Can you make a magazine in a weekend? Of course you can. But can you make it good? That's the question 48 Hour Magazine is trying to answer, using online media tools to make an old-school rag in two days.
I talked to the collaborators, a group of San Francisco-based writers and creators who have worked in and around the media industry, old and new, for years. I asked them all the same simple questions in a fairly limp attempt to get some nice quote. I should have guessed—these guys have a lot more to say about their project than could be easily decoupaged into a 800-word inverted pyramid.
In the spirit of the project, I've taken their responses and attempted to weave them into a cohesive conversation—in 48 minutes.
Joel Johnson – What's the lesson of 48 Hour Magazine? Are you guys trying to show the big magazines something?
Sarah Rich (former senior editor at Dwell, co-founder of The Foodprint Project and co-author of Worldchanging) – I don't know if I'd say we are trying to show the big magazines something so much as trying to demonstrate the potential to produce an excellent media product using "new tools"—meaning online collaboration, crowdsourcing, web-to-print production systems. I love traditional magazines; This isn't an attempt to dig their grave, it's just an example of the possibility of something new.
Mat Honan (Giz contributor and Wired contributing editor, who made Barack Obama is Your New Bicycle in four hours) – We're not trying to show established magazines a way out of the wilderness, but I do think we all have aspirations to try to make something new and different work in terms of the way magazines can be produced and financed. We were all pretty inspired by MagCloud's possibilities, and in particular Strange Light—the magazine Derek Powazek put together on the fly from the Australian dust storm. It was why we approached him before we got this off the ground and convinced him to come onboard. We thought that by using our networks on Twitter and Tumblr and that horrible piece of shit Facebook, we could likely get a lot of contributions in really quickly. And because it's print-on-demand, we wouldn't have to run around trying to find advertisers first, or figure out what our print run was going to be, or any of that other bullshit that traditionally makes launching a new title so cost-prohibitive.
Derek Powazek (founder of Fray, JPG Magazine, as well as consultant to MagCloud, a print-on-demand service for independent publishers) – Back in September 2009, when a giant dust storm hit Australia, people started posting these stunning photos. I thought they deserved to be in print, so I started asking for submissions. And after a day and a half, we published a magazine called Strange Light. I wrote about the process.
It was a great example of how print on demand was changing the way magazines could be made. And one of the people who saw it was Mat Honan.
So when Mat contacted me about 48 Hour Magazine and mentioned that they needed a hand with the print design part, I signed up to help.
Dylan Fareed (designer, coder, cofounder Ay Are Tee, the company that produces Artlog.com and Arlosites.com) – None of us are aiming to topple the magazine/print media industry, but I think all of us are looking at this as an experiment with relatively low stakes—a chance to look at "magazine" from a different angle, without an existing publication's inertia, and with fewer assumptions about how things have to be done on the web and in print. None of us are holding this up as a model for how things will be done in the future, but we all may learn a bit about where media is heading first hand and can go back to our other jobs with those lessons.
Mat Honan – Years ago, I asked Jack Boulware, a longtime figure in the San Francisco indie magazine publishing scene, if he had any advice for starting up a new title. He told me to find a dumb, young, rich backer and bleed him dry because that was the only way have a quality product. Well, fortunately for young, dumb, rich guys there's a new way to do things now. You can launch with little-to-no overhead. You can be in touch with great writers, photographers, and illustrators from all over the world in seconds, and offer them interesting ways to make money. I don't know that what we're doing would be easy for a traditional title to replicate. But for start ups, and entrepreneurs, it might be a cool model. And of course it's fast, which gives it a chance to be more timely.
Alexis Madrigal (staff writer at Wired.com, author of Green Tech History) – Most everyone got into this business because we loved to make beautiful and startling things. Turns out, in the actual practice of modern day journalism, that's the least of your worries. So, for a weekend, we wanted the fun shit to be all that mattered. Just as a reminder of why we do what we do. Like a beautiful summer day in the Pacific Northwest that you can carry around in your heart through the dreary-ass winter. Or maybe a hip flask is a better metaphor.
There are things—fact checking, foresight—that big magazines do better than anyone. We bow before them for that; it's a gift they give to society. But sure, we want to show that the tools now available to everyone for almost nothing allow you to do incredible things using only resources from outside the money economy. That's awesome, and it's one of the best parts of being alive and a journalist right now. (Think about it like this: if this was 30 years ago, most of us would be working at regional newspapers writing obituaries and high school football; not that that's not a valuable journalistic practice (it really is) but this is the new playing field, and we like it.)
Mat Honan –The other thing we're doing, that I hope is somewhat innovative, is the way we're compensating people. We haven't revealed this publicly yet, but I'll go ahead and lay out our plan.
We're shooting for a 48 page magazine. MagCloud has a base price of $.20 per page [so the total cost per issue would be $9.60]. We're going to charge a mark up on each issue, and then pool that money for 45 days from the date it goes on sale.
