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The Mr. Magazine™ interview: Strange Science, reverse engineering creating reverse publishing

“Coming back to some fundamentals that we who love magazines have been talking about for years. I think there’s a physical, tangible reality to magazines that you don’t get online. There’s a durability there in a print product and to a certain extent, there’s a promise that the time and effort that would go into creating and editing and vetting that content in a more durable form, whereas I think online, and we’re seeing this, it’s a voracious beast, where you have to constantly be cranking out new content.” - Steve George, vice president, content, Kalmbach Media

 

Mr. Magazine Interview ()

 

Kalmbach Media (formerly Kalmbach Publishing) has been around for more than 80 years, offering niche titles such as Model Railroader, Discover, Bead & Button, Classic Toy Trains, and Astronomy, plus many more. The science group of magazines expanded its family recently with a digital-to-print, digest-sized special issue publication called Strange Science, featuring more than 50 strange-but-true stories from every field of scientific inquiry.

I spoke with Steve George, vice president of content at Kalmbach, recently and we talked about this digital-to-print publication that curates popular digital content in a convenient digest print format. Steve is a firm believer in print magazines permanently joining the definition of the word multiplatform. After all, how can you be across all platforms without print. And that’s Kalmbach’s mission, to meet their reader and customer everywhere they want to consume content. And with the digest-sized format of Strange Science, Kalmbach is hoping that science enthusiasts and those of us out there who might not consider ourselves science readers will enjoy the convenience and just outright fun of the magazine.

So, come along with Mr. Magazine™ as we discover the strange world of science together from the man who guides those unusual stories onto the printed page and onto the screen, the Mr. Magazine ™ interview with Steve George, vice president, content, Kalmbach Media.

But first the sound-bites

On whether the industry is suddenly moving from digital back to print: You’ve said it yourself, it’s not about print versus digital anymore, it’s about delivering what your audience wants on the platform where they want to engage with it. And like so many other publishers, we’re striving to serve up more and more digital content, but we know there is a place for print and we’re still very committed to print and we’re seeing a desire across all demographics to engage with print magazines.

On what has been the early reaction from the audience to the digital-to-print concept: It was pretty strong. In fact, recently we sat down to put together the framework for the second of those SIPs. We know there was a strong response and we definitely saw people who we normally hadn’t seen coming to the site and taking a look, so I think the response has been very favourable for us.

On the changes at Kalmbach, including a new CEO: We’ve certainly seen a lot of changes in the past year with Dan (Hickey) aboard as our CEO, and obviously one thing that he has always emphasised is magazines are going to continue to be a critical part of our business, it’s a strong and profitable area for us, particularly in our hobby magazines, which still contribute hugely to our profits, but we are phase of dramatic digital growth. We have to be, like a lot of publishers. And this is especially true in our science group. I’m sure you’ve seen the magazine media fact book, the MPA numbers; science and technology is the number one growth area by content category. And we’re well-positioned to serve that category, it’s a growth area for us and Dan has identified that as such and we’re pushing hard to grow that category.

On why he thinks the category of science is growing: I think there are several reasons. One overarching factor is that people are looking for great, vetted, factual information, and I think there are a lot of questions about different kinds of science. We’ve seen this at all levels, at the national level. There is a lot of information out there that people aren’t sure about, in terms of the environment or honorary matters of science, so I think that there always has been an interest in science content, but I would say that folks have become keener to find reliable, vetted, well-sourced information and get it in a format in which they want to consume it.

 

Strange Science ()

 

On what role he thinks magazines play in the art of creation and curation of trusted information: Coming back to some fundamentals that we who love magazines have been talking about for years. I think there’s a physical, tangible reality to magazines that you don’t get online. There’s a durability there in a print product and to a certain extent, there’s a promise that the time and effort that would go into creating and editing and vetting that content in a more durable form, whereas I think online, and we’re seeing this, it’s a voracious beast, where you have to constantly be cranking out new content.

On which he enjoys more, the art of creation or the art of curation: I have a role now where I do a little less creation, and for that matter a little less curation, working with all of the content team who do that. I would say that it’s both. In my younger days when I was mostly a writer, I would said creating, but it’s equally challenging, in some cases, more challenging to edit and curate, find the right mix of content to strengthen your relationship with your readers. And so they both have their joys and their frustrations, but mostly joy. I find both equally rewarding.

On one reason someone should go to the newsstand and buy a copy of Strange Science: One reason? Because it’s fun. It’s a great way to get great science content and if you don’t think of yourself as a reader of science content, this might change your mind. It’s engaging; it’s not highbrow, like a medical journal; it’s very much written for the layperson, but it’s not dumb downed. It’s pure entertainment as well as information and that’s what we want, we want to both inform and delight. So, why wouldn’t you? (Laughs)

On whether there will be more digest-sized titles coming from Kalmbach: I would say that anything is possible, this is really the first digest format that we’ve done. I used to work in digest titles; I was at Prevention for several years and it was one of the great technical challenges, to make a small magazine feel big. I certainly think we managed to do that and we thought it would be a great format to try. As they say, it’s convenient, you can throw it in a bag or practically stick it in your pocket. We just wanted to make it easy and convenient. I can see us doing more in the future. It’s really going to depend on what the content is and what we think the audience will enjoy.

