MICHAEL KUSEK HAS HEARD IT BEFORE, that only a fool would launch a magazine printed on paper. You might have better luck opening a video store. But Kusek is undeterred about the power of the printed page, especially when it’s used to tell the stories of artists and show examples of their work in full-color glory. And there are important stories to be told, he says, about the changing ways culture is created and consumed in New England. As always, we have painters and violinists and poets as well as museums and theaters and concert halls. But the way Kusek sees it, our cultural space is also being enriched by chefs like Connecticut’s Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, who uses invasive species and so-called trash fish to create beautiful, surprising dishes. Credit should also go to entrepreneurs like Josh Craggy, who runs a hair-cutting business in Concord, New Hampshire, inspired by the grand Victorian barbershops of the late 1800s.
“I didn’t feel like I was reading a lot of stories of the people who were making things,” says Kusek when describing the need for Take, which the 47-year-old launched last year from his base in Northampton. “I liked the idea of somebody who is really into food reading about that in a magazine where they can also read about a really great dance company. The idea of putting those two kinds of creative endeavors side by side shows not only that they both exist here in New England, but they’re all part of this great mix.”
Kusek is highlighting something that government officials and chambers of commerce love to talk about: the creative economy. The idea is that the vast number of creative workers and businesses should be counted together and recognized for their revenue potential and ability to make communities more livable and fun. In a 2007 report, the New England Foundation for the Arts put the number of people in the region’s cultural workforce at just over 225,000 — with almost 110,000 in Massachusetts alone. That includes museum employees, video-game makers, architects, musicians, sculptors, editors, even marketers. “The creative economy is an important part of the innovation ecosystem all across Massachusetts,” says Helena Fruscio, the state’s director of the creative economy as well as the deputy assistant secretary of innovation. She often carries copies of Kusek’s magazine in her bag: “They’re making the creative industries visible in such a beautiful way,” Fruscio says. “The more people we have talking about the density and the inventiveness of the creative industries in Massachusetts, the better.”
KUSEK, WHO GREW UP IN HOLYOKE, gave up his successful Northampton public relations firm and clients such as MSNBC host Rachel Maddow to start Take. It was a bold move given that almost half of all print publications don’t make it through the first year. In 2013, he asked Lauren Clark, a longtime writer in Somerville and author of Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England From the Mayflower to Modern Day, to be his editor. The following year, he wrote and revised a business plan. An online version of Take went live in January 2015, and the magazine, printed on sturdy paper and feeling more like a coffee-table book than Us Weekly, debuted in September.
Having Maddow in his circle didn’t hurt. That same January, she wrote in The Washington Post about “America’s new economic optimism in small-scale local ambition” and ticked off Take as an example: “Another friend has just started a magazine — yes, paper! — about the ‘new culture’ of New England. It wasn’t hard to find either investors or advertisers.”
Maddow’s view of the advertisers may have been overly rosy, but what she said about investors was true enough: Twenty- seven of them, all in New England, have given Kusek close to $400,000. And a Kickstarter campaign that ended in August raised $20,610.
Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi professor known by people in the industry as “Mr. Magazine,” recently named Take one of the 30 hottest US magazine launches of 2015, declaring it “a great read and a visual extravaganza.” In its pages, readers meet the people Kusek calls “culture makers” and see where they work and what they produce. Contributors have included well-known artists like Eric Carle and Nanette Vonnegut, but emerging talent often gets the most attention. Kusek’s hope is that readers will be so inspired, they’ll get in their cars and explore New England in ways they haven’t before.
YOU MIGHT STILL WONDER why Kusek thought a print magazine was worth a go in the first place. Kusek, who wears oversized black-framed glasses and untied snow boots and laughs easily, says he’s just a magazine guy. “I love paper,” Kusek says. “I think people are still really attracted to beautiful magazines.”
Husni estimates that about 240 magazines started last year, and while he’s optimistic about publications like Take that emphasize visual storytelling and look good enough to display in your home, financial success is rare. Husni’s research shows that only two magazines out of every 10 will survive the first four years of publishing; almost half die in the first year.
Kusek knows all about it. Despite the investors, cash hasn’t flowed when he hoped it would, and employees and freelancers have had to wait for paychecks. Advertising sales started out sluggishly but are picking up. An original plan for 10 issues a year was revised to six. “The best test of any business plan is whether or not it can change, because it’s going to have to,” says Tim Fisk, Take’s part-time operations and finance director (and a friend of Kusek’s for 18 years). “We learned a lot.”
The magazine staff — three full-timers and six part-timers and freelancers — was until recently based in a borrowed one-room artist’s studio in a former mill on the edge of the Smith College campus in Northampton. Employees set up their laptops at the large farm table in the center. But in true startup fashion, they often work remotely and communicate via Google Hangouts or Slack. Kusek hopes to find a permanent space this year.
You can buy Take in New England bookstores and retailers like Whole Foods as well as a few stores across the country. Kusek prints about 10,000 copies of each issue and has almost 1,100 paying subscribers — he hopes eventually to add moneymaking ventures such as events and to boost circulation to 25,000.
In the past year, Kusek has found himself drawn to a podcast called StartUp. “It became deeply therapeutic to listen to for me,” he says. The podcast referred to a period in a new business’s life called the “trough of sorrow,” when you’re past the initial excitement and you’re just trying to stay alive. “You’re trying to convey to people that everything is good, we’re moving ahead, this is going to work,” Kusek says. “It’s a tough time. But we have so much bright stuff in the pipeline. I’ve never felt more positive about this magazine finding its readership.”
Susanne Althoff, former editor of the Globe Magazine, is an assistant professor in Emerson College’s Writing, Literature and Publishing department. Follow her on Twitter @susannealthoff. Send comments to email@example.com.