Submitted by: Shareena Patel 17/11/2015
Dr Samir Husni is one of the world’s most influential voices in global publishing, advising major publishing houses across the globe on their editorial and advertising strategies. Professor of Journalism, author, consultant and curator of over 28,000 different titles, when he talks, the magazine industry listens.
A magazine is much more than content – it’s about the experience. And that’s what our industry needs to focus on”
“Advertising has yet to find a better environment in which to engage with consumers than in the pages of a print magazine”
“Online or mobile magazines are not real. It’s only real if you can touch it, feel it, throw it across the room. I tell my students: until you are happy with a virtual boyfriend or girlfriend, virtual reality will never compete”
If there was ever a man to whom newsagents should roll out the red carpet when they see him approaching, it’s a middle-aged, moustachioed Lebanese-American called Samir Husni. That’s Mr MagazineTM to you. Dr Husni is Professor of Journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of Magazine Publishing In The 21st Century and Launch Your Own Magazine: A Guide To Succeeding In Today’s Market Place. Forbes magazine called him “America’s leading magazine expert”, but as well as being an in-demand consultant for publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, he can justifiably claim to be the world’s number one magazine evangelist. But despite experiencing the advance of digital at close quarters, Dr Husni is a major advocate of print – not just as a reader-friendly medium, but one where advertising and marketing messages are most effective.
“Advertising has yet to find a better environment in which to engage with consumers than in the pages of a print magazine,” he explains from behind a desk that is, as usual, piled high with scores of the many hundreds of magazines he collects every week. For Husni, there’s no substitute for print when it comes to connecting with consumers, and he argues that advertising is more favourably regarded and accepted as ‘part of the experience’ than in any other media. Furthermore, he believes passionately that doom-mongering pundits only have to look at history to see that reports of print’s death are, as Mark Twain might have put it, highly exaggerated. “Nobody talks as much as we in the magazine industry do about our own demise. But print will endure, just as radio and TV has. Print ad revenues bypassed radio in 1935, and television bypassed radio in 1955, yet radio is still relevant for consumers and advertisers.” Something of a purist when it comes to the format, he’s currently seeking to trademark his motto: “If it’s not ink on paper, it’s not a magazine.”
The Birth Of An Obsession
Husni speaks with the fervour and eloquence of a preacher, but he’s also a collector and a self-confessed addict, a magazine junkie who first fell in love with the medium growing up in Tripoli, Lebanon, in the 1960s. “When I was nine years old, the Superman comic came out in Lebanon,” he says. “I went with two friends and bought the first issue, and while they fell in love with his mighty powers, I fell in love with the magazine. I thought, ‘Wow, I have this whole story in my hands! I can read it at my own pace, I can flip the pages back and forth...’ And something happened; I think that day my body started pumping ink instead of blood!”
Husni soon began designing and editing his own magazines at home, and later, after going to journalism school in Lebanon, won a scholarship to do a PhD in the US. But soon after he got over his excitement at the sheer variety of magazines available there, he found himself puzzled. “I was stunned by the lack of study into the medium,” he says. “So eventually I persuaded the University of Missouri to fund my research into what makes a magazine successful.” The resulting studies made Husni’s name worldwide and led to the first edition of Samir Husni’s Guide To New Magazines in 1986. The 30th edition is due out this year, cataloguing every new print magazine launch in the US from 2014.
His influence on the magazine industry is legendary. As well as regularly travelling to Europe to speak at conferences and advise publishers, marketers and advertisers, he has also consulted editorial, advertising and sales staff of major magazine publishers including Hearst, Hachette Fillipachi, Reader’s Digest and National Geographic, as well as Sweden’s Bonnier Group and the Sanoma group in Finland, The Netherlands, Belgium and the Czech Republic.
More recently he established the Magazine Innovation Centre at the University of Mississippi, where he curates a 28,000-strong collection of first editions. He is also the President and CEO of Magazine Consulting & Research, a company that specialise in new magazine launches, repositioning of established magazines, and packaging publications for better sales and presentations.
Leading Into The Light
Increasingly, he’s finding that the mood of seemingly terminal pessimism that engulfed much of print publishing five years ago has lifted, and is in fact turning into a cautious optimism. “It’s the same in Europe as in the US,” he says. “In 2008, publishers were terrified. The economy had boomed and busted, and new technology was bursting onto the scene, so we froze – the only light we saw at the end of the tunnel was the train coming!” Dr Husni points to the trend for publishers to invest heavily in tablet formats, “hoping that the iPad would be their salvation.” Yet he points out that digital is still counts for less than 10% of the magazine business, and makes specific reference to the recent trend for digital companies, “who need to invest in something they know is profitable” to actually go back to print, with brands such as Net a Porter, Air BnB, Sneaker News and Allrecipes.com launching print magazines. “Now the prophets of doom and gloom have all replaced the word ‘dead’ with ‘declining’,” he says. “And I give it five more years for them to apologise and admit that the power of print is still strong.”
Dr Husni argues that digital media is simply doing what other media has done – adding to other platforms rather than replacing them. And if the industry can understand that, they can also see the way forward. “When TV came out they said radio would die. And when the VCR came out people said everyone would stop going to the cinema. But they’re completely different experiences. And that’s the key: a magazine is much more than content – it’s about the (i)experience(i). And that’s what our industry needs to focus on.”
