Dispensing culture by the page

by Amar Patel in , ,


Last week I scooted over to cosy bookshop Libreria to celebrate the joy of magazines and one launch in particular. There are lots of pieces on here that gush about the former so let’s focus on the latter. It’s called Drugstore Culture and takes inspiration from Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard.

No, this isn’t a catalogue of fancy remedies and cures – well, not exactly.

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Amar Patel

Would dads read a dads' mag? A look at Kindling Quarterly

by Amar Patel in , ,


Magazines are simple pleasures for millions of us and no technological innovation is going to change that. Why? Two reasons. The first is because a magazine speaks to a select group of people, admittedly adult and more discerning, and then spoils them. It can be, and often is, a little secret that's passed in the hand. A portal to a new world of niche and obsession, quirk and eccentricity. A combination of exposé and aesthetics that a news-focused blog is unlikely to replicate.

A few favourites, both past and present, come to mind: The Face, i-D and TANK for emerging style and street culture; Apartamento for "everyday interiors"; Swallow and Gourmand for fine and occasionally odd dining; Straight No Chaser and 'Sup for music; Creative Review and It's Nice That for creative and commercial arts; Boat for in-depth travel, Little White Lies and Electric Sheep for film; Self-Service and Dapper Dan for fashion, Interview for celebrity…

The second reason is because the satisfaction felt after finishing a magazine is a special and increasingly rare feeling in our go faster, all-you-can-eat age. For all the benefits of the internet, sometimes it is not helpful to have infinity at our fingertips. Picture a treadmill: you're with me.

There is little else I love more on a weekend than to sit down with only a cup of tea and a beautiful piece of print journalism to stimulate me. No distractions. Pouring over features, smiling at a well-crafted opening line, wondering how they got that shot, jotting down notes of names and links to research later that evening, pondering … disappearing into the page. But you have to make time. The magazine – its subject matter, execution and voice – must make you want to make time.

Of course, quality costs and the cover price of these book-like works can dissuade readers … but take a chance, I say. And look beyond the obvious. Independent publishing is in rude health and however these limited-run projects are getting funded, they are every bit as valuable investment as that iPad of yours with all the app issues you're probably struggling to keep on top of.

There are countless commentators out there who cover this area of publishing with startling frequency and industry and I tip my cap to them, particularly Jeremy Leslie at MagCulture and the team behind Monocle's The Stack radio show. But as you may have noticed, I Make Sense is all about digging deeper into a story, inviting debate. So let's take a closer look at one of the most curious independent titles to emerge in recent months – Kindling Quarterly. Published by editor Kevin Michael Perez (co-founder of public arts and dinner initiative FEAST) and creative director August Heffner (marketing design director at J Crew), the NYC-based duo attempt to "present a thoughtful dialogue by playfully assessing and celebrating a multitude of experiences that form contemporary fatherhood."

A noble cause but what does it mean? We are told that, in the western world at least, there are now myriad opportunities open to women to be more than mothers. In turn there is a shifting attitude towards the role of the father as care giver in society. The publishers offer a riposte to the one-dimensional stereotype – the dutiful yet detached dad, the big kid, the hapless helper – by introducing an unconventional cast of characters who have much to say on the topic of working around their family. There is Perez's opening salvo against the notion of fatherhood as a secondary role that men play; Nagoya-based musician Shawn James Seymour's experiments in "sunny pop minimalism" with son Nico; Thing-X creative director Joe Randazzo's transition from supporting act to star dad ("you don’t know how selfish you are until you have to be selfless every single day in ways you could never predict"); and an amusing picnic shoot involving design workshop owner Christopher Cole – outdoorsy, handsome, wearing cardigan, carrying 'man bag' – on a day out with oh-so-cure daughter Ingrid.

Again we are seeing a big stride towards realism, immersion and intimacy in independent publishing, regardless of how niche the audience may be. In print this translates to greater sincerity in words, candid photography, playful doodles and an editorial policy of adventure in the everyday. But this is only the opinion of a journalist with time to indulge in contemporary arts and magazines. Although I too often struggle to find a healthy work-life balance but I am not a father. So I decided to ask a few friends that are. These modern men, working in the office and stepping up at home, were almost too busy to read the magazine and respond – the irony. But when they did, their opinions were both insightful and forthright.

