What Happens When a Publisher Puts the Community First 

What we learned from the Mr. Magazine interview with William R. Hearst III.

Echoing the idea of “magazine as community” I shared yesterday, publisher William R. Hearst III says he believes his readers aren’t just a mailing list; they are an actual community. The man with the storied name in publishing circles (yes, he’s the grandson of that Hearst) has an interesting take on the community model that a magazine creates.

“My notion of the old media model is, and you can exaggerate here; the extreme of the old model is that you’re going to have a genius editor, William Shawn, or maybe you have Helen Gurley Brown, or somebody who is able to answer every question,” he tells Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni. “And then the staff basically runs around executing that plan.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, he says, “you have a complete, sort of blog community, every opinion is equal; you’re not really talking about facts; you have a comment section of the average website.”

Hearst felt there should be something firmly in the middle, where your readers serve as a sort of editorial community.

“And the community could disagree with us; the culture could change and we would need to change with it,” he notes. “So, I thought of a more dynamic, open model; a little more democratic, but not 100 percent democratic either.”

“The time is right for a smart, in-depth magazine with a Western perspective.” William R. Hearst III

That model is the backbone of the recently-launched Alta Journal of Alta California, for which he serves as editor and publisher. The vibrant print and online magazine brand launched in October and engages their readers in a uniquely refreshing way – and he’s putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to editorial integrity.

According to Husni, if a reader finds a factual mistake or misstatement in the printed magazine, they receive $10.

“I stole the idea from Don Knuth who wrote the print bible of software. He was writing technical articles where mistakes and typos meant that the software didn’t work or what was stated was wrong, but I just felt like we should challenge ourselves,” Hearst explains.

He harks back to his print journalism roots when he explains why it’s so important for print to be 100% accurate.

“I worked for a guy when I was younger, the editor of the editorial page of The San Francisco Examiner, and his view was that there should be no typos on the editorial pages,” he explains. “There could be typos in the newspaper because you’re on deadline and you’re in a hurry, but in the things where you were really putting the brand of the owner on the page, there should be no typos.”

And it doesn’t stop at proofreading; their audience has influenced editorial coverage and even contributor diversity to more accurately reflect the community. He brings this sanctity of brand to the quarterly print magazine and hopes the magazine compares to Garden & Gun in terms of editorial quality.

“They know their audience. And they’re regional, but they have the culture of their region in their blood. And that’s the kind of magazine that I’d like to be,” Hearst explains. “I’d like to be favorably compared to those guys, in terms of writing quality and topical interest. If you live in that area; if you’re in my audience and in my community, I’d like you to feel this is your magazine. That’s what I’d like to say in a year.”

His “reader as editorial community” just might get him there, along with his unwavering commitment to quality.

As Husni notes, “He has a penchant for exactness that in this age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ is greatly appreciated.”

What I see is someone who is doing more than just saying they have an audience-first approach. They are actually living that mantra, letting community feedback form editorial direction. This impacts his approach to the bottom line in an intriguing way.

“Advertisers are more fickle than readers,” he explains. “Readers decide what they like and what they’re willing to pay for. Advertisers move in herds. And the herd is moving to online and the herd is moving to Facebook, and there may be good reasons to do that, but I think chasing the herd from the back is not a good business strategy.”

Instead, he’s focusing on paid circulation and a commitment to being different.

“Compete to find something that no one is doing and then do that better than anyone else does.”

It’s possible that Alta Journal might do just that.