The Future Of Publishing Is Found In Its Youth: Reflections on ACT 5 Experience

October 14, 2014

From the Foredeck of the Titanic
by Joe Berger

I vividly remember my reaction to Dr. Samir Husni’s announcement that he was forming the Magazine Innovation Center at Ole Miss University. It was the winter of 2009. The economy was deep into a slump. The smoldering wreckage of Anderson News was still wreaking havoc on newsstand distribution. It seemed like every day there was another article in the industry trades about the death of print magazines. The web was full of snark and Schadenfreude and the Reaper at Magazine Death Pool was getting more coverage than most writers who covered the magazine world.

Dr. Husni had an interesting response to this roiling mess. Thoroughly fed up with the news that another magazine was shutting down, he announced that he was fighting back. The Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi was going to be a place where publishers could re-imagine, amplify, clarify and testify to the future of print.


I don’t think anyone would ever say that Samir Husni isn’t bold. My reaction that day was a fist pump, and loud “Yes!” that startled the cat.

A year and a half later, after a job transition, several client changes, and more non-stop bad news in the industry trades, I made my way down to Oxford, MS for the very first ACT I conference. Two thoughts crossed my mind as I looked at the agenda during the first full day of the conference:

“I had never attended a publishing conference that wasn’t thoroughly dominated by the largest magazine companies in the industry.”

And “I had no idea that so many students still wanted to go into magazine publishing.”

Over the next three days, an Ole Miss student and a young startup publisher and me swapped notes, ideas, advice and hope while we listened to a panel of speakers that included consumer, B2B, custom and foreign publishers. We learned about the potential, promise and pitfalls of digital publishing. We learned that in the world of print publishing, the future didn’t have to be an early grave and a post in the Reaper’s Blog if we were nimble, willing to change, willing to work hard and produce quality publications.

That was the best feature of the conference. Not that the speakers weren’t excellent. They were. Not that the speakers spoke about a diverse series of topics ranging from custom publishing, digital editions, social media and e-commerce. They did. But for the first time in a long time, I was able to interact with the next generation of magazine publishers and it was revitalizing to see how committed they were to their career paths.


Last week I landed in Oxford again for ACT V. ACT stands for “Amplify, Clarify and Testify” and there were surely plenty of speakers who attested to that fact. The keynote address was from Michael Clinton of Hearst who gave a good case for how and why Hearst’s print magazines and their digital cousins co-exist and mean so much to each other.

But the next day, it was the students who responded enthusiastically to the presentation by Vanessa Bush, the eloquent and engaging editor of Essence Magazine.* Billy Morris, the CEO of Morris Communications connected the dots between magazine publishing and the need for continued journalistic integrity. Greg Sullivan, one of the founders of the successful startup Afar Magazine, kept the audience spellbound with his description of how the magazine got started and all of the other avenues, many digital, that the magazine has taken the publishing company into.

For me the experience was much like going back to college. And sitting next to the schools undergraduate and graduate journalism students reminded of how important it is for our business to recruit the talented, the dedicated, the enthusiastic, the committed. A few snarky comments written by a reporter who’s never spent five minutes understanding the intersection between social media and circulation shouldn’t control the future of magazine publishing. Clearly these kids don’t think so.

If the future of our industry lies in the hands of the four talented, engaging, thoughtful and interesting women and men who joined me for dinner last Thursday night, our business has nothing to fear and nowhere to go but up.

This week, it’s back to work. It’s back to the grind of airlines, presentations, galleys, reports and Account Executives. That’s fine. I’m armed with a bevy of information, hope and excitement for the future.

*Note: Essence Magazine is the creator of the Essence Festival, a live event the magazine hosts each year. The Festival features performers, speakers and a wide range of activities that attracts African American families from all over the country. This year, the event was hosted in New Orleans and attracted over 500,000 participants. That’s larger than ComicCon, Coachella, South By Southwest and Sundance. Considering that this event doesn’t get mainstream media buzz, can anyone wonder or deny the power of branded magazine publishing?

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