Friday, December 15, 2006

Expat Magazines: What I've Learned

Since I realized the other day that I've already made one of my New Year's resolutions -- not to get involved in any more magazine startups -- and since the morass of comments on those last two posts got into this area, I thought it might be time to expound my basic theory of how to do an English-language magazine in another country.

The following is based on my experience here in Europe, specifically -- although not totally -- in Berlin. There might be other variables which would make this advice not as applicable in the Far East or South America, I don't know. But this is what I've learned in the past decade.

Earlier, even: when I first moved here in 1993, Checkpoint magazine was already publishing. Co-funded by Zitty, Time Out, and some private funds, it had been running for about a year when I first approached it. It wasn't very successful for a number of reasons, not least of which was appalling art direction. Eventually, Time Out pulled out, and Zitty took it over, forming a new subsidiary of their company to do so. Since the old name was owned by the previous entity, a new one had to be found, and, casting about for suggestions, I liked one from a friend, Metropolis. True, this was also claimed by an American architecture magazine, but doing our title search (something every magazine should do...hello, ExBerliner!) we discovered it hadn't been registered in Germany, so we were clear to use it as long as it didn't look like we were putting out an architecture magazine. It didn't.

Zitty proved to be an unreliable partner, to say the least. They'd withdraw or hold back funds, and they'd "suspend publication" for a couple of months at a time -- once, most disastrously, over the three summer months, the very time when Berlin got most of its English-language tourist trade, and thus, a perfect opportunity for advertisers. In late 1996, though, they'd convinced Metropolis' editor, Kevin Cote, to join Zitty as editor-in-chief, and he handed the magazine over to me. I made a couple of changes: the magazine became free, thereby freeing it from having to compete for space with newsstands which hated to display non-Turkish and non-Russian foreign-language publications; and editorial focus was redirected from tourists, never a stable market, to residents.

Having taken our editor, though, Zitty lost all interest in the magazine, and killed it after two issues. Oh, excuse me, "suspended publication." Weirdly, the two issues I'd put out, with the free distribution network still in its infancy, made money, something the magazine had never done in its earlier incarnations. I was plenty angry about the "suspension," and announced that the next editorial meeting would take place as scheduled, with an eye towards continuing English-language magazine publication in Berlin. Out of this grew a project known as the Berlin Information Group (BIG), one of whose elements was a newsprint magazine called b. The other elements, and the story of how and why it failed, aren't part of what I'm focusing on, though.

The two big changes at Metropolis remain essential to the success of a magazine like this today. And yes, I mean magazine. Webpages are great, blogs are great, but even though you can read the web on your cell phone on the U-Bahn, do you really want to? I'm still convinced that a well-designed magazine with great graphics is a fine thing, portable, browsable, and, if it's free, disposable without guilt. (You do recycle, don't you?)

Making the magazine free puts a larger burden on the ad staff to get ads (and another burden on the editorial staff not to go all advertorial, which seems a temptation too many yield to these days), but it also means you can target your distribution points far more precisely, and hit your readers where they actually exist. I remember seeing Checkpoint in U-Bahn kiosks, forced upon them by the Zitty distribution guy. Nobody looked twice at them. If you try to sell the magazine at your distribution points -- English-language cinemas, bookstores, video rentals, bars, restaurants, etc. -- you're asking each merchant to keep track of each copy sold and segregate the proceeds from his own intake. Fahgeddaboudit. Running a business is hard enough without that kind of headache. Free is free. And free means a huge number of them get picked up and a huge percentage of them get read. Work out the economics of the advertising -- we actually had people approaching us at b towards the end of our three-month run, so anxious were they to reach our readership -- and keep it free.

The second point, though, is far more subtle, and the one we had the hardest time making the few prospective investors understand. Locals, approached with our projections, would trot out the figures from the Ausländerbehörde and tell us there were only 35,000 Americans in Berlin, only X hundred Australians, New Zealanders, and an unknown number of British people and Irish people. There was, they said with a certain amount of Schadenfreude, no way we could make money with those kind of numbers. Which, as far as it went, was true. With so few residents forming a base, we would only enjoy a small increase when the tourism figures -- not so hot in those days, better now -- were added on. Then we would hear the German investor's mantra: Wo ist der Sicherheit? Where is the security? As if investing were a 100% secure proposition anyway. Ask those poor people who lost their shirts on Deutsche Telekom.

But that figure -- for the sake of argument, let's say it's 60,000 -- is only a start. There are two more readerships, as I learned at Metropolis and as the BIG project got underway. The second readership is people whose native language isn't English, but whose English is better than their German: Indians, Japanese, even some Europeans like Scandinavians, Dutch, and French. These people live and work here, too, and they're happy to have help understanding what's going on. I estimated their numbers at around half the core readership's. The third readership is the most nebulous -- and, potentially, populous -- of all: those native German-speakers whose desire to improve their English (not to mention see their home from a totally different viewpoint than the German media presents) would drive them to seek out such a publication. This may be just a data-point, but when I put an ad in Metropolis looking for a new apartment, with an office phone number on it, I got twelve calls, nine of which were from Germans who apologized for their bad English as soon as we started talking. That seemed telling to me: I expected to hear from the expat community with offers they'd picked up on the jungle telegraph. There is no way to research this number in advance, but it's there, and once you're in business, you encounter it repeatedly.

