7: Adirondack Life

Interview with Elizabeth “Betsy” Folwell, Creative Director, December 2006

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The subject of our program is the regional magazine Adirondack Life. Regional magazines describe and promote life and recreation in a particular geographic area. The Adirondack Park was created by the State of New York in 1892. The Park encompasses approximately 6 million acres, nearly half of which is public land and is constitutionally protected to remain “forever wild” forest preserve. The remaining half of the Park is private land which includes settlements, farms, timber lands, businesses, homes, and camps. This mix of public and private land is essential to the character of the Adirondacks, and is reflected in the content of Adirondack Life magazine.

Adirondack Life's first issue was published in winter 1970. Before that it was a special section to a local newspaper published by Robert Hall, who went on to be editor of The Conservationist. Adirondack Life started as a quarterly, then was published bimonthly, and is now published in 8 issues a year. Adirondack Life's circulation is almost 50,000, with many subscribers in New York, but it has subscribers world wide.

This colorful, visually appealing magazine runs about 90 pages per issue. Articles are richly illustrated with colorful photographs. As one would expect, the magazine covers vacation destinations, upcoming events, regional history, and wildlife. But the content reaches beyond the expected. The December 2006 issue has articles about how very few people of color visit the Adirondacks, a cable TV channel that broadcasts continuous live video of a bridge, and an Elvis impersonator who plays Kirk in an amateur version of Star Trek. Advertisements for Adirondack style furniture and decorations, vacation opportunities, real estate, and other Adirondack-related goods and services fill many of the pages.

To learn more about Adirondack Life, my guest is the magazine’s Creative Director, Betsy Folwell.

Steve: Betsy, welcome to Periodical Radio. First, tell us what you do as creative director of Adirondack Life.

Betsy: Well at a lot of magazines creative director is involved in day to day things like photo shoots and managing how the magazine looks. I leave that up to the editors and the art director. My overview is really the whole creative side--the art director, the editors, advertising production, printing--everything that goes into the magazine that you see physically is under my supervision. So it’s kind of broader, and in other places the publisher does that, as well as circulation and the financing. But our management is such that it’s a three part team. The circulation director is part of the publishing team, and our controller is part of the publishing team. So we’ve divided up the work differently than it is at other magazines.

Steve: Betsy, in preparation for this show you described Adirondack Life to me as a "true 4-color magazine". Can you describe for us what that means, and what it takes to publish in color?

Betsy: Sure. I think that’s what most people think of when they’re thinking about Adirondack Life, is great photographs. That’s really been our hallmark for more than twenty years, a long time. Luckily, there are a lot of people photographing the Adirondacks who are excellent—Nathan Farb, Carl Heilman, Mark Bowie, Nancy Battalia—I mean really there are just dozens of great photographers. There’s a whole new generation of photographers coming up like Drew Haas and people who have taken their love of backcountry adventure, like backcountry skiing and hiking and canoeing and added photography to it. They’re going a lot of places that other people haven’t gone with good equipment. We’re lucky in that regard. So producing a four color magazine means that we’ve encouraged color to exist on every single page, and that trickles down to advertising. We want our ads to look great, because prettier ads entice someone to buy a product. Tints and different colors, beautiful pictures, even if they’re tiny, that’s what we’re looking for. The magazine is very visual, it’s not like the Economist. Our goal is to make it something that people flip through. They’re attracted because it’s colorful and interesting and vivid, and then they start reading, because the headlines grab their attention, or they recognize an author’s name, and they take it from there.

Steve: How has the work of preparing a 4-color magazine changed over the years?

Betsy: Oh my god, it’s changed so drastically. The original Adirondack Life published in the 1970’s was on stiff paper, and you’d recognize the sort of pebbly texture from newsletters of that era. In those days, if you wanted to print a photograph you had to send it to a company that did a separation from the transparency. They would create pieces of film in four different colors that if printed separately, like magenta ink, a cyan that’s blue, and then a yellow ink, and black, those would make all colors of the rainbow, depending on what percentage of each ink is used. We don’t do color separations any more. That whole process has become digitized. The same work is done as far as separating the colors, but it happens through a series of computers that are telling the printing press what color inks to squirt out. For the type side, in the old days, I mean in the old, old days, printers set each piece of type, every letter. Then there were linotype machines. Then there were things called compugraphic machines, which created this long roll of photographic paper that was basically photographs of type. Those would get covered with hot wax, and stuck to a board, and then photographed with an enormous stationary camera. Now it’s all created on computers with desktop publishing. The whole thing of moving text and pictures and illustrations and all that stuff around, that’s just a matter of moving your cursor and your mouse. In the old days, you were using an Exacto knife and hot wax to create the same effect. A lot of the effects simply weren’t possible.


