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So What Do You Do, Geoff Lewis?
Folio:'s newest editor is pulling the magazine about magazines back to its core mission.- January 27, 2004
Folio: magazine—complete with the typographically inconvenient colon after its name (something to do with trademarks)—has had a rough couple of years. In early 2001, it was one of the dozens of media-business b-to-b titles owned by Primedia that the mag giant corralled into its new Media Central group and put under the control of Brill's Content founder Steven Brill, who was also still running his own magazine. That arrangement fell apart by the end of 2001, and the slimmer, Brill-free Media Central brought in a longtime former Entertainment Weekly editor, Cable Neuhaus, to run a glossier, more consumer-y mag. That plan didn't work out so well, either: As Primedia fell apart during 2002 and 2003, Media Central was eventually dismantled, there were mass layoffs, and Neuhaus left the magazine. Since last summer, Folio: has been under the command of Geoff Lewis, a longtime business journalist who had most recently been running a group of entirely unsexy—but also entirely competent—Primedia business mags. He spoke to mediabistro.com last week about his background, his new job, and the changes taking place at Folio:.
Birthdate: "Oh, I don't want to publish that." Ballpark? "1950s."
Hometown: Garden City, New York
First section of the Sunday Times: The front section
You've been running Folio: for about six months now, and you didn't come in as someone who'd long been on the media-about-media beat. What was your path to the magazine?
I've been in the magazine business for over 20 years, and I've been at Primedia for about two and a half years. I came in as a group editorial director, running a collection of financial-services books that I revamped, restaffed, and upgraded. When the company broke up Media Central earlier this year, they were looking for an editor to essentially take on Folio: and put it back on track.
What does that mean, to "put it back on track"?
Well, Folio: had deviated from its core mission, which is to be a business magazine about the magazine business.
And instead it had turned into?
There was a feeling that the magazine—a feeling among the readers of the magazine, in particular—that it was focusing too much on the glitzy personalities of the top magazine companies and not really giving a lot of value in terms of helping people understand the business, do better in their careers in the business, and see where the business was headed.
Your background is in business mags, right?
I've been a business journalist for over 20 years. I started out covering technology in trade publications, including newspapers and magazines. I went to BusinessWeek in the mid-'80s, and I wound up becoming a senior editor there. I ran technology coverage for most of the 1990s, and then in the late '90s, sort of the second half of the '90s, I was the FOB editor, writing the front-of-the-book news department. In 2000, I jumped to the Internet, where I was managing editor of TheStreet.com. Then I was lured away to become the editor-in-chief of CNBC.com, which was then shut down when Internet advertising collapsed in the beginning of 2001. And that brought me here.
If you're making Folio: more of a business magazine again, how is it different to me as a reader from what it was in its Media Central incarnation?
It's much more focused on the industry as a business, so that we want to always talk about—whether we're talking about editorial or production or sales and marketing—how the business is executed, what are the trends, what are important new products, what are new markets that people are going after, what are demographic changes in the world that magazines are responding to? For example, we had a very good story in September, which we called "Organic Chic," and it was about all of the magazines, including Organic Style from Rodale, that are tapping into a mood among many consumers in the country who want more authentic products, who buy organic food, who are looking for sort of a natural lifestyle. So that's the kind of story we think is a home run, because it sort of hits all of the buttons: It tells you from the editorial side something about how to execute in this phase; if you're on the business side, it tells you there's an opportunity—as we point out in the story, there are lots of other magazines, including the mainstream newsweeklies, who have tapped into this.
We're also trying to beef up the back-of-the-book, the service well of the magazine, and to give really practical information, which Folio: was very famous for. I keep running into people who say, "Oh Folio:, I love Folio:, I grew up reading Folio:, I learned the magazine business from Folio:." That's part of our heritage, and it's great positioning to have, but that aspect of the magazine had been sort of overlooked for a few years.
Give me an example of what back-of-the-book content is that I'll learn the magazine business from.
