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Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlight’s For Children, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “I Am So Bullish About The Future Of Print For Kids.” The Mr. Magazine™ End Of Year Interview…

December 22, 2020

“I think the adult magazine world should look at the fact that we need to think about the audience, do create great digital experiences, but also provide excellent experiences in print. Print advertising? That’s been the problem. But a print experience for a human, that’s still a strong experience. I think we need to focus on the relevance of the content and the experience we create with our print magazines, our print media. And the future I think looks bright.” Kent Johnson…

“We can all look at our social media feeds and think of it as digital candy, but when you want a meaningful experience, an immersive experience, sometimes you want to get off the screen and engage with the print magazine. And we think that’s really healthy for kids, to engage with print in a focused way as an alternative and not in place of digital, it shouldn’t be an argument of print or digital, it’s what are the experiences that human wants at that time. And how do they have a diversity of positive experiences.” Kent Johnson…

Bloom in the Midst of Gloom and Doom … Magazine Media 2021  Part 6: Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlight’s for Children.

Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlight’s for Children.

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…

Highlight’s for Children was founded in 1946 by Garry Cleveland Myers, Ph.D., and Caroline Clark Myers, who just happen to be the current CEO Kent Johnson’s great-grandparents. And even though Kent is a direct descendant of the company’s founders, he initially had no aspirations to work in the family business. But as fate would have it, he officially joined the company in 2005 and continues to be inspired by the mission to help children become their best selves – curious, creative, caring and confident – and motivated by the challenge of carrying that philosophy into new markets around the world.

In 2020, Kent’s mission hasn’t changed, but his modus operandi had to with a pandemic changing the course of his company’s history. Learning a “new normal” has been a challenge but one Highlight’s has handled with aplomb and inspiration. I spoke with Kent recently and we talked about the company business during the daunting year of 2020. The supreme optimism Kent spoke with about all aspects of his business, from print to digital to the educational materials, was energizing and wonderful. While 2020 was a difficult time for all of us, Kent and Highlight’s display a motivational and aspirational way of handling it.

So, please enjoy the sixth installment of the Mr. Magazine™ end of the year (2020) interviews with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlight’s for Children.

But first the sound-bites:

On the biggest challenge that Highlights for Children faced in 2020 and how the company overcame it: The word unprecedented has become overused when talking about 2020. Our biggest challenge, and I think it’s still my biggest focus, is the impact of 2020 on our people. As we moved to remote work, it was worrying about the social, emotional health and well-being, as well as the physical safety of our teams. And trying to stay connected and keeping people engaged. Working together, I think was the most important thing and the biggest challenge, our biggest focus. And I think that’s going to be ongoing into 2021.

On the roadmap for Highlight’s into 2021: For me what 2020 did and what we have to do for our roadmap forward is in a lot of ways it accelerated things; it accelerated the shift to ecommerce; it accelerated how we do things at work through video chats, through working remotely. And so what we talk about is not about getting back to normal, but how do we take the best of what we’ve had to learn during this very difficult year and apply it so that we can come out ahead and use it to our strategic advantage going forward.

On the future of print in this digital age: I am so bullish about the future of print for kids. We spend time in our magazine industry or in education thinking that print is going away, but I think the lessons of 2020 for me are that print is not going away, particularly for kids. What we see is, we in our jobs and kids learning remotely or being at home, we have so many great digital experiences, but there’s a human need for balance. There’s a human need for the tactile, physical experience of print. So, I’ve not been more bullish on print as a technology that’s great for kids in literacy development, in puzzling and engagement.

On whether he has seen an increase in Highlight’s subscriptions: Our subscription business is up as well. What’s interesting about our subscription business being up is that people who are buying those subscriptions through digital means have exploded. But grandparents who are responding to direct mail is also way up. So, there’s a diversity of people who I think are looking for something that is engaging and is a quality use of their time.

