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Boat Magazine - We interview Erin Spens
by Startacus Admin
An Interview with Erin Spens, Editor of the rather fabulous Boat Magazine, a nomadic publication that focuses on one city each issue.
I met Erin Spens briefly whilst her and her team were in Derry working on their latest edition of the Boat magazine. I’ll admit, I loved the idea. They go to cities, find their stories, write about them and leave again. Their turnaround of content when they actually get to the city is simply astounding.
I was interested then to know how the whole system worked. How they did what they did, in the way that they did. After the issue was out, we contacted Erin to speak to her about the type of business that the BOAT Magazine was. My first question though, was about the travelling. “The BOAT Magazine began as a project; an extension of our company BOAT studio.” She explained. Boat studio provide content and material for various companies. The magazine, she told me, was meant to show off what they could do. Go somewhere they knew next to nothing about and create a beautiful magazine. “It gave our designers, writers and photographers a completely blank canvas to work with.”
Was it a case of throwing a dart at a map, and flying off to the nearest city it landed by? Not exactly. When Erin talks about knowing nothing about a city, it doesn’t mean they don’t know the city. “We like to go to places where, when you bring it up to somebody, the first thing they think of is one particular thing.” Their first location then, was Sarajevo and obviously brought memories of the siege there in the 90s. Their next cities had similar “shadows”, as she put it. Athens has connotations of a burning economy. Derry, connotations of The Troubles. “We wanted to go to these cities and find out their other tales; tell their other stories... And the funny thing is, when you get there, you normally find these shadows are very small to the residents.”
Going from city to city and publishing a sleek magazine sounds like the ideal business, but it obviously comes with a cost. Multiple costs actually. They rely on magazine sales and any subsidies for which they are applicable. When they’re out there, it isn’t 5 star accommodation either. Any contributors have to make their own way to the city, and when they get there they share a rented flat or house for the few days of their stay with the other staff. “This means the people working on it really want to tell a story. Some of the costs are recouped by the sales.”
She tells me that some of them go up, and others badly down; but, she hopes, in the long run it shows companies what Boat Studio has the potential to do, and therefore hopefully bring in more work that can help support the magazine. She would love for the magazine to be self-sufficient, and hates that it isn’t at the minute, but with print media as it is (weakening definitely, some might say dying) they have to look to how to evolve it in the future.
At this I’m curious. I ask Erin whether she thinks the Internet, which is a significant reason for the downturn in print media, is overall a bigger help or hindrance to their magazine. Her reply indicates that it is something of a double edged sword. “Most of our magazine sales are through the website. But it can hurt us as well.” She explains that those shadows which haunt cities are often exasperated by the likes of Google, which will give you 100 page results of the exact thing a city may not want to be remembered for. Presumably, this also has the potential to bury Boat’s original stories underneath the churnalism of regurgitated populist news pieces from larger media companies.
Finally I ask her what advice she would give anyone interesting in starting a magazine, and where she sees her own mag in the next five years. Erin’s first answer is simple, and can almost be summarised in a single word that she has repeated throughout our conversation. Passion. “There’s not a lot of money in print. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from Tim Hayward (a food critic and writer for the Guardian and FT) who told me, ‘As long as you know you’re not going to make money – go for it.’” She explains the importance of being able to think outside the box, think of how the industry will be in the future and give it a lot of thought. This ties somewhat with her second answer. Whilst busily working on their Kyoto issue at the minute, Erin and her team are also looking at restructuring the magazine, and working out what the next step for it will be. “We need to keep the cost of it down to keep it going. I feel very passionately about the stories we tell, but I’m not sure if it will continue to be a published magazine.”
Interview by Ethan Loughrey
At the beginning of March the Boat team flew out to Derry-Londonderry to make 5000 copies of a special edition all about the city for the City of Culture year. They collaborated with local writers, photographers and artists and went to print in just one week. Watch the making of video here - its fab!
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