38-year-old New Yorker Larry Smith has parlayed his extensive magazine experience (Yahoo! Internet Life, P.O.V., ESPN, Might) to create the online magazine that's not only named after him, it represents his vision for the future of populist storytelling: SMITH. Launched on January 6, 2006 (National Smith Day), the site features everything from photo essays to diaries, memoirs, interviews, blogs, and reader-generated content. The site has also spawned two book deals: one for its first webcomic, Shooting War, to be published in an extended hardcover version by Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books) this fall, and the second, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Fershleiser and Smith, to be published by Harpercollins in 2008. But that's just the beginning, as Smith is quick to point out. Gothamist chatted with Smith about his very common last name, print vs. web magazines, and why six words can be enough to tell a good story.
To very briefly throw your own tagline back at you, SMITH magazine boasts, "Everyone has a story. Tell us yours." Please do so in 100 words or less.
How about six? "Big hair, big heart, big hurry"⎯ That's my six-word memoir. But a few more are that I grew up in a small town outside of Philly, went to Penn, fled to San Francisco after college. and lived there from recession (1992) to boom (1997). I waited tables and did whatever I could for any interesting magazine that would have me. One of them was Might, which was a blast. Another was P.O.V., also a blast, and, when it got funded, pulled me back East. I've worked at a lot of magazines since then, but those were the building blocks, places where I was surrounded by smart people who took chances and taught me a lot.
You spent three years "germinating, marinating and ruminating" on the idea of launching SMITH. What were the biggest hurdles you faced? What was your inspiration for starting an online magazine in 2006?
The biggest hurdle was of my own stubbornness. In 2003, I went to many of the major media companies with a beautifully designed, 40-page Robert Priest prototype that I described as "a blog on paper," to which at least one VP of a media company you may have heard of replied, "What's a blog?" I detailed my plan for a print-Web hybrid publication, driven by readers hungry to make media and then masterfully organized, edited and designed by the pros. And save for Scott Mowbray, then at Time4Media, no one at the top really got it.
My co-founder, Tim Barkow, wisely wanted us to start online and figure out print later. I was stuck on the notion of a simultaneous print-Web launch. The other person who was positive that the smart move was to start online was Graydon Carter, one of the many people I met on what I call my "magazine luminary tour." The worst advice I got was not to start unless I could launch big. The best advice I got⎯from Eggers, from ReadyMade's Shoshana Berger, from SI's Terry McDonnell⎯was just to start one way or another. And we finally did, on January 6, 2006, National Smith Day.
Having lots of money would have helped then and it sure would help now, but ultimately you don't need a lot of money to do great work. Right now, page for page, story to story, I don't know who's doing more with less than SMITH Magazine.
Your last name is Smith, and, as you note, there are many, many Smiths out there in the world. You also say that "It's the most popular surname in America. It represents us all." How does it represent us all, and why did you choose it as the name of your magazine? Were you at all concerned that people would find the choice narcissistic?
The codename for the prototype⎯and you can't have a prototype without a codename, few people know this but Portfolio was codenamed "Si's Sunday Sleigh Ride"⎯was Smitty, after my grandfather, a great storyteller in his day. Robert Priest actually suggested SMITH., and created a dynamite logo, and it made perfect sense: Smith is not only someone who works to create something (a blacksmith or a wordsmith) but is the most popular last name in America. SMITH represents us all, person-to-person, story-to-story. If we're really successful, 99.9 percent of our reader-creators will have no idea there's an actual Smith behind SMITH. Outside of the Gawker-Wonkette-Romenesko-Valleywag-HuffPo loop, no one knows the name of the editor of The New Yorker, People, or Salon. Or Maxim or Us Weekly for that matter.
On a personal note, have you always liked being a Smith? Did you ever long for a more exotic last name?
I wanted to have a kookier last name when I was younger, but you grow into what you’ve got. People underestimate Larry smith. You take what you have and you use it to your advantage. SMITH isn’t an ego thing, but it’s a great name, it’s a name you know.
Do you have any funding? Do you pay your contributors?
