Interviewer: Peter Houston
Peter: How would you describe Mel Magazine?
Josh Schollmeyer: The joke that I always use is that it’s me working through some shit. So I had been working in men’s media at Playboy for about five years, and I was really frustrated with kind of a very narrow, very stereotypical, very outdated mode or model archetype of masculinity. And I think speaking of the UK, the laddy magazines, for being kind of silly, were also meta in a sense of they were deconstructing and satirising a lot of that stuff, but I don’t think they ever really evolved past that, necessarily.
I was really interested in what The Cut here in the US was doing at New York Magazine, which Isabel was doing with what was then Gawker, The Hairpin, ultimately Broadly with Vice and I thought, they were really looking at gender in…they were making that their beat, as opposed to being really focused on consumer goods.
So I really wanted to do something similar where I thought masculinity was sort of at this inflection point, and I wanted to really investigate what was the place of the modern man in a rapidly changing society. I really was trying to figure out as a 30-something straight white male at the time, what was my place in the world?
So was Playboy starting to unravel at that point?
I mean, it was just a very challenged business. It was a hard brand to get your arms around. I mean, I was doing sort of a proto-MEL there pretty successfully. But it was hard to get, it’s a big old battleship, and it’s hard to turn the whole brand in that direction, especially when you’re more or less a licencing company, and you’re going to go to the big deals, especially when you’re carrying a lot of debt, as opposed to looking at, what is the brand values that would play in the 21st century, I think.
It just becomes a very short sighted enterprise. And that’s really nobody’s fault other than the fact that when you become a behemoth, sometimes you can collapse under your own weight. And I think you lose sight of the kind of 30,000 foot view.
I felt – and I think Mel has proven – that Playboy in particular had a really, I think, big opportunity to be sort of like The Atlantic or New York Magazine, a legacy publication that could remake itself digitally, just around the conversations and gender and sexuality and social sexual values., and a lot of the bedrock of the brand from the 1950s and 1960s is encapsulated by the Playboy forum and the Playboy philosophy.
And again, it’s just really tough, I don’t know if like when it was imploding, I mean, I feel like that place was just sort of even since the early 70s, the highs were so high that it was just sort of one consistent trajectory down.
Yeah and I guess it had its time, and stuff changed and it didn’t.
People get comfortable, and I think around the late 60s, 70s, you know, you’ve got to still walk the walk, and not necessarily just do as I say, not as I do. And I think that’s sort of what happened to that brand is, there was the Crusader Rabbit arm where the company and Hef were defending and trying to overturn antiquated sex laws and getting people who’d been in prison for fellatio and sex out of jail. That was real mission-oriented stuff that I think fit really well into the editorial vision.
That stuff started to fade over time. And I think that that’s where you kind of lose your way.
I think Rolling Stone went through some similar kind of problems, but it seems to have managed to reinvent itself.
Yeah. And they’re all founder companies, right? So I mean, it’s what is Jann Wenner interested in? What is Hugh Hefner interested in? And how does that align with their own lives one, and then two, with the audience?
So I do think that the best stuff, and I feel like our stuff I tell my staff this all the time of like, it’s got to come from our own lives. I feel like that’s super resonant.
And at the same time, you have to hope that what you’re experiencing is also what your audience is going through. At times when you experience the fame, people would always ask me about what’s Hef like, and I’d always say he’s like, the nicest guy you can meet who’s been insanely famous and rich for 60 years, like he hasn’t left his home in months, so there’s a context there, he’s not living the same life that his readers are.
So going from someone else’s founder company to your own founder company, and the joke that you make about working through some stuff, it’s just exactly what you’ve said about your life and trying to match that up with your audience’s life. How did that come about? Did you go to the Dollar Shave Club? Did they come to you?
So I was doing something at Playboy called Playboy Safe For Work on what was Gawker Media’s Kinja platform at the time, and we were up to like 2 million people a month with just 10 posts a week. Tommy Craggs was really great at the time at Deadspin, and started cross-posting a lot of stuff and Max Reed at Gawker, and then Jezebel, and we were picking up a lot of heat and really kind of again doing a proto-MEL and investigating gender, sexuality, masculinity. And I was just super frustrated.
