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The Mr. Magazine™ Interview: Content is about earning people’s attention

“Print is a wonderful medium. It’s a great canvas for design and photography; it’s a great place for stories to live. Sometimes you want to read on your phone, and sometimes you want to shut the world out a little bit, and print can be wonderful for that, where you have nothing but the story in front of you.” - Douglas McGray

 

Mr. Magazine Interview ()

 

“And live shows, if anything, I think they’re becoming more vibrant. We have these really full digital lives; we connect and communicate with people constantly. But going out and seeing a show in a dark room, getting together with people; it’s a great complement to our online lives. And I think we all want variety, different things. I love reading on my phone and I love reading in print. And I love staying home and watching a movie on Netflix and I love going out to a live show. All of these make for a rich, full life, and I think we can contribute to that.” Douglas McGray…

According to Douglas McGray, content is about earning people’s attention. And as co-founder and editor in chief of The California Sunday Magazine and Pop-Up Magazine, Doug knows a thing or two about grabbing his audience’s attention and earning the right to keep it. From The California Sunday Magazine, a print magazine and digital entity that he helped launch in 2014, and is dedicated to stories about the West, Latin America and Asia, to Pop-Up Magazine, a magazine performed live, which features true, never-before seen or heard multimedia stories performed on stage by writers, radio producers, photographers, filmmakers, and musicians, Doug and his team’s mission is to bring good journalism and good storytelling to the masses, across all platforms.

I spoke with Doug recently and we talked about the magazine, both the printed version and the live one, and that’s when he also shared his definition of content in this digital age with me, and Mr. Magazine™ found it as intriguing as he does the magazine and products that he helps create. It was a most enlightening conversation about the value of all platforms, from print to theatre/live shows to digital; and it solidified even more Mr. Magazine’s™ firm belief that audience first will always produce positive results, because the stories that Doug and his team are creating aren’t for their diverse platforms, they’re for their very diverse audiences. Indeed, as it should be.

And now the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Douglas McGray, co-founder and editor in chief of The California Sunday Magazine and Pop-Up Magazine.

 

Douglas McGray ()

 

But first the sound-bites:

On what his magazines are doing during this (according to him) odd and anxious time we live in: Both Pop-Up Magazine and The California Sunday Magazine are really dedicated to stories, in everything they feature. So, for The California Sunday Magazine that means we go out and hunt across the West, California especially, Asia, Latin America; and we look for the great stories, stories that bring readers into these worlds and hopefully make them think hard about something. And maybe think about something in a way they haven’t thought about it before, that explores and explains these issues and ideas. And we look for those intimate stories that are just great stories, that are something people might want to read for the weekend.

On the definition of content to him in today’s print and digital age: I think a lot about attention. And about really earning people’s attention. And part of this is because everything we do has its roots in the live show that we create. I was a writer for a long time; I wrote for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and others. And when we launched the live show, Pop-Up Magazine, we did it to bring together all these different worlds of journalistic storytelling: writing, radio, photography and film; and it really mashed them all together.

On winning the National Magazine Award for photography and whether he thinks there are more brands out there like California Sunday or Pop-Up: I do think that attention on the photography and design, and also deeply-reported features; pairing those things together is unusual. And I think it’s why, even though we’re a new magazine and a small magazine, we were recognised for our photography and received the 2017 National Magazine Award for Photography. We were enormously flattered to win, considering the other titles that were there were much bigger and have been around for a longer time.

 

The California Sunday mag 3 ()

 

On the cover story that took 17 months to finish and how in this age of instant communication, he can afford that: How can we afford not to, is the way that I might put it. That story by Jaeah Lee looked at what happened with Mario Woods, who was African American and shot by police. And this is a topic which has been deservedly in the news, and something that is vitally important for us to know what’s going on. And one of the things that we noticed as the writer Jaeah was spending time with his mother; she realized how important it was to understand what life was like for this woman after losing her son. And you can’t rush that.

On how he decides what goes in print, digital, and what goes live: We’re a small company; we’re mostly all in one room together. And we have a small editorial staff that works on stories for California Sunday. We have a small story producer staff to develop stories for Pop-Up Magazine, and then we have an art department that they all share. The live media, then print and the web. Our live story producers are out hunting for stories that really come to life onstage and with the screen. As far as print and digital, right now we make a deliberate choice not to try and compete with volume. If you’re going to try and compete with volume, you can never produce enough; you can publish 10,000 stories a month and there’s somebody publishing more. So, right now our stories live across platforms. Just about every story goes in print and online.

