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The Mr. Magazine™ Interview: Print is never going to go away, says Hearst’s Joanna Coles

“I think you’re seeing a move-back to print; a move-back to the appreciation that print is restorative; it’s actually information that you take in. We know that there was a connection between the tactile, taking in of information… so, the touching of print and the absorption of information. And I feel very confident that print will continue to evolve and remain relevant.” - Joanna Coles

  

Mr. Magazine Interview ()

 

From New York bureau chief for The Guardian to New York columnist for The Times of London, Joanna Coles knows her way around the world of journalism. With a stalwart stance on the future of her company and its print core, along with a vast knowledge of the digital world, where she sits on the board of Snapchat, part of her editorial strength lies in her talent, skillsets, and creativity. The other part is a combination of her humbleness when it comes to her own contributions, unequivocally giving credit to the teamwork at Hearst, and her own belief that the disruption of digital has only made print stronger.

I spoke with Joanna recently, upon a return trip from New York, where I had the pleasure of speaking with David Carey and Michael Clinton for an earlier Mr. Magazine™ interview, so it seemed only natural to talk with the first-ever chief content officer at Hearst Magazines, a position that Joanna Coles seems tailor-made for. With the intimate, tightly knit leadership that keeps Hearst Magazines on a steady course, Joanna’s adamant belief in print and intriguing eye on the company’s digital future is in sync, making it apparent that this woman knows how to define content; good, high quality content. The only kind Hearst creates.

In fact, she defined the word for me: “information served up in a responsible and entertaining way, that helps you understand and appreciate the world that you’re living in,” with a bit more added. And if out of those 21 words, the one that grabs you most is “responsible,” you would be in perfect accord with Joanna, because she feels responsible and accurate journalism is the only acceptable kind.

So, I hope that you enjoy this Mr. Magazine™ interview with a woman who is navigating her part of the Hearst vessel with a steady hand and an eye on that future with the expanding horizons, Joanna Coles, chief content officer, Hearst Magazines.

Joanna Coles ()

But first the sound-bites:

On what makes her enjoy journalism most in this day and age: It’s really a great time to be a magazine journalist, because there’s so much news going on and everybody is trying to make heads or tails of it. And we’re in the perfect position to do that. Not only have you seen magazines like The New Yorker completely changing the conversation around sexual harassment, but you also see a lot of magazines that are able to help readers make sense of a world that doesn’t feel like it makes sense anymore.

On whether she feels magazines are now well-primed to be the future leaders of the media industry: I do. I think that digital, which I’m also a part of through my connection on the Snapchat Board; digital has grown very much in the moment. What magazines are able to do is to think about where we are going as a culture; what kind of conversations we will be having; and we are soothsayers to the future. We are the predictors of what will happen. And it’s a very different skillset. And I think digital has only made us stronger and better.

On her being quoted as saying print isn’t dead yet: Well, I was being ironic, because since I’m British, I tend to end everything with “yet.” Print is never going to go away, and actually what we’re seeing now and what I like to say, which I’m very intrigued by too, is that we’re now in a moment of “post-the-euphoria-of-digital.” And we’re now beginning to understand the more destructive impact that some digital media have. And I think people are beginning to understand through their own behaviour, which as we know is still very, very new, that if you spend a certain amount of time on your phone, you don’t actually end up feeling better educationally informed, you actually end up feeling restless and like you can’t focus or concentrate on anything.

On how, as the first-ever chief content officer at Hearst Magazines, she wraps her mind around all of the many titles that she’s in charge of: David (Carey) runs an incredibly organised ship. So, we have issue previews, where we learn what’s going to be in the magazine coming up, so we have regular meetings with the editors and publishers. I have a regular once-a-month, editor-in-chief meeting, where all of the editors come together; sometimes we bring in outside speakers from other industries to inspire us and to help us think strategically.

