Robin Thurston, an outdoorsy fitness technology entrepreneur, is on a magazine-buying binge.
At a moment when the print magazine industry is crumbling, the entrepreneur who made millions developing the workout-tracking app MapMyFitness has purchased dozens of active lifestyle publications, including Backpacker, Climbing, Ski, Trail Runner, Triathlete, VeloNews, Women’s Running and Yoga Journal.
In February, he made his biggest purchase yet — Outside Magazine, a general-interest outdoors publication with over half a million subscribers. With the acquisition, Thurston became an active lifestyle media mogul, and made it official by rebranding his Colorado company with the Outside name.
“I do not believe print is dead, I just believe it’s changing,” Thurston, who is based in Boulder, said in a Zoom interview. “And for the companies that don’t evolve, I believe they’re going to be in trouble.”
Thurston said print publications need to fight declining subscriptions and ad sales, attract younger audiences, and compete against an avalanche of free online content while also remaining authentic.
His solution is bundling digital subscriptions to all of the magazines into a $99-a-year Outside Plus subscription. Members get print subscriptions to Outside and another magazine of their choice, plus perks such as a mapping app, two books a year and reduced entry fees for athletic events. Thurston likens the model to Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and Netflix.
“I felt like there was an opportunity to bring it all together under a single umbrella and really unify the experience for the consumer,” Thurston said. “When you combine the services like Gaia GPS, and the discounts to events, and you add in video-on-demand courses and all of the premium content, I felt like this was an offering for consumers that truly could be a foundation for their active lifestyle world.”
Beyond magazines, Thurston’s acquisitions include book publisher VeloPress, Outside TV, Warren Miller ski films, the Fly Fishing Film Tour and even a company that takes finish-line photos at races.
He hopes to develop feature films and documentaries, as well as short videos to engage younger people on TikTok or Snapchat.
Outside already has a strong social media presence. Its Instagram account, with a million followers, posts a steady stream of content sponsored by companies like Adidas, Ford, Under Armour and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Thurston, an avid cyclist who also enjoys skiing and hiking, began assembling the company in 2019, when he bought Pocket Media’s cluster of magazines, including Triathlete and VeloNews. In 2020, he bought another group of magazines, including Ski and Backpacker, from Active Interest Media. In November, Outside owner and editor in chief Larry Burke called out of the blue offering to sell the magazine.
Launched in 1977 by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, who sold it to Burke a year later, Outside has become celebrated for deeply reported features that spawned best-selling nonfiction books like “Into Thin Air” and “The Perfect Storm” and films like “Blue Crush.” It also features a steady mix of gear guides, fitness tips and where-to/how-to stories.
But by late 2020, Outside appeared to be running on fumes. Outside Online acknowledged its financial struggles when it appealed to readers for donations, and Thurston said the magazine had furloughed a number of employees. It hadn’t paid some freelancers for nearly a year. In a March statement, Thurston pledged to be more prompt. “Earlier this week, following our acquisition of Outside magazine, we mailed checks to every freelancer with an overdue invoice,” he said.
Thurston sees opportunity in Outside, and investors like his vision. He said he has raised $180 million in venture capital funding since 2019 for his media empire. With the combined publications, the company has grown to 475 employees. Thurston thinks it will be profitable within a year, and hopes to take the company public within three years.
Outside still has a loyal base of 530,000 print subscribers, and the other magazines have a combined print circulation of 680,000. Thurston aims to shift revenue from 70% ads to 70% subscription in just three years. Thurston said converting 10% of the free visitors to his website to members will meet this goal.
This has been the primary challenge facing magazine publishers for 20 years, as the print ads that provided most of their revenue shriveled. Most are not faring well.
Industry observers say it’s a challenging time to enter the magazine business.
“From a business standpoint, I can’t really think of anything that has clearly worked,” said Kevin Lerner, an assistant professor at Marist College and editor of the Journal of Magazine Media. “I don’t know that anybody’s really quite figured it out.”
Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, an associate professor at Columbia College and a former magazine editor, said recent years have “just been brutal, brutal for magazines.” Still, she thinks Thurston might be onto something.
“It is no secret that magazines have a broken business model. And it’s been really challenging to convince consumers to pay for carefully created, carefully curated content when they are awash in a sea of free content,” said Bloyd-Peshkin. “Here’s this brand saying that a magazine or two is part of our value proposition, but what you are really buying is a whole package of things that you’re used to paying for.”
Thurston plans to continue reducing the frequency of the print publications but said he will not discontinue any. Outside had already been moving in this direction, dropping from monthly to just seven issues in 2020. He said he plans to put about 40% of the online content behind a paywall.
Women make up about 52% of Outside’s audience, and among all of the titles the audience is split evenly among men and women. But six of the company’s seven board members are men.
This is typical, according to Ann Shepherd, the chief operating officer of Him for Her, a nonprofit that advocates greater diversity on corporate boards. Shepherd’s research shows that only half of privately held companies that had raised at least $100 million had even one woman on the board. Investors held the majority of board seats, she found, and only 9% of investor directors were women.
Thurston said he’s actively seeking another woman to join the board. “This is a big initiative for us across the company,” he said, “not just gender diversity but diversity overall.” The magazine has also been publishing stories about making the outdoors more inclusive.
Thurston believes his formula of bundling the publications is aligned with his readers’ interests. “Most of the audience is not just doing one activity,” he said, “they are doing three or four activities a year — like skiing, cycling, hiking.”
Tom Bie, editor and publisher of the independent fly-fishing magazine the Drake, is intrigued by Thurston’s model but somewhat skeptical about the cross-pollination among readers.
“The true enthusiast is about one activity, maybe two, everything else is dabbling. And stories for dabblers won’t interest the dedicated enthusiasts,” he said. “I’m as curious as anyone to see if they can make it work.”
Thurston has bucked conventional wisdom before. When he pitched a fitness-mapping app in 2008, skeptics said few people would carry their phones while running or biking. Five years later, he sold MapMyFitness to Under Armour for $150 million. Now Thurston said some people think he is just building up Outside before taking it public, by bundling the publications in what’s known as a private equity roll-up.
“And that’s really not what this is,” he said. “It really is about creating a completely new consumer experience that takes the friction out of getting you more active and staying engaged with the sports you love.”