By Gretchen Sparling
Inside the dimly lit backroom of The Cowgirl BBQ restaurant, country singer Toby Keith laments “I shoulda been a cowboy” to the midweek crowd at the bar. It’s a Wednesday night like many others in Santa Fe: Day laborers smoke cheap cigarettes while gray-haired tourists munch on stale tortilla chips. A crew of 20-somethings strides through the open door wearing bright North Face fleece, relaxed jeans and dust-kicked trail shoes. The interns of Outside magazine are thirsty for a cocktail after a hard day bumping elbows with editors and sorting through piles of cutting-edge outdoor gear.
One of the male interns tosses his chin to flag down a waitress. “What are we drinking tonight?” she asks, gazing out from under her straw cowboy hat. Without pausing to look at the sticky menus, the group ticks off requests for Round 1: a house margarita, several Santa Fe Porters, Stoli on the rocks and one cranberry vodka. Sure, they might live off a tight budget – earning $250 per month – but tonight calls for $6 drinks … a couple rounds of $6 drinks, in fact. The group is celebrating a pair of birthdays and saying goodbye to one intern after a six-month stint. Plus there’s a new member of the team to haze.
The New Girl – a 22-year-old Missouri j-school grad – stands next to her male colleagues and sips the cranberry vodka, her pink drink clashing with the table of discarded beers. The group disregards her at first, but snaps to attention when she dishes on a recent snowboard trip down a Colorado peak. These guys all snowboard, ski, run, hike, kayak, cycle, surf and fish with the best of them. It’s why they’re here in the middle-of-nowhere New Mexico, working for next to nothing as punctuation pros. They live on the small flame of a dream: that an internship at Outside will turn into a full-time job, marrying their interest in the great outdoors with great writing.
Outside is the only magazine in history to bag three consecutive National Magazine Awards for General Excellence (known as Ellies), starting in 1996. In the realm of long-form narrative, its writers rank with The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. But Outside excels in the world of testosterone-filled outdoor adventure writing with pieces penned over the years by authors such as Jon Krakauer (who climbed Mount Everest for Into Thin Air) and Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm). The magazine’s “Literary All-Stars” team boasts a deep bench, with nearly 30 of this generation’s best writers from Bill Bryson and Peter Matthiessen to Susan Orlean and Jane Smiley. (Step back and consider that lineup.) Outside is taking its own hits in today’s shaky magazine climate – What magazine isn’t? – yet it still shines as a literary lighthouse, guiding past writers such as Krakauer and Junger and, more recently, Nick Heil and Hampton Sides to bestsellerdom. What’s more, Outside continues to nurture a new generation of nonfiction newbies. In the last year or so, it’s Tracy Ross, the new “it” girl of the outdoor scribe set, globetrotter Christopher Solomon and even funny woman Mary Roach.
That’s why the interns – many of them nearing age 30 with master’s degrees in hand – forgo the glitz and glamour of the New York City pubs and decide to rough it in run-down temporary housing in trendy Santa Fe. Well … that and the all-year access to hiking, biking and skiing. Outside’s mission, after all, is inspiring others to live active lives. By day, they work at a legendary publication. By night, they work odd jobs to help pay their accruing bills. Come morning, they hike to the peak of a nearby snowtop to carve a downward path on their prized snowboards. At lunch, they lace up their running shoes for a jog down Canyon Road. Back at the office, the second-floor editors toss them stories to fact check.
Fact checking is the bane of any intern’s life, but at Outside, the lure is a chance to snag a 200-word news brief near one of the magazine’s famed 3,000- to 5,000-word literary features. Where else can a recent journalism grad appear on a masthead with narrative greats such as contributors Tim Cahill, Kevin Fedarko, Bob Shacochis, David Quammen and Randy Wayne White? (Just to name a few.) The magazine’s intern pool breeds future writers and editors. Many of Outside’s full-time editors, including head editor Chris Keyes, got their start as interns. (Keyes jokes that he had to leave for Texas Monthly briefly so everyone would forget he was an intern.) The big names and the interns go to Santa Fe for a good reason: It’s a great place to learn the narrative craft and let good stories rip.
