Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to crowdsource a magazine in 48 hours!

New Tools + Old Media + Coffee = 48 Hour Magazine

What did you do last weekend? Chances are you were slightly less productive than the 48 Hour Magazine crew, who spent Friday through Sunday creating a high-quality magazine from start to finish.

The idea - an "experiment in using new tools to erase media's old limits" - came to Alexis Madrigal, Sarah Rich, and Mat Honan one night over beers at Toronado. The San Francisco-based trio, all of whom have worked in web and print publishing for years, decided 48 Hour Magazine was both simple and crazy enough to potentially work: "We'll unveil a theme and you'll have 24 hours to produce and submit your work. We'll take the next 24 to snip, mash and gild it. The end results will be a shiny website and a beautiful glossy paper magazine, delivered right to your old-fashioned mailbox." They promised contributors it would be fun, too: "No long commitments. No pitches. No grinding editing process. You make good stuff fast; we publish it with other good stuff."

It helped that the founding group members (which also include Heather Champ, Dylan Freed, and Derek Powazek) are all experienced and talented enough to, more or less, wing it. Unthought-of problems started popping up as soon as 48 Hour Magazine debuted: for example, thousands of people signed up to be notified of the magazine's theme instead of the few hundred the editors had envisioned.

At 12 p.m. on Friday, May 7, the theme was announced: "Hustle." Mat said the founders spent weeks debating the theme, tossing around words like "Risk," "Debt," and "Chance" before making a decision that, in retrospect, "seems so incredibly obvious" that he can't believe they didn't come up with it instantly.

There wasn't much hustling going on when I stopped by 48 Hour Magazine headquarters (at the Mother Jones offices) at 7 p.m. on Friday. Six hundred people had already submitted short stories, reported pieces, photography, and poetry, but the few editors sitting around the former Rolling Stone conference table seemed rather relaxed. The team had just selected a photo that they were certain they wanted in the final magazine, but otherwise were more excited than busy. Mat showed me the tent he was planning on sleeping in that night. A fair amount of whiskey drinking was taking place.

When I returned on Saturday to help edit, the atmosphere had changed significantly and multiple conference rooms were filled with local writers and editors who wanted to pitch in. Alexis - who had only slept a few hours on what Mother Jones staffers call "The Intern Bench" because it's the least comfortable place to sit - showed me how to rate the submissions as they rolled in at a rate of about three or four every minute. The rest of the second tier editors and I decided whether each piece deserved a "yes" or a "no," after which Mat, Alexis, and Sarah had the final say.

Although everyone was hard at work, it was still almost eerily serene. Problems arose - the server was slow, depending on who you asked we were getting too much fiction/didn't have enough fiction, etc - but each issue was quickly resolved with diligence and humor. People thrived on the adrenaline rush of stress: editors joked about out of body experiences, took taco and doughnut breaks, and shared favorite submissions with the people around them. Dogs scampered around the office. Simply put, everyone was happy.

After submissions closed at 4 p.m., the hard work began - copy-editing, fact checking, and layout design - and didn't stop until 48 Hour Magazine closed shop on Sunday at noon. Around 30 pieces out of 1,502 made it into the final, 60-page magazine, which will be available for purchase on MagCloud within the next week or so (click here for more information on where the profits will go). I can't give too much away, but some of my favorite stories involve the (fictional) Lady Gaga of the future, taffy, a musical history of hustling, and roadside doctors of dubious expertise.

My one complaint is that the majority of approved submissions came from established journalists, many of whom are the founders' friends and co-workers. While I understand why the editors wanted to include so many of their friends' pieces (they were awesome), I wish that 48 Hour Magazine represented a more varied demographic of writers. Maybe next time.

So, what now? Can 48 Hour Magazine serve as a feasible example for other publications, or will it follow in McSweeney's Panorama experiment's footsteps (I loved Panorama, but was dismayed by Dave Eggers' claims that out-of-work journalists can achieve financial success by following Panorama's model. Unless Michael Chabon and James Franco are willing to be your unpaid interns, good luck)?

"I don't think 48 Hour Magazine is just an art project," Mat said. "I originally thought of it as a sort of 'zine, but it became so much bigger than that." He stressed that the 48 Hour Magazine team wasn't trying to replace or "fight back" against traditional print journalism, but that he hoped the project could serve as inspiration.

"We're putting out a very high quality product in a short amount of time using a lot of crowdsourced tools. That's something that traditional publishers can and should embrace."

Mat thinks both niche publishers and mainstream media can follow 48 Hour Magazine's lead. Smaller publishers in particular can embrace profit from the model by using services like MagCloud that let you print on demand: "a wonderful way for startups to put out a product without having a giant amount of upfront capital investment."

What about more established magazines? "If you really want to throw the resources at it, it's something that even traditional publishers can pull off - a fast, crowd- sourced, imperfect kind of thing." Mat used the recent Gulf oil spill as an example: "it would be really easy for a widely-read blog or magazine publisher to put out a magazine about the spill in a timely fashion that would crowdsource using all sorts of people, images, photos, essays, and first person accounts."

There's a reason why so many of today's most exciting journalism ventures - from 48 Hour Magazine to California Watch - are based out of the Bay Area. Northern Californians are infamously laid back, open to new ideas, and sometimes foolishly optimistic. In other words, they're too busy brainstorming to be scared and cynical of the future. 48 Hour Magazine is a perfect example of how we need to replace whining with creative innovation to reinvigorate the journalism industry

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/culture/detail?&entry_id=63234#ixzz0nch8h2MT

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