An Interview with Paul Westervelt, VP and Group Publishing Director, Oil & Gas Journal, PennWell
“When you have a plethora of free sources (mostly press releases) in a field, the subscription trade publication can stand out above the noise.”
PennWell Corporation is a privately held global business-to-business publisher of 45 magazines and newsletters. They organize 60+ conferences and exhibitions and have an extensive offering of research, databases, and information products in global markets. PennWell was one of the first trade publishers to create online information services, beginning in 1994 with its websites for the laser and optoelectronics and petroleum industries.
Paul Westervelt Bio
Paul Westervelt serves as vice president and group publishing director for Oil & Gas Journal, PennWell Corporation’s 108 year old weekly publication for the petroleum industry. OGJ is the leading publication in its space and the most innovative in the development and delivery of digital news and technology to the petroleum industry including OGJ‘s more than 100,000 subscribers worldwide. Westervelt also serves as chief operating officer for PennEnergy Equipment which uses PennWell’s publications and technical conferences in power generation and oil and gas to market large capital equipment items to buyers worldwide.
Westervelt previously held several management positions at PennWell during a 21-year career, including leadership roles for PennWell’s digital media businesses and the PennEnergy Equipment Exchange.
Q: What prompted PennWell’s owners placing you back at the helm of Oil & Gas Journal, a 100 year old brand where you began your career in the 1980’s?
A: I came into this role in 2008 because it was obvious Oil & Gas Journal needed to be examined from a customer perspective and the rapid growth of digital delivery. I had a broad base of experience, but I had been part of a PennWell internet spin off in 1999-2000 that put us in the forefront so they asked me to see where we could take Oil & Gas Journal.
Q: I find it interesting that Oil & Gas Journal is a paid trade publication. What’s the history behind this?
A: Oil &Gas Journal has been fully paid since inception. In some ways, the legacy subscriber model probably helped us with the introduction of so many aggregators on two fronts: 1) People recognize the value of the product; and 2) Our edit staff feels a responsibility to go deep from the perspective of the readers. When you have a plethora of free sources (mostly press releases) in a field, the subscription trade publication can stand out above the noise. The press release is our starting point.
Regarding paid content online, we made a decision back in 2000, when people felt they had to be online with lots of velocity and much content, to reserve premium content for paid subscribers. We took a track similar to the [Wall Sreet Journal] by reserving highly valuable content for paid subscribers only. Our differentiation is that most of our news coverage is available free daily on our site and e-newsletters, but our technology coverage is only available to paid subscribers online. We have actually grown our paid audience by using technology and data analysis. Once you pull a pay-wall down, it is difficult to put it back up.
Q: Has your market grown, have you gotten more market share or both?
A: Oil & Gas Journal has increased market share. We have deepened our immediacy and our market share for some readers. Our model is working, but we do want to expand the use by free users. Our daily newsletter goes to 3x the number of readers our paid magazine serves. We are building out the database. And we have continued to evolve the content. We closely analyze our audience; how they interact with our content and archives.
And we continue to roll out platforms. Two months ago we launched our iPad application. The app is free, but you have to be a subscriber to populate it. Almost 80,000 of our 100,000 copies of each issue are delivered digitally already. This is another way to access digital technology. We switched our digital provider so that we can integrate deployment.
Q: I don’t know of any publication serving 80,000 digital subscriptions every issue. How did Oil & Gas Journal accomplish this?
A: It was an effort to have broad industry coverage. It is the equivalent of the old company paid subs which was a big part of the Oil & Gas Journal sub model. It was a conscientious effort that we put a lot of work into it. We print and mail 20,000 subscription copies every issue.
Q: What impact did the BP oil spill in 2010 have on Oil & Gas Journal?
A: It was epic. If you looked at leading search terms at the front end of the crisis, it captivated the American public. An advantage for Oil & Gas Journal was that it allowed us to re-establish expertise. We did not have the most volume coverage, but we had accurate, meaningful coverage. We had an unparalleled number of exclusive interviews based on our editor’s expertise and relationships. This gave us a chance to correct misinformation and to demonstrate the extraordinary level of technology within the oil and gas industry. Over time the coverage will be beneficial. Learning about sub-sea technology is equivalent to what is studied about the moon by NASA.
Q: How did it affect the financial bottom line for Oil & Gas Journal?
A: It cost us money to cover the oil spill to the degree that we did. When something like that happens, advertisers actually go into “hold” pattern. If anything, it has an adverse effect. They often want to let the smoke clear before restarting their campaign.
Q: What is next for Oil & Gas Journal?
A: On August 1 we made a historic change. For 100 years we published weekly issues that included news, opinion, analysis and technology. Being responsive to readers and advertisers and studying the move for one and a half years, we aggregated our technology coverage into the first issue of each month (going from 100 to 200 pages for the first issue of the month). The other three weekly issues deliver 40 pages of news, analysis, statistics and opinion only in digital form
That decision has allowed us to introduce new digital products to new audiences and at a lower price point. It has opened a new customer base for us in terms of readers and advertisers. The challenge is that both understand what we now offer and embrace it. We will be monitoring it in the coming months.
Beyond that, we want to focus on content and be agnostic in terms of delivery method. This creates risk, but we can’t stand still. Digital is our fastest growing source of income.
Q: What are you doing with mobile technology?
A: We do have a mobile strategy. What we are trying to do is let mobile delivery companies manage that for us. We do not do custom apps. We look at best-in-class providers. We use Texterity because they do a good job with it. We have a game plan to go from iPad to Android tablets, iPhones, etc. Secondarily, we are working on a mobile strategy that delivers content products that work better on the device due to screen size. We recently hired an audience development professional [whose job] has been to reverse engineer and see what the audience wants to build out in the format they prefer. We see opportunity for growth and new products.
Q: Oil & Gas Journal‘s 100+ years of publishing are a testament to the brand and parent company. As you focus on the future, what career advice has been most helpful to you?
A: The first President and CEO I worked for at PennWell, Joe Wolking, modeled going out of your way to serve a customer. Meet their needs and then monetize. Joe helped set the path for me.
Oil & Gas Journal is fortunate to have private family ownership because you can really evolve the business, even if it takes time. It has been an advantage to have the same owners since 1910, the fourth generation in terms of leadership. They have invested and grown the company. We have staying power.
Ask media pundits today for their list of top ten innovative publishers and few would most likely include Oil & Gas Journal on their list. Why? They either don’t know about this blue chip brand or writing about it may not generate as much buzz versus covering the same companies everyone is writing and talking about.
Take-away from Oil & Gas Journal:
- Commitment to core values
- Consistency counts
- Take calculated risks; no standing still
- The throne is shared: customer and content are king
Lou Ann Sabatier has 35 years of experience in the publishing industry. Ms. Sabatier has been deeply involved in all aspects of publishing; including strategic planning,business development, business and financial management, audience development, advertising sales, digital media and operations management. Currently Ms. Sabatier is Principal at Sabatier Consulting and Communications Director of 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.