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Robin Thurston, the multimillionaire mogul of active-lifestyle journalism, sat in his Boulder office one afternoon this past winter and contemplated his emerging empire. It was impossible for him not to feel satisfied. Since purchasing what was then called Pocket Outdoor Media in 2019, Thurston had poured more than $150 million of investment capital into the formerly obscure conglomeration of niche publications and transformed it into what he hopes will become the nation’s most extensive purveyor of outdoor life.
Outside, the renowned magazine Thurston purchased in February 2021, is the crown jewel of the enterprise and the namesake of the now rebranded Outside Inc. Today, the company has grown to more than 500 employees and includes 26 magazine titles (such as Yoga Journal and Backpacker), a book publisher, a GPS app, a fly-fishing film tour, and an event-management business. It’s all part of Thurston’s plan: Bring myriad brands from a single industry under one umbrella, anticipate customer needs, charge a subscription fee for all of it, and significantly de-emphasize the advertising revenue model that has become so challenging for newspapers and magazines over the past decade and a half.
“Do I think I’m doing something revolutionary?” the 49-year-old Outside Inc. CEO and Colorado native says. “You know, it’s not like I’m building a rocket going to the moon.”
Outside Inc. would not confirm how many people have already subscribed to Outside+, the service that charges users $99 per year and includes two magazine subscriptions, mapping services, books, reduced entry fees to events, the entire Warren Miller film collection, and discounts on things such as travel, lodging, and gear. But Thurston says he hopes to grow Outside Inc.’s digital subscriber count to 20 million in the next five years.
The web of information and offerings is based on a data model that can anticipate a user’s future activities based on their current interests—and other users’ past interests. Outside+, Thurston says, could detect a customer’s shift from mountain biking to trail running, for example, then deliver everything from news stories, running shoe reviews, yoga and food recommendations, and event sign-ups—plus travel and lodging resources—to a computer or smartphone screen.
“It’s about personalization,” Thurston says. “It’s about having data to be able to understand and hopefully predict what you’re going to do next.” As the company aims for profitability within the year, it has plans to break into documentary films, offer more podcasts, and develop short videos for TikTok and Snapchat.
Thurston has likened his company to publishing’s version of Amazon Prime or Netflix, a hub that serves as guru and storyteller to the active-lifestyle community. Eventually, he says, 70 percent of the company’s revenue will come through its subscription model, which he believes will help transform the publishing space.
“Our goal is how to get you, inspire you, to get the skills and ultimately guide you toward what that next thing is going to be,” says Thurston, who holds a master’s degree in finance from the University of Colorado Denver. “I want to make sure you’re sleeping well, that you’re thinking about your mental health, that you’re thinking about what goes into your body when you do an activity, that you have all the skills to have a great experience.” Ultimately, he says, “the consumer wins by consolidation.”
When Thurston announced in February 2021 that Pocket Outdoor Media had acquired Outside (based in Santa Fe, New Mexico), the magazine’s staff was cautiously optimistic. COVID-19 had been brutal on the publishing business, but things appeared to be particularly bad at the venerable publication. In the year since the pandemic had begun, the staff had suffered layoffs, pay cuts, and furloughs. Outside had begun soliciting donations via its website and newsletters to help keep the venture afloat, while freelancers continued to complain that they weren’t being paid promptly for their work. “There were lots of problems,” says one staffer, who requested anonymity to speak openly about Outside and its former and current owners. “Hearing about a new owner, that wasn’t so bad. Change brings questions, but there was a lot of hope that things could get better under Robin Thurston.”
Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner launched Outside in 1977—and quickly sold the magazine the next year to Larry Burke, who owned Mariah Media Network. Over the years, Outside became the bible of outdoor media, a literary force that would feature the work of Jon Krakauer, Susan Orlean, Sebastian Junger, Tim Cahill, Jane Smiley, and Hampton Sides, among others. Krakauer’s famous book Into the Wild—the poignant tale of the death of a young man in the Alaskan wilderness—grew out of the feature he originally wrote for Outside. In the 56-year history of the National Magazine Awards—the Academy Awards of the American magazine industry—Outside has won the general excellence award five times and is the only magazine to have won the award in three consecutive years, from 1996 to 1998.
Like most publications in the 2000s, Outside was forced to adapt to an eroding print advertising base that once had been the industry’s lifeblood. While the publication expanded its digital presence and became an online success story, the magazine had downsized over the years. Outside’s print frequency was cut (it now publishes six times a year, plus two gear guides), and staffers began to wonder whether Burke had the wherewithal to sustain the business’ brutal financial realities. Particularly, they thought Burke had ignored the rapidly changing outdoor community, which had become increasingly focused on making the outdoors more welcoming to women, to the LGBTQ community, and to underserved populations—especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Those issues were rarely pushed within the pages of Burke’s magazine. “There was a sense that Larry was a little behind,” says one longtime freelancer who continues to write for the magazine. (Burke could not be reached for comment.)
Burke first met Thurston in early 2020, when Thurston was visiting his mother in New Mexico. At the time, the new Pocket Outdoor Media CEO had only recently exited as chief of Helix, a Silicon Valley–based consumer genetics company, and was still in the early stages of planning to turn the Pocket publishing business into an active-lifestyle superpower. Pocket’s then-small stable included the trail-mapping app Gaia GPS and several niche magazines, such as VeloNews—a Boulder-based cycling magazine—and California-based Triathlete.
Thurston, who grew up in Denver but spent much of the 1990s as a professional road cyclist in Europe before returning to Colorado, told Burke he’d be interested in purchasing Outside—including its online content and its loosely affiliated broadcasting arm—if Burke someday wanted to sell. “We were struggling with the brand,” Thurston says of Pocket Outdoor Media. “To me, Outside was the most iconic brand in the category.” In November 2020, Burke called Thurston and said, If you can find a way to buy the whole thing, I think I’m done.
