American Magazine Media Conference.

At the annual American Magazine Media Conference, an event about magazines and the people who work for them, there was an awful lot of talk about Instagram.

It’s the first thing Kate Lewis, the chief content officer of Hearst Magazines, looks at in the morning; same for Jessica Pels, the new editor in chief of Cosmopolitan; Martha Stewart was an earlier adopter, never mind she kept calling it “The Instagram”; Laura Brown, editor in chief of InStyle, sees it as a modern version of a magazine, and there were more than a few people (not the woman who kept showing off her BlackBerry, but plenty) in the audience scrolling through it during a full day of panels ostensibly aimed at discussing and advising them on magazines.

Funnily enough, Facebook, which owns Instagram, was a sponsor of the event through its new journalism project. And both platforms were subject to their own panels. The first was soft, with Instagram’s news partnerships manager asking Pels, Negar Mohammad of Vogue and Daria Bernardoni of the Italian outlet Freeda to describe “an Instagram success story” for their brand. Each editor did, in turn, revealing just how much they’ve grown to use and depend on the platform to drive clicks and reader engagement. Pels noted that her just-released first cover of Cosmopolitan was actually designed based on the magazine’s most successful Instagram posts. The result is, as Pels wanted, a cover “that looks like it was designed for Instagram.”

“The thing about Instagram is that’s where my reader lives,” Pels said. She also pointed out that her reader opens Instagram an average of 40 times a day, so roughly three times per waking hour.

The other panel was more pointed, with Samantha Barry, the editor in chief of Glamour (entering its first year without a regular print product), peppering Campbell Brown, the news anchor who is now Facebook’s global head of news partnerships, with real questions about the platform and its strained relationship with the media.

Barry pushed Brown on things like Facebook’s new promise of $300 million to various journalism projects, asking for specifics; new “tests” allowing for the first time publisher content that isn’t free on the social platform; Facebook’s role in the spread of political misinformation and what it’s doing to prevent it, and publishers’ feeling “whiplash” by the rate of change to products Facebook introduces and peddles for quick adoption.

“All the whiplash, that was our fault,” Brown admitted. “There was a lack of communication and Facebook Live is a good example of that. But Facebook cannot be the entire solution to your problems, the algorithm is constantly changing. Now, with the Facebook Journalism Project…we’re trying to be extremely direct with publishers, asking ‘What do you want to do on Facebook?’

“This is a very different company today than it was two years ago, massive investments have been made,” Brown added, “but it’s never going to be perfect.”

The fact remains that there was, and still is to an extent, a dependence on Facebook, by people and publishers, and there is now what seems to be a growing dependence on Instagram. Editors and executives are happy to tout successes with readers wherever and however they come, especially in an environment where broad consolidation continues, traffic is less valuable, advertising in magazines is a shrinking business and digital advertising doesn’t make up the difference. Enter paywalls and a new insistence that all content be quality and be paid for, whereas just a few years ago, the hope was to have something cheap “go viral.”

Surprisingly, there wasn’t quite as much denial during the day about any of these things as could be expected. Editors and executives admitted time and time again that things right now are just “difficult.”

Martha Stewart said, “We have to persuade advertisers that [the magazines] are still a viable place.” Joe Brown, the editor of Popular Science, said he keeps having to assure prospective employees that if they take a position, they’ll have a job in six months. Campbell Brown said most of her friends are journalists or work in media and that the future of the industry is a constant topic of conversation with conclusions that are always the same — “No one has a clear picture of what it’s going to look like.” Eric Zinczenko, chief executive officer of Bonnier, admitted that an attempt to build out a branded content division “was a failure” and said flat out that his goal is to run the company “much like a mutual fund,” that it’s “not attached [to media] enough to not consider other things.” Tom Harty, ceo of Meredith Corp., expressed some mild frustration at advertisers talking about a need for “brand safety,” which magazines offer, and the fact that advertising at Facebook is up 30 percent despite the company having “probably the worst six months [of publicity] in its history.”  

Even with an admission of all these troubles, there was a sense that maybe the industry will pull through, somehow. The lead idea right now is paywalls, but there, too, are difficulties.

Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines, compared the “industrial machination” behind his company’s roughly 35 million magazine subscribers to the more “intimate” methodology that he’s discovering needs to go into a digital subscription business, saying “it’s a really important muscle” that’s being worked again.

But for all the talk around Young and his background in pure digital, he was the one to strike the most hopeful tone at the end of a day full of mixed messages.

“This is the best business in the world,” he said. “We occupy a unique place in media and it feels really hard sometimes, but it’s the best. We’re at an inflection point of what is the new magazine industry and that’s an incredible challenge we should all be excited by.”

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