Making a difference in people’s lives is the paramount reason John Mennell founded MagazineLiteracy.org. Years earlier, working with hunger relief, he came to the conclusion that people who had very little food probably had very little reading material as well, contributing to a cycle of illiteracy and poverty for children and adults that could keep them bound in their present situations indefinitely. With the website, which was made possible through donations, grants and financial support from people who believed in his dream, MagazineLiteracy.org has been able to put magazines into the hands, homes, and hearts of children and families who want to learn to read, all over the world.
I spoke with John about his vision and his continued dreams and goals for the future of the organization. So, sit back and be inspired by the Mr. Magazine™ interview with John Mennell, Founder of MagazineLiteracy.org., and a man who believes one person and one magazine at a time can change the world.
But first the sound-bites:
On how much one man can do to save the world one magazine at a time:
I’ve learned in my life that one person can make a difference. Every person can accomplish amazing things.
On whether or not it matters to the organization if the material is in print or a digital format:
The printed magazines are so important. The experience of holding a printed magazine in your hand and reading it, the experience of finding some time and reading a print magazine is so valuable.
On teaming up with company campaigns, such as Whole Foods Market:
We are scheduled to do that April 12th and 13th at a Whole Foods store. It will be our first drive with Whole Foods and our goal is to clear the shelves of all the magazines, to distribute them via a food pantry, mentoring programs, etc.
On the major obstacles facing future dreams of the organization:
It’s not that there are obstacles, but there is a really important opportunity that we need to address. We want to create a global online marketplace that would essentially fill needs from literacy programs with our magazines and consumers funding those magazines for delivery for the literacy programs.
On what keeps him up at night:
What keeps me up at night: Honestly, I am long on community organizing experience, I am long on literacy experience, but I’m short on the magazine publishing industry.
And now the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ conversation with John Mennell, MagazineLiteracy.org Founder…
Samir Husni: How much can one man do to save the world one magazine at a time or to save the industry one magazine at a time? Tell me about that passion in you that’s pushing you to do that…
John Mennell: I’ve learned in my life that one person can make a difference. I started very young in life. I got involved with hunger relief, I was running for public office and I came upon a food pantry that had no food. I tried to figure out the quickest way to fill the shelves. I was standing in front of a super market, I was standing there all day, and I collected 2,000 pounds of food. Every person can accomplish amazing things.
When it comes to magazines, and I’ve learned over these many years, magazines are especially powerful for literacy because there are magazines for every age level, there are magazines for every reading level and there are magazines for every interest. One of the most significant contributors to literacy and poverty is the lack of reading materials in the home. And actually children in poverty have no books at home and so we have a very simple and powerful idea. That is to put a magazine in the hands of a reader, to get magazines into hands at homes so that these readers can have the same wonderful experience that we have when we get our magazines.
The program resonates so well with people because magazines resonate with people from a very early age and then into adulthood. I still can’t pass a newsstand without stopping. When a magazine comes in the mail, I have a physical reaction of joy. Part of our project is to share that experience with individuals that would love to read magazines and have that same experience but don’t necessarily have ready access for a variety of reasons.
SH: Do you think you can do that on the digital front or do you still need the physical, printed magazine?
JM: Well, the printed magazines are so important. The experience of holding a printed magazine in your hand and reading it, the experience of finding some time and reading a print magazine is so valuable.
We serve at-risk readers in homeless and domestic violence shelters, foster children. These are individuals that have left everything behind and that physical magazine in a quiet moment can comfort them in a time of crisis. We get magazines into mentoring relationships. So if you can imagine an adult mentoring a child — they don’t know each other initially, they’re trying to get to know each other — and you can insert a magazine into that relationship either around a common interest or something that creates a common bond or a common interest between them you’ve not only provided a magazine but now you’ve strengthened an opportunity and created some value for that mentoring relationship.
We get magazines to adults in job training programs; so for example, because there are magazines for every area we can create tremendous value for the job training programs. For example, programs that benefit food pantries and food banks operate programs that train homeless and unemployed people to be chefs. What we’ve been told about cooking and culinary magazines is that it helps the student to learn contemporary presentation skills and preparation skills. So it can give them a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
So it’s an example where the magazine is just creating tremendous value even outside the experience of reading. This is not an experience that you can replicate with the digital or electronic equipment or format.
SH: Recently you had your very first campaign with a food, Whole Foods. How was that?
