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Entertainment Weekly Editor Reveals His Personal Pop Culture 'Must List'

A Q&A with Media Vanguard Award Winner Jess Cagle

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Last week we kicked off a new follow-up Q&A series with selected winners of the inaugural Media Vanguard Awards. (Esquire Editor in Chief David Granger talked about the joys and challenges of producing his magazine's iPad app.) This week we continue the series with Entertainment Weekly Managing Editor Jess Cagle. (EW is a Time Inc. publication; at Time Inc., the top editor at each magazine has the title of managing editor.) EW won an MVA for its innovative Must List iPad app, which takes the magazine's popular "Must List" column -- a short list of editors' picks from current pop culture -- and turns it into a delightful, immersive multimedia experience.

The Must List app
The Must List app
Simon Dumenco: I understand you had an insanely short development window for the Must List app.

Jess Cagle: The two months of design, development and QA were intense. When Apple unveiled the iPad in late January of last year we felt strongly that the device would resonate with our readership, and we made launching an app on it a top priority. Ideally we would have preferred more time to iterate and test, but it forced us to stay focused on what was most important.

Mr. Dumenco: Why'd you decide to build out the "Must List" department in app form, as opposed to a doing a full-magazine app like most other titles that jumped on the iPad?

Mr. Cagle: We felt it was really critical to leverage the capabilities of the iPad, and that's a primary reason we decided to launch with the Must List app. It's a popular print feature that translates extremely well to a digital platform, where users can act immediately on our recommendations with one tap. Plus, from a development perspective, it was a manageable concept for us to deliver a quality, useful experience in a very short production window.

Mr. Dumenco: I know EW isn't releasing detailed figures about the Must List app's usage yet, but can you give me a ballpark figure on overall downloads?

Mr. Cagle: Downloads are well into the six figures.

Mr. Dumenco: That's great. How about user-engagement data? What can you give me?

Jess Cagle
Jess Cagle
Mr. Cagle: We're looking at metrics such as repeat visits, time spent, and items viewed per visit, and the results are encouraging. We're seeing over three visits per user per month, which we're pleased with since the content updates weekly.

Mr. Dumenco: That's pretty great, too, given that, according to a recent study I just cited in Ad Age, roughly a quarter of the time mobile apps are used once -- then never used again. I really think the Must List app is just intrinsically more engaging not only because it's so fun to click around in it, but because there's almost a sense of suspense -- like, what will make the list this week? Anyway, let me ask you, to keep the app going once it launched, did you just leverage the existing multimedia capabilities of the staff at EW.com -- or are you devoting a specific operating budget, including incremental staff, to the app?

Mr. Cagle: Since we're already selecting the items and generating write-ups and imagery for the magazine each week, our incremental effort to produce the app each week is minimized. That's not to say it's turn-key -- we're still handpicking the best related buttons [outbound links] for the app each week, and need to do a good amount of photo cropping, but we've been able to build it into the existing workflow without adding resources dedicated solely to maintaining the app. It's also been a great way to get more of our staff accustomed to working on mobile platforms.

Mr. Dumenco: In the year since you've been doing it, has the data and user feedback from the app surprised you, or enlightened you and your staff, in any specific way?

Mr. Cagle: It's reaffirmed that our readers are interested in entertainment across all categories, and that they're eager to find cool, new entertainment. There have been weeks when the most viewed item has been a quirky website or an app, rather than a mass audience hit from Hollywood.

Mr. Dumenco: Cool.

Mr. Cagle: And it's also taught us that when we take an important, well-read section of the magazine and give it real utility in app form -- in this case, that ability to transact -- our readers love it.

Mr. Dumenco: Yeah, I should mention here, for readers who haven't yet tried out the app, it's free to download and use, but you've done deals with the likes of Amazon, iTunes and Fandango so users who are interested in a specific DVD or movie or whatever can easily click through to purchase. Speaking of deals, as my colleague Nat Ives recently reported, Entertainment Weekly has a new partnership with entertainment "check-in" service GetGlue. How's that going so far, and how do you see that integrating with the app?

Mr. Cagle: It's off to a great start. The initial feedback from readers has been very positive, and we're considering a number of ways to deepen the partnership -- including the possibility of adding check-ins within the app.

Mr. Dumenco: What's next after the Must List app? Like, at some point soon do you intend to port all, or much, of your print content to a paid iPad app -- maybe a subscription app, separate from the free Must List app -- like other magazines are doing?

Mr. Cagle: Well, we're not finished with the Must List app yet! We plan on updating it in the coming months to continue making it better. But we're also currently in the planning process for our next app. We want to make sure our next launch performs as well as the Must List.

Mr. Dumenco: OK, one last question: Give me some personal-favorite picks from the Must List app from the past few months. Like, books, movies, DVDs, whatever, that you particularly loved. In other words, edit it way down for me, Jess.

Mr. Cagle: Thanks for asking, because it's really gratifying when I wedge my own personal obsessions onto the list. Here are some recent favorites: "The Walking Dead" on AMC; "The Soup" on E!; "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway; "Mildred Pierce" -- both the Kate Winslet and Joan Crawford versions; the new horror movie "Insidious"; the Swedish "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy on DVD; Cara Hoffman's mystery novel "So Much Pretty"; and Adele's new album.

Edited and condensed from a longer interview.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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