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So What Do You Do, Kendall Hamilton?

Ski magazine's editor-in-chief talks to mb about how a writer with New York in his DNA ends up in Boulder, Colorado.

By Jill Singer - October 19, 2004

Up until late 2002, Kendall Hamilton was your quintessential New York media guy—a kind of Kevin Bacon-esque utility player who could be easily connected to nearly every magazine bigwig you can imagine. Born and bred in Manhattan, Hamilton rose, Mark Whitaker-style, through the ranks of Newsweek, from a lowly apologist in the "Letters to the Editor" section to a cushy TV-writer post. After 11 years at Newsweek, he moved over to the currently much-publicized Mark Golin-era Details—right before that mag went briefly belly up. After dabbling in the start-up life at MBA Jungle with his friend Bill Shapiro (now managing editor of the Life relaunch), Hamilton went looking for something different and ended up as editor-in-chief of Ski magazine out in Boulder, Colorado. He's traded in, as he puts it, a media pool for a media puddle—publishing pickings are slim in Boulder unless you count Soldier of Fortune—but as Hamilton tells it, maybe things aren't that different when they run on Mountain Standard Time.

Birthdate: June 30, 1967
Hometown: New York, New York
First section of Sunday Times: The front section

You've really been all over the map here: A newsweekly, a lifestyle mag with an identity crisis, a start-up, and now a niche enthusiast mag out in Boulder of all places. How did you get into this business originally?
I got into this business in the way of most stumbling English majors who are looking for jobs after college: I wanted a job, and if I got a paycheck, that sounded just fine to me. Somebody told me that the letters department at Newsweek was a kind of traditional entry-level, sweep-the-floors, get-in-the-door job. So I went in there and contacted the right people and ended up getting that job. Our job was actually to write responses to readers who wrote in grieved about one thing or another that Newsweek might have said in the magazine. It was a staff of about six of us who did nothing but write, "Dear Mr. So-and-so, I'm terribly sorry you felt that we were unfair to poodles in this story, but in fact we love poodles and you misinterpreted what we said."

I spent a couple of years just writing letters and being around the magazine culture. We were kind of sequestered off in our own little area, and it wasn't as if we had daily interaction with the important people at the magazine. But over time, you got to know people, friends of yours got promoted, and you worked the system a little bit until the right combination of people went on vacation at the same time one summer, which is really how everything works in this business. You want to be the one guy standing there so they turn to you and say, "Oh, hey you! You've got a pulse, you want to try this?" So that's what happened with me with the "Newsmakers" page.

Your jump to Details was a bit ill-timed, wasn't it?
It was, unfortunately, yes. I'd gotten to a point at Newsweek where I really liked it and could very easily have stayed there a long time. Newsweek is one of these places where you look around and there are people—young people—who have been there 20-plus years. It's a place where it's very easy to settle in for the long haul. But I thought, if I stay here, I can see who I'm going to be, I'm going to be that guy down the hall. And that's nice, but I'd like to inject a little more excitement into my career path here, which I certainly did—though not quite in the way that I anticipated.

I thought it would be a nice change to get out of the grind of writing on a weekly deadline, which was one of the features of Newsweek that really can wear you down after a while, and switch over to just being a pure editor. I had a really nice time there—I think I was there about four months before the ax fell.

So how did you go from this little New York media network, where you're constantly swapping places with other power players, to editing a niche mag out in Colorado?
After the bubble burst, as they say, the culture went from, "We have the massage guy coming in every Tuesday!" to, you know, you've got to buy your own garbage bags, which is pretty much the arc that [MBA Jungle] progressed along. You get to a point where you say, you know, if this really were going to be all the success that we hoped, it would have been by now. So I started poking around and reached out to some people whose paths I'd crossed earlier in my career. In fact, the recruiter at Time Inc. that I called had been the recruiter at Conde Nast at the time I went to Details. I called her, and, you know, discussions led to discussions. As it turned out, they were looking to make some changes. What was starting then, and has continued since, was an across-the-board revitalization of the Time4 Media titles. And so it came around: "Hey, are you a skier?" Yes, absolutely, I've been skiing since I was a little kid, I love skiing. "Well, that's interesting because we have these ski magazines out in Boulder, would you think of moving to Boulder. Is that even on the table?" And I said, sure why not. Basically you just want to keep talking. If I'd said no, we would have stopped talking right there so, "Yeah, sure!" and I figured I'd deal with that decision when and if the time came.

Eventually, they offered me the job. My wife and I sat down and thought long and hard about it. She'd been a corporate lawyer and she loved it, but I think that the opportunity to spend more time with our son was appealing to her. You sit there and you say, OK, how is this going to work, we've got the nanny, we've got private school. And you start looking at the realities of raising a family in Manhattan, and you start to think well, is there another way here? And Boulder seemed to be another way.

