After graduating from college in 2010 and doing a short stint at Vice, Ian Michna launched Jenkem—a feature-based site that paid homage to skateboarding’s irreverent past. It took off nearly right out of the gate.
Since then, Ian has built Jenkem into skateboarding’s premier up-and-coming media brand. And he did so by doing things the opposite of the traditional route. Jenkem began printing books after launching online. It doesn’t chase advertisers or traffic. Its goal is to simply produce compelling stories. This unique approach is working, and the site is funded by a small group of like-minded sponsors. Jenkem is bigger than ever and has some exciting projects in the works, including a compilation record on vinyl. I recently caught up with Michna to talk about the past, present, and future of his DIY project that unapologetically kicked down the doors of skateboarding’s mainstream media.
I don’t think too many people know much about your background. How old are you, where are you from, and how did you get into skating?
I’m 28. I’ve been skating since I was 12 or 13—so 15 or 16 years. I’m from Westchester County, New York, originally. When I was 10, I moved to Vienna, Austria, for my parents’ job. So I actually grew up skating in Europe, not America. Then I came back to America when I was 18, and I continued skating, of course. But the first five years of skating was in Europe.
Did you go to college? What was your direction before you started Jenkem?
When I was 18, I moved back to New York because that’s where I was from and that’s where I wanted to be. I went to college at SUNY Purchase in Westchester for two years. It was great for skating, but it got kind of boring, and I ended up transferring to New Paltz, which is near in Poughkeepsie.
I’ve always been writing for my whole life since high school because I had a great writing teacher that actually told me that I could do something with my life. So throughout all four years of college, I would write for fun in my spare time. I would write short stories and creative writing. Writing is kind of a muscle and you’ve got to keep flexing it. Otherwise, you lose it. So I would write for fun on weekends and that kind of led to me signing up for the school newspaper. The school newspaper was super boring and safe, as most school newspapers are, so I started looking to do freelance stuff.
“Writing is kind of a muscle and you’ve got to keep flexing it. Otherwise, you lose it.”
I was sending little pieces around to anyone that would literally publish or care. It was just random cold emails. I ended up helping this guy, Thomas Rowe, that had a tiny local skate site out of Baltimore called Interstate Mag. I would do news updates. And that was kind of a side “job” for three years in college. It wasn’t paid, he would just send me decks once in a while, and I was super psyched. And that led to me getting freelance gigs. I did some freelance work for ESPN in 2008 and 2009. It was mostly for fun, and forcing my way in.
When did you decide that you were going to do your own site, and what prompted that decision?
I was looking for jobs and graduating at the end of ’09 to 2010-ish. The economy was still super bad. My last year of college I got a job at the school computer lab, fixing occasional paper jams, and I taught myself how to build a website in WordPress there in my downtime. I was basically getting paid to learn how to create Jenkem. So by the time I graduated, I already had the site ready to go. After college, I worked at Vice for less than a year and then started working at a wine bar to save up some money and fund Jenkem. I interned for Vice too during sophomore year of college. So I had some traditional publishing background in that way.
A scan of Ian Michna’s early website layout sketch from 2009. His vision of what Jenkem would come to be.
You can see the Big Brother influence in Jenkem, and that’s been referenced on the site in the past. Did you start it because you felt something was missing in the skate site landscape? Did you have a plan?
I just knew that the stuff that I was into wasn’t out there. What I was into was Big Brother-era stuff, Howard Stern, Playboy interviews, CKY, and random stuff like artwork on old ’90s Magic cards. And if you look at that time (2009-ish) with the economy being so bad, there were two major factors in skateboard media. One, no one had money. No one was spending money to produce much interesting editorial outside of advertorial. And then the other factor is that websites were just really catching on and the traditional publications were getting torn between the same amount of staff having to run something digital and print. People weren’t sure how to do it yet. Slap was kind of the first outlet that really committed to the new system. There was a giant gap for someone like me, who was 19, went to college, and cared about editorial. There just wasn’t that much for me to feed on. So I figured that if the mags weren’t going to do it, I would do it myself. So it was just scratching my own itch, and putting it online was just to share it with other people and get feedback. I didn’t think it was gonna be a company or anything. I thought it was just going to be a side thing to explore.
“I just knew that the stuff that I was into wasn’t out there… So I figured that if the mags weren’t going to do it, I would do it myself.”
