On this episode of Recode Media, host Peter Kafka hands the mic to former Verge editor Lauren Goode for an interview with Axie Navas, the executive editor of Outside Magazine. The two discuss diversifying the editorial staff of the Santa Fe-based magazine and covering issues like sexual harassment, even though its readers are still largely male, in an effort to reach new audiences.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That is me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m here in New York City, at Vox Media headquarters, which you won’t be hearing my voice much longer. Soon, you’re gonna hear Lauren Goode, my friend who was formerly my co-worker at Vox Media. She was a writer at The Verge. Now she’s left for Wired, we’re very sad, but we’re very happy that, before she left, she recorded this interview with Axie Navas, executive editor of Outside Magazine. We’ll bring you there in one second. Before we go there, my standard request: If you like Recode Media, because you’re listening to Recode Media right now, tell someone else, so they can like it too.
Okay, here’s Lauren Goode, talking to Axie Navas, executive editor of Outside Magazine. Have fun, guys.
Lauren Goode: Thanks, Peter. I’m here today with Axie Navas. She’s the executive editor of Outside Magazine. She’s been the executive editor since early ’17, and more recently she started to oversee the digital efforts of Outside. She also has big plans to diversify Outside’s writing staff as well as its audience: More women everywhere, basically, is what we’re going to be talking about today. Axie, thank you so much for joining me.
Axie Navas: Thank you for having me, Lauren.
It’s great to have you here in San Francisco. You came from Santa Fe, New Mexico, because that is where Outside is based, which I’m not sure many people know.
No, that’s where our editorial offices are, so about 40 of us are there, plus production, and the rest of the crew, that is involved in putting a magazine together, and then we have sales offices all over the country.
And, in fact, a lot of freelancers as well.
Freelancers all over the world.
Right. So when I first said to Peter that he should invite you on the podcast and he suggested that I do the interview, I was pretty happy about that, because I am a long time reader of Outside. Thumbs up, right? But I will admit that I was reading it mostly because I was just picking up the magazine, like at airports, or, I don’t know, when I felt like I needed to read Outside Magazine. And then more recently, I became a subscriber, and the reason why I subscribed is because, late last year, Outside said it was going to be doing a survey on sexual harassment. There were some unkind responses to that online, specifically on Outside’s Facebook page. You’re nodding, because you know what I’m getting at. And then Outside responded with, basically, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” like, “If you don’t like it, don’t subscribe.” And I was really impressed by the fortitude of that response, and the risk that you were kind of taking in doing that. So let me just talk about that. How did you decide that that was the response?
I think we just had some women in the office who were just pissed off at mostly the men’s responses on the Facebook post — and that was in response to that sexual harassment survey that we had put online, because we wanted to get a lot of responses from a lot of different types of readers, for a big sexual harassment feature that we ran in the magazine. And so, we were just a little bit surprised by the tone that those comments had taken, even though we shouldn’t be, because we all spend a lot of time on Facebook and that’s how comments often devolve. But we didn’t want that sexist tone to go unanswered, and so me and Erin Burger, who’s the senior editor who wrote that response, put our heads together and we debated a little bit if we were just giving a voice to the trolls. And in the end we’re like, no, you know what, we’re gonna say this, because it’s important to us as people and women and editors, and it’s important to us as a magazine, that this is the stance that we take.
I don’t know, we almost didn’t even view it as a big risk, even though — maybe because we didn’t like to think about it fully — but I think, in the end, we ended up having a really strong response, which we were gratified to see. We had a lot of people that said they were actually going to subscribe because of that, and I’m glad. It sounds like you were in that camp, too. That’s not what we expected, but we were just really grateful to see that, and really heartened to see it.
What are the numbers that you’re seeing since that happened? Have you seen any kind of uptick in subscriptions, or people unsubscribing?
We didn’t really see anyone unsubscribe. We saw ... The most immediate reaction was like a couple ... we had a few people who stopped “Liking” the Facebook page, but then we had several thousand “Likes” that day, so that was just a spike that we saw directly because of that. Subscriptions have been slower to track, but we definitely saw a spike in the next month after that, it’s just a little bit slower uptick. It was mostly just a supremely positive social response, which we were, like I said, really excited to see.
So no regrets, you would do it again?
Do it again, absolutely.
“Unsubscribe if you don’t like it.”
