Interviewer: Peter Houston
How did you come to launch Delayed Gratification?
Delayed Gratification is the slow journalism magazine. It was launched in January 2011, with an idea of giving an antidote to media Twitter-driven digital news reporting. We spotted that things were getting faster and faster and faster in terms of news reporting, and that that was throwing up quite a lot of problems and that it was also becoming a bit overwhelming. This was a time when live blogging was just really starting to come in. The number of journalists was being decreased. There was a heavy reduction in newsroom staff, at the same time as the amount of space that the remaining journalists had to fill was increasing.
So, Delayed Gratification was a response to that. What it does as a magazine is, once every three months we draw a line in the sand, we return to the big stories of that quarter and we ask that basic question: ‘What happened next?’ So, instead of trying to be the first news stories, we proudly have this slogan that runs down the side of every magazine, which is, ‘Last to breaking news’.
The idea is, we return to big stories, we’ll ask the question of what happened after the dust settled and the rest of the media moved on. And very often that leads to us finding new elements of the story, new aspects of the stories that weren’t covered at the time.
You’ve just published number 33. What’s the stories that you’ve covered – just to give people an idea – which stories were covered in issue 33?
There’s some pretty serious stuff. We have a very interesting insight into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, by a friend and former colleague of his, some quite serious stuff around that. We’ve got a fascinating interview with the guy behind Bellingcat, that news organization that famously managed to unmask the identity of the Sailsbury poisoners, when British intelligence wasn’t able to. So, Eliot Higgins, fascinating interview with him, looking at how he and his network brought that about and what their aims are for the future.
As a reaction to the petrifying announcement by the IPCC about climate change and how we’ve got 12 years left to avert complete global catastrophe, we have a really interesting story about geoengineering: this idea that we might be able to, rather than just straightforwardly trying to cut back our emissions, we might be able to have technological solutions.
So, you’ve got Jamal Khashoggi on one side and you’ve got the environment on the other side, and there are two very important stories but two very different stories. What ties them together for your audience?
Well, I think we really like to have a huge breadth of stories in the magazine. It’s not a politics magazine but has political stories. We have stories about society and culture, lots of stuff about sports. So, I think what it is, is it’s big events in that three month period that maybe popped up on your radar and were probably covered quite intensely for two or three or four days, and then just went away. You may have had a little insight into the story or you may have not been following it and just being vaguely aware of it.
We like to go back to the ones that seem to us to be important and really dig into that – go a bit deeper. I suppose that’s what unites it all together. I mean ultimately, this is a magazine. A magazine needs light and shade, it needs short articles, it needs funny stuff, as well as the big deep investigative stuff, it needs photo features.
So part of it, is just something that has a nice balance and is going to keep somebody captivated for 120 pages, hopefully. But the fundamental thing that links it all together is, it happened in that quarter and we’re going back to see what happened next.
So you go back to a story…I’m trying to get your production cycle clear in my head…You go back to a story that happened three months previous, and then you’ve got a three month publication?
Well, not far off. So, this latest issue covers October, November, December of 2018, and it’s come out just just just now, so tail end of March. So, obviously through that period we’re taking notes, we’re looking at things and writing ideas. We started doing some research and so on. But then as of the end of that period, end of December, we’ve effectively got 10 weeks to 12 weeks to turn everything around.
And of course, there are long running stories that we’re working on in the background that we do commission ahead and so on. But we know that there’ll be certain hooks in the next period.
I’ve got Issue 1 on the shelf. What have you learned since then?
Well I distinctly remember getting Issue 1 back from the printer, and we were in this absolutely tiny office on Tottenham Court Road. Tony Elliott of Time Out had very kindly given us some office space, and we were working away there, and it was tiny. You could stretch out your hands and almost touch both walls. And we were working away there over the winter of 2010 putting this thing out and making everything up from from scratch, not knowing what the design will be and it was falling into place and so on.
And when we got it back I just thought, ‘This is a perfect magazine, what a fantastic magazine’. I’ve always worked with magazines. I was like, ‘God, we nailed it’.
Looking at it, even two weeks later, I was like, ‘Jesus Christ. There is so much wrong with this thing’. Starting with number one, we had been so keen to fit so much into it, that we had chosen a ridiculously small point size. So, something like 7.2 for the features. And one of the big bits of feedback we got from people was, ‘I think it’s a good magazine, but I can’t actually read the stories because they’re too small’. So, stuff like that we were trying to cram it in.
And it also, it’s a bag of ideas. So, the structure is not far off what it is now, but it was much more random in terms of the stories that we were covering. It’s all over the place. And the design has evolved a lot since then, but then it’s been eight years, so that’s not a surprise.
