Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: Jim Bilton, Media Futures and The Wessenden Briefing

By, Linda Ruth

On Wednesday, almost a full year after the onset of our pandemic, nine months from the first Pandemic Roundtable, hosted by Joe Berger and attended by Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me, we met again to review the state of our industry. Our special guest was Jim Bilton, the publisher of the annual mediafutures market analysis and the wessendenbriefing, the 7x newsletter covering print and digital trends and analysis.

While the scope of his business is international, we were particularly interested in hearing about trends in the UK, where his business is based, and how they relate to trends in the US and the rest of the world. Our conversation took us to the continuing strength of print, the re-dedication to print on the part of key retailers, and the excitement that our audience still finds in the world of print.

Jim: I was interested in reading in a past Roundtable about the direction Barnes and Noble is taking. That is such a huge part of your market; we have nothing like that in the UK. WH Smith was formerly number one in the UK, but they expanded into travel, which seemed a good move at the time, that has backfired; now magazines aren’t their main thing, stationery is. Tesco, a supermarket chain, leapfrogged over WH Smith.  Barnes and Noble is interesting because of its connection, through James Daunt, to Waterstones. But the size of the store format couldn’t work in the UK, where the rents are so high; we don’t have the big out of town malls to the same extent as in the USA. The interesting aspect, to me, is what Krifka said about focusing back on bricks and mortar, on print, and moving away from a strong digital focus.


Jim Bilton of Media Futures

Joe: We’re interested in getting your perspective on the effects of the pandemic on UK publishing, and where you expect it to take us from here.

Jim: During lockdown magazines did worse than newspapers. Sales dropped by 30% YoY, although they came back, and overall are now down about 17%. The travel sector fared much worse, of course, going into virtual hibernation initially and are still now about 80% down.  Here many UK publishers overreacted and slashed draws more than they needed to. Supermarkets held up; and independents have a bigger share than ever before. And there’s a background issue about the health of print—in terms of physical health; copies have been taken out of waiting rooms and shops because of health concerns and people have been made to feel uncomfortable about browsing at the magazine racks. This obviously hits impulse sales and discovery at retail.


Samir
: In the US, we’ve seen a big increase in people of color on magazines; are you seeing the same trend in the UK, and is it helping or hurting sales?

Jim: Yes, we are seeing the same trend, but the impact on sales is difficult to size given everything else going on in the marketplace. One launch I can point to is Cocoa Girl magazine, celebrating Black girls. We’re generally seeing lots of small launches, specialty launches, and a bit of a trend from digital to print.

Bo: Last time I was in the UK most publications had cover mounts(Polybagged magazines with attached products of one sort or anohter) ; is that still a trend?

Jim: Yes, though not quite as much as before. There’s a big sustainability issue, and issues having to do with returns. Publishers are learning to move premiums closer to content, so they relate more directly to the content of the magazine. The same has been true of events—although of course that’s less of an issue now. But we haven’t realized how exciting our world is to our readers. Everyone’s got a wine club; but audiences want the unique content a publisher has to offer. Another trend we’re seeing is publishers varying cover price depending on content and pagination.

Sherin: Varying price issue to issue is something you really couldn’t do here.

Sherin Piece, Publisher Old Farmer’s Almanac

Jim: Yes, retail hates it, it causes problems.

Joe: Have your retailers adopted Scan Based Trading?

Jim: We’re getting it in progressively through the back door—WHS and Sainsbury have a soft version, supermarkets are getting ready for it, although each has a slightly different version. The pandemic has had the effect of creating more demand for it from retailers, who are asking for it to mitigate the demands made on their in-store personnel.  

There has always been resistance from publishers, who demanded much lower shrink levels before it would be considered. Yet the industry, led by Future Publishing, has decided to take the lead – they see it as inevitable and choose to manage it up front, to take the initiative rather than being forced to do it. Now other publishers are coming along. Wholesalers say this will be margin neutral—that retailers will concede margin but make cost-saving gains. In the US the situation got out of control, everything went the wrong way all at once. By contrast, in the UK the negotiations are tough, if the retailer wants SBT they have to give something.

Joe: In the US some publishers have seen an uptick in subscriptions with the pandemic. Have you seen that in the UK?

Jim: Subs are booming—mostly print subs. With publishers worried about their future at retail, many made the mistake of going crazy with front end acquisition. Now Hearst UK, for example, has been firming up sub prices. They, like lots of publishers, were doing short-term low-margin offers to build their files. They were overwhelmed by the response and are trying to back off on that. There were a lot of people in the funnel already, and all the cut-priced subs have done has been to shovel them in more quickly, and less profitably.