On their unique distribution model of paying West Coast newspaper’s to distribute the magazine: I think it’s hard if you’re an ambitious city newspaper, it’s hard to produce a Sunday magazine. It’s a somewhat different thing; it’s different from producing a newspaper. But that didn’t mean that they couldn’t distribute someone else’s magazine. And the Sunday magazine format is a classic format, it’s reading beautifully reported features on the weekends. It occurred to us that we could approach the editors of the Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times about distribution, which would do a couple of things. One, it would let us launch with a large print audience. Print can be interesting at scale, and this would allow us to achieve an interesting scale from the print product.

On whether advancing good journalism and good storytelling is part of their mission: We do try and produce a number of pieces that serve the public interest; that tackle issues and ideas that we think are important right now. And the offer of free subscriptions to schools and libraries; that’s not going to be a huge number. And schools and libraries get a select number of the Los Angeles Times and the Chronicle, but if they don’t get those issues, of course, they won’t be able to get the magazine. But it’s a way to reach younger readers and those that don’t know about us yet and we love going to the libraries.

On any plans to increase the print magazine’s frequency from six times per year: We’re a fairly new company; we launched at the end of 2013, and like all startups we’re trying to learn as we go. And on the Pop-Up Magazine side, we started off twice per year, but last year we increased to three times per year. On the California Sunday side, as I mentioned before, we don’t want to try and publish 10,000 stories per month. We’re not trying to compete with anybody, we just want to do great stories. We could increase our print frequency in the future; we could make a bigger print version that comes out six times per year like we do now. We could start to expand some of the digital stuff that we do around the print edition and with the stuff that’s already on the web. All of those things are possible, but we’re going to see where the opportunities lie.

 

Pop Up mag ()

Pop Up Magazine at Lincoln Center on Monday, October 30, 2017 in New York City.
Image by Erin Brethauer@erinbrethauer

On anything he’d like to add: The show Pop-Up Magazine is a live magazine; it’s a 100-minute show we do across the country, like Lincoln Center in New York and BAM Opera House in Brooklyn, and other venues across the country. And it’s really meant to be a magazine performed live, so it’s about a 100-minute show and there are about 10 stories. It’s writers, radio producers, photographers, and they report mostly recorded, multimedia stories. So, there are stories about art, science, comedy, war, food; just all of the things that you’d find in a great magazine.

On whether he believes there will ever be a time when we won’t have print: Print is a wonderful medium. It’s a great canvas for design and photography; it’s a great place for stories to live. Sometimes you want to read on your phone, and sometimes you want to shut the world out a little bit, and print can be wonderful for that, when you have nothing but the story in front of you.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: It depends on how late you come by. (Laughs) If you come by late, there’s a good chance you’re going to find me reading story graphs or talking to potential writers or thinking about the day ahead. And I feel lucky to have the opportunity. I work with a great team and I think we all feel that we have a chance to make something special here, and we’re working hard at it. So, I don’t mind a late night of work now and then.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: One of the things that’s true about editing a magazine and creating live shows for people; you’re creating stuff that you want people to remember and care about, but you yourself are behind the scenes. And so I don’t really care so much what people think about me or how they remember me; I want them to feel like their lives were a little more interesting, a little more thought-provoking because of the work I helped create. That would be my honest answer.

On what keeps him up at night: We are very busy, but we’re busy for all of the right reasons, because we’re looking to grow and do more things, new things next year and the year after. What keeps me up is that I want to be able to take advantage of all of these ideas that we have. And we have a lot of ideas. And I want to be able to take advantage of the opportunities in front of us.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Douglas McGray, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Pop-Up Magazine, The California Sunday Magazine, and parent company, Pop-Up Magazine Productions.

I have to say that you’re unique in the magazine media business, having a live pop-up magazine and a print magazine in this digital age. Let me ask you a simple question, and I’m quoting your intro in the December issue: “We’re living in an odd and anxious time here in the United States.” So, what are you doing in this “odd and anxious time” in the U.S.?

