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So What Do You Do, David Willey, ASME President/EIC, Runner's World?

Not content to just rise at Rodale, this editor's ushering ASME into a new era

By Noah Davis - October 1, 2008
After trying the life of a Wall Street peon immediately after college, David Willey left the financial world and ran to the publishing one. A decade and a half later, he finds himself at the helm of Rodale's Runner's World, a position he's held since 2003 when he jumped from Men's Journal. During his tenure at the top of the masthead, Willey -- who's based in the company's Emmaus, Pennsylvania offices -- has overseen a redesign, helped ad pages increase despite the struggles of the industry, and been installed as editorial director of Running Times.

Willey is also the president of American Society of Magazine Editors, where he's helping bring the organization into the Internet age. He played a key role in introducing panels about sustainability to the upcoming American Magazine Conference in San Francisco, and is relishing the opportunity to bring the next generation of editors into the ASME fold. In town for the board meeting, Willey took time to speak with mediabistro.com in Rodale's New York offices about the upcoming conference, allure of working in Pennsylvania, and updates to the magazine's Web site that will be like a "performance-enhancing drug" for page views.


Name: David Willey
Position: Editor-in-chief of Runner's World and editorial director of Running Times
Resume: "After grad school, I spent a year struggling as a freelancer in New York, followed by a year on staff at a trade mag publisher, then (finally, mercifully) was hired at Men's Journal, where I stayed for eight and a half years, starting as an assistant editor and moving up to executive editor. I started as EIC of Runner's World in 2003. For the record: No, the editor of Runner's World need not be some kind of near-Olympic-caliber runner. I've done four marathons and am still chasing the Holy Grail of a Boston qualifier with the normal mix of dread and hopefulness."
Birthday: October 17, 1967
Hometown: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Education: BA Williams College, MSJ Medill School of Journalism
Marital status: Married, with two kids and a third on the way
First section of the Sunday Times: "Also for the record -- that still means the actual ink-on-your-fingers newspaper to me -- the Sunday morning ritual just isn't the same on a laptop. First section? Depends. I scan the front page and if there's something I want to read right away, I'll follow the jump. If not, I go to the Sports section and, in Groundhog Day-like fashion, wish the "newspaper of record" had more actual news and results from the day before -- which my middling, downsized local paper has no problem getting into the morning edition. (Okay, then I boot up the laptop.) I save the [NYT] magazine for later, when there aren't kids and a dog clamoring for breakfast and I can actually, you know, read it."
Favorite television shows: "Are all on DVD. West Wing, Sports Night (I'm an Aaron Sorkin junkie), The Wire, Arrested Development. But I will watch 30 Rock, Entourage, Mad Men and any broadcast of the Boston Red Sox."
Guilty pleasure: Pinot noir, "Oberon ale, chocolate milkshakes, the corned-beef reuben kit from Zingerman's Deli (although I don't feel the least bit guilty about any of them -- one of the virtues of being a runner)."
Last book read: "I'm a promiscuous reader, keeping several books going at one time and picking them up as my mood dictates. Nonfiction: The Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, because clearly we need to make some changes. Fiction: Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle -- which I started before Oprah blessed it, I swear."


Obviously it's not the greatest time in the magazine industry, yet a lot of the Rodale publications are sort of bucking the trend -- Men's Health is doing well. Women's Health is also staying strong. How's Runner's World doing?
Runner's World is also doing really well. We're continuing to grow. Our newsstand, like Men's Health and Women's Health, is up this year over last year for the fifth year in a row. Total readership is growing. Our online traffic is like a hockey stick. Coming off of the Olympics, we just had our best traffic month ever. We had 20 million page views.

"I think running is one of those things in tough economic times -- it doesn't necessarily get cut from people's lives. In fact, it may be the opposite. People are so passionate about it and it's a part of their lives, and it helps them sort of stay in control."

The magazine is still really thriving. We've got an incredibly passionate readership, and I think running is one of those things in tough economic times -- it doesn't necessarily get cut from people's lives. In fact, it may be the opposite. People are so passionate about it and it's a part of their lives, and it helps them sort of stay in control. It helps them feel healthy, it empowers them -- all those things that when life gets hard and economic times get hard, those things become even more important. So, I think what you mentioned taking hold at Rodale is happening at Runner's World also.