SMITH costs very little to run. I'd estimate two billion times less than Portfolio.com, largely due to the amazing dedication of volunteer editors, who are excited to be part of something great and poised to one day get health insurance from SMITH, and the writers, photographers and other artists who are glad to be published. And everyone seems to appreciate the care and professional polish we give to their work. But after we launched for the cost of our time and the server space, an angel investor gave us a few thousand dollars just to see where that could take us. One of the things that afforded me was the ability to bring Shooting War to SMITH⎯we didn't pay much, but even I can't ask for that much work for nothing. The bloggers loved Shooting War, and SMITH overall, and got the word out better than an expensive marketing campaign ever could. Now about once a month someone I meet says to me, "Shooting War was the best thing I have ever seen online."
We've started to make a little money from online advertising as well as from books, money that immediately goes back into the site (doing another webcomic, improving the design, giving my editors a little something whenever I can). All that said, the day I can start paying people as well or better as Slate or Salon will be a great day.
SMITH features everything from blogs to diaries to webcomics to memoir and reader-generated submissions. What's the common thread between these various types of content?
Storytelling from what we call "the chicken's-eye view"⎯the perspective from the ground up⎯the individual take on the micro and macro world around him. We want to hear from the fascinating soldier, not the blowhard general. The working chef, not the celebrity chef. The guy quietly changing religions, not the guru with a flock of millions. The unknown photographer we unearth on Flickr and give our version of a star treatment. The guy whose job it is to change the Google logo, not the company's CEO. We tell the Katrina story by following the lives of five unfamous people over the course of the year⎯and, what the hell, let's tell that story in comic form and include podcasts and videos of the real-life "characters" because, well, we can.
You've worked in various capacities at numerous print magazines, including Yahoo! Internet Life, Men's Journal, ESPN, P.O.V., and Might. What's the biggest difference you see in what you offer at SMITH and what print magazines offer? Are the two media competing, or do they work in sync with each other?
In 2003, I thought the ideal magazine was a print-Web hybrid I still do now. So I'd love to roll out SMITH as a high-end quarterly magazine that broke even from day one and eventually made money. It's easy to say, "Forget about print," but why would you? People love print, and last I checked, many print magazines were still making lots of money. That said, as an independent, it's crazy to break the bank on a print publication that has little muscle on the newsstand, no matter how incredible it might be. I'd like to have a print spoke of SMITH, but I don’t need to.
A lot of people stress that the Web offers immediacy, and it does, and that's why I have an obsessively crafted Netvibes page that streams in content from dozens of different sites. Yet what interests me more than instant info and analysis is the fluidity and form you get from the web. At SMITH, we tell stories that take the forms of narrative with traditional old written words (some 6000 words, some 6), via photo essays, webcomics, podcasts, video⎯and any other way anyone can figure out how to tell a personal story well. I challenge anyone to read our webcomic set in New Orleans, click on the panels, listen to those podcasts and tell me you are not moved, delighted, and entertained. You can't do that in print.
Still, it's not like print magazines can't play with form, it's just that print got more expensive, more corporate, and, to make a sweeping statement, less interesting. I have a copy of 1974 Playboy with cutouts and flaps within features and all sorts of groovy layouts that's more interesting to look at then the other hundreds of magazine I've stashed in my apartment. There are exceptions. Wired has many bouts of amazingness and Monocle's doing interesting stuff, like bounding in a manga story in its first few issues. And McSweeney's is the gold standard of experimentation and all sorts of smart tricks up its sleeve. But few of the high-circ pubs play with form much⎯unless you count putting stickers on pages where there's stuff you want to buy later. Which is genius, by the way.
What parts of content creation do you enjoy the most?
I love finding a story where you least expect it and then a week later, because the Web moves so fast and because we’re a small, agile little company, turning that into a story. For example, I was at a party a couple months ago and I’m talking to this woman, she’s a writer and after a couple glasses of wine, she tells me, “Actually, I’m a dominatrix.” And a couple of emails and a cup of coffee later, she was doing a diary of being a working dominatrix for us. She’s not a total amateur writer, she’s going to get her MFA, but to go from walking into a party to a week to ten days later having a fantastic new writer for our site writing regularly about a world most of our readers don’t know all that well including myself, is a wonderful feeling.
Do you know right away when someone has a SMITH-worthy story to tell?
