Out Magazine At 25: A Mr. Magazine™ Interview From The Vault With Founding Editor Sarah Pettit…

October 4, 2017

Aaron Hicklin, Editor in Chief, of Out magazine asks in his intro to the 25th Anniversary issue of the magazine, “How do you write an editor’s letter marking an anniversary?

Well rather than telling you how Aaron answered his question in this blog, (thus giving you the opportunity to go buy a copy of the magazine and find Aaron’s answer on your own), I opted to go into the Mr. Magazine™ vault and publish an interview I did with the founding editor of Out magazine, the late Sarah Pettit. Sarah, who died at the young age of 36 in 2003, was the founding editor and former editor in chief of Out magazine. The interview was published in my book Launch Your Own Magazine in 1998 and is reprinted below as it appeared in the book.

Sarah Pettit is the editor-in-chief of Out, a general interest magazine for gays and lesbians published by Out Publishing Inc. The first issue of Out appeared in 1992.
At what stage and in what capacity did you join Out?

I wasn’t the founder. The founder was Michael Goff, and the magazine was already established when I came into it. But I worked on the first issue. I helped to launch it. But I started work with the editorial. Everything else was already there.

What type of advice would you give someone who is launching a magazine?

I would probably tell them to walk to their nearest newsstand and take a look to see if what they want to do has already been done. And if it has been done, in what way has it been done, and how are their ideas different?

I think, especially in any major urban area, you can look at any newsstand of any size and find an enormous array of titles on pretty much everything from fly fishing to car mechanics to gay and lesbian lifestyles. For instance, the one I work on had pretty much been covered. But when we launched our magazine, what we noticed by looking at the newsstand was that there were no monthly feature magazines targeted to the gay and lesbian audience, nothing that addressed their issues in a full quality, industry standard way. So we said, “Well, there’s something that need to be done which hasn’t been done and that, obviously, people are going to be interested in.”

If you see that there are already five or six people doing it, and you are not going to bring anything particular new to the story, then you probably won’t have too much success. Unless, of course, you are a major magazine company and you can figure out how to squeeze out all of the little guys. But to the entrepreneur, it probably should be something with some necessity behind it.

How can an entrepreneur give the concept that special spin?

I think what we said was, you know there are probably a fair number of gays and lesbians in America. No one knows exactly how to count them, but even a rough estimate certainly puts them at the size of a magazine that is acceptable to launch. Most of the major companies want a magazine to hit about five hundred thousand at the get go, but it depends on how quickly you are going to increase your circulation. You have got to have a reasonable amount of circulation pretty soon after the launch to be able to warrant your expenses.

I think the way you put the twist on your idea is by finding something unique and special. I think what we found as this group of people who have a lot of common interests, whether that’s the more political aspects of what a gay issue is, or whether it’s the more cultural aspects of things, or if it’s simply the basic questions of how to organize your finances with your partner. Any of those things that are straightforward service questions, as they say in the magazine trade.

We knew that there was no real, centralized place they could go for that information in a consistent way. Doing a magazine such as ours would provide people with a unique publishing product that they probably couldn’t get anywhere else. As with any audience, what you want to do is look at your group and say, “What is it about these people that pulls them together?” What are their shared interests? And what is it about this product that you are giving them that no one else can?”

You know, obviously for gay men and lesbians, it’s even harder because in the past it’s been this community of people who are so dispersed. It was harder for them to identify themselves and speak of their common experiences. So, for a magazine, this is a very good thing because you want people who are hungry for information and for what you want to bring them.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

I honestly don’t know if I would have done too much differently. I know one thing that is very important is not to grow your magazine more quickly than it can handle. One of the classic ways you can go bust is to grow too fast and too furiously. Don’t start laying on a bunch of staff that you can’t afford to keep.

When we made our first magazine, we were in the offices of another company. Esquire actually offered us the space at Hearst Publications because the man who designed our first issue, Roger Black, had his design studio at Esquire. He worked on Esquire as their art guru, so we had the space and we had access to computers and it was all for very little money.

We had five or six people who worked on it, but now, five years later, we have a staff of thirty-two, including people from all over the magazine industry. Our publishers just spent eighteen years at the New York Times in the business department. Our president was at the Times for years, too, and at the Hartford Courant before that. We now have people from all over.

You can get competitive and start paying the good salaries later on, but don’t get too crazy. I think that is one of the problems that people have. They think that they can launch fancy offices with pretty desks and nice carpeting, but they don’t think about the fact that the magazine business is really expensive. Last year, for example, our paper costs went up 60%. That’s something that you can’t foresee, and if you have too much up front, costs can really kill you.

What advice would you give for recruiting staff?

I think one of the key things is to get people who really feel like they want to come to their jobs in the morning. I think you have to inspire them in whatever way. To our benefit, we were making a magazine that a lot of our staff felt was really important. They personally felt very compassionate about the idea of bringing information to a group of people who had not had that before.

So you have the professional motivation of mixing a good product with a lot of pride. If you can hit people at home and make them feel like they are really doing something important, you can come out with any magazine. You can make a magazine about golf and make people who work with you feel that it’s important. Often, I feel that people equate that with young, hungry talent. I don’t know if that has to do with age or point of view, but it’s best to not have people who feel like they’re doing you a favor just by coming to work.

And there is something to be said for people with magazine backgrounds. I think one of the things that created the biggest problem for the gay press is the thought that, “OH, anyone can make a magazine.” Well, no, not anyone can make a magazine. Part of what makes a good magazine is having people with magazine talent. It’s a unique skill, just like any skill.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from the Out launch?

Oh, I wish I had more money! Actually, it’s been very interesting. I think that I have learned that money isn’t everything, even though I just said it was.

