Q & A: New CJR Publisher Cathryn Cronin Cranston

The former Harvard Business Review publisher talks about her plans for CJR's future

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) announced today (PDF) that Cathryn Cronin Cranston, former publisher of the Harvard Business Review, has been named its publisher. Below, CJR executive editor Mike Hoyt interviews Cranston about her background, her goals, and her plans for CJR’s future.

What draws you to the Columbia Journalism Review? What are the untapped potentials here?

I am a longtime reader of CJR and have been in the publishing business for over twenty years. I chose publishing as a career because I grew up surrounded by newspapers and magazines, and the discussions that resulted were riddled with the kind of skepticism that great journalism generates. I am also a fervent supporter of the First Amendment.

I think CJR can be at the epicenter as the industry considers best practices for the rapidly (and I mean almost daily) evolving practice of journalism and emerging economic models in the post-advertising dependent world. CJR faces the dual challenge of framing the industry’s challenges and evolving its own strategy for the future, given the fact that it too is subject to all the same disruptive forces.

As such, CJR can lead by example. Rather than depending on one source of revenue—such as advertising— media brands like CJR need to have a range of sources of funds. There’s no mystery here. These include but are not limited to the usual—advertising, content fees, archives, events, audience development—and followed by new business ventures, which will be a part of CJR, Inc., the enterprises of the organization, which we have “on the white board.” And of course, in addition to earned revenue, philanthropy and individual giving are a key part of the mix.

What is similar and what is different from your past experience, especially at Harvard Business Review, where you were publisher, in terms of the editorial culture, structural setup, and mission of the magazines?

Both CJR and HBR are mission driven. Both are the thought leaders on their respective subjects, journalism and business. They both have highly educated, influential readers and users.

CJR and HBR are embedded in world-class graduate schools at world-class universities. As such, one can argue that their standards of excellence should be the highest. In addition, both provide valuable outreach on behalf of their respective universities, reaching all kinds of constituents on a global scale, including students— present and future—alumni, faculty, and industry leaders and up-and-comers.

For the last two years I’ve been consulting to other publishers of thought-leader content. Their challenges are similar, but, like CJR, those with “platinum brands” who adhere to the highest standards have the trust and loyalty of very influential audiences.

I began my career in publishing at The New York Times, and I also spent two years in consumer magazine industry.

At CJR, business and editorial are equal partners. How does that compare
to your past experience, and how do you see it working?

One of the most abiding disappointments in my career has been the institutionalized distrust between business and editorial. A distinguishing feature at CJR is that everyone here realizes that we all have to think about who is going to pay for the great work CJR does. Just like everyone else, we are figuring this out. How might it work? There are three essential prerequisites. First, there must be trust between business and editorial. Second, there has to be communication and transparency. Finally, there must be a shared vision for the mission of the organization—and this must be authentic, and revealed in what decisions are made and how they are made.

What new income streams do you foresee? And what will be early priorities for starting them?

My mission, along with that of the talented team at CJR, is to expand and manage a portfolio of revenue streams that are (1) sustainable and predictable, (2) derived from multiple sources, and (3) consistent with the brand and editorial mission of CJR. As a thought-leader publication, the initial plans are to grow the audience using traditional and emerging channels, expand CJR’s international presence, and focus on advertising revenue. Over the longer term, we envision revenue sources that include a portfolio of events, special research projects, premium content, and other ventures.

CJR is a print/Web partnership. Do you see that continuing over the medium to long term?

CJR and cjr.org are quite complementary, given CJR’s mission and the speed of change in the industry, broadly defined. The bimonthly magazine allows for longer form treatment of the issues, people, institutions, and technologies that are buffeting the industry and journalism in particular. “The Rise of Private News” in the July/August issue is a perfect example. For breaking news, cjr.org was the first to report that The Guardian approached WikiLeaks, not the other way around. CJR’s Web reporting on the fast moving, chatter-generating WikiLeaks story was arguably the best of any organization reporting on this game-changing event.

Who is CJR’s competition?

Like most thought-leader publishers, CJR’s biggest competitor is time. How do we make the magazine and Web site so compelling that they are must-read destinations? As far as other sources that comment on the media—I think many, many voices are useful, particularly in these revolutionary times. However, when the dust settles, it will be the trusted brands, which maintain their excellence and reader focus, that will come out intact.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.