Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther Kezia Thorpe: What was it like joining and having to steer the company just as lockdown hit?

Chris Duncan: Actually, I joined three weeks after Bauer had left the building, which in some ways makes it a very different experience for me, because I actually changed companies. I’d never worked in the Bauer offices like everybody else had. To me, it was like joining a company from your bedroom from day one.

I think the team had done an amazing job by the time I arrived, they’d scattered to the four winds and worked out almost all of the early teething problems. So I joined a company from a spare bedroom that had almost solved the continuity problem. It’s been an extraordinary year of gradually then getting to know people only on video, communicating remotely.

It wasn’t until maybe six or seven months in that you were able to physically meet people. I’ve still met a handful, less than probably 10% of the teams physically 15 months later.

I mean, that’s probably really challenging settling into a CEO role when you can’t meet anybody?

Yeah, it is. And actually, it probably depends on the team you’re working with. I think everybody was amazing. They made me very welcome. They went out of their way to make it easier for me to get to understand the business. Like everybody at the same time, everyone was finding remote working strange. And so you just fitted in with that, really, but it’ll be an unrepeatable experience, I would have thought, that you would choose to join an entirely new company, as I say, from your spare bedroom.

Yeah. So, COVID aside, what have you been focused on this year?

First of all, it was, as you might expect, it was just, can we keep the lights on? Can we keep the business running? I think my first week, revenue was down something like 80% from where it was expected to be. So in that first April piece, it was a lot of just, what does this look like?

It took quite a while, if you remember, three or four months really to work out how it was going to affect the business. We thought we might lose a lot of distribution, and we didn’t really. We thought we would see the advertising market get very volatile, and it certainly did. So I guess a lot of the start was just me getting up to speed with the business, while trying to make sure it understood what was about to happen.

We spent a lot of time focusing on just the cultural aspects of running a business under that condition. We spent a lot of time talking about how it is for the teams, and whether our process would hold together, and a lot of pieces about mental health and support for that, how we could support teams through it. It’s things that you would probably not normally be expected to spend a bunch of time on.

And then the more traditional things of how do we make sure that we not only adjusted to the fact that there was the crisis, but made the most out of the time that gave us to think about where the business was going. We made, as you know, some fairly tough decisions early on, about some of the titles in the Bauer business.

But then it was really about thinking, how do we capitalise on the subscriptions growth, ecommerce growth, and affiliates? How do we make sure that the digital and audio elements of our business could thrive alongside the print part, and do as good a job as we could of navigating our way through it?

Yeah, I noticed there were obviously some fairly early closures. I hate to use the term making the best of a crisis, but I think you also had some subscription increases, there were some good things. I know things aren’t settled and there’s a huge amount of upheaval in the UK, but have there been some longer-term changes in terms of business priorities? Have you got a greater focus on subscriptions now?

I think the interesting thing is, I’m not sure there are many things that COVID created. I think it accelerated a number of trends that were already there. And so there were some titles, the titles that unfortunately we had to close were those that would have got to that position in the next two years.

I think some of the changes in the advertising revenue mix and the type of work that advertisers are doing, it’s changed, but it was coming anyway. I think subscriptions are similar, that we’d already seen strong growth in subscriptions, and a kind of balancing, in a lot of cases, with our specialist titles, they are now predominantly subscription and direct titles, compared to being predominantly newsstand titles.

All of those really were trends that we jumped from 2020 to 2023 in a weekend. I wouldn’t say that what we saw was like a complete fork in the road and things happened that we could never have predicted. They just happened at a speed that we probably hadn’t predicted.

Yeah, a newsstand, do you anticipate that coming back at all? Or how has that been the last year?

Well, it actually held up quite well for some of the titles. I mean, gardening titles have been in growth, puzzles titles had a great year last year, for obvious reasons. Then I think when you get to titles like our TV listings titles, we saw that some of the distribution wasn’t there.

But they held up incredibly well, I think, in the circumstances. I think we’ve been probably seeing slightly different performance amongst impulse titles, because footfall in supermarkets, I think, is 25% of what it was. Footfall in retail, travel as an estate, those are the areas where I think you can say, ‘yes, I think that will come back over time’. But the rest of it actually held up, I would say remarkably well.

It’s not an easy thing to hit in an industry that is already struggling in terms of business models and trying to work things out.

No, no, no. But as I said that, none of the challenges that we had to navigate our way through were necessarily new news.

No, no. And how have you found the transition? You had over a decade of national news brand, but you’re now working with some of the UK’s biggest magazines. Have there been challenges in adapting to the difference in the markets or are the industry mechanics actually largely the same?

That’s a good question. I think from 1000 feet high, they’re the same. We create content, we curate it, we package it, we distribute it, the business model challenges are quite similar, the transformation agendas are quite similar. There is obviously a huge difference in just the frequency. I think the focus of a daily news business is quite different.

Different pace, I suppose.