You look at something like the report that when House and Garden relaunched this fall from Conde Nast, they spent forty-four million dollars over the course of a year or two. That was just to get to the point of relaunching the magazine, just to get to that one issue. Forty-four million dollars-all for prototypes and staff and shooting stories that they wouldn’t use.

There was this enormous kind of loading of that project, and then I look at what I have. Forty-four million dollars, based on how much money we spent in the first five years, we could be around for the next two thousand years. We’re talking about just enormous amounts of money. And then I look at how little I do with, and I say, “Gee.” It really kind of makes you appreciate the value of every dollar. Some of this stuff is just crazy. It doesn’t need to be this expensive, but money, unfortunately, is useful and you need a lot of it for magazines, for good writers anyway.

Do you do most of your work in-house?

Most of our writing is freelanced.

Is that something you’ve done from beginning?

Yes. We try to work with a pretty broad array of people and keep that mix up. The premise of the magazine has always been that we go to talent from all over the industry – whether people are working on TV Guide or Essence or Vanity Fair – and bring them to Out where they can do special stories that are especially relevant. Whether it is the arts writer who can write about books for us or the entertainment journalists who can’t do exactly that story where they are based. It’s kind of taking people’s real world specialties and bringing them to Out where they make sense for us.

You know, in some next world, it would be nice to have a broad base of people whom you could pay to keep on retainer. But I think people can be really wasteful with that, too. There are major magazines that can lock up millions of people. They want people to be dedicated just to them, and they pay them huge amounts of money so they don’t work for anyone else. That kind of stuff can be ego-driven. And ridiculous, too. Is it really worth it to spend a hundred thousand dollars just to keep someone from writing for anyone else?

What about the actual birth of Out? Who developed the concept and how did it grow?

The idea was essentially Roger Black’s, who was behind the first issues of the magazine. Michael Goff, the actual founder, worked for Roger and they were always working on this idea of what would it be like to start a gay magazine. They had started doing prototypes that were targeting only the male readers, and then they actually decided to expand it and make it for men and women.
After the initial investor was brought on board, that’s when I came on and started to open offices about six months later.

During those six months, what types of struggles did you face? Did any of them change your thinking?

I do think that their initial of audience focus was big because emphasis on demographics is really important. I don’t know I guess the cliché is that launches always lead to big fights, and people change and sort of drop off. We really didn’t have a whole lot of that.

I think that once we were committed, that first year we were in business, there really wasn’t time for anything else. I think that the good thing about Michael’s initial idea, once he had the germ of it, was that the message of the magazine and the focus of the magazine and the content have always been consistent. It’s not like it started one way and then it morphed and changed a million times. I think that is the way you lose readers. Michael was pretty clear that we were launching a general interest, national magazine for gay men and lesbians.

I think he knew it was going to be topical; it was going to have features and art coverage and fashion. It was going to be a monthly features magazine that a gay Vanity Fair would be. In fact, that was one of our buzz lines. He pretty much kept that vision and we have kept it to this day. I think that is really helpful because people aren’t trying to figure out what we are.

I also think it was really helpful that we were considered iconoclastic and weird because it was a gay magazine and the whole structure of how you make a magazine and the whole structure of how you make a magazine was in pretty classic terms. We were going to make a magazine and we were going to make it for audiences that hadn’t had that. So the buzz line that came out of that was a traditional magazine for a nontraditional audience. Now, we weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. We were just trying to drive the wheel to a different place, as it were.

What about advertisers?

I think the main thing is that, in the last five years, we have brought on every major advertising category, from fashion to automotive to electronics. In the past, the gay press had never been supported by any mainstream advertisers, and it was considered to be something that was pretty much impossible.

The buzz word was kind of like, “You will get Absolut and you will get Benetton – and the rest of it, well you will have to make do with love.” And that did not prove to be the case at all. What we showed was that we made a quality magazine, and we had a lot of quality contributors, great articles, great photography. People like Roger Black were behind it, and the people in the industry recognized that, and it kind of trickled down.

I think media buyers and people in the industry had to look at that and recognize, “Here’s a great way to reach there people and to target these people in a place we haven’t been able to get to until now.” Ellen DeGeneres’ character coming out on TV aside, there really haven’t been that many gay media outlets.

So I think it coincided with a moment in the media when people were looking for a way to find new niche markets, and one of the hot, new niches in the early nineties was the gay and lesbian market. It still continues to be. Out majestically came at just about the right time for people. It did it in the same way that ten or twenty years previous, people tried to target the African American industry or the Latino industry.

In that respect, the advertising story became a much richer one than people thought it might because we had everyone from fashion retail to automotive to electronic to expensive liquor and tobacco and a lot of other industry that supports magazines. So, in that way, we were looked at as a test case, and a very successful test case.

How important is flexibility?

You have to have a good message, and you have to be convinced about it. If it’s like a square peg going into a round hole, and you are bringing people a message and a magazine that no one wants, and you stick to it, you are just going to go down in flames anyway.

But I do think that if you have a good idea, you’ve got to stick to it for a while because you won’t see much happening overnight. You know, it takes a while for small magazines launching on their own to grow like ours has. We are having our fifth anniversary this year, and I am only just now beginning to feel like our magazine is really taking off. It just takes so long.

When you take carrots and potatoes and chicken and you put it in a pot, it takes a while for the flavor to happen, and it does not happen overnight. If you get panicky, and you bail out before you give it a chance to get going, you are not going to have a very good stew. You just have to keep it going for a while. Obviously. Simmering that stew is expensive, and in the magazine world, not a lot of people can sit around and wait for that to happen.

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