Both Pop-Up Magazine and The California Sunday Magazine are really dedicated to stories, in everything they feature. So, for The California Sunday Magazine that means we go out and hunt across the West, California especially, Asia, Latin America; and we look for the great stories, stories that bring readers into these worlds and hopefully make them think hard about something. And maybe think about something in a way they haven’t thought about it before, that explores and explains these issues and ideas. And we look for those intimate stories that are just great stories, that are something people might want to read for the weekend.

The California Sunday mag 2 ()

And it’s the same thing with the Pop-Up onstage; we try and bring that kind of story to people live in song and sound, radio and photography. And I think it’s especially important right now. We’re all seeing the value of thoughtful reporting and stories that are just a better way of meeting people where they’re at.

With all of the storytelling that’s taking place, as an editor, how do you define content in today’s print and digital age? What is content to you today?

I think a lot about attention. And about really earning people’s attention. And part of this is because everything we do has its roots in the live show that we create. I was a writer for a long time; I wrote for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and others. And when we launched the live show, Pop-Up Magazine, we did it to bring together all these different worlds of journalistic storytelling: writing, radio, photography and film; and it really mashed them all together. And also bring together fan clubs.

And what we found was, we’d put on a show for a couple of hours in a dark room and we’d see everybody turn off their phones and pay attention. We saw months, years later; people talking about stories that they’d seen live and they remembered them. So, one of the things that we started to think about was when Pop-Up Magazine evolved from something of a creative side project into a media company that actually publishes the weekend magazine, California Sunday, we started thinking about the way that we all spend our time. And I think we’ve all had a similar experience: we’re standing in line for coffee and we look at our phone; we start to read something and we get distracted, maybe we finish reading it later or maybe we don’t. A day later, maybe we remember what we read, maybe we don’t.

But those opportunities to really grab and hold people’s attention are important. And that was a big part of Pop-Up Magazine, and it was deliberately produced for that time; it was an interesting time to reach people and have that kind of full attention. But to us, another really interesting time was the weekend, so we produced California Sunday, a magazine that has really compelling, moving stories, but is also a very visual magazine. We use photography thinking we might hold people’s attention for a couple of hours by giving them stories that will let them shut out the world and pay attention and get lost in the story. And that’s what we’re really trying to do across the company.

That powerful, engaging photography and typography was evident when you won the National Magazine Award for photography in the printed product. So, with the emphasis on the visuals and on the storytelling; do you think there are more like you out there in the magazine media world today, or less like you?

Design and photography were a part of our mix from the very beginning. When we were making Pop-Up Magazine, the live show, it was a very visual and beautiful experience.

And when we created The California Sunday Magazine and enlarged the company, we hired the creative director, Leo Jung, and we hired photography director, Jacqueline Bates; we believed from the beginning that there was something powerful in the combination of stories with expansive photography. With the print magazine, you’d open up a page and the stories would unfold for you to enjoy. That you’d feel as though you’d been dropped into the middle of a really vivid world.

And so, I do think that attention on the photography and design, and also deeply-reported features; pairing those things together is unusual. And I think it’s why, even though we’re a new magazine and a small magazine, we were recognized for our photography and received the 2017 National Magazine Award for Photography. We were enormously flattered to win, considering the other titles that were there were much bigger and have been around for a longer time.

What we’re doing is a little unusual, but in a good way. We don’t want to be doing what everybody else is doing. We try to make this a little different from them.

One of your cover stories took 17 months to finish; in this instant-communication age, who can afford to do that?

How can we afford not to, is the way that I might put it. That story by Jaeah Lee looked at what happened with Mario Woods, who was African American and shot by police. And this is a topic which has been deservedly in the news, and something that is vitally important for us to know what’s going on. And one of the things that we noticed as the writer Jaeah was spending time with his mother; she realized how important it was to understand what life was like for this woman after losing her son. And you can’t rush that.

The California Sunday mag ()

We thought it was important too, so we told Jaeah to start reporting. And we didn’t know exactly how long the reporting would go on. It became clear overtime that it was a really powerful story and we told Jaeah to continue spending time with Gwen Woods after a year, so that we could fully understand her life after her son’s shooting.

And the response was phenomenal. People found it eye-opening and really moving, and that was a reflection, not just of Jaeah’s great reporting, but also the photography by Erica Deeman that brought it to life visually. I think the healthy media ecosystem is gone, in which there were lots of great kinds of work.

How do you strike the balance between what goes in print; what goes digital; and what goes live?

