M&R Interviews Tim Regan-Porter

If you’re unfamiliar with the name Tim Regan-Porter, I can almost guarantee you’re familiar with the creations of Tim Regan-Porter. Co-founder of Paste Magazine, one of the leading Music/Film/Culture magazines in the nation and competitor to Rolling Stone, Tim has been on the cutting edge of technology and social interaction for years. If you were one of the millions who created the famous Blue & Red Obamicon of yourself, you can thank Tim for that. And now, he has transitioned to Mercer University, in Macon, Georgia, where he will direct the new Center for Collaborative Journalism. Tim was kind enough to answer 20 questions for us – ranging from sleep habits, to hot dogs, to professional conviction and marketing practices, to what’s on his iPod.

What’s a typical day for Tim Regan-Porter look like?

I’m a night owl by nature, but over the years work has turned me into an early riser (on weekdays). My temporary commute from Atlanta has interrupted my pattern, but I try to hit the gym around 7am where I do a brisk walk while checking news (and social media) via Flipboard on the iPad. You can tell how healthy (or not) my lifestyle is by the volume of tweets— high volume means I spent the morning at the gym. From there, it’s a crapshoot. Meetings, email, planning, teaching (soon), etc.

Have you ever Googled yourself? Learn anything new?

Sometimes. I tend to be more focused on my job (Paste, now CCJ) than myself — which is not always smart. I actually have Google alerts for they key entities I care about (I just added myself this year).

If you could re-live one event in history, which would it be?

One? That’s tough. Does the Big Bang count? I’ll go with MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

What has been your proudest moment in life so far?

I’ll abuse the opportunity and offer two. I conceived Obamicon.Me, which is a web app that allows users to upload photos and captions in homage to Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster. We launched on inauguration day, and it became a bona fide meme. Millions of users, use in TV and movies, etc. It made that historic moment even more significant for me.

After my cover story on Cameron Crowe came out, he sent a note of appreciation and called it the highlight of his experience with his film. We don’t set out to please our subjects, but I already felt particularly proud of that piece, that I’d captured something of the essence of the man. To get that note, from a former music journalist at that, was a nice affirmation.

Which websites or blogs do you make an effort to read every day or so?

I mostly depend on twitter and RSS feeds from a wide variety of sources. A few key ones: Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic, Nicholas Kristof, Roger Ebert, Good Magazine, Romenesko, MIT Media Lab, PBS Media Shift, Y Combinator’s news feed, Paste and now various Knight Foundation feeds, Mercer, The Telegraph, and GPB. I use HuffPo as a decent aggregator of others’ breaking news stories — and cute animal videos.

If I grabbed your iPod and flipped through your Top 25 Most Played, what are some of the bands I’d find?

I may lose cool points for how old and mainstream these are, but here’s Last.fm analysis of my most-listened-to artists: U2, Wilco, Over the Rhine, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Tom Waits. iTunes results would add music from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Janelle Monaé.

What was the last movie you watched?

The past six months have been bad for my movie-watching time. The last thing I saw in the theater was The Muppets (not counting a couple at the Macon Film Festival).

And what have you been reading lately?

I am currently rotating between four books in my Kindle app: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Conscientious Objections by Neil Postman, The Innovator’s DNA by Clay Christensen, et al, and Insurrection by Peter Rollins.

If you were stuck on an island and could choose only one form of media, which would it be?

It may be the equivalent of wishing for unlimited wishes in skirting the issue, but I’d choose the Internet (or digital media). If connected, I could stay up-to-date on news and the latest entertainment, send emails, etc. Even if not connected, I could read my digital books, listen to my music collection, and watch any videos I’ve saved.

Work Stuff – Approaches, Paste Magazine, & Mercer University

What excites you professionally?

I am excited about the opportunity to experiment and innovate. Media is still reeling and floundering from the disruption of web and mobile technologies, and I suspect it will always be in a state of flux to some extent. Exploring new business models and technologies will be crucial to our work, and I hope we can contribute to the industry’s revitalization. The collaboration of various media partners itself is rare (though slowly spreading) and the opportunity for students to take classes in the midst of a newsroom and broadcast studio is one no other university can offer. And, of course, the fundamentals of good journalism, broad learning, civil discourse, and community obligation remain the same.

The Center’s location in Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts reinforces that core. I look forward to working with various departments throughout Mercer — computer science, design, entrepreneurship, and beyond, especially as we work to develop cross-disciplinary programs that ensure our journalists have a core grounding in their areas of interest (science, business, the arts, etc.). I’m also very excited about working with many different groups in Macon in using media to improve the community. Coming on the heels of a number of successful initiatives to improve downtown Macon, I think we have a unique opportunity to offer new ways to access information and provide input — and to people who’ve been (or felt) excluded in the past.