Just two blocks away from The Cowgirl on Guadalupe Street is the Santa Fe Southern Railway Depot. Every morning, the interns walk by these worn tracks, crunching along the gravel drive in hiking boots and Converse. They pass an unobtrusive Mariah Media sign marking the entrance to Outside’s adobe headquarters. The “O”-lettered front door of the dirt-brown prose palace swings open. Five interns, usually the first to arrive, trudge into the building around 9 a.m. and settle into their first-floor offices. The whirring welcome of Mac computers breaks the silence. By the time the editors arrive around 9:30 or 10 and trek upstairs to their digs, Internia is cranking out the work that remains the foundation of Outside’s great writing – the fact checking.
At their small desks, they’re armed with phone lines and Google as they track down sources. It gives them an inside look at how the team upstairs shapes narratives. When Outside was founded in 1976 on the streets of Chicago – first as the quarterly Mariah magazine – the publication lured young writers from neighboring Northwestern University to do the fact checking. Today, it draws graduates from Boston, New York City, Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles and less-known towns in Montana, Missouri and Michigan to name a few. Their main task is still fact checking. It’s a job that has its boring moments, as well as humorous ones – as is obvious on the long wall connecting the interns’ offices. Torn bits of paper testify to past assignments: When you were smoking cigars with the monks, are you sure they were Cuban? Do Africa’s deserts smell like leathery piss? So he ran around the house f…ing a toucan napkin ring?
Today, intern Will Taylor, who just celebrated his 30th birthday, grabs a notebook and strides up the wood staircase to the second-floor conference room for a meeting with Revo. His fact-checking duties grant him access to a meeting with the full-time editors, including publisher Larry Burke and editor Chris Keyes. The edit team sits on the left side of a heavy wooden table. On the other side: four publicists and PR gurus, carrying loads of sample products. Will readies his notebook as the show begins. Sexy, high-def videos of Revo’s new active eyewear line flash across a flat-screen TV on the wall. Next up? Oakley, whose parent company just acquired Revo. Thousands of dollars worth of new sunglasses pass from editor to editor, eventually landing in the hands of Larry Burke.
“How ’bout these?” the publisher quips, grinning ear to ear while he tries on a pair of clunky, white-framed Revo shades. The sunglasses paint a stark contrast against his suntanned face. The Oakley rep laughs and chimes in, “The white frames sell well in Jersey.” Burke picks up a pair of glasses with lenses designed exclusively for water sports. After trying them on, he removes the frames and inspects them with a squinted-eyed gaze. “These are great,” he says, turning to his editors. “We need to review these. … Boys? What do you think?”
With Keyes out of the room for a conference call, a trio of editors – Justin Nyberg, Sam Moulton and Alicia Carr Troxell – nod, jot down some notes and turn their attention to the next pair of shades. Gear reviews and “best of” service features help sell magazines. All the editors juggle their jobs for Outside with additional roles at Outside’s biannual Buyer’s Guide. Will, the intern, energetically jots down the prices, the specs and the stats on each pair of glasses, all in the hope he will someday write in the literary big leagues at the magazine. His idealism slams headfirst into the reality of the magazine world today: How do we pay the bills?
Keyes, as editor, must walk the tightrope between the extreme adventure features that give Outside its allure and the gear and how-tos that sell on the newsstand. Hard times call for calculated measures, and the magazine’s strategy includes service-oriented writing to attract and grow new readership, he says. Retreating to his office after the meeting, Keyes sinks down onto a gray balance ball – a sight you’d typically witness in a gym – and bounces between a pair of wide computer monitors. Yes, the service-themed magazines piss off some readers (and writers, too, for that matter), he admits. Take Outside’s “Best Towns to Live In,” a themed issue published every August. “When we repeat a personality [like coverage of Lance Armstrong] or a theme, it’s because it works on the newsstand. It’s hard for me to come to terms with that sometimes. It’s tough for our editors, too,” he confesses. “I mean, if only I could put ‘Best Towns’ on the cover every month. It’s by far our bestselling cover at a time when newsstand sales are very important.”
But Keyes, narrowing his steel-gray eyes, admits he knows better than to give into this temptation. “In most businesses you’d say, ‘The customers are always right.’ But in this business, you’ve got two very distinct customers: a newsstand reader and a subscriber.” Subscribers see the “Best Towns” issue repeatedly. “A newsstand buyer is just buying that one issue every year. That’s a struggle.” Keyes and the Outside team remedy this challenge with split covers, one for subscriptions and one for newsstands.
