Like your newly woke best buddy, the indie mag scene is responding to the current political climate by casting frivolous things aside and getting serious. Not only have a new crop of politically and socially charged mags taken seed, more established news and current affairs indies are thriving, too. There is, of course, a long tradition of politics and protest in print, but given the sheer number of other (faster, quicker, cheaper) outlets to spread your message, why does ink on paper endure, and even outshine its digital comrades? Aside from all the typical defense-of-print arguments, what is it that draws political debate and resistance culture to print? And how are our turbulent times changing the face of independent publishing?
Back in December we predicted that magazines engaging in honest, thought provoking, and accessible political debate would be a major force in 2017, and in just the last few months we’ve seen a host of new titles rising to exactly that challenge. There’s feminist protest comic Resist!, launched to coincide with the Women’s March, and radical monthly newspaper The Smudge, created in response to Trump’s inauguration. Meanwhile Gal-dem and #BlackLivesMatter-inspired Nii Journal are challenging the shameful lack of diversity in the fashion and style press.
Then there are magazines that apply tried-and-tested indie formulas to political issues. Like Yuca, a biannual bookazine that asks different disciplines to respond to a common theme, (the first and second issues discussed roots and migration, respectively), and Migrant Journal, which brings creatives and commentators together to examine how people, goods, and ideas flow around the world. In January MagCulture noted a new set of UK literary magazines that are as concerned with long form journalism as they are the short story, including 404 Ink, Latterly, and The Tangerine; new launch Us of America celebrates the cultural melting pot of the nation at a time when it feels woefully divided.
It’s telling that the winner of the Stack Awards 2016 launch of the year was Real Review, a magazine that addresses what means to live today, using architecture as its starting point. According to editor Jack Self, “No ideology exists in the abstract. They exist in space. Social and economic power relations are all enforced and reinforced by systems of spacial governance, and these require mass complicity. If you believe in promoting values like democracy, inclusivity, tolerance, social and material equality, then the analysis of space is a good place to start.”
These new mags join well established news and politics titles that are feeling increasingly vital, like The Baffler, with its perfectly timed hot new look, and Dissent which continues to settle into its 2015 redesign. See also: Delayed Gratification, The Outpost and Weapons of Reason.
Elsewhere indies like Riposte are becoming more politicized. Editor Danielle Pender says, “We’re increasingly turning our attention to more social and political issues. We’re living in very divisive and turbulent times, and we want Riposte to reflect that. We also want to represent as wide a range of women’s voices as possible. If you have a platform, it’s irresponsible not to.
“It’s embarrassing to see magazines still publishing stylized photo shoots featuring expensive clothes and empty interviews—it feels more irrelevant than ever.”
Recent features have focused on topics such as everyday activism, and abortion in Ireland. Kelsey Lu has spoken to the magazine about growing up as a black women in America, and Betty Reid Soskin on living through the civil rights movement. Black activist Ericka Hart is lined up for their next issue.
The love affair between print, politics, and protest is no new romance. Shuffle down the mag pile marked “protest” and you’ll find the underground press of the 60s and 70s, and feminist titles like Spare Rib. Reach further back and you’ll find the clandestine press of the French Resistance, British political pamphlets of the 18th century, and much more. But now that digital and social media provide so many other means for political protest and debate, why does print remain an essential part of the political media diet?
For some, it’s the finite nature of print as object that makes it ideal for challenging opinions. Self says, “The closed nature of a magazine offers the chance to unite many voices into a single editorial voice. It forces clarity, precision, and priority.” Christoph Miler and Isabel Seiffert of Migrant Journal agree, “Magazines can be a catalyst for reflection because they condense the dynamics and gather the players of a certain field.” Design critic Steve Heller adds that even in the digital age print “is still a great way to distribute ideas and preserve them. The web is too easily drowned out by itself. Print, mags, papers, posters, flyers have a tactility that stays with you.” These are all solid reasons for liking print, and they’ll be familiar to anyone who’s followed the fall and rise of print over the last few years.
But these political and protest publications feel like more than a nice-to-have right now—they feel necessary. Why is that?
1. We’re more willing to pay for journalism again, in all its forms, and that’s having a knock-on effect. Slow news magazine Delayed Gratification has seen a rise in sales, traffic, and subscriptions over the last year, with big spikes around Brexit and Trump’s election and inauguration. Editor Rob Orchard says, “We’ve never seen news events have such a direct impact on sales. There is a tremendous feeling of apprehension and anxiety on all sides, and people want to be better informed.
“There’s a realization that if you don’t fund proper journalism you get crap journalism, and this is a problem when you try to hold politicians to account. We need journalists and editors to be properly funded to ask awkward questions, seek out the truth, and publish it, regardless of the consequences. And we need less clickbait, Twitter-driven, kneejerk nonsense.”
This increasing willingness to pay for content is bourn out across the industry. Satirical magazine Private Eye enjoyed the biggest selling issue of its 55-year history last Christmas, selling over 287,000 copies. The New York Times reports steady growth in subscriptions since 2011, and a significant uptick since November 2016, with the paper adding 276,000 new subscribers, passing the 3 million mark overall. And as we’ve seen with, for example, the rise in vinyl sales, the more people want to pay for a type of content, the more a subset of that group will want to invest in its physical form. For significant numbers of people, that means when they buy something they want to be able to hold it in their hands.
For titles like Nii Journal and Gal-dem, the medium is part of the message. Print still has a certain prestige in the fashion and lifestyle press. Putting their product into paper gives teeth to their pro-diversity mission.
2. It’s part of the wider cultural shift. If marching has replaced brunching as your favorite weekend activity, the magazines you buy will reflect those changing interests. This shift to the serious is changing the aesthetics of the indie scene, too. Many mag makers are primarily motivated by their cause or subject matter, rather than the desire to make a magazine for the sake of it. This means new voices and refreshingly different design.
Self says, “Our primary interest is the subject matter. Anyone who’s primary motivation is to make a magazine is doomed from the outset.” He explains how Real Review’s mission is reflected in its execution. “Our magazine Real Review is beautiful, but it is purposefully ephemeral. It’s not a high-production book-as-magazine. Its power is to speak in the present, not to be discussed in the future.”
Over at The Smudge, creator Clay Hickson has developed a distinctive look to place the title firmly in the tradition of print protest. “I’ve been studying underground papers from the 60s and 70s for the last few years. From a design perspective, we’re trying to create a paper with the same heart and energy of those papers.”
Likewise, the team behind Resist!, New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly and her graphic novelist daughter, Nadja Spiegelman, chose newsprint in order to speak to that tradition. “We liked the raw, ephemeral, un-precious nature of newsprint.” The magazine also speaks to the hierarchy-free dream of 70s feminist mags. “What we love about Resist! is that it combines the democratic nature of the internet through our website and open call for work, with the lasting nature of print,” say Mouly and Spiegelman.
The thing I love about print is that just when you think you’ve got a handle on its role in our lives, it changes. If you’d asked me a year ago I’d have said print magazines were affordable luxury objects that allowed us to switch off. Now, in 2017, reading magazines is more about necessity. These titles drive activism, not escapism. Necessarily ephemeral, it’s a magazine’s job to respond to its moment in time. To quote Pender, it would be irresponsible not to.