Joe: What percentage would you say subscriptions have increased?

Jim: Acquisition activity increased massively, but much of this was based on short-term, big-discount offers, which are now converting at quite low rates. When all this churn is taken into account, my sense is that total subs file sizes will end up being flat year-on-year in 2020. But that’s a big improvement on the 8% year-on-year drop seen in 2019.

Bo: What trends are you seeing digitally?

Jim: Financial people like digital editions; readers don’t so much. Newspapers are going into a digital black hole in terms of revenues apart from a handful of high profile brands like the New York Times or the UK Times and Telegraph. But what digital means to magazine publishers is very different from what it means to newspapers. Magazine publishers are still wedded to the issue rather than website accessed article level streams, which is the core of the newspaper digital offer.

Samir: It requires constant upkeep to maintain a digital file, a digital list. Publishers constantly collect and re-collect names, contact information. Has anyone found a way of making money?

Joe: For example, one of my publishers had 20,000 subscribers spread across the platforms; without constant upkeep, attrition can be rapid, and they’re down to a fraction of that now.

Sherin: Our only monthly publications, the OFA Extra, is digital. We send them a notice when an issue drops, and only revisit them for renewal annually. We keep it as simple as possible. People start with so many barriers, but you have to simplify that.

Gemma: We make our digital version free to print subscribers.

Gemma Peckham, Editor Rova Magazine & Oh, Reader Magazine

Jim: That’s why most legacy publishers are holding on to print. Hearst Premium—making best out a bad situation—has lower frequency, higher pagination, and a higher cover price at its core. Digital is still a thin medium that consumers aren’t prepared to pay a full amount for. To make this difficult field profitable, we might look to e-commerce. How high can print cover prices go?

Bo: Much higher than you might think.

Gemma: Magazines are still really underpriced.

Bo: We have to continually make the transformation from a perceived commodity product to a necessary luxury product worth paying for.

Jim: In the UK, everybody is putting their prices up.

Linda: What do you see as the effect of Brexit on exports.

Jim: A lot of UK publishers are going digital-only for export sales rather than shipping print across borders. And anyway, our really big export markets are the USA and Australia, not so much Europe. The Brexit issue more has to do with cover mounts and where your paper comes from, where you’re printed, what borders are crossed on the way to creating the final finished product. For example, a garden title with cover-mounted seeds had problems getting across borders. And it varies from country to country. In France and Germany, the supply chain is tightly regulated. But as we go into Brexit, everyone has their Plan B and Plan C. 

In the UK, every link in the chain is under pressure. Publishers are feeding less product into the market. Retailers are cutting ranges and the space allocated to newspapers and magazines. Yet the recent focus has been more on wholesale. We only have two mainstream wholesalers now – Smiths and Menzies – with Smiths recovering from a disastrous diversification programme which caused them some serious financial issues. In response, some of the newspaper publishers had been looking at a newspaper-only distribution network – although this has gone quiet now. If we ever went down that route, then magazines would lose many of their current advantages – five- or six-day a week magazine deliveries, sales-based replenishment and national on-sale dates.

Samir: Vogue sold out its Harry Stiles issue in Barnes and Noble. They had to replenish.

Jim: Print still has immense power in the magazine business. Look at Amazon. Around their major markets, they offer print and digital, single copy and subscription. They understand that magazine consumers want print as well as digital. Print is still the “gold standard” and is still part of the “magazine experience”. At least for the foreseeable future. Yet there is no single, simple business model that works across every market. It’s all about understanding your own audience and delivering what they want. Not what you think they want.

Dancing at the Apocalypse Bonfire

Every now and then Baird Davis, a retired Ziff-Davis Publishing circulation VP will pen an article that shows up in an industry trade journal like Folio, Publishing Executive or the BoSacks newsletter. He reviews the latest AAM (formerly ABC Audit of Circulation) statistics and offer some analysis. It may not be his intention, but Baird’s articles always felt like a slap upside the head to me and many of us magazine professionals. “Wake up, already” his op-eds  seem to say.

Years ago in what now feels like another reality timeline I was a consultant to Ziff-Davis and Baird was a level or two above my report. Sometimes he would come visit one of the magazine wholesalers I was calling on and it always felt like I was reporting in to my very stern (but fair) uncle. You know; the one you always double checked to make sure your pants were creased properly, that you were sitting up straight and your tie was tied properly.