Absolutely. We actually had something like that come up today. We wrote ... Latria Graham, who’s the South Carolina essayist, wrote a piece about why professional cycling should get rid of podium girls, which she argued is a super-antiquated practice, and kind of all our editors agree with her. We posted that today on Facebook and so many men responded, and they’re like, “No, this is a great thing.” It’s absurd, and a lot of women were like, “No, we should get rid of this.”
This was all on Facebook?
This is all on Facebook, yeah. So it was like the same ... it was very similar conversations, so already we’re thinking like, should we respond to these guys or do we wait and just keep running these essays? So yeah, it’s something that we’re thinking about all the time.
What was the tipping point for your editorial staff where you determined that you wanted to launch the sexual harassment survey and that this was something you were going to be maybe covering more often? In a recent issue, there was a pretty big feature about sexual harassment of river guides. That’s just one of many stories you’ve done in recent months about this topic. What was the tipping point?
Well obviously, we’re talking about sexual harassment. That’s a huge, mainstream conversation. And so, Outside, when we’re at our best as a magazine and a website and just across all our platforms — podcasts, social — we want to be in the mainstream conversation and we want to have a voice and we want to enter into that conversation in an Outside way, but we also want to make sure we’re part of the conversation. So it’s almost like less of a tipping point, and more of a ... we all sit down together, we say, what’s happening across the board? What’s a big national conversation right now? And how do we get into this?
That said, the sexual harassment piece in particular, has been ... you could look at it as an outgrowth of our efforts to become more inclusive. That started early 2017, kind of as a strong push, although we’d been working on that for years before that. But really, starting in 2017, we took a hard look at how the magazine had been perceived in the past. The magazine was founded in 1977, so it’s been around for a while, has a deep, really strong archive. We wanted to look at how that archive had been perceived, who was writing in that archive, and how we could start to modernize it across, like I said, all our platforms: Print, online, podcast. And so the sexual harassment is part of that effort, for sure, although, like I said, the effort to participate in those big conversations has been there, really, since the beginning.
I’m gonna back up just a little bit, for people who maybe aren’t as familiar with Outside, and then I do want to return to this topic, and specifically your role in shaping that coverage. Outside’s been around, in print, since 1977, you mentioned, based in Santa Fe. Who owns Outside?
Who’s the founder of the magazine as we know it, and he’s still the owner. He’s in Santa Fe. We see him almost every day, which is kind of unusual and exciting, to be that close to the founder and owner.
And Nieman Lab wrote recently that your circulation is about 675,000 in print. Online, you get about three and a half million unique page views per month.
Is that an uptick? Can you talk a little bit about sort of the trajectory of the magazine?
Yeah, trafficwise, so those uniques, that’s definitely an uptick. We’ve seen pretty steady growth year over year for the past five years, and that’s our continued goal. We want to keep seeing about 20 percent year-over-year growth, each month. That’s also part of this conversation that we’re having, where we’re thinking about how does the magazine become more inclusive, it’s an audience growth conversation too. It’s how do we make sure that more people are reading this magazine? How do we reach younger people? How do we reach people who live in cities? How do we reach people in organizations, who haven’t read this magazine before, maybe because they haven’t seen themselves in this magazine? We want to reach out to all of those communities.
And you first joined in 2014, correct?
Is that right out of college?
Yeah, I’d worked a brief stint as a newspaper reported in South Lake Tahoe, which was fun because I got to write about things like paragliding, and just like a lot of writing every day, for a daily ... and then I worked for a gear review site, Blister Gear Review, for a couple of months in Santa Fe before taking the job at Outside in 2014. Exactly.
And that wasn’t that long ago, but what did the magazine look like when you first joined, compared to now? The breakdown of your audience seems as though — spoiler alert — it’s still mostly male. You, according to the Nieman article, you seem to intentionally be going after more female bylines. What did it look like in 2014 when you first joined?
The biggest difference is that we had a very different digital presence. The website existed, and had existed for many years, but it was just a much scrappier part of the company, so it was like ... there were three or four full-time online editors, and I started as an online editor. The story quality wasn’t as good because we were still figuring out who our voice was as a digital publication, how to bring the long-standing story quality of the magazine to the website, how many stories we should be publishing each day. Those are all just still very basic questions that we needed to answer, and it didn’t give our editors online a lot of the bandwidth to think like, “How do we ...”
