Last Friday, magCulture’s Jeremy Leslie introduced the 2015 Modern Magazine conference by addressing the idea of “the new normal.” Three years ago, the first ModMag celebrated self-publishing by relishing the realization that “print is dead is dead,” and in recent years there have been countless other talks and panel discussions about print media and independent magazines. But last Friday in London, the line-up of speakers moved the conversation onwards and outwards, considering not only a magazine’s founding story and tactile qualities, but also its engagement with the digital world, its context, its branding, its problems, and the community that evolves or strengthens around it. In a Central Saint Martins lecture hall in Kings Cross, over 200 listeners sat poised with notebooks on knee, ready to start thinking about what’s now and what’s next for independent print media.

As WIRED’s Scott Dadich said (as he was projected onto the giant screen from his office in New York via Google Hangout), the early plan of “saving” the publishing world with the app didn’t exactly pan out as expected. “It was a moment of real experimentation,” he recalls when discussing WIRED’s iPad app. “We were a little naïve. I think we made a lot of assumptions about how people want to consume information.” The magazine’s art director Billy Sorrentino then made a surprise appearance in the Hangout, and the pair candidly discussed how they translated the print design to an online format.

Berlin-based writer and editor Kati Krause then delivered a manifesto about what the digital world can learn from print, considering the practical reality of what we really want and need from an online magazine. She emphatically called for publishers to carefully consider four crucial aspects:

  • Design: it’s impossible to design complicated spreads for a phone screen. Her best bet? Stick to black-on-white. What the digital world needs to concentrate on is simplicity and “a quiet space, a time for immersion.”
  • Voice: to stand out amongst the continual chatter of the online world, Krause emphasized the importance of tone, citing the likes of Vice and Slate as publications that are on point in cultivating a voice.
  • Community: no, not online comment sections, but rather the sense of community that can evolve from a publication for like-minded individuals. According to Krause, all us online outlets could learn a thing or two from Rookie.
  • Slowness: the fast pace of the online world doesn’t allow for quality, just endless quantity. “Slowness in digital media is relative,” said Krause. “But we should emulate magazines in digital media and just slow down a bit. That will give us time for reflection, for responsibility, and to create something with enduring quality.”

The sole representative of a digital publication was Sophie Lovell from the innovative, Berlin-based architecture magazine Uncube. She discussed how they publish monthly, thematic issues—precisely the kind of slowness Krause called for more of—but stressed that Uncube isn’t the “opposite” of print. “Digital vs. print. I get asked about this a lot,” she said. “It’s not a competition; these are two completely different things. The issue isn’t print or digital—it’s thinking about how and what we’re communicating.”

A number of publications also considered the problems facing a print magazine when dealing with a web presence. The Gourmands art director, David Lane, had an interesting approach to the digital side of his magazine. When you arrive to their website, you can either click “On Paper” or “On Screen.” The latter features weekly articles and specially commissioned content, but it doesn’t attempt to keep up with solely online publications. For Flaneur, the magazine that languorously investigates a different street for each issue, editor-in-chief Grashina Gabelmann discussed how her Berlin team use their website. They have a section titled “Unprintables,” a collection of film and music found over the course of making an issue that can’t be translated into the magazine format.

For satirical The Mushpit (which is possibly “London’s first anarchic fashion magazine”), their publication simply wouldn’t make sense as something digital. “As soon as you put The Mushpit online, it just becomes content. The thing that makes it funny is that we’ve spent all this time and money (that we don’t have) on it. That’s a whole part of the joke. That is the joke.” Their lively 15-minute talk was a reminder of just how much it can be to make a magazine, and for me, it hinted at the way that the dichotomy between “zine” and “magazine” has started to blur now that independent publishing has become more widely accessible.

As well as hard-core indies, part of what made the event so varied was that there were several speakers openly discussing how a magazine can be a marketing tool or a distilled version of a brand. Often the commercial side of independent publishing is ignored; people would prefer to think of an independent as a passion project, not something driven by money or profit. Louis-Jaques Darveu of Canada’s The Alpine Review placed his magazine at the center of his business model, a calling card for his agency.

Monocle’s Andrew Tuck discussed how the publishers translated their brand into an audio format for the Monocle 24 station, noting that “radio hasn’t faced the same kind of challenges as the print industry.” James Fairback, head of branding at cycling company Rapha, similarly discussed how they applied their aesthetic and voice into a magazine format for Mondial.

One of the most anticipated speakers of the day was Charlotte Heal, who discussed her redesign of crowd favorite Kinfolk, and the process of honing and tightening the magazine’s design while still staying true to the brand. Before Heal, Kinfolk was “meek and calm” with images and text running neatly side-by-side. Heal made subtle changes to mature the aesthetic, ensuring that a strong sense of the brand remained, but with an elevated design.

Another design highlight was creative director Matt Phare on the weekly UK woman’s mag Stylist. The magazine has a history of playful covers (which Phare thinks of as “posters”), and he went through various stories—from how they designed a cover made entirely out of stained glass, to how they created 25 different covers for their Kylie Minogue issue, to convincing Quentin Blake to hand-draw the whole front cover.

By nightfall notebooks were filled to the brim, but Ibrahim Nehme of Lebanon-based The Outpost gave one last rousing talk. His speech reminded everyone about the power and possibilities of magazine-making as he emphasized the importance of storytelling today. “In a world where all the economic and political systems are breaking down, we need new points of view. Stories can help us understand our place in the world. They inform our identities, they raise awareness, and they shift our perspectives and inspire.” The day finished on the note that no matter what the project, we’re all ultimately trying to do the same thing: we’re trying to tell stories, whether through design or with words, whether in the online world or off, and whether for commercial purposes or ideological ones.