Interviewer: Peter Houston
Laura: So Magfest is Scotland’s biggest gathering of magazine professionals. We come together to share knowledge, new ideas, inspiration. It’s a place that sparks new collaborations. And for me Magfest is different from most events of its sort for a few reasons.
It’s uniquely collaborative, I think, there’s been so many new projects that have sparked out of it that people have thought about while in a session and then maybe kind of solidified over a glass of wine at the end of the day. And that’s across businesses, across different kinds of workflows, all that sort of stuff. And I think that’s really exciting.
The other one is that the delegates come from a huge range of backgrounds, so it’s from CEOs through to students starting out in their media journey, and huge publishers through to new magazines and everyone in between. We host commercial publishers, business to business titles, membership magazines, and brilliant indie titles as well.
So some of my favourite moments from previous Magfests…the inspirational Terri White talking about fighting for Empire’s audience; she just had such fire in her belly, you know Terri, she she absolutely speaks from the heart. It was completely fierce, but just filled with such expertise as well. And the idea of fighting not just to gain an audience, but also for your audience, on behalf of your audience, to get them the very best of what is available to them using the [power] of the Empire brand to get the best access, to bring in the most exciting covers, to bring in the most exciting partnerships, live events, all the rest of it. That I just thought was a brilliant example of someone who’s just pushing it as far as it can be pushed. So I was really excited by that.
Last year I was really excited to have loads and loads of people from Smash Hits there, which wasn’t altogether deliberate but certainly wasn’t not deliberate! Smash Hits was my first magazine that I had a subscription to when I was a tiny kid. I loved that with all my heart. I think that the Smash Hits of the early 90s is one of the best publications hands down in the history of magazines.
We had Mark Frith on stage talking to my boss Barry McIlheney. So it was kind of a Smash Hits double header. Yes I did get some brilliant Smash Hits-related stories out of them! But also obviously Mark Frith is now doing Radio Times, so there was some brilliant stuff about it as well.
And that interview format I think is a really good way – and something that we do really well at Magfest – a really good way of getting some interesting things that again are a bit unexpected, that maybe they didn’t know they were going to tell you that story. But when we’ve got a great interviewer like Barry on stage you can get stuff that’s not just your standard presentation fair .
In other great interviews we’ve had Mark Miller on stage, he was really political which was fantastic. So he’s the guy behind Kick-Ass, and he was as I say really really political, really talking about wanting to raise people up behind him, and do a lot from for his hometown of Coatbridge and that was brilliant, because it was something unexpected, flipping it a little bit at the end of the day.
Again something a little bit different that wasn’t just magazines magazines magazines all day, and you’re having to learn everything all day. It was just a little bit of an insight into someone who’s a great publisher in the comic books, but he has a slightly different perspective and is able to tell you something new. So I love that.
Peter: We on the podcast are all mad fans of Magfest.
Laura: That’s lovely to hear.
Peter: We were there last year and we’ll be there this year doing a live recording. But one of the things that I personally found interesting about it is the idea that it’s not all ‘Here’s how my brand did this year. Here’s the spreadsheets that show that we are a really really clever publisher.’ It’s much more about, ‘This is my story. I’m an individual and this is the kind of stuff that I’m fighting against, and this is the stuff I’m doing.’ Are there examples of people this year that you’re really looking forward to telling their stories?
Laura: Yes definitely. So we’ve got Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff coming up who’s from gal-dem. I think their story is amazing, and I think she’s amazing, so I can’t wait to hear from her. I can’t wait to hear about how they’re lifting up the voices of women and non binary people of colour, which I think is just vital in this industry.
I have stood at many events and looked around and it is still so white, so it’s great to see someone given that space.
Peter: Pale, male and stale!
Laura: Well you said that, I didn’t say that! It is still pretty male, and certainly very white. So it’s great to see people breaking down those boundaries while not just talking about that, you know being of being of interest to a really wide readership.