Our main focus was making the stories better. We weren’t asking ourselves, “How do we reach more people?” at that point, or, “How do we reach a different audience?” We just wanted to bump up the quality of the website. So that, I guess, is the most concrete change that I’ve seen since I started, is the website is a much more professional publication. We also, now, are a much broader company, like a lot of legacy media brands. We have a podcast, we have pretty robust social platforms, we have a robust website.
So the idea wasn’t, “Let’s just take the magazine stories and publish them online,” it was, “How do we create an entirely different experience online?”
Exactly, and that’s kind of what had been happening in 2014. We were obviously publishing everything that went in the magazine online, but we have ... our general manager was higher up on the website at that time, Scott Rosenfield, and he’s really helped lead the charge to make the website a brand that stands on its own, so that has been a goal since 2014. And that has definitely ... we’ve had a lot of success there, which is exciting.
I’ve read that you have a pretty systematic approach to try and get more women to write for the magazine so you can be more inclusive in your content and therefore attract a different kind of audience. You require a certain number of pitches? There’s a pitch process. Talk about that.
Yeah, so it’s definitely ... it’s a company-wide effort to being more women on board, to have more women writing for us, to have more women reading our magazine, and so I tried to be systematic about it, but it’s certainly ... it’s not an effort. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m leading this effort, because it’s just like, across the board, we have a lot of really smart people who are excited about this. Mary Turner, our deputy editor, edited an issue last May in the print magazine that was focused exclusively on women, and that’s been kind of a kickoff to this initiative, where we’ve had a hard look at how we’ve covered women in the past and Outside’s lack of coverage of women, and that was kind of the kickoff to the effort to fix that.
So you’re right, yes, we’re trying to be really systematic about it. We’re asking our channel editors — these are editors who edit departments — to track bylines, so we’re aiming for 50/50, a 50/50 ratio across digital and print. We’re reaching out to more writers who have not written for us in the past and giving really clear guidelines on what types of pitches that we want, and we’re talking about those every week in those story and department meetings.
And we’re being really clear, to say we have a lot of ... look, right now, one of our channels has a lot of male columnists. We have to make an effort in the next month to make sure that, let’s try an equalize that, let’s try and bring on a couple of women columnists. And this is not because women ... we’ve had women writing for the magazine for a long time, but because we’ve typically gone back to the same stable of writers, and that stable has historically skewed male, we have just had to put in more effort to say, “Look, we want to make a change,” and a lot of that has to come from the editor saying, “This is how we’re gonna do it.”
It’s interesting, because in tech — tech is not an exact parallel to what we’re talking about, but we do talk a lot about tech and media on this podcast — some people will cite the pipeline as sort of a reason or excuse for why they can’t get more women into certain roles. But it’s interesting, because it sounds like what you’re describing is just a much more proactive approach. It’s like, look, the pipeline is there, but we have to ... we can’t just rest on the same stable of writers or people or talent,that we’ve relied on. And we can’t rely on their network, because their network might be another guy. We need to just dig a little bit deeper, and it’s possible to do this.
Totally, yeah. It’s not like ... there are women writing about the outdoors, and women writing stories that should be in our magazine, and have been for decades, so it’s not like we’re uncovering ... and we’ve also had women reading our magazine for years. So in part it’s like listening to those voices, and also, exactly like you said, trying to be proactive, to reach out to writers who, historically, might have thought, “Eh, I’m not an ultra runner, I don’t know if I can write for Outside.” And it’s like, no, that’s not right. We’re looking for all these stories, and it’s not just the core athlete-focused ones.
Right, so if Jon Krakauer pitches you next month and you’ve got your male fill already, it’s, “Sorry.”
Yeah, “Take it to the New Yorker, Jon.”
“Take it somewhere else.” I’m sure that wouldn’t happen, but yeah, I think when people think about Outside, who have at least been somewhat familiar with the magazine, he’s sort of emblematic of the writer you think of, and maybe fewer people would realize, oh, Susan Casey was actually creative editor there for a few years, and there are all these other fantastic women who have written for the magazine.
Yeah, totally. Florence Williams is a longtime contributor and has a big feature coming up in May in the print magazine about this really awesome organization, She Is Able, that gets kind of disenfranchised women into the outdoors. So yeah, we have a lot of very longtime contributors in this space. It just has tended to be fewer than the men, so it’s like, now let’s try and shift that ratio.
Just even it out.
