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Yes, Offscreen (too) has a diversity problem

Posted on Sep 21 2015 in Thoughts

A few weeks ago, when I was still in the middle of wrestling through the content for issue No12, there was a point when I realised that the line-up on the cover would be uncomfortably homogeneous: Everyone is white. Five blokes, one woman. I once again hadn’t delivered on my own promise of promoting diversity. And it weirdly snuck up on me, too.

About a month prior to that I had confirmed an encouraging list of three women and three men, all of whom had assured me that they were interested and would be able to make time for an interview. All of my candidates seemed excited to be on the cover of a print magazine. But, of course, it didn’t take long for my hopes of finally getting a more balanced line-up to crumble.

When people drop out, they usually don’t email me with a clear “Sorry, I can’t do it!”. I understand that everyone is really busy. So part of my process is that I frequently I follow up via email and Twitter over several weeks, treading the fine line between reminding them of deadlines and being too pushy. Typically I get “I’m on it!” or “I will start this weekend!” responses until eventually they either send me a brief note (“Too busy after all, sorry!”) or they simply stop replying.

That’s the reality of doing long-form interviews over the internet. The line-up I had worked so hard on fell through once again. (In fact, there was a moment when it was unclear whether Ariel Waldman would be able to finish the interview, which would have meant that we’d be left with 100% dudes on the cover.) With more than half of my line-up not responding, I was already running late and getting really anxious about it all. You may remember my blog post about being stuck in The Swamp. Well, that was it.

Of course, after 11 issues I somewhat anticipated these problems so I already had a list of folks I contacted to ‘fill in’. But telling busy people that you want to do a 5000-word interview and an extensive photoshoot with them on short notice often results in nothing but a friendly 'maybe we can make it work for the next issue’. And so I frantically went through my contacts and my contacts’ contacts to find worthy replacements…

Putting together an issue of Offscreen means that I’m trying to simultaneously steer about 50 contributors and photographers towards a common deadline. During that intense six-week process of gathering, producing and editing content I have to make constant changes to the original list of contributors. And so when I finally emerged from that stressful and nerve-racking process in early August, I sadly realised that after all the dropouts and changes I had to make, diversity took another backseat. (In all fairness, while the cover is pretty 'white and male’, across the entire issue the ratio looks better: out of 30 contributors 17 are men and 13 are women).

The above is a long-winded way of saying ‘sorry I let you down’. I received a few tweets and emails since launching issue No12 that rightly pointed out the lack of diversity on the cover of Offscreen. No12 is not the only issue in which white guys took over the line-up. It happens more often than I like to admit. There are some issues where I managed to do better, like issue No9 and No10, but overall there is still much room for improvement.

I’ve talked about this problem in previous blog posts, but I wanted to summarise my thoughts here once again and hopefully get some more feedback and ideas from you, my readers.

“It’s almost always just white, successful dudes? What about women and ethnic diversity?”

I hope my little explainer on the process above showed that I really am trying hard. I don’t take this topic lightly. Every single issue I struggle filling even one interview slot with a woman. For some issues I had between two and four women lined up and ready to go, but – you guessed it – they all dropped out or stopped replying. Of course, being busy and dropping out is not unique to female contributors, but the scarcity of women in our industry makes finding a replacement on short notice that much more difficult.

Many of you have written to me with a list of names – folks that don’t fit the typical caucasian stereotype. I follow up an every suggestion. Many of those suggestions read like this: “You should check out XYZ, she’s doing some amazing design work for [company]!” or “XYZ just got funding for this cool app last week. You should interview her!” or “Have you seen this talk by XYZ? She’s the CTO at [company] and has lots of experience in scalability.”

Unfortunately, I’m not just after amazing designers or talented coders or well-funded entrepreneurs. There is a huge amount of talent out there, and everyone is doing crazy cool stuff. But what I’m after is a person with a very interesting and inspiring life story. People that have done a lot of different things and have insights and opinions that are uniquely inspiring – and, most importantly, they need to be able to express these opinions in an elegant and thoughtful way. Plus, their work needs to be related to the web and technology because that’s what Offscreen is all about. Once they fulfil all of these criteria, there is another big hurdle: they need to be accessible enough to actually do an interview with me and a shoot with a photographer, and reserve enough time to make it a great piece. The thing about interesting people is that they are often very busy.

