For our 100th Issue, we asked Void magazine’s founding partners to dish on how a site-specific surf report grew into a relevant, wide-reaching regional publication. Here’s what they said.
Let’s start from the beginning. The prevailing narrative is that Void Magazine started as a surf report. I know that doesn’t capture the whole story. So let’s unpack that.
Aaron: In 2002 we [Tye Wallace and I] were doing surfjaxpier.com. We kind of started because we were working out of an office near the beach, doing ad agency work and our friends would call us and ask for a surf report. There were a bunch of reports at that time—Fluidgroove was the big one, then. So we started taking pics and made a website. We’d drummed up some advertising—had a pretty full page. We basically were already doing some local community news on that site. Then, another competitive publication was looking to come into our town—a magazine out of Daytona Beach called Locals Only. They sold two spots to a couple of our advertisers. We were looking around, like “What the f***?” So we started looking around saying, “Hey maybe we could do a magazine.” We looked at what other local publications were doing—what their voice was, what they were covering, who they were talking to. As we dug into it, we saw that there was an opportunity to speak, at least from the perspective of this growing beach community that we lived and grew up in, to the region about what’s good and cool and what’s happening. We had a few magazines that we looked to for inspiration. There was one in California called Deep Magazine that was from a beach community out there. We picked the publisher’s brain over there.
We had the local following and after all that research we just started to put a plan together. Tye and I were kind of computer nerds and we had done ad agency work before that. We already had connections with Jay [Dodson] who was really plugged into the surf community. We had put together a surf contest with him [The PBR Pro]. Mikey [Sasser] had come on during the surfjaxpier days, selling ads.
Mikey: Yeah, these guys [Tye and Aaron] I saw were great at design, but didn’t really have the capacity for the sales aspect. Just going back, I was a fan of the site. I would do the report. Then I helped kickoff Surf Jax Pier Night at Landshark Cafe. That got a solid following. One of those nights we sold something like the most PBR in one night ever in Florida, which led the local PBR rep to offer us some money to do a bigger event. We decided to do a surf contest, which was The PBR Pro. That’s when Jay came aboard. A bunch of ideas floated around after that.
Jay: I’d known these guys for a while before the contest. Mikey had a brand called Rep Your Break, which he’d tried to get me involved in while we were talking one night in my driveway [laughs]. I was a surf rep for a bunch of brands at this point, driving all around the state. I was like, “I don’t know guys. I like what you are doing. Let’s talk more.” I had some bad ideas at this point that went nowhere. But we did the surf contest and I loved working with them. But after the contest is when we started thinking about the mag.
The economic outlook at this point, both locally and nationally, was as bleak as it’s ever been, or maybe ever will be in our lifetimes. Furthermore, this was a period where if a publication was surviving, they were doing so on declining ad revenues. What made you guys look around and think A) North Florida needed another print publication? And B) That it could be successful?
Aaron: Despite the gloomy economic climate, we opened our doors in Jacksonville Beach and began telling the story of our local beach culture and art. We felt strongly that there was no other publication in the area that was capturing this in a positive and creative manner. So we took a huge chance, came up with a plan to quit our day jobs and began filling that void. And, yes, that is how the name of the magazine was conceived. I could say “ignorance was bliss” as we didn’t do a lot of heavy research into the market and declining ad revenues, etc. It is also important to note we had zero experience in the publishing industry. We were certainly aware of the downward trend and economic state, but we were very confident that we could do it better, smarter with how we distributed, while paying more attention to detail and quality and leaning heavier on the digital products. I feel like it was the daily and weekly news-type print publications that took the biggest hit. With mobile and Internet serving up daily/hourly news feeds the audience was changing how they read the news. When you can scroll through the headlines before you get out of bed on your phone, why would you need to spend an hour with a newspaper? In other words, I think that the blanket term “print is dead” may have been a little over-exaggerated to include anything and everything that was printed. The tactile feeling, along with curated content and stunning photography of a magazine or book, is something that you can feel and appreciate—it’s a more intimate and permanent experience that cannot be duplicated by cold, unfiltered content streaming endlessly through an electronic device.
Bottom line, we were passionate about the project and we were just having fun while working hard to bring a shared vision to life. Nothing could have stood in our way. Sometimes you just have to turn off the chatter and stop listening to everyone telling you that you can or can’t do something and just do it. Personally, I am more driven by challenges that others say can’t be done.
Tye: I feel like surf and skate magazines paved the way for our generation’s style and attitude. This was before social media, so print played a huge part on what I thought was cool and gave me different perspectives on subjects that I was interested in. It wasn’t until my back-to-back internships with Eastern Surf Magazine that I realized how hard the publishing business actually was. Every dollar, every advertisement counts. Dick/MEZ, [longtime ESM editor] Matt Pruitt, [ESM Sales manager] Diana Kechele and crew worked their tails off to produce a beautiful, free publication. The fact that all those folks busted their a**es to create something that they loved, to give it away for free, it was insane! But that inspired me. So I guess my point is, subconsciously, I think I understood that publishing magazines for a living wasn’t the most lucrative business model, but there was still something magical about that process that intrigued me.
We didn’t do any super smart market research study to determine whether or not Northeast Florida needed or could economically sustain another yet another print publication. We made this decision from our gut. We definitely felt like something was missing, we were competitive and felt that we could bring something that felt more real and more connected with the community than anyone else could. Plain and simple, we were stubborn enough to try whether it succeeded or not.