After 45 days, we're going to distribute the money in several ways. We'll take 25 percent, and split it evenly among all of the published contributors and production staff. For contributors, this means the more you hawk the title, the more money you earn. It gives people a vested interest, instead of a fee. We're going to take another 25 percent and award it to the three best contributions to the magazine, as decided by a vote of all published contributors. Hopefully, this encourages people to send us great work, because if it's really ace, you'll earn more for it. We'll bank 25 percent for the next issue, so we can put out an even better product with more resources next time. Finally, we're going to take that last 25 percent and do something crazy.
The idea is that, again, all the contributors get to vote on exactly what brand of craziness we embrace. There's slightly more to it than that, but I'd like to keep some stuff secret to reveal later. We were inspired by the story of Stewart Brand and the $20,000 he handed out for the last issue of Whole Earth Catalog at its demise party. Except, hopefully this will be less of a disaster.
We're assuming the overwhelming majority of sales will take place in the first 45 days. Whatever comes in after that will also go towards the next issue.
I realize this is pretty hard to follow, so I've attached a pie chart Alexis whipped up that should explain things. [There was no pie chart – Ed.]
Joel Johnson – How much are you going for "polish" over "heft"? Will you try to give everything an edit pass, an art pass, etc., or will you try to cram in as much stuff as possible? Will you turn submissions down?
Sarah Rich – There will definitely be submissions that don't make it in. The majority, most likely. As of right now there are 3357 people signed up to be notified when we reveal the theme. We plan to read/look at every piece that comes in during the submission period, select the content we want for the issue, and have all of the editors take a pass through everything before ship.
Mat Honan – The plan is to read everything and triage it into a set of folders. We're going to have a few people helping with that. We'll sort through the best stuff first, giving everything a pretty light edit. Sarah, Alexis and I will then go back and do a top edit on everything that's definitely going to run. But quite honestly, I really doubt we're going to have time to do the kind of line editing you'd expect with a longer lead time.
Alexis Madrigal – Everything that goes into the magazine will get a legitimate edit. 48 hours isn't a long time, but when you're sprinting, time slows down. We're banking on a lot of help from friends.
Mat Honan – We've approached quite a few really bad-ass writers (as well as illustrators and photographers) and so we're hoping that a lot of what comes in will be in great shape to start with.
Joel Johnson – Explain you tech workflow. All from email, then into...Pagemaker? (I have no idea what magazines are laid out in.)
Sarah Rich – We're using InDesign for layout and a custom system for the web part of this.
Alexis Madrigal – If Dylan is around, I'd love him to take a crack at explaining this. Because it's so sick. Heroku is somehow the opposite of hara-kiri.
Dylan Fareed – I'm building the web app that'll undergird the submission, editing and web-publication process. I don't really have a magazine background and that may be one of the reasons the guys asked me to help out as I am approaching the problem - managing tons of submissions (possibly) in an extremely tight timeframe (definitely) with few editors (relatively)—without the benefit of baggage or expectations about how it's typically done.
So the app I am building as I mentioned handles the public facing website (to be designed next week—one version for your computer's browser and a mobile version as well) and submissions. The back end interface is designed to support the editorial process and is based on the assumptions we are making about manpower, time and volume of submissions.
Generally speaking that means that submissions (photo, illustration, text pieces, and/or hybrids) come into the system through a web-based form and are sorted by the app. Each editor and each reader can login and see what needs to be reviewed, give it a read through, make comments and make a judgment on the piece. Each submission should get looked at by multiple editors. And editors will quickly be able to see the submissions with the most favorable ratings, etc.
Derek Powazek – Once the submissions start coming in and go through the edit process, the accepted ones will land on my desk. I'll be heading up the print design, laying out the magazine in InDesign. I've been doing this kind of layout since college. Print design is my happy place.
When it's done, we'll output it all as a PDF, and upload it to MagCloud. It can then be put up for sale immediately. MagCloud will handle the billing, printing, binding, packing, and shipping ... basically all of the really unfun parts of running a magazine. (I'll show you the piles of boxes I have of past Fray issues that I'm still mailing by hand. Oy.)
Dylan Fareed – The actual editing process will also happen through the application with folks writing comments and pushing things forward in app rather than through a storm of emails and attachments. This is important primarily because of the time constraints.
When a piece is pretty much ready to go the system will then package the content (media and text & contributor info) in an easily consumable format for the print layout process (xml or raw text and hi-res image files) and it'll feed that same content into the web and mobile sites.
Joel Johnson – What's your feel on the current state of the magazine industry?
Mat Honan – It's troubling! I've been working in the magazine industry since 1997. Recently, however, I've been thinking of becoming a family farmer because it seems like it might be a better long-term career move. Of course that's not true, I know magazines are rebounding. Yet I do think you're going to continue to see a winnowing down of major titles. There will be fewer major magazines on the stand, and those that are there will really have to prove themselves. But I also think there could be lots of room for niche players, like us, with weird models. Only magazines can save magazines.
Sarah Rich – Obviously print magazines are facing serious challenges to their long-held way of doing things. I don't think print is going to die but I think the magazines that will really thrive in the future are the ones who figure out how to embrace the tools of the web and use their online presence as a way not only to bolster their print product but also to deepen and diversify their overall identity and cultural role. Integrating the platforms and being willing to experiment and take risks are critical.
