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Steven Kotok, President & CEO, Bauer Media Group USA To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “Our Readers Stuck With Us And Our Business Grew In A Lot Of Ways, Which Was Good.” The Mr. Magazine™ End Of The Year Interview…

December 18, 2020

“Bauer will always follow our audience. Our audience is largely women in the middle of their lives. Our digital properties are growing, but they really want the experience that we provide in print. If there comes a day when they don’t want it, we won’t fight it. We will bring them what they want.” Steven Kotok

“I’ve always been an advocate for the audience and the user, money talks, BS walks. If the readers are supporting the content, that’s going to make for better content.” Steven Kotok

Bloom in the Midst of Gloom and Doom… Magazine Media 2021  Part 3: Steven Kotok, President & CEO, Bauer Media Group USA

Steven Kotok, President & CEO, Bauer Media Group USA

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 and CEO has arrived. Please enjoy… 

Bauer Media Group Publishes two of the top selling magazines at retail, Woman’s World and First for Women. Their titles connect with a nationwide audience of readers across diverse editorial segments: women’s (Woman’s World, Celebrate, First for Women) and science and technology (iD – Ideas & Discoveries), so there is a broad spectrum of content they cover. Steven Kotok is the president and CEO in the United States of this fifth generation-owned company, something he is very happy about. 

I spoke with Steven recently and we talked about Bauer and the year 2020 in retrospect. Obviously, it was a trying year for all, including Bauer, but as Steven tells me, financially it wasn’t as bad as they had thought it might be, which is always good news. Challenges occurred, but Steven and his team were up for them and still excited about what they do, even during a pandemic.

And now for the third installment of the Mr. Magazine™ end of the year interviews with Steven Kotok, president & CEO, Bauer Media Group USA.

But first the sound-bites:

On the biggest challenge that Bauer faced in 2020 and how the company overcame it: We’re in a challenged industry, so we’re pretty accustomed to facing challenges, but this year it was just the uncertainty. No one really knew how bad it was going to get and what the effects would be. Going remote was actually surprisingly easy, but really knowing how to respond as a business was the toughest thing. I don’t know that we overcame it; I think we just stayed more flexible than ever.

On any plans he can share for 2021: For us, we’d still like to make an acquisition, it’s pretty tough to find the right thing. I think our 2021 plans are really focused around three things: one is to maintain our number one position for Woman’s World and First for Women on the newsstand, that really remains the bread and butter, but to really grow to other parts of our business.

On the future of print: I’m not a defender of print. I consider myself an advocate for the audience. I’ve always had the good fortune to work for audience-driven publishers, The Week and Felix Dennis, Wirecutter, Bauer. What made us successful was we weren’t focused on the medium. Wirecutter happened to be digital, but the focus was on serving the reader. The Week and Bauer are more largely print, but again we’re audience-driven.

On whether it was a positive that Bauer’s products are mainly distributed inside supermarkets which didn’t shut down at the beginning of the pandemic: Compared to, for example, magazines that have a large airport component, they really felt that because people weren’t flying. I usually fly every month or so and I haven’t flown since February. So comparatively. But we saw a lot of changes in grocery store habits as well. The days of the week that people shopped completely changed. It used to be Friday and Saturday, now it’s really Monday and Tuesday that are the big days.

On what he sees on the horizon for magazines and magazine media: For media generally, I think we are seeing a shift to more consumer revenue models, in print and digital and in streaming. I personally think that’s good. I’ve always been an advocate for the audience and the user, money talks, BS walks. If the readers are supporting the content, that’s going to make for better content.

On how he feels Bauer handles diversity and inclusion: With Bauer I would go back to 2018. In 2018 we did a really comprehensive reader study with focus groups, but it was also quantitative and it was along with an editorial leadership change and a redesign. And we really heard loud and clear from our African American readers that they love the magazine, and not intentionally, we wound up having some focus groups with just African American readers and they wanted more representation on the covers of the magazines and within the pages, specifically the beauty pages. And that’s something that we did in 2018. It wasn’t difficult. It definitely was a change to something we were doing before in the beauty pages, and seeking new cover subjects. But it made us a better magazine.

