Highlights Magazine – Innovating by Staying the Same

Highlights, the long-time favorite magazine of kids, remains a successful print publication. Yes, they are innovating with digital channels, including online clubs, digital-only subscription content, and a “talking pen” designed to help young Chinese readers learn English. Yet the key to their longevity and continued popularity is not how much they change, but how much they stay true to their roots.

“I think the coolest thing about Highlights magazine is it still looks the same, it still feels the same,” said Mallory Bailey, a parent who read the magazine as a child and now watches her daughter read it too. “Whereas a lot of other things have kind of changed over time, I feel like they’re enjoying the same magazine that we enjoyed as kids.”

In many ways it is the same magazine, according to Christine French Cully, editor in chief and chief purpose office.

“There are certain things that appear in every issue of Highlights, we call those our ‘legacy features’ and they’re non-negotiable, they’re in each issue,” Cully is quoted as saying in an article in ideastream.

“So, for example, we always have a Hidden Picture in every issue of Highlights,” Cully continues. “In fact, there’s been a Hidden Picture in every issue of Highlights since June 1946, the very first one.”

Also still present are Mr. Timbertoe’s cartoon adventures, and the always popular Goofus and Gallant. Cully is often questioned about whether these “old school” ideas are still relevant to a more modern audience. She believes the long-term appeal of the pair stems from its lack of ambiguity.

“It’s a little black and white. They’re everyday choices we have to make.  Do I give up my seat on the bus? Do I make this elderly person stand?” she said.

The magazine is backed by a company who live the values they aim to share with their audience.

“We’re always aspiring to be our Gallant,” said Kent Johnson, CEO of Highlights for Children. “But, also, if I do something that’s a little Goofus, how do I make up for it? How do I apologize? How do I make things right?”

It’s a refreshing idea, to see a brand that’s nearly 75 years old staying true to the values and passions of its founders, who happen to be Johnson’s great-grandparents. As he explains, the company was founded in the belief that “children are the world’s most important people,” and the magazine remains committed to “fun with a purpose,” its tagline since 1946.

While parents may believe that the world has changed drastically and being a kid means different things now, Johnson disagrees.

“But what we know is kids still have some of the same issues they’ve had since 1946. How do I get along with my siblings? What happens when I have a falling out with my best friend? Those things are universal. Those things aren’t changing because technology or media changes.”

How do they know? Because their team is actively involved in their world, reading the letters kids send them (every single one) and making field trips to local schools to hear what they have to say about the magazine and their world.

Because kids are as comfortable on digital as on print, Highlights has expanded into that realm too, with two websites, a few apps and a podcast … all created with the same care and attention to their overall mission.

“I often say inside the company, so we’re not a magazine company and in fact, we never were,” said Johnson. “If we keep in mind that we’re not committed to magazines, we’re not committed to a certain product type or technology, what we’re committed to is making a positive impact on children, that frees us up to think, ‘what has to stay the same?’ Certain values, certain beliefs about children stay the same. Everything else can change.”

It’s a great lesson for publishers in navigating the waters of this new media ocean. Set your course by your guiding light and serve your audience well.