When it comes to women in particular, I also get a lot of emails suggesting the same names over and over again. There are a few dozen women that have been interviewed numerous times on various blogs, in podcasts, and in business magazines. Unintentionally, they’ve become the idealised prototypes of 'successful women in tech’. Without taking anything away from their success, I just don’t want to reprint the same interview over and over again just for the sake of a better ratio. It seems to me that most of the media landscape is struggling with finding a fairer ratio, and so you see a lot of familiar faces pop up again and again.

Add to the above my own personal preference of the type of people/stories I want to feature in Offscreen. As an avid reader you will know that I value independent makers and projects that have the potential for positive impact on our lives. Sure, I occasionally feature projects that are just fun to hear about (like that beer-brewing robot or 3D-printed jewellery), but overall I like ideas that challenge the status quo in a meaningful way. I simply can’t get excited about projects in the fashion or beauty space, for instance. With the risk of falling in the prejudice trap, based on my own research and the many suggestions I get, there are a lot of female entrepreneurs (especially in the US) that try to innovate in these areas. Frankly, it’s just not what the magazine is about. Note that I’m not saying that all women work in fashion and beauty. I am saying there are a lot of tech success stories about women in those fields.

Lastly, I want to add that apart from emails reminding me of more women, I also get a lot of requests from people in non-English speaking countries that add to the complexity. “Why don’t you feature more people from France?”, “Hey, there are awesome apps being developed in Lithuania! Why are all these people in your magazine from the US and UK?!”, “You know, Asia has the internet too!” There are various reasons why featuring more non-native-English speakers is difficult. Most of them have to do with language barriers and fitting translations into the already tight schedule and budget. Also, finding a reliable photographer in places like Nairobi or Mumbai is harder than you think.

I also briefly want to address a specific question I received recently: “Why don’t you put more photos of women on your cover?” Choosing a cover photo is pretty tricky – especially if you don’t have a budget to specifically commission cover shoots. Once I have received all photos of our interviewees, there are usually 2-3 shots in total that can actually work on a cover. (I’m not going into details what works and what doesn’t, but it essentially comes down to having a great quality shot with the right angle, light, backdrop and facial expression. It’s not unusual for larger magazines to spend a whole day just shooting a cover photo, something I can’t afford and my interviewees can’t make time for.) Since I’ve so far always only had one female interviewee in the line-up, the chances of getting a great photo of her are slim. I worked with Helena Price for the shoot of Ariel Waldman in issue 12, and as Helena can attest I specifically pointed out that I’d love to feature Ariel on the cover. But as it often is the case, Ariel is a busy person and time was limited, so we only got a small selection of photos, none of which I thought would have made for a great cover. In the end, it purely comes down to 'getting lucky’ with the photoshoot. So obviously, if I manage to tackle the overall diversity problem, my covers should become more diverse too.

I just came back from XOXO in Portland and I was very impressed with the diversity there – amongst attendees and speakers. I said before that organising conferences and making a magazine share similar challenges when it comes to a diverse line-up. But there are also differences.

Doing an extensive interview about someone’s life story is different to giving an inspiring talk on making great comics or creating a lively Youtube audience. Many of my friends are public speakers and while I very much admire their work and their expertise in a particular field, I wouldn’t necessarily consider them for a long interview. Again, there is a difference between being talented and having an inspiring story to tell that spans personal and professional topics.

(XOXO definitely featured some people that fit the bill. I tried to introduced myself to many of them while I was there and will follow up with them soon. Fingers crossed!)

With issue No12, my budget finally allowed me to get some help with finding and organising contributors. My editorial assistant Ivana has already been very helpful and a big reminder to continue to work on improving diversity. However, I think after just one issue she’s also come to realise that it’s harder than it seems from the outside.

Finally, I want to be clear that I fully understand that the onus is on me to improve diversity. ‘Receiving bad suggestions’ is not an excuse. However, Offscreen is still pretty much a tiny one-man operation. In order to make this publication a sustainable full-time job for me, I need to at least release three issues per year. With the current process, this gives me around six weeks to gather content and conduct interviews. As I’ve hopefully shown, my heart is in the right place (really, I get it!), I just often struggle to make good on the promise. And to be honest, I have no idea whether I will succeed with issue No13. But you can be sure that I’ll continue to try my best…

If you do want to help (thank you!), here’s how: instead of a whole list of people, please think about just one amazing person who you think fits the following criteria:

  • she/he has an interesting career and life with lots of unique insights and a great story to tell that would inspire our readers
  • the web/technology is a crucial part of what she/he does
  • she/he is accessible via email and is most likely able to make time for an extensive interview and photoshoot

If you know someone you think would inspire our readers through a long, intimate interview, please send over their name and any links that help me find out more about them (interviews, videos, podcasts, etc).

