Independence: Rob Orchard, Delayed Gratification

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For the final, twelfth, interview from Jeremy Leslie’s book ‘Independence’ we meet Rob Orchard, the co-founder of slow journalism magazine Delayed Gratification.

Jeremy: I introduced your magazine, as I have with everyone this week, as an example of independent publishing. You are an independent company, but you’re not always that keen to be pigeonholed in the independent magazine sector. Is that right?
Rob: I think that’s absolutely right. I think there is a problem with independent publishing which is that a huge amount of it is incredibly self-indulgent and a huge amount of it just fizzles out very quickly. It’s very beautiful and people co-opt people to help out with it and it’s all very exciting and they get to that crucial issue three and it goes off the radar.

And actually, what I’m interested in, five years in, is sort of staking out some ground that is part way between indie mags with all the passion and the fire and the beautiful design and the value for money and the reader relationship and all that sort of stuff, and then top end magazines that are selling hundreds of thousands of magazines and it’s a faster turnover. What we’re starting to see is a graduation of some independent magazines that are going to form this a middle tier of which if you have five or ten thousand subscribers, you’ve actually got quite a credible, good business which you can build on.

You know, we spent four or five years in the indie ghetto, everything being incredibly hand to mouth, trying not to answer phone calls from the printers, telling them we’re on holiday for a couple of weeks so we don’t have to pay bills so we can wait for money to come through from somewhere else. That’s what I don’t want. I want us to be better than that.

You’re about to publish your 18th issue. How did you come through that early period and become a successful business?
It’s that Woody Allen thing, just keep turning up, keep putting the magazine out, keep pulling all of those levers which are there for you: talking to people, doing reader’s events, doing all of those good things. Make a brilliant magazine. Keep making a brilliant magazine. And just continue, either until you are bankrupt or you start getting there. I actually think that that is all it has been for us. A slow progression. There has been peaks and troughs, and there has been times we’ve had coverage from somewhere and that has given us a nice little spike, but honestly, the story is just one of cracking on.

Can you pinpoint a moment or something that happened that actually tipped you over?
There was something that saved us, very early on. We launched actually in January 2011, and in February 2011 I thought that we were over, because we had not planned this whole thing at all well. The magazine was set up by five editors, so we didn’t have anybody who knew about marketing, advertising, distribution, sales, accounting, office management, almost anything that you’d need, promotional stuff, social media. All we knew was how to make a nice magazine. We’d done that, and then it had gone terribly quiet.

We were there in February and I was looking at our sales, we’d sold two subscriptions in the week and I thought, this is it, this is absolutely not tenable, we’re screwed. Then my business partner and co-editor Marcus Webb managed to get on the BBC’s Today programme, and it was the most amazing business day of my life. He went on at 8:50am, people were just finishing off their drive into work, and I was listening to him on internet radio and I was also watching our subscriptions come in, and in the ten minutes he was on we had ten new subscriptions come in. Every single time that I refreshed my email that day there were three or four more. We sold 400 subscriptions in one day. That gave us the money to continue on and keep going on. If it weren’t for that we wouldn’t be here today.

You mentioned you knew a bit about making magazines.
Yes, my first job out of University was restaurant critic for Time Out Dubai. I spent two years there eating way too much food and writing about restaurants, and then I became editor of the magazine, and then I set up a small customer publishing agency. So customer publishing. I had 10 years of making magazines before I started Delayed Gratification.

Had you had a long-term ambition to launch your own magazine?
The four other guys I started this magazine up with, we had all met when we were 22 doing our first jobs in Dubai, and we spent 10 years having conversations in the pub, slagging off the magazines we were working with, saying ‘Oh we could do it so much better if we had our own’. We had this document that was going round, and it was entitled ‘The Perfect Magazine’. It was a word document, and I’ve still got it. It would not have been ‘The Perfect Magazine’. It would have been an insane hotchpotch of unworkable ideas and self-indulgence.

That went round for ten years. We were whittling it down, and whittling it down, and it was only about six months before we launched that we decided that this was the format. We would have it run from the beginning of the quarter until the end, with news-in-briefs running down the side, and then you’d jump off from this structure into the features.

You went very deliberately for the news market.
A lot of the indie launches at the time were either travel magazines with a twist of food, or food magazine with a twist of fashion and travel, or fashion and travel with a twist of food and dogs… For all of this huge rush of magazines that have launched in the last five years, there’s very few of them that are focused on current affairs and news.

