In this month’s episode of the Pipeline Technology Podcast, sponsored by Pipeline & Gas Journal, host Russel Treat is joined by Andy McDowell, President of Gulf Energy Information, to talk about Pipeline & Gas Journal’s transition to fully digital publication in 2023.
McDowell explains that the decision was driven by the success of a similar shift for another brand, “World Oil,” and the industry’s increased engagement with digital content during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the positive audience reception to the transition.
Listen to the episode now to learn more about the strategic planning that went into the change, as well as the benefits of the unique experience offered by a digital publication.
Pipeline and Gas Journal Transition to Digital Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Andy McDowell is the President at Gulf Energy Information and publisher of Pipeline & Gas Journal. Connect with Andy on LinkedIn.
- Pipeline & Gas Journal is the essential resource for technology, industry information, and analytical trends in the midstream oil and gas industry. For more information on how to become a subscriber, visit pgjonline.com/subscribe.
- Upstream: The segment of the energy industry that involves exploration, drilling, and production of oil and natural gas.
- Midstream: The segment of the energy industry that involves the transportation, storage, and wholesale marketing of petroleum products and natural gas.
- AI (Artificial Intelligence) is intelligence demonstrated by machines in contrast to the natural intelligence displayed by humans.
- Generative AI is a type of artificial intelligence technology that can produce various types of content, including text, imagery, audio and synthetic data.
- Return on investment (ROI) or return on costs is a ratio between net income and investment.
Pipeline and Gas Journal Transition to Digital Full Episode Transcript
Announcer: The “Pipeline Technology Podcast,” brought to you by “Pipeline & Gas Journal,” the decision-making resource for pipeline and midstream professionals. Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeline Technology Podcast, episode 40. On this episode, our guest is Andy McDowell, President of Gulf Energy Information. We’re going to talk to Andy about the recent transition of the Pipeline & Gas Journal to a fully digital publication. Andy, welcome back to the Pipeline Technology Podcast.
Andy McDowell: Hey, Russel. Thanks so much. Glad to be here.
Russel: If you would, why don’t you remind the listeners who you are and what your role is with Gulf Energy?
Andy: Absolutely. I’m President of Gulf Energy Information. We are a 100-plus-year-old media company, events company, and market intelligence company. We’re the owners of Pipeline & Gas Journal, which is our main brand covering the midstream space.
We go all over oil and gas, all throughout global energy, utilities as well. Specific to this conversation, Pipeline & Gas Journal is our main product to this space.
Russel: I asked you to come on and talk about the transition to digital, effective January 1st of 2023. We’re right at the one-year anniversary, as this podcast goes live, of transitioning from a print magazine exclusively to a digital periodical. What drove PG&E to make that decision?
Andy: Part of Gulf are several other brands as well that had led a digital shift, one of which mainly “World Oil” on the upstream side back in March of 2020. That was probably our best case from an audience perspective, really understanding digital technology and being able to absorb that content in much more of a real-time, digital presence.
It was expedited by COVID. No point in trying to hide that, but we had the groundwork laid to where that was going to happen either way in about 12 to 18 months.
When it came up to the, really, summer, I would say, of 2022, we were really looking at the rest of our brands, saying, “We have a model that works. The upstream audience has done really, really well with this transition. How can we start to implement this into our other brands?”
It’s no surprise, during COVID, a lot of readers took a step back. People stopped working in their offices. Print publications may not have been as relevant at that time. We were seeing better engagement across our digital products, mainly with our website and newsletters.
Really, costs were going up on the print side. Paper, distribution, all those things continue to increase multiple percentage digits a year. It’s just something we really took a long, hard look at and say, “How can we make this better, not only for the readers and the audience, but also for the advertisers?”
I hate to say we rolled the dice and went with it. We knew what we were going to do. We had a model that worked, but it was a big risk, one that’s really, really paid off. It’s done great wonders for Gulf Energy Information and also for all of our brands.
Russel: It would be interesting to know how many fewer tons of paper you used in the last year by making that transition.
Andy: It’s interesting. First off, I have no idea. We actually just sent the last issue of “Underground Infrastructure” to print earlier last month, in November of 2023. We had our VP of Content try and do some rough guesstimates on the number of pages that have been published in the past or number of pounds of ink that have been used. Paper was brought up as well.
It’s really just this great transition in our company. We’re very excited about it. It’s opened up tremendous windows and opportunities in real-time data and technology information. It’s been great.