You gave a TedEx presentation in Spain in 2014. And you opened up with this line, ‘Everyone in this room deserves better news journalism’. And you talked then about how slow journalism was the antidote for the problems afflicting media. What are you seeing in terms of the slow journalism revolution that you talked about back then, it taking shape?
I think it is. There’s a limited number of publications that have launched since then, specifically under this slow journalism rubric. But then I think actually, for us, there’s a load of stuff that is slow journalism that just doesn’t happen to be denominated as such. So for example, The New Yorker, that’s been going for, heaven only knows how long, over a hundred years. You can take lots and lots of long form, investigative, well reported journalism, that for us would completely fit into that slow journalim idea. Looking back on a story and really kind of getting to grips with it.
I suppose a series of things have happened since then. I think that people have started to fall out of love, to a certain extent, with digital news journalism and with updates. And actually I think Brexit is a case in point. The number of people now that I speak to who say that they are just completely swearing off looking at Brexit stuff, because you could lose half of your working day just trying to stay on top of the updates. And for me as a rabid news consumer, I just can’t stop. I’m addicted. There’s something happening every five to 10 minutes. And a lot of it is just noise and it’s not super useful. So, I think people are starting to fall out of love with that side of things.
They’re also starting to fall out of love with digital in general, and becoming aware that this smartphone in their pocket is also consuming all of their free time and reducing quality time with the people that they love. And just dominating, as well as sucking all of their information away from them.
Certainly in terms of our experience with the magazine, we have grown our subscriber numbers radically since 2014. Lots more people buying the magazine, lots more people coming to our events, and all the stuff around it. I don’t know whether any of this kind of yet qualifies as a revolution. Probably doesn’t, to be honest with you. I think that’s probably just a bit of neat marketing shorthand on our part.
But definitely I think it’s moving in that direction, and certainly, you’ve got Issue 1, when that came out, that was a totally niche product. A very strange idea, to the extent that the Today programme had us on to talk about it and the whole piece, which was fantastic for us, was couched in terms of, what a weird novelty, why would anybody pay for news stories that aren’t immediately current, from the present day. And I think that that is no longer the attitude that prevails.
I’ve seen it and I’ve heard people talk about it in the context of De Correspondent from Holland and now globally. And obviously Tortoise, I’ve seen people talking about that in-depth, looking at the trends rather than the breaking news headlines. How do you feel about the likes of Tortoise? Is that a good thing for you or is that a threat?
Well I definitely don’t think it’s a threat. We’ve been lucky in one sense not to have some direct competitor saying that they are about slow news and slow journalism, in the market. But equally also, that’s a daft position for any business to be in. Of course you need people who are also in your space, it drives you to work harder and do better things.
I haven’t seen enough of Tortoise yet to know whether what they are pursuing is primarily slow news stuff, or more open news, because it seems to me that there’s a kind of thing with ‘think-ins’, about getting people involved in the newsroom. That speaks more to open journalism than slow journalism.
I’ll be interested to see when they bring out this quarterly news product, what it’s like. So, I don’t feel panicked by it. I will admit that when they were raising colossal amounts of money on Kickstarter for it I just felt like, ‘God. I wish we’d done that, or I wish we’d been at the stage were we could do that’. But I suppose that we’d never claimed ownership of this kind of system or this idea.
Generally it will probably be a positive thing for us. I think also, in a way it’s proof that we were onto something. If there are significant numbers of people who want to get behind this and invest in it and so on, then that’s probably quite good news for us overall.
The same could be said for your avoidance of ad funding. Now with everyone else pivoting to reader revenues, you’ve never had anything else but reader revenues, you’ve never taken advertising.
No, and it makes me feel quite smug to feel like we were kind of prescient in that sense. Although that that smugness is not justified because a huge amount of the reason that we didn’t take advertising was not some far-sighted notion that the advertising market was going to collapse, and that actually reader revenue would be the most important thing. It was at the beginning that we were five editors and a designer in a room, and none of us had the capability or the chops to sell advertising. And also, we were printing such pitiful numbers for the first few issues that any advertiser would have had to be insane to pay more than 50 quid for an ad in the magazine.
It’s one of those things where I’ve been careful throughout the years not to 100% rule it out, because we’ll do whatever we have to do in order to keep the publication going. And I suppose it’s one of those things where it was a practical consideration that fed into the philosophy quite nicely.
From the beginning it was always an experimental magazine. Can you, in an age where everybody says it’s all about giving people stuff for free online and then monetizing it through invasive adverts, can you do something that is paid for, uniquely supported by its subscribers and its readers, print only, and that is advertising free? You pay for the copy and you get 120 pages of pure beautiful well-designed journalism.
