Published in Macalester Today
Steven Kotok ’92 has never attended graduate school in business or journalism. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming CEO of The Week, a publication that has thrived amidst the ruins of the newsmagazine industry. What Kotok lacks in postgraduate sheepskin he has more than made up for with an eclectic mind and a knack for profiting from whatever has come his way.
At Macalester, the only college the Rochester, New York, native applied to, Kotok majored in economics, minored in philosophy, and took more courses in English than in either of those disciplines. During his senior year, he worked full time for the now-defunct Old City Café at Grand and Snelling, selling the café’s Middle Eastern food products to supermarkets throughout the Twin Cities. “I barely graduated,” he says. “I’d go to class covered in hummus.” Upon getting his diploma, he decided on a whim to move to Prague.
“I’d never thought about a career or anything like that,” Kotok recalls. “I just showed up,” knowing neither a soul in the Czech capital nor a word of the language. That didn’t prevent him from landing a restaurant job and, in time, opening his own dining spot. A couple of years later, he moved to New York City. “I thought it would be a good place to go for a year while I figured out what to do next,” he recalls. He’s still there. Kotok worked for a scholarly book publisher for a few years, then in 1996, answered a help-wanted ad in the New York Times seeking a business manager for a new magazine.
Thus, Kotok first crossed the threshold into the Felix Dennis publishing empire, perhaps best known for launching quintessential “lad mag” Maxim in 1995. A year later, Dennis started Blender, a pop-culture multimedia publication produced on CD-ROM. “As we now know, CD-ROMs were not destined to take over the world,” Kotok wryly notes. Blender morphed into a music magazine, and Kotok took on other jobs with Dennis. In 2001, Dennis launched The Week; six months in, Kotok was asked to help the new magazine improve its marketing and business plan. What Kotok expected to be a short assignment has stretched to 12 years and counting. In 2007, he was named The Week’s president, becoming CEO a few years later.
Kotok describes The Week as a magazine for “people who are very busy, who don’t have time to read everything.” It primarily gleans information and insights from other publications: “We read everything for them and bring them diverse perspectives in a very concise way around what we think are the important issues.” A print-based aggregator of other publications isn’t a new idea: Readers’ Digest and Utne Reader, among others, cleared that trail long ago. And breaking down big news stories into smaller bites is as old as Time. But unlike those magazines, The Week is on the march. It has been profitable since 2010, at a clip of about $4 million per annum. Circulation, which has grown 25 percent in the last five years, is currently at around 550,000, with subscription revenue doubling since 2008.
Meanwhile, Newsweek has disappeared, U.S. News has shrunk, and Time seems to be running down. Kotok believes that The Week has thrived in part because when it launched, “there was already an Internet. We knew we wouldn’t be bringing people the news. Most of our stories—you’ve kind of heard about the events that we’re discussing.”
“The things I love about The Week and Mental Floss is they’re about discovering and celebrating new and interesting ideas,” Kotok says. “That’s something I got from Macalester. I definitely see consistency between what I do now with the person I was then.”
The people who read The Week, says Samir Husni, director of the University of Mississippi’s Magazine Innovation Center, are looking for a literate time-saver. “In the midst of the technology we’re using and in the midst of satellite and cable 24-hour news, The Week summarizes everything in a very intelligent and witty way,” Husni says. Though aggregation was supposed to become a forte of the Internet, the digital superhighway has only added to the traffic jam of information. The Week, Husni says, offers “a very skillful editorial weaving that takes place in the condensation” rather than “a disjointed summary.”
Two years ago Dennis acquired Mental Floss, a magazine specializing in the kind of “random, amazing” information that has become an Internet staple: [fill-in-number] things you should know about a topic. Mental Floss focuses on smart stuff rather than titillating trivia. (Example from February 2013: “18 Complicated Scientific Ideas Explained Simply.”) Dennis’s financial backing has boosted the circulation of Mental Floss 50 percent to about 150,000. Kotok is also CEO of Mental Floss.
His work involves “finding great people for each department or initiative we’re doing,” says Kotok, rather than doing the hands-on editing himself. E-commerce has been keeping him particularly busy. Mental Floss’s online shop, which sells its own brand of board games and educational card sets, now accounts for 30 percent of the publication’s revenue.
Kotok’s professional journey may seem almost labyrinthine. But he does believe there’s a thread running through it. “The things I love about The Week and Mental Floss is they’re about discovering and celebrating new and interesting ideas,” Kotok says. “That’s something I got from Macalester. I definitely see consistency between what I do now with the person I was then.”