We’re a small company; we’re mostly all in one room together. And we have a small editorial staff that works on stories for California Sunday. We have a small story producer staff to develop stories for Pop-Up Magazine, and then we have an art department that they all share. The live media, then print and the web. Our live story producers are out hunting for stories that really come to life onstage and with the screen.

Our live shows feature never-before seen or heard multimedia stories performed onstage by writers, radio producers, photographers, filmmakers, and musicians. So, for our live shows we are looking for stories that really come to life in that medium.

For our California Sunday editors, they’re out hunting for stories that are sort of made for a different place and time. Stories that aren’t necessarily meant to unfold in five or 10 minutes onstage, but something that you’re going to spend more time with home on the couch, reading it in print or on your laptop; however you like to read it.

As far as print and digital, right now we make a deliberate choice not to try and compete with volume. If you’re going to try and compete with volume, you can never produce enough; you can publish 10,000 stories a month and there’s somebody publishing more. So, right now our stories live across platforms. Just about every story goes in print and online.

That doesn’t mean that we’re a print magazine that offers everything online. When we designed the print magazine what we were thinking about was a design that would translate really well to the web, and especially the phone. So, when we designed The California Sunday print edition, we thought about big, expansive photography, thoughtful typography, but not an incredibly complicated design. An artful design, but we wouldn’t have lots of elaborately composed pages.

When people pick up the print edition of California Sunday, they tend to really admire the design; the visual storytelling and the photography. It really follows very simple rules of columns, text and art. The idea really is that we look for stories that feel like live stories to us, and in California Sunday, we look for stories that will live well across platforms.

And then every once and awhile, we’ll find a story that fits well everywhere: live, print and online, so we’ll do it everywhere. We’ll make a live version of it, and in print and online. Usually there are two different versions; in our live shows, of course, we’re not reading magazine stories aloud, we’re producing live stories, but there are some stories that belong everywhere.

You have a unique distribution model; you pay the newspapers in California to distribute the magazine. Who came up with the idea to forget the newsstands; forget subscriptions; we’ll buy our way into people’s homes through their newspapers?

We noticed a couple of things; one was that California and the West Coast is a huge region of the country, an influential region of the country; home to tens of millions of people, from the Silicon Valley and Hollywood to the Central Valley, where so much of our food grows and they started so many social and political trends. And so much of the magazine media that we read is based on those trends. And there are some historical reasons for that, but it seems surprising and it seemed unnecessary.

And we asked ourselves what would a great magazine based on the West Coast be like? What stories would it tell? What would it look like? What would it feel like? And during that time, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times weren’t really in the magazine business. The Los Angeles Times had experimented with a couple of different things, but they weren’t distributing anything at the time.

And it occurred to us that it made some sense; I think it’s hard if you’re an ambitious city newspaper, it’s hard to produce a Sunday magazine. It’s a somewhat different thing; it’s different from producing a newspaper. But that didn’t mean that they couldn’t distribute someone else’s magazine. And the Sunday magazine format is a classic format, it’s reading beautifully reported features on the weekends. It occurred to us that we could approach the editors of the Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times about distribution, which would do a couple of things. One, it would let us launch with a large print audience. Print can be interesting at scale, and this would allow us to achieve an interesting scale from the print product.

And we didn’t rule out subscriptions, where you can subscribe to the magazine in print and get it in the mail, but that footprint that we secured with the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle; that audience allowed us to go out to advertisers with a mature offering. And we had some track record with Pop-Up, and if people hadn’t been to shows, they’d often heard that it was good and interesting, and people came to see it.

And being able to pitch to advertisers, we could offer very traditional print advertising pages that we would put in front of a very interested print audience. I think to invite the company to work with us to reach people across platforms has been amazing. And so at the start we launched with a small, in-house brand that would create a campaign for that production. And the people that we approached about advertising in the print magazine, they also were interested in our other products.

So, this was an opportunity for us to team up with these historical newspapers and reach people, and it also gave us the opportunity to do print really well. If you’re going to do print, it should be something that is a really beautiful object that people want to spend time with and keep. So, that was our motivation.

It seems that part of what you’re doing also displays a social responsibility; you’re offering free subscriptions to high schools and libraries. Is that part of your mission? Are you trying to advance good journalism and good storytelling? Or is there another reason you’re doing that?

