Publishing’s Digital Future

October 12, 2011

A heavyweight from the global media industry asked Northwestern University in Qatar students to prepare for a digital future when he visited campus recently.

Jay McGill, a senior vice president from Hearst Magazines International and 30-year media industry veteran, told students that even traditional print publishers are spending significant resources on digital development and that students must be ready to work with digital technologies.

“Prepare yourself to be able to work across multiple platforms,” McGill said. “Don’t just rely on writing skills or investigative journalism skills.”

Hearst, a company that publishes more than 300 editions of its print titles around the world, is putting significant resources in to digital technologies and content. Each of the company’s 20 U.S. titles has a website and most have a corresponding mobile application.

“We’ve been very active in app development,” McGill said, adding that Hearst runs an “app lab” in New York that does nothing but work on applications for mobile devices.

Thus far the company has been successful in selling apps for Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

The content strategy for apps varies from title to title, McGill said.

“In some cases it’s all new content (on apps),” he said. “The content always mirrors the subject matter of the magazine, but the content approaches the subject a little differently – it’s enhanced, it has video, etc. The vast majority of our sites have probably 30 percent is repurposed content from the print edition. The rest of it is new content that is developed by the web editor, or is content that is designed to supplement what is in the magazine.”

Mobile devices will play an increasingly large role in the media industry, McGill said. In fact, in some instances consumers already rely on mobile technology and never used the Internet very heavily.

“What we’re finding in many markets is that the market jumped over the Internet and went right to mobile,” McGill said. “In India, for example, we spent very little time developing our Internet sites and went right to mobile.”

Though the company recognizes that consumers have moved quickly to digital, the publishing business is still looking for a business model to support digital content.

“How we monetize digital has been the Rubik’s cube to figure out,” he said. “Hearst, along with virtually every other communication industry in the world, messed up initially online … we gave our content away. We trained consumers not to pay for content.”

“Our strategy at least in the U.S.,” McGill said, “is that magazines will be the content generator from which we will export content to wherever the reader wants to read it – weather it be a Zinio edition, on the website, an app, on a Kindle reader or whatever it might be.”

McGill also spoke to students about how companies adapt brands for international markets.

In adapting magazine brands or titles to the international market Hearst seeks to “take the DNA of a brand” and make it relevant to readers in different regions of the world, McGill said.

For a title like Cosmopolitan, which publishes 60 editions around the world including in Mongolia and Azerbaijan, that means keeping Cosmo’s key message of female empowerment, but toning down the racy content that Cosmopolitan is known for in some markets.

In the Middle East Cosmo editors produce content that is geared much more toward relationships than sex, McGill said. Producers in Dubai create about 80 percent of the content that appears in each edition and borrow the remaining 20 percent from other editions around the world, he said.

Hearst also publishes Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan in the Middle East. The company plans to start publishing Good House Keeping this fall.

Though some media experts have projected the coming dominance of digital and demise of print, Hearst and other major publishers have made large investments in print in the last couple of years, especially internationally.

In May Hearst struck a deal to buy Lagradare’s international titles in a deal valued at nearly $1 billion.

“We still believe in print,” McGill said. “We believe print will be the content engine that will drive many of our digital businesses.”

In the Middle East, Hearst will soon face competition from Conde Nast, a major publisher in the United States that publishes GQ, Vogue, Glamour, The New Yorker, Wired, Vanity Fair and other well-known publications.

The future is bright for students who are prepared to work in both print and digital technology. Though the biggest challenge facing students who want a career in media is to get a foot in the door, McGill said.

The path into the magazine business is competitive and students should apply for and complete as many internships as possible, he said.

Richard Roth, senior associate dean for journalism program, said Northwestern University in Qatar is preparing students for success no matter which field they choose to enter.

“Our residency program is designed to help students get jobs,” Roth said. “The residency helps students not only to continue learning, but also make personal connections and gain experience that hiring managers want.”

“Of course our curriculum focuses on the foundational skills of journalists – reporting and writing – but also on preparing students to work in an ever-changing, international multimedia marketplace,” he said. “In many instances we can’t predict what new skills journalists and editors will need, but the curriculum is designed to prepare adaptable, highly-skilled, creative and technically proficient media makers.”

In addition to being well prepared to take on the tasks of modern magazine editors, NU-Q students live in a country that has advantages for media businesses, said Abe Peck, a professor emeritus-in-service at Medill and senior director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center.

Qatar is currently making headlines around the world, Peck said, and there is a lot of interest in the country from the outside. Qatar is also looking outward and taking on a number of high-profile projects internationally. And of course the changes in the country over the next 10 years as the country gears up for 2022 will be profound, giving writers and editors a lot to cover.

Most importantly, Peck said, young media makers will have room to grow.