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Terri White

From features assistant on Woman & Home magazine to editor of ShortList in six years is an amazing feat. Terri White, now editor-in-chief of Empire, shares some of the pivotal lessons she’s learned with Mary Hogarth along with her vision for the future.

By Mary Hogarth

Terri White

They say a good magazine’s identity revolves around the editor. Without a doubt, Empire reflects Terri’s huge personality, verve and passion for the industry. Digitally savvy, with an exceptional vision for magazines, she is one of a new breed of editors who not only understands what it takes for a print edition to work, but knows how to translate that into effective digital content that audiences love. Her talent is a combination of experience, foresight plus the willingness to take chances instead of following the crowd.

Now I have to admit to being a huge fan of the magazine, so am I biased writing this? Probably, but I know valuable content and originality when I see it.

No matter what the platform, the Empire brand delivers in consistency, quality and engagement. “My belief is that you should be able to tear the cover off any magazine and know from looking at a page – the aesthetic, the copy, the tone – what year it is,” says Terri, who admits the world of film and entertainment has seen major changes during the last five years. Her ultimate vision is that Empire should be the “only destination” for readers to discover all they need to know about a hot new TV series, an established franchise, classic movie, new filmmaker or Hollywood heavyweight.

Since taking the helm in 2015, after leaving her previous role as editor-in-chief of Time Out New York to take up the challenge, Terri has faced many trials including a declining circulation. The biggest one perhaps was how to seamlessly deliver content across all the brand’s activities; high-level content that readers wanted not only to read, but were also willing to share.

According to Terri, the key was a collaboration of brand extensions using the entire ecosystem of Empire – the print mag, podcast, event, social, website and email. The team used all aspects of the brand to “be the definitive source of information, inspiration and entertainment from the very first whispers to the finished print and beyond”.

Finding fresh talent was another priority. “I also wanted to bring in new writers, increase diversity and cover titles and people that may not have traditionally been thought of as part of Empire's world.

“Ultimately, it's incredibly important to me that we never ever lose the heart and soul of the brand. We are first and foremost an unadulterated celebration of the world of movies. The passion, knowledge and authority that has always driven Empire always will.”

Working stateside

So, coming from Time Out New York, how does the American publishing market differ from that in the UK?

“UK magazines have a nerve, a confidence, a wit and a boldness that I think is truly unique,” explains Terri, adding that one of the biggest differences is how conservative American titles are.

“American media is very established and powerful as hell, but also really quite traditional. It has a conservatism – from both an audience and industry perspective – that doesn't lend itself to risk-taking. We took Time Out New York free while I was editor-in-chief and the challenges, in terms of convincing the public and commercial partners of the model, were much more pronounced than I'd experienced at home.”

However, she also feels that the UK magazine industry has had to be incredibly agile to meet the challenges head on. “As a consequence, we have seen the publishing market change in seismic and revolutionary ways.”

With such a depth of editing experience, Terri has much to draw on. Her work has achieved much recognition in the form of numerous awards, the latest being Folio’s annual Top Women in Media (Honoree) award in 2015. But, despite such an incredible CV, with prominent roles such as being on the launch team of Nuts, she reveals that nothing prepared her for editing Empire.

“It was a wild ride. I think all ex-editors of Empire would agree that nothing really prepares you for this job. It's the most demanding, exciting, challenging, rewarding editorship in magazine media.”

Trust your gut

Her career, particularly her editing experiences, has, she says, always been challenging yet thrilling – each one coming with a valuable lesson, particularly ShortList. “As a new launch in a new market, it taught me to not be afraid of considered risks and pushing boundaries. Some of the covers we created were just terrible in retrospect but some were lightning-in-a-bottle moments. None of them were expensive, but always the result of incredible collaboration with, and trust in, the team.”

But it was at Time Out, where she oversaw all platforms – email, print magazine, social, website and the app – that prompted a shift in her mindset. Until that point, Terri had been print-focused to prize content over platform.

“It is,” she explains, “all about the ideas and then a sharp, strategic 360-degree execution.”

But her most important lessons have been to trust her gut as well as learning to use data and research correctly. “As an editor, instinct and passion is the most important thing. Data and research is vital (I can spend an eye-watering amount of time in an analytics rabbit-hole), but use it to inform, not dictate.