On anything he wants to add: Globally and in the U.S., it is an exciting time to be in the company. I’ve only been here four years and I’ve seen so much change in terms of how the company has become more progressive in its leadership style. It’s been a really fun time, even though we’ve been in uncertain times with the pandemic.

On what makes him tick and click: I still love my work, so I would say that makes me tick, and everything I said about serving the audience. To unwind, definitely playing with my son. And working from home, or Sundays it feels like sleeping in your office, but whichever it is, it’s really nice to be able to see him, even if it’s just for 10 minutes before a conference call. It’s the best substitute for what used to be a walk around the block or something, such as when I worked in Midtown. It’s really fun just to spend time with him.

On what keeps him up at night: At this point, I don’t think there’s as much being up at night as there was before. A lot of the things we were all scared of has happened to some extent. I probably feel as good about our business as I’ve felt since I’ve been here. We see the upside in our subscriptions; we see the market with these SIPs; and we’re number one on the newsstand. And I don’t even mention it because I’m not a big ad guy, but we’ve been number one in the women’s category for growing advertising. Woman’s World I think is the only magazine to grow advertising five years in a row.

And now for the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steven Kotok, president & CEO, Bauer Media Group USA

Samir Husni: 2020 has been one of the most difficult years for all of us, on all fronts. What has been the biggest challenge that Bauer has had to face this year and how did you overcome it?

Steven Kotok: We’re in a challenged industry, so we’re pretty accustomed to facing challenges, but this year it was just the uncertainty. No one really knew how bad it was going to get and what the effects would be. Going remote was actually surprisingly easy, but really knowing how to respond as a business was the toughest thing. I don’t know that we overcame it; I think we just stayed more flexible than ever. 

Financially, it wasn’t as bad as we feared. Our readers stuck with us and our business grew in a lot of ways, which was good. And thankfully all of our employees remained safe. It was really the uncertainty. A lot of challenges are really difficult and they’re difficult because you don’t like the outcome of them or something. Here, we really had no idea what to expect, so knowing how to respond and how to address the challenge itself was incredibly difficult, because you’re really guessing at some levels. 

Samir Husni: Last year when you and I chatted, you had big plans for 2020 and you were going to acquire or launch something, and then of course everything came to a halt. As you look toward 2021, what’s the roadmap for Bauer? Any plans you can share with us?

Steven Kotok: For us, we’d still like to make an acquisition, it’s pretty tough to find the right thing. I think our 2021 plans are really focused around three things: one is to maintain our number one position for Woman’s World and First for Women on the newsstand, that really remains the bread and butter, but to really grow to other parts of our business. 

The subscription side of our business was probably not emphasized for many, many years. When I got here I made a couple of changes, but in 2021 we’re going to make a very significant investment in subscriptions. We’ve been growing that side of the business, but really amp it up a bit. We’ve done a bunch of testing; we’ve developed some new sources; greatly improved our economics, so now is the time to really triple down and invest in the subscription stream. So, that’s for Woman’s World And First for Women, which are already number one on the newsstand, so we’re kind of furthering the investment in that. 

Then second, it’s really our bookazines, our SIP program. That’s probably going to double in 2021. And again, that grows out of our strength at the newsstand. As you see in so many parts of media, the shift has moved from general interest to very narrow casting with the explosion of cable channels and podcasts, and SIPs are really a part of that, the special interest publications, where you can really narrow cast. And the narrower we go, if we do it right, and we’re doing a lot of these right out of our women’s group editorial group, we really hit it on the head. We did one just on people with thyroid issues, for example. That’s a very narrow topic and it did incredibly well. The Keto Diet has been really popular and effective for people, but we did Keto just for women over 50. And that was one of our bestsellers. 

I think investing in subscriptions for our existing products and launching these new products is by far where most of our financial and our time investment is going in 2021. 

Samir Husni: What do you think is the future of print in this digital age?

