Romney Whitehead on the value of print, the evolution of publishing and importance of data management

Porter magazine is often referenced as one of the best examples of content marketing and praised as a reminder that print has a place in the fragmented media landscape.

It’s a particularly significant publication because it spawned from the digital Net-a-porter brand in 2014 (well into the age of digital disruption), essentially shifting against the grain that most often sees brands moving from print to digital.

In only two years, the circulation of Porter magazine has expanded globally to 170,000 magazines, rivalling the numbers of Vogue.

Romney Whitehead, formerly the head of publishing platforms at Net-a-porter and part of the team that helped to launch the magazine, says that producing a high-end magazine wasn’t very difficult for the company (she will be visiting Auckland to talk about the magazine industry at the Magazine Publishers Association conference on 26 May).    

“I think that many people forget that Net-a-porter was also a media company in its own right and had been producing weekly magazine content on the website for 12 years prior to the launch of Porter magazine,” Whitehead says.

“The foray into a large print title wasn’t such a stretch, and in fact one would say it was the next sensible step top take, especially as the company did have a large research panel that said that print was still where they found their inspiration about fashion.”

The connection between print and fashion has long been entrenched on the pages of magazines like Vogue, and it is now also becoming popular among clothing retailers looking to reach their target audience. Ziera magazine (by Ziera Shoes), 1972 (by Barkers), In Conversation (by Crane Brothers) are just some of the examples that have emerged in the local market. And this trend is also evident internationally with premium brands, like BMW, opting for print to cut through the media noise.

While it was certainly in the interests of Net-a-porter to launch the print title, Whitehead says it was equally important to link the pages to the online space.

“It wasn’t just about a pure-play print title,” she says.

“What was created was an extremely high quality print title with world class content, but with the immediacy of being able to shop from the pages, even the advertisements.”

Dubbed a shoppable high-fashion magazine, Porter allows readers to tap on images and then link to the Net-a-porter store after admiring the clothing or accessories on display across the pages.

“The magazine and the online store are really the perfect combination of content and commerce,” she says.

Whitehead believes that the reason why Porter magazine has done so well is because it wasn’t the result of a kneejerk reaction. She says it was backed by insight and executed with precision—something she says is often not the case when print publishers venture into digital.

“There has been talk of the death of print since the iPad launched in 2010 and at that time publishers scrambled to get their magazines into digital, often creating extremely poor and lazy magazine experiences that readers got frustrated with,” she says.

In much the same way that print publishers now take great care with their online publications, Whitehead says digital players—or brands—looking to try their hand at print need to focus on quality.  

“I do believe that print will continue to last, perhaps even grow in some areas, the same way that vinyl records have made an amazing resurgence,” she says. “But equally anyone launching a print title cannot be lazy in the same way that they have been with digital publishing.”

She also adds that while there is progress being made in digital publishing, mistakes are still being made—and many of these do cost time.   

Drawing on her experience in the field of digital asset management (DAM), she says that many publishers struggle when it comes to repurposing the content they have.

“Publishers can make many mistakes with their digital assets often because they are not thinking holistically about their content,” she says.

“For example, publishers can spend a lot of time recreating assets rather than reusing assets, or not effectively sharing content across their many platforms, so for instance you may have three teams all producing the same content for multiple platforms.”

This point is particularly relevant in the local context, where media companies have integrated teams that previously worked across various channels. While they are all sitting in the same newsroom, it is still possible that they aren’t communicating with each other effectively.

“They should be able to share the master assets and be able to manipulate them for their specific platforms and the sensible way.”

For this reason, Whitehead believes that those working in digital publishing—particularly journalists and creative—need to become more comfortable using data management platforms.   

“The power of having consistent information within a data asset management system cannot be underestimated. It means all of a sudden your assets become searchable, findable, and can be more easily associated with other systems such as financial or editorial commissioning systems.”

She says this point is also pertinent for publishers who have massive catalogues of magazine issues and information.

“If I said, ‘OK, I’m a publisher, I have got ten years’ worth of digital assets, they are sitting on a random server, I don’t know what they are called, I don’t know who owns the copyright, I don’t know who created them and I don’t know where they have been published within my print or digital titles’, you would think I was a madwoman. But in reality, that scenario is not an unusual one, and often it’s just a lack of education that leads to such situations.”

And she adds that it is becoming increasingly important to bridge this education gap, because data management will only become more integral as the industry continues to evolve.    

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