Bo Sacks: the man behind ‘Heard on the Web’

Bo runs the world’s longest-running journalism newsletter on the internet. He started it in 1993. We’re speaking with the man who frequently ‘speaks out’ on issues, events, news upheaval and other changes in the industry. 

Bo’s career has spanned various facets of the industry. He now speaks internationally, he gives lectures, he travels, he writes, he consults. He reads voraciously about the industry. He attends conferences around the globe to give him a broad range of perspectives and insight on latest, cutting-edge developments.

The first newspaper Bo started was called The Express. He was 19. The Express was a weekly tabloid with a circulation of 50,000 that went to every college in Suffolk and Nassau counties in metro New York. “It was a product of its time,” he recalls. “It was pro-pot, anti-Vietnam, and intellectual. We did that for two and a half years.”

At the time, he was just fooling around, he says. “I didn’t know I started a journalism career. Two friends and I were sitting around one day and one of them said, ‘let’s start a newspaper,’ and I said, ‘what do you know about it?’ and he said, ‘nothing.’ 

And I said, ‘in that case, let’s do it.”

Thus began his career.

After The Express, Bo went to Arizona, where he started the Arizona Mountain Newsreel in Tucson. A couple of years after that, he moved back to New York and worked at the High Times. He spent six years at that magazine, so controversial at the time that they had to build their own distribution network for it – no one would carry High Times back then.

Above: Bo Sacks speaks to FIPP during one of his visits to London.

Since then, Bob Sacks has seen this industry from almost every role there is. He has been a writer, an editor, a publisher, the director of manufacturing and distribution. He has been in sales, circulation, operations. He has been a pressman and a cameraman. He’s worked at some of the most prestigious media companies in the US, including Time Inc., The New York Times Magazine Group, Ziff-Davis and McCall’s, among others. 

Currently, Bo consults, he is the president of Precision Media Group, he is a speaker, and he runs the “Heard on the Web” enewsletter, his daily collection of publishing news.  “When I started my newsletter in the early 1990s, I started it to keep myself more informed about the industry,” he explained. “And it sort of evolved to what I send out every day.”

He sees the newsletter, which he calls a labour of love, as a way of giving back. “I’m giving back, the way I was given,” Bo explains. “I was fortunate to be mentored by three of the greatest men in the previous generation in the industry, Lowell Logan at McCall’s, Irvine Hershbein at Condé Nast, and Vito Colopriko at The New York Times Magazine Group. But, instead of one-on-one, I’m helping 16,500 people around the world.”

According to Jane Friedman, a US-based editor, columnist, professor and former publisher of Writer’s Digest, Bo’s newsletter is essential because “it’s a progressive voice about the industry that doesn’t look away from the challenges, and also doesn’t wallow in nostalgia for the past or despair about the future,” she says. 

“His message is: We must evolve. We’ve evolved before, and we will evolve again. So let’s get to work and look at where the opportunities lie, and stop playing the victim card or pointing the finger at others for our troubles.”

Friedman credits Bo for giving her a progressive view on the book publishing and digital media industry, and helping her understand the changes happening. “Bo sees the big picture, which we all need to be reminded of, on a daily basis. He has a deep, informed understanding of the issues that matter, and he presents them through his carefully curated newsletter. I’ll always be a disciple,” she says.

The ‘Heard on the Web’ newsletter subject material covers news, views, trends, movers and shakers, upheaval and innovation, bits of intelligence that aim to help people keep their jobs in an era of disruption. 

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“People need it,” Bo explains. “They like knowledge and security and hopefully, I provide some of that security and knowledge. Everybody is grasping for understanding and hoping things are going to settle down. But this is the beginning of a new chapter of media history, not the end of our book.”

Bo, an optimist, sees only a continuous beginning. As a consultant, he sees how change has affected media companies. Reactions to change often run the gamut. “Some people are incredibly enthusiastic about the changes that are happening,” he says. “And then there are those who are not as adaptable, wish things were the way they were, who are struggling.”

The future, however, doesn’t wait.  

“More people read than ever before,” he says. “But what they read isn’t from traditional publishers anymore. We’re information distributors now.”

He believes the lines between media and mediums have blurred. Magazines have video, video publishers have magazines, radio often has a print function, and if you check out a radio station website, you’ll see video. “We all have the same tools and we all use them,” he said. “So, what is the industry? We’re all information distributors.”

These days, publishers of trusted brands are medium-agnostic, pushing information in various formats across platforms. 

Despite all of this, Bo remains passionate about the industry and loves print. “Print is moving from a commodity to a luxury,” he said. “Those left in print better wrap their arms around that concept. There’s no room left for bad printing or bad writing.” 

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