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So What Do You Do, Chris Keyes, Editor, Outside?

'Our dedication to long-form literary journalism holds the magazine together'

By Noah Davis - October 15, 2008
Christopher Keyes began his magazine career as an intern at Outside and rose through the ranks to associate editor. After leaving the magazine in 2002, first for Skiing and then for Texas Monthly, where he was eventually editorial director, Keyes returned to the Santa Fe-based independent publication as its editor in 2006. ("I had to leave for long enough for people to forget I was an intern," he jokes.) In the past, the magazine he helms has helped launch careers of writers including Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, and Keyes relishes the opportunity to continue producing quality long-form journalism. In addition to giving us the grand tour, captured on video, of Outside's office in August, Keyes spoke with mediabistro.com about his magazine's rich literary tradition, building a brand, and the advantages of working in an office where his staff hits the slopes before work.


Name: Chris Keyes
Position: Editor, Outside
Resume: Started as an intern at Outside. Rose to associate editor before leaving for Skiing. Joined Texas Monthly as its articles editor before being promoted to editorial director. Returned to Outside in 2006.
Birthday: March 13, 1974
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Education: BA, environmental science and policy, from Duke University
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: Week in Review: "I go straight to Frank Rich."
Favorite television show: Mad Men
Guilty pleasure: Bill Simmons' The Sports Guy podcasts: "Zero nutritional value, but highly addictive."
Last book read: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson


Tell me a little bit about how you see Outside -- where it is now and where it's going.
We just had our 30th anniversary last year, so we're 31 years in, and we did a redesign last year. As part of the redesign, I really looked back at this mission statement that we've had and it was great to see that we're doing exactly what we set out to do 30 years ago: inspire people to live an active lifestyle. That's the thread that you'll see throughout our pages. In terms of that mission, nothing's really changed, but if you look at the magazine, it's changed quite a bit. At the core of it is still this dedication to long-form literary journalism that holds the magazine together. It's why people love the magazine. That's surrounded by lots of service which lends itself to inspiring that active lifestyle.

Outside has always had an impressive focus on the long-form literary journalism: Jon Krakauer started here, Sebastian Junger started here. As magazines get smaller and articles get shorter, is there always going to be room in Outside for those 3,000-, 5,000-word stories?
Definitely. And if that part of it goes away, in my mind, Outside goes away. It's still part of our uniqueness in the marketplace. If people are going to read long-form literary journals, they want to read it in a magazine right now. So we're just completely committed to keeping that and trying, actually, as hard as we can to find that in the next generation of voices. It's a different business model now. I think if you were here in the 1990s there were a lot of contract writers; now it's almost exclusively freelance. It's harder to find guys that we can really brand as Outside writers, but one of the things we've done is make a smaller pool of writers that we're drawing from and keeping them very busy. They might be appearing in other magazines, but hopefully we're keeping them so busy that they're going to be here exclusively.

Are there any of those writers that you're really excited about?
Yeah, there's a few. There's Eric Hansen, who writes our "Out of Bounds" column. He's kind of continuing in the Tim Cahill and Randy Wayne White heritage of misadventure as opposed to just adventure. Nick Heil, who's a former senior editor here, just came out with a book on Everest, and he's written some great stories for us. He also writes our "Lab Rat" column. And another guy, Kevin Fedarko, who we just sent to Pakistan with Greg Mortenson, the guy who wrote Three Cups of Tea, sets up the schools there. He's written some incredible stories for us. We've got some young voices that we're really excited about.

"In the winter, we're meeting in the parking lot at 6:30 in the morning, skiing a couple runs, and then coming into work. You can't do that in New York."

Magazine circulation is down across the whole industry for the past six months. How's Outside doing and what are you doing to kind of stem that circulation decline?
[Outside is doing] well, surprisingly. When you look at the industry as a whole we're doing really well. I think newsstand is up between four and five percent for this year. Our circulation is up about four percent, or I think about 695,000 rate base, and that's higher than it's ever been. We feel pretty good about where we are right now, but obviously it's really challenging out there.

