Independence: Rob Alderson

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The eighth interview from the ‘Independence’ book features Rob Alderson, who at the time was editor-in-chief at Its Nice That, responsible for the website and biannual magazine Printed Pages. Jeremy discusss the role of these two  channels and how they can work together.

Jeremy: The starting point of the It’s Nice That website is largely quite, I wouldn’t say uncritical, but as the name itself implies, there’s a generally positive spin – it’s finding stuff that you like and sharing it. Does the magazine do something a little bit more in depth?
Rob: Yes. And I think that was one of the challenges in re-naming the magazine. For a long time there was this confusion about what the site was trying to do and what the magazine was trying to do. They were called the same thing, but people weren’t used to picking something up with It’s Nice That’s branding on it and finding a 2,500 interview with the wife of an Alzheimer-suffering photographer, that wasn’t the kind of thing we were known for.

I think what’s different from the people you’ve been talking to in this series is that Printed Pages is just one part of what we do, we have all these other things: an events program, a design studio, the It’s Nice That website. Some of you will be aware of Jaden Smith, this pop culture phenomenon. Jaden Smith for me is a really interesting example because Jaden Smith can’t forget that he’s Will Smith’s son. The two are linked and there is this relationship, but Jaden Smith is now starting to become an entity in his own right. I think that’s what we were trying to do with Printed Pages, a little bit. We wanted it to be recognisably It’s Nice That and to not jar with It’s Nice That in terms of tone or values. But we wanted it to have its own identity.

The magazine tends to focus on long-form writing, when a lot of magazines will have a mixture. They’ll have some busier parts, some smaller parts, news-y parts, and all that is obviously taken care of by the website, so it frees you up to concentrate on the longer stuff.
Yeah, but it brings with it its own challenges. What we’ve worked very hard to do with the latest issue is to look at that rhythm a little more: we had lots of long-form pieces, one after the other, we felt it had become a little bit… it lacked a bit of finesse. So we have put in short pieces for our own standards, 300, 400 words.

And they’re more opinion-orientated?
Yeah, someone wrote an essay about how boring watching the creative process is. We’ve got a piece on the strange world of private views. We want to mix it up, it’s a challenge we’re aware of, but we do want to focus on long form stuff. We also understand that we want it to be a reading experience that has peaks and troughs and a pace to it.

Do the same people work across the website and the magazine?
Yeah absolutely. I think that’s where we get that continuity of tone. We made a decision a couple of years ago that rather than focus on freelance contributors and pitching out and commissioning in work, we were going to build an editorial team that we felt could work across print and online. I think we’ve developed people who are equally at home with writing a 150 word newsy piece about graphic design as they are writing a 2,000 word article about erotic photography, or whatever it might be.

That again was a very deliberate choice. Like I say, when we speak to people anecdotally and when we talk to It’s Nice That readers the thing that always comes back to us is the tone. It’s a hard tone to pick up I think if you’re a freelance writer. It is something that – I make it sound like a cult here – it is something we buy into and understand, we’ve all drunk the kool-aid if you like.

Presumably, the It’s Nice That website itself is a self-sustaining business through ads. Does Printed Pages have pay it’s own way?
Yes. It was a decision we made in that year off, there’s a really cool, fun, slightly glamorous side of working for a magazine. You get to give talks in cool places and go on interesting press trips, but then there is this really dull, unglamorous side, looking at lots of spread sheets and working out how on earth you’re going to pay for issue two after issue one, and it’s really important that you do that stuff early on.

We made a decision early on that we wanted Printed Pages not to be bankrolled to any other part of the business. Every part of the business has to be self-sufficient and stand on its own two feet, and I think otherwise you get an odd relationship between say the time you’re spending on the website as opposed to the magazine, if one is bankrolling the other then that can all get a bit confusing and a bit messy. It’s a huge frustration. We’re lucky at It’s Nice That, we get sent a whole load of magazines when they come out. You see them and you flick through them and you think, this is really exciting. But then you never hear from them again. Maybe they get to issue two, but they don’t go any further.

