Magazine Company Execs Talk About Taking On Tech, Disruption

Leaders of Hearst, Meredith, Rodale, Condé Nast, and Time Inc. Swap Strategy

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The five magazine media company executives who graced the stage at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Tuesday night all had specific (well, somewhat specific) ideas for how to grow their companies and take advantage of industry-wise disruptions, but only one called for an across-the-board increase in swagger to help combat the rising market share held by tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat.

Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp
Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp Credit: Time Inc.

"What we have to do is all pull together and act a little bigger than we are, and have a little swagger in our step, as it relates to competing with some of these other platforms that do not deliver nearly as good an ROI for the advertisers as we do," said Meredith Corp. CEO Stephen M. Lacy.

For the panel, the last event in the two-day 2016 American Magazine Media Conference, Mr. Lacy was joined on stage by Condé Nast CEO Bob Sauerberg, Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp, Hearst Magazines President David Carey, and Rodale CEO Maria Rodale. CNN's Brian Stelter moderated.

Ms. Rodale said magazine giants need to take back their customers. "Facebook now owns our customer. Amazon owns our customer. Google owns our customer," she said. "And that's what we have to get back, is that ownership of that customer so that we can sell them all of the other things that are part of our portfolios."

Technology has certainly been disruptive to the magazine industry, as it has been across the entire media landscape, and Mr. Carey weighed its pros and cons.

"The downside of tech is perhaps that it's clipped single-copy sales," he said. "The upside is that all of us have become much better at subscription generation. At the end of the day, it might be a slight net negative, but not a great one."

Mr. Carey credited digital media companies like BuzzFeed for hitting the conference circuit and sharing some of their secret sauce -- how to A/B test, how to master social media -- with the legacy players in attendance.

"All of us took notes," he said. Plugging Hearst's digital growth, he added: "They did us a favor. We probably will not return it."

Mr. Ripp said the barriers to entry for video-making have been lowered. For example, he cited a Southern Living magazine video -- about red velvet pancakes -- that cost only $200 to make and netted 12 million views.

"That kind of video is different than what traditional video companies are doing," he said. "We're really good at that, and we can really play in that field."

Several of the executives expressed confidence in their strategies, but said that they need to pick up the pace.

"What makes me nervous is that we don't move fast enough," said Mr. Sauerberg. "Because we've got to move fast to do this. And've we got to do it well."

Apprising his time as head of the company, Mr. Ripp said that Time Inc. has been transformed more in the past two years than in the last 10.

"But I'm still impatient," he said. "I still think we need to move faster. And we need to really embrace change faster. We need to figure out our ways into the new markets faster. We need to create much more content than we have in the past. And the organization is feeling that sense of urgency."

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