The editor of Runner's World has traditionally been based in Rodale's offices in Pennsylvania, not New York. Talk a little bit about how that changes your job.
It's a great question and it's really interesting. I lived in New York for 13, years and I worked in magazines. I worked at Men's Journal for eight and a half years. That's where I was before I took this job at Rodale. After living out in Pennsylvania for five and a half years now, part of me still feels like [New York] is home, and I'm here a fair amount. Whenever I come back, I still feel very energized and comfortable. But there's a lot to be said for having sort of a dual existence and being out [in Pennsylvania]. Some of it's the obvious things that you would expect. The pace isn't quite as insane. New York is a very work-centric place anyway, and it's a little bit harder to have a balanced life. And I say this all speaking totally from experience. I'm married. We have two little kids with a third on the way now, and we have a dog.

I'm one of those New Yorkers who never thought I would last more than a year. It was kind of like, "okay, one more year." And then I paused and realized I'd been here for 10 years and I loved the place. But I've always been very outdoors-oriented and active and athletic. Even when I lived in the city, I couldn't live any farther than five blocks from Central Park because I was in the park literally almost every day. It was like my lifeline. I would go downtown for other reasons, but I had to live uptown. For all of those reasons, being out of the city is great, on a personal level.

There are also some magazine reasons why it's great to be out there. We really are able to totally focus on the magazine. We do 12 issues a year with a pretty small staff, and we have a really small online staff of seven people. We really are able to focus on what we are doing while also kind of living the life. Basically, everyone who works on Runner's World, the Web site or the magazine, is a runner. It's part of our lives. We're in the same building as Bicycling, so there are lunchtime rides going out every day. It's like the Rodale lifestyle, which has kind of become, in the past several years, a little bit trendy. It even extends into organics, the balanced life thing. Rodale has been doing this for decades. It's real out there. It's not a marketing line or a pitch. It really is the way we live our lives out there, and I think there are some real advantages to that work-wise. It helps us really be in tune with the running community, the readers and the users of our Web site. We totally relate to them and interact with them all the time out there. We run with them. People are energized in a way that I think is different. I don't think there's any place on earth that's more energized than New York City, but I think it's a different kind of focus and energy there [in Pennsylvania] that comes with just being able to focus on what we're doing. Some of the noise gets filtered out. You come into a New York high-rise, especially in the media industry, and there is lots of noise. There's lots of other stuff going on and lots of it is important, but you can get distracted and knocked off track sometimes. There's a lot less of that out there.

Have you ever been close to hiring someone only to have him or her say, "I really can't live out in Pennsylvania?"
Yeah.

Is that a problem or do you think it's more of people saying, "I need to check out Pennsylvania before applying for the job?" Is it a self-selecting population?
It's a challenge when you're recruiting people. When I took this job, it was with the mandate to grow the magazine, redesign the magazine, and that included bringing in some new talent. Editors, designers, writers, everything -- and I recruited a lot of people from New York City. A lot of those hires are still there and they're totally key people, but there have been some people who came from New York and realized that they didn't like living out there or there were other things that just weren't right for them.

You use the word self-selecting, and I think that's definitely part of it. People like Tish Hamilton and Kory Kennedy, our current art director, came from the city. Robert Festino was the art director who did our very first redesign and he came from Entertainment Weekly. Those people tend to be older, they tend to be married. They tend to maybe even have kids. So, they're at a point where I was when I took this job which was: been in the city, worked really hard in magazines and loved magazines, still care really deeply about doing great work but maybe was thinking a little about where else can I do this? If you have that mindset, it's pretty logical to think about Rodale, and typically it's not the single 25-year-olds who end up picking up stakes and moving out to Pennsylvania. Honestly, I can't say if I were single and 25 that I would want to pick up stakes and go out there myself. It's a challenge -- I think it needs a little bit more time and effort on the recruiting end, but when it works, it works for the long haul.

"I try not to use that word 'brand' too much because I think it sometimes can be taken the wrong way and we run the risk of commoditizing what we do a little bit, if we just boil everything down to the brand."

