Anyone who is surprised by the news that Outside is reducing its stable of magazines and laying off approximately fifteen percent of its staff was not paying attention. The media business has long struggled to find profitable models in this always-connected digital world, where technology and consumer reading and watching habits change seemingly by the day. CNN spent $ 300 million building a paid streaming service and wooing top stars like NPR’s Audie Cornish and Fox’s Chris Wallace, only to have new owners pull the plug a few weeks later. It was one of the biggest debacles in the media business in decades, and it shows that huge salaries and fancy titles don’t make you any smarter — or perhaps, more appropriately, clairvoyant.
Outside was privately held and owned for many years by Santa Fe’s Larry Burke, but was purchased in 2021 by Robin Thurston, who made his fortune with the MapMyFitness app. Backed by nearly $ 200 million in private investment cash, Thurston’s Pocket Media went on an acquisition spree, buying five media and tech companies and renaming itself Outside Media in February of that year. Thurston’s vision was, he said at the time, “Just like Netflix and Amazon Prime — Outside will create and distribute distinctive content to a worldwide audience on any internet device.”
Today, Thurston claims 800,000 paid memberships across Outside’s brands, though it’s unclear how much revenue that generates. When Outside memberships launched, they cost $ 99 a year, but the company swiftly offered discounts. Currently, it costs four dollars a month for “Outside +” and three dollars a month for access to just Outside. However much it brings in, it’s not working: Outside Media has a staff north of 500 people and just laid off, we were told by insiders, between 90 and 100 of them.
That’s brutal. It’s brutal for anyone who just lost their job, despite Thurston’s promise in a companywide email of “severance, benefits, and job search resources.” It’s also brutal for the people who were left behind, who will now spend their days looking over their shoulders for the next round of cuts, networking, and polishing their resumes. I’ve heard from friends at Outside that morale has been low for ages — cuts of this magnitude typically drop it off the table.
I know this because I’ve been through the experience. I lost my job when new owners acquired Surfer publishing group, and I watched, sadly, when National Geographic closed Adventure and then when Powder and Bike were gutted. In the run-up to those actions, people were skittish and paranoid and definitely not well-focused on the task at hand. Struggling offices are not happy offices.
Let me be clear: I hope Thurston figures it out. Outside is the biggest outdoor media company by orders of magnitude, and its success is good for the industry and potentially for the outdoor culture. Despite being nominal competitors, what we’re doing with Adventure Journal could not be more different than Outside’s model. I certainly wish more of Outside’s readers knew about Adventure Journal — if we gained just one percent of those members, we’d more than double our subscribers — but AJ has been thriving since we launched digitally in 2010 and in print in 2016. Our success or failure has nothing to do with them, and a vibrant Outside helps nurture stoke and stewardship for the outdoors. We all benefit from that.
Let me also be clear: Despite our deep emotional connection to storytelling and love for adventure, selling something in the marketplace subjects you to the same Darwinian capitalism as any other product. Outside is struggling because their model is not working. Perhaps people don’t want an outdoor-oriented Amazon Prime. Perhaps their overhead is too high. Perhaps they shouldn’t view other people’s life experiences as “content.” I don’t know — I’m not running things there, and I don’t think they’re asking, LOL.
What I do know about the media is two things. First and most important, publishers need to create products that people value enough to purchase. It’s that simple. Make something worth buying, full stop.
The second thing is that readers of media, outdoor or otherwise, need to be more invested in and thoughtful about what they read and watch. Are lists of gear and stories clearly generated to make you click on affiliate links important to you? If so, great. But remember that the most valuable thing you have is your time. Spending it on empty calories is not going to fulfill you. Scrolling rarely does.
Readers need to value the media they read, respect, and watch through direct financial support, which means paying for subscriptions when they are available to you. I know, I know: pandemic, inflation, inertia, no time to read, etc. Well, if someone has time to read the free stories on our website, they very likely have time to read the non-free stories in our printed quarterly.
Obviously, I want you to support AJ — and if everyone reading the free stuff subscribed, I would never have to ask — but even more, I want you to think clearly about what you read and why you read it. The internet is a fast-moving stream of bright and shiny and ever new and mostly free distraction. Sometimes, distraction is just what the doctor ordered. But mostly, no. Mostly, we’re craving connection, and depth, and like-minded storytellers. When you find it, at least in my experience, it’s rare, so you should support it — and give yourself the gift of quality.
There are lots of worthy independent publishers who would love your support. If it’s us and you want to subscribe to Adventure Journal’s printed quarterly, do it here.
If you want to help underwrite our efforts aside from the magazine, you can do that here.
Photo by Claudio Schwarz