The hard, but rewarding road to HRDCVR

Danyel Smith came to Stanford in 2013 looking for ways to help people better manage diverse teams. She’d had a lot of experience at that, leading teams at such culture and music publications as Billboard (former editor), VIBE Media Group (former chief content officer) and Vibe / vibe.com (editor-in-chief). But, as often happens to JSK fellows, she came across some new ideas that changed her perspective on the best way to pursue her goal. She decided she needed to make something. That something is HRDCVR, a magazine in book form that she co-founded and produced with her husband, noted hip-hop journalist Elliott Wilson. It was recently released in limited edition.

As part of their fundraising efforts, they started HRDlist, a email newsletter that, like HRDCVR, provides content produced by and for the emergent poly-identity population of the United States. All voices, especially those that have been underrepresented, are given space.

We spoke with Smith recently about HRDCVR and HRDlist, how they came about and where they’re headed.

Where did the idea for this new concept publication originate? What were you not finding that you hoped to provide?

When I wrote my proposal for the JSK Fellowship, I wanted to create something that would help leaders better manage diverse teams — I felt that I have strength in that area. Diversity is always talked about, but in terms of training, I still felt there was space to improve.

But then when I actually got to Stanford — as (the JSK directors) always say, it’s all theory until you get there — I had 1. Time to think, and 2. Amazing classes. I took this great, grad-level class for people in product design. It was the blessing of my time there because those students were amazing and one of them, Hannah, when I told her about my project, told me it sounded boring and would make no impact. And she knew I wanted to make an impact. She said, you should be thinking counter-intuitively and you should make something. Stanford is very about that overall, whether at the business school, the d.school or any random library, you feel like you should make something. That’s what everyone is doing in Silicon Valley, from Google on down.

We’re all about technology in journalism. When you hear people say we’re having a revolution; they’re talking about technology. But there are still a lot of humans in journalism. I wanted to change the soul of journalism. Not so much the business of journalism, but I was thinking about a place where all kinds of people are talking in the same space, and how important design is as it relates to serving underserved communities.

You started out with the HRDlist, a weekly newsletter of curated content from a wide array of sources on a variety of topics. How do you decide on the mix of stories?

We offer links to stories by and about people we feel are underserved. We tend to think of identity not just having to do with ethnicity. It’s also the disabled community, the Native American community. And it’s not just stories about people of various identities, but written by people of various identities. We also try to go to platforms that are built to serve underserved communities or that are making a serious effort at diversity. Those are the rules we go by.

It’s not necessarily about ethnicity. We try to not have surface ideas of identity. A lot of times, we’ll have a piece from the New Yorker. You could say that’s a pretty white publication. White people are part of the new everyone; they’re as much a part as anyone else. But I think sometimes we (journalism) err on centering on the white community. HRDCVR is in response to that.

What kind of stories do you stay away from?

Something that’s been seen everywhere, unless it’s totally amazing and then we’ll lead with the letters ICYMI, for in case you missed it. We also try not to include straight-ahead news stories. News changes so quickly it tends to age the list. We like it to last for three to four days. Honestly, after that, anything is up for grabs.

How does the HRDlist come together?

A team of us puts it together. Everyone submits things they read that they enjoyed. Starting on Wednesday, we put out a call to about 14 people. Anywhere from four to 12 respond with anywhere from one to six links. Two of our team narrows the list down to 16 or 18, and then it comes to me and Elliott. We add and subtract.

Why publish a hardcover book? Most publishers these days are looking at online and mobile. 

I first envisioned a hardcover magazine. It was important to me that it not be disposable, that it be built to last — something that you could trade or give to someone. I wanted it to be a super object, not just an object. Almost like a trophy. I began talking to Elliott. We thought of all these names, then landed on HRDCVR. We didn’t want to try to evoke anything with the name. We wanted everyone to have an entry point. That was important to us.

The HRDlist started out as a way to ask people to pledge to our project. We didn’t like the Kickstarter interface. Alexa Schirtzinger (another 2014 fellow) suggested MailChimp. We were thinking “how can we get people to enjoy this beyond just asking for money?”. So we started including links. Then when our Kickstarter campaign was over, we wanted it to continue having its own life. It’s one of the very few newsletters out there that curates editorial content serving people of all different races.

Were you surprised by the success of HRDlist? What’s been the feedback?

I was not surprised. There’s a hole in the marketplace. I am so happy that people are into it. Most of the feedback on HRDlist has not been on content but about design, the way content is presented. They said ‘You have too many links.’ We used to have 40 to 45 links in each newsletter. Now we have 12 to 16 each week. It’s difficult because there is so much good content out there that doesn’t get pushed to the forefront.

I do think ours is the best-designed newsletter out there. It’s important to us to serve in all these areas as well. So often, there’s not a lot of attention paid to design in underserved communities. We take that very seriously at HRDCVR.

Is the book a compilation of stories you’ve already put out on HRDlist, or all new material?

It’s all totally new content. It was all assigned and then edited. The process was very close to the typical editorial process at any national magazine.

What’s been the feedback so far? And do you plan any future HRDCVR releases?

Most of the feedback about the actual HRDCVR edition has been overwhelmingly positive. New York designer Robert Newman put us on his holiday gift guide.

