Print is dead! Film is dead! Print is alive! Tablet magazines are dead! Keeping up with the endless declarations of what’s dead or dying is almost enough to kill you – or at least fry your brain. Helen Gilchrist takes the pulse of the independent magazine sector as we peer into 2017 – and finds it in rude health.
"The whole ‘is print dead?’ question has been knocking around for a while now,” said Ruth Jamieson when she launched her book Print is Dead. Long Live Print (2014). "Quite simply, the internet does fast, cheap distribution of throwaway information much, much better than print does. So in killing that specific kind of print, digital media has cleared the way for a new, much more interesting print to spring up.” In publishing her book, Jamieson wanted to "draw a line under the death of print debate and start to celebrate the birth of a new kind of print instead”. And, over two years on, one thing is clear: globally, independent magazine publishing appears to be on the up... and up.
"Creatively it’s booming; there’s tons of new stuff coming out,” says Steve Watson, founder of Stack Magazines – a curated subscription service in the UK and US that sends subscribers a different (surprise) independent magazine each month. "I literally can’t keep up with the interest in new things coming out. We just had the judging for the Stack Awards; it was mind-boggling looking at the number of really good magazines that have come out in the last 12 months. It’s exciting to see that level of innovation.”
Sarah Keough, editor of independent food magazine Put A Egg On It (US) and co-founder of US-based independent magazine network the Little Magazine Coalition, agrees. "It’s thriving. There are so many titles,” she says. "All different kinds of people and places are starting print projects – from book editors with literary journals as side projects, to small creative agencies or fashion companies with a magazine as one piece of the work they do.”
Numbers Not Net Profits
A glance at the better-stocked newsstands, boutique magazine and book stores, or even the increasing number of clothing and homewares stores stocking quality magazines, will tell the same story. But while the number and nature of titles indicates a boom, the financials are likely to paint a different picture, according to Nicholas Lemann, Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999.
"I’ve been involved with independent magazines for 40 years,” he says. "My sense is – and I wish I were wrong – since Addison and Steele started The Spectator in 1711, all independent magazines have lost money, with no exceptions – even for a year. If I’m wrong, I’m 1% wrong. So what fuels independent magazines is like what fuels documentary films – it’s a vital part of culture and society, it’s fun for people to do and relatively low cost. But it’s a business that runs on willpower rather than economics.”
So whether it’s editors, writers, illustrators, photographers and design teams burning the midnight oil with no hope of being properly paid for the hours they’re putting in, or creative agencies pouring their profits into the magazine projects they’re so passionate about, people don’t start magazines to make money. But that clearly doesn’t put them off.
"What fuels independent magazines is like what fuels documentary films – it’s a vital part of culture and society, it’s fun for people to do and relatively low cost.”
"People aren’t doing this because they want to get rich,” says Watson. "They’re doing it because there’s something they’re passionate about and they really want to put out into the world. That’s a really good filter for making sure you get interesting stuff.”
Creativity Over Commercialism
So what defines an 'independent' magazine? A huge part of the allure of making magazines for little or no money appears to be the liberty to follow ideas with no restriction from commercial forces or boards of directors. "The chiefs are the makers – the people who take care of the financial decisions are responsible for the magazine’s content or design,” is the definition agreed at Indiecon 2014 (an annual independent magazine festival in Germany), which Stack used for its 2016 awards criteria.>
Magazine teams at Indiecon 2016 articulated their perception of indie more colorfully. "Making meaning not making money." (Sam Cooney, The Lifted Brow, Australia) "A certain attitude that you find at the edges, where innovation generally comes from. It’s beautiful and powerful when not harvested with brute force.” (Louis-Jacques Darveau, The Alpine Review, Canada). "Inventing your own universe and rules.” (Agnese Kleina, Benji Knewman, Latvia). "Making a thing you love with good people, for good people who will love it.” (Rosetta Mills, The Lifted Brow, Australia).
"Independence is doing what the f*** we want to do,”
Jefferson Hack, co-founder (with photographer, Rankin) of cult magazine Dazed & Confused, said in a recent interview. Founded in 1991, Dazed has grown into global publishing powerhouse Dazed Media Group, which now encompasses Dazed, Nowness, AnOther, Another Man and Hunger. "We can make intuitive calls about what we think is relevant to our readers. We can be closer to our readers, we can understand what interests them and reflect that in the magazine without being concerned about the commercial implications. We can follow our gut.”
It’s easy to look at Dazed’s size and advertising partnerships with global brands, compare that to kitchen table publishing passion projects around the world and wonder how independent Dazed really is now. Hack insists that’s wrong. But we shouldn’t get too sidetracked with pitching ‘indie’ versus ‘mainstream’. "I think the small, independent magazines are increasingly going to exert an influence on the bigger magazines and I think we’ll see some of the independent magazines become much bigger magazines in 2017,” says Jeremy Leslie, creative director and founder of MagCulture (an editorial design studio and specialist magazine shop in east London), and author of four books including Independence (2015) and The Modern Magazine: Visual Journalism in the Digital Age (2013). And, when you think about it, that’s just what Dazed has done.
