BoSacks Speaks Out: On MPA-AMC Keynote by Mary Berner

By Bob Sacks on October 27, 2013

BoSacks Speaks Out: It was my intent to cover the whole MPA-AMC in one report. But it turns out that to do the conference any justice it will take several essays, as I have over ten pages of notes and those are without any personal commentary. So I will start at the beginning and as the pages fill up I will conclude on another posting.

President and CEO of the MPA Mary Berner opened with her usual verve and esprit de corps as the opening keynote speaker at the AM²C 2013 Conference.She opened with the comment that “I’m not pissed anymore at least about where we are and where we are headed as an industry.” I can’t address what Mary may or may not be angry about, but I agree that we have made great strides in adapting to the necessary changes that face our industry.  

But those strides have come in some strange ways at the cost of our older identities as print magazine peoples. I confess that either I or the industry, or maybe both, are a bit schizophrenic. By that I am referencing my comments about the AMC last week when I suggested that we open every conference with the benediction, “Print is not dead, print is not dead,” and we complete the opening prayer by declaring to anyone who will listen that 90% of our revenue is still print revenue. I went on to question why was it that almost nowhere in any industry convention that the actual technicalities and best practices in the revenue producing print product were discussed.  What about a few lessons on print efficiencies, best cover practices, how to create the best headlines, or the latest secrets of newsstand success stories?  (There are a few exceptions to this rule, but few and far between)

But I digress, let’s get back to Mary’s opening remarks. She said that she still gets aggravated by the inability of our lawmakers to fix the U.S. Postal Service as opposed to making us, and other mailers, subsidize its refusal to make the hard choices that every other business in this country has made.  “I mean, who thinks raising rates on its best customers is a remotely sane idea for a business whose revenue is already in free fall?  It’s like raising prices on shoe laces when everyone is using Velcro. How about incenting us to mail more instead of ensuring that we will mail less?”

It’s not that I disagree so much with Mary’s this statement, because who wouldn’t want more incentives for us to mail more product instead of ensuring that we will mail less? But I believe that to be an unachievable dream. Run by Congress our postal system is a mess and will continue to be one until the next American Revolution. I have no faith that it will ever be run like a legitimate business, because it isn’t playing by the rules of any known successful business. Having a board of directors with 100 voting members (Senators) is the closest thing to business insanity I have ever heard of. So at the end of the day, our business will have to pay more to deliver our printed products, plain and simple. There may be political delays but the inevitable conclusion is just that, prices will go up and up, as does everything else. 

Mary continued with comments about our industry image saying, “But, you were all, well, pissed off too, angry that we had let others hijack our story with a narrative that wasn’t reflective of what was really going on. A narrative that was dismissive of print magazines, that was driven through the lens of a couple of traditional measurements that told only part of the story, a narrative that was lumping us in with newspapers, which as we all know are very different animals.  We had let others co-opt our story, so the story about magazines had become one of doom and gloom, demise and, yes, even death.”  

I find it sort of odd that these narratives that Mary was speaking of, were published and distributed in our own tomes. Which of course means, from Mary’s analysis, that we are our own worst critics. And that we had let others (us) hijack our own story with a narrative that wasn’t reflective of what was really going on with us.

Well, I guess you could say that the reports of our death were greatly exaggerated, much like most of the inane weather reports when something larger than a rainstorm is on the horizon.  The press indeed does like to exaggerate as we believe it sells well on the newsstand. I think a case can be made that every cover of every magazine and newspaper contains an intentional expansion of facts and a come-on that isn’t. And, yes, reports of our death probably did sell a few more issues of whatever publication printed it.  We are what we eat.   

 Mary went on to discuss “a story of transition and opportunity, experimentation, learning and expansion – of complexity and challenge.  A story of unique and enduring brands fueled by our expansion onto digital platforms, a story of GROWING consumer audiences (up 2.6% YOY), growing engagement, and ever deepening relationships. “Later she said, “If I had to write a headline for magazine media’s 2013 story it would be “Industry Pivots.”  OK , I really, really hate business jargon , so much so that we have a sign in the office that says we are a “jargon-free zone.” But for better or worse, the word pivot nails it. “Industry Pivots from Magazines to Magazine Media.”

Here again I agree and disagree. I think that for the large publishers in the room this is an accurate statement and Mary gets it right; the “big” guys have pivoted. They are deeply involved in digital platforms and digital expansion. (Hearst has 1.3 digital subscribers paying full price at $19.95 per sub.) And let’s be honest, the MPA members are the big guys and represent – actually I have no idea and perhaps I should, but I will guess they represent around 250 titles. That would be 250 out of 7,390 by Mary’s count in her opening remarks. I make this statement not to draw any conclusion other than to suggest that the pivot isn’t a universal reality.

There are thousands of magazines doing as they always have, making a living with their constituent and passionate readers to the best of their ability. And perhaps that is an important thing to acknowledge. Our readers used to be just that, readers. There was in the recent past only one way to read a magazine or a newspaper and that was on paper. It was the universally accepted system of information distribution practiced by everyone. Now our once single pathway to readership is fragmented and no two groups of readers adapt to technology at the same speeds and thus our entire magazine universe has had to adapt as the readers do, on a totally different timetable. It makes sense to me that the readers of PC Magazine will have joined the digital universe years before the readers of Better Homes and Gardens.

Mary went on to discuss the topic this way. “Whereas ‘magazine’ traditionally has referred to print, ‘magazine media’ reflects the totality of the magazine brand consumer experience and advertiser opportunity – the evolution of the industry from print magazines to influential media BRANDS.” Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco points out that calling us “mere magazine” companies feels reductive.  In their A-list package they call us multi-media megabrands. More than that, he goes on to say, “They're ,  holy shit!  actual growth companies.

(As opposed to hope-and-pray.-forprofits-one-day growth companies, which are a nickel a dozen in the VC-enabled digital realm.”) (See Bo’s rant about this – click here)

Mary concluded her Keynote saying, "So, although we still have to contend with inaccurate proclamations and, yes, occasionally misleading or simply wrong headlines, a more accurate narrative has started to emerge reflecting the fact that while consumers continue to love the unique experience of reading a print magazine, many are engaging with our brands on the platform of their choice." And here I agree completely. It is our job to place our valuable edit anywhere and everywhere that the reader is willing to pay for it. It’s not so much an if-you-build-it-they-will-come, but rather if you build it well, they will eventually arrive on the reading platform of their choice.

FYI - I am on road this entire week, first in New York City at the  FOLIO: MediaNext Conference and then at an industry think tank meeting organized by the Sappi Paper Company and hosted this month in Parsippany, New Jersey at the Sun Chemical Corp. (ink)  Therefore it will be hard, but not impossible, to complete my report on the rest of the AMC-MPA conference in just a day or two, as there is much to say and report on.

By Bob Sacks| October 27, 2013

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