Rodale bought Running Times in 2007 and you're the editorial director of the publication. It seems to me that it's more for the hardcore runner. Can you talk about the differences between your job with RT and Runner's World and how the editorial focus of each magazine differs?
As Runner's World redesigned in 2004 and really broadened, there was really big-time growth there. We brought in lots of new subscribers and newsstand started going through the roof, and that really kind of captured the growth that was happening in running overall. In particular, lots of young women are coming into the sport. We think of them as the post-Title IX generation.

When Runner's World redesigned, it really did broaden it, welcoming all kinds of runners, not just the 10-time marathoners and people who are running 100 miles a week. The success that Runner's World had, at that point, made life kind of difficult for Running Times. And you're exactly right, Running Times is and was founded to focus on the more dedicated and the more hardcore runner. As Runner's World grew and continued to succeed, that made life harder for Running Times. Running Times, out of necessity, started to broaden a little bit, too, because they saw the same growth patterns that were happening in the sport that we saw. Running Times got away a little bit from that niche, you know -- the front of the pack as opposed from the front all the way to the back. There are lots of people who just assumed that we were going to buy [Running Times] and shut it down. It really is the only competition that's running-specific that there is, and it's one-sixth of our size. We never intended to shut it down; in fact what we thought was sort of the secret sauce of it was that we were the only buyer that really could let Running Times really go back to being Running Times because we're Runner's World. We're already talking to all runners so we could empower Running Times to go back to its focus and talk to just the really dedicated people. That was the idea and it made sense editorially for Rodale to serve the whole running community; it made sense from an advertising standpoint; it just made sense all around.

I am the editorial director, but I don't edit the magazine. Jonathan Beverly is the editor-in-chief of Running Times, and he edits the magazine. He and I talk all the time, but I don't approve headlines or line-ups. I don't line edit. There are things that I do for Runner's World but not for Running Times. There's a really small and hardcore group of editors and runners who do that, and that's really working, too...

You ran the Chicago Marathon in 2007. It seems to me that a growing trend is for editors to embody their magazines in a way they didn't 10 or 15 years ago. Would you agree?
I do. The obvious and easy answer to that is to start talking about the brand, which is fine. It's a very real phenomenon, obviously, and I think it's important. To be honest, I try not to use that word "brand" too much because I think it sometimes can be taken the wrong way and we run the risk of commoditizing what we do a little bit, if we just boil everything down to the brand.

I think what we still do as editors and writers and designers and photographers is be creative. It's the things that we make and it's that great alchemy of a great story well-told with an amazing layout and incredible photography. That to me is the magic to what we do, and that is kind of what is referred to as the brand now. It gets extended across all of the different platforms, and I'm not demeaning that at all. I still [think] that the magic is what creative people do and then the business ability to make that sustainable. Being a face of your magazine or your brand is also a huge part of what the industry is about now. I do think it's important especially for brands like Runner's World, where the real power is in the community. And I just don't mean community in the online sense like "we have a chat board so we're into community," I'm talking like there is a real community of runners around this country and it's deep, and it runs the gamut from this skinny 75-year-old who runs 20 marathons a year to the Sarah Palin soccer mom. Every town, every city, every state in this country has its own running community in it and it's very, very real. I think it's important for those people to feel like the magazine that they get every month and feel so strongly about, is not only for them but is by them, in a way. It's by people who are runners like they are and it doesn't get into politics, gender or race. It's about being a part of the running community and understanding that psychology. I do make a real effort -- it's not just me, other editors as well -- to run races around the country. I ran Chicago last year in that brutally hot marathon. I also ran the Austin Marathon in February. There's a half-marathon out in Allentown that we run every year. A bunch of us are going to Philly to run the half-marathon in a couple of weeks.

The big events like New York, Boston and Chicago, those three big marathons, we have a pretty big presence at. It's pretty cool, I have to say, meeting readers, because they're so excited to meet the editor of Runner's World. It's not just because half of them can't be put on the cover or have stories to pitch -- well, there's that too -- they're just excited to meet you because you're the person who makes this magazine that they care about so much. I think it's important especially for special interest [running] magazines when that is sort of the engine of everything. The more you can be in the mix with your readers and users, the better it is.

