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Samir Husni

When Lebanese journalist Samir Husni was teaching students at the University of Mississippi about magazine journalism in 1986, one student had trouble pronouncing his Arabic name and took the simple route, calling him “Mr. Magazine.” The student eventually gave Husni a plaque with the moniker engraved, and the name was so apt for the lover of print magazines that he eventually trademarked the Mr. Magazine name and launched a website with the same name.

Now almost every news story about the magazine business includes an expert quote from Husni, whether it’s about Teen People closing shop online or about Garden & Gun magazine’s awkward name. He’s done consulting for magazine companies, and he’s written the popular Magazine Guide profiling each year’s magazine launches for 22 years running.

So I wondered how this master of the print magazine world, who is chair of the University of Mississippi’s Department of Journalism, thought magazines would cope in an increasingly digital world. How should magazines adapt, or should they adapt?

In a wide-ranging phone interview, Husni said he believed people would always want print periodicals, even as new media and online sites gain in popularity, but print publications should shift to more analysis and add more photos. He says he’s not anti-technology and even launched a blog recently, yet he remains staunchly old-school in his belief that you can’t do journalism on a blog.

“When I started blogging I said, ‘Blogging is not journalism, it’s a different form of communication,’” he told me. “In no way, shape, or form is it journalism. A journalist can be a blogger. But a blogger is not a journalist.”

[See the UPDATE below for reactions to Husni’s comments on blogging.]

Husni believes one of the biggest mistakes being made in the magazine industry is shoveling print content onto the web, where he believes interactivity and original content should be the rule. And he railed against magazines that consider only their advertisers to be their customers — and not their readers.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation, which ranged from his early days covering the civil war in Beirut to his thoughts on e-readers and the future synergy of print and the web.

Tell me more about your background, where you grew up, and how you became interested in journalism and magazines.

Samir Husni: I was born in Tripoli, Lebanon. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I bought a copy of the first issue of the Arabic Superman magazine. I fell in love with the ink on paper more than the blue and red cape. I knew I wanted to be a journalist and a magazine person from that age. I used to spend my time at home creating my own magazines and newspapers using whatever was available. I used to rub candle wax on paper so I could lift off the pictures from newspapers. I was multi-tasking at that age, listening to news on the transistor radio in one ear and writing it down with a pen, taking down the news of the world before there was an Internet.

I took my hobby to college where I started studying journalism at the Lebanese University in Beirut. I started at a music weekly magazine and moved to a movie magazine. A friend of mine started a newspaper and I was doing you-name-it: part design, part reporting, part journalism. In school I studied more journalism than design but design was always my hobby. The first issue of that newspaper in Beirut came out in March 25, 1975, and the civil war started on April 13. We didn’t have even three weeks until we were in the midst of civil war. As awful as it sounds, those were great times to be a journalist if you survived to tell about it. I lost a lot of my friends and colleagues at the paper.

The civil war ended and I finished my degree and finished as the top student in my class. At the same time, I was working at two different magazines and at the daily paper. I got married and I received a phone call from the university saying, ‘Do you want to consider going to get a PhD scholarship?’ It was our ticket. We were newlyweds, and the war had started again, and my wife was terrified I would be killed by a stray bullet. I didn’t know until I reached Washington that University of North Texas had accepted me for my master’s degree, and we landed in Texas in 1978. The first thing I did was go to a bookstore/newsstand and you talk about a kid in a candy store. I was, like, wow!

I did my dissertation in Missouri, and I started collecting magazines. I now have 23,000 first editions of magazines…Magazines have been my hobby, they became my education, they became my profession. Now it never ceases to amaze me that when I give a speech or consult with people, that they pay me at the end.

What does the future hold for print magazines in an age of the Internet and digital technologies?

Husni: As long as we have human beings, we are going to continue to have ink on paper. I’m not an ostrich who puts his head in the sand because I know there are some things that print cannot compete with the new technologies. But there are also ways that the new technology cannot compete with print. There will be room for everything. As long as we remember that we as journalists are not the readers, are not the users, we will continue to be in good shape, if we provide relevant content in the relevant medium to the relevant audience.

When you say that ‘the journalist is not the reader,’ you mean that journalists need to understand what the audience wants and not write for each other?

