15 Bytes | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

15 Bytes

Posted By on April 30, 2008, 10:32 AM

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The majority of the community is used to reading the more well-known publications of SLUG, City Weekly and even In This Week. But to the local online community (and more specifically the art community), there’s one magazine that’s been making a name for itself with nothing more than a website and a love for the visual arts.

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--- 15 Bytes has been cranking out issues for nearly seven years now on a purely online basis. Showcasing the local art scene in ways that the rest don’t even bother trying to do, all while maintaining an online presence that rivals that of other underground (and even some bigger) publications. I got an opportunity to talk with the magazine’s editor, Shawn Rossiter, about the magazine and his thoughts on other topics.

Shawn Rossiter
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http://www.15bytes.com/

Gavin:
Hey Shawn. Tell us a little about yourself.

Shawn: I’ll be 37 in a couple of weeks, have hair growing in places I wish it wouldn’t and have yet to hold a 9 to 5 job. I have two lovely daughters and a wife who gave them the genes to make that possible. Growing up, I moved around enough (mostly on the East coast) that I don’t have a place to call my hometown. But I’ve been in Utah close to 15 years now. For ten of that I’ve been a professional artist. By which I mean I’ve professed to be an artist, not that I actually have made a decent living at it.

Gavin: For those who don't know, how did 15 Bytes get started and what does it cover?

Shawn: The name is a play off Andy Warhol’s famous quip about everyone in the future getting their 15 minutes of fame. 15 Bytes covers the visual arts in Utah. We published our first edition in September 2001 and for the first four or five years were happy just to be getting an edition out. In the past couple of years things have really begun to take off and if I don’t watch it I may find myself in a 15 Bytes office somewhere working 9 to 5.

Gavin: Who are some of the people you have on staff?

Shawn: Our actual “paid” staff is very minimal. I do most of the work on editing and layout. Geoff Wichert helps with our page 8 (Salt Lake City area) exhibition listings. Steve Coray, who helped get 15 Bytes off the ground, still helps out on occasion. And Laura Durham, at the Utah Arts Council, has been helping as an assistant editor for years. What we rely on, and I think this is the magazine’s strength, is a group of volunteers. All of our writers, photographers and videographers, as well as some who give editorial assistance, work for free. We have some who contribute something almost every month. Others are more hit and miss and some people might write one thing and that’s it. But what we provide them is an open forum to explore ideas about the visual arts. We had about 35 people who provided content last year. The writers get to write about what interests them and I don’t chop up the writing to fit a space or ask them to dumb down their writing to appeal to a “general” audience. And I think this works well because we continue to attract more writers and they are really top notch.
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Gavin: Now why is 15 Bytes only online and not a paper print magazine?

Shawn: Money! If we had had to come up with the money and ad revenue for a print publication, not to mention a means of distribution across the entire state, 15 Bytes would have never gotten off the ground. We’d love to have everyone reading 15 Bytes and we try to provide a range of content. But we chose the web because it allows us to afford to be able to address a micro-audience. I think having publications, like the daily or weekly newspapers, is important for the community, but I think its equally important to have places people can go where they can explore topics beyond the level of sound bytes or the one-sentence paragraph.

Gavin: Is it easier to publish online or does it come with it's own challenges?

Shawn: Publishing online definitely has its advantages, though each advantage is a double edged sword. The online publication gives us a great deal of flexibility. A print publication has to have its material ready a great deal in advance, but we can accommodate articles at the last minute – but that means we sometimes get articles at the last minute which can make for some late nights trying to get things ready. We’re not constrained by word count. In most print publications in town you’re lucky to get 800 words in an article on the visual arts. Theoretically, for us there is no limit because it doesn’t cost any extra. But you have to set up your own limitations or things can get out of hand. Just because you can publish 5000 word articles doesn’t mean you should. So most articles are between 800 and 2000 words. And of course publishing online allows you to quickly fix your mistakes. The Tribune recently published an article on myself and 15 Bytes. It appeared one day in the online technology section and then the next on the front page of the Living section. But in the process of moving to a more upscale neighborhood, the article went through some changes. An editor must have gotten a hold of the article and inadvertently switched out a pronoun with the wrong surname. So the second article ended up reading “Lubbers (meaning Ruth Lubbers, but it should have said Rossiter) has had trouble feeding his family . . .” Which is nice, because now when we have our fundraiser I can expect a healthy contribution from Ruth to support my family.
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Gavin: Do you feel you're losing some of the audience you could be getting via paper trade, or feel like you're appealing more to a different audience?

Shawn: We’re definitely losing people by not having a paper publication. And with the audience we do have, they might read it more if they had it in their hands. But for every person in Salt Lake who doesn’t read it because it’s not in their local coffee shop, there’s a person in Panguitch or Moab who does read it because it’s online. And no trees are harmed and with no delivery vans our carbon footprint is pretty light. And online we can provide 10 images or more to illustrate an article where in a print publication we would be limited to 1. And of course there are the links. We don’t have to worry about dumbing down our articles. If a reader doesn’t get a certain reference they can quickly Google it or we can provide a hyperlink. We do provide a PDF version for people who want to print the magazine out and read it in their hands, and about 20% of our readers do that from time to time. For a while, we distributed printed out versions to coffee shops and the like but it didn’t seem worth the effort.

Gavin: Why did the magazine decide to cover the art scene?  Was it because there was a lack of attention on it, or just because no one else was doing it?

