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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Outside Inc. CEO Robin Thurston went on a media buying spree, acquiring iconic publications like Outside magazine and expanding an ever-increasing digital stable to add to its Outside+ subscription model. “I think COVID presented an opportunity that was once in a lifetime,” Thurston, a Denver native, told 5280 in a December 2021 interview explaining his myriad acquisitions for this article.
In addition to traditional print media offerings, the Boulder-based company bought a wide-ranging list of active-lifestyle brands, the complete Warren Miller film catalog, mapping services, and even a company that takes finish-line photos at race events. Thurston’s plan was to have those brands become part of the Outside+ subscription model, which targets individual reader’s interests and anticipates future pursuits. The goal: to directly sell content, goods and services to subscribers for an annual fee. In the process, Outside Inc. would de-emphasize the advertising revenue model that has become so challenging for print media. Perhaps most impressively, Thurston told 5280, he’d transformed his company from a few dozen employees to one that had more than 500—and he’d made all the acquisitions without laying off a single person.
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That changed last week when the company told its staff in a video conference meeting that it would eliminate roughly 15 percent of its workforce, shutter some of its print publications, and reduce the frequency of most magazines to one or two print runs per year. The change came as a shock to Outside Inc. employees who had hoped Thurston’s ambitions would result in a rejuvenated era for the company’s publications.
“This is demoralizing,” one Outside Inc. employee told 5280 on the condition of anonymity to speak openly about the cuts. “You do the work because of the people around you, all these brilliant minds. Now, people are wondering how long they want to stay in this industry.”
The layoffs were spread across the company, according to a slide presented to Outside Inc. employees and obtained by 5280. Of those listed as “exits,” 31 were from “content”—or 18 percent of that sector—among them, three editors at Outside magazine, the company’s flagship brand. Sixteen employees were laid off from the sales and marketing departments; 13 positions were eliminated from “commerce,” 12 positions were eliminated from “product engineering and mapping;” another seven were “general and administrative” employees. The company’s “events and experiences” and “customer support” staffs were untouched.
“This is a difficult time for media, and these kinds of cutbacks are a trend we unfortunately continue to see,” says Joy Jenkins, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Tennessee and editor of the Journal of Magazine Media, a peer-reviewed publication that studies magazines and new media. “On the surface, it seems like the [Outside+] model would work, so I hope these cutbacks don’t dissuade others from trying to innovate in this space.”
Additionally, Outside Inc. plans to reduce its print publications by 80 percent, according to a letter Ski magazine editor Sierra Shafer posted, and subsequently deleted, on Twitter. Cycling magazines Beta and Peloton will be shuttered within the next six months, as well as the women’s fitness magazine, Oxygen, which currently has a live job posting for an editorial director. Other print publications—including Ski—will be offered online, with just one or two print editions per year.
Outside Inc.’s public relations firm did not respond to a request to make Thurston available for comment and instead provided 5280 with a written statement. “Outside has grown tremendously over the past two years, with 20 acquisitions and a quadrupled paid membership to over 800K paid subscribers, but growth often necessitates change. In line with what many in the media industry have seen as the future of media, we are making a concerted shift from a high volume of print to a greater focus on immersive video and digital storytelling. With this shift, Outside made the difficult but necessary decision to reduce headcount. We’re incredibly grateful to everyone who has played an active role in helping the brand progress towards our vision of being the leading platform for outdoor content, services, and activity.”
Thurston told Outside Inc. employees via the video meeting that current economic conditions made it more difficult in the short-term to move the company from private ownership to a publicly traded company and forced the cutbacks. The savings, Thurston said, would give the company more operating “runway” in the meantime.
The company acquired the Santa Fe–based Outside magazine and its ancillary businesses in February 2021 and changed its corporate name from Pocket Outdoor Media to Outside Inc. Thurston had secured financing from investment partners, including $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.
Over about two years, Outside Inc. has acquired roughly 30 titles, including PinkBike—one of the world’s most popular mountain biking websites for news, opinions, and gear reviews—Backpacker, Trail Runner, and Yoga Journal. In April, the company announced the launch of the Outerverse, a Web3 initiative that Outside Inc. promoted in a media release as an “adventure-minded, wellness-driven alternative” to Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. The project would include an NFT marketplace, called Outside.io, a “community-oriented creator platform,” and an Outside-branded loyalty token.
For months, numerous employees told 5280 they found themselves questioning the number of purchases, how the acquisitions fit into the broader company, and whether the company leadership’s plan was sustainable. “I don’t take issue with Outside Inc. protecting its bottom line,” the Outside Inc. employee told 5280, referring to the cutbacks. “But the lack of direction here is frustrating.”
Thurston said the Outside Inc. umbrella offered smaller publications stability and “protection” during uncertain times. “We are investing so much in these teams,” he told 5280 in December. “My whole thing is, I don’t know how you win if you don’t invest in the people.”
In that interview, Thurston mentioned Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has gutted American newspapers, including the Denver Post. “[There are] firms out there like Alden that think they can just keep scraping more dollars off the bottom line, but that’s not my philosophy. My philosophy is that we have to invest in the team, so they want to do the work and do it in a high-quality way to bring the customer in. As long as you keep that cycle going, then I think you’re in a good spot.”