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We can't be afraid of the online medium, we have to embrace it

Cathleen P. Black, President, Hearst Magazines, (which includes such brands as Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire and Esquire) was in the country recently.

Shamni Pande | Print Edition: April 4, 2010

Cathleen P. Black, President, Hearst Magazines, (which includes such brands as Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire and Esquire) was in the country recently. She spoke to BT's Shamni Pande about the challenges confronting print magazines and the globalisation of lifestyles. Excerpts:

In one word, the future of your magazines...
Brilliant! (laughs) I am not saying that it is not difficult. I think if we innovate, look into our readers' needs and tap them, successfully tap the digital space... I see no reason for the printed magazine, as we know today, not to succeed. But we must keep pushing all the time.

Readers seem to be growing in the online space, but the paradox is that it is not a monetised model yet. So, what's the solution?
I spend 30 per cent of my day dealing with issues connected to the online space. It could be a meeting about making an investment in the space, acquiring a company, starting something new... so, all of our people are very comfortable now in the online space. Whether it is mobile, video, e-reading, website... facebook pages, all of it. We cannot be afraid of the medium, we have to embrace it.

Yet, the business model of the Internet is nothing like the business model of the physical magazine. Right now, there is no comparison between the revenues that we, for instance, get for Cosmopolitan magazine and what we would get from the online space. In time, as the ad revenue grows for various things related to the digital space, there will be a change.

We do not have a consumer or reader problem; The challenge is to figure out how we can get the revenue on all facets of the digital space. It's starting to happen: Digital revenues have increased about 20 per cent during 2009. There are strong forecasts for 2010, but still, it is a long way to go.

How true is this popular image — successfully pushed by The Devil Wears Prada — of editors of lifestyle magazines being arrogant, flamboyant?
I would say that the arrogant part for the "Vogue: September issue" that the movie seemed to refer to isn't quite like that. But the truth is that the aura of fashion is an amazing draw... I am amazed that so many people are interested in the whole world of fashion. But it does open up the eyes of the people to the world.

Given the slowdown, do you see flamboyance and big spends (say on photo shoots, etc.) getting sucked out of magazine publishing?
Oh sure! We are very conscious about costs today. We certainly want good work, but for less. Something that is less wasteful and more efficient. This is reflected also in the way we approach our content. We try and offer our readers choices of inexpensive pursuits, give them investment advice. Slowly, but surely, there is a change. We have to take in a reader who is affected by the slowdown and wants options. But, yes, certainly being extravagant with our production costs is out. It was never a good option.

This is your first visit to India. What is your impression of the sights and sounds around you?
It is exciting for many people, including me. I think, at one level, people here come across as being very sophisticated. There's pretty much an international feel to the crowd—in terms of their clothes, the kind of movies they watch. Our group here is represented by many young women whose energy levels are high; they are very creative and talented.

So, from a magazine point of view that would be a good thing considering that you are pushing into new markets and seeking an audience that vibes with the same things—as women in New York, for instance, might?
Exactly! We believe that our magazines make that connection— they help someone live a better life; they give ideas, inspiration.... Passion for home, fashion, personal grooming, relationships.... These are universal issues and make for common connections. Most understand that the DNA of Cosmopolitan, for instance, is relationships, so you could be launching in Vietnam...but the concept remains the same.

Given that the world is flat today, where would you say these influences emanate from? Still New York and Paris?
I think Asia is becoming more important. Our fashion editors today seek trends from all over the place. It is a more difficult environment now for the fashion and luxury industry, given the slowdown. But the interest in all things Asian is a bigger trend. Given the way the Indian and Chinese economies are growing, there is a bigger, integral challenge in how the jewellery and luxury markets and brands are going to evolve.

You are seen as the 'first lady' of the American publishing business. How has the environment changed from the gender perspective?
The biggest change is that when you enter any business meeting and see at least 50 per cent of representatives being women—sometimes even 90 per cent women! But the magazine business has always attracted a lot of women. You see that internally as well; many of our offices are dominated by women colleagues.

Though, mind you, I welcome men to our business as well! We publish three magazines targeted at men: Popular Mechanics, Smart Money and Esquire, the latter is a global brand. Their offices then, have a lot of men. Basically, I do not see any difference and our business has tended to attract both male and female readers.

What are your expansion plans and plans to introduce The Oprah Magazine?
We are growing and expanding into new markets. The Indian experience has been good. In fact, 35-40 per cent of our profits come from global markets. And that is the way forward. As for The Oprah Magazine, I am not sure if this would go well beyond its home market and the audience will connect with her and her philosophy as strongly as they do in the US.

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