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The Journal Of Alta California: A Quarterly Magazine And A Website Launched To Celebrate California’s Culture, Issues & All-Important History – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Mark Potts, Managing Editor…

October 16, 2017

A Mr. Magazine™ Launch Story

“I think we started somewhat print first, because that was Will’s (William R. Hearst III) interest, so the magazine was the bedrock and we built from there. The website was built alongside it. But we thought of it in terms of a print magazine, which is weird for me because I’m a digital guy, and I’ve spent most of the last 25 years in digital. So, going back to print was different, but fun and really interesting to create a product completely from scratch like this.” Mark Potts…

William R. Hearst III is certainly someone who knows about publishing and magazines, since his last name is Hearst and absolutely synonymous with anything at all that has to do with the industry. So, to hear that he has launched a new print magazine, along with a website to go with it, is not a surprise, but it is maybe long overdue, especially considering that the “Journal of Alta California” (Alta for short) has been on his mind for about 20 years, according to the magazine’s managing editor, Mark Potts.

Mark is an entrepreneur, executive and consultant who has long been on the cutting edge of the digital media revolution. He has been a leader in the development of innovative strategies and products in online media, created and worked for several startups, consulted to some of the nation’s leading digital and media companies, and has taught college classes in entrepreneurship. Mark also created one of the first electronic news prototypes in the early 1990s, and then co-founded The Washington Post Co.’s digital division and he was a member of the founding team of the @Home Network, where he led the creation of the first consumer broadband programming service.

So, with Mark’s digital background and Will’s legacy in media, the two together should definitely be print proud and digital smart. I spoke with Mark recently and we talked about the magazine and how it is something that Will Hearst is extremely proud of, and that it’s definitely a reflection of the man and not the company. It is his paean to California and provides a fresh, smart take on the issues, culture, personalities, politics, lifestyle, culture and history of California, featuring some of the state’s best writers, photographers and illustrators. The magazine’s website, altaonline.com, will be a daily guide to the best writing about the state from Alta and other sources.

Will Hearst will be actively involved in leading the magazine, and along with Mark and the magazine’s creative director, John Goecke, who has created designs for many newspapers, magazines and digital companies, the future for Alta looks bright indeed.

So, without further ado, I hope you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Mark Potts, managing editor, Alta magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

On how it’s different today launching a new magazine media brand than it was in the early days when all you had to worry about was the print magazine: That’s a really good question. You obviously have to think simultaneously, in terms of the website and social media, and to some extent video and audio. We’re pursuing all of those. And obviously the website is up and we’re active on social media. And we’re working on our plans for video, podcasts and audio, and multimedia. So, you have to work through the whole thing.

On his reaction when he received the first print issue: I come from a print background, so print still means something to me. It’s not my primary form of consumption anymore; I do just about everything digitally. But it’s still a nice talisman; it’s still a nice thing to have to put on the shelf or sit on the coffee table.

On why the masthead of the magazine reads like a who’s who list of many different people: That was really Will trying to pay tribute to a lot of people who are friends of his or who he admires. Some of those people have actually been involved in the planning of the magazine, but they’re not active, they’re honorary, especially the inspirations. But it’s just our way of paying tribute to the people who gave us good ideas, either directly or even indirectly, things that we saw them do and said, “Gee, this is somebody who we’d love to have or would enjoy what we’re doing and we want to pay tribute to them.”

On the thinking behind the physical attributes of the printed magazine, such as the oversized format and the comparisons to The New Yorker magazine: When we say The New Yorker for California, we’re talking more about sensibility and about literate, witty, and smart content. I would describe it as 70 percent New Yorker and 20 percent Vanity Fair and 10 percent Spy, trying to get the mix in there. But the oversize is another thing that Will wanted to do as sort of a tribute to the New York Review of Books, which he’s a big fan of, and some other magazines that are that size. He wanted to try something different, maybe get a little more attention on the newsstand with that size, but we could definitely do much better graphics and art, and that’s really important. And the first time that I saw it printed out, we did some dummy copies and I was blown away; it was incredible.

On how he decides what content goes on which platform, print or digital: I think we primarily think in terms of the quarterly magazine, because we can’t publish blank pages, so it’s good to keep things for the magazine. But there’s really a phenomenal story about that; the first story that we put up on the web was written for the web. There are a couple of things that were written for the magazine that didn’t make the magazine, so they went up, but there’s a story that went up, a piece on a mobility score; it’s a little calculator that you can use, you put in your address and it tells you how good mass transit is around your house. And that could never have worked in print; it had to be done online, and that’s why we chose to do it.

