This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rachel Rosenfelt 00:00
If you can build a room where it would be an honor to be included, then you’re doing the right thing. That’s it. Just no fancy grownups. Your job is to kill the father.
Alice in Wonderland sequence. 00:16
Katherine Peach 00:27
Welcome back to the BackMatter Rabbit Holes podcast. This is our third episode.
Tobias Lentz 00:35
Our third in a series.
Katherine Peach 00:37
Penultimate, if you will.
This is a podcast about the making of the publication BackMatter, which is an annual issue by graduate students, ourselves included, of The New School in the city of New York. In this episode we are focusing on a quotation from Alice in Wonderland. This quote is not necessarily from the book by Lewis Carroll, but it is from the 1951 Disney movie. It reads: “I was just giving myself some good advice.”
Tobias Lentz 01:30
Do you have any good advice you would give yourself in life?
Katherine Peach 01:36
Oh my goodness. So much. But rather than have me give my advice, in this episode we hear from our wonderful instructors, Jon Baskin and Kayla Romberger, as well as last year’s BackMatter Editor in Chief, Miko Yoshida. And then we’ll also hear from Rachel Rosenfelt, Founding Editor of The New Inquiry and former Associate Director of our Master’s program, CPCJ, again.
Tobias Lentz 01:55
Why don’t we just get into it?
Kayla Romberger is our instructor, professor, and mentor in this class. She is mainly in charge of the design side of the publication, since she is educated in design and publishing. I talked to her at this interview about her experience with publishing and what advice she could give us regarding how to start a publication from scratch.
I’m Kayla Romberger and I work in and around the world of independent publications. I run an art bookstore—a bookstore that’s dedicated mostly to selling independently published books or short run publications on art, design, and theory. And I also teach around the same subject.
Tobias Lentz 03:36
What is your specific role at The New School and in this class that we have?
This is my first semester teaching at The New School. I don’t know what they call me—a lecturer, I think? I actually live in Philadelphia. I came in, in part, because I’ve been working so closely with quick turnaround publications with students.
Tobias Lentz 04:04
What advice do you give when students need to create a magazine, or some kind of publication? What do you tell people to do? Or what would you tell them?
It's a great question. And it’s interesting because I think the pressures and the parameters are really different than if it’s a project for a class. And I think the pressures are good because the stakes are higher, and you know you’ll be putting something into the public that has an audience.
You have to ask yourself, what do people care about? Or, what do you see as something that you care about that you think might connect with an audience, too? It was really important for all of you to go back to what BackMatter is. To ask, what is BackMatter? It’s useful to lean into the things that you know, the things that you’re going to geek out on, and where you can push yourself to do a lot more research or reportage.
Tobias Lentz 05:13
What is the difference between an art magazine and a news magazine?
The thing that’s interesting about publishing is that it is contained. You get to invite readers into this world that does have a beginning and end, and the more you look at other publications, the more you can start to understand how you set a tone. So that is the design, right? The colors, the paper type, and the typography are all things that actually make a readership to some degree, too. You might be attracted to certain things more than other things. Then you have to make sure that the design reflects the content, which is a lot to ask of you in a class.
Tobias Lentz 06:06
Right now, the BackMatter designers are stressed. Do you have advice for them right now?
Pull back the curtain. I think the more there’s a dialogue between editors and writers and designers, the better the whole magazine will be. But the students are working day and night on it and I’m so impressed by how it looks right now. I have to say it’s coming together so beautifully.
Tobias Lentz 06:57
When we have our finished product, what would you say people should be most proud of?
The whole thing. That it’s entirely made by all of you. And I think you will look back on it and the stress will have been worth it. There’s nothing like putting a real thing into the world. I tell students this all the time: you make the thing, produce it, think you can’t make your deadlines, and you do it anyway. You just push through it. Seeing it is going to be an incredible moment, and it will resonate, it will echo, much longer than you may think. Anything could happen. Someone could uncover an archive later, and then your article goes into the world, and it’s the reason someone invites you to something, to do editorial work, or writing, etc.
Tobias Lentz 07:51
It’s worth the stress.
