Sick Of Pageview Mania, Journalist Maura Johnston Launches Her Own Digital Magazine

Posted January 17

When the majority of people find themselves dissatisfied with their line of work, they stew in angry silence, perhaps taking to Twitter (or a real-life friend, even) to vent about their stagnated situations. If you’re music journalist Maura Johnston, however, such quiet desperation lights a fire under your desk chair so intense that you get up and move. That’s why Johnston — weary of the pageview-grubbing morass of the Web — has started her own digital magazine replete with content that she would want to read in the format she prefers. And, just for the hell of it, she named it after herself: Maura Magazine. Chew on that, media malcontents.

Maura Johnston is a veteran online music journalist, having founded Gawker’s Idolator music blog in 2006 and, until recently, served as the Village Voice‘s music editor. Lately, however, Johnston has been dissatisfied with the viewcount-centric nature of Web culture, and after parting ways with the Voice in September 2012 (a decision that was not her own), she decided to strike out on her own.

Earlier this month, Johnston teamed up with literary app developer 29th Street Publishing and a team of talented and acclaimed writers to launch the first edition of her magazine, which centers around culture in general. Yes, that’s a daunting idea, but one that Johnston thinks is rife with possibility. As she says in a blog post announcing the app, “I’m leaving its purview deliberately open-ended because I want to see where we—the writers, the readers, and me—can take this deceptively simple concept.”

The magazine comes in the form of an iOS app and website with new issues dropping each Thursday — the third came out today. The app itself is free to download and comes with one issue. Users can pay $2.99 per month or $29.99 per year after that to subscribe and the site itself also lives behind a paywall.

Johnston’s magazine launch comes at an opportune time in the world of digital media — mere weeks after Daily Beast writer Andrew Sullivan split from the publication to launch his own subscription-only site The Dish, a venture that racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in its first week. Such success stories show that folks are willing to pay for digital content when it’s penned by talented writers with a proven track record, and given Johnston’s long history with the Web, her magazine very well could be the next Sullivan-esque, bootstrapped wonder.

The O Music Blog chatted with Johnston about taking the leap into self-publishing on the eve of her third issue launch. Check out our Q&A below:

So tell us a little bit about your background.

I’ve been writing about music full-time since 2006 when I started Idolator — the old Gawker Media music blog that’s now part of BuzzMedia. My most recent job was at the Village Voice as their music editor. All publications all over are trying to figure out what to do in the age of the Internet and I had some disagreements with the Voice over the way that they wanted to approach music coverage in the Internet age. They wanted to go with a lot of lists and inflammatory content. We just had some disagreements and I got let go in September of last year.

How did the idea for Maura Magazine come about?

Last July I had gone out with [CEO of 29th Street Publishing] David Jacobs — who I only really knew from Twitter. We had some mutual friends and were both Mets fans so he invited me to go to a Mets game with him. We got to talking and I was talking about work and how I was frustrated about work at the time and he was telling me about his company and how they were building apps around different editors. I was very intrigued.

I’ve always wanted to break free of the pageview ideal, because I think that in the long run it’s really damaging having this constant push for stuff that will get the most readers at all times. With music it was especially frustrating because music is so vast and when you’re trying to get people to click on things, what works? Familiarity or sensationalism or being wrong for the purpose of getting people to be like, ‘You’re wrong!’

I really wanted to see if this model would work. I’ve been on the Internet for 20 years. I started doing Web stuff in 1994 and I always loved that you could find weird stuff — boutiques interests that people just wanted to put on the Web. And I feel like with the push to constantly grow pageviews and always shoot for the stars or shoot for the 18-34 male demographic that seems like the default of Internet culture, you lose a lot of the stuff that made the Web an interesting place to be and burrow down. In a curious way — not in the, ‘Oh my god, this is so weird — look at this stupid idiot’ kind of way.

I’m not expecting millions of readers. I would love millions of readers, obviously, but I feel like right now this is a chance to experiment on the literary magazine or ‘zine model….I want to make it a fun place for writers to go into topic that they’re interested in and do a deep dive. We’ll have fun with it. It’s a gratifying thing for a writer to just be able to take a topic that they have an interest in and go into it.

Are writers being paid?

Right now my budget is to pay them alt-weekly wages — or the wages I paid at the Voice, anyway. But if I can get more money, I’ll definitely up the rates for the writers, too.

So how did you raise the funds, initially, to start the magazine?

I’ve moved back to Long Island, actually, to sort of defray rent costs. I’m doing subscriptions right now as well. I’m also applying for some grants, so we’ll see if those work. They’re all for women in digital journalism. We’ve talked about maybe doing some sponsorships down the line — we might do that if we can get an advertiser who’s a good fit. That’s it so far. The response so far as been really good. I’m excited. People seem to be really into it. I’m curious to see how it sustains over time. I’m hopeful. I think that as we get more people on board telling more stories that will definitely raise the profile of the magazine.

Why didn’t you use Kickstarter or something?

Kickstarter isn’t sustainable for periodicals. It’s good for one shots, maybe, but you also have to be really careful about budgeting. I’m not going to have any sticker shock at the end. Or not at the end — I don’t want it to end — in a couple of months.

So what’s the biggest difference between working on Maura Magazine and your other jobs?

The pace is so much different than all of the jobs that I had. They were all daily updates, hourly updates, minute-by-minute updates. This is like: I have a week for five stories instead of 30. You think about what you’re putting in a lot more, because the constant churn is not there. I think I had to rewire my brain almost in that way.

At the Voice, there was the paper component where there were like two or three pieces a week, but it felt like an afterthought at times even though it wasn’t. It was very rarely commented on by my superiors unless I f**ked up. The constant drumbeat was like, ‘Traffic, traffic, traffic’ for the blog. The print stuff was kind of secondary.

So with this magazine you get some more breathing room, time to think about your stories more?

Yeah. And it’s nice to have a good edit with a writer where you go back and forth a couple of times and find out, ‘Is this what you really want to say?’ It’s so nice and rewarding on both sides.

So how has the response been?

It’s been pretty good. I’m waiting to see [the numbers after the new issue drops]. So, we’ll see. It’s obviously a work in progress. It’s like slow and steady wins the race. I knew that I wasn’t going to get millions of subscribers out of the gate. I want to grow it. My hopes that are that eventually I can do a print companion also and events around the city. It will be fun. I’m basically just taking a huge chance, but I feel like this is the right time to take it.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Sean MacEntee