Interview with Liz Schimel: digital transformation and the future of publishing


The publishing industry is in a state of rapid and extreme change. Established and new publishers alike are adapting to new technologies and business models, and competing for the attention economy with a wave of other media companies such as streaming services and social media platforms.

At times like these, it can be valuable to hear from people who have led major global publishers through digital transformations. Liz Schimel was recently head of business at Apple for Apple News+, and has also been President of Condé Nast China and Chief Digital Officer of Meredith. Recently, she sat down with WoodWing CEO Ross Paterson to discuss trends in the publishing industry and where we may be headed next.


Ross: Hi Liz, and welcome! I was wondering if you could first briefly introduce yourself and tell us about your background.


Liz: Hi Ross, thanks for having me. I have been involved in digital media for several decades, in a number of global roles and everything from helping magazine publishers transform for the digital age to managing early digital music sites to working on deals for American Idol and Grand Theft Auto. More recently, I was at Apple during the launch of Apple News+ and prior to that I ran Condé Nast China and was the Chief Digital Officer at Meredith.


Ross: Ok great, so to get into the discussion, we talk to a lot of customers and prospects on the value of a content-first approach, which some call mobile-first, or digital-first, but the essential idea is that the channel is secondary - once you have created a good story you think about the channel. Based on what you are seeing, how many publishers have adopted such a workflow today?

Liz: I would estimate that around fifty percent of publishers have adopted content-centric workflows. And those that have are seeing a lot more success than those who haven’t. But I think all publishers will be forced to adopt different techniques to enhance their content offerings. And whether that is print content or digital or video, I think they are all going to have to move in that direction of creating more immersive experiences for customers. It’s sort of a “never waste a good crisis” situation.


Ross: Can you elaborate on that a little?

Liz: Right now there are a lot of crises requiring transformation across a lot of levels. For example, digitalization is not just a technical transformation, it’s also a cultural one. But on top of that, simply moving from print to digital does not solve problems in terms of building a sustainable business model, because as we see digital advertising is also difficult. And even solving digital advertising is often not enough - you also need to look at if and how your consumers pay for content. But no matter how hard it is, they have to transform. There is no good news coming out of print revenue. So these changes are forcing a transformation on the industry, and whether they like it or not, every publisher will be dragged kicking and screaming into this transformation.

Every publisher will be dragged kicking and screaming into this transformation.

Ross: Do you have any examples of publications that have cracked the nut in terms of business models?

Liz: Well one interesting example is the New Yorker. They have developed an extremely high level of brand loyalty, which translates into very inelastic demand and a high level of willingness to pay for that particular periodical. If you love the New Yorker, you will basically pay whatever you need to get it. So while they do offer certain promotions, they were able to continue to raise the price because they have built a very loyal readership.


Ross: On that note of immersive experiences you mentioned earlier, we are living through a time of increasing complexity around channels, but also the potential of what we can offer readers in terms of choice and personalization. Video and audio are becoming more and more important, while print, which we may have thought would be almost gone by now, is still a part of the mix. On top of that many publishers are trying to personalize content for their customers. What would be your advice to publishers on how to best approach this complexity?

Liz: I’d say publishers need to have the right technology infrastructure to enable them to move forward in a rapid way, and with a different approach. The technology needs to make a difference for their customers, whether that’s consumers or advertisers, and enable capabilities they didn’t have before. For example one critical thing is to think about how to support the life cycle of customer interests and how you move people through the process of discovery of new types of content. Meredith is a good example of this - they work with data platforms to analyze who is interested in what and upsell different packages of content.


Ross: What do you think a leading publisher will look like in five years? What kinds of technology will they be using, and content will they be producing?

Liz: I think we will see more immersive technologies such as VR and AR really come to the fore, and quickly. And in a world where you can’t travel easily, publishers will adopt new tech to enable customers to experience environments in real time. I also think you are going to see the transformation of educational materials to become more immersive and enabling students to experience education in a different way.

I think we will see more immersive technologies such as VR and AR really come to the fore, and quickly.

Ross: Do you really think this will go quick? For example five years ago we would have thought that print might be dead, but it is still very much with us. I would feel it would take a little longer for publishers to adapt.

Liz: Full on VR will take some time and I don't think every publisher will move that quickly, but at a five year horizon, yes that is realistic. The emergence of 5G will bring a lot of innovation. Tech platforms will need to evolve to keep up with changing dynamics of how consumers choose. I think some places will evolve faster than others, for example China and South Korea will accelerate. Five years from now we will be in a very transformed universe, where a lot more things are happening in VR, especially with the impact of the pandemic, I think we will see the emergence of platforms that will enable people to interact in a very different way.


Ross: Very interesting! Are there any other key trends you are seeing that publishers and content creators may need to think about?

Liz: I think the emergence of driverless or connected cars is interesting. Audio and video are going to be very impactful in a car because you can’t text when you are in a car, so you listen. I think audio is going to play a big role and be a very meaningful part of the ecosystem going forward, as is video. We are already seeing the beginning of this trend in China - I had the experience of sitting in one such car with a big video screen built in - so you can really imagine how this is going to accelerate content consumption while traveling in coming years. 


Ross: Final question: you have worked with WoodWing in various ways for a number of years now, how do you see us fitting into the publishing industry going forward?

Liz: Yes indeed, WoodWing helped us get the first magazines onto digital platforms when I was at Meredith, so from the beginning you have been the kind of benchmark for transformation in the industry. Going forward I see that WoodWing will continue to provide that tech infrastructure to enable publishers to rapidly move forward, as change in the industry continues to accelerate.


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