Joel Johnson – 48HR is a fun one-off, but what sort of topics or situations can you imagine this quick turnaround format being useful for?
Sarah Rich – One example that comes to mind in terms of the utility of quick turnaround was the production of a SXSW newspaper this year, done by Newspaper Club. The paper was produced basically overnight after the content was gathered, and distributed during the event. A write-up about it characterized Newspaper Club's message to traditional newspapers as, "We have broken your business, now we want your machines." I don't know if we think of ourselves as conquistadors this way, exactly. I almost imagine it more as saying to traditional magazine publishers, "We come in peace. We can exist harmoniously, print and digital, and maybe even find new ways of relating that make us both better."
Mat Honan – Certainly this rapid production crowdsourced magazine seems like it's already proving itself. You've got titles like Strange Light and Ash Cloud emerging around events of the day. I can see it being a way a city might, say, use it to celebrate write their baseball team's miracle season. Instead of just leaving it up to the local newspaper to put out a half-assed souvenir rag, local bloggers and fanatics could crowdsource their own passionate, agenda-driven magazine.
Joel Johnson – Why paper? Why's that so important? Is it symbolic?
Alexis Madrigal – This is the opposite of how I think about this. Things happen in the world and when they do, you want to preserve them. Most news accounts of how things happen tend to run on narrative rails, even though that's clearly a compression and distortion of what happened. Having spent a lot of time thinking about history and how events are ordered by journalists—the information design of news writing, just to be annoyingly jargony about it—I think there is enormous value in creating packages of content that allow for the multifariousness of the world to be seen.
Mat Honan – I have a deep reverence for magazines. I love them. I grew up in Alabama in the pre-Internet era, and magazine subscriptions were my cultural lifelines. I grew up reading Rolling Stone, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Spy, and Spin. Magazines let me drop into a world without rednecks, and then hang out there for hours on end. While the Internet has largely taken over that cultural delivery vehicle role, I still find the experience of immersion you get from a paper magazine unequaled. It's free from distractions. It doesn't ping every time you get a new email or @ message. It won't parade links across the pages that will whisk you away to a completely unrelated story in a completely different publication. If you can find a title where you trust the editors to bring you the goods month after month, I think that's still something special. For me diving into a magazine, offline, offers a way to focus my mind and immerse myself in a cohesive experience that I still don't find elsewhere. I'd like to offer that same immersive experience to others.
Sarah Rich – Sure, I suppose it's symbolic. The "package" for this ultimately looks the same as the old thing (minus a few small formal details), but the way we got there couldn't be more different. This couldn't have been done even five years ago. Plus, a magazine is a beautiful, physical artifact. I'm not thinking of the printed object being disposable. Biodegradable, maybe.
Alexis Madrigal – Turns out, too, that paper is a great way to preserve things. It's relatively cheap, it lasts, and it does not get out-SEO'd by a soft drink company's microsite in 2023. Bound paper can also be beautiful and allows you to have both linear and random reading experiences. As a writer, I've always been jealous of how artists can give you a painting for a gift and you're like, "Wow, thank you!" You can't just print out a story you wrote some time and hand it to someone for Chanukkah; or you can, but it better be one of the little ones. You can't give someone a website for a gift, either. But you could give someone 48 Hour Magazine (or a Blurb book).
Derek Powazek – Print is, at some point, done. However imperfect. It has a rhythm of creation, editing, and publishing. And when it's done, everyone involved can sit back, look at the thing we made, and feel accomplished.
The web is never done. It's in a constant state of flux. That's not good or bad, it just is.
So there's something about making print on a deadline like this that makes emotional sense, both to the creators and the consumers and everyone in between. The deadline, and the doneness, give the entire project momentum.
Joel Johnson – What's response been like so far? How do you manage contributors?
Sarah Rich – Response has been wildly beyond our expectations! Since I wrote 3357 a few paragraphs ago, we already have 3370. There's a lot of enthusiasm and it's coming from people in Israel, Turkey, Brazil, New Zealand, Spain. The feeling of a global collaboration coming together is in my view one of the most awesome parts of this.
Mat Honan – Overwhelming. I really thought we'd be dying for submissions, but now I fear we'll have the opposite problem. I'm already going on very little sleep trying to get this thing off the ground, largely just because of all the email that's coming in that we're trying to stay on top of.
One thing you didn't ask about is the spectacle of it all. We're going to try to make this thing a circus. To that end we'll U-Stream the entire weekend, and set ourselves up for a painful 48 hours of work. We expect there will be some conflict and drama—and that's part of the show and part of the appeal. We want people to pay attention, because the more they pay attention the more they're likely to want to be a part of it.
Alexis Madrigal – First, why would we do it in 48 hours? That's the space of a weekend, the blood-besotted, hard-won victory of the worker, an appeasement that coincides with and partially replaces the Sabbath. The weekend is when you celebrate what you *are* not just what you do, crafting your extra-economic persona with lawnmowers and hiking boots and Jagermeister shots. It's My Time.
And that's the kind of time we're interested in, the free kind, the most precious kind. The Good Internet is built with it—and now we'll be making a magazine out of it, too. [48 Hour Magazine]