Arizona Highways editor Robert Stieve keeps the magazine moving forward

Robert Stieve is the editor in chief for Arizona Highways, a travel magazine dedicated to the state of Arizona.

Robert Stieve, editor in chief of Arizona
Highways Magazine, explores the outdoors

Stieve has been working in media since the early 80s. He worked in radio before getting a master’s degree in journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He spent a couple years in Washington DC as a speechwriter for the attorney general at the Justice Dept. He came back to Phoenix and worked as an editor for Phoenix Magazine for 10 years. In 2007, Stieve became editor in chief at Arizona Highways.

“As far as magazine jobs in Arizona, this is the best one there is, and I’m privileged to be here, but I paid a lot of dues and worked a lot of jobs,” Stieve said.

Arizona Highways is one of few magazines that is gaining subscribers and poses two main challenges for the editor: a split audience and finding new stories. I talked to Stieve about these points.

What is it like working for a travel magazine in comparison to other editing positions you’ve had?

It fits right into my wheelhouse. The things that I get to make a magazine about are the things I did on my weekends anyway, like backpacking, hiking, scenic drives, exploring, rock climbing and all those kinds of things. I have always been a very avid traveler with a strong emphasis on the outdoors and off-the-beaten-path destinations. And Arizona Highways is a travel magazine. We have a strong history and originally started with photography. One of the ways we accomplish our mission is the visuals, but we also have a strong emphasis on the written words. So for me, it’s the dream job.

There is always a mix of travel and culture in the magazine. How do you decide what stories to put in an issue?

We are just turning 94 years old – we’re almost 100! So your question is a good one, how do we decide what to put in there, and there’s a long answer to that but I’ll try to bring it down. Arizona Highways has subscribers in 120 countries around the world and all 50 states. We have two audiences, which is tricky as an editor. We have what we call “armchair travelers” who are sitting in Oklahoma or Scotland or wherever. And most of those people aren’t going to come to Arizona. So we have to do a magazine that appeals to them.

But then, in Arizona, we have 7 million people here that aren’t armchair travelers; they’re what we call “experiential travelers.” Typically when you edit a magazine you target one audience. At Arizona Highways you can’t do it because we’re so split. It’s about 50-50 people who live here and people who don’t.

I’m only the tenth editor in almost 100 years. Every editor before me skewed to those armchair travelers. The locals came second. When I came in, I said you know we have 7 million people here that don’t want to be armchair travelers; they want to go out and do things.  We flipped that dichotomy and made the locals the priority.

So, as an editor, how do I decide what goes into it? I have to think about both demographics and try to make a magazine that, for the people who live here, is sort of a “how to” guide for exploring the state. Sometimes it’s direct travel stories like “here are 10 great places to go to make a great photograph of red rocks.” But sometimes it’s the cultural stories too. We have a lot of Native American history and Hispanic cultural history. Sometimes if you do a story on, say, a profile on a medicine man on the Hopi reservation, even though that’s not a traditional travel story saying, “hey you’ve gotta go here and eat this,” it’s still inspiring people to want to go to the Hopi reservation because they’re learning about the cultural aspects of life up there. So there are a lot of ways to promote travel. Sometimes it’s direct and sometimes it’s indirect. When I’m picking stories, I have to think about those experiential travelers and what they want to go see.

But then I have to make sure that, for those armchair travelers in all these other places, that there are stories they can read. A lot of those people, by the way, used to live here or have family here so a lot of them are connected to Arizona than just a random subscription. They have an inherent interest. I have to make sure for them I have a lot of beautiful photography, some good narrative, a good profile. I mean, if you pick up Rolling Stone and you read a story about Mick Jagger, you don’t have to know him to enjoy reading about him. People don’t have to live here to get caught up in one of the stories about life here.

How do you keep the magazine fresh, especially at almost 100 years old?

We have to not be repetitive. We’ve covered a lot of ground in 100 years so we’re looking for fresh, new ways to tell stories. The way I tell it to students that I teach at the Cronkite School here is you have to think counterintuitively. We’ve done a thousand stories about rafting the Grand Canyon, so how can you do that differently? The answer may be: let’s get a blind person go down the river and have he or she write a story about what it sounds like. A lot of thought goes into keeping it fresh.

Another consideration for us is we’re a big state. Our mission is to get people to travel the state. We have to be careful not to do another story about the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley or Sedona. There are a lot of other beautiful parts of the state. I’m working on our August issue and we’re doing Southern Arizona, Sonoita-Patagonia, which is this beautiful rolling grassland south of Tucson that most people don’t know about, even people who live here. It’s important for me to “share the love” so to speak and make sure I cover all of the state.

We also have to keep a balance for people who are maybe more hardcore, so there is some more extreme backcountry stuff that a few people might do, but then there’s the easy stuff where all you have to do is get into your car and drive and go see the state. So I’m balancing a lot of different things: demographics, geography, experiential nature. It’s a big puzzle. And you can’t give everybody everything in every issue. In the course of 12 months, there’s going to be a lot in there for everybody. But there are going to be issues where maybe someone doesn’t have interest in some of the stories. We still are feeding them all kinds of beautiful photography and also teaching them about things they don’t think they want.

How do you keep a print magazine going in a digital age?

Arizona Highways is unique in the sense that it still plays very well in ink and paper format. News magazines died because you didn’t need to wait a week to find out about breaking news. That news is right in front of you on your phone. So news magazines died off for obvious reasons. Arizona Highways is like a nice glass of wine. People tend to get it, sit down with it. Most magazines are 50 percent ads. We only have two in the entire magazine. So we’re really clean, decadent, sit-down-after-dinner-and-read-through kind of magazine. So people really like the ink and paper version.

We have digital stuff, and some magazines have done better than others with the digital. We have a digital edition, we’re very active on social media, and we have a blog. Personally, as an editor, I do not care how people read the magazine. Actually, our iPad version looks a lot better than the ink and paper version because it’s backlit and beautiful. But as an editor, I don’t really do anything differently. Our digital edition is just a replica of our print edition. The market for digital just hasn’t exploded enough as it relates to magazines. We’re very aware of digital. The subscription percentage of digital is very small.

If the day comes when ink and paper magazines go away, we will be one of the last ones. Just because of what we do. People can’t get what we do anywhere else. It’s those special interest magazines. If you’re into yachting, Yachting Magazine is still going to be important to you. Otherwise, you have to go gathering for information in a lot of different places. We’re a small niche, and people still embrace it. And actually, for the first time in about 20 years, our subscriptions are going up. Almost all magazines have been on a downward slide for decades and we have turned the other direction.

Do you know why that is?

We’ve done some promotional things. We did one with Arizona State Parks so with a State Parks Pass, which is an annual pass and you pay x dollars, get a window sticker and get entrance to all the parks. Now with that pass you get a subscription to the magazine. That’s given us a lot of new subscribers. A lot of times those new subscribers re-subscribe. So we’ve done some interesting partnerships. Another thing that has helped subscriptions is the automatic renewal. When you sign up you just check the box to just renew every year and charge the credit card so you don’t have to think about that. Because a lot of times those renewal cards get lost in the mail.

Takeaway

Robert Stieve offered refreshing insight on editing. As the editor in chief at a thriving travel magazine, Stieve is faced with challenges editors don’t typically encounter. His conversation was exciting and an inspiring look into the opportunities of the editing world.

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