Q & A: Longshot co-founder Alexis Madrigal

“An event that is also a magazine…a magazine made out of Internet.”

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?

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.

On the other hand, you get no scaling effects. Normally, if you print more, the per copy price drops, which doesn’t happen for us—the thousandth copy costs the same as the first—and second, we can’t use them as promotional tools. Every single copy of our magazine costs money, so we can’t just give them out or leave them in a pile somewhere. So that really changes how we approach promoting the magazine.

LK: What did you learn through this process about promotion and publicity? It seems like you got a fair amount of press coverage, and I know that you got submissions just by spreading the word over email lists and Twitter….

AM: Yeah, I like to say that MagCloud makes this possible, and Twitter makes it work. Online, we have a lot of diffuse social networks, and Twitter tends to encourage those relationships, it creates all these interactions between people who are interested in the same things but don’t know each other. It allows us to get the word out quickly and in real time, which is important because we’re working fast.

LK: From the outside, this project seemed to take on a life of its own—it looked really effortless, the way you were able to so quickly get so many people to submit and volunteer their time. Was it?

AM: We’re just sort of raising our hands to see if lightning continues to strike. I don’t really know why that happened, but now that it has, I think it’s a sustainable thing. I think people who got into media and journalism did it because they love words, they love stories, and they want to reveal truth about the world and package it so people can understand it. Often in our jobs, we can forget that, because we have to, you know, talk to the IT guy [laughs]. With Longshot, you only have forty-eight hours, and you just have to go make something good. It taps into the most fundamental reasons that we went into journalism, but it’s very pure, because there’s no structure, none of the stuff that gets in the way.

LK: Whenever I have to write something really quickly, I always wonder if it would have been better if I had had more time, or if instead, it actually benefited from the urgency of writing on deadline. How do you think the fast turnaround for contributions affects the submissions you get?

AM: There are definitely cons to only giving people twenty-four hours, but yes, I think there are also pros. Essentially, every other moment of your life is an opportunity to write without a deadline. Of course people don’t take advantage of that nearly enough as they could, to just write whatever they wanted, whenever. Maybe there’s a value to having an arbitrary deadline, and to having an arbitrary deadline that everyone else also has—that adds to the fun of it, that so many people have skin in the game, and there’s this “event” happening. We like to say about Longshot, “It’s is an event that is also a magazine.” (The other possible tag line we’ve been kicking around is “This is a magazine made out of Internet.”)

LK: How many submissions did you get for this issue?

AM: We got about 500 submissions. That number was actually down from last time, but that’s largely because this time we strongly discouraged fiction and poetry.

LK: That’ll do it.

AM: Yeah, definitely. Last time we got roughly 1,000 fiction and poetry submissions, and most of those got wiped out right away. So this time it actually felt like there were more things that we could use, because they were more in the vein of what we were doing.

LK: Do you have a favorite piece from this issue?

AM: I really like the Revival piece by this woman from Maine, Mary Phillips-Sandy, it’s a really beautifully written long feature. I also really love Rob Dunnin’s piece, he’s a writer for The Colbert Report, and he wrote this thing, it’s very hard to describe, it’s about the lord of the underworld, sitting on his bone chair, pontificating about Gerald, this flaxen-haired accountant who has defeated him, it’s just so strange and brilliantly funny. Also, Angela Watercutter made this incredible flowchart called “What Kind of Celebrity Comeback Are You?” She wrote that in the van in our caravan from San Francisco to [the GOOD magazine office in] L.A., and that was the first thing our designers worked on.

LK: I noticed in your post on TheAtlantic.com that the live video stream aspect of the production process turned out to be kind of boring. I guess the idea was that contributors would be able to watch you editing and designing the magazine in real time, and send in suggestions to you as you worked?

AM: Yeah, I had thought that we should stream the whole thing, that it would be a key element of the experience. But the thing is, streaming video isn’t actually participatory at all. We don’t have fifty monitors where we can watch everyone at home who’s watching us so we can interact with them. In theory, it’s so great, like this “live magazine,” but when you think about it, making a magazine is really just a communal private event: reading, writing, the word on the page. I actually think that the Twitter feed, the photos we posted, and the line drawings that Wendy MacNaughton did, capture the meaning of certain moments in the process a lot better than the live video stream; the video stream ends up seeming totally meaningless, the very opposite of an artistic endeavor. So I don’t think it adds much value.

LK: Here’s a random question, but I’m just curious—did you sleep at all that weekend?

AM: I slept on Friday night, but didn’t sleep at all Saturday. It’s really easy to stay up because there’s so much to do, the adrenaline is going. But definitely the hours between, say, five and seven late Saturday night were really miserable. Those are the worst hours. That’s also usually when the big hairy pieces are getting edited down, that’s when the heavy lifting is happening, like crunching 2,000 words into a 750 word piece. Then the morning cavalry started to arrive at seven, the copyediting team and everyone else, and then all of a sudden, we were like, “Hey, we’ve got a magazine here!”

LK: What did you learn through the process of putting together Issue Zero that helped Issue One, and likewise, what will you do differently for Issue Two?

AM: The first time, the areas where we had a lot of trouble, we brought in a lot more people [for the second time]. Like, you can’t ask one person to design sixty pages of a magazine in twenty-four hours [laughs]. Perhaps this would be self-evident to others, but we figured that out for ourselves.

As for next time, we’ve learned some lessons about how to ask people for things, like little fifty or one hundred word errata—shaping submissions on the front end by putting pieces into different categories worked really well. I think next time we’ll do that even more. As crazy as it sounds, we’ll put more limitations around what people can do. Even though the time is limited, before, it was like, “Whatever you want to send us, that’s cool.” And I think that’s actually harder.

LK: What else can news organizations or other publications learn from this crazy experiment?

AM: We’re so grateful, we’ve realized that people are willing to keep contributing and keep working on this thing even though, you know, it’s not going to pay their rent. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I hope the main one is that it’s really fun, and also that people have a sense that they have a hand in how this thing is going.

I think that’s maybe the final lesson for publishers—we don’t drive huge sales, but we drive incredible engagement, and I think the reason for that is that people really feel a part of the community that makes this, rather than just a magazine buyer. To me, that’s really important, and maybe something that publishers can incorporate pieces of—just by taking their readers as users, people who will both use and shape the things that the publishers put out.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner