Publishing people have swapped their simple, single-track careers for multitasking, multiplatform media ninja-ism. In this series, we’re talking to people working in each of the key publishing roles, asking how their jobs have changed over the years.
Publishers, you had one job
Publisher is the job title everyone I ever worked with really wanted, at least in magazines.
The Publisher was always the boss, the big cheese, the ringmaster of the three-ringed circus. He or she was responsible for making things work, editorially, commercially, every way that mattered. They met the market, knew the players inside and out, had ideas and killed ideas… every magazine had a Publisher and the Publisher was every magazine’s majordomo.
But maybe more than any other position in the modern publishing business, the Publisher has seen massive changes to their role, to the point where it doesn’t always exist anymore. When I went looking for people to talk to for this instalment of the ‘One Job’ series, there were as many managing Directors and Chief Executives occupying the corner office as there were Publishers.
If you listen to some people, the Publisher role is on the way out. Keith Kelly, writing in the NY Post last month, said Time Inc. is to phase out ‘Publisher’ positions as part of CEO Joe Ripp’s perpetual restructuring.
Kelly speculates that the change will come as a shock to those that have spent years climbing the corporate ladder, but it is hoped it will make it easier to compete in the digital media world.
And yet VOX Media, one of the most 21st century of publishing organisations, has just appointed a publisher.
What’s going? People magazine doesn’t need a publisher but the business behind Vox, the Verge and Recode does?
Chief Executive and one-time Publisher of the iconic current affairs weekly The Week, Kerin O’Connor, has seen the autonomy of some Publishers being diminished by the rise of strong central services resulting in a lot fewer publisher positions. “Publishers now tend to have a raft of titles, and are more consumed with operational efficiency and coordination,” he says.
O’Connor believes publishing management roles have become more specialised, particularly with digital growth making the traditional ‘Jack of all Trades’ publisher or ‘Uber salesman’ type less attractive in today’s organisations.
“For me, being Publisher is about pushing the brand forward and getting all the parts of the engine to coalesce in the right way to reach our customers. That bit of my job is unchanged. The targets may have shifted, but the core aims remain the same.”
Vince Medeiros, Publisher of TCOL’s movie magazine Little White Lies and cool culture title Huck, thinks the Publisher role used to be much more about a single, core product, a magazine or a website with an editorial commitment at its core.
“The role was tied to a belief that products mattered. It was much more cohesive and focused; journalism was front and centre.”
While that core journalistic mission remains, Medeiros says the Publisher role has become a lot more diffuse:
“Publishers are working on revenue development across a wide range of platforms and products, which may or may not be directly tied to the original editorial proposition.”
He believes this is a by-product of the collapse of the traditional publishing business model, forcing Publishers to look further afield to find the revenues needed to sustain and grow a business.
The revenue challenge
“The hardest part about being a publisher today is revenue,” says Medeiros. “With the collapse of the business model for journalism – the decline of print ad revenues and the challenges in making digital add up – we’ve all had to engage in non-traditional revenue development.”
For TCOL, the agency side of the business has become a crucial source of revenue and Medeiros spends as much time working with the agency staff on branded content as he does with journalists on Huck and Little White Lies.
“Digital and traditional publishers, as well as media, creative and ad agencies are all playing the content game and going after the same briefs, the same dollars,” says Medeiros.
He believes differentiating your offering, ensuring you can deliver premium output, securing access to talent and maintaining a keen understanding of your audiences are key to survival. “Those with a publisher-agency model, where editorial skills and access are leveraged to service clients, are well placed.”
“We also need to ensure the agency staff have the right skills to service clients, for example; we need media planners, which is something traditional publishers never really had to worry about.”
O’Connor seconds the revenue challenge, pointing specifically at the need to manage the shift from old revenue lines to new ones. He adds that the pace of media change can make life particularly tough.
“There’s no doubt that Publishers’ complete content control has gone. There’s a fluidity about how media brands relate to their customers, and this changes quickly now. Many of our more traditional revenues are unchanged – The Week’s subscription income continues to grow – but things like display revenues and newsstand are more market dependent. If we have a direct relationship with a customer, it’s a lot easier to mitigate the pace the of change.”
Tough times or not, O’Connor can’t think of a richer and more interesting time to be a publisher.
“We’ve gone from a static, measured model of putting out print magazines to something thrilling that covers multiple channels and businesses. Think about how the publishing industry has to address video in the last five years alone.”
To illustrate his point O’Connor notes that Dennis Publishing sells online currency services through The Week and cars through BuyaCar. “This change has been coupled with a really interesting new generation of staff. They’re smart, hardworking content creators and distributors, and they’re refreshing our industry.”
The change challenge
Medeiros is also enjoying the thrill of the change:
“The dynamic and ever-changing landscape makes it particularly exciting, unpredictable. Journalism is being redefined, borders between advertising and editorial are being tested, a new business paradigm is being invented. Finding a sustainable model for viable critical journalism is a daily challenge that’s as daunting as it is exciting.”
Publishers that don’t enjoy the change challenge are probably in the wrong job, because it doesn’t look like settling down any time soon.
“We’re due a major technology platform change over the next few years,” says O’Connor. “Whether this is VR, augmented reality, chips in the eyeballs, holograms at home or something else.”
He also sees publishers having to change to combat the squeeze from consumer ad blocking and the ‘voracious appetites’ of the tech platform giants. “We will need to tilt our business models to more multi-platform, direct customer relationships that involve permissioning and variable payment.”
O’Connor says he still finds it remarkable that no fluid micro-payment market has emerged for publishers’ content:
“I’m not talking about Spotify type models here, more something akin to Blendle. We still think about selling static bundles/issues of content, when online is a clearly different.”
So what skills does a Publisher need to survive these days?
That depends on the brand and where you’re at in your career, says O’Connor. “Some of the best publishers are the ones who can squeeze out profit through careful cost management of magazines that have seen better days,” he explains. “In tough markets, I admire those guys immensely for their skills.”
More generally he cites patience, good people skills, financial management and an ability for reinvention as critical CV elements:
“The best publishers I’ve met are also relentless. They simply don’t give up. They’re constantly thinking about how to change their business model as the world changes around them.”
To succeed, O’Connor advises any would-be Publishers to get a plan, and it better be simple to understand and clear.
“I can’t emphasis enough the importance of having complete clarity of where you are trying to take the brand forward. It needs to be worked through with your team, your line manager and the wider organisation. Make sure you sweat the small stuff, and keep focussed on the long term goals.”
O’Connor also says love what you do and for Medeiros the primary focus of that Publisher-love needs to be to understand editorial and care about journalism. “The core mission – one of informing and entertaining your audience – remains the main reason anyone starts a magazine, a newspaper, a website. And I think that impetus is just as relevant today.”
The Publisher role has always been fairly nuanced, difficult to pin down, varying massively between organisations and geographies. In some places they were really glorified sales directors, given ultimate authority over editorial but never really taking on the challenge of setting editorial direction. In others they veered far more to the content side, leaving the commercial team to take care of business while they and the editor agonised over story leads and cover art.
But the pressures of modern media have forced a broader business management portfolio on the publication leaders. Do our Publishers pine for simpler times?
Every publisher misses Lunch, but the excitement of today’s publishing market just about makes up for it says O’Connor.
“I miss sending a magazine to press and feeling the satisfaction of getting the job done,” says Medeiros. “These days, the job’s effectively never done.”