Event: The Modern Magazine 2015

by Steve Watson in November 2015
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There’s something about independent magazines that I find more interesting than the mainstream. I think it’s because of the passion you always find bubbling under the surface with independents – these people are going to get their magazine out come hell or high water, because there’s something deep down that compels them to make it happen.

But every year, The Modern Magazine conference comes as a salutary reminder that the independents aren’t the only ones with fire in their bellies. By bringing together both independent and mainstream magazine makers on the same stage, Jeremy does a brilliant job of showing the similarities and differences amongst some of the world’s most exciting editors, art directors and publishers.


Thinking back on this year’s conference (held at Central St Martin’s in London on Thursday 29 October) I’m struck by the extent to which all the magazine makers showed that same dedication. Some were out and out evangelists while others had a quieter dedication to their craft, but all worked across multiple platforms to get their words and pictures out into the world, driven on by the power and potential of magazine publishing.

This, for anyone who couldn’t make it along, is our summary of how those passions showed themselves:


David Lane The Gourmand
The day got off to an easy start thanks to David Lane and his droll, deadpan tour of food magazine The Gourmand. Whether it’s a “brilliantly underwhelming” chandelier of gherkins or a photo story pairing glamorous dogs with gourmet hotdogs, David and his partner Marina take an extraordinary amount of care and attention in everything The Gourmand does.

Speaking about the typeface he designed for the magazine in collaboration with Monotype, he let slip an insightful cooking metaphor when he said that, “it takes some of the pressure off making the magazine when you know you’ve worked on all the ingredients”. A new series of films launches on the site soon, and we can expect that same fastidious attention to detail and droll humour to run throughout.


Andrew Tuck Monocle
With more and more publishers opening their eyes to the possibilities of podcasting, it was interesting to hear from Andrew Tuck about Monocle’s approach to radio. Having started Monocle Weekly back in 2008 as a single show made mostly for fun, the concept caught on and Monocle 24, their 24-hour live station, now has 16 full-time staff and a continuous stream of guests passing through the studio.

With no social media (“it doesn’t feel right to our brand”) the radio became a way for Monocle to foster one-on-one connections with their readers. “No matter how much personality and humour you think you’re adding to a written piece, chances are it won’t show; in the end, you still come off as serious. Audio is special, it adds a whole new level of intimacy to the content.”

He finished off with a look at the financial side of the station. The number one aim remains to sell the print magazine, but Monocle have also managed to monetise their audio, signing up sponsors to ‘own’ individual shows without having any sway over the editorial content.


Grashina Gabelmann Flaneur
Coming after Monocle’s tales of ambitious expansion, Grashina Gabelmann provided a very different type of achievement. Flaneur is the magazine that focuses on a different street each issue, but it’s not, she explained, a travel magazine. Instead it is literary and subjective, using fragments and abstractions to tell stories of the place and its inhabitants.

The approach is not, she noted, always terribly popular with tourism agencies and city authorities, as they discovered after communicating the “looming sense of dread” they felt on Georg-Schwarz-Strasse in Leipzig. But it’s popular with readers, and increasingly with viewers too – the ‘Unprintables’ section of the Flaneur website houses the pieces of film, dance and music that simply couldn’t be expressed in the printed magazine, showing that like The Gourmand, they’re interested in building on print with other media.


Sophie Lovell Uncube
The monthly online architecture magazine Uncube was the sole digital-only magazine represented at the conference. Describing an industry in which copy/paste content is prioritised over investigative journalism, editor-in-chief Sophie Lovell talked about how Uncube aims to rethink publishing.

Uncube is an online magazine that’s nothing like a blog; it reads page-by-page like a printed magazine, with strong visuals and a dynamic, responsive design. Realising the importance of archive access, all issues are available free of charge from their website, and the business is built on advertising, with ads unblockable and placed in full spreads between editorial.

The secret to it all, Sophie said, was their weekly ritual of the collective lunch. “Even if most of us work only two days per week on the magazine, it’s important for us to make time for a shared lunch – that’s when the best ideas come around”.


Louis-Jacques Darveau The Alpine Review
For Louis-Jacques, The Alpine Review was the first step in what became a multi-platform business. He runs creative agency Totem, and noted that the print magazine remains a great way of bringing people into the business and recruiting talented creatives who then go on to work for the agency.

As well as the magazine, Totem also runs events, makes podcasts and publishes across several media, and Louis-Jacques concluded that “the platform is the business model”. I was left a little unclear on exactly what that means, but the strategy seems to be a combination of different but complementary media all revolving around the agency – a model that has long been popular with publishers who mix in agency work.


James Fairbank Mondial
There was no such ambiguity from James Fairbank, head of brand and central marketing at Rapha. The day’s most impassioned speaker, James is a genuine evangelist with his sights set firmly on Rapha’s ongoing goal to make road cycling the most popular sport in the world. To do that, Rapha needs to push beyond the immediate audience of dedicated cyclists, and their strategy has always been to market themselves by creating content; “films that filmmakers would love, photography that photographers would love.”

Rapha was a co-founder of Rouleur magazine, but James said that arrangement left them without the control they wanted so in 2013 they sold off their interest in the magazine. They didn’t have the resources then to start their own magazine, but still felt that “the zenith of our content ambitions are best expressed in print”, so it seems it was only a matter of time before their own print magazine launched.

