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Punch Magazine: A New Regional Title That’s Packing A “Punch” On The San Francisco Peninsula – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Sloane Citron, Founder & Publisher…

September 26, 2019

I’ve probably started, honestly, 50 publications in my career, I’m just like a serial magazine creator. And of everything I’ve launched nothing has gotten the reaction that this magazine has gotten. Every day we get calls, emails, or whatever, from people who are saying that they love our magazine, that they get so much from it, and they look forward to it every month.”… Sloane Citron.

 A Mr. Magazine™ Launch Story…

A new regional title that began its life in 2018, Punch magazine showcases new ideas, along with the cultures and traditions that encompass the San Francisco Peninsula. And while the magazine may be new, its founder and publisher is far from a novice when it comes to great magazines. Sloane Citron is a self-described “serial magazine creator” who has launched many, many titles throughout his career, including  his first magazine Peninsula, along with Northern California Home & Garden and Southern California Home & Garden, and the lifestyle title Gentry, among others. And in 2018 he launched a beautiful, very high-quality title called Punch, all about the San Francisco Peninsula where he calls home.

I spoke with Sloane recently and we talked about this new title of his and about how things have changed in the world of magazines, which he has been a part of for decades. Originally slated to purchase Sunset Magazine, Sloane moved on to something of his very own when that deal didn’t pan out, and his vision came to life in the form of a large-sized, ink on paper magazine filled with the beauty and charm of the San Francisco Peninsula area, and gave it a title that hails from the British weekly magazine known by the same name and for its humor and satire. It’s a title that definitely catches the eye and ear.

Sloane is a man who loves magazines, ink on paper magazines, that is. His passion for magazines goes back to his childhood when he created his very first title, mimeographed for him by his teacher, when he was only eight years old. The love of magazines is something that he and Mr. Magazine™ have in common.

So, I hope that you enjoy this glimpse into life on the San Francisco Peninsula and a conversation with a man who has enjoyed creating magazines for most of his life, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Sloane Citron, founder and publisher, Punch magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

On whether people thought he’d lost his mind in launching a print magazine just one year ago: There I was with nothing to do and I had this prototype for a magazine. And I said, you know, magazines are what I love to do and this is a terrible idea and my wife thought I was crazy, but I said, you know, I’m going to just launch it. I’ll take this concept that I have and launch it for the San Francisco Peninsula and just create a really small team and do this. So, that’s what I did. We opened up here in Menlo Park with four full-time people and then I have an art director in Ketchum, Idaho that has worked beautifully, and other freelance people that are doing different things for us. And somehow we put out a monthly magazine.

On whether he believes an ink on paper regional magazine is still relevant or more people are looking to online resources: I’ve probably started, honestly, 50 publications in my career, I’m just like a serial magazine creator. And of everything I’ve launched nothing has gotten the reaction that this magazine has gotten. Every day we get calls, emails, or whatever, from people who are saying that they love our magazine, that they get so much from it, and they look forward to it every month. It’s gratifying that people really enjoy what we’re doing, but I don’t know if there is a need. There are very few publications for which there is a real need, because there’s so much information out there that you can get otherwise.

On magazines being an experience that people want rather than need: I would say that’s the case with this magazine, we really work hard to make it that way. I use the word “luscious” sometimes; we want the covers and the artwork and everything to just be beautiful, so that people want to get the magazine and they want to turn the pages, and enjoy it and feel connected to it.

On advertisers’ reaction in his area to an ink on paper regional magazine: If there wasn’t so much competition here, it would be pretty easy, but I’m competing against my old magazine… you know, I spent 23 years building it and building the name and developing it, so I had to compete head-on with my old company. So, I tried to be competitive, have lower rates, more distribution, and a better product. I felt if we did those three things we’d be able to get our share. But it hasn’t been easy. There’s great downward pressure on rate, honestly, because of lots of factors, including the Internet, with online advertising. There are people who just don’t feel the need for it anymore.