So, this isn’t about Outside specifically, but when do you think that outdoors-related content, or fitness magazines, it won’t become, like, the women’s issue is just once a year, or the woman on the cover is this fantastic-looking woman in a sports bra, with like 19 abs, because those are quintessential images that we see sometimes on other health- or fitness-related magazines. Do you think that will change?
Oh yeah, right now. I want it to change immediately. And if we’re talking about our print magazine, we’re already ... let’s take one step back. Outside, if you’re looking at just the covers, has also historically skewed male. Up until about the last two years, we’ve had like one woman on our cover, and then the rest have been men, often white male athletes. But starting this year, we’re gonna have 50/50 representation on the covers, and I’d like to see us continue to skew less towards athletes and more towards just people who love the outdoors.
And I think our May issue this year is a step in that direction, where we’re just going to be featuring some fantastic people who we have not historically covered. And online, those efforts have been moving fairly rapidly over the last two years, just in that we publish a lot of stories so we have flexibility to throw stuff at the wall and see if it sticks, and we have a lot of stories that we can experiment with.
But we’re making a concerted effort, just like we are with bylines and 50/50 representation, to make sure that photos are about 50/50, and we have women and men — and not just athletes — show in these photos on our homepage and in our columns and then, of course, on our social feeds. That’s only speaking for Outside, and we obviously ... I’m also aware that we have a long ways to go in many of these areas, but we are making a concerted effort to make that change now.
Do certain covers sell better? Is that a hard change to make?
Certain covers do sell better, although ... well, I mean, frankly, they don’t really have anything to do with men or women, they’re often like our “best towns” issue, or people see this beautiful mountainscape and they want to move there. And then also, just with newsstand sales declining or flat-lining, it almost also gives us more flexibility, because it’s like, let’s just do something unique. And often those unique, strong covers are the ones that catch people’s eye, and hopefully they sell a little better, but hopefully they also just spark a conversation and show our strong community of readers, those 675,000 subscribers, make them proud to be part of this community.
I do have more questions for you, but we’re gonna take a quick break so that Peter Kafka can tell you about some of our sponsors. We’ll be back shortly.
And we’re back. Thanks, Peter.
Who do you consider your competition to be? Because I look at something like Wirecutter, which now is owned by New York Times, but it basically built its business off the affiliate model, and you guys launched a pretty robust affiliate business last year. But then I also look on Instagram, any given day, you see all of the other sort of outdoorsy accounts that are starting to build a following off of these viral outdoors videos. And those are just eyeballs that are being brought to all these different places now, so who do you compete with?
Yeah, I think, as you intimate, our competition is really broad. And seven years ago, I think someone would have answered that question as like, “The typical men’s magazines are our competition for print,” so it’s like GQ and Esquire, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health. And that’s just not the case anymore.
Wirecutter we consider a competitor, then there’s also the smaller gear sites, if we’re just talking about the gear world. There’s Gear Junkie and Gear Institute and Gear Patrol, and these are all competitors with the affiliate model, which we have found to be a successful new stream of revenue. But it’s also ... we have to take a look at those competitors, and say like, “How do we differentiate ourselves?” Or how do we do ... how do we offer what we’re offering ... how do we make it even better?
And how do you do that?
Well, if we’re talking about those competitors in particular, we’ve made an effort recently to run much more authoritative gear reviews. Speaking about inclusivity of women, we have not done a good job with women’s gear in the past, so we’re putting a lot of energy there, and that’s both a move that’s hopefully ... we think it’s good service to our readers, but it’s also a way to differentiate ourselves and enter a market that we think is kind of lagging.
There’s not a lot of great women’s gear reviews out there, so that’s a space that we think we can own. So part of how we do it, I guess, is looking at those openings and trying to fill them with experts, so then we reach out to writers typically, and we bring them on board and we have them sign contracts and then we work with them to hopefully do these stories better than anyone else.
But how do you convince a younger generation — and this is anecdotal — but a younger generation who has their heads buried in their phones, that, first of all, they should be interested in the outdoors and getting outside and doing outside stuff. And second, that your accounts are the ones that they should be looking at for that information.
