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Large magazine companies – how they can get back to winning ways

At the recent PPA Independent Publisher Conference, Matt Kelly interviewed Katie Vanneck-Smith. James Evelegh was in the audience and came away with a 10-point plan.

By James Evelegh

Large magazine companies – how they can get back to winning ways
Katie Vanneck-Smith talking to Matt Kelly at the PPA Independent Publisher Conference.

One of the highlights from last week’s PPA Independent Publisher Conference was Matt Kelly interviewing Katie Vanneck-Smith, Hearst UK’s newish CEO.

She drew on her experience at both small (Tortoise Media) and large (News Corp, Hearst UK) publishing companies to outline her vision of how larger magazine publishers can adapt to make future success more likely.

So, what should senior management at large magazine publishers do?

Having listened to Katie, here are my ten top tips:

  1. Empower your workforce. A common problem at large companies is staff suffering from a sense of powerlessness. Things tend to happen to them. They typically work in silos and don’t feel accountable. Often, they are treated like children. Frequently, they know the answers but company culture means that they tell their bosses what they think the bosses want to hear. The challenge is to empower your staff. A rule of thumb Katie works to is, don’t allow anyone to tell you their problem, if they don’t also offer a solution.
  2. Set your editors free. Editors have become worn down and expected to do too many things. To add insult to injury, they are often not even called editors anymore, but ‘chief content officers’, a term Katie loathes. Encourage your editors to be braver and not to feel they have to do everything; better to do three things really well than 25 things so-so.
  3. Demand exceptional work. Much of what we’re currently asking our journalists to produce is pretty generic stuff, easily replicable by AI. Get your editors and journalists to focus on exceptional content that AI can’t do.
  4. Change the trajectory. People don’t like to fail and working in failing industries is miserable. To the extent that magazine publishing can be seen as being in decline, ask yourself, what can you do differently? Identify growth opportunities and focus on those. If the strategic priority is ‘survival’, then decline is inevitable. The goal is growth.
  5. See your company as a house of brands, and not as a media or publishing business. Often the brands are bigger than the business. That is where the focus should be.
  6. Don’t be overly reliant on data. Yes, measure, analyse and learn, but don’t expect data to give you the answers, because it won’t. That’s your job, in concert with your teams.
  7. Be transparent. Share as much information with your teams as you possibly can.
  8. Be confident! Stop apologising for the word ‘magazine’. It’s not a dirty word. It needn’t imply legacy. ‘Magazine’ is a format, as at home online as it is off.
  9. Don’t become dependent on one platform or one revenue stream. If you don’t have a three-legged stool, you don’t have a business model.
  10. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Katie was upbeat, positive and confident. Decline isn’t inevitable, it’s down to the choices you make. Invigorating stuff.

Photograph: ASV Photography / PPA.

You can catch James Evelegh’s regular column in the InPubWeekly newsletter, which you can register to receive here.