In 2015 Jeremy Leslie interviewed 12 British independent magazine makers for his book ‘Independence.’ Here’s his conversation with Alec Dudson, founder/editor of Intern magazine.
Jeremy: You mentioned a couple of magazines. Were there any others which first inspired you about editorial and publishing?
Alec: From an early age I bought The Beano and Dandy comics. If I was going to be poetic about it that would be where my on going interest in illustration comes from, that’s an important part of Intern magazine. I became pretty disillusioned with the men’s mags, like anything they’re kind of aspirational publications. As a teenager your kind of looking ahead to a lifestyle that’s just out of reach, I suppose. All the trappings – fast cars, fancy clothes, and the lifestyle that went with it. That gripped me for a few years, but the more I actually read them as opposed to just flicking through them, the more I realised it wasn’t really me.
I guess that’s what draws me so much not to independent magazines. It’s a fun process to kind of jump into somebody’s world and get this gloriously intricate and often quite over-the-top detailed sort of insight into whatever the theme of the magazine might be. They’re nice in that sense to jump into and escape for a while.
Was Boat the first independent magazine that you came across?
Yeah. My friend Fred brought a copy into work, the first issue, the Sarajevo one, at the time they were nearly sold out. He said, ‘Take care of this, put it in your bag now’ (because we were working in the bar) ‘Don’t muck it up.’ It was a very different interaction with a magazine and straight away seeing that it was £8 and really nice to touch.
It was precious.
It was precious; it was a very different experience of a magazine. Everything from the editorial line to the type of photography to the very nature of the product had me sit up and get interested again. The mass-produced magazines are relatively same-y when it comes to paper, quite thin, glossy…
It re-invigorated your interest in magazines. Was that the point you thought you might launch your own magazine?
I didn’t look at Boat and think ‘Oh I could do this’. But it got me excited about not just magazines but what a really interesting thing to do, to go and piece together all these different perspectives and ideas you wouldn’t necessarily come across otherwise and put them together in a lovely way.
Even when I was interning at Boat, which must have been a good six months after I first saw it, I didn’t have any aspirations to try and do something myself. I was just interested to see the process that was behind it and work out if I could be a part of it; and whether or not I actually wanted to. Often these things seem lovely to the eye but you go behind-the-scenes and there is a lot of hard work and obstacles that put you off.
But it didn’t put you off?
No. The best piece of advice Davey and Erin (publishers of Boat) told me they were given but never took was. ‘If you want an easy life and a steady income, don’t have anything to do with independent magazines’. Somewhat foolishly I didn’t take that advice.
I don’t want to sound cheesy here, but it was so inspiring to see how much of themselves in terms of their passion and effort and time go so directly into a tactile thing and the is put out into the world. Being involved in the Athens issue was such an incredible, fulfilling experience in terms of seeing the final print thing and having been part of it was completely addictive.
You got the bug.
You also did some work with Domus, which must have been a very different experience.
Completely. At Domus I was working on the English language website, so I wasn’t too involved in the print magazine. Apparently that was to my benefit because we were working out of the design library, close to the centre of the city where they have the design week, and the main offices from what I gather were very steeped in bureaucracy – they sounded like a mad house to be honest. But we were in this really small, quiet team. There were four of us and for the most part they were operating as a creative studio. I was there 40 hours a week just watching it all happen.
It’s probably quite challenging to make an independent magazine with no knowledge of the design community and the publishing industry that facilitates a lot of it. Domus was a really interesting experience and I didn’t quite know what I was picking up at the time.
Were these internships paid positions?
The Domus one was, the Boat one wasn’t. They were upfront with me from the very start, they didn’t really have room to take on anyone else. They basically said you can come in as much as you like, you don’t have to come in at all on days where I worked late at the pub the night before.
