SXSW: Top Editors, Media Execs Discuss How Magazines Could Thrive In the Digital Age

"I think every industry faces that kind of disruption and that kind of risk and that requirement to innovate," Time magazine's editor-in-chief Samuel Jacobs at SXSW today.

Editor-in-chief of National Geographic Nathan Lump
National Geographic editor-in-chief Nathan Lump spoke on the SXSW panel “What is a Magazine in the Digital Age?” with other magazine editors and executives. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for National Geographic

The future of the magazine industry may look bleak, as we watch iconic brands like Sports Illustrated and Paper Magazine struggle to stay afloat. But some of the business’s top executives and editors still believe their brands and the industry can prosper and headwinds are nothing new. 

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“There hasn’t been a good year in media in my career,” Samuel Jacobs, the editor-in-chief of Time magazine, said during a panel discussion titled “What is a Magazine in the Digital Age?” at SXSW 2024 in Austin, Texas today (March. 8)

“We’ve had to be humble to figure out new ways to tell stories and to find readers and audiences,” Jacobs said. “And so I think every industry faces that kind of disruption and that kind of risk and that requirement to innovate.”

Jacobs was joined by Regina Buckley, the chief financial officer of Hearst Magazines, Nathan Lump, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic and Pamela Russo, a media executive and former global consumer revenue chief at Condé Nast. The four of them discussed how successful magazines continue to adapt to as monetization and consumer interest and capacity change.   

According to the media leaders, brand strength and building trust with consumers is a large part of what has kept their publications and audiences strong. “The brands that think about ‘Where can I meet the new brand loyalists?’ are the ones that are really succeeding,” Russo said. “And sometimes you end up with more people following you on social than subscribing to your magazine. It’s a great problem to have, it’s a business challenge.”  

Building trust with an audience is one of the ways Lump said can help magazines compete as new technologies like artificial intelligence continue to evolve. 

“If essentially a lot of our content can be summarized inside the Google platform by A.I., then no one needs to come to our site,” said National Geographic’s Lump. “What we’re banking on is that trust, that credibility, that relationship somehow gives us some durability in the face of that.”

One of the ways magazines have sustained themselves in the digital age is through working with social media platforms. But the relationship has changed over time. Meta, for example, has become much less interested in pushing journalism on its platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Threads. Most recently, the tech company said it would shut down its news tab in Australia and the U.S. in April. Hearst CFO Buckley said it’s still important for magazines to use social platforms as a “modern day newsstand,” but just as a “funnel” to engage people in magazine brands. 

“I remember, people made $10 million with one platform partnership,” Buckley said. “Even at Hearst now, and I just inherited the platform team at Hearst, and what we’re grappling with now is the implosion of Twitter. We used to make a lot of money in our partnership there.”

SXSW: Top Editors, Media Execs Discuss How Magazines Could Thrive In the Digital Age