How is it different editing a specialty mag as opposed to a general interest one? How do you keep it fresh when it's focused on a single subject?
I mean, it helps to be new, because you can selectively ignore much of what's been done before you arrived. If you said, "Well we can't do a story about mogul skiing because we did one four years ago"—you just can't afford to do that. What it becomes about is what's a new and different way into the same old familiar topic. It's not as if new mountains are popping up every day, and snow has remained relatively unchanged for the last millennium. So you're right, it is constantly a challenge to address a relatively limited universe in a fresh way, but you know, I think that we have managed to do that. In five years? I don't know.

How is it different from other ski mags—like, say, Skiing?
Well, right here in Boulder there is Ski magazine and Skiing, which is our sister publication, also a Time4 Media magazine, and a very fine magazine, I think. And essentially these are the two biggest magazines devoted to the sport of skiing right under one roof. So how do you differentiate? For many, many years, particularly under the previous ownership, there really wasn't a lot of differentiation. In college, I subscribed to one of the two and I couldn't even tell you which one it was.

One of my prime directives was to enhance the editorial separation between Ski and Skiing, and that certainly is their mission over there, too. Skiing has moved to be younger, noisier, more irreverent, a little bit more back-country oriented. Ski—you're not going to find the Ski reader sleeping in his van at the base of a mountain in Alaska. We have a very upscale readership, we are very resort-focused, family oriented. We are not necessarily "rad." Skiing over the past decade has become an increasingly amenitized sport—it's moved into the realm of luxury travel. You look at a place like Vail or Beaver Creek—these are really upscale destinations. There's a huge market for that segment of skiing, and we devote ourselves to serving that first and foremost.

Maybe in some ways, then, Ski is not that different from your old magazines. Details? MBA Jungle? Those certainly target an affluent audience.
Yeah, that's an astute point. We are, in many senses, a lifestyle magazine for skiers. We are about a lot more than what actually happens on the mountain. We are about what happens on the mountain, and we're authoritative in our instruction and gear coverage, but at the same time, we're about everything else that surrounds and augments the actual on-hill experience: great restaurants, great hotels, just everything that goes into what it means to be a skier.

So then what sort of writers do you attract? Do you get the same people who are also taking their stuff to Travel and Leisure?
Actually yes, in many cases we do. One of the things I've worked hard to do since I got here two years ago is to broaden the pool of contributors. There certainly are a vast number of "card-carrying ski writers." And these folks, many of them are quite good, but they're really specialists, and I thought that the magazine could benefit from casting a wider net for contributors. So we have folks who write for just about any comparable magazine you could name.

How is your life different now that you live in Colorado?
Well I'm looking out my window at a mountain right now, that's a pretty prime improvement, as opposed to a dingy wall downtown. It's a beautiful, beautiful place and there's just so much to do in terms of outdoor recreation. In terms of my work life: here in Boulder, you're not going to find too many people to have a big boozy conversation about the last issue of The Atlantic. In New York, you can really get steeped in the magazine culture, and out here that's not so much the case.

But, I mean, a magazine is a magazine, wherever you're putting it out. The actual mechanics of my job aren't different. The closes are a little bit less late at night—although we certainly do get frenzied. We have a lot of big issues to put out on a tight schedule with a pretty small staff, particularly early in the season. One of the oddball things about Ski is that the seasonality takes on a huge role. It's not like you can plan everything on a rolling basis as you might be able to do with a regular monthly, where you're working three or four issues ahead. We have to work the whole season ahead because we have essentially four months where there's snow on the ground and skiing to be had. So things get planned over a couple of weeks in November and we basically dispatch an army of writers and photographers out onto the snow, racing to get where they need to go and accomplish the things they need to accomplish before the snow melts. And in the spring it all comes flooding in all at once, and you sort if out from there. But there's very little room for error. You can't decide in May, "Oh, we should do a piece about skiing in Jackson Hole." It's too late; there's no snow anymore. So planning is of absolute paramount importance here.

Does that affect the magazine in terms of coverage in the summer versus coverage in the winter? Does the Southern hemisphere get a lot of play during the summer?
We do have a summer issue that comes out in June, and we cast a pretty wide net for that. We'll do a story about recreation in the mountain. We might do a golf piece or a dude ranch piece, but we almost always will do a summer skiing piece. And there is terrific skiing to be had in South America, Australia, New Zealand, even Europe on some glaciers.

But I can assume you're not going to have a big spread on Alpine sleds.
Let's just say that's not our reader.

If you're thinking that this might, in five years, become a situation where you say, "OK, I've done this," what would you think is next for you?
That is an excellent question and one I am not really prepared to address at the moment. I'm having a terrific time with this. There aren't a lot of other magazine jobs in Boulder; it's not too tough to figure that out. Editing a magazine in a place other that New York, you kind of get out on a bit of peninsula, and there aren't a lot of other places to go. So who knows, I may come back to New York. Anything's possible.

Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.com.



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