Hearst Magazines President Carey, Times’ Carr Face Off

Hearst prez talks successes, flops, and entrepreneurialism

When The New York Times’ David Carr is in the interviewer’s seat, it’s hard to tell who’s going to be the bigger attraction: the interviewee or Carr himself—especially now that he’s a movie star, thanks to the new documentary, Page One, about the Times' Media desk.

But Hearst Magazines president David Carey, who shared the stage with Carr in a lively talk for New York University Center for Publishing students Tuesday, held his own.

Playing the straight man, Carey recalled how as an up-and-comer in his 20s, he used to write business plans for magazines as a hobby.

“You are such a nerd,” Carr said.

Carey's first magazine, Smart Money, survived despite launching on the eve of a recession. But as Carr pointed out, Carey also was behind the famously expensive Condé Nast Portfolio, which crashed and burned after just two years.

As Carey told it, Portfolio was running at such a high burn rate that to get it back on track was deemed “mathematically impossible,” while the negative attention it got in the press “perhaps was not the best sales tool for us.”

Even as much as Carr egged him on, Carey kept up his characteristic restraint when speaking of his old employer.

On the differences between working for Condé and Hearst, Carey said the key difference is that at Hearst, magazines are but one part of a much bigger company. A disappointed Carr said: “It wasn’t very juicy, I have to say; I was expecting more.”

Carey did say Hearst was the “first of the major publishers” to break into the iPad subscription market, prompting Carr to ask, “Didn’t your old employer beat you to market? Just checking.” Carey acknowledged that indeed, The New Yorker was first to start selling subscriptions on the iPad.

Speaking of Apple, Carey downplayed the skirmish between publishers and the software maker, saying that Hearst didn’t understand the quibbles other publishers had over Apple’s 30 percent cut and its refusal to share consumer data. With newsstand copies, Hearst doesn’t get any information about who’s buying them, and only collects 55 cents on the dollar for those copies, he pointed out. “We’ll take a 70-30 split any day of the week,” he said.

Carey has long been an Apple booster; back in 2002 when he was publisher of The New Yorker, he appeared in Apple's anti-Microsoft "switch" campaign. Carey recalled how, red-faced, he then had to fly to Redmond, Wash., to apologize to Microsoft, then The New Yorker's biggest advertiser. Having his ailing parents have the chance to see him on TV, however, was "worth all the abuse in the world."

On Hearst’s recent $900 million acquisition of Lagardère’s magazines outside France, Carey said the deal gives Hearst economies of scale in the U.S. in a mature industry while diversifying its revenue. Once a largely U.S. company, Hearst now gets half of its revenue from overseas.

But Hearst will need more than scale to compete. Carey said he’s looking for go-getters who will be in the office by 8 a.m., and will bring entrepreneurial thinking to the company. “Flipboard was created by five people,” he said, while Amazon has its “two-pizza teams,” limited in number to the people who can share two pies for dinner. In that vein, Hearst is getting ready to roll out a digital product that he said was created by five people in 100 days.

Carey said he also has no qualms about creating services for advertisers that bypass traditional media, one area that Hearst’s newly acquired digital agency iCrossing focuses on. “We want to be able to change as the model evolves.”