Here’s some solid advice from National Journal publisher Poppy MacDonald: “Don’t hole up in your office and assume you’re going to serve people that way. Open up a dialogue and make sure that dialogue goes much deeper than just passing a business card.” Trust her; she knows her stuff. It’s not by chance that National Journal’s renewal rates are at 95 percent in 2014. MacDonald actually makes the effort to get out and converse face-to-face with the publication’s audience, whether she’s speaking to a focus group or a head of government affairs, so she can get to the root of their issues and find out how the brand can best serve them.
And her mastery of the art of listening is complemented by her knack for inventiveness. MacDonald’s introduction of a membership model to National Journal that replaced its previous subscription strategy was a successful revenue and audience builder, and thanks to The Catalyst — an advertising unit created under MacDonald’s leadership that delivers viewability rates up to 72 percent of the industry average — the pub’s digital revenue was at its highest by the end of 2014, with numbers up 63 percent year-over-year.
Here, learn how MacDonald “stumbled into media,” find out what her episode of “Undercover Boss” would be like and get her advice on excelling in a career in media.
Name: Poppy MacDonald
Position: Publisher and president, National Journal
Resume: Started her career on Capitol Hill, working for legislators representing her home state of Oregon. In 2000, moved on to work in communications for the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2001, became the director of marketing and new business development at The Advisory Board Company. Became partner of Gallup World Poll & Healthcare Practice at Gallup, Inc., then went to Politico in 2010 to be the executive director of Politico Pro. Started at National Journal in 2011 as vice president of membership, then took the position of chief revenue officer; promoted to president and publisher in 2014.
Birthdate: September 28
Hometown: Salem, Oregon
Education: BA, Scripps College
Marital status: Married
Media mentors: Chairman and owner of Atlantic Media, David Bradley; Justin Smith, CEO, Bloomberg Media Group; and Andy Sareyan, CEO, Andrews McMeel Universal
Best career advice received: “Lead with your own personal strengths and in your own style; don’t try to replicate another person’s leadership style simply because they have found success,” from Dalia Mogahed, executive coach with Gallup Inc.
Guilty pleasure: A glass of Oregon pinot noir while my husband gets the kids to bed.
Last book read: The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success, by William N. Thorndike
Twitter handle: @PoppyMacD
When you started your career did you envision that your path would lead you to where you are now?
Absolutely not. I didn’t have any vision that this is where I would end up. I think I stumbled into media. I was really glad I did, but the job I have today as president and publisher of National Journal does really draw back on my start as a Capitol Hill staffer. I read National Journal primarily because it’s what my senator read, and I wanted to understand and learn the same information he was consuming. So I think it really does help in my job today that I was one of our readers. I know what our subscribers are looking for, the information they need to know in the morning when they wake up [and balancing this] with the more detailed, long-form journalism where we teach them something about the legislation or the policies they’re working on.
Was there anything that surprised you when you actually started working at National Journal versus being just a reader of the publication?
I would probably say what surprised me was the innovative spirit here. The perception when you’re on Capitol Hill is we read [National Journal] because it’s trusted and it’s credible and it’s nonpartisan. But I think what surprised me when I got here is that people weren’t resting on their laurels saying, ‘Hey, we’ve been around for 30 years. Let’s just keep doing business the same. Let’s just keep producing that magazine that everyone reads and let’s keep producing that daily in print and the ‘Hotline’ (which is our campaigns and elections tool).’ We need to be very innovative about what we are offering next. What people needed 45 years ago isn’t what they need today, and so people are constantly thinking about how we can do things better and differently. I definitely didn’t have that perspective being on Capitol Hill.
Can you describe your transition into media? What did you have to learn? And was there anything you had to unlearn?
It was a learning curve in terms of understanding the editorial side and how a newsroom works with the business side. What I may have had to unlearn from the consulting world is that you do anything the client asks. There are no holds barred — if the client demands it, it will be done. That was my consulting background. What I think is different about a media company is we really need to have a wall between the newsroom and the business side. While we want to do everything we can to help the client think about how they reach their communications goals and how they have rich media units that are grabbing peoples’ attention, there is a place at which our ability to serve that client stops and there is no influence on the newsroom or what they cover or how they cover the issue.
What is a day in your life like?
It’ll be a mix of working inside National Journal and thinking about product innovation and how we’re serving our leaders as well as our advertisers. So that might include meeting with our editor-in-chief to talk about our digital newsletter strategy in 2015 or it might be reviewing our first set of five articles for a native advertising campaign to make sure they are on message. But it also would involve communicating with our members. For example, I just sent out a poll for the research topics we should be focusing on in 2015. So I’m reaching out to every head of office in government affairs that we serve through membership — which is over 700 people — to say, ‘Here are 10 topics that caught our attention based on our conversations with people in your roles. What should we focus on in the year ahead that’s an up-awake-at-night issue for you?’
And then I’d also be getting outside of the office physically. So, for example, I’m going to have coffee with a bunch of millennials on Capitol Hill; first to just help them think about how I started my career and how I got where I am today. But also I want to pick their brains about how they are using National Journal. How can we present our information in a way that would help them be more effective in their jobs?
If you had to go undercover at National Journal like the show “Undercover Boss” to investigate what’s making the company tick from the bottom up, which role would you select and why?
I think the role I would want to play is on the execution side of our live events team, National Journal Live. And I say that because I only have a small glimpse into how demanding and challenging their jobs are on a day-to-day basis. I went out with the team to San Francisco last week where we did an event that’s part of our Next America program, looking at [America’s] changing demographics. In all honesty, I didn’t help with any of the setup. I was hosting the event, and I was absolutely exhausted just from those 36 hours. So I would love to go and play their role and really understand [the process] from when they first meet the client to understand the issues that they want to communicate and the conversation they want to bring to a live space.
Then working with our editorial side to make sure that 360-degree views are represented. And understanding the questions we’re going to ask that will really frame this issue in a new, interesting way and hopefully break news. I just think they have such an important job and at the end of the day they need to be able to please our client, but they also need to make sure that our events continue to have their reputation of being bipartisan so we can continue to draw the media and large crowds.
Your advice for anyone striving to work in the business side of media?
Bring a lot of energy and great ideas and remain very positive because I think with media you have your good days and you have your challenging days. But if you’re constantly approaching it as how you can improve based on that challenging day yesterday, how you can improve your approach tomorrow, I think you’ll find a lot of success.
Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.