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Why We Invested Everything In San Diego Magazine

Longtime writer and new majority owner Troy Johnson’s love letter to a city
Apollonia Trujillo Gallegos

I want to tell Abel’s story.

I read about Abel in the local paper. The story wasn’t about him. His mention was just a sentence or two. Abel cleans the filter on the most important storm drain in San Diego. Our city’s entire system depends on Abel showing up for work. If Abel doesn’t show up, our local waters become polluted. Beaches close and people get sick. And Abel, a single human being living in our city, has shown up again and again and again.

I want to know who Abel is, what he dreams about.

I want to hire a talented writer to tell Abel’s story in a compelling way that reads like good fiction. I want to pay a great photographer to take the best photo that’s ever been taken of Abel—the kind of photo they take when you land on the moon or release an album or protect a city from pollution. I want to put him in San Diego Magazine next to a story on Alicia Keys, with photos of her La Jolla home and an analysis of its magical architecture by Wallace Cunningham. I want to have Abel and Alicia and Wallace on a podcast together, to film videos of them living their lives in San Diego, to talk about the issues that face their city and about their favorite tacos.

I need to tell all three of them that they are the reason my wife Claire and I decided to throw everything we are into San Diego Magazine (last week, we became majority owners of this media company). That they are the reason we risked everything. If we succeed at this, they will deserve credit. If we fail at this, we’ll thank them for bolstering our courage and for our lack of regret. Because this is worth it.

I realize this sounds like a fever dream. But it’s not. It’s what San Diego Magazine does, and what it will do in even more innovative ways in the months and years to come. We use every format at our disposal to tell the remarkable stories of the people who live and work and create here. At its best, SDM isn’t about tacos or music or business or retail or architecture. It’s about people. The people who make that taco, build that business, design that home. From dreamers tinkering in garages to insanely successful CEOs. Little Italy to Santee, San Ysidro to Oceanside.

Our “acquisition” (what a weird, imperious word to describe a very humbling process) of SDM was over a year in the making. When the news was announced, I was incredibly grateful for all of the reactions—from “Congratulations!” to emojis to “I didn’t know writers were allowed to own things” to offers of support. More than a few people simply asked me point-blank: “Why?”

So let’s start with why. Because Claire and I believe strongly in how crucial local media is to the evolution of a city. We believe in local people, in using our voices to raise theirs. We believe in the art of storytelling. And we believe in actively participating in the future of our city.

When the pandemic really hit San Diego, I woke up to hundreds of emails from local food people—from mom-and-pop restaurant owners, chefs, farmers, ranchers, brewers, shop owners. Every email said the same thing: “I need help.”

So I opened my Instagram to them. Every night, I invited a few different local food-and-drink people on for a live discussion. We created a space for them to tell their stories, and highlighted how people could help. These were people who had risked everything on a dream, and now their dream was at risk. Those nights with them changed everything in me. It became crystal clear what Claire and I needed to do. We needed to invest in these people, in our city. So this is us, putting everything we are into where we live.

Another question that came up was: “Why a magazine? Isn’t that ‘vintage’ media? Why not build an app?”

First, I need to say that I love magazines. They are my digital detox of choice. I love tech, and I love the intentional absence of tech. I love that nothing bloops or bleeps or chimes when I read a magazine. Like a book, it fully immerses you, focuses all of your senses. I love reading a great story on a page that explodes with weird art and photos that take your breath away—photos you can feel and smell. Reading Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” or Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” changed my view of the world for the better. I can still remember where I was when I saw the photo of Muhammad Ali on Esquire, or John and Yoko on Rolling Stone.

When I graduated from college, my mom asked what I wanted as a gift for finally doing so. My answer was “a subscription to 10 of my favorite magazines”—The New Yorker, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, Surfer, Rolling Stone, I forget the rest. My mail was oppressive. I’m sure I owe chiropractic fees to a mail carrier somewhere.

