How Technology is Transforming Magazine Publishing
FOLIO: To start, which technologies have had the most significant impact on your individual jobs over the past year. New product applications? Enterprise software? Workflow solutions? Digital delivery opportunities?
MARIE MYERS: Enterprise software. Our financial systems switched over to Oracle, and we’re putting more of our auto management into it. Our events, billing, everything is going direct into it, and we’re changing the whole program to work for us.
JOE GALARNEAU: We were sold from Primedia two years ago, so we had to rip our operations out of Primedia, and establish our own standalone platforms. Essentially, it’s re-inventing everything.
DAN BIGMAN: We completely re-did our publishing system. Forbes.com is now completely online. Previously, we were just putting up a data dump from the magazine once every two weeks. But we have about a 50-person newsroom, so we’re almost completely focused on doing news. This was the third publishing system I’ve been involved in the building of, and the big change this time was it took us only six months, because of open source software.
The things that you used to have to figure out on your own, someone has figured out already. And our programmers were able to pick things off the shelf, base everything off of XML, and put together a publishing system that’s all browser-based. It allows you to copy edit and publish to the Web and produce pages.
The first publishing system I helped build took almost a year to get together. I almost didn’t take this job when I found out I was going to have to do that. But it was a whole lot easier this time.
FOLIO: Jeff, I know you’re coming at this from a different angle. Can you talk a little bit about what technologies had changed for you specifically, and also what you’re observing in the publishing industry?
JEFF JARVIS: Sure. We can’t be afraid nor can we think that we’re special. I saw that happen in the newspaper industry, I saw it in the magazine industry, where we tried too hard to think that what we did was essentially special. No, we write words, we publish them. We put photos in there. Especially online, that’s getting easier and easier.
Publishers understand what it comes down to when it comes to searches and optimization, to have their brand out there, to have their content distributed in new ways, to realize that their essence is not that they’re printed on a slip of paper. Their essence is that they pick good stuff that people like. But once those people come together around that good stuff, there’s a new opportunity now to use the Internet to say, well, what do you like? Let’s make this more of a conversation and involve the smart crowd that is around the magazine. Once they gather around, let’s see what we should do next, with search engines and blogs and forms of interactivity. And I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet, because magazines are so used to saying, ‘I produce a product and deliver it.’
SHAWN ETHERIDGE: I’d say those same trends apply to data syndication as well. What we’ve done this year is spend a good deal of time putting in light tools that allow us to index down to the field level. So what we’ve taken advantage of this year is getting ourselves tuned to the search engines that are out there, all the way down to a particular user’s bent on a string of data. So it allows us to come in and provide a contextual search a little differently than buying keywords.
You asked about impact, and it’s been two-fold. Traffic’s up 100 percent over a year, and that’s extremely beneficial. But the bigger deal for us is that we’ve quit playing the game of buying keywords and trying to out-bid everybody else on a per-property level. And we’re winning against the people who are making that kind of investment. So while those investments are taking place in search engine marketing, we’re able to win on a search engine optimization level.
JARVIS: What’s the comparative investment in the expertise of SEO versus the cost of SEM?
ETHERIDGE: I’d say our investment is near zero from a relative standpoint because it’s been a change in application resource, as opposed to a net additional investment. On the whole, I would say that our profitability has gone up, because we’ve quit playing the game of buying expertise, or buying the marketing. With Google or Yahoo, you can get to their search functionality and their site mapping. Once we do that, we dynamically tune our indexes.
BUD SHEA: Speaking from the marketing database side, there are two areas: one, Web services, because of the inherent nature of the marketing database is integrating data from various systems and various transactions that may be within one system of our subscribers and customers. So a lot of it has to do with legacy systems. Some of it is newer technology. Web services really help integrate all that.
