When your name appears in Forbes magazine, you know you’ve made it – and Randall Lane’s name appears in every issue as the current editor of the magazine. For 96 years Forbes magazine has been the portal to a wealth of information about everything from technology to communications to law. And Randall Lane believes in keeping the traditional brand alive across both print and digital platforms. Recently I had the pleasure of talking with the man who wears his “trademark” hat both inside and outside of his Fifth Avenue office. When you walk into the Forbes building on Fifth Avenue in New York City, a sense of history engulfs you. Paintings, drawings, and portraits of people who once occupied the eminent offices greet you and remind you of the rich, intense heritage of Forbes. I spoke with Randall in the historic library, with floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with row after row of books…ink on paper books. The aura of yesterday intertwined with the energy of tomorrow and integrated into a print and digital discussion that would make even the most pessimistic of pessimist’s rethink their current, singular platform.
So sit back, grab your hat and hang onto it as you ride the rails of a platform that believes their website is making the magazine stronger and their magazine is making the website stronger. Print and digital integrated…and Mr. Magazine™ asks: can he get an amen? And now Mr. Magazine’s™ interview with the editor of Forbes magazine, Randall Lane.
But first the sound-bites.
On why he’s so gutsy on the future of Forbes, in both print and digital form: We’ve focused on how we make Forbes magazine an exceptional magazine experience. So then how do we make forbes.com an exceptional digital experience and then how do we make our live events great experiences? So instead of a one-size-fits-all, each one is tailored to the media it’s in and I actually think that there’s a model there that a lot of people are forgetting. It’s not rocket science, but it works.
On what differentiates a printed magazine from the newly coined “magazine media”: We just this year invested in paper. We put a lot of money in the paper because there’s something about the tactile experience. The portability and the feeling you get of seeing beautiful photographs on glossy paper – that’s still a luxury item. Magazines are increasingly becoming, in a world where content is unlimited and free, a premium that commands, because it is an enjoyable experience.
On the future of the printed Forbes: If only I knew. To me the larger question is what is the future of great storytelling and beautiful photography? Who knows twenty years from now; maybe they’ll have the digital paper that’s being talked about. You just don’t know.
On whom the Forbes reader is: In print what’s cool and has always been, is that Forbes has stood for the same thing for 96 years. It’s stood for entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial capitalism, free markets, smart take-charge-of-your-own-future investing, and these are all the things that now, the way the world is, have come to us and in some ways we didn’t have to go chasing the market.
And now for the lightly edited transcript for the Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Forbes magazine’s Randall Lane.
Randall Lane: If you look at our metrics, which are great, our AAM numbers are up and have been for the last three to six month periods, so that’s 18 straight months. Our PIB numbers are up. Our web traffic is crazy up. So all the metrics that you look at show us doing well and I think it’s because we’re focusing on the magazine, instead of trying to figure out how the same content works across platforms and having to work on none of the platforms. We’ve focused on how we make Forbes magazine an exceptional magazine experience. So then how do we make forbes.com an exceptional digital experience and then how do we make our live events great experiences? So instead of a one-size-fits-all, each one is tailored to the media it’s in and I actually think that there’s a model there that a lot of people are forgetting. It’s not rocket science, but it works.
What are magazines great at? The answer: deep-dive reporting in articles, investigations and definitive pieces, those long profiles with a lean-back experience and beautiful photography, which we’ve redoubled our efforts on. A Forbes photo is as definitive as a Forbes story has always been. Forbes has always been about profiling people and having every story tell a lesson, and has always had a strong opinion. And again, I think that’s what magazines need to do. They need to have a personality. They need to speak with a voice and Forbes has always had a strong one, which we’ve continued to hone.
So, if you look at the results and look at the numbers, and what’s happening in the industry at the same time, you’ll see that we’re going up. It’s really just understanding the basic premise of what people love about magazines. The magazine experience is great, but you have to tailor the product to what makes a magazine great versus just content. If you’re just posting news stories, then it’s better online. And forbes.com understands that. Why has forbes.com traffic gone through the roof? It’s because forbes.com understands that it’s not just relying on magazine stories online. It’s generating four or five hundred news stories a day from experts in the field. So forbes.com is a definitive experience for what’s going on right now in expert takes and with a strong point of view. And Forbes Magazine has that experience too.
Samir Husni: You mentioned a key factor here, I think: the magazine is more than just content. What differentiates a printed magazine from that phrase everyone is using today – magazine media?
Randall Lane: We just this year invested in paper. We put a lot of money in the paper because there’s something about the tactile experience. The portability and the feeling you get of seeing beautiful photographs on glossy paper – that’s still a luxury item. Magazines are increasingly becoming, in a world where content is unlimited and free, a premium that commands, because it is an enjoyable experience. Because as long as you have an internet connection, you can get as much mediocre content as you want. But to have a package that’s been curated and skillfully written, reported, edited and fact checked… well, that’s a value added. And that’s the magazine experience. It’s not just the random grabbing of this and that, but it’s the packaging of everything together. And that’s an enjoyable experience. So that’s what we think of when we’re putting these issues together is how can we check all the boxes so that we’re hitting all the food groups and giving our readers an experience that’s worth their five or six dollars.
