Amid Financial and Digital Disruption, Print Remains a Powerful Medium for Human Emotion
Far from a nostalgia tour, speakers at the ModMag NY summit celebrate the enduring power of magazines past, present, and future.
The artistic case for magazines took center stage in lower Manhattan this week for the first-ever New York edition of London’s annual ModMag summit—a one-day conference devoted to the creative end of magazine publishing—but the business and societal impact of a medium in perpetual disruption wasn’t far behind.
“The main intent behind ModMag is to spark a celebration of the creative side of the industry; a counterpoint to the tough business context we find ourselves in,” founder Jeremy Leslie told Folio: in an email exchange during the lead-up to the event. “I hope people attending will return to their desks the next day excited and reinvigorated about their work.”
The initial ModMag conference was conceived as a launch event for Leslie’s 2013 book, “The Modern Magazine,” and the four subsequent editions have gathered creatives from both small indies and major publications to celebrate a common love for the art of print publishing—the unifying ethos behind the conference itself and Leslie’s London brick-and-mortar shop magCulture, which opened in 2015 and keeps a rotating stock of some 400 magazines from around the world.
The debut edition of MogMag NY was no different. Several of the speakers on hand had previously appeared in London, including Gail Bichler, design director at The New York Times Magazine, who gave a detailed view of the process under which her team produces weekly issues of the Sunday newspaper insert with breakneck speed.
Striving to always conceive “a graphic portrayal of an idea,” Bichler said her team typically has around five days to come up with a cover design after learning which story will be a given week’s primary feature. But those limited timeframes do little to constrain her team’s freedom to experiment, she said, particularly because the book’s distribution model as a Sunday newspaper insert frees it from the need to appeal on newsstands.
Indeed, limited coverlines and obscured logos are something of a mainstay on Bichler’s covers, and she noted that the magazine’s art department is blessed with a tremendous amount of trust from its editor, Jake Silverstein.
Bichler referenced the 2015 “Walking New York” cover, which featured an image of a massive walking man pasted onto Manhattan’s Flatiron Plaza—a real image, which the Times photographed from a helicopter.
“We try, whenever possible, to photograph actual objects,” said Bichler, noting in good humor a tweet from a reader who asked if they’d ever heard of Photoshop. “It lends a certain authenticity that readers can feel. Also, it’s just fun.”
Bichler emphasized, however, that experimentation isn’t to be taken lightly, and that she doesn’t take risks for risk’s sake, but only when she feels it could add something truly special to the reading experience.
“The magazine has really become a place for innovation within the Times,” she said, adding, for example, that “VR is a great tool for generating empathy with a subject. It’s powerful and emotional.”
The day’s insights weren’t confined to major consumer publications like Bichler’s. Omar Sosa, co-founder of the Barcelona-based indie interiors mag Apartamento, kicked things off with the story of his magazine’s first 10 years and its genesis as an answer to a lack of an “imprint of actual inhabitants” in most interior design books.
“We made Apartamento out of reaction because we couldn’t find the magazine we wanted,” he said, adding that he was inspired by earlier books like Nest and Casa Vogue. Apartamento debuted in 2007 with an initial run of 5,000 copies, he said. Ten years later, biannual issues are distributed to 45,000 readers and contain more than 350 pages.
“Indies offer a positive alternative to the commoditization of the magazine format, a reminder that profit and creativity need not cancel each other out,” Leslie told Folio:. “Learnings travel each way—indies can learn from the big publishers too. It’s not an indie vs. mainstream face-off, it’s a great vs. poor face-off.”
That interplay was particularly on display during a presentation from Michele Outland, who runs creative for both Condé Nast’s Bon Appetit and Gather, the independent food journal she co-founded in 2012 and describes as “a food magazine through the lens of art and culture.”
“Gather is the weird food mag off in the corner,” she said, of the nuances involved in working on both brands simultaneously. “We’re happy to be there. Bon Appetit requires a more focused lens, both literally and figuratively.”
Eye on Design, a digital-turned-print brand from the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA), represented perhaps the youngest print launch of the day, with founder Perrin Drumm illustrating the dangers of viewing print and digital as inherently opposed to one another, rather than complementary and containing their own respective advantages and disadvantages.
“The worst thing you can do is publish the same thing [on both platforms],” she said. “You’re doing your readers a big disservice, and it’s such a fucking bore.”
The business and artistic aspects of the magazine were unavoidably intertwined, said Drumm, adding that no magazine should launch without a clear business plan. On the eve of its second issue, Eye on Design is already profitable, she said, subsisting almost entirely on subscriptions and direct sales.
Former Businessweek and MTV creative director Richard Turley sat with Leslie later in the day to speak about his newest project, Civilization, a print-only (no website) newspaper, of all things, devoted to life in New York City.
“Civilization is in the black,” Turley said, adding that “the magazine industry’s capitulation is depressing. There’s still a huge appetite for print.”
Elsewhere on the program, Alexander Tochilovsky, professor at Cooper Union and curator of the Herb Lubalin Center of Design and Typography, delivered a brilliant history of Ralph Ginzburg and Herb Lubalin’s collaboration on three magazines from the 1960s with short lives but everlasting impact: Eros, Fact:, and Avant Garde.
One anecdote perhaps not often noted in the annals of history: Lubalin used seven different paper stocks for the second issue of Eros in 1962. Business model be damned.
Other speakers worth noting included Kirsten Algera, co-founder of MacGuffin, a magazine devoted to the life and beauty of everyday things; Emily Oberman, designer for the unapologetically feminist No Man’s Land; Justinien Tribillon and Isabel Seiffert, editor and designer, respectively, at Migrant Journal; and a whole slew of upstart indie magazines like Anxy, Victory Journal, Racquet, Mold, and Rough Trade.
Leslie told Folio: that the current business climate in publishing has led to an emphasis on “higher quality over unnecessary quantity,” and that this is, ultimately, a good thing for the medium.
“The business challenges facing print have provided a much-needed opportunity to reassess what we do, and the indies have helped a creative explosion in the industry by reminding us of the importance of trying new things,” said Leslie. “We’re witnessing a creative high for magazines, and that makes me optimistic about the future. The internet and social media have been great for magazines, powering this indie explosion.”
As for whether ModMag will make a return to New York, which he considers one of the two capitals of the English-language magazine world, Leslie jokingly demurred that while the answer may change following the evening’s cocktail hour, he was hopeful to see everyone in attendance again next year.