We’re an idealistic enterprise. We believe in great journalism and great storytelling. And we believe in the power of photography and design to put that work in front of people. And I think people see that we’re a classic general interest magazine, so we do stories about art and design; about politics, food, and anything and everything that you can imagine.

We do try and produce a number of pieces that serve the public interest; that tackle issues and ideas that we think are important right now. And the offer of free subscriptions to schools and libraries; that’s not going to be a huge number. And schools and libraries get a select number of the Los Angeles Times and the Chronicle, but if they don’t get those issues, of course, they won’t be able to get the magazine. But it’s a way to reach younger readers and those that don’t know about us yet and we love going to the libraries.

The California Sunday mag 4 ()

Is there any plans to increase the frequency from six times per year for the print edition?

We’re a fairly new company; we launched at the end of 2013, and like all startups we’re trying to learn as we go. And on the Pop-Up Magazine side, we started off twice per year, but last year we increased to three times per year. On the California Sunday side, as I mentioned before, we don’t want to try and publish 10,000 stories per month. We’re not trying to compete with anybody, we just want to do great stories. We could increase our print frequency in the future; we could make a bigger print version that comes out six times per year like we do now. We could start to expand some of the digital stuff that we do around the print edition and with the stuff that’s already on the web. All of those things are possible, but we’re going to see where the opportunities lie. Our goal is to produce great stories and put them in front of people as we can.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The show Pop-Up Magazine is a live magazine; it’s a 100-minute show we do across the country, like Lincoln Center in New York and BAM Opera House in Brooklyn, and other venues across the country. And it’s really meant to be a magazine performed live, so it’s about a 100-minute show and there are about 10 stories. It’s writers, radio producers, photographers, and they report mostly recorded, multimedia stories. So, there are stories about art, science, comedy, war, food; just all of the things that you’d find in a great magazine.

And if you’re in the audience, you’ll see a stage with a narrator on one side, a big screen beside the stage and a band on the other side, because most of our stories take advantage of all of those, there is a lot of narration with radio-produced voices that fill the theatre. It has animation, photography or film, and the band will play a soundtrack underneath a little bit for a movie project.

And then afterward, in the theatre lobby, we have all of our performers that were onstage hang out so that people can meet them and talk and maybe grab a drink. That’s a bit of a quick overview of how Pop-Up Magazine works.

When movies first came onto the scene, people said that theatre would no longer exist, no one would go to see a live show anymore. And when digital arrived on the scene, people said print magazines would no longer exist because people would stop reading them; print was dead. Do you feel there will ever be a time when we won’t have theatre or live shows? Do you think there will ever be a time when we won’t have print?

Print is a wonderful medium. It’s a great canvas for design and photography; it’s a great place for stories to live. Sometimes you want to read on your phone, and sometimes you want to shut the world out a little bit, and print can be wonderful for that, where you have nothing but the story in front of you.

And live shows, if anything, I think they’re becoming more vibrant. We have these really full digital lives; we connect and communicate with people constantly. But going out and seeing a show in a dark room, getting together with people; it’s a great complement to our online lives. And I think we all want variety, different things. I love reading on my phone and I love reading in print. And I love staying home and watching a movie on Netflix and I love going out to a live show. All of these make for a rich, full life, and I think we can contribute to that.

If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

It depends on how late you come by. (Laughs) If you come by late, there’s a good chance you’re going to find me reading story graphs or talking to potential writers or thinking about the day ahead. And I feel lucky to have the opportunity. I work with a great team and I think we all feel that we have a chance to make something special here, and we’re working hard at it. So, I don’t mind a late night of work now and then.

If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Douglas McGray: One of the things that’s true about editing a magazine and creating live shows for people; you’re creating stuff that you want people to remember and care about, but you yourself are behind the scenes. And so I don’t really care so much what people think about me or how they remember me; I want them to feel like their lives were a little more interesting, a little more thought-provoking because of the work I helped create. That would be my honest answer.

My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Douglas McGray: We are very busy, but we’re busy for all of the right reasons, because we’re looking to grow and do more things, new things next year and the year after. What keeps me up is that I want to be able to take advantage of all of these ideas that we have. And we have a lot of ideas. And I want to be able to take advantage of the opportunities in front of us.

Thank you.

FIPP have partnered with Samir "Mr. Magazine™" Husni to bring you his interviews with industry leaders and influencers. This interview first appeared on his blog, here

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