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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.

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.

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!

On Growth

It was some time between issue No8 and No9 that I became a little more comfortable. I was preparing my quarterly business activity statement for my accountant, sitting at one of my regular cafés in Melbourne. Crunching numbers isn’t one of my strengths, but I don’t mind doing the necessary admin work. After all, as a sole trader I should keep an eye on how well (or badly) I’m doing, right? I realised then and there that I’m doing just fine. Not amazingly well, but not too badly either. I could order another coffee with confidence, for sure.

But having earned a little more money that quarter compared to the previous one was not what made me feel comfortable. It was the following thought process and the answer I arrived at.

For most entrepreneurs, the idea of having to do better this month than last is constantly on their mind. If you spend much of your working day online like I do, you’re frequently reminded of how much everyone focuses on getting bigger and more profitable. Growth hackers. Content marketing. IPOs. Everyone is chasing the hockey stick. And everyone is anxious about being left behind.

I get a lot of “How is the magazine going?”-type of questions when I meet readers in real life. I always wish I had some astounding numbers to report. How the magazine subscribers have quadrupled in the last quarter. How the new issue sold out over night. How I’m struggling to hire enough people in order to keep up with demand. It’s what we’ve come to expect from internet success stories. But that’s not the truth in Offscreen’s case.

The truth is that Offscreen has seen very slow growth. I started with 3000 copies and it took me 11 issues to justify a 5000 print-run. The truth is that some issues do better than others depending on a range of factors, none of which seem very predictable. The truth is that the magazine still doesn’t make enough money to hire more than a few temporary freelancers. (More on that in coming blog posts).

I love going back to an essay in issue No7 titled “Human Scale”, written by fellow Australian and Icelab co-founder Michael Honey. He writes:

‘It doesn’t scale’ is a criticism levelled at many new ideas. (…) But how many things which are good when small get better by becoming bigger? (…) Humans are good at family, middling at community, dysfunctional as nations, and self-destructive as a planet. What doesn’t scale is our ability to relate to each other as human beings instead of target markets — as eyeballs to monetise.

And then there is this recent interview with Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk fame in which he talks about being proud of staying small:

We’re not growing a hockey-stick growth, but we’re growing enough. We’re building that fan base and are in it for the long haul, so I’m able to keep it really small and handle every part of the business or almost every part of the business, which does limit me on the creative side sometimes. I can’t release a hundred products every year. I can’t speak at dozens of conferences. I have to limit everything I do. (…) But I’m okay with all those things right now. I choose to keep it small, to keep it lean, to keep this business profitable where it is. (…) I’m much more focused on building that tribe of core followers that cares about what I do, than having ten thousand, one hundred thousand, or one million people that kind of like the cool shirt today, and then they totally forget about it tomorrow.

So here I am, working long days (and sometimes sleepless nights) to make a thing with a growth trajectory slightly more optimistic than the mom-and-pop shop down the road. And I’m finally ok with it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind growing, but I do mind growing for growth’s sake, which is what seems to happen a lot with tech companies these days.

There is a saying that you only need 1000 true fans to make a living from your work. Going through my reader database I can recognise almost all of my ‘true fans’ because we are in touch regularly via email, Twitter, Instagram or in real life when we finally meet at conferences. There is something quite beautiful in knowing your core readers personally and establishing an honest feedback loop that helps improve the magazine with every issue.

So the ‘answer’ I arrived at is the following question: as long as I can make a decent living, create work I’m (mostly) proud of, and get so much heartfelt feedback from people I respect, why add the pressures and headaches that come from chasing mainstream success?

Love it or leave it.

Posted on Apr 16 2015 in Thoughts

Earlier today I tweeted “Officially reached the point where I cringe when I see the words passion and work in the same sentence.” Let me explain.

These days, where everyone has an opinion and way too many tools to express it, we love to focus on easily sharable quips of advice that seem to summarise the mood of the moment.

“Love what you do.” “Find your passion.”

I’ve made use of them myself for the little gimmicks I add to Offscreen, and in theory there is nothing wrong with a motivational poster on your wall. But there are particular messages I come across again and again, and each time they feel shallower and duller. The words ‘love’, ‘passion’, and ‘work’ (in any possible combination) follow me everywhere I go online.

Like Rachel Nabors explains in Offscreen issue No10 (also online here), these statements oversimplify the complexity of reality. We’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, especially when we preach it to the young, the up-and-coming generation of creatives.

It suggests that you are no longer allowed to just have a job. You must show passion in everything you do. You must love your profession, otherwise it’s not worth pursuing. If you don’t feel it, you have failed.

Our chantable slogans also create an illusion that we will reach a particular point where happiness sets in and everything else magically falls into place.

In reality, even if you do finally get paid for making knitted tea cup sleeves, chances are that you’re not going to be passionately pursuing that career for the next 25 years. And then what? You are back to square one.

I enjoy making Offscreen. I really do. But let’s be honest, it’s a love affair that will eventually come to an end. What happens next, I do not know. I might have to do some hard yakka I don’t particular enjoy so I can afford my overpriced coffee and take care of the bills. Heck, maybe I even have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. In that situation I think the last thing I need is a reminder that I’m doing it all wrong, because I don’t lie awake at night thinking about my work.