It’s worth the stress. There is a funny fact, and I’m wondering if anyone has mentioned this in your interviews, that “magazine” is this French word which means “storehouse.” Did you know that? Maybe that somehow relates to some of the things we’ve been talking about, like, it doesn’t have to be print, but it's just a way to keep all these ideas glued together?
Tobias Lentz 08:27
Katherine, do you want to introduce Miko?
Katherine Peach 08:30
Yes. Miko and I spoke a little while ago. I was connected with him because he was the Editor in Chief last year, and he had the interesting challenge of The New School operating remotely, so in a lot of ways it was a very different publication than ours. But they created a beautiful product.
One of the big things that he did mention is that he tried starting his own magazine and he has started working in publishing. He gave some advice about losing—and how he lost his own—perfectionist mentality. He says that trying to make something perfect can get in the way of creating something that’s great.
My name is Miko. I’m from Los Angeles, originally. I’m Japanese American and I have family in California, Canada, and Japan. This is my third semester at The New School and as a student in the CPCJ program. And I’m working part time as a nonfiction editor at The Line Literary, which is a Columbia University-run press by a bunch of MFA students. I’m also a contributing editor at The Point for this next issue. And yeah, and last semester, two semesters ago, I was the Co-Editor in Chief of BackMatter.
Katherine Peach 09:57
Wonderful. That sounds like it keeps you very busy. Could you tell me about your role at BackMatter, and what it was like to be, not only Editor in Chief, but a co-editor?
Yeah, I was Co-Editor in Chief. My partner, or the other co-editor, was Caitlyn. It was their last semester and my first semester. So it was an interesting dynamic. I probably couldn’t have done it without them because they knew everything about publishing that you can learn in the CPCJ program, and I was coming in fresh. So in that sense it was challenging for me. But it was also a really great experience, because I had no expectations. I tell people in my program, in CPCJ, that I think BackMatter is like the best class that the program has to offer because it’s most aligned to the real world. It is a classroom, it’s a lab, per se, but it’s more a group project in a controlled setting, and aside from a few factors, like profitability, everything else is pretty synced up to having to go from the ideation phase to the project phase in a short, short period of time. That was really great.
Katherine Peach 11:22
Speaking of the timeliness of a magazine and being able to have adaptability, I’d love to hear about your experience. Do you want to talk about the theme, or what was it like creating this issue from scratch?
Yeah. I think the first thing I noticed was the archive of previous issues, because that’s the first thing I looked at. What I saw was that they were very beautiful products—it was intimidating. And I have no design or art skills, no background in that field. But thankfully I had a really great team, and we, I think, created something very nice.
When I started at BackMatter I had never met anybody in-person because we were all remote, so it was an additional challenge of trying to, number one, get to know people, and then two, work with them. And I think you have to actually get to know people before you work with them. It’s not just like, “Hey, we’re going to start a project,” on the first day. You have to build up to it. But you don’t necessarily have that luxury in online class, so we had to get going right away.
But, I think what I really appreciated was that, especially with my Co-Editor in Chief, the Art Director, and the Creative Director, was that we tried to be as empathetic and compassionate as possible to everybody’s needs.
Our theme was considering individual relationships to community. And on the artistic side, we had a collage theme, so the two ideas mixed together.
I think that the biggest takeaway for us was that this is not life or death. We’re just we’re making a magazine. We’re trying to do our best and it doesn’t have to be perfect. I think there’s this mentality that is ingrained in a lot of us in which, even though school is for learning, we think everything we turn in has to be perfect. But, instead of your first paper being an A, it should not be an A, because if it’s an A that means maybe that you already know most of the things that you need to know in terms of that course’s standard. But because we have this perfectionist mentality we don’t want to give people B’s and C’s, and you know, even Fs at the very beginning, and I think that sometimes hinders actual learning and growth. I’m not saying we all need to fail, but I think the reason why BackMatter is great is because it is pass/fail. And you have to collaborate. There’s no way that you can get through this class without collaboration, and there’s a lot of lessons, such as team management, time management, leadership, building relationships, trust, flexibility, and adaptability. So it’s really the soft skills that I think are the better takeaways from BackMatter because those are what most match the real world.
