Washington’s “nerd prom” is this Saturday. To kick off the festivities, Foreign Affairs, along with Devex, hosted a pre-White House Correspondent’s Dinner bash. FPI got a chance to talk to Foreign Affairs’ publisher, Lynda Hammes, who — in a past life — played in a synthesizer band called the Electric Alligators in malls across New Jersey. When Lynda isn’t at FA HQ, aka the Council on Foreign Relations, she is running in Prospect Park and checking out Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.
FPI: What is a publisher?
A publisher is a purveyor of ideas – on any platform. What makes a good publisher, or a transformational publisher? I believe that a great publisher has to have a mission. Even Cosmopolitan magazine – think what you will of it – changed the world for women and was an agent of social change. As the publisher of Foreign Affairs, I’m really proud to be able to point to how the magazine has literally changed the world by affecting policy.
The role of a publisher is also to create a community of people who are passionate about those ideas. You could say that on paper my job as a publisher is to maximize web traffic, advertising or to increase circulation. But, in fact, it is to be an ambassador – to take on this responsibility being true to the mission and values of a great purveyor of ideas.
FPI: Which publishers do you admire?
When I took this position, I thought about what I could learn from a variety of publishers that I’ve looked up to. There is one that is counterintuitive, in that he was the ultimate anti-establishment purveyor of ideas: Barney Rossett. He was the publisher of Grove Press and championed the publication of many controversial books, and he showed incredible grit and conviction about what he believed in. To me, that’s something to aspire to.
FPI: Did you know you wanted to be a publisher growing up?
Growing up, I wanted to be a pianist. I am the youngest of seven children – my mom’s last hope for Julliard. I didn’t have the discipline. I secretly wanted to be a singer.
I was told my whole life that I was a writer in school and at home, and thought for a long time I would be a writer. But the truth is that I agonize over writing. It took building some confidence to cross over to the ‘dark side’ of the mercenary role of publisher, but I couldn’t feel more fortunate now to be in this role, and at the most exciting time in decades to be a publisher.
FPI: How is Foreign Affairs evolving with the times?
I give tremendous credit to our editors for expanding the dimensions of what Foreign Affairs covers. As the world changes, so does our content. In our last issue alone we covered gay rights in India, the Internet of things, and mobile banking… while the editors continue to bring out top experts on traditional core geopolitical issues such as what to do in Ukraine.
In terms of my role in the contemporary evolution of the magazine, I’m focused on audience development that will let us reach a younger audience, a more global audience and a more diverse audience. It’s also about building partnerships; for example, we were a media sponsor of a significant Chamber of Commerce event for International Women’s Day at the UN this year – it was one of the biggest gatherings of influential women in the city. If we want those women influencers reading the magazine, we need to be present and be relevant.
FPI: Events are a new feature at Foreign Affairs.
Yes. We’re doing them for a couple reasons:
Events make the magazine come alive and they bring people together for spontaneous discussion. If we want to be a true forum of discussion – actual human interaction is still important in this world.
Events are a way of building the brand – the reverberations and resonance you can get at an event with media coverage , creating content through video or reportage, etc. Events give you a multiplier effect to the ideas of your authors and readers.
They also are an important offering for our advertisers, who, more and more, seek integrated sponsorships to reach our readers online, in print and through events.
There’s a lot of programming in NYC that you have to compete with. My goal with events is to bring the same level of expertise, authority and distinctive high-quality content as the magazine.
FPI: What are some things you’ve learned?
Early on, when I took this job, the editors and I had a conversation with David Carey, the much admired president of Hearst Magazines. When discussing some changes we planned to make, he said, “Don’t be afraid of change, people are used to change.” That may sound like simple advice, but I think about it often, as it can be daunting to try and create change at a 92-year-old magazine.
FPI: Why are you interested in foreign affairs?
Curiosity. I’ve always had a curiosity about the world. As a little kid, my favorite toy was an inflatable globe and was obsessed with learning all the capitals. My dad was in the mining industry, so had to travel a lot; he had a big effect on me. I’m attracted to the wonderful combination of science and art that foreign affairs presents. It challenges me to use different lenses – cultural, analytical, historical and to understand the world around me. What can be more stimulating than that?
FPI: How can we get more women onto foreign affairs?
Mentorship. And that’s not just about being friendly to a younger woman in the office. It’s about telling stories and showing inspiration, so that people have examples that are inspiring. It’s also about taking a proactive approach. I saw a video of Christine Lagarde talking about women on corporate boards. When told that there aren’t qualified women, she doesn’t stomp her feet. She produces a list. I’ve produced my own type of lists in different situations. I believe in being proactive and imaginative about introducing women or diversity of any kind.