Alan Murray was moderating a panel with the CEO of AOL earlier this year and wanted to know: What do legacy media companies have that digitally minded startups don't?
"And he said, 'Oh my god. Your brands are Kryptonite to commodification,'" Murray said. "There's tons of competition in the digital world. But who really competes with People? Who really competes with Fortune?
Murray should know. Until this week, he was the editor of Fortune magazine, a job he took after nearly two years running the Pew Research Center. As of Wednesday, he's the chief content officer of Time Inc, the magazine company that publishes Time, Fortune, Money and a host of other magazines.
His biggest challenge will be answering the question he posed to AOL boss Tim Armstrong: What advantage do magazines have on their newer competitors? How can they capitalize on those assets in an information marketplace increasingly dominated by social media and news organizations that don't put out a print edition? Fortunately, he has some ideas.
"I see this as a competition between great, strong brands like we have that are trying to get smart digitally and digital-first organizations that are trying to build brands," Murray said. "And who has the harder task? We both have our challenges, but I'd bet on us over them."
Chief among these challenges will be figuring out how the company's crown jewels — its storied magazine titles — can better work in concert with one another. They have traditionally operated in silos with a high degree of self-governance, touting their individual profits and losses and web metrics. To a degree, that will change, Murray said.
For instance, are there ways the company's primary news titles — Time, Fortune and Money — can pool their coverage of a specific topic to provide a better service for readers? Are there ways editors and reporters at various publications can work closer together? Although the brands will remain separate, Murray said "there could be" cases in which they might share editorial resources, or a newsroom.
By way of example, Murray cited Time and Cooking Light, which both produce content that focus on healthy living. In a more integrated company, the two publications might use their social accounts to direct readers to a healthful recipe posted by the other publication rather than linking to their own content all the time.
"Part of the problem in the past has been: who gets credit if Health points readers to a great piece of healthcare piece of content on Time?" Murray said. "They would somehow lose the credit for that. I think what we have to do is create systems that make it very clear — no, you don't. Our job is to maximize the audience and the delight and the pleasure and the entertainment and the information we provide to the audience — not to maximize the individual brands."
This doesn't mean, however, that Time Inc is planning to create a centralized so-called "super brand" — as the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing did with Tronc. Rather, he wants to find niche audiences that Time Inc is already reaching and "super serve" them.
Murray says he saw this model run successfully at Fortune, where the magazine would target specific groups in the finance world with various newsletters. Termsheet, a newsletter run by senior editor Dan Primack, became a must-read among movers in the private equity business, he said.
Time Inc has also been experimenting with paid content, and he expects the company will increase those forays during his tenure. Fortune, for example, will soon begin putting its long-form content behind a paywall, and Cooking Light has a subscriber-focused dieting offering.
This is in addition to Time Inc's events business, which Murray says is a growing business category. Last year, Time Inc. acquired INVNT, a 7-year-old events business, for an undisclosed sum.
"You have to diversify revenue streams," he said. "You need consumer revenue in addition to advertising revenue."
Time Inc has also of late launched several verticals, brands that cover specific topics aimed at niche audiences. The company's digital innovation group, which has been responsible for sites including The Snug, Mimi, The Drive and Extra Crispy, will continue to look for areas that are good candidates for dedicated subject-matter websites. In February, Time Inc also launched Motto, a website aimed at millennial women "looking for advice about life, work and play."
Ultimately, he said, all of these challenges have one thing in common: getting mobile-focused news consumers to interact with Time Inc's content on their phones.
"More and more people are reading more and more media," Murray said. "But they're reading it on their mobile phones, and that requires you to be organized in different ways and produce content in different ways and master delivering it on social networks. And I see my job as helping accelerate that transformation."