Steven Kotok: I’m not a defender of print. I consider myself an advocate for the audience. I’ve always had the good fortune to work for audience-driven publishers, The Week and Felix Dennis, Wirecutter, Bauer. What made us successful was we weren’t focused on the medium. Wirecutter happened to be digital, but the focus was on serving the reader. The Week and Bauer are more largely print, but again we’re audience-driven. 

Some publishers focus more on creating a pleasant environment for advertisers; I’ve just always been at places where we’re creating really a product or a service for consumers. So, Bauer will always follow our audience. Our audience is largely women in the middle of their lives. Our digital properties are growing, but they really want the experience that we provide in print. If there comes a day when they don’t want it, we won’t fight it. We will bring them what they want.

In the larger industry, as we’re seeing a title like Maxim, which once upon a time was huge in print, that audience has moved on. A lot of reference materials have moved on. So, I think the future of print is really audience-by-audience and use-case-by-use-case, not this global print-not print thing. 

Certainly, as we’re seeing it’s the present and the past, not the future. Certain audiences for certain use cases are finding what they need in digital rather than print. And I think that’s great because those are great digital products. I believe it will certainly be less and less that print is the best solution for that audience in that use case.

Samir Husni: Your products are mainly distributed in supermarkets, which did not shut down during the onset of the pandemic, whereas the bookstores did. Was that a positive for your business, being distributed in the grocery stores?

Steven Kotok: Compared to, for example, magazines that have a large airport component, they really felt that because people weren’t flying. I usually fly every month or so and I haven’t flown since February. So comparatively. But we saw a lot of changes in grocery store habits as well. The days of the week that people shopped completely changed. It used to be Friday and Saturday, now it’s really Monday and Tuesday that are the big days. 

So no, we certainly didn’t hit our budget this year. And in April and May, everything saw a huge decline. It has largely come back. It definitely wasn’t a benefit the way Zoom, which we’re using now, and some of these other companies saw a benefit to their business. 

But I think it did strengthen the connection with the readers. We have a lot of health content; we are an every-week read for some people, so I think the tough times can bring you closer, just like they do in a family. But financially it wasn’t a plus, by a long shot.

Samir Husni: In general, what do you see on the horizon for magazines and magazine media? Are we going to see more titles, less titles as a whole?

Steven Kotok: For media generally, I think we are seeing a shift to more consumer revenue models, in print and digital and in streaming. I personally think that’s good. I’ve always been an advocate for the audience and the user, money talks, BS walks. If the readers are supporting the content, that’s going to make for better content. 

In the golden days of advertising you could pay to send someone halfway around the world to write one story for a beautiful magazine and I’m sad that’s gone. But I do think the shift to reader-supported, reader revenue models is definitely here to stay. 

For magazines generally, for print media, that’s going to be a benefit to some and a harm to others. Look at Condé Nast, where The New Yorker was perpetually the money-loser out of that stable. Now it’s very profitable reportedly. And it’s not surprising. They’ve mastered that consumer revenue model. 

In our world, you’re not seeing more launches of magazines, but you’re certainly seeing many more launches of these bookazines, these special interest publications that narrow cast. And those have been successful. 

So, the broad trend I think is a shift to reader-supported models, which is where media started and I think it’s a great place for media to be. It’s longer-term and there’s more stability in that even with all of these disruptions, it can really be difficult. 

Samir Husni: With the social injustices that happened during 2020, the last few months, have seen more Blacks on the covers of mainstream magazines than ever before. How do you feel Bauer handles the issue of diversity and inclusion? 

Steven Kotok: It has been an incredible few years, with both diversity and inclusion, and also the Me Too Movement getting the level of national recognition and also corporate, which is the first time that companies have embraced addressing these issues. 

With Bauer I would go back to 2018. In 2018 we did a really comprehensive reader study with focus groups, but it was also quantitative and it was along with an editorial leadership change and a redesign. And we really heard loud and clear from our African American readers that they love the magazine, and not intentionally, we wound up having some focus groups with just African American readers and they wanted more representation on the covers of the magazines and within the pages, specifically the beauty pages. And that’s something that we did in 2018.