What convictions do you bring to work and to life?

Change is an inevitable part of life. Getting out in front of that change — directing it as well as dealing with it — is the best way to ensure success, whether in business, education or life in general.

At the same time, a core of essentials is needed and that changes slowly, if at all. Solid research, fact-checking, interviewing skills, storytelling, and subject matter knowledge are just as important in a digital age, and the essence of these activities and skills hasn’t changed.

Culture is upstream of politics. If we want to make progress on the hardest problems confronting us, or just have a more caring and civil society, we need to bond around common interests — music, sports, arts, community activities, etc. I think it’s important that we value arts journalism alongside investigative journalism.

The biggest risks of the digital movement are: 1) we create echo chambers where we only seek out those who reinforce our opinions, 2) we lose the serendipity of newspapers, magazines, libraries and bookstores, where we’re presented stories that enrich our lives but we never would have searched for online, and 3) disparities in digital access and skills create an ever-widening digital divide that further distances us from each other, creates an information imbalance, and makes solving our problems ever harder.

If your marketing and professional efforts could speak, what would you most like for them to say?

That we care, we’re approachable, we want everyone’s involvement, we strive to continuously improve, and truth and trustworthiness matter — we may fall short, but we’re always aiming for that.

I still have a few Paste CD’s lying around, which always attracted me to the magazine. Everything about Paste speaks innovation and out of the box thinking – from “Pay what you want” subscriptions to the Obamicon. How did these typically develop?

Most of those ideas (all but the footer ads, which came from the agency) were my brainchildren, but they were also group efforts. From water cooler conversations to staff meetings, I routinely got people together to talk about what they were reading or watching that was interesting, how we could do better, etc. And that involved everyone in the company. There were walls when it came to editorial integrity but never when we were deciding who we should be or what creative projects we could take on. Creativity and innovation are skills, not inborn traits (research is increasingly showing this). Being open and observant, having broad interests, and interacting with different people and ideas are the keys.

Paste grew from an Independent Magazine to a competitor to Rolling Stone and Spin – how did you deal with the success without compromising or being swallowed whole by it?

Being outside of New York helped. We largely avoided groupthink and the pressures of being in the fishbowl. Having everyone committed to editorial integrity (all were fans of the music we covered, even those on the business side) helped. And we just tried to hold ourselves accountable. We weren’t perfect but I think we did well.

What do you think allowed Paste to remain a niche publication while also rising to among the top music publications in the world?

We met a need at the right time. When we started, most of our competitors were either very niche or only interested in teens. Many of us wanted a magazine that took an honest look at a broad range of music and pop culture, one that was approachable and more interested in substance than snark. We covered whatever interested us, whether that was disparate music genres or movies, books and games. That set us apart, especially back in 2002. Having a CD sampler was also key; I’m not sure we would have risen above our niche competitors without it. An office filled with professionals alongside the energy and perspective of a slew of interns, all interested in innovation, social media and building the brand, helped.

As you move on to Mercer University, will you maintain a role in the future of Paste?

No, not really. Paste has new owners (as of 2011) and I’ve got my hands full here. I’m still friends with the folks at Paste, I’m helping out in the transition, and I’m sure we’ll have some of them down to CCJ and send students up to Decatur. But I’m committed to what we’re doing at CCJ now.

Speaking of Mercer, you’ve recently been hired as the first Director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism. Is this as a huge transition for you professionally, or will you take the same approach as always?

Both. Academia places unique demands on time, and competitive pressures are much different. At the same time, my interest in journalism, innovation and technology; building a national reputation by learning from the best and innovating from there; and trying to shape journalism practice remain. My perspective has changed, but many of the same skills apply.

How will your first year be spent at the Center?

The first year will lay the foundation for the Center. We have to develop a new curriculum, build a new website and mobile tools, structure students’ interaction with The Telegraph and GPB, and reach out to various parts of the community. We’ll use the first year to plan and experiment (although experimentation will be a hallmark throughout the life of the program).

If we sit down in five years, how do you expect to see the Center engaging and informing students and the community?

Five years from now, I hope students and members of the community are better informed, understand different points of view, and feel empowered to enact real solutions to their pressing needs. The Center should be a vital source of information and perspective that is accessible wherever and whenever it’s needed.

One Final Question

Now that you’re making the big move from Atlanta to Macon, there is one incredibly important question – Nu-way or The Varsity?

The Varsity — what’s that? I only eat Oprah-approved food.

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