5.06.2009

The Adventure Life: It's not just for breakfast anymore

Steve Casimiro, formerly of Powder/Bike and currently the West Coast Editor of National Geographic Adventure, started his own website over the winter. A purely independent pursuit, The Adventure Life is starting to attract attention ... at least from me. It should be noted that while Steve is indeed a handsome hairless man, he has no affiliation whatsoever with Lex Luthor or DC Comics.

1. OK ... so you've been a writer for as long as I can remember and you've been a photographer for almost as long, why get into publishing now?

A bunch of reasons. First, I'm an old school print guy--my first job literally was a paper route (the Washington Star), which paid for my first 35mm camera, which I got at age 11--and it took a while for me to turn the corner on online as a credible media source. I mean, one of my first jobs was online--when I was at USA Today, I worked at an online news service startup in 1984 (!!)--so it's not like I'm new to it. But it took a LONG time until I saw it on equal terms. Once I did, though, I wanted to learn as much as I could and the best way to do that was throw myself into it. (BTW, I started shooting long before I started writing...)

Second, I've worked with almost every outdoor book there is. I was at Powder for ages, I started Bike, I'm now West Coast editor for Nat Geo Adventure, etc. But I've also written or shot for Backpacker, Outside, Men's Journal, Hooked, Bicycling, Mountain Bike, Skiing, Snowboard Journal, Ski...and as great as each of those publications is, none of them has quite the same perspective on outdoor adventure that I do. I wanted to build something--for awhile I thought it might be print, but it didn't turn out that way--where I could riff on the joys of powder skiing, the coolness of surf art, the radical nature of space exploration, and still give gear reviews, environmental news, and sick athlete interviews. There was nothing that brought all that under one roof. So I decided to do it myself.

Third, and this is probably a corollary to second, is that there are literally thousands of great outdoor adventure stories that are ignored or overlooked or not quite right for the big four books. Now, I'm very much a part of the NGA family. I've never worked with such a great group of smart and dedicated people. I love and respect the magazine, its work and mission, and the NG Society--the solving of the Everett Ruess mystery last week being just one example of the great work John Rasmus has guided. Outside is a good magazine. Men's Journal got a new sense of life under Brad Wieners. Backpacker does an excellent job year in a year out, its three recent National Magazine Awards testament to Jon Dorn's leadership. But they all have specific, defined editorial views which, combined with the finite space of print, can't help but leave out a lot wonderful little nuggets of outdoor life. Would any of them write about a wallpaper designer who incorporates bikes into his art? A Finnish artist who comments on climate change dressed as a snowflake? The worst songs to have stuck in your head when hiking? (Editor's Note: My suggestion for Suzanne Vega Tom's Diner did not make the cut, though it should have).

Fourth, most outdoor blogs suck. They're unprofessional, amateurish, snarky without being funny, or boring. The few smartly done, online-only media outlets are killing it in terms of readers. If I could pull it off, it seemed to me there was room for another site, if it was well-done, visually engaging, and thoughtful.

2. What sort of traffic growth are you seeing?

Oh, massive. I passed dollyparton.com in March and Facebook just last week. Google, here I come.

Yeah....

I'm averaging about 1,100 visitors a day. But I've seen huge spikes of visitors around marquee stories, as when Apple wrote about my review of outdoor iPhone apps on their Hot News page, followed by the classic dragon's tail shape as it mellows out. But I try to ignore the spikes and focus on what I think is my core daily visitation--that growth has been steady and solid, with a pretty good leap in the last month or so. Tossing out the spikes, March was around 300 a day and now I'm consistently getting 800-900 a day. 1,100 is true and accurate, but I think it's more important to look at the people who find the Adventure Life, like it, and keep coming back.

I guess that's pretty good growth, but I don't know--I don't have a lot of reference points. It looks like I've passed a few of the independent outdoor websites, but it's hard to tell--accurate public metrics aren't so easy to find.

3. It seems like you've really poured the gas on things since mid-winter ... is that true, or am I just spacing out again?

