Ross Levinsohn, Maven and Sports Illustrated CEO, Shares Recommendations for Future-Proofing Magazines
For decades, we’ve treated magazines as a portal to the world, sharing information and building community. But now that the internet and social media fill that void, how will magazines continue to deliver value when technology upends their traditional role?
To make matters more challenging, the 2020 pandemic added financial stress to nearly every industry, including publishing. However, Ross Levinsohn, the CEO of Maven and Sports Illustrated, claims that changes in consumer behavior aren’t something to fear.
“Magazines are evolving, and that’s a good thing. We’re becoming the trusted content creators and tastemakers, especially in the so-called ‘post-fact era,’” Levinsohn says.
There’s a future for magazines, but it will look very different from the traditional print subscription model that we’ve come to love. Ross Levinsohn offers a window into the future of magazines by sharing the four insights that he’s using to future-proof his publishing properties.
Maven (MVEN) is a Seattle-based corporation that specializes in media publisher brands. With more than 300 brands under its wing, Maven uses shared publishing, distribution, and monetization tools to streamline its properties. With 150 million subscribers and publishers, like History.com and Maxim, under its umbrella, Maven is a juggernaut of the publishing industry.
Maven struck a deal with ABG in 2019 to license the rights to Sports Illustrated. It tapped then-CEO Ross Levinsohn to lead both Maven and Sports Illustrated forward by focusing more heavily on content quality.
About Ross Levinsohn
Ross Levinsohn has more than 35 years of experience in publishing, finance, and technology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from American University.
Levinsohn has held multiple C-suite positions, serving as president of Fox Interactive Media, executive VP and interim CEO of Yahoo!, CEO of Guggenheim Digital Media, and CEO of Tribune Interactive. He’s also served as an on-air contributor for CNBC and a strategist and consultant for high-profile media brands.
Levinsohn has served as Maven CEO since August of 2020 and continues to excel in his role as Sports Illustrated CEO. His goal is to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the world of magazine publishing, fulfilling reader needs with hard-hitting journalism and innovative content.
Levinsohn’s Roadmap for Long-Term Publishing Success
“Print media isn’t going anywhere,” Levinsohn says. “However, we have to think outside the press. Readers have very different expectations of us today.”
Publishing executives need to move fast to stay competitive. Levinsohn argues that executives should make four essential pivots to future-proof their publications:
1. Weigh cost versus quality optimization.
Over the past 25 years, the average cost of a magazine issue has increased from $4 to $5. However, it’s not unusual for quality magazine subscriptions to cost readers between $10 and $15 per issue.
“Publishers have to decide who they are,” Levinsohn says. “Are they a low-cost provider or a more high-end, luxurious publication?” Levinsohn says that the distinction has a huge impact on your profitability.
If you’re a high-end publisher with an image to uphold, it’s better to focus less on cost reduction and more on giving value to your readers. “Subscribers will pay $15 per issue if the content is top-notch quality,” Levinsohn says.
For example, Condé Nast readers might appreciate heavier paper and higher-quality prints. On the other hand, subscribers to gossip magazines like Star or People might care more about the price per issue instead of paper weight.
“Low-cost publishers should focus on cutting print costs. Going digital helps immensely,” Levinson says. “Luxury publishers should publish book-like magazines designed to stay on someone’s shelf instead of going to the trash once it’s read. This communicates prestige, luxury, and quality because you’re creating a collectible piece of content.”
2. Target niche audiences.
Did you know that 50 percent of your new subscribers leave within the first three months of their subscription? “The antidote to churn,” Levinsohn says, “is increasing reader loyalty.”
Magazine publishers must incentivize subscribers to stay. That might take the form of:
- Lower rates for loyal readers.
- Bundling subscriptions with other publishers.
- Offering digital bundle deals with print.
But even the best retention strategies might not be enough. Niching down your magazine’s content will result in a premium product that dedicated audiences will pay for. You might see fewer sales, but the higher cost per issue (and product quality) makes niche content a win for both publishers and readers.
If it’s relevant to your media brand, Levinsohn recommends focusing on profitable niche topics such as:
3. Lean into content quality.
“Readers are learning that free information isn’t always the best information. Trustworthy content has a lot of value today,” Levinsohn says.
While social media has fostered many great innovations, it’s contributed to the rise of the post-truth era. With a glut of information available everywhere online and little fact-checking or editing, it can be difficult for consumers to determine which information is reliable. Since global media consumption doubled during the pandemic, consumers need to ensure that they’re getting quality information — and publishers need to fill that need.
Media brands hire vetted professionals to work on stories. Photographers, journalists, fact-checkers, and editors work tirelessly to ensure that magazine content is truthful and accurate. Readers are now realizing the inherent value of accessing a trusted news source, and that’s why publishers need to invest in their content quality.
“This is precisely why Sports Illustrated is hiring more top-tier journalists and talent. We want to become the go-to, trusted source of information that readers trust,” Levinsohn says.
4. Create premium membership options.
With the rise of technology, consumer preferences have largely shifted toward online media, creating obstacles for print publishers. “Why do we have to choose between two options?” Levinsohn says. “Media brands can afford to do both print and digital with paid membership options.”
While some consumers will always prefer print media as a screen-free escape, subscriber-supported digital content is the real future of magazines. Instead of relying solely on advertising revenue, publishers can create a better reader experience and hire higher-caliber journalistic talent with paid access.
The key is to provide added value to premium members. “Sports Illustrated gives premium subscribers access to our vault, which goes back to our first issue in the 1950s,” Levinsohn says. “Our goal is to retain readers with incredibly valuable insider features. All publishing executives should explore this option if they want to stay competitive.”
Every publication wants longevity. While social media and digital media are changing the landscape of what magazines can do for readers beyond 2021, content is still important. The print magazines that we know and love will continue on, but innovation is necessary to put your media in front of more interested readers. Take advantage of these four opportunities to build a resilient, future-proof media brand designed for longevity.
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