On what he would hope to tell someone he had accomplished in another year from now, on his second anniversary:I hope we get to a consistent revenue figure so that we don’t have to constantly feel like we’re working toward that. That would be the best result of 2020. Second would be that we have revenue coming in from our website; we don’t expect it to be huge, but if we could get a dependable revenue coming from our website, that would be a positive thing so that it supports itself. And also that my staff is happy and productive and enjoying what they’re doing.

On why he named the magazine Punch: I knew that I needed to come up with a name, I had been through this before. I said to my wife, I know, I’ll go retro and call it Peninsula, my first magazine. And she said, I thought you wanted to be new and bright. I said I do, and she said, well, naming it after your first magazine is a terrible idea. Very rarely do I think she’s right, but I thought she was right  this time. (Laughs) So, I started looking everywhere, I’d walk into an office or I’d walk into a room and I’d look for words and inspiration, anywhere I could find it. I struggled and struggled, then finally one night at about 11:30 p.m. I’m on Wikipedia looking at defunct British magazines for ideas. And there was Punch, and I remembered, because I’m a magazine guy, it hit me. I said, I remember there was a Punch magazine, it was a satire magazine and it had closed in the ‘80s actually. So, I said Punch, I kind of like the feel of that. I tested it on covers and mockups, and I liked it. That’s where it came from.

On whether he considers Punch his best magazine launch so far: I do, actually. Honestly, part of my mission with my whole career, part of it was creating magazines, but part of it was building a strong business that was very profitable, because I had a wife and four children and they needed taking care of. I didn’t have the luxury of always doing things that I wanted to, I had to do them from a strong business angle at all times. And with Punch, I’m able to just focus on making it as strong as possible and that’s been helpful in the mission.

On anything he’d like to add: I’ll say that one of the most important things for me is always having a group of people that I enjoy working with and who want to be here. It was somewhat challenging being in Silicon Valley where there is so many plentiful, very high-paying jobs, to find a staff that was interested and motivated to do this. And we were able to do so. That has been a great joy, because we all enjoy being with each other and we’re all very passionate about making this magazine as good as it can be. That has been an important part of this journey for me. Since I created this to have somewhere to go and something to do, to be able to do it with people who are highly professional and creative is very meaningful.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m usually either reading or reading the news on the computer, or I’m watching the Giants on TV. I’m very passionate about the Giants, I watch all their games. And often I’ll be watching the game and reading the news from about 15 sources, which is kind of what I do.

 On what he thinks is the biggest misconception people have about him: People think I’m an extravert, because when I go out to sales calls or out to events and things like that, I can be very jovial and out there, but honestly, I’m a complete introvert. As my staff knows, I only go to things under extreme pressure, events. I get invited, obviously, to a lot of events and I almost never go, even though it would be good for the magazine, because I just can’t stand it. So, I only go to the things that I really have to. (Laughs) And that includes our own events. I’ve missed some of those as well.

On what keeps him up at night: Believe it or not, even though I’m not doing this for financial rewards… we lost a client the other day, they said they were going to do more digital now. And that actually kept me up at night. Even though it didn’t change my world, it just so ate at me that a client would leave us, it kept me up at night.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Sloane Citron, founder and publisher, Punch magazine.
 

Samir Husni: You launched Gentry magazine back in the early ‘90s and you’ve seen the magazine industry go up and down. Did people think you’d lost your mind for launching a new print magazine in 2018? And here you are now celebrating your one year anniversary.

Sloane Citron: Let me give you a little background real quick. I knew I wanted to be a publisher when I was eight years old. I started a publication at school and the teacher mimeographed it for me and I had the kids go out and sell it for a nickel. I got to keep three cents and they got to keep two cents.

In high school I started a magazine at Andover, and then in college I ran the college newspaper for four years, or was involved with it. I did an internship while I was in college at Los Angeles magazine. And that’s when the city/regional bug hit me and I said, this is great. This is what I love to do.

But I didn’t want to be a journalist, and people kept confusing that. Being a publisher and a journalist was two different things, I wanted to start things. And I knew I needed some credentials, so I went to Stanford Business School so that people would take me seriously.