I’m a story sponge; everything’s a story. You’re in 10 situations, a party, a barbecue, you’re in Charleston, you’re at a ball game, there’s stories everywhere. I tell people: keep a journal, write a story for us. I just throw it out there all day long. I ask 100 people to write their stories, and ten of them do, and maybe three work for us. I have an insatiable appetite to seek stories and I have a ton of patience and I am very happy with what we get. The dream is to have a lot of us doing that. What’s better than telling stories and looking for stories? It doesn’t stop. If you’re married to me, that can be really annoying, but otherwise, it’s a blast.
What are you looking for from future contributors? Do you have a wish list of diarists you'd like to sign on or types of artists you'd like to work with?
The SMITH diaries, which are basically edited blogs, are some of the best parts of the site, but it’s underdeveloped right now. The diaries are fantastic but it’s really hard to get amateur writers to stay disciplined. The criterion is, you’re in a moment of fantastic life transition, changing religions or where you live or you have a really fascinating job. In the end, jobs work best. There’s a guy whose job is to be a social networking guru for a political campaign, we have a guy who’s a first year cook in a Chinese restaurant in Delaware. Brad Wieners’ diary about moving from the city to the suburbs is another really good one.
Where have most of them come from?
A combination of people who we met here and there, some people have come over the transom. I’m really looking forward to getting more over the transom. There’s nothing that makes me happier than bringing someone like the dominatrix, who I didn’t know, onto the team. We try to get out of the media bubble. I don’t want the same writers who’ve been in GQ, McSweeney’s Salon. I don’t want to be a coastal magazine, I want to be a populist magazine that has stories and readers from all across the country.
Is there a certain population you’re aiming to reach?
Readers who want to be part of the story. The idea is that people don’t want to be passively watching the narrative of their day go by, they want to be part of it. It’s an increasing audience of readers as creators.
We want the stories on the site to inspire people to tell their stories. They don’t have to be professional writers. Our site’s a little raw, we edit them a little bit, but you never want to lose your voice so when the smoke clears, you read like every other article in the magazine. We don’t want to do that; we err on the side of lightly editing. If SMITH has a killer app, it’s user generated content that’s curated.
When I was working at Yahoo! Internet Life, with all this new technology, people said, “You won’t need the editors.” Myself and others said, “You’re gonna need editors more than ever.” We really do believe that the content bubbles form the ground up, with a nice layer of editing, not too heavy, not too light, you have quality control. The quality control is more important than ever with all this media coming from every different direction.
Are there any more specifics about what you’re looking for from contributors?
We’re always looking for personal essays and memoirs in progress for Memoirville. And photo essays around a personal narrative or obsession. All our photo essays now have both a Q&A and a slide show and audio. If you’ve had a funny brush with a celebrity, there’s the Brush With Fame section, which I want to grow. The idea behind it is isn’t a Gawker Stalker or Page Six sighting. It’s you’re living your life and a celeb shows up like an alien landing on your turf, like the woman who has Mick Jagger’s urine in her freezer.
The Populist asks for readers’ 100-word responses to our questions, which are steeped in current events. All these people say, “I should really write more but I don’t have time to start.” All we ask for is 100 words. Just start, just pick up that pen or start typing. People always need permission to write, to tell their story. We want to make the barrier to entry sort of low. Then after that write your 3,000 word memoir piece. The Populist was designed for frustrated writers who need to blow off some steam and flex that writing muscle. In the future you’ll see the populist answered via words, via video, and via podcast.
There's a "War Stories" section on SMITH, featuring everything from the aforementioned web comic Shooting War to interviews and columns by Iraqi veterans. Would you say there's a definitive political statement you're making with SMITH's war stories? Does SMITH have an official stance on the war in Iraq?
The war in Iraq is one of, if not the biggest story of our time. Is there a more personal story than war? And is there a better way to tell the war story than soldier by soldier, person by person? It’s a natural. It’s not so much a political statement but a fantastic topic. It’s told the way we tell stories, the chicken’s eye view. And we're currently developing another interesting soldier-generated war project we hope to launch sometime this summer.
You offer various toolboxes for "creating your own personal media," applying that to video, art, blogging, podcasting, scrapbooking, wiki, social networking and more. What do you think is so vital about personal media? Why is it so popular and what does it offer to the world at large beyond that particular individual?
The great explosion of technology has made storytelling much easier, more interesting and more fun. We created the toolboxes because we wanted to point out all these great tools available to anyone. Most of them are free. We created a resource guide to ways you can create personal media, which change every day. Ideally, you use all these tools and we put them on the site. We’d love to create some of our own tools and add to the tools that create stories. We don’t do that right now, but we can say, “Here’s your toolbox. Tell your stories and we’ll help you edit them, we’ll highlight them on our site.”