The other thing is time-based analysis and technology with databases now as an analysis tool. The basic protocol is to run a query, evaluate it, assess it, throw it out, modify it, change it and do it again. And it happens so fast. Ten years ago, running models took weeks. Now we see what the data tells us, and then it starts driving down a path. And it’s just much more effective in turnaround.
FOLIO: Let’s talk a little bit more about workflow solutions. What’s made your workflow more efficient? What’s made it more challenging?
GALARNEAU: One thing that we’re looking at is re-launching this summer on a unified system—not the K4 system, but for the magazine and for the Web. One of our big franchises is listings of restaurants. We’ve got a lot of money invested in it and we want to make sure that we have those well-placed. But to date we’ve had something like six different systems actually contribute those listings. The magazine people use one system, the Web people use another and third parties use another. And a lot of value added things happen with that information. So you have a database here and a database there, and people fact checking, copy editing or researching without synchronizing.
So we’ve been building for the past nine months a Web-based open source base. We haven’t spent a nickel on software other than just consulting and development dollars. You can run it at Starbucks or in Bangladesh. This is something that we hope is going to be the first step for us to unify the editorial staffs in the Web and the print world and kind of get people working on the same database.
BIGMAN: For us, the biggest thing is, we built what we wanted. In the past it was always working around somebody else’s software. And I won’t name our prior vendor, but needless to say, they built the Swiss army knife of publishing systems. It just had a thousand features that we didn’t need that slowed everything down.
My big goal when I got to forbes.com was to make it newsier. And the difficulty with slow software is, even if you’ve got the story in the pipeline, you can get beat. So now when we publish it goes up within a couple of minutes and it actually puts us in the game. The software was designed so that someone could be trained on it in two hours, because you want editors to be focused on editorial, not on gadgets. It just couldn’t be simpler.
JARVIS: When Jim Wolcott started blogging at Vanity Fair, the training took two minutes. He was amazed. Where was the process? Where were all the people that got in the way? As magazines are less based on having to go through a whole bunch of steps, they should instead be based on trying to get stuff out there quickly.
BIGMAN: Didn’t you feel it’s tough to build an integrated Web site the way you want? You end up with a siloed bunch of blogs.
JARVIS: No, if you start to think about the architecture, your Web site is feeds. That’s what the world is, just feeds. Internal feeds, external feeds, database feeds on your Web site, the blog just produces a feed.
FOLIO: How about content management? Or the idea that a magazine would want to, online, slice and dice content in different ways, whether it’s creating archives or images, or just franchise areas?
JARVIS: Yeah, we’ve been too hierarchical with content. Here’s the sports section, here’s the business section, in newspaper speak, or here’s the feature well in magazine speak, right? Online you can put multiple tags on a piece of content that can be found in multiple places, and then you can have multiple behaviors on it as a result. If you think creatively about a new world where we don’t have to put everything into some rigid structure, either in terms of data or in terms of presentation, then we have a lot more flexibility than we ever had in the past.
BIGMAN: Though we talk about how everyone’s coming along, I disagree. A lot of small organizations are still so far behind the curve. When we try to do a partnership, quite often, we have to teach them. They don’t have it yet.
There’s a lot of folks that are out there who still have the intern putting the Web site up. And I feel bad for them because they are really going to lose the audience. And some of the proprietary databases these guys have, the things that they know about their industries, that’s the crown jewel out there. It’s actually one of the few things people will pay money for online.
JARVIS: I also see big companies that are just as light in expertise, that want to go out and buy big honking proprietary systems, and not understand that they’re going to play in a bigger world then.
FOLIO: How receptive is upper management, and how knowledgeable are they to what you need to do your jobs when it comes to technology?
ETHERIDGE: If I’ve got a customer in the front of that conversation then it happens a lot quicker than it would otherwise. We’re not going to be making that big investment over a period of time trying to see if we can set a point in the distance 18 months from now when we’re going to take over the world. That said, it becomes real easy when you get a customer.
