A voice of their own: independent magazines

Independent magazines are undergoing a global mini-boom as publishers return to the printed form to express their creativity, with the Middle East producing some of the most exciting examples. Vision explores

When the Beiruti editor Ibrahim Nehme launched The Outpost,“a magazine of possibilities”, in the autumn of 2012, his friends told him he was crazy. Print magazines were supposed to be dying, and Nehme’s ambitions for his new publication were big: high-quality writing and design, thick, matte paper-stock and an over-arching aim to capture the energy of the region and “help ignite a renaissance in this part of the world”.

Four issues on the award-winning magazine can be found in shops around the globe, from Australia to Kuwait. Each issue is divided into three sections: “What’s Happening,” “What’s Not Happening” and “What Could Happen”; fiction writers and artists are asked to meditate on weighty themes and crisp infographics turn complicated issues into works of art.

Although in established markets such as the UK and US, ad sales are down for magazines and closures are outnumbering new launches, there’s been a proliferation of ambitious independent magazines in recent years. “I think print as a medium is experiencing a renaissance,” Nehme says. “In the past year and a half, we’ve seen a lot of independent magazines spreading in the Middle East.”

One of these new launches is WTD (short for “watad”, or “tent peg”), a design and architecture magazine launched by Meitha Almazrooei in Dubai in the spring of 2012, which aims, according to its website, to be a place where “curious minds can voice their aspirations”. Its second issue includes a proposal to revitalise a run-down girls’ public school in Dubai, which, Almazrooei says generated hype on social media, and inspired many readers to approach the magazine in hope of seeing the project come to life.

I think print as a medium is experiencing a renaissance 

Ibrahim Nehme, Editor, The Outpost

“Through our features, we shed light on spaces that are usually lost between the glossiness of the region,” she says. “The design noise can be deafening, and we would like to think of WTD as a sanctuary.”

For many in Britain, The Face defined the Nineties, and the Canadian publication Vice, with its bare-bones fashion shoots and aura of all-knowingness, has come to represent a new aesthetic for the 21st century. Vice has also signalled the way to a financial model, with a free magazine acting as an advert for a range of revenue-generating global offshoots, including a record label, club, clothing brand, TV show and series of books.

While many have studied the rise of Vice, few have been able to replicate it; it’s still a lot easier to launch a new independent magazine than it is to make a living doing it.Apartamento is considered a success story: the experimental interiors magazine, which has offices in Barcelona, Milan and New York, is stocked in 45 countries, including Korea, Lebanon and Slovenia – but according to Editor Marco Velardi, everyone working on the magazine “has to make a living somewhere else”.

This is partly due to Velardi’s reluctance to compromise when it comes to editorial and ads: “We’re not just chasing money,” he says. In Apartamento’s pages, arresting photo spreads document the cluttered apartments of artists and performers; and home, work and life are discussed in accompanying interviews. “Sometimes the things we like are ugly to other people,” Velardi says. “It’s subjective.”

Apartamento is a labour of love, and Ibrahim Nehme can relate. When asked how he has come up with a sustainable business model for The Outpost, he laughs, and says: “Honestly, we haven’t. It’s been such a struggle to actually stand on our feet.” Attracting advertisers has been hard despite positive feedback from readers, and Nehme has plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign.

Different magazines have come up with different ways of handling their finances. The Church of London, an independent publishing company based in Britain, which prints the film magazine Little White Lies and skate magazine Huck, has a corporate wing that works on content strategy for brands such as Google. Colors – a sometimes controversial, always innovative magazine of global ideas that has thrived for 22 years and is published in seven languages – is owned by the Benetton Group.

Jamal Nxedlanda, founder of the Cuss Group
Jamal Nxedlanda, founder of the Cuss Group

Other editors see their magazines less as a product or a career path, and more as a self-funded, experimental work of art. Jamal Nxedlana co-founded an artist collective called Cuss Group in 2011 in Johannesburg. “Our aim was to broadcast cultural production on the fringes of mainstream media,” he says. Cuss began by launching a web magazine, using fashion as a way to explore the city’s street culture, and transferred to print for one issue. The group is now focusing on Video Party, a series of screenings of visual art in non-gallery spaces in Johannesburg.

The good news is that when magazines start being seen as luxury items, political tools or art works, rather than products to be shifted, they are freed up to be niche, experimental, heartfelt and weird. Commercial concerns aside, it’s easier to print small runs of a few thousand copies than it has ever been before: more and more people around the world have access to the requisite software, hardware and know-how. Cycling magazine The Ride reached out to fixed-gear cycling enthusiasts across the globe, and the first print-run of 2,000 sold out in six weeks, in locations from Hawaii to Malaysia.

The world’s love affair with printed magazines is far from over. As long as passionate editors such as Nehme, Velardi and Almazrooei are still dedicating themselves to expressing new ideas and pushing aesthetic boundaries, they will inspire others to follow.