Interviewer: Peter Houston
Dr Samir Husni: Simply put, I am the man who loves magazines. I fell in love with magazines when I was 11 years old, when I bought my first copy of Superman, when it first came to my home country, Lebanon. I walked from our apartment to the shop and picked up a copy of the first issue of Superman.
As I was crossing the street, flipping the pages, something happened to me. I just fell in love with the art of storytelling, flipping the pages, having a hero, having a villain, all-in-one. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in control of the pace of the story, in control of the movement of the story. I wasn’t depending on my father or grandfather, to read me a story from the Bible, which was the only book we had at home.
From that moment, I’ve never looked back. I’ve now been teaching for 37 years at the University of Mississippi. In 2009, I created the Magazine Innovation Center to help amplify the future of print in a digital age. Because as you recall, in 2009, everybody was saying, print is dead. We had the iPhone in ’07, then we had the iPad in ’09, and everybody was saying this is the future.
Most people looked at me like, ‘this guy is so in love with magazines, he can’t see straight. He’s starting a center to amplify the future of print, in a digital age? He must have lost his mind’. What nobody knew back then is that I was still continuing my hobby.
It became my education, then became my profession. I tell my students every single day, I have never worked a day in my life. I’m doing the exact same thing I did: collecting magazines, designing magazines, reading magazines, researching magazines, ever since that first day, when I bought that copy of Superman.
I started the Center here and continued the research. The main goal for the Magazine Innovation Center is to help amplify the future of print in the digital age. Anybody that comes and visits me and sees the amount of magazines and boxes of magazines in my office would become a faithful follower of the premise that print is not going anywhere and magazines are not going anywhere.
Peter Houston: For a very long time, you’ve been one of the leading evangelists for print. Do you feel a little bit vindicated that print clearly hasn’t gone away, but actually, we’ve just had probably one of the best years for print subscriptions in a very long time?
Indeed. And actually the vindication came back in 2016. I believe that the Columbia Journalism Review wrote an article about how print is the new new media. They mentioned that this guy, Samir Husni, at the University of Mississippi started this Magazine Innovation Center in ’09, and he believed that print is always going to be there.
With all the interviews I did last year, even during a pandemic, it was amazing to see how people returned to print, because of all the screen fatigue that they had. Almost every publisher I spoke with has seen an increase in their print orders and in their subscriptions to their magazines. Like you mentioned, magazines are not going anywhere. They are changing.
Definitely, the magazines of today are not like the magazines of two years ago, or not even like the magazines of 100 years ago. That’s the beauty of magazines, that they are a changing platform. That’s when I laugh when people tell me about new media. I say, every time I get a new copy of a magazine, it’s new media.
It’s funny that you mentioned magazines 100 years ago, because I know on your blog, you wrote about a magazine article around Christmas 100 years ago. I think one of the things that was so interesting about that is that so much has changed – and yet nothing has changed. You talk about innovation but you’re also a magazine historian. Do you find that those things that you can trace all the way back?
The more things change, the more things remain the same. I’m working on a new book now, on all the magazines that were published in the United States in March 1953, the month I was born. I said, “Look, Mr Magazine was born in March 1953, let me take a look.”
I was able to collect and find more than 600 magazines from that month. When I look at them, and when I see some of the stuff that they covered, there was a cover story on a magazine from 1952 called Focus, about why the Russians are interfering with our presidential election. This is 1952!
And then, of course, you saw the ones that I posted on the blog about ‘let’s tell the truth’ from 1980. Or ‘let’s move from me to us’ from 1916. All these topics, you use today. Folks, have we learned anything, or is history just repeating itself and repeating itself?
The beauty of all of this is that the art of storytelling, the art of magazineship, putting a magazine together, is still an experience. That’s what I tell people, when people say, ‘you’re not a big believer of magazines online’. I say ‘no, because a magazine is an experience. A magazine is much more than content.’
If we are only in the content-providing business, we would have been dead a long time ago. But magazines as a whole, the art of putting the magazine altogether, is the art of experience-making. If you cannot create an experience with your magazine, you are not going to be in this business for long.
Do you think that’s why last year was such a big year for magazine subscriptions, and ultimately magazine sales, that there were so few experiences otherwise?
One, there were very few experiences, and two, most of the experiences that people were subjected to were negative experiences. We were bombarded by bad news on our television screens or our mobile phones. We had the pandemic, then we had the social unrest, then we had the killing of George Floyd. Everything that was coming our way was a bombardment of negative, depressing information.
And there comes the magazine in your mailbox, there comes the magazine on the newsstand, saying, ‘cheer up, life can still be good. Make this recipe, relax a little bit, read this piece of fiction. Have fun.’ It’s all positive. That’s the thing that was so important for the great editors and successful magazine folks, is that they did not deviate from the mission of their magazine.