I felt really alienated there. The Playboy, GQ, Esquire stuff, I think it appeal to my Dad, like I’m the first one in my family really to go to college, and I think it appealed to my my uncles and my Dad and my grandfather, that kind of aspiration, they could dream on it. I think that that changed with Gen X, millennials, in terms of, aspiration was about experience, it was about a life well lived, not necessarily consumer goods to fill a void. And it was so frustrating to have to do sock roundups and watch roundups and hair products, I just didn’t feel like it was speaking to me in any real way.
That was really the battle between digital and print. And I just didn’t understand why some people who are so insanely talented at print couldn’t understand that at heart, they were storytellers, and the medium didn’t really matter. If you know how to tell a story and you know what the brand is, you should be able to adapt pretty easily to whatever. And there was just a reticence to do that. I was miserable, frankly. And I was so frustrated with legacy media in particular.
A recruiter reached out to me because they knew I was unhappy and she was like, you should meet with Michael Dubin from Dollar Shave Club. At this point, Dollar Shave Club was really young, I want to say maybe 24 months. Today in the US Dollar Shave Club has 3 million members+ I think. At the time when I started talking to them, they had 400,000.
But Michael had a deep media background. He had been a page at NBC. He had been part of the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. He had worked for Sports Illustrated, and really was interested in media and knew right away that while he was filling a pain point in men’s bathrooms, there was also a considerable whitespace in the men’s lifestyle market, that there weren’t a lot of people doing what I was doing at Playboy, and I think you could put Grantland and Deadspin into that mix, but very much from a sports entertainment standpoint. So I started talking to him and he said, ‘I want an Esquire meets Vice.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m kind of doing that.’
Everybody said I was nuts. I was helping produce a movie that had been shortlisted for an Oscar, I had a very deep kind of literary journalism background, everybody’s like, ‘You’re gonna go work for the cheap razor company?!’ And I was just super fed up. I just didn’t think anybody was going to get it. I saw no evidence or indication that anybody in legacy media was really going to get it. And I thought, if anybody’s going to get it, it’s going to be somebody totally out of left field. I thought, why not take a chance?
I mean, the first year was brutal. Just trying to figure out what it was, how to convince people, again, people thought I was nuts, never thought it would work. When I kept saying, ‘Well, we’re going to be the Esquire of the 21st century,’ it was tough to get people to even take calls to entertain the notion of working with us.
Do people see you as almost like an advertising offshoot of Dollar Shave Club?
I mean, I think that you have to remember, day one, it was nothing. So it’s calling people saying, ‘Hey, I’m from Dollar Shave Club, I’ve been brought in to start an Esquire meets Vice,’ and there was no proof. There was no proof that you could do that, there was no proof that it would work.
Honestly, this was six years ago, the industry was even very different. That was still seen as like a very verboten thing that you would even incubate a media property in a brand.
I’m just not about pearl clutching. I’ve been inside the belly of the beast, and what they’re doing is no purer, and they’re selling considerable amounts of their soul. So to clutch pearls and point fingers always seemed counterproductive to me in terms of driving the business forward.
Do you think what you’re doing is more honest, then?
I’ve certainly had more creative and editorial freedom here that I’ve had anywhere else in my whole life.
I’ve had two edicts from my boss, hire the best people and do the most creative work that you can, and stay true to the mission.
When do you think you would get a phone call from those guys to say, ‘No, you shouldn’t be doing that.’ What’s the line that you would cross?
I mean, I don’t know. It’s been six years and we haven’t done it. I think our editorial ethos really fits.
I think the worst qualities somebody can have is self righteousness. Like, I don’t ever think that I’m right. I’m here to kind of have a constructive dialogue. And I certainly have values that I believe in very strongly. But I don’t really want to tell you to do it. like I do it, because it just works for me. My life works for me, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. And I’m very open minded to hearing about other people who seemingly are living lives that they’re enjoying, and what I can take away from that.
So I think as long as we stay true to that and we continue to have constructive conversations about things, even if we did something wrong, admitting it, and having a conversation around why we thought that way and why we should think differently, is pretty fascinating. And I think that editorial ethos helps stave off those kind of calls and criticism because I’m always open to hear what people say, and adjust accordingly.