GALARNEAU: We’ve got 12 products in print but we meet every week as a senior team. Every week we meet with our folks from Wasserstein and our publisher, editor, myself, and some other people, to talk about technology and about how we can draw our print brand into the Web. So as long as you build a business case, as long as you get aligned with your business partners, getting the support is not the difficulty, because it’s just such an explosive area to prep.
ETHERIDGE: And it’s a different kind of investment now. We’re investing in people and we’re investing in data feeds. We’re doing that on a variable basis as opposed to sinking money into four new servers and a big contract on a lease from a software company. From a technology standpoint, that investment almost mimics what the early days of investing at a magazine were like.
BIGMAN: You wrestle with opportunity costs more than anything else. No matter how many people you have these days, there are more opportunities to do stuff than there are people you can possibly hire and projects they can possibly manage.
JARVIS: I think that the investment now is not technology—because as you say it’s really cheap. The investment is changing culture. Who blocks progress? Sometimes it’s top management. But a lot of times it’s actually the middle range of the people stopping the process. They don’t know how to break out. They say, ‘I’m paid to create this product.’ They’re scared of changing. I’ve seen it work best when top management has the most courage to push the change, and to convince the whole place of the cultural change.
FOLIO: We’ve talked about product development in general terms.What’s been the most significant product development? What was the technology behind that?
BIGMAN: We have seen a tremendous amount of growth in video. Now we have two complete studios, we have a teleconferencing system so we can interview CEOs and reporters in bureaus anywhere in the world. We can do interviews on location. And we’re seeing a growing interest in watching our stuff from advertisers and from guests.
That’s required significant investment, mostly in personnel and expertise, because the equipment is fairly inexpensive. And I think it’s really just starting. Soon you’ll able to watch it on cell phones and the Blackberry that’s hanging off of every executive’s belt. The hard trick is figuring out the program.
ETHERIDGE: The thing that’s beginning to blossom now is the whole Web services aspect of data delivery, where our data can be created on demand, called electronically, and we become a feed at the per record level. The key for us is meeting customers where they are, and increasingly technology allows us to do that without widespread, heavy investment. As a data proprietor, we need to service the little guys that haven’t quite figured it out yet and still want to read a book, a page at a time, of data listings, all the way up to somebody that wants to call data from their application out of any of the major Fortune 500 companies. They need information at the point of transaction. That has great value.
GALARNEAU: When I was in consulting back in 1999, everyone thought mobile was the next big thing, so our entire firm got staffed up and trained in mobile, and we waited and waited and now here it comes. [LAUGHTER] We really like mobile, but we’ve not seen anyone out there, other than people doing ring tones and jokes of the days.
BIGMAN: You can throw so much energy so quickly at things right now, and wonder if now is the right time or is it two years from now. If you’re right but too early, you’re still wrong.
We’re dealing with that with audio podcasting. We experimented with it but I think we’re just going to wait for the video podcasting, because I’m not fully convinced that even though people are downloading all this audio, that they’re listening to it. And I’ve got no way to prove it to an advertiser.
GALARNEAU: I thought I was alone in that. We’ve done a lot of that, too. I like podcasts, but we just couldn’t figure out how to make it click from a revenue standpoint.
JARVIS: What’s missing there is us taking a leadership position. We’ve got to find the way to attach an ad to it and measure it. And if we did that, it would explode because there would be money behind it. Right now there’s this fear that it’s not there. The audience is certainly there.
BIGMAN: The Web is measured so completely, which as an editor is sometimes a pain. But here’s the next big thing, and nobody’s really come up with the measurement for it. And that is what’s holding up the advertising. Someone’s going to have to be able to show my business side the numbers before advertisers are going to follow online.
FOLIO: Let’s talk about some of the technological challenges on the back end. Marie, what are some of the biggest challenges that you’re facing, and how do you deal with that?
MYERS: Right now we don’t have a single source for content management. We get HTML, we get PDFs, we get all this different type of material that’s coming through our pre-media. And we’re having trouble. It’s tedious to recondition it.
We’re looking at ad portals as an easier way to deliver advertising to us. Right now we’re still getting Fedex packages. One day somebody got film and goes, ‘What’s this?’ [LAUGHTER] Before the end of the year we want to have something in place that’s organized beyond just an FTP site, and also helps brand us to deliver our advertising to the rest. And from a manufacturing point right now we’re just looking for anything you can come up with to save us money on postage.
GALARNEAU: And this is where standards would really help. The world works in Microsoft Word but in the current version of Word you can’t export an XML file. So we asked Microsoft what should we do? Is there a plug-in we can buy or something? No, there’s this other software called Info Path. So now you’ve got Microsoft Word running on your desktop, and you’ve got your e-mail open, and now you’ve got to have Info Path open.
If manufacturers don’t get more involved in helping us with these standards, it’s going to be difficult, because as much as we are moving towards everyone working off blogs or whatever, we’re not there yet. You can’t put out a magazine using blog software.
BIGMAN: For everybody here—what’s your ideal next hire? If you could wave your magic wand, what’s the skill set? For me, the people I look for are really smart and they like to say ‘yes.’ I’ve got a young reporter, a guy named Dan Fromer, who became my stuntman. He’ll try anything.
But what was really nice to see is he came out of Northwestern, and they had trained him in a little bit of everything. I came out of small newspapers with a pure print background. And everything else I just learned on the way. Now they’re coming out with at least a sampling in all of these things, print people who have tried online editing. Intelligence and the willingness to experiment are the most critical skill sets right now.
JARVIS: The tools get in the way. The expertise is not in the tools. It’s in the imagination.
SHEA: In our arena, you have a marketing person who knows what they want to get out of the database but they can’t run a query. And then you have someone else who can give you anything you want, but you’ve got to tell him what you want. So you need that gray person who understands marketing and technology.
GALARNEAU: That’s the tyranny of this market. You have so many people, technologists or business people, who live in their little silos. And in a media company, no matter how big you are, you can’t live in those silos. In our recruitment we ask, specifically, if you want to sit in a corner and do this one little thing, and be told what to do. If so, don’t apply here.
ETHERIDGE: It matters where you are in the product life cycle, too. With mature products that have heavy revenue and a long-standing customer base, we’re hiring people who are knowledgeable in the industry who are going to maintain that mature product line. When we’re talking about product launch, it’s kids out of school. And oftentimes not in disciplines that we’re looking at from a job standpoint. I hired an English major who knows more about blogging software than any technologist. We’re going to go find somebody who is entrepreneurially minded.
FOLIO: Guys, let’s end with a quick soundbyte question. What’s your advice to other publishers, when either evaluating new technologies or pursuing new products?
ETHERIDGE: Talk to your customer and follow them, follow their technology. We’re never going to be the great explorer out there that is producing some new technology, but we’re certainly going to provide what our customers are asking for. Your investment gets a little smarter that way.
JARVIS: I should paraphrase the obvious rule which is ‘keep it simple, sir.’ You have got to re-think how to do things in a simple, light way, because now you can. I see publishing companies buy the next big, honking piece of iron and every time I rub my eyes and say, ‘Oh boy, okay you’ve just delayed your supper another five years to get to the promised land.’
BIGMAN: Things are moving too quickly for anybody to say they know what this is, or where this is going. So anybody who says that these days, just discount that by 50 percent, because nobody knows where this is going.
GALARNEAU: In soundbyte parlance, closely follow trends but don’t be a slave to them.
MYERS: Before you buy, make sure it’s going to be there a year from now. [LAUGHTER]. Before you start an investment, make sure it’s the right one.
SHEA: Just involve the tech department, specifically for marketing databases because of all the different integration of disparate systems. It’s so much smoother and easier. It’ll save you months of headaches.