The X Factor
For Dr Husni, another central quality of great magazines is the same factor that kept him coming back as a childhood comic enthusiast. “The number one asset is the addictive factor,” he says.He argues that the best editors and publishers understand the importance of experience-making, and that experience has to become addictive, to the point where you seek out the next issue. He also points to collectability as a key strength of any magazine, arguing that “humans are creatures of habit.”
For Husni, these are just some of the ways advertisers can be attracted to magazines, will continue to buy into it, benefit from it, and in actual fact, positively enhance it.“Have you ever heard anybody say, ‘The minute I get my favourite magazine, I tear off all the ad pages’?” he asks. “Yet if I watch television I watch it on delay, so I can fast forward through the ads! That’s not the case with magazines – advertising is part of the real estate. Some people even read the adverts first. And as for ads on other platforms… My mobile phone, tablet or internet? Stop bothering me! Stop popping in my face!
“A magazine also engenders trust and loyalty in its readers,” he continues, clearly on a roll. “If I get an email or a text advert for a Chanel purse, I immediately wonder ‘Are they trying to scam me?’ But if I see it in Elle magazine or Vogue, then I immediately think ‘That’s a genuine, beautiful Chanel purse...’”
Evolution Not Revolution
While Dr Husni is as passionate an advocate of print’s virtues as you’ll find, he is realistic enough to know that the medium must evolve. But as far as he’s concerned, that simply means doing what it’s always done. “Over the next 10 years, we’re going to see higher cover prices and more high-end experiences in magazines,” he says. “But we are also going to continue to see the diversity of print. At one end of the market you’ll have extremely collectable, very expensive, unique magazines that are maybe 1,000 print run, very limited edition. But at the other end you’ll also still have the mass market magazines, only they’ll have adjust to what the audience wants and provide a curated experience for the reader that they can’t get on other platforms.”
In case you were about to argue that a magazine can exist perfectly well online or on a mobile device, Dr Husni is here to set you straight. “It’s not the same, because it’s not real. It’s only real if you can touch it, feel it, throw it across the room, whatever. I tell my students: until you are happy with a virtual boyfriend or girlfriend, virtual reality will never compete. “I pay £11.99 for the print edition of British GQ as it’s imported from overseas, compared to £3.99 for the iPad edition. Nobody comes to my house and says ‘Oh, can I look at your iPad so I can read your copy of GQ?’ But they pick up GQ without even asking me, because it’s on my coffee table, it looks beautiful, it’s something that draws you in.” Despite now being 60 years old, Dr Husni has no plans to retire, which is just as well since he also admits to a serious outlay at the newsstand. “I recently did my tax return and I found that I spend around $28,000 buying magazines in a year. I probably also receive the equivalent of that again free from publishers and other outlets. So I’d estimate I consume 6-700 magazines a month.”
With the Magazine Innovation Centre’s collection of first editions (with titles dating back to the 1970s) growing by the week – with help from its curator’s insatiable thirst for new titles – he’s also creating a unique library from which future generations of journalism students can learn. But while some of those magazines may now be museum pieces, Samir Husni would be the first to point out that the printing press won’t be going the same way for a long time to come.
To find out more about Dr Samir Husni and read his highly influential Mr Magazine blog, go to www.mrmagazine.com
It began life in the US, but Dr Husni prefers Dylan Jones’s UK version of the Gentlemen’s Quarterly: “I like a magazine to have a mix of long and short journalism. In GQ you find in-depth articles about Isis or Al Qaeda, then the most beautiful women or handsome men, a profile on a great actor or actress, then the opinions and the style. It’s got bits you can dip into and pieces you can really get stuck into reading.”
Back from the dead after closing their print edition in 2012, Dr Husni is a big fan. “I really like the relaunched Newsweek. They charge more for it now but they have produced something worth paying for. The recent cover story they did on The Bible [‘So Misunderstood It’s A Sin’, February 2015] was brilliant. I don’t think I’ve seen an in-depth article either in religious magazines or secular magazines, quite like that.”
The glossy bi-annual style bible created by Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova has attracted many a fan in the art and fashion world, and Mr Magazine is on board too. “It’s a £10 cover price, but look at the quality of the photography, how beautiful it looks – and I love the paper stock! If you create a magazine on tissue paper then you’re telling me it’s disposable. There’s nothing more disposable than digital. Print should be collectable, not disposable.”
This London-based fashion magazine goes supersized – A3 to be precise. “This is another magazine that has played with the expectations of what a magazine should be. Why not go bigger? It makes it a really immersive experience, it makes the pictures look incredible and reflects that fact that they are about big, bold statements, originality and creativity.”
Claiming to be “at the cross-section of luxury, contemporary culture and art”, this outsized Paris-based mag is available at select newsagents across Europe. Naturally Mr Magazine has bagged his copy, at the rather startling cover price of €42. “This is almost the size of a broadsheet newspaper and it looks amazing. Reading something broadsheet-sized, it completely engulfs you. There was a survey recently where a town was asked if they would like their local paper to be a broadsheet or a tabloid, and they said ‘We want a broadsheet – we want to feel like a big town. Tabloids are small, for small towns!’”