Larry Burke, who introduces himself with a white-toothed grin and the nickname Lorenzo, founded Outside on the heels of his around-the-world adventures in the 1970s. Tired of life as an IBM salesman, he left behind his wife and young daughter to “find himself” in Europe. He planned to stay for three months. When he wasn’t operating an Italian dance club, smuggling Playboy across Soviet borders or dodging rebels in the Sahara, Burke was spending a small fortune adventuring in the Alps, windsurfing in the Mediterranean and exploring hard-to-reach European locales. Five years later, he arrived home (by sailboat, no less). His wanderlust spawned the idea for an adventure-filled magazine – a genre he says was absent from the industry in 1976. His magazine, called Mariah, was launched at the same time as Jann Wenner’s Outside. In 1977, Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, sold his failing pub to Burke, who combined the two editorial concepts and dropped the name Mariah, reviving Outside.
In the ’70s, the magazine business was a sure way to a fat bottom line. This was the decade that birthed People and Money magazine, Entrepreneur and Inc, Self and Us Weekly. Outside used powerful storytelling by renowned writers to elbow its way up the magazine food chain – success evident today as Burke commutes to the Santa Fe office from his reported 20,000-square-foot horse-ranch hideout on the outskirts of Santa Fe. But life wasn’t always so grand. The first editorial team, led by editor John Rasmus, huddled together in a one-room, windowless office located in a Chicago ghetto. “It was an unconscious choice to focus on really good writing,” says Burke. He moved the magazine to New Mexico in 1994, for obvious reasons. Now, each editor’s office includes an inspiring window-framed mountain view. “I’d always appreciated good writing, but had never really realized how hard it was,” he says. “It’s just as difficult, if not more difficult, than painting the Sistine Chapel.”
Mark Bryant, who joined the team in 1982 and became head editor in 1991, made it his mission to solicit top American writers and send them across the globe to Nepal, the South Pacific, Patagonia, the Serengeti and beyond. That’s why, in 1991, editor Dan Coyle placed a call to National Book Award winner Bob Shacochis to pitch a story about climbing a remote Turkish mountain, Mount Ararat, on the border of pre-Gulf War Iran. Shacochis appreciates a good story and a paycheck as much as the next writer, but he had his doubts about the assignment. “I said, Well, you know I live at sea level and I’m a chain smoker, right?” Coyle assured Shacochis the mountain wasn’t that high. “All you have to do is walk up it and walk down. It’s no big deal,” Shacochis recalls him saying. “I went to the encyclopedia and found that Mount Ararat was higher than any mountain in Europe or in the United States. It’s quite high. But that’s what I did.”
Heartrate-inducing immersion journalism is what built Outside. Shacochis jokes that Hal Espen, the editor after Mark Bryant, used to say they should change the name of Outside to Himalaya or Patagonia magazine. America’s award-winning writers visited places and people unknown, bringing back adventurous 10,000-word narratives that ran in full. Take, for instance, the hand-wrenching tale of a 1996 climb gone wrong on Everest. Outside sent one of its editors, Jon Krakauer (who underwent a quick stint of mountaineer training), to scale the highest mountain in the world and report on apparent climbing commercialization. During his adventure, Krakauer’s team was trapped in a devastating storm that took the lives of eight fellow climbers. He returned – barely – with his life and a story, “Into Thin Air,” which initially ran as a magazine article and was later published as a book in 1997, leaping onto the bestsellers’ list.
The transition from glossy magazine pages to black-and-white book print wasn’t a new feat for Outside writers. Just two years prior, in 1994, Outside contributor Sebastian Junger chronicled the journey of a group of fishermen who were swept out to sea by a record-setting gale storm. W.W. Norton scooped up Junger’s narrative and released The Perfect Storm in 1997. It quickly jumped onto bestseller lists.
In more recent years, other past Outside staffers have followed in Junger’s wake, penning their own nonfiction narratives, including former editors Nick Heil (who wrote Dark Summit), Hampton Sides (author of Hellhound on His Trail, Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder) and former creative director Susan Casey (who slathered on the SPF to report and write The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth). Even current Outside-ers moonlight as book authors – an exhausting but true labor of narrative love. Executive editor Alex Heard wrote The Eyes of Willie McGee, published in 2010. His book was nominated – along with Sides’ Hellhound – for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.
