Home > companies > people > Profitable news site is an oxymoron: HBR’s Josh Macht

Josh Macht, group publisher and executive vice-president of the newly formed Harvard Business Review Group, was in Mumbai and New Delhi to review the company’s operations in the country.

In an interview in the capital, Macht spoke about the benefits of the partly open-access digital platforms and the future of the print version of Harvard Business Review (HBR), an influential magazine on management.

Josh Macht, 46Macht moved to Harvard Business Publishing from ‘Time’ magazine, where he was a journalist and general manager of Time.com. He is also founding editor of ‘Inc.com’, a pioneering news website. He is responsible for the growth of the ‘Harvard Business Review’ brand. Macht, who is based in Boston, often works out of New York, where the management magazine runs a big operation.

Edited excerpts:

What is the difference between managing a mainstream news publication like ‘Time’ and a focused one like ‘HBR’?

When I was at Time, I was running Time.com, and I was contributing to the magazine, but I was a journalist primarily. I was also the general manager of Time.com so I was swerving between roles.

Certainly there is a thrill and a rush in having a mass media product, especially a magazine like Time where I believe Person Of the Year—Angela Merkel—was just announced. All of that is kind of thrilling.

But the big difference is that there you really don’t know who your reader is. Because when you think you are writing for everyone, you don’t know anyone. Here at HBR, it’s very clear who our customer is, who the reader is. We meet them all the time. They talk to us about how they use the ideas and there is something that feels very tangible. You know your reader in a very different way.

You were one of the founders of Inc.com, a pioneer in digital news. After that most digital news publications have struggled in the absence of sustained revenue models. Where do you think they went wrong?

I built the site in 1995. We were among the first national magazines to have a website in the United States. The website was primitive, but we thought we were changing the world and that the world would change very fast. But it didn’t totally turn out that way. There was a group of us who saw the Internet and thought this is about reaching the masses and everyone in the world will learn to read and everyone will have access to it. We weren’t thinking that much about business models.

We went through really difficult times. All of a sudden everyone had a website. But that bubble burst and then slowly the big traditional players started to realize that they needed to have a transitional model. That it wasn’t all about creating a website overnight that would take over the world. In fact, it was going to have to be transitional, a hybrid of print and digital. And that’s where we are now.

How did ‘HBR’ make that transition?

For HBR, it’s about understanding how digital enhances and complements the ideas.

For instance, we just launched a visual library where you can quickly download an infographic and put it into your presentation. Or if you want one of our ideas from a news article, we have a PowerPoint version of it.

These are ways we really enhance what print is. And though it is in decline in the United States, print is still viable as the customer still wants it. However, we now reach 5 million people a month online.

Which are your best markets outside the US?

India is incredibly important to us, and online it is probably the third largest traffic getter.

Certainly the UK and Europe is big for us. We have seen tremendous growth from Facebook India. We have over three million fans and followers on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.

And over 30% of the traffic on HBR.org is via social media.

We are also seeing growth of platforms like mobile. It’s so huge that we are beginning to think how can we be more innovative here. Our next generation of readers are on the mobile. We’ve seen globally that 30-40% of the traffic is coming via smartphones.

You are planning to cut down on the print edition from next year. Will print be on the back-burner?

No. In fact we are redesigning and reinvigorating the magazine. The number of issues probably will...it hasn’t been finalized, but we have to recalibrate the balance between print and digital.

We need to rethink print. So we may do a fewer issues but we are trying to think how do we enhance those issues. Our goal is to create more of a relationship between print and digital and create a deeper experience so that if we end up with fewer issues, you want to keep them longer.

What is the difference between the content that works online and offline? Is it length or subject matter?

Some say that shorter stories work, but I am a believer that anything that is deeply interesting people will make time for.

What we found is that a lot of softer skills are important to people and they consume a lot of that online. Things like how to manage yourself does very well. Infographics definitely play well and we’re increasingly starting to create video infographics.

We had one around the CEO pay and the disparity around the world between what the CEO makes and what the rest of the workers make. It is one of the most viral pieces we have ever done.

Where is the future of digital, in advertising or behind pay walls?

Clearly in India there is a huge push towards open content. It is hard to imagine displacing that model here.

In the United States it is a little bit different. The subscription piece is important.

But I continue to be a big fan of the hybrid model. I do think you have to have some level of open access. The Internet just demands it. We are seeing things like Hulu and Netflix in the US; these are digital models that are integrating television and the web and they are paid models. Sometimes they have an ad.

I see this as both free and premium, a two-tier model.

Globally, which has been the most profitable news site? Are there any good examples to follow?

Profitable news sites sounds like an oxymoron.

I still think we are really struggling on that front. So a newspaper site that gets the content from newspaper for free has a way of showing profits. But for a pure-play news site, creating its own content, I think it’s hard. Advertising is so volatile around the globe. Unless we see a hugely differentiated news product, it is going to be tough. Wish I had better news on that one.

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