Well, you and I have talked about the Adventure Life since it was just a concept and before it even had a name. And you saw it in beta, so it might seem like it's been bubbling along. But I launched it in January. In February, Apple brought a lot of traffic. Then Shane McConkey died in April and the Adventure Life coverage was among the earliest, most directly reported, and most thorough, so a lot of outdoor people saw it then for the first time. And over the last four weeks my print deadlines have eased a little, so I've been able to get stories posted almost every day and then spread the word about them. Now it seems like there's a bit of buzz about it.


4. Where the hell are you going with this? Is this just a stopgap while the print industry gets it together, or is this the first step of InterCasimiro Enterprises?


My wife, god bless her, has yet to ask me that.

Print is dead, man. Magazines...forget about them. The world has changed forever and for the better and the sooner magazine people realize it, the more likely they will be to survive.

Here's the deal: What the hell is a magazine, anyway? In the old days, it was a bunch of guys sitting around in an office, throwing together ideas and discoveries in print and sending it out into the world. If you got four letters to the editor, it was a good month. You measured your success through newsstand sell-through, which has more to do with how hot your cover model looks and whether the grocery clerk has moved your mag behind Martha Stewart than any talent on your part. Renewal rates? That's reliant on how much cash you pump into direct marketing, whose brightest minds consider a four percent response a whopping success. You spend millions on raw materials, labor, and shipping, then sell your product for four or five bucks, of which half goes to the Mafia-controlled distribution network. Oh--and your product is stale in 30 days when the next one arrives.

Tell me again how this is a model for success?

As I learned at Powder Magazine, where a confused muzzleloading enthusiast would call one a year or so, a magazine is where you store stuff--originally arms and gun powder. And the problem with print publishers struggling to find their way online is that they still think about their products as print publications that somehow have to find a new home in this intranet thing. What they DON'T get is that they're really just communicators, stewards of ideas, instigators, hecklers, keepers of a certain kind of flame. They are the recordkeepers of a culture and sometimes the drumbeaters and sometimes the priests. So, to my way of thinking, a magazine is a voice, a worldview, a perspective that's different from all other perspectives and that, if it resonates and is true, will find a following of like-minded people.

And whether that voice is shared in print, electrons, podcast, micropublishing, film festivals--it really doesn't matter. The delivery mechanism, while important, is much less important than the voice itself.

So, where I'm going with it--I don't know, exactly. For the immediate future, I'm focusing on finding my voice, on developing The Adventure Life "worldview" (gack, pretentiousness alert), on finding people with whom it resonates. My immediate goals are to build traffic and work out some of the technical bugs, of which there are many. After that, I can start exploring commercializing it.

As I've said to any number of people, The Adventure Life is an experiment--I'm testing myself and my ideas. Can I sustain the investigation and writing and reporting every day? Am I still passionate about sharing this info? Can I convince people to come see it? Will they like it? Will they come back? How will this change my print work, my writing style, my work flow? How does the dynamic nature of online change how I approach stories? It's all so very, very cool and I'm having a blast with it. If it can support me and find a place in people's regularly bookmarks, absolutely, I would love it.

The first question most people ask is how I'm going to make money with it. Three times this week I was approached by potential advertisers. And just yesterday a major online retailer contact me about the possibility of working together. Maybe I'm naive or just plain dumb, but right now I'm just focused on the sustainability of the...voice. That seems to be falling into place and I'm still stoked, so eventually I'll start working on the money side. But I really want to have a great, professional, dependable site before I do.

5. I don't see any traditional ads on the site, but you are making money on this.... right?

See answer to question 4. But no--not now and now in the immediate future. Any time a patron wants to step up and help take the pressure off, though, the door's open.

6. Now that you've been promoting your own product for a while, do you have more sympathy or less sympathy for PR guys?

Both more and less. Selling something, especially to the hacks that pose as gear writers (present company included), is about as thankless as it gets. Good luck! On the other hand, if you're pitching something that people want, it's pretty exciting. The levers are there, you don't have to have a huge budget, you just need imagination and the ability to see which levers to pull.

Of course, I say that and I suspect I'm totally full of shit. Keep in mind I'm not actually selling anything, I'm just trying to get people to come see something for free. How hard can that be?

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