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Smith Journal’s Nadia Saccardo on running a successful magazine in 2013

Q&A: The Media in 2013 – Part Three

The latest issue of Smith Journal

Magazines are fast disappearing from newsagent shelves across the country. Big publishers have watched in horror as the Internet continues to gobble into advertising revenue, forcing more and more industry players to shut down printing presses and consolidate their business.

But in one small corner of the market an independent Australian imprint has been bucking the gloomy trend. Via offices in Burleigh Heads, Sydney and Melbourne, frankie press has been carving out a lucrative niche, its bi-monthly alternative magazine for women, frankie, proving a phenomenon with readers.

frankie magazine’s circulation rose by 31 percent in 2009 and a whopping 43 percent in 2010. To put that in perspective, ACP Magazines’ Belle grew by 15 percent in 2010, while industry staple Cleo’s circulation actually dropped by 10 percent over the same period.

But what was a trend-bucking lone ranger is now part of a dual-pronged attack on Australia’s magazine market. September 2011 witnessed the debut of Smith Journal, frankie press’s alternative quarterly for men. Smith Journal is a splendidly produced magazine, focussed, undeniably nerdy but also winsome, its heavy pages destined never to be confined to a tatty pile by the toilet.

Smith, like frankie, has seen strong growth in circulation, its appealing sense of DIY and discovery fuelling demand for the magazine. So Ideas at the House reached out to Smith Journal’s editor Nadia Saccardo to find out some of the reasons for its success. We wanted to know the secret to establishing a successful magazine in the modern market, as well as what drives the kind of decision-making at frankie press that ultimately produces such distinctive titles.

 

You completed a master’s in publishing in 2009.

I did. And it was my masters so I did it as a post grad while I was working fulltime in publishing. I probably had a different view on the publishing industry to other students, because I was right in the thick of it outside the classroom.

 

What kind of publishing was that?

It was online. I worked for about five years all up for Right Angle Studio – its main publications are the online city guides called The Thousands. That’s where my background really lies and I worked as an editor on the Melbourne publication, then the Sydney publication, then I was group publisher for all the publications. So I went back to university to get an idea of the mechanics of the publishing industry, because I was working for a small operation and wanted to build on my knowledge. But at the time I was also freelancing for magazines like frankie and Monster Children and Nylon, as well. So there was the print connection there.

 

So when you finished your studies, did you have your sights set on magazine publishing?

No, I didn’t. I was always interested in magazines but I was just as interested in online at the time. And I was aware of what was going on in mag land and the decline in sales and circulation and readership. But I can’t say it worried or upset me in the sense that the print publications that excited me, there seemed to be more and more of them and they seemed to be doing quite well – magazines like frankie or Monocle and other niche publications. So I was maybe more excited about the industry than I had been in a little while around that time.

 

So there’s one and a half years there, almost, before you took the reins at Smith.

I left Right Angle in mid-2011 and just really resigned myself to having a break and doing a few freelance jobs, which were for frankie. But the transition from Right Angle to Smith was quite quick. Right Angle finished, Smith started up a few months later, and I was heavily involved in that first issue. So I did devote a lot of my time in that small break to Smith and filtering a lot of ideas I’d pitched to frankie for the magazine.

I hadn’t realised that Smith had been this idea building up for about 12 months before it launched. Then I met with Louise Bannister (who’s the publisher), Rick (the editor-at-large), and Lara Burke (creative director), and we chatted about it and realised we had a good rapport going on. My ideas worked and so it happened.

 

On Smith: so many magazines have been closing their doors in recent years. And yet frankie press took an opportunity to launch a new magazine. Did you ever get an impression from Louise and Rick of how confident they felt about Smith?

I think launching a new anything you’re sticking your neck out a bit. Because there’s this feeling that there’s this gap in the market and these readers who aren’t being catered for. But you don’t know for sure. frankie press’s survey work and auditing showed that one in four readers of frankie was male. There was this readership there, so I suppose it was a safer bet in that sense than a group of publishers who had no experience with such a publication launching something new.

It really came off the back of that, coupled with the fact that Lou and Lara and Rick’s friends – people they were coming into contact with – weren’t picking up magazines. They weren’t finding anything on shelves that really interested them that much. They were on websites like BoingBoing and they were picking up content online. Most of them said that they didn’t read magazines and Rick – who has had a long history in publishing – was the same. He’d stopped reading magazines. So that fact really fuelled the founding of Smith and its identity.

It’s really interesting. A lot of lads’ magazines have fallen by the wayside. Smith is different to that, of course, but it’s surprising that somebody else didn’t find that particular niche earlier.

