A “Collective Quarterly” Show And Tell Travel + Design Magazine. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Editorial Director Seth Putnam. A Launch Story.February 24, 2015
Bohemian destinations and creative accomplices who revel in the art of the uncommon, if that description seems unique and intriguing, then the magazine Collective Quarterly is calling to you.
“When I deal with the internet, I don’t feel there’s a sense of accomplishment necessarily or permanence with it; it’s so fleeting. And I wonder if that’s something that my generation is responding to, in terms of something tangible. When I finish reading a book or a magazine; I can look at it and say, I finished that, rather than just moving on to the next click or page.” Seth Putnam
Each issue of the magazine follows select craftspeople to an offbeat location, where they design uncommon objects while the cameras and writers capture their creative processes. It’s a journey deeply rooted in the heritages of the destinations that they visit. And they are the ‘Collective.’
Seth Putnam is the editorial director of Collective Quarterly and Jesse Lenz, an accomplished illustrator, is his business partner and creative director for the magazine. The two together have spawned an absolutely brilliant and well-done printed magazine that is both aesthetically pleasing and reader-satisfying with its rich and original content.
I recently spoke with Seth about the magazine. We touched on everything from the concept to the cover price, $25, and the fact that both he and his partner are digital natives who felt the need for a printed product to bring their audience a deeper and more meaningful engagement. The conversation was fascinatingly diverse and interesting.
I hope you enjoy this trip into a world where creativity in design and travel is the focal point for everything and the motivation behind two young men’s dream – the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Seth Putnam, Editorial Director for Collective Quarterly.
But first the sound-bites:
On why as digital natives, he and his partner decided they needed a printed magazine to connect with their audience: Some parts of our business we approach with great research and thought, and then some we do simply out of a passion for something or a gut feeling. We decided to do print because, while yes, magazine subscriptions are falling and certain titles are closing, more titles are opening, particularly in independent, boutique niche genres’.
On the hefty cover price of the magazine – $25: We landed on that price based on the cost to print a thousand copies of the issue 0 – we looked at it as an experiment. And it was very expensive.
On his opinion of why the digital natives of today are finding an endurable quality in the printed product: When I deal with the internet, I don’t feel there’s a sense of accomplishment necessarily or permanence with it; it’s so fleeting. And I wonder if that’s something that my generation is responding to, in terms of something tangible.
On knowing who his target audience is: Demographically, we haven’t run a lot of surveys or specific numbers, but I would say our audience skews younger, probably that 21 to 35 age-range, with a fairly even split of men and women, from the orders that I see coming in.
On how they came up with the name Collective Quarterly: We were thinking of it as a place where, not only we could bring together really talented artists and craftspeople to go on these trips because each time the cast of characters is rotating, but also use our platform and voice as a medium for our readers to get involved as well. So, we had a sort of inclusive mindset and that’s why we ended up calling it the Collective Quarterly.
On how they decide on the destinations of each issue: Usually it’s a collaborative decision between me and Jesse, the creative director, but we try and do a pretty good job of soliciting ideas at least from the other five or six people on our team or people that we’ve met on the ground in locations that we’ve visited.
On the biggest stumbling block he had to overcome: Everything we have done so far has paid for itself and that’s been really exciting for us, but the challenge has been cash flow, for sure. Trying to make sure that when you’re working on two or three issues at a time, there’s enough money in the bank to pay your bills.
On his most pleasant moment: The reason I got into journalism is because I have a very strong attachment to hearing other people’s stories. Oddly enough; that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s been really gratifying to see that we’re sort of living in a brave new world where if you’ve got a good idea and an internet connection, you can create your own platform for doing that kind of storytelling.
On advice he would give to students who are about to graduate and start their publishing careers: If you have a story to tell, or if you want to tell someone else’s story, but there’s no obvious path to be able to do that through traditional media, then just do it; do it yourself.
