On a recent morning when New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency after the state’s first three cases of coronavirus were confirmed, Outside magazine founder and owner Larry Burke wasn’t ready to hit the panic button.
“Why isn’t anybody talking about the 300,000 deaths a year from obesity?” asked the lifelong adventurer whose 43-year-old magazine has morphed into a Santa Fe-based media empire that spans print, digital, podcasts, TV, film and consumer events.
“This is so overblown. The media is going to pump the hell out of it. I should know. I’m in the media business,” Burke said.
The entrepreneur observed that the deadly virus doesn’t appear to be affecting children, but noted, “It’s scary to a degree because we don’t have a vaccine for it.”
Nevertheless, last week, Outside Integrated Media, as the company is formally known, pulled the plug on the Outside Experience, a festival scheduled for May 16-17 in Chicago, because of concerns about the coronavirus. The event was expected to attract 15,000 attendees and 125 brands.
You can’t blame Burke for viewing the coronavirus as a blip on the radar screen. He has been at the media game a very long time and got a lifetime dose of confidence by acquiring the Outside name for his startup magazine from Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in what Burke calls “the best deal I’ve ever made in my life.”
As magazines with decades of history fold, reduce the physical size of their product or go exclusively online, Outside is scaling new heights. In a fall 2019 study of magazine readership by MRI, Outside reported 41% growth in its total print audience, the third-highest increase among all print outlets measured. Its digital platform, Outside Online, reaches more than 4.5 million viewers monthly.
On the doorstep of being an octogenarian, Burke exudes the kind of breezy nonchalance one might associate with Sir Richard Branson, the soon-to-be-70 founder of the Virgin Group, whose company has moved beyond music and airlines into space travel.
Unlike Branson, Burke doesn’t want you to take a space flight. He’d rather you take a hike or learn a new sport. Burke himself learned how to surf in Costa Rica at age 73 and wrote a first-person piece for Outside in July 2016 about his experience.
Burke is writing a book about the genesis of Outside, so memories were top of mind during a March 11 interview. After working at IBM in the early 1970s, the future entrepreneur developed an acute case of wanderlust and embarked on what Australians call a “walkabout.”
“I originally thought I would take three months to travel, but it turned into a five-year odyssey around the world,” he said.
He had a traveling buddy, but they would go their separate ways when one of them met a romantic interest, only to reunite for further adventures.
“After sailing my 30-foot boat back to Florida from South America, I thought, ‘Maybe I should be a writer. I could work on my own schedule.’ But when I got back to Florida with my boat and tried to start writing a book, I realized I was not in any way a good enough writer to do it,” Burke recalled.
Burke said he went to the newsstand one day with “a certain kind of magazine in mind. There were magazines about climbing, skiing, sailing. But I wasn’t inspired by the coverage. I decided to start a magazine about all the things my friends and I were doing.”
The magazine that launched in 1976 as a quarterly was called Mariah, which was also the name of Burke’s boat. Pop superstar Mariah Carey was still in pigtails at the time; the inspiration for the moniker came from a song that the house band used to play at the Top of the Wheel in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where Burke was tending bar at the time he dreamed up his adventure quarterly.
After two years of publication, Chicago-based Mariah caught the attention of Rolling Stone’s Wenner, who had published 11 issues of a magazine called Outside. According to Burke, Wenner sent his publisher to the Windy City with an offer to buy Mariah. When Burke said the magazine wasn’t for sale, Wenner turned the tables and asked if Burke would be interested in buying Outside. He was.
“The biggest mistake Jann ever made was selling Outside,” said Burke. “But he was under financial duress after moving Rolling Stone from San Francisco to New York City. He was running out of cash to support Outside.”
From the beginning, Outside was very much subscriber-based, Burke said. Even back in the days when newsstand sales were important, they never accounted for more than 5% of the magazine’s circulation.
Burke decided to leave Chicago for Santa Fe in 1992. By 1995, he had designed and built Outside’s current headquarters in the Railyard. That year, he moved 50 staffers and their families to Santa Fe.
“But the building wasn’t quite ready,” Burke recalled. “We put everybody into the architect’s basement, which had no windows and no views. We stayed there three months. It was a bunker mentality, but we brought everybody into a positive mindset.”