I think today there is this side of magazine making that isn’t why people get into wanting to make magazines. It isn’t about the passion and enthusiasm, it’s about crunching numbers. As I mentioned, right at the start we had this price in mind and we worked everything back from there.

If those sums hadn’t worked, if we’d sat down and gone, well, we can only put a magazine out for £15, that would have been a really difficult conversation about whether we should actually do a magazine, because that was anti-the ethos we wanted it to have.

I’ve seen you speak a couple of times and you do focus on the hard part of publishing, which I think people who make magazines, unless they’re prodded, tend to avoid. As you say, it’s lovely to stand up in front of an audience and show cool images of a magazine, but there is a very tough side to the business as well.
Yeah, and that’s why I show that slide asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I guess there is an element of passion and those things, you have to really want this thing to exist in the world. But you also have to know why you’re doing it. That’s maybe why that side of the conversation doesn’t get aired very often. It’s the fact that some people might not want to go into those details, I think some people don’t know. Some new magazines you see – they haven’t really thought about it.

They’re learning as they go.
Yes, and we want to encourage that, it’s fantastic people want to make magazines. But to take the food sector for example, independent food magazines, you’ve got Lucky Peach, you’ve got The Gourmand, doing amazing things in food publishing. Then you get a new press release about a new independent food magazine, you’re just like – well, have you thought about where you sit amongst the other two?

With football you’ve got Green Soccer Journal and you’ve got Mundial which came out last summer, Mundial did actually try to do something quite different to what Green Soccer Journal are doing, but then you hear about another football magazine coming out. It’s just about being quite savvy, you have to sell copies and we’re just doing that a bit like that, or a bit like that, then that’s not going to resonate with readers.

During your year off you did a lot of research into the financial and economics of it, but you must also have considered where It’s Nice That, or Printed Pages as it became, sits. Who do you regard as direct competitors?
Well I suppose you put it alongside the magazines that are doing art & design, and illustration, so you’re looking at Disegno, Frieze, Elephant and Wrap. Even Anorak. But even as I’m saying this list they don’t feel like direct competitors.

We thought we saw a gap, that really accessible, really fun and real celebratory side that we wanted to do. We felt confident in that. It was about looking at competitors to see what they were doing, but then really committing to the vision that we had and trying to push that forward. That’s an on-going thing, though – the new issue, one of the things was we had a new art director, and one of his big things was that he felt some of our previous issues have been a bit stiff, in terms of the cover stock and the paper stock. One of his big things was, if we want this to be accessible, we need it to flop open. I think you’ve seen all the issues, and I think you’d agree, this feels like it’s easier to get into in a very literal way. Not just in a tonal one.

You mentioned in your introduction about trying to avoid design that’s for designers. There is a simplification to the layout in the new magazine, suddenly it’s moved into more natural-magazine-area. Whereas before, there were a few little tricks of the type you were talking about.
What we’re very open about is that this is a constant process and reiteration. None of the issues have really looked very much the same, we’re very open about the fact that there are things we’ve done in the past eight issues that we don’t really like now, things that were wrong and that we learned from. This is no different to that.

One of the things we’ve done, is we used to have a lot of two-column, quite small text. A lot of layouts that looked like that. We’ve now played around with the type side quite a bit more in this issue, which is one of those things all coming together which we hope makes a bit of a difference. There is a fine like between annoying design gimmicks and interesting design treatments. We’ve got Tom Moloney from NB studio, he collects these fruit wrappers that oranges are wrapped in crates, and we got them, photographed them as tip-ins. So we’re not Neanderthals about it I think. We can justify those design decisions, and if you can’t, that’s where you start to go wrong. If you look at something and go, why did we do that? Oh because we hoped Matt Willey would see it and think it was cool. If that’s it, then what are we doing?