Yeah and the fact that, by lunchtime, your whole plan for the day, for that edition, could have changed. That happens fairly regularly in news. I think also news has, in some ways, two sets of audiences that it talks to. It talks to the establishment and it talks to its audience.

One of the things I’ve noticed coming over to the magazine world is that, firstly, Bauer has incredible breadth. I run around 120 magazines, when you add up all the different titles and sub-titles, all of which have a very clear idea of the audience that they’re talking to, and the reason that they’re there, and the services and information that they can provide. So you’ve got this incredible breadth.

At the same time, because of that, each of them is at a really high level of detail and precision to talk to that audience. I think that’s different. National news, outside of the daily coverage, the lifestyle coverage is quite often now pretty short on pagination, and quite often quite short on detail. That breadth and the depth, I think, is really noticeable.

And on the breadth side, for me, you can imagine 10 years in national news, you’ve probably got six competitors and you can quote their daily sale. Then suddenly, if you go into 100 and something markets, each with a competitive set, each with a different set of sales and trajectory of those sales, that’s quite a lot to take in at the start. It takes you a while to get a real feel, I think, for each of those individual markets, and how they interact.

I mean, how do you do that over Zoom?

Buy a very big home printer.

I suppose, if you’re in the office, you could literally walk around the different floors and talk to people, but you must have to be a lot more intentional about getting to know…I mean, 120 titles, that’s a meeting every other day.

You hit the nail on the head, which is, I think, that is the nature of remote working is that everything you do has to be planned. So it is slightly harder to pick up information by accident. You don’t bump into people in the canteen. That’s actually the bit that I think I’ve really missed. I’ve worked very closely with a relatively small number of people, but what you don’t have is conversations in the lift and in the canteen and on the way out of the building that give you those little insights into different teams in the business. I’m looking forward to getting that back.

Yeah. We actually often quote you on the podcast, there was an interview you gave back in 2017, where you said you couldn’t see a future where there are any more than 10 publishers who’ll be able to charge customers for a direct subscription. Do you still believe that? Or do you think actually that the market and consumers have changed over the last couple of years?

Well, firstly, I get quoted on that a lot and I never actually said that. What I said at the time was that I thought there will be no more than 10 global newsrooms that could support, via subscription, a full newsroom, by which I meant foreign desks, sports, lifestyle, everything that you needed to be a really great global newspaper.

And so I think that probably is still true, I think that you’re seeing that it will be the Journal, the New York Times, the Post. Potentially, from the UK, you might say the Times, the Telegraph. There might be a couple of German titles that will get to that kind of number. So I think that’s still true. I think the investment required to run a world-class news organisation that covers every subject is immense. There won’t be many people that can sustain that in that way.

I think the quote’s often used as if I said there would only be 10 newspapers left in a few years time, it really wasn’t what I meant. The good news, I think, is that actually since then…so the point I was trying to make was there will be 10 that will get very big, probably global.

There will be a lot of newsrooms that could focus on a local beat, or a small national beat, or a really specialist area that could make subscriptions work. But it would be really difficult for those people in the middle, the sort of mid-range companies; they weren’t big enough to go global, but they weren’t small enough to have a low-cost base.

I thought that would be really difficult to sustain. I think that probably has been borne out. I think, then, that comes back to where I am now where, absolutely, I think there is a future for sustaining specialist magazines because they have a really committed community, they have content that’s hard to find elsewhere, they’re brilliantly written, they’re carefully edited with a real empathy for the audience.

And that’s really the secret sauce for building good subscription businesses. So I think still at that end, if you’re focused on being the absolute Bible for a group of people or a community of interest, I think subscription can work. I would still bet in five years time, if there are more than 10 real global newsrooms, you can quote me as being wrong.

Have you seen over the last maybe three or four years, a bit more of a willingness among consumers to pay for magazines and newspapers?

Well, I think there was definitely a period, probably a generation, where there was a huge resistance. But you probably are going back now really, to, I mean, 2010 or so, it was very difficult to pay on the internet. I think we forget that things like Apple Pay, and Amazon Pay and all the other ways to pay, PayPal really as a default, being integrated with every single type of media subscription.

These things that have reduced the friction of paying for things have helped. I think there’s been a huge normalisation of streaming services. You’re going to pay for podcasts, you’re paying for TV, so it will feel much more normal to at least have the choice to pay for premium content.

And probably also, the other thing that was always a challenge was that there was so much free content available that could be sustained by open marketplace advertising. And probably what we’re seeing, certainly now and I would guess over the next few years, is that is going to draw up a great deal, which means, actually, that there will be a choice of advertising-funded content, there’ll be a choice of premium content, and I think most consumers are pretty happy, given that choice, if the price is right, to put their hands in their pockets.

You’ve already mentioned Apple there, but what’s your take on how publishers’ relationships have now changed with platforms like Facebook, Apple, Google. There’s a lot of international conflicts, but I just wondered from a CEO of a publishing company point of view, how you perceive those platforms now?

