IF YOU THINK YOU’RE a busy person, talk to Mat Honan, and you’ll know busy. He just switched jobs and coasts from working at Wired magazine in San Francisco to Gizmodo in New York, manages dozens of single-serving sites, escapes from cobras, fends off pesky corporate lawyers, and recently welcomed his new daughter into the world. On top of that, he’s about to tackle a sleepless weekend of quarterbacking the next issue of Longshot magazine, building a fully-fledged, cool-as-hell glossy mag in less than 48 hours. But despite the schedule, he’s decidedly relaxed, focused, and hungry for what’s next.
So the idea behind Longshot is that it’s ‘made in 48 hours,’ but does that also include the content that’s submitted?
MH: Everything is done in 48 hours. We’ll typically announce the theme at noon on Friday Pacific Time, and people then can submit works based on that theme and then 24 hours later we close submissions. And then the next 24 hours are spent laying it out, editing, fact-checking it, and deciding what we’re going to use, and then we publish. We send it to MagCloud 48 hours after we start, and it’s done.
And although you don’t fully release the magazine’s theme until the launch day, do you think there are people out there right now trying to write pieces to publish for this issue?
MH: We actually try to give people some idea without totally giving it away. On our website we have a MoodBook set up that tries to give some idea of what we’re getting at. For our first issue the theme was Hustle, for the second it was Comeback, so we kinda try to tease what that’s going to be in a capacity that even if you don’t know what the theme is, by the end you get a sense of what direction we’re going. Some people do flat out guess the theme, though, and we don’t mind that.
In a way the magazine seems very parallel to something like the Burning Man Festival.
Yeah, it’s very much like that. I think we all look at it first and foremost in creativity and pushing boundaries and just seeing what you can do.
Although you’ve become something of a spokesperson for the project with your name on the Kickstarter site, this is something that you started with a couple others. How did the team come together?
MH: We had this discussion at a bar, which seems like forever ago, saying how cool would it be to pump out our own magazine, because there are all these tools to do it. We could use MagCloud to print our own magazine and not really have any overhead going into it, we wouldn’t have to get all this capital in advance to do it or sell ads. But we didn’t have any time to do that–we all have day jobs. So we said, “Why dont we just do it over a weekend,” and Alexis said “is that too crazy, or just crazy enough?”
I don’t know if I or Sarah said, “That’s just crazy enough.” So we made it happen, but while we’re all working on it, we all also have our jobs that we have to do, first and foremost.
That sounds like a difficult schedule to manage. Are there any official positions between you guys?
MH: The three of us, calling ourselves ‘co-founders’, we try to do everything by committee as much as we can. We’ve had various art directors and staff, who are all volunteers, every issue. But I guess we’re all three the editors-in-chief, which seems kind of bizarre; for instance, Mother Jones magazine has 2 editors-in-chief, and we have one more than that.
The kickstarter goal is 7,500. Is that the TOTAL cost, the minimum cost, or is there other capital going into it outside of the Kickstarter funding?
MH: Yes, the Kickstarter will cover all of our costs. There isn’t any other capital going into it.
I would imagine that’s significantly lower than what a typical magazine costs.
MH: Sure, that’ll cover all of our costs in terms of getting people paid this time. But we’re not sinking any money into the project, nor are we ourselves making any. The way MagCloud works is that it charges a set fee per page, which I believe is 20 cents per page, and so we try to put together a magazine that is about 60 pages. The printing on demand eliminates any up-front cost, but the bad thing about it is no matter how many issues you sell, it doesn’t get any cheaper with the more issues you produce.
So we don’t have any overhead with the printing process, but we also don’t have any way to discount it. And that’s where we started Kickstarter, so we can sell it without charging a big markup, and keep it cheap enough to where people will buy it and we can still pay our contributors.
What would be the news stand price?
MH: You can’t but it from news stands, you have to order it from magcloud, and it’s about 10 bucks, so quite expensive in comparison to the typical magazines people are going to buy.
But it seems more permanent, like a literary magazine. Different from a Newsweek or People, it’s something you can come back to and keep, not something that’s patently disposable, fixed in time or to a news cycle.
MH: Yeah, that’s how we think of it. I even hope that the first issue, which we had to stop selling because we got into a little bit of trouble with CBS, will become a bit of a collector’s item. It’s a magazine that appeals, I think, to a certain audience. It’s not the kind people are picking up at the airport when they’re about to get on a flight.
I hope that we’re offering something that you can pick up and read a year from now and it still has some relevance to you. In the last issue we had a piece about the Glen Beck Rally, and the issue before that something about the BP oil spill, so we do like some topical pieces. But really we’re looking to make something more permanent, looking for stories that will stand the test of time. If you go back and pick up a New Yorker that’s a couple years old or an issue of The Atlantic, or even a Wired or Vanity Fair you’re going to find stories that are still relevant.
What were your expectations going into this? What made you want to do something in print?