"It seems like a well-meaning project but verges on becoming, 'how creative and amazing I am, and how lucky my child is that I bestow my gifts on them'. W

hat is the reader supposed to take away from it? W

hat ultimately jars is … why creatives and fatherhood? Seems tenuous to me. I'd rather just read about fathers looking after their children in imaginative ways, entertaining them and widening their horizons creatively, and overcoming obstacles to achieving those things. But they could be the milkman for all I care. That's kind of thing I'd read once a quarter, for inspiration on how to be a better dad."
Rob, 32, media sales executive, father of Bea (18 months) with another on the way

"I'm afraid that this is far too hipstery for me and I thought that the lifestyles depicted looked extremely contrived. To be honest, once I got to the page with the guy sitting on the bike strumming a miniature guitar it was over for me. It just put me in the mindset of sitting in a cafe in Crouch End listening to posh North London parents chatting to each other about their perfect lives."
Dave, 34, graphic designer, father of Tilly (four) and Daniel (16 months)

"The magazine continuously says that fathers are not superheroes, and that the ordinariness needs to be celebrated, but then completely contradicts itself by basing all of the articles around people doing things that are out of reach of the average person (eg the guy who does the sustainable cooking), or jobs that the Everyman probably couldn't relate to. The amount of time I have to read books, magazines, newspapers and blogs has been reduced substantially since having children and therefore I am extremely selective. I want to read about a topic because that topic is interesting in and of itself, not because there is a tenuous link to children or fatherhood (eg the furniture article). Being a father is a wonderful thing but you do need downtime from it. Would I choose to read industry magazines related to my job in my free time? Some people might but I wouldn’t. Finally, KQ doesn’t have the benefit of being slightly instructional. If you take the intro on face value you would think that the magazine would at least provide some sort of guide for fathers to better settle into the new role they are being required to take on. It doesn’t seem to attempt this. It simply reads as a style magazine…"
Richard, 33, management consultant, father of Lauren (two) and Hamish (four months)

"I thought I'd be interested in it but found myself skipping through articles, possibly because I'm really tired and busy … but then I'm always like that these days. I don't have the luxury of being able to read for as long as I used to; this is the sort of thing I'd have read when I was an expectant dad rather than now. When I do have time to myself I'd rather spend it in something totally unrelated to family (sport, music, film). I'm also finding I listen to way more podcasts now – things like This American Life, WTF, The Bugle – as I can hear interesting/funny stories, news and features while I work or cook. I choose to consume stuff that reconfirms my life outside or alongside my role as a Dad – escapism, I guess – but also stuff that I want to be able to share with Maya when she gets older such as art or politics. There is definitely potential in it but I wonder if the medium should be different."
Aly, 34, record label owner and dj, father of Maya (four)

There is a fine line between pride and hubris, and perhaps the publishers have crossed it in this opening issue. Perez has admitted as much in his editorial: "If the depictions of fathers in this journal appear as wholesome, may be even uncomfortably precious, that’s because they are. When done with even the smallest amount of care and thought, how could active parenting be anything other than wholesome? While the term may be culturally loaded, our subject requires that we at least not be shy about the sentiment."

Readers are more cynical and dismissive when they are either short of time or low on energy. In these circumstances the sincerity of a project might not shine through. But I am hopeful that Kindling Quarterly will engage more fathers as the months progress. The idea is promising but the execution needs work. No magazine ever emerged from its creators as an immaculate conception at the first attempt. Publishing is about observation, discussion and refinement. The challenge now is to carefully navigate and truthfully document that space between the lifestyle and the 'job'.

