Between a Vietnamese cafe and an upholstery shop, in a little forlorn strip mall in the Dogpatch, are the offices of Once Magazine, an iPad-only experiment in photojournalism and profit sharing whose first paid issue became available this month, the manifested dream of its CEO, Jackson Solway. Jackson isn't very old, as CEOs go. He's 26. And the offices are really just a few rooms, one of which includes a weight bench. And Jackson isn't a megalomaniacal, money-hungry start-up baby genius, either. He's just a guy, really, who has a great idea.
Let me get this disclosure out of the way: I know Jackson through a friend who's little brother is his roommate. I met him at a Fourth of July party and it wasn't until we were well into our first Scrabble game (it was that kind of Fourth of July party), that I found out he was on the verge of revitalizing photojournalism. When I originally heard about Once, I just assumed it was some cute project to keep a group of just-out-of-college boys busy until they got real jobs. But then I kept hearing about it. And hearing about it.
Jackson Solway, CEO of Once Magazine
Jackson's such a disarmingly friendly, low-key guy that it's hard to believe he's breathing new life into an industry some people have already left for dead. But the truth is, he and the close-knit group of college friends who make up his staff might already be in the middle of creating something new.
First, there was his original goal: to tell what he calls "photo stories which have potentially high impact" on readers -- stories that are important, with images that are visually arresting. Stories that required a reader's emotional participation. Early on Solway wanted to create some form of magazine, but it wasn't until the iPad came around that Once became a real possibility. His belief in his original idea and his ambition, or maybe his blind confidence, propelled the project and convinced friends -- the central crew is all from Jackson's alma mater, Colorado College -- to drop what they were doing and join his team, well before any of it was a reality.
Nick Hiebert and John Knight in the offices of Once Magazine
Nick Hiebert, now the magazine's communications director, moved from Colorado to the Bay to help start it up. In an email, Nick describes his recruitment like this:
Jackson: How would you like to move to San Francisco and start a photojournalism magazine?
Nick: What do you have in mind?
Jackson: Long hours, cool content, smart team, iPad-only, no pay.
Nick: I'm in.
And Nick wasn't the only person to put so much faith in Solway's ability to make things happen: Andrew Jones, now the magazine's publisher, moved from Mendocino to work with Jackson and they were joined by a fourth friend, John Knight, the editorial director, who was already living in the city.
Solway's vision didn't just convince his friends, it helped him get the buy-in of some very successful photographers like Matt Eich, who has had work in The Portland Art Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, among others. "We started cold calling them," says Jackson. "It's best to work with the best photographers." Well, yes, of course. But that doesn't mean they will work with you.
Solway was proposing an intriguing idea to make sure the photographers get paid: revenue sharing. Once pays contributors per download, sort of like old-fashioned royalties, but with the twist of total transparency due to the ability to accurately track performance through the App Store. So Once shares everything with its artists, not, as Solway puts it, "some amorphous profit figure we can screw with."
With all this idealism, you might think the final product couldn't work. It sounds too good: happy artists, a serious goal, friends working together. But it does work. Partially because, as Jackson says, "they are friends, yes, but they are all really great at what they do." And together, they have developed an app that allows the gorgeous photos they showcase to be the centerpiece while still letting the user experience text and well-integrated additional content, like videos and interactive maps, in a totally intuitive way.
Playing with the newest issue of Once in their offices, I suddenly saw the appeal of the iPad itself, which up until then I had been pretty skeptical of. The transitions are smooth, you can view the images without text for as long as you want and the possibilities for interactive features seem almost endless. And I'm not the only one who likes it. So far the magazine has been downloaded over 30,000 times and was in the "What's Hot" section of the App Store for 9 days.
If Once succeeds, it will mean that, even with all these advances in technology, people still care about complex stories told through beautiful pictures that take longer than a second to digest -- that you want to hold in your hand for awhile.
And sitting on a couch in the Once offices, scrolling through images of alligator hunters in Louisiana and metal scavengers in Chernobyl, I have to admit, Jackson Solway's dream all seemed possible. That maybe even if print culture is dying there is already something a little better, ready to take its place.