The ML Interview: Steve Casimiro

By Leslie Anthony

No one should be surprised at Steve Casimiro’s success as creator and editor of Adventure Journal. The best and most comprehensive distillation of outdoor-related happenings on the web, AJ delivers everything from daily ski and cycle inspiration, to weather and climate change analysis, environmental and political news, historical profiles, opinion polls, and the latest in outdoor movie genius, whether film style or stunt. An accomplished photographer lionized for the soulful writing he produced during 11 years as editor of Powder magazine, the Monarch Beach, California-based 51-year-old parlayed a journalism start at USA Today into the editorship of alpine skiing’s de facto bible (1987-1998), the launch of ground-breaking Bike and other creative projects, and a decade-long stint at National Geographic Adventure until it ceased regular publication in 2009. In the premiere issue of Mountain Life Annual, Casimiro talks about AJ’s genesis and the work required to cover its depth and breadth of subject matter under the “OutSpoken: Three Questions” banner, but here we reproduce the entire interview from which those answers were taken:

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MLA: Instead of starting at the beginning let’s work backwards: How different is what you’re doing now from what you started out doing in the journalism world?

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In some ways what I’m doing now is identical to what I learned to do in journalism school, at newspapers, and at Powder. The basic process of reporting a story—compiling notes, researching, and the goal—doesn’t change. What’s changed for me is an amplification and acceleration in the sheer volume of stories I have to deal with on a daily basis. And another big change is that with AJ I’m balancing original material that I produce with an aggregation model. So not only am I doing one-offs but also adding value to things I find online like videos, photos or news. One thing to remember is that original reporting is itself an aggregation exercise since someone else has already done or said something about a story, or is involved in it in some way. So the basic mechanism of what I’m doing hasn’t changed, but the work flow—and tools—have really changed.

MLA: When you entered the world of journalism was there any hint that today’s landscape is where things were going? Where you were going?

None. It didn’t become clear to me until about four years ago. I started out in newspapers. I was going to be a newspaper guy and change the world and when the opportunity at Powder presented itself I agonized over whether going to a consumer mag was going to contribute in any way to humanity. In the end i think it allowed me to contribute far more. I joined Powder in the second half of the golden era of magazines, a period that I think was the 1970s-90s. During that time there was an explosion in magazines and we were riding the gravy train, modest as our budgets were.

Even after that I was optimistic. It wasn’t until the last decade when I watched the struggle at National Geographic Adventure that I thought “something is broken here” with the standard publishing business model. The melt-freeze cycle in magazines was happening faster, the wedges in the cracks were freezing faster and harder and driving it apart at an exponential rate. I think in 2004/2005 I had a sense of this, but it was around 2006/2007 when I started thinking about what the next steps were for me and how I was going to deal with my frustrations in the current media.

I had gotten pigeon-holed into writing about gear and though that was good—I’m definitely a gadget freak and I got to travel a lot for NGA—I knew I was capable of doing so much more. I mean, I ran Powder and successfully conceived and launched Bike, yet I was spending all my time writing about soft shells. But after all the time at Powder, launching Bike magazine, working with other big names and then being part of the National Geographic family, where do you go?

I came to believe that commercial magazines were speaking to their audiences only in terms of sales. The selling of the magazine, the selling of advertisers’ products, the selling of the reader as commodity. Which is backwards. Adventure Journal exists to stoke people about the outdoor experience (and educate and entertain and inspire). I see it as a conversation between friends…whereas with traditional commercial magazines…I mean, look at the newsstand. Magazine blurbs scream at you in totally desperate language—exclamation points and gimmicks that appeal to your deepest insecurities and fears. Publications should appeal to your greatest strengths and dreams.

MLA: Is that why Powder‘s ethos felt so natural to you?

Absolutely. These days when someone starts a magazine the first idea is ‘How do we make money with this?’ But that’s backwards, you need to have the product first and then figure out how to make money. Powder was always that way.

MLA: How hard is it to keep this thing going?

It’s incredibly easy and also very hard. There’s no end to what you can put on a website. It’s infinite. I used to feel sorry for radio and TV having to fill up it’s daily 24 hours, but with the web its endless. So, the difficulty is not being able to get to every story I want to and also knowing when to stop.

But it’s easy because I believe in it to my core. Throughout my career, I’ve always been passionate about the sports and activities I’m covering, but I’m just a little bit more passionate about my job. If it were the other way around, I’d build everything around skiing and riding and whatnot and just write and shoot as a hobby. But I’ve staked myself on trying to get other people psyched to be outside, and with Adventure Journal there’s nothing standing in the way except, perhaps, for lack of time and resources.

I’m old enough now to realize my days are finite, and I’ve been in my career long enough to know that five, ten years will go by quickly. The challenge is that I have an incredible opportunity with AJ to build something authentic, something that maybe can really mean something to people. I wish I had 48 hours in a day because I can’t wait to get up in the morning and do something with AJ for people who care deeply about the outdoors. This kind of commitment has always been important to me. Whenever i hired someone at Powder I’d tell them ‘That’s great that you care deeply about skiing but you have to care about your career more because you can’t just walk out your door here and go skiing.’

MLA: What’s a day like for you now? Does it feel more like assembling a million little pieces of something than committing to a chunk of work on one thing?

You don’t really want to know. I’m at my desk by 6 every morning and typically put in 12-14 hours a day, less family and outdoor time.

MLA: id anything in your experience at Powder or later prepare you for this? What was it about the Powder experience that makes where you are now seem logical?

