How I Became A Magazine Editor

The author grinding on edits

DEAR THE STONE MIND:  “Being an editor at Climbing Magazine may not seem glamorous to you by now, but to the ears of a penniless college student, it sounds like a pretty sweet gig. Did you deliberately set that goal and then take all the right steps to achieve it, or did you just sort of wing it and end up there? In hindsight, what were some key stepping stones or landmarks that you hit along the way to landing that job?”

DEAR PENNILESS IN COLLEGE: Thanks so much for writing. You ask a good question, and it’s one that a few readers have emailed to ask already, so I’ll answer you and, in the process, hopefully anyone else with similar curiosities.

I’d like to preface things by saying that being happy with where you are in life is the closest thing to success that anyone can really get. More practically, a good job is one that challenges you, inspires you to get up in the morning, and provides sufficient income to relieve you of the burden of daily financial worry. (No matter how cool your gig might seem, if you struggle to pay your bills, stress will slowly erode your stoke. Unless you’re a Zen master. In which case you probably don’t have a job anyway—just a robe and a bowl and big golden aura.) With that in mind, a gig that seems sweet from the outside can be pretty crappy on the inside. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book—or in this case, magazine—by its cover.

But since you asked, I’ll do my best to outline the trajectory that brought me into (and then out of) the climbing magazine world.

I discovered climbing at the age of 12 and was hooked right from the start. Similarly, I was a precocious wordsmith, winning an award in elementary school for an ode to dragons. Climbing and writing—these two loves, seemingly unrelated, could be logically combined in a climbing magazine job. Still, such a “career path” didn’t occur to me until I was done with college and casting about aimlessly for employment while living in a shabby railroad apartment in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg Industrial Park.

Being full of literary high-mindedness, I applied for internships and entry-level jobs at places like the New York Times, Penguin Books, and The New Yorker. I received no responses. I sent an email to the editors at Rock and Ice, and was similarly ignored. I can’t say I blame anyone who discarded my letters; I had no idea what being an editor meant. I had studied literature but didn’t know the difference between copy editing and proofreading, or what the hell “TK” stood for.

So I did what any middle-class college grad faced with grim job prospects and offensively high rent would do: I went back to school. Grad school. For poetry. I put in two years exploring the intricacies of the written word, but I never expected to end up working in the field. Not what anyone would call a career-minded decision.

Around that time, a friend of mine suggested I contact Urban Climber, a fledgling pub in search of writers willing to work for nothing but bylines and Red Bull. “I’m in,” I said without a second thought. I was following my interests and crawling through the windows of opportunity that appeared around me, with minimal regard to where it was all leading.

After grad school, I moved to Ohio (long story) and took a job through a friend of a friend at a consulting firm, doing basic copywriting and graphic design. Your typical climber might confuse a button-down desk job in the Midwest with one of Dante’s circles of Hell, but it was just what I needed. It wasn’t always a thrill ride, but I learned as much in three years there as I had in four at college, and the money flowed in a more favorable direction. In the meantime, I kept doing the things I loved: writing, climbing, and hanging out with friends.

I’d say that’s pretty important: always finding a way to keep doing the things you love, even if you have to do other things you love less (or not at all) to pay the bills. Never stop chasing that sense of wonder and excitement inside of you. As long as you are able, you have to find a way—it’s like a little rudder that keeps your ship pointed towards better things, even while you might feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction.

Eventually, I became a part-time editor-at-large for Urban Climber. Then Urban Climber’s parent company bought Climbing, and I started to work with both. Then, while out covering the Hueco Rock Rodeo one spring, I had an epiphany in the desert (power animal: javelina) and decided to go half-time at the consulting firm and half-time at “the mags,” as we called them. After working a sufficient number of nights and weekends for minimal compensation, I was offered a full-time position with the mags, editing and writing out of the new HQ in Boulder. I took the job and worked through varying stages of joy, frustration, and disappointment until I could bear it no more. Sometime in 2010, I quit and took a marketing job in the outdoor industry, which I still work, happily, to this day.

Chaos theory has shown that complex and organized systems can arise from relatively simple rules and interactions. This property is known as emergence, and some common examples are the ornate filigree of a snowflake or the beautiful oneness of a flock of birds in flight. Similarly, I think a life guided by little more than a few basic principles can, in retrospect, appear as if it was carefully plotted.

Looking back, things all seem to have flowed in some sort of purposeful direction, but it was never by any grand design of mine (not consciously, at least). Instead, I think it was by the action of a few guiding principles: always try in earnest to learn, grow, improve, stay positive, and work hard, even in the face of doubt, fear, or disappointment. That, and make time for your passions, as mentioned above. The rest, in some way or another, takes care of itself. Mostly.

