By Linda Ruth
Our Pandemic Roundtable—Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me--welcomed James Hewes of FIPP to talk about the diversification of publishing strategies, the fate of events, and the roaring twenties, touching on Samir and Bo’s tendency to agree or disagree along the way.
FIPP is global a trade association for companies, as James put it, “formerly known as magazine companies”. Founded in France in 1925, and seen as one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious membership associations, FIPP has grown over its century of existence to include media owners and content creators from around the world.
Joe: How has the pandemic affected FIPP?
James: Five years ago the main reason people joined FIPP was to do cross-border publishing deals. Leading up to the pandemic and accelerated in pandemic the shift has been to learning. We added new services, including a training business and a consulting business; for example, we just started a five-module course on digital subscriptions, which is free to members. We’re not for profit, and we add the commercial bit to keep costs down for members. The networking part is more bespoke, where we facilitate meetings and conversations cross borders.
Joe: Several major publishing associations have closed down or merged with others. Why is that?
James: It’s been a trend for years, that these associations are no longer supported by the industry. The member companies are changing, the needs of their members changing. Also so much of the critical legislative stuff that they used to do is now pan-national. There are some issues that still need addressing; for example, we should have more concerted effort in the regulation of the big tech companies. But the ability of publishing associations at the local level to have impact has dropped. It’s less about postal regulations today, and more about Facebook and Google. In some cases the associations have stayed relevant by narrowing their focus to legislative; in a way it’s a shame. Publishers have left their old homes, and in many cases haven’t found new ones.
Bo: Agreed. It used to be that magazine business models were consistent company to company and across borders. Now no two magazines have same the business model.
Joe: On the level of city and state magazines there still is a lot of similarity; but outside that, we do see many different approaches.
Samir: The survival of our associations depends on the big media companies; and we’re seeing a lot of smaller independent publishers coming into the market. I just got 12 first editions from the UK. What is being done to include them?
James: That’s an accurate observation. The boom in independent publishing is happening everywhere around the world. The legacy publishers are also starting to adopt the tactics of the independents—lower frequencies, higher prices, higher pagination, higher quality.
Which is great, it’s lifting the whole market. We work with the independents; we give them preferential rates; we help them learn. We put in place a paywall on the site, so instead of paying thousands of pounds to join smaller publishers can access it via the paywall to learn. Those publishers are still part of the FIPP family and we work with them and help them; we get them to speak at our events, to share their knowledge and successes. We involve them, but the fragmenting market makes it a good way for them to participate, through the site.
Linda: A lot of the reason publishers have fallen away has to do with shrinking budgets.
James: We’re focused on value. When people come to join, we need to find out what they’re looking to get out of it. We want people to get the most out of their membership. For example our digital subscription course is a valuable benefit to members. We’re trying to create as much value as we can for our members, show they can show a return on their investment. Value is the key, and the pandemic has focused that.
Bo: The value of the FIPP conferences is extraordinary.
James: We’re now doing the D to C summit, focusing on everything having to do with direct-to-consumer revenue. A big focus is putting together the agenda.
Samir: Will you be going back to in-person events or sticking with online?
James: We do plan to return to physical, but we’re being cautious. The states of lockdown and rates of vaccination vary greatly country to country. My biggest caution is that companies are not going to let people travel for longer than governments. When the big companies start to travel, we’ll feel more comfortable about moving back to physical. We have a conference coming up in October—we avoided your dates, Samir, we blocked them out, it will be earlier in the month than the ACT conference. We’re making it a hybrid event where people can zoom in if they want. We look forward to 2022 as a return to normality.
The pandemic has focused our attention on how we do events in the future. The big difference: it’s easier online than in person to produce an event and get great speakers. But networking in an online event just doesn’t work. We don’t try to replicate what we do physically. First thing we got rid of is streaming, with two or three events happening at the same time. Instead, we spread the event out over more time, and people don’t have to choose. We decided not to worry too much about individual ticket sales. Instead, we go to companies and offer one price for ALL employees attending. The marginal cost of additional people attending is zero, so we go from 500 people attending to 2000.
Samir: Will we reach screen fatigue with these online events?
James: We’ve reached screen fatigue. There’s a drop in levels of engagement because people are exhausted by screens. There’s a huge pent-up demand for in person. We’re not going to land wholly on one or the other; it’s going to be a balance of both.
Bo: The only thing about fatigue is the feeling it wasn’t worth your time. In this virtual world, quality will survive, and it won’t create fatigue. In print the crap is falling away, what remains is quality. The same will be true online.
Samir (laughing): There’s still a lot of crap in print!
James: And we managed to get a half hour into the call before Bo and Samir started disagreeing.
Bo: It’s a disservice to younger people to go wholly digital. It’s in person where you make great connections and friends for life. No one is ever going to make friends for life on a zoom call.
Linda: With the possible exception of our Roundtable.
Samir: Magazines companies moving to an emphasis on diversity and social justice. How is FIPP involved in that?
James: It’s huge part of what we do now. We have a commitment to ensure our programming is gender balanced and balanced in terms of diversity. On the knowledge side we’re including diversity as a key part of our events. When we present industry trends to companies we talk about diversity. Big supporter of the BBC’s 50:50 project, which advocates creating a journalistic team as diverse as the communities about which they report. We see it as just as important as the other pillars of our industry, not as something separate and special. It’s the same with sustainability, which has to be central, not an afterthought.
If you ask companies that have successfully undergone transformation, the key was to have the right people and right culture, and you won’t have that without clear and explicit diversity goals.
Joe: Tell us about the other arms of your organization, such as consulting
James: Our consulting arm began last year. We were getting a lot of calls from people with questions. There was just a demand for more and better solutions. So we created a network of independent consultants who can help answer questions in a better way. The big consulting firms are bad at media companies. So we reached out to the people we know who work as independent consultants in the media to tap their skills and expertise.
As for training, that’s an extension of the people and culture piece. If you want to succeed you have to have the right skill set.
Samir: What are some of the trends you are seeing?
James: The idea that the pace of change is accelerating as a result of the year of restriction is actually true. Newsstand is in the pits, and many people are thinking it won’t come back. International circulation gone, and it too might not come back. On the flip side, print advertising is coming back moderately; and subscription sales are off the charts. In international markets, subscriptions have always been profitable, and now they’re becoming more profitable in the US as well. Digital subs are through the roof. People are reporting exponential increases in digital subs. Every magazine company I’ve spoken to is looking at paywalls for their content if they didn’t have them before. E commerce up massively; events have disappeared.
Joe: Can you see events coming back?
James: If I knew that I’d be a millionaire. If your business relies on your local businesses, if everything is contained geographically, that might survive. Cross border will be different. For example, we’ve always had a number of people from India at our events; that is unlikely to come back for another year. It would be a huge mistake for an events business to say: OK, the pandemic is over, let’s go back to what we were doing before. No one’s going back. We’ve got to start doing things differently. For companies, when a number goes off a P/L, such as travel and events, it’s hard to get back on again.
Bo: And we’ve spent a year teaching companies how to work virtually. We’re not going to unlearn that.
Samir: We have short institutional memories; we’re quick to forget.
James: The 18 months after the pandemic ends will be the boom of all booms.
Bo: The roaring 20s.
James: But as for now, no one has more than 50% of their people fully vaccinated yet. We’re still a long way from that.