Why are these personal stories so important?
Because from the time the first two people rubbed some sticks together, they started telling stories. It connects people from the beginning of time to the story I’ll tell before I got to bed; it’s what makes us human.
What's been your proudest moment in editing SMITH thus far?
Oh, I think for some of our editors it was when Shooting War made the Approval Matrix [in New York magazine]. But personally, putting up a little box on the site asking readers to send in their six-word life story and watching them pour in was incredible. Six-word memoirs sounds like sort of a goofy, funny exercise, but what we saw come to us was thousands of windows into humanity, six words, and one email at a time.
I'll share one quick story. When our Memoirville section editor Rachel Fershleiser was starting to gather our favorites for the six-word memoir book she got in touch with some of the writers. She learned that "Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends" was actually written by a nine-year-old thyroid-cancer survivor. The girl’s mother wrote told us that her daughter had very carefully crafted her memoir in hopes of seeing it on the site. We've gotten memoirs from wriers such as Daniel Handler ("What? Lemony Snicket? Lemony Snicket? What?") and Neal Pollack ("Eight thousand orgasms. Only one baby."). There are six-word memoirs being taught by second-grade teachers and in graduate writing programs. Everyone has a story, but non-professional writers often don't feel that they have permission to tell theirs. With six words we said: come on in, it's just six words⎯the water's fine. And they did.
Speaking of which, you worked with The Huffington Post for your six-word New Year's Resolution project. Why only six words? Is there a larger point you're making with that format?
The six-word notion goes back to Hemingway. Legend has it he was once challenged to write a story in six words. And you see it pop up here and there (Black Table and Wired have all messed with the form). But no one had done six-word memoirs before, and Rachel suggested we ask some known writers to write six-word memoirs for us, which I loved. Then the next obvious step was: why not open this up to our community. So in November 2006, while thousands of people were cranking out tens of thousands of words during annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), we decided to offer counter-programming that both lowered the bar and worked with our mission. After receiving more than 10,000 entries, the next natural step was to turn a smaller portion of them into a book.
You also made a deal with online content site Twitter, and partnered with them for the six-word memoir contest. Can you tell me more about that?
Twitter was just getting cooking last November, around the same time we were getting set to launch the six-word memoir contest. Twitter's all about sharing information via your cell phone, to lots of people, instantly. SMITH is all about getting in lots of stories, then filtering to find the best ones. So we teamed up with Twitter to deliver one six-word memoir a day to any Twitter member who became a friend of SMITH. Not hundreds of six-word memoirs a day, just one great one. The Twitter community loved the six-word memoir concept. I mean, it's kind of a kick to have a short, short life story arrive on your phone once a day. As early adopters tend to, the Twitter community told everyone they knew and they really helped make six words a success.
What's next for Smith, the magazine, and the person?
The hope is that SMITH can add to the conversation as it celebrates this great age of storytelling, an age when readers want to be take part in the cultural narrative of their time, not just passively observing it. Everyone has a story—at least one good one, probably dozens if you stop and really listen—and everyone should have a place to tell it. That's the mission we're going to continue to fulfill. After a little over a year starting to create something cool and wonderful—not simply more media for media’s sake, but better media--we're beginning to hit our stride.
Specifically, we're working on the site's architecture, the design's solid, but the navigation needs work. And we're working with Ben Brown, one of the masters of online community building, to create a cozier, collaborative atmosphere for storytellers. We're also working with a company called Blogtalkradio to do a weekly radio show-podcast hybrid. And we need to jump more into video, but I don't want to go there in a big way until we know how to do it right.
Generally, we've also started to do some consulting we call "powered by SMITH," where we work with other sites and companies to help their communities tell stories (everyone has a story, not everyone knows how to edit them and allow them to flourish). And just to keep me off the streets, a few of us are working on a side project that's very different than SMITH, but will allow us to take everything we've learned in what's really been a decade of watching and working on the web to create something completely different, and an excellent business from day one.
What do you do to celebrate National Smith Day?
To answer that I think I'll borrow from one of my favorite six-word memoirists: "Now I blog and drink wine."
Visit SMITH at www.smithmag.net.