Yeah, that’s a great question. We hope that those people give us the chance. Part of the reason, or part of how we’re doing it, is through social media strategies. Our voice, we’ve put a lot of work into our voice and our posting frequency on social, led by our awesome social media mavens, Jenny Earnest and Svati Narula, and so we want that voice to be young and punchy and contentious, sometimes. And the stories reflect that too, that we have more essays. We have more strong, authoritative opinions, and that does seem to resonate, based on Facebook insights with younger people. Our audience is definitely younger on that digital side, I think in part of that.
On the social platforms?
On the social platforms.
What’s the average age of the audience you’re reaching on social?
Okay, interesting. And then, what about your print subscriber base?
It’s like, late 30s to mid-40s.
Okay. So you are starting to reach those ... the younger audiences. It’s just a matter of continuing to grow that.
Exactly. And I think part of these, what we’re talking about with inclusivity, making sure that we’re covering and speaking to women in a way that respects our readers and that they respond to, helps so many of the young consumers in the outdoor industry who are buying gear, really respond to ... They want to be aligned with companies that align with their values, and so us making sure we cover these communities we have not historically covered before, I think resonates with the younger audience too.
So what’s an example of that?
Well, we spent a lot of time ... we covered some new, young, really powerful outdoor organizations. Mikhail Martin is the found of Brothers of Climbing. He’s this young guy who’s gonna be in our May issue again, and we’ve covered him in the past. Miho Aida is a filmmaker who’s done so many films about disenfranchised communities, minority communities, we’ve not covered in the past. We’ve recently ran a big story on her. Mirna Valerio is the plus-size ultra runner who we’ve covered, who’s also gonna be in the May issue talking about these communities, looking at Rue Mapp. Rue Mapp’s another one, she’s the CEO of Outdoor Afro. Covering all of these people, these big personalities who we have not historically covered, has seemed to resonate with our younger audiences.
Interesting. Okay, I want to talk about podcasting, too. We’ll get very meta here, since we’re on a podcast. I started listening to the podcast last year, at some point, and I was hooked by the survival series. I couldn’t eat mushrooms for two weeks after the mushroom episode, by the way. For all of you who are listening, you should go listen to the survival series, and the mushroom episode in particular. That one and the adrift one, the surfer who got caught out to sea, those things really resonated with me. But it was a fantastically produced series. Also you have the XX series, where you feature people like Diana Nyad and other athletes. But the whole podcast is sort of condensed into one stream. You haven’t broken it out. Talk a little bit about the decision around that, why that is and where you see podcasting going for you guys.
Yeah, the podcast for us has been enormously successful. Led, really, by Mike Roberts, who’s our executive editor. Peter Frick-Wright is the host, was like the original host of some of those science of survival pieces, and just fantastically talented, an incredible storyteller. And to be honest, I think it’s just been like hugely successful, I think even more successful than we could have predicted. And so, we’ve just seen enormous growth in the past two years, and I think we’re kinda still figuring out where does it go from here.
When it first launched, we were just like, we want to get into this space, and we think some of the Outside stories could be told on this medium in a really compelling way. And now we’ve had advertiser support come in and sponsor particular podcasts, like the XX Factor, and we have a couple of other series coming out this spring. And so, that’s been a new ... we’ve figured out that business model. Now it’s a business model that’s working, and so I think it’s in Mike’s court to figure out where does it go from here, but so far we’ve kept it all in that stream because it’s worked where we’ve had sponsors come in and decide to align themselves with one particular series.
Within the same podcast feed.
But is that driving subscribers in any way? Can you track that?
You know, I don’t know what the latest numbers on how it is on podcast downloads to subscribers. I know it’s just broadening our reach, and I think that we have seen an uptick in subscribers, but I don’t have those numbers just off the top of my head.
But you do believe that the podcast makes people want to subscribe?
Actually pay, then, for the content.
I do. And just also because it’s a new way to get people in the magazine, like it’s been a platform that has had a pretty broad reach, and that it’s a new medium where people can just listen, whenever you want. And because it has had so much success and has been downloaded so many times, yeah, we also believe that it’s, just hopefully, bringing people to the print magazine.
I’ve also noticed that, with the print magazine, there’s a paywall, obviously. You have to be a subscriber to get access to some of that content, but it also seems to be windowed, in a sense that, last month’s issue, there was an article about Ray Maker — who we’ve actually had on a Recode podcast before, you should all go listen to it — but D.C. Rainmaker, who reviews all kinds of outdoor fitness gear, but then that wasn’t online. So I read the print article, which is — how many times do people say that today, “I read the print article,” — and then it was still not available online because they hadn’t concurrently published. So it seems like you’re very carefully metering out what is free and what is not and what you have to wait for.
