Meet the 6-year-old mag that just took the internet by storm

Pacific Standard is upping its Web game to "get the magazine in front of more eyeballs"

Pacific Standard has had an exciting January. It’s been the magazine’s biggest traffic month ever, on track to hit 1.25 million uniques. Half of those people came to read two very different stories, one on online harassment, the other on artisanal toast and schizoaffective disorder, the success of which is all the more gratifying for a small shop located on the edge of the media world—Santa Barbara, CA.

In most industries, being based in a small, livable city where flowers bloom year-round, the Pacific Ocean is steps to the west, and forested mountains stand just to the east wouldn’t be a problem at all. In the media, it’s a challenge. Editorially ambitious Californians might lament that there’s no New Yorker of the West while they shiver through snowy commutes to DC and Manhattan offices, but thought-leader magazines get published on the East Coast, and that’s that.

But in 2007, in Santa Barbara, the academic publisher Sara Miller McCune founded the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, with the idea that it would be a worthwhile endeavor to publish a magazine rooted in academic research but legible to lay readers. She hired John Mecklin, then the editor of the High Country News, to come out to Santa Barbara, and the first issue of Miller-McCune was published six months later.

In the bimonthly magazine’s first two years, Miller-McCune’s small staff amassed both awards and an enthusiastic audience, but smart media commentators were only just starting to notice. In April of 2010, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit praised the magazine for its “well-crafted, deep” reporting while admitting he’d heard of it but “only now checked it out.” The Los Angeles Times ran a feature that June calling Miller-McCune “virtually unknown to the general public.” In October, the Atlantic’s James Fallows—an early supporter—gave it a cheeky nomination for “publication consistently doing a better job than most people realize.”

In 2011, Mecklin stepped down, and Maria Streshinsky, who had been managing editor of The Atlantic, took over. In April of 2012, the magazine relaunched with, Streshinsky says, “some excitement and some caution,” about its new name, Pacific Standard, one which emphasized the magazine’s Best Coast bona fides and explicitly aimed to bring the magazine’s “Western perspective to the media landscape.”

“I didn’t want to totally geographically locate us, and that’s the challenge of the name,” Streshinsky says. “We wanted to establish that there are really interesting stories coming out all sorts of places, and we cover the whole world. But that we sit out here with a perspective from the West.”

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog or a robot or a West Coast-based bimonthly magazine. But that doesn’t mean that good work necessarily gets the recognition it deserves. That takes time, focus, and the resources to support those goals.

From the outset, all but a tiny fraction of Pacific Standard’s funding came from Sage Publications, the publishing house that Sara Miller founded in 1965, a year before she moved the company to California and married George McCune. In 2008, according to the Miller-McCune Center’s tax documents, the publishing house provided $2.23 million of the center’s $2.27 million in revenue.

In the six years since, the budget has crept up and is now “just at $3 million,” according to Streshinsky. When I ask her about other revenue, she says, first, “We don’t have any other revenue,” and then catches herself. “That’s not true,” she added. “We have newsstand revenue and subscription revenue”—and, increasingly, revenue from the website. But those small streams of money do not begin to cover the costs of producing the publication. (In 2010, for example, the Miller-McCune Center’s main activity was publishing Miller-McCune and “program revenue”—which includes magazine sales—was just over $47,500, less than 2 percent of the overall budget.)

Mecklin, the first editor in chief, and Streshinsky both say that Sara Miller McCune has given the magazine’s editors free rein. “I’ve spent a way longer time than I probably want to talk about doing public-interest journalism,” says Mecklin, who’s now the editor at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (which is published by Sage, too). “At this point in my career, I wouldn’t have done anything where I didn’t have complete freedom.” Streshinsky calls Pacific Standard’s setup “pretty remarkable.”

There is a plan to increase revenue via a stronger focus on advertising and by starting a conference business along the lines of The Atlantic’s. The magazine has been careful not to ask for more money from Sage, Streshinsky says, adding that the long-term goal is to break even. But the priority right now, she says, is fulfilling the mission that Sara Miller McCune set out with: getting great ideas out into the world.

During Miller McCune’s long career as an academic publisher, papers and books full of brilliant ideas would cross her desk, and she would think about how to increase the number of people who saw them and thought about them. She began to conceive of a publication that would take this type of compelling research, which had a tiny readership, and translate it into stories that would make a wider audience pay attention. That was what motivated the creation of Miller-McCune to begin with—and what motivated its rebranding as Pacific Standard.

“[Sara Miller McCune] wanted to get the magazine in front of more eyeballs,” says Streshinsky.

In its second iteration, as Pacific Standard, the magazine has focused more of its resources on the Web. But the website for Miller-McCune was not an initial priority. It was 2008, and the staff was starting a magazine from nothing—in true startup style, with no desks and no functioning phones on the first day of work.

“The website was not…did not take off for a short time, because you’re trying to get people to get to know what Miller-McCune is. Because it’s not Newsweek,” says Mecklin. “It’s not a name that says ‘This is what we are.’” Over time, Web traffic grew from zero to 30,000 uniques each month, to several hundred thousand uniques. One blockbuster-traffic story did 300,000 uniques. By 2010, the front page featured a long roster of blogs and up to three new stories each day.

“The site had been doing good, interesting work but probably never reached the audience it could,” says Streshinsky. Pacific Standard relaunched with a new, slick website—more mobile and tablet-friendly, more Obama-era sans serif blue. In the past year, the Web staff has grown, too: Nicholas Jackson, a young editor who has thought hard about how to make the internet work for places like The Atlantic and Outside, joined as digital director; there is also a senior digital editor, two associate digital editors, and soon, a social media editor.

There are regularly seven new stories daily, and the online production is organized, Atlantic-like, around columnists rather than blogs. The website’s already been redesigned once since the relaunch. The site is better set up for social media than it was a few years ago: There’s not Web content and magazine content, just units of words that can be circulated.

The focus of words have changed, too. Although research and social sciences have remained at the heart of the enterprise, Miller-McCune said it aimed to “uncover solutions,” while Pacific Standard “grapples with…issues by focusing on what shapes human behavior.”

It’s that framework that allows the magazine to publish a feature about the anger and abuse women can face online in the same issue with one on a San Francisco café that serves toast, coffee, and coconuts. The toast story is by Streshinsky’s deputy, John Gravois, and it’s not really about toast—it’s about a woman, the owner of the café—a person with a very specific reason to have created a very specific place.

“He called me after interviewing Giulietta,” says Streshinsky. “We thought we were running a front-of-the-book, small discovery story. We talked about it, and it turned into this remarkable story about human behavior.”

It is also a story that grew, very clearly, from living in a specific place: the West Coast.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. Tags: ,