Notes on the End of mental_floss (Magazine)

So, some news: mental_floss, after a 15-year run, is ending print publication. The November-December 2016 issue will be our last.

More on all that in a moment, but first, know this: I loved editing Chatter, our letters page. I didn’t always. It was the one front-of-book piece that, when faced with putting it together, universally elicited groans. It’s an unwieldy, arduous process, and above all, a massive pain in the ass.

From mental_floss’s very special Dec. 2013 issue. I read that one as a fan.

Creating a new Chatter page involved sorting through an inbox absolutely lousy with spam, a gross, unsightly, nastyass digital mountain of trash. Despite a spam filter that managed to regularly catch real emails we actually needed, somehow, literally hundreds of shitty, spammy, dumb emails and PR pitches we were never gonna take seriously to begin with got through the filter, and then, had to be deleted, just to get to five or six decent letters. But I eventually grew to love it because

(A) In the controlled chaos that is the middle of a magazine close, there’s something deeply meditative and gratifying about deleting hundreds pieces of spam, one by one, and

(B) I got to be the first one to open up letters like this:

And this:

And this:

We got letters like that for every issue: People whose lives were somehow made better by our magazine. And we weren’t publishing earth-shattering exposes, or saving the world—our magazine was, at its very best, a magazine for people who loved magazines, who wanted magazines to be fun, funky, and weird, and who loved learning about the world through those kinds of magazines. And our readers loved this magazine. It brought them together, it bridged gaps.

[Italicized Bracketed Interlude №1: Seriously, it did, and I speak from experience—my parents, divorced for over 26 years now, still can’t agree on anything, and couldn’t be more different as human beings. The one thing they have in common in 2016, besides my brother and me? They’re both avid fans of mental_floss, and were downright ecstatic in equal measure when they found out I’d be working here. Also, fact: My mom bought me my first issue of mental_floss from a Wild Oats in 2002.]

The magazine was a funny, sweet, smartassed, and creative labor of love. It didn’t export to the web perfectly, if well at all, but then again, it wasn’t really supposed to. It was built with the experience of curling up to a whole object (a magazine) in mind, and savoring cover-to-cover coherency, the kind structured around ideas about editorial architecture few publishers subscribe to in 2016 (pun genuinely unintended).

And this last year has been a blast. If you haven’t seen our September-October 2016 issue out on newsstands, well: This was a dream project (and especially: partnership), and one of the best things I’ve ever had the opportunity to work on. Really, I could say the same for all the other issues I’ve worked on since I’ve been here.

And here’s why: Our founders gave us the creative wherewithal to do what we wanted with the magazine, so long as we hewed to one simple directive—Make us the magazine we want to read. That level of creative freedom is rare, and to have such insanely supportive bosses helping us achieve that mandate is just as rare (and special).

The September-October 2016 issue, which you should absolutely buy (if you’re not bold enough to steal it, you pansy).

As for why the magazine’s being shuttered? Well, complicated question, but the simple version of the answer I got, and I’m paraphrasing here, is: “print’s fucked, yo.” The less simple version is: Despite higher newsstand numbers, the assembly of groundbreaking advertising packages, and a streak of the best issues of the magazine our readers have maybe ever seen, the print magazine was, in a fittingly ironic and vengeful death, felled by the trees who became our overlords two years ago.

[Italicized Bracketed Interlude №2: I’m joking, kind of. The truth is, a decision was made from high-on-up (read: the people behind the trees, or the people who answer to the people behind the trees, a.k.a. the charitable environmental trust which we’re now owned by) about the resources allocated to a print magazine in a digital blah blah whatever, the same stuff you’re always gonna hear in a situation like this. It’s hard to argue the value of a print magazine when you’re looking at a balance sheet. But this is also, incidentally, my argument for a print mag: That it’s a prestige product which goes an enormous way towards brand equity/brand recognition in a manner tough to quantify in the limited context of a balance sheet, but which absolutely makes sense here outside of one. And while I could back this argument anecdotally, that’s not my story to shill. Also, the website and video operations are doing extraordinarily well. Not hard to see why they’d want to double down, there.]

The first issue of mental_floss, featuring our unofficial mascot.

So, the call was made, and made with a heavy heart. And while I could argue the calculus used to make this decision, I genuinely and sincerely hope it works out well, and I’m pretty confident that it will: The people I’ve worked with at this company aren’t just wonderful human beings, but brilliant, and committed to producing nothing but quality stuff.

mental_floss’s founders, Mangesh Hattikudur and Will Pearson are two of the most inspiring humans I’ve ever come across, let alone worked for. They are sweet, funny, kind, and calling them what they are — the founders of mental_floss — is, to me at least, one of the highest accolades I could possibly attach to anyone, and also, just where those guys begin. Every time we got to work together, it was a joy, and I’m gonna miss the hell out of it. They were supportive in ways I didn’t know founders of media companies let alone your boss’s boss could be, and I feel honored to have been a steward of and played some small part in their life’s work, let alone be here for the closing on this chapter of it.

The March-April 2016 issue, and another long overdue dream project for this team that came together beautifully. Again: Find a way to read it.