"I think the assumption is independents are small magazines, they’re cool but they’re in their corner, and then the big magazines are something else,” Leslie continues. "I think we need to be looking at this through the grid of small to big, where actually some of the mainstream magazines are going to become small and some of the independent magazines are going to become big.” This certainly seems the case with titles like The Gentlewoman (UK), which now has a circulation of 96,000 and whose editor, Penny Martin, just won Editor of the Year at the British Society of Magazine Editors, beating the likes of Vogue and InStyle.
Friend or Foe?
Most of the old barriers to entry for small, independent publishers have been blown out of the water by the digital revolution.
"Depending on your concept, you don’t need much to just get a project started – come up with an idea, find a way to make it, iron out the kinks on the way,” says Keough. "You could make issue #1 on your work copy machine. And crowdfunding is great – you can raise what you need with your friends or your future readers, people who are interested in your specific subject. You don’t need a corporate sponsor or a bank loan, you’ve got your people.”
"Adobe went to its Creative Cloud product a couple of years ago,” explains Watson. "Now, for around $56/£45 per month, you can use the same tools as the guys at Condé Nast and it’s constantly updated. That’s revolutionary.” Leslie agrees:
"It doesn’t matter if you’re the creative director of the New York Times or art director of a new magazine that’s only had one issue; there’s a great opportunity to make good editorial.”
"You can be very experimental when it comes to your concept and design,” adds Ricarda Messner, editor of Flaneur (Germany) – a publication/ art project/ culture journal that focuses on a different street in a different city each issue. "That’s the beauty of being indie – there's no real structure telling you what you can or can’t do.”
So, while it’s undeniable that digital has been a huge disruptive force against the old print status quo, digital technologies have also served as a massive boost to independent publishing. "New technology isn’t ever inherently bad or good – it’s always about how an affected industry reacts to it,” says Andrew Losowsky of Stack America, and author of several books including We Love Magazines (2007) and We Make Magazines (2009). "At first, the web was seen as a bad thing, until publishers realized that it was probably the best subscription tool ever invented.”
And big, small, indie, mainstream, local, global – readers still crave the print experience. "A piece of print captures all your senses, with the exception of taste,” says Leslie. "When you read a magazine you hear it, you touch it, you smell it… as well as see it. It does capture you in a way that digital doesn’t.”
"New technology isn’t ever inherently bad or good – it’s always about how an affected industry reacts to it. At first, the web was seen as a bad thing, until publishers realized that it was probably the best subscription tool ever invented.”
"One of the things that print does very well is provide this slower, more limited experience,” says Watson. "A print magazine can’t do much; it can’t give you status updates and you can’t check your email on it.”
"When you’re sitting reading a print magazine it’s a very mindful thing to do...you don’t get distracted by other stuff.”
"Also, with a print magazine you have this curated experience. It almost seems like a novelty now, because we spend so much of our lives on the internet and so much of that is random or algorithmically moderated, to have an experience where you know that on the turn of the page, the thing you’re going to see has been deliberately put there by somebody who’s thought about it for quite a long time, because they know what you’re coming from and what you’re going to.”
Niche, Niche, Niche
United by their love of the magazine medium, today’s independent magazine editorial teams are covering subject matters specialist yet infinite. Though impossible to sum up in a sentence, some overarching patterns seem to be a focus on culture over celebrity, real life over aspiration, and creativity over commercialism. "It’s a response to the mainstream,” says Watson. "So if the mainstream is all about selling you a fantasy, because it’s got celebrities and glamorous lifestyles, independent magazines cannot do that – they don’t have that kind of access. Instead they trade on their authenticity.”
"Many take traditional tropes of publishing – food, sport, cars, sex, kids, movies – and reinvent them and readdress them,” explains Leslie. Examples range from Put A Egg On It (US) and The Gourmand (UK), both using food to tell stories about people, culture and life in fascinating but very different ways; to Dirty Furniture (UK) and Apartamento (Spain), which explore design when it’s used, lived in, made dirty and messy; to a host of feminist titles redefining ideas of womanhood in the 21st century, like The Gentlewoman (UK), Ladybeard (UK) and Womankind (AUS/ NZ).
"Most women’s magazines are, for want of a better word, ridiculous,” says Womankind’s editor Antonia Case. "Celebrities, beauty, cosmetics, dieting are the usual fare in most women’s magazines, with some home decoration and cooking thrown in. Are we living in the 21st century? Women are the biggest buyers of books, the most avid theater-goers, and patrons at art galleries and museums; women are keen travelers, and make up some 50 per cent of enrollments at universities. To give women dieting tips for their reading pleasure is nonsense.” So in Womankind you’ll experience the underlying belief that "women can gain empowerment through action and social change, as opposed to self-obsessing. We seek empowerment by looking outwards, not inwards.”
Then there are the magazines that are, as Leslie explains, "about magazines, in the sense that they’re deconstructing the magazine, putting it back together again and coming up with a more conceptual abstract idea of what a magazine can be.” He gives MacGuffin (Netherlands) as his favourite example (which, incidentally, just won Magazine of the Year at the 2016 Stack Awards).