Samir Husni: But someone will argue that it isn’t the same thing on the iPad.
Randall Lane: I think that we have a great iPad app. We have a new one out and Apple actually named it an “editor’s choice.” And as you know that doesn’t happen very often. I think that there’s a lot on the iPad that’s actually a very similar experience to the magazine, but especially with the nicer paper, there’s still a tactile joy to flipping pages and the portability of print. But we think there’s a great future for tablets and our iPad app is also a great magazine experience. So we don’t fear the tablet, we love the tablet.
Samir Husni: So what’s the future for the printed Forbes?
Randall Lane: If only I knew. To me the larger question is what is the future of great storytelling and beautiful photography? Who knows twenty years from now; maybe they’ll have the digital paper that’s being talked about. You just don’t know. But what magazines are is less about dead trees specifically, than the idea of wonderfully-told stories, definitive stories that are an event in themselves when they come out, packaged with beautiful photography in a way that makes you sit back and change the way you think about the world. I worry less about whether it’s a paper or a digital world, and I worry more about that magazine experience. I do think that paper is going to be around, but I don’t really worry about it. I just know people have proven for decades and decades that the magazine format is an enjoyable way to consume content.
Samir Husni: Can you imagine a time when everything is on an iPad and thrown on a tablet, even the beautifully-written, tactile books that we have from our past?
Randall Lane: I can’t, but can my daughters imagine it? They’re natives who have grown up with digital? There are a lot of people north of forty who can’t imagine a world without printed newspapers, but I’m pretty sure, other than a few, people will consume newspaper content digitally thirty years from now, just because the people coming up are so used to digital. That said, what we’re seeing which is really cool is a tremendous amount of interest in Forbes from young readers, for example the 30 Under 30. We have people who lobby us all year to be in the 30 Under 30 and it’s not because it’s put online. It’s because the 30 Under 30 is in print and because of that, because they grow up in that world of unlimited content, the fact that this company with this incredible brand behind it for almost a century is saying we’re going to spend the time, effort and the money to print this and make it permanent. They do understand that that’s different. And I do think that’s different from a newspaper, because a magazine has that personality and brand and has that idea of, “Wow! I’m in Forbes magazine. I’ve made it.” So score one for our bullish view on print because we see, that when we put this package together, and I’ll use the 30 Under 30 because it’s a proxy for the future, we put the story online and we get hundreds and hundreds of people on the list and we have 15 categories, 30 per category, so 450 people, and almost all of them ask us, “When’s it in print?” It’s not real until it comes out in print because that is the sign that it’s real and you’ve made it. Because everyone knows that anybody can build a website and put something up, but being published in a brand that’s been around for 96 years means something and is still very powerful.
Samir Husni: People have letters and things in print that they have saved for generations. I really don’t think too many people today print out their text messages. What will happen to today’s history, our permanence that we hope to preserve for tomorrow in this digital age?
Randall Lane: That’s a great point in that print still represents definitiveness, as in a book. A book is a definitive type of product. It’s something children distinctively understand. Where again daily news is such that you don’t see people binding newspapers and keeping them around. Newspapers are a product that just comes and goes, where you see people keeping bound magazines. All of us know what it feels like to have to throw out magazines, you almost feel guilty doing it.
Samir Husni: When people sit down today to play a digital game or look at content on the internet, there’s always another level and another, with no end in sight. But when you hold a magazine in your hands, you have a beginning and an end.
Randall Lane: Yes, and I think that speaks to the magazine experience too. When you package something, you have the table of contents, you have something in the back of the book that leaves you with a smile at the end and makes you think. And there’s something about the curation of a well-designed magazine that correlates to that in the human brain. It’s why it’s so fun to do this on a daily basis. You’re trying to reach people through their head, but also through their heart and there’s an emotional connection. And you see that with strong magazine brands. People don’t think of them as they do with random websites that they get news from. These magazines have personalities and there’s a relationship with the reader and you have to respect that. And everything that we’ve been accomplishing is because: A – we respect that relationship and B – we’re doing everything that we can to try and bolster it and to understand why it’s good and what makes it good and to make those parts stronger.
Samir Husni: Who’s your reader, the 1% or the 99%?
Randall Lane: It’s a lot of both. In print what’s cool and has always been, is that Forbes has stood for the same thing for 96 years. It’s stood for entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial capitalism, free markets, smart take-charge-of-your-own-future investing, and these are all the things that now, the way the world is, have come to us and in some ways we didn’t have to go chasing the market. If you think about the world out there right now, nobody is sitting around thinking, “Hey, what company can I go work for the rest of my life that’s going to take care of me?” I mean, if you’re doing that, you’re crazy. You have to take care of yourself. Forbes has always been about the individual and figuring out a way to take care of you. Forbes is the magazine that pioneered the idea that you don’t write about companies, you write about people. And the story of a company can be told by the person running that company. We’ve always been about that. What’s great is the world has finally awaked to the fact that that is what it’s about. It is about yourself, it’s about taking charge of your own career and your own future. The message of Forbes resonates with anybody who is at all interested in success. Because what we’ve always been about is where the world is right now and that is self-empowerment.