Speaking of bosses: Jessanne Collins was mine, and because you’ve never worked for Jessanne, you have no idea how fortunate that makes me. She steered the ship with a steady hand and a brilliant mind highly tuned to turning out the most perfect product possible. She’s what you want every editor-in-chief to be: Collaborative, communicative, and operating with a great and distinct vision in mind, and then, a plan to execute it—one you’re lucky to take part in.

Our art director, Lucy Quintanilla, is bracingly acerbic, funny as hell, and enormously patient, or at least, let me test the limits of her patience without murdering me, in the most saintly way possible. Her counterpart and our creative director, Winslow Taft, is a daring man of adventure and ingenuity. I was never in the room when Winslow was pulling off the incredibly far-fetched photo concepts I dreamed up, but I’m pretty sure he almost lit himself on fire and came close to cutting his hand off, for, um, just one issue and two spreads’ worth of shoots. Together, the two of them put together one of the most beautiful magazines to ever grace a newsstand, and made our ridiculous ideas come to life in ways we couldn’t believe, every single time we saw them laid out on the page. If we’re a good looking magazine, it’s because they were the ones who got us to the gym, and dressed us up for the ball.

One of the cover treatments we didn’t use, for one of my favorite issues. For every great idea we used, swear to god, there were ten that we didn’t. It was that kind of magazine.

Meanwhile, our managing editor Jen Doll was the one who got the magazine out the door in the first place. Literally (basically). The magazine wouldn’t have happened without Jen, who got the magazine from “not done” to “done” to “printed.” She didn’t just manage our closes, though—she put together full sections of the mag, and contributed many of the most crucial sections and pieces and ideas we had, and was so often the voice of reason (or the better idea) that we needed. I also probably drove her fucking crazy, and while she might think different of that particular “fortune,” getting to work with Jen, twice, has been one of the better things that’s happened to me over the course of my career.

Oh, and shout out to Nick Greene, who lost $100 of company money on poker in Atlantic City. Now you know why the magazine is folding. Good job, Nick.

(But really: Nick’s brilliant writing is a joy to get to touch, and you should all be so lucky.)

That leaves us with our articles editor, Lucas Reilly. mental_floss is at its core a magazine built on hard information—fascinating, insightful, mind-blowing information, the kind you never knew before, let alone, felt within the realm of possibility. Those facts are then taken, and given voice, ideas, chutzpah, and soul, and turned into a great magazine. If Will and Mango were the parents, Jess was the brain, Jen was the muscle, and Winslow and Lucy its creative spirit, Lucas was this magazine’s bloody, beating heart, and sometimes I think when our readers loved our magazine the most, that was Lucas they loved. His level of granular care for the magazine transcended mere “work ethic” into something else entirely. The simple, scary fact is that Lucas is one of the most brilliant researchers, writers, and editors I’ve ever met, and frighteningly, he’s, like, 12 (okay, 26, but seriously, at this point and at his level, who’s counting?). It’s one thing to be a goddamn genius. It’s another to be a workhorse. But to be a talented genius workhouse who also couldn’t be a nicer, warmer guy? You know what? Piss off, Lucas Reilly. I don’t know why I’m blowing up your spot, you’re gonna be more than fine, pal.

Finally, to the freelancers whose lives I foisted myself upon as their editor: Jess Coen, Camille Dodero, Jeff Rosenthal, Mary Pilon, Bethlehem Shoals, Chris Sullentrop, Alex Ossola, Biz Lindsay, Andreas Schmid, to name a few, and especially the core team of Liz Barclay, Kyle Chayka, Jian DeLeon, and Luis Paez-Pumar, who made Live Smarter come to life, along with some gobstoppingly great magazine packages—good god, thank you, thank you, thank you for trusting us with your work, and somehow turning in copy (and reliably great copy, at that) on the unhinged, insane ideas I threw at you. You made this magazine sparkle.

[Italicized Bracketed Interlude №3: As for me, I won’t be sticking around. I’m interested in trying something new out, and I’m already having fun. I’m gonna take a week or two off to work on this thing, freelance a little (holler), and, yeah, I’m talking to some folks about The Next Thing. And, well: Lots of neat Things going on around town! Anyway, I’ll be fine, and my parting here couldn’t be more amicable.]

And if I start to address our readers here, I’ll get weepy, so I’ll just say: Our readers are the best. They are supremely smart, funny, and often weird—they are attentive, passionate, and supportive; they are young, and old, and according to the surprisingly high number of people who sent us pictures of their dogs and cats sitting on our magazine (seriously), apparently, they are house-trained, too. What we knew of our readership, we know mostly that we’ve been lucky to have them. And they should stick around for the site, and the video, which is in great hands, and which will only carry the spirit of this place forward.

Here’s where I’d normally end this kind of thing with an ostensibly wide-reaching proclamation about the state of publishing, and print magazines, but the bottom line is: Shit happens. Doesn’t mean print’s dead, or mental_floss is, either. Magazines come and go. Christ, they re-launched Radar like fifteen times, and Tablet—which launched a print mag after seven years of being digital-only—is putting out one of the best print publications I’ve ever seen, and those guys only have four issues out the door. They’re just getting started (I mean, really, you should be reading this).

Anyway, it’s been a great ride, and the world keeps spinning. And also, oh, yeah: Go pick up the new issue. You’re gonna love it. There’s no better note for this thing to go out on, really: It’s just nothing more—or nothing less—than a truly great magazine.

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