What Hearst’s Digital President May Have Gotten Wrong

He’s been called Hearst’s great digital disruptor.

“When Troy Young came to Hearst in 2013 from Say Media, he was faced with the challenge of building the magazine division’s digital arm, a task that entailed disrupting the foundation of the business and also bruising the egos of the editors who helped build the publisher’s reputation,” writes Alexandra Steigrad in Womens Wear Daily.

“But Young, a decisive and, some would say headstrong, executive, didn’t pay much attention. He created a new digital team for each magazine, with the editors of those sites reporting up to him, not the editors in chief of each title, which ruffled feathers,” she continues. “The president of Hearst Digital Media also unified the business side and helped develop a shared content platform, putting Hearst ahead of some of its biggest legacy publishing rivals.”

He’s done it by thinking deeply about media and its changing landscape, from two specific points of view: distribution and content.

“The early transition of lifestyle magazine media was, we need to create a web site to create subscriptions. Then web sites became discreet entities taking traffic from Yahoo and other portals, and then there was the rise of search, and then there was the rise of social. These are all fundamental distribution shifts. Then there was the notion of distributed content where publishers start distributing entire content experiences to other environments,” Young explains.

He believes that for media brands, the movement to video and the shift to distributed content experiences will define many years of media for these types of companies. For brands, being successful in this shift means refocusing their approach to advertising assets.

“The industry loves trade-able advertising assets that are very simple and that’s why television was so successful. But we’ve trained a generation to hate advertising, so the Netflix generation is not interested in interrupted video advertising,” he explains. “It will be really hard to steer them back to that. Now, that industry will still pull in tons of money on network television and cable and others and live will be very important, but my kids are not accustomed to watching ads on entertainment, and so I think that marketers’ choices [for digital ads] are limited.”

He’s clearly a smart guy; his entire interview is worth a read to understand what’s happening in the world of digital publishing, from both a 30,000-foot level and in the trenches.  And he’s clear that print continues to have its unique place in the publisher inventory. Yet as I’m reading his entire interview, something is vaguely bothering me about what he’s saying. It takes a couple of reads, but finally, I realize what it is.

“Mediums don’t die, they become more specific in their purpose and they persist for a very long time. I think what’s very important about media is that we don’t let one type of media and one orthodoxy define the next,” Young says. “When you are transitioning a media company, you take what’s great at that organization, that media brand and its history and its relationship with consumers, but when you shift the medium, you have to pay attention to what the new medium requires.”

And there it is … “shifting the medium.” I believe this is a fundamental flaw in thinking that a lot of big media brands have made. It’s not an either/or, or a shift from one to the other, but an inclusion of new channels in ways that support the brand and expand the reach.

Yes, we must pay attention to what the new medium requires, but without forgetting what made us into the brands we are today and the audiences that support us.

Where is your brand in this landscape? Have you shifted, or have you included?