On what keeps him up at night: Just making sure that we’re doing good work and we’re treating people well, our sources and our team members, and that we’re doing a better job this time than last time.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Seth Putnam, Editorial Director, Collective Quarterly…
Samir Husni: Give me some background on Collective Quarterly.Seth Putnam: We’ve been working in earnest on it since January. 2013. My business partner and I met through the social networking site Instagram. I was working as a magazine writer in Chicago and he’s an editorial illustrator who has created covers for everyone from The New York Times Magazine to GQ to Money, and I think he actually did the Planet Hillary cover for The New York Times Magazine last year and then also the 10th anniversary of September 11th for the cover of Newsweek as well, so he’s a very accomplished illustrator.
As we looked at each other’s work on the social media sites, we became intrigued and decided to set up a call. During that call he told me that he’d like to start a magazine, so I asked him what he wanted it to be about and he asked: how about the creative process? I said that’s a little bit abstract to do an entire magazine about; how are we going to focus that?
We landed on the idea of travel, because we’ve found personally that the trips that we take and the people that we meet in these unseen, often, off the beaten path hideaways are certainly extremely inspiring to us and our passion for stories.
It basically became a travel and design magazine where the travel portion is covered by each issue focusing on one location; one region. And then the design portion is covered by the fact that we bring with us a group of artists or craftspeople and we put together an experiential, inspiration trip for them, almost like an artist’s residency. And then they go home and make something in their discipline, based on their time there, the things that they saw, and the people that they met. We chronicle those experiences and their design processes in the completed product and it’s available through our website as well.
Those are the two hooks of the magazine.
Samir Husni: When did you graduate from the University of Missouri?
Seth Putnam: 2010 – so, five years ago.
Samir Husni: You’re in your twenties?
Seth Putnam: Yes, I’m 26, as is my business partner.
Samir Husni: So, you’re a digital native; why print? When everyone is telling us that the future is digital and you even met your business partner via Instagram; why did you decide to go with print?
Seth Putnam: I guess we’re just young and foolish. (Laughs) Some parts of our business we approach with great research and thought, and then some we do simply out of a passion for something or a gut feeling. We decided to do print because, while yes, magazine subscriptions are falling and certain titles are closing, more titles are opening, particularly in independent, boutique niche genres’.
And much like we’re seeing people return to vinyl records, we’re seeing a love or an appreciation for tangible lifestyle, human interest coverage. So, sure newsweeklies and titles that rely on breaking events are probably suffering because of the immediacy of the internet, but I think that there’s definitely a market out there of people who are willing to put their dollars toward an experience or deeper stories that form another entertainment bucket for them.
But for us; it’s the beauty of being able to hold it; it’s the beauty of sending, as often as possible, reporters, writers and photographers places so that they can tell the stories in person; it’s a little hard to do sometimes, but it makes a better story. And I think the same is true for print versus consuming content on the web.
For the first few issues or the first couple of years, we focused entirely on print, whereas now we’re about to launch a journal on our website so that we can provide more daily stories for our readers, but print has definitely been the thing that we have thrown most of our energy into.
Samir Husni: I noticed that you have a hefty cover price for the print magazine.
Seth Putnam: (Laughs) That’s true. We landed on that price based on the cost to print a thousand copies of the issue 0 – we looked at it as an experiment. And it was very expensive.
What we’ve done is put out a second issue and we’re actually going for a third and we have negotiated a new deal with our printer that will hopefully allow us to get that cover price down in the $19 or $20 region, maybe not by the next issue, but in the not too distant future.
We’re finding that many of the magazines in our similar niche are charging in the $15 to $25 and sometimes up to $30 range, which is a luxury price point for sure. And we want to try and get that down as much as possible because we’ve seen that the magazines that are sticking around have come down somewhat from their original price point.
But again, when you’re printing a thousand copies, of course, we’re printing more than that now, but in the beginning we were doing a 1,000; the price per copy is exponentially higher than if you were printing 10,000 or 15,000 copies.
Samir Husni: I’m seeing more and more new magazines following your approach. The digital generation is finding some love for print or some enduring aspect of the printed product.
Samir Husni: And who do you view as your audience? Who bought that first issue and who’s buying the second? Do you have a sense of your target audience?
Seth Putnam: We’re beginning to get a better sense. I think the audience that adopts a magazine like Collective Quarterly in the beginning is definitely one that is sort of trend-focused; they care about travel and the story behind the destination and they might be the kind of people who shop at anthropology or urban outfitters, for example, which are some of the retailers we work with.