Husni: Yes. I was at the conference, We Love Magazines, in Luxembourg, and there were 200 editors and publishers there of great, marvelous magazines. None of them are making money, and you can tell, you can look at them. They are designing them to compete against each other, [to get] magazine awards, rather than saying, ‘What’s in this for the reader?’ or ‘Is this the best platform?’

That’s why I say newspapers in this country are not dying, they are committing suicide. You go to speak in newspaper newsrooms, I’ve gone to speak about the future of newsrooms, and their first reaction is that ‘You are the anti-christ. You want us to do what? Do more than just go to a board meeting and record it and spit it out? We have to analyze and go beyond that?’ Even the Internet is too late to provide me the information. Whatever happens in the world now I get an alert on my Blackberry. The immediacy of news delivery can no longer be done in a newspaper.

We have to change the name of a newspaper to daily paper. We have to accept the fact that we have to go beyond the 5 W’s and H [who, when, what, where, why and how] and start talking about ‘what’s in it for me?’ and leave the 5 W’s and H to electronic delivery because we cannot compete with that. Newsweek and Time are like a snapshot in time. Instead of giving you a summary of the news, they need to give you an in-depth analysis on a few topics.

I’ve noticed that the local newspaper here, the San Francisco Chronicle, is trying to make their paper more local and use more graphics, photos and color on the front page.

Husni: Two things we have to do. We have to use more narrative and more pictures. If you look at the Financial Times that was completely redesigned last week, a lot of their stories are a full page. But you read that story and you’ll get everything you need to know about that subject. More magazines are moving toward more narrative. I tell my magazine clients we have to deepen the story and chase the photographs. For the service part, send people to the web.

The biggest mistake we’ve made in this industry is that we send people to the web, and we’ve left them there. We offered them something that’s free, that’s like a blizzard that surrounds them with information. But at no website do they ever say, ‘By the way, you need to go back to the paper to read page 20 where we have this article that you’ll only find on page 20 today.’ There’s no two-way street, we’ve created a one-way street and people get lost in the jungle [online].

You pick up National Geographic or Conde Nast Traveler magazine and read a marvelous 20-page article about Italy with gorgeous photography. At the end of the article, you [could] say, ‘Interested in going to Italy? Check our website and see all the hotels and museums.’ All the service aspects. Of if you go to the website you see all these services, and then it says, ‘Interested in going to Italy? Pick up the magazine for this article.’

So you don’t suggest that people put magazine content online at all?

Husni: No. The biggest mistake we are doing now, and I don’t understand why, is we are duplicating magazine content and putting it online. Why would I have the exact same thing on the screen if it exists in print? If I wanted to have a magazine online I would do something like Monkey magazine that Dennis Publishing is doing that’s designed specifically for the Internet. You look at one page at a time and there is no jump. Imagine if you were reading something on screen and you had to jump to page 24?

Yesterday I had the editor of Newsweek here and he was telling the students that 500 words is the max that people are willing to read on the Internet. He said if there are eight pages [of a story] on the Internet, 80% of readers don’t even read page 2. The missing part is education in the newsroom and in magazines. Each medium has to respect the other mediums. People are looking for complementary media, and that’s what’s missing when I look at those magazine sites and newspaper sites.

In talking about Teen People going online-only, you said that that is the death knell for magazines. Do you think that’s because what they’re creating online is just shovelware from what they had run in print?

Husni: Yeah. And this myth that teens don’t read anymore, only online. That’s the biggest myth. They are still reading if you give them relevant information. I was speaking to a newspaper group and they were complaining, ‘Teenagers never read newspapers.’ I said, ‘Show me a time in the history of newspapers in this country when teenagers were a big chunk of readers of newspapers.’ And by the same token, you look at the same teenagers that we say don’t read and they are reading Harry Potter which is 700 pages without pictures. It’s something relevant to them.

Why would I wait one month and pay $3.50 to get Teen People when I can get InTouch Weekly for $1.99 on a weekly basis? A month in a life of the teen is a long history. Those kids live in the present time. If they are not interested in your content on a monthly basis, they won’t be interested in it on the Internet. Print is still the cornerstone to take me to the web, show me the clip, show me the music, show me the video. You have to give me the cornerstone if you are going to link the two together.

What about someone like IDG, who came out and said they would launch new magazines online first and then later in print? Are trade publications different than consumer magazines in that way?

