Print takes back the fight

The Modern Magazine conference in London this autumn proved to be a timely reassertion of the power of the printed word

Like any good magazine, the programme of The Modern Magazine conference offered a blend of shorter and longer features and a mix of voices and personalities. There were lighter pieces full of visual hits alongside more in-depth stories and detailed discussion. After creative director Richard Turley concluded the day’s events with a whirlwind visual tour through the heady pages of Bloom-berg Businessweek (see p40), it was as if you had just finished the main feature you’d been saving up to read.

If the conference was organised like a magazine, its pace and structure was well maintained by its ‘editor’, magCulture’s Jeremy Leslie. A natural extension of his new book of the same name, the conference platform enabled many of those featured in his round-up of this “golden age” of magazines to explain why they do what they do. And, more pertinently, how. While newspapers struggle and the climate for print publishing in general remains rocked by digital, it’s now clear that many magazines, large and small, are continuing to thrive.

This affirmative outlook was first addressed by Leslie in his opening remarks – and it was refreshing to hear it said that there was no longer a need to mount a defence of print. This day was to be a celebration of it, and aside from a presentation from innovative tablet magazine publisher David Jacobs of 29th Street, there would just be footnotes to how digital culture has impacted upon magazines “as a partner not a competitor”.

Rosa Park, the ambitious founder of the Bristol-based Cereal magazine, a beautifully minimalist journal on food and travel, acknowledged early on that creating a successful magazine is not easy. Her standards are high, she said, and while maintaining an ad-free first year, it was imperative that commercial ideas happen either through collaboration, or the creation of products.

Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé was proof of how this thinking can establish itself as an entire publishing and retail platform. Charting the influence of New York and Stern magazines, and how he had decided to set up a global bureau-based title seven years ago, Brûlé noted how he had seen the main threat to magazines as being the emergence of the “consultants on the editorial floor”. Monocle has instead moved towards creating high value in the objects and experiences it offers: from its printed magazine, its newspapers and books, to its web-based radio station, own-branded products and, yes, cafés. As tangential as some of this sounds it all links back to the Monocle brand – and Brûlé’s business acumen. As he said, while great journalists in effect make great sales people, there is no better person to sell the magazine than its editor.

And magazines with strong editorial voices were in abundance at The Modern Magazine. From Boat’s distinctive take on producing an issue from a different city with each edition (co-founder Davey Spens gave one of the most inspiring talks of the day), to Eye’s dedication to combining specialist knowledge with high design and production values, the importance of conveying one’s own standpoint in print was evoked by a range of editors and designers. Be it the raw, real-life living stories of Apartamento, or the lifestyle – seemingly at the other end of the Barcelona-based title in aesthetic and attitude – distilled within the pages of Harper’s Bazaar. (Scott King also showed how he uses the magazine format to make art as well as design.)

Justine Picardie, editor of Harper’s since August 2012, simplified the relationship between a magazine and its readers by adopting EM Forster’s commitment to “only connect”. And along with Debbi Evans of The Libertine, Liz Ann Bennett of Oh Comely and The Gentlewoman’s editor-in-chief Penny Martin, Picardie was also involved in the panel discussion on women’s magazines – which, for me, was one of the highlights of the day.

Other than some microphone hitches which were courteously ridden out, my only complaint was that Martin wasn’t on the schedule as an individual speaker, particularly as the history of her magazine is so interesting to the wider print context. While it is, she said, a women’s title based on the format of a successful contemporary men’s magazine, Fantastic Man, the men’s title itself reworks the language and attitudes of women’s magazines of the 1950s.

The “connect” of earlier on now pointed to how magazines frequently relate to one another, even if the influence is reworked or reframed. Readerships may differ demographically, but ultimately good magazines survive for the same fundamental reasons. Indeed, as Martin suggested, to waste resources on making bad ones was a blight on the industry.

Perhaps the most universal summation of what we get from magazines was given, not in a spoken phrase, but in a gesture. During the panel event, Martin intimated that what magazines provide us with, unlike our smartphones, iPads or laptops, was a sense of private space in which to absorb and reflect at our leisure. “It’s this – ,” she said, and simply sat back in her chair in silence and mimed flicking through pages. Amid the noise of all the things fighting for our attention, it’s these moments in the day that we still have magazines to thank for.

The Modern Magazine took place at Central Saint Martins in London on October 16. The Modern Magazine book is published by Laurence King; £25.

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