This woman is Hearst Magazines' secret digital weapon

Kate Lewis is very excited. She has just come back from the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards luncheon on the 44th floor of Hearst Tower, where she sat next to a 13-year-old boy, Terrance Li, who won an award for making a smartphone charger that uses cooking heat. “I’m super invested in Popular Mechanics,” she said. “I underline stuff.”

As vp of content operations and editorial director at Hearst Digital, Lewis’ job is heading up editorial for all of Hearst Magazines’ 18 sites, including those for glossy magazines Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Esquire. With 15 site directors and three centralized corporate teams reporting to her, it’s a wonder that she has time to attend an awards luncheon. But hers is a role that requires diplomacy as much as anything. She’s not a 20-something digital native, a social media guru or a coder. But what she is is a 15-plus year veteran of (and big champion for) print magazines — which is, perhaps counterintuitively, why she is the company’s current best bet to boost its digital metabolism.

The pressure is mounting for traditional print publishers like the 126-year-old Hearst, which are seeing new-media companies siphon off visitors and ad pages. Digital advertising in U.S. consumer magazines is projected to grow 11.7 percent to $3.3 billion this year, but it won’t be enough to offset a 4.4 percent decline in print advertising, to $12.8 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Hearst got a late start in digital; it didn’t even take control of its own sites until 2006, when it stopped outsourcing them to iVillage. (Town & Country didn’t even get its own website until 2013.) And while it has grown its digital footprint rapidly in that time — Hearst Magazines served 41.3 million monthly uniques across its sites for titles like Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Esquire — it lags behind newer pure-plays including BuzzFeed, with 75.1 million, and Gawker Media, with 53.9 million, according to comScore.

From dusty to digital
Lewis was brought in in January by Troy Young, a blunt-mannered digital executive who was hired last year to jumpstart Hearst’s digital business. Hearst decided it needed to act more like a digital startup than a company rooted in print.

Young, the former president of women’s blog network Say Media, quickly made an impression as president of digital media with his brusque personality. In short order he replaced the top Web editors at two of Hearst’s biggest brands, Cosmo and Elle; went tieless at the starchy company; and made comments like, “I think there are wonderfully talented people in print, but you’ve got to be able to live in the moment.” Young revved up Hearst’s online publishing speed by getting the brands to go from “months to moments,” his signature phrase that has quickly become a ubiquitous saying throughout Hearst Tower.

Still, modern-day publishing means not just mastering speed but efficiency. With its mostly women-aimed portfolio, Hearst could improve that by simply repurposing its own content. Publishing today also requires distributing on the social Web, which means reacting quickly to the news and social conversations. All of this runs counter to the way consumer publications have traditionally operated. As any print publisher knows, translating those lumbering titles to Web speed without undermining the brand is tricky.

“The pure-plays do not have that issue to deal with, so they can be bolder and take greater risks,” said Peter Kreisky, chairman at Kreisky Media Consultancy, an adviser to media companies. “That’s why everyone’s watching very carefully that there’s coordination between the stakeholders.”

Young, not known for his gentle temperament, needed someone with a light touch to get the magazines, many of them natural competitors, to collaborate more. On top of that, their digital teams needed to be freed up to act independently, which traditionally hadn’t been done.

In Lewis he found his velvet glove. Lewis, like Young, is an alum of Say Media, although the two didn’t work there at the same time. As svp and editorial director there, she oversaw its network of niche sites including ReadWrite, XoJane and Remodelista and managed its partner sites. Her former boss, former Say president Kim Kelleher, said Lewis had a knack for bridging the divide between tech and editorial — an ability that was necessary to deliver the growth demanded by the ad side.

“Kate has the uncanny ability to sit at the intersection of technology, content and operations,” Kelleher, now publisher of Condé Nast’s Wired, said. “She is able to intuitively grasp technological things very, very quickly.”

The tribal elder
At Condé Nast before that, Lewis spent nearly 10 years as managing editor of Self magazine. Self was a digital pioneer at Condé, and Lewis’ duties included oversight of the site, which gave her some digital chops. Then, unusual for an editor, she then spent a year and a half in corporate human resources. That experience taught her about sizing up talent, a lesson that has come in handy as she fills out her digital team at Hearst. “I would rather have someone with less germane experience but has passion,” she said.

Lewis, 42, doesn’t fit the mold of the pampered glossy magazine editor. She lives in the working-class Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn with her husband, former longtime Condé Nast editor Jacob Lewis, now at Crown Publishing Group, and kids, aged 8 and 10. She takes a Citi Bike to meetings instead of a cab.

In her 10 months at Hearst, Lewis has won over key editors. Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of flagship brand Cosmopolitan and editorial director of Seventeen, calls her a “tribal elder” who understands how print and Web can work together without undermining the former. “She’s the voice of calm. Troy is hilarious and fantastic, a change agent. Troy is like a hurricane. Kate Lewis is like a gentle breeze.”

David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire and editorial director of Popular Mechanics, calls Lewis a “real force for good.”

“In previous administrations, there was nobody in the leadership ranks who actually cared about editorial — not just the quantity but the quality,” he said. “When [editor-in-chief] Ryan D’Agostino’s first issue of Popular Mechanics came out, she wanted to talk about how she took her son across the Tappan Zee Bridge because there was a story in the magazine about it. She’s worked in both worlds. She sees the value in both. She realizes you can’t simply go up against places that just generate traffic, because unless you have unlimited resources, you’re going to lose in that battle.”

Lewis’ sunny disposition and interpersonal skills also serve to balance out her boss, a contrast that isn’t lost on Young himself. “She’s a softer, gentler, nicer version of me,” he said. “Kate wants results. She’s incredibly efficient. She just does it with a style and a charm and a charisma that make people want to do it with her. I just wish I could learn it from Kate.”