On how she feels the role of editor has changed in the last five years: The basic elements of journalism remains the same, which is to ask questions. What has become more challenging is the number of outlets to try and keep on top of, in terms of just the sheer amount of content they generate. And also the speed with which stuff goes out there with digital, that is really challenging and we’ve seen numerous incidents where people have gone out too early with misinformation that has caused enormous ramifications.

On what letter grade she would give present-day journalism: I think the journalism being practiced at the moment is extraordinary. The Washington Post; The New Yorker; Esquire: Town & Country; The New York Times, are all doing exceptional jobs of really trying to reflect the chaos going on in Washington and to explain it. I think we have some extraordinarily brave and dedicated journalists who are doing their jobs. And I’m sure they’re exhausted. The trolling that goes on with journalists is really a depressing development, but I think we have some astonishingly good journalism going on at the moment.

On what she expects to see editorially from Hearst in 2018: It’s always exciting to have new energy come in to the company, so we’re very excited about expanding to include both Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Prevention. And what those three titles do is give us even more expertise in the health and wellness area. And I think if you look at the demographic of the population, you look at what people are interested in; health and wellness and fitness are subjects that people are increasingly excited about. And also the sense of mental health and mindfulness are important to people. So, being able to offer more to readers around those subjects is really great for us.

 

Hearst mags ()

 

On whether all of this seems like a walk in a rose garden, or she sees some thorns along the way: We are going through a walk in a rose garden, but we’re paying attention to the thorns along the way. (Laughs) I mean, I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t a challenging time, but as David is always telling us, the same word in Chinese that means crisis also means opportunity.

On her definition of content today: That’s a very good question; no one has asked me that before. What is content? I think it is information served up in a responsible and entertaining way, that helps you understand and appreciate the world that you’re living in. And at its best, it resonates, and adds to your appreciation and understanding of the world we live in. And it’s also a fantastic emotional distraction. And at its worst, it’s full of misinformation and leaves you depressed and restless.

On whether she believes content differs with the different platforms: Of course, because you want to always play to a platform’s strength. So, in a magazine, you want to indulge in fabulous flights of fantasy with great photographers who can transport you and take you on a voyage of discovery that you didn’t know you wanted to go on. If you’re on your phone, you want digestible bits of information, some to make you laugh, some to make you feel, and some to inform you.

On how she decides what content goes where: The editors make that decision. The editors are always thinking through the prism of their own brand; is this right for video, is this right for digital, is this print, is this a podcast, so the individual editors will have a good sense of where that material goes. For example, if you shoot Miley Cyrus, as Cosmo did recently; Miley Cyrus took Cosmo through her old childhood home and back to her childhood bedroom. That is a great story in print, because it’s emotional; the photos were terrific. But it was also a great video and it got great traction online, because you the viewer were taken into a private place that you don’t normally have access to. But in print, it was equally powerful.

Cosmopolitan ()

On something that wished she hadn’t done during her professional career as an editor: I never think about what I shouldn’t have done. I’ve spent half my life in the fetal position about what I shouldn’t have done, but I also move on. I’ve made hundreds of mistakes, everybody who’s doing a job well has made hundreds of mistakes, but I don’t dwell on them.

On the best decision she’s made in her professional career: Probably saying yes to [this] opportunity.

On the advice she might give a millennial who wanted to become the next Joanna Coles: First of all, I would instruct them to have fun. If you’re not passionate about doing it then you won’t enjoy it, because it’s a hard job; it’s long hours, but if you love it, it whistles past. And to be good to your peer group, because you will rise and fall with them, and there is no room in this business for people who misbehave. And the job is too big to waste energy treating people poorly.

On anything she’d like to add: I think that the importance of teamwork is one that gets overlooked in this business. Editors in particular get lavished with a lot of attention, but behind every good editor, or every editor with a certain amount of bravery to push the brand forward, there is always a loyal team who have got your back. And that’s the thing that I would like to make clear, that it’s easier to focus on individual people, but actually it’s always teamwork.