Well, we actually, we don’t have a paywall on the site itself, and I like that sometimes, to be honest, it’s not even that well ... the system is not that professional. We try and get the stories up from the magazine within the month that the magazine hits newsstands, and sometimes we just delay a little bit.
And that’s not intentional.
Sometimes it’s intentional. Often, it’s just like we’re a little bit slow, to be honest, but we are rethinking that strategy of maybe we get all of the stories from that print magazine up a couple of weeks before it hits newsstands, just so it’s a little bit more systematic.
Interesting, because a month is like ... it’s like dog years.
I know. It’s so slow, so slow.
It’s interesting. So my intention with going looking for that article, after I read it, was I’d like to share it, because I know Ray and I think it’s a pretty good profile with him, and so I’ll share it to my Twitter feed. And then maybe, who knows, I’m obsessed with wearables, someone will read it, be interested in it as well, and I just couldn’t find it.
And I even wrote to Ray and said, “Hey, is your article online yet?” And he said, “No, I don’t think it is.” And I was like, this is so interesting to me, because I actually thought it was an intentional window to try to drive people, in some way, to pay for the content, but it turns out it’s just a matter, it’s a kind of haphazard approach to, all right ...
I think we could be a lot more focused on ... yeah, I think it’s just like, we do have a lot of conversations about when a big feature goes online, just trying to get everyone lined up so they can promote it on their social channels so that conversation happens.
In terms of using those windows to hopefully drive people to the print magazine, I think for the most part it seems our audience just seems a little bit too small to see ... it’s hard to quantify that on a short-term basis, but yeah, I appreciate the credit that you give us, and that is something that I would love to keep working on in the future, because audience development and getting people signed up and paying for our content is obviously, that’s a big goal for 2018.
I imagine it would be for a lot of magazines.
“Top 5 ‘Shitholes’ to Visit,” that was one of the Outside headlines that got a lot of attention last year, and it came on the heels of President Trump’s remarks about “shithole” countries. You’ve done a sexual harassment survey. One of your writers recently did a profile of Ryan Zinke, secretary of the interior, that — the kicker at the end was great, but it wasn’t a particularly flattering profile in some ways, and there’s been some follow-up coverage since, too. The magazine has published a guide where people can donate if they want to help public lands. It’s all pretty political, in a lot of ways. How obligated does the staff of Outside feel it is to being political? How political should Outside be?
I think, starting with the election of Donald Trump, so beginning of 2017, we’ve felt a real imperative to be pretty political. I think most of the editors in the office feel like it’s kind of been dropped in our lap, in our space, because we have covered public lands for decades, that’s where what we write about often takes place. This country has a really strong heritage of public lands, and so, with Trump’s election and then the appointment of Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, there have been a lot of changes in that space, a lot of news.
The National Monuments review was mainstream news. That’s getting covered on the front page of the New York Times, and so, to be honest, we get pretty excited when things happen like that, because we feel like we have a real imperative to cover this news for our readers. And that we know this world better than anyone else, that we can talk about it with so much authority. We have incredible writers, Abe Streep, Chris Solomon, Elliot Woods who wrote the Zinke profile, who have been writing for our magazine for years, writing about these topics for years, and are ready and on deck to write about the news as it happens in a really strong way. So, over the course of 2017, 2018, we’ve really taken ... we’ve really sunk our teeth into the public lands issue and tried to cover it in a really thorough way.
Do you feel that impacts the journalism at all, the sort of objectivity that we, as journalists, are supposed to have?
Yeah, that’s a good question, and that’s a good way to basically caveat what I’m saying, too, is all of those people that I just named are also, first and foremost, reporters, and that’s kind of what I value most about their coverage. We try ... I think our stance tends to be like, we want to protect these natural places. There’s not necessarily one right way to do that. So I don’t see us as reporting on it from a pure advocacy standpoint. We’re not reporting on it like Patagonia is writing about it, when they say the president wants to steal your land. We’re taking a much more nuanced, journalistic approach. And so, ultimately, all the people we have writing for us are journalists and reporters at heart, so we want to cover these topics in a really authoritative way, but that also means making sure our reporting is there. I think, in the Zinke profile, that ...
Which, by the way, called him Trump’s attack dog, I believe.