In your introduction you were talking about it as if it was in some way unmediated, but actually you have a point of view, you have an editorial stance.
We kind of do, but we’ve always had this idea that you could make a magazine non-partisan. You don’t have to be left wing or right wing you just have to be broad church and you can interview Noam Chomsky on one thing and then Nigel Farage on another and it’s actually just much more important to get a large, broad scope of views in there.

We have also this almanac function, being the magazine of record. It’s either a very slow magazine, or a very fast history book. It builds up into this nice collection with the spines lining up and the dates go up and down. I like the idea of having lots of voices from people who are involved in big events, and capturing those for posterity. I think we get away without being left wing or right wing, probably.

Clearly you’re wishing yourself away from a lot of the independent titles. Where do they see themselves in terms of competitive set? Are you in WHSmith?
We’re just about to be in WHSmith. We’re going to be in WHSmith travel outlets as of next year. Obviously this sounds massively presumptuous and we’re a much more low level, but the people I aspire to are The New Yorker, for long-form, The Economist for analysis, Monocle for design, Private Eye for cheeky-ness. That set of magazines that you might pick up on the train, and I’d like to instil something of all of them into our magazine.

Let’s talk about design, because several of those magazines are not known for that, but as you say, Monocle is very nicely designed. Who designs your magazine?
We have this fantastic art director, Christian Tate, who designs the whole magazine from scratch which is why it all feels all of a piece. We occasionally commission some illustrations but by and large he does everything.

He is a sensationally gifted guy: he’s 70% of the reason that we have had the success that we have such as it is, because the magazine is really, really beautiful. It’s gorgeous. Every cover has an artwork by a different artist. Issue 00 was by Ai Wei Wei. Our first ever cover was Shepherd Fairy. We’ve had Michael Craig Martin, all sorts of good people. Inside, it’s a lovely mix of long-form stuff, beautiful photo-features, and then the thing that has given us the most interest, the infographics. We do lots of little infographics, because they’re a really good way of condensing lots of information, but we also do lots of really big ones.

One of my favourite ones was a time line of everything that Monty Python ever did. The six members of Monty Python, every single collaboration they’ve ever had in their entire careers going all the way through. Our readers are spending three months with our magazine, so we like lots of little snippy things, but also lots of stuff for people to get their teeth stuck into. Every issue you’ll find five intense, in-depth inforgraphics.

It’s more than news. There are stories like that where you’re creating factual representations of your own research that you’ve done.
Absolutely. We do a lot of cultural infographics but also solid news ones. We use them to break up the magazine. If you have just read a ten-page story going back to the story of the 43 abducted Mexican students, then you don’t want another ten pages like that. You’ve got the ‘HUH’ and then the ‘two pages of Monty Python, okay, everything is okay’. Then you can crack on again.

It can help with the pace.
Exactly.

Most magazines would have full page ads, which break up the editorial. You don’t have advertising.
It’s deliberate. Everybody here would be sceptical of any independent magazine who says ‘Yeah, we’ve chosen not to have advertising’, because the reality is that nobody in their right mind except maybe people who are related to people who make the magazine are going to want to advertise in an independent magazine. When you do the sums in your head, it just doesn’t make sense.

But we’re now getting to a stage in terms of sales where we could put that together credibly, but we’ve slightly folded the no-ads thing into our philosophy. I don’t actually think that there is a massive problem for a lot of magazines with taking advertising. But actually, things like naked advertising and advertorial are becoming a bigger and bigger problem, they are becoming more and more widespread and more insidious. I think part of our small crusade is to say: Is it possible to create a publication which is supported by readers? Where readers pay for editorial and they get editorial, where no one is trying to sell anything, it’s one of the very few spaces where nobody is trying to sell them anything that they don’t need, and see whether it is possible to make that sustainable.

Even just hiring somebody to sell advertising is a very expensive business before you even start selling pages. But a lot of independents are trying to move into advertising or are creating relationships in order to fund themselves, and you’ve made a very clear case for the content and the engagement that your magazine produces. How does it work in a business sense?
We sell for £10 at newsstands or £36 for a yearly subscription of four issues delivered to your door.

Is the magazine now a successful business?
It is. We broke even last year. I worked for the magazine for free for three and a half years, and just kind of kept my head above water by doing freelance stuff in the evenings and weekends, which was very tough. Now I pay myself a salary and I have one full-time member of staff as well, then we have this big network of freelancers. We pay them. We’ve always paid everybody from the beginning, and it just about works. I’m now at a stage where I can see, just down the line, things going really well. That actually things are working really, really nicely.

So you’ve got a business plan?
Well that’s definitely on the list! We had a business consultant come in a couple of years ago. He just liked the magazine and said he’d come spend time with us to do it, and he said ‘Listen I’m going to do a bit of analysis, could you just give me your forward budget projections. Can I have your last years numbers and a break down of that.’ I was like ‘Huh?’ We’d been very, very bad on the business side, I think because we were so in love with doing the magazine itself and everything else had fallen slightly by the way side.