“When I started out, I didn't trust my gut as much as I should have – which was probably to be expected as a young woman in men's magazines – but now, if my belly is shouting something, I listen up and speak up. Instinct and an all-consuming passion are what make any editor great.

“If you're not banging a table and pulling at your own hair at least once a day, you're not doing it right.”

Surrounding yourself with great people is another essential ingredient of success, according to Terri, who makes it her mission wherever she works to take the best talent with her. “No editor can, or should, do it alone and the thrill of working with the best in the business cannot be beaten. And, quite frankly, your audience deserves nothing less.”

Synergy with brand extensions

The magazine’s most successful brand extensions are, says Terri, the podcast and Empire Awards. “The podcast, which began organically within the editorial team, can now receive as many as 100,000 downloads. It's a real labour of love for the editorial team led by associate editor Chris Hewitt, and that passion is what makes it connect with the audience.

Empire’s awards is the key event in the editorial calendar, which achieved an incredible PR reach this year having attracted such names as Matt Damon, Stanley Tucci, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Richard E Grant, Anthony Daniels and Sam Mendes. “It was my first time attending and sitting in that room really shows you the clout of, and love for, Empire,” she explains, adding that she still gets goosebumps just thinking about it.

So far – like for many publishers – the challenge is ensuring all the platforms work together as well as taking advantage of the growing options for TV and streaming.

Letting brand extensions grow organically has been Terri’s main priority. “We're constantly working to ensure we're executing a consistent message and saying the right thing in the right way on the right platform at the right time. I think it was important to emphasise that opening up our world to include TV and streaming would not take away from movies; 2015 was the biggest box office year in history and also the year that Netflix announced 74 million subscribers.”

The challenge of digital

Circulation has been another issue for the magazine. While the magazine has a readership of around 735,000, its circulation, according to ABC figures (January-June, 2016), was 125,889 for print and just 10,777 for digital with the digital element being less than 10 per cent of overall copy sales. That said, Empire has built a strong subscription base with total subscription sales for the same period of 58,105. Quite an achievement when many titles struggle to reach five figure sales.

Yet, despite a general decline in circulation in the genre, Terri maintains that overall newsstand sales are robust. “The loyalty to Empire is not to be underestimated and we work hard to make our subscribers feel loved, including delivering a special limited-edition cover every month.

“While the print magazine remains very much the heart of Empire, we now have a brand reach of four million across all platforms. We see tremendous opportunity in the new cinematic world and how to explore that across all products and platforms.

“The podcast is something we will continue to push and we are incredibly excited about the live space,” says Terri adding that the magazine held its first event at the O2 in London last year.

Empire Live attracted 8,000 readers who attended exclusive screenings, industry panels and Q&As over the course of a weekend in September. “Bringing Empire to life off, as well as on, the page is a definite area of exploration. Special, one-off innovative print executions are also key. In October, we produced the world's first editorial video front cover in collaboration with Warner Bros for the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It retailed exclusively at Sainsbury's priced £9.99; the 5,000 run sold out within days.”

Although digital growth could be perceived as slow in terms of copy sales, the brand is gaining recognition for innovation. It recently won the Magazine of the Year award in the Film and Entertainment category at the Digital Magazine Awards. Not surprising, given the energy of the brand.

I suspect that Empire along with a few prominent specialist / B2B titles that are prepared to take risks will see a big spike in sales of digital editions within the next couple of years. Terri believes the key to achieving a stronger digital circulation is about increasing value and engagement through intuitive design and interactivity.

“For example, our winning entry was a video created in collaboration with Ryan Reynolds for the Deadpool cover. He starred in character in an 'infomercial' selling the issue. We obviously couldn't play that within the magazine, but our lucky digital edition subscribers got to see Deadpool come to life in one of the funniest, slickest videos we have ever produced. It went down a storm.”

So where next for Empire the brand? Long-term, Terri’s vision for the title is simple. “To make the world's biggest film magazine the world's biggest film and entertainment brand.”

Watch this space, but I suspect she has a strong chance of achieving that goal.