Danyel Smith is well known in the media world. She's brought her voice to Rolling Stone, Spin, Village Voice, The New Yorker and The New York Times (to name a few). She has also been editor-in-chief at both Billboard and VIBE Magazine, not only profiling some of the biggest names in the media but also creating other meaningful work along the way.
Having taken a year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, Danyel has really been looking to push the boundaries of what she believes the "soul of journalism" should look like and is taking the leap to not only to talk about it, but to now create it. Her and her husband Elliot Wilson (who is equally as influential in the journalism world) are embarking on their first collaborative project, HRDCVR, with a strong team in hand. Listen in on Danyel's conversation with Sienna Brown about HRDCVR, the new everyone and the importance of independence.
For those who don't know, I'd love if you could give a brief rundown of what HRDCVR is.
Danyel Smith: HRDCVR is a hardcover culture magazine in the shape of a book. It’s created by a diverse team for a diverse world. We’re committed to utilizing design as a way to impact culture and hopefully to change the soul of journalism. We’re excited about over serving the journalistically underserved and having fun along the way.
You and Elliot both have such extensive experience in journalism and I’m interested in knowing what ignited the idea to branch out on your own to “change the soul of journalism”.
DS: I think the year that I’ve spent at Stanford as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow has given me a lot of time to think about an idea that I’ve been turning over in my head for about the last 15 years. For some time my husband and I have been looking for something that we can work on professionally together. We like to say that the ultimate project is our marriage and we’re really proud of that but we also wanted to build something else together journalistically and design wise. We’re having a good time so far working on HRDCVR together. It’s different for us because we have careers that are very distinct from the other and its wonderful to collaborate on something like this.
I also think that the changes that are happening in journalism are coinciding with so many changes that are happening demographically in the US. All of that together really makes now the time to change the soul of journalism. Let’s crowd source it. Let’s get people involved. Let’s do it.
You just mentioned that journalism is shifting in the same way the demographic is. Speaking demographically, do you feel that being a female of color has affected your journey as a creator and consumer of journalism?
DS: I think I’ve been lucky in that I’ve worked hard to work at a lot of great places over the last decades. I’ve worked at “mainstream” publications, at publications that were ostensibly serving niche populations; I’ve worked for myself and I’ve written books. I know what its like to be in the legacy publishing industry. I’ve been around the block a few times and I think that yes, journalism is changing but I’m optimistic about the future. I don’t know how invested I was in the way journalism has been since journalism was invented. I think that so often publications state over and over that they are serving all of the US or that they are serving the “mainstream” and I just don’t know that that was true.
I think that there are some problems, platform problems, distribution problems, contribution problems, team problems, hiring problems and I think right along with that there are problems of, who are you servicing? So many of these issues never really get discussed. It’s all intertwined together.
I’ve always been trying to change things and making them better, in terms of writing about, critiquing, celebrating hip-hop, hip-hop culture, and culture in general and I still think that the field is wide open for that. There are people doing a lot of good work but I think that Elliot and I are ready to throw our hat in the ring.
That's so inspiring. You guys are largely focused on being for “the new everyone”. When you say that, who are the people that you're speaking to directly? Who is the new everyone vs. the old everyone?
DS: You know what the biggest secret is about the new everyone? It’s the old everyone. It’s who the old everyone has been for a long time…a multicultural everyone, a culture of gay and lesbian people, a culture across spiritual beliefs, partnership beliefs, the yellowing of America, the graying of America, the tanning of America. There are more mixed marriages in the United Stated than before. There’s so many headlines, long think pieces, charts, bar graphics about all of this. At HRDCVR, we’re not just talking about the new everyone but we’re talking to employ the new everyone. We’re gated by the new everyone. We’re talking about new ways to talk about diversity and inclusion. It’s about the multi-stream; it’s about a new type of mainstream. Frankly, that’s what it’s been about but now it’s time to talk about it.
Even though HRDCVR is going to be taking the form of a book, social media has been a huge part of it’s foundation and that’s something that I love. Both you and Elliot have a wonderful social media presence, so how do you think that social media will play a part once it comes to life?
DS: Well the thing that people should know about HRDCVR is that we’re not trying to “bring print back” or anything like that. We don’t believe that we need to do a HRDCVR every week or every month and we don’t know yet if we’ll be doing it every year but we just want it to exist. We want to see what it looks like, what it feels like to build it, what we can learn from it and what other people can learn from it. We don’t have the intent of bringing print back but hey, if we end up doing more than one, that’s great. We believe that print is all part of the piece along with web news, social, mobile; it’s all of the piece.
I’m on twitter all day long because that’s how culture happens and the same with my husband. We take social media very seriously. I have around 117K followers on Tumblr and something I love is that it’s somewhat of a test case scenario. It has on it the kinds of things that HRDCVR can cover. We think of it as all of the piece, we don’t really see print as being this separate entity.
We have these networks and there’s a lot of feedback. It’s curious and forthright and I love it. I love that Elliot and I have that kind of input and that team HRDCVR will have that kind of input as we’re building this. We want to use the networks not just for marketing but for feedback as well.
Something that's I find intriguing is the dynamic between NY and LA and how the cultures on both coasts are so different. I know that you were living in California for your fellowship and your husband in New York. Are you planning on incorporating both cultures?
DS: Oh absolutely yes! I’m from Oakland, a California girl born and raised. Even though I’ve been living in NY since around 1993, I’m a Cali girl at heart. It's been nice to be in my home state and visit with my family while I’ve been at Stanford for the past months. The great thing for me about going to this fellowship at Stanford is that (if you search for it and are open to immersing yourself in it), there is a certain type of optimism that comes with being a Californian that I’m happy to have rediscovered and pleased to say that I’m packing it in a bag and taking it with me.
I also think that in Cali right now, the whole start-up culture, the culture of innovation, the culture of “go fast, go hard”, it pushes you to pivot and work things out. That kind of attitude is really sticking with me. When we launched our first Kickstarter, it wasn’t doing very well and that was terrifying for us. We dug in and shut it down and launched a new one on that same day. We raised in three days what it took us before to raise in three weeks. We reached our new goal and now we’re going for our stretch goal.
I’m the type of girl that figures things out, it’s been my job for many years to have a problem handed to me and find a way to fix it. I think for both Elliot and I, when confronted with the challenge of the original Kickstarter that wasn’t working, this time we weren’t working for other people, we were working for ourselves. We had to shake ourselves up and say, let’s be like the business people that we are and get this right. The Stanford ideals of there not being anything wrong with failing, you just need to turn around and get it right…and we did. We did it quickly and I think part of that came with being immersed in the Silicon Valley culture.
Lastly, I want to ask, what does wild mean to you?
DS: Wild means freedom. That transpires at different ages but right now, for me, it means freedom. It reminds me of when I was younger (around 11 or 12) in LA, I would ride my bike all the way down to Venice Beach with my sister because you could do that back in those days. I think my sister and I felt this feeling of independence and freedom. In my twenties I was the type of the girl that rode on motorcycles with boys, all that stuff and it was fun and I loved it. Then you look up in your 30’s and things are more serious. You have a job, responsibilities and you tend to get a bit more settled. For the past few years I’ve been thinking, how do I get that feeling back of being on those bikes and being that wild girl? Of course I can’t do all of that now but I'm pushing to grasp that feeling of independence and freedom and directing yourself. To feel the wind in your hair.
Danyel, this has been such a pleasure and I really appreciate you taking out the time.
DS: Of course, I’m so happy to have done this and thank you for your support!