Yeah, Trump’s attack dog on the environment. But like, even with that, we actually feel like that’s just backed up by the reporting. That profile, we’re just so proud of it, so proud of the response that it got, because we feel like it was a fairly fair look at him. But if you look at what has happened, protections on a lot of these lands have been lifted, for oil and gas, for energy extractors. And the administration is pretty clear about that.
And originally he was perceived to be pretty moderate and green-friendly, and then it seems he’s reversed some of his positions, which the profile really underscores, and then, since then, any members of the parks ... I think it’s called the parks advisory ...
Parks Service Advisory Board, have resigned, effectively in protest of what’s going on there.
Exactly. And we’ve heard like ... we’ve reported on the Department of Interior, how things are just in flux, and some of the long-term employees are saying that that department is kind of rudderless, like a lot of other departments, so there’s been like ... there’s been a lot of room for us to report on that pretty deeply, say what exactly is happening.
Does your audience respond well to that? We saw their response to the sexual harassment survey, which wasn’t altogether positive, unfortunately. How do people respond to that, when your editorial staff take a more, I don’t know, I don’t know if aggressive is the right word, but takes more of a stance?
Yeah, and I think aggressive probably ... we have tried to be more aggressive. We get a lot of comments, still, that are like, “Why is Outside political? Outside shouldn’t be political. I’m not here for politics.” And we try and listen to that, and also those responses have ... we’ve seen less of them recently. We still get that, and we do listen to that. We have conversations about it. We say, “Should we be covering this?”
But these particular issues, public lands, we just so clearly should be covering it that it’s not a question of can we stop, it’s more a question of like, then how do we respond to those readers and have a conversation on, typically, Facebook to say this is why we’re covering it, because we all genuinely feel like there’s a very clear imperative for us to be first and foremost in some of these issues. And if we just let that go and just focus on service, then ... Our magazine’s heritage is just so much richer than that. I think we all feel like we’d be letting the magazine down.
It’s not an uncommon thing, by the way. Especially these days, when just pure aggregation of stories, or just stenography of a story, is not necessarily is gonna win new audiences, but having sort of nuanced understanding or an opinion on something. At The Verge, we’ve grappled with that a little bit in terms of how to cover net neutrality, because net neutrality is something that so impacts anything who’s effectively in the internet business, and we are new distribution on the internet. So we’ve had people sort of opine about that in ways as well.
But back to the point of, you mentioned Patagonia earlier, and we’ve started to see brands getting more and more political. Patagonia has always had a little ... it’s in its DNA. It’s always had its mission statements, but even more recently, with Dick’s Sporting Goods taking a stand on gun sales. Do you think brands need to be political, outdoor brands?
I don’t know. I have a hard ... I would resist saying they need to be. I think they certainly think they should be, in this age. I think it’s part of ... it relates to the conversation we had earlier, that I think like, especially young people respond to that, that ... so you mentioned Dick’s, like REI also has said that they’re gonna stop, at least temporarily, selling brands that fall into the parent company Vista Outdoor, which also owns an assault rifle maker, and so they’re having that conversation. And the response that we’ve seen and the response that we hear from brands is that the responses to those actions tend to be pretty positive.
Do you think they’re just saying that, though?
I don’t know. I feel like we see it, though, too, just based on how people respond. And again, kind of social is the way to keep our finger on the pulse, and like letters. People talk to us a lot. We have a bunch of smaller Facebook groups that we use as discussion platforms, and obviously those are smaller sample sizes, but I do tend to think that they’re representative of our audience as a whole and that the people do respond ... so I guess, actually, like the long-winded answer is that, I think, right now, a lot of brands find it profitable and useful to have a strong stance on political issues. I mean, increasingly, people are polarized and so brands are, like everyone else in this country, outdoor brands are deciding to step to one side or the other.
How much of a role does social media play in that, too? Social media, it’s easier to be sort of glib or put an opinion out there. I noticed on Twitter, Outside actually kind of trolled Ryan Zinke with ... the fishing gear was upside down. That’s the ... I just spoiled the ending of the story, everyone, but you should still read the profile. Well that and the chubby Chernobyl fly, it was ... it’s great.
Well, that’s our goal, too, we want to have ... hopefully our voice, too, is kind of irreverent and playful, because we want to make things fun to read.
