Oxford, Mississippi—Magazine publishers from a broad cross section of the industry spent two days presenting their best practices and innovative ideas for an era of transition during the third annual ACT III conference at the University of Mississippi.
Like at the AMC in San Francisco last week, the underlying theme of the event was whether print media’s best days are behind it. And if it is, the question was how long the decline will take, and how far down print will go. And like at the AMC, there was no broad agreement. In fact, said opening keynoter Sid Holt, executive director of the American Society of Magazine Editors, no one really knows what form the business will take in the years ahead.
And in the meantime, publishers described how they’re innovating and iterating to serve the changing needs of their communities.
The conference, organized by Samir Husni, founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center here, featured an eclectic mix of speakers, from Rebecca Darwin, CEO of the acclaimed Garden & Gun, to Michael Capuzzo, publisher of Northern Pennsylvania’s Mountain Home, and author of the best-selling real-life shark thriller, "Close to Shore." There were 145 attendees at the event, which also featured tours of the historic city and a visit to the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of blues music.
Because it’s held in an academic setting, the event included students as attendees and sometimes participants, and many speakers geared their remarks to the next generation of journalists as well.
Even as individual magazine operators and entrepreneurs told their own stories, the state of the industry was summed up in a presentation by Bob Sacks, the newsletter publisher and chronicler of the state of the magazine industry.
"We’re in a period of what I call the great realignment," Sacks said. "We’re going from being primarily print-revenue based to one that’s primarily digital. But for print, a loss of dominance does not equal death. There will be hundreds of billions of dollars to be made in the reading industry."
Sacks also urged publishers to reinvent themselves before someone else does, and from the tone of the presentations, the attendees and speakers at ACT III are busy doing just that.
For example, in 2009, when it was in danger of being shut down, Garden & Gun set itself to developing new ways to connect, Darwin recalled. "I really always envisioned that this would be a national magazine that was about a region and a lifestyle," she said. "But during that time, the four "P’s"—paper, printing, prepress and postal—kept coming. And at the same time the advertisers were paying late. So I got the staff together and said, ‘We have got to come up with something that will generate some revenue. We created a club. We came up with the membership levels ourselves. We came up with the names, and now we have a very loyal audience and the club is working well."
And Kevin P. Keefe, vice president of editorial at Kalmbach Publishing Co. described a variety of spinoff business lines in his company’s markets, which focus on railroading, model railroading and other enthusiast markets. Included in these products are track plans for modeling enthusiasts available for sale online, railroad maps that tell different stories about the industry, and DVD archives of back issues of print magazines.
"These are the most profitable products we’ve ever produced,” Keefe said, crediting Sue Roman of Taunton Press for the idea. "It’s insane how popular they are."
Two speakers, Keefe and Jim Elliott, president of The James. G. Elliott Co., noted that apps have not played out as well as many publishers had hoped. "[The] Apple Newsstand hasn’t been quite the bonanza we were hoping for, but it still has been a positive," Keefe said.
Perhaps the most passionate speaker was Capuzzo, who summarized the true value of the industry: "It starts with the writer," he said. "One of the things I wanted to talk about was content. At Mountain Home, we’ve suffered for something, and I hope this is it."
Paraphrasing Oxford native William Faulkner, Capuzzo said, "Journalism, at least on the newspaper side, has been a utopian venture, except they are aiming it at a tragic species."
Tony Silber is the general manager of FOLIO: Magazine.