On anything he’d like to add: From the digital-to-print side, we’re just looking for ways to deliver great content to the audience in whatever platform they want. I would say for us, for science, it’s particularly important, as I mentioned, because that’s a big growth area for us, especially for our science group, which is really Discover and Astronomy and we have an ecommerce store that’s My Science Shop. It’s a big growth area for us and we intend to offer marketing institutions a large science media platform, coupled with new and exciting ways to engage with science enthusiasts and thought-leaders.

On what keeps him up at night: What doesn’t keep me up at night? (Laughs) I’m a champion worrywart. I always worry about doing enough for readers and our customers. I think a lot about my content team, trying to give them the resources and support they need. Content is the lifeblood of what we do and so my teams and our readers are eminently worth worrying about.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Steve George, vice president – content, Kalmbach Media.

 

Steve George ()

 

Are we suddenly seeing this move from digital to print? Is the industry getting smarter, utilising all of that free content that was once on digital, and now selling it between the pages of print?

(Laughs) Well, I’d like to think so. You’ve said it yourself, it’s not about print versus digital anymore, it’s about delivering what your audience wants on the platform where they want to engage with it. And like so many other publishers, we’re striving to serve up more and more digital content, but we know there is a place for print and we’re still very committed to print and we’re seeing a desire across all demographics to engage with print magazines. Especially one you can just toss into your beach bag and not worry about dropping it into the sand or trying to read it in direct sunlight. As a lean-back experience it’s still a great form of entertainment and information for lots of people.

So, for us, we have content that we have online and some of it is part of a paid subscription, some of it, as you say, is out there in the wild for free, but we wanted to curate some of that and put it into a print format that folks would engage with. Strange Science is our first for science brands, for Discover, but this is something that we’ve also done in our hobby titles. Back in May we had another digital-to-print product with a model railroading SIP, Model Railroading – The Ultimate Guide and that was content that was originally video content curated from our subscription site, Model Railroader Video Plus.

From there, the opportunity was again to engage with our readers in a format that they would enjoy, but also to create a relationship with them, where we could entice them to see what else we have to offer online. And in that particular case with Model Railroading, we had strong links from that print content back to videos on the site, and our goal there was to hopefully get them to see what else we had to offer and become subscribers to that video service.

What has been the early reception from the audience to that whole digital-to-print concept?

It was pretty strong. In fact, recently we sat down to put together the framework for the second of those SIPs. We know there was a strong response and we definitely saw people who we normally hadn’t seen coming to the site and taking a look, so I think the response has been very favourable for us.

Obviously, with Strange Science it’s very early days. We have the digital edition and that’s pretty inception level stuff, digital-to-print-to-digital edition. The newsstand copy just came out and so we’re expecting that people are going to respond to it. Not just our core readers, but with Strange Science we wanted to satisfy all of our readers, insatiable curiosity. And go beyond our base to create relationships with new readers, including younger readers who might not self-identify as science readers, but who’d be into the wild mix of topics that we present. And with something like Strange Science being engaging enough to start a relationship with them so they might come and see what else we have to offer both online and on our other platforms throughout the brands that we have in our science category.

Since the last time you and I chatted, a lot has happened at your company, including a new CEO.

We’ve certainly seen a lot of changes in the past year with Dan (Hickey) aboard as our CEO, and obviously one thing that he has always emphasised is magazines are going to continue to be a critical part of our business, it’s a strong and profitable area for us, particularly in our hobby magazines, which still contribute hugely to our profits, but we are phase of dramatic digital growth. We have to be, like a lot of publishers.

And this is especially true in our science group. I’m sure you’ve seen the magazine media fact book, the MPA numbers; science and technology is the number one growth area by content category. And we’re well-positioned to serve that category, it’s a growth area for us and Dan has identified that as such and we’re pushing hard to grow that category.

 

Model Railroading ()

 

As someone who has worked in that category for the last six-plus years, can you identify one or two areas in that specific category that would point out why it is growing so much?

I think there are several reasons. One overarching factor is that people are looking for great, vetted, factual information, and I think there are a lot of questions about different kinds of science. We’ve seen this at all levels, at the national level. There is a lot of information out there that people aren’t sure about, in terms of the environment or honorary matters of science, so I think that there always has been an interest in science content, but I would say that folks have become keener to find reliable, vetted, well-sourced information and get it in a format in which they want to consume it.