On what she would have tattooed upon her brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about her: When my husband first saw me at a party, he wanted to know who I was and the man next to him said, oh, that’s Joanna Coles, she’s the rudest woman in London, which of course intrigued him. I hope they wouldn’t say that now. I think if they knew me and had worked with me, I hope that they would say that she was fun to work with.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home: You would find me walking the dog.

On what keeps her up at night: I’m embarrassed to say that I sleep like a log. Nothing keeps me up at night. I go to bed thoroughly exhausted and very excited about waking up the next morning.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Joanna Coles, chief content officer, Hearst Magazines.

Joanna, you’ve done it all. You’ve been in newspapers, on TV; you’ve been in film, and magazines. What makes Joanna Coles enjoy this profession of journalism most in this day and age?

It’s really a great time to be a magazine journalist, because there’s so much news going on and everybody is trying to make heads or tails of it. And we’re in the perfect position to do that. Not only have you seen magazines like The New Yorker completely changing the conversation around sexual harassment, but you also see a lot of magazines that are able to help readers make sense of a world that doesn’t feel like it makes sense anymore.

Do you feel that magazines are now well-primed to be the future leaders of print; of the industry?

I do. I think that digital, which I’m also a part of through my connection on the Snapchat Board; digital has grown very much in the moment. What magazines are able to do is to think about where we are going as a culture; what kind of conversations we will be having; and we are soothsayers to the future. We are the predictors of what will happen. And it’s a very different skillset. And I think digital has only made us stronger and better. But there is no question that as agenda-setters, magazines are very much still out in the forefront.

You’ve been quoted as saying that print is not dead yet…

Well, I was being ironic, because since I’m British, I tend to end everything with “yet.”

And when people ask me how am I doing, I say, well, I’m still working. I don’t mean that I actually think I’m going to “stop” working; I’m always grateful for whatever I have and I’m happy to acknowledge that the future is unpredictable, but I don’t mean it literally. I’m sure that I said that in response to someone probably asking me if print is dead.

Print is never going to go away, and actually what we’re seeing now and what I like to say, which I’m very intrigued by too, is that we’re now in a moment of “post-the-euphoria-of-digital.” And we’re now beginning to understand the more destructive impact that some digital media have. And I think people are beginning to understand through their own behaviour, which as we know is still very, very new, that if you spend a certain amount of time on your phone, you don’t actually end up feeling better educationally informed, you actually end up feeling restless and like you can’t focus or concentrate on anything.

And so, I think you’re seeing a move-back to print; a move-back to the appreciation that print is restorative; it’s actually information that you take in. We know that there was a connection between the tactile, taking in of information… so, the touching of print and the absorption of information. And I feel very confident that print will continue to evolve and remain relevant.

With our fashion titles, you see extraordinarily creative photography that cannot be replicated online. And you see people wanting to disengage or unplug from their phones. It’s not a zero-sum game, which is how people seem to think of it; it’s very much an additive game, I think.

Your role is the first-ever chief content officer at Hearst Magazines, and one of the things that David (Carey) and Michael (Clinton) mentioned to me recently in New York was how small the leadership circle is at Hearst Magazines. There are five of you in top leadership positions and that’s one reason for the stability at Hearst. But as the chief content officer, you have a large portfolio under your leadership.

I do and it’s a portfolio that I hope will grow. We’ve added two new magazines this year: The Pioneer Woman and Airbnb, which we’re phenomenally excited about. And of course, we’ve just bought Rodale, so we’ll be adding Men’s Health and Women’s Health to the mix, and Prevention, Runner’s World and Bicycling.

Airbnbmag cover ()

How do you wrap your mind around all of these different titles and the fact that you’re in charge of all of them?

David (Carey) runs an incredibly organised ship. So, we have issue previews, where we learn what’s going to be in the magazine coming up, so we have regular meetings with the editors and publishers. I have a regular once-a-month, editor-in-chief meeting, where all of the editors come together; sometimes we bring in outside speakers from other industries to inspire us and to help us think strategically.