Samir Husni: Some people say that the future of printed magazines is in those iconic additions: Forbes 400, Forbes Billionaires, Forbes 30 Under 30, do you agree? Is that the future or is there still room for some good old-fashioned general interest business?
Randall Lane: Absolutely both. And we do both. Franchises are great things to pivot from and what we’ve been focusing on is taking these franchises and turning them into something. You know, when a franchise magazine comes out, it’s an event and we’ve actually been turning those into live events. With the Forbes 400 last year, we had our first Forbes 400 summit on philanthropy. Some of the wealthiest people in the country were all in one room. You had Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Leon Black, Jon Bon Jovi and Steve Case. That cover might be the wealthiest one ever, in terms of the people in it, and quite possibly the wealthiest portrait ever taken. And to get them all to take the franchise and bring it live, that’s a wonderful opportunity, but you have to have both, because every single issue is a franchise issue. You start to lose your identity if you keep on saying, “This issue is the travel issue and now it’s the summer issue.” The core is, this is an issue of Forbes too, but it’s just that we have a package in it that is something that you look forward to every year. And that changes the discussion of the whole world and what they’re talking about. For the last two days the entire world has been talking about the Forbes Billionaires list. And that’s fun. And that strength is the Forbes brand. But you need to have enough flexibility so that you’re offering your readers, instead of jerking them from a single-topic issue to a single-topic issue, all the basic food groups covered. The magazine means something. And that allows frankly, the franchises to thrive more because they’re coming off that base.
Samir Husni: Do you think that digital by itself validates those franchises?
Randall Lane: I think, actually, that it works both ways. It’s part of what Forbes has been doing so well in the last couple of years. We put all our magazine stories online, all of them. And there’s no paywall. And what’s been amazing to watch is to see how these Forbes stories, when they’re put online, do so well. And part of it is because they’re in the magazine too and it says that from the top of the post: this story is from the X issue of Forbes Magazine. And those stories do disproportionately well by the end of the day. There will be 200,000 views just in the first 24 hours. And part of it is because when it says this is the X issue of Forbes Magazine people know that this thing has the credibility of having been researched, reported, fully edited and fact checked, and that makes that story much more resonate on the web.
So the magazine is actually feeding the credibility of the website. Now the website also helps the magazine in that we have 400 or 500 posts a day and the readers will tell us what they’re interested in. It’s an amazing tool in understanding what people’s interests are. We actually put something in each of our issues, in our sections; we have a sort of barometer of what Forbes readers are talking about based on the traffic we see on the website. The website is making the magazine stronger and the magazine is making the website stronger.
It gives our staffers the tools to then do what is the right thing for the story. If you just work for a website and you have some kind of deep investigation, there’s a pressure not to do that because on a website how much banging can you get off of that? But in a magazine we might have a short story that frankly is perishable and doesn’t really hold up to a long life, but maybe it’s a couple hundred words and you can get it out and get your take. Our entire staffers do both. And they’re able to take any story and decide the best media for it… I have a little tip, it’s not a huge story, but I’m going to get it out there right now. Or…I have this great investigation, let me spend time on it and hone it and tell a definitive story. It’ll still be online, but it’s coming out of the magazine. And so I think that’s very important, in terms of what we do with our staffers and that we give them the flexibility to take each story and let it live on the medium it wants to live on.
Samir Husni: So are you swimming against the current when everybody else is going to paywalls and charging for online?
Randall Lane: I don’t know what everybody else’s model is, in terms of whether it’s working or not, but we have seen crazy success with the model we have. We did 44 million uniques in February. We did 45 million uniques in January and we’re at that same pace this month, and that’s up from 2 years ago. It’s working. And it’s fun. Because we don’t have to sit here with our magazine and look jealously at all the websites that are growing and we don’t have to sit here on the website and say, “Oh well, wouldn’t it be nice to have a healthy magazine. They work together well and there is a model here for the co-existence between print and digital. They need each other. And they feed each other. And that’s part of why it’s so gratifying to be here right now. There are a lot of places where it’s tough out there and we’re finding that this is really working.
Samir Husni: Is it Randall’s magic touch?
Randall Lane: I have to say Lewis D’Vorkin, the chief product officer, had the model working before I got here. But I had enough experience at testing out different ideas for magazines to be able to bring some of my own onto that platform. It’s been a lot of fun.
Samir Husni: Do you think that you can ever make money from digital? Or do you want to make money from digital?
Randall Lane: Yes, we definitely want to. And we definitely do. On the business side, we’re a private company but we’re performing very well. Where everywhere you hear, people are laying off, we’re hiring.
Samir Husni: Thank you.