This morning in a post titled “Saving Printed Consumer Magazines in the Social Media Era: It’s Significance and Challenges” Baird deals us magazine professionals a healthy dose of reality. Like truly sobering reality.

Yeah, It’s Not Like We Didn’t Already Know, But…

It’s not as though he isn’t pointing out things we already knew. But I think that these days, those of us who have some “history” in the business are just too darn busy to acknowledge what he’s pointing out. These days, we just “carry on:”

  • The number of major publishers has shrunk
  • The number of next tier publishers with influence in the business is now nearly nil
  • There were too many overpriced and overextended acquisitions in previous decades
  • Layoffs have decreased institutional knowledge
  •  Much subscription circulation is cheaply and poorly acquired
  • The newsstand business was allowed to consolidate, wither and decline

Go and read the article. Then come on back and let’s discuss. I have a few additional thoughts we can discuss.

It’s a procrastinators joke that we will always put off until the day after what we could have done tomorrow. So I would like to imagine that some magazine professionals  hesitated when companies like Ziff-Davis and Petersen were purchased in the 1990’s for $1.4 and $1.2 billion. Davis points this out, and I will highlight it. I had already witnessed up close the impact of highly leveraged purchases when a company I worked for, Family Media, collapsed in the go-go 1990’s. And yet, I remember feeling exhilarated when I heard the price Softbank paid for my then biggest client, Ziff-Davis.

I imagine, that there were circulation professionals who wondered if it was smart to load up their files with so much “verified” and “non-paid audited bulk” circulation. And yet, if that worked and the guys in the corner offices were happy…

I know of one or two newsstand professionals who murmured “This ain’t  good” into their coffee cups when the number of major magazine wholesalers collapsed from four to three to two to one. Do you think there were a few editors who wondered how they were going to review articles, get re-tweets and Facebook likes and come up with a new editorial calendar? And do their jobs with integrity?

Who’s minding the store now in consolidated America? Where can you get “lean back” immersive news (or entertainment) that is not dependent on either advertising, a stock price or the financial backing of some leveraged private equity firm? If you live outside a major city, can you even get news about what your local county board is up to?

Pro tip answer to that last question: “Most likely, no.”

Come On Down to The Apocalypse Bonfire

As a magazine professional, I have to say that it feels like I’m at the edge of some apocalyptic bonfire. The drums are hot, heavy, and completely out of synch. There’s dancing, but no one knows the steps. There is rote and tradition, but no one understands it. No one wants to follow along. A few people are having a fine time. But most are uncomfortable and waiting for that singular “Lord of the Flies” moment. It’s coming. Soon, maybe?

image
This looks fun! Source: Wikipedia

What’s Next?

Baird offers “Suggested Next Steps” and as I often do, I find myself nodding my head in agreement. But it feels like he is offering us a West Wing moment. You know, in the West Wing television show, the music swells, President Bartlet comes out from behind the Resolute Desk, says something inspiring and we all feel a bit chagrined that he had to point out to us how to behave properly.

martin-sheen-the-west-wing-ftr
You know you want to go and do the right thing, right? Source: Parade Magazine

Baird suggests that we try and put together a committee to help the industry navigate the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 era. The goal would be to try and hold the two major players, Hearst and Meredith accountable. Good idea. But I highly doubt that these two companies having survived and thrived to this moment (Either because they long range planned themselves to this moment or arrived here through luck and the foolishness of their competitors) would put up with that.

The magazine industry does need organizations that would speak for us and remind us to do the right thing. But at the moment, we’re all down at the beach, dancing at the apocalypse bonfire. If you’re still sober, you’re wondering what will happen next.

Billy Bush and Donald Trump Went For A Bus Ride – Fourteen Months Later…

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-2-09-44-pm
Source: Access Hollywood, The Washington Post

When I first heard about the rather vile tape of Donald Trump engaged in “locker room talk” with former Access Hollywood and suspended Today Show host Billy Bush, my thought was that Bush had experienced what I and many other people I know have experienced in their career: We were stuck in an awkward space with someone who has a lot of power over us and our careers. And we sat there and maybe nodded and laughed along while that person talked or behaved in a thoroughly unacceptable manner.

Billy Bush confirmed that in the past week when he wrote a op-ed for the New York Times that challenged the president’s rather odd assertion that it was not his voice on the tape.

The initial blow out from this tape, as you know, is that Billy Bush lost his job and a big piece of his reputation. Donald Trump went on to become our president and the commander-in-chief of our armed forces.

