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Media managers muse on the digital age

Disney CEO Bob Iger and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter talk about print, content and audience expectations

Bob Iger, left, and Graydon Carter at the USC Annenberg,media managers,
Bob Iger, left, and Graydon Carter at the USC Annenberg event "Managing Media in the Digital Age" (Photo/Brett van Ort)

What does the future hold for media in the digital age? Students and faculty at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism try to answer that question every day.

On Feb. 17, the query was posed to two of the most influential people in media: Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of Disney, and Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair.

“Managing Media in the Digital Age,” was moderated by Willow Bay, director of the School of Journalism, who introduced the principals before handing it over to Iger, her husband, to lead to a conversation with Carter at Wallis Annenberg Hall.

How is Vanity faring?

Opening with Vanity Fair, Iger asked Carter about the state of the magazine business and print versus digital.

As a monthly magazine, Vanity Fair covers news in a way that is “halfway between the first onslaught of the story and a book,” Carter said. But in addition to the expectation of strong monthly content that tackles stories in a wider context, there is also the expectation that the brand offers content online in a more time-sensitive manner.

“How important is it that it exists in atoms instead of bits?” Iger asked Carter of continuing to publish a print magazine.

Carter said there has been a generational shift in the consumption of media. He offered the example that 10 years ago, parents would have had a stack of Disney films in their living room. Then five years ago it would be a collection of DVDs. Now there’s no physical object because those same films are being streamed online. Vanity Fair has experienced that same evolution, with its website and tablet edition, while maintaining the original magazine.

In discussing the magazine itself, Iger asked Carter about the role of long-form journalism, now that stories can be broken down into lists or 140 character tweets. Length doesn’t matter, Carter responded, because if it’s written well, people will read it.

A great 30-page magazine article ends before you know it.

Graydon Carter

“A great 30-page magazine article ends before you know it,” Carter said.

Which content sells best?

Soon the conversation turned to what sells content, and Carter turned the tables on Iger — taking on his more natural role of interviewer instead of interviewee. He asked the Disney CEO about the media company’s audience: Disney would grab kids’ attention around age 2 and would lose them around 10. Mixed in would be parents and grandparents, of course, but there were large generational gaps that Disney couldn’t seem to fill.

We had to make things that were … more likable.

Bob Iger

“We just had to get better,” Iger said. “We had to make things that were … more likable.”

Iger explained that these conversations often centered on whether Disney should change its standards, adding more violence or “saucier language.”

Rather than change Disney, Iger looked at acquiring other properties to fill these roles, such as Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm.

Issues and answers

The conversation eventually segued into a Q&A session with the audience.

Jonathan Taplin, professor and director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, noted the increased prevalence of piracy — he even mentioned how easy it was to find The Avengers online via a simple Google search.

“Do either of you think Google could be more supportive of the creative community?” Taplin asked.

Iger said he has spoken to Google and that over time, the search engine has become more receptive. However, it is a “whack-a-mole” situation due to the sheer volume of pirated material that exists. Iger said the important thing for people to understand is that content has value.

“The distribution of pirated goods really has no value to society,” he said.

The final question was asked by a student, who was curious what Iger and Carter look for in young employees and what advice they’d give USC Annenberg students.

Iger noted the value of classroom and practical experience, specifically commenting on the USC Annenberg Media Center as a fine example of how these two qualities can come together.

“I benefitted a lot from showing an interest in learning and doing at the same time,” Iger said. He went into his first job as a production assistant with more practical experience than his colleagues.

“If you can write a great, really charming letter,” Carter added, “you can get in to see anyone.”

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Media managers muse on the digital age

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