On where the name Journal of Alta California, Alta for short, came from: There was a newspaper after the Gold Rush called Alta California. It was one of the first and became very famous; Mark Twain wrote for it. And we have a collection of his letters to the original Alta in the first issue. It was something that Will always admired when he was doing some research in California history, he kept coming across the name and liked the idea of calling the magazine The Journal of Alta California, so the name has always been that, and Alta for short. But it’s a tribute to that pioneering journalistic enterprise of the 1860s.

On defining today’s Alta brand: The last page will always be something that looks forward with all prospects, and it’s always about some piece of technology or something. Every trend starts in California, so we want to identify the trends before they start on that last page. So, we always look forward. But we want to look back too. I think it’s to try and get at the richness of California. Someone sent something very interesting to us in a note recently that really encapsulates this. California is always covered as a place where everything is happening right now, and doesn’t often have a sense of its own history. And we’re trying to remedy that a little bit. We’re not going to overdo it, but there’ll be at least one historical piece in every issue, which is similar to what The New Yorker or The Atlantic does.

On whether the journey of Alta has been a walk in a Rose Garden or there have been challenges along the way: It’s been pretty easy. Will has been talking about this for around 20 years. There’s an amazing collection of memos from famous editors proposing versions of it. He and I started talking about it in 2010. I have notes from 2010 about this that aren’t real dissimilar from what we published. It was just a question of timing and when he wanted to commit the time and the funds to it.

On that definitive moment when they decided to just do it: Believe it or not, that was basically in June. We started talking really earnestly about it around a year ago. We did a prototype in February or March, just to see what it would look like. We had a budget, and the real go-ahead did not come until the first week in June, so we put this thing together very quickly. Once we knew it was there, and given how quickly we put it together, I’m happy with the way it came out. Now, we have a little more time to be thoughtful about it.

On whether he feels in today’s digital world, there is a need for both “slow journalism” and immediate journalism: I know that Will refers to this as slow journalism, and I think in print you definitely want to be more thoughtful and take more time. We do a lot of work with our writers in getting stories just right. You have the luxury of that in print; you don’t have that luxury online, where you have to move a lot more quickly. We’re not covering news, I want to underline that. We’re not about breaking news.

On anything else he’d like to add: One thing that’s important is this is a personal project of Will’s, not a Hearst company project. And this is something that he’s really wanted to do for a long time. It’s a chance for him to take advantage of his legacy on his own terms, and really show his chops as a thinker and a publisher. He’s obviously been involved as an editor and a publisher with Outside magazine, Rolling Stone, and the San Francisco Examiner, which is where he and I first met. But this is really something that’s his. And it very much reflects him; it’s his interests in California and being very literate, and sort of the journalism of the West.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m surfing the web. I’m on a digital device, reading everything in sight. Twitter, magazines, newspapers, websites, just whatever.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I’m really proud of the role I’ve had as a pioneer in digital media. I started the Washington Post electronic division 25 years ago, and got the Post going online when no one believed that any of this was going to happen. I like creating products that make a difference and that last. So, the legacy is that people look back and say, wow, that’s the product that he created and it’s still here.

On what keeps him up at night: Not a whole lot. It’s thinking of stories; trying to find some really interesting stories to tell people about California. But that’s never a huge problem. We have a lot of great freelancers who are pitching ideas and have become sort of an informal contributing staff to us. It’s been a fairly easy launch and a fairly easy existence so far. We’ll see what the second one is like; we’re in the middle of the second one. But so far, if anything, we’re getting better at it, because we’re starting to get some rhythms. It’s been a great experience. It’s been fascinating to create something this elaborate from scratch; to try and figure out what kind of sensibility it has and the kind of voice it has.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Mark Potts, managing editor, Alta.

Samir Husni: As the managing editor of the brand, the magazine and everything surrounding it, how is it different today launching a new magazine media brand than the early days when all you had to do was have that ink on paper component?

Mark Potts: That’s a really good question. You obviously have to think simultaneously, in terms of the website and social media, and to some extent video and audio. We’re pursuing all of those. And obviously the website is up and we’re active on social media. And we’re working on our plans for video, podcasts and audio, and multimedia. So, you have to work through the whole thing.