If I turned up 20 minutes nobody would roll their eyes… It made for a open, respectful and nice working environment. I could come in and just throw myself into it and they were really getting behind me when I had editorial ideas. I was off to a Trumpet Festival in Serbia (once a year a village that has about 2,000 inhabitants gets taken over by 100,000 people for four days and the place just goes absolutely berserk). I’d always been interestedin going there, and it seemed like a really interesting thing to photograph
and write about. Even though it was a token gesture, Erin gave me £50 towards it, a relatively insignificant sum but to me it was a lovely endorsement of what I was doing was meaningful and valued. As much as it was unpaid – and I still don’t particularly agree with unpaid internships – I couldn’t have called it exploitative at any point because they were completely open with me.
What came first: a desire to make a magazine, or a desire to say something about internships?
The first thing was trying to find some way to stay in the industry. I was determined then that the concept of the magazine had to be strong and without that, without something to clearly make it stand out from the other magazines, I didn’t really stand a chance. The idea with Intern was that it was always going to have a clearly marked audience – young people who were looking to work out their journey into the creative industry. The hope was that each year there’d be another batch of graduates and another batch of people starting to study or getting interested in the industries that would potentially be a fresh readership. But then when we launched the Kickstarter campaign I had no idea whether or not it would take off or not.
Kickstarter’s a well-established way for independent magazines to get launched. Then you have to make the actual magazine! You obviously had insight and idea about young illustrators and photographers through Boat. But without any actual design experience, you came to this very blind.
One of the big things to note is that the magazine is art directed by She Was Only. Prior to them forming Chris was the freelance designer at Boat while I was there. I don’t suppose I’d have pressed ahead with it unless they got on board when they did which was right at the start, Chris was one of the first people I pitched the idea to.
Getting issue zero and launching the Kickstarter was a huge turning point because it introduced the concept to everyone and made the drawing in the content itself a heck of a lot easier. I didn’t give it nearly as much thoughtas I guess I should have done at the time but with the Kickstarter live I think we probably had about a quarter of issue one’s content together. I see a lot of publications now practically ready to print and then they campaign to just get that first run paid for. We were quite different. We came in off the back of Kickstarter.
Well it’s a great marketing tool as well as fund raising.
And really important for us to see whether there was that community out there and to start to try and embody this purpose we have of being formed by this community.
The Kickstarter launch coincided with several ‘Should interns be paid?’ stories in the news. Am I right in thinking that you don’t outrightly state the opinion ‘interns should always be paid’?
Not in the magazine. The moment we start having too politicised an agenda with the magazine, its ability to offer a balanced discussion is completely undermined. While my personal views are that unpaid internships need to end – they’re already illegal, it’s just not enforced – the moment the magazine starts doing that it heads down quite a narrow path and the content would become quite same-y.
I felt a bigger and a better purpose was to just get people to talk about the issue. I hope that’s what the magazine does, it’s not all fierce debate and insight, there’s a lot of fun stuff, funny stuff, stuff that’s pretty unrelated other than it being produced by young people.
Since I’ve started the magazine, I’ve had countless conversations with people who think, ‘Internships, so what? It’s fine, everyone has to, generation after generation, whenever there’s a bit of a squeeze for jobs things like this appear and then disappear, it’s not important’. But after I’ve chewed their ear off for the best part of half an hour, they seem at least open to the idea that it’s worth discussing.
Do you have any idea about how influential the magazine is in igniting that debate and in encouraging people to talk about it and think about it?
It’s a difficult thing to measure, influence. It’s not really in my nature to claim credit, it’s often an awkward task being the face of the magazine because that’s not what it’s about at all, it’s about the contributors. I take more satisfaction in the effects it has on a personal level for all our contributors.
The nicest feeling for me is when I get an email from contributor and the issue has just arrived at their house and they’re over the moon. Paul Phung who photographed the issue one cover got some work with i-D and Dazed, and they both brought up Intern as where they’d first spotted him. That for me is an important function of the magazine, the whole showcase side of it. By the time you pay £8 for the magazine, it’s a very different experience to quickly scrolling down something on the web.