Everything at Powder prepared me for this and everything later prepared me as well. Powder showed me the power of a shared emotional connection, which is like an extra limb—an unbelievably powerful, feeling of community you have through this sharing that cements a relationship. At Powder it was never just about writing a story and pushing it out into the world, because of the emotional connection you were preaching to the choir all the time so you had to be coming from that shared experience. Bike was the same if not more so. With National Geographic Adventure I learned about talking to a broader audience where not everyone was at the same level of expertise or passion; it’s difficult to walk that line between the core and the not-yet core.

So my major experiences were: smaller and more core versus broader and less core. I’m trying to synthesize and bring these together with AJ, and finding my newspaper experience is helpful as well—producing 7-8 stories a day is a freakin’ boatload. One of the most important aspects of AJ to me is tone. You know—what’s the voice? It was the same at Powder. You can’t be everything to everyone, you have to be something; this is a huge mistake that many large mags make. So with every AJ headline and every other little thing I am again this curator of voice.

MLA: What were the best and worst aspects of the Powder years?

The best aspects could fill a book, but the best for me personally was simply being editor of Powder, something that was so far from my reality at one point that I wouldn’t have even dreamed it. And then suddenly there i was in the position with an intoxicating responsibility to write for a world of people I cared deeply about whether I’d met them yet or not. So it was the job. I remember thinking it’s your job to do this and it was so rewarding. Meeting guys like Hattrup and Plake or Trevor [Petersen] and Eric [Pehota] and, and… good God I got to ski some great powder!

The negative? I have a lot of trouble conjuring up any real negatives. The thing I had the hardest time with, however, was being a manager of people. It’s never easy and it wasn’t my strength then and maybe now that I have kids I would be better at it. Learning to communicate things to people without stepping on toes was really hard. So there are things I would definitely do differently, but I feel like I needed to learn that, too, so viewed in hindsight I can’t really call it a negative.

MLA: Can you talk about the transition period between Powder and here, what happened to you, to the mag world, to the online world etc.

Leaving Powder and Bike gave me the opportunity to explore other things I’d always wanted to do as a freelancer. I did some magazine consulting and a fair bit of writing for magazines like Outside, I did a column for Skiing, but I quickly found a home at National Geographic Adventure. I liked the gravitas of the publication and the striving for excellence that came with that culture. It was big and broad and consumer-oriented but still all about adventure. But then in 2008 the advertising industry imploded and the magazine was struggling. That’s when I started blogging and exploring the online media world and whether or not I wanted to do something there. AJ came out that.

MLA: The time you were at Powder, some of which I experienced, was like evolution itself: long periods of stasis punctuated by wild sprees of change and diversification. In skiing magazines, a few icons held the same ground for the longest time, then all of a sudden there was this crazy fissioning and fusion. Can you speak to that? How you saw it? Why it happened?

Ski and Skiing weren’t doing what we did and we didn’t really think about them. To that point Powder had always been the upstart and then suddenly there were upstarts everywhere—Freeskier and Freeze and bunch of smaller ‘zines. Skiing was changing and the snowboard seeds were taking root in the sport. Change is messy. A lot of things get broken as a lot of ideas get tried. But the dust has settled, I think. In the end there wasn’t really much change—most of those titles weren’t able to sustain and now Powder is back to where it was.

Take what was going on then and multiply it by a million and that’s what’s going on now in publishing—with far greater repercussions. On the net everyone is getting their content for free. When you take away the barrier of money you can see where people choose to spend their time. And it’s such a different world: If you do or say something in print you might get a letter to the editor but now you can have 25 people tell you you’re talking out of your ass within seconds. I’m curious to see which voices are still around in 10 years and what they look like.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s you skied in the winter and did other stuff in the summer and Powder arrived in August and you tapped into the ski stoke. But now the cycle never breaks; during June and July you know what’s going on in Portillo in seconds. Taking a break is healthy and makes the heart grow fonder, which is now a challenge as there isn’t the same rhythm.

If you handed me $1 million to start something up on the Internet I’d probably build something very much like what I have now.

MLA: You are an excellent photographer, and yet somehow arrived by stealth, coming in under the radar while people were paying attention to your soulful words.

My photo journey started when I was 11. A family friend was into photography. He was open about sharing what he knew and I thought it was cool. I loved the gadgetry of the SLR camera and the ability to create or make something. In high school I took a yearbook course and learned to process photos in the darkroom and I thought that was fantastic. I bought my first camera with money I earned on a paper route and became a yearbook photographer. I also did some sports and other random shooting—like going downtown to shoot a protest where I’d be standing around with real [news-service] stringers.

I shot for college newspapers and wanted to do so for the big guys. But when I got in at USA Today it was on the copy desk, so I actually entered professional journalism in the world of words.

When I started at Powder I wasn’t a good ski photographer but I got to stand next to all the greats on the hill and learn from them. I try not to overstate things, but I think it’s safe to say that the biggest legacy of Bike is that by creating a market for adventure biking we enabled a generation of mountain bike shooters, and I got to ride that first wave. We really had to prime the pump for the first few years—[Dave] Reddick and I were shooting a lot.

There were two main things in the development of my photography. First, after shooting with National Geographic Adventure I talked to the photo editor about pushing my work to a new level of impact and she suggested that I switch to medium format and slow down the process. That made a huge difference in really taking a look and composing and perfecting before pressing the shutter. The second thing was that when I started shooting apparel guides I’d never been much of a people photographer and portraiture didn’t interest me that much. Then I suddenly had to shoot fashion that was interesting to everyone and authentic to the core audience. I didn’t want to fail and wanted to make it look good. I was in amazing locations and had good people to work with, and then the clothing had to fit into this. I came up with a signature look in the field that helped me understand what my voice as a photographer is. I crossed a threshold; I now know how to work with whatever elements I find in a location.

 

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