Inc.’s Jim Ledbetter: ‘The old ways have broken down’

Over the past two years, Inc. magazine has been quietly killing it. The 35-year-old publication for and about mid-market entrepreneurs got a redesign in 2013 and a National Magazine Award the following year. Its events business is a juggernaut, anchored by the Inc. 5000, which dates back to 1981. Multiplatform traffic uniques, according to comScore, were at 4.8 million in April, up from 3 million the previous year — and 2.5 million in January 2014, the month James Ledbetter took over as editor.

Ledbetter, a former Village Voice and Observer columnist, joined the Digiday Podcast to discuss how the magazine has scaled online while remaining true to the core print brand.

“The Web is so challenging and fast-changing that even when you think you’ve got it right, you’ve rarely got it right for more than a few months at a time,” Ledbetter said. “You’re lucky with print if you’re flat.”

Some highlights from the conversation, condensed and edited:

Print is still the point of differentiation.
Inc.’s focus is on small- to medium-sized businesses, entrepreneurs, startups and privately held companies. Once a company goes public, it’s then fair game for the likes of Businessweek and Fortune and Forbes, said Ledbetter. By that time, Inc. would have ideally already tackled the company in print, whether it was Twitter or Facebook several years ago or Warby Parker today. Things are bit different online, however.

“Online, the space is incredibly crowded. There, we try to stay true to the mission of talking about entrepreneurs and small businesses, but we also go further afield into issues like workplace etiquette and leadership, with a certain amount of overlap with Harvard Business Review.”

Having a print product also makes it easier to pull off events.
Ledbetter argues The Atlantic and The New Yorker are both financially viable today thanks to the events they’ve built off the backs of their print brands. Inc.’s two main events — the GrowCo conference for companies trying to grow, and the Inc. 5000, which recognizes the fastest-growing privately held businesses in the U.S. — represent about 15 percent of the title’s revenue.

“It really strengthens the relationship between the audience and the brand. We’re trying to get each plank of the platform to enhance the others. So, the magazine gets read by people who come to the conference and keep up with us via the website. The Web is a place for us to sell tickets to events. It matters for our events business that we have a print title. If we were Business Insider, it would be a lot harder to get people to pay to come to Arizona to go to a conference. Not impossible, but a lot harder, and print makes that easier.”

Still, the pressure to scale is ‘tremendous.’
Like Forbes, The Huffington Post, Gawker, The Guardian and others, Inc. has opened up its platform to several hundred external contributors who are “basically given the keys to our publishing kingdom.” It is an undertaking that Ledbetter has gone into with a mixture of anxiety and awareness about the potential risk to the brand.

“We’ve been very careful about vetting the contributors on the front end. One of the places Forbes.com got into trouble is getting people whose goal was to write edgy, risky and political material. Lo and behold, the occasional irresponsible piece goes up, and you have to pay the costs for that. It’s a different model of publishing. But we had to do something to meet the very, very urgent need for more traffic.”

Relying on young reporters means putting up with a certain amount of churn.
In the past year, Inc. has lost young reporters to Wired and Vocativ, which Ledbetter chalks up to a mixture of millennial wanderlust and standard industry turnover.

“One of the people we lost to Vocativ has since left Vocativ and gone to Forbes.com! People in their 20s often leave jobs relatively frequently. They’re trying to figure out what works. They’re trying to figure out what will last. They’re trying to build salaries that will allow them to stay in this very expensive metropolitan area. The good news is, for the time being, we don’t have a lot of trouble replacing Web reporters. There’s a lot of talented people out there.”

Good journalists don’t always make good managers.
The skills that make people a good reporter — even a good editor — are not necessarily the same skills that make a good manager, Ledbetter said. Often the exact opposite is true.

“When I worked at Industry Standard in the ’90s, I was in the middle of an interview with a reporter who said to me, ‘I have problems with authority.’ And I said, ‘Come work for me! Wait, what’s wrong with that?’ There is a skepticism — an investigative, perhaps slightly cynical — quality that is very good as a reporter but is not, if you have to sustain an organization over time, the quality you want. Moreover, the ability to put sentences and paragraphs together is not necessarily the same as the ability to manage a budget or get people to get along with one another.”

And brand-name journalists should think twice about hanging their own shingle.
Ledbetter is skeptical that there are many instances in which a brand-name journalist can function independent of a parent brand.

“Nate Silver as part of The New York Times makes a lot of sense. Nate Silver on his own with FiveThirtyEight, less so. At the same time, I think what Kara Swisher and Walk Mossberg found out with Recode relatively quickly is that The Wall Street Journal brought them a lot of attributes and power that is very difficult to create on your own, even if you’re the best in the business. It’s very helpful to have the firehose drawing traffic to your work. We’re still trying to figure out what the right arrangement of editorial talent and business umbrella is. The old ways are breaking down. This we know. The models for new, successful publications built from the ground up? We’re still figuring it out.”

Don’t be squeamish about publishing directly to platforms.
“Facebook is scary in some ways, possibly is planning some power grab. I think, though, if a platform like Facebook is capable of breaking your brand, it was probably going to break anyway. We function in a media environment that is almost entirely post-site. Quartz is built this way from the ground up. There’s a lot of drive-by traffic, either through search or social. If you can find a way to get advertisers interested in publishing directly to platforms, I don’t know that it’s fatal. I think it’s a worthwhile experiment. If the readers are there, why wouldn’t you fish where the fish are?”

Podcast produced and edited by: Tanya Dua

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