I think we started somewhat print first, because that was Will’s (William R. Hearst III) interest, so the magazine was the bedrock and we built from there. The website was built alongside it. But we thought of it in terms of a print magazine, which is weird for me because I’m a digital guy, and I’ve spent most of the last 25 years in digital. So, going back to print was different, but fun and really interesting to create a product completely from scratch like this.

Another piece of it that I think is really significant, and I’m understanding this better every day, is the role of social media as a promotional device. And what we’re doing with Facebook and Twitter to push the brand out there. We get inundated with shares and likes and all of the other good things on those two platforms. We’ll also do something really interesting, and this is another piece of it; being a quarterly is a very interesting cadence for us, especially for me coming from digital and daily, quarterly seems very slow. How do you keep the brand in front of people in the three months between editions is a big issue and social media is just phenomenal for that, and the website is too, but social especially, because we can publish every day. We can push things out on Twitter and on Facebook daily; we’re putting magazine stories up, obviously; we’re putting some things that didn’t make the magazine and some fresh property up.

And another thing that we do that I think is really significant, and I’m not aware of any magazine ever having done this, is curating other good content; we’re trying to pull together stories from other sources, the kind of stories that we’d run in our magazine if we had access to them. So, if there’s a great investigative piece in the L.A. Times; a really good feature about California in The Atlantic, or a great profile on someone from California in The New Yorker, we’ll put up those as well. We put up about 10 of those per day on the website and promote those through social media. And that’s been fantastic because it allows us to promote this great content that other people are doing; it keeps us fresh; it gives people a reason to follow us, and it helps those brands. So, we don’t feel like a quarterly magazine; we feel like a daily publication.

Samir Husni: When you received that premier issue of the print quarterly, as a digital person, what was your reaction? Did you feel like “wow” or “OK, it’s another magazine?”

Mark Potts: I come from a print background, so print still means something to me. It’s not my primary form of consumption anymore; I do just about everything digitally. But it’s still a nice talisman; it’s still a nice thing to have to put on the shelf or sit on the coffee table. I had read every word of it 15 times before it went to print, so I’m not reading it as a reader, but it’s a cool souvenir.

Samir Husni: Tell me, with this cool souvenir, I look at the masthead and besides the normal suspects, the managing editor and the creative director, you have a who’s who list of contributors, a who’s who list for your editorial board, and a who’s who list for an inspirational board. Why did you and Will feel the need to populate the masthead in this way?

Mark Potts: That was really Will trying to pay tribute to a lot of people who are friends of his or who he admires. Some of those people have actually been involved in the planning of the magazine, but they’re not active, they’re honorary, especially the inspirations. But it’s just our way of paying tribute to the people who gave us good ideas, either directly or even indirectly, things that we saw them do and said, “Gee, this is somebody who we’d love to have or would enjoy what we’re doing and we want to pay tribute to them.”

Will has been talking about this project for 20 years, and he’s talked to a lot of people about it. So, a lot of those folks are people who have guided his thinking along the way as he’s been conceiving this.

Samir Husni: What’s the idea behind the print magazine being oversized? All the comparisons I’ve read and all of the comments in the media are saying that Will wanted to do something like The New Yorker for the West Coast. Yet, when I received the print edition of the magazine, it was oversized and looks nothing like The New Yorker. What’s the thinking behind the physical attributes of the magazine?

Mark Potts: When we say The New Yorker for California, we’re talking more about sensibility and about literate, witty, and smart content. I would describe it as 70 percent New Yorker and 20 percent Vanity Fair and 10 percent Spy, trying to get the mix in there.

But the oversize is another thing that Will wanted to do as sort of a tribute to the New York Review of Books, which he’s a big fan of, and some other magazines that are that size. He wanted to try something different, maybe get a little more attention on the newsstand with that size, but we could definitely do much better graphics and art, and that’s really important. And the first time that I saw it printed out, we did some dummy copies and I was blown away; it was incredible.

When you look at it in screen and PDF form as you’re laying it out, it looks like a regular magazine, but when you see it in 10×13, and in fact, it was going to be bigger; we had an issue and we had to size it down a little bit, but when you see it in 10×13, you realize that it has some heft to it. It really stands out.

Samir Husni: If someone was going to travel inside your mind as you’re putting the brand together, do you have definitive ideas about what content goes in print and what goes online? How do you process the art of curation? I know the articles from other publications are going directly to the web, that’s the easy one, because you can’t publish them, but what about the original content; do you ever feel an inner struggle about which platform would be best-suited for what?

