Alex Robinson wouldn't be surprised if in the past month the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey, Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, among many other celebrated writers, artists and conservationists, have peered over his shoulder.
Robinson, 31, who lives in the Twin Cities, was appointed editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine July 29, placing him in charge of perhaps the nation's most venerable hunting and fishing periodical.
In its more than 120-year history, Outdoor Life has published the writings of some of America's most famous sons and daughters, Hemingway, Grey, Roosevelt and Leopold among them, as well as Clark Gable, Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart.
But long gone is the time when Outdoor Life arrived every month in the mailboxes of millions of adventure-seeking hunters and anglers carrying an annual subscription price of only $1.
In those days, early last century, the inspired renderings of painters Osborne Mayer, Walter Haskell Hinton and J.F. Kernan, among others, graced Outdoor Life's covers, highlighting the thrilling adventures that awaited outdoorsmen who ventured afield with rod or gun.
Today's Outdoor Life, slick and glossy, appears in print only four times a year, down from 10 issues in 2017. But its digital tendrils (outdoorlife.com) extend deep into the ether across multiple platforms, reaching readers in cities, suburbs and hinterlands.
A graduate of the U's Hubbard School of Journalism, with a minor in fisheries and wildlife, and a onetime Star Tribune intern, Robinson grew up in Menomonie Falls, Wis. More hunter than angler, though passionate about both, he navigated cavernous Midtown Manhattan — headquarters of Outdoor Life's mother ship, Bonnier Corp. — for five years before packing his laptop and returning to Minnesota, where he and his wife, Stephanie, were married.
"After college, when I first moved to New York, it was really exciting,'' Robinson said. "The editors I worked with there were all deeply into hunting and fishing and were knowledgeable about the things I like to do. But the disconnect for me, ultimately, was that I wanted to come back to the Midwest. I wanted to hunt with my dad. I wanted to hunt deer on property I knew and travel to North Dakota to hunt ducks and geese. I wanted to live the life of an outdoorsman, not just talk about it and write about it.''
Serving first as an Outdoor Life intern, Robinson subsequently was hired as the publication's online editor.
One of Robinson's colleagues then was executive editor John Snow, who has since given up the magazine's corner office and decamped to Bozeman, Mont., where he serves as Outdoor Life's shooting editor, conducting business as Robinson does, at home, by phone and e-mail.
"When I first met Alex, he struck me as the personification of 'Minnesota Nice,' '' Snow said. "His interpersonal skills are outstanding, and he showed a really strong gift from the first day to navigate thorny issues that can arise sometime with thorny personalities and navigate also the tough questions that can pop up between our editorial and art teams, and our editorial and sales teams."
Challenges that editor-in-chief Robinson must overcome are both similar and dissimilar to those confronting other national magazine editors. Printed products are expensive to produce, and magazine circulation is declining as readers seek free and oftentimes more specifically targeted information and entertainment online.
By one estimate, the average number of magazines mailed to each U.S. household has dropped by about half in the past 30 years. And adjusted for inflation, spending on magazine advertising fell from about $65 per person to about $22 between 2007 and 2017, according to the U.S. Postal Service.
Fortunately, in this milieu, niche publications like Outdoor Life, which claims a total audience of 5.6 million and a print circulation of about 450,000 (Minnesota and Wisconsin are per-capita subscription hotbeds), enjoy advantages.
Their brand awareness is high. Their audiences are loyal. And their quality print products, however less frequently published, provide advertising, promotion and customer-relations touchstones from which to leverage online content.
Outdoor Life, Robinson said, no longer has "just one'' audience.
"We have a very strong print audience who loves getting the magazine,'' he said. "We have a different audience that follows us on Facebook, which can be different from our Instagram audience and our audiences on other platforms.
"For us, the goal is to find people who are interested in hunting and fishing and to get our content in front of them. That content can vary. In the magazine we want to use great storytelling, whereas digitally we're using somewhat different approaches, including how-to content."
What won't change, Robinson said, is Outdoor Life's longtime emphasis on conservation. Currently featured on its website is a public-lands section that decries the shutting-off of more than 6 million acres of state-owned Western properties. Separately, Robinson details an interview with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt titled, "Is the Trump Administration Really Looking Out for Outdoorsmen and Women?"
Robinson opened North Dakota's early goose season last weekend with his dad, Mike, and black Labrador, Otis. This weekend, Robinson, his dog and a friend will be in western Minnesota, their eyes skyward, looking for honkers — this just as the most recent edition of Outdoor Life, the first completed entirely on Robinson's watch, hits newsstands and arrives in mailboxes.
The issue's cover story, headlined, "It's time to cut the B.S. in deer hunting,'' bears a distinctively Midwestern sensibility, illustrated as it is by a real-world whitetail buck, not a wildly antlered, high-fence freak — an imagery and editing choice the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey, Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold likely would approve.