Originally intended just for the 3,500 members of their Rapha Club, the first issue of Mondial was so well received that they ended up printing 10,000 copies. It’s a fantastic success story, and it was brilliantly inspiring to hear James speaking about the ambition and commitment that helped the team to produce one of the year’s best new launches.


Charlotte Roberts and Bertie Brandes Mushpit
Bertie and Char of Mushpit magazine were undoubtedly the day’s most unconventional speakers. Fed up with the bullshit served by the glossy women’s magazines targeted at them, the duo started Mushpit back in 2011. Funded primarily by their student loans, they wanted to create a magazine that was less about advertising, and more intelligent and politically aware.

The result was a satirical zine appropriating the visual language of the glossies. The magazine has undergone a transformation, from small-sized zine, to slightly bigger once they introduced ads (which they quickly realised was a mistake when the advertiser threatened to pull the money unless the hairy armpit on the cover was removed), to even bigger with their latest issue printed as A4 to offer more space for photography and visuals.

On the question of why they don’t have a website, the answer was simple; it wouldn’t make sense to take it online. “The whole joke is that we spend all our money (that we don’t have) on printing it”. As a final note, Bertie and Char admitted that they found themselves in a dilemma: how can Mushpit remain ad-free and uncontrolled, while at the same time continuing to grow? The question remains unanswered…


Matt Phare StylistShortlist
After successfully launching the men’s title Shortlist in 2007, creative director Matt Phare and his colleagues entered the women’s weekly market in 2009 with Stylist. With the talk titled “Creativity In Free Magazines”, Matt set out to talk the audience through the process of producing Stylist, and especially its collaborations.

As a weekly magazine, one of the major challenges is for each issue to be different and remain exciting. Stylist found collaborations to be an effective solution, for example via celebrity guest editors and special themed issues. Notable projects included the Nigella Lawson issue, in which she was completely involved, or tracking down the Simpsons creators in LA to get Lisa Simpson on the cover.

There was no passion lacking in Matt’s talk about his projects, and as host Liv Siddal commented after, “I will never look at a copy of Stylist the same way again.”


Charlotte Heal Kinfolk

Design director of the lifestyle magazine Kinfolk, Charlotte Heal talked us through her overall design practice before narrowing it down to last year’s redesign of Kinfolk. With a background in book design, Charlotte’s work was characterised by subtlety and the merging of type and visuals to create dynamic yet balanced spreads.

Commissioned to lead the design Love magazine, Charlotte quickly realised how different magazine design is to books. When she later redesigned Lula magazine, her approach was to bring it all down a bit and to organise it, while preserving their sweet, rather whimsical vibe.

When she was asked to work on Kinfolk, the starting point was the complete opposite. With no clear directions, Charlotte was told that the magazine had matured, and thus the design should evolve and look more confident. A magazine embraced for its minimalist aesthetics, Kinfolk’s pages were centralised and calm, but lacking in dynamism. Charlotte’s approach became a structural overhaul of the magazine, but rather than ripping the whole thing apart, she pushed the established aesthetics forward by subtly reorganising the spreads and adding illustration to create movement and fluidity.


Scott Dadich and Billy Sorrentino Wired US
Intended as the event’s headline act, Scott Dadich was unable to attend on the day because of cancelled flights so Jeremy ended up interviewing him via Google Hangout on the big screen. There was a slight delay and some autotune-style glitchiness, but it all somehow added to the experience, with Scott beamed from his state of the art San Francisco office straight into the London conference hall.

It was fascinating hearing how the job of creating Wired has changed over the years as new technologies have emerged, and with them new opportunities and challenges. Scott promised that Wired would always exist in print while he’s around, but noted that 70% of revenue now comes from digital, with the Wired Brand Lab existing purely to tell branded stories on the Wired site and elsewhere on the web.

Scott was also joined by executive creative director Billy Sorrentino, and the two gave a sense of their working relationship (Scott is clean, Billy “rock n’ roll”) and the way they get to “layer on top of each other” to finesse stories and designs. As you’d expect from Wired, technology is leading the way, and both men seemed most excited about the opportunities for telling stories digitally, but with print and events playing a significant part in the mix.


Kati Krause katikrause
I saw Kati give an earlier version of this talk at QVED in March this year, and she noted that since then she had suffered from a bout of depression that left her needing to get away from the daily onslaught of digital media. The anxiety she felt as a result of her depression seemed to draw a parallel with the way the web can feel like an unassailable, unfathomable monster, constantly demanding more attention and resources.

She argued that rather than magazines trying to become more ‘webby’, they should actually accentuate the things that make them special in the first place, focusing on design, voice, community and slowness to carve out a niche for themselves, and to show a viable way forward for media companies on the web more generally.


Ibrahim Nehme The Outpost

A ‘magazine of possibilities’ for the Arab world, Ibrahim noted that The Outpost was launched as a response to the Arab Spring, as a way to capture the energy, hopes and dreams of people in the Middle East.

The magazine itself is divided into three sections: What’s happening; What’s not happening; and What could happen. Each issue has a distinct theme, with the latest being the body. Here, each bodily system was philosophised on and came to represent different themes, so for example the nervous system became about transport links.

Ibrahim had been given an ambitious title for his talk; ‘Can a Magazine Change the World?’ And he ended in the affirmative, arguing that it can, becasue “we’re not only creating magazines – we’re creating prototypes of the world we want to live in”.

All photography by Owen Richards

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