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Why 'Hello Mr.' bet on print

Nikolay Malyarov, chief content officer, PressReader, interviews Ryan Fitzgibbon, founder and publisher of Hello Mr.

Hello Mr ()

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about, “What is journalism?” The American Press Institute says that “Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities.”  It seems to be a very broad definition. Does that mean any blog that shares news and opinion is journalism?

I’ve had this discussion with a number of people and some strongly believe that journalism only comes from those with a formally educated in the craft. Others believe we all have the potential to be journalists.

But perhaps the most surprising definition I heard was, “Journalism is about paper,” – because of the tactile experience print offers over digital.

I definitely can see the fascination with print and why publishers invest in print for readers who prefer it.  

But should journalism stop there? I personally don’t believe offering a digital companion to a print product will cannibalise the paper edition; they have different audiences. But if publishers believe that, shouldn’t they test the theory?  

I decided to talk to someone who started publishing a very high-quality, biannual print magazine only a few years ago, when the mantra, “Print is dead!” was on the lips of many pundits. Say hello to Ryan Fitzgibbon, editor-in-chief of Hello Mr. and learn what motivated him to take what many would consider a risk and what journalism means to him today.

Thanks so much Ryan for taking the time for this interview. Hello Mr. takes a very interesting and unexpected angle compared to traditional LGBTQ magazines, focusing more on editorial content and only publishing it twice a year. How did you identify that this was a niche market that was underserved/unoccupied, and how did you know what readers would like and pay for?

It was 2012 when the genesis of this idea was really coming together. I was living in the heart of The Castro in San Francisco and I felt that the community was so saturated with a lot of the same type of content that was being delivered to us, but not necessarily created by us. I felt that the visual aesthetics and traditional ways of reaching us weren't aligned with my own brand aesthetic.

Ryan Fitzgibbon ()

Photo courtesy of Dreams TV

Being a brand designer and brand strategist at IDEO at the time, it became a personal challenge for me to rebrand the identities and the symbols that were so traditional in stereotypes for a gay community. As I started digging into more of the media landscape for LGBT people and what was being offered on the newsstand, there was more often than not just more shallow content that felt like it was underserving us.

I started to create more depth of content for us to chew on and share all the progress that we've made. I think we were moving towards more acceptance in the mainstream, but our publications weren't following as quickly. As soon as I started to shop this idea around and tell people of the mission and the direction I was going, it became so evident that other people felt the same way.

How long did it take you to actually have these conversations with people and get the feedback before you decided, "Yes, this is exactly what I want to do?”

It was an internal discussion I was having with myself because, in a culture like IDEO where everything is radically transparent and prototyped and developed with the user, I was the ultimate user in this situation and the designer and the creator. Part of my thinking was that if I could share with other people something I was experiencing and living, it would really help me build on the idea.

What I try to do with Hello Mr. is make it more of a reflection of life than a prescription of what we should be doing. I never wanted to label it a lifestyle magazine because I think the expectations of what a gay lifestyle magazine has become are so cliché. 

Ryan Fitzgibbon Hello Mr ()

Photo courtesy of Jeffery Gerson

Everything was kind of an instruction manual in how to get the best body, how to live your life, where to go on vacation, and nothing was just absorbing and acting as a mirror back to what was happening in the community. I think that's why it really stuck. People felt for the first time this relatability to something that really was listening to them.

That's true. I mean, there were really no publications to talk about the emotions, the struggles, and beyond the standard struggles with HIV/AIDS or struggles with depression, struggles with acceptance, and struggles with bullying…

I think the difference is when they did exist, it felt more like an informational or teachable moment. I think that we learn a lot more by hearing someone's story that we can relate to in a unique way.  So creating those emotional triggers and those emotional connections through storytelling is much more effective than explaining someone's situation and trying to learn from that.

In terms of your business planning process, were you going for world domination of the niche audience that you've identified or just zeroing in on those who would discover it? How do you distribute the magazine? How do people discover it?

Scale for me has always been a means to create greater impact. I'm not afraid of being mainstream. I'm more interested in how many more people I can reach, how many connections I can make and how many more minds I can change. I've always wanted to achieve that and be in more places for more people. 

I created a print publication in a turbulent time. In 2013 when it launched, it was definitely new territory and questionable for any business-minded person. Making it a biannual, high-quality publication turned it into this coffee table publication that people coveted and valued enough to purchase at a premium.

At the time and even today with subscription models, the Condé Nasts and Hearsts of the world can essentially give away their publication for free, and sell that to the advertisers. 

