A Brave New Magazine Model?

Weary of his job as an urban planner for the city of Portland, Ore., Sloan Schang dreamed of making a living as a writer. How, exactly, he wasn't sure. But he quit his job, sold his house and, with the proceeds, some savings and his girlfriend, set off on a trip that took him to Asia, Europe and across much of the United States. Today, not two years later, Schang, 32, is a published travel writer with a busy schedule of decently paid freelance gigs. "It's worked out well. I don't really plan to go back to urban planning," he says.

A decade ago Schang's transition almost certainly would have been more difficult. But there are more opportunities than ever for aspiring writers to get published. Schang credits his breaking into the travel writing business to 8020 Publishing, a San Francisco-based magazine publisher with a unique twist on the conventional model: its paper pages are filled entirely with content submitted by readers through its Web site.

The Internet, of course, has given citizen-journalists, amateur artists and Wikipedia warriors a virtually limitless platform for exposure. It has also roiled the traditional magazine business, which in recent years has seen circulation and ad revenue drop as more readers shift their preference for media consumption from paper to pixels. But 8020 may have found a way to take advantage of the move to online. Funded by CNET.com founder Halsey Minor, the company, which was started in June 2006, is pinning its future on actual newsstand sales of content that originates online. "Magazines are great at inspiration, whereas the Web is really good at data. But people tend to think only in terms of the Web versus print magazines," says Paul Cloutier, chief executive of 8020. "We say they can come together to become an even better magazine."

At a time when magazines are disappearing from newsstands (the number of new launches has slipped in recent years, while major titles including House & Garden, Teen People, and Elle Girl folded last year), 8020 has two titles and plans to launch several more in the next few years. The first, JPG, is an artsy bimonthly photography magazine filled with a selection of digital-camera images that are submitted each month, categorized under different themes. A second title, Everywhere, was launched late last year. It is a travel magazine that uses reader submissions to tell quirky stories about a particular place. Issue number two, which "searches for the soul of Los Angeles" and "explore[s] the crossroads of historic Turkey," hit shelves last week at Barnes & Noble and Borders Books. Virtually anyone can submit original content—photos to JPG and text ranging from captions to full-length stories to Everywhere. Once it's uploaded, visitors to the magazines' respective Web sites (jpgmag.com and everywheremag.com) vote on each submission. Editors then decide which of the most popular submissions make it into the print version of the magazine. Contributors who are published in the print edition get $100 and a free annual subscription, valued at $24.99. "Our editors are more like curators than masters of a particular domain," Cloutier says. "Everything is working toward the magazine as the pinnacle of the process."

With few salaries to pay—it takes only about 14 paid staffers to put out both magazines—and content that comes virtually for free, it's a business model that any magazine industry bean counter might envy. Although the company is not yet profitable, Cloutier says the magazines, with a cover price of $5.99, break even on newsstands. Hard-copy circulation hovers at about 23,000 for JPG, and its Web site gets about 500,000 unique visitors a month. On average each issue of JPG generates about 20,000 active submissions. The editors expect similar numbers from Everywhere in the next year or so. About half of the magazines' Web traffic comes from word of mouth—contributors urge their friends and family to vote for their photos or stories. Advertisers, meanwhile, can sponsor sections of the magazine. Camera company Pentax, for example, is sponsoring an upcoming section titled "On the go: Action shots of active people." It's a way for advertisers to interact with their audience, rather than simply pitching a product to it. "While Google [advertising] is about efficiency, we're actually trying to make advertising more engaging, and what we've found is that this is something advertisers are looking for," Cloutier says. He thinks there are many more titles that might fit the model too, including ones that focus on fashion and various sports.

Of course, it's unclear how sustainable a magazine reliant on not particularly well-compensated content from fickle Internet users may be. Many a user-generated-based Web site has lost traction after contributors have moved onto the next hot site (anyone contributed a review to dine.com lately?), and quality can be a challenge to maintain, says Sreenath Sreenivasan, who runs the new media department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Still, with traditional media "under siege," Sreenivasan says, "anything that can make use of technology and do things cheaper and faster is certainly worth looking closely at. Everyone is trying everything they can."

And even magazine industry veterans are finding their creative juices reinvigorated by 8020's thus far novel approach. "Digital images today often end up looking souped up," says Matthew Mahon, an Austin, Texas-based commercial photographer. Though he earns almost nothing for being published in JPG, Mahon regularly submits pictures to the site. Unlike many mainstream publications, he says, JPG "is about celebrating photography for photography's sake. I'm always very honored when they publish something of mine."

But perhaps not as excited as budding full-time writer Schang, who saw his first few stories in glossy print recently in Everywhere—among them, a first-person account of getting a sybaritic haircut in India. "It's definitely different seeing something on the page and holding it and knowing that it was valued enough for it to go into print," he says. "My parents immediately wanted to know where they could go buy it." That's exactly the reaction that 8020 executives want to hear.