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Jan. 24, 2018, 11:54 a.m.
Business Models

“Punchier and stronger” and with way more women: How Outside Magazine got to be badass online

A lot of publications are paying lip service to inclusiveness and diversity. Outside is actually doing it.

Last November, Outside Magazine posted on its Facebook page a survey asking readers whether they’d experienced sexual harassment in the outdoors and outdoor industry.

Many men took this as an invitation to make extremely similar jokes about wild animals. “I had a shady looking marmot give me ‘elevator eyes’ once.” “I find on some hikes the raccoons can be a bit pawsy.” “I had a bison eyeballing me in South Dakota. Does that count? You guys used to be a good magazine.” And so on. That doesn’t include the number of men who “joke”-took the survey: “I would like to be flashed by a girl at some point in near future in the mountains.” Or the one who wrote, “I get enough political bull shit when I turn on my tv or log into social media and at work. Do what you guys are good at. I would love to talk to someone from outside about how I can cancel my subscription.””

But outweighing the original, witty commentary were the posts from women, saying thank you.

When only men are complaining or cracking jokes and only women are defending the survey you know there’s an issue,” one woman wrote. Another: “To all those making jokes or saying you ‘don’t want to read about this kind of thing in Outdoor magazine,’ guess what? You don’t want to read about it? I don’t want to live it.

Outside followed up with a post on its site. “Don’t Care About Sexual Harassment? Don’t Read Outside.

“If you think that sexual harassment isn’t a real problem or if you like making jokes about people getting harassed in the outdoors, do us a favor: Unsubscribe,” Erin Berger, the culture editor at Outside Online, wrote. “Make good on your threats to stop reading.”

The sexual harassment survey wasn’t just token outreach to women: It’s part of a concerted effort by the Santa Fe, New Mexico–based Outside, starting over the last year, to be a more diverse, inclusive, and at times political publication. That means weekly meetings to ensure that editors of each vertical on the website are running an equal number of stories written by men and by women. It means women and different body types featured in photography and art. It means a Facebook group dedicated to the preservation of public lands, as well as thorough coverage of other political issues relating to the outdoors. And it means a profile and a tweet that made U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke very mad:

“We’re trying to have our stories be more representative of our readers,” said Alexandra (“Axie”) Navas, the executive editor of Outside Online. “As I see it, we’re a magazine for people who love the outdoors, and that’s not just core athletes, that can be anyone.”

It’s not that that point of view is a complete change for the magazine, whose first print issue was published in 1977. “We’ve always had a wider sense of our audience than I think the market has, if that makes sense,” Scott Rosenfield, Outside’s digital general manager, said. (He started at Outside as an intern in 2012, when he was still in college.) “Big national conversations don’t end when you leave your house [and go outside].” But, he said, 2017 was the year that Outside — especially on its website and in its social media — started making diversity and inclusion core to its mission. (By the way, the tweets threaded through this piece are courtesy of Outside’s social media manager, Jenny Earnest, and assistant social media manager, Svati Kirsten Narula.)

The change has been especially rapid on Outside’s digital side. Navas is the first woman to oversee Outside’s digital efforts; she was promoted to that role in December and is charged with leading these changes. (She started at Outside as an assistant editor in 2014, not long after graduating from college.) “For a long time, our print magazine was basically the same stable of writers and they were overwhelmingly male — like, 80/20 male to female bylines,” she said. “That was something so concrete that we could change, and [especially] online, we have a lot more freedom not to subscribe to that old way of thinking.”

Rather than offering vague goals, Navas is systematic. She is set on hiring staffers who “have a different avenue to the outdoors than a traditional hiking and camping background.” The editors of Outside Online’s verticals have set quotas for bringing in new writers; every editor is expected to bring new writer names to weekly story meetings, and the male/female byline breakdown is tracked in a team-wide spreadsheet. When the 50/50 ratio gets off track, the team figures out why. “We’ll say, ‘Oh, Adventure lagged this week. Why was that? Did we have too many male columnists? Do we have so many of this type of story coming through that it’s not leaving enough room to edit other types of stories?” Although it can be harder to quantify, the site is also pushing for increased racial, body type, and socioeconomic diversity in its content. “The outdoor industry has a specific type of person it tends to market toward, and that tends to get forwarded by the designers hired to work for the gear companies,” Navas said. “We’re trying to grapple with that cycle.”