We never got sucked into the public place distribution game and the agent-selling game. We certainly have it like all magazines did, but when ABC really cracked down on [junk circulation], all of ours has really been strong. So we didn't have a lot of junk circulation, and I think that's helped us hold strong in this year. We've also really focused on our covers. Four percent isn't like a dramatic increase. but when you look at where the industry is as a whole, we don't have as many bombs as we used to. So it's good to have some consistency there -- not to say that they all fly off the newsstand.

Outside sort of exists in a weird space. It's out in Santa Fe, it's an independent magazine. Do you think that helps you avoid some of the pitfalls that other magazines are going through?
Yeah, I do. There are certainly disadvantages to being out here, because people do almost forget that we're out here, but first and foremost, the great thing about being in Santa Fe is here we are, this magazine whose mission is, like I said, inspiring the active lifestyle. Everybody in this office is living that lifestyle, so it's a real authentic publication in that sense. If you come here in the winter, we're meeting in the parking lot at 6:30 in the morning going out skiing a couple runs and then coming into work. You can't do that in New York, and I think that comes through in our pages because we really know what we're writing about and talking about. It does give us a unique perspective to be out here.

It's hard to find talent because you can't go across the street like you can in New York, but the people who do come out here really want to work for Outside and know that it's a commitment. They have to love Santa Fe. So we get people who aren't just looking for that next step necessarily in the magazine, but want to really spend some time here. I think that gives us an advantage because we have a real consistency of voice, of institutional memory of where the magazine's been and where it's going.

How does that work for you? Are you constantly going to New York for various things? Do you spend most of your time in Santa Fe?
I spend most of my time in Santa Fe. We have an editor, Mike Roberts, who first started in San Francisco in our line division and came out here when we brought our line to Santa Fe. He became an editor on the magazine, and then we moved him out to New York City. He's on Good Morning America and Bill O'Reilly -- he's kind of the face of the magazine in New York. But I do travel probably two or three times a year to New York and then go out to L.A. a few times.

"You never know what you're going to be called to participate in. We can't just hire a TV division. You are the TV division if that's what wants to happen."

And what's [Outside owner] Larry Burke's involvement with the magazine?
Well, the good thing is he's had the same idea for the magazine for 30 years. He's not involved in a day-to-day level, at least editorially, but he is in a business sense. But I know exactly what he wants the magazine to be. About once a month in our production cycle, I will show him the issue. We'll kind of quickly go through -- sometimes I'll make a change that he wants and sometimes we'll disagree and it won't be changed, but for the most part we see eye-to-eye and it's a pretty good working relationship.

With the addition of Outside's Go, you seem to be building a brand. Are there any discussions of selling the titles?
People ask about Larry's involvement in the magazine and I always say, if he's really involved that's a good sign. I tell my staff that because I think that he is so passionate about this brand that I can't see him doing anything else, and so I don't think he's ready to let go of it yet. But he also sees it as something that he wants to grow. Magazines aren't necessarily growing right now, but you add another title, which I think will help make us more robust.

Our online division is doing really well, like all magazines are starting to grow their own divisions pretty successfully. We've got our first TV production coming out on the travel channel in November, which we're excited about; [we're] looking to develop a lot more television programming. So we see a lot of ways where this brand can go. And it's fun to work at Outside because unlike a lot of the bigger magazines, because we're independent, you can't just come here and be an editor. You have to be a multimedia editor; you have to wear a lot of different hats. You have to know a little bit about marketing, you have to know a little bit about TV, because you never know what you're going to be called to participate in. We can't just hire a TV division. You are the TV division if that's what wants to happen.