Asked in turn about working for Young, Lewis paused. “We have a nice shorthand with each other,” she said, carefully choosing her words. “I’m worried I’ll sound like a super-big kiss-ass, but Troy has been a motivational person to work for. He’s definitely not afraid to address conflict.”

Those diplomatic skills have served her well in getting individual Hearst titles to work faster, more efficiently and collaboratively. Publishing volume has increased 40 percent in the past year, to 300 posts a day across the network. Much of that increase is coming from reacting to online conversations, which is not necessarily part of print’s DNA. But Lewis wants digital catnip like the Justin Bieber-Orlando Bloom fight story to comprise 50-70 percent of Hearst’s Web content. “We need to get in the fray a little more,” Lewis is fond of saying. The directive has taken some getting used to. “It surprised some of the teams. It doesn’t anymore.”

Sharing content is another key part of the strategy. Other publishers aggregate news from elsewhere or open their sites to outside contributors to increase their publishing volume quickly and at low cost. With all of Hearst’s magazines as well as newspapers to draw from, the publisher has a long way to go before it has to look to outside sources for content. Part of Lewis’ mandate, then, has been getting Hearst to surface stories that can work across brands. Ultimately, the goal is to have 20 percent of a given Hearst site’s content coming from another Hearst property.

The example Hearst execs love to talk about is the story that the Houston Chronicle, a Hearst newspaper, published about a woman with a $500,000 custom-built closet. With permission to recycle content, the magazines didn’t have to deprive their readers of such a tantalizing story — or, for that matter, re-report it. Elle Decor, Bazaar and Cosmo all posted versions of the story.

Repurposing can cross gender lines, too. “There was a great story from Elle over the summer of men wearing embarrassingly short shorts,” Esquire’s Granger said. “This Elle writer, a man, wrote a piece about trying on three different kinds of shorts. It was perfect for us.”

Hearst isn’t about to simply recycle digital content under Lewis, though. Soon after arriving, she created a centralized news desk to crank out the stories that can play across multiple sites, to avoid duplication. It was a move that the individual titles could have seen as threatening to their autonomy. But Lewis has promoted the news desk as a benefit to the brands that will free them to do more original, in-depth work. She said the tone shifted when she announced that for the month of September, the news desk was responsible for 4.5 million uniques across Hearst sites. “You know who loves uniques?” she said. “Everybody.”

Kate-Lewis-meme

Speed bumps
But speeding up can have unintended consequences. Esquire recently walked back a blog post, “On ESPN and Domestic Violence,” that was critical of the network and its suspension of Bill Simmons. The post accused ESPN of not being tough enough on domestic violence in the wake of football player Ray Rice’s suspension and of not staffing good journalists. The post was left intact, but an apology was appended. Lewis said the site was between editors when the post went up, which meant there was less oversight than usual.

“It’s on me, what happened on the site,” she said. “Esquire has a lot of point of view, and I think it needed to have a more balanced point of view. So I think we needed to apologize for that.” Still, the post didn’t mention that Hearst has an ownership stake in ESPN.

Cosmo, on the other hand, has had some success with this new approach to digital publishing, its traffic having nearly doubled over the past year. Still, Cosmo plays in viral categories like sex and celebrities that are made for social. Applying the months-to-moments mantra to Hearst’s less newsy brands — Veranda and Town & Country, for example — may prove to be more challenging.

Editors also are aware of the possibility of conflict between print and Web where celebrity coverage is concerned. Say a magazine has booked a celebrity to run on its cover and the celeb in question became the subject of a scandal. The question becomes: Can the site join in the conversation online without jeopardizing the print’s interests — and still preserve its own integrity? 

Lewis said she’s mindful of the need to advance digital without sacrificing the interests of print. In the case of the cover scenario — which Lewis said has not happened at Hearst before — she said she’d make sure the print team was in the loop about the Web team’s coverage plans. “We don’t want to make it harder for them, but we don’t want to not give readers the information we’re looking for.”

She holds lots of meetings, which she sees as critical to getting the magazines aboard, and frequently uses words like “awesome” and “amazing.” Last week, she began an embed program, where print editors will serve two-week tours on their brand’s digital teams where they can get up to speed on the pace of the Web. While her hires will be digital natives, she also requires that they see working at Hearst as a benefit, with all its history and prestige. (Meaning, no cutoff shorts at work.) She talks about herself as a print person who feels strongly that “we cannot besmirch what the brands stand for.”

But first and foremost, she’s the Hearst guardian for digital. Whereas in the past, editors have posted stories to their brand’s Facebook feed to curry favor with sources, she has clamped down on that, which she admits isn’t always popular. “I make decisions people don’t like because I think they’re good for the sites,” she said. “Facebook is very precious for us because they drive lot of traffic. So that’s where I’m a guard dog. Our Facebook is not a marketing tool.”

Later that day, after the Pop Mechanics awards, Lewis is having a catch-up meeting with Joyann King, the digital director at Harper’s Bazaar, one of the regular pow-wows she has with the site directors. Bazaar represents the epitome of high fashion and is known for its lush, elegant magazine covers. An ongoing theme is translating that to the raucous Web.

Bazaar has tried to apply a high-low mix to the Web. That means posts like “The 25 Best Bond Girls of All Time,” with their chic take on celebrity, do well. King explains that hair reports are another opportunity to boost traffic, because “hair is to Harper’s Bazaar like celebrity tabloids are to the British.”

The meeting lasts no more than 10 minutes. Lewis is pleased. “I feel the site’s really good on social and she’s really internalized what Harper’s Bazaar stands for and talks to the Internet in a Bazaar-y way.”

And for Lewis, that is a good starting point. “I think the culture now feels really ready to change,” she said. “I’m suited for this position because I’m a print person originally.”