Those early authors helped the magazine bring home its first in a series of three National Magazine Awards for General Excellence – a feat still unmatched in the magazine world. It’s why, in 1994, Burke uprooted the publication and moved the editors to Santa Fe, hoping writers would glean fresh-air inspiration while living in an outdoor-friendly environment. Just as the magazine settled into its new home, the dot-com bubble burst and the economy tanked. Page counts shriveled. It was the first of many tests endured by the magazine and its narrative-loving editors.
In 1999, a scrubby, floppy-haired writer arrived in Santa Fe, suitcase in hand. Nick Heil had doggedly queried the magazine’s editors for years before snagging a full-time spot on the editorial team. Landing on the scene with little experience, Heil didn’t realize he had “showed up when the party was in full swing,” he says, laughing at his own naiveté. Colleague and former Time magazine writer Kevin Fedarko – who joined the staff in 1998 – says Outside had transformed in the blink of an eye from “an obscure kind of backpacker’s journal for granola-crunching hippies” into “something that people in New York actually read.” At the time, the magazine had just scored its third consecutive Ellie award for General Excellence. Revenues swelled.
At the expense of Outside, staffers swilled top-shelf liquors and dined alongside prominent American writers – Ian Frazier, Mark Levine, Paul Theroux – who cashed in on assignments at the growing publication. “In ’99, Outside was as popular, well-respected and as high profile as it’s ever been,” says Heil. The economy was booming; magazine page counts were soaring. Fedarko is nostalgic about those days: “Outside became sort of an incubator for writers who really wanted to write at a pretty high level but were really interested in doing things like mountain climbing or river rafting. … This was a venue for long-form narrative nonfiction writing that had never been tapped.”
Bob Shacochis roamed Kamchatka, east of Siberia, in an armored-plated SUV. Sara Corbett shivered on the South Pole. Paul Theroux kayaked in Palawan, an island in the Philippines. Susan Orlean hiked Japan’s Mount Fuji. Tim Cahill ventured into shark alley off of South Africa’s Dyer Island.
But the party didn’t last for long. Revenues took a nosedive when the technology industry crashed in early 2000. With a large base of its advertising clients in the tech sector, the independently owned magazine took a brief stumble. “At Outside in those days, belt tightening meant that we weren’t going to have the second bottle of tequila at dinner,” laughs Heil. “But I remember when they stopped doing matching 401(k) contributions and that was a huge issue in the building. The perks started shrinking. And, there was just sort of a slow attrition that was unfolding. It never became dire, but there was definitely belt tightening.”
The conditions sound familiar to those working in the magazine industry in the 2000s. “Belt tightening” still strikes a chord with those typing away as narrative freelancers for magazines today. Most freelance magazine writers wave off slow paychecks – three, four months after your story runs, you might get paid. Writers across the spectrum say Outside, too, is notorious for slow pay. In 2009, industry news website Media Bistro’s Fishbowl NY, however, published an online story alleging seriously slow pay – nine months to a year – at Outside. Heil, who still writes for the magazine, says he has better luck at other publications when it comes to getting paid in a timely manner. Yet, “I hear [writers and photographers] complaining about this from all sorts of different places; it’s not just Outside,” he adds in the magazine’s defense. Keyes, as editor, acknowledges the slow pay, but argues that it doesn’t foreshadow financial stress at the magazine. The article also cites pay cuts for staffers, a handful of layoffs and a weeklong furlough in June 2009.
Larry Burke says the cutbacks were essential to keeping the magazine financially sound during tough economic times. The cutbacks and sacrifices, he says, drove editorial staffers to cling to what lies at the heart of the magazine: Outside’s narratives. After a four-year stint as executive editor of Texas Monthly, Keyes returned to the Santa Fe-based publication in 2006 to usher in a new era at the outdoor-lifestyle magazine – an era focused on well-told stories and survival.
