Leader Profile: Global Vision
One of the first things you notice when walking into Lynda Hammes' office at Foreign Affairs is an Ellie, the pachyderm-ish sculpture recognizing excellence in magazine publishing given out each year by the American Society of Magazine Editors. From there, Hammes is glad to show you other recent awards: the Communicator Award from the International Academy of Visual Arts (for excellence in marketing and advertising), Min's Best of the Web 2012 (for premium digital content) and an Eppy from Editor & Publisher honoring the magazine's mobile website.
Such laurels—especially the digital ones—may seem surprising for a 90-year-old publication whose print edition sports a text-only cover, but the magazine has long proven itself adept at straddling the line between specialized journal and accessible, transmedia product looking to steer the global conversation.
"[Our content] is not in the form of an esoteric journal article by the world expert on X; it's also not a whitepaper or bureaucratic document," Hammes points out. "It's a readable and accessible piece of journalism, or an essay, by the thought leader himself or herself. ... That's what gives Foreign Affairs its power."
Foreign Affairs is cooking up a re-design for 2013—which, among other things, will bring images to its cover for the first time—but Hammes was holding most details close to the chest when Publishing Executive paid a visit in November. "The idea is the same great content in a new bottle," she offered. "It's still going to be a beautiful object and artifact—people keep Foreign Affairs for a long time—but it's [about] distinguishing one issue from the next. That's one of the goals."
There was still plenty to talk about, though, from the magazine's first iOS app to its recent efforts to build on a remarkably robust revenue base by expanding into new products and platforms.
For Hammes—named this year as the magazine's first-ever female publisher—the possibilities are both open-ended and inspiring. "It's the most exciting time in publishing ever," she says.
Apps, Events and Premium Perks
Foreign Affairs' first-ever app was at the top of Hammes' list when she assumed the editor's position in July (she has been with the magazine for 10 years). "I said we are going to have an app by the time iPads are under Christmas trees. And, we're going to. That meant we had to make some choices about what we could do in that time frame."
She characterizes the app as "first generation," a work in progress meant to evolve along with products, platforms and editorial focus. The first priority was to produce a replica edition to satisfy auditing demands while including extras such as videos and a commenting function.
"Today, you cannot go behind the curtain and [unveil] something—'Ta Da!'—many months later. You have to be in a constant mode of improvement and responding to new technology," Hammes says. Development work on the back end was necessary, she adds, to "make an app that is really going to be agile and updated frequently."
"It's not about constant updates for our readers," she says. "Each issue that we launch is really an event, and lots of opportunities come between each issue because once you've got the app downloaded we're merchandizing ebooks, special reports, possibly even event-related content."
When it comes to events—Foreign Affairs produces international investment conferences and subscriber-only get-togethers, among others—the goal is "good old- fashioned brand building," Hammes says. Events are also valuable for marketing, sponsorship revenue, media partnerships and content creation (e.g. video, podcasts).
In November, an investment conference focused on Brazil brought together CEOs, politicians, journalists and economists for panels and networking sessions. "That has grown out of sponsored sections in the magazine," she says—a "huge area for advertising growth."
On the lighter side was a party held for subscribers and invitees during October's foreign policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, with bipartisan discussion beforehand and drinks during the live broadcast.
Foreign Affairs offers print and digital subscriber packages, as well as a premium subscriber level, which Hammes plans to spice up with new digital offerings via the app and website. Subscriptions account for about half of all revenue, while advertising accounts for between 25 and 35 percent (depending on the year). The rest comes from licensing and reprints.
The new app and other initiatives come out of a desire to expand without compromising the magazine's core mission or value proposition. Foreign Affairs, Hammes says, will always be a long-form source for news, views and policy analysis by and for thought-leaders. Editorially, editor Gideon Rose is expanding coverage into new areas globally, as well as moving beyond foreign policy and politics into economics, art, history and culture as issues such as the rise of the Hispanic demographic in the U.S. and human rights struggles continue to play a role in international affairs.
A new focus on metrics drives some changes. The magazine examines Web traffic and user patterns, such as breakdown by mobile and social media channels, as well as geography. Hammes keeps the focus on conversion rates rather than just traffic to ensure the message gleaned from data is truly meaningful. "We don't want empty [numbers]," she says.
Foreign Affairs has published a Japanese version since 1990, and offers several other international editions, including Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica. Digital media, Hammes says, enables exciting new possibilities for global editions and partnerships.
"It used to be hard to make a business out of [international verticals] because it's low margin," she says. "You've got a small audience within one country and one language, and manufacturing copies [for that market] is not a great business proposition. Today, digitally, with translation technology and with video, the opportunities are huge. We are already seeing [expansion] without even marketing, and I've been studying where we are seeing readership grow and learning about strategic partners in China, the Middle East, Brazil and other places that can help us scale. It's really exciting."
The Leadership Challenge
Hammes believes she was chosen as publisher because of her journalism background, "reverence for this content" and focus on innovation. "I think I've made it clear that I would become bored in this job quickly if I were not able to innovate through technology, through packaging, through other platforms like events, and that's really what's going to let us continue to grow."
The goal, she says, is to "reinforce a revolution that's been happening the past couple of years" through ambitious editorial and platform expansion. With successful e-reader and digital editions, Foreign Affairs is at its highest paid circulation ever (175,000), and official ABC numbers are nearly back to 2008 pre-recession levels. The magazine saw a 22 percent increase in newsstand sales in the first half of 2012, and is test-marketing a cover price increase from $9.95 to $12.99. On the digital side, ForeignAffairs.com has seen a 26 percent increase in unique visitors and 23 percent increase in page views in 2012 (as of mid-November) compared to the same period in 2011.
"Like all publishers," she says, "we have the burden of investment on the technology side, and without agility and energy and a kind of start-up attitude you cannot possibly sustain that pace."
Innovation, however, must come with an understanding of the brand and its unique value to readers. Hammes therefore seeks to expand readership with an eye to the magazine's core mission.
"The magazine for many years has made an impact. My goal is to continue that," Hammes says. "Not just to resound in the beltway and in Congress ... but to expand that impact in an educational way. Not just having a magazine that's read in international relations 101—which it is—but [in] continuing education, filling a void in discourse in a way that there is a hunger for and a need for. And if I can support that through a sustainable business model that allows us to grow …."
Hammes let the statement hang, but left no doubt what she is aiming for. PE