Russel: What did you have to do to plan for that kind of transition? That is very much…You said it was risky. I think I fully understand that. What did you have to do to lay the groundwork? I guess you were fortunate in that you had a model to follow from one of your other brands, but every brand’s different. What did you have to do?
Andy: Every brand is different, but we were confident in the model, from a technology pub style, that it was going to work in the midstream sector as well. What we did that really set us apart was…This is not something we’re trying to sneak by. This is not something that one month, you’re print, and then the next month, you’re digital all of a sudden.
We started running ad campaigns on it. We started alerting all of our advertisers and clients to it, of course, all of our readers, months in advance that this was happening. We did it across multiple different platforms, really all that we had access to, from podcast interviews to the magazine itself to newsletter articles.
We had content contributions from our editorial team in there, really describing how this was going to be better for everybody that is part of the Pipeline & Gas Journal family. Readers have access to real content.
It’s funny. When the print publication went away, at that time, even prior to that, since Gulf acquired Oildom back in 2018, we’ve been a digital-first publishing company since then. The content is generated. The content goes online. Then it gets picked up and goes out, through various forms and fashions, across all the media that we have, with print being one of those.
Readers were starting to engage with that content sooner, throughout the website, being able to have access to it through our newsletters which touch people on a daily basis. Then we just had this print product that would just go out. We didn’t really know a lot about it. We knew where it went, of course.
It was BPA-audited at the time. Everybody’s qualified by name, title, company, type of industry they have purchasing power and influence over. All those things are great checkboxes. Really, who’s reading it? How long are they reading it?
It’s really allowed us to transition that to a data-driven, digital product now, going forward. Going big with it. We’re not going to sneak anything under this radar by people. We’re going to tell people why we’re doing it. We’re going to just really scream for the hills, as they say.
It’s just been great. I’m sure you’ll probably get to it as well. How did the audience respond, the transition, and feedback and things that we heard. As a whole, everybody…I would say everybody. I wasn’t surprised because I believed in it a little bit more. It was my idea to go through with it as well, as part of this company.
It was very surprising by how few negative responses — I hate to say complaints — just negative feedback we received. Just like anything, you’re going to have that type of stuff that comes through.
Every response that came to me though, or came to our team, was personally answered by me. A lot of it was just — I’ll just boil down to it — “I just miss my print copy. Hey. I used to stack my copies in my office or on my desk. I’d sticky note it.”
We would just walk through how we can do that in a digital world. It’s a HTML-based product. I got them online, talked him through the process, and said, “Hey, this is how you can save this article. Let’s open up a folder, a bookmark approach.”
It’s been great. Really, less than five people probably came back with any type of responses. It’s overwhelmingly been very positive. Our advertisers are happy. Readers appear happy as well.
Russel: One of the things, particularly somebody my age, there’s something about printed material that I have a preference for. I just do. I will say that it took me a minute to get over the hump with the new mechanism of delivery.
Once I got into it and figured it out, I’m like, “Oh, OK. I see what we’re doing here.” It started to make a lot of sense, but there was a bit of a mental shift, I guess, to just get comfortable with a different way of going through the content.
Andy: Sure. Absolutely. When publishers first started digital issues, they were totally, not an afterthought, but just an add-on to the print issue. How can we expand our audience and expand our numbers and expand our reach by PDF-based…Call them flip books or whatever they may be.
When you actually start to engage with those, you’re zooming in on pages. They make this weird whoosh, swish noise, as they cross the screen. It was meant to be a magazine. We want to be a digital product. We want to be a compilation of quality technical content that goes out, but we don’t have to be a true digital magazine.
This new system that we use — it’s actually an upgraded service from the vendor that we’d used with our flipbooks prior to — is an HTML-based product. We do not go through the layout process all the way through a PDF. You do not have to zoom in on everything.
It’s completely responsive to whatever device the reader is on. Whether they’re on a phone, tablet, their desktop, whatever it may be, the content automatically adapts to that screen.
You still scroll right to left to go between your cover and your table of contents and your various advertisements. When you come to an article, you scroll north to south. With your finger on your phone, just like you would on…
Russel: It took me a second to figure that out.
Andy: Like, “Gosh, that’s a really interactive article.”
