Interview with Paul Cloutier: Making magazines matter

Paul Cloutier is CEO of 8020 Publishing, which publishes the magazines JPG and Everywhere.

Cloutier’s adherence to magazines in the Web 2.0 boom (or Web 2.0 fad?) paints him as a contrarian. He has some notable perspectives on the culture clash between old and new media.

8020, which is shorthand for “80 percent community, 20 percent editorial,” has stood out from the pack by putting the production of a traditional glossy in the hands of user communities.

JPG Magazine, the company’s first publication, is a photography magazine that draws its content from a social network of photography lovers. Everywhere Magazine, which is launching soon, gears the same concept toward travelers. My interview with Cloutier follows:

How did you get your start?

I started out in journalism at a local newspaper in Sonoma county, around 1994. I was young, so the editor grabbed me and asked me to build the webpage, which started me down the software route. I still had a passion for both photography and publishing, though, so I started a design firm and worked on magazines. At the time, I had plenty of ideas revolving around the internet, but there was always an incredible fear on the part of publishers.

They didn’t know how to control the internet — they couldn’t figure out how to monetize or push online content without damaging their house of cards, the print publication. Simultaneously, there was a lot of talk about magazines being killed by the web, but everyone I knew had more subscriptions than ever. I figured out that it wasn’t print that was dead, it was the old print model. 8020 was born out of the idea of making magazines from a combination of print and web.

Most sites on the internet now either lean toward automatic aggregation of content, or putting all the editorial power in the hands of the community. What benefit do you get from having professional editors?

If you don’t have some kind of oversight or human input, you get a great deal of homogeneity. I think you see that on Digg and similar sites; they tend to evolve toward a single tone of voice, because there’s not someone in there pointing out that there’s a lot of different narratives that need to be separated and paid attention to individually. That editorial voice is what makes it all come together in a more interesting way. When we create an issue of JPG, we try not to let it have too much of our tone of voice; we don’t subvert the direction of the community. Our editing is just the last part of the process, the part that keeps the community from being just another social sharing site with a single tone.

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You could have editors without having the magazines. Why stick with print?

People look at us and say, you’re crazy, print is really expensive — why not just do web only? The real fallacy with that argument is that although there are some printing costs, we do sell the magazine. We make the printing money back. For a traditional magazine, yes, there’s a huge, expensive bureaucracy of publishers and editorial and production staff. But we don’t need that, so the costs aren’t a problem. You could also ask if we’d survive without the magazine, and the answer is, no way. We’re good designers, and we could have come up with a well-designed site, but that’s a problem that has been solved amply by Flickr and other sites. It doesn’t bring anything new to the web.

It does seem like we’re in a social networking bubble. Everyone wants to start the next Flickr or Facebook. You’ve come up with a unique angle. Why aren’t more companies trying to do the same?

I think that social networking just feels like everyone jumping on a bandwagon. Startups say hey, people gotta hang out, right? Let’s just build them a place, and they will. That model doesn’t seem sustainable, and I think that’s what creates the sense of a bubble. It’s relatively easy to build a network, but there’s a lack of direction. I would prefer the internet if there were more of a social software bubble, with a bunch of sites trying to be fashion schools, magazines, photo sites or anything else. That’s an interesting aspect of what’s happening right, but it’s a point that’s missed by startups who are just jumping into social networking because there’s money in it. And there are also plenty of venture capitalists who will throw money at social networks, just because they can.

They do have a point; they want to become rich. Will you?

Maybe, but you have to think of us not as a magazine, but as a platform for making magazines. The idea has always been to build this platform that allows us to make magazines more efficiently, and make magazines that are relevant to readers. We’re creating a platform that allows us to do that as effectively as possible. Because of our low production costs, JPG can break even at a circulation of about 25,000. If we were just doing JPG, we would become profitable in the next six months, and we could leave it at that.

Instead, we can start a wide array of magazines, and it’ll be fairly easy for us to reach that break-even point. If we can then hit our target circulation of 100,000 for each magazine, our margins will be very substantial. There’s the potential to open this up, so that it’s not centrally controlled anymore, and it all becomes plug-and-play. A lot of Everywhere, for instance, is based on the internal code we used for JPG.

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Aside from the magazines, you actually are running social networks. How did you build your communities?

We’re cautious about saying we built anything; it’s more like a plant that grows. You make a space, invite people to come over, then hope they stick around. The basic idea is to make it really easy for people to join, then create something selfishly interesting — not to us, but to the users. We felt strongly that we had to find a reason for people to be here beyond just helping us with what we want to do. In a sense, it’s a lot like Flickr’s interesting list, or Newsvine’s homepage. The best stuff floats to the top, and ultimately only a certain number of people get to be part of that; so there’s a built-in goal to work toward.

That focus and direction is important. Take the example of Friendster. When it was launched, what you were supposed to do was a bit vague; you just gathered some friends. Then MySpace came along, the same basic idea but with the addition of music and bands. Now there’s FaceBook, with much more. There’s a constant evolution, always giving a little more purpose to communities. And it helped with our traffic; the largest chunk came from people reaching out to their friends and getting them to vote.

What’s the future for traditional media and the internet?

Current TV, the television network, was one of the last projects I did as a designer. Current has a very similar approach to ours: democratizing and giving the power to people to create and organize their own media. That has immense potential, especially in a resource as powerful as TV — it’s one of the last scarcity-based forms of media. There’s a finite amount to be had, unlike the internet. But it’s the only thing like it in television. Magazines have never really jumped on the bandwagon either, although there are some magazines that are beginning to embrace the idea of having an audience online. But nobody has baked it into the business model. I think it’s difficult for traditional publishers to build into the structure they already have.

It hasn’t happened yet, but we’re right at the edge of it. I think the next thing you’ll see are the print-on-demand companies like Lulu and Blurb approaching it from a slightly different angle, making books or guides or even magazines. The idea is simple: It’s just about using online communities to create physical objects.