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Magazine stalwart: Hearst's Jane Francisco is taking on industry’s ‘extreme reality’

With the magazine industry facing a digital reckoning, Jane Francisco is charged with overseeing another transformation on her biggest stage yet as editorial director of Hearst Communications Inc.’s lifestyle group, leading Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Woman’s Day.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Jane Francisco says she won't go quietly.

The 20-year veteran of the Canadian magazine industry – who led a dramatic overhaul of Chatelaine during a four-year tenure – has been editor-in-chief of U.S.-based Good Housekeeping since 2013. Now, with the magazine industry facing a digital reckoning, she's charged with overseeing another transformation on her biggest stage yet as editorial director of Hearst Magazines lifestyle group, leading Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Woman's Day.

"Kicking and screaming," she says. "I guess that's how I'll be taken out of the building."

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It's the kind of mindset that helps when your industry is in turmoil.

Dwindling revenues from print advertising and newsstand sales have hit magazines particularly hard. In June, 2016 – amid three years of modest profit growth at the company – Hearst Magazines president David Carey told Women's Wear Daily that teams were warned to "be especially careful about their discretionary spending." Job losses at the private company have also been announced at seemingly regular intervals over the past several years.

It's an industry-wide phenomenon: One hundred employees were laid off at Condé Nast Publications Inc. in March; 300 received pink slips at Time Inc. in June. Meanwhile in Canada, 87 employees lost their jobs last fall when Rogers Communications Inc. – Ms. Francisco's former employer – scaled back publication of three magazines, sold off several titles and closed print editions of several brands, including Flare and Canadian Business, moving them to online-only formats.

"We're facing a more extreme reality in the industry. And [the Rogers news] is an indicator of that in the most powerful way," Ms. Francisco says. "If you want a brand to survive you have to be watchful and proactive and creatively thinking about strategy and we as an industry have to learn from that."

In a bid for survival, Ms. Francisco is helping lead what she describes as a "reinvention" of the way Hearst does business.

Her lifestyle group has been taking shape since January, modelled after a similar experiment with Hearst's design magazines. She is charged with helping reshape not only the business but how content is created at the three titles.

That's meant a lot of streamlining behind the scenes – shared copy-editing and fact-checking departments now exist for the lifestyle group, for instance. The goal, she says, is to make the resource-rich and labour-intensive process of content creation more cost-effective, while attracting coveted millennial readers to established legacy brands.

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"All of this is an experiment and that's what's exciting about it," Ms. Francisco says. "I've been doing this for 20 years. I've been doing the same job in different places. It has literally never gotten old. It's never boring."

In the past, multiple magazines at Hearst might approach the same topic and often the writers would produce similar stories. Now the goal is to reduce overlap and produce content tailored specifically for the readers of each brand. For instance, a beauty team has been put in place that writes for the lifestyle group as well as Cosmopolitan and Seventeen, producing content specific to the each magazine that gives editors what Ms. Francisco calls a "broader and deeper bench" to work with.

"It's been logistically a big change for people, but from a content perspective we're getting richer and deeper," Ms. Francisco says.

Joanna Coles, chief content officer of Hearst Magazines, says this team approach also has the benefit of giving the writers the chance to develop expertise in their fields, by working for multiple brands.

"The idea that people can only work for one siloed brand feels old-fashioned to me," she says.

The industry is watching. As Hearst's lifestyle group continues to develop, Karine Ewart, who took over as editor-in-chief of Chatelaine when Ms. Francisco left for Good Housekeeping, believes Ms. Francisco's role is going to have an influence beyond her portfolio of magazines.

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"What she is responsible for now with her new role at Hearst will really set the future of the industry," she says.

Ms. Francisco has been here before. At Chatelaine, when Ms. Francisco was appointed editor-in-chief in 2009 she was the magazine's fifth editor in less than six years. Between 2004 and 2010, Chatelaine had lost nearly 850,000 readers from total yearly readership.

By the time Ms. Ewart – now a partner at public relations agency Edgedale Road – inherited Chatelaine, the magazine had the highest paid circulation in the country for the first time in its history.

What stood out most for Ms. Ewart was how Ms. Francisco pushed Chatelaine beyond the print edition. There wasn't just a new look and feel to the magazine; there were multichannel initiatives including a radio show, television segments and various licensing agreements – even a highly successful fitness app.

"[Her team] understood – almost ahead of their time – how audiences were consuming content in other ways," says Ms. Ewart. "They were definitely going down the path before everyone else was."

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