Magazines in the new normal: Ctrl+X or fast forward?

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As mass extinction threatens South Africa’s traditional magazines (fifteen titles closed down earlier this month), Catherine Knox recalls a time when the industry was on a roll. Drawing meaning from her own early encounters, she suggests that the time of the magazine is not over, even though the bell tolls for paper, ink and delivery vans.

Photo: Pixabay.com

Vogue magazine found its way from London to the remote Natal Midlands farmstead where I grew up in the 1950s. It came every month in the padlocked postbag which the RMT bus dropped off on the district road at the top of the hill. My grandmother’s two little magazines, Home Chat and Women’s Weekly, came in the postbag once a week. They had stories for children about robins, squirrels and foxes. Also from England.

The Farmers Weekly, on the other hand, came in the postbag from somewhere in South Africa. My siblings and I were avid readers of all these titles, but I am the only one still fascinated by the magazine as a cultural artefact.

Our little gang of farm youngsters (five siblings and our Zulu pals) explored the interactive potential of Farmers Weekly. At that time, there were a number of forms in the magazine to fill in – you could enter competitions, apply for pamphlets, obtain details of courses, get instructions. To represent our consortium, we invented someone called JD Knox and filled in the forms. Our farmer mother (she homeschooled us) provided envelopes and stamps. And, oh, the excitement when Thomas Zondo plodded back down from the top of the hill with the empty wooden egg boxes and cream cans (sent back from the market) and the postbag, which now often contained brown foolscap envelopes of bumph addressed to JD Knox!

We took turns at opening the envelopes, and we kept everything in a box. This activity gave us agency – it made us feel noticed, connected – the feeling that my current favourite publishing phenomenon, the Facebook group View from my window, has given its 2,3 million readers/members.

Farmers Weekly is also online now. It survived this month’s mass burial of AMP and Caxton magazines – the end result of falling readership and loss of advertising revenue precipitated by lockdown. And FW is more interactive today than ever before, as are the Media24 magazines, each of which has a digital edition.

Encouraged by the mother who continued to supply those envelopes and stamps, I started freelancing before I graduated (from ’Maritzburg varsity in 1966). A fashion drawing (in The Natal Witness) was my debut into print, followed by articles and photographs on lifestyle, entertainment and fashion. I would borrow clothes from local shops and get friends to dress up so I could shoot fashion pictures (one frame per garment: I was stunned when I saw the 1966 Antonioni movie Blow up, in which David Hemmings played a fashion photographer who shot in bursts with a motor drive. What a waste of film!).

At first, our pharmacy did my developing and printing, and then they showed me how to do it myself in their darkroom. Such was life in ’Maritzburg. Everything was possible. All one needed was chutzpah, stamps and envelopes. (I picked up numerous useful Yiddish expressions while I worked with Jane Raphaely.)

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“Her generation knew fear and privation, which either broke them or made them fiercely aspirational and determined to let nothing get them down. This is where Vogue magazine came into the picture.” 

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I mention this to illustrate the point that while a magazine like Vogue could encourage mindless consumerism, etc, it can also encourage cultural production. I never wanted to be the model or own the jewellery. I wanted to design the clothes, take the pictures and make the magazine. Because it was the ’60s (before it became the norm to take a course before you could do anything), I just did it – wrote articles, made drawings and took pictures, and then sent them in to be published.

That time seems to have come again. View from my window is my example. Belgian graphic designer Barbara Duriau, locked up with a laptop in her apartment in Amsterdam, launched a Facebook group on 22 March 2020. Five weeks later, she had 2,3 million members and closed down to new members. These figures are dizzying to a traditional magazinista.

Barbara Duriau, founder of Facebook group View from my window (March 2020)

Duriau loves to travel and has generated a unique travel publication with this simple editorial proposition: “We are all locked down, looking out at the world through our windows. Let’s share and connect. Send one picture taken through your window and the time and place you took it.” The entry threshold was low: you needed only a smart phone to take your shot, and then to send it in.

Her proposition stimulated a flood of poignant, touching, funny, intimate messages and interactions and some truly breathtaking photographs from all over the world (the Himalayas, Peru, the Faroe Islands, my Bedford, Siberia – you name it) – a wealth of content, 100% produced by members. No support from advertisers. She and a small group of volunteers are still ploughing through thousands of submissions, each of which has to be vetted before being posted online.

I would say that Duriau has a unique editorial sense; she understood the global zeitgeist in March 2020, and she said (effectively), “Will this help with how you’re feeling?” and beguiled a niche audience across cultures.

But it also shows that, thanks to the internet, creatives with the right sense of time and place can now wing it solo and change the face of publishing.

Staff pic of Fair Lady teenage page editor Cathy Knox, taken in 1968 by theatremaker Brian Astbury

The stars were similarly aligned in 1964 when Nasionale Pers took a gamble and let Jane Raphaely launch a perfectly timed Fair Lady magazine into a market that was ripe for it. (The cover price was 10 cents, and you could get a year’s subscription for R1.) She may have changed the face of South African magazines, but there was no question of winging it with the dinosaur printing machines of the time.

That is why my first commission from Jane was a series of line drawings, not photographs. (I had already submitted some fashion drawings and photographs to her.)

This was the ’60s, when magazines had a very exciting job to do, but print quality was lousy. Colour pages were very expensive to print, often coming out even splodgier than black and white shots. Line drawings printed well and gave life to editorial pages, differentiating them from advertisements.

