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Blaise Zerega, Managing Editor, Alta Magazine To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “We’re Leaning Into And Embracing What That Idea Of Adding Value To The Content Means.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

May 4, 2020

Publishing During A Pandemic (27)

“The great thing about magazines is it’s a collaborative effort. It’s a team effort. You get an exchange of ideas; you pound a table; you raise your voice; the best stories get into the lineup; the best layout, that kind of stuff, in a very collegial way though. My advice or instinct is you have to find a way to replicate that and Zoom is one way, just whatever you have to do. That’s what sets magazines apart. Teamwork makes the dream work. (Laughs) There’s no “I” in team. And I believe that. That comes from taking care of your team too. Making sure people aren’t nervous and to help them bring out their best, you have to make sure they’re safe and healthy.” … Blaise Zerega

“From a business perspective, all of our revenue is really about subscriptions. So, that has been strong and growing. We actually just raised our prices at the first of the year, so that feels like we’re in a good place financially. We’ve added some things to the mix like other publishing enterprises where we’re doing virtual events. We just had one recently with Susan Straight; it’s called “Alta Asks Live.” We did another on true crime. And that’s been a lot of fun. And I think that’s going to be a real evolutionary cycle of change for publishers, doing more virtual events. The question is, is it a short-term change or is it here to stay? I think it’s going to be here to stay.” … Blaise Zerega

Alta magazine is a quarterly journal dedicated to California and to celebrating California’s culture, issues and all-important history. Unfortunately, like everyone else in our country and most of the world, the Alta team has been dealing with and operating around COVID-19. William R. Hearst III is the founder and publisher of the magazine and certainly knows his way around the world of print, but when facing a pandemic, many things had to change and we all had to learn to adapt.

Blaise Zerega is managing editor of Alta and isn’t a stranger to magazines either, having helped lead such titles as Wired, Conde Nast Portfolio, and Forbes. I spoke with Blaise recently and we talked about how things were being handled during this life-altering pandemic. The things that have remained the same for the Alta team, such as working remotely, and the things that have changed, the closures of bookstores and newsstands.

Blaise is into the smart, timely essays that Alta does so well, both in print and online. He said enabling his readers to think more broadly about a topic is definitely a goal. And with the Alta content, that would seem to be no problem. The brand is timely and most certainly innovative, as he explains that the magazine is coming out with a science fiction cover package, which gives an opportunity to bring in new fiction from some really great writers.

And right now the truth seems stranger than most science fiction, so good storytelling is a definite escape we all need.

And now the 27th Mr. Magazine™ interview in the series of Publishing During A Pandemic with Blaise Zerega, managing editor, Alta magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

On how he has been operating during the pandemic: In some ways, as a quarterly, we have a different experience than a weekly or a monthly, but in many ways it’s the same. When the pandemic hit and shelter-in-place was announced, we were embarking on the production of our summer issue. We quickly had to put on hold any story that required onsite reporting, travel, photography, which of course, are all the tools of magazine-making.

On being a remote staff anyway, but handling other issues during the pandemic: Some of the other issues we’re dealing with are, even though we’re a remote staff, we do depend on getting together quite often to meet face-to-face. We were already on Slack and we’ve now added Zoom to the mix. But the copy editors, they want the paper still and so we’re trying to figure out how we get printouts for proofreading. You can proofread on a screen, but at the end of the day, it’s a paper product that we’re producing, so we want to see that paper to proofread.

On whether he had ever thought of working during something like a pandemic and if he thinks someone could prepare for something like it: No, I did not prepare for a pandemic. I had no idea it was coming. When 9/11 happened, I was in San Francisco at Red Herring, and then when I went to Portfolio, a lot of people from The Wall Street Journal were there. And they had continued to put out issues during 9/11. So, I heard their stories and how they did it.

On why it is important to continue to have the ink on paper product in the hands of readers during these uncertain times: One of the things that we went through as we put together the lineup, we went through various versions of what we were going to be putting out in July, and it forced us to answer those questions: what is the value that we’re giving our readers, our members? What’s the experience that we’re going to provide them.

On any challenges he hasn’t been able to easily overcome during the pandemic: The biggest things aren’t on the editorial and the production side of things. Yes, our printer announced bankruptcy, but that’s not going to change anything because of Chapter 11 and so on. The biggest challenge is the newsstand and the bookstores.