Right, but it’s easy for a brand on social to come out and say something on social media or put up a webpage — that’s a very sort of low lift, a webpage, these days. The accessibility of your audience, it’s just right there. Do you think that contributes in any way to how ... as opposed to devoting, let’s say, a print issue to a political topic?
Sure, yeah. I think, just as we have conversations with our readers — like Patagonia is having conversations with our readers when they’re posting, like, the president just stole your land, and changing their homepage so that it’s all black with that white typeface, and then being able to do the same thing on Instagram and Facebook. They can monitor the reactions, and I do think that’s enabled all of us, right, to have more of these conversations, and it’s probably the impetus for taking some of these stronger viewpoints, too.
Without giving away upcoming stories, what’s a political issue that Outside is keeping an eye on, that it plans to cover more, more closely?
Well, the Bears Ears debate continues just to be ... so Bears Ears is the national monument in Utah that was downsized by Trump, by Zinke, after the National Monuments review, so that’s just something that continues to be very much on our radar, not just Bears Ears, but national monuments in general. And to tease the story that we do have coming up, a big feature by Abe Streep, he’s writing about the hotshot Native American lawyers who are suing the Trump administration. They’re the first one to file a lawsuit, based on the Bears Ears shrinkage, and so that’s one we’re really excited to keep following.
I mean, aside from Zinke profile, how successful has your team been in getting in touch with members of the Trump administration, or members of the interior, for these stories? Are people on the other side of the story willing to talk to Outside Magazine?
Yeah, the Trump administration and the Department of the Interior has not been that easy to work with, so we tend to source ... we always try and get ... The story about the Department of the Interior, we’re obviously trying to get as many voices from the Department of the Interior as we can, and certainly their spokespeople, but we also have to report around it, sometimes, talking to employees who used to work there or different organizations. So it’s kind of been hit or miss, but like I said, thankfully we have really good reporters who have some of those deep contacts. We’ve been able to make inroads. But yeah, I think the Department of the Interior thinks we’re pretty anti-Department of the ... pretty anti-Zinke.
And does that concern you at all?
It doesn’t really concern me personally, again, because I just have so much confidence in our writers. They’re just so good and I trust them a lot and they know this space. And so when one of my reporters pitches me and it’s just like, “This is just not good for this reason, we should either write an op-ed or we need to report on this issue that could have serious, let’s say, like environmental repercussions,” then I’m like, “Okay, I trust you, let’s go.” So no, it doesn’t really.
What does Outside Magazine look like in three to five years?
Well, a lot more women. I think covers, 50/50. Hopefully, in three to five years, we’re just like, we’re onto the next conversation about how do we just continue becoming a stronger media brand, and this conversation about inclusivity is a conversation that happens in 2018 but then just becomes like part of who we are, part of our DNA. So, in five years, someone says, “Oh yeah, Outside, that’s the really smart publication that’s covering all these really fascinating topics, and it speaks to me because I love the outdoors and because I really trust your stories and your storytelling and I really love to read your long-form features, but I also really love to read your quick, online, big ideas that respond to something in the news that I just think are really trustworthy, and not just like hot hair and blowing smoke.” That it’s like, “I know that writer and I want to keep reading her.”
Have the social platforms changed in three to five years? Are we all still chasing after Facebook’s bizarre algorithms or figuring out how to make our content work on Snapchat or Instagram? You guys are on Snapchat, yes?
We are. It’s not a big traffic driver. It doesn’t really drive any traffic. I would say our main platforms right now that we’re focusing on are the big ones like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I don’t know, in five years it would be awesome not to be chasing so many platforms, because I feel like we just don’t ... It’s hard for all of us in the media world, like you just have to put a lot of energy into those spaces if you want to do it well.
I’d love to see our Facebook traffic just keep growing, to have algorithms stabilized, maybe put media companies back at the forefront, but ultimately, I think if I’m being realistic, I know it’s still gonna be a hustle and we’re just gonna have to keep being on our feet and thinking about the new platforms and thinking what do we put energy into versus what do we not.
But I think, ultimately, our strength is strong storytelling, and that’s gonna be pretty reliant on distribution methods that don’t rely on Facebook and Twitter, which is why we put a lot of energy into newsletters and more referrals and just like more traffic that we can control. That’s something I’d like to see. Same with podcasts, they’re just like a venue that we can control more than we can on social.
Thank you, Axie, for coming on the podcast and joining us here in studio in San Francisco.
Thank you so much.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.