Demographically, we haven’t run a lot of surveys or specific numbers, but I would say our audience skews younger, probably that 21 to 35 age-range, with a fairly even split of men and women, from the orders that I see coming in.
But definitely people who have more than just one income and are able to purchase a magazine of that price point and also buy the products inside and maybe even take the trips that we’re recommending.
I suppose it’s an affluent audience, which raises some questions for us as far as how we want to make ourselves accessible to others as well.
Samir Husni: How did you come up with the name: the Collective Quarterly?
Seth Putnam: We put together a big Google document at the very beginning of our trip and the initial idea was much more focused on artists and makers than it currently is; I think we’ve achieved a little bit of balance there. We were thinking of it as a place where, not only we could bring together really talented artists and craftspeople to go on these trips because each time the cast of characters is rotating, but also use our platform and voice as a medium for our readers to get involved as well. So, we had a sort of inclusive mindset and that’s why we ended up calling it the Collective Quarterly. We toyed around with a lot of different names, but that one just seemed to fit.
Of course, since then we found out a lot of things are called collective. (Laughs) That raises some challenges for sure.
Samir Husni: (Laughs too) I noticed on the website that you refer to you and your team as ‘the Collective.’
Seth Putnam: Yes, definitely. That’s designed to create a sense of inclusion and to make it more about the group as a whole.
For example, there are certain titles out there, particularly in the independent niche genre, where they’re very much connected to a specific person, whether that’s Ben Ashby’s Folk magazine or Nathan Williams’ Kinfolk; they’re synonymous with one individual oftentimes. We wanted to start out at least by being a place where people could rise; the particular people that we find along the way and that we feature, and we’re hoping to be as active an organization as possible to help these people and give them success as well.
Samir Husni: The decisions to go to these places, whether it’s Texas or Montana or wherever you find those offbeat locations that the magazine focuses on; are they collectively decided on or are they just sudden ideas, someone saying, hey, why don’t we go to Texas?
Seth Putnam: Within our internal office structure, which is sort of a misnomer, because no one is in the same place; we have people in different cities: San Francisco, Phoenix and Chicago, also in West Virginia and Minneapolis; I don’t think any one of us is in the same city.
So, there is no office, so to speak, but within our decision-making structure there are definitely those who provide the drive and motivation and the pushing, and others who provide the steering, for sure. Usually it’s a collaborative decision between me and Jesse, the creative director, but we try and do a pretty good job of soliciting ideas at least from the other five or six people on our team or people that we’ve met on the ground in locations that we’ve visited. See what works with our schedules and our interests and then we go and scout those places to see if they have the kind of story quality that we’re looking for.
Samir Husni: When you graduated in 2010; did you ever think that you’d be doing what you’re doing now?
Seth Putnam: I had no idea. Usually people graduating from college aren’t sure about the next job they’re getting, much less what their long-term ambitions are. When the first issue came out I spoke through Skype to a class from the University of Missouri and I just did another one after the Montana issue came out and that first time I told them that I sure wished that I had taken magazine publishing because I didn’t have the first clue about making a magazine. There’s been a lot of trial and error, to be certain.
I spent the last four or five years freelancing and there’s a lot of isolation that comes with that when you’re working for yourself or rather, for 15 or 16 different editors or publications at a time, but you’re doing it from the comfort of your own home. So, I spent a long time as an individual rather than a manager or part of a team and I think that has been a really exciting challenge, and also transitioning from thinking that I’m not someone’s employee anymore, I’m a boss or an owner. That quick wired a definite mindset shift that I didn’t predict when I was in college.
Samir Husni: What has been the biggest stumbling block since launching Collective Quarterly and how were you able to overcome it?
Seth Putnam: When we all went to Texas, there were about eight or nine people on the trip, and everyone who was there paid their own way; we covered our own lodging costs and expenses, because as I said earlier, sometimes we make decisions without doing all the research that we could have. We started the magazine with no funding and we just paid our own way.
