Jeremy Leslie, the London-based founder of magCulture, is on a mission to cover and discover the world of print-on-paper magazines that continue to publish despite the major obstacles in producing them. On Nov. 16, Vitsœ will host magCulture Live London, a 10th-anniversary event showcasing the best creative editorial projects, with guests from across the industry spectrum. Speakers include Debra Bishop, design director of The New York Times for Kids; Neville Brody, formerly of The Face, Arena and City Limits; Maya Moumne, co-founder of Journal Safar and Al Hayya magazines; Charles Baker, editor of The Fence; Oyinkansola Dada, founder of Dada magazine; James Gallacher, editor-on-chief of Ton; Linda Nubling, publisher of Gurlz with Curlz; and more. If you read the MagCulture Journal, you’ll have a sense of the scope and focus of the fete.
With the event only a few weeks away, I asked Leslie about his dedication to print journals and the new entries in the field.
Why are magazines so important to you, especially in this fungible publishing environment?
Several reasons; first, I can’t avoid the fact that we grew up during a period where magazines simply were culturally important, a central element of our media diet. In particular, my teenage obsession with music was fed by weekly print such as New Musical Express.
But it’s more than nostalgia. Magazines and the way they are created and produced are time capsules for the period they are/were made. In terms of content obviously—that story, that person, that idea—but also in terms of photographic style, illustration style, language, typography, the way design and content interact, etc. They absorb subconscious influence from every person involved in the production to reflect so many aspects of a given time. And the result is baked into a tangible thing. A print magazine cannot be corrected or altered. It is stuck in itself and can be examined and critiqued from a future context, and learned from. Whether naive or hugely professional, a magazine reveals much that wasn’t intended.
By contrast, digital channels are mutable. From a cultural standpoint, the text may remain intact but its presentation may at best change, or worse become unreadable or lost. What we gain in immediacy and easy access online we lose in the reduced value of bespoke design and art direction. By their nature, websites are about function and UX and not about a designed response to the meaning of the text. Everything online is flatly efficient and smooth rather than special.
And in a broader sense, humans want actual things. We see this every day at our London shop—a growing minority of people who want to interact with a physical magazine.
Is there a real chance that magazines will be an extinguished species, or is the digital era a thinning of the herd?
I believe we’ll come to look back at the post-second world war consumer boom and the advertising-based rise of the mainstream magazine as the outlier. I can remember major magazine publishers launching new titles just to mop up the advertising they were being offered! That species of magazine is long dead. And although those magazines were a reflection of their time like any mag, do we really miss them? Sure, some were great, but the majority were average. Those middle market titles are dead.
Before they became such huge money-makers, magazines were a useful form of communication shared between communities of like-minded people. They were a club for people sharing the same interest/hobby/obsession. We’re heading back that way, with publishers building tight relationships with small devoted readerships rather than encouraging the late 20th-century promiscuous get-as-many-readers-as-you-can model.
You produce live events. This is refreshing, especially since online venues are at best disembodied. Why do you do real-time, real-life activities?
As a design student, the best teachers were the working designers who visited once a week to run projects. They brought real life and all its ups and downs with them. Since then, I’ve always been interested to hear people talk IRL about what they know.
When I came to launch my 2013 book The Modern Magazine, I wanted to bring together the interviewees from the book to bring their words to life. That was our first big, live event. And it hit a nerve. Most magazine publishing events are based around the business of publishing—ours was unique in highlighting the creativity of the form. Simply, it’s inspiring hearing people’s stories laid out live in front of you in real life. During the pandemic we moved online but the novelty factor soon faded. It worked but the experience wasn’t as powerful.
Magazine-making can be a lonely activity: lots of time alone on your laptop. Come out and meet your fellow print lovers! Get together in a room and talk! Compare and contrast!
What will be your focus in the forthcoming London event?
As with our New York event in July this year, the focus is “Format.” Reminding people how print media can be any scale/size, produced to any schedule, and operate its own frame of reference. And to highlight the technological aspect of print: a well-produced print mag is a brilliant piece of engineering. Quite different to an iPhone or whatever, but still a piece of technology.
Have you seen your audiences grow, shrink or remain the same?
Our online audience is larger than ever, via online posts, Instagram and podcasts. The event audiences took a tumble over the COVID lockdowns but are building back now.
Are magazines ultimately sustainable? And does that matter?
This year’s magCulture Live London marks our 10th anniversary, and as part of the planning I’ve been looking back over those 10 years and further back. I noted that in my 2001 book Issues I discussed the prevailing idea of the end of print. And I spoke at our first conference in 2013 about the same thing. Today we are no longer pondering the end of print, but celebrating its continual reinvention. magCulture is inundated with brand-new magazines and new issues of existing magazines. Are their makers running hugely successful businesses? Generally not (though some are). But there’s a creative imperative behind every one. People feel compelled to make another issue.
Perhaps a useful analogy is the wider world of the arts. Do you produce a movie to make money? Do you paint to earn a living? Can you live on your ambition to write a novel? Not everyone can be, or wants to be, Spielberg, Hirst, Grisham.
Judging by the design, journalism and other students I meet, the desire to make magazines doesn’t look like fading any time soon. And since the pandemic we’ve seen a significant uptick in new indie launches and people buying them—both supply and demand has increased.