magazine media companies to get their take on what they feel 2021 holds for each of their companies and magazines in general. Our next magazine media president has arrived. Please enjoy…

Meredith’s National Media Group reaches almost 95 percent of all U.S. women and over 190 million monthly American consumers through its trusted and iconic brands. From People to Allrecipes, and all the popular titles in between, Meredith is the largest magazine media company in the world. And for the first time in its 119-year history, a woman is at the helm. And from her own words: “Now that is progress.”

Former chief digital officer for Meredith, Catherine Levene is now heading up the National Media Group Division. In her new role, she will oversee print and digital magazines and the consumer products that are branded with titles of the Meredith magazines. It’s an encompassing job, but one that Catherine is excited and ready to handle. Her vision for the company centers around continued growth and driving engagement across all of Meredith’s platforms. And with 25 years in the business, Catherine brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the job.

Now, the second installment of the Mr. Magazine™ end of the year interviews with Catherine Levene, president, Meredith National Media Group.

But first the sound-bites:

 

On the biggest challenge that faced Meredith in 2020 and how they overcame it: The biggest challenge is probably obvious in that it was adjusting to a company-wide working from home model starting in March and adapting to that. Meredith is a very collaborative culture and it’s a vigorous in-person culture as well. And so working from home was a challenge. But our first priority was keeping our employees safe and healthy and that continues to be our top priority.  We were pleasantly surprised at how smoothly (the adjustment to working from home) went and just how productive and collaborative our employees are working from home. 

On her roadmap for 2021: They’re all around the notion of growth. Number one is to continue to drive engagement across platforms. Last quarter we drove 30 percent more subscribers to our print publications than that same quarter last year.

On whether she feels the increases the company had this year is the silver lining for 2020. It continues to show and prove the relevance and the resonance of our brands and the trust that consumers have with our portfolio. Because our brands are so rich in its content of knowledge about what women need and want, we were able to rise in this area, particularly digital. So, all of that data gives us insight as to what’s important to women.

On what Meredith knows that no other company seems to know that they’re putting so many new ink on paper titles on newsstands: We know and believe that print matters. It’s all about what the consumer wants. And the consumer has told us that print matters.

On any changes she sees on the horizon for magazines and magazine media: There was a period of time years ago when there were so many print magazines in the market. And at that time it was probably hard to differentiate between them. Now the magazines that matter survive, the magazines that are able to adapt to consumer’s needs, that provide quality content and a different experience. And also to be able to extend those brands, it’s not just about print. It’s about digital, audio, video, television; it’s about voice. 

On how she feels Meredith handles diversity and inclusion: I’m very proud of the way our team handles this issue. First of all, internally we have a culture of acceptance and diversity and inclusion. Now that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better and we can always improve. One of our main goals this year and beyond is to continue to advance the diversity and inclusion in our own company.

On more women being at the head of magazine media companies today as CEOs or presidents: There you go. Now that is progress. As we all say, it takes time and I believe we get to the right place. Obviously, we all want to move faster with diversity and inclusion. But I think Meredith has expanded its base of leadership, particularly with women. And I am very proud of that.

On what makes her tick: In general, in life, creativity and progress. I’m constantly full of ideas and being in a position to test those ideas, collaborate with the team to make them better and bring them to life, not just my ideas, but any ideas that our teams have, that really makes me tick. Bringing something to life that didn’t exist before, I would say creativity. And then progress meaning continually trying to improve. Improve myself, improve my work, our work and do things that are ideally helping the world in some way, shape or form.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home: Besides taking care of the baby, we’ll probably be sitting around the dinner table drinking wine with family and friends. We do that a lot and that’s what I’d say we miss the most. Interacting in person with our family and friends. 

On what keeps her up at night: As it relates to the business, one is just making sure everyone is safe and healthy. And two, is my mind spinning on ideas and opportunities. I keep a pen and paper beside my bed and when I have these inspirational moments I write them down and follow up on them later. That’s what keeps me up at night.

And now for the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ interview with Catherine Levene, President, Meredith National Media.

Samir Husni: Congratulations on being named president of Meredith National Media. 

Catherine Levene: Thank you so much.

Samir Husni: 2020 has been one of the toughest years on all fronts. Even before you became president of the National Media, you were in charge of the digital side. What do you think was the biggest challenge that faced Meredith in 2020 and how did you overcome it?

Catherine Levene: The biggest challenge is probably obvious in that it was adjusting to a company-wide working from home model starting in March and adapting to that. Meredith is a very collaborative culture and it’s a vigorous in-person culture as well. And so working from home was a challenge. But our first priority was keeping our employees safe and healthy and that continues to be our top priority. We were pleasantly surprised at how smoothly it (the adjustment to working from home) went and just how productive and collaborative our employees are working from home.

