Dan Wakeford, Editor In Chief, People Magazine, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “Print Is Going To Last Forever.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

December 10, 2020

“I think for print to thrive in 2020, you need to add depth and sophistication to a print product. You need to deliver what you can’t often get on the Internet, which is expertise and authority, because print needs to provide something emotional and arresting and something distinct that you can’t get digitally, with deeper, exclusive stories.” Dan Wakeford…

People magazine is a force to be reckoned with, even in the midst of a pandemic. The print magazine is still the cornerstone of this mega-multiplatform brand and consistently drives strong sales at newsstands. With its topnotch celebrity coverage and its moving, emotional human interest stories, the magazine remains the go-to source for all things entertaining and informative.

Since March 2019, Dan Wakeford has been editor in chief. Dan came to the job with four years of People experience under his belt, as he had served as the magazine’s deputy editor since 2015. To say that Dan knows and loves his brand would be an understatement. To say that he thinks print is still an important part of everything his brand does would be the absolute truth. 

I spoke with Dan recently and we talked about this impressive cultural force called People. It was a delightful conversation and one I think you’ll find as fascinating as Mr. Magazine™ did.

Dan Wakeford, Editor in Chief, People magazine

So, please enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ video cast with Dan Wakeford, editor in chief, People magazine. 

But first the soundbites…

On the challenges of publishing a magazine like People in 2020: It has definitely been challenging and people have been talking about pivots this year, but People has been pivoting since its existence in 1974. We’re a news brand so we react to the news. And in many ways we thrive on that. It was intimidating to begin with, putting out a print edition from home, but now it’s what we do. It’s second nature. We didn’t have any choice whether to do it or not and the human condition thrives in circumstances like that. It’s been satisfying in many ways, because there has been so many creative solutions that we’ve come up with.

On the unique selling point that differentiates People from the other celebrity-type magazines on the market: It really has to do with the fact that People brings people together. And that’s what we have done this year as always. I think PEOPLE has the power to bring people together; we’re a demography breaker, People touches so many American lives, it speaks to so many women from all walks of life across society. And it’s a unique place where women can come together to celebrate everyday people doing extraordinary things. And as we say, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and see that they are relatable as well.

On whether there was ever a conflict between the social responsibility of the magazine in 2020 and the moneymaking aspect: There are tensions at times, whether you’re doing something to sell for the cover or whether you’re doing something for the right reasons. But I have very supportive bosses who understand that tension and so you do different stories for different reasons at different times. And I don’t think it’s always an element of it has to sell a lot, we’re on so many different platforms.

On how the four people for People of the year were chosen: It has been a difficult year, which made it very interesting to choose who would be a person of the year, but at the forefront of my mind was people being a cultural force for good. So I looked at people who had really stepped up and gone above and beyond and had done good in many different areas. With Fauci it was obvious he would be a person of the year, it really was. And then digging into different celebrities and different personalities and what they had done in different areas, it was a very natural choice: George Clooney, Regina King and Selena Gomez, had all done such amazing work in different fields. 

On how he sees the issue of diversity and inclusion manifesting itself in mainstream magazines, specifically in People: I don’t think it’s quite the same situation for People magazine as it has been for the other magazines. I’ve done an early analysis of this and we were in an okay position before Black Lives Matter. We were telling stories way above the census of specifics for Black subjects, but it’s something we’re working on every day and thinking a lot about, racial equality and how we can do better at every level. 

On where he sees the future of print: Print is going to last forever. People magazine in print will be here in 20 or 25 years. We’re in an amazing and powerful position. I think for print to thrive in 2020, you need to add depth and sophistication to a print product. You need to deliver what you can’t often get on the Internet, which is expertise and authority, because print needs to provide something emotional and arresting and something distinct that you can’t get digitally, with deeper, exclusive stories.

On the biggest challenge he’s faced since taking over as editor in chief in 2019 and how he overcame it: There were many challenges. Fortunately for me, I inherited a brand that didn’t need ripping up and starting again. People really does work. There are many different challenges. For me, I think one of the challenges of the brand is competing with celebrities’ social media, they like to tell their own stories. But I think they realize some of the mistakes they’ve made and that People really is an authoritative storyteller, we’re the best in the world at what we do, so continuing that momentum has just been a challenge.

On any secret sauce Meredith has for being able to launch new products during a pandemic or that he has when it comes to the overseeing of People: I think we’re very close to the consumer and understanding what the consumer wants. We have an amazing data department and we have that data and we also have editors who have huge empathy for the audience and a huge connection with that audience. And an amazing staff. And a spirit and a company culture that wants to come up with ideas and create new products, which is exciting. And to tell stories. That’s what we’re here to do as journalists. And to tell them in the best way possible.

On what he thinks differentiates print magazine journalism from what people see on television or in newspapers: I think magazine journalism is about the consumer and working out what they want and starting with a mission statement and building a magazine around that mission statement so you can achieve your goal. It’s about deeper stories, a deeper connection, an emotional connection to the reader and that you’re delivering them an experience that you can’t get anywhere else.

On whether he has a favorite People magazine cover so far: A big element for me is being a force for good. And so during this time I haven’t shied away from subjects that are difficult for a mass market magazine. I did the first-ever Pride issue during lockdown, which was celebrating LGBT subjects. And we had Anderson Cooper on the cover with his baby. For me, the idea of diverse inclusion; growing up if I had seen a gay man on the cover of a magazine, a big magazine, with a child it would have made my path to happiness very much quicker. 

On any cover he regrets: No. There have been covers that haven’t performed as well and I probably should have listened to my gut a little bit more, but again, they did good and they were great stories. Perhaps I shouldn’t have put them on the cover, but I certainly don’t regret telling those stories.

On anything he would like to add: We could talk for hours about the magazine, but I’ve been really proud. Every single platform of People has been thriving this year. Our direct subscriptions are up incredibly, 20 percent in 2019, the rates of response to subscriptions, so it shows the quality of the magazine and what we’re delivering our reader. Our digital numbers have been through the roof, visits are up 24 percent year over year; our video views have increased as well. The TV show is the most popular new syndicated show, it’s on fire. You hear the statistics, more people tune in and can’t turn it off. So, I’ve just been really proud of how the whole organization, the print, the people has been driving together.

On what he does to unwind after a busy day: I do what everybody else does. This is the year that the television has brought us together. (Laughs) I am particularly enjoying HBO Max at the moment, the shows Industry, The Flight Attendant; I just finished Coming Undone, that has been amazing, and it’s such a big part of People’s DNA, so it’s kind of working, but not. (Laughs)

On what makes him tick and click: Storytelling does, to be honest with you. And what connects celebrity to the consumer. I’m a very consumer-driven editor. I like to think about what the consumer is getting out of the story.

On what keeps him up at night: I think it’s always been being a good leader of People. It’s a big, big job with a lot of responsibility. And a lot of staff. That’s always in the back of mind. That and how many things I haven’t done on my to-do list. (Laughs) 

And now, without any further delay, enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ video cast with Dan Wakeford, editor in chief, People magazine. 

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