The other thing to remember about all three segments of the readership is that it's demographically diverse. If you want to focus on the hip! edgy! college kids on junior year abroad, be my guest, but you're not going to make any money. Consider the executives at Anglo-American companies here on contracts of a couple of years. Consider the academic and diplomatic communities. Consider the older people who've washed up here because of everything from the military to DAAD. Consider those Germans who became Anglophiles or Americanophiles during the occupation. We heard from every one of these groups and more as we tried to make b a reality. They haven't gone away, and they're not being served.

Of course, one advantage we had back in '96 was that Deutsche Telekom was making access to the Internet almost impossible, so any kind of online presence was a nice fantasy (and one we were planning for), but nothing we could do much about right at the moment. Today, the online presence and the print presence would have to be complementary to each other, and the success of the enterprise would come out of the synergy.

But like I said, I'm walking away from all of this. I'd mostly walked away from it at the beginning of this year, when I helped someone start a project in France. My advice was all ignored, with the result that the magazine is mostly aimed at retired British people, which is a shame, since the constituency is much larger. I've had it: I'm going to concentrate on book projects (since magazines are a losing proposition for writers) and try to make as much money as I can as quickly as I can so I can get out of here as soon as I can. I don't exactly feel like I've wasted my time on this, and I'm glad I learned what I did. But this is a risk-averse society that's hostile to entrepreneurship, and just a bit more so when that entrepreneurship comes from an outsider. Someone else can beat their head against that particular wall. Good luck.


Anonymous said...

Ed, excellent background and advice. One question, if you can ballpark it--what would the startup costs be, and what would the operating costs be for, say, the first six months or eyar? I'm just curious about the kind of dough required to get over the hump into a self-sustaining enterprise, if that's possible.

Although Germans may be risk averse in their investing, a lot of Americans are either too rich or too greedy to consider the risk as carefully as they should. I'm surprised some enterprising hip! edgy! trustfunder hasn't jumped in.

Ed Ward said...

No idea what the startup would be these days. A lot of the answer to that would depend on how you designed your print/web integration.

You're surprised some hip! edgy! trustfunder! hasn't jumped in? That's who owns the ExBerliner!

There's just so little hip cred and cool factor involved in giving something back to the city you live in, though, that, like, why bother? And those old people? Who cares what they want?

Ed Ward said...

Oh, and another thing: you can't get obscenely, stinking, Internet millionaire rich doing it, either. So who'd want to bother?

Anonymous said...

Gee, you'd think making a decent living while providing a good product and service would be incentive enough. Boy, am I out of it.

William Thirteen said...

so Ed, what do you think of the ExBerliner? I check it out on occasion and ,like many magazines, after reading it i feel oddly unfulfilled - somewhat like a dietsoda might affect a sugar addict. (which is exactly why i don't drink diet sodas!). I did notice that they started charging a while back - do you think this is because they couldn't make the money from the advertising?

Ed said...

Well, William, I think you can guess what I think of those people. They're not professionals, which is the worst thing I can say about anyone in that business. Of course you're unfulfilled; they don't have professional editors, don't develop writers, don't have any editoral vision, don't serve the majority of their community, and don't have a clue what they're doing.

They're charging because they weren't making any money being free because they didn't know how to do that. Now they're relying on newsstand sales, which isn't going to work, since they're competing for space with all the other magazines. Clueless.

daggi said...

The second readership is people whose native language isn't English, but whose English is better than their German: Indians, Japanese, even some Europeans like Scandinavians, Dutch, and French.[...] The third readership is the most nebulous -- and, potentially, populous -- of all: those native German-speakers whose desire to improve their English[...]

Surely this is all just obvious, though? Though maybe not to Zitty.

And perhaps they just didn't like the idea of them funding a free listings mag, albeit in English - knowing that most Germans' English, while pretty bad at times, would be good enough to understand the cinema programme
and exhibitions guide (the main reason why people buy listings magazines, not the editorial).

When I buy a listings mag, it is almost always Zitty, as I prefer the layout, I preferred the newsprint-like paper and the lack of colour (until recently) and the general lack of "tits and arse" on the front page (and in the classifieds) when compared to tip. And I read some of the articles too, where as tip's writing is generally on the level of the B.Z..

Ed Ward said...

Daggi, Metropolis never had much in the way of listings, partially because our editorial pages were limited by the number of ads we ran, and partially because we thought features and criticism were a better use of the space. What listings we did run concentrated on English-language events. This was before the huge OF/OMU cinema complex in Potsdamer Platz existed, so we were the main repository of which cinemas were running those films. For pop music, we concentrated on Anglo-American acts, theater was exclusively English-language, and we also publicized book readings and so on. So we weren't in any kind of competition with our parent, except very peripherally.

Olivier said...

Ed, not nice of you to call our fine specimen of collective penmanship "a morass of comments". As for not getting involved in any other magazine startup, promis juré, wasn't that exactly what you were planning to do in Montpellier?

Ed Ward said...

Actually, Olivier, that's what I was doing in Nimes in January this year. A magazine just for Montpellier wouldn't work: too small a market. It'd have to be a website, and I'm not the guy for that.