We didn’t adjust a magazine schedule; digital grew, our traffic grew that quarter 19 percent, so we’ve done quite well. The first quarter was very tough for everybody, there was so much unknown, particularly in the ad market. That was a tough quarter, both the decline in ad revenue across the board as well as the getting everybody set up to work from home.

Samir Husni: As you look toward 2021, what’s your roadmap? Now that you’re the president for all of Meredith’s national media, can you tell me about any plans you have for 2021?

Catherine Levene: Let’s start with our most important asset on top of our employees, which is our trusted brands. We produce strong, premium, relevant brands and have very large loyal audiences. We reach 95 percent of U.S. women. So that’s the base upon which we start.

From there, I have three real main initiatives and they’re all around the notion of growth. Number one is to continue to drive engagement across platforms. So, that is in print and as I think you know, last quarter we drove 30 percent more subscribers to our print publications than that same quarter last year. 

We’re driving engagement on our digital properties, that’s on the web and on mobile. We are expanding formats, investing in audio and video. In fact we launched in this calendar year, 9 to 10 podcasts, including one recently from Laura Brown called “Ladies First” by InStyle, which is a fun one. 

So, it’s a focus on cross platform, including social, cross platform growth. And that can come with our existing brands and it can also come from creating new brands. Last year we launched “Daily Paws” in August. We’re proud of the agility and resilience of our team in continuing to stay on schedule. We launched Millie and of course we launched Sweet July with Ayesha Curry. We’re constantly expanding the offerings we have for our audiences.

The second growth area is leaning into our rich and proprietary data, which allows us insights capabilities that help, first and foremost, product roadmaps, and also help our advertisers understand their audiences better and to message to them more effectively. That data is first-party. In a world where third party cookies are going away, the use of proprietary, first-party data is critical and it’s a big asset. It’s also a big differentiator that we have. 

The third area of growth is to diversify our revenue stream. You already know that we have a very large consumer revenue stream in our subscription base, and we’re looking beyond our print subscription base to consumer revenue in digital. And that could be in e-commerce revenue or offering new paid products. 

Samir Husni: You’re the second president/CEO of a magazine media group that has told me 2020 wasn’t that bad after all, in terms of the revenue. Do you think that increase in subscriptions and the increases in print, the growth in digital for the trusted brands; do you think that has been a silver lining for 2020? 

Catherine Levene: It continues to show and prove the relevance and the resonance of our brands and the trust that consumers have with our portfolio. Because our brands are  so rich in its content of knowledge about what women need and want, we were able to rise in this area, particularly digital. So, all of that data that I just talked to you about gives us insights as to what’s important to women. 

Right now we’re in the categories that are most important to women: parenting, family, health, wellness, home, food, and entertainment; those are the categories that are essential for women and they provide inspiration and they provide help for women. Because our portfolio is broad and inspirational for women at this time, we’ve been able to take advantage of that. 

And while that is a silver lining, I don’t want us to forget how difficult this period has been for employees who my have had family members sick; children at home and dealing with parenting while they’re working. And of course, the decline of ad revenue that happened in March, second quarter. While we have absolutely shown that our brands have real resonance and growth opportunity, I don’t forget just how difficult it has been for many people. 

Samir Husni: Meredith launched more print magazines in 2020 than any other magazine media company, large or small. As you mentioned, from Reveal to Sweet July to Millie to all of the SIPs and the specialty magazines; what do you think is the future of print in this digital age? What does Meredith know that no other company seems to know that they’re putting so many new ink on paper titles on newsstands?

Catherine Levene: We know and believe that print matters. It’s all about what the consumer wants. And the consumer has told us that print matters. Our subscription growth is over 30 percent this last quarter than a year prior. That shows you that women appreciate the experience of reading offline. It’s a different experience; it’s a lean-back experience. You’re away from your screen. We all spend so much time in front of our computers and working from home also indoctrinates that. 

Having a lean-back experience or a kind of luxury experience with print isn’t going away. We believe in that. And we’ve shown that. You can have growth in print magazines. 

Samir Husni: What are some of the major changes that you see on the horizon concerning magazine media? Not only at Meredith, but in general.

Catherine Levene: There was a period of time years ago when there were so many print magazines in the market. At that time it was probably hard to differentiate between them. The magazines that matter survive, the magazines that are able to adapt to consumer’s needs, that provide quality content and a different experience. To be able to extend those brands, it’s not just about print. It’s about digital, audio, video, television,voice.