Let’s leave aside all of the politics for the moment.

And let’s stipulate that men should not sexually harass women and that there are no excuses whatsoever for sexual harassment of any sort. Yes, that’s obvious but I’ve noticed that some of my male counterparts are slow on the uptake and need a lot of educating.

Men harass women because they can. We men have privilege in our society.  It is unfortunately not all that uncommon for the fortunate and powerful to take advantage of the less fortunate and less powerful.

Beyond sexual harassment there is the harassment that I described in the opening paragraph of this piece: The taking advantage of another person because you hold power over them. That’s what I wish to address. That is something that I can speak to. It’s what has made me spend some time thinking about what is happening right now with the #MeToo movement and why I think it is a good thing.

Maybe you’ve been in this situation? You’re sitting across the desk from an important  buyer or potential client. You know this person well enough. Things seem to be going swimmingly. Then out of the blue the person tells a horrible joke, makes a sexist or racist comment. What do you do? You need to close this deal, right? What are you going to do?

Perhaps you’re at a trade show with a client. This client represents 25% of your business.    The representatives of a black owned business walk into the show hall. You’re client stares in their direction. And then proceeds to let out a stream of racist invective that stuns you. It rocks you back on your heels.  You never knew this person thought that way and you’ve known them for a long time. What do you do? Can you afford to offend this person and lose 25% of your business in one week? What they just said is horrible! Do you keep silent?

Let’s say you’re new to your trade. You’re traveling far from your home base and out for drinks late one night with some other traveling colleagues and the manager of the company that you’re calling on. The night breaks up and all of the other colleagues decline to drive the over-indulged manager to his home. They laugh when you politely volunteer to drive him. “Watch out” one of your “friends” calls out as you help him into the rental car. Later, in front of his house, his hands wind up all over you and you have to brush him off and kick him out of the car.

The next day you don’t make a sale. Your appointments are canceled. For the next year your calls go unanswered.

Maybe you’re out to dinner with some business associates and the discussion turns to a young CSR at a company you all do business with. The conversation turns to her attractiveness, how much they’d like to have sex with her, and then, of course, to her apparent “bitchiness” because she has turned some them down. You chime in that you actually like her and get along well with her and why would you proposition her? That’s wrong, she has a long time boyfriend – so what is their problem? The table turns cold. You’re not included in the rest of the conversation or any of the meetings the next day.

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The scenarios I just played out for you are real enough. They are the stories of people who are more powerful than the other person they are engaging with. Or as the case was with the trade show, presuming that their financial leverage over their business partner meant that they would either agree with their opinions, or keep their mouth shut. In the final story we see a typical example of the pack mentality.

None of these happened in Hollywood, Washington, DC, or in the vaunted halls of high-end publishers or the Fortune 500. The people who precipitated these events were not high-flying wealthy men. They were every day kind of guys. People who live next door or down the street or work one floor over.

When Sarah Silverman asked the question, “Can you love someone who did bad things?”” I understand. How do you keep liking someone who you know has reprehensible views? Has tried to force their will on someone else? In today’s do-it-yourself gig economy of the 21st century, you may have to work for that person. Do you take their money? Do you keep silent?

silverman2_slide-a8d89bf18814c7765292d024fb7f1da7ac95b43e-s700-c85
Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you work for them?

What if someone you work for gaslights, harasses, overworks, mistreats and ultimately fires a business associate? And you get promoted into their position? Do you take the job? Do you walk out in solidarity? How much do you owe on your mortgage? School loans? Does your kid need insurance?

There are no simple and easy answers to these questions. I dare myself to walk in others shoes. I dare you to walk in mine.

I started this post right after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. I never finished it in part because of the “heat” of the presidential race but also because I just didn’t know what I wanted to say. I am not sure that I do even now. But I feel like talking about it.

I wish the world were a better place. I wish we could be kinder to each other. I wish people in positions of power and authority, especially people in “business” would spend more time mentoring, teaching, elevating and less time preening, shouting, demanding and failing to understand or acknowledge the humanity of those who cross their paths. I find it sad that they can’t even understand their own humanity.

Author and journalist Daniel Pink wrote:

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

He is right. We need more empathy – in the work place, and in our every day lives.

 

The Five Most Egregious Magazine Covers of 2016 (S0 Far)

There are now so many ways for a magazine to brand itself. There is, of course, the print edition. Even for the most digitally savvy publication, everything usually starts there. But there’s also the web edition, the mobile edition, the digital replica. Then there are the social media feeds, events, videos and newsletters. So which comes first?

