Expat Magazines: What I’ve Learned

Since I realized the other day that I’ve already made one of my New Year’s resolutions — not to get involved in any more magazine startups — and since the morass of comments on those last two posts got into this area, I thought it might be time to expound my basic theory of how to do an English-language magazine in another country.

The following is based on my experience here in Europe, specifically — although not totally — in Berlin. There might be other variables which would make this advice not as applicable in the Far East or South America, I don’t know. But this is what I’ve learned in the past decade.

Earlier, even: when I first moved here in 1993, Checkpoint magazine was already publishing. Co-funded by Zitty, Time Out, and some private funds, it had been running for about a year when I first approached it. It wasn’t very successful for a number of reasons, not least of which was appalling art direction. Eventually, Time Out pulled out, and Zitty took it over, forming a new subsidiary of their company to do so. Since the old name was owned by the previous entity, a new one had to be found, and, casting about for suggestions, I liked one from a friend, Metropolis. True, this was also claimed by an American architecture magazine, but doing our title search (something every magazine should do…hello, ExBerliner!) we discovered it hadn’t been registered in Germany, so we were clear to use it as long as it didn’t look like we were putting out an architecture magazine. It didn’t.

Zitty proved to be an unreliable partner, to say the least. They’d withdraw or hold back funds, and they’d “suspend publication” for a couple of months at a time — once, most disastrously, over the three summer months, the very time when Berlin got most of its English-language tourist trade, and thus, a perfect opportunity for advertisers. In late 1996, though, they’d convinced Metropolis‘ editor, Kevin Cote, to join Zitty as editor-in-chief, and he handed the magazine over to me. I made a couple of changes: the magazine became free, thereby freeing it from having to compete for space with newsstands which hated to display non-Turkish and non-Russian foreign-language publications; and editorial focus was redirected from tourists, never a stable market, to residents.

Having taken our editor, though, Zitty lost all interest in the magazine, and killed it after two issues. Oh, excuse me, “suspended publication.” Weirdly, the two issues I’d put out, with the free distribution network still in its infancy, made money, something the magazine had never done in its earlier incarnations. I was plenty angry about the “suspension,” and announced that the next editorial meeting would take place as scheduled, with an eye towards continuing English-language magazine publication in Berlin. Out of this grew a project known as the Berlin Information Group (BIG), one of whose elements was a newsprint magazine called b. The other elements, and the story of how and why it failed, aren’t part of what I’m focusing on, though.

The two big changes at Metropolis remain essential to the success of a magazine like this today. And yes, I mean magazine. Webpages are great, blogs are great, but even though you can read the web on your cell phone on the U-Bahn, do you really want to? I’m still convinced that a well-designed magazine with great graphics is a fine thing, portable, browsable, and, if it’s free, disposable without guilt. (You do recycle, don’t you?)

Making the magazine free puts a larger burden on the ad staff to get ads (and another burden on the editorial staff not to go all advertorial, which seems a temptation too many yield to these days), but it also means you can target your distribution points far more precisely, and hit your readers where they actually exist. I remember seeing Checkpoint in U-Bahn kiosks, forced upon them by the Zitty distribution guy. Nobody looked twice at them. If you try to sell the magazine at your distribution points — English-language cinemas, bookstores, video rentals, bars, restaurants, etc. — you’re asking each merchant to keep track of each copy sold and segregate the proceeds from his own intake. Fahgeddaboudit. Running a business is hard enough without that kind of headache. Free is free. And free means a huge number of them get picked up and a huge percentage of them get read. Work out the economics of the advertising — we actually had people approaching us at b towards the end of our three-month run, so anxious were they to reach our readership — and keep it free.

The second point, though, is far more subtle, and the one we had the hardest time making the few prospective investors understand. Locals, approached with our projections, would trot out the figures from the Ausl

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