One thing we did recently was a big takeout on Quark versus InDesign. These are the design-and-production tools that everyone uses to put together a magazine. It's really important for people to understand the tradeoffs between them—even if you're not buying these products, you're going to be using them. A lot of people will be influenced by the decision to buy them or not, and the degree to which one product or the other is adapted is going to make a big change in the workplace for designers and editors. So the back-of-the-book is sort of learning the tools of the trade, and you can expect more on that, not just on technology but also information on circ and the various disciplines that go into magazine creation.
I also want to make clear, too, that we're really dedicated to having this be a magazine of the entire magazine industry. So it's not just more inside-New York, giant-media-companies coverage; it's for the whole span of the magazine industry. If you look at the industry, depending on whose numbers you're using, there are as many as 15,000 or 17,000 different titles produced in North America every year. Half of those are b-to-b, half of those are consumer, and 98 percent of them you couldn't name. But a lot of the people out there, beyond the big publishers who are on "Page Six" all the time, is a huge industry that needs to be heard and is working really hard to learn the best tricks of the trade.
So who is Folio:'s audience, then? To what extent is it these people beyond the big publishers, and to what extent is it Steve Florio?
It is a real mix, so I guess the point I'd like to make is that we want to write it for everybody. Our feeling is that we address the community of magazine professionals. So whether you're an editor or in sales or production or circulation, you should be reading Folio: to understand what the state of the art is in the business and what important trends are in the business. I've been an editor all my life, and it's really fascinating for me now to really learn what all the other parts of the magazine business are. I think it's really useful for everybody to understand what everybody else is doing—and, ironically, working at a magazine, you often don't find that out
You talked about changing Folio:'s focus, and I wonder how much that's necessary just because of a changing world. It's a 35-year-old magazine, and 35 years ago I can't imagine that there was a David Carr or Keith Kelly or Paul Colford or Matthew Rose, or all of these other people who are covering this business in daily newspapers. With all of that out there today—and Sridhar weekly, and Wolff weekly, and so on—with this constant coverage of the magazine business in the mainstream press, how do you have something new to write when you come out monthly?
I think that's precisely why we've taken the magazine back in a different direction. The stuff that—with all due respect to a lot of great reporters you just named—is in a way the low-hanging fruit, what we can all learn on the gossip circuit in New York, doesn't really do a lot for somebody who is trying to improve their career or trying to solve a problem in their business. It doesn't help them to get the great dish about Bonnie Fuller. We love dish as much as anyone else, but it's not our mission. That's not to say that we're a clunky how-to book; we want to be entertaining, we want to be provocative, and we want to be interesting. But in the correct context.
How do you deal with covering Primedia, which owns your magazine but it also such a big player in the magazine business—and such a big story over the last year or so?
I can't speak to what happened before I came here, but we have had no problems and we have said pretty much whatever we wanted to about Primedia. We have not done a major takeout on our own company, but you won't find The Wall Street Journal doing a takeout about Dow Jones, either. It's just the way the world works.
At least you're liberated to write about New York magazine now?
I don't think we've had any constraints writing about New York magazine, not since I've been here. What's been most interesting about New York magazine was who was going to buy it. So now it becomes a much more interesting story.
Pulling back to the changes at Folio:, is the magazine now at a place where you're happy with what you're doing, or will the transition be continuing?
I think that we're still working on it. We're working on the design, we're working on the layout of the magazine, and we're working on getting the right balance of stories. I think we're getting there. I think with every issue we're sort of feeling our way to what the right story is. We're getting great feedback form readers, and we're getting people who had stopped reading the magazine writing in and emailing and applauding the changes—and looking for more.
For you, it must be a little like working for Mort Zuckerman: Your magazine has been through a lot of editors in the past few years.
It has. And I'd like to keep my job. I'd like to put that on the record. We've had way too much turnover and way too much change and the readers understand that.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. He was a staffer at Brill's Content, which made him, in some complicated way he never understood, somehow affiliated with Primedia's Media Central unit. He has also freelanced for Folio: under a previous regime.
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