Hello Mr. Ryan Fitzgibbon: TheBlot Speaks With an Editorial Visionary

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Hello Mr. Ryan Fitzgibbon: TheBlot Speaks With an Editorial Visionary

Hello Mr. is a new bi-annual print publication that launched in the spring of 2013 after a successful Kickstarter campaign to create an editorial voice for a new generation of gay men around the globe. I spoke with its founder, editor-in-chief, creative director and publisher, Ryan Fitzgibbon, about just why he thought all of this backbreaking work was actually necessary.

You’ve had a relatively brief yet stellar career so far as a graphic designer. Congratulations! Many others in the field (not me, obviously) would be quite envious and wouldn’t think to abandon ship so quickly. Why make such a drastic shift so early on from such a nice trajectory? 

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I’m not sure how to respond to this. Why take any risks in life? I felt compelled, quite strongly, to fill a void in the market for gay men. The more people I told about Hello Mr. the more confirmation and momentum I gained to pursue it fully, and it wasn’t going to happen if I stayed on a ship that was effectively being steered for me. By that, I mean that I was comfortable existing in the networks I restlessly built around me. I lived by the quote “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” and lucky for me, when I saw an opportunity to make some impact, I felt prepared enough to go out and achieve it.

What was the thinking behind the decision to do a printed magazine? Haven’t you heard that print is dead? 

Ha! Good one. I can’t wait to turn the page on this conversation. Haven’t you heard that digital advertising revenue figures are nowhere near what everyone projected, or that Newsweek just announced that they’re returning to print? Of course you have New York magazine going bi-weekly and others shutting down print altogether, but the journalism they produce is timely and easily found or replicated online. Many of the best emerging titles today are reaching much smaller, niche audiences who appreciate a less frequent piece of literature, produced without disposability in mind. Hello Mr. is only available twice a year and has already proven its worth on the coffee table of its loyal fans.

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That’s a really incredible insight into the publishing industry! Have you been handling the business side of Hello Mr. yourself? Have you had many advertisers reach out to you yet? AKA, when will Hello Mr. make you Mr. Moneybags?

My confidence in the publishing industry lies with the newer titles that have accomplished a lot with very little. It’s no surprise to me that we’re obsessing over indie print pubs right now. We skeptically observe the risk takers through every major industry shift, waiting to see which underdog will spark a little jolt of innovation into the system. I’m not sitting back to see whether advertisers will take note of Hello Mr. In fact, I’m not very sold on the whole traditional model that relies on advertising revenue to keep a publication afloat.

I’ve been a one-man show since its inception, keeping a very lean ship with the support of a talented crew of contributors and volunteers who feel as passionately about growing this brand as I do. Recently, however, I brought on a part-time director of brand partnerships to help me imagine some new ways to collaborate with brands that align to our brand goals. The intention behind these partnerships, be it print ads, co-sponsored events, or otherwise, is to provide more misters around the world with meaningful content and experience, rather than make it rich. Anyone in publishing (or online blogging) these days should know that. Making a living is attainable, but you’ve got to work your ass off for it.

How did you first approach designing such a publication?

I think I always knew I would end up working in publishing. From chancing upon a position as design editor for my high school paper, discovering my love for editorial design, to helping some of the largest brands in the world develop meaningful connections with their audiences — every step prepared me to create a brand and publication of my own. How I did it was a bit of a blur. I’m most productive when I isolate myself, so I left “my ship” in San Francisco and moved to Australia in search of that blank canvas to start from. I started to uncover other passionate individuals pursuing their own indie publishing ventures and my obsession with starting my own grew. Before I had a website, I developed a preliminary media kit which contained the brand attributes, my mission statement, and accompanying visuals that told much of the story for me. The bold concept of “rebranding gay media” through a non-glossy magazine about men who date men rang true for everyone I spoke to, gay or straight. From there, I quickly started building my network of writers, illustrators, and photographers and eventually had enough content to create the first issue. Persistence and a strong point of view were essential in making it a reality.

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You can really tell it is a graphic designer who is behind Hello Mr. when you talk about “rebranding gay media.” What did you find that was so intrinsically flawed with the portrayal of gay men in popular culture that compelled you to even have the idea for Hello Mr.? Do you think we are still dealing with outmoded stereotypes when Hollywood is churning out programming like “Modern Family,” “Happy Endings,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Scandal”?  

The biggest flaw I saw was that we hadn’t done enough to reach the gays in the middle. Existing media covers the extremes on either end of the spectrum tirelessly — the happily wed couple financially secure enough to adopt, the trans icon breaking boundaries, the chiseled cruise passengers sipping on their pro-gay vodka cocktail, and the out preschooler proving “gay is not a choice” — but no one was really showcasing the reality of the every day. Hello Mr. is an opportunity to step away from the prescriptive stereotypes in the spotlight and spend a little time reflecting on and defining our own unique experiences. I’m fascinated by all stereotypes and believe they can be used productively to establish a sense of community for gay men, but when we allow someone else’s label to define who we are, then we’re right back at square one.