When the model flipped and all of those publications started creating more infrequent editions or going mostly digital, and all these young guns in the indie world were emerging, it was a huge jump for a lot of consumers who thought, “Why pay (US) 99 cents for 12 issues of GQ and US$20 for one print edition of Hello Mr. that I get twice a year?”

That was definitely a big learning curve. But because there were a lot of other publications going through something similar – Cereal, Kinfolk magazine and even Monocle, creating high-quality, long-form publications and selling them at a premium – we were able to address that more easily. 

We sold mostly direct through our website in the beginning, just to keep the margin really high for us. Distribution became more and more common as we increased the print run.

By the third issue, we were in Barnes & Nobles and the Chapters of the world.  Each issue pays for the next one and the production costs that go into it.  

But obviously outside of print and content, we have a community that we create events for.  And we have all these other experiences that brands also love being a part of. So those have become more lucrative revenue streams for us. They form part of a holistic business model that goes with the magazine.

We'll come to the other more experiential elements in a bit, but you said that you focused on creating a print magazine that would become a coffee table book.

I know you spend quite a bit of time overseeing the process of printing each one of the issues. Can you give us more insight as to how you selected the printer, which is not in the US; this obviously adds to the cost and shipping. 

If you're investing in creating something in print these days, it has to be high calibre. So all those decisions, like you said, are really important in choosing the paper and where it's created. 

Because there was this new collective of Indie publishers coming together, there were a lot of smaller printers stepping up and willingly to take on smaller print runs. The big box printers pushing out paper, newsprint and glossy magazines just didn't make sense.

When we identified a printer in Berlin who wanted to support indie publishers, they were really willing to work with us and gave us the best price that we found so far. At the time, our European readership was almost half of our total user base. Berlin, as a central hub, makes a lot of sense. Even coming back to the US and continuing to look for quotes and prices, we've built such a relationship with this printer that it's still more cost effective for us to print there. They just appreciate the time and the energy that it takes to create a high-quality, German-certified, printed piece of material.

We know some niche publishers are focusing on the print product, feeling that once you go into a niche the product becomes more than just a disposable, commoditised monthly magazine – it becomes something you would want to keep and reference later. Some have actually restricted digital distribution, feeling it would devalue and cannibalise the beautiful print product. 

You distribute both in print and digital, apart from the other elements, the auxiliary elements that we'll talk to in a second. Why did you choose to do both, and is it driving readership and building brand awareness for you?

Definitely.  The impetus of going digital was back to creating more impact and being more accessible in places where it’s still is hard reach with print. There’s also still a lot of shame in the gay community and parts of the world where it's not okay to be gay. 

Giving access in a digital form is much more discreet than having a printed magazine mailed to them or their parents' house and it creates a larger pool for us to do the work that I want to do. It reaches more people in those corners of the world by being digital. It's a nice supplement to have the option to have both.

Has it helped in building the brand awareness? Obviously with a print product people discover you through the outreach programs that you have with events and through word-of-mouth and social media. 

Is a digital edition easier to discover as a new brand, or was it easier for you to be discovered as a new brand? Definitely.

I think social media was the catalyst for us becoming more widely known. It's a supplement to print, so I created an object that has a beautiful shelf presence and a beautiful coffee table presence just as Instagram was getting started. It became a piece, or fixture, of people's living spaces and a part of their identity. I call it "the badge” – the magazine, the physical object, is a badge for people.

When readers post a photo of their bedroom with the magazine on their nightstand on Instagram, it identifies something about them and helps grow awareness.  The magazine became a more viral, social, shareable thing – not necessarily our content in digital form that was shared and commented on and re-posted.  By posting a personal photo that other people were interested in knowing more about, our audience kind of took the marketing out of our hands and did it on their own.

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It must have been satisfying to see that the brand is associated by your audience with something that they're proud to display in these sort of personal spaces.

Yeah, in their apartments and in a coffee shop, having someone identify another reader is such an exciting experience. But I've also been sent screenshots of dating profiles where someone is holding up Hello Mr. in their Tinder profile.

It puts you in a different league.

It totally does. It has this shared set of values in that context that is, for some people, an instant swipe right. It's very much like having your Monocle tote bag or your New Yorker tote bag. It's like, "This is what I value and I’m proud to show that to you."

Up until recently the magazine didn't include advertising. Was that by design or was it just a natural evolution of establishing the brand, creating awareness and a distribution footprint first before inviting an advertiser to the magazine, or has advertising always been part of the plan?

