Rounding the curved drive of The Peabody, famed Memphis hotel, two Norwegian gentlemen waited curbside as planned. Both waved, noticing my red sedan’s front plate, “Rebel Girl, Best in the World.” I’d be their tour guide for the ACT 5 Experience, a truly unique magazine conference led by Dr. Samir Husni at Ole Miss.
The air felt crisp (as it can be) for an autumn day in Memphis, perfect welcome for a first-time visit down South. Espen Tollefsen, CEO, and Tommy Engvik, IT pro, at Norwegian magazine and book distribution company Interpress, typically travel to coastal American cities. I hoped to learn about the country of my own ancestry as much as I wanted to make certain they experienced true Southern hospitality.
We were immediately on a first-name basis chatting with ease during the drive through rural Northern Mississippi. We shared briefly about ourselves before delving into the wonderful world of magazines, and what it’s like in Norway. Both were surprised downtown Memphis has little shopping and was much smaller than expected, so I wondered how they’d find our charming town of Oxford and most beautiful campus in America. Both expected to do a lot of walking, since their hometown’s name translates to English as “steep hill.”
Before long, Tommy remarked in Norweigan how many churches he’d counted in just a brief portion of the drive. Espen laughed and translated for me. Whenever they’d lapse into speaking their native tongue, the melodic sound of the language was peculiarly comforting to me – surely my Norwegian immigrant great-grandparents had spoken it to me before I last saw them at age five.
I wondered what explore career opportunities might await me in Norway, but before we reached the Lafayette County line, my hopes dwindled alongside their shrinking industry. Without a major paradigm shift in single copy sales of magazines, the future for me packing winter clothes and heading to the home of my ancestors was bleak. Both my guests hoped the conference would be a positive source of ideas and inspiration. I’m still tumbling ideas in my head.
With a brief stop at their hotel, I sped toward Memphis to transport another guest. Fortunately we arrived just in time to join my Norwegian guests for conference opening dinner. Truly, the top leaders in the magazine industry treated Dr. Husni’s students as close to peers as one can be, for this incredible space of time.
Mr. Tollefsen’s presentation closed next day’s morning session. An engaging video introduction to Norway evoked many rounds of laughter. Culturally enlightened, the audience relaxed, reminded frequently of Norway’s love for bedtime stories, fish and potatoes. We have the insider scoop on the world’s highest availability and lowest prices on Playstation. We know geographically Norway’s length – if laid on its side – would span the width of the United States, but the population would only fill half of Manhattan.
Espen shifted gears and focused on the topic at hand – magazines. Interpress splits the entire book and magazine distribution market of Norway with one other company who holds 80% of the 4.5 million dollar market. Published weekly, Norway’s 100 magazine titles are purchased by stores, then refunds issued for unsold returns. Interpress also handles 1500 international titles. Unlike the U.S., oil drives the prosperous Norwegian economy. Property sales are up 10%. Easy to see why the average price per copy is $10.
Challenges for Interpress include reduced magazine display space by new management at stores. Food and beverage space diminish importance for magazine sales. Compared to 2012, the market fell 7%. Reading has declined 5% annually despite the culture of one bedtime story book on every nightstand in Norway. Inspiring a return to reading, versus other activities, also remains challenging.
Book sales are stable, offering less than 2% on digital platforms compared to the U.S. > 30% digital. Development cost for digital is high due to relatively small population. Increased number of available platforms resulted in an inconsistent supply. Sales are down 10% across the board, yet growth in Food, Health, and Hobby themed magazine sales increased 23%. As CEO of Interpress, Espen Tollefsen showed how a rich country with a relatively small population faces challenges similar to those of the United States magazine industry.
Jens Henneberg of Denmark’s Bonnier Group shared a return ride to Memphis and return flight to New York. On our way, Espen graciously read aloud my interview questions, answered them smoothly, recording on my smartphone. Reminiscing over the week’s events, I discovered all three men were disappointed not have a stopping point during the excursion to tour the Mississippi Delta region to photograph the cotton in full bloom. Two stops and many photos later, contented guests chatted further.
I asked if anything surprised them about Mississippi. Espen’s answer surprised me.
Mid-week, Delta Magazine led a tour to the Mississippi Delta region. First stop, Shack-Up motel in Hopson. As the group quickly ushered through the blues bar in order to view the shotgun houses-turned-motel rooms out back, Espen chatted with staff.
Seems the Blues Express, Norwegian blues band on stage – preparing to shoot a music video – stayed over at the motel.We all kept exclaiming, “What are the odds? What are the odds a first visit to the South would result in listening to a band from home?”
Clinched my goal – true Southern hospitality.