5 Questions with David Mahaffey of The Sun Magazine

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Plank has a long relationship with The Sun, an independent, ad-free, reader-supported magazine based in North Carolina. 

Last August, we launched the latest version of their website, which includes 40 years worth of writing and photographs. We appreciate their considered approach to digital, rooted in their respect and reverence for the written word, and their commitment to a distraction-free experience. 

We dug into what their digital advances have meant to The Sun and its readers in the following interview with David Mahaffey, The Sun’s Digital-Media Director.

Erin: I read your (both hilarious and touching) account of your journey to becoming Digital-Media Director at The Sun, which included a months-long
snail-mail correspondence with editor and publisher Sy Safransky. Can you tell us a bit about The Sun’s approach to digital, given its unwavering reverence for the printed page?

David: I think The Sun’s reverence for the printed page is related to our commitment to providing a distraction-free space for readers, writers, and photographers to come together. We dropped advertising from the print magazine in 1990 — a leap of faith that placed our future in the hands of our readers, who have been there for us ever since. Even our first website was reader-supported: in 1998 two subscribers with a web-design business offered to build it for free. The design of the magazine has always been unobtrusive and exceedingly legible, and it took a long time for us to trust that we could offer a comparable reading experience online. I’m pleased that readers today can discover The Sun in print or on screen.

Erin: The most recent redesign of your website includes a full archive of your 40 years of publishing the magazine among numerous other updates. How has it been received by your readers? Any reactions that have surprised you?

David: Most of the readers who have responded with enthusiasm have also been quick to note that they would never part with their printed issues. But they are nonetheless visiting the website more, reading more selections, and sharing more of the work that moves them than they were before the new site launched. 

It’s tempting to think of The Sun in terms of the latest issue, but we’ve been publishing since 1974. That’s more than 500 issues of the magazine, featuring more than 6,000 personal essays, interviews, poems, and short stories (not to mention thousands of photographs). Until we built our digital archive, our earliest issues sat unreadable on shelves in a storage facility, but now readers can search the full text or browse by topic or favorite magazine section. And they can share what they find with other readers who might appreciate it too.

When we launched our updated website, we also began publishing a new section of the magazine called “One Nation, Indivisible.” It features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment by giving readers perspectives on the past and determination to face the future. In print, we indicate the issue where each excerpt is drawn. Online, we can link directly to the full text of each selection. 

It’s also been gratifying to hear from our contributors whose work is now accessible to a digital audience. The week we launched the new website, Cheryl Strayed (author of the memoir Wild) posted a Facebook link to an essay we published in 2002, and the resulting traffic briefly crashed the site. We never know what might strike a chord. Just recently, a fundraising letter from 10 years ago saw a large increase in site visits because someone with an impressive Twitter following shared it as part of a conversation about ethics in journalism.

Erin: One of the things that strikes me about The Sun is the strong sense of community that is evident in your readership. You have some of the nicest Facebook comments I’ve ever seen. You also have a section of your website that puts people in touch with discussion and writing groups formed by Sun readers in their areas. How has The Sun’s relationship with its readers evolved alongside the changes to your digital presence?

David: In some ways, we are following the readers. We first offered a digital edition of the magazine in response to a growing number of subscriber requests for one. The digital archive helps us answer reader questions about half-remembered work they read years ago and would like to find again. More and more of the discussion groups we list have Facebook addresses. If anything, we need to continue our digital evolution so we can keep up with our readers.

Erin: Are there any downsides to the digital advances you’ve made? 

David: Converting our archive for the web has been a massive and expensive project for a small nonprofit magazine. So much of the work we’ve done on the new website has been to simply reach the point where we can more fully explore the new opportunities
available to publishers on the modern web. We’d love to produce a podcast, videos of our events, and other digital-only content, but those all require planning, approval, and development. We’re just beginning to figure out what our capacity is for those projects. Until we do, our digital presence feels contemporary but kind of sparse.

Another thing we’ve seen is a tremendous increase in submissions to the magazine. We receive nearly 3,000 per month, about four times as many as we did before we began accepting work online. The submissions overall are about the same quality as before, but that still means we’re reading about four times as many pieces that aren’t a good fit. Not everyone who submits is familiar with The Sun, so some writers don’t understand what kind of work we publish. We still want to read every submission and give it a fair chance, so we’ve hired more manuscript readers to keep pace. 

Erin: Will you ever make digital versions of The Sun’s books? Or is that crossing a line?

David: We actually produced a PDF version of Many Alarm Clocks, our latest book. There wasn’t much interest, so we took it offline. We considered producing a version for e-readers like the Kindle, but as an independent publisher we weren’t comfortable working with Amazon because of their controversial position in the publishing world. We even considered an audiobook version, but Amazon dominates that market through Audible. Most digital platforms beyond those owned by conglomerates aren’t
nearly as user-friendly, and it’s important to us that anything we produce in a digital format is very easy to use. This is another area where we will follow our readers: if they let us know we should consider a particular platform, we’ll look into it.

We’d like to thank David for sharing his thoughts with us and, of course, we invite you to get to know The Sun for yourself at thesunmagazine.org.

Want more? Check out our recent report on digital strategy for publishers.