It was definitely an evolution. It was my intention for the first issue to be ad-free and pure in vision, and then invite advertisers to come into our space. I think meeting in the middle and establishing something together with a set of expectations externally, traditionally founded in advertising for gay media, became much easier when I had a physical, final object. That was my pitch to be a part of it or not, but we had set a level of expectation, a level of quality that they had to meet. It was definitely my intention to have advertisers soon after I had the first object, but it was a slow evolution in finding the right partners.

In terms of your overall revenues, what percentage is from advertising?  Is it a big part of your financial plan?

So far, it's been nominal in print. But brands wanting to include our social platform that is over 100,000 at this point in reach, plus other digital platforms, events and experiences – who create a package of partnering with Hello Mr. – then it becomes more lucrative. It has been more balanced lately, but as I said in the beginning, our revenue model very much came from sales and direct sales and those experiences.

Do you ever see the content partnerships, more in terms of native advertising or native content, where a brand would enter the editorial process for you, or is this something that you keep quite separate from a very distinct editorial?

We've experimented with it and that's an increasing ask from brands. We've been fortunate to be in a position where they trust us with our editorial vision and voice to include them in our content in an authentic way to us. The partnerships that we have had in an advertorial sense have been very seamless with the rest of our content. Since those have been successful and we've been asked to include more branded content, we've created recurring platforms and specific features that we can pitch to our brand partners.  It's actually been really successful and our readers understand that this is a section for branded content. 

You've talked about diversifying beyond just a print edition.  You've added an e-commerce site offering sweatshirts, underwear, t-shirts, etcetera. You're attracting sponsors and promoting their products in the magazine. You're running events across the US.

Beyond just diversifying revenue streams, why did you decide to diversify?  How did you select your sponsors and how do you ensure that there is no editorial bias in the promotion of their products?

In the last few years, the emphasis internally for brands having an LGBT initiative has grown. We've been fortunate in that we launched at a time when brands were more aware of our demographic and interested in communicating to us. There's been no shortage of pitches from brands. In curating those, just as we curate our content, who we partner with has been a really nice process. Then obviously to supplement that, targeting and reaching the partners that we work with, so that we set the example of how and who we've partnered with, has become big part of how I spend my day now.

What are the specific criteria that the sponsor has to meet to gain your approval?

I think the willingness and flexibility of allowing our creative vision to lead is important, so any brand partner who wants to play along with us has to understand that our vision of reflecting the community's experience is more important than prescribing something or selling something. So it has to feel as authentic as possible. 

It's clear pretty quickly when brands propose something to us, which ones will play along in that space and are willing to give us the keys to drive how we believe our audience – who we understand so deeply – will respond to their initiatives.

Why did you decide to add events to the mix? What is the primary objective, and clearly it must take a lot of time, effort and money to prepare. How do you make them work?

From the beginning I've always said that Hello Mr. is more than a magazine. It's a community. As easy as it is to claim that our brand is the people that it attracts, it really is more of a movement in what timing we had putting out the brand.

We had an event called "Hello Mr. Live" that I want to replicate and create more of a recurring thing.  We also translated it into a one-off podcast. The whole podcast route is another conversation which I think could be fun for us, but again it's almost like I want to leapfrog that and move straight into TV and creating video content.

The readers identify with what we do in such a strong way and are so passionately engaged in the trajectory of our brand and where we take it, that they want more than two print publications a year. So creating those spaces for them to connect and meet each other is so important, so they can post on their social media and include the magazine, or they can use it in their dating app profile.  

But I wanted to start creating space for them to connect in an environment, and build out that environment. When a lot of gay bars are closing and having harder and harder times keeping the lights on, what is that space evolving into for communities to connect and find some sort of refuge if the night life scene is completely different than it was a decade ago?

For Hello Mr. to enter and create these more carefully curated and considered experiences that aren't exclusive, just as every principle of the magazine is outlined, it replicates what people experience when they're reading it. It's been so great to be able to bring people together for a variety of reasons – whether it's to just dance and have fun, or sit around and have a discussion and create new dialog that elevates the calibre of content that we're creating overall. 

***If you like this, read more articles by Nikolay Malyarov.***

What was the most successful event that you feel the most proud of?