From an employers point of view, being published in print makes them sit up and notice. If that plays out and works out for our contributors, for me that’s more of an important effect of the magazine than it having a kind of influence. It’s more likely to have an effect on a one to one basis than
start a kind of movement. The biggest challenge in reversing the current intern situation is changing young people’s attitudes. If you’re not willing to work for free, there are ten people queuing around the corner who are, it’s a chance to get their foot in the door and they’re prepared to go to those lengths.
As long as there are willing, unpaid workers, unpaid positions will continue to exist. A more realistic hope is that if someone finds themself in that situation, the perspectives and stories that you can get in each issue will open your eyes to the alternative possibilities. You don’t have to sit there doing this crap job where you’re not learning anything.
You can help people get on the first rung.
That’s the hope, at least help them to, and it might sound like quite a grand gesture, but help them to negotiate their way into whatever career they’re trying to.
How do you find the people that you feature?
The third issue I’d say is so far the one that has been mostly made up of stuff that has come through open submissions. And that’s really exciting, because as independent magazines are invariably run by small teams, a challenge is to ensure you don’t fall into the trap of churning out quite a singular, repetitive perspective. For me the strength of the magazine has always been in the contributors and their variety, so it’s really lovely.
My reason for never going for a theme before is I felt that we never had the resources to effectively explore one. We very much source writers where the stories are and go to where the stories are and follow them, rather than pick the stories and send people there, because obviously that’s an expensive business. For the Jessica Walsh piece, we had the writer who was already there, it’s a heck of a lot easier to find a photographer in New York and send them and to then pay them something reasonable then it
is to try and fly someone there and all of a sudden your budgets gone.
One feature I’m really looking forward to start working on for the next issue came from a conversation at a conference in Barcelona. This guy was telling me about a friend who wanted to define the word ‘Talent’. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s absolutely perfect.’ On the back of our magazine we have the tagline ‘Meet the talent, join the debate’. In a situation where a lot of people are doing a thee year university course and then having to work for free, it’s not overly surprising that a lot of them are thinking ‘what’s happening in education?’ Could there be something else with the education side of it? Again this notion of ‘talent’ and how you define it, how you kind of define it to yourself, and how others perceive it, is a really interesting one.
You mentioned resources and a team. Describe the team.
For the most part it’s me. As we gear up to an issue, I take on a junior editor who is amazing, a young lad called Andy, who is just in his first year of uni. He’d just turned 17 when we did the first issue. When you’re dealing with a subject like this, that’s a pretty invaluable resource to have, a different, younger perspective.
I did the photo editing on the first issue and got halfway through it and started thinking ‘are all these photos just photos I like?’ I probably got away with it for that issue. Now we’ve got a photo editor, features editor and a copy editor. So many independent magazines have such a high production value, you’ve got to give people reason to come back. If they don’t enjoy the next one, they’re probably not going to bother with the one after that.
There are so many independent magazines now. Are you more conscious of who your magazine is lining up against in bookstores and magazine stores?
I was speaking about this with someone from an independent food mag the other day, and they were saying that in their sector of the market there are an incredible amount of titles, and they keep popping up. One of the things with Intern is that I’ve not yet seen another print publication tackle internships.
At least the impression people get before reading it is that it’s very specific in its interest and while that in one respect might make it difficult to win readers, it does future-proof it a little bit, in that you’re not delving into a quite competitive area of the market.
But when you walk into an independent magazine store now there are hundreds of titles and you are, effectively, in competition with everyone. One thing I found really difficult to get used to is that you put all this time into taking care of every last detail in the magazine, and when it reaches the store they put it on the bottom row next to the door where nobody is going to see it. You have to relinquish control, which is hard because you’re used to total control until that point. I like that there is so much variety there. A lot of independent magazines are inherently very specific. That’s great, rather than having a very broad overview of subjects packed into similar publications you have really in-depth looks at things all with their own defined package.
