Tag Archives: Debbie Davis

“Can you help me start a magazine?”

Many times in the past 22 years I’ve received messages like this one:

“I am currently in the process of exploring an opportunity to publish a magazine and hoped you might be able to provide some insight, advice or guidance in taking such a big step….”

The most recent one came earlier this month from a working mom who was looking for a new direction following her recovery from surgery. She is thinking about starting a magazine. She asked if I could “find some time to either chat by phone, or meet with me (and my friend who may join me in this venture) to answer a few questions.”

Messages like these always make me squirm. I hate to squelch someone else’s enthusiasm or dreams but the truth is that it’s hard for me to recommend magazine publishing as an attractive option. Especially when the person who contacts me is looking at it as an opportunity to “provide a positive balance for my health, my kids and my livelihood.”

The mom who wrote to me sees publishing a magazine as “the possibility of being my own boss and doing something with more flexibility.” That is important to her, she wrote, because she’s a single mom.

I like to be a nice person. I like to be a helpful person. But I can’t think of a single reason to recommend that this woman pursue her plan. Not because I wish I hadn’t done it; but because I know I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had any idea how hard it would be.

Here is what I will tell this woman she should consider before deciding to start her magazine:

• You need to be realistic about the financial model of publishing, especially in this economy and this time in history, when technology keeps changing the game plan. If you don’t have a way to pay for at least a year of operating expenses before you get started, you probably shouldn’t get started.

• You need to thoroughly research the competition and figure out how what you want to do fills a need that’s not already being met. There are obvious competitors (i.e. other magazines targeting your audience) but don’t forget the impact of an increasingly  diverse and stratified range of media delivery systems all vying for pieces of the same pie when it comes to advertising dollars.

• You must have a reliable source of household income. It could be many years before you can put yourself on the payroll regularly. I could never have persevered past tough times if I didn’t know my family’s basic needs were going to be met by my husband’s steady income.

• You must have people on your team who can do the things you can’t do. My background is in journalism. Though I have an MBA in marketing, I have never worked in sales and I don’t have good instincts for it. I would have been lost but for the knowledge, experience and professionalism of my founding and current marketing director, MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb. Then, a year ago, I turned over management of the business to Operations Director Debbie Davis. She has a much better head for business than I do and it has been a relief to know she’s got everything under control while I focus on the part I really love: content development.

• You must involve people who believe in your publication and see their role in its mission as “more than a job.” Never did I appreciate that more than in the last two years, when the heavy impact of the recession meant every person on my staff had to do more for less. Only people who know their work has a higher purpose than making money can put up with that without resentment.

• Forget the fantasy of flexibility. The only flexibility you will have as the owner of a magazine (and, I’m guessing, any business) is when you choose to work. I never missed a performance or game when my sons were growing up. I volunteered in the classroom, chaperoned field trips and served spaghetti and meatballs to the team at noon each Friday when my sons played high school football. But I worked a lot of late nights, rarely took a full weekend off and always had my laptop on vacations (even the rare ones on other continents). When there is too much to do and not enough people to do it, you have to carry the slack. And if you’re someone who truly cares about the quality and the integrity of your business, you are constantly working on ways to improve it.

If she listens to all that and still wants to move forward her plan, then I’m guessing she already has some of the personal qualities it takes to last in this business: resilience, tenacity and sheer stubbornness.

Celebrating my birthday at Camp Fair

I have to admit that I wasn’t all that excited, at first, to realize that Camp Fair was going to fall on my birthday this year. Birthdays are supposed to be about taking it easy, doing what you want to do and being with the people you want to be with.

Well, except for the “taking it easy” part, I got just that — and more — by celebrating my birthday at Camp Fair this year.

I had my husband there telling me how proud  he is of this annual event, which we’ve now put on for eight consecutive years. I had a phone call from my 25-year-old son Andy, who was at work himself but had 20 minutes between interviewing governors attending the National Governors Association meetings in Washington, D.C. (My 23-year-old son David, who also lives and works in D.C., was en route to New York City. He called a bit later in the day.)

Andrea and Ava ham it up with maginfying glasses at the Imagine That! camp exhibit.

My second cousin’s daughter Andrea (I call her my niece because it’s less complicated) came up from ASU with her roommate, Ava. Unbeknownst to me, the girls had stopped at my house on the way, where they left my favorite Dairy Queen ice cream cake in the freezer before they stopped by Camp Fair to visit, bring gifts and whisk me away for a quick lunch.