When did you realize that Jenkem was going to be more than a side project and was catching on?
There are two points that stick out right now. One was that I got really lucky. Most people start something, work really hard, and it doesn’t catch on for a year, two years, five years, or maybe never. I got lucky in that it caught on relatively quickly because I had the chance to interview Jereme Rogers. At the time he had just quit professional skating to do rap. I interviewed him and it turned out really well. When I put it online—despite me being a nobody—it got reposted on Slap and a bunch of other sites and I got 10,000 views the first day. So it’s kind of like when you’re experimenting and something works really well the first time. It blew up in my face and I was like, “Holy shit, it’s possible. Whatever I’m trying to do, there’s a possibility there.” The next two years, I was just trying to recreate that excitement. That was the first time where I saw people could care. Then the next time that I realized it was viable and not just a place to put my lonely thoughts was when we had our first couple of advertisers sign on. Which was about two years after I started the site. I have to give massive props. It was Chase Whitaker at Brick Harbor, Lakai when Kelly Bird was there, and Jim at Deluxe. When those three signed on, I was like, “Oh shit, it’s on!”
Did you approach advertisers or did they approach you? How did you transition from having the site be a personal thing into something that you were monetizing?
I don’t come from a media background but my brother’s friend—he worked at a big music mag. He was like, “Hey man, if you develop an audience for this thing, you need to make a media kit.” I had no idea what he was talking about but he sent me a sample, and I just basically ripped it off—same layout, just changed some logos and numbers. Problem was, I didn’t know anyone in the industry to send it to. So I was just hitting up everybody and anybody, and failing miserably. And it would get crazy where I would call the retail stores that I liked to try to get marketing contacts. Let’s say I wanted to hit Vans up, right? I would call the Vans flagship retail store and ask to speak to the manager and give them my pitch to connect me to someone who did advertising. Sometimes they would give me an email, most of the time not.
In 2012, I probably hit up 50 companies with a cold call or cold email. And I got maybe two responses [laughs]. That was gnarly. It sucks to get shot down that much. That’s when I was like, “Okay, strategy number two: just produce better content. I’m not good enough.” If people don’t know Jenkem and they’re not interested, that means that my work is not good enough. So I just went back to the drawing board and thought that I have to make every article as good as I possibly can. Eventually you make enough noise and they start to notice you.
So you’re starting to make a little noise and a few advertisers sign on. Then, you get guys like Tim O’Connor signing on to do a podcast and Reda was involved for a bit. You basically got legitimized by people that are well-regarded in the industry. I think that’s what pushed you across the threshold into the mainstream. I don’t know if you would call it that. But I would consider Jenkem mainstream at this point. How did that progression happen?
It’s a weird thing that I’m grappling with now. Are we mainstream. Are we not? Is that good? Is that bad? When you look behind the curtain, it’s such a small operation. It doesn’t feel that way. Our reach is pretty good. And I’m proud of that, of course. So I can understand why someone would see us that way from the outside. But that’s skateboarding, all of these companies are just a few people in an office with Macs. But with Tim and Reda, those happened because I would meet them at parties or contests or we did a segment together before. I interviewed Tim back in 2012. And I’d been in contact with Reda through Amy Gunther at KCDC. So when I would see them, I knew them already to some degree. It was really more of something that happened naturally, sometimes friends would egg it on like, “Reda’s here, you guys should talk.” It was pretty much a two-way street. But ultimately, I’d say that came from knowing enough people and being around long enough. And honestly, me loving what they do and them having the confidence in what I do. Thanks again, dudes.
“Eventually you make enough noise and they start to notice you.”
Jenkem is feature-based and has always stayed away from news. Why is that?
I always stayed away from news because everyone was already doing it and it wasn’t interesting. If everyone else is doing something and you can’t add anything new or better to it, then I’m not going to do it. At the time, in 2008, the problem wasn’t news. Everyone was doing it, and that’s what I hated about the internet. So that’s why we went in the totally opposite direction and just did original content. Feature-based is also not a slave to the news cycle. We started Jenkem so that we could explore and do stuff that we wanted to do and learn about—not be forced to write about a new wheel that comes out.
What about the pressure to publish? It’s hard to pump features out every day. Do you feel pressure from yourself or advertisers to publish more?