Look, whatever clarity we might claim in this life rarely comes without a great deal of difficulty and confusion. Mostly it comes as a result of them. And so I think we should all probably rest a bit easier when feeling unsure of the world—it is only by such feelings that we can ever make sense of anything. As Robert Frost wrote, “I can see no way out but through.”

I’m sure this response contains far more words than you were expecting and far fewer answers than you might have hoped, but isn’t that always the way?

Best of luck,
Justin

RIP Urban Climber Magazine

Just got this on my Facebook feed:

Urban Climber magazine, which launched in October 2004, has shipped its final issue to the printer.

The August issue, one of our best ever, will be on newsstands and in subscribers’ mailboxes in a couple of weeks. Subscribers will be given the option of receiving Climbing magazine for the rest of their subscription term, or getting a refund. Instructions will be provided with the August issue.

On behalf of everyone ever involved in creating Urban Climber, we’d like to thank you for supporting us. It’s been quite a ride!

I worked with Urban Climber from the first issue, in 2004, until early 2010. I started as a freelancer, doing energy-drink reviews and event write-ups, then became Senior Editor and ultimately took the Editor-in-Chief seat. I accepted the latter after the publisher canned my friend, Joe Iurato. It was a painful decision, and I sometimes wonder what might of happened if I’d turned the job down. But things are what they are, and I’ll take that experience as one of the many I learned from during my UC Mag tenure…

An aside: Although I primarily wrote and edited other people’s writing for the magazine, some of my proudest contributions to Urban Climber were the cover shots I took, below. The one on the left features my good friend Robin Maslowski in Boulder, Colorado’s Movement gym; the one on the right is Jen Vennon crushing Jesus Wept, in the Red River Gorge

 

Back in the day, there was a lot of energy around UC, the way there is around any new venture. The first editor, Matt Burbach was motivated to do something new with climbing media. Joe, then a contributor, was bursting at the seams with genuine stoke. With the rapid growth of a climbing gym culture, of a new generation of climbers grown in the cities and suburbs, a new type of magazine seemed like a good idea — a necessity, even. It would be gritty and funny and raucous, more of a skate mag for boulderers and sport climbers who didn’t know what a “snow picket” was for and didn’t give a shit.

But over the years, the magazine’s budget stayed small when it needed to grow. Contributors who had been happy to offer up words and images on the cheap, as a way to get their foot in the door, eventually found their patience wearing thin. This contributor frustration trickled up into the editor’s psyches, making the job even more stressful than the long hours, short deadlines, and tiny staff. Often, there was just one dedicated editor and one part-time designer editing, writing, and laying out an issue of Urban Climber. Everyone’s idealism began to show cracks under the strain of real-world pressures. To be fair, UC wasn’t alone in its difficulties — the magazine industry was in deep trouble, thanks to the growing specter of the World Wide Web and its endless stream of free media. But that didn’t make the ride any less bumpy.

At the time I quit working for Urban Climber, it seemed that there were just too many climbing titles for our relatively small community to support. In 1991, when I started climbing, it was Climbing and Rock & Ice. In early 2012, there was Alpinist, Climbing, Dead Point, Gripped, Rock & Ice, and Urban Climber, plus a proliferation of online climbing mags, athlete blogs, and other personal blogs like Climbing Narc, Evening Sends, Mountains and WaterPimpin’ and Crimpin‘, Splitter Choss, and on and on…

In the end, the decision to close UC was likely simple math. I can only imagine ad sales weren’t where the publisher, Active Interest Media, wanted them to be. For myriad reasons, all magazines have had a hard time converting their print offering into a successful online offering, probably because people still don’t like to actually pay for online content, even when it replaces the paid content they used to consume. From my perspective, Urban Climber’s failure isn’t necessarily that interesting, but the bigger questions it points to are: Where should the climbing magazine industry go from here? How will existing titles thrive in a digital world? With all the videos and blogs and news aggregators out there, what is the role of a climbing magazine, anyway?

To some of us back in 2004, Urban Climber looked like the future. Now, it just seems like it was a stepping stone between the old days when Climbing Magazine ran over 200 pages, and today, when my RSS feed is full of blogs with titles like “No, I don’t give a shit that you work at the gym.” Nonetheless, I’d like to tip my hat to Matt Burbach, Joe Iurato, Andy Outis, Andrew Tower, and all of the people who I had the honor of working with at Urban Climber Magazine. It was a fun ride while it lasted.