So from the idea of brand-backed media, if someone was to come along and say, ‘I’ve got this publication I want to do, I want to find a brand that would back it,’ how would you go about that? What would you be looking for? How would you know you had the right brand?
A number of brands have approached me about doing something MEL-esque for them. And I always joke that I’m going to start a consulting company that just says no. Because I think that getting back to like, I think this works for us. And this was a unique marriage in the sense that Dollar Shave Club was a very irreverent, intelligent, intuitive brand. And that’s sort of what the MEL ethos is, it’s always been, ideally, my editorial ethos.
I think, also, there was just a huge opportunity in the men’s lifestyle space. It’s huge. I mean, nobody else was doing anything different. So it made a lot of sense that those two things could kind of coalesce. I don’t know if that’s true of many other brands. I think, when other brands have approached me, one pretty big brand talked about wanting to do a music site, and it’s like, even if you have some degree of credibility in that area, there’s a tonne of music sites out there. How are you going to be different? What’s your differentiator?
Even on the Dollar Shave Club side, we talked about the commerce side. And there’s a huge firewall, but the commerce side is all about for your body, the MEL side is for your mind, right? It’s literally what you read in the bathroom, essentially. And that makes sense. At a 30,000 foot big picture view, that makes sense. It’s hard sometimes to wrap my mind around what other brands want to do as to how it could relate.
I mean, there’ll be other brands that I would say, ‘Oh, they actually have a huge opportunity.’ I think you’ve seen this with some of the real estate sites, as local newspapers, closed down a lot of that coverage, they gobbled up reporters and started doing really interesting real estate coverage that also coalesced with the site’s financial business model.
So, I just think brands do a lot of things kind of clumsily, and it’s like the classic sports thing where you rip off the playbook from the winning team and think it’s going to work for you. And I just don’t believe in that. I think that you have to really look at every situation individually and adjust accordingly.
I think it’s the same way with staff. You can coach up your staff and you can have values and we’re obviously much more of a magazine-y website and much more about the zeitgeist than the news cycle, more long form than blogg-y. But you do adjust accordingly based on who you have on your staff, and playing to their strengths and trying to sort of obscure their weaknesses.
In terms of how the MEL brand and the Dollar Shave brand came together, what defines a common audience?
Well I think in some ways Mike told me from the beginning that MEL’s job is to attract a different audience, that there’s a certain audience that’s going to go for the Dollar Shave Club marketing, and there’s a certain audience that may be turned off to that.
And I think, you know, MEL has an opportunity to talk to a different audience than maybe the core brand doesn’t. So I don’t necessarily know if it has to be similar.
So there’s no metrics like KPIs, you have to get us many people coming through to the ecommerce side of things?
Again, always a very distinct, strong editorial firewall. And the edict has always been, just go out and do the best possible stuff. And we have. I mean, we’ve been very critically acclaimed.
I think a lot of our competitors have, I know for a fact because they’ve reached out to pretty much everybody on my staff, wanted to sort of get a little bit of the MEL magic. And we’re trending towards another four and a half million this month. And so we’re seeing a fair amount of market share in terms of what we’re doing.
I think what’s interesting about looking at MEL online, it’s just the broad range of stories that are on there. Today I guess there’s a documentary about Jimmy Carter, but then there’s porn star penis stories, and there’s the other end of the spectrum is nurses looking after Coronavirus deniers, so there’s an insane range of stories on there.
We look at the zeitgeist more than the news cycle, but it’s hard to not cover Coronavirus. I think the key is finding your own ways in. I have a very neurotic staff, and so everything that was worrying them, I just kept saying, ‘Well, let’s just make it into content, you’ll stop worrying. We’ll go get the answers.’
I think that there are some days that I walked away and I was like, does this all fit together? Or is it just in my mind that it fits together? But I don’t know, we have a unique lens on what’s going on in the world. I mean, to the porn star penis stuff, I think we’ve been very successful with male sexual health in terms of a traffic standpoint, and in large part, that’s because men don’t go to the doctor unless they’re having a heart attack, let alone go for anything else, where women have sexual health visits once a year, and I think we’ve provided a real service there. I know people always cite that as being untoward or whatever, and I think that that’s kind of crazy because I want men to be thinking about that stuff beyond just the little blue pill or something like that.