Second, SDM hasn’t been just a magazine in a long, long time. We will build an app (I already have it sketched out). If it were just a magazine, I don’t know if I would’ve had the guts to take this on. But SDM is a full-fledged modern media company—the magazine, video, podcasts, photography, art, e-newsletters, branded content, live events and experiences.

The creative people here have never seen a future they didn’t walk directly toward. Case in point: At the front of every issue of our former life sciences publication, Hatch, was a photo of its chief content officer, Erin Chambers Smith, with the quote “Let’s just try it!” They saw all the exciting developments coming out of our tech sector and couldn’t wait to share them with readers.

What will change at SDM?

A lot.

Please bear with us. First I have to figure out who can get me a key to the office, and the Wi-Fi password. Editor in Chief Marie Tutko and the editorial staff have done a phenomenal job improving the diversity and breadth of our storytelling. They had already locked in our stories for the January issue when Claire and I walked through the door and said, “Surprise!”

We’re going to spend the winter listening—to you, our readers and viewers, to communities who maybe haven’t been included in SDM in the past, and to our own staff. We’re going to start building the SDM that you want and deserve—a diverse, evocative, 360-degree media company that documents a metropolis on the ascent (that’s San Diego). We will be launching more podcasts (we’re throwing around ideas: wellness, business, maybe even a modern parenting podcast—a selfish pursuit since Claire is about to give birth to our son). You will see a lot more video. We’ll still act as a guide to good things, but we want far more longform storytelling, deep-dives into issues that matter to the city (water, health care, sustainability, et cetera). We’re going to invest in epic photography and art. We’ll hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethics and responsibility. We’ll host speaker series from local business leaders.

Like I said, so many ideas.

You should start seeing bits and pieces of our vision starting in the new year, and the real innovations and changes in spring 2022.

“That’s great,” you might say. “But you’re not a billionaire. Great art costs money; how will you pay for this?”

Over the last week, Claire and I have been humbled by the support that’s poured in from the local business community, asking how they can help. To them we’re incredibly grateful—and for them, we’re launching a creative studio for branded content. We’ll use our writing and media talent to help them tell their own stories in rich, meaningful ways. I believe we’ll garner even more support as we prove that our work is good and real and valuable. We’ve spent a year crunching numbers and diving into spreadsheets until our brains screamed and our eyes leaked. We have hundreds of pages of ideas on how to make not only amazing media, but profitable media. Now it’s time to get to work.

If we’re talking stretch goals, I want to build a safe house for creatives—writers, designers, editors, photographers, videographers, event planners, business people (good business is absolutely an art form)—where they can make a decent, fulfilling living in San Diego. As a native, I saw too many of my talented creative friends move to Portland or Austin to “make it.” Throughout my career in TV and media, agents and managers and producers all said the same thing: Leave San Diego, move to LA or New York.

I refused. This is home. If every person with a dream left San Diego, the city would become dull and lifeless. I realize we won’t be able to hire them all, especially not right away as we grow SDM back to full strength after the pandemic. But if we can provide a home for a handful, and other media and creative brands hire a handful, we can stop the creative brain drain out of San Diego. It’s a group project, and we’ll do our part.

Lastly, I’m just humbled to assume leadership of a legacy like San Diego Magazine. It was formed in 1948 by a local married couple, Gloria and Ed Self. I was born in Scripps Hospital a few decades later, the biggest baby ever recorded there at the time  (11 pounds, four ounces, my apologies to my mother). It’s emotional for me that San Diego Magazine is now once again owned by a married local couple. And of course, I’d be remiss not to thank Jim Fitzpatrick, who for the last 27 years has led SDM and its various endeavors. He’s righted this ship more than once, and he’s staying on as an advisor and minority owner.

Media isn’t a get rich quick scheme. But there is nothing else Claire and I would rather do.

I hope you’ll stand with us as we build this together. It’s not going to be easy, and it won’t be perfect. We’re going to create some amazing things, and we’re going to have our share of duds. But if we do our jobs right, SDM will be a voice that, by and by, you’ll be proud to call your own.

Troy and Claire – Why We Invested Everything In San Diego Magazine

Apollonia Trujillo Gallegos

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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