For an industry full of high-level acquisition rumors and a steady retreat from reliance on its namesake product (i.e. print magazines), speakers and attendees at the American Magazine Media Conference were rather hopeful.
Moving forward was an obvious theme for the conference, held Wednesday at the Conrad New York in Downtown Manhattan: New product innovations coexisting alongside major restructurings and downsizings; new digital applications; and new approaches to fact-checking in a political moment in which the president has characterized the media as “the opposition party.” The whole industry, it seems, is trudging along, with retrenchment and uncertainty mixing with optimism.
Print was hardly even mentioned until the conference’s final moments when Stephen Lacy, CEO of Meredith Corp., urged attendees to come together to prevent the USPS from renewing a recently expired surcharge on magazines.
Someone unfamiliar with the industry might wonder, what could postage rates possibly have to do with the data and e-commerce driven product being discussed in the morning sessions? Ah, what a time to be a publisher.
The MPA-produced event attracted about 400 people, the association said. It included a mix of stars from within the industry and the outside, including the director Ron Howard, and featured several prominent journalists interviewing high-profile individuals and panels. Read on for the conference’s top take-aways.
Tech needs content
Good media technology is useless without high-quality content. This was the take-away from a panel session in which Joe Brown, editor-in-chief of Popular Science, interviewed Mike Federle, Forbes Media CEO, and Christine Hunsicker, CEO of the fashion e-commerce company Gwynnie Bee.
Hunsicker described the early days at her company when she realized that low-quality merchandise photos were responsible for poor sales. Despite having a remarkable piece of technology, the company forgot to take an editorial eye to its consumer-facing product. Once Gwynnie Bee realized this, Hunsicker said, the company focused on being both a tech company and a content creator.
Federle faced the opposite challenge of transforming his media company into a tech company. He described a CMS which allows for vetted Forbes contributors to post to the site directly without going through an editor; Forbes “edits the contributors, not the content.” This allows for large quantities of content to flow through the digital assets without weighing down on full-time Forbes staff.
Readers reward quality
While print was on the backburner, AMMC was all about content, content, content. In a striking afternoon panel, ex-Fox News host Gretchen Carlson discussed journalistic standards and fact-checking with People’s Jess Cagle, Good Housekeeping’s Jane Francisco, Glamour’s Cindi Leive, New York’s Adam Moss, and Parents’ Liz Vaccariello.
The editors discussed the importance of fact checking in a time of peak ‘fake news.’ Since print magazines are one of the only mediums that have the time and staff to fact check, they have an advantage over other outlets. However, some of the editors said, it’s important to instill a sense of responsibility in writers to do their own fact-checking before pushing content out digitally.
Vaccariello and Leive in particular shared non-political examples of contemporary fact-checking challenges. At Parents, Vaccariello is challenged with readers who oppose her well-verified heath coverage with discredited or unscientific research. At Glamour, a big challenge for Leive is sieving out stories which feel true because of assumptions and bias — particularly around gender and sex norms. While readers sometimes want a story to be true, it’s up to editors to challenge the assumptions of their audience with facts and expert analysis.
Risk-taking pays off
Richard L. Plepler, CEO of Home Box Office, Inc., joined Time Inc. Chief Content Officer Alan Murray on stage to discuss his decision to transform an already successful TV company, and turn it into a competitor of today’s hottest television disruptors, Amazon and Netflix. Though there was no need to reinvent HBO at the time, Plepler decided to beat the newcomers at their own game, and so far it's worked.
It’s an important lesson for legacy publishers, who are often the best at what they do, but face competition from outside industries like tech. Taking a risk today could put you at the top of the game tomorrow.