You receive a lot of magazines at It’s Nice That, we receive a lot at magCulture. Do you worry that this growing independent magazine scene is going to start limiting itself, with new magazines having to look like an ‘independent’?
I think there is definitely that danger. What Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers have done with Fantastic Man is… fantastic. But what you’ve started to see happen is it being aped all over the place. And The Gentlewoman potentially faces a similar kind of issue.

It comes back to, why are you doing what you’re doing, and how are you doing it? Something that’s come out in the last 12 months is Dirty Furniture. It takes a different piece of furniture each issue and then extrapolates all these amazing stories. It’s really creatively done. If people are aware of the danger, it’s easy enough to get around. It’s a certain fear, a ‘Fantastic Man is popular, so we should make it look like Fantastic Man.’ If you look at Dirty Furniture, what Anna Bates and her team have done is to follow a different path. I think that’s super-important. If people are, like I said, not only aware of what’s out there in terms of content but also aware of what things look like out there, you can avoid those pitfalls for sure.

It’s an issue to do with success, isn’t it? As more and more of a spotlight gets turned onto independent publishing and the people that make them, there are also more people coming into it thinking, well, how do I do that? Any successful endeavour has its copyists.
For sure. Those things won’t survive, though. There was the print is dead debate ten years ago, ‘Oh my god, magazines are going to die’, and what actually happened is shit magazines died, and that’s fine. They don’t have the right to exist and they maybe didn’t know why they were printing a magazine – and I think that a similar thing will happen if people are doing a light version of something that already exists. They’re not going to move on. It’s a very small world, it’s a very supportive world.

Danielle Pender from Riposte, who I know you had on yesterday, her and I have had lots of conversations in pubs in Shoreditch about how to edit copy properly and how do you do this and there is a really supportive nature, but there is also a side where people are aware if you’re trying to rip somebody off or even if you’re not deliberately, if you’re going down a path too similar to something else. I think those magazines will get found out. But like I say, I sound so negative – doom mongering, and I’m really not.

Something like Dirty Furniture is fantastic, and Amuseum, Dan Stafford’s new magazine, something like that is super interesting and doesn’t feel like it’s ripping anything off or anything like that. The potential is there to do it, you just have to be savvy and do your research about what else exists.

I get asked by a lot of people, how do I go about doing this? The first thing I always say, and I’m sure you get these questions too, is, if you’re going to go through all the effort – the blood, sweat and tears you described – then make it your own. Don’t just iterate, don’t see something and do it slightly better or slightly different. Go somewhere different.

And the success stories of the magazines that are aping did do that back in the day – something like The Gourmand is a great example. The Gourmand is interesting because when it first began, I wasn’t that impressed. They had this vision and for me it didn’t quite come together until about issue three and then BANG. Suddenly it became one of the most impressive independent magazines out there.

That for me shows, they could have panicked a bit, but they had the confidence and the bought into this vision and decided lets tweak that and lets move that, and they kept going. Now they have this super successful product. It’s easy to forget that those magazines that are now hugely successful – Apartamento is another one – would have had the same struggles at some point. It is about staying true to those values.

And there is an idealism there.
What’s interesting, and we’ve talked about this before, you’re starting to see big brands hook into the independent market. We know people who work in this world who have been commissioned by big brands and it’s interesting. Readers and the magazine world in general are savvy enough to see when somebody is cynically doing something, and actually, when you sit in front of Alec from Intern or Mark from Print Isn’t Dead or Danielle from Riposte, there is that idealism and enthusiasm and slightly manic wide-eyed thing which I think is super exciting and important to have.

It’s hard to fake it. But that’s another sign of the growth of interest and the success of the independent world, the likes of Airbnb now producing their own magazines.
Yes. And they’re using people from this sector; Pineapple, the Airbnb magazine, is edited by Alex Tieghi-Walker who does the Anonymous Sex Journal, a really nice, fun zine. The fact that they’ve gone and got Alex and have taken him into the world… brands will start to do that – there will be a Shoreditch-ification of independent magazines, I think maybe we have to – the guys who are doing it – need to hold on a little bit and make sure we don’t get buffeted around too much by the changes.

