While many print publication editors are now setting their sights on the new media “promised land” Fast Company has been there all along. The magazine was born online to then become one of the most game-changing print publications of this last decade.
For many years it stood out, unmatched for freshness of content and point of view. Testimony to its success were the thousand of readers who rallied around the publication wanting and getting a real dialogue with editors and writers.
The founding editors, Bill Taylor and Alan Webber, changed the conversation. In the very first print issue they proclaimed that -- work is personal, computing is social, knowledge is power and issued a call to action with break all the rules.
“Something is happening and it affects us all. A global revolution is changing business, and business is changing the world. With unsettling speed, two forces are converging: a new generation of business leaders is rewriting the rules of business, and a new breed of fast companies is challenging the status quo.” [Letter from the Editors, Fast Company (number 1), November 1995]
If you skip the date, this statement is as true today as it was back then. A new generation of leaders is rewriting the way we think and operate –- they are working inside many of the fast companies today. Yet the meaning of fast has changed.
As I wrote in my inaugural post at Fast Company Expert blogs, I joined the magazine readers’ network as a social activist early on. What motivated me was learning how to work better, spread ideas, share knowledge, mix it up in great teams, and design a life that works. The level of access readers had was unprecedented. There were no hierarchies; each email received a direct response. They were “one of us”.
Being first is not easy. Everyone after you will challenge your model and try to burst your bubble. Fast Company went through a growth spurt while the optimism of new technology and ideas were hiking the charts –- they chronicled the companies preferred as best places to work and the darlings on Wall Street. That changed.
Fast Company was best at bringing the people and stories featured in the magazine to life at Real Time experiences, to this date the best events I ever attended. Our community of readers was online during the 9/11 attacks, sharing ideas and practical advice on how to assist stranded passengers at local airports. We had a sense that we were doing something important -- we were making things happen.
The magazine was then sold to a division of the Bertelsmann Media Worldwide, Gruner + Jahr. It was 2001, right after Real Time Philadelphia. I remember it because the temperature in the room was a few degrees lower already. It would drop several degrees again through uncertainty before the recent acquisition by Mansueto Ventures LLC. Undergoing so much change in so few years is not a walk in the park. Will a new, stronger, spirit emerge? Only time will tell.
Given that we agreed, everyone is after the same attention pool, how does a magazine that has been so successful in the past -- the readers’ network goes back to 1997, the Fast Company staff blog kicked off in August 2003 –- navigate this new wave of online publications? What is their secret sauce? I had an email exchange with Lynne Johnson, the Editor of FastCompany.com recently.
Online is fast becoming a very competitive business model -- how do you keep the valued from turning into commodity?
Lynne: I believe the fact that FC has had an online presence since the start, and we're not just scrambling to come up with something now, makes us important to long-term readers as well as the new ones we're acquiring. We also have always had both excellent magazine content, that we dress up pretty with multimedia and other online exclusive features, such as interactive quizzes, infographics, and maps, as well as podcasts, video, and slideshows.
We like to go in-depth with our content and give you all the legs to a story, in a way that's not only complementary for the Web but necessary to exist online. We also offer exclusive stories and Q&As that we treat in the same manner as we do our magazine content.
We've always had site contributors in the form of columnists, and now we still have them, but we have also added another layer by including Expert bloggers on a range of business topics of interest to our readers -- innovation, technology, leadership, change management, careers, design, social responsibility, and work/life. These are very pointed and niche focuses for us to provide our readers with what they're looking for.
Likewise we have one of the oldest business networks online. Company of Friends has been around at least eight years, and has given not only our readers, but anyone with business interests, who is also interested in sharing ideas with like-minded business leaders, a space to network.
This is how we remain a value to our online visitors and print readers, by continuing to focus on core principles that aren't just the business and economics of industries, but the innovative ideas and fascinating people behind them as well. FC has been publishing online since before its first issue.
Recently, the magazine has redesigned its online experience, what is the goal?