Feel free to also send any suggestions or feedback you have on the topic. Thanks for your support of Offscreen, despite its imperfections. :)

UPDATE: Since writing this post I’ve received a lot of emails. It seems easier to do a ‘reply-all’ through a brief update here...

I was told that some companies are only willing to sponsor events if x per cent of their speaker line-up is female. Apparently there are recruiting agencies that have specialised in placing women at companies where the workforce is at least x per cent female. To me (yes, as a guy) having these sorts of forced quotas in place seems kind of counter-productive. Nobody wants to feel that they were invited as a speaker or hired in a new job purely because of their gender or the colour of their skin. In both cases, the onus is on the event organiser and the employer to create an inclusive, welcoming environment.

Up until this post, I have never kept exact count of how many men vs. women or caucasian vs. people of colour I have in an issue. Of course, I always wanted to have a more balanced and more diverse pool of contributors, but to me it was never about hitting an exact target.

My biggest concern about Offscreen has always been that it (unintentionally) becomes a mouthpiece of Silicon Valley’s digital elite. No doubt, some of the most talented and forward-thinking people can be found in the larger San Francisco area, but it’s also a massive echo chamber that in many ways has lost touch to how the rest of the world functions. I truly admire some of the ideas and creativity coming out of Silicon Valley and, as my readers will know, I happily include many of them in Offscreen. However, I have always put a lot of effort into also covering stories that have nothing to do with what’s currently trending on TechCrunch.

The startup that 3D-prints orthotic braces for kids, an India-based organisation that helps the poor with setting up their first savings account through their mobile, or a non-profit that hopes to reform tech education across the UK putting an emphasis on kids with a migration background – these are stories of and about diversity. They are stories by people with many different backgrounds affecting all ethnicities and genders in many countries around the globe. I’d like to think that presenting these stories does more to promote diversity than simply adding two more women to my interview line-up in order to make Offscreen look more diverse. Can a powerful story about the lack of funding in education – told by a white guy – contribute more to this discussion than an interview with an award-winning female designer? If the goal of the diversity debate is to empower minority groups, I believe the message is often more important than the messenger.

With all that said, I totally understand that women and people of minority groups face many challenges in having their voices heard that others just don’t. And that’s why I think it’s important to make an extra effort to reach out to women and people in those minority groups and to provide a safe and inclusive environment for them to share their stories (which is one of my core values. I did and I will continue to do exactly that, as I’ve described above. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t yield more results, but it’s not because of a lack of trying. If it was just about a better ratio and if I didn’t mind pretending that all is well in the tech world, I would have had a very balanced line-up from issue no1.

Resources for mag makers

Posted on Sep 10 2015 in Production

People often ask me what resources I can recommend for fledgling magazine makers. So here’s a list of sites and services that helped me when I got started and some others I discovered in the years that followed.

magCulture
Probably the most popular and most established blog about everything magazine related. I admire Jeremy Leslie’s persistence and devotion to the subject matter. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram too.

Stack Magazines
Stack is a service that sends you a random indie magazine every month. The guy behind it, Steve Watson, is also extremely knowledgable about magazines and runs a very lively blog and Twitter account with lots of mag reviews and insightful interviews.

Magpile
An online community all about magazines. Create a digital database of your own physical mag collection, follow other mag lovers, buy or sell issues and generally discover great publications (maybe by their covers?. I love what Dan is doing with Magpile! Make sure to also check out his podcast MagHeroes for interviews with publishers and his new tool for managing subscriptions, Subsail.

Magazine Wall
A Tumblr with thousands of magazine covers.

The Publishing Playbook
Hüman After All is a London-based creative agency with a lot of publishing experience (having created titles like Little White Lies and more recently Weapons of Reason. They’ve launched numerous publications in the past and have compiled their experience in this open and free Google document that is collaboratively edited by lots of other folks in the publishing community. Definitely check this out if you’re thinking of starting a magazine!

Monocle’s The Stack
The Stack is a weekly podcast dedicated to the world of magazines, often hosted by Tyler Brûlé himself.

Lynda Video Tutorials
If you’re a total noob like I was and don’t even know how to use Indesign or how colour management works (who the hell knows!?), you can use an online video tutorial service like Lynda to learn the necessary basics.

Editorial Design Inspiration
I collect the occasional editorial design inspiration in this collection. Other great resources for editorial design are Designspiration and Behance. Though, the best inspiration comes from buying the actual magazines.

