Who are you and what is your background? In what city?
I’m Vanessa Ellingham, publisher and editor of NANSEN Magazine. Born and raised in New Zealand, but moved to Berlin about six years ago, following a stint in Denmark.
When I’m not working on NANSEN, I’m a journalist, editor and communications consultant. From 2015 until a couple of months ago, I spent three-and-a-half years working at Give Something Back to Berlin, a migrant-focused volunteer organization where I ran their communications and advocacy work.
NANSEN is a magazine about migrants of all kinds. We aim to expand the way our readers think about migrants – who that might be, who that includes – and the way migrants view themselves. We go after the stories of migration that don’t make the headlines in an attempt to build a more expansive picture of migration, something humans have always done and always will do.
We’ve chosen the term “migrant” as the most neutral term for a person who lives outside their country of birth. But it’s often a politicized term, used to divide people into who belongs and who doesn’t. We want to reclaim the word “migrant” and have it be something to be proud of.
I grew up in a country where everyone had some kind of “migration background” – at school we did research projects tracing the routes of our ancestors, and it was in no way shameful to have come from somewhere else. So when I moved to Europe I was shocked by the divisiveness of migration discourse here.
As a long-time fan of independent magazines and the way they construct worlds within their pages and communities to inhabit them, I wanted to make a magazine about being a migrant, and build a community around that. Independent magazines tend to be bought by people interested in design, arts, and culture, who are increasingly affluent and influential and might live outside their country of birth but not necessarily identify with the term “migrant”. We think readers like this can make really powerful allies for migrants with less privilege, and we wanted to use our magazine to build solidarity between migrants across borders, levels of privilege, class, and agency.
With each issue, we focus on one migrant and dive deep into their story and their community, creating a super-personal experience that we hope our readers – migrants and non-migrants alike – will relate to.
In our first issue, we met AYDIN AKIN, a man who moved from Turkey to Germany 50 years ago, along with more than 1 million Turks who were invited as guest workers. We wanted to compare the more recent narrative around large numbers of Syrian arrivals with that of half a century ago when Germany welcomed these Turkish workers and their families. People often use the term “unprecedented” when they talk about migration today, but we found that the most recent wave of arrivals to Europe was hardly the first, and that, in fact, just 3 percent of the world’s population are migrants, a percentage that’s held steady since the 1960s.
For our latest issue, we met KALAF EPALANGA, best known as a founding MC of Buraka Som Sistema, a rowdy music project that burst out of a Lisbon nightclub and onto the global stage in the 2000s. Buraka fused contemporary European electronic dance music with kuduro, a frantic Angolan dance beat developed when Kalaf was growing up there in the 1980s. Their bringing kuduro to the mainstream permanently altered the global club music scene.
We were interested in how migration is influenced by colonial ties – in this case, between Portugal and its former colony, Angola. This is something KALAF has written about extensively, and so we got to bring his thoughts on these issues to an English-speaking audience – including how the presence of migrants from former Portuguese colonies now living in Portugal might impact the way Portugal thinks about its dark colonial past. Kalaf has a really beautiful vision for a more unified Portuguese-speaking world, traversing borders drawn up during colonization to bring the people of his homeland and his chosen home together.
Print: Why choose print? What kind of paper you use and why? Typography?
What I love about print is how it offers us a chance to take a break from our screens. NANSEN offers readers the chance to take a break and have a cup of tea or coffee with a migrant, and hear what they have to say about their own life. It’s a much more personal, intimate experience of getting to know another human being and we think this works best for building connections between our readers and subjects.
Our cover paper mimics the texture and slightly rubbery feel of a passport. We also named our magazine after Fridtjof Nansen who developed the Nansen Passport, the first document that offered refugees safe passage into another country.
Our approach to typography is quite daring. For each issue, we select a new typeface to reflect the subject of that issue, and that means changing the masthead – a branding risk, to be sure, but one we think is worth it in terms of executing our concept.
How’s the public response?
Our first issue was made in Berlin about a man that Berliners would know, but he probably wouldn’t be recognized outside the city. For that reason, we expected that our first issue would mostly be bought by Berliners, people interested in the city and people interested in migration. We were taking the first issue as a pilot, to test our concept.
So we were totally surprised to find that the first issue was bought by readers on every continent except Antarctica! That told us that our concept had global relevance and that was really exciting! So then we were able to go out and find some better funding and dream big about featuring migrants all over the world in future issues.
Can you give us a tour of your local media scene?
Germans love the print! And that makes Berlin a really great place to make a magazine – also because it’s a very supportive environment for people working on independent creative projects.
We belong to a group of local indie mag makers, organized by indiemags.de, who support each other and swap notes on the business side of running a magazine (the side most of us tend to be less familiar with), sharing tips for distribution, fulfillment, book fairs and the like.
Business: Good print mags get a lot of love, but is not always translated to sales or advertising. How’re the sales? Advertising-wise, is it a normal approach of selling an ad page or more a brand ad approach?
[Regarding sales, I think it’s a little hard to answer this question when Issue 02 has only been out for a week, but hopefully, my answer above gave you an idea for Issue 01].
We are happy to have advertising in our magazine that is useful and relevant to our readers, but we’ve found that working on a politicized topic like migration, advertisers really want to see a couple of issues and get to know our tone before they are ready to place an ad. And that’s fine with us.
For our second issue, our back cover features an ad for Heden, a creative hub in Lisbon that combines co-working, art spaces, and a wellness studio. Our shared values around creating community felt like a great match, they have been lovely to work with and are even going to host our launch party in a couple of weeks!
What is your online strategy?
That’s the funny thing about indie mags – our communities often convene online! We’re also quite reliant on online sales. Social media is the main way we reach our readers and we also have an email newsletter.
We know it’s important for many of our readers to be able to touch (and sniff!) the magazines before they buy one, so we have a growing number of stockists where our readers can find NANSEN.
About design, what does your brand represent/reflect?
Our designer, Eva Gonçalves, used the Nansen Passport as inspiration, taking some of the lines and registration form-like boxes to create the main frame that we use for each issue. Like a passport, it’s universal but also personal.
Inside the magazine, we are quite liberal with color, and this reflects the tone of the magazine. While migration is an often politicized topic, there’s also plenty to celebrate about being a migrant, and we try to strike that balance.
What inspires you and motivates you to go to work every day?
Knowing that there are 258 million migrants in this world (and counting!) and that we’re never going to run out of stories to tell. Thinking about and researching migrants who don’t usually make the headlines, and what their stories can contribute to the way we understand migration.
What were your biggest challenges as an entrepreneur?
Like many indie mag makers, running a business is the part of the process I came in knowing the least about, and have had to work the hardest at. But seeing how a post on Instagram can lead to a reader visiting a magazine store or buying a copy online, and then sending us lovely feedback the following week – watching that process unfold and seeing how it works, that’s really satisfying.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start a magazine?
What do you have to say that no one else is saying? What’s your editorial point of view?
Indie mags offer us the opportunity to stretch the ways we tell stories, to create our own distinct worlds and communities. I love it when I find a new magazine that speaks directly to me, that’s gone all in on personality and point of view. That’s what the best ones get right.
We’re dreaming up where to take our project next – of course, we have a long list of stories we’d love to tell, it’s just about getting the mix right.