The most recurring, and the one that continues to grow every year is our Valentine's Day party, which was born out of the very same disenfranchised emotions of the magazine. Valentine's is a holiday that is so clichéd, overrated and commercial; it just puts so much pressure on being in a relationship or not being in a relationship, and focuses so much on finding the perfect one. We have enough issues like developing the perfect body and all these other things that media expects of us.


Ryan Fitzgibbon Hello Mr ()

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Daniel Pryce

It was a fun chance for us to let loose and let our hair down and have fun on Valentine's Day. Then it just turned into this thing where every year we had hundreds more people join and then it turned into a campaign called "Hello Love," which became this bigger thing. 

We've also had great success in salons and content performances in spaces where we invite performers, poets, comedians and artists to share their work and recreate what we do in print on stage.  We're just experimenting with that now, but I think translating that and forming that into a new kind of consumption of the content that we create is a really nice blend of physical experience with content creation.

Before we get into the final question as to what's in the future for Hello Mr. and Ryan specifically, how did the brand name Hello Mr. come about? Is there a historical background to this?

I didn't go through too many iterations before I landed on this title, which essentially is a coy introduction at its basic form; and I think in the gay community this cheeky, “Hello”—this cheeky pickup line – is quite own-able for male relationships and male dating. To create something that also is greeting you on the newsstand by essentially welcoming you over to pick it up is, I think, what made it so shareable and so memorable, too. 

It's cute; it's very clever. I think you're right, it is welcoming people into the community that you focused on creating. 

All right, let's talk about the future. What else is in the works for you? 

I think one of the asks that we've always received is to create more content, more frequent issues. We hosted a survey this past summer and in four days we had 850 responses – all long-form paragraphs of people wanting to provide feedback for where we go next. That's been really helpful in guiding us in ways that are true and reflective of what the community needs right now. I can only go so far as the creative vision of this magazine without really relying on them for what they want, and they want more content.

They want more experiences. They want more avenues to connect with other people who read the magazine. In that, I think for me, creating two print issues a year is enough. I think to stay sustainable in our business model but also relevant in a print space, one to two issues a year for any publication is smart, while building out all the other content platforms.  I think our weekly newsletters, which are launching soon, will be just the kind of side dish that they're craving in their appetite of our content.

Outside of that we drop monthly playlists and videos and all these things just fill in that digest. 

The thing that I'm really excited about launching towards the end of this season is a residency. One thing that I'm often pitched is new concepts for magazines. We've created a submission-based culture, where people send in their ideas. Sometimes they're fully formed, and sometimes they're half-baked, and a lot of them need time to grow.

They need guidance and fostering to really create the impact that they deserve, because in a time and for a generation that's so used to immediacy and posting a comment and moving on to the next thing, there aren't enough spaces for ideas to be moulded, formed and cultivated.

Where we've come in the last three-and-a-half years since I launched the magazine, almost four now, I've seen so many other publications launch. I've seen a whole trend of indie publishers come out of nowhere and really create more platforms and more voices. 

For me and Hello Mr. to start to stay at the forefront of that and be a thought leader in this category, I'm creating a platform to incubate new ideas and cultivate those that haven't been given the chance or don't have the resources to really become a thing.

Every print edition of Hello Mr., starting in the fall, will include the resident-zine inside the magazine, so you get to ride on the coattails of Hello Mr. and in the future, extend and share your prototype for your magazine in our platform. It is very exciting for me to create and craft a more streamlined and accessible set of tools in creating a magazine.

Just creating an idea and making it come to life in a way that deserves the kind of attention that some ideas don't get. I'm building out the partners and the mentors and the people to help guide these ideas along, so that in the future we have a whole network of creators who've participated in this residency and have access to this entire mentor network, which are specific to these different parts of making your idea happen.

Awesome. Is there anything else that I didn't ask but you would want to tell people about?

No, I think that's it. That's where my brain's at right now.  It is on this residency and creating more space and more opportunities for our members and our community to create. I think everyone's looking to use their voice right now. It's easy to create a protest sign or to create a stream of tweets, but I want to help take it to the next level and actually make an impact with all this energy that people have right now. Everyone's active in their political views. They just need some guidance, so I'm excited to harness that energy and create some new things for the world.

Has anything like this been done before? 

I think it is part of universities, but I don't think it exists outside of a recurring seasonal thing. I think it's been done in one-off ways, but I'm excited to prototype the first iteration of it and hopefully scale it so that other publishers can join me in creating content for their platforms too.

Thanks so much Ryan. It’s great to hear how you are innovating across many different areas with your magazine and community.  Your interview is an inspiration for other publishers.

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