When the Experiment is Print

Starting a physical magazine can sometimes be the most forward-thinking move.

By Lonna Dawson

Image: The Pitchfork Review

When I began telling friends and family that I had applied to Columbia Journalism School and planned on going to graduate school to study journalism, the reactions were a mix of deflated congratulations, confusion and side-eyed glances. Those reactions weren’t totally unwarranted. The business of journalism, especially print media, has only recently rebounded from a near-death experience in 2008 and still looms in the background of more profitable and popular industries like technology.

To top it off, what did I really want to do after school? Start a magazine. What could sound more ridiculous?

Yet, print persists. Some would even say that it’s been thriving in the past few years, as a growing cohort of media veterans and ambitious newcomers have made the audacious move to start print publications in a world of seeming digital dominance. Last year, Hearst Magazines announced it would release a new magazine in 2016; and despite declining overall market sales, Fit Pregnancy magazine experienced an increase in subscriptions, as well as entertainment title People Style Watch. On the indie side, magazines like Cherry Bombe, Kinfolk, Lucky Peach, California Sunday flourished, in various ways (Kinfolk began a clothing line, Lucky Peach broadened its website, Cherry Bombe and California Sunday had splashy launches and events.) So I decided to speak with a few companies to see if print can still be innovative—and what it would take to actualize my dream of launching a print magazine in 2015. What advice would they give someone starting out?

FOR LOVE, NOT MONEY

Since 1996, Pitchfork has been a staple for indie music enthusiasts seeking album reviews online. The site has grown up alongside a fast-changing music industry, gradually expanding coverage to include news, criticism, and features. But it took a giant leap in 2014, when it launched The Pitchfork Review, a quarterly print publication that extends the content found on its website to long-form features and photography.

Newly launched print companies are not interested in becoming legacy brands. Rather, many companies are being formed as projects of passion. “The review was never launched to be a profitable endeavor,” said Chris Kaskie, president of Pitchfork. “We wanted to think if there was a way to put our stamp on something permanent. Bands make records and you put it on vinyl for a reason,” said Kaskie. But Kaskie is also clear that The Pitchfork Review could not cause the company to lose money, and according to Kaskie, that has yet to be the case.

Lucky Peach, a quarterly food magazine that launched in 2011, started its publication with only itself in mind. “As selfish and naive as that sounds, we just really wanted to make a thing to entertain ourselves and it turned out there were other people who were entertained by the same sort of infantile humor,” said Chris Ying, editor in chief of Lucky Peach. In the case of Lucky Peach, the idea was launched with the financial support of publishing house McSweeney’s.

The same holds true for CNET, a digital source for tech news and reviews. After 20 years of producing online only content, CNET released a print magazine in November 2014. Why? It’s simple according to Connie Guglielmo, editor in chief of CNET News, “This magazine is not paying our bills. This is not our main financial engine, which it is for a lot of publications. This is an add-on for us.”

DO ONE THING. WELL.

The print publications that have launched within the last few years have one thing in common: a niche. They have narrowly defined what their publication is about, digging into passionate communities around topics like food or fashion. At Lucky Peach, the target audience is simple: people who like food. Long gone are the days where a new business has a profile of the target consumer complete with detailed demographics. “We jumped in totally cold,” said Ying of Lucky Peach. Lucky Peach didn’t conduct any audience analysis until a few years after their launch. “We worked in this bubble where we really liked print magazines and we made one that we thought we would want to read,” Ying said. In Lucky Peach, you’ll find an article on the supply process of the indian cucumber; and another about one writer’s affinity for a New York-style beef patty.

At The Pitchfork Review, only 10,000 copies of the magazine are produced every quarter, a decision in part to sustain its business model (the magazine sells for $20). But it also helped to create a niche vibe for the magazine. “We don’t want to approach it as a big mass magazine,” said Matt Frampton, vice president of sales at Pitchfork, although the company would increase production if demand called for it.

GIVE THEM SOMETHING THEY CAN FEEL

Whereas the pages of newspapers and even some august magazines can tear between two fingers, newly launched print products emphasize tactility. Thicker, heavier paper connotes permanence, of course. And it’s one way these publications are trying to elevate their stock to that of your favorite book—something you want to show off and talk about, but that you hesitate to lend out. The idea behind carefully selected paper is to give the reader the feeling that they have purchased a keepsake. “We wanted it to feel like it was utilizing the medium of print. We put a lot of care into choosing our paper stocks and typography and the kinds of things that are really useful for print,” said Mike Renaud, creative director at Pitchfork.

AD SALE.

Many new print companies are exploring advertising models that do not distract the reader from the experience of reading the magazine. Nothing interrupts the feeling that time has suspended as you read your favorite magazine like a hair loss prescription drug advertisement. “We don’t want to be out there selling lots of page ads,” said Frampton of Pitchfork. At Pitchfork, the inaugural issue of the quarterly was completely sponsored by Converse, an idea they got from a similar partnership between The New Yorker and Target in 2005. The company sponsored photography, studio time in their recording studio and album art for an artist selected by Pitchfork.

SO…ABOUT YOUR MAGAZINE?

The thing is, almost none of these magazines launched without support from either an existing media brand (CNET), a publishing house (McSweeney’s) or pre-existing digital success (The Pitchfork Review)—in other words, they were not funded by the magazine’s creators. This gave them the luxury of exploring a passion with room for failure. Plus, since many of the companies I spoke to are privately owned, no one really knows if they are making money (although many of them assured me they weren’t losing any and point to their circulation numbers and subscriptions as a proxy). Do I still want to start a magazine? More than ever. What did I learn that solidified my decision? Nothing, really, that I didn’t already know. Rather, my listening tour around the country confirmed a saying I heard all the time growing up in The Bronx: “Do you.” Every field of human endeavor will have its merits and shortcomings, an accompanying S.W.O.T. analysis, and people who do things differently and anyway; pros and cons, glows and grows and any other project management euphemisms. I intend to create a magazine that is something I would want to read and trust that what I think is absent from the shelves, a few thousand other people think the same. Simple.

Additional reporting by David Uberti

This story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Columbia Journalism Review