At Work With: Karim Meggaro, Unmapped
Work has taken Karim Meggaro around the world – he has contributed to publishing projects in Argentina, Mexico, Russia and India and conceived his digital travel magazine Unmapped in a pub in Copenhagen. He now runs it from Madrid, where we join him following the recent publication of the first print edition of Unmapped.
Where are you today?
I’m in my apartment in Madrid – I moved back in November after a year and a half in Bombay. It took some time to readjust to the peacefulness of Europe. Lavapies, the neighbourhood where I live now, is considered very multicultural and lively by Madrid standards, but it doesn’t have anything on my old neighbourhood of Bandra in Bombay for the sheer mass of humanity going about their lives, and the craziness that comes when different cultures and classes live side by side and rub shoulders every day.
I might sound nostalgic about India, but it’s good to be back in Europe in some ways. India definitely rubbed off on Unmapped in terms of the themes we covered and the writers that contributed to the magazine during that period. But being back in Europe means that we can connect better to our audience, the core of which is based here and the US. I’m hoping it will be a very positive move for Unmapped.
What can you see from the window?
My apartment faces onto an interior courtyard. From my terrace, I can see the terraces of all the apartments on the opposite side – people hanging washing, moving about inside, entering and leaving. The sky is incredibly blue, as it has been consistently since I moved here, although there's a chill in the air this morning. It’s quiet, but I can hear people starting to stir on the plaza in front of my building. Madrid is generally a late-rising city – there are very few people on the streets before 9am. One wall of the courtyard is completely blank, a five-storey high blank canvas with not even a window to break it up. I’ve daydreamt about an enormous mural to brighten it up, but I worry about what the other people in the building would think to the idea.
Are you a morning or evening person?
The person I am in the morning really hates the person I am in the evening – the one that always seems to think that meeting friends for dinner at 11pm is a sensible plan (welcome to Madrid), the one that's convinced that a last drink won’t hurt, that it would be a waste to go to bed early. The late night person wins the argument more than the early morning person with alarming regularity. Work-wise, I tend to have my best creative ideas after dark, and do all my best administrative work before noon. However, now I’m back in Europe I can't wait my favourite part of the day in summer, the long evenings, our reward for putting up with six hours of daylight in the winter.
What was the first magazine you remember holding?
When I was very young, I remember subscribing to at least two magazines where each week you would receive a component of a model along with the magazine, and depressingly slowly, an object would emerge. I remember doing this for both a tarantula skeleton and a dinosaur skeleton at separate moments of my childhood. I don't know how my young self had such patience to wait for a new piece every week.
I remember the magazines just as well as the models; how I’d consume each one from back cover to front as soon as it arrived (I’m not sure if this is a result of being left-handed, or just strange), and how watching that collection grow filled me with pride and satisfaction. Although the magazine collection didn't glow in the dark, so it had to work hard to compete with the models.
Another abiding memory I have comes from the Sunday magazines that used to arrive with my parents’ Sunday newspapers – that dead weight of newsprint that used to crash onto the doormat every weekend. What I remember are the ads, more than anything else. There are two in particular that stand out in my memory: one for Silk Cut cigarettes, and one for Boddingtons Bitter. Although the ads changed every week, they were always works of abstract genius, that I used to pore over and try desperately to understand. Proof if it were ever needed that advertising works, I suppose.
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
Recently, I've been telling everyone that will listen about how brilliant Delayed Gratification is. It's a complete package: a great concept, executed well, and beautiful to boot. The kind of idea that you wish you'd had yourself. I really think something is broken with the way that we report and consume the news today – the guys at Delayed Gratification believe this too, I think, and are trying to do something about it.
I’m also super happy to see that Lucky Peach has finally made the move to online. The print magazine is a joy to read, and I'm happy to see them venturing online, and putting together sections such as Atlas, a cross-issue online resource that works very well.
Give us some background to Unmapped – how did it come about?
I’d been working in the publishing industry for a few years, dabbling in the dark arts that are known today as native advertising (believe me: the industry, as we used to call it – and it really is an industry – rejoices daily that someone managed to come up with a better name for it than advertorial). After a two-year project in Mexico, helping to get a new set of B2B publications off the ground, I realised several things.
First, that I was a better editor than I was a writer; next, that I was ready to start my own publication; third, that it had better be about something that interested me, because I’m not a natural entrepreneur and I knew that some days, motivation would be difficult to find, and finally, that I wanted to step away from the world of advertising for a while. I thought a small-scale, online-only magazine that relied on subscribers as its sole means of funding might just work.
The final thing to put together was the concept, the elevator pitch. There's a lot of travel writing out there in the world, of varying quality: I didn't want Unmapped to be just another anonymous travel magazine among many. Looking for hidden stories was one way to get around this: with this mission, we'd be looking for stories that hadn't been widely told, or looking for fresh new angles from the more popular international destinations. The name came shortly after I’d settled on this hidden stories concept.
Unmapped also tries very hard to be location-agnostic – as we put it, to tell local stories to a global audience. It's impossible to remove location bias entirely from non-fiction articles, because you always have to assume a certain level of understanding from the reader, and that is informed by where they grew up and where they live, but it’s been an interesting exercise to imagine that our reader could be based in the US, India or Australia, or indeed, could be an English-speaker anywhere in the world, and try to make a magazine that would still be appealing.
From idea to execution took about six months. The beautiful site we have today comes thanks to the folks at Marquee, which was put together in this time, while I worked on bringing in writers and planning issues. I've been extremely lucky to find some great authors and journalists that have wanted to support Unmapped in its early stages, and lend their names to our little mag. I’ve also been very lucky to have a partner that is excellent at pushing me at precisely the moments when I need it most - I’m very grateful to have her around!
What have you learned from using a pay wall to charge for access?
It’s taken time to find the right balance of free articles per month for non-subscribers: too many and there's no incentive for people to subscribe; too few and people feel they don't know the magazine well enough to justify paying for it. In the last year or so we've tried it at various numbers, and settled on two free articles per month. It’s very easy to confuse correlation and causation here though - perhaps there is no ‘ideal’ number.
Our biggest ambition is to get people coming back regularly to Unmapped, which is what will convince them to subscribe in the end. Today, it’s still very hard to convince people to pay for content online, but by keeping the quality of what we publish consistently high, we can hopefully get more people talking about Unmapped, sharing articles, and eventually, more people subscribing.
Was it always part of the plan to launch a print edition of Unmapped?
Honestly, it wasn't. I’d worked in print before, and loved it, but the original concept for Unmapped was always based squarely online. But people kept asking if I would consider doing something in print, and after a while, the idea started to stick.
The print edition came out well in the end, and it’s been popular - we successfully funded its first print run through a Kickstarter campaign and have recently started selling copies through Magpile. As a result of the success we’ve seen with the print edition, we’ll definitely be exploring other opportunities in print in the future. Who would have thought that digital magazines would be moving to print just a few years ago?
What are you most looking forward to this week?
I’ll be taking some time this week to organise the next six months of Unmapped online: setting the publishing dates for each of our upcoming themes, and commissioning articles for them. I'm looking forward to getting back in touch with some of our writers. I’ve also got a little design project to complete this week for an exciting new development that we'll be telling people about in February.
What are you least looking forward to this week?
Having to do my tax return :(
What will you be doing after this chat?
Making a coffee, turning up the heating, and settling down for work.