There is always some minor crisis going on, and then we’re always out thinking about new business; thinking about new partnerships. Hearst is a very creative partner, with the way that we work. There is an enormous team of extremely talented people at Hearst who do all of the work. And honestly, I do sit and listen to them and just say yes or no.

From your days in the UK with The Guardian and The Times; you’ve seen a lot; what do you think was the major change that took place in your job as a magazine editor, as a journalist? How are things different from five years ago; from your days at Cosmo?

The basic elements of journalism remains the same, which is to ask questions. What has become more challenging is the number of outlets to try and keep on top of, in terms of just the sheer amount of content they generate. And also the speed with which stuff goes out there with digital, that is really challenging and we’ve seen numerous incidents where people have gone out too early with misinformation that has caused enormous ramifications. So, the speed to publish has changed dramatically and the scale of what’s out there has also changed dramatically, but the fundamental responsibility of journalism is more important now than ever, which is to hold the powerful to account and to keep on asking questions when everybody obfuscates or lies to your face.

If you are awarded a Ph.D. in journalism and you’re teaching journalism today, what grade would you give present-day journalism as a whole?

I think the journalism being practiced at the moment is extraordinary. The Washington Post; The New Yorker; Esquire: Town & Country; The New York Times, are all doing exceptional jobs of really trying to reflect the chaos going on in Washington and to explain it. I think we have some extraordinarily brave and dedicated journalists who are doing their jobs. And I’m sure they’re exhausted. The trolling that goes on with journalists is really a depressing development, but I think we have some astonishingly good journalism going on at the moment.

So, that’s A+ or an A?

I wouldn’t say an A+, because I think in the runs after the election there was some disappointing mix in understanding what was going on in the country, but I think the election was a wakeup call that journalists were out to touch the elite, where the elite from both coasts had somehow missed the story that was going on in rural communities. And I believe that everyone is very conscious that they’re trying to reflect the country as it is and reflect what’s going on in DC as it is, as well. They all need to double their staff, because there’s just so much news at the moment.

Hearst launched two new magazines this year, and now you have acquired Rodale. If you were to put your editorial fortuneteller hat on; what do you expect to see in 2018?

It’s always exciting to have new energy come in to the company, so we’re very excited about expanding to include both Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Prevention. And what those three titles do is give us even more expertise in the health and wellness area. And I think if you look at the demographic of the population, you look at what people are interested in; health and wellness and fitness are subjects that people are increasingly excited about. And also the sense of mental health and mindfulness are important to people. So, being able to offer more to readers around those subjects is really great for us.

Rodale November covers ()

We already offer extraordinary riches when it comes to food. We have the Food Network Magazine; Good Housekeeping; Woman’s Day; Redbook; we have our online brand, Delish. So, we’re extraordinarily powerful in food. In the women’s fashion space, we have Marie Claire; Elle; Harper’s Bazaar; so again, extreme strength there.

We had traditionally less strength in the health and wellness space, which we’ve now doubled-down on with the Rodale purchase. And if you also throw in Oprah Magazine there, which has tremendous strength in the mental health and wellness fields, we build up an industry expertise which is unrivaled.

So, do you think this transition will be a walk in a rose garden, or do you think there will be some thorns along the way?

We are going through a walk in a rose garden, but we’re paying attention to the thorns along the way. I mean, I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t a challenging time, but as David is always telling us, the same word in Chinese that means crisis also means opportunity.

The other thing that is becoming obvious is that the big tech companies are all feeling more responsibility toward thinking about content. We are constantly approached now by the companies on the West Coast, wanting to partner with us to create good quality content. And I think everybody realises now there is an absolute block of, quite frankly, crap out there, and that brand feel both an obligation and an excitement around producing high quality, premium content.

Not only are there moral reasons for doing that, but there are also great business reasons for doing that. If you’re AT&T, or you’re JPMorgan Chase, you don’t want to be advertising next to nonsensical stories. You want to be up against high quality content, and that’s what Hearst is in the business of doing. I know, because I field a lot of the calls. There’s tremendous excitement working with a company like Hearst that knows what we’re doing.