Mikey: I believe at the time it really came down to us not seeing what we wanted to see in the market. I think we all wanted a positive local publication that we would be interested in the content, front to back. Also, at the end of the day, we did and still do enjoy what we do everyday.
As far as believing it would be successful I just believed in the team. We all complemented each other in a different way and it just worked.
Jay: I think we all looked at it as a side project; kinda like let’s make one and see what happens. Not that we did not think it would succeed. By all means we have always poured our heart in soul into it. Just never know. I mean we committed to a lease, but that was it. No other financial risk. We were not gonna make more than we could afford. We all wore tons of hats. We all had other jobs to help pay the lease if we had to. Just more of a place to all collaborate together. I think it was more fun than work. It was our baby and we watched it grow. #5menandababy
So you decided to do it. Take us through publishing issue number one. Who did what?
Tye: Aaron had drawn the short straw and so he was editor/publisher [laughs]. I was art director, AKA Photoshop slave. We were doing the whole thing in Photoshop, we didn’t even know what InDesign was [laughs]. I think it was Austin Allen who introduced it to us. But our Sales Team was really what kept us going. Then Aaron and I essentially put the whole mag together. We were moonlighting, though. We had day jobs. Void was a passion project at this point.
Jeff: I had left Folio [Weekly] at this point. I was looking for something new, but I did check back in with the Jax Beach Lifeguards to see if I could get back on for the summer because I had no idea whether this thing would work out or not [laughs].
Tye: And Mikey was selling insurance and magazine ads at the same time. Jay had like 50 surf industry accounts he was juggling at this time [laughs]. Classic rep-lifestyle. He helped us learn a lot.
Then when did you all first step back and think, “Hey, this thing might have legs”? “It could work.”
Tye: We were bi-monthly at first. But after a year we clicked over to monthly. We were like, “Are we really about to do this?” Before that point we’d gotten into a rhythm with our other jobs. We could all keep up. We realized, if we want this to really work, we have to go monthly, and we have to go all in. So, Aaron and I at that point, went full-time on the mag and everybody else just started trimming back their other work.
Jay: I just started quitting jobs. I remember thinking, “I have nine jobs and Void’s taking up a lot of my time now. I’m a partner in this. I’m going to start quitting the bad rep jobs.” I just kept getting rid of brands, until I just got rid of my last one last year [laughs].
Mikey: I think we all knew right when we started that this would make it in some fashion. The partnership was there so I think it was just a question of what would this group of people be doing together.
Aaron: The community, after that first issue, really told us it was working. They got behind it. As soon as we planted the flag, announcing that we were doing a magazine, we had so many people reaching out, like “I can write. I can do this or that.” There was so much energy coming at us. So, all of the sudden we had this following. Three, four issues out, people were fired up.
Tye: It was pretty clear right when you guys started selling it. They were hitting the streets and the response was incredible.
Jay: I have to say that Chris Griffith [Partner/Sales Manager] coming on was another big moment. I had been trying to recruit him for a few years, but we couldn’t quite afford him. Chris came to the table with some great relationships and knowledge from his time in radio ad sales. His involvement kicked off another era of growth for the mag. Tye and Aaron would have killed me if it didn’t work. I’m glad it did.
Mikey: Especially the first issue release party. What did we have? Five-hundred people?
Yeah, let’s talk about the issue release parties. These were legendary occasions from what I’ve been told. How’d the idea to throw a party for each issue come about? And how do you think that helped grow and define the mag?
Mikey: Going back to the Surf Jax Pier Nights, we already knew people would come out. Whether it’s a free party or just five bucks at the door, we wanted to make it approachable. We had Darkhorse Saloon and BLORR [now Swimm] play. At one point in the night, I remember standing back and looking out over the Rock Bar, which was where the first release party was, and seeing just a sea of people, so much activity, just thinking, “Wow, people are into this. We really have something.” I think that kicked it off and eventually the parties were a way for people to connect with the brand in person.
Void’s changed in some ways, grown in others. What’s been the most significant change and what’s remained the same?
Mikey: One thing that is unchanged, is the idea of, and it’s cheesy, filling the void. Covering things that others aren’t covering and reaching out across the region and connecting people.
Jeff: The energy hasn’t changed. I know, personally, I’m not in the office everyday anymore and I feel de-energized. So I know this place still has the energy. Everybody’s so positive here and working hard, doing the right thing. That’s been a big part of the brand from the beginning.
Jay: I know we’ve gotten better at the processes of actually putting a magazine together. Certainly we can always get better. But we didn’t know what we were doing at first. What hasn’t changed, though, is the family atmosphere that we created early on. Everybody in this office cares about what they are doing and cares about the person next to them. It’s awesome to see.
Tye: I think when we started we didn’t grasp or realize the power of publishing—the voice that you have when you put out a magazine. Now we really understand that. And we can use that to help make the community better and define the culture of our region.
Aaron: What’s unchanged, was our core mission, which was to fill that void and inspire positivity in the community. The cool thing to see actually change, is that community—to see it grow. I think we’ve inspired, and been inspired by, a lot of other folks. And to look out and see all the cool things happening now around North Florida, some of which we’ve played a role in, it’s really rewarding.