Finally, it was only right that I asked editor David Michael Perez a few questions about fatherhood and magazines. Amid a stack of deadlines and nappies he was kind enough to reply…

*****

1. What is the enduring appeal of the magazine when a personalised stream of content is only a few clicks away?
One of our top priorities, other than telling great stories, is creating value for our readers in as many ways as possible. While having a digital presence is critical, we still believe a print magazine is a specialised and valued object, especially as it is becoming more and more rare. Additionally our topic – fatherhood – has really never been covered to this extent in a print publication. So it certainly warrants a quarterly magazine (and more). Other topics may not warrant print.  

2. What was the spark for this project?
Well the first spark for us was becoming fathers and witnessing what an important and transformative project that is in itself. We realised there was nothing like Kindling Quarterly out there and very few online sites exploring fatherhood in a positive light.  While fatherhood in the States and beyond is changing rapidly there isn't a thoughtful space dedicated to it.

3. Did you make this magazine for yourselves or did you notice that there was a demand for this type of publication in NY?
We have definitely viewed this as a business venture from the beginning. We felt that – and this has definitely been proven true so far – there is a need for the dialogue that Kindling is creating. If it was just for ourselves we would have chosen a different format and/or audience. It has been wonderful receiving so many emails from dads saying they have been waiting for something like Kindling for a long time!

4. Which magazines do you read and which ones influenced either the look & feel or tone of your publication? 
There are so many inspiring publications out right now but a quick list includes: Wilder Quarterly, Apartamento, Kinfolk, GatherTravel Almanac, WAX and Monocle.  These are all beautiful publications that approach there subjects in a thoughtful manner, which is what we try to do.  

5. When starting Kindling what was your biggest hope and your greatest fear?
Our biggest hope is that a dedicated community emerges around our publication. This will take time but we can already see it happening. The pre-sales figures and subscriptions have been amazing. If we focus on creating the best possible magazine for our readers, we should be okay. My biggest fear is failing to meet that goal.   

6. Do today's working fathers have enough time to read a magazine?
Ha, well I certainly have less time for reading since becoming a dad but this has meant prioritising and being more efficient at reading what is most important. If we can be valuable to our community then dads will make time. Additionally I see being a good father as really being the best version of myself – relaxed, generous, open, informed. While this means putting my family first I have a responsibility to do things to improve myself for their sake. 

7. Are niche audiences and specialised subject matter the key to the survival of printed magazines?
Although I'm not a big fan of the work "niche", I think any viable product or publication in this day and age has to let go of the idea that they are for everyone. Instead, recognise your audience and meet their needs. So yes, being specialised is always important no matter how big that audience is.

8. People in media prattle on about storytelling as if it's a zeitgeist moment in mass communication. What is your approach to this age-old phenomenon?
Telling stories is certainly integral to our mission, especially engaging, interesting stories so that our readers trust our editorial vision. Additionally we hope to make connections with our audience and be a means through which new connections are made among them.

9. Did you conduct any research into finding the right balance of entertaining men's mag content and the more instructional bits?
Some but not that much really. We had the benefit of being a genuinely new product or rather, covering a new topic. It became clear early on that we aren't a 'how-to' guide to being a dad. Also there are so many parenting resources online, while we are committed to the social/cultural discourse around child education and parenting, we don't want to get too specific (eg when to stop co-sleeping, attachment parenting, when to stop using a dummy etc).  We explore fatherhood with greater breadth and focus on the more nuanced ways that being a father changes you. If we can having engaging conversations with inspiring fathers, a lot of the specifics will fall into place.  

10. Finally fatherhood: as a culture what does this mean to you? Is there a world view that fathers share, one that you're trying to explore?
As a topic fatherhood is universal: everyone that has a dad is in some way affected by this dynamic. But of course our magazine isn't for everyone (nothing is). So I'd be hesitant to say all fathers share a particular viewpoint. Personally, Kindling is my way of building my life around fatherhood in a meaningful way. But I think this reflects the magazine in general. Every dad we feature is building their life around their children and committed to actively caring for them. The implication is that fatherhood is mutable – changing historically – but on a more immediate and individual level, it is something to improve upon and strive to be better at. I think our readers would share this "world view".  


*****

So dads, would you make time for Kindling Quarterly? Please tell me what you think below.



Amar Patel