A song to read by: “Djohariah,” by Sufjan Stevens
What I’m reading: “How to Survive a Plague,” by David France
Today’s interview is with Kylie Cooper, the editorial director at The Bend Magazine in Corpus Christi, Texas. Years ago I met Kylie through several of my Corpus friends, and I have followed her work since then for a few reasons.
First, she’s an incredible writer and extraordinarily creative. Everything The Bend puts out is visually stunning, an impressive feat made more impressive considering the small size of her magazine’s staff.
And second, while I was at Study Breaks I worked with a team of about four full-time staff for almost 3.5 years, so I’d felt a sense of kinship to the kind of work she was doing down in Corpus.
When people think of “the media,” they often think of The New York Times, National Geographic or some other multinational conglomerate. What many people fail to remember, though, is that there are still hundreds, maybe even thousands of small operations, serving a very niche readership, all throughout the country.
Having now worked at publications both big and small, I can tell you that the work these writers and editors do is largely a labor of love. The demands are high, the hours are long, the pay is low and the rewards are fleeting. But community-oriented publications, like The Bend, work in tandem with their local newspapers to add vibrancy and cultural resonance to the cities they serve. They are indispensable resources for highlighting the work of local business-owners, artists and community builders.
And while these niche publications are vital, they have been mostly left out of the conversations surrounding the struggles of the media industry. Like many small publishers and alt-weeklies, city magazines are mostly ad-supported, meaning Covid has eliminated much of their revenue. Yet despite their sharing a predicament almost identical in nature to the one plaguing the rest of the industry, they have received almost no attention from the key Discourse Havers.
As Kylie and I both can attest to, and as she speaks to below, simply keeping up with day-to-day operations at these publications is beyond a full-time job. Despite pressing financial worries that need addressing, it can be next to impossible to find the time to step back, look at your business model and figure out how to pivot your way into some new source of revenue.
So, I spoke with Kylie to get a finger on the pulse of how city magazines like The Bend are coping with the ramifications of Covid, a conversation made all the more enlightening by the fact that so few people seem to be having it. In the dialogue surrounding media finance and the re-creation of new media models, magazines like The Bend have a key role to play and need to be included in the conversation.
Who: Kylie Cooper, editorial director at The Bend Magazine
The Bend Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheBendMag
What does one do as an editorial director? What’s an average day like for you now, working and writing from home?
Well, we are very tiny. We have six people actually on staff, so we all wear thousands of hats. But my main job is making sure everything that has to do with editorial for the magazine gets done and gets done in the way that we want it to.
That generally looks like managing all of our freelance writers and photographers, mapping out the editorial calendar, writing various articles, putting together all of our department stories, figuring out all of our visuals and, of course, editing the issue itself.
I also manage our social media and newsletters — basically any digital communication coming out of The Bend is me. So I'm essentially the editorial director, but also the senior writer, the social media manager and kind of the audience-development person.
It sounds a bit like my experience as editor-in-chief of Study Breaks. There are so many roles but so little money, which can easily get overwhelming.
Exactly. We’re a really small team and we're all overworked, but it’s like, “Okay, how do you fix that?”
Ideally, you would bring on new people and create new positions, but how do you do that? You need more revenue coming in, and for that you need to create more products to bring in more revenue, which means more work. It can feel like an impossible loop.
How is The Bend holding up in light of Covid? Has the pandemic forced any changes in your business model?
One of the first things that we did was cut down our print run. So beginning with our April issue, we started printing less than we normally would.
On top of that, the majority of our advertisers are small-business owners. So when COVID hit, a few campaigns dropped out, which means less money coming in.
So then you have to figure out how many pages we needed to cut, which led to us putting out our smallest issue in May — 78 pages. We also stopped distributing the issue itself to businesses for two months, and the staff all took pay cuts for a brief amount of time.
The Bend Magazine, like many city-based magazines, puts a lot of focus on artistry, with detailed photo shoots and set designs. How has your team adjusted to the challenge of producing high-quality visuals without being able to work together in person?
I'm super fortunate to have a really positive relationship with my art director, Jarred Schuetze, so we have been able to share screens and walk through layouts on InDesign together pretty seamlessly.
In terms of photography, at first we coped by pulling a lot of images from our archives. But now we set up socially distant photoshoots and just make sure to be hyper-communicative with our photographers. While they’re at a shoot they’ll FaceTime me to show me the images and ask what else I need or show me aspects of the space that I hadn’t considered.
But I would say that, like a lot of other publications, we’ve just leaned into digital communication and have been able to weather the storm pretty well.
What kind of role does a publication like The Bend Magazine play during a pandemic? Is it escapism, inspiration, hope, distraction, community?
We don’t aim to be a hard-hitting news source, breaking stories or investigating corrupt city officials, so we really did have to ask ourselves at the beginning,
“How are we going to pull up a seat to the table and still have it be true to who we are?”
As a result, we’ve mostly tried to highlight the positive stories coming out of the Coastal Bend area: organizations doing charitable work, local businesses giving meals to medical workers, things of that nature.
I like to use the word reprieve; we try to be a breath of fresh air in your timeline.
We want to remind both the people that live here and anyone that's coming to visit that the Coastal Bend is a dope place to be and that there are awesome people here who are giving it their all to make the area better.
There can definitely be some cognitive dissonance between how you’re feeling personally and the tone that you try to carry when representing The Bend Magazine, I would imagine.
Definitely. I'm talking about abolishing ICE on my personal Instagram and how fucked up the 287(g) agreement is, but then I switch accounts to The Bend and I'm talking about a playlist with surf rock music.
So it can start to feel like what you’re doing via the publication is frivolous, but I just have to remind myself that the magazine serves a specific purpose, i.e. highlighting local businesses and people and the positive things they're doing in our community.
Ultimately I think you're still providing people with something that they need, even if it's not screaming your opinion in their face about certain issues.
How has Covid affected your creative output? Does it feel like you’re coming to terms with this new normal, or does the abnormality of everything still weigh on you?
At first I struggled with the reality that I was working and a lot of my friends were taking advantage of the new time to devote themselves to creative projects or undertake these new passages of self-discovery.
But eventually I reached a place where I bartered with myself in a way, and said that I was going to devote a fixed period of time when I’m not working to doing those activities that really fulfill me, whether it’s creative writing or just reading.
I think allowing the time you set aside for personal creativity to be whatever it needs to be in that moment is crucial, too. Allowing whatever creations come about in the time you’ve set aside to actually be enough is a hard thing for me to do.