UK’s bi-annual Boat Magazine is a nomadic publication that, for every issue, thoroughly explores a city by traveling and immersing itself in its culture. Each magazine brings untold history to light in a great and slick design. Interview with editor Erin Spens.
Baron: What’s the story behind BoatMagazine?
Erin Spens: A few years ago, my husband and I started a design studio called Boat Studio. One business-slow month, we decided to start a project about cities that would allow our studio to work on something creative and adventurous. We picked Sarajevo as our first city to focus on because we didn’t know very much about it and thought it would be a fun place to explore – a totally blank canvas for us creatively. So we went for a month in the middle of winter and we gathered a whole bunch of stories, photos, interviews, and incredible experiences. We came back to London and put it together in a magazine. That’s how it started – it was kind of an accident because we didn’t expect people to really catch onto it. We did it more as a way to push ourselves creatively and editorially, but quite quickly this type of work has become the majority of what we do.
I really believe in journalism that is motivated by honesty and integrity more than money and politics. I think that independent publishers like us have a big responsibility to uphold those values – we don’t have big brands or lobbyists breathing down our necks telling us what to print and how to print it. We tell the stories that we find in these amazing cities that we focus on. We let the people who live there take the stage and tell us about their hometown, not the other way around. Boat Magazine isn’t a moneymaker. We do it because we’re passionate about it and it’s nice to have creative and editorial control. If we had big backers, I wonder if it would be harder to maintain these values.
B.: How does that translate to an editorial policy?
E. S.: We’re not a travel magazine in that we don’t review hotels or tell you about restaurant openings (unless they’re interesting!). We try to go a bit deeper than that by involving the locals in the stories and asking them to help create the content. This allows them to have a say in how the world sees them. We get really frustrated with coverage in the media that reduces an entire city to a headline or that keeps it stuck in its own history – like Sarajevo, where you can hardly find any English-language news and information about it online that doesn’t involve the war (which ended 15 years ago!). You’d never know that it’s a really young, creative, beautiful city!
We start each issue with a local person talking about their home – we’ve had Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Jeffrey Eugenides, Pico Iyer, and in this next one Andri Snær Magnason opens the issue. Then the magazine content is totally dictated by what we find when we get there. In this next issue all about Reykjavik, we met with the Icelandic Strongmen who train in a suburb of Reykjavik, we have a story about Icelandic Horse breed which has been totally preserved for over 1000 years. We met with a professor of Old Icelandic Literature, a doctor of genomics, we have a whole story about music there and where the ethereal quality of Iclandic music comes from. A couple of our contributors even went surfing with a group of local surfers! And then each issue is finished with a piece of fiction. We never want to sum a place up – so we leave you with a short story that is meant to leave a few loose ends.
B.: Why choose print? What kind of paper do you use and why?
E. S.: Print works best for Boat Magazine because we want to make something that lasts – something that you won’t want to throw away. Our stories are pretty timeless so you can pick up our first issue about Sarajevo, which is almost 2 years old now, and it’ll still be relevant. As far as paper and typography go – they change for each issue. Our designers, Luke Tonge and Daniel Cooper, work really hard to make each issue feel like the city it comes from. We try to use fonts that were designed there and as much as we can capture the atmosphere of the city through the design of the magazine. Also, we just love magazines! But we’re not opposed to digital journalism and storytelling, either! We’ve been exploring that more and more with Middle 8 Magazine.
B.: How’s the public’s response?
E. S.: The public’s response has blown us away. It genuinely has! We are just doing what we love and trying to do it as well as we can so it feels really good to know how much people enjoy it.
B.: Good print mags get a lot of love, but this isn’t always reflected in sales or advertising. How are your sales doing? What is your advertising philosophy?
E. S.: Boat Studio, our design studio, subsidizes the magazine right now with a goal that it will eventually stand on its own – time will tell! But the magazine’s helped to raise the profile of the studio where we do work for other brands and publications. It’s worked okay so far. We sell a couple ads for each issue but we rely almost completely on sales which, so far, have been pretty good for each issue.
B.: Upcoming projetcs?
E. S.: This year, we launched Middle 8 Magazine (www.middle8mag.com), which is a digital magazine all about live music. Music is pretty specific when it comes to its journalism, and we broke the mold a little in trying to tell the really human side of live music. I’m also personally working on a collection of interviews with remarkable women around the world in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. I’ve interviewed a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, a Jewish woman who escaped Germany during World War II as a teenager by faking a nurse’s uniform on the Kindertransport and many more... It’s incredibly inspiring listening to these women tell their stories!