To be honest, I’m really fortunate that the people who signed on knew what they were getting into. And that’s why they signed on. They know that Jenkem is only doing three to four posts a week. No one’s complained about that. And I can honestly say that and am pretty hyped on that too. That’s kind of rare. I guess it comes down to quality versus quantity. We try to make everything as good as it can possibly be. And if it’s good enough, it will last more than a day anyway. For some of these other sites, their goal is to chase traffic and get more and more ads. My goal is to not chase traffic and advertisers. It’s actually to do less with advertisers. Just partner with the brands that are down to make fun shit and make sense for our audience. If Monster Energy wanted to give me a shit-ton of money and it doesn’t interest me and doesn’t interest my readers, it’s something that I would say no to. And with some of these other sites—I get it—they have to keep on the lights. They have a large staff to pay and a private skatepark and a million obligations.
Jenkem Vol. 1
Last year you published your first book. That’s sort of a reversal in order—you started digital and then went into print. How important do you think print is and what made you decide to do a book?
I always wanted to do print, but at the time when we started I didn’t have any money, so it didn’t make sense. But I did do my own xeroxed Jenkem zine. And I did two editions, Thrasher actually reviewed one in their mag. So we did start on the little level of print. We came back ultimately because that’s what I always wanted to do. After five years of digital content, I wanted something that I could hold. Something that would smell and feel a certain way. I want to be able to share it and give it to people. I wanted to have a cover that I could put on a desk. And that’s why I want to keep doing it. It’s great to do an interview on the phone and put it online. But the physical stuff is way more rewarding and I’d imagine more sites will do it.
There’s been a changing of the guard going on in skateboarding for some time now. Whether it’s product or media, DIY is the driving force behind the culture right now. What’s your take on that?
I think all of these new brands started because they felt the same way I felt. There wasn’t a voice for them. That’s why I started my thing. I don’t want to speak for any other brands, but Bronze, Alltimers, Quasi, and the rest of the newer brands all created their own lane, and their own voice, and their own flavor in skating that wasn’t there before. And now all these new brands have got all the tools to make it happen. I know that in the past, like the ’90s or whatever, the keys were harder to get a grasp of. You needed to get the right distribution. You needed to pay for ads in a magazine. Everything’s democratized now. There’s no barriers anymore. It’s just whether you really want to do it or not. If you want to do it, then you go and do it because you have all of the tools in front of you. So it’s never been more accessible. Also those older brands that were started 10 or 20 years ago have their voice and will always be around, but it may not be how someone like me or a younger kid feels about skateboarding right now.
Inside Jenkem Vol. 1
What about the apparel side of things? You’ve always done some shirts, but you’re starting to do more. Do you see Jenkem going deeper into that?
I think that it’s something that we lacked for a long time. I would get a lot of emails that said, “Yo, why don’t you dumb-asses have a shirt?” And I would be like, “I’m not a fashion guy, I don’t know.” We’ve got a couple of people, Alexis Castro, Winston Tseng, and Christian Kerr that I work with now that are much more savvy with that stuff than I am. They helped kick me in the ass and have a better taste and eye to get a couple of pieces together. I don’t think we’re going to be a fashion brand. I don’t want to be Palace or whatever the hot shit is, but I want to have stuff for my group of friends and all the contributors and homies that rep it and care about it.
“Ideally, I think social media should be like its own little magazine.”
What’s your view on social media as it relates to the site? You’re not pumping out headlines on Facebook every hour in the same way that many other media outlets are.
I think that they’re all different beasts. Each one has its own flavor, own voice, and what it’s good at. Most sites are just posting stuff to try to serve millions of impressions because they sell advertisers millions of impressions. The purpose of me limiting the advertising is because I never want to be forced into shoving headlines down people throats to make a living. Doing less advertising means that I don’t have to push my content on social media as much. Which means that we can just use it as we please. We post a lot of stuff like, “Hey, go check this out,” because I genuinely want people to check things out. And I’ll post a meme about Monster Energy or Nyjah’s neck tattoo—and that’s just for fun and because that tattoo is so heinous. Ideally, I think social media should be like its own little magazine. Like Jenkem is jenkemmag.com, of course. And Instagram—if you do it properly—that would be its own custom Jenkem magazine extension too, just for Instagram. I would have one person on that’s just producing content and stories for Instagram. It would have no relation to the site’s content. Just do a great one-minute short, you know? But do it daily…
Ian Michna by Mac Shafer