Yeah. It is. But it’s not easy to work out that stuff. You probably know who that guy is – he might be a friend or the young dad down the road – but the kind of content that gets him really excited isn’t everywhere and it doesn’t fit into a category like ‘travel’ or ‘cars’ or ‘girls’. It’s a bit of everything, and it’s intelligent and witty and surprising. So, it’s not an easy balance to pull off for a publisher, and I know that firsthand.

 

I think I was surprised when I first picked up Smith that it was significantly different to frankie. More different than I was expecting. Other than it being a men’s magazine, what do you think are the main differentiators between the two?

When Lou, Rick and Lara started Smith they were very determined that it wouldn’t just be frankie for men. It was going to have its own attitude and sensibility, and it wasn’t going to translate any of the frankie pillars – which are music, design and fashion – into a male format. It was going to establish its own. So it’s really driven by these essential tenants – science, history, DIY, adventure, life, design, photography – but [the readers] are [individually minded]. And they’re a lot nerdier, I think, and super geeky on the one side, but then they do have this appreciation for things built by hand and nutted out piece-by-piece. The joy of understanding the process behind a product fuels a lot of our stories.

But in terms of the difference to frankie, we just see them as completely different publications. A lot of people don’t realise the two magazines come from the same publisher, which I think is a really good thing. I guess one thing that we prioritise with Smith is male voices and opinions and experience. So there is that gender divide, but in no way does it mean a woman can’t connect with the content in Smith and guys don’t like reading frankie. It’s just that our focus is a little different when thinking of content and audience.

 

As a writer, do you feel a bit more at home at Smith? Do you feel like the ideas you come up with work a little better there?

Yeah, I do. I think it just has a synergy with my own interests – the type of things in a story that I like to be pulled out and explained and focussed on, which are more practical and real world. I don’t think frankie’s obvious – that’s not right – but there is this practicality with Smith that really resonates with me, personally.

 

What do you think is the secret of Smith Journal – and frankie too? What gives these publications strong circulation numbers when so many others have fallen away?

I think it’s that they don’t do things conventionally, in that they don’t have really clear and obvious content frameworks and try to tick boxes. They’re really driven by good ideas. With Smith in particular, we don’t ever start an issue thinking, “Okay, we need an economics story. We need a science story. We need a cute fashion piece.” We sit there and all the pages are blank and we just talk about ideas that we’ve been thinking about and stuff that’s made us really excited and interested. And then we’ll shout each other down and tell each other our ideas are lame until we get to a point that each story is awesome and surprising. That’s part of it, definitely. Also the way that frankie press has set itself up to work closely with the advertisers to make sure that the alignment on the advertising pages is closely connected to the readership and being really strict about that is important. So if a product feels gimmicky to an audience or not within our audience’s frame of interest, it doesn’t go on there. And I think people really respect and respond to that in a positive way. And I do feel that a lot of the problem with larger publishers is that they’ve been a bit too owned by advertising and too complacent in ticking boxes for content frameworks. That combination has become really dangerous as people have wised up to it.

 

We’re talking about publications that are almost laser-focussed in their content. Being part of an independent publisher: does that make it easier to focus the content and then the advertising like that?

That’s a good question. I don’t know if it’s ever easy. I think we have more freedom with our content because we put content first, and that’s always been a tenant of frankie as a publisher. And we also have freedom because, with Smith, it’s new and there’s no pressure to conform to a certain framework, whereas with a lot of bigger publications over time expectations of readers can actually make the publication worse – because you’re expected to do these things because it helps circulation and advertisers expect it, and that can be really nasty.

In an advertising sense, it’s never easy to be independent because you always need money. You’ve got budgets and you need to hit them. But you just have to be upfront with your advertisers about what you can and can’t do and have really strong positions on why. And when advertisers respond to you in a positive way you really stick with them and support them because they support you. So it’s just about taking a lot of time to grow and maintain close relationships with advertisers that are honest in the sense that they know where they stand and they understand why we’re creating the content we create and why it’s important there’s this strong distinction between the ad pages and the content. But the great thing about that is when you get it right it creates this fantastic synergy. People pick up the mag and say that they even like the ads, which is a marketer’s dream. So if you put in all that work, it does pay off, but it’s hard in a different way.

 

Has it surprised you that more magazines haven’t been able to adapt to the new rules of the market?