Mark Potts: I think we primarily think in terms of the quarterly magazine, because we can’t publish blank pages, so it’s good to keep things for the magazine. But there’s really a phenomenal story about that; the first story that we put up on the web was written for the web. There are a couple of things that were written for the magazine that didn’t make the magazine, so they went up, but there’s a story that went up, a piece on a mobility score; it’s a little calculator that you can use, you put in your address and it tells you how good mass transit is around your house.

And that could never have worked in print; it had to be done online, and that’s why we chose to do it. We thought it would be a fun thing to put up there and call attention to. We wrote a very short story about it and put it up. And that will never appear in print, because it wouldn’t work. The point of the story is it’s a fun fact to know and tell, but it doesn’t have any real application. The fun is to keep punching in addresses to see what the different scores are.

Pretty much everything else though is fair game. There’s one story possibility that has a really heavy video package and that’s something that might appear mostly online, because of the video, but we might do something small in print before the online piece. But if it’s word-based, we’re going to start with print, that would probably be our first choice. But we’ll put a fresh story on the website probably every week, and some of those will find their way into the magazine. When we start putting together the magazine, we’ll ask what we put on the web that was really good that we can also put in print.

Samir Husni: For the non-California people, where did the magazine’s title come from? What does Alta, Journal of Alta California mean?

Mark Potts: That’s explained in the Editor’s Letter in the first issue. There was a newspaper after the Gold Rush called Alta California. It was one of the first and became very famous; Mark Twain wrote for it. And we have a collection of his letters to the original Alta in the first issue. It was something that Will always admired when he was doing some research in California history, he kept coming across the name and liked the idea of calling the magazine The Journal of Alta California, so the name has always been that, and Alta for short. But it’s a tribute to that pioneering journalistic enterprise of the 1860s.

Samir Husni: For people who don’t have a copy of the first issue; after reading through the pages, I felt there is a mixture between the old and the new, as if you’re taking your readers through a journey of the past and then suddenly, they’re on a rocket ship to the future. Can you define today’s Alta brand?

Mark Potts: It’s very deliberate. The last page will always be something that looks forward with all prospects, and it’s always about some piece of technology or something. Every trend starts in California, so we want to identify the trends before they start on that last page. So, we always look forward. But we want to look back too.

I think it’s to try and get at the richness of California. Someone sent something very interesting to us in a note recently that really encapsulates this. California is always covered as a place where everything is happening right now, and doesn’t often have a sense of its own history. And we’re trying to remedy that a little bit. We’re not going to overdo it, but there’ll be at least one historical piece in every issue, which is similar to what The New Yorker or The Atlantic does. But it’s something that tries to go back and look at some interesting slices of California’s past that is a great story. Something that gives people a sense of the roots of California, such as the Blimp story in our first issue, which people’s response was they didn’t know that. So, we want more of that surprise. It will be mostly current and looking forward, but we want that bit of anchor with the roots.

Samir Husni: Since you started working with Will and developing the brand, has it been a walk in a Rose Garden for you both, or you’ve been faced with some challenges and obstacles along the way?

Mark Potts: It’s been pretty easy. Will has been talking about this for around 20 years. There’s an amazing collection of memos from famous editors proposing versions of it. He and I started talking about it in 2010. I have notes from 2010 about this that aren’t real dissimilar from what we published. It was just a question of timing and when he wanted to commit the time and the funds to it.

In some ways it has been remarkably easy, because there’s a lot of infrastructure in place these days to publish a magazine that you can tap into. Our production is being done by, Pubworx , which is a Condé Nast/Hearst big venture that does magazine production , which is actually coincidental. There’s a third party distributor that takes care of it. If you plug into these mechanisms, then you can put a magazine out.

And despite the long masthead, the staff is literally like five or six people, and not even that full-time. Two full-timers and me and the art director, the amazing John Goecke, and everybody else is doing it part-time or as freelancers, which tells you a lot about the magazine business these days. You can do things with a network of people that used to be done with an office full of 100 people. It helps that it’s quarterly. Monthly or weekly, I couldn’t even imagine.

Samir Husni: Do you remember that definitive moment when the decision was made to just do it?