It wasn’t difficult. It definitely was a change to something we were doing before in the beauty pages, and seeking new cover subjects. But it made us a better magazine. Again, when you follow your reader. If anything during that period, we certainly beat the market during that time. Overall, it made us a stronger magazine. 

In terms of representation and the covers you’re talking about, I wish we were a hundred years ahead or even fifty years, we’ve only been around for forty years, but we were ahead of the game on that purely by listening to what our readers wanted. 

From a corporate perspective, this summer a lot of publishers were releasing statements and we kind of debated on doing that. And we felt that we wanted to do something in that moment, but we also felt were we really walking the walk to have a statement be that meaningful? Aside from changing our content in response to what we heard from our readers. 

So we’ve engaged with a consulting firm that specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion and we’re going through a process where we’re educating ourselves, meaning the whole company, the whole team. And we’re having some listening sessions as well to hear from the team. And whatever we do, actions or statements, it may take a little longer, but that’s going to come not as a top-down, written by our very excellent communications people, but more bottom-up as a company on where we stand and what we think. 

What’s nearest and dearest to our heart is really what we put on the pages and what we do for our readers. And we’ve been responsive there. What we do as a company is in process, we had an all-company meeting facilitated by this group. In January and February we’re going to have 10-person listening/speaking sessions. So, more to come on that. But we did feel like it’s best for something so important to not release a statement and be done with it, but try to take a full company approach. 

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

Steven Kotok: With Bauer globally and in the U.S., it is an exciting time to be in the company. I’ve only been here four years and I’ve seen so much change in terms of how the company has become more progressive in its leadership style. It’s been a really fun time, even though we’ve been in uncertain times with the pandemic. 

I’ve heard from a lot of the employees, even after they leave, when they can say whatever they want, that they feel good about working at the company and I feel good about working at the company. For as hard as 2020 has been, and everyone is working harder, we are enjoying it and still find it really gratifying to do what we do. We really feel we are serving an important audience and the response we get from them is very meaningful to us. We feel very vital to the audience we serve and it’s still what drives us. 

Samir Husni: What makes you tick and click?

Steven Kotok: I still love my work, so I would say that makes me tick, and everything I said about serving the audience. To unwind, definitely playing with my son. And working from home, or Sundays it feels like sleeping in your office, but whichever it is, it’s really nice to be able to see him, even if it’s just for 10 minutes before a conference call. It’s the best substitute for what used to be a walk around the block or something, such as when I worked in Midtown. It’s really fun just to spend time with him. 

I like taking walks or hikes with my wife, we’re fortunate to live on a nature trail. And then cooking; I’ve always loved cooking. I was in the food business before I was in the media business and I don’t really do writing in my spare time, I’m not talented enough for that, but cooking in my spare time is really great. I love putting together something I’ve never made before. In better days, I would have said travel, but that seems so long ago. (Laughs)

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

Steven Kotok: At this point, I don’t think there’s as much being up at night as there was before. A lot of the things we were all scared of has happened to some extent. I probably feel as good about our business as I’ve felt since I’ve been here. We see the upside in our subscriptions; we see the market with these SIPs; and we’re number one on the newsstand. And I don’t even mention it because I’m not a big ad guy, but we’ve been number one in the women’s category for growing advertising. Woman’s World I think is the only magazine to grow advertising five years in a row. 

I really have to say there’s less that I’m scared of now than before. Twenty years ago I would have been up at night thinking about the business as it is, it’s been so difficult, what we’ve seen in the supply chain and all that. But all those things have either happened  or have taken care of themselves. Two years ago it was the supply chain that was really scary, but I feel pretty good about the retail supply chains.

So, I sleep as well I’ve slept, not because things are the best they’ve ever been, but I think we have a better sense of the kind of risks and challenges than we’ve ever had as an industry. 

Samir Husni: Thank you.

Up next Debi Chirichella, President, Hearst Magazines.

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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