The Austin Business Journal’s Heather Ladage Sees the City’s Bright Future
The Forrest Files: September 3, 2020
Heather Ladage fell in love with the media industry as a copy writer at Indiana University’s award-winning newspaper. She has since worked in television, for print magazines and newspapers and now across multi-media platforms.
Ladage was named market president and publisher of the Austin Business Journal in February 2012 where she leads a 20-person staff to top performance across all areas of the media business — print and digital audience development, marketing strategy, advertising and sponsorship revenue, creative design, business integrity and editorial vision. She has spent more than 18 years with American City Business Journals where she has won the company’s highest honor — the Chairman’s Eagle Award for Excellence — nine times. Ladage was the circulation and marketing director for the Austin Business Journal from 2001–2008 following with several positions at the corporate level including Circulation Sales Development Director, Regional Circulation Marketing Director and National Audience Development Director — Sales.
Prior to her tenure with ACBJ, Ladage spent time at Destination Marketing Hawaii and Publicitas/Globe Media representing national titles such as Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Midwest Living, The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, The New Yorker and Outside Magazine.
She says the welcoming nature of this community as one of her favorite things about Austin:
“I like the people, the music, and the food. I love that I moved to this city and I didn’t know a soul, yet within 10 years I was running the premier business media organization in town. I was only able to do that because people in Austin embrace new people and want to help you succeed. I hope that never changes.”
Have you seen any big changes in Austin Business Journal (ABJ) readership patterns / habits as a result of COVID?
The circulation/audience of a media organization is our heartbeat; without it we die. In 2020, we are reaching more people than we ever have, and they are more engaged than ever. ABJ’s paid readership is up 25% YOY — a number virtually unheard of in media circles today. People need information they can trust to run their businesses during these uncertain times.
These days, what does the average ABJ reader look like?
She or he is an educated, high-earning influencer. 85% are college grads; 47% advanced degrees. The average household income is $273K; $2.2M net worth. 83% of our readers influence decisions that are made at their company.
What is the approximate breakdown of people who read the physical version of the paper versus people who read the digital version of the paper?
When most people meet me, they say, “oh, you’re the person in my inbox every day!” We run a digital-first newsroom but still have a loyal following of readers who want print. We give the reader different experiences — the Morning and Afternoon Editions are emailed to you daily for the stories you need to know or share with your clients more urgently. The Weekly Edition gives you a print option and includes our comprehensive lists, an in-depth cover story and reporter pages focusing on real estate, technology and economic development. Our audience is about 50/50 print vs. digital consumption, and at the end of the day we want to give you trusted valuable information you can’t get anywhere else, that you are willing to pay for (people sometimes forget media is a business, too), however you want it. If that’s print, great; if that’s on your laptop, great; if that’s on your mobile device, great.
In terms of readership and scale and focus, how does ABJ compare to other newspapers in the American City Business Journals chain?
ABJ is a star in the 44-market chain in terms of our digital reporting chops. We have a small newsroom of 10 editors, reporters and designers yet punch above our weight with the larger advertising revenue markets like Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. We have the highest increase in paid readership this year. We were also one of the first markets to see a larger percentage of our readers and advertisers embrace digital products.
ABJ is involved with a lot of events. What is your favorite event and why?
I miss IRL events! The pivot to the virtual world has been a major challenge. We host our events for our audience and sponsors to not only gain business intelligence, but to connect with business leaders, and let’s face it — that happens best in person. A favorite event, that’s hard. Best Places to Work is probably the most fun, Profiles in Power recognizes top female business leaders, so it is close to my heart and Best CEO Awards allows me to hear advice from the business rock stars of Central Texas. We’ve also created a new program — Inspiring Leaders — for the fall that will shine the light on CEOs and companies that are helping lead through the pandemic.
As a publisher, how do you balance realism about the current economy vs optimism about the future?
Just like any leader is experiencing right now, it’s a constant balancing act with staff and customers. The fact is, we still have a lot to be optimistic about in Austin. We’ll get through it.
What project / development / re-location is most important to Austin’s future?
What recent Austin relocation are you more excited about: Tesla or Joe Rogan?
With 5,000 jobs headed into our region, definitely Tesla. I just hope the company and its employees jump in with both feet as community stewards supporting local business and the nonprofit sector.
Who is this city’s next Michael Dell or John Mackey?
COVID aside . . .what’s the most important issue Austin needs to resolve to ensure continued stable growth?
What are some of the best solutions to the city’s affordability challenges?
It really starts with housing. Austin is among the most under-supplied metros in the country. Obviously, low supply leads to higher prices. Our median home value is $400K. Wages are also not increasing as quickly as housing costs, adding to affordability issues. A third of Austin residents spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
The metro got a push toward tackling the issue when the City of Austin’s historic $925M municipal bond passed, including the $250M affordable housing component. Things like embracing high density development and building with innovation, as well as the rewrite of the land development code, the Imagine Austin plan, public/private partnerships, and Evolve Austin’s efforts can all lead to solutions. We also need to have a viable transportation system to get people to work as development will continue to happen outside of Central Austin.
You spent a year leading the Board for Austin Habitat for Humanity. What was your biggest takeaway from that experience?
From a social and economic development perspective, Austin Habitat for Humanity is just another piece of the puzzle to solve our affordability issues. From a leadership perspective, surround yourself with smart people working toward a common goal and you can get a lot done.
What do you like least about the new Austin? Said another way, what do you miss most about the old Austin?
The traffic. We haven’t kept up with infrastructure. I’m afraid we sometimes don’t want to accept the fact that we are the 11th largest city in the country, on our way into the top 10. We simply can’t operate like we did in 1975, 2001 or even 2010.
I miss walking down South Congress to grab a bite to eat without having to make reservations first, dodge scooters or avoid swarms of bachelorette parties. I am a proponent of change and development, but as someone whose neighborhood has seen some pretty dramatic transformation over the past 20 years, I just hope we can keep some of that Austin magic that brought a lot of us here in the first place.
What does Austin look like 10 years from now?
For a look more distant into the future, check out our monthly Austin 2040 series. But in 10 years, I say we’re still a fastest growing city in America and we’re sitting at 3 million people in the MSA with even more moving to a pro-business environment like Texas. With the office of the future looking different and if people can live anywhere, will they stay in California and New York? Moreover, the large number of bigger companies like Apple, Google and Tesla doubling down in Central Texas will benefit everyone from startups to service providers. The hit to the economy might just momentarily slow us down; this town is packed with innovators that give me great optimism about the future.
Just, please oh please, let The Continental Club still be hosting live music on South Congress.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.