Mail    Print   Share Share

So What Do You Do, Samir Husni, Mr. Magazine?

Husni shares his take on monetizing digital content and the outlook for print publications

- May 26, 2010
If print is dead, Samir Husni has been working in a mausoleum. Running a $30,000 annual tab for his magazine collection, the issues are overflowing from his three storage units and onto his office floor and couch at the University of Mississippi, where he educates the next wave of journalists and runs the Magazine Innovation Center.

From his first comic book at age 8, Husni's passion for print grew to the point where he was publishing a daily paper from his bedroom in Lebanon, writing his own news stories and using candle wax to imprint the ink from old newspaper images. When he set out to earn his Ph.D. in magazine journalism 30 years ago, there was no such thing. When he wanted to turn his magazine research into a book on which publications succeeded and failed, his peers said, "Didn't you do this last year?" Husni recalls complaining to his wife, "They just don't get it." She said, "Why don't you put it in a book and just send it to the industry?" He pitched the idea to Jim Autry, then president of Meredith Publishing, and he bit. Within two weeks of publication, every copy was gone, and he became a household name -- as Mr. Magazine, a moniker from a student who couldn't pronounce "Husni." "At the end of the semester, he gave me a plaque," says Husni. In 1989, The New York Times ran a photo of his desk in a profile story, and the name stuck. "I figured, if everybody wants to call me Mr. Magazine, so be it."

Today he lives up to the title as the country's preeminent magazine expert. On the eve of the 25th edition of his eponymous Guide To New Magazines, coming out in June, mediabistro.com caught up with Husni to discuss what it takes to succeed in today's magazine marketplace and the real salvation of print (Hint: It's not the iPad).


Name: Samir A. Husni, aka Mr. Magazine™
Position: Director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi and Professor of Journalism
Resume: After moving to The University of Mississippi in 1984 to start the country's first Magazine Service Journalism program, he published the first edition of Samir Husni's Guide to New Magazines in 1986. He has consulted for almost every major magazine company in the country. Founded the Magazine Innovation Center at The University of Mississippi in 2009, where he is also a professor.
Birthday: March 8, 1953
Hometown: Oxford, Miss.
Education: Earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of North Texas in 1980 and a Ph.D. in journalism from The University of Missouri -- Columbia in 1983.
Marital status: Married to Marie Mikael. Has three children (two daughters and one son) and one grandson
First section of the Sunday Times: Sunday Times Magazine
Favorite TV show: Sanford and Son
Guilty pleasure: "Buying lots and lots of neckties."
Last book read: Mandela's Way by Richard Stengel
Twitter handle: @MrMagazine. "Tweet like a bird!"

How did you know that you wanted to focus on magazines as a career?
I was maybe eight or nine years old, back in my old country, in Lebanon, and I bought a copy of the first issue of a new magazine that just came out -- and back then we didn't differentiate between a magazine and a comic. To me everything was a magazine. So Superman came out in Arabic, and I picked up -- in the early '60s. And there were three of us who bought the magazine. Two of my friends fell in love with the, you know, with the cape and the flying and trying to jump from the window, and I fell in love with ink and paper. My parents wanted me to be a dentist. When I finished high school I said, "Mom, dad, I'm going to journalism school."

What's your personal branding advice for other people who want to become the go-to source in their niche?
Have a specialty and know it A to Z. [Recently,] Dan Rather came to speak to our students. I picked him up from the airport, and we were talking, and he was telling me, "You know, I read this article in this magazine I'm truly not familiar with, called Armchair General magazine." It's about old wars and stuff like that. And I looked at Mr. Rather and I said, "Well, what if I tell you I have the first issue of the magazine?"

You have to know -- and you have to be able not to be afraid to voice your opinion. I mean if your opinion is based on facts, as long as you deliver the facts correct[ly], then people will know that it's your opinion. I mean when I say, "I don't like this magazine," or "I love this magazine," it's not just because, oh, I didn't feel good about it. There are reasons.

Where do you keep all of these magazines?
I have three offices that are 12x12 [feet] that I rent that have all these magazines in boxes by month. And I grew out of space from these offices… If I have a guest, I just have to move some of the magazines from the couch so they can sit down. I have now maybe a collection of maybe 26,000 first editions, volume one, number one. Hopefully one day I'll be able to create a museum or something, because it's the best pop culture history.

