SXSWi Day 3: Journalism Can Make For Great Business, Says The Atlantic‘s Scott Havens

IAP22928The “future of journalism” topic has almost become trite in journalism circles, but for The Atlantic‘s President M. Scott Havens, thoughtful discussions and observations on the media landscape, both present and future, make the difference between being in the red and black.

At his SXSW talk, “Can Great Journalism Make for Great Business?” Havens, who will begin his post as Senior Vice President, Digital at Time Inc. March 31, explained how he helped propel a struggling then-Atlantic Monthly back to relevancy and progressiveness in the biz. A few of his “core beliefs” on producing and financially sustaining digital journalism are:

Magazines are here to stay

Sure, the definition of magazines is increasingly open for interpretation, but Havens says they’re not going anywhere. Readers are seeking stories with depth, analysis and craft, unlike so much of the content that permeates the web. “There’s something special about a well-researched magazine article,” he said. It’s fair to assume that print magazines won’t last (other than giants like TIME, Harper’s, The New Yorker, etc.) unless publishers can keep making profits from them. In The Atlantic’s experience, “Print advertising is actually sorta stable,” he said.

Quality content is king

Havens shared a theory with the SXSW audience. “Quality content drives a quality audience. This, in turn, drives a willingness to pay for [editorial] content; marketers want to reach these people,” so they pour money into advertising efforts, which then gets allocated toward producing more quality reporting and storytelling. It’s that simple, according to the Atlantic exec and Condé Nast alum.

Diversification is crucial

Relying solely on advertising, subscriptions or paywalls will leave you in the dust. Get innovative with strategizing revenue plans, Havens said. Look at examples from the New Yorker‘s annual festival, Texas Monthly‘s BBQ event and others. “Follow the money,” Havens said. The Atlantic produces 133 events per year, and he suggests other publishers start looking to wine clubs, festivals, merchandise, retail stores, e-books and more as revenue streams. “Think about your readers as customers,” he said.

Brand matters

“People come back to brands they trust,” Havens said. He thinks part of the reason the Atlantic was able to come back after its desperate 2010 revenue situation was because they never compromised on quality, and they rebranded by dropping “Monthly” from their title. While still maintaining elements of the brand that elicited readers’ trust, Havens said it’s important to acknowledge that a brand can be “elastic.”

Television is next

The TV industry is next in line to be shaken up, and Havens said the publishing industry should be prepared to adapt to the shift in viewers’ habits from traditional TV-viewing to mobile/online. “We’re going to get into video soon,” he said.

The consumption curve is a line

“You’re consuming immediately upon waking, and you’re hitting different platforms throughout the day. As a publisher, you need to think about dayparting. What are you providing in the morning and during the day?” Havens challenged.

The social web IS content discovery

More than search, direct (website links) or third party links, people are searching for great pieces to read — and they go to Facebook and Twitter to discover that work, and then share. “Magazine stories are incredible social currency,” Havens said. “The beautiful thing about social is that if you’ve got great stuff, they’ll share it on their own. It’s not that we don’t have any strategy, it’s just that we’re focused on the content.” No matter whether the two platforms for sharing are able to stay on top long-term, he said the social web will still prevail in terms of content discovery. “My view is there will be other players. It will be a socially driven ecosphere.”


“If you’re a publisher and you’re not thinking about mobile, you should probably get out of the business,” Havens said. 45 percent of all traffic to the Atlantic comes from mobile devices.

Another non-negotiable for leading and sustaining a digital news operation? Hire people who are smarter than you. “The media business is all about talent,” Havens said.

And what about publishers without an Atlantic-sized budget and reach? Go back to the basics, Havens said. “You have to get back to why local papers exist. They need to focus on what they’re really good at. I truly believe that even with Patch’s struggles, there’s still a business there. People will pay for information that helps them and that they need.”

You can check out more of our coverage of SXSWi on our sister blog, Social Times.

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