Fresh Ink

Why start a print magazine?

Riposte, No. 2. Courtesy: Riposte

Riposte, No. 2. Courtesy: Riposte

‘It has a power to it that the web just doesn’t,’ insists Alec Dudson. ‘You have the opportunity to create something with permanence. There’s a slower pace and a consideration that can’t exist with online content,’ maintains Jasmine Raznahan. Danielle Pender concurs: ‘Reading a magazine with high production qualities printed on beautiful stock is incomparable to looking at something on a website.’ Even blogger Katie Treggiden agrees: ‘I’m a writer […] there was a part of me that just wanted to do something gorgeous.’ All four are explaining the appeal of print, having launched magazines Intern, Noon, Riposte and Fiera in the last year.

Every generation has its passionate magazine publishers: enterprising individuals who use the pull of print to identify a niche. Despite routine predictions about the end of print, magazines multiply. Stands proliferate and boutique bookshops abound with new biannual titles. But the current generation of independent publishers are rather different from those who, some 40 years ago, cobbled together a message from the underground with the aid of scissors, glue and a photocopying machine; and they have a much more complex relationship to the mainstream. Back then, doing-it-yourself was a tactic of resistance; amateurism was the graphic language of an alternative voice to the mass media. Today’s short-run titles look nothing if not professional. The development of desktop publishing programmes in the 1980s was an invitation for anyone to be a publisher. The tools at hand and the desire for independence combined to form a very real incentive to be an entrepreneur. If once there was a time when everyone wrote a novel or started a band, now it is just as likely they will launch a magazine.

Pender started her magazine late last year. Tagged ‘a smart magazine for women’, Riposte is pitched as an antidote to style-, beauty- and celebrity-obsessed women’s magazines; it is Pender’s first initiative in publishing. We meet in Hoxton Square in east London, where Pender works full-time as a curator. Once a centre of the Shoreditch furniture trade, the decline of manufacturing in the UK after World War II left Hoxton Square in a state of neglect until property developers in the 1990s collaborated with the local government’s Urban Programme to repurpose the square’s buildings as artists’ studios. Twenty-odd years later, the square is tenanted by an array of galleries, design and advertising studios, and cafés. 

It has been over a decade since US economist and social scientist Richard Florida campaigned for the rise of the creative classes. In so doing, he reversed economic orthodoxy that culture was the icing rather than the cake of a city’s sustenance. According to this wisdom, cities should foster cultural and symbolic production for their own prosperity. This thinking has since cemented itself in a range of policies common to many cities in the West, including the establishment of urban art scenes, the building of spectacular architecture, the restoration of derelict districts and the hosting of temporary cultural events. 

Riposte, No. 2

Riposte, No. 2

Viewed from this perspective, Pender and many of the women she profiles in Riposte are the protagonists in the urban scenarios Florida proposes. Both she and the women featured on its pages are, without exception, independent, entrepreneurial and/or creative. But what are the realities of publishing a magazine for Pender and editors like her? Printed magazines obviously involve material, production and distribution costs that the internet doesn’t incur; and entrepreneurship entails risk. Pender largely self-funded the first two issues of Riposte with her savings: the magazine has no fixed address and is the product of writing at the weekend and ‘editing on the bus’.

Critics of the so-called ‘creative city’ argue that it places its workers in an invidious position. In his 2001 essay ‘The Art of Rent’, David Harvey contends there is a clear link between the real estate economy and cultural and symbolic production. In short: creative workers are agents of gentrification; they produce value for a real-estate economy, which subsequently squeezes them. Add to this the fact that content – anything made of ideas or that is reducible to pixels and bandwidth, regardless of how it is output – is not worth what it used to be, and anyone who wants to be involved in print publishing has a steep mountain to climb.

It’s a reality that Dudson knows first hand. He decided to start his own publication after discovering that the magazines he wanted to work with couldn’t pay him. Finished with a bronze foil masthead, Intern magazine formalizes the common practice of a generation for whom work no longer only happens between nine and five and for whom, as the boundaries between work and not-work dissolve, gratification is seemingly a form of remuneration. Part showcase for emerging talent and part ‘debate about intern culture and its effects’, Intern intersperses illustration and photo-essays with discussions about unpaid labour.

Intern is, for Dudson himself, a labour of love. Given its remit, he insists on paying contributors but he manages to produce the magazine only by not paying rent. The increased expense of living in London – in part, of course, caused by its gentrification – propelled his move to Manchester ‘with a bicycle and a backpack full of clothes’. Unlike Pender, Dudson chooses to work full-time on his magazine all the whiles pending his nights on friends’ couches. Ironically, he is yet to draw a salary for his own efforts.

The word ‘sustainability’ recurs in all of the publishers’ conversations. They are determined to make long-term propositions of their magazines and are all searching for viable economic models. Dudson is experimenting with a sponsorship model for future issues of Intern. Even with self-funding, using pre-sales to pay for the print run and the addition of a small amount of advertising, Pender is as yet unable to pay contributors. She is now exploring different ways to bring in revenue such as partnering with brands, staging events and consultancy work. 

Intern, Issue Two. Courtesy: Intern magazine

Intern, Issue Two. Courtesy: Intern magazine

Yet for many aspiring publishers, including Dudson and Treggiden, crowdfunding is the first resource. From proposals for an abalone diving magazine to one for artists who have a penchant for cats, the website Kickstarter frequently hosts campaigns for niche magazines. Treggidden recently raised £15,000 on the site. Using the profile gained from writing her blog, Confessions of a Design Geek, and together with creative director Jeremy Leslie who writes about magazines on his blog magCulture, the two plan to publish Fiera in November. Italian for the word ‘festival’, the magazine will present a biannual round up of the now almost obligatory event on a creative city’s calendar: the design festival.

In a 2010 lecture entitled ‘Culture and the Making of Worlds’, given at Bocconi University in Milan, sociologist Andreas Reckwitz argued that: ‘the self, too, has edged towards […] culturalization as a creative subject, which sees itself as the individual carrier of a personal style […] the imperative to be original is directed at everyone’. In their very enterprise, these magazines – and their publishers – enact this imperative; their editors sometimes even raise funds on the basis of their creative persona. Content and photographs present creative workers as brave, driven and always interesting, if not idiosyncratic, while pictures of interiors and collections of objects serve as an index of the curated self. The imperative here is for creative people to be like creative cities: to enhance and distinguish themselves through symbolic differences.

History is paved with images of the archetypal worker. In an article entitled ‘Where Have All the Workers Gone?’ posted on The New Yorker’s website earlier this year, George Packer enumerates examples of ‘the sweaty toiler, his face smudged with coal dust, oppressed by the industrial machine but not its total victim’, and ‘the store greeter at Walmart – part time, non-union, making near poverty wages [… the] required cheerfulness barely concealing […] the constant threat of having no job at all.’ As we put a face to the present-day legion of creative workers, it is worth reminding ourselves their situation is more often than not precarious and that independence is increasingly hard won.

Elizabeth Glickfeld is an Australian design writer based in London, UK.

Issue 165

First published in Issue 165

September 2014

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