London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Mr. Magazine™ is none other than Dr. Samir A. Husni, founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalist and New Media. He is also a professor and lecturer at the School of Journalism, and is known as an expert in the field of magazine media and the publishing industry. Dr. Husni is the author of the annual “Samir Husni’s Guide to New Magazine”, which is now in its 27th year, as well as the author of a number of books on magazine media including “Magazine Publishing in the 21st Century” and “Launch your own magazine: A guide for succeeding in today’s marketplace.” Forbes has described Husni as “the country’s leading magazine expert” and he has presented seminars on trends in American magazines to the editorial, advertising and sales staff of some of the country’s most prominent magazines.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Mr. Magazine spoke about the challenges facing print media following the digital revolution, his view regarding the future of magazines and other print media and how print media can overcome and indeed thrive in the digital age.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us where your love of magazines originates from?
[Husni] My love for buying and acquiring magazines began at an early age. When I was ten years old I bought the first copy of the Arabic “Superman” comic and I felt something that I had not felt before. Everything changed! I would previously rely on my grandfather and father to read stories to me, but from that moment I could read stories from the beginning to the end by myself. I began my professional journey at nine years of age as one of my hobbies was to produce magazines myself. In my pre-university period, I would draw up many magazine front-pages in my imagination, and my love for acquiring the first edition of magazines continued throughout my time at university. I graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in journalism; following my graduation I received a scholarship from the university which allowed me to travel to America to complete my PhD in 1978. Can you believe that a humble youth from Lebanon would go on to become a professor of journalism at an American university, teaching and providing professional advice to the editor-in-chiefs of the most famous magazines, not just in America, but in the entire world? My love for magazines has lasted for more than 50 years…and I always say that this was a blessing from God.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us the story behind “Mr. Magazine”? Where did this name come from?
[Husni] This name is a trademark, and I am the owner of this trademark and am well-known by this name. This began in 1986, I had begun teaching at the University of Mississippi in 1984…my name was very difficult for people to pronounce and remember, and one of my students could not pronounce my name and so he decided, as a joke, to call me “Mr. Magazine” and at the end of the academic year that student gave me a sign with my name on it, which read “Mr. Magazine: Samir Husni”. I thanked him and put this sign on the desk, and did not think about this much, and then in 1989 the New York Times magazine published a profile about me, and they sent a photographer to take a picture of me in my office, and this sign appeared in the picture that was published in the magazine. After this people have continued, out of good humor, to call me Mr. Magazine. In 2001, I realized that more people knew me as Mr. Magazine than by my real name, and so I took the decision to trademark the name, particularly as in 1997 I had established a Mr. Magazine website, and so I currently own this name as a global trademark, and it is my commercial name as well as the name that most people know me by.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what affect has digital media had on the print press and the publishing industry?
[Husni] The fact is that a large section of the speech that I recently gave in Amsterdam was focused on this issue. I said that we must stop thinking about what is print and what is digital…we must instead focus all our attention on the consumers, whether we are talking about readers, viewers, listeners or users. If we focus on consumers and understand what they want and need, then we can achieve this, whether we are talking about print or digital media. What is most important for us, as journalists and publishers, is that we must be in the “business” of uncovering consumer demands, and know exactly what they want, rather than being in the “business” of counting customers. We must not deal with consumers as if they are just figures, or as if they are a single piece in a game of chess, rather we must take all the pieces in the chess-game into account, and the role that each separate piece plays, whether what we are publishing is a “digital native” or a “digital immigrant”, particularly as consumers today have been brought up with all of these digital devices. My grandson, for example, who is 4 years old, continues to play and watch films on his iPad for long period of time, but before he goes to sleep his father reads a book to him…but he does not think that he is moving between digital and analogue or between the internet and paper. We, as publishers, must think about the standards of each method, and how this fits the nature and mood of each consumer, whether we are talking about readers, listeners, viewers or users. However what is unfortunately is that when the internet appeared, everybody cheered and applauded, and nobody asked themselves: why do we need the internet? In addition, when the tablet devices appeared, nobody asked themselves: what is the point of this? Many people believe that we are in need of broadening the range of tablet devices, but nobody is asking themselves: what are the perfect specifications of a tablet device? What is the commercial plan? We continue to reap a lot of financial reward from print media, and we will continue to receive and even increase this revenue in the future, but we must also explore and introduce new and varied services for the print media. We must first determine the areas that strongly serve print media. The term “news” has a contradictory sense with regards to print media, but we must use print media for more than news; news takes place around the clock, so in this case what is the function of a newspaper? In my opinion, the future of the daily newspaper is that it will become more like a daily magazine similar to TIME magazine or Newsweek or The Economist. Therefore the function of daily newspapers is to become more like a weekly magazine that is published every day, whilst weekly magazines will become more stylish but will continue to be published on a weekly basis. As for monthly magazines, they will become more stylish in order to encourage people to keep them and not throw them away. The future of the publishing industry in the digital age means that we must focus and invest in making sure that publications are more brilliant and produced to a higher standard of quality and therefore more expensive, with the possibility being that such magazines are acquired and kept. Most of the publications that exist today lack this element, so if publications are nothing more than something you throw into the trash after you are done with it, then why not switch over to digital media? So how can we ensure that publishing houses produce publications that we want to keep? That is the question! Since the pace of technology is moving quickly and we are playing the game of catch-up, every individual is jumping in a different direction. We should stop and think about what the consumers wants, and how we can best serve them, and then draw up a studied plan that will allow us to serve the consumer in the manner that they prefer. There is a wrong saying that goes “one size fits all”, but this is not correct, and this is something that only exists in the minds of the ignorant who do not care about the needs of the consumer.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that social media in the digital age will affect print media?
