Hearst Magazines Chief Troy Young on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly From His First 6 Months

New technologies and acquisitions to staff shakeups

Young spent 5 years heading up digital media for the company. Provided by Hearst

It’s been six months since Troy Young was tapped to take over for David Carey as president of Hearst Magazines. In that time, Young has overseen a staff shakeup that changed leadership across brands, a deepening investment in the company’s use of data, including a new chief data officer and a new slack bot that will give its newsrooms real-time stats that range from how well editorial content is performing to how products with affiliate links are selling.

But Young has made much more than that on his plate. Hearst Magazines also acquired a brand rooted in YouTube, Clevver, to expand its presence on the West Coast, launched paywalls and membership models for several of its brands, moved production of Popular Mechanics to Pennsylvania and most recently weathered negative press about its handling of an exposé on Bohemian Rhapsody director Bryan Singer. The feature had been intended for Esquire but was ultimately published in The Atlantic.

Here’s what Young told Adweek about his roller coaster ride so far:

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: Now that you’ve been in the role for some time, how do you see your position or the company’s mission any differently than day one?
Troy Young: In some ways I don’t see it any differently. My objective early on was to make our products as good as they could be, and that’s everything from print to digital, and to find new efficiencies, because we had separated our organization and we had done it for a very deliberate reason — to accelerate our digital progress when we felt like we needed to be focused.

I needed to figure out the right way to integrate the organization and not disrupt any of the progress that we’ve made. But my goal was summarized in something that we articulated internally called “content with purpose”—to be incredibly purposeful in how we meet the needs of a consumer. It’s a recognition that consumers have so many choices now, from media created by their friends to media created by professional organizations and everything in between.

If you want to continue to grow your brands and be successful in that environment, you really have to understand what needs you’re serving and how well you’re fulfilling them.

How have you changed internally, whether that’s the new publisher system, and the layoffs last year, that I’m assuming are a result of integrating those staffs?
If you think about the business historically, that was essentially a group of media brands disconnected around the world, led by two people on each brand—a publisher and an editor, very hierarchical—with a very specific way of selling subscriptions in a very specific business model that publishers execute on, which was focused on selling advertising.

So much has changed because distribution has changed. We find ourselves in a situation where we’re navigating an entirely new distribution environment where our content lives in many places. Some of them on platforms we control, some that we don’t. Also on the content side, we [historically] produced words and pictures heavily curated in a magazine and suddenly we can produce everything.

It was very expensive to build rate base and to create recognized brands and now we’re living in a world where so many people can produce content. The change that we’re living through—and it’s not just Hearst, it’s every media company—is like a 20-year process. It’s really important to recognize that you have to have a really nimble workforce because the way that you create content and how you distribute it and how you monetize it is suddenly different. So, you have to have people that can live in that world and you need many of the same skills, but you need a lot of new skills.

All of these organizations are going through these changes, and it’s not over. It’s not about, “Did you lay off some people?” It’s about, “How are you creating a new kind of media organization?” And I think that’s what’s important.

It’s not about, "Did you lay off some people?" It's about, "How are you creating a new kind of media organization?"

A lot of that, as you mentioned, has to do with using more data too. And you now have a person who is overseeing data for the company. Why did you hire someone for that position? What was the need that you saw?
We saw the importance of data in all aspects of the business continue to grow. Data became increasingly important in all of our ad products. Data became really important in how we thought about consumer revenue. Data became really important to add to the editorial perspective in every way and data became really important to measuring our operation and ad sales capability.

And Mike [Smith, chief data officer] had been leading the way in our ad business and data and how we brought data into our operational teams. It seemed like the right time to say this is important to everything we’re doing as an organization, and we should embody it in a single role.

Last year, we saw a lot of acquisitions in the industry, and there are still some magazine titles up for sale. How do you feel about the additions that you made and is there anything still on the market  you might be interested in?
I think we made an incredibly astute acquisition in Rodale, and that’s reflected in how we’ve successfully integrated it. More broadly, those are really quality service titles. Health is a mega trend. Men’s Health and Women’s Health [are] extraordinary brands around the world. Bicycling and Runner’s World are passion points. And Prevention was also about health.

Passions work really well on the internet and in every way as a publishing company. I think we have the best portfolio of media brands in the world on the magazine side, and Rodale is a big part of that.

This is a company that evolves over time. It’s the story of Hearst, from afternoon newspapers to magazines, television, cable networks—the new coming out of the old.

We always look for ways that we can grow organically and inorganically. If we can find an asset that’s going to add to our business in any way or accelerate progress with a capability, we’ll look at it.

More recently, we felt like we needed to continue to build momentum on the video side. We’d wanted to open a studio in Los Angeles. YouTube is an important distribution channel. So, we made an opportunistic acquisition of Clevver, which was a relatively new, young women’s, YouTube-driven media brand. That enabled us to really get going quickly in Los Angeles and get our studio set up and understand the world of YouTube better and that talent equation.

Will we see more video and more investments in the film industry out of that L.A. office?
Absolutely, and we’ll use it to do all kinds of things.

A magazine is a good experience. ...We just have to do the same thing digitally.

