When Entertainment Weekly launched in 1990, ambitious executives running the new publication – which debuted with a relatively unknown K.D. Lang on the cover – tread deliberately into uncharted territory.
Nearly 30 years later, personnel are carving out a similar path. EW will have to chronicle entertainment of the moment, even as its print magazine is scaled back to once a month.
Staffers at EW’s current owner, Meredith Corp., will seek to keep ink-and-paper aficionados happy even as its staff ramps up production of digital-only articles as well as podcasts, video pieces and events. “I think that what I have to do is really make this something that people talk about and keep talking about not only in the pages of this amazing improved magazine product, but every day and every minute of the day on our various brand extensions,”says JD Heyman, a former deputy editor at sister title People who has been named EW’s new editor.
EW’s struggle to find a new, sustainable format is one being fought by many traditional magazine publishers. Meredith is one of the last big magazine backers in the U.S., a publicly traded company that still produces dozens of issues of Better Homes & Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Cooking Light and Parents. It used its January 2018 purchase of one of its most storied rivals, Time Inc., for $1.85 billion plus debt, to snare People, while sending other big Time titles like Time and Fortune to entrepreneurs. The company recently sold Sports Illustrated’s business operations to Authentic Brands for $110 million, while agreeing to publish the magazine for another two years
The trouble? Audiences are increasingly comfortable with calling up the exact information they need – sports stats, recipes, news stories short and long – with a few taps of a smartphone. EW’s overall print and digital impressions were off 6.4% in March, according to the Association of Magazine Media, an industry trade organization. But its mobile audience surged by about 1.09 million that month, and stands as the biggest part of its readership.
“I’m probably a little surprised it’s still in print at all,” says Jeff Jarvis, who was EW’s first editor and is now director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York. “It must be because there is enough of a legacy audience and even legacy advertising to make it worthwhile.”
There is some hope the new business plan will match the needs of the modern audience. EW needs “to meet the current access and pacing expectations of the consumer,” says Robin Steinberg, a veteran media buying executive who has specialized in print and digital. “Growing and diversifying their content and product offerings via omni-channel solutions is key to increase their brand value and relevance.” EW will keep its current rate base, or the circulation it guarantees advertisers, says Jill Davison, a Meredith spokeswoman, at 1.5 million.
EW was able to survive nay-saying in its early years, and Jarvis should know. When he and former Time Inc. CFO Michael Klingensmith first came together to start the magazine based on concepts each had drawn up on their own, the premise had some executives scratching their heads. At the time, Klingensmith says, EW skewed younger than anything else Time Inc. published; younger consumers were the ones bringing movies into their homes and checking out the new shows sprouting up on cable. “The premise of the magazine was we were going to pay more attention to what was critically good as opposed to commercially good,” recalls Klingensmith, now CEO and publisher of the Star-Tribune Media Company in Minneapolis. “We did want to find the hidden nuggets of things, like K.D. Lang – a perfect example of someone who was just great musically, but was not Britney Spears.”
The premise proved tricky to put in place. Jarvis, a former People TV critic who quit after four months at the helm, notes that Time Inc. top brass were livid about the magazine’s decision to pan the 1990 smash “Pretty Woman” – it just wasn’t a good movie, the magazine’s critic argued, and the film turned out to be a huge crowd pleaser – and wanted a more mainstream publication. But to his mind, EW “was always intended to be a subscription magazine,” a weekly guide to help consumers spend their time and attention wisely on an exploding slate of cable networks, movies, DVDs, CDs and more. “It wasn’t based on bodily fluids and urgent stories,” Jarvis says. “It was more habitual.”
Promoting that habit is more difficult than ever. EW’s creators built it on the notion that consumers needed a weekly check-in to keep track on all the new pieces of entertainment they ought to consider. Now there is something new to talk about in nearly any minute. Streaming-video hubs have unleashed so much new content that consumers don’t know what’s available to them at any given time. Some artists have begun to favor dropping singles rather than a full album. In addition to movies, TV, music and books, pop-culture fanatics are also sifting through podcasts, YouTube channels and Twitter threads, to name only a few of the new formats that have emerged in recent years.
That world still needs an Entertainment Weekly, says Heyman, even if it isn’t always found in a weekly print product (and it hasn’t for some time – the magazine in recent years has been published a little over 30 times a year). “There are 100 zillion entertainment products. We are curators for people,” he says. “I see our job is to lead the global conversation about entertainment, which is really the only conversation that people really want to have other than being exercised about the state of current affairs.”
Expect more EW podcasts, video shows, and special print issues that coalesce around emerging trends and themes. The staff has also found some success with “digital covers,” or signature photos that sometimes feature animation. And EW aficionados can still look forward to the outlet keeping ties with hot creators and tentpole movies and products. “We are going to make sure we give our audience what they want and meet th em where they live,” says Heyman. But to do that, it will have to cede some of the routine – and marketplace focus – that comes with showing up in mailboxes and newsstands with week-in, week-out regularity.
“Nobody makes a magazine less frequent because business is booming,” says Klingensmith. “But I sincerely hope there’s a model for them, that with a combination of print and digital, it can still survive.”