My first job was at Miami magazine back in the early ‘80s and was the general manager who kind of fixed that for them, even though I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned on the job, if you will. But I wanted to come back to California, because I liked it here and my wife was from here.

So, I was able to raise some money, because I had seen that the Silicon Valley was really starting to develop and I launched the first magazine in this area called Peninsula, because we’re the San Francisco peninsula. I patterned it after New York Magazine, I copied their logo and their style, because I didn’t know what else to do. That was a paid title, subscriber and newsstand-based, and I grew that company quite large.

I started the first home and garden magazine in California, one for Northern California and one in Southern California. And then I saw that there were these hotel books, one was for San Francisco and one was for Los Angeles, and I got this idea and I started doing sub-markets. I did about a dozen of them all over California, at Beverly Hills, the West Side. Up here I did the Peninsula, I did the Wine Country, the East Bay, and that was a really good little business.

But I sold that company. My investors wanted to sell because we had done well, so we sold it. Then I started Gentry magazine with a partner. I didn’t love the editorial concept, but I had this idea that I wanted to try because I thought the whole model of a subscription-based magazine and newsstand was ridiculous. With a subscriber base, you’re constantly having to use direct mail, you’re constantly having to do renewals; it was such a strain on launching the company and so expensive. And the newsstand people were all corrupt and never paid us, wanted money under the table, so I said I’m going to create a new idea.

I created this concept that I called at the time, and this was 1992, “Saturation Delivery.” Instead of being subscriptions, we went to all the main areas of affluence, and they had to be entire areas, it couldn’t be picked off, such as a house here and a house there. It had to be a whole region or a whole city. The idea was to create a really beautiful magazine, better than you could do if it were paid, make it as great and strong as possible, and then give it away to all these people, put it on their doorstep every month or mail it to them. The cost for starting this company was a fraction of my first one and we were profitable after eight months, because the advertisers loved it, because we were going to every home they wanted to go to. And we had a beautiful package, plus we controlled our own newsstand, we only went to a few newsstands where we could control it, and I didn’t have to deal with that.

So, I didn’t have to have a circulation department. We had one person who did it part-time, but I eliminated the whole craziness and expense of a circulation department. No direct mail campaigns, no renewals, no insert cards; in fact, I made it difficult for people to buy subscriptions. We didn’t list it in the magazine anywhere.

That was a model that I kind of feel like I created. There wasn’t anyone doing it at the time, not that I knew about anyway. And now you have a lot of people doing it, like DuJour does that, so it’s common now, but back then it was all subscriber-based. But the model really worked extremely well and the company took off. I started a bunch of other magazines through that company. Then we sold half the company in the early 2000s when things were really good. It turned out to be a good move.

In 2016, a couple of things happened, I hit 60 years old and my partner was having a couple of health issues, and it just seemed like a good time to make a move. So, I exercised my sell option and I sold my half to her family, and thought I was done with publishing, which kind of answers your question. The business was great and it got me through my lifetime and I loved it, but it was done at that time.

And then, honestly, I was kind of bored. My wife is a major real estate agent here and before I knew it she was asking me to do stuff with her all the time, which was terrible. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

Sloane Citron: Some people could do that, I couldn’t do it. But then a weird thing happened, I got a call from a New York investment banking firm that does magazines The man’s name was Reed Phillips and he had actually been on the buying side of some of the magazines that I sold. And he told me that he had a great opportunity for me. And I asked him what he had in mind. He told me that Sunset Magazine was for sell. If you live out west, that’s a very iconic title, it has been around for over 100 years.

And I looked at it and told him that I thought I could make something happen with it, because Time owned it and they just totally mismanaged it, they bought it but just didn’t have any interest in it, especially with the new ownership. Once they spun it off Time Warner, they just depleted the thing. I knew I could take the brand and do a lot of things with it. I came up with a new look and feel for the magazine and spent six months raising the money, putting together a prototype and a team, working with the Time people. And I kept narrowing the team down to 12 of us, then there was eight, then four. And at the very end they told me that I was going to get it. But suddenly I didn’t get it.