So I guess one of the panels this year that I’m really really excited that we’re bringing together, as I said, I don’t think I’ve told you, this year’s theme is game changers. So that gives a lot of space for those sorts of personal stories that you’re talking about there. And one of the panels we’re doing is we’re bringing together people from magazines that are changing the world.
So yeah there’s some personal stories in there but it’s also about how magazines can have influence, can change the conversation. So we’ve got Paul McNamee on that, he’s chairing it, he’s the editor of the Big Issue.
We’ve got Prashant Rao from The Atlantic. He’ll be talking about how they’re steering the conversation in the US. Charlie who I’ve already talked to you about.
We’ve also got Nikoleta Kosovac from Liceulice, which is a street paper in Serbia. And she’s really passionate, a really interesting individual, and has an incredible personal story.
And we’ve also got Sonny Dhamu who’s from Inside Housing, and he did so much on Grenfell and changing people’s ideas through design. So he comes from the design background.
So all of them will be together kind of thrashing out how magazine can change the world, because if there’s one thing that can never be said of Magfest, we never aim low. We’re always aiming for the big fish!
Let’s change the world with this stuff. And I’m interested to hear how those those personal experiences come together to tell us something new.
Peter: Never mind boosting your ad revenue. Let’s change the world!
Laura: Yeah exactly! Exactly. You’ve got to aim big because, I mean I think that’s where we’re at isn’t it? I mean magazines have the ability to do that, they have the ability to build communities. They have the ability to, as I say, change the conversation. They have the ability to bring us real news in an era in which fake news is becoming almost a trite saying now, but it actually does have real force behind it in terms of people’s mistrust of what media is doing.
And magazines are still trusted. So I think that there’s a really powerful rule for magazines there.
Obviously advertising revenue is really important. We will be covering stuff around how you make it work and how the money comes in.
But we’ve got to aim bigger than that, we have to give people a proper reason for why they’re picking up the magazine, and we’re not going to do that by just fiddling around trying to bring in more ad revenue, but we are going to do that by giving them something to believe in.
Peter: Do you think events like Magfest are an important way of reminding publishers about that kind of stuff? You know the idea that, yeah we’ve got a job to do here and it’s getting stuff to the printer or getting stuff online or making sure the CMS is working and the newsletter goes out, but we’ve also got a bigger role to play.
Laura: Absolutely. Every year we do our survey at the end of Magfest, we take in our feedback and we try and find out what it is that people love, what it is that people don’t like so much. But the thing that comes through really strongly every year is that what Magfest does is give people the opportunity to take a moment, to stop in that treadmill of getting things out, and getting to the printer, getting the newsletters going, and getting everything up on the website, just to stop for a minute and think about what it is that we do.
And that day allows people to fill up their passion once again. I’m not going to lie, this is a tough industry, you and I both know that this is a tough industry. But that day to fill up your reserves, your little reservoir inside of yourself that makes you feel like what you’re doing is meaningful… I mean all of us came to this because we had a passion for it.
And yeah you can get tired during the week, you can be worn down by bits and pieces and all of those many deadlines, but when you have that opportunity to hear from inspirational speakers, when you have that opportunity to spend some time with your colleagues over a glass of wine even at the end of the day, that is really important, and making sure that people feel like it’s worth getting up the next day and doing it all over again. And to do it with that renewed passion, and that renewed belief that you can do something that goes out into the world.
Maybe change is a little corner of it, and give someone something, you know, some kid somewhere or some adult somewhere, that moment of revelation through your magazine. I do think that that’s really vitally important. I come to this with a real sense of true belief.
Peter: When you go to other conferences, and probably rightly so, they are very much focussed on the bottom line, and technologies, and strategies and whatever. Magfest does that but it also has got this other layer. Which is amazing. Also it’s a wonderful excuse to go to Scotland!
Laura: Well of course! We’re right there in Edinburgh. Beautiful festival city, it’s got that incredible legacy of print and of writing and of literature. It’s a beautiful place for a couple of days break. Part of the reason why we always have Magfest on a Friday! Very handy for people to come up, enjoy all of that stuff, and then spend the weekend cogitating over it while walking around the beautiful streets of Edinburgh. Who wouldn’t want that!