So, yeah, I mean it’s quite quite nice. But also, I can’t say that it was purely a philosophical crusade on my part.
In terms of your revenue now, is it as a business – I’m not thinking just about Delayed Gratification, I’m thinking about the Slow Journalism Company – is your revenue mostly subscription?
Yes it is. So, it’s subscription revenue, we get a decent amount from newsstand and through sales through our site. We’ve got a lot of events that we do, we do regular classes, we do slow journalism nights where we get people down to see our journalists and stuff like that. But subscriptions is absolutely 100 percent of the heart what we do.
And have you never looked at sponsorship even of the events or anything like that, or have you never had to?
We have actually. So, we have a sponsor now for our events, which is fantastic. So we have our printer, Crystal Press, is backing us on our events and sponsoring us, which is enabling us to do more interesting and varied things which is fantastic. And I totally see…I’m definitely not any sort of commercial mega brain, but I’m not a total dunce, and I can see opportunities around the side for people to participate in some editorial projects that we do in a completely non-invasive way that works for the both of us. So, we are doing things like that.
But one of the lovely things about the magazine is the design. I think we’ve been very lucky with the design. We have a sensational art director and he’s been there since the beginning. So, he’s evolved it, but in a way, it’s a lovely thing, because it’s a self-contained system. There’s no ads in there. It’s all of a piece. So, he design the entire thing and we can get the occasional illustrator in to work, but generates it’s 100% him. And that’s quite rare, because usually in a magazine, what you have, is you have all of these full stops along the way where there’s an ad, and all of them are created obviously by completely different agencies and completely different styles. Quite often it jars. So, there’s something I think that really feeds into why the magazine is so satisfying, is that it’s all of a piece, in terms of design.
The whole print thing also…you don’t do much online do you?
No we don’t. We put out occasional long form stories from the archive, and we put out some of our nice infographics a few months after new issues come out. We do a weekly newsletter that pulls a couple of those together, but a very small percentage of what we do, is actually online.
So, at the risk of triggering your smugness again, I’m just seeing more and more stories about the resurgence of print, after the death of print articles that we were bombarded with for a couple of years. Never seen a resurgence of print. Are you seeing that? Is that something that you recognise?
All of the people who set this magazine up, we were all print journalists. We all really loved it. There’s something incredibly satisfying about putting something together that is finite, that has a deadline, and you work to it, and you create it, and then you send it off and you get it back. Whereas actually, when you’re working in digital, it’s just constant. It’s around the clock. Nothing’s ever completely done because you can always make final revisions and so on. You don’t have a final product that comes out of it, you’re just filling up the digital space, forever.
So, we never really thought that it had gone away. People who said that print was dead, that was nonsense. Those people have still not found a credible way to make money out digital. But it’s certainly the case that this colossal resurgence in print products that we see in the independent sector – so this insane blossoming of independent titles, which is very very exciting – is also very often not sustainable. Because it’s still a very difficult business model to make work and there is the most extraordinary attrition rate in terms of independent publications. There’s so many that you see, Issue 1 comes out with a blast, issue 2 a bit quiet, a bit late and it’s dead by Issue 3 or 4.
So why are you still going after 33 issues? What’s the secret?
We teach a class in how to launch independent magazines, and one of things that I always say in that, is there’s a Woody Allen quote, I’m not sure if I’m still allowed to quote Woody Allen…I think so, probably. But he said something along the lines of, ’90 per cent of success is turning up’. And I think, a huge amount of the reason that we’re still going is because in the early years, when it was very bloody and very hand-to-mouth, we just kept going because we had a real bee in our bonnet. I was working evenings and weekends doing freelance work. It got really tough financially for a long time. It was very difficult get our head above the parapet and get noticed.
But, actually in order to get to a critical mass, what you need is just to keep going. You need to keep getting those issues out there and keep juggling the money stuff, and then eventually we just got into a bit of a clearing and then it started to work from there.
I don’t think there’s any magical solution. I think one thing that we profited from, was that our niche appealed to journalists. So, there were a lot of journalists who were sitting in those newsrooms where they’d seen half of their colleagues sacked, and they were churning out stories at great speed. Sometimes having to do top and tail press releases, and just bang it out there just to feed the digital beast. And actually somebody saying, ‘You know what, what we like is 5000 words in three months time’. That’s actually a very appealing thing to them. So, they wrote about us and we got a lot of coverage, without having any kind of proper PR stance, or PR people on the team. We just had a lot of stuff coming through the window. So, that’s been really good for us.
Also it’s a great magazine. Beautiful, full of good stories. We pour a huge amount of attention into it, and eventually that just hopefully establishes itself. Until of course, we have a massive Brexit-induced recession, which means everybody cancels their subscriptions…
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