In their first joint interview since Battista joined Time Inc., Entertainment Weekly-People editorial director tells TheWrap: “More than any other brand, I think Hollywood roots for EW’s success.”
As the changing media landscape continues shifting to digital, Time Inc. was born last summer by way of a spinoff from Time Warner Inc.
Since then, the media company, with an umbrella of name-brand brands like People, Entertainment Weekly, Fortune, TIME, Sports Illustrated and Money Magazine, has tried to find its imprint in the digital world, investing more in its websites and video as a way of combating the universal trend of losses in print advertising.
Following a recent fourth quarter earnings that saw the company miss its estimate with revenue falling 7 percent ($71 million) year-over-year from $966 in 2013’s fourth quarter, the company announced the hiring of TV and digital media veteran Rich Battista as President and Executive Vice President of People and Entertainment Weekly.
“The company hiring me is somewhat symbolic of the importance of video,” Battista told TheWrap in a wide-ranging interview alongside Entertainment Weekly-People Editorial Director Jess Cagle.
Battista and Cagle spoke to TheWrap about the direction of People and EW, Matt Bean’s abrupt exit from EW, and the balance of men and women across top Time Inc. roles.
TheWrap: Rich, in the hyper-changing media climate, what’s the number one priority for Time Inc. Where’s the next spurt of growth going to come from?
Battista: The excitement about coming to the company really starts with these collection of brands, these iconic, influential brands. I have a huge appreciation for one’s that are so influential and iconic. I think at the end of the day, my biggest mission, and my biggest mandate, working closely with Jess and the team, is truly becoming a multimedia company. I think the company is well on its way; I think they’re doing wonderful things. Obviously the core business is still a massive business, the strides they’ve made in the digital space have been very impressive, and I think there’s a lot more we can do there. Digital video is a major priority, television opportunities for sure, experiential side and the events side is one we’re very excited about and one I feel confident there are real opportunities in. So I think, looking at the obvious other media platforms People and EW can live and breathe in, and at the end of the day People and EW crave unique, relevant content you truly can’t get anywhere else, so how do we ensure over time that we’re allowing our audience to consume that content the way they want in the places they want and making sure we’re being very smart in how we’re generating revenue doing it.
TheWrap: You’ve mentioned digital several times. Many media companies throw out digital first and digital, digital, digital, but none have seemed to crack the code on significantly monetizing digital or online video.
Cagle: So far, the big investment in video has actually paid off. PeopleNOW [live daily show on People.com] has done really, really, well for us. One of the reasons is that we’re able to break off all that content and promote it throughout the day, so if PeopleNow does a story in the morning about the Royals, every time we do a post on the Royals we can run that video contextually. So, Toyota is extremely happy about that [the sponsor] and that show has been really successful. As far as short form and online video, it’s all investing the right amount of money into it and also using the power of the brand. I mean you have 72 million uniques coming to People every month so you can get that video seen and you also have a whole lot of people coming to the homepage where you can also get it. We’re in the unique position to maximize that video and make the advertisers very happy. At the same time, we’re not going to make Schindler’s List on People.com [or the Avengers]; we’re not going to spend an enormous amount of money, you have to be smart. As far as long-form video, I think we’re just starting to explore developing series that can also be syndicated to a cable provider. And with TV, we are looking at a lot of development, we all know how you make money off that.
Battista: The company hiring me is somewhat symbolic of the importance of video. Almost my entire career has been in the television and digital video world and Jess also has experience in that space. “It’s one thing to say we’re going to play in that space, it’s another thing to have people who have chief experience and actually knowing how to get from point A to B. You can have all the greatest ideas in the world, but unless you know how to execute on them it doesn’t really mean much. And sure, there are other companies creating video and some are doing a terrific job at it, but the brands that we have so much of the content they are creating; it’s so organic to make video out of it. EW is doing some very interesting things with video content, and People as well. So many opportunities, it’s not trying to put a square peg in a round hole. We feel it’s such a natural extension of the company, and the important thing is to have people on the ground at the company who know how to execute.
Cagle: And one of the things that’s so exciting about Rich — and I’m not saying this because he’s my new boss — I’m saying it because for the longest time, I was approached by studios, and networks, and production companies wanting to do something with these brands, both People and EW, and we didn’t really have the right infrastructure at Time Inc. to make those deals and really explore those deals that make sense. We would sort of do those as one-offs and the only successful one I was involved with was the EW Radio Channel on Sirius. Now we have somebody who truly understands how to turn these brands into whatever form we want to take it.
TheWrap: Like many other companies, print advertising revenue is down at Time Inc.. What’s the strategy to combat that? Is the goal to pivot away from print?