You talk a lot about the community of runners and it seems, in a lot of ways, it's something that transfers really well to the Web. But I know there are a lot of runner's discussion broads and groups online that might not need RunnersWorld.com to connect. Have you had trouble bringing runners to your site?
No, we haven't. We're, at this very moment, expanding the community aspects of our site in a really big way. The forum-ites have been there all along. They formed in and of themselves when the Web site was launched. Our Web site has been around for seven or eight years, and there are thousands of people who are on our boards talking about anything and everything. They've always been there and in a lot of ways, that's one of the biggest assets of our site.

We just formed a partnership with a community vendor where we're really going to extend that out. Everything on the site will eventually become part of the community. It's things like being able to comment and share every single story, every bit of content on the Web site. It will also, we think, turn Runner's World into sort of a social networking site. It will be sort of a Facebook-ish destination but really focused just on runners. What's happening is sites like that are getting sliced more and more thinly , and it's a great opportunity for brands like Runner's World to make our own Web sites the place where that stuff happens. The users very soon not only will be able to go on and chat about stuff, but they'll have personal profiles. They'll be able to put out race photos from their most recent race and video, and Google map links to their local training runs. They'll be able to find each other in local areas: You can just throw together, "Hey, I'm training for the Philly half-marathon. Is there anybody else who lives in Allentown who wants to do long runs on Sunday?" These people are going to be able to find each other immediately, and I think that's going to be like a real performance-enhancing drug for our Web site and our page views.

I guess the billion-dollar question is, how do you make any money off that? Ads are a part of it but they're not growing as fast as everyone needs them to grow. My thought with a place like Runner's World is you make it easy for a user to buy a shoe that you guys recommend. At the end of a review where you're saying, "Here's this great shoe, our editors love it, we think you'll like it too," you add a click here link that takes you to New Balance or Asics or something like that. Is that a viable option? Do you think that blurs the editorial line too much?
Yes and yes. We do that now. We've got a shoe finder where all the shoes that we review in the magazine -- we do four big shoe reviews a year, and we have set up our own shoe lab -- is on the Web site: you can search by type of shoe, brand name, however you want. We have an arrangement with a company that's called RunTex, which is a retailer in Austin, Texas, where there's a button that says "Buy now" and you can click and go buy it. It does get a little tricky because we review shoes in the magazine, and we have absolute separation between you know, edit and advertising. Shoe companies are our biggest advertising category in the magazine. A shoemaker is our biggest single advertiser, that's Nike, no big surprise. So we just have to make sure we're very, very careful about that. We have a disclaimer on our Web site that sort of lays that out. None of this is a violation of ASME guidelines.

I'd hope you would know...
[Laughs] I thought about it very carefully, trust me. We have a disclaimer that tells people: Here's the deal. We review shoes; we've got this arrangement as a convenience for you. No shoes that we recommend are given any kind of preferential treatment on the retail side. And we take a small percentage of the sale. Now that gets to the other part: The real answer to your question is, you just can't make that much money at that. We act as the reviewer and the facilitator -- even if we have a link and a "Buy now" button -- you're still not going to make enough money on that sale to have that be a big business.

"I was among the worst Wall Street hires ever made."

Let's talk about the American Magazine Conference in San Francisco. What's your involvement with it? Are you all developing the panels or have you championed any of them yourself, specifically?
As the president of the ASME board, I'm more involved than I would have been otherwise, even as an ASME board member. So I've been aware of all the panel ideas and how they're coming together, and I've had input on the editorial portion. I feel pretty strongly that the industry needs to get our heads around sustainability. There are pretty compelling issues to figure out with paper, distribution, recycling.

I don't think magazines are dying, I really don't. I know some magazines are closing and I think that's part of the evolution of the media industry, but I really don't think that there's a better medium for bringing together that alchemy that I mentioned before. Great writing, great photography, great layout, you can hold it in your hand; it's portable, it's relatively cheap. It's kind of the killer app. That said, there are some challenges that have to do with sustainability and paper, in particular. The MPA already has been working on things like that, but if there was an issue that I really sort of spoke up about, to really have some editorial breakout sessions about, that was it.

