Photography: Marcus Morris
Hello Mr. is a bi-annual publication that launched in the spring of 2013 paving the way for a new generation of gay men. I spoke with its founder Ryan Fitzgibbon about the genesis of the project, how he executed his vision and how he continues to defy convention.
Tell us about the genesis of Hello Mr.
Hello Mr. started out as a blog that I created to gather a few of my friends in a common space. We could write about dating and what the gay dating sphere was like, talk freely. It was a very casual, safe space with somewhat infrequent posts, but soon enough I saw that there was something deeper to uncover in all this. It evolved into the concept for this magazine about a new generation of men. Those in middle existing media that paid no heed to the extremes—the chiseled go-go dancer in a rainbow Speedo, or the marriage equality activist standing with posters on the Capitol. These stereotypes are iconic of gay culture, but they’re extremes, and such, leave little room to showcase the reality of the everyday gay, which is what I was interested in.
You describe Hello Mr. as a community. Why did you choose print media as an expression of that community?
Print magazines have always been a love of mine. Independent publications are emerging in such a way so that now the Kinfolks and the Fantastic Mans of the publishing world are starting to surface in the mainstream, offered at big time bookstores and retailers. I think this new energy in the indie publishing world comes from the worth of thick, quality-printed, beautiful serial you can keep at your bedside or on your bookshelves. It’s a conversation piece and, similar to how the blog functioned, a common place. Because much of each issue comprises personal narratives and essays, it reads more like an anthology that acts as a reflection of the universal truths for many gay men around the world. The format, combined with the design details—the inclination to keep it on your coffee table rather than toss it in the recycling bin when you’re finished—establishes the worth of the object. Our readers take great pride in owning it, for lack of a less punny word.
How has autonomy informed the creative process for you?
I veered away from potential investors and advertisers early on in the process, and crowdfunded this fully, and then some. The first issue ran completely ad-free. Because the magazine came from the interest, motivation, and interest of those who were helping raise the fun, the engagement with the creation of this magazine meant so much more. If I’d gone another route, the response to the launch would have been totally different. I feel like readers (new or old) have been here since the beginning.
As a kind of solopreneur some of the toughest parts of this were in forming the style guide, building the brand, designing the website, assembling a contributors agreement, deciding how the book should be sectioned, etc. Because I was also scouting writers, photographers, and illustrators that I wanted to work with, it comes together somewhat organically. Not only do these pieces speak to each other, but they don’t have to be influenced by advertising, by the opinion of a major investor, or by the regionality of a publication. It’s universal and unbridled.
In an age where print media is in a state of flux and the current subscription model is to sell cheap, what are the challenges you faced launching your publication?
Starting any kind of new media or content-provider in this day and age comes with its challenges—the publishing world is saturated. But major magazines have dug themselves in a rut. They offered subscriptions cheaper and cheaper until you can get a year of periodicals for $5, which trains the consumer that these materials are cheap. So when you see a magazine that is $20, you might be confused at the pricing based on your prior knowledge of what other magazines cost. People might not purchase Hello Mr. because you wouldn’t spend $20 on Vanity Fair or Esquire. But this new breed of indie magazines is reclaiming the worth of print, and avoiding the tribulations of the electronic. Digital advertising revenue figures are nowhere near what everyone projected and eBook sales are steadily declining. Online engagement is undeniably important, but the trend of sales and readership (despite this massive shift to digital content) shows that people will always love holding something in their hands and putting something on their coffee table.
How do you mitigate merging art and commerce while maintaining the integrity of what you are doing?
As our magazine is starting to take on advertisers, I put a lot of thought into what products I’d want next to our content. I’m picky in the sense that I wouldn’t want a reader to flip through my magazine and feel isolated, or feel like the commerce that went with the content didn’t strike them in a positive way. It’s easy enough to take on every fashion brand and gay travel advertiser that comes your way, but it risks cheapening the quality readers are paying more for.
As a sort of weird parallel example, when Joanna Coles was put on as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, one of her first motions was to cut off all relationships with the sex-toy advertisers that littered the back of the book. A year later, Cosmopolitan has won a National Magazine Award for the first time since its emergence in 1965. If you treat your brand with respect, your readers will respect it too.
What struck me in the first issue was how gay culture was normalized unlike the caricature presented in mass media. Was this a conscious decision?
Haha, yes. If anything it was the thing that set the whole mission in motion. More than anything, Hello Mr. is a platform to allow people to express their own experiences. We’re not necessarily trying to replace the current image of gay men, or condemning existing images of gay culture as necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that the gay population is divided into cultures and subcultures, with a few cultures that were being represented a lot and this whole middle culture that got zero to nothing. As I’ve said before, stereotypes are not going away—there’s nothing wrong with them existing and there’s truth in them. But what about the middle ground?
What have you learned about yourself during this process?
I’ve always been a designer and an art director, but I’d never ventured into editing professionally. In this new role, I’ve kind of surprised myself in finding out that this time around, being editor-in-chief is so much fun. I design the whole book, and it’s my aesthetic first-born. But when it comes to editing, I’ll sit and read submissions and laugh and cry and resist the urge to post stories immediately. I love promoting the work of my contributors, and I can’t believe I get to call that my job now.
Also, I’ve become better and better at delegating. I’ve always been the kind of person to let a lot rest on my shoulders until I’m at max capacity. After we packaged this last issue, I’d hired someone temporarily for brand partnerships, I am constantly giving work to our editorial assistant, enlisted multiple people to help me host events, reached out to writers and copyeditors, met up with over a dozen interns—and I’m starting to feel more balance because of it. From a glance, it might seem like a one-man show, but as always, I’ve learned that a community is the only thing that’s going to produce the high reaching results I’m aiming for.
How do you plan to evolve your brand?
I’m constantly getting feedback from my writers and readers. Having recently become one of the suggested users on Instagram, resulting in 33,000 new followers means we’re reaching a much larger audience now. It’s fun to see what people will react strongest to, and what they’ll neglect on social media. And trying to cultivate that online relationship is one way to produce the best possible experience for them. Creating the paper magazine means that I’m curating content that can be (and usually is) read from cover to cover. But my next venture will be in building the online community in the same vein as the original Hello Mr. blog. We have so many artists, writers, contributors, timely stories to draw from, but can’t fit into the print edition. It seems that the only logical way for our magazine to grow is to get more people participating in the conversation.