“The heroes of this series are words and ideas and stories” - What About? looks again at indie mags

2 November 2017

What are we talking about when we talk about inspiration? I don’t think we know any more. Inspiration has become too abstract, too easy, too woolly. In becoming a catch-all term to mean everything, it has stopped meaning anything.

In the past year, I have become really interested in breaking down the idea of inspiration and trying to work out what the word means and what the idea stands for. In my role producing content for WeTransfer, I enjoy trying to find new ways to explore the real experience of the creative process (another phrase whose neatness I have issues with).

A long-time bugbear has been the Worst Interview Question In The World – “Where do you get your inspiration?” (and its equally ugly sister, “Where do you get your ideas from?”)

Only twice have I seen this answered well. The first was by the writer Sebastian Faulks, who employed enjoyably haughty sarcasm. “I get them from a well outside a small mining village in New South Wales. I have a cottage there now, but am not prepared to reveal the name of the village. You can probably find it on Google Maps, though, if you type in “well” and “ideas”.”

On his new website, the inimitable Mr Bingo was more blunt. “Fuck off. Who cares?”

The stupidity of the question lies in its failure to reflect how ideas really work and the myriad, mysterious ways that they take hold, evolve, peter out and reignite. I am intrigued by how a whisp of a thought crosses that all-important line from intent into action. I’m like an annoying toddler – But why? But how? – albeit one with a commissioning budget.

In the indie magazine world – which I worked in and wrote about for several years – the willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of ideas seemed oddly lacking. The talks you hear at magazine conferences and the articles you read on creative websites and the social media accounts dedicated to magazine coverage seem to focus almost solely on magazines as objects. You can read and hear lots about cover design, type choices and paper stock.

But often any debate, commentary or criticism of the articles themselves was nowhere to be found. As an unashamed words guy who inveigled his way into this world, this was bizarre and frustrating. Maybe my old boss was right – “Nobody really reads the words.” But maybe there was an appetite for a series exploring the fundamental building blocks of magazines – the actual articles.

And so these ideas coalesced on our new project with magCulture. To make sure the focus was all on the words, we decided to do it as a podcast. The name we hit upon – What About? – will be familiar to any magazine-maker who has ever lobbed a hopeful half-thought into the middle of a pitch meeting.

We decided to pair short interviews with editors – about their magazines and particular pieces – with a full reading of that article. The aim is that people forget all the visual stuff that shapes the magazine-reading experience and focus on the simple communicative act of stringing words together into sentences.

We hope that it gives listeners another way of thinking about the how indie magazines are made, how ideas and half ideas and barely-even-ideas become stories that we read, react to and remember. As indie mags become more prominent, more talked-about and more coveted, coverage of this cultural phenomenon seems to hit the same few beats over and over again.

By focusing on a different part of the process, we hope it gives people another way of thinking about indie magazines and more broadly the alchemy of how good ideas work.

Across the six episodes we hear the different ways that the pieces in question grew from their initial sparks. We hear from Vestoj and The New York Times Magazine about how ideas evolve in the framework of a themed issue. Both Lucky Peach (RIP) and Frieze discuss the impetus of shining a light on figures who haven’t received due reverence. For Victory, the starting point is a podcast, which itself drew on a book, and raises its editor’s concerns about appearing cannibalistic. And in the case of Zeit international, it’s a writer’s confession – that she knows nothing about wine – that leads to an astonishing, year-long profile of one of Germany’s most exclusive vineyards.

From these starting points, we come across various aspects of the magazine-making craft, touching on research and editing and image selection, on unexpected characters and how subjects react to reading about themselves.

So from pastry to homelessness to wine to sports mascots to the bird life of Manhattan to a fashion visionary, we present some of the world’s best magazine writing, alongside an honest, insightful and intimate breakdown of where articles come from.

There is the odd mention of visual design, but the heroes of this series are words and ideas and stories, presented in the most stripped-back form we could think of.

You could say that we hope it inspires you…

Rob Alderson is VP of content and editor-in-chief at WeTransfer.

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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