I don’t think I know anymore. But one thing that has not changed is the magazine cover. Think of it as the front door to a magazine brand. Sure, it means very little for the reader who drops into the website (In fact, on many magazine websites, you have to work hard to even find a mention of the magazine). Subscribers, be they print or digital, have already ponied up money for the magazine so they’re going to get that issue no matter what.

So why, even in this day and age, is the cover so important?

Because it is the front door of the magazine. It says to potential readers who you are, what you are about. What’s in between the covers.  Most importantly, if your reader picked up the magazine at the newsstand, they paid full cover for that one issue.

Sure, you could have subscribed to Entertainment Weekly  for one year for $5.00. But if you went to the newsstand and picked up the June 17 issue with the TV show Mr. Robot on the cover you paid full price, $4.99, for that one issue. So that means you must have really liked Mr. Robot and Entertainment Weekly. Right?

As far as I am concerned, there is little more unsettling in the world of cover design when a well known magazine blows a flat note and puts out an unattractive cover. What were you thinking? Why did you do that? Sometimes it’s groupthink. Sometimes it’s an experiment that just went wrong. Sometimes it’s just that there was nothing else to work with.

Last year, the Foredeck introduced the “Most Egregious Cover of The Year” of the year. The response from readers was pretty interesting. Now that we’re halfway through this year I thought I’d share with you what I think (You’re entitled to your own opinion of course) are the covers that that have made me wrinkle up my nose and wonder what went wrong.

For your consideration:

5. Outside Magazine, May 2016

The only real issue here is the simple fact that you have to stop and squint to read part of the cover line. What they were trying to tie together was the National Parks 100th anniversary and their list of 100 things to do in the national parks. Most likely this looked way better on a computer screen than it did printed on paper and placed on a newsstand.

Fortunately for Outside, they publish twelve times a year and from my perspective they usually hit triples and home runs.

may-2016-cover
Swing and a miss.

 

4. DuJour Magazine, Summer 2016

Let’s leave aside the potential political debates about this issue. They are immaterial for the purposes of this particular post. Sometimes black and white covers can work well. Heck, the Foredeck has listed some in times past. But there’s just something creepy and foreboding about this particular one. Even if Donald Trump weren’t running for president, the image of him lurking in the background is just….off.

dujour-melania-trump-8193f6b1-1ba0-4995-a43b-067b18781603
Don’t look over your shoulder Melania….

 

3. W Magazine, June 2016

File under “An Unlikely Mess.” Who doesn’t love English model-actress Cara Delevingne? But why dress her up as an emoji? Let’s hope her new movie does better.

W Magazine June 16
Not so sure I ❤ this…

 

2. Vogue Magazine, May 2016

Taylor Swift and Vogue have a long history together. I made their February 2012 cover featuring Taylor Swift as my #1 cover from the Foredeck that year. Usually Swift on the cover is instant attraction on the newsstand. It’s not that one of the most popular and powerful singers in the world can’t go out and change up her look. But in this photo, otherworldly looks unrecognizable. I’m not opposed to red backgrounds. In fact I love primary colors in the background. But this one….

Vogue May 16
…not so much.

1. Chicago Magazine, January 2016

To me Chicago Magazine is the epitome of a successful city book. I look for the latest edition of Chicago Magazine every month when I’m out at retail. Usually their covers are reliably good. It’s as if they take to heart every single CRMA presentation ever given and then make it better. “Top Doctors” editorial is generally a top newsstand seller for most city publications. Most “Top Doc” covers feature some sort of generic doctor on the cover so it’s understandable that Chicago tried to do something creative. But this?  Should we call Spiderman and let him know that Doc Ock has invaded the Second City?

 

Chicago Mag Jan 16
Paging Dr. Octavius!

The good news is that for every flop of a cover, there is usually a redeemer or two. Chicago Magazine has published several very good covers since January 2016 and for the record, may I show you what I think is one of the very best covers of 2016, Chicago Magazine’s July 2016 cover. Featuring a puppy.

ChiMag Jul 16
Who doesn’t love a puppy?

Just remember. The cover is the front door. You want curb appeal. You want people to spend full freight on that copy. You want them to love it so much that they’ll turn around and subscribe. And subscribe to the newsletter. And pay for a ticket to your event. And buy your “Buyer’s Guide.” And subscribe to your YouTube feed.

More puppies. Less octopuses.