What happened at magCulture’s Modern Magazine 2016

by Grace Wang in October 2016

Returning for its fourth year at Central Saint Martins, magCulture’s Modern Magazine 2016 conference is a gathering of mag-lovers, and a showcase of excellent speakers who currently run some of the world’s most celebrated magazines. Past events have seen editors from Wired US, New York Magazine, Kinfolk and Monocle, to name a few, and this year’s lineup featured publications like The New York Times Magazine and Empire, alongside independent strongholds like The Gentlewoman and The Happy Reader — it was basically a magophile/writer/designer’s dream come true.


Jeremy Leslie (above), founder of magCulture, started the event by calling attention to the binary categorisation of independent and mainstream. He suggested thinking of magazines as ‘small’ with the space to grow, or ‘big’ with the potential to shrink.

This theme was demonstrated by Terri White, the editor of Empire magazine. The world’s biggest film magazine and 27-year-old heritage brand finds ways to stay culturally relevant today by shrinking and appealing to niche film audiences, instead of feeling like they have to cater to everyone all the time. They have also been integrating the magazine into the ‘real world’ — for example holding live events and creating podcasts, in order to engage with their readership.


Christoph Amend (above), editor of ZeitMagazin, the supplement of a mainstream newspaper, talks similarly about being inspired by niche publications like Flaneur, mono.kultur, and MacGuffin. Their offshoot men’s magazine, Zeitmann, very much embodies independent publishing — inspired by an encounter with a winemaker who started his venture at 92 years old, it embraces the idea that it is never too late to change your career and choose to be happier.


On the flip side is the fresh, feminist title we sent out to subscribers last month: Ladybeard. Taking the form of ‘glossy’ magazines, its content reacts directly to that of mainstream women’s mags. For example, instead of giving ‘sex tips’ on how to please a man (“Because everyone is straight,” they joke), Ladybeard featured a masturbation guide to encourage self pleasure; the cover of their Sex issue is bright pink, like something you would see on a girly publication, but it features an image of a vibrator, which remains a bit of a taboo in mainstream media.


Penny Martin, editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman, talked about defining their initial purpose by laying out what they “hated” in mainstream magazines. Apart from banning the word ‘sexy’, the magazine rejects the pushy, ready-to-buy language seen in bigger fashion titles (propelled, especially, by the arrival of e-commerce), focusing instead on providing sartorial studies with fine details, and moving away from product-heavy visuals. By expanding moderately, The Gentlewoman aims to keep a “Definitive communication, instead of rolling news,” Penny says.

The Happy Reader is perhaps a happy combination of both indie and mainstream. As a part of Penguin, it has huge corporate backing, but is niche in its subjects of “bookish celebrities” (Aziz Ansari, Grimes, Ethan Hawke) and the magazine’s format — a traditional paperback that is updated with seasonal, contemporary elements. mono.kultur seems to take a similarly mixed approach — each of their issues are dedicated entirely to one artist, usually a well-known individual or group with a loyal, niche following, like Miranda July or the Wu-Tang Clan. Likewise, Real Review uses high quality paper, but the architecture magazine takes the form of an ephemeral, pamphlet format.


Rebecca Nicholson spoke informatively on the things she learnt about digital journalism during her time as editor-in-chief of VICE, including not setting arbitrary limits of certain word counts and making sure to respect her readers. We looked back at iconic Brit-pop title The Face with Paul Gorman (above), learned about Private Eye with Tony Rushton, and Kirsten Alegra of MacGuffin gave a wonderful introduction to their beautifully fanatical publication.


The day finished with Gail Bichler (above), design director of The New York Times Magazine, who gave an insightful look into the editorial structure of the Times. Other than a hilarious-sounding meeting with the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, about what image to put with a cover story on the dominance of ‘white’ penises on films, she spoke about the limited retouching of their photos, so as to abide by the Times’ strict, unbiased publishing standards. One way the design team works is by asking the editorial side to boil the features of an issue down to one sentence, and this paved the way for powerful, spectacular covers and subtly genius designs — for example making helium balloons of Donald Trump’s face and taking pictures of it for a cover.

Of course all the above can only serve as a snapshot of the day, so to see more, check the WeTransfer liveblog of yesterday’s event by ex-It’s Nice That editor Rob Alderson, and magCulture’s own Madeleine Morley put together an excellent play-by-play event coverage as well — both will make you feel like you were there in real-time.


All photography by Owen Richards

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