Thurston secured financing from investment partners within a few months. That included $150 million in a Series B funding round from Sequoia Heritage—an early investor in tech giants such as Apple, Google, Instagram, and WhatsApp—that would help fund additional purchases. That Thurston could get capital so quickly, he says, spoke to the importance of the Outside magazine brand to the larger business.
The Outside magazine purchase and the quick rebrand of Pocket Outdoor Media to Outside Inc. immediately gave an air of legitimacy to Thurston’s plan. Overnight, the company assumed 530,000 subscribers and outsideonline.com, which regularly receives three million visits per month. Thurston paid Outside’s previously unpaid freelancers, and he says the company is now trying to get checks to contributors within 30 days—a goal he admits is still in progress.
At the same time, more businesses were folded into the Outside Inc. portfolio. Among them was Pinkbike—one of the world’s most popular mountain biking websites for news, opinions, and gear reviews (one estimate has the site at 700 million annual page views)—and its affiliated Trailforks mapping program, which had more than 300,000 mapped routes and an estimated six million users.
“Now we had enough in our portfolio to offer a $500 value to the customer: commerce, mapping, events, media, TV, really high-quality video,” Thurston says of the $99 annual Outside+ membership. “These businesses really needed scale, which I think they now have. It’s been a no-brainer.”
The speed with which Thurston has gobbled up media properties over the past two years has bred skepticism, particularly about the quality of journalism the company plans to offer and whether Outside Inc. is growing at an unsustainable pace. Thurston says this consolidation is good for the consumer, but the history of diminished competition in American business tells a different story.
“Robin Thurston is Thanos, and we’re the fucking Avengers,” says Mike Rogge, the publisher and editor of California-based Mountain Gazette, an outdoor-lifestyle magazine that publishes twice a year. Small, independent publishers—such as Height of Land Publications, Adventure Journal, and Bomb Snow—argue Thurston’s model oversimplifies outdoor enthusiasts’ lives and will turn consumers into algorithms in search of the next sale, Rogge says.
It’s also a major risk. “You’re putting all these titles under one company, so what happens if this doesn’t work?” says Rogge, who revived the Mountain Gazette brand two years ago. Thurston “is trying this one-size-fits-all thing, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all in this industry. I think customers can sniff that out a mile away.”
Readers of some publications under the Outside Inc. umbrella have been similarly critical. After Pinkbike’s acquisition in July 2021, the site’s editor wrote that Outside Inc.’s purchase meant more resources for “bigger and better projects” and that readers would benefit from the folding of Pinkbike content into the wider Outside+ universe. The reaction among readers was swift. “Welp, it’s been a good run…. I fear change and can only assume this is the end as we know it,” one Pinkbike reader wrote in the comments section at the end of the editor’s letter. “Bye bye, Pinkbike!!” another person wrote. “It was a good run…. Let the watering down begin.”
“With anything, there’s always pushback, but this was definitely more than expected,” says Karl Burkat, Pinkbike’s co-founder, who now leads editorial teams for seven Outside Inc. titles. “There are comments up there, like, Oh, you’re going to retire, and this guy’s going to buy a Tesla. The general perception is that when businesses get acquired, things get worse. The only thing we can do is prove them otherwise—that we’re the exception, that it won’t happen to us.”
Thurston argues the consolidation of similar publications—such as VeloNews and Peloton—translates into a broader knowledge base and more people covering a larger swath of news that will better serve readers. Several Outside magazine staffers and freelancers, however, worry about the quality of their publication. Ultimately, they’re unsure how the magazine fits into Outside Inc.’s larger mission.
In early January, 15 of 17 eligible members of Outside’s editorial staff expressed an interest in unionizing—pushing for more salary transparency and a salary floor for employees—a move that could’ve had enormous implications if Thurston wanted to take the company public. Outside Inc. refused to recognize the union. “We respect an employee’s right to unionize, but we don’t believe unionization is a needed path for our employees and we hope to continue to have an open and constructive dialogue to better understand this disconnect,” Outside Inc. wrote in a statement at the time.
On February 18, the members of the Outside editorial staff who’d signed off on the union mission statement withdrew the bid. In a Twitter thread, the group said, in part, “Over the past six weeks, we have had many tough conversations. Managers, both corporate and direct, have said that they hear our concerns and have repeatedly asked for more time to implement change. We are granting an opportunity for both sets of leaders to deliver on that promise, and intend to work in good faith to help them do so. To that end, we will continue what we started through this effort, and spend the coming months working together to enact the improvements we believe are necessary to make Outside a viable and equitable workplace for years to come.”
Overall, one staffer who took part in the unionizing efforts says, benefits at the magazine have improved, and there’s been a better effort to diversify the magazine’s pages under the new ownership. Still, there’s plenty of room to improve, especially if continued complaints by freelance writers about being paid in a timely fashion are to be believed. There’s also uncertainty about the future of Outside and what happens to the company as more titles are added to its parent’s quiver. “To keep its employees happy, a company that is growing too fast should grow slower,” the staffer says. “We have to hold Outside Inc. to the promises of positive change that we were given when the magazine was initially acquired, and we need to give a path for better working conditions at these other companies.”
On top of that, the question on many staffers’—and readers’—minds is whether the publication, which won a worldwide audience for its intrepid storytelling, in-depth research, and sharp photography and design, will continue to prioritize the journalism that made it famous. “Everyone’s waiting and wondering what Robin Thurston is going to do,” says one Outside writer. “Is he interested in paying for the next Into the Wild, or does he only care about his service?”