Q&A with Alyssa Royse of Just Cause Magazine

Alyssa Royse, President and Editor-in-Chief of Just Cause, a magazine available online and in print on-demand, contacted me because she noticed a reporter query from Too Shy to Stop writer Eui-jo on Help a Reporter Out (HARO).

Alyssa was intrigued by our model, and I was intrigued by her magazine, especially since I have immersed myself in everything print on demand for the past week!  I asked her a few questions about her magazine, her ideas about print media, and her business model, and you can read her answers below.

Me: What’s the story behind Just Cause?

AR: You could come at this from several different angles – life is a series of twisted paths that seem totally disparate until they deliver you where you’re going. But after working in PR, journalism and doing a lot of volunteering, it became very clear to me that people can be (and are) united by the causes that matter to them. That seems to transcend race, age, socioeconomic status and everything else. Further, that by looking at solutions and fostering actual dialog about the issues, we can make progress. I had an “ah-ha moment” in a planning meeting for a fundraiser, and the whole thing really presented itself to me.

Beyond that, I was just sick to death of the overwhelmingly dogmatic, negative and divisive nature of media. What good is done by focusing on problems rather than solutions, failures rather than successes, or people’s basest behavior rather than their achievements? I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that the way to encourage positive behavior is to celebrate it and create a media that that looks at our potential in an instructive and inspirational way rather than focusing on the misguided notion that we are interminably screwed. I still think I’m right – we’ll see!

Me: Please describe your job position and how you became involved with this magazine. What is your background?

AR: I think my official title is “Big Mama.” It was my idea, and I am responsible for the business plan, business development, editorial tone, content and pretty much everything else. My more traditional peers call me the CEO, but I think of myself as a mother. This company is my baby and my job is to raise it. To nurture it, give it the tools it needs to survive.

My background, one way or another, is as a story-teller. PR, journalism (even acting!) and that’s still how I think of myself. That said, my DNA is hardwired for business and few things get me as excited as discussing hardcore business issues (I’ve been known to call it foreplay.) I come from a family with way too many degrees, being an entrepreneur is a genetic issue with me.

Me: Why did you and your team choose the print/online model?

AR: It was strictly a business decision, and not an easy one to make. I love magazines, I love the way they feel, they look, even the way they smell. But, to print a magazine with large enough distribution to attract serious advertisers costs millions of dollars each month. That’s a prohibitive hurdle if you don’t have millions of dollars in the bank.

Any business lives, dies or grows in it’s margins – the difference between what it costs you to create your product and how much you can sell your product for. For us, the physical act of printing and shipping the magazine was crazy. (For all magazines, actually, which is part of the problem.) By launching digitally, we were able to eliminate the vast majority of our expenses, which in turn enabled us to launch a magazine.

The other obvious truth is that, expenses set aside, publishing is going online. No one really knows what form that migration will ultimately take – I suspect it will be a hybrid of print and online as we know it – and it makes more sense to plan a business around the future than the past.

Lastly, I was having a hard time running a magazine about social change and taking on the incredible environmental waste that is print publishing.

Me: Is it difficult for you to make this model work?

AR: Not yet, knock on wood! In addition to all the benefits I mentioned above, digital has a host of other advantages – we can be a responsive short-lead pub, we can spread virally with social bookmarking, we can design custom campaigns more easily for advertisers and sponsors because we are not chained to any material constraints….. As much as I mourned the loss of print at first, I now LOVE everything about being digital.

Me: Is this your full-time job? Does the magazine support a paid staff?

AR: This, and raising my daughter. Right now we have only 3 full time employees and one part time employee. None of us are getting paid, but we will all be owners of the company. We are in this to build something amazing, and we are doing just that. We use a host of freelance talent – all of whom are gods in my book.

Me: What do you think about Print on Demand technology?

AR: I think that it is a vital part of the future of publishing. Eventually, publishers of all sizes are going to have to take stock of the financial and environmental cost of printing – and it’s huge. There is no business that isn’t focused on those margins – on keeping costs down and revenue up. I don’t have the statistics off the top of my head, but something like 60% of magazines that are printed go straight into landfills without ever being purchased. That is a lot of waste, magazines are essentially paying a lot of money to create literal garbage. That makes no sense.

One of the biggest hurdles, however, is the cost of POD. Our magazine, for instance, costs $12 to buy a printed copy. That’s about twice what it costs to go buy a magazine on a newsstand, and I think it will be a while before consumers adjust to that. That said, in the machinations of publishing, the publishers are essentially subsidizing the cost of that cheap magazine, they are not making money on selling the paper magazine, they make money on selling advertising, and to do that, they need to be able to sell as many copies as they can. It’s worked in the past, but things are shifting… Consumers are waking up to the “real” costs of their consumption habits, and I think that will, slowly, change consumer behavior and expectations.

The thing that excites me most about POD is that it will enable lots of custom “zines” to proliferate, and with them, new voices, new visions, new talent and really a whole new media. If you think about how blogs facilitated a real emergence of new voices and perspectives, POD is really the print analogy to that. You can decide to start a magazine about whatever you want – fashion for squirrels, your love of harmonicas – and create a magazine that can develop it’s own following. I have lost HOURS (very enjoyably) perusing the many offerings and MagCloud.com and keep thinking I want to create fun and random zines, for no reason except the pure joy or creating them. But the potential is really huge if you think outside of the consumer pub model and start thinking about things like annual reports, yearbooks, memorabilia…..

Me: Do you think print is dead?

AR: No. But it is on a diet. And it’s not the only game in town anymore. I think that there will always be magazines, I really do. But I think there will be far fewer of them. I am confident that what will emerge as standard is a hybrid. I was never one who believed that blogs and websites were going to replace magazines. They’re just too different, it’s like saying ice cream will replace steak. A magazine is something that is edited, researched, designed, delivered in a package that I think both consumers and advertisers value. The CPM for magazines is exponentially higher than for an online ad, for those very reasons. But they are slow and expensive, which is where online has t he distinct advantage. So the idea of digital magazines, like JUST CAUSE, (and you can Read it Online) that delivers the kind of content that consumers and advertisers value about print magazines, with the speed and efficiency that they value about online, seems like a no-brainer to me.

Me: How can people write for your site?

AR: Lots of ways. If you mean write for the magazine, queries should be submitted to me. But I get bajillions of them each week, so it’s not always quick. But the web site is set up to support the kinds of discussion that we hope to foster in the magazine. So anyone can – and should – register on the web site and start blogging / commenting. The idea is simple – create a place where people can have substantive conversations about the things that matter to them, and give them the tools to spread those ideas. You can write a blog – or start a cause group – about anything that matters to you, and invite people to join you. If you “just” blog and send it out, then it’s just a read and comment scenario, like any other blog. However, you can start a cause – women in journalism, park clean up, drug policy reform, whatever – and invite people to join your cause. Every time someone blogs in your cause, it will filter up to the home page of the site, or the home page of that cause sector, and be discoverable by a wider audience. Most importantly, by doing this on a community site, rather than just on your own, you have a much higher chance of being heard.

Building online community is my next big focus. We had to get the magazine out, and our second issue will hit the virtual newsstands in the first week of July… phew!

Me: What is most interesting to you about new media?

AR: New voices, for sure. Followed closely by new business models. It’s getting very focused and democratic, and I think that means we have a better chance at creating a media that actually reflects who we are. The possibility that we might start having real conversations in the media about things that really matter to us as a people, that really turns me on. And of course, less waste.

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