Russel: I was expecting the flipbook. Click, click, click. It’s just the magazine experience. Once I got beyond that, I’m like, “Wait. No, that’s not what this is.” I started figuring out, “Oh. To read the articles, you’ve got to scroll down or slide your finger up, if you’re on a smart device. Once I figured that out, I’m like, “Oh. So now the whole article here is just one URL.”
That’s handy. Now, if I’m an advertiser or an author of an article, then I have the URL to my article. It’s there forever.
Andy: It’s there indefinitely. Each individual raft, as they’re referred to, whether it be an ad or an article, has its unique URL, can be shared across social media or in any form and fashion, really to be able to let others have access to it and be able to review the content in that form.
You brought a point earlier about having to adapt to something. Let’s be honest. This isn’t for everybody either. I would say it was for the majority of our audience. It was from a company perspective, the vision that we saw.
Part of our transition to this role was Gulf is not going to be a follower. I truly believe this is all going to go digital at some point. We’re going to lead with this. We’re going to have a good strategy in place. We’re going to execute against it, putting our advertisers and readers first.
We just went for it. We went big. We went bold. We relied on the World Oil model. It’s gone over really well. At the same time, if you don’t want to read it that way, the content is available in other forms now, to where you can still have it real-time as opposed to having to wait for the magazine to come out second, third week of the month or whatever it is.
Russel: I would also say too, you mentioned in your introduction that Gulf Energy is an over-100-year-old media company. You don’t become a 100-year-old company by following the market. You have to be a technological innovator.
I’m sure, if you went back to the first paper editions of the magazines that were produced 100-plus years ago, they were probably black and white ink. Then color began to come in. Then you’ve got automated responses for direct mail pieces and all of those things that the companies had to work through.
This was a very bold move, but you have to make your decisions about what the future is going to require, not what is required today. That’s tough, but that’s why they pay you the big bucks.
Andy: It’s tough, and it’s risky. I like to say we’re not one of these digital startups that’s just popped up and say, “Hey, we know how to do technology too.” We’ve got that 100-plus-year value in the marketplace, editorial integrity, and commitment through Mike Reed and his entire team on the PGJ staff.
It’s those experts. It’s our content contributors. It’s those people that have the ultimate value at the end of the day. PGJ is a method of delivering that quality content to the end decision user at the pipeline owner and operators or engineering construction companies, whatever that may be.
Let’s just say that, like you said, times change. Technology changes. You see black and white ink. Some of these brands started as weekly newspapers that then transitioned into magazines, that then maybe, in the early 2000s, tried a digital shift that was just too early. We strongly believe now that this is a solid path forward and one that we’re fully behind at Gulf.
Russel: One of the things about the Internet and content on the Internet is there’s a plethora of content. Everybody’s talking about generative AI and the ability to write things on the fly.
I think there’s a real value in content that can be trusted and has appropriate journalistic integrity and editorial review. I suspect there’s going to be a bigger demand for that in the future. What’s your take on that? How did that play into your decision-making?
Andy: Somebody once told me that AI is never going to replace a person, but a person that doesn’t understand AI could very well be replaced. There are some things that are going to be automated down the road.
When it comes to, just like you said, the editorial integrity and value of this brand and that true thought leadership and knowledge that our team and staff brings to work every single day, it cannot be replaced by a machine at this current point.
I’m not going to speculate into the future, but as of right now and what we see, that core team is valued in the marketplace. They’re respected in the marketplace. They’re listened to. They’re, most importantly, always seen as credible.
To be fully transparent, we at Gulf are also probably very close to launching our AI policy as well, which we will be sharing to the readers as well as posting on our own internal sites as well. There are things that we are dabbling in with AI. How is it going to be able to maybe help us or streamline a couple things here and there?
At the end of the day, it’s not just producing content. It’s not producing technical articles. It’s not producing this for that. It may be taking something and repurposing it for a social media feed or something like that. Even then, all of those things are reviewed by editorial. Everything goes through our same exact process.
A machine, an algorithm, whatever you want to define it as, is not going to know the ins and outs of a pipeline integrity technology better than a human being or a technical expert…
Russel: An AI leverages the body of work that already exists. It needs something to leverage. If something’s brand new, then what do you leverage? I’ve heard people say, “Much easier to edit than to draft.” What AI is going to do is it’s going to allow us to draft more effectively, more quickly, but you’re still going to need to edit.
Andy: You’re still going to need not only that human element but just that technical level that quality publication and quality brand we’re able to bring to the marketplace.
Russel: How does somebody who wants to subscribe to the magazine, how would they subscribe?