Peter: So Edinburgh. You’ve now got the Edinburgh International Magazine Festival as well because Magfest is not enough. You decided you wanted to start a magazine festival. What’s all that about?
Laura: So we believe from all of our research that is the first festival of its kind. It is a week long event with a bunch of different events happening during it. And it is really exciting, I mean this is something that was a little kernel of an idea in my head at the beginning of this year, and we’re now sitting with twelve events, I think that we’ve got on the books now, that run all the way through from the 16th to the 22nd of September. The highlights are really incredible, I’m really really excited about them.
We’ve got the Empire podcast coming up to do their event live at the Cameo. We have two really important debates happening, the first of which from the Big Issue which is about, will journalists ever be trusted again, which is a question that’s facing all of us and is really meaty, I mean we’re going to have to get our teeth into that one.
And then the second one from Women In Journalism Scotland who are coming together to see whether there’s a way forward for journalists, and particularly for female journalists in social media, because it is really really toxic at the moment. They’re going to be asking about whether it’s tameable, which they’re doing with a bunch of people who have personal experience of having been on the rough end of when Twitter goes really nasty.
I think that’s really important as well, because we have to continue to engage with people through these mediums, but it does take a toll on people’s mental health, and on their ability to do their job. So they’re going to be launching some new ideas and some new guidance on how people can do that at the festival. We have creative writing with the People’s Friends.
We’ve got – a really good fun one for me, I like to put on a music event at anything that I’m doing, great love of music – so we’ve got a gig happening at Sneaky Pete’s, in which The Skinny and GoldFlakePaint, two brilliant magazines, are going to be introducing some some new bands. So we’ve got Maranta and Edwin Organ playing at that, and what it’s designed to feel like is basically like a music magazine come to life.
So you’ll have a music journalist get up as though you’re reading the magazine, they’ll tell you about why this band is important, why you want to listen to them, do your kind of little preview spiel that you would normally read in the magazine, but they’re going to do that live, and then the band’s going to play straight afterwards. So you’re going in with that context that’s always been the brilliant thing that music magazine can do for you. So that’s really exciting.
We also have an academic conference. We’ve got collage making, we’ve got yourselves doing a Media Voices Special, which probably I should get you to tell about because no point me doing the preview for that! But it’s sounds brilliant and it’s about bringing people into the media podcasts as well.
Peter: Marvellous magazine podcasts!
Laura: Indeed. Marvellous magazine podcasts. So it’s absolutely buzzing. Basically it comes from a place where I look at it and I go, Edinburgh has festivals coming out the wazoo. We’ve got festivals for books, we’ve got them for jazz, we’ve got them for theatre, we’ve got them for music, art, film, anything you can name.
Magazines deserve their own celebration. They deserve their own place in that. They’re a vital creative part of our culture. They have a huge role to play in the creative industries, supporting designers, writers, all sorts of people. And I just wanted there to be a place for us to celebrate magazines, and to promote them, and put more magazines into more people’s hands. And that’s what it’s designed to do, to give them their proper place in our creative society.
Peter: God love you for that. In terms of people getting tickets, or finding out what’s going on, Magfest website?
Laura: So the website is edmagfest.co.uk. It’s got all of the events listed on it, and you can get your tickets from there. I have to say all of the tickets are a real bargain as well, we’ve been deliberately keeping prices really affordable for people. So as it’s really easy to get involved. Magazines have always been an affordable treat. We are part of that and trying to keep it within that ballpark where people can actually come along and hopefully see a few things that are interesting to them.
Peter: And that’s across a whole week, so if they’re there for Magfest, or they want to go up early, they can spend a bit of time in Edinburgh and go and see some stuff.
Laura: Yeah absolutely, there’s some really good things happening on the Thursday, which is actually a really busy day. There’s some really great stuff happening on the Saturday and Sunday as well if you’re up over the weekend. So yeah there’s plenty for people to get involved with.