That love for the magazine has to be first. That passion.
It does. If the magazine is going to be good, you’ve got to love it. Although, I don’t think that’s how good businesses start. Good businesses are started by entrepreneurs who identify a niche in the market and then they go for that whether or not it’s their thing. This is part of the reason that there is such a gigantic level of attrition in independent magazines. They really want to create something so they do that and then they come up against the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to sell print magazines on a small level.

What’s the hardest part of that?
The hardest part is that no part of the industry is geared up to this. It’s geared up for the type of magazines that we’ve had up until now – big, mass-produced magazines that sell 50 to 100,000 copies, which would sell them at a level which maybe broke even but which was used as a loss in order to take lots of advertising. Obviously the bottom has dropped out of to that model. But the structures are still got in place: the distribution, the marketing, the awards, the subscription services, they’re all geared up
for monster, great, big titles that make their money out of advertising.

The whole thing is kind of out of kilter. We waited for ages and ages before doing that WHSmiths thing, because I’m not sure how a £10 quarterly magazine is going to sit next to all of these £3 or £4 weekly or monthly magazines. I fear that it may not work. But we’ve done the sums, and we hope that in terms of marketing, in terms of awareness, it will just work and we’ll break even. But the structures, everything is against you.

Would it work to publish Delayed Gratifciation more often?
I think we could do bi-monthly. But not without gearing up and having more staff. Three months is a very long time between speaking with readers. We try to make up the difference with reader events, incidentally. Should anyone here subscribe you’ll be invited to free graphics classes. Come along, have a beer, a little chicken satay and learn how to make lovely infographics. We also do slow journalism nights at the V&A. A beautiful, big lecture theatre with free booze laid out by them, you get invites for that if you’re a subscriber. If subscription sounds like a bit too much, sign up for our newsletter, that comes out weekly and it’ll give you a flavour of what we do, nice features from the archives and infographics.

What about the website?
For ages the website was just a shop. Now we have a fantastic site. Our (ex-) head of digital Loes Witschge started a blog within a blog, and she does the newsletter which turns out is a great way to convert people to get subscriptions. She does social media stuff which is great because before you could hear the whole week going by.

Tell me about the social media, a lot of people here I’ve been talking to this week are really becoming more and more reliant on that as a marketing tool.
I hate social media, I don’t understand it. If you look at our Facebook timeline, it goes January 2011 ‘We’ve launched, hooray!’, February 2011 ‘We were on the BBC Today programme’, and then just years of nothingness. There’s much more going on now. I’m 34 years old, and it’s beyond me. Lucy, is very good, she loves this stuff, she Instagrams and tweets. If you look at our early tweets that I tried to do, I put out an infographic and the tweet would be like: ‘Hello everybody, I’ve done an infographic and I think you might like it, so if you’d like to look at the infographic, click on the link below and below you’ll find the infographic. Many thanks.’

More like an email.
Exactly. Absolute nonsense. Of course, we have this notionally visceral dislike for how social media disseminates news. Because a lot of the time it’s PR and corperate agenda, but yet at the same time it’s quite a good way to sell print subscriptions. I just find it wearing. It’s hard enough putting together a three month magazine without having to constantly do up-beat little updates and so on.

Does it take three months to make the magazine? Or are you working on other things?
It really does take three months. We do a few other little bits and bobs on the side, so we do training for people for infographics at The Guardian, and I teach features writing at The Guardian, so a few things that keep the wolf from the door. Generally, it’s just the magazine, and it’s a colossal
beast, and when you see it, it’s a total jigsaw to put together.

Do you have an operations room where you record everything?
The editorial meetings are good fun because we start with this gigantic white board with every single big news story that there has been and every way of covering it and lots and lots of angles and we just get rid of stuff. Some of it will be because we feel people have done it justice or actually it just turns out to have been a storm in a teacup and nothing significant or whatever. Then we piece it together. Of course there are lots of editorial decisions being made there, quite often we look at the flat plan and we think, because the news tends to be depressing, this is going to be an incredibly depressing issue. We try to find something to shush it up a bit, like a nice infographic or something like that.