Do you know who is reading Printed Pages? Are they the same people that look at the website?
Yeah. I think it’s a 85% crossover. Like I said though, we did do a lot of work with the design and the cover design in particular so that it would jump out in a news stand whether you knew It’s Nice That or not. I mean, we don’t have It’s Nice That on the front any more, which we used to do. So we don’t want to shut people off who don’t know It’s Nice That. If you pick this up in a magazine shop in Tokyo and you’ve never heard of It’s Nice That, we want you to still go ‘Hey this naked guy looks fun’ and we want you to get into it. But we’re super aware of the fact that most people who read it are people who go on the site.

The website must be a great resource for content for the magazine.
It is. We’re looking at creative work 9-6, Monday – Friday, posting work by hundreds of photographers and illustrators and graphic designers.

There are two examples in the new issue. Dan Stafford, who I mentioned, illustrated an essay about life-drawing. He did these beautiful snap shot image, and he was someone we found directly through the site. Dan Weiden, who co-founded Weiden and Kennedy, doesn’t really do any press, but we got an opportunity to speak to him in Cape Town at a conference.

What we did was I kind of stalked him around the city, it was a bit weird, and then I wrote this piece not just about the interview but because he’s such a creative figure, to look at how people react to him, how does a room react to him. So we gave Sam Island the commission to do that. Sam did these really beautiful pictures of Dan Weiden. The absolute best one though is Dan was on a tour of a vineyard in Cape Town and the lady giving the tour got this leaf and was like ‘you can use this leaf as a hat to keep the sun off’, and Dan put this leaf on his head, so Sam Island got to draw a picture of Dan Weiden with wearing a lotus leaf on his head, which is the most It’s Nice That commission that we have ever given anyone for anything.

Then there’s Ed Monaghan, who we came across him through our Graduates scheme, we loved his work, and to be able to say ‘Hey, we don’t have a commission for you, take ten pages and do something interesting’, is something we did and I’m lucky that I have a team who have the most incredible ability to find talented people and to remember them. So when it comes to this, we’re like, should we send a photographer to follow Dan Weiden around? No… that’s getting even weirder, so we want an illustrator? What kind of style do we want? And literally after a few minutes Sam’s name gets chucked into the mix. They have this incredible ability to retain the names and the visuals of these people, and bring them back in.

So yeah, I would say, 95% of people who get commissioned for Printed Pages have been on It’s Nice That.

You cover magazines and magazine design on the site and in the magazine. You published a piece about Kinfolk magazine recently that caused quite a stir in terms of a lot of responses and comments, some of which were very dismissive of the magazine. How do you view that in terms of the outcome?
Whenever we do audience surveys, the big thing we get is ‘Oh, you’re too nice’, which seems like an odd criticism to have given what we’re called. People are like, you’re too nice, we want more critique, a bit more discussion. So we have over the past six months or so made the effort to do that with pieces, for a long time the audience didn’t really react too well to them. It was okay, and we didn’t get many comments. Now, there is a pack of rabid dogs who are ready to jump on stuff, which is amazing, and which I love.

The Kinfolk piece was a particular example of that. The piece was slightly misunderstood by the wider community, I think. It wasn’t having a go at Kinfolk at all, we both met editor Nathan Williams at the conference in Singapore which we were at, and his magazine is a phenomenon. If you think it’s big here, out in the far East it is just ridiculous. Nathan was like Madonna after he finished his talk. He had a line of about 100 people waiting to speak to him and ask him questions. I was fascinated by that.

A lot of people you speak to, particularly in London, are really unsure about Kinfolk and think it’s a little bit pretty pictures of girls in floaty dresses walking through cornfields. I was interested in this idea of why there was this one thing of this phenomenon around Kinfolk and then the way it was received in a lot of other areas. I really respect what they  do – as an exercise, or a series of achievements, what Kinfolk have done is incredible, and leaves most of us in the dust. It wasn’t an envious slagging them off type piece at all.

