Hearst’s new platform approach: ‘You have to get it right at the start.’

The platform approach, which invites outsiders to contribute their musings, opinions and reporting, has become a favorite way for publishers to build scale fast. In the case of Time Inc. and Condé Nast, sprawling collections of diverse magazine brands led by powerful editors-in-chief, have adopted this approach on a tentative basis, brand by brand.

Hearst Magazines, which publishes mass women’s titles like Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, is taking a vastly different approach. It has created a company-wide network of contributors that is being picked and managed centrally. Individual brands get to submit wish-lists of assignments, which then go out by email newsletter once a day to the contributors, who have two days to respond. Accepted pitches are lightly edited and run on the host publication. There are 100 contributors so far, and their articles have run on six or so publications. Like other recent digital initiatives at Hearst, the network even has its own name.

“The concept is called ‘The Mix,’” said digital media president Troy Young.

This approach lets Hearst bring efficiency to its 21-title portfolio, and it dovetails with the company’s earlier efforts under Young to scale its content production process. An alum of digital publisher Say Media, Young has knocked down the figurative walls between the magazine brands, hired digital natives, instituted content-sharing across titles, and created a centralized digital news team. Those efforts apparently have paid off; Hearst Digital Media pulled in 48.7 million U.S. unique visitors in March (source: comScore multi-platform), an increase of 32 percent from a year earlier.

But Hearst still trails newer, digital natives like BuzzFeed, Gawker Media and SheKnows. The platform route can help a publisher build scale quickly at low cost.

“There are many people who sit outside our organization who have a lot to contribute to our brands,” Young said. “Sometimes it’s about expertise, sometimes it’s about emotional stories. If you’re a modern publisher, to just bet on the experts inside your building is short-sighted. And it’s an opportunity to build traffic as well.”

Between Forbes and its liberal contributor model and Time Inc.’s Travel + Leisure, with its freelancer-like approach, Hearst takes a middle ground. The contributor network is run by Michael Barish, who was hired six months ago from a similar role at Thrillist Media Group. The contributors’ pieces run alongside home-grown content but will eventually be labeled as being from “The Mix.” They’re paid a flat fee with a traffic-based bonus on top of that. Young wouldn’t reveal what those rates are, saying the model was still being fine-tuned, but said that the mixed-fee structure was important to insuring a high level of talent.

It’s easy to see how editors might resent their parent company centralizing aspects of their brand’s workflow. But Young said Hearst’s editors are embracing the contributor network. “We have the editors’ support,” he said. “There’s a respect that’s been earned in Mike’s dealing with the editors. He was at Thrillist before.”

Further, he said, the editors are seeing the results. As examples, he offered this April 2 post on Marie Claire, Things You Should Never Say to a Woman Who Doesn’t Want Kids, which got 92,600 shares. This March 24 Country Living contribution, Why I’d Give Up Everything to Live in the Country got 66,000 shares. 6 Things I’d Tell My Teenage Self About Sex, which ran March 25 on Cosmo, got 1,500 shares. Beyond such first-person, emotion-driven posts, Young sees potential to mine titles like Car and Driver for their enthusiast followings.

The risk of becoming a platform, regardless of publisher, is that quality control becomes secondary in the quest for scale, undermining the editorial promise for readers and value to advertisers. Gawker, Forbes and Thought Catalog are a few that have learned this lesson the hard way.

“Creating a diversified approach to storytelling provides opportunity for growth,” said Robin Steinberg, evp and director of publishing investment and activation at MediaVest. “However, the vetting process will be important in order to continue the expected delivery of high-quality control standards. The proof will be in the pudding: Are consumers engaged?”

Image courtesy of Cosmopolitan.


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