On any additional words of wisdom: The great thing about magazines is it’s a collaborative effort. It’s a team effort. You get an exchange of ideas; you pound a table; you raise your voice; the best stories get into the lineup; the best layout, that kind of stuff, in a very collegial way though. My advice or instinct is you have to find a way to replicate that and Zoom is one way, just whatever you have to do. That’s what sets magazines apart.

On what keeps him up at night: As someone who has been in the industry for a long time, with magazines you buy paper, you add a value to the paper and you resell the paper. And that value is the stories, that’s the magic. So, what does that look like coming out of the pandemic? Do we need to change? What are people going to want? And I believe, this is heresy to say it to you even, but I’m wondering if the monthly magazine is now really imperiled.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Blaise Zerega, managing editor, Alta magazine.

Samir Husni: How have you been operating a quarterly print magazine during this pandemic?

Blaise Zerega: In some ways, as a quarterly, we have a different experience than a weekly or a monthly, but in many ways it’s the same. When the pandemic hit and shelter-in-place was announced, we were embarking on the production of our summer issue. We quickly had to put on hold any story that required onsite reporting, travel, photography, which of course, are all the tools of magazine-making. We basically sat back and asked, “What are we going to do? What is our issue going to look like? What can we put out that is in keeping with our focus on the big pictures?” Sometimes my boss, Will Hearst, jokes that we cover the past and the future, but not the present, (Laughs) but we do strive to be timely and relevant.

What we ended up doing was basically tearing up our issue and produce a summer reading issue. Initially we thought it would be a departure, sort of a one-off, but now as we’re producing it, we’re thinking that this might be where Alta should have been all along, which is a journal of Alta, California, our magazine’s title.

As an example, we’re scrapping the sections, the typical magazine sections. Instead, we’re going to be more of a journal, so it will be a great read from beginning to end. We’re going to do more poetry and I’ll tip my hand here, we’re coming out with science fiction as a cover package, which gives us an opportunity to bring in new fiction from some really great writers, as well as the classics and some really smart essays on the genre, how it’s sort of a first draft history of science fiction in many ways.

It seems on one hand, because we’d been thinking about doing science fiction for a while, suddenly it seems smart and relevant. Lawrence Wright, when he sat down to write his book that’s out now about a virus and a pandemic, that was like two years ago, who would have thought? And now his book is well-timed. I think that we’re experiencing a little bit of that same coincidence or serendipity.

But like any other publication, our chief concern is the safety and health of our team and our audience. So that has driven a lot of our schedules in how we’re producing the magazine. We are a remote staff already, so that wasn’t terribly new. Except that we do get together frequently with our boss, Will Hearst, to put the covers out on the conference room table and I definitely miss that. So, that has been a big change, and not just the physical touching of paper, but of being in the room, there’s only so much you can do with Zoom holding stuff up.

Samir Husni: Since your publication works remotely anyway, has it been fairly seamless to continue working from home even though many things have changed, such as traveling and photography? How have you been handling those other issues?

Blaise Zerega: Some of the other issues we’re dealing with are, even though we’re a remote staff, we do depend on getting together quite often to meet face-to-face. We were already on Slack and we’ve now added Zoom to the mix. But the copy editors, they want the paper still and so we’re trying to figure out how we get printouts for proofreading. You can proofread on a screen, but at the end of the day, it’s a paper product that we’re producing, so we want to see that paper to proofread. So, we’re basically working with drops, someone drops it off at someone’s house. We just coordinate runs that way.

From a business perspective, all of our revenue is really about subscriptions. So, that has been strong and growing. We actually just raised our prices at the first of the year, so that feels like we’re in a good place financially. We’ve added some things to the mix like other publishing enterprises where we’re doing virtual events. We just had one recently with Susan Straight; it’s called “Alta Asks Live.” We did another on true crime. And that’s been a lot of fun. And I think that’s going to be a real evolutionary cycle of change for publishers, doing more virtual events. The question is, is it a short-term change or is it here to stay? I think it’s going to be here to stay.

Samir Husni: Did you ever imagine that you would be working during a pandemic and do you think anyone could ever prepare for something like this?

Blaise Zerega: No, I did not prepare for a pandemic. I had no idea it was coming. When 9/11 happened, I was in San Francisco at Red Herring, and then when I went to Portfolio, a lot of people from The Wall Street Journal were there. And they had continued to put out issues during 9/11. So, I heard their stories and how they did it. In San Francisco, we’ve had earthquakes and people have put magazines out running power cords through ceiling, things like that. So, you have to react, but at the end of the day, a lot of editors have learned to have a book excerpt in your back pocket and some spare stories.