I spoke with one publisher, for the Farmer’s Almanac, a magazine that has been published for more than 200 years. She told me that the magazine had lived through the pandemic of 1980, lived through the civil war in this country, but they never deviated from the focus of the magazine. You were not going to find articles about the Civil War. They leave that to the newspapers.
It’s the same thing with the pandemic now, we leave it to to the digital media. You are going to find what the magazine promised you when you subscribed to that magazine. This is the experience you are going to find: forecasting about the weather, you are going to find good farming things, you are going to find good stories, uplifting things.
Good editors, even during a pandemic and during social unrest, want to stay the course. That’s what I’ve learned from all the interviews I did last year. The one common theme among all of them was ‘stay the course’. Stay true to your audience.
Stay true to that agreement that you had with the audience, what we promised you when you subscribed, when you invited us to your home. We promise you we are going to deliver A, B, and C, and we are delivering A, B, and C. We are not deviating from that.
I know you did quite a lot of work last year around Black Lives Matter and the diversity that was being brought into magazines. Looking back and looking forward, do you think there was a real change?
It was a major, major change. After the killing of George Floyd and after I read a piece in one of the UK magazines, Love Magazine, that, because we were staying at home, because we were fixated with the television screens, fixated on that video of the killing of George Florida, eight minutes and 52 seconds, there was an awakening in the magazine field.
All of a sudden, they discovered that they’ve really not been mainstream. They were magazines that did not cover all races everywhere, whether they are Black or Hispanic, you name it. But mainly, it was the celebration of Blackness, that appeared like never before in the history of magazines.
I have found so far, just from the last six months of 2020, 336 magazines that have Black subjects on their covers. This is almost five times more than we had in the last century combined. It’s amazing. These magazines have never had a Black subject on the cover. This is an amazing, amazing change, where we see that we’re truly going mainstream.
Some may say, we are probably overcompensating, but to me, there is no such thing as overcompensating, because people who buy magazines, they buy them for the experience. Editors used to tell me, if we put a Black subject on the cover of the magazine, our sales will go down. Those were the days where magazines were cheap, those were the days when magazines were more like an impulse buy, because there were only like $1 or 95 cents.
Now, buying a magazine is intentional, because the average cover price of a magazine is almost $8. With some magazines reaching as high as $30, you are not going on an impulse to buy a magazine and pay $30 for the cover price. So the cover is not as essential, it’s still a conversation starter, but it’s not going to make or break your magazine, because you are buying it for the content.
That’s the major shift that we are starting to see, that now we are in the business of selling our content to our audience, not selling our audience to our advertisers, because the business model is changing. Advertisers now have so many platforms to reach us, including direct reach.
I get direct messages from people who want to reach me. They don’t need a magazine to reach me. But when I go and buy the magazine, I’m buying it for its content, the content that is vetted, curated, fact-checked. When I have the magazines in my hand, I’m saying, ‘wow, look at those people, they’ve done so much work for me, to save me time, to save me energy. To give me this Me Time, so I can sit down and relax and forget about everything else that’s taking place.’
Do you think that the editors and the publishers of these magazines looking back are thinking, ‘well, there was no commercial imperative?’ Now, what they’re looking at is a social imperative. Do you think it’ll last because of that lack of commercial imperative?
Even when I did my dissertation at the University of Missouri back in 1983, I talked about the role magazines play in any country. There’s the commercial role. They are a money-making business. If you are not making money, you are going to go out of business.
They are also a marketing tool, marketing for advertisers, for goods, for products, you name it, But there’s also an important social role that the magazines play, which is either an educational role, informational role, reflector of society, and initiators to society.
Magazines used to initiate a lot of stuff. They were always also literature purveyors. Who would have known about Ernest Hemingway, if it was not for the Old Man in DC and Life Magazine? Even this month, Wired Magazine, their February issue just came out with an entire novel, about the next war of 2034. The entire issue of the magazine is one story, one novel, which is, again, reminding us of the role magazines play.
Back in the 60s, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Junior, Esquire Magazine led the campaign to ban gun advertising, because of the violence that was taking place. But we’ve never seen as big a massive change in the social responsibility for all magazines as the one that we’ve seen starting in June of 2020. And it’s still continuing.
Magazines, all of a sudden, are listening to their audiences and to their readers more, because they are going to be the major source of revenue. Look at what happened with Vogue, with the Kamala Harris on the cover of Vogue, when the social media erupted, saying that it’s not a good cover. Vogue was forced to go back to print, and put the digital cover on a print edition.
Of course, they are going to make a lot of money from selling both covers. But again, we are witnessing this massive change where magazine editors and publishers have their ears to the masses now, rather than ‘I am the editor and I can do anything I want to do, and if you don’t like it, tough.’