Mark Potts: Believe it or not, that was basically in June. We started talking really earnestly about it around a year ago. We did a prototype in February or March, just to see what it would look like. We had a budget, and the real go-ahead did not come until the first week in June, so we put this thing together very quickly. Once we knew it was there, and given how quickly we put it together, I’m happy with the way it came out. Now, we have a little more time to be thoughtful about it.

We have great freelancers, and we’re cultivating more all of the time. We now have another pipeline of stories, which is very exciting, because we started out without one. So, it came together very quickly. It had been talked about for a long time, but the final go decision came just two months before it went to press.

Samir Husni: There are some magazines in the U.K. that people refer to as slow journalism, that they take their time and digest the stories and investigate the stories. As an editor in today’s marketplace and in today’s digital world, do you feel there is a need for that mix of slow journalism and immediate journalism, or do you think that the balance that you have struck at Alta is the perfect recipe for others to follow?

Mark Potts: I don’t know if you ever catch that perfect balance. I know that Will refers to this as slow journalism, and I think in print you definitely want to be more thoughtful and take more time. We do a lot of work with our writers in getting stories just right. You have the luxury of that in print; you don’t have that luxury online, where you have to move a lot more quickly. We’re not covering news, I want to underline that. We’re not about breaking news.

One of the fascinating ongoing conversations that we’ve had is how to deal with Trump. We have had stories that have had things about Trump and I’ve edited them, and then taken that out, because we don’t know what is going to happen in three months. This is the slow news issue, when you have a three month lean-time on a story and the situation is as volatile as the Trump presidency, you really don’t want to be out there saying one thing when three weeks before your issue hits the stands something else happens. So, that’s interesting; slow news versus fast news.

Online we can be a lot more nimble. We’re talking now about what we want to do online with the Harvey Weinstein story. Do we want to chase that a little bit? But with news like that, other people can do that better than us. The Santa Rosa fires; I asked our web editor to look for a good feature about that. Obviously, it’s a news story and it’s being covered beautifully as a news story by other people and we can’t keep up with that. But if there’s something that we could link to that would give people a step back in a way that also works with the magazine and cover that story, then we would do that. But that’s sort of as newsy as we get. We still have this constant battle against being too newsy, that said, we’d love to break some news and we’ll do that as we go along. We hope to have good, investigative stories and interviews that people will love and say, wow, look at that. That’s something that Alta had first. And we’ll do that for sure.

It’s a real interesting balance, and because we’re in print and digital media we can’t ignore one in favor of the other. We’re constantly balancing it.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mark Potts: One thing that’s important is this is a personal project of Will’s, not a Hearst company project. And this is something that he’s really wanted to do for a long time. It’s a chance for him to take advantage of his legacy on his own terms, and really show his chops as a thinker and a publisher. He’s obviously been involved as an editor and a publisher with Outside magazine, Rolling Stone, and the San Francisco Examiner, which is where he and I first met. But this is really something that’s his. And it very much reflects him; it’s his interests in California and being very literate, and sort of the journalism of the West. He’s very fascinated by that, so I think he has this idea of why aren’t we standing in California and looking out, just looking at everything as a surveyor of all things California. So, I believe that’s really his vision, and trying to turn that into a product. So, I think this has been real important to him.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; on your digital devices; or something else?

Mark Potts: I’m surfing the web. I’m on a digital device, reading everything in sight. Twitter, magazines, newspapers, websites, just whatever.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Mark Potts: I’m really proud of the role I’ve had as a pioneer in digital media. I started the Washington Post electronic division 25 years ago, and got the Post going online when no one believed that any of this was going to happen. I like creating products that make a difference and that last. So, the legacy is that people look back and say, wow, that’s the product that he created and it’s still here.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Mark Potts: Not much – Donald Trump.

Samir Husni: (Laughs).

Mark Potts: But not a whole lot. It’s thinking of stories; trying to find some really interesting stories to tell people about California. But that’s never a huge problem. We have a lot of great freelancers who are pitching ideas and have become sort of an informal contributing staff to us. It’s been a fairly easy launch and a fairly easy existence so far. We’ll see what the second one is like; we’re in the middle of the second one.

But so far, if anything, we’re getting better at it, because we’re starting to get some rhythms. It’s been a great experience. It’s been fascinating to create something this elaborate from scratch; to try and figure out what kind of sensibility it has and the kind of voice it has. What interesting little features that we can put into it to tickle people. And we’ve done some of what we wanted, there are still things that we want to add as we go along, but it’s been fun to ask what would a really high-quality magazine about California be like? And then try to produce it.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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