JM: That’s actually planned for April 12th and 13th. That’s Earth Month. We want to ultimately engage every participant in the magazine publishing supply chain. This is the first and only global magazine industry-wide literacy project and every player has a role. And we want to find magazines at every source and plug them into our program.
Ultimately we would like to marry magazine publishing supply chain to the food banks supply chain. If you could imagine the ability to move magazines directly from where they are in publishing warehouses and directly to food bank warehouses where they can be distributed via hundreds of agencies into the hands and homes of thousands of children and families — what a powerful notion that would be.
Currently we are sending new and recycled magazines to readers via literacy programs. We get the new magazines primarily via corporate sponsorship and then purchase new magazine subscriptions.
For example, Prince Sports sent 200 tennis and Smash magazines to children in a mentoring program in Boston. Foster Printing, for three years, sent 800 magazines to children in the College Mentorship Kid’s program throughout the state of Indiana.
We collect magazines from consumers across the country. We have teams across the country that collect recycled magazines but we want to start collecting them from throughout the supply chain. Condè Nast, for example, just sent us magazines. We want to get magazines off the newsstand, that’s an enormous goal that we have. In the same way that we’ve conducted food drives, we want to conduct magazine drives straight off the newsstand as a way of engaging consumers in our program to motivate them to find the newsstand, to find the magazines that we like to share with our readers, to purchase them at the newsstand and the point of sale.
We are scheduled to do that April 12th and 13th at a Whole Foods store. It will be our first drive with Whole Foods and our goal is to clear the shelves of all the magazines, to distribute them via a food pantry, mentoring programs, etc. But we can do that in every community and at every newsstand. It’s just a matter of being able to reach out to the industry and working with them in partnership so that we can have access to those magazines and motivate consumers and engage them to purchase them so we can supply them to our program.
SH: What is the major obstacle in making this dream come true?
JM: It’s not that there are obstacles, but there is a really important opportunity that we need to address. We can only grow 100 percent of the financial support that we get from consumers and businesses and it’s spent to deliver magazines, whether they are new magazines or recycled magazines, we have the shipping/delivery of the recycled magazines. We spend zero dollars of those donations or investments on our operating expense.
So our greatest challenge right now is to build up our operations so that we can grow and reach more readers and get more magazines to more readers. In order to do that, we need to stand up stronger operations, stronger technology.
For example, we want to create a global online marketplace that would essentially fill needs from literacy programs with our magazines and consumers funding those magazines for delivery for the literacy programs.
But we cannot achieve that kind of level of technology without getting the entire industry behind the project. Austin Kiplinger at the start of our project invested funds and we need other publishers in the same way to be willing to participate in our program throughout the industry so that we can really make it an industry-wide celebration.
We just sent 2,000 magazines to the Inuit, north of the Arctic Circle, and we did this by organizing, sort of mobilizing grassroots volunteers, corporate support, publisher support, and we can replicate that same kind of activity to get magazines from anywhere to anywhere in the world. But we need to strengthen our operations in order to do that and we need to truly make this an industry-wide campaign in order to improve our operations and technology.
We just conducted a magazine drive for culinary magazines and a woman dropped off every issue of Gourmet Magazine back to 1969. We get calls from people who have precious magazine collections and they want to make those collections available to new readers.
So as an organization, that’s our objective. We know that people love magazines. We want to think of as many ways as we can to give them the opportunity to share their love for their favorite magazines with other readers, whether that means purchasing magazines for other readers or gift subscriptions that would go to a new reader or whether that means recycling their own magazines or whether that means finding a way literally to deliver every magazine that’s past its shelf life and being able to channel those invaluable publications into the literacy supply chain. That would create so much joy and economic value.
SH: My last question for you; what keeps John up at night?
JM: Actually, that’s a very good question. What keeps me up at night…honestly, I am long on community organizing experience, I am long on literacy experience, but I’m short on the magazine publishing industry.
As I said, we get a tremendous amount of support from the industry, but in order for us to get the kind of traction that we need and to do the kind of business development that we need, to reach out across the industry and to truly make this an industry-wide celebration, I need to find partners, full partners, to join with us and to help us understand what are the appropriate models for engagement.
And the only way that I can get this project to the next level is to find those partners and get the support that we need. And with that, we will change the lives of millions, millions of readers and millions of new readers but millions of current readers who love their magazines and love the idea of our program and love the idea of sharing their magazines with others.
SH: Thank you.
© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2014.