Why REI swapped its catalog for a magazine — and what that means for print media

December 12, 2019
Category: Business & Work

In September, some 450,000 members of outdoor goods store REI, the largest U.S. consumer co-op, received a surprise in their mailboxes. In lieu of the typical 28-page fall catalog talking up the merits of the latest waterproof jacket or tent, the Seattle-based outdoor gear retailer mailed out the first 84-page issue of a new quarterly print magazine, Uncommon Path.

With a matte, textured cover that evokes a well-thumbed trail guidebook, the magazine offers an engaging mix of reported stories on controversial issues like climate change, bucket-list travel destinations, ads from outdoor apparel brands and a handful of gear reviews.

The overall impression is a magazine that appeals to outdoorsy readers, but without an explicit advertising goal. For example, an article about the subculture of Los Angeles cyclists who take advantage of 26.2 miles of closed city streets in the pre-dawn hours before the city’s annual marathon had no clear sales objective — there is no specific bike or gear best suited to this Angeleno cycling tradition. It was just good storytelling.

If you count another 200,000 copies of the magazine mailed to other households, Uncommon Path became the largest outdoor magazine in the country overnight. During an October presentation at the Seattle Interactive Conference, REI said it had printed a total of 700,000 magazines, with 50,000 copies distributed to newsstands, including every major U.S. airport. That means it narrowly out-printed Outside, the flagship monthly independent magazine covering outdoor life. Erin Boudreau, marketing manager for the Alliance for Audited Media, said that Outside magazine’s June 2019 publisher’s statement indicated total circulation for Outside listed as 697,021. She noted that REI is not audited by AAM.

REI is hardly the first brand to publish a magazine, but the evolution of its editorial strategy may represent a new level of corporate embrace for the merits of traditional journalism.

While Uncommon Path made an exceptional splash in the way that only print media can, the company started creating editorial content five years ago, building on its longstanding homespun editorial library called Expert Advice. In the intervening five years, REI has hired six full-time employees with journalism backgrounds who have helped launch an arsenal of editorial products. Co-op Journal is the company’s blog, mixing direct company messaging with breaking news updates on public lands issues. A documentary film series now encompasses dozens of titles drawing hundreds of millions of views. Four podcasts round out REI’s digital offerings.

“You can see the progression of all these different editorial products we took to market,” REI’s content and media director Paolo Mottola told Poynter. “About a year ago, (we) were sitting in a room hatching the idea: What would it be like to take all the learnings from digital to print?”

While REI’s in-house editorial team members drive the creative direction of Uncommon Path, they sought out Hearst to handle publishing and ad sales, the latter of which Hearst convinced them was necessary.

“Ads are a critical part of a magazine’s legitimacy because you share a voice with other brands,” Mottola said. Hearst also publishes a glossy travel magazine, Airbnbmag, in a similar relationship with Airbnb, the short-term rental service. Much like the select number of REI members who received Uncommon Path based on criteria like tenure and geography, all U.S.-based hosts received free one-year subscriptions. Airbnbmag is also sold on newsstands. (Certain Hearst magazine subscribers also got the extra 200,000 copies mentioned earlier.)

While the recent launch of these two publications backed by an industry heavyweight like Hearst has expanded the offerings on otherwise shrinking newsstands, the trend has a pedigree.

“It’s not brand new,” said Poynter’s media business analyst Rick Edmonds. “If you want to go way back, Condé Nast Traveler was created out of the ashes of a magazine that Diners Club used to do.”

Credit card company American Express has published the glossy quarterly Departures since 1984. Airline-specific in-flight magazines date to the 1960s and remain popular to this day. Trader Joe’s runs a whimsical circular that is a cut above coupon-clipping grocery store offerings. O, The Oprah Magazine, has been sold at checkout counters since 2000. Chip and Joanna Gaines have parlayed an HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” into a mini-empire that since 2017 includes the print lifestyle magazine Magnolia Journal.

The upswing of such print offerings is that magazines have taken on a new urgency in the smartphone era.

“There are a lot of different ways that brands, regardless of their organizational structure, are finding a voice in print in order to reach people offline, invite them to put their phones down and not have to compete with constant digital attention,” Mottola said.

What distinguishes REI is its commitment to journalistic rigor in its editorial products, most notably its editorial guiding principles modeled on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and the Online News Association Ethics Code, developed in consultation with the journalists on staff.

“The leadership team decided that we were at an inflection point with the size of audience and quality of work,” Mottola said. “We needed to state an editorial mission and provide more transparency about why we do what we do. It was a homegrown idea and part of the maturity of our work.”

The principles cover some basics such as a bias for life outdoors, an acknowledgment that products mentioned are likely to be sold at the store and recognition that REI may have financially supported sources that are covered in editorial products. Given REI’s wide-ranging philanthropy to outdoor causes — over $100 million since the company’s inception in 1938 — entirely avoiding such organizations and individuals would have been a severe handicap.

“We consider our work advocacy journalism,” senior editor Michelle Flandreau said. “Above all, we’re advocating for a life outdoors, through our coverage of topics like climate change, nature, health, diversity, equity, inclusion and recreation. And we also hold ourselves to a high standard of integrity in our work and ascribe to the principles of journalism.”

Flandreau, who holds a broadcast journalism degree from the University of Missouri, came to REI from a similar corporate content role at Starbucks, but before that spent nearly six years in TV news, which has served her well at the helm of editorial day to day. “I routinely draw on my journalism experience, whether that’s turning around a breaking news story on deadline or discussing the approach for an enterprise feature,” she said.

While REI may only have hired six journalists, it has indirectly helped others keep up a career in the field. Alongside the company’s June announcement that it would retire the catalog in favor of Uncommon Path, REI pledged $100,000 to 10 non-profit newsrooms nationwide through NewsMatch.

“We’re looking at what we can do for journalism and the information economy,” Mottola said. “Yes, we’re creating our own editorial products, but there are also other ways we can support the infrastructure of journalism.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the audited number of copies of Outside magazine. The AAM reported in June that the total circulation is 697,021, not 691,021.

Additionally, the story has been updated to correct the fact that although REI/Hearst printed 700,000 copies, 200,000 of those went to non-REI households, but to Hearst households as a “surprise,” according to an email from REI received after publication.

Greg Scruggs is a freelance writer. He can be reached at news@poynter.org.