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MPA's Berner Shows She Means Business

She tells industry to 'stop apologizing for magazines'
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Mary Berner, the former Reader’s Digest Association honcho who’s the new president and CEO of the MPA, is wasting no time in trying to show the magazine industry she means business.

“I’m pissed off that we as an industry have allowed others to hijack our narrative,” Berner said, her signature feistiness on full display as she kicked off the MPA’s annual American Magazine Conference in San Francisco on Oct. 15. She exhorted the gathering to “stop apologizing for magazines” and turn the conversation to how they are purveyors of unique content across platforms and powerful arbiters of taste and thought.

The show of force went over well with some in the audience, at a time when the industry is suffering from declining advertising and newsstand sales and its association has been criticized as slow to adapt to the digital landscape. It seems unlikely that this bunch notorious for backbiting is going to stop competing with each other, as Berner would have them do. She also asked each company to appoint an ambassador to the MPA, leading one attendee to grouse, “She has to remember, we don’t work for her.”

The rest of the day’s programming dealt with the changing media landscape and the industry’s successes and challenges in keeping up with it.

With social media on everyone's minds, attendees heard from Twitter vp, global brand strategy Joel Lunenfeld that to take full advantage of the platform, they should treat followers as potential subscribers and keep them engaged with interactive content like polls, advice and live chats.

Publishers talked about how they’re finding new ways to reach audiences and get them to open their wallets, from People’s plans to launch a paid app that lets celebrity hounds follow their favorite stars to Food & Wine opening a restaurant based on its Best New Chefs platform.

Attendees heard from Morgan Guenther, CEO of Next Issue Media, who shared results of the magazine e-reading newsstand’s first six months.

Digital content won’t be treated like a red-headed stepchild to print any more, as far as the American Society of Magazine Editors is concerned. Lucy Danziger, president of ASME and editor in chief of Self, announced that from now on there will be just one set of National Magazine Awards instead of separate ones for print and digital entries. “I don’t think it matters what platform we’re on,” she said.

The decline of the ink-on-paper business means editors are having to get creative to reach new audiences and generate revenue, but how to do it without damaging the brand? That was the question Rosemary Ellis, editor in chief of Good Housekeeping, put to a panel of editors.

Bruce Upbin, managing editor of Forbes Media, faced questions over whether Forbes’ BrandVoice goes too far in mixing advertising and editorial content by letting advertisers post blogs right on Forbes.com.

Upbin said Forbes’ self-correcting process ensures only content that users find good will rise up on the site and that the editors can remove posts if they’re substandard. “It’s controversial, but it’s working,” he said, adding that the only opposition he’s heard has been from editorial types. “It’s really an industry thing people are freaking out about.”

Rival editor Josh Tyrangiel of Bloomberg Businessweek shot back that the Forbes approach “could ultimately have a deleterious affect” on the brand. “It’s mingling with content that’s supposed to be independent,” he said.

Businessweek and others, rather, create content they want on different platforms, and then try to get advertiser buy-in.

“When an advertiser comes to you, you can offer them the pu pu platter,” Tyrangiel said.

Ellis moved on to Dwell’s Amanda Dameron, raising the issue of online videos the magazine creates. “It’s against the ASME guidelines,” Ellis said. Dameron replied that on the contrary, Dwell creates the videos without any involvement by prospective sponsors. “They don’t have any say in the content itself,” she said. “We don’t show them to advertisers beforehand.”

Others have dabbled in putting their name on licensed products, though that practice clearly has its limits. Asked about selling branded products, Tyrangiel cracked, “We sell collateralized debt obligations; it’s done very well for Businessweek.”