“As wild as you think it is, as wild as you imagine it is—it’s even wilder.” says former High Times Magazine editor John Buffalo Mailer. “It is a crazy Willy Wonka-land environment.” So what did Mailer learn about running a business?
Question: What's it like to work at High Times?
John Buffalo Mailer: I’ll put it to you this way. As wild as you think it is, as wild as you imagine it is—it’s even wilder. Like it is a crazy Willy Wonka-land environment to be running a magazine out of, and truth be told, if what we were trying to pull off were to work I think I was the wrong guy for it because I was 25 years old. I was sent in first to kind of assess the staff and the team and see who could stay and who could go with the shakeup. And, you know, I’m a nicer guy than I should be in a lot of instances, but I couldn’t look at that, you know, 55-year-old advertising director with the long ratty grey hair who would forget his teeth oftentimes coming in and like, you know, I said, “Who are you?” And he's like, “Oh, I’m your ad man.” I thought, "Oh, we’re fucked." And I couldn’t look at that guy and know that if I fired him he was going to lose custody of his kid and probably wouldn’t be able to get another job anywhere else because he had been there for so long. That’s not something I wanted on my conscience, not something that I felt like doing and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that for the greater good of the magazine. If it was going to work we should have fired everybody and brought in six people that had the same vision, knew what they were doing and could do it. Instead I tried to kind of like get everyone behind it and it worked... half. It half-worked. Half the people were just too paranoid and scared of losing their jobs and so were kind of, you know, putting on the happy face and the stuff going on behind one’s back was insane.
You know, I ended up walking away from that place with an appreciation for the education that I’ve been given. I mean essentially I got paid for a year or two to really learn magazine publishing from top to bottom and inside and out and that has helped me a lot. We were also a little ahead of our time because while we took a huge hit on advertising… We couldn’t, you know. There was cultural advertising we couldn’t have in with the new direction of the magazine and didn’t really have the time or abilities to fill that in. We doubled the Web traffic and that was my sign. That was kind of what I was using as my argument to say, "Hey, give it another few years.This is going to work." Because back then they didn’t really understand what that meant and they didn’t really see how quickly everything is moving to the Web and how essentially print magazines are going to be collector’s items before we know it. As each generation comes up that doesn’t have the habits for paper it’s just easier and cheaper to get your stuff online. You know, people go to what they’re used to. Certainly our generation, you know, we’ll always want to have a magazine in our hands. We like that, but they didn’t see the value in that necessarily and you know they may have been right for all I know because it was another few years until really ad revenue starts to move to the websites. So you know so at the end of the day it was an experiment. It was something that hopefully sparked a few people to do similar things down the road and will keep a certain flavor of magazine publishing alive. I have to say at the end of the day I am glad not to be spending all day, every day in the High Times office, you know, covering this particular angle of life.
Recorded March 30, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen