Civilization Exists, Even Now
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Richard Turley, former design director of the Guardian in London, creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek in 2010, MTV’s first senior vice-president of visual storytelling, where his team created reams of daily videos, stories, ideas, imagery, and the surreal edit-fest MTV No Chill, and most recently Weiden & Kennedy’s executive creative director of content and editorial design, is also the co-founder of Civilization.
Its part broadsheet newspaper and magazine, or what New York Magazine calls a “jumbo-sized, black-and-yellow paper [. . . ] anachronistically heavy on text, to the point that it’s hard to take in all of the information on a single sheet. The design is intricate and playful, punctuating the pages with cartoons, mini feature boxes, and lists. And then there is the actual content, which includes everything from a digressive diary by internet darling Darcie Wilder to a pictorial chronicle of a house party to a history of the radical left-wing group Weather Underground’s accidental 1970 bomb explosion in Greenwich Village.” Turley started the daring publication with filmmaker Mia Kerlin, and artist Lucas Mascatello, who together collaborated on the following chat.
Success is an option but not a goal. We are doing what we are doing and we will keep doing it till we get bored. We literally never worried about it failing. Just getting it made was success. Print is dead who gives a fuck.
The reason for starting was just a desperation with walking into magazines stores and there being nothing to buy. I grew up with magazines and newspapers, I was I suppose the last generation who grew up without the internet – that started to impact on my life when I was I don’t 18, 19 or 20 or so I suppose. But at that point it was minimal – anyway I grew up with papers and magazines and the exquisite power they have as intermediary media spaces. Worlds unwound in front of you, doors opened, cultures and differentiated – often exotic – lifestyles were explored in a digestible form. With big pictures and expressive design languages / each personable to their own publication which informed the words and how you read them.
I’m explaining this and in doing so understand just how ludicrous it is to define the properties of a magazine or a newspaper but I believe that this is a form that can still hold us in its grip and just because the current selection of magazines is so meager in its ambition, that we should remind ourselves what magazines can do. How they can make us feel.
I agree. I guess I keep echoing the print is dead line because in my heart I don’t believe it, but I nonetheless feel a void.
… print has been dying for the last 20 years or more and whilst you cannot for a moment dispute the total capitulation of the print industry and the horrible way it’s navigated the social media age, I’m just totally bored by the implication of obsolescence. Print is dying in the same way TV is dying, that books are dying, that movies are dying, that the malls are dying blah blah blah.
But it is a fact that the creative and content centers have changed from news and feature rooms to the “product” and “brand” groups. The old world is off its axis, no?
Media institutions are in transition from major revenue generators to far smaller businesses that will never sit over the top of culture in the same way as your Conde’s, Hearsts and Time Incs. Is that a shame? For those who worked in them and were supported by them over the last 40 years, yes, but for consumers.. I think it’s far less important. They just want sorting cool or interesting to look at, some distraction, some stimulation between the identity politics and incest porn and the leisure shots of influencers and Trump and the new Netflix show and and and and…
If you want to get pulled into the scare tactics and prophetic narratives of venture capitalists, media experts, think piece writers and then yes it’s all dying. And from their perspective, I get it – it’s far less interesting to talk about a company that makes – I don’t know – $15,000 a year than one that is losing $15,000,000 a year. But let’s just marinate in the death of print argument for a second. That in the span of a half a generation that the ingrained media habits of the world have changed irrevocably. The way humans – in the context of print and paper – have for centuries, millennia, communicated and absorbed information has just gone forever. I just call bullshit on that.
I want to believe. But despite the large proliferation of indie mags, the kind celebrated by MagCulture and Stack, I don’t see much in the retail “space.” Maybe I’m not looking in the right direction?
Think that’s our point, we don’t see those mags either. Which is why we made our own. One problem could be the only magazines people see and experience are the ones that shouldn’t be around any more. Time, GQ, Esquire, Fortune etc etc. The magazine industry has spent the last 40 years putting template content into socio-economic buckets. People who like gardens, people who like clothes, people who are men, people who like collecting stamps. There was a logic to it beyond he editorialization, you could sell ads to entire classes of people. A whole new set of indie mags have grown up recently who are arguably doing pretty much the same thing. I would suggest this is one way to think about publishing, but that there are alternatives .
I was at EVO (the East Village Other) and other underground papers. The goal was to put out ideas regardless of consequence. Then I became a “professional art director and editors worried about readers in preemptive ways, now I see everyone these days counting clicks.
I love that about the EVO, Great young minds who would have been drawn to magazines and newspapers a decade or two ago now want to work for content companies making short form shows and video for whatever. The future of an industry is defined by the quality of its workforce under the age of 30. And the publishing industry doesn’t have a workforce under the age of 30. Or it does they’re permalancing for the magazines shitty blog aggregator or on the social media team.
These places are so fucking stupid. They’ve spent 10 years shoring up the talent at the top and missing that it’s your 25 year olds you need to worry about, they’re the future of your business. Our – not so – secret weapon is Mia. A 22 year old whose just left school. When we met her it was so clear that without someone like Mia the paper would be missing a huge chunk of what we wanted it to be, so instead of offering her an intern opportunity or whatever, we put her in equal charge. Its pretty basic – if you only have people that know what they’re doing, then you’re not going to make anything new.
The publication is called Civilization. There is something alternatively heroic, romantic, realistic and questionable about taking on such a title and all that comes with it. What are you hoping to accomplish and who are you hoping to reach?
We liked the grandeur of the name, the pomposity and scope it provides us with. It’s nicely tongue in cheek especially as we focus often on the ephemera of life and the more extreme, depraved areas of the city and our society. We messed around with other names. Bored was a favorite for a while. As was Fame Whores of Hedge Fund City.
We were hoping to accomplish making a newspaper that feels a bit about like walking round New York. To find a divot of originality in a form that everyone’s written off. We were hoping to accomplish just making one issue to see if anyone liked it. We wanted to reach people who wanted to be reached I suppose. Primarily ones who wanted to be reached by a large broadsheet oversized clusterfuck of words and information about living and thriving in New York. I don’t know if we had a target market in mind, in fact I know we didn’t, but we weren’t put of by the fact that nobody really buys magazines or certainly not newspapers anymore. Think we saw that more as an opportunity.
I will say, I’m in awe of Civilization for the following: the size is audacious. The combination of classic and modern is elegant. The layout is courageous. I mention the layout because is a huge grid of short bits of seemingly random chunks of information. Whereas the cover has a gigantic, if painterly informal, image, the interior is tightly packed (I am amazed you got it to work). So, what is the editorial plan behind this method?
There wasn’t much of a plan. The editorial process is akin to putting a jigsaw together without knowing exactly the puzzle your making. And to introduce errors into the layout. To make it feel organic and handmade and jammed together. Again, its something missing from our templatized world. The feel of a human touch.
Also knowing that you can create great editorial energy from the positioning of contrasting stories next to each other, knowing that a whole page of stories and charts and information would be really cool and different to look at, knowing that no one really experiences words and content at that scale anymore, on pages that big, with that much information, it’s all in tiny phone screens meant that being either reacquainted by that size would be refreshing or confronting it for the first time would be exciting. And totally navigable. We knew that. This fear of words in a world of pictures is something to explore.
The cover was meant to be simplistic. To take the huge quantity of content and make it seem full and exciting yet manageable. And to introduce the fallen angel character, someone who could act as our totem, dazed and fragile and soft in as simple way as we could manage. And cute and childlike.
Not only is God in the details of Civilization, everything in the content is detail oriented. To you have a method that requires the reader to decipher and decode or are you playing some sort of trick on our senses?
We don’t expect everybody (or even anybody) to decode or understand all of it. Just like we don’t understand or can’t decode all or any of what’s going on in the world around us.
We experience and ingest so much crap and noise and information and fail to understand much of it. We just wanted to re-present that back as a newspaper experience. Personalize the content. Create windows into other peoples lives which are fleeting and under explained. Just like the lack of context with much of the social media content we digest.
And to present that actually pretty simply and over labelled. Everything is labelled and tabulated, in a sort of almanac way. So though you might be lost there is enough detailing to give you something to hang onto. And if you don’t understand something then move your eye and inch and there is something you do.
What is your next step for Civilization. What content plans do you have? Can it be sustainable in the form it is in? I’m assuming you agree with me that this could never succeed online — you’ve got to have its immensity to make it work. Right?
We’re making another issue now. We’re really just making it up as we go along. I know that’s a cliche but its true. We’re trying to live in that space between not caring and fearlessness. Think we’re a little surprised that we’re doing another one this quickly.
We’re never going to have this content on a website, we do atomize the paper on instagram. And we print bits of it on T-shirt’s and sell it. But we never want to isolate the stories from the context of the paper, that’s what makes it different I think. We like the fact it’s quite had to get hold of, that you have to go to a store or wait for a week or so to have it mailed to you. Like that lack of instant gratification built into the product. We like the fact it’s finite.
I have a gut feeling (or its an ulcer) that this “anachronism” may even turn the tide. I won’t use the cliche that vinyl is back (though I did), but reading, folding pages, holding, cutting and clipping is still with us. There may be a welcome change in habits, as long as media companies don’t get involved.
I don’t mind the vinyl analogy as much as others do. What I do know is that after the digital apocalypse, when all our data is corrupted, when we open up our bank apps and see the money gone, when Buzzfeed is a just a bad memory and Instagram is a just a scare story parents tell their kids at night, someone somewhere will pull from the ashes a copy of our newspaper and point to it and say ‘so… this is what New York was like in 2018’. And people will go ‘Woahhhhhhhh’.