“The Great Resignation did not need to happen!” John Wilpers on why there needs to be a new understanding between media execs and their employees

As a regular contributor to FIPP Congress, John Wilpers has charted the evolution of the magazine publishing industry for many years. He has not been shy in sharing with the attendees his opinions on everything from digital transformation through to staff retention issues.

Last year he began a new chapter in his working life with the launch of consulting group, Katahdin Media Management. Together with his new team John will be focusing on advising publishing clients on how to future-proof their offerings while ensuring they have buy-in from their staff, their readers and their advertisers.

Along with his partner from Katahdin Media, Peter Medwid (who also contributed to this interview), John will be hosting a roundtable at Congress which will look at how publishing companies across the globe have put their staff at front and centre of the way they operate.

Here John talks specifically about the challenges of Covid, why companies need to do more to stave off ‘The Great Resignation,’ and whether, if he was in his 20s, he would be working for mainstream media or helming his own startup.  

Part of our: Meet the Speaker Series

John will be speaking at the 44th FIPP World Media Congress in Lisbon-Cascais, in June, and you can find out more here.

Many Fipp.com readers will know who you are, but can you start by saying what you have done in the past and give an update as to what you are doing now? What ways is Kathadin Media different from your previous consultancy?

In late 2021, after almost 50 years in media, I started my own media consulting group with two extremely talented partners with decades of magazine and newspaper experience (Katahdin Media Management). What sets us apart is our commitment to finding practical, local, achievable solutions to the challenges our clients face by involving everyone in the company in creating those solutions and thus almost guaranteeing not only buy-in but also company-wide enthusiasm for change.

We also often involve members of the company’s customer base — readers and advertisers — to discover their unmet needs and then direct editorial and revenue efforts to meet those needs. 

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing magazine publishing companies in 2022? Are they different in different global regions? Can you give some examples?

The biggest challenges facing magazine media companies are actually getting audience connections and retaining quality staff. With the intense competition for readers’ time and limited subscription spending, it is more important than ever for media companies to get in touch with their audiences to determine their unmet needs.

With that knowledge, you can create products and services to meet those needs. We have not found many companies that have talked with their readers in any meaningful way in years, if ever. We can’t make our advertisers happy, we can’t sell subscriptions, we can’t attract paying crowds to events if we aren’t providing unique content and services that meet their unmet needs. And we can only discern those needs by talking with them.

The other challenge is attracting and retaining quality staff, which I address below. It is striking just how similar the challenges are across the globe. The universality of media challenges doesn’t mean the solutions are universal, but our global experience enables us to share perspectives and ideas from around the world to inform local solutions.  

What has been the main impact of the pandemic on publishing. Can you give some positives as well as negatives? Also what has changed in the last two years that is going to become permanent?

It’s almost trite to say it now, but the pandemic really did speed up needed changes, most obviously the adoption of remote working arrangements and the adoption of digital creation and delivery the ‘main event’ and not a ‘side show’ anymore. Anyone who was dabbling in digital had to ramp up or die. But like all sudden change, the pendulum has swung too far. Fully remote teams aren’t really teams, especially in creative fields like magazine media. We need periodic in-person interaction to get the creative juices flowing. Not every day, but often enough to make connections and feed our creative souls.  

We are hearing a lot about the ‘Great Resignation.’ Is this happening in the media as well? If so, why is this trend occurring?

The Great Resignation did not need to happen. Most people don’t resign from jobs they love. In interviewing staff around the world, we have been hearing for years about poor corporate culture, lack of appreciation and opportunities for professional growth. So it’s no surprise when one of the main incentives to stay at a job — the camaraderie — was reduced to periodic, impersonal Zoom calls.

“Media executives must wake up and make their companies attractive, rewarding, supportive, important places to work and, critically, a place where their people can grow professionally.”

Media executives must wake up and make their companies attractive, rewarding, supportive, important places to work and, critically, a place where their people can grow professionally. The Great Resignation was also abetted by the stress of working remotely. It may have eliminated the hated commute, but it also extended the work day into almost every waking hour. The Great Resignation also prompted many media people, mostly journalists, to realise they could untether themselves from their salaried jobs and strike out on their own. Not all succeeded, but it was an enticing siren song.  