We’ve just launched My Beauty Chat with Amazon and it uses Alexa Skill. And they’re incredibly upbeat about the potential for that. And we’ll definitely be doing more content with emerging text, with voice being a part of that. So, I see us developing that a lot. And obviously, Apple has its HomePod coming out next year, it’s just been delayed, but they’re excited to work with Google Home. We’re working on a lot of what we call “listenables,” which is bite sized pieces of audio content. So, I’m having conversations with chief content officers at many different companies than I would have been doing three years ago.

Would you define the word content for me today? What’s content in 2018?

That’s a very good question; no one has asked me that before. What is content? I think it is information served up in a responsible and entertaining way, that helps you understand and appreciate the world that you’re living in. And at its best, it resonates, and adds to your appreciation and understanding of the world we live in. And it’s also a fantastic emotional distraction. And at its worst, it’s full of misinformation and leaves you depressed and restless.

And does content differ with the many platforms?

Of course, because you want to always play to a platform’s strength. So, in a magazine, you want to indulge in fabulous flights of fantasy with great photographers who can transport you and take you on a voyage of discovery that you didn’t know you wanted to go on. If you’re on your phone, you want digestible bits of information, some to make you laugh, some to make you feel, and some to inform you.

As you go through your day, how do you decide where the content goes? This belongs to print, this belongs to digital, this content is voice, this content is video; do you have to really think about those decisions or does it just come naturally to you?

The editors make that decision. The editors are always thinking through the prism of their own brand; is this right for video, is this right for digital, is this print, is this a podcast, so the individual editors will have a good sense of where that material goes. For example, if you shoot Miley Cyrus, as Cosmo did recently; Miley Cyrus took Cosmo through her old childhood home and back to her childhood bedroom. That is a great story in print, because it’s emotional; the photos were terrific. But it was also a great video and it got great traction online, because you the viewer were taken into a private place that you don’t normally have access to. But in print, it was equally powerful.

There are many subjects which lend themselves to the different forms of content, but the ideal is when you’re doing one story and you can package it out across all different media.

What has been something that you wished you wouldn’t have done in your professional career as an editor?

I never think about what I shouldn’t have done. I’ve spent half my life in the fetal position about what I shouldn’t have done, but I also move on. I’ve made hundreds of mistakes, everybody who’s doing a job well has made hundreds of mistakes, but I don’t dwell on them.

What’s the best decision you’ve made in your professional career?

Probably saying yes to [this] opportunity.

What advice would you give millennials who might want to follow in your footsteps? How can someone become the next Joanna Coles?

First of all, I would instruct them to have fun. If you’re not passionate about doing it then you won’t enjoy it, because it’s a hard job; it’s long hours, but if you love it, it whistles past. And to be good to your peer group, because you will rise and fall with them, and there is no room in this business for people who misbehave. And the job is too big to waste energy treating people poorly.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think that the importance of teamwork is one that gets overlooked in this business. Editors in particular get lavished with a lot of attention, but behind every good editor, or every editor with a certain amount of bravery to push the brand forward, there is always a loyal team who have got your back. And that’s the thing that I would like to make clear, that it’s easier to focus on individual people, but actually it’s always teamwork. And the real skill of a good editor in chief is managing a team. And also balancing all of their creative differences to make sure that you get the sum of the part, not the fragment of the part.

If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

When my husband first saw me at a party, he wanted to know who I was and the man next to him said, oh, that’s Joanna Coles, she’s the rudest woman in London, which of course intrigued him. I hope they wouldn’t say that now. I think if they knew me and had worked with me, I hope that they would say that she was fun to work with.

If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

You would find me walking the dog.

My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

I’m embarrassed to say that I sleep like a log. Nothing keeps me up at night. I go to bed thoroughly exhausted and very excited about waking up the next morning.

Thank you.

FIPP have partnered with Samir "Mr. Magazine™" Husni to bring you his interviews with industry leaders and influencers. This interview first appeared on his blog, here

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