Steve: That is quite the change. Computers have affected our work in many, many ways.

Betsy: Oh, yeah. Oh, golly, I’d say probably twelve years ago Adirondack Life had one Macintosh computer for desktop publishing. I cannot estimate how many computers we have in the building now. I mean, each editor has one, the art director has one, there are scanners everywhere, and different kinds proofing equipment. We create our own color proofs in house, and our scanner costs about as much as a new car. We’re doing a lot of stuff in house that used to happen at a prepress house or at a print shop.

Steve: Are many of your photographers now going digital, are their original photographs in digital format?

Betsy: Many of them are. There’s a real caveat to that. If you take your digital camera into the field, you have a viewfinder that’s two by two inches. So some people are going to the extent of taking their laptops with them, so they’re composing their picture on the laptop which is much bigger. But the files that they’re creating, still most of them do not have the clarity of say a four by five transparency. If you look at the Adirondack Life calendar that uses pictures that are 11” by 13”, a lot of those are larger format images that we’re using. If you took a 35mm slide, the little guys, and blew that up to 11”x13”, you’re going out 1200%, so you’re going to lose some detail. That’s one of the problems with digital photography, is that not a lot of people have the extremely high end cameras that can file an image with that much information in it.

Steve: I see.

Betsy: Without getting too technical, there’s a whole new movement in digital photography called RAW, which enables you to save a lot more details. But in the end you can manipulate a lot more aspects of the picture. But these files are massive, and hard to move around. You can’t e-mail a raw picture of any size to your grandmother.

Steve: Because the file size is too large?

Betsy: Yes, just too darned big.

Steve: Betsy, what's your personal standard for a well produced issue of the magazine?

Betsy: We like to see a good geographic mix of stories. The Adirondack Park is big, it stretches from Lyon Mountain down to Old Forge and Cranberry Lake over to Lake George. There’s a lot of territory in between, so we hope that there’s a story or a picture or something that appeals to people in different parts of the park, in every single issue. Sometimes that’s hard. We are based in the high peaks. I live in Blue Mountain Lake, the bias tends to be towards the high peaks just because lots of great photography is coming out of there. So a geographic mix is a goal. The other thing is a real mix of stories, something you can do as a reader, whether it’s a cross country ski trip or canoe trip or a place to go you hadn’t thought of. A history piece, some kind of bit of local lore that is unknown even to people from close by. Profiles of interesting people. Little snapshots of a successful businesses that are making interesting Adirondack products. Some politics, some environmental news, some nature. All different things in the package. It’s a conscious effort to bring in lots of different topics, because if we did only environmental issues, or political issues, we’d really bore an awful lot of people who come to the magazine looking for something they can do.

Steve: I certainly wasn’t expecting the article about the Elvis impersonator who plays Kirk in an amateur Star Trek production.

Betsy: Well, hey, it’s happening in an old car dealership outside Port Henry, and a lot of local people have thrown themselves into this project, and exporting it into the world.

Steve: That was a fun article.

Betsy: Yes, that was. For your listeners, I guess why don’t you explain what you got out of it?

Steve: Well, one thinks of the Adirondacks as being wildlife and forever wild. I think that’s what folks naturally think about first when they think of the Adirondacks. But I have been there enough to know there is a wide variety of activities going on, and people live there, it’s their home, and they have a wide variety of interests, just like people in any other part of the country do. That was an interesting, offbeat story about things that people do in the Adirondacks.

Betsy: I never really watched Star Trek, but these are grown adults who are filming Star Trek episodes that they’ve written and produced. The production values are pretty good, and they have a full makeup studio, and they have costumes, and they have a mock bridge for the spaceship. It’s really quite elaborate, and they’re doing it because it’s a project they love. It’s kind of the next step in amateur theater, I guess.

