Interviewer: Peter Houston
Colin Morrison: Well, I came to London a long time ago in 1969. I’d spent the previous 11 years at boarding school, which is why I couldn’t contemplate for one second go to Uni, even though I had reasonable exam results. And so I started a clerical job at the BBC in a newspaper cuttings library that helped me do my first journalism because I was using their files.
And then I got a job on Lloyd’s List, which is where I kind of learned to be a journalist. And the same time when I was working on Lloyd’s List, I was freelancing, writing a pop music column for the Sunday Press, which was an Irish Sunday newspaper, and also occasionally writing for the Evening Standard and Radio Times.
So quite early on, I was really lucky, I’d always wanted to be a journalist; I found myself swimming in work and doing three or four jobs most of the time and learning to do the job, because I never had any formal training.
From that I found myself eventually editing magazines in the maritime and fishing businesses for Reed, and I found myself at Reed on and off for about 10 years, became a Publisher, and then Managing Director of bits of Reed and so on. And then I moved on from that to running essentially magazine companies at Reed, at EMap, Hearst, Future, Axel Springer in England and Australia.
So I found myself getting – quite easily at the time, it was a different time then than now – found myself quite easily able to get into media and into journalism, which where I wanted to be.
But actually I found myself easily shifted out of journalism into publishing and the commercial affairs of media. And that’s what I then did for the following 30 plus years.
Peter: What was the big shift that you went from journalism to the business side, to the dark side, some might call it?
I was really naive about how companies worked, how meetings were run, all kinds of formalities of business I had no idea of that at all. I was pretty numerate but I had no skills financially or anything.
But what I realised after a time is that for Reed for example, Reed and IPC were huge enterprises, mostly run by people with an advertising sales background. And I think the assumption was that they were the guys that understood money, and the rest of us didn’t, whereas actually, it became obvious to me and to other people, that actually journalists brought something new to that, because journalists understood the readers, or understood what readers wanted or how to market to readers with journalism.
So I actually found that, at different times in my career, particularly early on, I actually found there were very few, journalistically inclined, and if you like people who are passionate about journalism, involved in the management of these companies, and inadvertently, that became an advantage that I played for my own benefits.
I did well, and I was lucky that I found myself working for very good companies with very good publishing teams and so on. And I found that my journalistic skills were a lot more useful to me than I would ever have guessed.
Do you think that’s still the case? Do you think more publishers should be looking outside the commercial area for leaders?
Well, I definitely think that it’s a bit like the gender discussion. You’ve got to go for balance of skills and people and attitudes and everything else. And so it is quite similar to that same thing about, should there be more women or more men and all the rest of it, there should be a mix of all kinds of people.
But I think one of the challenges in media today, because the competition is so great, you can get information and news and media of different sorts and education and entertainment, there’s so many different places, so you got to be better and better.
I grew up as a publisher in a world where you could get away with a lot of ho hum content. Today, when you need readers to pay because advertising isn’t as easy as it once was, – you mostly need readers to pay – so you need to focus on giving them something that they really can’t get anywhere else. Because if they can get it somewhere else, they will, and if they can get it somewhere else, they won’t pay you for it.
And so when it comes to it, to answer the question, when it comes to it, there’s got to be a journalistic assessment of what is the information that my reader or user will die for, and will pay for. And on the whole the person who designs that information, that goes in search for it, and builds that information is more likely to be a journalist than anybody else.
So it’s a mix that’s important though, it’s making sure that each of those voices is represented, whether it’s a board level or whether it’s just actually making publication-level decisions.
Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And it’d be ridiculous to have companies that are entirely journalistic. And I think in the old days, when you look at how some newspaper companies really atrophied and fell to pieces over a long time and managed to get in a position where they couldn’t cope, they were very often run by editors exclusively, without really sufficient business skill, and marketing skill, and broad interests to become strong businesses. So you’ve got to have that mix.
It used to be easier than it is now, no one’s going to argue with that one. Do you remember ever thinking, this isn’t as easy as it used to be? Can you pinpoint when that change came?
I sort of do. One of the things I enjoyed most about the early chunk of my career, about 10 years of my commercial career was at Reed during the days when B2B publishing, and we were publishing – in fact, I was publishing B2B and specialist consumer publishing so a chunk of what then became IPC – and what in those days, particularly in B2B markets, you’re able to get away with launching lots of new magazines, conferences, exhibitions, there seemed to be a limitless opportunity.
And after a time, I realised that actually sometimes we kind of had a good idea, produced quite a good product, but nobody had paid that much attention say, to the circulation marketing, or the subscriptions, or quite often these controlled circulation databases, we’d just skated across that because we’ve majored on what an exciting magazine we were making.
It became clearer to me as the 90s went on that actually quite often that being the case, either with controlled circulation after all being a free marketing channel, when there was an explosion of controlled circulation magazines, they either were journalistic things that fudged – quite often fudged – the circulation story and just told sort of generalised truth about what the circulation was without really doing the research, without building a list that was worth very much, or else they just did that and produced a magazine that really nobody wanted to read at all, but there was enough advertising around so you made a living.