Do you think in that sense, that’s where digital media is changing print media?
The best thing that digital media has done is that it helps the audience directly tell the editors what they’re feeling, even before the magazine hits the stands. Once they see that cover on the website, or they see that cover on social media, people are voicing their opinions.
People love to give immediate, instant feedback. We live in an age of instant feedback. That’s the danger and the beauty. It’s like a double-edged sword. On one hand, yes, I am listening to you, and on the other hand, you can have a very vocal minority, that will also derail your job and derail what you are doing as an editor.
One time, I was in Bratislava and the editor of the paper there told me that he came up with what I thought was a genius idea, that you can access all our content for free on the web. But if you want to comment, you have to pay €1. You have to pay for every comment. Knowing how much people love to run their mouths and say stuff, they were making more money from the comments than from actually selling the content.
Do you think that editors, and also publishers, have a difficult line to draw, on one hand listening to the audience, but on the other hand, leading the audience and being tastemakers?
The era of those celebrity editors is reaching an end. I think we have very few celebrity editors left. We are seeing a major return to the brand as the influencer, rather than the person behind the brand.
Take an example: if you read anything in the Economist, can you ever tell me who wrote that thing? Or are you going to tell me I read this in the Economist? There are no bylines in the Economist, and the same thing at Home and Gardens. There were a lot of magazines that were based on selling their brand and presenting their brand as the human side, as if that ink on paper is the human coming to visit you and engage with you and your conversation.
You are not going to say, so and so wrote this article in The Economist, or so and so wrote this article in Bon Appetit. You are going to say that, I read this in Food and Wine. We are going to start seeing the celebrity editors taking a step back. This is the major difference between now and what we’ve seen in the 90s, where editors became bigger names than the magazines themselves.
The folks that were writing for Time Magazine, Newsweek, like Fareed Zakaria or Jon Meacham, all these people becoming bigger than the brand, did not help the case for magazines as experience-makers. We are going to see this return to the magazine as the experience-maker and to the brand as your influencer friend, that’s not only reflecting what you are doing, listening to what you are doing, but also helping you, guiding you, setting the roadmap for you as you move forward.
Looking at last year and looking forward, are you still as optimistic as you were about print?
I am more optimistic, because when I hear that the established magazines, almost with no exceptions, have witnessed an increase of 25, 30% in subscriptions, and people using digital and direct marketing to order more magazines, that gives me hope for the multitude of newcomers to the field as well.
Technology has made it so easy to launch a new magazine. It used to be, if you are going to do a magazine was less than 10,000 copies, the printer will throw you out. They said, we can’t do anything less than 10,000 copies. Now I’m getting first editions with 500 copies, limited editions of 500 copies.
Technology has made it possible for anyone who can afford some money to publish a magazine can actually publish the magazine. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of new magazines coming from folks who’ve never published a magazine before.
Still, you have companies like Meredith, who launched a lot of magazines last year during the pandemic, and continue to do so. But also we’ve seen a lot of magazines coming from individual entrepreneurs, who feel like they have an idea to share, they have an experience they want to share, and they’re going to do it.
When it comes to what we’re going to see in 2021, I’ll say my traditional talk about the future, that only two people can tell you the future: God and a fool. I know I am neither God and hopefully I’m not a fool. But we are going to see more magazines, more specialized magazines, more niche titles, that are aimed at a very, very specific aspect of every part of our daily living.
The other reason, I believe, that we are going to see a good return to print is because the freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, belongs to those who own the press, as AJ Liebling once said. When you put all your eggs in one basket, and you don’t own the basket, i.e. social media, Twitter, Facebook, you name it. If they decide to pull the plug, then you have no protection, you’re gone.
But if you own a magazine and publish a magazine, that sense of ownership, which to me is one of the three ships that cruise through all human beings, is one major aspect. You have the sense of membership, like a membership card that you are going to get every month or every week. It’s a reminder that you belong to this community.
You have showmanship: we love to show things. Nobody is going to come to my house and ask what I’m reading on my iPad. But they are going to look at my magazines on my coffee table and pick them up, whereas nobody’s going to touch my iPhone or my iPad and say, ‘hey, let me see what you’re reading’.
Those three ships, ownership, membership, and showmanship, are what gives me hope that we will always have print, we will always have that physical attraction. I joke with my students the whole time: you can have as many virtual girlfriends and boyfriends as you want. But until you try the real thing, trust me, it’s not the same.
I’m going to ask you the impossible question. What is your favourite magazine?
As I started, I told you that I’m the man who loves magazines. Magazines to me are like my children. I will never tell you which child I love more than the other, because I love all my kids the same. However, anytime I get my hands on a Volume One Number One, that’s my favourite magazine for that moment. I have a lot of one night stands with Volume One Number Ones that I enjoy and cherish – until the second one comes along.