The push toward diversification is strikingly apparent throughout Outside’s site. Women aren’t banished to their own vertical; they’re just everywhere, in a way that drives home how unusual it is to see actual gender equity in a publication. Click to the Gear vertical and the first article you see is “Duer Makes the Best Women’s Skinny Jeans.” Fitness: “4 Laws of Muscle” is illustrated with a photograph of a woman, even though the article isn’t specifically about women. Head over to the Culture vertical and you see an original illustration of female authors who write about the wilderness. And in Adventure, in a collage to illustrate a story about called “Eight Adventurers Who Changed Our World,” two of the photographs are of men, and two are of women.

While the print magazine is still Outside’s largest revenue driver, digital is growing fast. Digital revenue has grown by 20 percent each year over the last five years and is expected to grow another 20 percent in 2018. The site gets about 3.5 million unique visitors a month. Readers of the print magazine, which has a rate base of 675,000, are 30 percent female and 70 percent male; on the website, 35 percent of readers are female; and on social media, 41 percent of the audience is female.

The affiliate revenue program that Outside Online launched last year “went from zero dollars to six figures within a few months,” Rosenfield said. The site runs both extensive longform gear reviews (“obviously Wirecutter has hired a lot of people for their outdoor space, but it’s something we have the institutional knowledge to own,” Navas said) and quick-hit shopping pieces where experts offer up a couple of their favorite products. The site also launched a twice-weekly gear-shopping email newsletter in December, which joins its seven other newsletters. Again, when there’s pushback from readers on Facebook — asking why a post links to Amazon instead of REI or Backcountry, for instance — the editors jump in to explain. “The big takeaway is we can always be doing more explaining,” Rosenfield said. “I have had uniformly good experiences when I explain why we’re doing things.” (Outside got rid of comments on its site two years ago and Rosenfield said he doesn’t miss them at all, both because the quality of the conversation on Facebook is better and the commenting software was slowing down the site.)

“A big initiative this year has been not just to reach more people, but to engage with them in a more meaningful way,” Rosenfield said. Outside has three Facebook groups with a couple thousand members each: Beyond Books Club, Public Lands Forum, and Gearheads. The Public Lands Forum, in particular, is a good example of the ways in which Outside walks the line between reporting and political activism. “There are people who say Outside shouldn’t be covering anything that’s political at all, but that seems like an increasingly small minority,” Rosenfield said. “We do sometimes get some pushback when we cover topics that are more political or in the news. So we don’t just put the stories out there; we explain where we’re coming from.”

The transparency and outspokenness has paid off in terms of increased audience interest and engagement. In the case of the sexual harassment survey, for instance, and the follow-up blog post, “we had a lot of new folks sign up to our Facebook page, which actually was not the goal,” Navas said. “But you know, [culture editor Berger] and I debated for awhile whether to respond, but we didn’t want the [misogynist] thinking setting the tone on our Facebook page. Our goal was to say, ‘This is part of what we are going to be covering, and we are going to be covering a lot more than the print magazine has done, and in a lot of different ways; it’s what we want the publication to stand for and it matters deeply to our readers.’ We had a lot of folks respond saying that it was their favorite piece all year, that they were really proud, and that they were gonna continue their subscription for another year.”

Speaking of the print magazine: The boundaries between Outside Online and Outside Magazine are somewhat blurry. Many team members work on both; the publications aren’t siloed. Outside’s sexual harassment survey, for instance, will be part of a big upcoming print feature that Outside is doing on sexual harassment in the private guiding world. But, Navas said, “in terms of expanding the Outside audience, rethinking what an Outside story can be, getting punchier and stronger: The website just has more freedom to do that, faster. The goals [of print and online] align, and the magazine is moving toward 50/50 representation, too, but it takes longer in part because there are fewer stories. Online, we can be a lot more nimble. We can throw stuff out there and experiment to keep evolving. We have that freedom.

“It’s tapping into a new readership base,” she added. “Can Outside be a younger, faster publication that’s tackling some of the bigger issues in our world? That’s my ideal for it.”

Photo by Giuseppe Milo used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 24, 2018, 11:54 a.m.
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