I had my whole Raising Arizona Kids family around me, with hugs and well wishes (and a very funny “old lady” card from Operations Director Debbie Davis, who is just a few months younger than I am). I even had joyful reunions with two former staff members — Mary Kay Post and Nancie Schauder, both of whom came to help out. (Nancie, who teaches in a developmental preschool, always volunteers to staff our resource table for special needs camps. Because she had brain surgery — brain surgery! — in December, we weren’t sure she’d be able to make it this year. But there she was, beaming as always and proclaiming that she’d never felt better in her life.)

I had a conversation with Chris Cameron at Camp Ocean Pines that fed my soul in ways only another writer could understand. He said he’d been following my stories about Ethiopia and was moved by the honesty and emotion of my writing. (He’s been to Africa a few times himself, so he understands how powerful and life-changing that experience can be.) He also told me he gets lots of parenting magazines from all over the country and feels ours does the best job of providing consistent, high-quality content. Another wonderful gift!

I saw many longtime friends, including Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Maria del Mar Verdin, who comes to every Camp Fair and had her daughter Katie with her this year. Maria told me she never makes her children’s summer plans until she attends our Camp Fair. Talk about making my day!

"Aunt" Karen and Ace, who plays lacrosse with the Desert Sitx program.

And then there was the unexpected visit from two of my “forever friends” — Tony Jenkins and his daughter, Ace — who came by with a colorful, homemade card (the best kind!) and a gift bag full of what they know is my absolute, all-time favorite food: peanut butter.

I first met Tony and his wife Darlene when our sons were friends in middle school. All four boys eventually became high school football teammates, so we spent a lot of time together on the bleachers at games. When Ace was born, I made them promise to share her with me because I knew I would never have a daughter of my own. I have enjoyed being a surrogate aunt to this bright and loving child, who always forgives me when I let too many months lapse between our visits.

Dan Friedman posted some great photos on our Facebook page throughout the day. Here are some of my Camp Fair memories:

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Set-up? Check.

The signs are posted. The pipe-and-draping is up. The tables are covered in Cub Scout colors of navy, gold and white, with two chairs neatly placed behind each one. Some yummy-looking breakfast pastries are waiting for exhibitors and staff who will begin showing up as early as 7:30am.

We got the gymnasium at Tesseract School Shea Campus ready for Camp Fair 2011 in just about two hours. Not bad, considering we had 72 tables to set up and hundreds of items to get in their right places.

It started when the truck from Party People showed up, its muscled workmen casually offloading thousands of pounds worth of tables, chairs and metal pipes.

Sean Lieb helps his mom, MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb, straighten a table. That's Catherine Griffiths in the back.

Several members of our staff were in the gymnasium to carry the tables and chairs to their correct positions — including Marketing Director MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb and her son Sean, who were there despite exhaustion and grief from the most difficult of weeks for their family. MaryAnn’s father-in-law, Herb Lieb, died Thursday night at the age of 91. Services will be Sunday.

We all tried to tell MaryAnn she didn’t need to come, but I understand why she did. Work is relief, sometimes, when life is overwhelming. So we hugged her hard and hugged Sean, too, and we all got busy.

Taylor Thompson, a freshman at Tesseract, and Mala Blomquist.

Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist and Account Executive Catherine Griffiths also helped with set-up. Art Director Michelle-Renee Adams and Production Manager Tina Gerami fielded phone calls at the office so the rest of us could be away.

We had help from the staff (and even a student) at Tesseract. Taylor Thompson got a hug from Mala after she patiently helped arrange tablecloths.

Tesseract’s Scott Salk (who has a very important job Saturday morning, because he’s bringing the coffee!) pulled hundreds of water bottles off of flats from Costco and put them in the refrigerator to chill.

But the real hero of the day was Derek Scoble, who took a day off work to help his fiancee, Operations Director and Camp Fair coordinator Debbie Davis, with all the “day before” preparations. (Derek asked Debbie to marry him over the winter holidays,  much to our staff’s united support and delight.) He helped with the morning Costco run, then loaded dozens of boxes into his truck, unloaded them at Tesseract, hauled tables all over the gymnasium and then methodically worked the room, making sure everything was lined up perfectly because he knows that the woman he loves likes things to be just so.

When we realized we were done setting up, we paused and looked around. “It’s so quiet!” Debbie said, knowing that we’d be shouting to hear each other over the noise of the crowd tomorrow.

Monkey business and many caps

When my sons were small I loved reading the book Caps for Sale with them. The story, about a peddlar whose inventory of caps is stolen by some mischievous monkeys while he naps under a tree,  is a wonderful bit of silliness that’s fun to read out loud.

But it also has a great message about the futility of “best laid plans” and trying to “get all your ducks in a row.” It’s a message that bears repeating for people like me, who torture themselves with unrealistic expectations and the resulting frustration of realizing you can’t control as much as you’d like.