But with this, we really had to scramble and make lemonade. And definitely for a quarterly, we’re on a different frequency and different deadlines than a daily or a weekly, so I don’t pretend that it’s the same. But there are a lot of similarities there.

Samir Husni: Why is it important to continue to have the ink on paper product in the hands of your readers during these uncertain times?

Blaise Zerega: One of the things that we went through as we put together the lineup, we went through various versions of what we were going to be putting out in July, and it forced us to answer those questions: what is the value that we’re giving our readers, our members? What’s the experience that we’re going to provide them.

And more than ever, we realized that we want to weigh in on this in a smart way, in a very evergreen way, but not with endless shelf life, and smart analysis of the people’s issues and ideas of California and the West. And the pandemic is one of those factors, no doubt. But we’re not going to be able to cover the Coronavirus news cycle as a quarterly, but it will inform our coverage.

What it has done is we are publishing more online, more original content, and so we’ve done essays. We have a great essay by Dean Kuipers, who wrote The Deer Camp memoir. It turns out he and his wife own a farm in Los Angeles, yes there’s a farm in Los Angeles (Laughs) digging in the dirt, getting your hands in there, and growing your own food kind of farm. And that is an essay that’s just perfect for the time we’re living in now.

And it enables our readers to think more broadly, such as hey, it’s hard for me to plant those tomato seeds on the windowsill, or Historian Bill Deverell from USC, who wrote a really smart essay about how in California we have a cycle of racism and violence every time there’s a disease outbreak. There’s always scapegoating and so on and we need to break that cycle. Something that people are keenly aware of, but now have an opportunity to do so.

So, we’re doing it in a way that’s not breaking news, to be clear, but exposing these ideas and new ways of thinking around the virus and what comes next, in the magazine, I think the science fiction is a good bridge for that.

Samir Husni: Have you had any challenges that you haven’t been able to easily overcome during this pandemic?

Blaise Zerega: The biggest things aren’t on the editorial and the production side of things. Yes, our printer announced bankruptcy, but that’s not going to change anything because of Chapter 11 and so on. The biggest challenge is the newsstand and the bookstores. And again, Will Hearst gets a lot of credit for this, when Alta was starting he recognized that bookstores would be a great place, a great vehicle, to sell the magazine. It’s a really smart, literary/culture magazine, so let’s roll it out to the bookstores.

We all know that the newsstands have shut down and the bookstores have shut down too, Barnes & Noble has shut down. So, that’s the challenge for us. And that’s going to change. So, one of the things that we’ve done in a quick way is put up a store on our site and we’re selling single-issue copies. Something we would have never predicted we’d be doing. We’re selling them at the newsstand price, which is $10. To subscribe to the magazine it’s $24. So, it’s a good subscription tool.

Samir Husni: Any additional words of wisdom?

Blaise Zerega: The great thing about magazines is it’s a collaborative effort. It’s a team effort. You get an exchange of ideas; you pound a table; you raise your voice; the best stories get into the lineup; the best layout, that kind of stuff, in a very collegial way though. My advice or instinct is you have to find a way to replicate that and Zoom is one way, just whatever you have to do. That’s what sets magazines apart. Teamwork makes the dream work. (Laughs) There’s no “I” in team. And I believe that. That comes from taking care of your team too. Making sure people aren’t nervous and to help them bring out their best, you have to make sure they’re safe and healthy.

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

Blaise Zerega: As someone who has been in the industry for a long time, with magazines you buy paper, you add a value to the paper and you resell the paper. And that value is the stories, that’s the magic. So, what does that look like coming out of the pandemic? Do we need to change? What are people going to want? And I believe, this is heresy to say it to you even, but I’m wondering if the monthly magazine is now really imperiled. Is it going to survive in its current form? Vogue is a bellwether, it’s doing a combined issue for the first time. The newsstand is in trouble, advertising is not coming back. So, where does paper go?

I believe strongly that at Alta we’re at a pretty interesting place. We’re the Journal of Alta California; we’re quarterly. And I think that our frequency suits us well. It suits the time well; what we’re trying to do. We’re going to make our next issue perfect bound as well. Have cover stock and more art. We’re leaning into and embracing what that idea of adding value to the content means. Let’s make it really worth the paper it’s printed on so people want it on their bookcase.

And this is only our 12th issue, if we were a monthly, we’d be one-year-old. And we’re all having fun. There are these moments of joy and creativity that are unparalleled.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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