On his thoughts on the future of magazines and magazine media: I’m a big let’s-measure-what-happens-in-the-world-and-respond-to-it, as opposed to “let’s predict.” I think that magazine media, magazine titles, companies and verticals that really understand and focus on the consumer’s needs in their audience, for me I think the future there is bright.

On some of the things Highlight’s is doing to implement more diversity and inclusion into the company: Highlight’s serves kids and we create the products, the content that kids are consuming pretty young in their lives, we’re proud of our heritage of inclusion and the diversity that we’ve depicted in our magazines, but absolutely this year has caused us to double-down, reexamine, look at our structures, look at our approach, look at how we’re building content to be as inclusive as possible. So, we’re working on continuing to try to always be open and as we talked about, always evolving to make sure our magazines are as inclusive as possible. 

On anything he’d like to add: I’ve really learned during this pandemic, as a leader of an organization, I’ve realized how much more important it is for me to focus on how our people are doing than it is for me to focus on how they’re doing the work. The power of engagement, community, belonging, social and emotional well-being in an organization, that power will never cease to amaze me. And that’s what has gotten us through.

On what makes him tick and click: One of my focuses through this pandemic has been trying to focus on the idea of making sure I have enough gas in the tank. I think it’s emotionally and physically taxing to live under the stress of the pandemic, the stress of what’s going on, the divisiveness in our society and the concerns we all have for our teams and our business in this environment.

On how he unwinds after a busy day: Obviously, our house with two kids at home; I’m sure our Netflix bandwidth is pretty large. (Laughs) I try to watch some videos that allow you to escape. I’ve also increased my amount of reading. When we’re on the screen so much we need some way to unwind. I certainly like meditation apps, but I’ve been reading more nonfiction, more history.

On what keeps him up at night: It’s always people. I think our people are really stressed. I keep telling my team to take 10 days off this holiday. What keeps me up? I’m a little tired; I’m pretty engaged with work and life, but I’m nervous about the toll this is having on society.

And now for the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlight’s for Children.

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 Highlights for Children has had to face this year and how did you overcome it?

Kent Johnson: The word unprecedented has become overused when talking about 2020. Our biggest challenge, and I think it’s still my biggest focus, is the impact of 2020 on our people. As we moved to remote work, it was worrying about the social, emotional health and well-being, as well as the physical safety of our teams. And trying to stay connected and keeping people engaged. Working together, I think was the most important thing and the biggest challenge, our biggest focus. And I think that’s going to be ongoing into 2021.

But I think by trusting our people and empowering our people, we’ve been able to get through a lot of the business challenges reasonably well. But with so much uncertainty it’s difficult to keep everyone aligned and energized. It’s very taxing to go through a year like this.

Samir Husni: What’s the roadmap for Highlight’s as you move toward 2021?

Kent Johnson: It’s interesting because while Highlight’s is a magazine business, we’re also a diversified educational publishing company, so in addition to magazines, we do subscription clubs and retail products that can be about puzzling and learning.

So, one of the interesting things that happened this year was that parents had to immediately become teachers at home and we stopped going to restaurants and we stopped traveling, and there became an increased focus on how do you create a quality experience at home? And for some of our business lines that actually helped us. We felt like we were able to come to the aid of parents, who like us, now had kids at home. So we started making free digital content for kids to try and give them things to do at home. 

But for me what 2020 did and what we have to do for our roadmap forward is in a lot of ways it accelerated things; it accelerated the shift to ecommerce; it accelerated how we do things at work through video chats, through working remotely. And so what we talk about is not about getting back to normal, but how do we take the best of what we’ve had to learn during this very difficult year and apply it so that we can come out ahead and use it to our strategic advantage going forward. 

So, the things we’ve learned about increasing employee engagement; how can we continue to focus on engagement in 2021? Being more relevant to our audience; providing solutions that really matter to parents in the home. Being consumer-focused and becoming more consumer-focused is 100 percent on our roadmap. We’ve also learned a fair bit about digital marketing, whether it’s through the platforms of Amazon or through social media or ecommerce and search. So continuing to refine those lessons and continuing to accelerate the digital communication we use to reach, particularly millennial parents, to purchase our products. 