And from my own experience, and I’ve done science writing, especially on the medical side, for the better part of two decades, in many ways as a reader you see that interest continue to grow. People want to know more about the latest advancements not only in terms of just medicine overall, but in regards to their own personal health and wellbeing. We see that interest growing year over year.

Beyond that, I think people are naturally curious and I don’t think that diminishes over time, so we want to find ways that we can satisfy that curiosity across a variety of platforms, including this new SIP we’re just putting out.

I was looking at some of the statistics that were released recently that show magazines are the most trusted news media out there, with 80 percent of the people trusting magazines more than any other outlet, including television and radio. And it drops all the way to 38 percent for social media. What role do you think magazines play in that art of creation and curation of that trusted information?

Coming back to some fundamentals that we who love magazines have been talking about for years. I think there’s a physical, tangible reality to magazines that you don’t get online. There’s a durability there in a print product and to a certain extent, there’s a promise that the time and effort that would go into creating and editing and vetting that content in a more durable form, whereas I think online, and we’re seeing this, it’s a voracious beast, where you have to constantly be cranking out new content.

Then you end up having a lot of content that just flies through people’s feeds very quickly and some of it is not accurate. You don’t know who the source is necessarily, you don’t know what their agenda is, if they have one, and I think folks are more cognitive of that. And once again, I think with magazines there is a durability and an implied commitment to quality, which we certainly strive to fulfill. And not just in the science content. Across our hobby titles we have the leading experts in those different areas of passion. And we don’t skimp on finding and creating the best possible information to help people satisfy their passions. There is an authenticity that, certainly for Kalmbach, we have more than 80 years of commitment to. That’s an important part of who we are and we’re not going to diminish it or lose that.

Which of the two do you enjoy more, the art of creation or the art of curation?

I have a role now where I do a little less creation, and for that matter a little less curation, working with all of the content team who do that. I would say that it’s both. In my younger days when I was mostly a writer, I would said creating, but it’s equally challenging, in some cases, more challenging to edit and curate, find the right mix of content to strengthen your relationship with your readers. And so they both have their joys and their frustrations, but mostly joy. I find both equally rewarding.

Give me one reason why I should go to the newsstands and buy a copy of Strange Science.

One reason? Because it’s fun. It’s a great way to get great science content and if you don’t think of yourself as a reader of science content, this might change your mind. It’s engaging; it’s not highbrow, like a medical journal; it’s very much written for the layperson, but it’s not dumb downed. It’s pure entertainment as well as information and that’s what we want, we want to both inform and delight. So, why wouldn’t you? (Laughs)

Are we going to see more of those digest-sized titles coming from Kalmbach?

I would say that anything is possible, this is really the first digest format that we’ve done. I used to work in digest titles; I was at Prevention for several years and it was one of the great technical challenges, to make a small magazine feel big. I certainly think we managed to do that and we thought it would be a great format to try. As they say, it’s convenient, you can throw it in a bag or practically stick it in your pocket. We just wanted to make it easy and convenient. I can see us doing more in the future. It’s really going to depend on what the content is and what we think the audience will enjoy.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

From the digital-to-print side, we’re just looking for ways to deliver great content to the audience in whatever platform they want. I would say for us, for science, it’s particularly important, as I mentioned, because that’s a big growth area for us, especially for our science group, which is really Discover and Astronomy and we have an ecommerce store that’s My Science Shop. It’s a big growth area for us and we intend to offer marketing institutions a large science media platform, coupled with new and exciting ways to engage with science enthusiasts and thought-leaders.

From a content perspective we have a lot of stuff that’s digital-first, but our overarching goal is going to be to create multiplatform content that’s engaging to readers and attractive to advertisers. And that is something that we’re committed to on the science side, we’re committed to bringing back national advertisers to Discover and the key to that is a multiplatform approach that includes print as well as native and sponsored content. We’re already seeing some real successes there, but we’re going to continue to grow. We’re going to look at everything from acquisitions to new product launches in order to reach and grow those audiences, both in the science and the hobby space.

For us that means we’re creating a customer journey. We’re going to build and strengthen relationships. Someone will start on the newsstand with a product like Strange Science or Model Railroading, and then they could purchase a paid video product or maybe it’s a subscription box. It’s an exciting time for us and for our current and future customers. That’s where a lot of us are spending our energies right now, making that journey a successful and satisfying one, and strengthening those relationships, which we as a company have had a very long and distinguished career at building and maintaining.

Last time we spoke I asked you what kept you up at night and you said that you were wondering if you were doing enough for readers and your customers. Is that still keeping you up at night?

What doesn’t keep me up at night? (Laughs) I’m a champion worrywart. I always worry about doing enough for readers and our customers. I think a lot about my content team, trying to give them the resources and support they need. Content is the lifeblood of what we do and so my teams and our readers are eminently worth worrying about.

Thank you.

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