"When the Food Network Magazine first came out, I looked for what I call the seeds of addiction in that magazine, what will get you hooked so you will want more of the same."

You said that Food Network Magazine was the most notable launch of 2009. What are some early signs that a magazine will flourish or it will fail?
The No. 1 [determinant] is finding a willing audience who is not only capable but can afford the price of your magazine. All the magazines that are actually surviving and are doing very well, they have the seeds of addiction built in them. When the Food Network Magazine first came out, I looked for what I call the seeds of addiction in that magazine, what will get you hooked so you will want more of the same. They had two major ingredients. They had food, which is, you know, everybody is addicted to eating. And then they had celebrities. And you combine the two together, and I felt, I mean they must have a winning formula.

And of course there was like three examples [Every Day with Rachael Ray, Cooking with Paula Deen, Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade] ahead of the Food Network Magazine that told me there's an appetite in the marketplace for something like that.

The second one is how clear and concise the concept is. If you look through the pages of the Food Network, guess what? It's either celebrities or food. It has a very specific DNA. So the more specific, the better the chances are that you are going to make it.

Is that the advice you would give somebody who wants to launch a magazine?
Definitely. From the name -- you know, so many people come to me with those like whimsical names, fancy names, and I say you know what? If I am going to start a literary, political, fiction type magazine today, there's no way on earth I am going to call it the Atlantic Monthly. Because if I launched the Atlantic Monthly today, it would be a magazine about the Atlantic Ocean.

How do you think magazine brands can meet people's expectations digitally and end up making money from that?
We have created what I call a welfare information society. We have created this sense of entitlement that all what I care about you is just like, "Hey, read my magazine." Somebody else will pay for it. What really bothers me more than anything else: Now you are talking about you want to charge for your magazines online. Well, how about you start charging in print? You know? Since World War II we are giving our magazines away. When I subscribe to Auto magazine for $5.00 for an entire year, or for Elle magazine for 10 bucks, or for Newsweek, which until recently was $10 for an entire year, am I really paying for the magazine?

So this whole concept of charging the customers the real price of the publication -- we don't even have it in print. I mean there's a few exceptions, but the majority of the magazines are still being given away because we are in the business of counting customers rather than being in the business of customers who count. September 2008 happened, the economy crashed; now most of the publishers, the small publishers are starting to think, "Oh gee, we need to find a way to start charging."

"If you are not interested in the subject matter, no matter how many bells and whistles you are going to add, it's not going to convince you to buy it on the iPad instead of print."

Because ad models aren't working anymore.
Yeah. It's not working anymore. So the Web is going to be next to impossible for anybody to pay. I ask my students, "Where do you get your information about sports?" Almost all 80 of them raised their hands and said, "ESPN.com." I tell them next week ESPN.com is going to charge five bucks or $18 or something per month for you to get that information. Without hesitation all of them had this simple answer, "We'll find it another way."

What about the iPad?
The silver lining here is those iPhones and iPads and the apps, where people are now used to paying for apps, unlike the Web. I bought an iPad. I am forcing myself to love it. I mean, heck, I figured I spent $700, I better love this thing. I mean I didn't really enjoy the magazine experience on it, like some people who were like -- because, you know, if you are not interested in the subject matter, no matter how many bells and whistles you are going to add, it's not going to convince you to buy it on the iPad instead of print. People who think the salvation of our magazine industry is going to be on an iPad or in digital delivery, they need to think twice.

At the Magazine Innovation Center, you said one of the first goals is to come up with new ways for magazine distribution. How's that going?
We are going to have our first big event in October 20–22. We're going to have an "ACT Experience," which is Amplify, Clarify, and Testify. And we are going to bring a group of experts worldwide from all different countries, all different media. The goal for the first experience is going to be reimagining the future while we still have time. I will match each one of the professionals who's coming with one student, so we'll have like 100 students and 100 professionals, and the students will be like shadowing the professional. Then we'll divide into four groups each of 25, whether you want to focus on distribution, whether you want to focus on printing, whether you want to focus on paper...

Do you think that these are conversations that aren't happening now that really need to be?
If they are happening, they're happening in a very superficial way. And if they're happening they're happening in sort of like this, somebody screaming, "Jump," and we all jump.


Blake Gernstetter is mediabistro.com's associate editor.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

Transcription furnished by:



> Send a letter to the editor
> Read more in our archives