Mark Wood: Magazines are fighting for a longer shelf-life

Future Publishing's UK chief executive believes his company is adapting to the changing media landscape, he tells Nick Clark
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The Independent Online

Mark Wood had a front-row seat as the Cold War rumbled to a close, reporting for Reuters on the huge upheavals in Moscow. Now with a stable of magazines under his control, Mr Wood is once more at the forefront of a seismic shift, although this time it is within the publishing industry itself, as it attempts to deal with the brave new world of digital content.

"All publishers face unprecedented challenges worldwide," he says. "The media marketplace is in upheaval. You can see a transition going on and the business models emerging are still not solidified."

Mr Wood has just about got his feet under the desk at Future, arriving at the end of August as the UK chief executive to work closely with group head Stevie Spring.

Future publishes more than 80 magazines which sell 3.2 million copies around the world every month, covering subjects from film and technology to knitting and cycling. In the UK its best seller is Xbox 360: The Official Xbox Magazine, followed by Classic Rock and the technology magazine T3.

Along with many of its rivals, Future suffered during the downturn and profits fell by more than 60 per cent in 2009. The market has recovered, but Mr Wood is clear about where the group's growth prospects lie. "I see the digital markets as a way of getting more content to more people more cheaply."

Future released its first-quarter numbers yesterday which showed digital-advertising revenues had risen further. The 25 per cent rise offset a 10 per cent decline in print-advertising revenue, and now represents almost a third of total ad revenues. Paul Richards, an analyst at Numis Securities, said Future's niche content and its tech-savvy readers mean "the group is especially well placed to benefit from developments in online and particularly iPads and other tablets".

Publishers are experimenting with digital products. At the end of last year, Sir Richard Branson launched the iPad-only magazine Project, while Rupert Murdoch launched The Daily – also available only on the Apple device – last week. Future has 55 magazines on the iPad and is exploring how to expand. "We are selling more and more magazines on tablets, the iPad in particular," says Mr Wood. "These are vastly important. People will change their consumption habit this way as the devices become more widespread and prices come down."

He points to the Lick of the Day application, which simply takes one feature from its Guitar World magazine and turns it into an interactive standalone guide. "We will look to do more of that, we still have a lot of experimenting to do. The question is does our iPad content cannibalise subscription revenue? We do not know yet. It might not matter." The issue, he said, is not price but distribution, simply the number of tablet devices out there. "The upside is it has global appeal. If you're producing T3 apps, you can in theory reach gadget fans across the world. Cycling is a big global growth area for us. This is a new channel to market." Future has also embraced social networking. A magazine such as Metal Hammer has more followers on Facebook than its website. "So we use Facebook to reach those fans."

Mr Wood has journalism running through his veins. He joined Reuters as a trainee straight out of university in 1976, and was sent to Vienna. Shortly after, he was given his own bureau in East Berlin before moving to Moscow. "It was a fascinating time," he said, adding there had been run-ins with the secret police in both countries, the Stasi and the KGB. He returned to Britain shortly before the Berlin Wall came down to take over as editor-in-chief of Reuters. He remained for more than a decade, saying it was the "perfect environment" to think about packaging information electronically.

"Reuters has always been in the business of electronic information since 1850 with the telegraph, when it stopped using pigeons," he said. "Every iteration of technology is seen as a breakthrough and a blessing, not as a threat."

Reuters is a shareholder in ITN, and after advising the news group on its digital strategy, Mr Wood eventually took over as chief executive in 2003. During his six-year tenure, he focused on building up the digital operation, and expanded its online presence. "ITN has a good base with news contracts for ITV and Channel 4, and we developed robust digital businesses. There is also a good consultancy. The company is in good shape, but news is always a tough business. It is expensive to produce."

After leaving ITN, Mr Wood worked as a consultant on digital projects with newspaper clients, including former Telegraph editor Will Lewis' Euston Project. He was also the chairman of the short-lived Scottish News Consortium, vying to provide regional news. But it collapsed when the new government pulled the project. He also set up short form clip service Diagonal View.

Mr Wood already knew Future well. He had been on the board since April 2009 and advised Ms Spring on the online challenges facing the group. He was appointed UK head six months ago. "There was an awareness and a need to have a confident digital strategy. I was given a warm welcome as lots of people thought I could help that. They have embraced the challenge. It means more work and a different way of working. We have to do it on existing resources otherwise the economics don't work," he said.

Condé Nast recently said it hoped 50 per cent of revenues would be digital by 2015, Mr Wood said, adding: "It is kind of rough, but I would hope our digital revenues would be around that." Future is also working on partnerships with major publishers and deals to license its content worldwide, and is building its customer publishing business. It publishes Sky's in-house magazine, and did a video-games pull-out for Trinity Mirror.

Yet, the focus remains digital. Mr Wood was in the audience when Stephen Fry gave a speech at a recent awards ceremony organised by T3. "He said it was like 1910. You've got cars coming on to the market but people are still buying horses, so there's an odd mix. That period up to the 1920s was the transition and then horses disappeared." So does that analogy point to an end of print? "You could say magazines may not exist in 10 years as technology will be more sophisticated and widespread," he says. "But I still think there will be a market for magazines for many years. There is something rather nice about a glossy magazine, to sit back on the sofa and flick through it."

The CV

* Joined Reuters in 1976 as a trainee, working in Vienna, East Berlin and Moscow before his appointment as Reuters' editor-in-chief in 1989.

* Moved to Independent Television News (ITN) as chief executive in 2003.

* In 2009, Mr Wood left ITN. After a range of projects, including advising publishers on their digital strategy, he joined Future in August 2010.

* Interests include film and theatre

On paywalls

"The principal of trying to get people to pay for stuff is a good one. The culture of 'it's all free' is deeply damaging."

On the BBC

"It was spending £150m a year on its website, more than everyone else combined. The state-funded sector should not overwhelm commercial rivals, but it has become more sensitive to this."