Shawn: When we started publishing I was definitely disappointed in the local coverage of the visual arts. I don’t really blame the papers, though. They are having a hard time staying alive and it’s not like the galleries are taking out large ads, so why should the papers write on the visual arts. And a bunch of paintings hung on a wall is not the type of thing the local news is going to cover. But there are a lot of people out there who got their nice college degrees and enjoy stimulating dialog. And they have to go to the national magazines, like Art in America and Artforum, to get it. We hopefully provide that type of dialog, but about a local scene that people can access simply by getting in their car or by bus and going downtown.

Gavin: Do you believe you may expand beyond what you're doing one day or stick primarily to what you've been doing?

Shawn: 15 Bytes will always be about the visual arts scene in Utah. We’re a non-profit and that’s our mission. We won’t expand beyond that because we’d rather mean a lot to a few, than little to many. But within that focus there are plenty of places we can go. We’re adding more audio and video content and are always open to new ideas for articles.

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Gavin: Have you always been the main editor? And how would you view the magazine has evolved over the years? 

Shawn: Apart from an occasional guest editor who has helped get the thing out while I’ve been traveling, it’s been me. To get an idea of how the magazine has evolved go to our November 2001 edition and then go to our most recent edition.  We went from publishing a small, three or four page magazine with maybe ten images every six weeks, to publishing a monthly magazine, ten densely packed pages with sometimes a hundred images or more supplemented by a blog. It has gone from a small, insider audience (I can remember when I recognized the names of most of our subscribers) to a large audience of professional and non-professionals from across the state as well as the country.

Gavin: At what point did you start doing a blog on the main page?

Shawn: The blog started about a year ago. It started out very slow, but now we have about 3 posts a week.

Gavin: Has the blog added to the magazine, or is it more of a benefit to the daily visitors?

Shawn: We started the blog because we found there was a lot of content that either didn’t fit into our monthly publication date or was too small to justify an article in the zine. Stuff would come in to us after we published and I didn’t want to change the whole magazine or it might be a short 300 – 500 word article and so the blog seemed the best spot for it. We were doing a book review every month in the magazine, but now we are trying to do one every week in the zine. In the past six months, our hits are up by about 20% and I think a lot of that has to do with the blog. It keeps people coming back more than once a month. And maybe they only read one or two articles when the edition of 15 Bytes first comes out, but because they keep checking out the blog, they go back and read more of the magazine as well.
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Gavin: What's your opinion on the local art scene, both good and bad?

Shawn: Do I have to answer that? I mean, we’re about to start our annual fundraiser... Actually, I think the local art scene is exciting. Utah has a unique situation. Because of its Mormon background, it has this identifiable “culture,” something to interact with, or against. At the same time, because of its many attractions, it has tons of transplants. I get bored sometimes when people make too much of the “tension” between these two aspects (I’m Mormon AND a transplant), but I do think it has made for a creative community. Without any statistical information to back up the assertion, I think we have more artists per capita than most places in the country. At the same time, we are a small enough community that we can actually have a dialog.

Gavin: How does it compare to art scenes from neighboring states, and to the U.S. as a whole?

Shawn: I doubt I’m qualified to address this question. For the size of our population I doubt you’d find something as exciting as what’s going on here. I’ve talked to people in cities with larger art communities that remark on the quality of artists coming out of Utah. There are a lot of Utah artists you rarely see exhibit here, simply because they are sending their work out of state where it can demand higher prices.

Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to improve it or make it bigger?

Shawn: Someone could write a big check to 15 Bytes! (Laughs) I do think we as a state could do more to market Utah as an art center. As I mentioned before, we have a lot of artists who sell their work principally out of state, in places like Santa Fe, Scottsdale, New York. In those places a lot of people are traveling there from outside the respective state and purchasing artwork. So, why couldn’t we get them to come here and buy the artwork? They already come for skiing, redrock country or Sundance. We just need to make them aware that our art scene is a bonus. And then Utah gets to pocket the sales tax rather than New Mexico or Arizona.
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Gavin: If there's one thing you could change about the magazine today, what would it be?

Shawn: I guess right now I’m a pretty proud parent because there’s not a lot, at least about the finished product, that I feel needs to be changed. I always want to make it bigger, better, bolder, and for the most part every new edition is like that. We are pretty Salt Lake-centric in our coverage, though, and I’d like to change that.

Gavin: What have you got planned for the month of May?

Shawn: We’ve got a packed edition planned but I’ll only mention the articles I already have in – a photographic essay of Kathleen Peterson’s studio space in Spring City, a review of Lenka Konopasek and Charles Uibel’s exhibit at Finch Lane, Tom Alder features Gordon Cope this month, and Ehren Clark reviews the Victorian Art exhibit at BYU; Jay Heuman, from the Salt Lake Art Center, has begun a new feature where he asks three different artists the same question. This month, he asks Ed Bateman, Erik Brunvand and Amy Jorgensen about the online phenomenon Second Life. We’ve got plenty more. It will be out May 6.
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Gavin: What can look forward to from 15 Bytes?

Shawn: I don’t know, you (meaning your audience) tell me. We’re community driven and I think the best new things that 15 Bytes will be presenting in the future will be ideas coming from individuals in the community.

Gavin: Anything you'd like to plug while we're here?

Shawn: 15 Bytes, but I think that’s been done pretty well. I encourage everyone to subscribe. It’s free! We send you an email when a new edition of 15 Bytes comes out. They can go here, or on any of the 15 Bytes edition you’ll see a subscribe icon at the top. And I encourage people to comment on our blog. Other than that, if there’s someone that wants to send us that big check (or even a small one) I’ll be happy to accept. I can be reached at editor@artistsofutah.org.

On Topic...

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