Husni: It’s not a different case, it’s a cheaper case. It’s easier and cheaper [to launch online] but how are you going to brand it? If you have a lot of competition in print, imagine all the competition online. When Conde Nast launched Portfolio magazine, look how much they were investing to launch print and online. You have to have the cornerstone to build on. If they had only launched Portfolio online without the print magazine, it wouldn’t have the same impact. It gives them the ability to go deep in the print edition and do snippets on the website on a daily basis.

What about online-only magazines such as Salon and Slate? Obviously it took them a long time to make money, but it is possible to go online without a print magazine.

Husni: Yes, and there are a lot of those online magazines coming along…Imagine for someone’s birthday, saying, ‘Hey John, I’ve given you a subscription for www.slatemagazine.com, which is a free magazine.’ What’s the value in that? Can you imagine giving someone a website for a gift? There’s still a reason for that tactile feeling of holding something in your hand and having something you’re proud of. And how many people have had the money that Slate and Salon had invested? And after all that money they’ve invested, if they had had a print publication, do you think they would have made more money by now?

I am not the anti-technology person. I am the one who tells people who want to dive into technology, ‘Why start something online under a totally different business model?’ I have someone who comes to me and says he is going to start a magazine. And you ask for a business plan, what the costs will be, what’s the exit strategy. And someone comes to you talking about launching a website and that’s the whole business plan, and nobody questions that! It’s so frustrating because it’s so cheap. If you have a laptop, you are a publisher…Everybody now can own their own press. But imagine reaching an audience of one for every publication we have.

What is your suggestion to newsweeklies? Their circulation is going down overall. Do you think it was a mistake to put all their content online?

Husni: Definitely. The day I cancelled my subscription to Newsweek was when I saw in print a snippet of an interview, and below that it said, ‘For the whole interview go to msnbc.newsweek.com.’ I am paying money and you are offering me less in print than what I can get for free on the web. That’s why I was very happy when Time reinvented itself with more in-depth [strories] and more photography. They cover two or three topics, but I still need editors to figure out what my readers want each week.

There’s been a lot of talk about having the readers get involved with reporting as citizen journalists. Is there room for that in magazines?

Husni: Oh yeah. The best example of that is JPG magazine, and they call their company 80/20. What they are saying is that 80% of the content comes from the wisdom of crowds, people submit pictures to them, other people vote on them. Then editors play the gatekeeping role, bring that professional touch, bring a journalist’s objectivity to it. That’s one reason when I started blogging I said, ‘Blogging is not journalism, it’s a different form of communication.’ In no way, shape, or form is it journalism. A journalist can be a blogger. But a blogger is not a journalist.

How do you make that distinction?

Husni: I can write on my blog, ‘I like this issue of Newsweek,’ it’s like writing it in my diary but I’m putting it up for anyone to read so they know what I’m thinking. I’m not getting an opinion here or giving objective analysis. With blogging, you’re not required to do balance. I call blogging the virtual barber shop. Some years ago, you used to go to the barber shop and hear gossip.

In this age, which I call the ‘Isolated Connectivity Age,’ we are more isolated and connected than ever before. Our social skills are going to start appearing on the web. We live by our cell phones, computer screens and TV screens. It gives us a sense of connectivity but we are very isolated. I see my son watching a clip of a movie on YouTube and he’s text messaging his girlfriend and she’s watching the same thing on her computer. I say, ‘What’s wrong with the good old-fashioned way where you went to a movie theater and got popcorn and try to reach for the popcorn and miss?’ They look at you like ‘you’re a weirdo, daddy!’

Do you find fault with the way magazine companies cater to advertisers?

The major problem in our industry is that we have not changed our publishing model in this country. We are very advertising driven. If I am a big magazine in New York I cater to 50 customers, the Chanels and L’Oreals, and we ignore the two million customers who are our readers. When Victoria magazine folded it had a circulation of almost one million, but Hearst killed the magazine because it didn’t have enough advertising. People still write on my blog how much they loved Victoria magazine, a magazine that’s been dead for four years. But Hearst and Conde Nast don’t care about the readers of their magazines, they’re just numbers to sell to those customers, the 50 customers they are catering for, throwing parties for, begging them to advertise.

There’s something wrong with our publishing model. The industry always focuses on the wrong things. The MPA is jumping head first about going digital, without first focusing on how people can make the printed edition connect with readers and go from there.