Heftwerk
Heftwerk is a network of Berlin-based services for magazine makers (printer and shipper, mostly) that I helped create. I use these services to print and ship my own magazine and because they’ve now done this with several indie titles the process is getting a lot smoother. Get in touch with them to get a quote, and if you don’t mind, please tell them that you heard of them through me.

Indie Publishing Club
This is a simple Facebook group I created to help indie publishers connect and share ideas/challenges. It’s a member-only thing, and for the sake of keeping the discussion on topic, I only give access to existing publishers of print titles. So once you’ve got a first issue, make sure to join us!

Last, but not least, a reminder to keep browsing. I've written down most of my successes and failures on this blog. They might save you some mistakes. Also highly recommended, my Medium post Indie Magonomics.

IndieCon Hamburg

Posted on Sep 02 2015 in Thoughts, News

In case you haven’t heard, IndieCon is a two-day conference happening in Hamburg, Germany where magazine makers (some international, but most from Germany) meet to discuss the challenges and opportunities around independent print publishing. It’s an event that targets industry ‘insiders’, with a mix of existing publishers (small and large), aspiring publishers and some general media folks. This year, the organisers added an additional third day and a public element to it: the Indie Mag Day – a flea-market-style trade zone for anyone to discover, buy, and swap magazines of all kinds.

IndieCon has only happened twice, but it’s quickly become one of my favourite events of the year. Malte, Urs, Arne and all the friendly volunteers behind it have created something very special. They realised that there is no existing platform for this new wave of indie magazine makers to connect. IndieCon provides this platform in a smart, unpretentious way, while cheekily telling the larger media world to take note. It manages to briefly put the spotlight on the hidden creativity that can be found in small publishing projects. Thank you for putting on a great event, guys!

For me, it was the added Indie Mag Day on Sunday that made the event extra special. Set in an old, run-down warehouse, publishers and stockists presented hundreds of magazines – from small local zines to larger international titles. And what would have been an amazing event for being able to meet likeminded publishers alone, the massive turnout of curious readers, buyers and collectors made it all the more successful for everyone involved. There was an extremely positive vibe in the air: finally, a place for magazine aficionados to geek out!

Just like last year, I had many wonderful conversations throughout the weekend. I met a lot of smart, creative people and learned a few things about magazine making along the way. There were two points of discussion that came up several times – on and off stage – that I want to briefly comment on here:

The first has to do with substance. Some people – mostly journalists and publishers working for the more established/traditional media outlets – are still lamenting over independent magazines having no substance. They call them ‘pretty objects’ with nothing to say. Designers shouldn’t be in charge of making a magazine, they say. It seems that in their eyes every publication has to invoke some deep and meaningful socio-critical debate. It’s this view that was the main message of last year’s keynote by Oliver Gehrs, too.

Ok, look. While I personally think some indie mags do in fact make that statement on society, most indie mags do not claim to be journalistic masterpieces, nor do they want to critically analyse [insert big issue of our time]. Many of us really just want to explore a topic we feel ‘passionate’ about. We hope to be able to gather enough people around us that feel the same way and then connect through shared interests. Some people do that through an online forum, a Snapchat channel or a conference – we do it through a magazine.

Why are so many journalists and other literary folk convinced that their medium of choice deserves ‘more substance’? Most of us seem to be OK with magazines on fishing, golf, boating or gadgets being sold on newsstands (with no apparent reason to exist other than to serve their specific interest group). Yet, as soon as a small team of designers or travellers or food enthusiasts experiment with the printed format as an outlet for their interests and ideas, some call it overdesigned fluff.

The print industry, especially the more commercial side of it, is in the midst of a massive upheaval. I can understand that it feels threatened by us. But if I was a professional journalist, I’d be much more worried about the digital world depreciating my job than a bunch of indie magazine makers. So, can we move on from this debate, please?

The second thing I heard people voice their concerns about is the idea of commercial success and how money inevitably impacts editorial decisions.

Yes, there is obviously a moral debate about where advertising can and can’t go. It’s a debate that’s been going on forever. However, too often I hear publishers say that they ‘hope to figure out’ the commercial side of it all later, after they produced a couple of issues. While I can understand the self-sacrificing enthusiasm of my publisher comrades (been there!), one of the many challenges of making a magazine is to make a business case for it. If you don’t plan on making it financially viable somehow, there is little reason for making a magazine in the first place.

That’s why I’m slightly critical towards using Kickstarter as a way to fund new magazines. Because more important than the initial funding is a business plan or a commercial strategy (whatever you want to call it) that outlines how the mag is going to survive long enough to build a loyal, ongoing readership.