"We wondered why there are so few platforms to investigate no-name design and the ‘afterlife’ of everyday life objects,” explain MacGuffin co-founders Ernst van der Hoeven and Kirsten Algera. "We ‘stole’ the term MacGuffin from Alfred Hitchcock; it was a word he made up for the things in his movies that set the story in motion. We absolutely share his idea that an object could be a sublime story device.”
So with three issues so far – One: the bed, Two: windows, and Three: rope – "MacGuffin aims to give a kaleidoscopic and surprising view on an object,” say van der Hoeven and Algera. "Our favourite part of making MacGuffin is to discuss how we can tell stories in another way, or to visualize objects with a different lens. So we asked writer Douglas Coupland to write a story on the physique of windows, and he gave us a wonderful horror story on window phobia. We commissioned photographers Blommers and Schumm, who both grew up on a boat, to photograph a series of ship knots like they were fashion models.”
"In the last issue, we have the text of a bondage expert who doesn’t write a single word about bondage itself, but shares all his knowledge and techniques on rendering and preparing ropes.”
Last but by no means least are titles like Delayed Gratification (UK), which represents a movement; "the slow journalism revolution”. With its clear manifesto of "being last to breaking news” and valuing "being right above being first”, Delayed Gratification (DG) is a beautifully designed quarterly news magazine that "takes time to do things properly” – "waiting for three months to pass before returning to the news, picking out what really mattered and returning to events with the benefit of hindsight so we can give you the final analysis rather than the first, kneejerk reaction.” DG champions quality, accuracy, context, depth and impartiality in an age of Twitterstorms, clickbait, ‘churnalism’, journalist redundancies and even ‘robojournalism’ like the LA Times’ Quakebot algorithm.
"This idea of slow journalism isn’t really anything new,” says Rob Orchard, founding editor. "It’s just asking for a return to the best bits of journalism. In the same way the slow food movement was a reaction against fast food but basically was saying ‘come back to what we know and what we do well because it’s important and don’t neglect it’. This is the same kind of thing. Forever, there have been journalists taking their time to bring in amazing stories, follow them through and return to big stories after the dust has settled. Really it’s just a call to action to say, ‘Look, let’s focus on these better things and not get carried away with this fast media, which is very bewitching and exciting but often leads to misinformation and information overload’.
"We’ve never been aggressive towards the mainstream media,” he continues. "We’ve just said that we’d like to build a place where journalists could come and do what they do best – not have to churn stuff out but actually be given proper time to consider stuff and do it properly. There are vanishingly few places that will give you a 4,000–5,000 word commission and say ‘here are three months, we’ll work with you really intensively and make it the best it can possibly be’.”
Adding It All Up
With all of these titles, the focus on specialty over mass market allows focused distribution models and a tighter management of overheads. Many are publishing less frequently – quarterly, biannually or even annually – with smaller print runs. And while advertising is still a vital form of revenue for many, some, like DG, are following the reader-supported route with no advertising. "There’s a strong economic argument in favor of print because people are still prepared to pay for high quality print products in a way that they’re not so much for online, where they’re used to getting content for free,” says Orchard.
"Almost no one just makes money off of selling their print project,” says Keough. "Magazines who are able to pay for themselves and pay their makers are doing a lot of other things too. They have events or a huge digital / social presence that they’re able to monetize. They have ads or other work where the magazine creates content for brands. One magazine we love is made by a popular group of local restaurants. The mag itself makes no money and has no ads but the restaurants do very well.”
One thing’s for sure; challenging as it may be to find sustainable business models, the number of people with a thirst for creating new magazines shows little sign of waning. "We both teach at different art schools,” say van der Hoeven and Algera. "If we look at the work and interest of our students, we recognize a growing interest in self-published independent zines. Looking around in the better assorted newsstands, printed matter seems more alive than ever.”
Interested in a zine in this article? Check them out:
stackmagazines.com, magculture.com, thelittlemagazinecoalition.com, indienet.de, putaeggonit.com, womankindmag.com, macguffin.nl, slow-journalism.com, flaneur-magazine.com.
3 Innovative Indie Titles
ORDINARY (Netherlands) creates artwork from ordinary objects. “They started with plastic cutlery and they got 20 artists and photographers to create artworks using it, and it came with plastic cutlery cover-mounted on the front,” says Watson. “Then they did the dish sponge, then cotton buds. It’s brilliant.”
OXFORD AMERICAN (US) is “rightly revered for its literary chops” says Watson. “It's a magazine that needs to be read – and for one issue a year it needs to be heard, too. Its annual Southern Music issue has become legendary – a slice of the Deep South complete with a 23-song CD and the sort of fantastic writing that will transport you direct to Dixie.”
THE REAL REVIEW (UK) is an architecture magazine, examining “what it means to live today”. Full of fascinating, well-written pieces, they’ve also rethought the structure of a magazine by adding an extra fold. “In the second issue there are illustrations that change according to how many folds you let out,” explains Watson.