The End of Wend
On the complexities and contradictions of niche enthusiast publishing.
Back before there were travel blogs, there were travel magazines. In a nutshell, these were blogs made out of paper that came in the mail each month, glossy pages covered in ads that didn’t pop up, but instead just kind of sat there, hoping impotently that you’d look at them. A few of the most stalwart are still in circulation, of course, piling up in doctor’s offices and the foyers of small-town libraries, and those travel mags that remain can be sorted into two basic categories.
Magazines in the first category feature a woman on the cover who enjoys traveling the world in her bathing suit. These publications are intensely focused on the present moment, forever proclaiming “Where to Eat in Shanghai Now,” “Where to Sleep in Toronto Now,” and “Where to Buy Something to Cover Up That Bathing Suit Now.” It’s no use consulting such magazines about where to eat or sleep later on. They will not be able to tell you.
In the second category are publications concerned not with vacations but with travel as a transcendental bridge between cultures. These mags are different from their cousins in that they privilege “authenticity” above style and are conscious of the serious social and environmental issues facing our planet. Also, they are probably going to fail.
One such magazine was the adventure-travel journal Wend, which quietly expired almost a year ago, but has yet to receive a proper eulogy. Founded in 2006 and independently published in Portland, Oregon, Wend was a not-altogether-intuitive combination of formats both old and new. Like a magazine, it was printed on paper. Really nice paper, in fact, made from locally sourced and sustainably harvested trees, covered in biodegradable soy ink. Like a blog, however, Wend welcomed contributors who weren’t necessarily professional writers or photographers. “Real people” were at the heart of each issue, explained the magazine’s media kit, “writing real stories about real adventures and real environmental issues.”
And at the outset, Wend got off to a real good start. Founder Ian Marshall was a former ad and marketing guru for the short-lived, but much-beloved Blue, another indie adventure-travel mag that ran for 33 issues around the turn of the aughts. Marshall and his skeleton staff at Wend put out a handsome, photo-heavy quarterly with an emphasis on “human-powered adventure.” Early features followed climbing expeditions in China, river-surfers in Namibia, and adventure-racers in Patagonia. A few key motifs resurfaced throughout every issue: the sacredness of various landscapes, the willful abandonment of carbon-fueled transport, the search for enlightenment abroad. Wend covered transformative, long-distance bike rides like People covers Kardashian weddings—freewheeling rides across Bhutan, Australia, Mexico, Iran. Often as not, the central feat of any given story was performed under the banner of “awareness-raising.” Kayakers circled Newfoundland to raise awareness of oil slicks in the Atlantic; hikers traipsed the globe to call attention to HIV in Africa.
Profiles were rare to non-existent, and service-writing (like destination round-ups or “Best Of” lists) had no business in the feature well. The quintessential Wend story was, above all, first-person diaristic—light on reportage and heavy on personal reflection.
Whether despite or because of this idiosyncratic formula, Wend quickly acquired a small, passionate audience. The magazine’s revenues doubled annually in its first three years. By 2009, it was available on newsstands and checkout racks at every REI, Whole Foods, and Eastern Mountain Sports across the country, not to mention the usual slate of chain and indie bookstores. In early 2010, its print circulation topped out at a respectable 135,000 readers per issue. To hear Marshall tell it, though, this is where things plateaued.
Circulation and ad dollars faltered over the next two years while the magazine’s costs kept rising. In 2011, Wend became a magazine without an office, its dwindling staff camped out in various Portland coffee shops. That year’s summer issue didn’t hit newsstands until October. Then, last January, Wend put out one last issue, updated its website for another few months, and finally went dark, leaving contributors unpaid and subscribers uninformed as to the mag’s fate. (The website, scrubbed of any mention of the magazine, re-launched in December as a newsy blog to very little fanfare.)
