This past May, a group of California writers and designers hunkered down one weekend in the Mother Jones office for a radical experiment in publishing: an independent magazine fully produced in just two days. They actually did it, and it looked pretty good, too. Last week, the folks that brought you 48 HR Magazine were back to make another issue, now operating under the name Longshot. They announced the theme on Friday at noon Pacific time, and then contributors had twenty-four hours to submit something around that theme (“Comeback”). The editors and designers and copyeditors then had another twenty-four hours to produce the magazine, which they did this time out of the office of GOOD Magazine. At noon on Sunday, they were done, and the final full-color product was uploaded onto print-on-demand platform MagCloud for readers to purchase for ten bucks each. They even managed to pay contributors and staff.
One of Longshot’s co-founders, Alexis Madrigal, wrote a piece for The Atlantic website, where he is a senior editor, about what the process has taught them so far about publishing. CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with him Thursday about what journalists and news organizations might also be able to learn from this project. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Lauren Kirchner: So my first question is, why forty-eight hours? It would have been impressive enough to put out a magazine in a week, or four days; two days seems insane.
Alexis Madrigal: Well, the real reason for the forty-eight-hour time span is that we all have jobs, and so we needed to be able to do it on the weekend. It’s really a project that was born because we wanted to do fun things with media again. I mean, I love my day job, too, but in the day-to-day, particularly when you’re writing online like I do most of the time, it’s really difficult to find the time to put together these finely-tuned packages that both have great content and that also kind of channel the user experience by controlling the context around an individual piece of writing. Because I do come out of the online world, when I work in paper, what I’m struck by is how much you’re able to control.
LK: How so?
AM: Online, you’re getting links in from sideways, people are coming in from Reddit, people are coming in from StumbleUpon, people are coming in from a blog that didn’t like the post—and so a lot of the framing around whatever you’ve written, you just can’t control. The thing that’s really fun about working in paper, I think, is that you get to say, “Okay, there’s a through-line here, there are things surrounding this piece that are going to contextualize it and make it more meaningful.” I’ve been thinking about that as kind of like…brain hacks. For the reader, there’s content and there’s context, and they’re always intertwined in the experience of reading the piece. As an editor of a paper magazine, you have the ability to find these back doors into people’s brains, so that the piece will be received by the reader the way you want it to be.
LK: And you think that would have been much harder to do if you had started a new online magazine?
AM: Oh yes, I think it’s actually kind of impossible online. I mean, I really love the interconnectedness and depth that you can have online: every time we’re doing the magazine, I’m always saying, “Oh, there’s this YouTube we can embed here,” and then I’m like, “No, we can’t.” So for me, it’s almost like the paper is this new technology, because my entire career I’ve been working for websites. It’s really fun for me to think about what it is about paper that makes it special.
LK: It’s funny how printing on paper is such a novelty. I have some friends who started up a new literary magazine and they’re printing it, and everyone calls them crazy for doing that. But it does make them stand out.
AM: I think the thing is, it is crazy to print, if you have to pay up front. You need this chunk of capital to send it to a printer, and then you have to try to make it all up on sales on the back end. But MagCloud and other print-on-demand programs are changing the way those economics work. For us, that’s the only thing that enables us to do it.