They asked me could I close within a week. And I said no, I can’t close within a week, I didn’t even have a lawyer yet. So, they called me back and they said they were sorry, but they were going with a group in L.A. because they could close within a week. And three weeks after that, and it’s a joy talking to you because you understand all this, it was announced that Time was sold to Meredith. So, they needed to get rid of whatever they were getting rid of in order to close their deal with Meredith and sell themselves.

So, there I was, and this is the answer to your question in a long way, there I was with nothing to do and I had this prototype for a magazine. And I said, you know, magazines are what I love to do and this is a terrible idea and my wife thought I was crazy, but I said, you know, I’m going to just launch it. I’ll take this concept that I have and launch it for the San Francisco Peninsula and just create a really small team and do this. So, that’s what I did.

It’s funny, I had some money that I was going to put up and one of my best friends insisted that he be a part of it. He had made some money like they do here, with an IPO, he had been at Solar City and made a bunch of money, and he said I insist on being a part of this. So, he threw some money into it.

We opened up here in Menlo Park with four full-time people and then I have an art director in Ketchum, Idaho that has worked beautifully, and other freelance people that are doing different things for us. And somehow we put out a monthly magazine.

I don’t know what the end goal is. I knew I needed to be relevant because honestly, I love ink on paper, that’s where my heart is, but I knew that I needed to do a proper website, so we just completed our website, which is pretty cool, I think. It mirrors the magazine well. The idea is to just try and do my best with it, but I have no idea what the future holds.

Samir Husni: As you celebrate the first anniversary of Punch, are you more convinced than ever that in this day and age there is a real need for an ink on paper magazine for the Peninsula, or do you find most people going online?

Sloane Citron: That’s a great question. I’ve probably started, honestly, 50 publications in my career, I’m just like a serial magazine creator. And of everything I’ve launched nothing has gotten the reaction that this magazine has gotten. Every day we get calls, emails, or whatever, from people who are saying that they love our magazine, that they get so much from it, and they look forward to it every month. It’s gratifying that people really enjoy what we’re doing, but I don’t know if there is a need. There are very few publications for which there is a real need, because there’s so much information out there that you can get otherwise.

I look at it as entertainment, but we do fill a need in some ways. If you look through the magazine, we do hikes; we do food; we try to help people get the most out of living here. It’s an expensive place to live and if you’re going to live here, you should enjoy your lifestyle. So, we really go out of our way to try and find things that people learn from and will enjoy doing. Need is probably not the right word. If we weren’t around the world wouldn’t be much different.

Samir Husni: I tell my magazine students, no one really needs a magazine. The magazine must be like chocolate, an experience that people want to enjoy.

Sloane Citron: That’s exactly right. And I would say that’s the case with this magazine, we really work hard to make it that way. I use the word “luscious” sometimes; we want the covers and the artwork and everything to just be beautiful, so that people want to get the magazine and they want to turn the pages, and enjoy it and feel connected to it. So, you’re exactly right, that’s a good analogy.

Samir Husni: Being 100 percent ad dependent, your revenue is coming from advertising, or 99 percent of it is, what was the advertisers’ reaction in your area to an ink on paper magazine when you approached them?

Sloane Citron: If there wasn’t so much competition here, it would be pretty easy, but I’m competing against my old magazine… you know, I spent 23 years building it and building the name and developing it, so I had to compete head-on with my old company. So, I tried to be competitive, have lower rates, more distribution, and a better product. I felt if we did those three things we’d be able to get our share. But it hasn’t been easy. There’s great downward pressure on rate, honestly, because of lots of factors, including the Internet, with online advertising. There are people who just don’t feel the need for it anymore.