Andy: All of it can be done through our websites. Probably the easiest way to do it, on that page, there’s a subscription page. We just ask for a little bit of information to get a free trial going.
We still do run a qualification process, much like any other qualified circ or B2B publication would, to where if you work for the right type of company with the right type of job title and purchasing power and influence, you can qualify to receive the magazine delivered to you every month in a digital format for free.
In addition, you can log in and sign in for any newsletters that you want to receive on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. You can, obviously, start following us and engaging with us on social media. You can engage with content on the website.
If you really want to have access to, call it, those long-term archives and older issues of the magazine and things like that, that is part of a full-access, paid subscription. All of those are clearly outlined on the website. It’s a few quick points we ask just in order to try and qualify you. Then it goes to our audience development team to finalize that process.
Russel: We’ll add a link in the show notes so that people that are interested and listening to this can find it quickly and get signed up if they’re not already.
Andy: It’s the digital version of the subscription cards that used to be sticky-glued in, that took forever to mail back and then get processed. It can be done by the snap of a finger now, pretty easily.
Russel: You’re picking on me there, Andy.
You’re talking about the way I remember how to do it.
What else would you want people to know about the digital magazine and the experience and value of that?
Andy: One other thing I would add too is a lot of publishers that have taken this transition have even gone past the digital magazine part and just tried to be a Web-based or website-based product only, driving content through newsletters and being very targeted with that.
While that’s a good approach, we at Gulf are still big believers in the actual magazine itself. At the end of the day, albeit digital, it has a cover. It has a table of contents.
We still run a monthly editorial calendar, which is printed in advance, and our media planners every year, which allows us to make sure that we’re still focusing in on all relevant content across the midstream industry and then that we’re able to take that and put it underneath an issue-bound cover once a month.
At the end of the day, you may have seen some of the content on the website or the newsletters or social media by the time that digital magazine comes out, but there are going to be some things in that magazine you may not have seen. It’s still something that can very easily be flipped through, read very effectively and efficiently. We’re just big Believers in that.
It’s also opened doors. Not to get to commercial here, but it’s opened great for advertisers as well. Advertisers have been able to come in and totally change how they engage with our audience, whether it’s through digital ads in the magazine or across the website, whatever it may be.
Really, it’s been a great transition for them too to be able to show a real positive ROI at the end of that campaign year and be able to drive home why the investment is important to leadership at their various organizations.
We had some people completely just throw their hands up and say, “I don’t want to do this. This is scaring me. It’s a little bit new.” Since then, all of those people have either come back or will be coming back in the next month or two.
Sat back a year and realized that, at the end of the day, we may not be printing, but PGJ is still just as valuable to them as we were back then, looking ahead into next year.
Russel: I thought it might be interesting if we flip the script a bit and let you ask me a couple of questions as a long-term Pipeline & Gas Journal subscriber and somebody who’s pretty diligently gone through the magazines and read the content for years.
Andy: As this transition happened earlier in the year, I always ask people this that I have these conversations with. The misconception about digital magazines is, all of a sudden, “Things are just too expensive. You’re not making enough money, or you may not be doing this right or that, whatever it may be.”
Also, a big misunderstanding of this is that you’re forgotten about. Because you don’t have something physical, you’re forgotten about. My question to you is, say the first six months of this year, did you think PGJ was forgotten about? Did you not feel like you had adequate access to the content on a regular basis?
Russel: That’s a great question. I would say that my experience was like, “Where’s the magazine?” Just expecting it to show up in my inbox, and it never showed up. Then I’m like, “Wait a second. It went digital.” Then I’m like, “Have I seen it in my inbox?”
I actually had to go looking for it. That was a little bit of a different experience. Once I got everything set up correctly, it just started showing up in my inbox.
Then the other thing — I’ve already mentioned this — is I was expecting a flipbook. It took me a second, when I opened it up to go, “This isn’t a flipbook. This is something else.” Then once I made that leap, I’m like, “This makes sense.”
Andy: I would say that’s a pretty common answer that we get from most of the readers, in addition to several people who just say, “We still get y’all’s daily newsletter, so we never felt like things were missing.” Maybe a few less magazines were stacking up at the office here and there. At the end of the day, they still felt like PGJ was there. They were engaging with that content.
Russel: I would say, Andy, that the experience of clicking through or sliding through the magazine content is different than all the other content.
Andy: It is, for sure.