When we had gathered all of the content for stories and the photographs, and it became time to actually take it to print, we knew that we couldn’t foot that bill ourselves, so we considered whether or not we should do a Kickstarter. But we decided that if we were going to be a magazine that sells for that cover price, we wanted to establish ourselves less as needing help and more as something people would want to get in on early and be the first to get a copy.
We made a video and sort of styled it after a Kickstarter campaign and we ran that through our own website and we sold pre-orders rather than donations. And with what we earned in the first month or two, we were able to take it to print and the sales from that issue covered many of those expenses that we had paid out of our own pockets for the next one. So, it covered travel costs and lodging and some meals here and there.
Everything we have done so far has paid for itself and that’s been really exciting for us, but the challenge has been cash flow, for sure. Trying to make sure that when you’re working on two or three issues at a time, there’s enough money in the bank to pay your bills.
I think that’s one of the things that come along with not taking funding at the very beginning and obviously, there are tradeoffs. If you take funding then your investor owns part of your company and you lose a little control, but if you keep that control you may not have the liquidity to be able to do some of the things that you’d like to. We’re very much in that challenge mode right now and trying to figure it out; we’ve put out two issues now and we’re about to do a third; how do we stick around long enough to be able to keep this going for a while?
Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant moment?
Seth Putnam: The reason I got into journalism is because I have a very strong attachment to hearing other people’s stories. I kept track of how many days I was on the road between this magazine and my other assignments last year, I was on the road for about 125 days, and most of the time was spent going to small hamlets around the country.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Georgia Rambler; he was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist a few years ago, but he would go to small towns in Georgia and find someone and then ask them who was the most unforgettable person they knew. Then he would go and write about that person.
It’s funny because I corresponded with him; his name is Charles Salter, after hearing him on This American Life a few years ago; actually, when I was working in Mississippi, and we corresponded a little bit and I asked him as a naïve 21-year-old: how do I get a job like yours? And he said there aren’t that many out there anymore because you would need to be on a newspaper staff for 15 or 20 years to gain the experience, credibility and cache which would allow your editor to say: OK, go do this column. And then you’d have to write a daily column in the newspaper and the bottom is falling out of newspapers and that’s just not possible anymore.
But oddly enough; that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s been really gratifying to see that we’re sort of living in a brave new world where if you’ve got a good idea and an internet connection, you can create your own platform for doing that kind of storytelling.
Samir Husni: What advice would you give to students now who are reaching the graduation stage?
Seth Putnam: That’s a great question. I don’t generally have one go-to piece of advice where I say: if you’re a young journalism student, you need to know this, but one of the things that I really loved about my education, and still see at the University of Missouri when I go back and talk to students there, is that there are no limits on what they think is possible. And I think that’s worth reminding ourselves and them about to. If you have a story to tell, or if you want to tell someone else’s story, but there’s no obvious path to be able to do that through traditional media, then just do it; do it yourself.
Start a website or start some sort of platform online that allows you to tell that story and realize that it’s highly possible that you may have to do it for free because as a young student no one may be willing to pay you to do that.
But I think it’s a really powerful truth that when there’s something a person feels compelled to do or a story that someone feels compelled to tell, that’s inside and just has to come out, doing it on your own and doing it well; eventually, somebody is going to find a way to pay you for it. It’s an exciting time because there have never been fewer barriers to those of us in the storytelling industry to be able to seek our own path.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Seth Putnam: Right now what’s been waking me up at 3:00 a.m. is the closing week of our Vermont issue. As I said; I’ve always worked as an individual and now I have a team of writers and colleagues and they’re depending on me to get things done, on time, and make sure all of the loose ends are neatly tied up, particularly when you’re about to send it to print. There are a lot of things that appear to be falling through the cracks and need your attention.
Just making sure that we’re doing good work and we’re treating people well, our sources and our team members, and that we’re doing a better job this time than last time.
It’s such a beautiful magazine and I am in such awe of our photographers and designers and the guys that are making sure it all happens. Another thing, from my standpoint, that sometimes keeps me up at night is trying to figure out how to elevate the quality of the writing, for sure, and to get people involved with us that are much better than we are, and can lift us to greater heights with the actual content.
Samir Husni: Thank you.