Steve: Betsy, who are the readers of Adirondack Life?

Betsy: They are all over the place. First of all, we have readers in every state. But they are concentrated in New York and the northeast. Maybe ten or fifteen percent of our readers live year round in the Adirondacks, but lots of readers in Albany, Schenectady, the whole capital district, Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, also Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey so on and so forth. Mostly in the northeast. A few more men than women, like maybe 52% men. I think partly that’s because a lot more men experience the Adirondacks as scouts or hiking, rafting, whatever they were doing with their buddies at a certain age. They kind of held on to that interest. The average reader age is just over 50, a very active 50. They tend to spend about a month of the year here. We do a reader survey every couple of years that’s very exhaustive, and we ask people questions from “Did you buy a pair of binoculars this year?” to “What’s your household income?” to “What are your favorite article topics?” Typically their favorite topics are history. One of their favorite sections of the magazine is that back page called “Our Towns,” which profiles a different town in every issue. We try to get that feedback every couple of years just to make sure we’re satisfying our core group of readers.

Steve: Who are your writers?

Betsy: Our writers are all over, too. Seriously, there are a handful who are in the Adirondacks who are also writing for newspapers or working for public radio stations. But for bigger topics that involve a lot more research, we seek out pros who may live in the Hudson Valley or Vermont, or even farther afield than that. There’s no geographic restriction on where a writer lives, certainly, if they’re willing to come here and do the research, that’s great.

Steve: Do you ever accept unsolicited manuscripts?

Betsy: We see them all the time, and sometimes those are the happiest surprises of all. That’s how we meet a lot of writers who come to write more regularly for us, just by sending in a really well done short piece. Our guidelines are available online if you go to http://adirondacklife.com you’ll see on the left editorial guidelines, it’s one of the links you can hit. That spells out what we’re looking for. We don’t publish poetry, we’re not looking for articles less 900 words, and it really helps if people are familiar with the magazine. They can write a lovely story about, say, the Adirondack Blanket company, but gosh, that’s in the current issue, so it pays to do your homework.  We love to hear from writers who have a specific area of expertise, like someone who’s only done profiles, or only written about botany, or whatever, to combine the skill of good writing with real knowledge of the science or social science or history. That’s a huge plus. A lot of journalists are generalists, and someone with that extra bit of background knows where to find primary sources or how to seek out experts in the field and can get to them. Those are good things.

Steve: As a regional magazine, how does Adirondack Life reflect the character of the region?

Betsy: That’s one of the things that we hope we do, but we’re not always sure that we do it. For example, we could not do a September/October issue without showing a photo feature of beautiful fall foliage. It’s just expected. If it’s not there, we intuitively know we’ve let people down. I’ve been here since 1989, so I’ve seen a lot of these fall foliage photo features, and it’s like, “Oh, man, enough already.” But this is what people want and expect. If they’re living in Florida, they want to see fall foliage in the fall, even if it’s on paper. So how does it reflect the region? Well we try to keep in mind that the Adirondacks is not one place. It is wild country, the forest preserve, it is towns, some interesting towns, and it’s people doing everything from logging to goofing off doing a Star Trek movie. It’s funny, I’m sure one of the complaints is we’re not reflecting, you know, oh, the hardscrabble life that’s here. But we don’t want to project a picture that may be construed as demeaning, or condescending. That’s a tough thing to do.

Steve: Sure. Betsy, you won an award from the International Regional Magazine Association for your "Short Carries" column. First, can you describe for our listeners what a "short carry" is?

Betsy: Oh, sure. Other people may call it a portage. It’s when you have to carry your canoe from one body of water to the next. The editor’s note in Adirondack Life has been called “Short Carries” for I don’t know, I would say probably twenty-six, twenty-seven years. I didn’t come up with the title of it. I’ve written really dozens of these columns. I think the IRMA, International Regional Magazine award I got in September was the sixth for that column.

Steve: Congratulations!

Betsy: Oh, thanks.

Steve: What the topics of some of those columns?

