Non-Linear, Algorithmic, Highly-Clickable! Is 'Active Times' Future of Outdoor Media?

Heads up, Outside magazine. National Geographic and GearJunkie, too. The former CEO of Forbes.com, Jim Spanfeller, has launched an outdoors/active-lifestyle publication, The Active Times, based in New York, which has a goal to publish 50 to 100 stories a day.

Yep, 50 to 100 articles each day on outdoors, travel, and “active” topics. By comparison, that quantity is more articles than many publications put out in an entire month. The effort, Spanfeller hopes, will quickly boost The Active Times, which launched last week, to a top spot in a category dominated by brand names that have been around for years.

Ambition is one thing not lacking in the company’s plan. “No one has excelled in this space,” Jim Spanfeller told me in a phone interview last week. “In digital, there are no big hub players, it’s all disparate content and it’s not well architected.”

the active times.jpg

Main page, “The Active Times”

A vast deluge of content targeted at a wide range of active people is the publication’s goal. (Official company mission: “The Active Times aims to be the world’s best source of authoritative, inspiring, enlightening content for living the active, adventurous life.”)

Spanfeller sees the current world of outdoor-related media as too narrow and caught in an old-school, print-publication-based mindset where niche subject matter rules.

“We want to be like Outside magazine, Bicycling, Backpacker, and VeloNews combined,” he said, making the point that The Active Times will strive to be “wide and deep” in its content stream.

Spanfeller said when he ran Forbes.com the publication was pumping out many thousands of articles a week. I am unsure what an “article” means under Spanfeller’s terms, as those figures seem simply unsustainable if we’re talking about anything representing quality journalism.

But the formula is not without a proven template in more niche subject matter. In early 2011, Spanfeller Media Group launched a food site, The Daily Meal, which follows the aforementioned “wide and deep” theme in its content strategy. It covers restaurants, recipes, chefs, food trends, and health topics, and it is ostensibly highly successful. The Daily Meal puts out more than 100 articles per day, Spanfeller said, and each month about 4 million people read the site.

The Active Times staff has similar goals. The site is currently publishing about 20 articles a day and looking to ramp up to the “50 to 100” per diem by the end of the year.

jim spanfeller john rasmus.jpg

Jim Spanfeller (left) and John Rasmus

Leading the editorial effort is no newbie. Spanfeller hired John Rasmus to be editorial director of The Active Times. Rasmus is a veteran journalist and editor who has held high positions such as editor of Outside magazine and founding editor of National Geographic Adventure. A press release on the launch of The Active Times touts Rasmus as “the only editor in history to win the National Magazine Award for General Excellence at three separate publications.”

Journalism awards are not likely coming to The Active Times at any point soon. Overall, the site’s content is short and “web-friendly” kind of stuff that’s fun to browse but far from quality journalism. How-to’s like “Basic Surf Safety” and oddball stories including “A 2-Year-Old’s First Solo Wave” and “Beer: A Marathon Recovery Elixir?” dominate the main page.

However, last week I read a dozen or more stories and found myself entertained and happy to continue clicking around the site. There are videos posted from YouTube and syndicated content from the Competitor Group as well.

Rasmus has rounded up some good writers and a few longtime outdoor-journalism fixtures to contribute like David Roberts, Outside Magazine correspondent Tim Neville, famous long-distance hiker Andrew Skurka, among several others. But a bulk of the content for the site will come from unpaid contributors, not professional writers, Spanfeller said.

These unpaid “community contributors,” as the site calls them, are coaches, travel experts, and outdoor guides looking for publicity online. The model borrows from sites like Huffington Post, offering exposure as a currency instead of money.

the active times headlines.jpg

Clickable graphics on The Active Times

One freelance writer for the site told me The Active Times “wants good journalism but is unwilling to pay for it,” noting the publication pays almost nothing to experienced writers and instead offers a bio page on the site. “You get $100 or $200 max for features,” the source said. “The sad thing is, that seems to be a viable business model. But out of respect for the profession and my own well being, I have to believe my work, training and effort has a price worth far more than that.”

Media and journalism has changed much in recent years. Pay is down for freelancers across the board, and The Active Times hardly invented the formula.

But with this “Huffington Post model” (dozens or hundreds of unpaid contributors) plus a content-blasting strategy not far from what’s seen at so-called “content mills” like Demand Media, The Active Times is unlike anything among the current outdoor/active media crop.

Why the great diversion? To make money, no doubt. But in addition Spanfeller emphasized how many of his outdoor-world media competitors are just plain not caught up with the times. “The web offers a nonlinear, self-directed diet for consumers,” he said, noting that most publications in this category are stuck in a “print publication mindset.”

The Active Times blends an interface that’s “click-friendly” with content featured on channels or sections that cover sports from surfing to adventure racing, and most all pursuits in between.

continued on next page. . .

