As a kid, Jessanne Collins ’01 created her own food ’zine by stapling together recipes and food stories; she called it Eater’s Digest. Later, as a pre-Internet teenager in a tiny Connecticut town, she remembers devouring her monthly issue of Sassy, where edgy fashion photos and hip music and lifestyle stories opened a world of unimagined possibility.
Last year, Collins’ love affair with magazines brought her to the helm of Mental Floss, an offbeat, brainy and wholly delightful magazine that’s unlike any other on the newsstand. Recent issues have included stories about the Senate’s secret candy stash, designing the perfect space suit and the guy responsible for inventing the word “twitter.” (Spoiler alert: It was Chaucer.)
The magazine has a cult following of pun-loving knowledge junkies (a.k.a. “Flossers”) who love its highly skimmable arcane facts and science explainers—“Why does toothpaste make orange juice taste awful?” and “How do butterflies navigate?”—all packaged, she says, as “stuff you want to read.”
Mental Floss has a circulation of more than 150,000, but the print magazine is just one part of a multiplatform brand that includes a robust website, a YouTube channel and even a line of children’s products. The teams work together, producing content that suits their medium. The magazine, for instance, cheerfully tweaks the formats of its print-based brethren: A summer cover promised “160 Billion Reasons to Take a Vacation.” And the July centerfold? Two gorgeous, utterly naked … lobsters (with every claw and antenna annotated with wacky facts, natch).
Here, Collins shares how a stint at Playgirl influenced her approach to magazine content, how she and her staff come up with story ideas and why print magazines still matter.
Got a job at Playgirl in 2007. It was a career 180 for me. Before then, I’d been working in the marketing department of an academic press. I’d met Playgirl’s editor months earlier, and we’d hit it off. I wrote an essay for the magazine, and when there was an opening for an editor job at the magazine, she called me up. My family wasn’t psyched about it—it was porn!—but it seemed like an adventure to me. Playgirl had been started in the ’70s as a feminist response to Playboy, and I got to do some stories I was really proud of, including a story on the dangerous chemicals that are found in some of the plastics in sex toys. A lot of the magazine was funny and frivolous, but we also talked about real issues.
Mental Floss is on the same wavelength as Playgirl in some ways. We talk about serious things with a light tone, and educational things with a funny, entertaining tone. We try to look at things and give them unexpected twists.
A lot of what we do comes out of making jokes. Wouldn’t it be funny if we did a lobster picture as a centerfold? [But the real work] is finding writers who are so passionate and curious about a topic that they’re willing to pursue the quirky little facts that make the story unforgettable. [Did you know that “scruple,” “lustre” and “punct” are units of time? Now you do.]
Mental Floss anticipated so much of what has become culturally relevant in the Internet age. We’ve always done lists and a lot of viral kinds of stories with humor, so sometimes people compare us to BuzzFeed. I love BuzzFeed—I just watched a video of kittens and a Pomeranian sleeping together in a pile— but what we do is different because it has an educational element. We want you to take away important or interesting knowledge from our stories.
Magazines are beautiful physical objects. They’re vibrant, colorful things you can touch and feel—little luxuries. But what you’re really paying for when you buy a magazine is to have people you trust put together an amazing collection of stuff that you want to read.
SAQ, Winter 2014-15