And as the 90s went on, it became more difficult, and you did definitely have to be more professional all round. I suppose those were the years when I came to appreciate that teams are much better than individuals, and it’s back to the earlier point, you get three or four people of disparate talents and attitudes together, you end up with a much better game and you end up challenging the nonsense that you can get carried away by if you’re all by yourself.
People now maybe know you better for Flashes and Flames than they do for your senior management in big publishing companies.
Yeah, it’s a bit disconcerting really, because it’s been a minority in my life, even though I love it! But I do sometimes have to explain to people that I did run the old company and I once took myself very seriously.
Flashes and Flames originally, I started it in 2011, which is a long time ago, when I had only just heard of WordPress, and so I’d heard of blogging but scarcely so, I didn’t read any blogs. And I did it as an experiment to try and find out what blogging was all about, and what WordPress was, and so on. And so I sort of played around for a few years.
And probably I was doing that until three or four years ago, so just every now and then writing something that I wanted to write. But what was in my mind all the time, by then I had developed into the career that I’ve got now, which is mostly advising media companies – particularly traditional media companies, but not only – on how to navigate this change to the new world, to become fully digital and to compete with different kinds of companies and information providers.
So I was going through that journey professionally, myself. And so I found myself increasingly obsessed by the traditional companies that knew what they were doing and had some good ideas, and those that didn’t, and the new companies who knew exactly how to play the traditional companies, and those that couldn’t.
And so I found myself kind of approaching it, particularly in the last few years in sort of almost an academic way, almost as case studies trying to tell a story of a company. Mostly I’m talking about companies that I’ve known very well over a very long period of time. So the historic flavour that I sometimes kind of indulgent in in my write ups sort of comes naturally from my memory.
I love that, I love the fact that you’ve actually used the word obsessive because for people that haven’t read Flashes and Flames – and they absolutely should – these reports are incredible. The level of detail that is in some of these things is just nuts.
Well, yeah, but you know, as well as I do – I won’t say I don’t like your complements because I do – but in truth, if I’m writing about things that I love, I’m writing mostly about things that I know, I do a lot of research to make sure, I check things, I try never to get things wrong and make sure I corroborate facts. But mostly I am wandering around a village I know very well, and trying to look for the significant things.
And so it’s just that all these companies, whether they’re winning or losing, and most of them are a mix after all, all these companies have got little things in them that you and I might think are the clues to what happens next. So that’s the thing I’m always looking for.
And in a way, that’s why I mostly don’t do interviews. I talk to the people running these companies frequently and I make notes, and keep notes, but I’m mostly not doing it…I’m not interested in somebody giving me their PR spiel about why their company is so good. I’m really looking for my version of it.
And in terms of who reads it, is it just people like us, people like me just geeking out on the background of a publishing company?
I’m pleasantly amazed at how many people do find it, because I’m not really marketing. I would say that the readership is very heavily concentrated in the UK and the US, and pretty heavily concentrated in London, and in New York in truth.
And I suppose mostly, the core readership, I think, are the people running these companies, media companies of one sort or another, particularly those that are close in some way to the world that we once defined as print, so traditional media in that sense.
I would say I’ve got a very large percentage of the target chief executives and their teams of these companies, but also a lot of people who are just interested. People like I might be, people who are ambitious.
But I try to think of the audience as being people who are either running these businesses, or in five or 10 years time will be. That’s what I’m trying to aim for, because to a limited extent, I suppose identify myself with that.
And it’s changed a little bit recently?
Well, the funniest thing in a way, you and I have been in publishing a long time. And it took me rather a long time to realise that even if you don’t promote you do get more readers and more habit forming readership if you just do some basic things like publish at the same time, all the time, and publish more or less within a channel, you more or less meet expectations in some way.
So it took me a long while, because I only started doing that about two years, perhaps three years ago. Now I publish every Friday, 7:30am London time. And a very large percentage of the entire audience reads it on the Friday.
So I proved to myself what in the past I always knew, because when we publish magazines late, we ended up with less readership. We just knew that. So it’s funny that it took me a long time to realise.
And I do publish – in addition to the main stories I tend to write – publish details of deals and things as part of the context for this, because in a way, deals are the clue as to how the tectonic plates are shifting. So it’s a little bit more of a slightly more serious publishing operation now, we even have an advertiser now as you may have noticed, Readly are supporting it.
And then in terms of where you want to go with Flashes and Flames, have you got any big ambitions or aspirations for it, or you’re happy with the way it is?
When you get older than about 50, your ambitions are different kinds of things aren’t they. I think more of the same honestly.
Flashes and Flames now is more than it’s ever been before an extension of the work I do in advising companies and talking to companies about what they might be doing. Some of my work naturally flows into it. Some of it certainly comes directly from it. So it’s kind of a centre of the little world that I inhabit, I suppose.
But when you really look at it, the difficulty, the challenge, the endless search for the ways of coping in this multi platform world, those difficulties haven’t diminished at all. In fact, they must have intensified over this few years and perhaps even more so now.
So I think there’s more demand for serious discussion and study and exploration of the kind of themes that are being pursued for quite a long time.
