Independence, slowness & difference

Session 5 - Steve Watson 2024

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

Steve Watson has a very unusual job. Through his company Stack, he sells subscriptions to magazines. Not one magazine: lots of them. “Every month,” he says, his subscribers get “a different independent magazine.” These are magazines that they ordinarily wouldn’t have known existed, let alone read. Such is the cultish appeal of the service that subscribers send in photographs of the magazines they get – with a certain amount of background showing off in terms of workstations, coffees and cats. “they’ve always done that, but we started to encourage it. Each month we decide on the best picture and the winner gets a Stack t-shirt. You can’t buy these T-shirts; you have to win them.”

An example of the sort of fare subscribers expect is, for instance, the English-language Estonian magazine A Shave Colder (chksp) – which, as Steve says, gives a fascinating sense of how Estonian creatives are responding to living next door to the threat from a resurgent Russia. What Steve says he’s noticed is that these independent magazines are “terrible at lots of things… they’re very bad at reaching a large number of people. But they’re very good at connecting in a deep way with their readers.” And by virtue of being magazines they have something special too. “Reading books is hard,” he says, referencing the forbidding block of text as against the cheery pull-quotes, headlines and pictorial content in a mag. “A magazine is your friend.”

Steve sees what he sends his subscribers as being in a lineage. The world’s first magazine, The Gentleman’s Magazine, was published in January 1731. Before the days of copyright, this was a “magpie-style” proposition that “took a bunch of stuff from elsewhere and republished it”. The original edition “looks like a boring old book” but when you read it, it’s recognisably connected to what we read today. Its publisher Edward Cave was interested in nicking all the best bits; and in titillating his audience with accounts of witch-trials and the horrible punishments meted out to “vile malefactors from Newgate”. It used the word “magazine” as a military metaphor: it was giving its readers conversational ammunition. Steve worked on the lad mag FHM in the year 2000: “Our idea was to find the funniest, cleverest, craziest things you could impress your mates with down the pub”; Cave was doing the same thing for his readers – except it was a coffee-house, not a pub.

Yet as much as it speaks to us, it remains in its design and its format very much of its time. Books, and works of art, can transcend their own era, Steve argues. But a magazine it fixed in its own age. And that’s part of its attraction.

Now he’s been doing Stack for 16 years. The website gives you a gallery of the covers of every magazine that they’ve sent subscribers, with links to interviews with the editors or publishers talking about why they do what they do. And in that time, Steve says, he has found three big commonalities

The first is independence.

The example he gives is the German photography mag Der Greif, which each issue solicits images on a theme and allows the juxtapositions to create new meanings. What he didn’t realise the month it was going to be the Stack offer is that that issue’s theme was “images too extreme or too personal to post on the internet”. [Ripple of laughter from Offgrid audience.] Steve was dismayed when he saw it – there was “a lot of nudity, sexual stuff, some dead bodies, and though there wasn’t actual violence, it was…” He said, “Stack is meant to be a surprise for our reasders… but it’s supposed to be a good surprise.” Anxiously, he wrote to subscribers explaining in some detail what was in the magazine, and posted a Google form to make sure that ever subscriber would have to click a button to acknowledge having been forewarned to actively opt in. 

“I thought I’d done it wrong. I’d never seen a Google form going up in fives and tens before…” It turned out that his subscribers were gagging to see all this filth. Interestingly, the issue had been edited by a former Facebook content moderator – someone whose job had been to sit in a room all day looking at the most extreme images and voting thumbs up or thumbs down. The mag was published according to Facebook standards — all the thumbs down images were one way up, and the thumbs up images the other way up.

That made a telling point about a pervasive censorship model that nobody every asked for, says Steve. And there’s one of the joys of a print magazine: you can publish anything within the law, and Meta doesn’t get to decide whether it’s suitable.

The second thing that these independent print magazines can do in counterpoint to the digital age is slowness.

As an example, he mentioned the magazine Delayed Gratification: a tri-monthly publication whose brief is to go back and report on the recent past after the dust has settled – reporting on things six months ago rather than six minutes ago. 

Slowness of a different form, he says, is exemplified by Pilot, a mag where “every issue is completely different” but the one he showed the audience had a peculiar trifold binding that separated text from images, and dispensed with page numbers, entirely. Steve thought this was crazy at first – but then he realised it was a deliberate strategy to undo the traditional magazine furniture designed to help you browse and flick. Here, in the age of continuous partial attention, was what has been called an “encalming technology”. 

And finally, what these magazines all share is difference.

Their editors and publishers – be they of second-hand-fashion mags like the excellently named Mildew or the even more excellently named Offal (literary off-cuts) — are interested in doing something that they couldn’t find anyone else doing anywhere else. They were pursuing passions.

The magazine he closed on was Al Hayya, a woman’s magazine published in Beirut that uses the visual grammar of a fashion magazine to smuggle in serious content about women’s lives, freedoms and sexuality in the Arab world. Its content is simultaneously both in English and Arabic – the former reading front to back; the latter back to front. It’s a magazine designed to sit on the table at the hairdresser, and to give its readers a bit more than celebrity gossip. In the age of the smartphone and social media, the magazines that Stack showcases indicate that there’s life in dead trees yet.

Key Takeaways

1) Independent print magazines can do something books can’t

2) Independent print magazines can do something the internet won’t let you

3) The tastes of Stack subscribers are, as Christan Grey would say, unconventional…