It hasn’t surprised me. A lot of these magazines that are dying are big beasts. They’re huge and they’ve got big teams and budgets behind them, and that pressure doesn’t allow for an innovative space. It’s just crippling. People are so obsessed with meeting budgets and turning out certain content – because it has worked well in the past – that they’re not in a position to step back and ask what they could do differently. The whole prospect of that is too overwhelming for them to even consider. I guess the whole magazine’s identity is caught up in doing something the way they’ve always done it. I can understand how difficult it must be because it does entail a shift in the mag’s identity for a lot of these publications, and that’s so risky. But then it’s risky not to do it.

 

Book publishing has been decried as being resistant to change. Has that been mirrored by the magazines a little bit?

I don’t know. Publishing is an olde-worlde industry. There are really progressive publishers out there, but there are more who are stuck in their ways. And it’s human nature: once you start doing something that works it’s really hard to keep evaluating and pushing yourself and changing stuff. I feel like I’m really lucky to work with people who are constantly forcing me to do that with Smith and never become complacent. Which is exhausting, but it’s also healthy.

 

Does the lack of quality and focus of some magazines still surprise you?

It does in that I wonder how long they’ll be around (laughs). I do think that sometimes. But it doesn’t in the sense that they’ve always been there doing this stuff. But I do feel like there’s a time bomb – it’s only a matter of time before no one is picking them up off the shelf.

 

Do you think magazines in general are getting better, as a result of this?

Yes, I do. I might be naïve or I might be biased. But I do really feel that they’re getting better. Because the stuff that’s much better delivered online – the gossipy stuff – is disappearing off the shelves and a lot of it is being transformed into a digital publication online. I do think the print magazines that are holding on and growing and surviving actually exhibit a higher quality of content and also an attention to the medium, to print. So not the superficial glossy stuff – heavy, bookish type publications that you want to spend a lot of time with and have around.

 

Unless I’m mistaken, you have digital versions of both Smith and frankie.

We do. Both publications are available for download from Zinio, which is a digital publisher. But we haven’t made the transition into the iPad app world just yet. That is on the cards for both of them, I would say.

 

But the focus seems to very much be print first.

The focus is print first and that’s made the digital stuff a little tricky in that when we sit down and have these meetings and say, “OK. What is the ultimate goal of creating a digitised version of Smith?” And it’s to get more people to pick up the print mag (laughs). So we’re conscious we’re not cannibalising the print market by doing something digital. But at the same time there are fantastic things about digital: readers overseas who buy the print mag can get the digi version so they can read the stories a little earlier if they want to. There’s that flexibility. It is on the cards but we’re conscious of not doing it because everyone else is doing it. We want to do it right and put a lot of research and development time into it, which is going on right now.

 

You’re confident that print magazines will be with us forever? Or for a very long time yet, at least?

I am. But I think we’ll see more of them disappear and more of them change form and become more attractive as a print product. The tangibility of the product will become more important, and that adds so much to the experience of reading it. It’s a little bit of magic in that. It’s really cool.

 

If you had to boil magazine publishing down to one simple rule, what do you think that would be?

It’s so important to read every idea that hits your inbox. Something I’ve learned is that people – even if they’re not writers or photographers – can come up with the most amazing ideas and internet and email are such incredible resources for a print publication. So every email that hits my inbox I read and think about in terms of a story. Which is really important and resulted in some of my favourite stories in the magazine. Also, smaller is stronger. Our team at frankie press is so small. There’s no fat there. There’s no one who sits there only to attend nice lunches. Everyone does the job of five people and we’re constantly thinking of ways to grow and expand and change and increase subscriptions and really push the publications so that they’re the best they can be. That slimmed down [publishing team] is another vital thing that’s a real advantage for us in the industry.

 

I’d imagine it makes you so much more nimble and prepared to respond to change also.

It does. It really does.

 

So, what’s the future of Smith going forward? Is there anything we should know about?

At the moment we’re trying to keep on doing what we’re doing. We’ve got the second anniversary issue coming out this September, which has a very exciting, nerdy, writer-ly, punctuation focus. We’re just trying to keep a good thing going, and we’re doing short films to try and extend the stories off the page – just to build up some special digital content. In terms of growth or more issues, who knows? It probably would kill me, but never say never (laughs).

 

Could you ever see Smith becoming a bi-monthly, like frankie?

We’d have to have the ideas. As long as we retain the quality, there’s no reason why that couldn’t happen. Growth is strong; it would just be a matter of double the number of shit-hot ideas (laughs).

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Matt Shea (@mrmatches)

(Top image by NS Newsflash)

For more insights into the magazine world, check out our interview with photo editor of Colors magazine, Mauro Bedoni

Read our Q&A with ‘tip jar’ investigate journalist Keith Ng here and our interview with ABC Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes here.