Susanne Althoff Talks Magazines, Publishing, and Print in the Digital Age
Assistant Professor Susanne Althoff came to Emerson in 2015 after 22 years as a magazine editor at The Boston Globe, and she’s going back—this time, with students. Lucky members of Susanne’s small graduate-level class have the opportunity to be published in The Boston Globe Magazine this semester. They’ll go on field trips to meet the editors and art director, and even have class a couple of times at the Globe office—the epitome of experiential learning. For six years, Susanne was editor-in-chief of The Boston Globe Magazine, overseeing several innovation projects before coming to Emerson to teach. We talked with Susanne about the future of print, exciting industry trends, publishing in the Trump era, and her favorite magazines. | Photo courtesy of Evan Walsh / The Berkeley Beacon.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background in publishing and how you got your start in the industry.
A: It was a fascinating career for me because I was able to see so much of the transition that’s going on in the publishing industry. When I started it was very much print-focused, and then online reading took hold. The positives of that are having a much larger audience, the potential for millions of people to see a story that you wrote or edited. The pitfalls were the loss of advertising and subscription revenue, because it was now so easy for readers to read our articles for free online. [We wondered:] how can The Globe reinvent itself? We sort of threw the doors open: What are all the ways we could introduce people to the Globe brand? Could we put together a Globe museum? Or a Globe teaching day? We considered apps, an e-book program. And these things are happening with publishers all over. Trying to re-think how you create, share, distribute content. So, it’s a difficult time in the industry but it’s also a really exciting time in the industry. Because reinvention is demanded all the time. And of course there are new start-up publishers arriving all the time like BuzzFeed, and others which are forcing traditional publishers to be nimble and act quickly and react.
Q: Has this technology made it harder for aspiring writers to keep up? Has it made it more competitive for writers because they have to react so quickly?
A: In a way, I think it’s made things easier for students hoping to enter the publishing world, because now they can create content, whether videos or articles, and it’s so easy to share that information and build an audience. There are students who are coming to Emerson and can say, “I have 5,000 followers on Instagram.” Or, “I have a YouTube channel.” That just wasn’t the case when I was coming into college. You had an internship [with an] established company or you worked for the student newspaper. The idea that we can each be our own little content creators—I think that’s exhilarating. But you’re right, there are pressures on students. They’re expected to know social media, to understand the very basics of shooting a video, to be comfortable switching between writing and doing an audio clip, and even doing some basic coding. Definitely, more skills are demanded.
Q: Photos and videos are so important to websites now, but what if you go to CNN wanting to read an article, and a video automatically starts playing, even if you’d rather just read? How do you feel about that?
A: Digital advertisers love video, but I have been reading some studies that the demand on the consumer side, the reader side, is not necessarily keeping up with that. I think it depends on where you look at your smartphone. Many people are going to these news sites and online magazines during work, and there you would rather quickly read a news update on your desktop. Publishers need to be aware that there are different tastes. Readers might want the information presented one way in the morning and another way when they’re at work, or another way in the evening when they’re at home.
Q: What has been the best thing for you making the transition from publishing to teaching?
A: The exposure to students. Being able to regularly interact with people who are younger than I am, and who are digital natives. I teach them a lot about what I learned in my career in the publishing industry, but they teach me so much about new ways of consuming information, and they impress me with how many skills that they already have, and the things they can already create on their own. Every publisher is chasing millennials, [so] the fact that I can spend my days listening to millennials and learning from them, that’s really gratifying.
Q: What are you most looking forward to with the Boston Globe class you’re teaching this semester?
A: It’s so nice to have a publishing partner that is here in Boston. Emerson really embraces experiential learning; I think it’s a wonderful way of mixing traditional classroom learning with practical experiences. Anytime you can take classroom projects and make them real—have real clients, real deadlines—I think that’s really valuable.
I’m also serving as a mentor for Emerson Launch, which is Emerson’s incubator for both grad students and undergrads interested in anything on the entrepreneurial spectrum. Students receive money, a mentorship, and a shared workspace at South Station for their project. I worked with one student who launched a Spanish-language online magazine for millennial women in Mexico City, and I’d love to find more students who want to launch online magazines, or a publishing platform.
Q: What do you think is the future of print publication and magazines? Is there still a future for print?
A: Absolutely. Yes. Publishers are seeing that readers are interested in both physical, printed books as well as e-books. So that, for the time being, will not die out. For magazines, I think those that will stay around the longest are magazines that feel like a luxury and have a keepsake quality to them. Cheap, disposable magazines, like People, will probably come to an end in about a decade or so, or maybe even less than that. Because you’ll just go to your smartphone to get all the breaking celebrity news you need. But magazines that are printed on heavy paper stock, that either have beautiful photography, or long-form journalism, that take you into people’s lives and surprise you—I think those have a lot of staying power. Magazines like Kinfolk and The Gentlewoman and Cherry Bombe are all newer magazines which follow that approach, coming out just a few, maybe four times a year or so, and they look and feel very much like a paperback book, but are the size of a magazine and full color.
Q: Do you have any favorite magazines that you read regularly?
A: I love New York Magazine. New York does such a great job of reacting to the news—not just reporting the news but creating a think piece. They also present lifestyle news in a very appealing way, like food journalism and real estate journalism. I’ve been really excited about Teen Vogue lately. They’ve done a lot of aggressive political reporting, on President Trump and during the [presidential] campaign.
Q: Really? Teen Vogue?
A: I know, I think it was Dan Rather who tweeted something like, “who expected this from Teen Vogue?” And fans, like me, were saying, “They’ve been doing this for a long time, you just never paid attention!” A Teen Vogue reporter did a really critical interview with Ivanka Trump around the time of the Republican National Convention. And then another essay came out [in December 2016] that said Trump is gaslighting America, which just took off and got millions of page views. To me, it’s really exciting to have these outlets that people just wrote off, now have people around the world reading a Teen Vogue article—it’s so great.
The Washington Post just announced that they’ll be launching a new product for millennial women called The Lily. It’s going to take Post content and present it on Medium, Instagram, and Facebook. I love things like that. It’s out-of-the-box-thinking.
Q: Do you think that people should pay for online content?
A: I do. I think writers are being taken advantage of. (The trade-off for writers is that these outlets give you a big audience and help you grow your name.) The Huffington Post has a really large contributor network that’s all unpaid. Forbes has unpaid contributors as well. But in their defense, no one pays to read a Huffington Post story. And digital advertising doesn’t bring in a lot of revenue. These publishers are not doing it because they’re cruel, they just haven’t figured out a business model that lets them make enough money.
Q: Is advertising right now the only option for that?
A: More and more sites are trying digital subscriptions, and actually since the election of Trump, a lot of magazines and websites have reported a significant increase in subscription numbers, like The New Yorker, and The Washington Post and The New York Times. So that’s promising. Digital subscriptions are really being investigated strongly. And then there are things like membership programs. A Slate.com membership gets you things like extra stories, extra access, podcasts, and discounted tickets to Slate events. So that membership model is an interesting one worth pursuing. And a lot of websites will produce books on the side, or t-shirts, or have events—all different revenue streams that publishers can pursue.
Q: If you were to leave your biggest piece of advice for someone trying to get something published, what would it be?
A: I would advise that people write about the things that they’re passionate about, and that they read a lot. The more you read, the better writer you will be. I think an aspiring writer should be very interested in social media and build their social media presence. There’s a lot of talk about building your personal brand; I believe, as a writer, you really should do that. And constantly be curious! You’ll find good story ideas if you put yourself out in the world, ask interesting questions, and make yourself uncomfortable by exploring the things you aren’t familiar with. ♦