I attended some interesting sessions, fun parties and met great people at SXSW this weekend. I enjoyed a session by M. Scott Havens, President of The Atlantic.  In “Can Great Journalism Make for Great Business?” Mr. Havens, a seemingly low-key and unassuming guy, talked about what the company did to become profitable in 2010. He talked about how he and his team did it: 1. Assemble world-class talent:

He stressed hiring “raw talent” over “experience”. 

Don’t fill positions as quickly as you can. Hire passionate and smart people (smarter than you), teach them what they need to know, train them and let them grow. 

Be brutally demanding, yet utterly patient, as they’ll need to learn.

2. Think of the business as a start up: Be very smart about costs and allocate your resources and budget fastidiously. Focus on speed and efficiency.

Fail fast like a start-up.

It’s ok to kill projects.  Even if you fail, there are lessons learned for the team.

3. Differentiate through Brand Strategy: The magazine was evolving from a monthly in print to a daily digital platform. The brand needs to reflect that change. In order to do rebranding, you need to “know your audience”.  Have data to show who your audience is and what makes them tick, then create stories to connect with your audience.

After rebranding, he emphasized stretching the brand as far as you can without breaking it.

If the print version is doing one thing, their digital platform, theatlantic.com, will try something different and new. Though he stresses the importance of maintaining a consistent look-and-feel, he discovered that brands, like human, are remarkably elastic.

4. Digital first: It’s important for everyone to accept that future media is “digital”.

Everyone in Print or Events needs to understand how their platforms exist in the digital world.

Even thought it’s digital first, it’s still important to look at a holistic strategy (Print, Digital and Events) to drive seamless audience strategy on-line and off-line.

5. Diversify revenue streams: You can’t just sell banner ads alone.

It’s critical to look at multiple ways to grow revenue. Look beyond circulation and advertising by expanding to adjacent fields.

The Atlantic also launched sub brands such as The Wire and extended onto mobile platforms. They explored another form of event in adult education. They created a one-day university in DC by inviting luminary professors and speakers. More than 400 paid and attended. He also talked about some of his core beliefs:

  • “Magazines” aren’t going anywhere. (I agree! There is something special about the tactile and visual experience of interacting with print that can’t be replicated by digital content).
  • Culture, not strategy. (Culture drives executions)
  • Quality content IS king (Amen!)
  • Diversification is critical (It also applies to your 401K.  LOL)
  • Brand matters (It does!)
  • Content consumption is a continuous (We consume content all the time, except when we sleep)
  • Content discovery = social web (SEO is given, distributing content to social networks increases chances of content being found)
  • #mobile (#mobilemobilemobile)

This article from the New York Times described its long and painstaking journey of revitalizing and revamping their century old magazine since 1999.

Hiring great people and running the company with efficiency is important, but the most important thing is to have great products. For the Atlantic, that’s high-quality content.

People go to their site, because the content is interesting, insightful and educational. It’s marvelous to see they found themselves (and profitable) again and turn this 157-year-old magazine into a popular digital platform.

Book Pam to Speak