Starting a New Publishing Business— A Transformative Time in Life
New tech offers potential, but don’t forget what makes the magazine great.
A new biography of Henry Luce recounts how hard it was for him to raise funding for what, in 1922, was still called Fact, “the weekly newspaper.” “It’s an awful strain on the nerves,” he wrote, “because one has to believe and believe and believe.”
This is a test that mere proprietors never have to face. When I took over as managing editor of Time in 1992, the founder’s belief was no longer necessary, having 70 years’ confirmation behind it. The Time staff executed Luce’s vision without the slightest thought that it was once only a theory and an ambition rather than a magazine, and without the slightest fear that it could fail.
Having recently started Story River Media, a multimedia publishing company, I know now just how stark the difference is between steward and entrepreneur. On a good day, it seems like the difference between warm and cold. On a bad day, it’s the difference between being a vampire and being the victim of one.
New Models Emerging
“Entrepreneurial journalism” is the hot new phrase, but let’s be clear: It is a term mothered by dire necessity. The businesses that sustained journalists for so long are foundering, and new models must be devised for the world that engulfed them, which is to say the world of the Internet. That such models are needed is easy to postulate. It is another thing entirely to bet your time, life and fortune on one of them.
Which is why you have to admire Luce, who had barely placed his bet on Time before he started Life and Fortune (not in that order). He started Fortune, the gorgeous, oversized business magazine, in 1930, as big a publishing gamble as ever was made. And maybe the second biggest gamble came a few years later with Life, a gorgeous, oversized general-interest magazine that was so successful that Luce nearly lost the company its shirt (he insisted on charging only a dime for it and locked in ad rates the first year at an enormous loss).
I am no Henry Luce, and my tiny startup is no Time Inc., but in a small way now I know his pain. Working over due-diligence spreadsheets that stretch from the heady but chimerical “Year One” into the almost wholly fabulous “Out Years” is about the bravest exercise I can imagine undertaking without a weapon. Quite apart from the matter of your own success and security is the responsibility for those you ask to come along as investors and employees. Then there is the matter of the work itself—will it be as good as your imagination tells you it can be? Can it really be as transformative as you think?
Yes and yes, always yes. No other answer is useful. When others occur, as from time to time they will, spouses can sometimes be a source of inspiration.
“You know, Karen,” I said to my wife while writing this column, “they say startups are always 10 times harder than you expect. I don’t know if I can work 10 times harder than this.”
“Who are you kidding,” she snarled.
In my previous life, I did not need that kind of … support. When you go to a job you know how to do—a job that was created decades before, one that lots of people have done before you and for which you have spent years preparing—you do so without the sense that there is a future-shaped hole in your gut and soul. Every leadership role requires self-confidence, but starting your own business demands something more like religious faith—not a belief in God as some kind of Gorilla-Backer in the Sky but a deep sort of trust in the acuity of your vision.
Mine tells me that we are at a tipping point for media, one as fundamental as the migration from manuscript to print. The broadband Internet is not a new distribution channel for print but a new medium, one as distinct in its capabilities as radio, television, film, or ink-on-paper.
Journalism will be changed in this new medium, but story-telling has lost none of its power in any of the media transitions since humans began painting on the walls of caves. The story is still as compelling and as riveting as fire, and the digital tools available to story-tellers today are more potent than ever before.
That at least is my story, and I’m sticking to it. You just have to believe, and believe, and believe.
James R. Gaines is the founder of Story River Media, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher devoted to interactive multimedia story-telling across all digital platforms for corporate, government, non-profit and publishing clients. He is the former managing editor of TIME, Life and People magazines, and was corporate editor of Time Inc.