Can you talk about that TV program?
We did a package of stories two times, two years in a row called "Unsolved Mysteries," which was just exploring mysterious things that had happened in the wild. The pilot is actually hosted by a former intern here who wrote the package, Tim Sohn; he and a producer flew to New Guinea to investigate the disappearance in 1961 of Michael Rockefeller -- the son of Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York -- [who] disappeared swimming from his boat, which capsized at the island. One of the first things Tim had to do was try to recreate the swim, which involved swimming across shark-infested water, so it was pretty hilarious. He says that the scariest thing for him was getting in front of a camera for the first time.

Not the sharks?
Not the sharks.

What are you guys doing online?
Well, we have a partnership that's gone back to 2001, when we partnered with Away.com. They're two distinctive sites: they share some travel content but we have an online editor here. Most of our producers, and hardware and everything is in D.C. at Away.com. But we have total control of the editorial vision of the site. We don't have, as I discussed, the luxury of just pouring a ton of money into our site, so fortunately all these other magazines are. We see this trickle-down technology, see what's working, and pick and choose where our strengths are. We know that almost three-quarters of our traffic is coming for gear coverage. So we've really ramped up our coverage there. We have videos of all the gear that we're reviewing in both our magazine and our buyer's guide. We launched these first ones which were hilariously poor production value, and it was the most popular thing immediately that we'd done on our site. So we've started producing those almost once a week. And really, I think we went from about 10,000 views when we had very little video content to almost 200,000 a month, in just six months. There's a lot more in the pipeline video-wise. We started with a really big umbrella blog, which didn't have a focus. Now we've got a separate gear blog, which is generating its own traffic really well.

We're looking at what we're good at. We know we can't do everything online right now, but I think we have a unique opportunity because Outside, rather than being so general interest, does have a focus. We're going to be able to build a community a lot better than some magazines that do really cover the entire gamut of men's interests.

It seems to me that you have a lot of different niches that you can sort of build out.
Yeah, the fitness side, and we have the travel side, and we have these little components that I think we can grow individually that are some of this bigger whole. But again, not so broad that we're doing the best bars, drinks, and food and all of this stuff. That's all sometimes tied into the magazine, but not where we're going to pour [all] our energy online.

Photography is a huge part of Outside. How has digital imagery changed the game? Do you worry about fake photography or doctored photography?
We worry a lot about it. In fact, it's interesting you brought it up. We just had an "Exposure" shot that we ran -- it was a sailing shot in San Francisco Bay. We asked the photographer, "Did you do any doctoring?" 'No.' Asked him again: 'No.' [We] printed the image, [and] got several hardcore sailing fans who looked at the image and saw that something wasn't right about it. We went back and discovered that it was doctored. That really concerns us from a digital standpoint because it was more than just highlighting a portion of the photograph, it was doctoring reality. We really changed our standards there, especially with that front "Exposure" section, which is supposed to represent a real, beautiful reality-based photograph in the front of the magazine. It does concern us and we've started to really look at our policies there to ensure that there is no doctoring. And the question is trying to define where that line is. Even Ansel Adams was doctoring his photographs. That's a part of our conversations now.

Where is that line?
I don't know. Where we came down to, at least with the "Exposure" section is if it changes the reality of the photograph -- if it creates a reality that isn't possible, that's not okay. But if it's changing the quality of the sunlight, that may be all right. It's really a case-by-case basis.

Five years down the road, where do you see Outside?
I see Outside still being a print publication. Larry and I joke that if tomorrow morning we could switch our entire subscription base to Zinio or some other digital platform, we would do it in a second obviously -- from an environmental standpoint, from a cost standpoint. But I don't see it going away. We've always been dedicated to this long-form journalism, to rich, beautiful photography; really still the only place that those two things thrive are in a magazine format. So I see that as being still here five years from now. I have to imagine there will be some shakeout among the magazines that are in this space or sharing some of this space, but I think because Outside has been here for 30 years and defined this space, we will be the one that really sticks around. That said, I see a huge upside for our Web site and our audience growing there. Some readers are going to want to get the Outside content that we create in the magazine, and a lot more are going to want to get it online.


Noah Davis is a New York-based freelance writer and co-editor of FishbowlNY.com, mediabistro.com's New York media blog.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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