Let’s not forget that magazines and print publishing in general have always had a commercial element. It’s one of the many loose ends we need to figure out in publishing. The great thing is that, as indies, we don’t need to adhere to traditional business models. We can experiment, try out new ideas and explore new opportunities in order to, yes, make money from all the hard work we put in. So, don’t be shy to ask for money. Stop feeling dirty when talking about money. And most of all, don’t put off thinking about money until it’s too late.

By the way, by no means do I claim to have figured it all out! Making Offscreen viable is still a challenge, but from issue No1 I had a clear idea, a goal, of how I wanted to finance the magazine with the result that my current sponsorship model and a fairly high cover price seem to work – work well enough to make more issues and not starve to death doing so.

Reading War and Peace on an iPhone

Posted on Jul 12 2015 in Snippets

I used to own first a Kindle, then an iPad Mini. I sold both devices several years ago because I simply didn’t use them enough. Nowadays, whenever I feel like reading some long-form stuff on the go, I do it on my iPhone 6. The experience is certainly incomparable to reading longer pieces in paper form. I really struggle to focus. I find my hands cramping up and my neck going stiff. I once tried reading a book on my iPhone (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, through the Kindle app) and I only got to around page 50 before abandoning the idea.

Clive Thompson must have seen it as a challenge. He committed to reading – purely on his mobile phone – one of the longest and hardest books out there: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which in its paperback form has no less than 1296 pages. He summarised his experience in this lengthy and insightful article that contains some really interesting observations around physical vs. digital books.

On distractions

I certainly wrestled with social distractions. Your phone is, as I’ve often joked, not really so much a “phone” as a “portal through which five or six gigantic multinational firms fight for your attention so they can sell you advertising.” For services like Facebook and Twitter, distraction is central to the business model.

To focus on Tolstoy, I had to be much more “mindful.” I had to start paying attention to my attention, to notice my own urges to peek at Twitter or email, so that I could decide to actively ignore them, instead of responding with a Pavolovian lunge for the app.

On the design/usability of real books

Bookmakers have spent hundreds of years patiently tweaking their design for maximum usability and loveliness. In the early years following the Gutenberg explosion, books were, by modern standards, surprisingly weird and unusable. They often had no paragraph breaks, no page numbers, no indexes — none of the features we typically use to navigate and orient ourselves in a book. It took a long time to arrive at their elegant modern design.(...)

Today’s digital books do not give you the nearly-sensual, visual sense of “where” something is in a book. We remember bits of a book not just by the words, but how they looked on the page — where they were located, how our hands lay next to them.

On the seriousness of real books

Some new research into the nature of reading suggests an intriguing reason we remember more from print books than digital ones: It’s because we expect print to be intellectually engaging. We approach it with an orientation that “this is serious business,” in a way that we don’t when we read on a screen.

To be fair, he’s also highlighting some interesting benefits of reading the book in digital, so his review is not just an anthem for the good old paper format. To find out what he prefers, you should read the article.

Drudging through The Swamp

Because our ideas tend to be conceptually challenging and often completely new to us, we spend a lot of time in that ‘middle part’ of development, which I like to call The Swamp. It’s when we’re trying out a lot of different ideas, with lots of temporary art and half-baked code and even halfer-baked design. And because of that, the game feels, looks, and plays like total garbage for probably the longest chunk of development. When we’re in The Swamp, visible progress slows down and it feels very much like you’re suddenly crawling through sludge, each step forward requiring great effort to dislodge from the dense goo of bugs, broken ideas, technical hurdles, and self-doubt.

We spend a lot of time in The Swamp, and I still haven’t discovered a way to circumvent it. During this part of the development process I usually feel awful and I doubt my work. Everything is a total, hideous mess and the end of the project is impossible to see. The only way to proceed is to just go to work every day and move the project forward bit by bit, until one day, you suddenly look back and realise that you left The Swamp behind you. After fixing a million little things, at one point you inevitably look at your work and it suddenly doesn’t make you cringe or have an anxiety attack. That’s usually when we start pushing towards the finish line.

This is an excerpt from my interview with Kris Piotrowski in issue 11. Kris runs an indie game studio, something I have a lot of admiration and respect for. And I also have a lot of empathy for being stuck in The Swamp.

In fact, I’m working on the content of the new issue and I feel like I’m neck-deep in The Swamp at the moment. I can’t seem to be moving forward, no matter how hard I’m trying. It’s really frustrating and just like Kris, it’s one of the few things I really hate about this job.

It’s been a tough week. Here’s to a better, less swampish one. Enjoy your weekend folks!

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