What do you think about e-ink and digital ink? Do you think it will be viable?

Husni: It will happen, we will have e-paper. But the beauty of print magazines, print on paper, is like a candy bar. Nobody needs them, but like a candy bar, you want to eat it fast so your wife doesn’t see it, or your mother doesn’t see you eating it before dinner. It’s also disposable. If you left your newspaper on the train, you won’t go back to search for it, but if you have e-paper or your iPod and left it on the train, you’ll go searching for that iPod. The beauty of that disposable medium, the beauty of print on paper that we are addicted to is not replaceable with any other media. Yes we’ll have all these other new media but it will have a different purpose, a different use, a different relationship.

*****

What do you think? Are magazines making a mistake by putting print content online? How should publishers use print magazines and websites in complementary ways? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Blogger and consultant (and magazine lover) Rex Hammock has a nice retort to some of Husni’s comments, in regards to blogging and magazines not putting print content online. I have to agree with Hammock’s contentions on these points:

On blogging as journalism
“I disagree with [Husni’s] blanket assertion that ‘blogging is not journalism.’ If he meant to say, ‘what I do on my blog is not journalism,’ I can agree, as I recently said something similar: that I do not consider what I do here journalism, or even writing, for that matter. However, if what he meant was ‘no blogging is journalism,’ I can categorically disagree as I know many bloggers who practice classic journalism on a blogging platform…The ‘blog’ platform does not prevent it from being a vessel for classic journalism. Or, at least, that’s what the Pulitzer Committee communicated when they awarded the Times-Picayune a 2006 Pulitzer for reporting that was, for many days, distributed via a weblog.”

On putting print content online
“I would argue that placing text from a story in a magazine on the magazine’s website is not putting the magazine on the web. Even digital versions of magazines that display the design of the print piece is merely a replica of a magazine — not a magazine. The ‘words’ from a magazine that appear on a website are not the magazine. It’s like comparing the experience of streaming video on YouTube to watching HD television on a 60-inch plasma screen…Same content: different experience. The words from a magazine that appear on the web are, at best, a sampling of the magazine — not the experience of the magazine.”

On short attention spans online
“The editor from Newsweek who told Samir’s students that the ‘max’ number of words someone will read in an article on the Internet is spewing faux data from an imaginary source. It’s a myth. How do I know? Well, Samir makes that quote roughly 1,659 words into the interview. And I read it — and kept reading to the end, about 1,400 words later. If Mark Glaser had interviewed Samir for a magazine article, do you think the editor would have let it run the 3,000+ words that are included on the website? Heck, maybe I’m the only person who read all the way to the 3,000th word, but I’m sure glad Mark didn’t have to deal with any of the constraints that a magazine would have placed on him.”

It’s an interesting point, because when I asked my readers in a site survey if they thought my blog posts were too long, too short or just the right length, the vast majority (about 75%) said they were fine as is. And a recent Poynter Eyetrack survey found that people actually have longer attention spans online vs. print.

UPDATE 2: Erin Teeling from Bivings Report asked this question of Mr. Magazine in the comments: “How are these online outlets supposed to make money? Obviously, there is lots of profit to be had in advertising. But what else? I would be interested to see what Mr. Magazine has to say about charging online readers for extra or special content, as the New York Times does with its TimesSelect. Are consumers willing to pay for online content?”

Here’s what Husni told me via email when I put the question to him:

The major problem with our industry is we always undercharged for our content. With few exceptions, we made reader feel that they did not have to pay the REAL price for our products. In the U.S. and since the 1950s we adapted the advertising driven model rather than the circulation driven model where people rather than advertisers pay for the magazine. Our audience has become accustomed to the fact that $20 will bring them 52 issues of Time or Newsweek, yet the same $20 will not pay to be connected to the Internet at home. The average American household pays $68 a month to connect to cable television
(up from nothing) and you do not hear them complaining.

Simply stated, find a method in which you make your money from the readers and viewers and not from the advertisers. Roy Reiman did it with not one, but 12 different magazines starting from a basement in his house to an empire that was sold to Reader’s Digest= for $760 million. Yes, read that again, $760 million. He NEVER sold an ad in any of his magazines. Charging for the content is our future….staying dependent on a third party to survive is going to be like that sugar coated poison pill that sooner or later will kill us.