Cagle: The goal is not to totally go away from print because in both cases, EW and especially People, the print product still makes a tremendous amount of money. However, the print industry is challenged, challenged both on the newsstand, challenged on the print advertising revenue; what we have to do is find other ways to make up for that. That’s actually low-hanging fruit; I think there are so many things you can do with these brands beyond our print and our website that will more than make up for our decline in revenue. But the print product is going to be around for a very, very long time, and I would say on a daily basis the two things I spend most of my time on is the People Magazine cover and EW video. They are equally important right now.
TheWrap: There’s been a lot of lot of rumors about EW’s future. Is there any chance EW will be going away in the near future?
Cagle: No. The arrival of Rich is actually a tremendous sign in the confidence we have in EW. People is obviously a huge revenue driver for the company, but Time Inc. understands what I understand, which is EW is an incredibly strong brand that is still very profitable, but it’s under-leveraged.
Battista: Coming from the entertainment world and from the multimedia world, sitting on the phone right now, I can probably come up with 10 ideas of what to do with EW in the event space, or in television, or in digital video, or in acquiring tangential businesses that would be great corollaries to EW in the content entertainment space. I think the ideas are endless. I think there’s just great opportunity to approach new media platforms vis-à-vis EW.
TheWrap: Jess, you mentioned EW being under-leveraged. Can you expand on that. What areas haven’t been tapped into thoroughly?
Cagle: Under-leveraged as far as events, under-leveraged as far as online video, under-leveraged as far as TV extensions. There are many, many different forms that brand can live in. It has a very, very passionate audience. It’s a very unique brand as it is really about product. It has unprecedented access to studios and networks and talent in Hollywood. More than any other brand, I think Hollywood roots for EW’s success.
Battista: Another priority we’re putting our energy and time in is how do we deepen our engagement with our current audience. What do we do vis-à-vis potentially investing in other businesses that may be corollary to People or EW that once you invest in them or acquire them, you put them through the powerful marketing platforms that these brands could bring them to.
TheWrap: Jess, can you talk about Matt Bean’s exit into a more corporate role?
TheWrap: I know what happened on paper, but reports say you and he had differences. Can you address that?
Cagle: I think that maybe I didn’t handle the transition as good as I should have and maybe I should have announced it all earlier. There were no clashes even you picked up on this story. The narrative became: “I clashed with Matt Bean and he was ousted.” I never clashed with Matt Bean, I’m still working very closely with him in his new role because he’s working on native content and all kinds of things for Time Inc. with every brand. He’s an incredibly talented guy, and I’m sad that I won’t get to see what he will do with EW because I thought he had fantastic ideas for it. But I need him in this other role and the company needs him in this role. And Henry Goldblatt is fantastic; he was at EW a long time, he really understands the audience and content, he invented the “Bullseye,” which is one of the most popular franchises that EW has. He’s already a great EW editor in his own way and he will be great in this role in his own way.
TheWrap: Insiders told TheWrap People is heading into a lighter, more tabloid direction, with recent hires like Dan Wakeford from InTouch Weekly and some freelance stringers that come from that background. Is People moving in this direction?
Cagle: Dan Wakeford is an incredibly talented editor who completely understands the People brand and is a very ethical guy, by the way. I would say that People is absolutely not becoming more of a tabloid brand. Number one, I’d be the wrong editor for it because I have too many friends in show business. Number two, what works for People right now, both online and on the cover, is celebrity access. Our biggest-selling cover is of course the George Clooney wedding, and the Brad and Angelina wedding; there’s no way we’re going to risk access by becoming more of a tabloid.
Battista: For me, it was one of the enticing parts of coming to the company. Again, knowing that is a real true differentiator for People and it’s something that Jess has done a terrific job in managing the celebrity world and understanding how to do it in the right way. I think it will continue to be a major asset of the company. Like Jess said, celebrities want to be in business with us, and we don’t want to lose that.
Cagle: The other part of it is is the human interest aspect of it; the heroes stories, is a huge area of growth for us [Brittany Maynard story of terminally ill 29-year old who moved to Oregon so she can die], so going in more of a tabloid direction would not make any sense nor would I want to do it.
TheWrap: Does Martha Nelson’s exit set up a deficiency in top female editors at Time Inc.?
Cagle: No, at least at People and EW, Cindy Sanz is overseeing our crime coverage, Kate Coyne oversees our showbiz coverage, we have another female news editor coming to People.com, a woman was just promoted to the Deputy Editor of EW; there are a lot of women in very senior management positions.
Rich Battista is EVP and President of People and Entertainment Weekly; Jess Cagle is Editorial Director at People and Entertainment Weekly.