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8 years of record profits: Hearst’s radical reinvention for the digital era

Web, mobile and video: Hearst magazines have posted notable growth across all of them according to the latest Magazine Media 360° Brand Audience Report by MPA – The Association of Magazine Media.

The report presents the growth rates of 110 magazines in November 2018 compared to a year earlier. Hearst has the highest number of brands on the list:

  1. Elle Décor (129%)
  2. Cosmopolitan (71%)
  3. Town & Country (70%)
  4. House Beautiful (56%)
  5. Harper’s Bazaar (46%)
  6. Esquire (37%)
  7. Road & Track (33%)

Elle Décor followed travel publication Afar (Afar Media), which led the pack with 167% growth across online platforms. Other magazines on the list include Taste of Home (Trusted Media Brands, 38%), Saveur (Bonnier, 30%), Fast Company (Mansueto Ventures, 20%) and Food & Wine (Meredith Corp., 13%).

Hearst Magazines’ robust performance isn’t surprising considering how the publisher has been methodically overhauling its systems to focus on digital under President Troy Young.

Reinvention of a legacy publisher, for the digital age

Young is largely responsible for reinventing Hearst’s digital business. “We felt it was important to build strength in the digital editorial group early on. It was a very different content-creation process. At Hearst, we’re open to looking at the best ways to work across print and digital and we’re already integrating some of those teams,” says Young.

According to Young, there were many hurdles that came with Hearst being a traditional organization. He worked at removing them so that they could compete with purely digital publishers. Young created a centralized desk for digital editorial staff.

“If you look at our pure play competitors, they have dozens and dozens of editors working under a single brand, and so, by uniting all of our individual editorial teams toward the common mission, we were able, and from a resource point of view, to be competitive with them,” says Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazines.

At the time, the idea of a centralized news desk was a radical undertaking for a legacy publisher according to Lewis. Digital operated separately from print and writers weren’t tied to a particular title but wrote across titles. Young also replaced senior digital editors at major brands like Cosmopolitan and Elle. He uprooted the company’s digital teams from their positions at individual titles to form a new multi-brand group. This move encouraged content and data sharing across brands and accelerated the organization’s digital evolution.

Greater efficiency on the front end was powered at the backend by Hearst’s MediaOS platform, a unified content management, ad sales and data analytics platform introduced in 2014 which Young calls “the foundation to our business.” MediaOS, apart from serving as a content management system for Hearst’s digital titles, also simplifies distribution, collects and analyzes data on traffic and views, and drives e-commerce.

Editorial intuition combined with our proprietary data tools is leading to better, smarter creative decisions. When our brands find a topic or story that deeply engages our audience, we chase it ambitiously and aggressively across all platforms. When we see a strategy working, we share it across all our teams. It’s a collaborative effort and it’s one that’s working.

Brooke Siegel, Vice President, Content, Hearst Digital Media

Rebuilding for video

According to a company spokesperson, the culture around video production at Hearst started changing around early 2017. Video became a part of every idea as the company tried out lots of series. They used what they were learning from their successes and failures to inform their ideas and video output. The opening of a 26,000-square-foot multimedia studio last year increased video production to 150 videos per week (garnering 1.5 billion video views per month).

All of Hearst Magazines’ websites have been rebuilt to be optimized for video. The magazine teams create content around video posts, boosting engagement and views directly from Hearst’s sites.

When I first started it was about growing scale. In the past two years, you’ve really seen editors focus on the ROI of their content and become business managers in a real sense. They’re obsessed about the purpose their content serves for the reader—are we making engaging, relevant, important, fun, interesting things? There’s so much data, but we also put a lot of emphasis on gut. Is it good?

Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazines

Hearst has posted record profits for the eighth consecutive year with its revenues growing by 4% to $11.4 billion in 2018. CEO Steven Swartz credits this to “an ability to embrace change, rarely giving up on anything we are good at,” something that has stood the company in good stead, helping it thrive with sustained profits year after year through turbulent times.