We’re excited about the brand and we’re excited about being focused on being relevant to our audience with the services that we’re going to add in 2021. 

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

Kent Johnson: I am so bullish about the future of print for kids. We spend time in our magazine industry or in education thinking that print is going away, but I think the lessons of 2020 for me are that print is not going away, particularly for kids. What we see is, we in our jobs and kids learning remotely or being at home, we have so many great digital experiences, but there’s a human need for balance. There’s a human need for the tactile, physical experience of print. So, I’ve not been more bullish on print as a technology that’s great for kids in literacy development, in puzzling and engagement. 

And I think the adult magazine world should look at the fact that we need to think about the audience, do create great digital experiences, but also provide excellent experiences in print. Print advertising? That’s been the problem. But a print experience for a human, that’s still a strong experience. I think we need to focus on the relevance of the content and the experience we create with our print magazines, our print media. And the future I think looks bright.

Samir Husni: Have you seen any increase in your subscriptions at Highlight’s?

Kent Johnson: Our subscription business is up as well. What’s interesting about our subscription business being up is that people who are buying those subscriptions through digital means have exploded. But grandparents who are responding to direct mail is also way up. So, there’s a diversity of people who I think are looking for something that is engaging and is a quality use of their time. 

We can all look at our social media feeds and think of it as digital candy, but when you want a meaningful experience, an immersive experience, sometimes you want to get off the screen and engage with the print magazine. And we think that’s really healthy for kids, to engage with print in a focused way as an alternative and not in place of digital, it shouldn’t be an argument of print or digital, it’s what are the experiences that human wants at that time. And how do they have a diversity of positive experiences. 

Samir Husni: What’s your thoughts on the future of magazines and magazine media as the industry moves forward into the future?

Kent Johnson: I’m a big let’s-measure-what-happens-in-the-world-and-respond-to-it, as opposed to “let’s predict.” I think that magazine media, magazine titles, companies and verticals that really understand and focus on the consumer’s needs in their audience, for me I think the future there is bright. 

The key is to make sure that the magazine is responsive and relevant to the needs of the audience. A magazine is a cool thing compared to a book. You publish a book and it’s done. A magazine is always organically evolving and is interactive, you have dialogue with your readers, dialogue with your audience. So, you’re always growing and evolving with your audience.

If that’s a focus of the magazine industry, those titles that really stay relevant, evolve, and serve their audience both through the magazine and through the other ancillary experiences, such as products, the ways they interact with their digital, physical, with the things they build around the magazine and build around the audience’s needs, I think the future is great. 

Next year is Highlight’s 75th anniversary. And we’re working on a book called “Dear Highlight’s – What Adults Can Learn From Listening To Children.” And it has samples of the letters we’ve gotten and our responses to kids over the last 75 years. And I think it’s an example of relevance here, if you’re in a dialogue with your readers, you stay in touch and you always evolve to grow with your readers. 

And I think for magazine companies that stay focused on their audience and on their readers, I think the future is bright. 

Samir Husni: Beside COVID, 2020 was a year filled with upheaval. Whether it was social injustices and Black Lives Matter, diversity, equality, or inclusion. And at last count in the past several months there have been over 318 magazines that have had Black subjects on the cover, which is more than there has been in the last 60 years. What are some of the things that you’re doing now to ensure that social responsibility, inclusion, diversity and equality are taking place at Highlight’s?

Kent Johnson: Our employees, our teams, experienced the same thing that everyone across the country experienced and it was an emotional process, an emotional reaction. There are two strands that we’re focused on. 