So coming right up to date with the coronavirus crisis and where we are right now, I hesitate to even ask you what you think. But, I mean, are there going to be really big losers out of this, are there going to be any winners at all?
Well, I think that it’s almost become, some of us have become very glib about the fact that the virus seems to accelerate, or seems likely to accelerate trends that run the way anyway. But I suppose that it is difficult to escape from the fact because if you think of local newspapers today suspending print, many of them, and you would know them as well as I do, there are large numbers of newspapers that are not currently printing. And a very large percentage of all of them were losing money before they took that decision, before the virus came along.
So a lot of those guys therefore, whereas they were holding off from stopping printing because they felt that they might be able to find a way somehow, the next decision is whether they bring it back, which I think is a much more challenging decision for them. So I think you could guess that quite a lot of print will disappear during this period.
Now you’re still talking about a world where people are spending more money, taking more time, and more concern than ever about media information and entertainment. It’s just that the world is much bigger than it was when those of us who were involved in print felt as if we’re in the middle of it.
There’s lots of opportunities, of course there is, but it’s very competitive.
Do you think there’s anyone who’s going to come out of this better than they went in?
I think there are a fair number of companies who will suffer relatively little damage from it. For the sake of argument, I mean, if you were running even a magazine business – the magazine industry doesn’t feel full of health – but if you were running a magazine publisher whose revenue was overwhelmingly from subscriptions, then you might not notice much happening during the three or four or five months that we’re going to suffer like this.
So I think you’ve got to think of life a bit like that, because if you take conversely, the magazine publishers who depend on the newsstand, they’re suffering not because readers don’t want what they were doing, their suffering because they were pretty dependent on advertising, which has largely gone away over the last few years, and also dependent on the retail news trade, newsstand. And the newsstand of course during this period has failed them because of the restrictions. So you could see that they had a pretty tough time before, and they now have a tougher time.
So it’s kind of, there’s a bit of serendipity about how you go into the crisis, how you got to this point, as well as who owns you and what they expect. It’s very noticeable that you take a company like Hearst, which has been one of the sort of shining lights for 100 years of all kinds of media, just moving in and out of different channels of media, tending to be more successful more or less everywhere in turn, and being genuinely very versatile.
If you take that company, they made the decision not to lay a single person off regardless, and actually to give all their employees worldwide a 1% of salary bonus. Now, that’s a statement by a company that doesn’t expect to suffer.
But do you think that is just the fact that they were looking forward a long time before this came, and that idea of serendipity that they were actually on it?
The difficulty today is that for the traditional companies – and Hearst of course, still are largely traditional – but the difficulty is the traditional business has got to be managed as well as possible because you generate cash from it. It’s what traditionally brought you here. And at the same time, in a completely different way, you’ve got to find other things to do that in the future will be more important to you.
So you’ve got to have a specific frame of mind, a specific mindset that says, ‘I will devote some real resources, some real time, and even some of my best people to looking for something that I don’t even know what we’re looking for.’ And you’ve got to have that view, and the reason why you got to have that view is because in Silicon Valley, somebody who’s never been employed by anybody has got out of bed this morning and thought up something that you and I couldn’t imagine, and tomorrow it could be a very successful media business.
If you’re running a traditional business, say back in the day when I was, a little bit of R&D, go and have a look at a magazine market, see if you can launch a trade show there, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about putting real resources into finding whatever it is that we could do in the future with what we know about the world. And you can’t do that with the odd junior from Business School. You’ve got to have some of your best people and some real money, and do the kind of experimentation that for the sake of argument, drugs companies routinely do.
And I think this period has just made that worse, just made it more difficult because that shifting that was slowly moving along and making life quite difficult, particularly for print publishers, has just become much more difficult. So coming out of this, even if your readers haven’t shifted much, the advertisers who already have defected very largely to digital media have gone even further by now.
So what would you be saying to someone if they came and said, ‘Right, I’m thinking about what comes next, I’ll get past this, but I don’t know what to do next.’
There isn’t really – and you know this as well as I do – there isn’t really anything new in in the world in the sense if you’ve got a customer, and you’re trying to sell something to him really, whether you really want his money or just his time or whatever, but that’s what you’re trying to do, the difference [in me so trying] to assess what your customer, what this reader or this user wants, what they will pay for, what is special to them that they can’t find anywhere else, is much more important than it used to be.
There was a time when people are quite happy that three quarters of what you gave them in your package of information, your newspaper magazine or whatever, three quarters of it could have been stuff that could have been everywhere else, and just a few percent of it might have been special, or perhaps not even that. Perhaps people would put up with the fact that, I know that this is nearly everywhere. I kind of like this because it arrives on a Thursday.
We all know now that there are loads of places to find information. And that what we’re really looking for is we’re looking for the quality information, not the quantity. So the very highest value information, the stuff that I can’t get anywhere else, I have to buy from you. It almost doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about in print, or digital, or broadcast, or audio or something.
If you can’t get it anywhere else, If I’ve got something you want, and I’ve worked out what that should be and how I should develop that information, if I’ve got that, then I’ve got a business and you’ve got to buy from me.