We’re seeing a lot of publishers move into paywalls and membership models. You, too, have launched your own. Why now?
I don’t think it’s a secret that you had a lot of media companies looking to diversify revenue. I think there was an early premise that scale would solve everything. What people started to realize is that scale, combined with very low CPMs, didn’t diversify the business effectively and that there was an underlying belief among many media companies that consumers ought to pay for their product. Last year you started to see momentum in consumer businesses charging for content, which introduces a whole new set of complexities because suddenly you have to figure out how to create intimacy with a customer in a new way.

And it changes the way you think about content. You’re less opportunistic about traffic and much more focused on customer satisfaction and lifetime value.

We’re looking at the places where we have deep relationships with consumers, either because we serve an audience with a unique point of view or we serve a passion for it. You’ll see experiments with Charlie Pierce, who has a very unique voice in politics that people are willing to pay for. We have a paywall on Runner’s World because we believe there’s a very passionate audience there. We’ve recently introduced a good subscription product, at quite a high price, for brides on Harper’s Bazaar, called Bazaar Brides. I’m excited about what is happening there.

There are so many options for consumers to subscribe to. Are you concerned at all with subscription fatigue?

Why not?
You’re going to see more and more content blocked across the industry. Consumers will either pay for quality or they won’t get it. And the market is solving for the complexity of the subscription process. Increasingly in your browser, you can click on an Apple Pay button, for example, and essentially create microtransaction very quickly.

If it’s a matter of paying $10 or $11, it’s really easy to do now. The fact that so much of the friction has been taken out of the market means consumers can subscribe relatively [easily]. At the same time, you’re going to see platforms emerge that manage the subscription process across a multitude of brands, like Apple News.

I was just on a call this morning with our colleagues in China. A lot of the content consumption in China happens around WeChat. WeChat isn’t just a communication environment, it’s a transactional environment. So inside of WeChat, we are now selling micro-editions of Elle. They’re 90 cents and a lot of people are buying them. It’s high quality content packaged for the medium, totally frictionless purchase process and people are buying. Those are signals to me that there’s an opportunity here.

As you learn more about your readers and your audience, and attempt to reach them in new ways, is there an ideal way they come to your content?
I want to make them feel something. The thing I love about magazines is that they’re filled with wonder. When I was a kid growing up in Saskatchewan, which is north of North Dakota and Montana; magazines offered me a window on the world. When you opened a magazine, you got a really special feeling like someone had taken time to organize a bunch of content and put it through a lens and give it to you. You were absorbing this wonderful world. The curatorial aspect of magazines is unreal. That’s what makes them great.

My hope is that we can keep bringing those kinds of experiences to consumers because it is not in a single piece of content, but in the packaging of it, in editions that we create, that we really bring to life the value of the curator. So that would be my preference, but I live in a different world where content is largely segregated. The bottom line for me is, did we communicate with someone in a way that made them feel or think?

So, the experience, not necessarily the format that it comes in.
Our industry has a lot to learn about experience. The reason that people use Instagram is because it’s easy. You have this whole interconnected personal network and it’s an image and a caption and you can like it. It’s that simplicity and the speed and ease that makes it an addictive product.

In an effort to layer competing objectives in a single experience, advertising and content in a web browser, we didn’t deliver the quality of experience that allowed us to compete with an app. And so, I think we really have to work on how easy and delightful it is to interact with our brands. That’s why platforms exist.

A magazine is a good experience. The ads feel like they belong, it’s really easy to move from page to page. The product is great. We just have to do the same thing digitally.

Do you think you’re there yet?

How long until you are?
It improves all the time. We’re seeing the kind of convergence of the web and apps in some ways and I expect that that will continue. The browser will start to have native functionality that makes it feel app-like. We’ve gotten better at integrating advertising into content and expect that to continue. Then on the paid side, your ability to transact is becoming frictionless. All of those things are good indicators for our industry.

I regret any time that a huge amount of energy is put into something and the investment’s not realized.

Hearst did make headlines after the Esquire reporters who worked on the Bryan Singer story went to The Atlantic with it after they said the story was killed here. What did that process look like for you?
Well, I’m happy the story found a home. I’m not going to comment on editorial process, but it didn’t meet our standards. We’re huge believers in the first amendment. We have a long history of standing behind great stories and great writers and that history speaks for itself.

Is there truth to their allegations that the story went through the legal process and that the Hearst executive team killed it?
I’m not commenting on any of that.

Moving beyond that story, editorially, how do you approach these big investigative pieces? Are they still a focus of Hearst and its brands?
Absolutely, I think those stories require commitment and real investment. It takes a long time to do a deep, original piece of reporting. I say it to our team all the time, I think that’s really important to what we do as a media company. You can see it in what we’re doing in lots of ways. You see it in the legends feature on Elle this week, which is on fire right now, which is  really thoughtful, deep profiles of important women. You see it in a lot of the things that we do on Esquire. There’s amazing journalism everywhere in our portfolio, but my intention is to bring more ambition to it.

Do you regret missing out on that Bryan Singer story or not publishing it?
Again, I’m not going to comment on the editorial process. I’ll only say that obviously we work in lock step with our legal team who we have deep respect for. I regret any time that a huge amount of energy is put into something and the investment’s not realized. It is in no way reflective of our commitment to ambitious journalism.

You’re six months in. What do the next six months look like for you?
You’re going to see the development of really innovative new data products that support content creation and help our customers understand their world better. You’re going to see more video and more ambition in video and you’re going to see good reporting.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.