A week on The Farm

18 July 2009

I finished up the Stanford Professional Publishing Course (Twitter hashtag: #sppc09) magazine track last night, following a week on campus at The Farm with 60 other media folk from around the world. (I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from Amazon to pay my way; here’s the essay I wrote for the application, annotated with my alter ego color commentary.)

A pretty intensive seven days, I’d say. Some quick thoughts the day after:gl_logo

It’s been years (25 or so) since I’ve had the privelege of being in such internationally diverse company. About half came from countries other than the United States with Mexico and Latin America particularly well represented. Really enjoyed conversation, dinner, drinks with peeps from Uganda, Holland, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Russia, Poland – the list goes on.

I could be wrong on this, but my impression is that while all of us are dealing with the consequences of the economic downturn, magazine publishers in other countries aren’t quite experiencing the wrenching structural shift that’s taking place here in the US – or at least not to the extent that we are. This, plus the fact that different countries have a different mix of media technologies in play – probably best exemplified by Japan’s miles-ahead use of mobile technology compared to the States.

What does that mean? Well, for one, the growth in Twitter use in the US doesn’t seem to be as dominant a conversation topic in other countries. I heard from several folks that they weren’t sure if or even when Twitter would become a core part of their distribution/communication strategy. The program, though, put a heavy emphasis on Twitter as a new platform for publishers – including a presentation by Guy Kawasaki on how he pushes the envelope using Twitter as a marketing tool.

Perhaps especially for the Americans in the room, this year’s course had a kind of schizophrenic feel to it. On the one hand, we heard from veteran leaders who ply the classic magazine trade – Rob Gursha of Time Inc on the economics of newsstand and subscription circulation; Keith Clinkscales of ESPN Publishing on how to build a business plan for a magazine launch; Nigel Holmes, the man in blue who could be described as a modern day inventor of infographics; and most of all, an interview with Dick Stolley, long-time editorial leader at Time, Inc., who reminisced about what could only be described as the golden age of magazines – which I figure is any year prior to about 2003 – while sharing pointers about how to do a good interview.

On the other hand, we heard lectures about the digital writing on the wall from futurist Paul Saffo; reports from the front lines of the digital transition from Cynthia Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, Michela O’Connor Abrams, publisher of Dwell,  and (outstandingly so) from Kevin McKean of Consumer Reports. Plus hands-on sessions about Twitter, Ning and building video into our websites – along with an “assignment” to come up with our own “new media” project during the week (some of which were downright brilliant).

Did any of this really point the way forward for magazines making the transition? Not really – and the SPPC folks were pretty clear that they didn’t have the answers (not to mention a workable business plan). So the program for the week was built around the humbling recognition that we actually have no f’ing idea where this is headed at the moment. It’s probably no coincidence that attendance this year was way down from previous years, too.

All this leads to my main take-away from the course: to survive (let alone flourish) publishing organizations need to be nimble, flexible, willing to experiment and be able to draw lessons from good failures. This is what Corey Ford, a fellow at Stanford’s “d.” for design school (with its roots in the leadership team that built Ideo), characterized as a “bias toward action” as he led us through an exercise in design thinking.

For organizations with roots in magazine publishing, this is no small challenge, since the expectations of perfection that go into building a printed magazine can be very different from the on-the-fly, fix-it-later stance that seems to be what’s called for in the digital world.

In other words, I think as much as we need to know about the cool new tools we can use for journalism and audience engagement, even more important is the courage to reboot our core organizational culture. If we can match it up with the world out there,  and with the desires, interests, and talents of our community (formerly, “audience”) who knows what new opportunities that will engender?

One Response to “A week on The Farm”

  1. Tom Lucci Says:

    Steve – This is an outstanding summary of last week’s SPPC09, with some pretty profound “takeaways”. It inspires me to do something more than the attempt at a few cheap yucks I put on the Ning site!

    It was great to meet and get to know you a bit and I will certainly be following your blog and hope to be in touch.

    –Tom (the one who used to work for Deirdre English’s father)

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