We have spent quite a lot of time on this over probably 10 to 15 years, and you’ve seen the relationships with the platforms change hugely from the kind of matchmaker relationship – it’s an incredible source of traffic and there’s no cost to that – into later becoming much more walled gardens, then starting to build product on top of the content that was within the walled gardens and gradually, you can see that sort of the market dominance growing and the relationship changing.

I think we’re in a really interesting period now, which is that what has taken a long time to happen is that government and regulators have understood what publishers were trying to explain, which is that this is essentially an intellectual property question. Is it possible for us to sustainably produce intellectual property if we are unable to protect the returns? I think it’s interesting, certainly news has started to make that case, I think magazines probably have maybe sat in the shadow of news in terms of making that case.

But I think the consultations that the government is going to get to later this year around the digital markets unit will be really important to set a code of conduct and how we see the internet developing for publishers. You feel like there have been a number of generational shifts in the relationship with the platforms.

Where we’ll always end up is that they are a brilliant piece of technology. They have incredible functionality that most of the readers of most of our titles use every day. And so they are a part of our lives as publishers, we’d hoped for a little bit of a better landscape, a fairer playing field in terms of the protection of IP, and a long and sustainable relationship with those platforms.

That was a very long answer to your question. I think it has been, over the last 10 years, sometimes a real struggle to think that publishers are making clear what the issues were. I feel like we’re out of that bit now. I think we’re into the real challenging bit now, which is people saying, well, I get it: how exactly would we construct this world to get the best balance of competition, fairness, a level playing field, and protection for intellectual property? That’s probably the work that’s ahead of us over the next year or so.

I’d love to actually hear a bit more about Bauer’s Kickstarts Programme, especially how that’s been going over the last year.

Sure. I can’t take credit for that, it’s actually Rishi Sunak’s Kickstarter. We’ve done a great deal of work this year on diversity and inclusion and one of the pillars of our programme for that was around social mobility.

It’s one of the more challenging areas actually to measure and to think about how do we get people into the publishing media who come from disadvantaged backgrounds? And how do we make sure that we can identify them and recruit them and take advantage of their talents?

The government actually had come up with a Kickstarter scheme, or it might be Kickstart, where the government will fund, for a period of time, candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds who will then come into the business. I think they’re on three or six-month rotations and then we try where we can to take them in as roles into the business.

I think we took 10 in the early part of last year. I think six of them ended up in full-time roles at the business. So for us, it’s been a really fantastic pipeline of talent, amazing people who bring a different view to our titles. They’re naturally kind of multimedia gifted, but just for us and the diversity of contributors to the magazines.

We’re big supporters of the scheme. We’ve just taken on the next wave and already people are phoning me up saying, can I have the next one that comes in? Can I have the next few? I think we will be very good customers for the government. I’m a big fan of the scheme. I think it’s one of those areas where you look at it and think only the government could really have got that scheme off the ground and we’re delighted to be able to help with it.

Yeah. Because I just noticed when you’re applying, you don’t have to have any formal qualification, so I just wondered at that point, what do you look for?

I mean, it’s attitude. I think the curiosity, the willingness to learn, the interest in being in the publishing industry, getting into the media industry. In some ways, if you look at all of the great journalists I’ve ever worked with, those qualities are the ones that got them through their careers.

I don’t think it was necessarily their educational qualifications, it was always that they were the hungriest, the most curious, the most willing to learn new things, and that’s really what we’re looking for in the next generation.

Hopefully, as things start to settle down, what are you doing to prepare Bauer to be successful for the next, let’s say, 10 years?

At least! We’re working really hard, this year, on making sure we’ve got a big project, which is actually global across different territories in Bauer, which is looking at how we make sure we’ve got world-class editorial tools. We’re building new tools for the teams to use to publish the titles, thinking about how that works with multi-channel publishing, how it works with different formats, but also how it works with just the way that you know the workflows of our titles work now.

We have a big project, looking at subscriptions, which is working out how do we build slightly different products? How do we think about bundling things with our editions? If you start in the principle that we’re serving the communities of interest, how much bigger can we think about the products and services that we could bring under those brands to market? So we’re doing work with that.

We’re looking at data and the advertising side of data. We’re building advertising network tools to protect ourselves against changes to the cookie regulations and to help us think about the whole of the network of Bauer.

Then the fourth one is really thinking about the culture that the company has to have. How do we build the leadership we’re going to need, if we’re going to be working differently in the future than we were before. How do we make sure we can deliver brilliant products for our audiences and lead the company to a culture that helps everybody feel that this is a great place to work. We are really fixated, I think, on producing brilliant, brilliant magazine products for our readers.

So you’re not busy at all then?

Certainly one of the challenges at the moment is – I have remarked on this a lot with the teams internally – that we have been able to take on such a number of projects during the last six to nine months, partly because we’re not spending any time saying good morning to each other. So I do think there will be, as we start to get back to offices and to a slightly more normal experience of working, I hope we’ve really taken this time to lay the foundations for that next 10 years as you alluded to.

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