Every publishing leader digs into the data when revenue dips or operations break, but according to Leah Wyar, President of Entertainment and Beauty & Style for Dotdash Meredith, the key to navigating digital change is the opposite: excavating when everything looks good on the surface.
“When things are humming, you have to have a real appetite to go dig in,” Wyar told Beeler.tech CEO and founder Rob Beeler during the opening keynote discussion at Beeler’s Navigator event at the Dotdash Meredith building in New York Thursday.
“Excavation” has proved critical to navigating People and Entertainment Weekly, among other Dotdash Meredith publications, through the merger of Dotdash and Meredith, digitization, silos between editorial and sales, and the constant challenge of maintaining focus in the face of industry strikes, platform changes, and privacy regulations.
After the merger, Wyar set out to “learn everything about [Meredith], not just the breadth of the business but how it works from the root.” Starting at the root meant talking not just to executives but to staff members on the front lines, who could spot opportunities for improvement and flesh out the picture that the executive team had painted.
The result of Wyar’s excavation was to knock down silos between digital and print. Instead of the digital team “reporting up” to their print counterparts, the two started to work with “locked arms… viewing the business as the totality of the brand versus print and digital [as separate entities].” The changes included putting the leaders of print and digital on equal footing.
“There is a real fear of cannibalizing one for the other,” Beeler said. But that change is avoidable if the two collaborate, and “It’s not time to give up on print.”
Doubling down on this cross-medium synergy became even more important this year when changes from Meta, economic uncertainty, and two Hollywood strikes threatened Dotdash Meredith’s lifestyle and entertainment publications. The disruption further cemented Wyar’s view that excavating in good times is critical to being prepared for hard times, and the result was an even more deeply integrated print-digital organization that invested fully in digital while still customizing stories for print.
“We hit hard on the newsroom becoming a digital-first operation,” Wyar said. She highlighted recent coverage of actor Matthew Perry’s tragic death, which Dotdash Meredith’s publications covered without hesitation digitally while still investing in more elaborate visual coverage that only print can deliver — instead of holding back on digital to save the best for print or giving up on print because digital had already covered the story.
It’s not ignoring print because anything you publish digitally you can repackage in terms of print,” Wyar said. “You can even have print leading the way, but you have to figure out how you’re going to release things digitally to make them matter.”
Excavating isn’t just about digging deep, either. It’s also about digging under fences — or knocking them down. For example, especially in beauty publications, there’s a natural synergy between editorial content and the brands who want to reach that content’s readers. Wyar has fostered a culture where sales can capitalize on editorial synergies without, of course, sacrificing the integrity of editorial to support sales.
“If you can come to the table with your expertise — this is what my readers want — and your partners can come to the table with [similar feelings], then there’s a synergy that works. I wouldn’t agree to do something for a partner that makes no sense for the reader.”
Beeler underscored the importance of this ethos not just for what media gets sold, or which brands are buying, but also for how it gets sold.
“I’m not anti-programmatic,” said Beeler, who was sporting a “Protect direct” tee shirt. “I’m anti not having a relationship with your clients, which applies to the audience as well.”
The last point — about ensuring publishers maintain close relationships with not only their brands but also their audiences — is perhaps the final meaning of what Wyar calls excavation: constantly digging into what your audience wants and coming to work each morning to serve them.
“You have to keep your teams waking up every day, saying, ‘What are we here to do? Why are we making this content in the first place? Who’s reading it? Have we veered?’ If you’re constantly reevaluating what that means, you’re staying the course,” Wyar said.