Introducing HRDCVR – a magazine for the new everyone

by Steve Watson in June 2014
Current affairs

Last week magophile Andrew Losowsky dropped me a line about a new magazine being made by one of his colleagues on the prestigious Knight Foundation journalism fellowship at Stanford. This was going to be interesting.

HRDCVR is “a book-shaped magazine” from the combined minds of Danyel Smith and her husband Elliott Wilson. Between them they’ve carved out a pair of stellar careers in music journalism, working as editors-in-chief and music editors at some of America’s biggest titles, but now they’re trying to do something different.

Building on their love for hip hop and its ability to unite different people from different backgrounds, they’re working together for the first time to create a magazine for “the new everyone”. Recognising the changing demographics of the USA, they aim to make meaningful, accessible, relevant journalism for sections of society that are commonly overlooked by both mainstream and niche magazines.

Their first Kickstarter campaign didn’t get off to the start they needed, so in true Silicon Valley style they failed fast, pivoted and relaunched with a second campaign that, just a few days in, has already blasted through its target and is into the realm of stretch goals.

HRDCVR sounds like a massively ambitious undertaking, so I began by asking Danyel to tell me more about the project and why she and her husband have set themselves such a stiff challenge.

Maybe you could start by telling me a bit about what HRDCVR is and what led you to it?
It’s a print magazine, but as we like to say, it’s in the shape of a book; it’s a hard cover culture magazine.

It’s a magazine created by a diverse team for a diverse audience. We like to think of it as a magazine created by the new everyone, for the new everyone. We believe in the true demographics of the United States of America, the new demographics of the United States of America.

We believe that group of people is the actual mainstream, and that quite frankly it has never been truly successfully served. In fact we don’t know that an attempt has even been made to serve them, so we’d like to try.

How do you start by identifying that group of people?
If you google “changing demographics” or “new demographics” or anything about the last UC census, you get, like, eight billion results and most of them have infographics showing things like growth among African Americans, gay marriage being made legal in state after state, the ‘yellowing’ of America, the ‘greying’ of America, the fact that 22-year-olds are the largest group of people in the country right now.

We feel that there are so many pieces about these trends, about these realities, about this future, but who’s actually trying to write and design and create the soul of the people behind those infographics? If I see one more infographic on which population is going to grow so much in the next 10 years, I think I’m going to vomit!

Our question is, who are those people and why is nobody talking to them?

We reject the niche and we reject the mainstream. We feel like there’s been amazing work done by mainstream magazines like Time, like Newsweek, like Life, like USA Today, but they haven’t spent the last 15 years servicing the actual populations of the United States of America.

And there’s been great work done by niche publications, whether they’ve been directed at Asian Americans, African Americans, lesbian and gay Americans, senior Americans… There’s been great work done, but at the risk of sounding super-kumbaya, we would like to see the actual America served in one place.

You’re setting yourself a pretty stiff challenge there – magazines focus on specific groups specifically because that gives them their niche, whereas you want to speak to everybody.
We have no grand illusions about HRDCVR coming out every month or every week, or frankly even if it works as a premise. In many ways it’s functioning as a proof of concept – we’re not saying, “Oh my God, this is the truth and the light, let’s all do this right now!” We’re saying we would like to see it exist, because it has never existed so nobody knows what it looks like.

I’ve worked everywhere from alternative news weeklies to the New York Times. I was editor-in-chief of Vibe twice, and editor-at-large on the most corporate floor ever at Time Inc. I was the first black editor of Billboard’s paper product… I’ve been around.

There are some places that come close – mostly the sports magazines, in terms of what’s on the pages. But when you look at who’s creating the pages it’s a different story, and I’m certainly not the first person to make mention of this.

But I’m tired of talking about it – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Could you write a story about the dearth of people of colour in the media right now?” I don’t want to write a piece about the problem – I want to create something that shows things could be different.

Reading up on HRDCVR so far, I was struck by your desire for permanence – you use this fantastic word “monumentality”. And you’ve said that there might only be one issue, so what makes this a magazine? Why isn’t it just a really nice hardback book?
When I think of the definition of a magazine, I think of it as being a group effort. I’m researching and writing a book at the moment, and I’m pretty much by myself in doing that. Even when you’re editing a collection it still seems to me more like a solo enterprise.

But a magazine is a group effort – it’s like a movie, you need people. You need people shouting each other up and shouting each other down, you need ideas and a community of people making decisions together, brainstorming, letting the cream rise to the top and making decisions in that way. I think it’s important and that’s what makes it a magazine. When you have a diverse group of people making these sort of decisions together, you come up with something that’s much more compelling, and frankly much more of service to journalism.

It looks like you’ve managed to communicate that, because you’ve already blasted through your target and you’re already into stretch goal territory. But this is your second Kickstarter campaign isn’t it? You closed your first one after a couple of weeks – what happened there?
It was just a sad week. That week has a dark cloak over it right now! We launched the first Kickstarter with the goal of $150,000 and everyone told us we were insane and we would never raise that money. And we said, “Yes we will!”

But we were so wrong. We weren’t as organised as we could be. I think also we underestimated how long it would take to make people understand what we were trying to do. No matter how many times I read pieces about Kickstarter, and people who ran successful Kickstarters said quite clearly that you have to approach this like a 24-hour job, I chose for some reason to think this didn’t apply to me!

My husband and I woke up one day and we said, “This is not going to work, but HRDCVR has to still happen.” It’s our dream. This is the first time we’ve worked together professionally, and we believe in the new everyone – this is not a joke to us, or a whim – we want to do this, so we said, “Okay, what can we do?”

What’s crazy is we’ve both worked for other people a lot, so we asked ourselves, what would we do if we were working for someone else, and the challenge set in front of us by our boss looked like this? It was very much a learning experience for us to recognise that we have to value ourselves and out dreams for a media brand as much as we have done for other media brands.

It looks like it worked, because I saw that in three days you made as much as you’d made in the previous 10?
It was phenomenal. Where there had been tears there was now laughter. We could not believe it, and we just got about our business. We started working behind the scenes, speaking to people who have believed in us over the years, and people really responded to that.

I’ve been on fellowship at Stanford for a year and it has been very amazing and I’ve learned so much, but it has also been very much in my head, and I think the transition to doing this has made me say, “I’m not in class. I’m not presenting to my fellows – I’m trying to build something now so stop fooling around.” It’s not about the academy at this point; it’s about trying to serve folks, and not to sound crazy about it now, it’s about trying to change the soul of journalism. I’ve been doing this for over two decades and I would like things to be different.

So you’ve hit your target already, and you’re going to go way higher than that target, which is great. But that’s obviously still much lower than your original target, so what difference will that make to HRDCVR?
It’s going to be beautiful. It’s going to be monumental. Is it going to have pages of gold leaf and mother of pearl? It probably is not, unless Oprah comes in on the Kickstarter!

It’s going to be amazing. We’ve obviously recalibrated, but I’ve been making a dollar out of 15 cents for 20 years in journalism, and we’ve all served on a small budget for a long time. My career coincides with the last 10 years of print becoming less important than it was at the beginning of my career, so I’m well versed in how to make something beautiful on a budget that gets smaller. And we have three more weeks to get closer to the place where we want to be.

And you can do a lot with those stretch goals.
Yes! It’s like a video game in some ways – we’ve been granted a second life, so let’s go! Let’s make the best use of it! We’re ready to go hard again.

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