Posted by Dan - 06/25/2012 04:54 PM

Interesting Stephen. I can’t say I am a huge fan of the name “The Active Times” or the branding – it doesn’t seem very memorable. However, if they can survive with a churn and burn content approach well, that is their prerogative I guess. Maybe one day I’ll be contributing there for my own author page!

Posted by sthrendyle - 06/25/2012 05:06 PM

“These unpaid “community contributors,” as the site calls them, are coaches, travel experts, and outdoor guides looking for publicity online. The model borrows from sites like Huffington Post, offering exposure as a currency instead of money.”

Then, I will run around naked. Nobody is going to want to see that.

Posted by Adrian Miller - 06/25/2012 05:50 PM

Stephen, I’ve been involved with writing for many years where journalistic integrity and quality is paramount. I have also been responsible for the business aspect of the writing and the last paragraph where Rasmus states, “those are the necessities of the market today”, in describing his seemingly nonchalant attitude about forsaking journalistic quality for volume is a cop out.

You can certainly do both though an outlandish production rate of 50 to 100 articles a day is not necessary. He can achieve his higher level goal of creating a site that combines Outside magazine, Bicycling, Backpacker, and VeloNews without such through put.

I hope the site does well as I am an outdoor enthusiast as well as someone who writes every day and values thoughtful, explanatory and well written pieces. While articles do not need to be long, but they do need to be composed in a manner where they are entertaining AND informative.

Posted by Aleks Skardal - 06/25/2012 06:08 PM

Stephen, this was an example of a well-researched, thoughtfully written article. Based on your descriptions, it doesn’t sound like we’ll find many of those on The Active Times. I’m sure I’ll check “articles” (blurbs are probably a better word) there on occasion, but I think I’ll primarily stick to those publications such as GJ that occupy the “experts writing for experts” niche.

Posted by Tom Mangan - 06/25/2012 06:59 PM

I’ve seen this done with the hunting/fishing side of the outdoors — which can always attract eyeballs with hot-button gun-rights stories.

The thing that confounded me as an outdoor blogger for many years was the distinct lack of controversy in this space. There just aren’t any bogeymen you can you point to like the HuffPost folks can, rallying all the Dems against the latest GOP outrages.

And with the exception of a few radical climbing/skiing/boarding videos, there’s not a lot of extreme novelty that brings in the eyeballs either.

I wish them well — I had this very same idea a couple years back but had no idea where to start on implementing it. Good to see somebody giving it a try.

Posted by jpea - 06/25/2012 07:53 PM

I think the outdoor set has no tolerance for the short-blurb articles, so their daily traffic will probably suffer. They’ll probably operate on SEO tactics, but that seems like a dated approach these days. How many people search these days and just bypass the “eHow’s” of the world because they know they’re crap? Plus, banner advertising dollars are in the tank for publishers. As I said, seems like a dated approach that they’re taking… like it’s 1998 again or something…

Posted by Molly Cochran - 06/25/2012 09:25 PM

If you cruise the site, you’ll see a plethora of interesting material and you can stay on the site for a ton of time. Being a contributor to similar sites, I could easily be talked into contributing to this site just for the fun.

I can easily write a good article in a two hours. An informative article is more a function of the writer. Online is the way to go these days. Articles are published in days rather than weeks or months.

Posted by jpea - 06/26/2012 08:42 AM

There’s no doubt that online is the way to go these days. Monetary compensation does not preclude quality material, but it certainly makes it a lot easier to motivate someone to fact check stuff, run it by their editor once or twice in the hope of getting a good quality piece. My guess is that it wouldn’t happen much with 1) that much content being put up on the site and 2) that little of compensation. It’s all just a guess though on my part obviously…

Posted by Carson - 06/26/2012 10:31 AM

Stephen – Promise us you will never:
1) Publish a photo of yourself like Jim Spanfeller’s.
2) Use the word “architected”.
Thanks.

Posted by Joe - 06/28/2012 02:16 PM

What a joke.

“In digital, there are no big hub players, it’s all disparate content and it’s not well architected.”

That’s because disparate (i.e. niche content) is what people want to read. I don’t want to wade through 98 trail running, paddleboarding, rock climbing…articles to get to one skiing article. I’d much rather read a ski blog/site/magazine. I don’t particularly like Outside magazine for that very reason, but it’s been successful thanks to quality journalism and intriguing stories that make up for the fact that your favorite sport(s) may not see coverage in every issue. Thanks to its crowd-sourced mass-content approach Active Times won’t have any of that. And screw them for purporting to create something new and innovative while recycling the framework of garbage sites like Huffington and Demand Media, a framework that is basically: a handful of savvy executives get rich off the unpaid efforts of the masses. I hope it crashes and burns.

Posted by Boo - 06/29/2012 01:36 PM

Thanks SR – excellent article. ‘nuf said.

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