This is almost like a non-profit, honestly. Our goal here is just to break even, and that’s what we’re doing. Hopefully, we’ll grow some more so that we do a little bit more than that. There’s probably room for one or two regional magazines in the market, depending on the market size. And we have more than that here. Modern Luxury also has a title here called Silicon Valley, so it’s not easy. There’s less print advertising and there’s downward pressure on the pricing, those are the two things.

 Samir Husni: You didn’t have a non-compete deal with Gentry after you sold it?

Sloane Citron: I did for two years. When I signed it I said, I’m never doing anything else, are you kidding me? (Laughs) But I can’t help it, it’s what I’m passionate about. I figure I’ll do what I’m passionate about until I can’t do it anymore.

Samir Husni: As you look toward the future, and if you and I are having this conversation on your second anniversary, what would you hope to tell me that you had accomplished in another year?

Sloane Citron: I hope we get to a consistent revenue figure so that we don’t have to constantly feel like we’re working toward that. That would be the best result of 2020. Second would be that we have revenue coming in from our website; we don’t expect it to be huge, but if we could get a dependable revenue coming from our website, that would be a positive thing so that it supports itself. And also that my staff is happy and productive and enjoying what they’re doing.

Samir Husni: Why Punch? Where did you come up with the name?

Sloane Citron: I knew that I needed to come up with a name, I had been through this before. I said to my wife, I know, I’ll go retro and call it Peninsula, my first magazine. And she said, I thought you wanted to be new and bright. I said I do, and she said, well, naming it after your first magazine is a terrible idea. Very rarely do I think she’s right, but I thought she was right  this time. (Laughs)

So, I started looking everywhere, I’d walk into an office or I’d walk into a room and I’d look for words and inspiration, anywhere I could find it. I struggled and struggled, then finally one night at about 11:30 p.m. I’m on Wikipedia looking at defunct British magazines for ideas. And there was Punch, and I remembered, because I’m a magazine guy, it hit me. I said, I remember there was a Punch magazine, it was a satire magazine. And it had closed in the ‘80s actually. So, I said Punch, I kind of like the feel of that. I tested it on covers and mockups, and I liked it. That’s where it came from.

Samir Husni: Do you consider Punch your best launch so far?

Sloane Citron: I do, actually. Honestly, part of my mission with my whole career, part of it was creating magazines, but part of it was building a strong business that was very profitable, because I had a wife and four children and they needed taking care of. I didn’t have the luxury of always doing things that I wanted to, I had to do them from a strong business angle at all times. And with Punch, I’m able to just focus on making it as strong as possible and that’s been helpful in the mission.

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

Sloane Citron: I’ll say that one of the most important things for me is always having a group of people that I enjoy working with and who want to be here. It was somewhat challenging being in Silicon Valley where there is so many plentiful, very high-paying jobs, to find a staff that was interested and motivated to do this. And we were able to do so. That has been a great joy, because we all enjoy being with each other and we’re all very passionate about making this magazine as good as it can be. That has been an important part of this journey for me. Since I created this to have somewhere to go and something to do, to be able to do it with people who are highly professional and creative is very meaningful.

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; gardening; watching TV; or something else? How do you unwind?

Sloane Citron: I’m usually either reading or reading the news on the computer, or I’m watching the Giants on TV. I’m very passionate about the Giants, I watch all their games. And often I’ll be watching the game and reading the news from about 15 sources, which is kind of what I do.

Samir Husni: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

Sloane Citron: People think I’m an extravert, because when I go out to sales calls or out to events and things like that, I can be very jovial and out there, but honestly, I’m a complete introvert. As my staff knows, I only go to things under extreme pressure, events. I get invited, obviously, to a lot of events and I almost never go, even though it would be good for the magazine, because I just can’t stand it. So, I only go to the things that I really have to. (Laughs) And that includes our own events. I’ve missed some of those as well.

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

Sloane Citron: Believe it or not, even though I’m not doing this for financial rewards… we lost a client the other day, they said they were going to do more digital now. And that actually kept me up at night. Even though it didn’t change my world, it just so ate at me that a client would leave us, it kept me up at night.

 Samir Husni: Thank you.

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