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Where’s the real storytelling?

Beirut-based The Outpost has turned to crowdfunding to keep itself alive in a media world that likes to discuss storytelling but rarely delivers it, says Ibrahim Nehme

As an editor of a print magazine, there are some questions that never escape me. Don’t you think print is dead? Why don’t you have a digital edition? Why don’t you publish your narratives online instead? You know the drill… There’s one question though that I’m never sure how to reply to. It’s why The Outpost – or more generally, independent print publications – are not able to secure advertising.

It’s bewildering come to think of it. We have a great product. Our issues are selling out. Our readership is growing exponentially from one issue to the next. The Guardian has named us as a successor to The Economist. We reach a certain class of young and educated Arabs that most brands want to engage with, so it makes sense to imagine that they’d want to do so through our magazine.

We’ve thought of ways to integrate brands within the universe of The Outpost in a relevant, smart and creative manner, and spent time pitching these ideas to media agencies. We had some really cool concepts that some ad agencies would have killed for, but it never really worked and we never really understood why. People we pitched to either did not seem in sync with what we were proposing or were not keen on providing clear answers as to why they wouldn’t go ahead with it.

I think one part of the problem relates to the fact that the media industry is a very corrupt one. It’s controlled by big fish that, in turn, control big amounts of money. It’s money that moves under big tables and, as such, it’s difficult to really understand what’s going on where.

We on the other hand are small fish. There’s nothing big about us except our ambition. We somehow are expected to blend well with the system, but we clearly don’t. And there’s nothing much we can do about it to be honest, apart from working around the system and hoping that in the long run we would have dug enough holes for it to reinvent itself.

Another part of the problem has to do with the fact that media people, most likely,  just don’t get it. They are used to pre-defined formats: glossy covers, naïve content, recycled stories, redundant layouts. We come to them with a magazine about possibilities. It’s smart, sophisticated, and we have a mission to change the world. We refuse to publish press releases. We don’t insult our readers’ intelligence. We take great care in finding and crafting our narratives. And we don’t print our stories on toilet paper.  Our favorite words are quality, timelessness and narrative journalism. Their favourite words are quantity, instantaneity, content. It doesn’t sound like a good match to me.

Sustainability of independent print magazines is a hot topic at the moment. The conversation is no longer about whether or not print will survive. We’re past that. It’s clear that print has survived – not to say that it’s witnessing a renaissance. What’s not clear though is how all these independent publishers will survive when there seems to be a big disconnect between them and the people who control ad budgets. For the longest time, advertising constituted the lifeline of a printed magazine. But given the realities of the media business – and its limitations for independent publishers – the media model needs a serious rethink. There are signs that change is starting to happen.

We, for example, have decided to crowdfund our second year in print. We felt that after a year of making The Outpost, the best way to move forward was to pitch it to the people who see the real value in what we’re doing: our readers.

In other parts of the world, Monocle is slowly becoming a retail behemoth, using its stores and cafés to generate revenue to fund its print editions. Offscreen mag has replaced the advertising model with a sponsorship-based model, whereby brands that really believe in the magazine’s mission come on board and back it up. It’s a deeper and more passionate relationship than the double-page spread.

I attended the Dubai Lynx and every media person there was talking about the importance of storytelling. But it appeared to me that there’s a big gap between the people talking about stories and the people making them.

There’s a big storytelling movement going on in the Middle East today, manifested by young and inspiring independent print magazines – The Carton, The State, WTD, Portal 9, Kalamon, TokTok. They’re hubs for great stories and great storytelling. They have readership. They have values. They believe in and stand for something. They’re part of a global movement that celebrates the craft of print and the sensibilities of a great story.

Media agencies wanting to become storytellers seem to be unaware of it all, and if they’re really adamant about it, they need to walk their talk. Otherwise, the rug might very well be swept from under their feet.

Ibrahim Nehme is editor-in-chief of The Outpost


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