Do you feel positive about independent magazines generally? Some people are commenting that a lot of them are beginning to look alike.
I think the quality of at least 30 or so magazines out there that are absolutely brilliant and the quality ones will endure without much trouble. In some respects I’m quite a typical independent magazine buyer in that a lot of the times I’m seduced by the cover. I’ll pick it up, I’ll have a little feel of it and if it feels really premium and lovely I’ll take it home. It’s only then that I’ll start reading it. What strikes me some of the time is that I’ll either go home and open it and am a bit mugged off because the content doesn’t seem to align with what the cover was professing, or I’m completely besotted with it and the quality of the content completely justifies its purpose.
Which are the ones that you’re currently besotted by?
I still really like Apartamento. They interview people in their living spaces and more often than not when they’re photographed people haven’t tidied up. Unlike Cereal or Freunde von Freunden (on the web) where everyone lives in these beautiful show homes, Apartamento pick the person based on how interesting they think they are and sometimes their interior really reflects that. It’s an extension of their personality. If they’re loud and flamboyant, so are their homes. People’s kids crashing through the photos, and it makes for a really nice tone, where there’s no stuffiness about the encounter, you’re the subject and it’s ‘Come into my home and I’ll tell you all about my life’.
It’s a very strong alternative. Any other magazine?
Printed Pages is incredibly good. What I find really interesting about them is that they’re in a constant state of flux, when I was at Boat it was the It’s Nice That magazine, then that completely disappeared. Printed Pages popped up and its price, its short page count and everything seemed to mark a movement against what was becoming a generic style and format that magazines were in. They’ve gone from being quarterly to bi-annual and it’s going thick again, it lasted I think two or three issues without a spine and then it had a spine again. I always find them really intriguing as much in the process side of it as the content, and the content is always great.
We talked about the team and the resources for the magazine, is it business wise a successful project? Does it cover its costs?
It’s always run at a profit but not one that I take a wage out of. Any money that I make is now off running workshops and things like that. The magazine’s production is facilitated, it produces work of a different kind. It would be nice to get it to a stage where it’s made a more comfortable profit, but again, as that increases, my intention first and foremost is to increase what we pay our contributors.
Presumably issue-by-issue its slightly better?
Yeah. We’re going to do the same print run for issue three as we did for issue two. Primarily because of distribution being a bit of a nightmare. We had our American distributor that I took on with great enthusiasm and it turned out to be a bit of a lame duck and that’s set us back a bit. The thing that has been most encouraging is people’s engagement with it. We see more and more submissions and I take that as a relatively good sign that more people want to engage with it then the sales tend to follow. The other limiting factor when you’re on a slender budget is it reduces your financial muscle to shortcuts of growing quicker – if we could afford to deck out half the magazine stores in the city with full window displays, I’m pretty sure we’d be able to make our print run bigger.
What’s the absolute highlight so far of making Intern?
Monica Lek, who photographed Jessica Walsh for us, applied for a US visa and I wrote one of the recommendations for it and that got through. Strangely, it slightly departed from the magazine itself, but that was a really nice feeling, that we’d been able in a broader sense help her get to where she wanted to go. For me, the highlights tend to be the contributors reactions and the effects it has. Also of course when people enthusiastically email to say how much they enjoy it. Or even better when they say they’ve enjoyed it and then pitch to us something amazing and get to be part of the project.
And what piece of advice would you offer anyone looking to launch a magazine in the way that you have?
Research. I’d say understanding the absolute most that you can about your audience and the way the industry works. The more you research about that the better chance you have of landing on a concept that’s really strong and will give you a fighting chance. A great way to do that is to talk to people involved in magazines. I think I mentioned earlier, the community of editors and producers are really, really open and there are effectively people out there who have been to the market your looking to get into.
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 Alec by Ian Pierce.