The weary peddlar wasn’t having a great day. No one wanted to buy his caps. He was hungry but he didn’t have any money to buy food. So he walked into the countryside, found a big, shady tree and decided to rest for a bit.

First, he checked the caps that were stacked high on top of his head: “…his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then the blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” (My fellow control freaks will note the color-coordinated inventory system, the systematic procedures and the fulfillment of duty before giving oneself a break.)

But he did eventually fall asleep. And as he slept, all of his caps (except his own checked cap) were stolen by a band of monkeys. When he woke up and saw them in the branches above him, each monkey wearing one of his caps, he asked to get them back. When nothing happened, he demanded, shook his hands and stamped his feet. The monkeys didn’t relinquish the caps.

Finally, in sheer exasperation, he threw his own cap to the ground, begrudgingly accepting the fact that he couldn’t control the outcome. And guess what? The monkeys mimicked his action. All the caps rained down at the peddlar’s feet.

Sometimes no matter how hard you try to be organized, on top of things, prepared and prescient, you have to give in to forces you can’t control.

We had a crazy day at work today. With April issue deadlines looming and Camp Fair happening this Saturday, we were all wearing too many caps. We were rushing and distracted. Some of us were tired; some were battling colds and flu.

That’s always when things don’t go right. Our Internet connection was exasperatingly sluggish. A backup toner cartridge for the color printer exploded, spreading yellow fairy dust everywhere and blocking our efforts to print materials we need to have on Saturday. While I was juggling payroll and HTML code I managed to send out an eLetter with an incorrect link to our Mother’s Day Cover Mom contest. (Here’s the correct link.)

Operations Director Debbie Davis, who’s wearing more caps than anyone these days as she also coordinates Camp Fair, finally came to me at 7:30pm and said, “I think it’s time to call it a day.”

So we threw our many caps on the ground, laughed about our frustrating day and headed home.

The end of a Mothering era

No more Mothering.

During intermission at the Sunday matinee performance of “Spamalot” I learned that Mothering magazine — the print edition, anyway — is dead.

The news came from East Valley mom Brittney Walker, a frequent contributor to Raising Arizona Kids and a catalytic force in our company’s growing online and social media presence. Brittney sent me a link to Mothering’s announcement, “How We Became a Web Company.”

“In the last few weeks it has become obvious that we must cease publication of the print magazine,” wrote editor Peggy O’Mara. “With the March-April edition, after 35 years, we will cease publishing Mothering magazine. We are now a Web-only company.”

This news is sobering to those of us in the publishing world. I think many of us who publish special interest magazines hoped we were somehow invulnerable to the changing face of media. Certainly we weren’t subject to the same pressures faced by daily newspapers and weekly news magazines struggling to compete with real-time access to breaking news. Sure, we were hit hard by the recession. But economic conditions are cyclical, not irreversible. Reading a magazine is “an experience,” some in our industry proclaimed. Niche publications with loyal audiences would surely survive the media fallout.

But then the big guys with family audiences started folding: Child, Cookie, Nickelodeon, Teen, Wondertime. And now Mothering.

Mothering filled a special niche in the national parenting magazine arena. Targeted to “pioneers” in the natural-living movement, the publication was founded in 1976 by Addie Vorys Eavenson (now Cranson) and a group of volunteers. A story not unlike our our own, which came 14 years later.

Mothering grew to a circulation of 100,000 but saw subscriptions and advertising revenues drop for three consecutive years. O’Mara blames the economy’s hit on Mothering’s key advertisers — toy manufacturers, sling/infant carrier makers. She also says today’s parents seek information online and “don’t have time” to read.  I find it hard to believe that’s the full story.

Every company has a natural balance point between growth and stability. Did the magazine get too ambitious? Did it take on too large a staff? Did it lose the flexibility it had as a smaller operation? Did its message fail to resonate with “natural living” parents who saw too much emphasis on product advertising? I don’t have answers to any of these questions but I know that nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

This news certainly gives me pause. But I’m far from ready to pull the plug on print. Thankfully (and Marketing Director MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb would be furiously knocking on wood right now), Raising Arizona Kids is in a very stable place. Our revenues declined in 2009 but by 2010 were already (though slowly) moving back up. We are paying our bills on time. Thanks to fierce budgeting oversight by Operations Director Debbie Davis, we entered 2011 feeling we’d weathered the worst of it.

We, too, are adapting to meet the changing information needs of today’s parents. In the 10 months since we committed to an eZine concept — publishing fresh content daily at raising arizonakids.com — our web traffic has grown by 66 percent. We were the first local parenting resource to jump into social media and continue to have the strongest presence.

