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Hearst's Troy Young on Publishing Amid Chaos: 'Facebook Doesn't Owe Me Anything'

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Troy Young
Troy Young Credit: Illustration by Aaron Sacco

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It's been five years since Troy Young came to Hearst to build out the magazine company's digital division. Today as the global president of digital for a media empire that includes Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Elle, Good Housekeeping, Town & Country–the list goes on–Young is redefining what it means to be in a 130-year-old publisher with its roots in print.

In this episode of Ad Lib, Young discusses the pressures digital has placed on print publishing, consolidation in the media space and our current era of distribution instability, especially as Facebook switches up its algorithm and Snapchat pushes through brand defacing redesigns.

This is going to be your fifth year. How are things going?

Five years ago a lot of people warned me–like eh, this will last a year, 18 months. Those transformational digital roles don't really work out for everybody. And you know I think it's really on account of the support of [Hearst Magazines President] David Carey that it's been a really incredible experience.

Five years ago, Hearst was a very different company.

The pressure on the print business has really escalated over that period of time. And you know, certainly the hope is that we're growing digital businesses that offset that. I brought a sense of urgency. I brought a real focus on young talent.

What was the mandate that you came in with?

The mandate was to build a real digital business and compete with the peer place.

And the mandate today?

Continue to evolve the business because it's to invent what lifestyle media that comes next. And to map our way through a changing sort of industry environment that's going to mean a lot of consolidation.

Consolidation is in the air: You guys recently acquired Rodale. Meredith acquired Time. All within a month's span of each other.

There's just so many areas where the benefits of scale are obvious and necessary. Rodale specifically I always liked because they're service brands and they're enthusiast brands: Men's Health and Women's Health and Runners World and Bicycling, Prevention. They're great category brands for the internet because you can really do well in search and in service.

It's a scale play, but when you talk about those enthusiast titles individually, they go narrow and deep.

We can deliver scale and we can deliver real specificity.

These enthusiast also bring to mind something that I know is near and dear to you, which is affiliate links. How is that working for you?

I'm completely infatuated with it. We've basically built e-commerce into our publishing platform, so that if you're an editor and you're looking for, you know, red jackets under $500, you just type that in and we deliver all the products back. And all the pricing and availability of those products are updated real-time if we publish them. So it's basically a commerce system and a content system. What we're able to do as a company is understand what it takes to actually sell products. We sell millions and millions of dollars worth of products every month.

How do you do that without diluting your brands?

Our editors hold themselves to a high standard. We understand the difference between really rigorous sort of product reviews and product suggestions. And we manage both.

About a year ago you said that, at some point in the future, half of your content would be video. Did you ever have a, put a sort of due date on that, or…

I don't know if I put a due date on it.

And where are you now?

Today it's probably a third of our resource in that category. I think it's less than that in revenue. We do sell pre-roll; we do sell, obviously, branded video a lot. At the time, one of our significant distribution points, Facebook, was pushing us to create more video. We were creating more and more video for YouTube that we were doing and we were working on paid productions, you know in television and elsewhere.

Is there a consumer demand for video, or is it being driven by the advertiser demand?

Well there's certainly advertiser demand. It would sadden me personally if people stopped reading. And I think there's a lot of utility in text. But certainly on Facebook, your feed is half video today and video has completely permeated other environments like Snapchat and Instagram. So it would seem to me that consumers would want it.

Is there difference between pivoting to video and what you're doing?

"Pivot to video" means that you dedicated your business mostly to producing video to distribute in Facebook, an environment that really doesn't have a monetization model for most publishers. You're saddled with a lot of costs and not a lot of revenue. And that's not what I did.

How would you characterize your relationship with Facebook today?

I think it's fine. They know how I feel. Facebook doesn't owe me anything. I mean, I buy media on Facebook. I distribute our content on Facebook. I see Facebook as a toll highway for us. It's an opportunistic relationship. Now, do I hope that Facebook adopts a different point of view on dealing with premium publishers? Yeah. And to me that would be about one word. It would be fundamentally about curation.

