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From the archive: ‘How to do print in the digital age’

Samir Husni is the founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. He’s also known as – and owns the trademark for – ‘Mr. Magazine’.

Husni spoke to Jon Watkins about the future of print in the digital age.

How do you view the role of print today and going forward?

Well, one thing that I was always a firm believer in and I continue to be is that we have never had a problem with ink on paper. We never had a problem with the technology that we call ‘print’. We always had problems with what we put in print and with who advertises in print. Of these two issues, there is one that we have complete, 100% control over – which is content – and another that is completely out of our hands. The advertising depends on the economy and whether people want to advertise or not. Of course, from 2008-09, we were hit with a double whammy. The economy busted, mainly in the US and then later worldwide, while at the same time new technology was bursting on to the scene. With the iPhone, then the iPad and then all the smartphones – it was as if there was no tomorrow. So we as an industry all of a sudden had two options: an old-aged economy that is failing, like an old man walking the streets on a cane or a walker; versus this beautiful, seductive mistress called digital. So which one do you think we fell in love with? Unsurprisingly, most people in our industry fell in love with digital.

That’s true, of course, but print did not die…

No, it didn’t. But it did take us around five years to stop the love affair and to realise that our old faithful partner print could still provide us with a lot of money. The truth of the matter is that we have to stop thinking it’s an‘either/or’ situation. We can have both. I mean, they have to complement each other, we can’t just put the same thing in print that we put in digital – but both can survive. And I have a very straightforward way to decipher between what should go in each. The very first thing I tell anybody who’s willing to listen, all my clients, all my students and all the people in my seminars is this: If I can Google it and find the answer for it, it does not belong in print.

Can you define that a little more? What makes great print content versus great digital content?

To me, the role of print today has to be a combination of creation and curation, plus credibility and an authority that says ‘if it’s in print, it’s authentic, it’s there to stay, it’s documented’. It cannot have the feel of or even a sniff of being a disposable item. Print must have a collectability factor built into it, which means its production values have to be different, which means the paper quality has to be good and that the type of content that demonstrates‘what’s in it for me’. If I am willing to give you 15 minutes of my time, what are you giving me back? Are you doing all that research, all that curation, finding all these answers and making them authentic, thus saving me all that time? Because that’s our biggest competitor today. It’s not digital. It’s not mobile. Our biggest competitor is time. We are strapped for time and our attention span is so short. I saw a presentation at the FIPP World Congress in Canada, where Joe Ripp, the CEO of Time Inc, talked about research that showed our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight – which is one second more than a goldfish!

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So that’s what I tell my editors and the people I work with. I tell them to have a goldfish on their desks and to see how well they can keep that goldfish’s attention.

Would you say that most publishers have recognised the need for a change in the value of the content they produce now, and that advertisers are also responding?

Yes. Two major things have taken us in that direction. One is that all the digital entities who started with nothing but digital and then discovered print, provided a big wake-up call for print publishers. They are now all moving into print. And some of them are doing very, very good print. The other thing that took place was a change of culture. I asked Joe Ripp why, if we consider media people to be the most creative people on the face of this earth, why did it take us five or six years to recognise that we were not competing with digital, but that we should be finding ways to co-exist. He told me that the answer lies with one word: culture. It was the hardest thing to change that culture. When you reach my age, and I’m 62, you have nearly 50 years of experience under your belt and that experience sometimes becomes more like baggage. We call it experience but, in reality, can I really be as innovative as somebody who’s 20 years old? So we become experts in renovation rather than innovation. And for us to accept the fact that things are really changing, that change is the only constant in our business and that we need to bring in a different culture, is difficult. We need to be the agents of change.

What trends are you seeing across regions? Are there differences in how content is evolving in different places?

Yes, definitely. I do a lot of work in Europe and the thing I always hear is that in the US we are something like two years behind. But it’s different in different regions. I remember my first visit to Japan in 2001 and everybody was text messaging. Who was text messaging in the US in 2001?

There are differences with print. In the US, we have horrifying single copy sales; we’ve lost 50% of the volume on the newsstands in the last five years. We are still an industry in the US that gives its magazines away. Our major revenue still comes from advertising. There is a new breed of magazines coming into the marketplace, which is high-value magazines selling for $20-$25 per issue. But when you tell somebody in Europe that I can get Opera magazine or Cosmopolitan magazine or Time magazine for $5 or $10 or $20 for the entire year, they cannot believe it. 

In a place like Dubai, the advertising market also continues to be very strong.

Because we are using technology to target specific audiences and because we’re no longer living in what I call the bloated days of the media, where we were actually printing money regardless of where you were – the mass audience magazines are slowly but surely disappearing from the marketplace. Those days are gone and we are trying to do more with less. And that’s the biggest trend that I am seeing, especially in the US. 

What other trends are we seeing – particularly around the people we need to enact the culture change required for businesses to be successful?

The biggest change that we have to recognise as journalists, as publishers, is the fact that we have more than one audience now. And whoever wants me in print does not necessarily want me in digital, does not necessarily want me on a website. That’s why using data is so much more important now. The people who are really making a lot of money from digital were never media people. I mean Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook. None of these entities were ever publishers. So we have to think differently too.

Overall, do you feel like industry is going in the right direction… that the future is bright?

I do. I feel like we have seen a period of realisation – where the players in the market learned that they have to think differently. That’s why sometimes I disagree with people when they say they are just a content company. If we are only in the content-providing business we would have been dead a long time ago. A magazine is much more than the content. A magazine to me is an experience. A website is an experience. An app is an experience. And unless we can make those experiences addictive experiences people are going to leave us. People are going to find substitutes. And to have an addictive experience, you have to relate to your audience. You have to give them the choice. You have to give them the control. And you have to accept the fact that they want to be heard.

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