Asked to reveal the secret’s of Outside’s staying power, Burke quipped, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
On a more serious note, he said, “Outside is about one simple idea: To inspire people to participate actively in the world outside. That’s good for friends, families and relationships, and it’s good for the planet.”
He outlined the media company’s evolution in a few sentences: “We evolved from our print base to becoming a content producer and content distributor. We distribute content across multiple channels, all of which are growing organically. The Outside brand dominates the active lifestyle market. We’re No. 1 in our market.”
Like many publishers, Outside has encountered resistance from online readers who don’t want to pay for content.
“While many consumers are willing to pay for a magazine subscription, we have conditioned readers to think they don’t have to pay when they consume on digital channels,” Burke said.
He noted that while weekly magazines in the news, business, entertainment and sports arenas have lost relevance in the face of constant real-time information online that instantly makes their product outdated, the lifestyle fare in Outside, a monthly, is “evergreen.”
Burke, who said he’s “astonished” at how few interviews he’s given during his career, may not be willing to reveal the recipe to Outside’s secret sauce. But it’s apparent who his secret weapon is: Sam Moulton, a former intern who is now the company’s director of marketing.
Moulton said one reason Outside has survived the shakeout in magazines is that it was an early entrant into the digital space. “We recognized how important our digital presence was back in 1999,” he said. That, coincidentally, was the year that Moulton was an intern.
Unlike other online media sites, which bombard readers with pop-up ads, annoying videos and other distractions, Outside offers its digital subscribers “a user-first experience,” Moulton said. Also, it doesn’t sell user data to third parties.
Despite the bars on advertising bells and whistles, marketers like Outside’s digital platform.
“We have a highly coveted audience,” Moulton said. “The only way to reach that audience is through all of our platforms.”
While initially Outside might have catered to devotees of what today is considered “extreme” sports, Moulton said the company’s mission is to “make the outdoors a more welcoming and inclusive place.”
Other publications have cut back on long articles and hire low-paid journalists who “phone it in,” but Outside is still committed to sending photographers and writers on challenging assignments. “They come back with the goods,” Moulton said.
The commitment to literary journalism shows up in such metrics as the number of minutes spent reading an article, as opposed to clicks.
“We’re doubling down on long-form stories because that’s what our readers have told us they want,” he said.
The emphasis on bringing everyone inside the Outside tent led to a 2017 issue written and photographed entirely by women, as well as more gender balance on the staff and in imagery, Moulton said. Toward that end, the company recently appointed Jen Penningroth as its digital product director. Penningroth, who is based in Outside’s new Denver office, will lead the development team, and act as the primary liaison between the product team and the editorial, video, sales and marketing departments, according to the January press release announcing her hire.
Like Moulton and nearly all of Outside’s staffers, Penningroth is passionate about the outdoors.
Not surprisingly, the increased emphasis on women at Outside has led to more female subscribers, Moulton said.
Other audiences that Moulton and his team are targeting are families and busy urban commuters.
“We want to meet you where you are on your journey,” he said. “Training for your first 5K? We can help you. Looking for the latest gear for your next adventure? We’ve got reviews by experts.”
In an era where people find it hard to put their devices away, Moulton sees the outdoors as an antidote to the anxiety that a constant diet of news and social media sharing can produce.
And for those netizens who want to read about the outdoors online, Outside strives to create a welcoming community.
“We have private Facebook groups that we monitor and curate, including one on public lands. It’s a hub for news, opinion and insight. There are trolls everywhere, but we’re proud of the dialogue that we can spark,” Moulton said.
Locally, Outside sponsored the Santa Fe Bike and Brew festival for a couple of years and the Santa Fe Mountain Fest last year in collaboration with Velo New Mexico. “It was a great event,” said Moulton. “But it was difficult to pull off and to find the right venue.”
Still, the company tries to be a good local citizen, he said, by sponsoring river and trail cleanup days, and by donating gear to WildEarth Guardians, a local environment group.
What does the future hold for Outside?
Burke is keeping his cards close to his vest, but sees opportunities in international markets, as well as travel and hospitality, once coronavirus fears and quarantines are over, as well as movies.
“We have a constant flow of stories coming through Outside,” he said. “Some of those could end up as films.”