I feel like every week, there's some slight tectonic shift that has taken place. You pick up the paper or go online on a Monday morning, and you read about some buyout or another magazine that's closed or some other evolution. It's all just happening so fast, and it's changed the very job of being an editor. Editors everywhere, whether they're editors of two million circulation, very high-profile magazines or maybe small city magazines, are kind of all grappling with some of the same challenges. I think and hope that a lot of that stuff will get talked about and at least kicked off at AMC and then followed up on with ASME -- ASME really needs to grow with the magazine world.

We administer the ASME guidelines in print and online and that's very important. But there are a lot of other things that ASME does and can [do], and I think the average ASME member probably just focuses on those two things: the awards and the guidelines, and violations. Both of those are more important than they've ever been, but there's all this other stuff we need to do and be useful to all editors through all stages of their career. We just launched about a month ago, [a group] which is for assistant- and associate-level editors, and there are 65 or 70 members who have already signed up for that. [We] really need to get into the confluence of digital and print; how that impacts the awards, how it impacts editors' daily lives. I think magazine editors are also a community. There are things that lots of us are doing with our magazines and our Web sites to serve our readers, and we just need to come together as ASME and think about that in the same way, and make sure that we're serving the membership the way that each of us go back to our offices and serve our readers.

Are you talking about that in ASME board meetings? I picture all you guys sitting around in this dark room like the fall of Rome, but there's a lot of smart people on that board, so I'm sure that this discussion is happening.
We talk about that all the time. The board meetings are full of very smart, successful, opinionated people, which means that there's lots of great ideas flying around in debate. We do need to at almost every meeting talk about the guidelines, talk about the awards. We have been having sort of these larger philosophical issues, partly because we're all thinking about it at our desks anyway. What does it mean to be a magazine editor today? So, what's ASME's role now, today? How much should we embrace digital versus print? You're going to notice some changes in the way ASME looks and works and feels and serves its membership pretty soon.

On a more personal level, any idea where you'll be in five years? Still want to be at Runner's World?
I've never, ever been good at answering that question, honestly. This is where you say, "I love my job, this is the best job that I can imagine." And I really do love my job. Rodale is a great place to work; it's very entrepreneurial. My job has changed more times than I can count in the five and a half years that I've had it. When I took my job, the job was: make the magazine. Which, not too long ago was all of our jobs. And then, the editors here were given control over the Web sites, so now we're overseeing the Web site. Very quickly when you start at Rodale, you understand the importance of international, so there's that connection. We have -- is it 10 or 11 international editions now? [Editor's note: 12]. Rodale is very, very smart about its place in the media industry with -- and Dave Zinczenko talked about it in your
interview -- all the different platforms. It really does mean that as editor-in-chief on these titles, you have all this opportunity to get involved in these things. You have a mandate to get involved in some of these things, but you can sort of pick and choose, from time to time, what you really want to focus on.

I have no idea what I'm going to be doing. I sure want to stay in media somehow. I still love magazines. I got into this because I was a magazine junkie 15 years ago. My first job out of college was on Wall Street. I was among the worst Wall Street hires ever made. It was only when I sort of stopped working -- wasn't crunching numbers and was doing research and presentations and doing writing, research -- where it was the only time that I ever felt like I was sort of shining in that job. So I walked away from the Wall Street thing and went back to grad school in journalism. It's the journalism, the writing, the storytelling, the magazine-making that I'm most passionate about. So whatever I do, I want to stay as close to that as I possibly can. There are a million different kinds of editors these days. You can shoot off into other mediums, television, and that's all cool, and I've done that too. So that's a very long way of saying I have no idea. If you're an editor-in-chief right now in this moment, and you think you have a clear idea of what your next job is -- what's that old saying? If you want to amuse the gods, make plans. I think that's kind of like the moment that we're in magazines right now. Even if I did envision some kind of next job, a month from now it's probably going to change anyway.

All right, last question. You got a lot of oohs and ahhs from the female section at ASME last year. Who's better looking, you or Dave?
[Laughs] I can put you in touch with my wife and my two kids, but I think you know what my answer is.


Noah Davis is co-editor of FishbowlNY, mediabistro.com's New York media blog.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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