Lynne: Right now, we've only clearly redesigned our homepage and our multimedia offerings. If you read Ed Sussman's, Mansueto Digital President, blog post on June 1, about our agile development, this is what he said:
"So while we know the homepage design still needs work, we decided to let it go live now. Still to come, a suite of social networking, interactive media and killer widgets that will keep you coming back day after day. A team of highly skilled engineers, designers, information architects, usability testers, market researchers, online community experts and editors are working like crazy to roll out new features over the next year."
This is where we're going and what we're doing. Focusing on the same compelling content we always have, but responding to our reader's needs and wants and keeping up with the times as it makes sense for our site and our audience.
How do you keep things relevant and sustainable at your publication? What is your definition of success?
Lynne: I think you'd have to ask our new editor, Robert Safian, that question. In his first editor's letter with us he said:
"I am honored to be entrusted with a magazine that has broken so much ground in its 11 years. Fast Company is a publication that doesn't just report on developments; it stands for something. We embrace the idea that business serves a purpose in our world that goes beyond dollars and cents, and that a responsible and sustainable enterprise can be a vehicle for progress. We believe these higher goals don't contradict the quest for profitability. On the contrary, we're convinced businesses that reflect and embody them will be tomorrow's leaders. We are passionately interested in the nitty-gritty of what makes businesses really work and celebrate the creative people in all types of companies, at all levels, who inspire innovation."
I believe that anyone on the top-level at the company will tell you that as long as we achieve that with the publication, with the Website, with our events, then we're doing a good job.
What is your strategy for inviting contributors?
Lynne: We have many people in the Company of Friends who are leaders of industry, and we go to them first asking for their contributions to the Website. Other than that, we meet bright and interesting business folks all the time, both online and off, who represent the same mission and core values as FC.
Do popularity and voice play a larger role in that than publications' focus?
Lynne: If you mean who is reported on the most or who makes the biggest viral leap -- then no. Popularity is not why someone or a company gets covered in the print pages or on the site. We care about the businesses that care. The businesses that really want to focus on people's needs and values and on solving some of the issues we're facing both now and in the future. But we're not all about do-good stories either. Some companies have to be called out for not doing the right thing, either in the way they affect the world -- or simply in the way they go about handling business and growth.
Where do you draw inspiration? Do you read other online publications? Which ones? How are you influenced by them?
Lynne: I read a lot of blogs and RSS feeds, I'm following a lot of people on Twitter, I'm attending a lot of new media conferences, I'm listening to a lot of podcasts, I'm using various social networking sites, and simply interacting with a lot of media and innovative people on an ongoing basis. You could say the same about anyone who works at Mansueto Digital actually, and because of this, together we bring a lot of inspiration and ideas to the table. Everyone I work with is creative and bright, and inspiring.
As for online publications. Sure, I read a lot and I have favorites, especially when it comes to design and navigation, and implementation of Web 2.0, and now Web 3.0 design aesthetics and capabilities. Do they influence me? Somewhat. I'm more influenced by what's on the fringes and not mainstream quite yet, and then learning about those developments and how they may or may not influence mainstream media.
Do you feel threatened by the idea of user created media? How is what you do different from user created content? Is there still a place for traditional editors in the 21st century?
Lynne: Definitely not threatened by user-created media. We embrace user-generated media. We have Company of Friends in forum discussions and posting events on our site. We have staff bloggers on our site. We have columnists on our sites. We have an open comments policy on our stories and blog posts. And this is what we're currently doing and have always been doing. We've most recently added the expert bloggers, and we'll be offering more methods of user contribution in the future.
Lynne has been working feverishly on providing readers the tools to comment and interact at FastCompany.com while keeping the site clean of spam. This I’m sure has been a problem with many online publications, if you write a blog, you may have had the same issue. I spent a little bit of time providing background on my relationship with the magazine on purpose. I would now like to ask the last question of my interview to you -- Any aha moments on Fast Company you'd like to share?