Industry Voices

Uwern Jong | Editor-in-Chief | OutThere Magazine, OutThere Publishing

By Jess Browne-Swinburne

13 Jan 2021

In the first Radar interview of 2021, we spoke with the Editor-in-Chief of OutThere Magazine, winner of PPA Diversity Initiative of the Year at the PPA Independent Publisher Awards. Uwern Jong is passionate about storytelling and travel and since starting OutThere, has carved out a space in travel publishing for a diverse a range of readers. Jong explains what he hopes to see in publishing around diversity in 2021, how magazine publishers can support the industries they report on and his plans for the coming year.

What made you want to work in publishing?

I have always been a storyteller, so it was only natural that I ended up in storytelling, albeit taking a long and winding road to get there. Despite only being in publishing for the last 10 years, it has always been a passion. I’ve always had a voracious appetite for magazines and content of all kinds. They were escapism for me. There was a time I nearly fell out of love with magazines when consumer publishing became very 'throw-away' and started to lean into the early days of digital. But that also opened my eyes and lit a fire in me to be part of the movement to bring high-quality publishing back.

Chart your career from the start to where you are now.

Before starting OutThere, I was working in communications, so I’m one of those people who ‘crossed-over’ from the related field of marketing and media, into the 'dark side' of publishing and journalism. I had spent much time in my work in marketing, pitching stories and understanding the minds and motivations of consumer. I had also felt for a long time that my community of readers, those who didn’t identify with mainstream media were just not being serviced, particularly when it came to travel publishing. There wasn’t much that was celebrating diversity and the perspectives of those who were different at the time, be it LGBT+ people, or people of colour – both communities that I belonged to. And then, the opportunity came up to sell the marketing business I was then running, and the rest was history.

My business partner Martin Perry and I felt there was a crucial voice missing in lifestyle publishing and together we set off on the journey that is OutThere. A decade later here we are – a 21st century, printed coffee table magazine rooted in diversity, discovery and discernment… one that is proud not just to be loved by the audience of LGBT+ travellers we set out to reach, but one of the nation’s foremost travel titles loved by all who value inclusive, travel publishing. It’s been a rollercoaster of a decade, but so enriching and rewarding in so many ways too.

How did it feel to win Diversity Initiative of the Year at the PPA Independent Publisher Awards?

We were absolutely ecstatic and over the moon. The win means a lot to me, especially after a tumultuous year for many reasons and as one of the only BAME Editors in travel publishing. Diversity is core to what we do at OutThere, it’s the first of our pillars that we call the ‘3 Ds’ – diversity, discovery and discernment, so it was amazing to be recognized for that. But for us, diversity and inclusion is far more than an “initiative" because diversity should a huge part of everything that publishers do and should be ingrained into brand strategy and everyday operations.

What progress do you hope to see in publishing around diversity in the coming year?

I hope the discussion continues and snowballs into something much bigger. The perspectives of minorities aren’t often represented in wider publishing and I feel that a lot of it has only come to the fore because of Black Lives Matter and because the industry have had some downtime during the pandemic. Beyond talking about it, we need to do something about it. As things get better, I hope we don’t just side-line the issue, in the normal, or 'new-normal' course of business. We need to move this conversation on, even when – and especially as – business recovery becomes our primary concern in this industry.

I’d like to see greater representation of people across all diversity strands, be it race, sexuality, gender, ability, age and social mobility. Not just people who lead and work in publishing, but also in the stories told, so that it actually represents the real world. We as publishers and editors have the power to be a catalyst for change in the wider world, not just in publishing, but also in the industries that we serve.

In 2018/2019 you revamped the site’s digital strategy – how did that help you during the tumultuous year of 2020?

I’m absolutely glad (and relieved) that we did. Despite a madcap year, we still put out 2 of our 4 quarterly print issues. But for most of the year, we pivoted to digital and had an absolute reliance on it to continue to engage our readers. Our digital strategy in 2019 was all about changing the way our readers interacted with our site, putting the user experience back in their hands. We took a great step back and changed the way we approached digital to match what we had built in print. When the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure how things were going to go and feared the worst, but what happened was an acceleration of what we expected to gain throughout 2020, in just the first 3 months of lockdown. People were buying into what we were doing, and furthermore had the time to engage and devour our content, which was fantastic. Time will tell, but we know it has set us in good stead for the future ahead.

Does the OutThere of January 2020 look different to the OutThere of 2021? If so, in what way?

In print, very different. The Winter 2020/21 issue of OutThere is half the size it was in 2019/2020. 2020 was nice to our brand, but we need to recover as a business and industry. As a magazine reliant on advertising and campaigns – especially one that’s all about travel, an industry that has been one of the hardest hit in the pandemic – we struggled to generate the revenue we hope to achieve in each issue.

The most interesting thing is the change in the balance of subscriptions vs retail, leading heavily into the former. Also digital vs print reading, which is making us re-evaluate how we serve our digital issues and create an experience that is as magical and tactile as print for those who want to read it on their mobile devices.

We were also a brand that did a number live events. With that unable to happen, we are trying to do more digitally, but it is no replacement for what we do live.

What big plans does OutThere Publishing have for 2021?

Honestly, we’re still taking each day as it comes – the uncertainty remains as we plan for the future, but we’re in a much better place than back in the summer. But even in the first week of the year, we’ve already had to pivot in our thinking. In the short-term, we are continuing with our successful campaigns: #Experientialist and #KeepYourMindTravelling, and in the longer term, we are finding ways to continue navigating the current and post-pandemic world we live in.

One thing that has done well is our #Experientialist Awards, which we launched in the height of the pandemic. We were just so encouraged by what our industry was doing despite travel coming to a screeching halt and we wanted to bring some feel-good-factor back in. It looks like we are about to secure a headline sponsor for the 2021/22 edition of the awards.

But the most important thing for OutThere in 2021, will be business recovery. That is paramount. We can’t roll out any plans if there aren’t the funds to do so. So, plans don’t have to be big, but they have to be effective, to get us back on track and secure our place in the future.

How can magazine publishers help and support the industries that they cover and specialise in?

We as publishers are the eyes, ears and mouths of the industry we specialise in. We have a special understanding of everything that is going on and the people and powerhouses within it. We have the ability to voice opinion and perspective to help others and make significant changes to the status quo, through lobbying government, networking, thought-leadership and pooling together opinion-leaders and to chart the way forward for the industry. And I think that has become glaringly obvious to many, especially during the pandemic.

Our #Experientialist LIVE series of events, which became weekly and attracted hundreds, involved different parts of the industry each week – from people in marketing, to sales, to destinations, to journalists – each with a specific topic of discussion in mind. Beyond the educational nature of it all, it was just so nice to be able to create a rapport with the people we would usually see over the course of the year and bring our industry “family” together.

What’s on your radar?

Publishing wise, it would be the continuation of diversity and inclusion in our industry – both travel and publishing. I’m pleased that the PPA are taking the initiative to drive diversity through the survey they’re doing and I think that the results will prove very interesting to showcase where we’re excelling as an industry, as well as highlighting the huge gaps that I know are still there. I’m very interested to see how the PPA and the rest of the industry will take action on the subject.

What magazine would you stockpile?

Right now, any travel magazine. I am itching to get travelling again, and I know the industry continues to go through a rough patch and it needs all the support it can get.

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