[Husni] Without a doubt, it can help but also harm. Social media is a double-edged sword, for if somebody loves your brand, and demonstrates a positive trend towards this, then social media is your best friend, because it will spread this [view] and everybody will talk about it; however if somebody does not love your brand and has a negative view of it…then social media is your worst enemy, and it will constantly represent a threat to your brand-name. This is why I always advise my clients and everybody who wants to have a page on Facebook or Twitter or other social networking websites for PR purposes for their commercial products to monitor these pages and continuously safeguard them without interruption and quickly respond to anything that crops up. McDonalds, for example, established a page on one of the social networking websites in order to identify customers’ impression of its operations, but it immediately closed down this page after negative responses about its service were posted. Social media may be in the favor of print media, but it may also be a cause for their failure, therefore they must be ready to defend their commercial business and protect their brand, ensuring that this sphere [social media] is constantly monitored.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If somebody told you they were publishing a new magazine, what advice would you give them?
[Husni] The first piece of advice I would give is: if you have an idea for a magazine, and there are no similar magazines already in print, then this means one of two things: either you are a genius or that other people have tried your idea and not succeeded, whether due to production or administration or a lack of readers. If you find that there are no similar ideas, then you must ask: how did this happen? Why is that? The second piece of advice is to put your idea down on paper, to have a focused and concise thesis which will contain the main features of this magazine, its targeted audience, how it will make profits, whether it has sufficient starting capital, because business proceeds for magazines arrive late, and so you might be waiting a long time before turning a profit. Lastly, you must carefully study your readers, for they are the ones who will buy and read this magazine.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there different ways of designing and publishing different types of magazines and journals?
[Husni] Yes, we can compare a magazine to a person, in that each person is different and has a different personality through which people know them, and the same goes for magazines. The personality of the magazine must serve to differentiate it from other magazines. The question here is: what kind of personality do scientific journals haves? Why do we give them this name? Therefore the way that you would design a magazine for children is different than the manner that you would design a political magazine or a specialist scientific magazine. The important thing is not just knowing how to attract the attention of the readers but how to attract and hold this attention for a long period of time, particularly during this digital age where media platforms continue to change and evolve every minute.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what are the commercial and marketing skills needed for the publishing industry, particularly in this digital age?
[Husni] The first and most important skill is that the seller must also be a great journalist, or the journalist must be a great seller, and this is why here at the School of Journalist and New Media at the University of Mississippi we have established a new degree in communications that includes overlap and integration with marketing, with the objective of gaining knowledge and studying this overlap between marketing and journalism, particularly in an era when marketing is playing a huge role. This is also to study the importance of the role played by the consumers and customers, and understand their behavior in this regard, because ultimately business is storytelling, whether with regards the traditional manner, or the contemporary, for the better your story, the better your relation with your customers…if we continue to believe in the story that is being put forward to the public, and we know who is affected by this story, then your publishing business will certainly succeed. As I have said repeatedly, there is more than one road to success, and in my opinion the most important elements are marketing, story, content, design and vision.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your personal view regarding the future of print media?
[Husni] I am personally confident that print media will have a brilliant future, and I will be hosting a conference at the university between 23 -25 October entitled “Never Underestimate the Power of Print”. The majority of publishing houses continue to make profit, and we must continue to pay great attention to print media, for this will not end in the near future. The issue is not in the means of publishing, or ink and paper, rather the problem is the content and quality of what is printed!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any advice to magazine publishers in the Arab world?
[Husni] Give yourselves enough time to know your profession, learn what needs to be learned… leave your ivory tower and go to the street and mix with the people, and listen to what people are talking about and interested in, give them what they want, for they will find what they need, stop thinking that you must tell them what they need…because in this digital age nobody needs the [print] media. Make sure that they become addicted to your magazine. Don’t tell them what they want, rather listen to what they want, and then give it to them.