Full disclosure: I wrote for Wend on two occasions and was paid for my work each time. What’s more, I liked the magazine. I liked that the food column had nothing to do with restaurants and didn’t shy from gastronomic taboos like Amazonian tree grubs or stewed dog in China. I liked the clever, Harper’s-esque “Wendex” on the opening pages, which managed to drop some startling eco-stats in a format that was piquant rather than preachy. I even liked the relentlessly contemplative nature of the feature stories. Every issue was like Chicken Soup for the Gnarly Eco-Nomad’s Soul. Sure, the broth was a bit thick with profound personal revelations, but with other publications dishing out only a thin gruel of glorified itineraries, the earnest reverence of Wend’s authors for their surroundings was genuinely comforting.
Still, I can’t help wondering what the demise of Wend says about the conscious-activist-adventurer niche to which the magazine tried to lay claim. Wend had a conflicted relationship with the more mainstream, consumer-oriented aspects of travel and the outdoors. Its average feature story tended to fall on a spectrum somewhere between commendably self-reflective and irritatingly navel-gazing, as the authors both reported on their far-flung exploits and wrung their hands over the same exploits’ impacts on the environment. A world-class heli-skier bombs an Alaskan peak while contemplating the petrol-powered vehicles that enable her lifestyle. Slackliners in Scotland bolt a new route on a locally beloved spire, then brood over whether their actions constitute vandalism.
The conventional goal of a travel or adventure publication is to inspire its readers to get up and go (and thereby spend). As the tagline of yet another defunct glossy, National Geographic Adventure, once urged, “Dream it. Plan it. Do it.” Wend’s message, by contrast, seemed something along the lines of, “Plan it minimally. Do it without fossil fuels. Think very, very hard about what it meant.” Is there a whole magazine’s worth of audience out there for this kind of moral cud-chewing? Do armchair travelers really want to ponder the consequences of their actions, or are they simply wondering Where to Kayak in Ecuador Now?
For that matter, are the possibilities for “human-powered” adventure sufficiently inexhaustible as to keep the soy ink flowing, issue after issue? I’m the first to speak up for the limitless horizons of travel, but from a reader’s perspective, might not all those epic bike rides blend together after a time? Wend’s talented former editor Kyle Cassidy says that while he sometimes turned down a pitch on the basis of its carbon footprint, the magazine never wanted for content.
All the same, the occasional Wend story was edited to downplay the necessity of motorized transport. Mentions of car travel, for example, were cut when possible, and in one of my own pieces, a gas-powered motor launch became a more ambiguous “boat.” That’s a legit editorial call, of course, but it also suggests that every so often, the pursuit of a good yarn required expanding the boundaries of the mission statement. The frontiers of travel and adventure, moreover, can seem decidedly non-human-powered—consider Virgin Galactic’s space tourism, micro-submarines in the Mariana Trench, or Austrian guys jumping out of high-tech capsules in the stratosphere. Might devotion to eco-principle so narrow the scope of acceptable content that it alienates potential readers?
Not in Wend’s case, insists the magazine’s founder. In Marshall’s view, ironically, it was actually the broadness of Wend’s vision that did the magazine in. According to him, much of Wend’s later inability to attract new advertisers stemmed from companies’ decisions to concentrate their limited ad budgets on vertical campaigns. In marketing-speak, a “vertical” ad campaign is the sort that focuses only on a targeted niche of consumers. So Trek advertises in a bike magazine, even though the New Yorker’s readers also ride bikes, and Cuisinart buys a banner on a foodie blog, even though Gawker’s readers also eat food. Wend’s ads were heavy on outdoor clothing, footwear, and beer, but bigger-fish clients like ski brands and kayak manufacturers were harder to land. Snowboarding and whitewater paddling are exploitable vertical niches. Simply wandering the world in a way that minimizes one’s ecological footprint is not.
It’s a conundrum that’s bigger than just Wend. In an era of specialization, travel media appeals, by its nature, to an audience of passionate generalists. The world may not have been ready for an eco-conscious, obstinately self-aware adventure magazine, but Wend won’t be the last ambitious venue for travel writing that struggles to find a foothold in a fractured media landscape. The arc that Wend followed is likely to keep playing itself out—in print, on monitors, and on tablet screens—until some publication or another discovers the magic formula: How to make a sustainable venture out of sustainable adventure.