Client: Penguin Random House Canada, Toronto

Redefining the lit mag

An award-winning and groundbreaking experiment that helped one of the world’s leading book publishers better orient itself in the digital world.

“What on earth is Hazlitt Magazine? It’s so quirky, so weird, and so utterly gorgeous that I can’t believe the forces of capitalism allowed this thing to exist.”

Nicholas Quah, HotPod News

In early 2012, Chris joined Random House Canada as the director of digital publishing, with a mandate to create a new flagship online presence for the country’s largest trade book publisher. It seemed a lousy time to be in the book business. Across North America, publishers were folding, consolidating, or laying off staff. Hardly a month went by without another indie bookstore shutting its doors. Chain booksellers, meanwhile, stocked fewer titles while substituting books on shelves with depressing racks of scented candles, gift cards, and calendars. Many in the industry blamed Amazon, and probably they had a point. But publishers were doing little on their own behalf to innovate or adapt to the changing media environment. The internet was almost an afterthought; typically, publisher websites were clumsily designed, run out of sales and marketing departments, and largely consisted of static catalogues of available titles.

Together with Alexandra Molotkow, Chris developed the idea for Hazlitt — an online literary magazine and multimedia platform with a broad interest in culture, society, and current affairs, publishing non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and comics, underscored with a taste for experimenting with new forms of digital storytelling. Its premise was simple, but still novel for the time: that publishers should embrace the web as a platform for actual publishing and thoughtful engagement with readers. That it shouldn’t simply be about marketing or selling books, but nurturing writers of all sorts and cultivating new audiences, while bringing the house’s authors into everyday conversations about culture and current events. Also: it should be fun, lively, and as original as possible.

Ignoring out-dated distinctions between high and low culture, our goal was to redefine the notion of what a “literary journal” could or should be. Literary was meant more in the way of dealing with a subject than the subject matter itself. As Alexandra described it, “You can take a literary approach to a ‘low’ subject, and the writing doesn’t need to be dry or inaccessible.”

Art directed in collaboration with Toronto studio Monnet Design (who we later worked with again for Canadian Art) and named for the 19th-century English journalist and anti-slavery activist William Hazlitt, the site launched to rave reviews in the summer of 2012. Within the first month, articles published on Hazlitt, as well as the site itself, were cited favourably by the New York Times, New Yorker, Globe and Mail, The Atlantic, and many others. Traffic quickly exceeded every expectation. Rare for a Canadian website, more than three-quarters of its audience was international. During Chris’s tenure, Hazlitt’s traffic hit a high point of 1 million unique users in a month.

In just its first year competing at the National Magazine Awards, Hazlitt won gold in three out of the four categories it was nominated under, including best design and best overall magazine website. 

“Hazlitt’s minimal design style draws you in with engaging imagery and genuine voices. The stories it publishes play to the strength of the medium both in tone and technique. There is no other publication quite like; their confidence in their mandate is an invigorating example of what magazines can be online.”

National Magazine Awards, 2013

From the outset, Hazlitt’s editors were thinking beyond web articles to other types of content. Working with filmmaker Scott Cudmore, Chris conceived and produced the offbeat “Pagelicker” video series. Starring performance artist Robert Dayton, the videos aimed to gently subvert the traditionally dry format of the author interview, featuring conversations with the likes of Irvine Welsh, Miriam Toews, Roddy Doyle, and Emily Schultz, filmed in unlikely locations.
Next came an imprint of originally commissioned e-books, including the titles The Man Who Went to War: A Reporter’s Memoir from Libya and the Arab Uprising, by Patrick Graham, Ivor Tossell’s The Gift of Ford, on notorious Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and Richard Poplak’s Braking Bad: Lance Armstrong and the Culture of Corruption.
Sometime around its first birthday, Hazlitt launched its most successful off-shoot — the podcast series The Arcade, produced, hosted and edited by Anshuman Idamsetty. Again the goal was to do something a little different, with an eclectic range of subjects and creative sound design, the podcast featured interviews with not only authors (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, William Gibson, Sheila Heti, Ta-Nehesi Coates), but musicians (Wire, Perfume Genius), filmmakers, and other persons of cultural interest, such as the man who claims to have accidentally invented 1-800 phone sex. The idea was not to discuss books and literature in isolation, but in the context of the full spectrum of popular culture.
During Chris’s time leading Hazlitt, two print editions were also produced, featuring original writing alongside a few of the website’s greatest hits, as well as newly commissioned art and photography; art direction was overseen by textile artist and clothing designer Jeremy Laing. Its second issue won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards, for art direction of a single issue.
Hazlitt was, and continues to be, a model for how book publishers can experiment and attract new audiences on the internet. The site’s success helped distinguish Random House Canada internationally as an innovator within the publishing industry, and was even cited by a few authors as among their reasons for signing with the company. Hazlitt played a galvanizing role, the CEO once said, in the publisher rediscovering its sense of cultural mission. Since Chris departed Random House, Hazlitt has continued to grow and build on its reputation for one-of-a-kind stories; to that end, Hazlitt will be launching its own imprint of print books in spring 2019, called Strange Light, dedicated to the “challenging and hard to categorize.”
Hazlitt immediately exceeded all traffic and critical goals. Chris built and developed a strong in-house editorial team—and community of freelance contributors—that saw Hazlitt winning numerous awards, as well as being positively cited and regularly linked to by major international media outlets. Chris brought much to the company: his profile within the media landscape, his international perspective and contacts, his strength as an editor and writer, his design sensibility, and his consistent commitment to excellence.

Robert Wheaton, chief operating officer, Penguin Random House Canada