Which is not what they seem to be interested in.

No they haven't seemed to. But if they said 'We're going to take the hundred top publishers in these categories and make a more permanent place for them in our experience and here's the economics on which we'd share revenue,' which would be sort of like a Snapchat thing, well, we would love that. I think the publishers are sick of trying to predict where Facebook goes next and what the implications will be for their business.

Talk about Snapchat. You've got seven channels?

Six or seven channels.

Publishers have had reported varying degrees of satisfaction with Snapchat.

Well I think this year will be telling. We're very aggressive partners and very aggressive content distributors. So we've had a great experience with Snapchat. We've found really large new audiences there that are I think good for the relevancy of our brands and we've always made money on Snapchat.

The redesign affect anything for you guys?

I'm not an authority on what the impact is, but the redesign seems to be moving people through more issues. And maybe they're not going as deep as they used to. So I think that you're still seeing a lot of activity, but it's easier to move from brand to brand.

Which means you're not always able to tell necessarily which brand you're in.

Brand differentiation gets harder.

How do you counter for that?

Well there's all kinds of design things that you have to do and you have to figure out where your voice is, but I think that's a problem.

But you haven't had your Kylie Jenner moment yet with Snapchat, where you're going to tweet out your chagrin and cause their stock to crash?

No, I think we should all be cheering for Snapchat.

So we've been talking about videos, Snapchat, Facebook, all of these things that are not print. And Hearst is historically a print company, rooted in print. There is…

There's nothing better than print. I love print.

What are the conversations around reducing frequency or leaning into the decline of print maybe going fully digital on some titles?

It's always a conversation. What I want for print is I want to keep it great. In an effort to manage costs, a lot has come out of the product. And I want to maintain product quality. So that's why the frequency thing I'm kind of passionate about. Because I'd rather see a magazine that's great quarterly than something that's not as good that's 10 or 11 times a year.

We talk a lot about innovating in digital. Is there room still to innovate in print?

I mean I think there's room to innovate always. And I think that while mediums retain their shape and characteristic over time, they also respond to their environment. Putting product codes in where you can use your Amazon app to scan a magazine isn't a bad idea. We're doing stuff like that with Cosmo.

Talk about your management style. I've read a bunch of profiles of you over the years.

Is it good?

They're all ultimately flattering.

I think I'm a good manager.

You've been described as headstrong. That's a direct quote. Bull in a china shop.

Probably.

In person you have sort of a quiet intensity.

Yes. I'm intense. I like to win.

How do you think of managing, when you think of managing?

Managing is all about understanding the person. To me, it's a Venn Diagram of who is the human being in the job? And that if you get alignment between what a human needs and what the company needs from that human – and what I mean is what a human needs at a deep level – then you have a great work relationship. I get really personal. Because I love people. I love laughing at work. My own personal self-mentoring is never complete. And there were a lot of days when I go home and I think, 'Oh my god like you've really fucked that up.'

Do you think of William Randolph Hearst ever? What he would make of what his company is today?

Oh, I think he'd be immensely proud of it. I mean, look at this thing. I mean it's like the smartest media company in the country. It's a really great place.

If you had to work somewhere else, where would it be?

That's a great question. Despite the fact that cable networks are under a tremendous amount of pressure, I think they're really interesting places. You'd love to see what you could do at a place like an HBO.

It's interesting that you say you always have fun at work because these are very challenging times. We're in a period of distribution instability. What does that mean to you? And how …

How does it level out?

Yeah.

That is also a terrific question. Well, everything levels out over time or becomes more… or change accelerates, right? I think that companies consolidate or you have a new kind of scale that enables these companies to thrive in a new environment and compete with powerful distributors. That's happening everywhere in the media industry whether that's the Disney-Fox thing or any of the changes that you're seeing. Without distribution stability, it's chaos all the time.

Which is what it is right now. It's chaos.

It's really chaotic.

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