Scott Havens was Senior Vice President of Digital for Time Inc., responsible for managing the operations and strategic development of digital products at PEOPLE, TIME, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Entertainment Weekly, Fortune, CNNMoney, Money, Golf, SI for Kids and TIME for Kids. He has recently become the global head of digital at Bloomberg Media. He sat down with DPR’s Annie Adair.
DPR: Journalism has drastically changed over the past 15 years – was there any moment where you woke up and thought “oh my god, we’re behind”?
Havens: My experience with journalism is shorter than that on some level, because I really stepped into it unknowingly about 9 years ago when I went to launch Condé Nast Portfolio, which was sort of the last great magazine print and digital platform. Because my background is more digital product utility and entrepreneurial and I ended up in that traditional magazine world… I don’t know if there was a seminal “oh my god” moment. I would say that the recession was significant. I worked through the first bubble when there was incredible valuation in companies like web van and pets.com and cosmo.com, and they were really interesting and well funded and worth billions of dollars. Then the markets collapsed, and they were gone. Then there was a nice buildup and the internet became mature as a platform for everyone from journalism to insurance companies and then there was another reset, which is what shut down Portfolio. There was a shift there in terms of the business, and this coincides with me getting a deeper understanding of journalism and the business of journalism. I did moved to DC then and that was a big moment for me. I also think the last year or so there has been incredible acceleration on platforms. Things like Facebook instant articles, Snapchat luring publishers and journalists, Google making another push, Amazon – all these guys on the video side – have created another interesting moment. This has a lot to do with mobile, and we’ve been talking about mobile for the past fifteen years, but it really in the last few years has become huge. Mobile advertising as a business is going to become bigger than desktop and laptop. So that inflection point has happened. There is more consumption on mobile now the money is coming and so journalism in mobile is a very different animal, especially on things like snapchat where there is a very different purpose, on some level. Those are the two moments for me – the last recession where we had to rethink a lot of business models, there was an acceleration towards building digital business that could scale and take the revenue and eventually profit burden away from the legacy of magazines and newspapers. And now over the last 12 months it’s been content everywhere, platforms are winning, and how do we do journalism for mobile platforms.
DPR: You were able to help take The Atlantic from a struggling magazine to a more profitable business. What were some of the greatest lessons you learned from there?
Havens: Well, first of all, it was a great, great team effort that David Bradley – the owner – kind of kicked off. But really it was the hiring of Justin Smith, who had launched The Week magazine, who then wanted to bring in lots of new people and really rethink the business, and was bold enough and aggressive enough to make the major changes. You can’t really be effective if you’re not bold or aggressive. If you tinker around the edges, nothing gets fixed. I was a piece of that digital team. The first thing I learned was teamwork. It takes a team – talent and team. Technology and other parts of the business are important, but it’s really a people business. I mentioned it before, but without being bold or aggressive, or ruffling feathers, or breaking eggs, whatever phrase you want to use, you don’t make the changes. I’d say another lesson is to get into new businesses, both adjacent businesses – for us live events was a very successful endeavor. And other things like continuing education, which I was pushing The Atlantic in, before I left – looking at it people read The Atlantic in print and digital to become smarter and more engaged, why not go as far as having online classes, live seminars, with professors from Yale, Harvard, Duke – and we did a few of those that were successful. That was key to the turn around. It wasn’t going to be “let’s just invest in the digital and hope print stabilizes.” We’ve moved a big amount of money into live events, so that was good. An object in motion tends to stay in motion and vice versa, and at The Atlantic, we kept moving. And the press from the changes in The Atlantic, which is super important for the media business, because in some ways perception becomes reality. The Atlantic is a great example where you have a really strong communications team, you get consistent placement for the innovations you’re doing, and people think you’re wildly successful, and they want to work with you – they want to work for you – and they want to place advertising with you; it’s a self fulfilling circle
DPR: You recently joined Time. What was the first big change you made?