Russel: I look at the daily e-news every day. I’ll click into the things that are interesting to me. When the magazine comes out, I’m really more deliberate about reading more of the content.
Andy: I would say that’s fair.
Russel: From my standpoint, it was a bit of a bumpy transition for me as a subscriber. It was a bit bumpy. Not horrible, but just a bit bumpy.
Andy: That’s one of those things that…Not everything is going to go as smoothly as you plan for it to. You can wave the shiny penny and flag as much as you possibly can, but people still aren’t going to see it until, all of a sudden, they’re like, “Wait. Where is that?” Then they go like…
You were a loyal reader. You went and found it. You looked for it. You and I have obviously had several conversations, over the year, about different things here and there, but it has led you to still want to be engaged with the content, which is great from a readership perspective.
Russel: The other thing too is — I don’t understand this yet — the question that’s coming up for me as we’re talking, as an advertiser in the magazine, is, what is now available to me that I didn’t even realize was a possibility or is a possibility? What does that mean?
I’ve probably written over a dozen articles for the magazine over the years. We haven’t written anything for the magazine in a while. As I’m sitting there, I’m thinking about this. I’m like, “I need to sit down with my marketing guys and dust off and rethink a little bit how we’re going to do this going forward.”
Andy: We’ve got to put you in touch with Mike to get something out there for future publication, for sure. You brought up the advertising side too. When your ads shifted to the digital presence and you were able to position more thought leadership-type pieces, did you see a noticeable shift or difference in your business and the response you were seeing there?
Russel: No, but I don’t view magazine advertising or article writing as a lead generation activity. I view it as a educate-and-elevate activity, more of a brand development activity. In terms of the kind of results we’re seeing, we’re continuing to see good results in those things that we’re working. I can’t tell you that I could notice any measurable difference.
Andy: We know that, at the end of the day, like I said, those few that left have come back because they realize it’s still a valuable partnership. The ones that have continued on, definitely in a similar boat, to where it’s like, “Things are still going along very smoothly. We’re still getting the branding or lead gen,” regardless of the products that they choose to advertise in.
Most importantly, they’re still continuing to see the business operate. We have the data and analytics to back all that up. If you’re a data or an analytical person and are interested in how that stuff’s being engaged with on a regular basis, that’s all stuff that can now be provided as a fully digital product.
Russel: Awesome. Any final comments before we wrap up?
Andy: No. Really, this has been a great conversation. This is something I’ve lived and breathed for the past several years. We took six of our eight publications, since two are website-only, digital earlier this year, with our last one going digital as of December. We’re 100-percent digital company going forward.
It’s been a great experience to be a part of, still an ongoing transition very much though. We’re never settling. We’re always looking for the next greatest thing we can do out there in the marketplace. It’s been an exciting time.
As always, if you have any issues, concerns, or you want to talk about the issue and things like that going forward, we can get you my contact details. I’m happy to answer any questions in more depth, for anybody that would like to know a little bit more detail on the reason behind this.
Russel: Again, we’ll put Andy’s contact information in the show notes for anybody that might want to reach out to him. Hey, Andy. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about all this. I find this fascinating. When you first told me, which I guess was maybe 18 months ago, about the decision you guys had made, I was like, “Wow. That’s bold.” That was my reaction.
Knowing where you are and where you’re headed, I think it really positions Gulf Interstate and Pipeline & Gas Journal in a position to continue to not only be thought leaders, but to be leaders in distributing and providing content for pipeliners.
Andy: That’s what we’re about at the end of the day, trying to provide the latest technology and information, data, news, analysis for this market. We’ve been doing it for…I said 100-plus. That was Gulf before Oildom. Pipeline & Gas Journal was 1859. It’s 150-something years now, which is just a long, long time.
Russel: 1859, that’s almost 175 years.
Andy: It’s been around a long time as a quality and valued product. We’re not going anywhere. We’re only going to continue to get better going forward.
Russel: Awesome. Thanks for taking the time.
Andy: Thank you for having me.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this month’s episode of the Pipeline Technology Podcast and our conversation with Andy. If you’d like to support the podcast, best way to do that is to leave us a review. You can leave us a review on Apple Podcast, Google Play, or wherever you happen to listen. You can find instructions at pipelinepodcastnetwork.com.
If there’s a Pipeline & Gas Journal article where you’d like to hear from the author, please let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinepodcastnetwork.com, or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next month.