I still love doing those clean line drawings, and they still inform my textile work. I’m just sorry that this penchant irritated my lecturers in the Fine Art Department at ’Maritzburg varsity way back then.

Trying to make sense of the 1960s today, I think about being brought up by a mother directly involved in and affected by WWII, two of her brothers serving “up north”, one lost for six years and only found again in an Italian prisoner of war camp at the end of the war. She was desperate to enlist as well, but was forced to stay in South Africa because she was qualified to train nurses.

Her generation knew fear and privation, which either broke them or made them fiercely aspirational and determined to let nothing get them down. This is where Vogue magazine came into the picture. She personally needed the magazine as a window into a more enabled life, and she said that with three daughters in the house, Vogue was a necessity: intelligent, polished, cosmopolitan, fluent and good-looking.

Photo: Pixabay.com

At the same time, Mother drummed into us that we were responsible for people less fortunate than us. It was our duty to get educated and be successful so that we could help other women. This ethos (probably more than my intimate knowledge of Vogue magazine) equipped me to work for Jane Raphaely when I first joined her team in 1967.

To my way of thinking now, the swinging ’60s (Mary Quant, The Beatles and all that fun) came from people like us: the generation who had been reared by the WWII generation. I don’t recall entertaining this kind of thought at the time. We were all too busy being excited and (in South Africa) pretending not to be terrified by messages from a draconian (and fear-driven) government and the police spies who seemed to be everywhere. They were everywhere.

I began at Fair Lady the way I continued – working in a number of specialised departments at the same time. As printing evolved, I still did many drawings, but I worked increasingly with photographers. Jane created a happy place, and major talents hung out with us. Many of the people we worked with became legends in their own right. Leslie Dektor is just one of many examples.

I assisted the knitting editor, Zita Schimming, who worked from home. She had learned to knit in a German factory where they lined young girls up on benches and made them knit jerseys for the army all day, in return for minimal rations. Our show business editor, Bunty Turner, arrived in South Africa in a touring production of My fair lady. (The magazine’s name was derived from this show.) I had seen the production in Durban, so I loved typing out Bunty’s stories, which were written with a 6B pencil in scrawly script.

I also worked with the fiction: we carried three short stories and a serial instalment in every issue. Artists of the calibre of Paul Emsley were pleased to illustrate for us. (Paul was recently commissioned by the UK’s National Portrait Gallery to paint the first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge.)

We encouraged stories from South Africans (you had to send a stamped and addressed envelope for return, in case the story was not accepted), but most of the novels available for serialisation were submitted by international agents – wads of typed foolscap pages tied up with string. (This was before South Africa went metric in 1970.) Over the years, as I looked for novels right for us, I ploughed through so much trash (and often violent, nasty trash) that I still hold up a bunch of garlic if a novel approaches my comfort zone.

From today’s perspective, it’s hard to conceive of working in publishing before computers.

A novel, once accepted for serialisation, had to be chopped into six instalments (our optimum for maintaining reader interest), each of which had to be reduced to 1 800 words or so. There was no Ctrl+X and Ctrl+V. Cut and paste meant scissors and sticky tape. There was no word count, so the patchwork pages went to the subs and then to the print factory, where they were set by German operators who knew the imported machines but didn’t know English. (Imagine the typos.) Printouts went to the art department to be measured, and then back to me because they needed to be a bit longer or a bit shorter. Then back to the subs for the typos …

And, of course, there were no emails, either. Readers needed stamps and envelopes to interact. They sent R1 postal orders to pay for their subscriptions. We ran hugely popular competitions, and the GPO had to bring the entries in special sacks – a trove of data that could only be mined manually. Running on instinct and random sampling, we picked up indicators and acted on them in what proved to be a hit more often than a miss, as happens in a congenial, creative environment.

The letters to our problem page (ask Elizabeth Duncan) came in for close and respectful attention. Letters to the editor were strongly featured, and unsolicited manuscripts and short stories were encouraged. “Let’s have a look at what’s come in from the readers” was often the opening line at monthly planning meetings.

We were reader-obsessed. Spared the mediated “reality” of television (introduced in 1976), we did our own research in the grocery store, on the train, on the beach, at the dentist’s – everywhere. We did not ask ourselves how we could sell the readers to the advertisers, but, “Where do they come from? What are they worried or cross about? What will entertain them? How can we plug into their lives and help?” I think this was at the heart of Team Raphaely’s success in those early years.

But everything is in constant flux, and my subsequent experiences with Fair Lady and editing other magazines supported my premise that social culture runs in three-year cycles. I have also heard it said that creative people need change and refreshment every three years.

By the end of 1969 (my third year at Fair Lady), the striking success of the magazine had brought increased pressure on profit-making in an increasingly competitive market. The ’60s were giving way to a tougher, more materialistic environment and an escalation of political conflict in South Africa. Many creative people were destabilised.

I took myself away from the noise, back to university (Rhodes), where I could wear long shweshwe dresses and commune with dreamers – for three years.

But I am not leaving it longer than three days to see what Barbara Duriau is going to do with her 2,3 million members. She has already announced that the world has changed in the five weeks since 22 March, and that is why View from my window is now transforming. She promises to announce the road ahead soon. She has already hinted that it may involve a book.

Paper and ink are not going away just yet.

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Kommentaar

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    Erica Platter

    Oh Cathy! What a fine story. How fortunate I was to be able to work with and learn from you.

  • Such happy memories of you, Cathy, and the good-old bad-old days at ’Maritzburg! So glad to see that, half a century on, the “Knox-effect” endures. Don’t ever change ...

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.


     

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