I worry for publications like Mothering that give up on print, especially when print remains the strongest potential revenue stream for magazines. No one yet has figured out how to pull in equivalent money from web-based enterprises alone.

And there’s something else I have found interesting. Despite all the attention focused on the new media tools, despite growing online audiences, despite gloomy predictions that print will not survive, nearly everyone who contacts me with a story idea wants to see it in print. Clearly there is something real and lasting about words that appear in print that is not replicated in its digital form.

There is a scene in Act I of “Spamalot” (a musical spoof on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) where a tattered peasant is pulling a wagon through the streets, calling to the neighborhood that he is there to collect their dead. Another character enters the stage pulling what he claims to be a dead body by the arm. But the “body” is talking, indignantly protesting that “I’m not dead yet!” By the end of the scene, he is singing and dancing along with others on the wagon who had been given up for dead.

I’d like to believe that print, too, is “not dead yet.”

Day 55 after the office flood – moving back in

The truck from ABSOLUT Restoration arrived about 4pm yesterday.

After 55 days of disruption and dislocation, Raising Arizona Kids is back in its rightful home.

We’re not fully functional — computers and phones will be set up later today and we’ve got a mess of unpacking and sorting and organizing ahead of us — but our desks and chairs, computers and files are now back where they belong.

Well, most of them. Some items, too damaged by the June 2nd office flood (caused by a burst pipe in the suite above us) will not be coming back. We have a lot of work ahead figuring out what must be replaced and working with insurance companies to find out how to do that.

We also have dozens of boxes of company history and mementoes that have no financial value but will have to be assessed; much has been ruined or rendered unreadable by water and will have to be discarded.

This has been a trying time for all of us. I am really proud of the fact that my staff kept the core business on track despite the difficulties of working and communicating with each other during the past two months.

We’ve all experienced the invasion of work into our home lives. My living room has been our warehouse, with boxes of magazines piled around my front door. Marketing Director MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb has been making phone calls and writing contracts from my kitchen counter — and her own. Production Manager Tina Gerami has been hauling her files back and forth in a huge satchel.

The really stressful part fell to Operations Director Debbie Davis. She’s the one who has been negotiating with our property manager and two insurance companies. She’s the one who had to coordinate the move back — and set it up in such a way that we were “down” for the least amount of time. A lot of this was orchestrated while I was away in Ethiopia.

Yesterday, with the help of Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist, her daughter Solvay, Art Director Michelle-Renee Adams and Intern Emma Zang-Schwartz, I got everything we’d hastily moved to my house on June 2nd back into our now dry, newly recarpeted office. At about 4pm, ABSOUT Restoration showed up with a truck full of items they’d moved off-site and began the process of moving it all back in. They didn’t leave until 8:30pm and will be back again today with the last load.

Maintaining a sense of humor has been important to all of us the past 55 days.

My husband didn’t skip a beat when he realized everyone would be working out of our home during the two weeks I was away. Though he typically left the house before everyone arrived, Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist was surprised when she showed up to work one morning and Dan answered the door.

“What are you doing here?” she joked.

When I posted something on our Facebook about ABSOLUT coming in to pack us out, Assistant Editor Mary Holden suggested that another kind of Absolut might be in order.

We never fell that far. But late yesterday afternoon, when the unpacking team arrived and we realized we still had several hours to go, Mala, Solvay and I decided we were done. Some sort of escape was needed.

So we piled in my car and headed for Yogurt Builderz on Scottsdale Road. There, with large cups of fat-free frozen yogurt piled high and a dazzling array of toppings awaiting us — candies and nuts, sprinkles, chunks of brownies, round dabs of cookie dough, cubes of cheesecake and all sorts of enticing, fresh fruit — we found solace.

Day 22 after the flood: Ready to leave limbo

It’s been more than three weeks since we unknowingly angered the water gods. More than three weeks since we sloshed through water rescuing our computers and files. More than three weeks since a restoration company packed out most of our belonging and trucked them to a warehouse somewhere in town.

More than three weeks since The Great Office Flood of 2010. We’re now officially tired of being in limbo.

At first it was fun — something of an adventure. From the moment we discovered our office was under water (a pipe burst in the suite above us), we were brave explorers forging new paths to productivity against challenges that were novel and tangible. In a way, the flood shook us out of a deep funk. The last two years have been a long, slow march through the backlash of recession. It is infinitely more galvanizing to have a single, large obstacle than it is to have a thousand small, slow, cumulatively discouraging ones.

It was exciting and affirming to see the vigor with which my staff embraced the challenge of producing a magazine in the midst of such disruption. We all felt a huge sense of accomplishment when the July issue went in the mail this week — exactly on time.

But now our situation is starting to feel a bit frustrating.

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