We are encouraged on our MA course at NTU to think of ourselves as journalists who just happen to be students. Easier said than done when a would-be interviewee sees through your shaky claim to be a freelancer and detects a whiff of student publication about you. For one day, at least, it was no challenge at all to feel part of the industry as we attended the Professional Publishers Association (PPA) festival at Tobacco Dock, London in May.
It was a great opportunity to gain insight from those at the top of the publishing industry, network with potential employers, and snaffle some free food and drink while we were at it!
The day started early, with a National Express coach ride down to Victoria station for most of us at 7am (feeling very much like students at this point), followed by a scramble across London on the tube and the DLR. Tired and shell-shocked we emerged into bright sunshine at Wapping station like mole-people forced from their tunnels, and made the short walk to the spectacular venue on the Thames unsure what to expect from the day.
The first room we walked into was hosting a discussion with Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital & culture and Lord Clement-Jones, Lib Dem spokesman on the creative industries. Clement-Jones was midway through explaining that his party’s manifesto will suggest a rethink on the way we value intellectual property and its potential use as collateral to allow new businesses with good ideas to upscale more quickly. Clearly this was not just a jolly.
The first full talk I attended was entitled ‘What the hell can we do about fake news?’ and featured Dr Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the BMJ, David Hepworth, director of Mixmag Media, and James Ball, special correspondent at Buzzfeed. All three explored the creation and effect of fake news from their own perspective and made some thought-provoking points, but the stand-out moment for me was when James Ball highlighted the way Sean Spicer manipulated the world’s media into doing his bidding.
When Donald Trump’s administration were short of an Islamic terror attack to add weight to their proposed travel ban policy, Sean Spicer accused the media of failing to adequately cover 78 such attacks in the past. Smelling a chance to prove someone wrong, the media jumped in with both feet and republished everything they’d written to cover the attacks. The net result was a tidal wave of press coverage related to Islamic terrorism at the exact moment Trump’s office needed it.
Just in case this is all sounding a little heavy-going, another of the popular talks came from Farrah Storr, editor, and Claire Hodgson, digital editor at Cosmopolitan. They discussed their brand’s Snapchat strategy following the decision to appear on Snapchat Discover. The main thing they have learned from the process is that interactivity is key for generating user engagement, with games like matching lips to the correct Kardashian proving popular. They also noticed some unexpected trends from their readers, such as a story about cups of tea out-performing a story about Kris Jenner.
There were several emerging themes to be taken from the day as a whole. The publishing industry is in a state of flux at the moment. Traditional funding streams have been dwindling or drying up, and so new ways of making money have had to be found. The titles that will thrive in this new world are those flexible enough to adapt to ever-changing conditions, but that doesn’t mean the death of print media.
Jerry Perkins, CEO of Mixmag media, revealed that cover price and subscriptions make up as little as fifteen per cent of the music brand’s revenue. The rest all comes from projects like their Youtube channel, and native content created with (and paid for by) other brands. I asked him after his talk where he drew the line between a magazine and a third-party marketing provider, and he explained that brand strength is key to maintaining journalistic integrity. A big part of that brand strength comes from being tethered to a trusted print title like Mixmag or his new acquisition, Kerrang!.
This theme of garnering trust to build and maintain brand strength cropped up in many of the talks throughout the day. Although it isn’t a new idea, it’s reassuring to know that it is a transferable commodity in a changing journalistic environment.
Steve Fowler, editor-in-chief at Auto Express, Sue Todd, CEO at Magnetic Media, Justine Southall, MD of fashion and beauty at Time Inc. UK and Lucie Cave, editor-in-chief at Heat Magazine, gave a talk about the new influencer ecosystem which further explored the value of trust. They argued that magazines are the most important influencers of all. Despite companies scrambling for the attention of so-called influencers on social media, magazines still represent an authoritative source, whereas bloggers and influencers are occupying the ‘advice from a friend’ space. While tie-ins with other brands (native content etc.) can generate healthy income, brands should always operate with integrity or risk alienating readers and weakening this position.
We were surprised to find that a section of the venue was dedicated to issues of mental health. Talks included themes such as how to switch off, meditation and even the best diets for mental health and focus. In hindsight, however, this makes perfect sense. The magazine industry is a fast-paced, deadline-driven, pressurised environment. It is sensible for editors to consider the mental well-being of their employees, especially as staff numbers drop and magazines spread across multiple platforms.
The talks provided food for thought, but there was no shortage of literal food on offer at the event too. Our inner students bubbled to the surface the moment we realised the food and drink was free. Tea and coffee, cake, and lunch options including gourmet hot-dogs, chicken or halloumi salad, ice-cream, popcorn and even Pimm’s (I knew the Pimm’s man better than some distant family members by the end of the event).
The day was exhausting. The coach home arrived in Nottingham at midnight and the day had started before 6am for many of us, but it was more than worth the trip to attend. spending the day in a gorgeous venue in an exciting city and getting free food and drink is one thing, but the real value of the day came from spending time immersed in the industry we all aspire to work in. Getting face-to-face contact with professionals at the top of their game and learning from their collective experience is the most valuable thing, I would thoroughly recommend attending.