One is because Highlight’s serves kids and we create the products, the content that kids are consuming pretty young in their lives, we’re proud of our heritage of inclusion and the diversity that we’ve depicted in our magazines, but absolutely this year has caused us to double-down, reexamine, look at our structures, look at our approach, look at how we’re building content to be as inclusive as possible. 

To try to set that as kids experience content, that they see the world they really live in, which extends beyond race and ethnicity, it extends to disabilities, it extends to family structures. Do you have two parents; two parents of the same gender, just trying to show kids that people live in all different ways. Have children see themselves in the product and see the diversity that makes our society great. 

So, we’re working on continuing to try to always be open and as we talked about, always evolving to make sure our magazines are as inclusive as possible. 

The other reaction that we’ve had as a company is that we see clear and systematic problems in our society that people have long been aware of. One of our reactions was we need to look at our own house. So, taking steps to look at our employment policies; look at our diversity, equity and inclusion training internally. We’ve engaged external consultants to help build programs internally. We’ve created a diversity, equity and inclusion council to look at strands in our marketing, in our human talent practices, in our employee engagement practices. 

We’ve done surveys and really looked at how can we be better, because our feelings are, if we’re responsible for creating products that affect our society, we better look internally and make sure our company internally reflects well the society that we live in. And then we’re doing it in a way that creates the sense of belonging for everyone at our company.

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

Kent Johnson: I’ve really learned during this pandemic, as a leader of an organization, I’ve realized how much more important it is for me to focus on how our people are doing than it is for me to focus on how they’re doing the work. The power of engagement, community, belonging, social and emotional well-being in an organization, that power will never cease to amaze me. And that’s what has gotten us through.

Samir Husni: What makes you tick and click?

Kent Johnson: One of my focuses through this pandemic has been trying to focus on the idea of making sure I have enough gas in the tank. I think it’s emotionally and physically taxing to live under the stress of the pandemic, the stress of what’s going on, the divisiveness in our society and the concerns we all have for our teams and our business in this environment. 

To be honest, I’m focusing more than usual on going to bed early; on making sure I get my exercise. And I know that sounds pretty basic, but I  think when we’re involved in an organization where we want to take care of each other, it’s important that we’re also taking care of ourselves and making sure that we have the energy and the emotional capacity to lean into those things that matter, our family, our work family and our extended family that we’re not seeing.

So for me, it’s been about just trying to stay engaged and trying to do those basic things right. So, I go to bed about an hour earlier than I do in non-pandemic times. 

Samir Husni: How do you unwind after a busy day?

Kent Johnson: Obviously, our house with two kids at home; I’m sure our Netflix bandwidth is pretty large. (Laughs) I try to watch some videos that allow you to escape. I’ve also increased my amount of reading. When we’re on the screen so much we need some way to unwind. I certainly like meditation apps, but I’ve been reading more nonfiction, more history. Just taking that time that can be a little bit disconnected from this time, from media, from politics – let’s go back to the 1800s; let’s go back to an earlier time and continue learning. 

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

Kent Johnson: It’s always people. I think our people are really stressed. I keep telling my team to take 10 days off this holiday. What keeps me up? I’m a little tired; I’m pretty engaged with work and life, but I’m nervous about the toll this is having on society. 

Going back to virtual learning, the data we’re seeing across the country on what’s happening to kids in schools who are learning virtually or are not participating virtually, the disruption to schoolkids, which I think sometimes people focus on the math and reading, I’m not that worried about the math and reading, what I’m worried about is the social/emotional impact and how are we going to help kids recover and respond to the trauma they’re experiencing and get back into the learning track. That’s probably what I’m most worried about. And I do lose sleep.

If the world were right, our country would have to make a significant investment in helping kids recover from this experience and I’m worried we don’t have the will or the resources to do what we’re going to need to do for kids over the next five years. As we fight, we’re not talking about how much we’re going to have to invest in kids who have had a pretty hard go with this pandemic. 

Samir Husni: Thank you. 

Up next: David Parry, CEO, A360 Media

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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