Everything that goes into the magazine has to have the capacity to teach or inspire me to think differently. The content oscillates from microscope to mirror, causing examination of our collective and individuals truths.

The structure of the first issue varied a lot compared to the second. Do you find that you are still experimenting or have you settled on a method for organizing the content?

Brands should always be experimenting, especially when they’re young. I’m constantly asking and receiving feedback from my readers and contributors to produce the best possible experience for them. One thing I hear time and time again is that each issue is read cover to cover, so whether it’s the structure or the content itself, the message is getting delivered. Truthfully, though, the only change was the lack of chapters, which allowed the content of the inaugural issue to flow through a “coming-of-age arch.” The second issue didn’t need that and I didn’t want to pigeonhole the articles into any particular themes. This particular instance was less of an experiment and more of me doing what was most appropriate for the integrity of the content. Nonetheless, you’ll be seeing lots more experimenting from me in the future. I hope you’re ready for it!

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Hello Mr. makes a strong point to its contributors to keep things very broad in terms of regional stories, political news, etc. in order to keep a larger international readership. What was the logic behind that? 

I want to highlight universal truths that each one of us experience. For instance, the marriage debate is much further progressed in the U.S. than it is in most parts of the world, but heartache, as an example, is something most of us have felt and can relate to. The same goes for restaurant reviews or local goings-on; I don’t want to exclude anyone from the conversation because they don’t have the affordance to ever go there. The strategy is less about expanding my audience to a global readership and more about connecting people around the world through shared experiences.

Are there plans in the works to establish a social media platform to more literally connect the readers of Hello Mr. all over the world? Maybe an Airbnb/ Grindr/ Facebook hybrid? 

We’ve all seen various attempts at this for niche communities, but converting existing behaviors around methods of connecting is a colossal feat. I’m always thinking about what this could look/feel like, but I believe that as a brand getting started, it’s important that I focus on strengthening the “collective mind” before I build a platform and invite users to bring their preconceived notions of “connectivity” into the forum. When you think of a brand like Nike, you think of a set of values before anything else — a community connected through an aspiration. That’s what I want to build.

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Who were some of your collaborators? How did they help shape the magazine that is on the newsstands today?

They really stretch around the globe and all brought unique experiences to the table. I started by commissioning friends and new acquaintances to fill up about 30% of the content and allowed the rest to come in through submissions. This process spanned over about nine months, so there was a lot of influencing and reshaping that happened along the way.

What sorts of editorial decisions do you find yourself making when determining which stories make it all the way to press?

Everything that goes into the magazine has to have the capacity to teach or inspire me to think differently. The content oscillates from microscope to mirror, causing examination of our collective and individuals truths.

Which role do you most enjoy filling: editor-in-chief or art director?

I’m going to go with editor-in-chief this time. Everything is new, so it’s challenging and keeping me on my toes, which I ultimately prefer. 

How much designing are you doing these days?

Not much, to be honest, but this has been part of my trajectory since I graduated in 2009. The shift in my work from craft to strategy has been a gradual and uncomfortable process. When I was at university, “design thinking” curriculums were only just starting to emerge, so there wasn’t much of a precedent for how to apply my creative problem solving to larger “design challenges.” And then came IDEO. It was exactly the type of environment that I was looking for, but they saw a strategist in me early on and really supported me (as they do everyone) in the almost three years that I was there through the transition from a studied visual designer to a trained strategic thinker. My craft-oriented skill set has admittedly plateaued, as I’ve moved away from the Creative Suite and into Google Docs (and that ever expanding inbox). Anyway, to answer your question simply, I’d say 25% of my year is spent designing visuals, where it used to be 25% of my day.

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Do you miss the stability of a more traditional job in a design studio?

I’d argue that I’ve never had a traditional job in a design studio. While IDEO provided more stability in the form of a paycheck, human resources, and daily camaraderie, I was constantly in flux, thinking about new challenges or traveling to new places to uncover new insights. It’s an exciting place like that, and I genuinely miss the unpredictability of that multidisciplinary work environment.

I was asked to give the students of my alma mater some advice on what to look for in a job and I told them to ask themselves first whether they want to join something existing or start something new. This has been the lens for how I’ve decided to move around, and I’m happy to be settling into the once uncertain phase of starting something new as Hello Mr. continues to grow.

Are you currently dating any one man in particular?

No sir, I am not. Being the editor of a gay magazine has proven to be a really great filter for meeting interesting and driven men, but I haven’t pinned one down yet. That said, my database of eligible bachelors is growing, so I may consider providing matchmaking services in the future. Stay tuned.

The second issue of Hello Mr. is on newsstands now. You can submit stories to its upcoming issue through Jan. 15 and order copies online here.

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