Havens: It was an interesting time because we were under a fixed deadline to spin off from Time Warner, so we had a couple months. There were a couple of redesigns, replatforms of our sites, that had to come off, I sort of inherited that. It was a lot of making sure we could do the best with what we had, making sure we had the staff we needed, and working. I think the first thing, because I mentioned it before as being the most important thing, is an assessment of the team. I really tried to spend as much time as I could with the brand general managers, product teams, engineers, to see if we had the right people. And it turns out we really didn’t. Time Warner had had a succession of CEOs and every time a CEO comes in they change the process, and it’s tough on morale. And if you’re not passionate about what you do – whether it’s media or manufacturing- you’re not going to perform. So we basically ended turning over all of the general managers of the brands and product leads and bringing in new talented leads, because those were the people who could make it happen. And then we relaunched every single site and replatformed and that was a lot of work – some of these sites are huge – you’re basically changing a tire at 60 miles per hour. We’re still dealing with some legacy issues, maybe some short-cuts we made.
DPR: Are there any publications you think have handled the transition going from print to digital particularly well?
Havens: Other than The Atlantic, which probably didn’t early on. I actually think The New York Times should get more respect than they do. They are in a harder business than magazine – the news business is hard. You read their innovation report, you read many of the things they’re doing, their R&D lab, their pivot towards getting customers to pay for online content. You know, the first twenty years of the internet there was the idea that “content must be free” and that sounds great for consumers, and I benefitted from that. But how do you produce great content if no one is paying for it? And unless you have institutions or wealthy benefactors like Jeff Bezos paying for it, it goes away, and people don’t want it to go away; they want great content. So they made a pivot to go towards a pay wall in which there were many people and media critics saying people would never pay for news – but they were wrong and there’s a million people, I think, who pay for their news. I think they’re doing a very good job, it’s just a tough transition because fundamentally because the print business, and the TV business, and the radio business were before the internet, which wiped out the distinction between these things – they had a business that had margins, they didn’t have tons of competition, they had a distribution channel they owned, now it’s a free for all. The economics of digital are much, much harder.
DPR: There’s a lot of websites out there like Buzzfeed and Gawker which have been able to capitalize on this “clickbait” journalism that generates a lot of traffic. Do you think clickbait has become necessary to survive the industry?
Havens: I think we are closing the chapter on scale for scales sake. The last few years have been “how do we get people on facebook to click on the story to come to our site and monetize them the best we can?”, so yes what happens is there is a sort of lowest common denominator, and you’ll see some really good brands, including some of my own, fall into those same memes. You’ll see Kim Kardashian on Time.com which also does amazing profiles of the prime minister of India. So we’re playing the same games; it is a very natural reaction to everybody fighting for more scale, so they can get more advertising dollars to pay for the better stuff – most journalists want to do important impactful unique stuff, and most magazine and newspapers want to do that, it just doesn’t always pay the bills. The big question over the next few years is going to be how we are going to engage with our consumers – how do we get them to care about the brands that we own, what is our value proposition to them, and can we have a financial relationship with them because what we do is unique? The New York Times has solved that on some level – they’ve gotten a lot of people to say “what you guys do is important we’ll pay for it”. Can we change our relationship with the consumers – focus on engagement, not worry about getting 55 million unique page views a month, which leads to doing clickbait, and be happy with 20 million that are actually engaged? And we have a revenue model that actually works there, that’s the piece that’s critical. If we have 20 million people on Time, not 55 million, and a good portion of them are paying us, buying things through us, and there’s an advertising model that works, that’s not disruptive, and users are on board with it, then we don’t have to do that game as an industry.
DPR: What are your thoughts on native ads and sponsored content?
Havens: There’s a difference between native, sponsored, branded. They’re all very different things. We’ve entered a phase where big companies like Coca-Cola are going to do content , they’re spending a lot of money on it, and they’re going to spend a lot of time doing fun things to connect to an audience and not make it seem like a commercial, because it’s not as effective anymore; consumers are frustrated, on some level. So there’s going to be a lot of demand for that. I think journalistic and editorial operations can help- we know how to tell stories, we know how to write engaging content. And I believe in keeping them separate, I think a lot the new media companies do blur the lines. I think native – i.e. it fits into platform – it should be native, it shouldn’t be alien, it should feel like it’s natural. What goes in there should be interesting to the consumers, it should be relevant so I think we have a long way to go to make sure all of those ads are relevant. I think it’s here to stay, I think we talk about it more than we need to. At the end of the day, we’re trying to help advertisers connect to our consumers in a way that’s authentic and engaging and ultimately helps drive sales and brand lift for them. Some of the new media outlets – Refinery29, Buzzfeed – are doing it really well and in a way that fits into the platform.