But the comments! The piece on the site was called something like ‘Why does Kinfolk split opinion so much?’ and the comments backed up what I was saying. It infuriates certain people, and I don’t know why. I was trying to get to the bottom of that. Whether it is a simple thing of success, and people don’t like success, I don’t know. What I think is interesting about Kinfolk is, I was chatting with Nathan and asked ‘Are you a designer or a journalist?’ where do you come into this? And he said, ‘I’m a businessman.’ And not in a negative or a positive way, that’s interesting. Kinfolk as a branding exercise is pretty interesting, and when you were interviewing him on a stage like this, his presentation didn’t have cat gifs like mine, his presentation was art directed, every single inch of it.

They don’t leave anything to chance with that brand. I was super interested in that. It is good that there is a really supportive magazine scene, but I do think something the magazine world, and the creative industry as a whole, are a little bit reluctant to have those kinds of discussions. We’ve been so positive and enthusiastic, and now we’re trying to do a lot more critique, and there is definitely a place for that. I think it’s good to see magazines that do really well and magazines that maybe don’t do super well, and to have honest, open conversations about that. It’s worth saying also, Nathan had no problem with the piece. I spoke to them after it was published, and they were bemused by some of the comments and the things that were in there, but they know that. They’re aware of that as a thing. There are other magazines that I could name that get similarly attacked.

It almost seems that if you get too successful you’re in danger of ending up with vitriol being thrown at you.
Yes. I think people don’t like the idea that an independent magazine is a branding exercise that is just meant to look nice on the coffee table. That’s super-important, I think people want to get something from a magazine and be inspired or interested or provoked or challenged or learn something or get entertained. All those things you want from a reading experience. I think maybe some of that backlash is coming to very, very visually led magazines, people feel they’re not playing the game in the right kind of way, maybe.

Is that something you’re worried about with the It’s Nice That site?
It’s hugely, globally successful. Is there any concern that you’ve got to that scale where people are going to start…I think two things there. We have had it, we have the audience survey, and because it’s anonymous, it throws up some… interesting observations on what we do. It comes back to Alex and Will who founded It’s Nice That, and we all buy into what they’re trying to do, the idea of ‘Championing creativity’.

We have this set of values that we’re very aware of, and we’re sticking to those. We do take into account particularly constructive criticism from readers. The biggest thing for us is trying to evolve the brand of It’s Nice That. It’s Nice That is eight years old now, and we’re trying to move it forward, and we’re trying to attract new readers, and we’re trying to do new, interesting things, but we don’t want to alienate the guys who have been reading us for four or five years, and love the nice, fun, slightly lighter tone.

Critique is a really interesting challenge that we’re running up against: how does It’s Nice That critique things? Because for some of our audience that will be absolutely what we’re not supposed to be doing – they’re thinking, you’re supposed to be nice and positive, a corner of the internet that’s super enthusiastic. So we take those kind of decisions really seriously. I think that’s all you can do. You always get people who don’t like what you’re doing and think you’ve gone in the wrong direction. We listen to those voices, but ultimately we try to make every decision for the right reasons, I think.

Do you think It’s Nice That will always produce a print magazine?
Yes, I think so, we’ve seen in the last couple of years that there’s a market for it. We’ve been lucky enough to win a couple of awards for it. And financially it makes sense. So as long as those three things….

What we’ll never do is produce a magazine that is a vanity project. If we’re putting all this work and all this effort and money into it, and it’s just because ‘Hey! It’s quite cool to have a magazine!’ then that’s wrong. As long as it still hits those boxes, and as long as it still has a place in the wider editorial aims that we have, then we will, sure.

Since this interview Rob has left It’s Nice That and is now as editor-in-chief at WeTransfer.

The interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015 and now sold out. The twelve interviews took place in front of a live audience at the Pick Me Up festival at London’s Somerset House, in Spring 2015.

Portrait of Rob by Ian Pierce.

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