This spring, at the National Magazine Awards celebration, the yellow-serif Outside logo was absent from the winner’s list. While it might not haul home truckloads of editorial awards as it did in years past, Outside remains a nurturing ground for narrative writers young and old. It’s not just the interns – graduates with polished writing and editing skills – who flock to Santa Fe. Outside’s senior team of editors hail from all across the U.S., with jaw-dropping résumés.
The features department operates like a machine, with editors such as Alex Heard (executive editor and former editor at The New York Times Magazine and Wired), Mary Turner (deputy editor and former editor at The New Yorker), Elizabeth Hightower Allen (features editor and former National Geographic editor), Sam Moulton (longtime Skiing editor) and Michael Roberts (a San Francisco-based former field biologist). They’re not fearful of making waves, setting themselves up for potential success – or failure.
The making of a strong Outside narrative starts with a great story and a writer who’s actually interested in the particular subject matter, says Keyes. A recent project involved writer Patrick Symmes aiming for a Syrian travel story to cover the unfolding political environment – a followup to his tongue-in-cheek 2006 Syrian narrative for Outside. But the political pot boiled over before his trip. He refocused his sights on Yemen, instead. Symmes and renowned combat photographer Marco Di Lauro explored several dusty cities before they were expelled from Yemen after finding themselves in the middle of violent riots. The result? “Sand Storm,” a can’t-put-it-down account of their journey in the June 2011 edition.
The magazine’s junior editors – a team of four – typically manage front-of-book content, including the Dispatches section, a department once edited by Alex Heard when he first worked for Outside in Chicago. Heard, whom Keyes calls the “workhorse” of the mag, takes special interest in the younger staff members by discussing freelance submissions to Dispatches and explaining how to communicate changes. His easy-going attitude juxtaposes his meticulous editing pen.
Though Outside is known for giving top writers leeway, they do edit mercilessly to make new writers better. “That part is the hardest part. You don’t want to do [rewrites], but it has to be done to get it to read well,” explains Heard. “You can’t teach that in class; you get that from writing. I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t really understand the flow of a feature story until I felt my way through it. We try to work on that here, and I like working with the younger men and women who are hungry for that knowledge.”
Those lessons pay off. Every once in a while, junior staffers catch a chance to step into the feature well and stretch their own writing skills. In March 2011, editor Grayson Schaffer did just that with his narrative, “Consumed,” about a pro kayaker who lost his life running crocodile-infested waters. Schaffer “took what could have been just a story about a guy killed by a crocodile, but he just wrote the hell out of it,” says Keyes. “He found a backstory and a whole other aspect.” The reporting, extreme eye to detail and ability to precisely communicate editing needs are all skills Schaffer says he’s learned from the senior editors.
Back downstairs, inside the cubbyhole offices of Outside’s Internia, The New Girl sits down at a blocky iMac. She wears makeup and stylish brown leather boots – aiming to impart a good first impression on her cutthroat colleagues. She opens an Internet browser, navigates to Google and types “Contact for Vladimir Putin.” Her job as a new intern today: Track down a contact for the prime minister of Russia. She’s up to the challenge, not realizing yet that it’s a prank. “It’s not hard, as a manager, to get people to work hard for this place,” says Keyes. “Our names are on the masthead and what comes out every month is something that we really feel passionate about and want to be proud of.”
Can they keep the faith during one of the toughest economic struggles yet? Bob Shacochis – who likes to say (with a chain-smoker cackle) that he’s by far the oldest member of the Outside masthead – thinks the fate of the magazine depends on whether or not the magazine will get back to giving its writers the credit they deserve. Speedier payment is one thing. Recognition for quality literary work is another, he says. “If you take away the writers – and the photographers, for that matter – what’s left in the magazine?” he questions.
It won’t be an easy road back to the awards table. But, things are looking up – at least in terms of ad pages, according to a May 2011 MinOnline data report financed by Folio magazine. And, if ads are up, that means more space for writers to let loose … right? “Chris is slowly trying to steer the ship in the right direction, but there’s a lot working against him,” says Shacochis. Publisher Larry Burke makes it known that he cherishes writers like Renaissance artists; Shacochis says bullshit. “Mark Bryant was able to hold his ground [with Larry] and I think Chris does, too. It takes a few years to stand firm against all the pressures that come your way as someone who’s a businessman as well as an editor.”
Time will tell. The interns will be there to watch, and learn.