It must be a very complex magazine to put together.
We’ve got way too many rules. Take the cover, we have to find a piece of art from an artist who is alive, it has to be square, ideally the covers have to fit in with the colours of that quarter because all the colours are done up by their quarter, and it has to be somebody who is prepared to give it to us for free. It’s incredibly difficult to find that. Now we’re adding a new level of complexity, because we’re doing a special newsstand-only cover for WHSmith, so we need a piece of art that is going to work on two different scales as well, which made us kill it

Two different scales?
Well, one of them will be a perfect square, and one of them will be a slight rectangle that’s going to have some cover lines. We’re making the innovation of cover lines five years in. Cutting edge.

You’ve been very lucky to get free covers from that type of artist. Are you paying the other contributors?
Everybody else gets paid. We do a standard word rate of 20p. We’d very much like to increase that, industry standard is probably 30p. We’ve always paid writers and we’ve always paid photographers and illustrators.

If we can look forward five years, where do you see the magazine being then? It’s worked well in WHSmith, you’re selling more copies…
Yeah. I think it’s just a lot more of the same. Tons more subscribers, lots more sales, investing that money in much bigger, meatier stories. I’d like to see us doing 10,000 word stories, I’d like to see us doing stories that take 3 or 4 years of people chipping away at them in order to bring them out, I guess there is going to be a podcast, we’re looking into doing some mini-documentaries and stuff like that. Lots and lots more value for the subscribers, classes they can come to, things that they can get involved with, and so on. But I think fundamentally the same.

This is a project that I want to do for the next 30 years, it’s fine that it’s taken five years to get it to a stage where it’s just ticking over and paying us some money.

Do you feel restricted by budget or resources, are there stories that you sometimes come up with on your white board that you cross out because you can’t afford to follow them?
Yes, absolutely. In every issue there’s one stand out, monster feature where we’ve really gone to town and put some money and clout behind it, and then there are some other smaller ones. But I would love five or six of those every issue.

Another thing that we’re potentially going to look at is doing some licenced versions. We’re been approached by various different people who might want to do a version in their language for their country.

Presumably that wouldn’t just be a translated version, it would be local stories?
You’d have to do some local stories, yeah.

The Monty Python story is probably a case and point. It’s quite a British point of view.
We try to be as international as possible, but it’s definitely the case that there is 20% of stuff in there that, unless you’re from the UK, is going to pass you by, so you’d have to cut that.

What advice would you give to any one here who is thinking of doing their own magazine?
Have a brilliant idea. A brilliant, unique idea that you can sum up in one line. Somebody told me about a magazine that’s launching called The Marine Quarterly, and it’s basically everything to do with the sea. I thought, that is just such a lovely prism through which you could do stuff. You could do recipes and travel, you could do beautiful, in-depth historical pieces, you could do environmental stories, and so on. And it’s something you can sum up in one sentence. If you want to start and you’re saying ‘It’s a bit
of this and a bit of that’, that’s a disaster. Your idea needs to be super snappy.

And if it is ‘The Great Thing About It Is…’ then you’ll get support from people, people are terribly nice to people who do independent magazines. We got Shepherd Fairy on our first cover because we asked him and because he was nice, so advice number two is ask for help.

Advice number three is take subscriptions. So many people launch magazines and they’re going to do it just off copy sales and they’re going to go out of business, it will not work, you need subscribers, you need to be building them up from the very beginning, maybe on Kickstarter, friends and family, whatever it is.
Number four is related to that: don’t use Paypal for your subscription service, it is awful. The most valuable piece of advice I can give you, and which will save you thousands and thousands of pounds and much heart break, is to use GoCardless, it’s a service which allows you to take direct debit from people. It’s brilliant. Peoples payments come through year on year on year, whereas Paypal, if you’re card details change over the course of the year, which is about 40% of cases, then Paypal rejects the payment and sends a very weird email to the person who has taken on the subscription suggesting that you have cancelled their subscription.

So don’t use Paypal.

Lots of really good advice there, but one in particular struck home and that was being able to sell your idea very simply. The concept of slow journalism is a very compelling and interesting one. Are you conscious that other people are catching onto it and trying to, not copy, but build on the idea?
There are lots and lots of people talking about it. Slow journalism, really, is just a call for good journalism. It’s just a call for considered, intelligent journalism that allows journalists to do what they do best: look at what is going on and try to give you the best analysis of it. There are lots and lots of people talking about it, but we’re not proprietorial about it, and I don’t think that legally we could be anyway, because actually ‘slow journalism’ as a term existed for about 150 years and it’s what people used to call Sociology. We couldn’t lock it down even if we wanted to. People have started doing it, and then of course there are loads of people that I would identify as having done it for years. The New Yorker does slow journalism, they invest in stuff, they send people back to stories that were huge and they really get to grips with it, and that’s perfect. I do sense a new interest in it, and over the last six months that interest has been picking up.

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.

slow-journalism.com

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