Betsy: I think that was my crime spree series, and not real typical but there had been some . . .well I wrote about arson, which turns out to have a long history up here. Getting rid of derelict hotels when they’ve outlived their usefulness. There’s some sort of funny historical quotes about arson. More seriously, there were several buildings burned at the Adirondack League Club near Old Forge over the past few years. As yet, those cases haven’t been solved. That was the news end of it, the recent arsons. The old bit is guess what, it’s nothing new. Another crime was the theft of a really amazing weather vane from a church in Crown Point. It was a beautiful piece of folk art that was the angel Gabriel with a trumpet. What makes it special is the weather vane itself was made from local iron in a mine in town, and they knew which blacksmith had made it. A lot of times with folk art all that information is lost, but this had a really excellent pedigree. One night, somehow, somebody got up there and took it down, and had a really nasty looking plywood replica ready to go up, and I guess they got spooked and never put this plywood piece up. In the morning someone driving by saw this plywood thing and realized the staff holding the weather vane was gone. So that was another one. The other one in this crime series was embezzlement, because there were several cases of embezzling against town governments and fire companies over last few years, just kind of a roundup of that kind of thing. But typically the columns are more evocative of a season, or of a place. How, for instance, Blue Mountain Lake when it’s frozen turns into the village green, a place where people congregate that’s no one’s property, a great place to go on a sunny afternoon, and you’ll find everybody out there doing all kinds of stuff, from ice fishing to skiing or walking dogs. A lot of the columns are just evocative of life here, trying to set a tone and capture a mood, to keep people interested if they’re not in a place that has snow or ice or blackflies or beautiful sunsets.

Steve: Can you tell us a little about the International Regional Magazine Association that gave you that award—who are its members, what its purpose is?

Betsy: The International Regional Magazine Association has been around for more than 40 years. Members are magazines a lot of your listeners have heard of, like Arizona Highways, Down East from Maine, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Oklahoma, Beautiful British Columbia, Salt Scapes, which is the magazine for maritime Canada, Chesapeake Bay, Vermont Life, North Carolina. Really, many, many states, Wisconsin Trails, Lake Country in Minnesota, Cottage Life in Canada. Many states or regions have regional magazines to promote what they’re up to. In a lot of states, the regional magazines are an arm of the tourism department, like in New Mexico. So these magazines get together once a year for a week long seminar with programs on how to boost your subscriptions, the latest technologies for PhotoShopping pictures, printing technologies, legal and copyright issues. It’s a professional organization and the great thing about this group is we can share ideas freely without really competing for each other’s readers and advertisers. In a lot of other professional organizations, yes, you can have a seminar. But once the seminar’s over, people are scuffling for the same clients, and that’s not the case with the IRMA people. So we can trade back and forth ideas for products and approaches and cool things to do with your web site, so it works out pretty well.

Steve: Very good. Betsy, with over 40,000 paid subscribers and a wide array of advertisers, it would seem that Adirondack Life is financially healthy. Is the future bright for the magazine?

Betsy: You know, I think the future is bright for the magazine as long as the future is okay for the Adirondacks. It’s been interesting, because since the 1990’s there’s been some kind of blips in the national economy, but the Adirondack economy has been pretty steady. There hasn’t been spectacular growth, but it’s been steady. So we reflect our growth. We haven’t taken a lot of hits over the last few years. I think as far as the outlook for the magazine, it’s good. We’re doing some things in 2007 to try to capture some new readers. We are coming out with some new products. We published a beautiful three foot by four foot topographical map a few years ago, and we’ve turned that map into a jigsaw puzzle. The next step is a raised relief map of that, where you can actually feel the bumps of the mountains and that kind of thing. Along with boosting the circulation of the magazine, we’re coming out with some new products. We just launched an engagement calendar for 2007, a week at a glance with 53 beautiful pictures, and we’ll do another engagement calendar with historical pictures in 2008. A lot of projects on the side that people might not associate with Adirondack Life immediately, but things that broaden our brand and keep people engaged in the name, anyway.

Steve: Betsy Folwell, thank you very much for being my guest on Periodical Radio, it’s been fascinating.

Betsy: Well, thank you for asking, and keep reading!

Steve: I will.

Betsy: Okay.

Steve: Annual subscriptions to Adirondack Life are $24.95. To subscribe write to Adirondack Life, Subscription Service, P.O. Box 410, Jay, NY 12941, or contact them online at http://www.adirondacklife.com. Thank you for listening to this installment of Periodical Radio. I'm your host, Steve Black.