In the age of new technology — of the touch-enabled, print-scanning, voice-recognizing, location-determining services developed on tablets, smart phones and music devices — typical digital magazines are, for the most part, a flop. A glorified PDF version of their printed counterpart on apps and mobile devices are usually hokey, with jumpy animations and small text, a lack of optimization, relevance and the ability to catch the eye of a traveling consumer. Essentially, the stereotypical pass for a “digital” magazine is everything that Citygram Austin Magazine is not.
By Samantha Jogenia Grasso
Photos provided by screenshots of the Citygram Austin Magazine app
Citygram Austin Magazine, launched in April of this year by local engineer-turned-freelance writer and photographer Chris Perez, is a digital, application-based magazine. Comprised of Perez and a small staff of freelance writers, Citygram Austin celebrates Austin’s creative class, from musicians and artists to chefs. Perez says the magazine is “Vanity Fair meets the New Yorker, good writing meets events, and as mobile as you are.”
Unique in its execution, Citygram Austin differentiates from common digital magazines in its sleek, interactive format and use of smart-device technology. While cruising through the magazine app, readers can stream music from a featured artist, find the closet location of advertised restaurants, purchase featured products and contact authors for recommendations — all with the tap of a finger or the turn of their screen. “You can read a great story, get connected to local businesses, while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. As a visitor you can know the best of Austin before you get off the plane. You could directly tweet that [author]… and they’ll likely get you a response in less than a day,” Perez says.
Not only does the magazine’s interactive quality entice readership, but it attracts advertisers, as well, says Perez. With traditional print advertisements, there is no technical way to record the number of people that view the advertisement, nor how many read the magazine once it is dropped off at its distribution location. With Citygram Austin, the app can report which pages the reader saw and if they clicked through the ad, which allows businesses and restaurants to track the analytics of their advertisement. “A lot of restaurants here say, ‘We put our ad in a magazine because we have an advertising budget and that’s what we’re supposed to do.’ They want to be able to have that analytic within a magazine. We’re the only ones who can [offer that service] right now in Austin, and it’s really compelling,” Perez says.
While the magazine excels in qualities of design, storytelling and content, it is a surprisingly recent endeavor for Perez, considering he only quit his job as an electrical engineer in March. At the age of 16, Perez followed his parents’ advice and chose to pursue that career path. “I’m fascinated with math and science so that’s what kind of got me in that engineering world, but before all that, I loved art,” Perez says. The first of his family to attend college, he earned his undergraduate degree in physics and math at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, before going on to the University of Michigan and receiving his graduate degree in electrical engineering. After his graduation, Perez went to work for IBM for nine years. “I always viewed [getting an education] as an opportunity I can’t screw up. It felt like I’m obligated to make the most of it, especially as a role model for cousins that I had,” he explains.
After working a couple of years on the project management side, Perez began to feel that he could no longer move up in the industry without risking his work and life balance in the wrong direction. Along with his decreasing sentiment for promotion, Perez saw a shift in the industry when companies started to invest less into projects. “It wasn’t really the kind of work I wanted to do. It was more like research, and I liked the people-side of things,” Perez says.
With the stream of projects slowing at IBM, Perez decided to explore his creative side as a freelance photographer and writer in November of 2011. He started to contribute to the blog Apartment Therapy and eventually their food site, the Kitchn. “As I did that, I really met a lot of awesome people. I met people that would tell me, ‘I’m an artist, I’m a photographer, I’m a designer,’ and I really started being envious of having that.,” he explains.
Although he made more money as an engineer, Perez realized that his envy sprung from seeing members of the creative class develop their own projects and that the monetary aspect of art mattered less to him. “It was eight months in when it really resonated with me — I want to be like these people and create something, do something for myself, rather than make it just a hobby. It’s special when you’re about to write a story about somebody. They react positively to it and it helps them get business. It felt like … I was denying myself by not doing it,” he adds.
To merge his interests, Perez considered how his background in graphic design, website engineering and photography could help him improve the design of the digital magazine and remove the limitations of the current model. “What’s missing out of magazines is they’re all print first, digital second. They’re not fully utilizing the capabilities that are inherent in how you view them. I wanted to capitalize on ads and make it fully interactive, fully digital, and not have any limitation … by being tied to print,” he says.
Soon after Perez started freelancing, he began developing Citygram Austin, with the help and support of his mentor, Tolly Moseley. To pitch the idea to Moseley, Perez created a mock-up PDF of what the magazine would look like and explained to her what he wanted to do with the interactive advertisements, such as make songs play right on the page or allow readers to make reservations at an advertised location right from the ad. While the mock-up was just a visual representation, Moseley could see the innovation and unique nature of his project and shared his concept with two other people who had worked in the magazine industry. “That was the catalyst of, ‘let me start building my team,’ and it needed that support of someone that I admired to really believe in what I had for an idea. You need someone like that, especially in a creative world where it’s easy to get discouraged, to not know if you’re doing the right thing. It’s good to have somebody you can trust to give feedback, positive or negative,” he says.
To launch the magazine app, Perez aimed to put together a collection of writers with storytelling talent and a knack for media. At the same time, Perez wanted to “celebrate the writer,” which led him to create the magazine in way that attracts readers for its authentic writers who have strong careers in journalism and blogging. “If you look at some of my writers, they write for three or four outlets, and you probably read their stories and don’t know it. When I met that [writer], it was special, so I want to give that experience,” Perez says.
After gathering his writers, organizing the business portion and developing the application, Perez quit his job at IBM and launched Citygram Austin in April. With the format, Perez says he posts content with more quality and depth than the trendy, low-quality posts that fish for “likes” on Facebook through buzzy headlines. He says that, so far, the reception has been strong and positive. “It’s usually that [readers say they], ‘never have seen anything like this, it’s a beautiful magazine, it’s helpful and it’s well-written.’… A lot of people want to write for it, and that means a lot to me too, because as a writer myself going through that, I wanted this to be a platform that celebrated good writing,” he says.
Although Citygram is free to download and self-funded by Perez, he plans to get to a point in the magazine’s readership growth before he starts charging 99 cents per issue. Overall, Perez wants the magazine to develop a strong base in Austin before it spreads to other parts of the country, such as Los Angeles, New York and Portland. “I see ourselves going there before Dallas and San Antonio, because those people have those creatives that have already built a brand for themselves, and so it’s for those people … to be celebrated and have this be their outlet for their career and get paid for the work they’re doing,” Perez says.
Although Perez has managed to create a medium that will contribute to the way readers consume media, he does not stress the discontinuation of print magazines and is instead interested to see how the public will change it. “I think that a lot of people sense that [media] needs to change for business reasons and advertisement revenue streams. There is a nostalgia to that media, but I see younger people picking up something and wanting to embrace it quicker than older people do, so it’ll be interesting to see … those older people who aren’t connected to the web as much. How do they latch on to this, and how long does that take?” he says.