MH: Alexis and I had both been working at WIRED at the time, and we had both seen this magazine floating around the office called Strange Light, and it was a print on-demand magazine that an Australian guy had made by photographing a massive dust storm and compiling it into a beautiful, full-cover issue of images that had just been taken in the previous week. We thought that was really interesting, really compelling.
Also, in the past few years there have been so many layoffs and so many publishers went solvent that I feel like it fostered an environment of experimentation that was not there years ago. We have some friends in PopUp magazine, which is a live magazine that there’s no record of, and Longshot is kind of like that, but in reverse. We think of the magazine as being an artifact of that weekend.
So it’s kind of like poetry in that the restrictions of time help to create the art.
MH: Very much, there’s that old saying that constraints inspire creativity. And I think that’s what we do, we provide these two constraints: your piece has to fit within this theme, and it has to come in within 24 hours. It makes it feel like–to quote someone from twitter, that we feel like we’re “reaching into the Internet and pulling out something real.” It’s the realness of the thing that you get afterwards that I think is so great.
And I know I’m biased, I’m very biased, but I really feel like we’re able to do something that’s generally high-quality that has phenomenal art and amazing editors. I remember that during our first Issue Zero I realized that Clara Jeffery, one of the co-editors of Mother Jones, who at the time had just been nominated for a National Magazine Award for General Excellence was helping us edit a piece by Evan Ratliff who had just been nominated for a National Magazine Award for feature writing, and that was kinda mind-blowing, that they’re just donating their talents. I mean, we paid a nominal fee, but they didn’t really make any money. Nobody’s doing it for money, there’s a little bit of money but it’s about enough to buy a beer. But that’s one reason we started doing Kickstarter because we’d like to pay people something more than just basically buying them a drink.
Now that the magazine is going into its third issue, what have you learned what have you learned along the way?
I think I’ve learned a lot about marketing, which is something I wasn’t expecting, and what it takes to not only make something, but to make something successful and to get someone’s attention. The thing about this world we live in where it’s very easy to spread ideas is that while it’s great for spreading ideas it’s very hard to rise above the din and the spectacle of the online world. And just about the only way to do that is to draw people in and to get people to participate themselves.
On the site it says that “it’s easier to go from nothing to something than to one-up yourself,” talking about the difficulty of making the second issue. Do you still feel that way? Do you feel like you’ve got the hang of this yet?
MH: I feel like we’ve got the hang of it in that we know what to expect a little bit, but we try to push the boundary every time. This time we’re gonna try and roll out a ‘tablet version’, a version readable on any device — smartphone, iPad, Galaxy Tab — that is a full-fledged version of the magazine that can run in tandem with the print version. And that’s really hard. And we can only do that because we have this really great guy named Adam Hemphill who just showed up last time and wound up building our website.
So yeah, we have no idea how the tablet version is going to go, we could fall on our ass on that.
Do you think this type of magazine could have been accomplished ten or more years ago?
MH: I do think it’s something that could only happen now. You could obviously produce a magazine in a short amount of time. During the 1996 Atlanta games one of my old editors, Mike McCluskey, put together a magazine over a weekend or maybe over just a day. They went into that having reporters and a large payroll and an idea of what they were going to be doing. But all we have is basically an idea, and then we spread this idea via social media to get other people to join in and collaborate on that idea, and turn in completed works within 24 hours. So I think it’s completely dependent on social media, on our ability to spread an idea very rapidly to very many people.
In addition to that it’s also dependent on things like being able to use Google Docs to document-share, on tools like MagCloud that lets us do on-demand publishing without any overhead. We don’t have to order 10,000 issues or 30,000 issues. When I was in college you’d have to go to a print shop and xerox everything. There’s none of that, no sunk costs.
On the official Longshot site, it says that with the first issue, “Most people bought it on faith, knowing little beyond its unusual origin story: a magazine made start to finish in a single weekend.” But how important were your connections to expert layout designers and social media gurus to its reception? Do you think it was the staff behind it or did the magazine simply speak for itself based on its origin?
MH: I think it’s both, it’s an interesting conceptual product and people are attracted to it, but I think people also see who’s involved in it. And the people who are involved in it talk about it, because they’re excited about it, and everyone’s a broadcaster today so even if you only have 20 followers on twitter you can still spread that news. There’s very efficient mechanisms in place now to spread news or word about something happening. So I think it goes both ways, from both the concept and the promotion.
Do you feel that print is ‘dead’ and that aside from experimental exceptions like this one, new magazines will by and large fail to get off the ground? Or does print still have a lot left to do?
MH: I’m a big believer in print. I subscribe to 2 newspapers, despite their extravagant cost, along with various magazines and I still think magazines have a role in society. I think print magazines in particular offer an experience that you don’t get anywhere else: they’re beautiful to look at, they’re enjoyable to hold, read, dive into, and have an immersive and focused experience that you don’t get online.
I also think that magazine circulations are going to continue to decrease and it’s gonna get harder and harder for magazines to compete with what’s online, but I think there will always be magazines just like there will always be printed books. They may be smaller and the general interest stuff is going to have a harder time, but they’ll be here.