And crucially what can publishers do to keep staff? 

Fix your culture. Talk to your staff. Are they happy? If not, why not? Don’t assume it’s all about pay. It rarely is. Does your company have an inspiring mission? Do you help your people grow professionally? Do you publicly show your appreciation for their work? Is it a fun place to work?  Your staff needs to feel appreciated, important, and heard. They need to feel they are growing professionally. They need to see a career path. Most importantly, they need to have a say in the future of the company.

In this cultural area, there is a divide in terms of what motivates millennials and Gen Z staff, and what drove Baby Boomers and some Gen Xers. Younger staff are less interested in ladder climbing and much more interested in having a life, both in and out of the office. That means different things to different people, but it can involve the company mission and life in the office as well as support for the pursuit of personal passions and giving back. We help media companies discover what motivates their staff and develop strategies to meet those needs.  

How do you change the culture of a business to ensure that you have content, motivated teams?

You involve the staff from day one. If you try to change the culture from the top down, you can be assured there will be a cadre of “Vietcong” who will fight and undermine you every step of the way. We start by asking everyone three questions:  

  1. What’s right 
  2. What’s wrong that we should stop doing 
  3. What should we start doing that we’re not  

Make a list of all the things that need solutions. Present them at a ‘Town Hall.’ And then ask for volunteers. In our experience, you’ll get 75-85% of staff volunteering. Form committees that have one month to present a proposal. Give the CEO ten days to answer. Wash, rinse, repeat. Because the changes will be coming from the very people responsible for executing them, buy-in is virtually guaranteed. And the company starts to turn around. We recommend using an outside firm (like us or any HR company) as employees are nervous about criticising the company to the person who signs their paycheck. 

Do you think that there is still a strong pipeline of young talent coming to the industry? 

There is still the allure of working in media, but parents of students I talk with are very nervous about their children entering the media industry. That said, when was the last time kids listened to their parents? Universities are doing a better job of preparing student journalists for the digital world, and more companies are doing the smart thing and creating mentorship programs to attract young journalists. As I said earlier, media companies must make themselves more attractive places for the new digitally savvy generation, places where all the tools of creative storytelling are used and valued. And those media companies should recruit on campuses.  

If you were a twenty-something now, would you not be more inclined to develop your own startup?

With the barriers to entry so low, it would be very tempting to develop a startup today. But, as newsletters and media sites proliferate, the challenge would be to find a niche where there is still an unmet need that you could fill in a way that would command the attention (and subscription money) of those readers.

Getting discovered will be difficult as will securing launch and initial operational funding. But there have been many examples of initiatives that looked doubtful that have succeeded famously (read this inspiring story about MLK50 whose founder was told by a Harvard Business School professor and global venture philanthropy firm CEO that her idea was “not viable”, but that recently turned five with significant grant funds backing it). 

Can you finish by giving me three trends that publishers really need to keep a close eye on 2022?

That’s a dangerous question, the kind that elicits answers like “the metaverse” or “crypto currency” or “virtual reality”. Maybe someday, but few of us are in a position to be spending sleepless nights over those. The more important trends are those that can impact our businesses today. 

Artificial intelligence: It will impact media in so many ways both prosaic and profound, from automated content creation and data manipulation to interacting with readers, content personalisation, and much more.

Newsletters: Sounds obvious and perhaps an “old” trend, but we find few publishers are taking full advantage of this low-cost/high return product to serve the niches and sub-niches in their audiences that could support profitable newsletters serving attractive, qualified readerships and delivering dollars and data. Break your audiences down; you’ll find groups with unmet needs you can service.  

Less is more: We always find overworked editorial and sales staff, killing themselves to service old and new initiatives, some of which just don’t deliver any ROI in terms of the time dedicated to them. Many media companies around the world have found, for example, that doing fewer, better stories results in greater engagement and increased subscriptions. Examine every existing product and every story-production KPI with an eye toward ROI. Kill ineffective products and reduce reporting requirements by 25% (Gannet in the U.S. reduced the story expectations by 50%). 

To see the latest speaker line-up for this June’s FIPP World Media Congress, along with details on the agenda and more, click here.


Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x