When we think about our portfolio, we don’t think about print, digital, though those are our major lines of business. We think about the brands and how our consumers want to experience them. So PEOPLE is a weekly. It’s much more like a newsmagazine about celebrities than it is a monthly service magazine. We launched the number one TV show, syndicated TV show, this year with the PEOPLE brand and our Local Media Group. PEOPLE had its best quarter yet in his history this past quarter. 

We’re expanding into audio. We’re launching a new podcast early next year called “PEOPLE Every Day” in collaboration with iHeart. It’s going to be the stories of people in a podcast. We don’t necessarily think about the brand as print and digital. We think about it as trusted brand that evolves over time. We want to be in every medium that’s important to women.

Samir Husni: How do you feel Meredith handles the issue of diversity and inclusion? And moving forward, how will you continue to handle it?

Catherine Levene: I’m very proud of the way our team handles this issue. First of all, internally we have a culture of acceptance and diversity and inclusion. Now that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better and we can always improve. One of our main goals this year and beyond is to advance the diversity and inclusion in our own company. 

We’re focused in two areas. One is the culture inside the company and our workforce and the other is what we show to our consumers and it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s good business to enhance our content and storytelling. To be more inclusive both in the content itself, but also in producing that content, whether that be in print, digital, video, in the art that we use, the photography. All of that has to be diverse because our audience is diverse. 

Samir Husni: Talking about diversity, it’s the first time that I can recall in magazine media history that there are now four women CEOs or presidents of major magazine media companies.  

Catherine Levene: There you go. Now that is progress. As we all say, it takes time and I believe we get to the right place. Obviously, I we all want to move faster with diversity and inclusion. But I think Meredith has expanded its base of leadership, particularly with women. And I am very proud of that. 

And as far as diversity, I know you spoke to Laura Brown (InStyle) recently and I don’t know if she mentioned but she recently signed onto the 15 percent pledge, which is to support and promote a diverse creative community. They committed 15 percent of its coverage to Black-owned businesses. And they’re focusing on diversity, inclusion as representation. Now that may include models, celebrities, etc. 

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

Catherine Levene: We could talk for hours, but for now you’ve done an excellent job capturing the questions that are important to Meredith. Thank you for all of your work, support and interest in our company. We appreciate it.

Samir Husni: What makes you tick and click?

Catherine Levene: In general, in life, creativity and progress. I’m constantly full of ideas and being in a position to really test those ideas, collaborate with the team to make them better and bring them to life, not just my ideas, but any ideas that our teams have, that really makes me tick. Bringing something to life that didn’t exist before, I would say creativity. And then progress meaning just continually trying to improve. Improve myself, improve my work, our work and do things that are ideally helping the world in some way, shape or form. 

On a personal note, I would say that what makes me tick is family and my new baby. I just had a baby, she’s three months old. And it is bringing me so much joy during this time to have this little girl, to watch her smile and see the world through her eyes, which is an incredible experience. 

Samir Husni: Congratulations.

Catherine Levene: Thank you.   

Samir Husni: Let’s assume there’s no COVID-19 and I show 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; or something else? How do you unwind?

Catherine Levene: Besides taking care of the baby, we’ll probably be sitting around the dinner table drinking wine with family and friends. We do that a lot and that’s what I’d say we miss the most. Interacting in person with our family and friends. 

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

Catherine Levene: As it relates to the business, one is making sure everyone is safe and healthy. And two, is my mind spinning on ideas and opportunities. I keep a pen and paper beside my bed and when I have these inspirational moments I write them down and follow up on them later. That’s what keeps me up at night.

Samir Husni: Thank you. 

A Mr. Magazine™ Editorial

The “Bloom” in the midst of gloom and doom. Magazines and magazine media have mainly focused on the positive and been an advocate for easing the pain and stopping the hate, seeking to help their audiences both in print and online. For these uncertain times and an audience that is constantly bombarded with bad news, magazines are like trusted friends that you can visit with while they console and encourage you in the midst of a pandemic and social and racial conflicts. 

2020 is almost behind us with a brand new year just waiting in the wings expectantly. The hope is there for a return to normalcy, a return to sanity, where life doesn’t seem quite as different and complex as we all have recently experienced. With this in mind, I offer up my end of the year interviews with presidents and CEOs of major magazine media companies to get their take on 2020 and what they feel 2021 holds for each of their companies and magazines in general. Keeping the faith, easing the pain, stopping the hate, spreading the love and hoping that this too shall behind us.

Here’s to a healthy and happy 2021

Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, Ph.d.

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