Peter: Excellent. So I think one thing that people will take away from this, which is an unashamed promotion of the magazine, and this is exactly why we wanted to talk to you, certainly why I wanted to talk to you.
Laura: I do love them. I don’t know if I told you this before but we have, my husband and I, he’s a comic collector and I’m a magazine collector, and we literally had to have our attic converted to store the amount of beautiful, beautiful print that we have in our home. So yes definitely an unashamed lover of the magazine.
Peter: So as a promoter of the magazine form, give us some good news, because we’ve spent God knows how many weeks recently just talking pretty much about bad news. Give us some good news.
Laura: So one of my favourite bits of good news that I’ve seen recently that I love very much, is the continuing beautiful resurgence of the indie publishers. So this year at Magfest we’re bringing together a bunch of them, so we’ve got a roundtable effectively, in which you can go and speak to some of these people who have started it out. They know their niche, they know who they’re speaking to, and they’re building that community, or speaking to that community around what they do.
So I’ve mentioned GoldFlakePaint already, they’re a beautiful success story. They started as a blog, a really really influential music blog with followers all over the world, and have now become an incredibly beautiful magazine that is home to some fantastic long form music writing. In a way that’s that’s kind of rare now, that there aren’t so many people doing that, but they’ve managed to find a model that makes that work, because as I say, they know that they’re talking to their community, a community that they had already built up through the blog. And they’re finding a way of doing something that can only really exist in print, that works in print really really well. So they’re great.
We’ve got It’s Freezing In L.A. who are doing really interesting stuff around climate change. And again as I have mentioned a few times changing people’s opinions, changing people’s minds, and also speaking to a community of people who care and who want to know more, and to educate themselves. So they’re great.
And Hood magazine, which is a really interesting one where they they have launched a woman’s magazine that’s just for Scotland, and it’s available in Marks and Spencers, and available in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. It’s a glossy, lovely women’s magazine which again, you and I both know is a very very tough market to be in. But they’re seeing real success and it’s free to pick up. But they’re managing to make it work through the advertising, and through smart partnerships and all the rest of it.
So there’s loads of little green shoots like that that are interesting and brilliant, and that as I say, know their niche. Magazines, their way forward in a way that newspapers don’t have is that they do have those communities, and they have people who care.
One of my favourite communities that has just had their magazine, their totemic magazine come back, which is Fangoria, which went away in the 90s, and is now back, and I have my beautiful subscription and it’s really exciting to see. So my favourite bit of media that I’ve seen recently is Ari Astor being interviewed for Fangoria by Jordan Peele. So that’s probably the two biggest, most exciting horror directors that are around at the moment in conversation with each other.
And the reason that that was able to happen was because of this magazine, this magazine that is like, the solemn organ of the horror community. It speaks to people in a way that no other publication, no other website no other TV channel, nobody is able to do. It’s able to be that kind of record of what’s going on, and they only print, they only did that in print. It shows the power that they have to be able to bring those two kind of heavyweight guys together. They did a beautiful cover on Midsummer which is an amazing film. So that kind of stuff I think, it’s something that only magazines can do.
So when magazines are able to find a model – and again you know I’m not saying that the economic models aren’t really important, we have to be able to make things sustainable – but where they can find a model that makes that stuff work, magazines are able to do magical things, they’re able to do things that can’t be done elsewhere. And that level of passion I think is what’s going to continue driving magazines forward. I’m going to continue to find their audiences for them, because people understand that that’s the only place that you can get that stuff.
Who doesn’t want to shell out, I mean most magazines you’re looking at only paying five quid, you think about how many things you waste five quid on, and there’s a magazine that can maybe give you something that’ll make you properly think, that’ll give you an insight that you never had before, that’ll maybe even change your mind on something, or give you something that you never knew before, as well as the kind of mental health benefits of not looking at a screen every single moment of every single day which is massive!
So yes I think that magazines will always find a place, and I think there are loads of really exciting things happening. You just need to pay a little bit of attention, and look it out, and pick up that magazine!