We’re having a series of meetings after the first of the year to decide how grow, pivot what HRDlist can be on the Internet. Then another series of meetings will be about what HRDCVR can be in the “real” touchable world. I don’t know if we’ll want to repeat it. HRDCVR is a spirit and a mood and an idea. The form can be anything: a symposium or conference, a book in another shape, an art exhibit or posters. I go back to what Hannah said to me, and that is just to make something. We have to give people something to talk about. That’s what HRDCVR wants to be in relation to diversity in journalism.

What has most surprised you?

The response on social media to the actual HRDCVR — #hrdcvr. On Instagram, people are taking photos of the book and posting them. They’re very excited to receive it. They even do little photo shoots, setting it up on lawns with different relaxing items or on a beach table because they’re taking it to the beach. It’s just so outstanding. People took photos of the package on their doorstep. We put HRDCVR logo stickers on the envelope and we hand addressed them. We wanted people to know it’s personally for them. We want to over-serve in every way we can.

One of the reasons HRDCVR has a title so big on the front and back cover is because we wanted people to take photos of it. It’s why it’s square — Instagram is square. We wanted people to be able to see the logo. We took all these things into consideration. The fact that it actually worked is, boy oh boy.

Do you have any advice for people on how to build a community, such as HRDlist?

My advice is just to pay as much attention to humans and the souls of humans as you do to technology. It’s a mistake to place technology ahead of what’s best for that consumer to experience the content. Those things have to be 50/50. The more our lives become tech-centered, the more important human-centered media is going to become. Touchable things are going to take on more importance. That’s something I learned right at Stanford. You don’t hang out with product design kids for nothing.

Your first Kickstarter wasn’t successful. Your second, you reached 200 percent of your goal. What did you learn during that experience?

The first time, we thought we knew everything. Everyone told me not to ask for so much money. We just thought we’re going to ask for a lot — $100,000. (But the pledges didn’t flood in.) So we sat down with John Temple (2014 Senior JSK Fellow) and Jim Bettinger (JSK Director) and Djordje Padejski (JSK Impact Leader) and just re-calibrated. The second time we asked for $30,000. By asking for way less, what happens is 1. You begin to feel like more of a success and people view you and want to be part of that success. I think there is data to back up that people are more likely to give you money when you’re near your goal than when there’s no money in the bank.

But there was something else we did that was smart. A lot of people do two or three Kickstarter campaigns before they’re successful. When we talked to some of the people at Kickstarter, they said shut the first one down and in a couple weeks start a new one. But I wanted my project to be underway before I left Stanford. So Elliott and I thought, “Why wait a couple weeks?” We left the first one up, recalibrated and re-strategized. And when we took the old one down, we put the new one up and asked people to “re-pledge today.” We had 90 percent of people re-pledge because there a sense of urgency, there was no down time. Kickstarter loved us for that.

We raised $68,000 and an angel came in with another $50,000. With the money we got from the angel, we ended up raising close to $130,000.

It was hard, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s a 24-hours-a-day commitment to raise the kind of money we were trying to raise. We both have significant social followings, but as journalists it’s difficult to ask for money. We had to get comfortable leveraging our networks. It’s hard but you have to make the decision, I’m a journalist but also a businessperson. It’s not an easy decision.

What would you say was the biggest challenge in pulling this off?

Putting together the team. Creating a sense of cohesion when the team was all over the country and in some cases, around the world. That’s where technology came in. We had marathon conference calls and video conferences. We had some get-togethers. It was difficult. There were a lot of emails figuring out whether to use Basecamp, Slack or Google docs, how to move copy, how to share photos and edits. This was a huge challenge especially at the end when we were in production. The last couple of weeks were really hard, stressful and difficult — but I don’t care anymore and it’s all great now.

Were there any big lessons throughout the process that might be of help to others trying something new?

My main lessons are open up to considering yourself to be more than a journalist. It’s hard, but so rewarding. And everyone told me this — don’t be afraid to ask everybody for help. The thing is everybody wants to help you. Man, I am still surprised and so grateful to the people that I mentioned HRDCVR to in passing, never thinking they would write me a massive check or show up for a meeting — from D.C. to New York on their own dime. Or people working beneath their own rate — photographers, designers. Their generosity of talent and spirit. When I think about it, it makes me emotional.

The reason I can say everybody wants to help you is that people who don’t want to help you let you know right away. You’ll be so surprised at who wants to help you and who doesn’t. But don’t take it personally. I really got that out of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business during my fellowship. Do not take things personally at all. Don’t do it. You just have to discipline yourself. It’s possible. If you don’t, fake it. At the end of the day, you don’t know what’s going on with people. They could not be sitting on money you think they are. They may have more things on their plate than you know about. Be forthright, cheerful, and have a good story about what your project is. It will get you through a lot of doors.

How did your work on HRDCVR/HRDlist shape your perception of the future of journalism?

The numbers speak for themselves in terms of racial diversity, religious diversity. Spaces between the able and disabled world are only going to become smaller. Either the Oxford or Merriam-Webster dictionary called “identity” the word of the year in 2015. I think that is the future. I tell my students, “I’m not trying bring you over to my Kumbaya lifestyle.” But I do believe that whether or not you are living the Kumbaya lifestyle, most successful journalists and professionals are the ones who take diversity into consideration in all their decisions. I believe also that there’s a moral imperative attached to that.