And yeah, I think Jimmy Carter is a perfect…like when it comes to entertainment and trying to find our way in, that whole doc by Barbara Kopple is about strength and toughness, and how do we define strength and toughness, right? And that Jimmy Carter, for a long time in America was looked at as a weak loser president. And yet, maybe it’s the kind of Jimmy Carter strength and dignity, the fact that that mission went so poorly, but instead of blaming and pointing fingers and what, he got on television and said, ‘The buck stops with me here, I made this decision. This went wrong. And if there’s anybody to blame, it’s me,’ is kind of incredible.
And it cost him everything. It cost him a second term. It cost him really his reputation and legacy, and I think that that’s an insanely MEL story, even though maybe on the surface, it doesn’t seem like it’s a piece that would run on a site for men.
Dollar Shave Club is in the UK. Could you see doing a MEL type story in the UK?
We have four or five editorial contributors who are based in the UK. I think, especially in the West, it doesn’t feel to me that the conversation about masculinity is that different country to country. I mean, we’ve done stories about MRAs in Pakistan. In India, we did a whole thing about forced castration.
I feel like there’s a lot of the same kind of issues going on that really aren’t defined by borders. I mean, you’re even seeing it with some of the same politicians, right, Boris Johnson and Trump very similar in terms of the type of masculinity that they represent.
When we started MEL, it was quaint, right. I just wanted to talk to guys that I knew about things that I thought were more meaningful to their lives, and that was mental health, their physical health, and not like, six ways to a great six pack. But why is this happening to my body as I’m ageing, just more philosophical Seinfeld-ian queries.
I think once Trump got elected, that’s when the phone started ringing to be like, what is going on with men, you know? And then it really crystallised, I think around #MeToo. And we were really the only mens publication to really consistently try to interrogate that. I think it’s super important right now for men to get together with this approach of like, ‘We broke it, we bought it. And so if we want to be constructive participants in the social change that’s happening, we ought to sit down and start talking to each other.’
And in the early days of MEL, I was really trying to rip out of men what I knew we were talking about at bars. One of my favourite compliments is somebody wants told me that they’ve never felt more ‘seen’ than when they go on MEL, and I was like, ‘Well, that was kind of the point.’
I think post #MeToo, it’s been very different in the sense that I want to try to foster a group of people, whether in the UK or whatever their background, try to get a number of different men to the table to start having a conversation about again, not white knighting and they’re taking over the dialogue, but how can we participate in what’s happening in the world?
Obviously, you think there’s a place for gender-defined publications, but is it a big place? Or is it just you guys?
I’m not sure. I think that in some ways, you could say that we almost report more on modern masculinity and what it’s like to be a man, not how to be a man, but I’m not even sure I know what kind of male means anymore.
I will say that about 40% of our audience is female. I think it’s the same way guys used to read Cosmo here in the States, I think women like that we’re very, very honest about masculinity and learn a fair amount from that. I definitely think that there’s a new generation coming that doesn’t seem to see gender as binary in any real way.
For now, masculinity deserves the investigation and interrogation that we’re giving it. I think when you recite some of the stories on the site, culturally, I think you can still be a cultural publication. It doesn’t have to be so gendered.
Part of why I asked that question is, like Broadly went away, it got folded back into the mainstream of Vice. Long term I do wonder, particularly when you look at women’s magazines, they’re having such a hard time. It’s really interesting that 40% of your readership is female.
Yeah, it’s like between 35 and 40. I think a lot of the stuff that we say are the stuff they’re seeing. And so I think it particularly resonates with them. I think there’s an evolution here that’s definitely happening in terms of what you’re talking about. And I think that part of it is you really do have to look differently.
Jezebel and The Cut, in particular, The Cut I think really elevated a lot of what was great about legacy, women’s lifestyle stuff, I think Jezebel kind of redefined it with this sort of sharp elbowed edge. And that’s kind of what we’re trying to do in the men’s space.
I think as long as you continue to do that, there can be some gender difference, but you have to evolve. And I think that that’s the biggest problem with the gender defined publications. If you’re going to cover from a gender point of view, I think that has to be an ongoing, evolving worldview and editorial mission.