Katherine Peach 14:36
Do you have any advice for someone who might want to either start their own magazine, or get into the magazine world, or publishing in general, based on your experience?
Yes. I’ll start with this: It’s going to be hard. I haven’t started my own magazine, but I have tried. I’ve gone through the first phases of it and I don’t know if I failed or just lost steam, or maybe it’s just been postponed. I don’t know. But I think I was ashamed or guilty that the magazine idea petered out or fell through, but I need to unlearn that type of mentality and just accept that when I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. The good thing about BackMatter is that, after making the issue, now I have some of the skills that I need to know, and I know some of the people that I will reach out to if I did want to start a magazine.
One thing I remember last year is that, along with our themes that we were exploring, we tried to set a clear atmosphere regarding how we were going to interact with each other and establish what the most important thing that we wanted to do for this project was, and also for ourselves during that time. And I think orienting to common values versus actual objectives is really necessary to start the calibration process at the beginning for your team. So instead of spending the first day whiteboarding the articles and art pieces you need to collect, I think it’s better to actually align and say, “These are the things that are important to me, and this is what I want to work on.” So if people wanted to experiment with form, or they wanted to do a survey, or they all had individual goals, we tried to think about each of those individual ambitions together as a group.
The values for us were paying our writers, making this as stress-free as possible, and being kind to each other. It wasn’t perfect but I think we did a decent job. I think one of the biggest things that I hope students will continue to feel is that this is a fun project. This should be a fun class. It’s going to be hard at times, but for me, it was definitely a great introduction to grad school, to the program, to my instructors, and to my classmates.
Tobias Lentz 18:08
Rachel Rosenfelt is someone we had on the show in the first episode. She was the first person I actually spoke to in this series. She’s this incredible, talented, very thoughtful person. She is Founding Editor of The New Inquiry, and was formerly the Associate Director of our program, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism. She started this class that we’re in. So she has some very interesting, very philosophical words of advice for creating something new, starting from the bottom, whether it’s a magazine or any publication you want to send out into the real world.
Rachel Rosenfelt 19:28
Magazines create identity. You know, every pretentious high schooler subscribes to The New Yorker, and they’re sort of signaling with it. Magazines are iterative attempts to theorize a moment, or to capture an epoch. Notice, if you will, that in Europe there are existentialists, or postmodernists or… they have philosophies that people come together around. The United States has magazines. The Nation was the Civil War magazine, The Atlantic is the transcendentalist magazine, and The New Republic was the pragmatist magazine. It is the magazine that is—this is the very United States thing—defining an epoch, defining a set of ideas, drawing a circle around the present. That’s what a magazine does. The thing is that other things can do that, too, right? Podcasts can do that. Websites can do that. Like, Reddit is doing something that you associate with another kind of thing, right? In the end the only reason to start anything is to find the others. It’s sending up a flare, finding people to think with, and that will be the population of cultural workers appears, you know?
I think, very importantly, The New Inquiry was always populated by people I had never met in person. I didn’t go to college with them. I wanted to find people who are the geniuses that are structurally not findable by the media industry. And that was where we owned, dude. I mean, I was poaching ground. I would get an editor in two weeks before they got hired by Harper’s or something like that, but the thing is, there’s no shortage of talent. The idea that there’s no one who could do this, especially when people look for people of color and think, “there’s just no Black editors,” there’s none of that thinking. The point is, wherever there’s a population underrepresented in the industry, that’s where the untapped genius or real originality is going to happen. Don’t value diversity because you think it’s like the right thing to do. In the coldest capitalist fucking sense, that that is where the intelligence is, that is where the original ideas are, that is why the notion that we should hire a person of color, because it looks good, doesn’t make sense. If you think that way, you don’t get it. You should be able to know what the world knows, and if you don’t have access to entire populations then you’re bad at your fucking job. That’s a place where your generation has come in and just wiped these “established” people off the map. They’re barely existing anyway. Tell me what publication owns the liberal, the big tent Liberal Party? Is The Atlantic helping? Is The New Yorker helping? I don’t think this shit is working. There’s a big opportunity for you.
Final advice: don’t pay anyone anything, or pay them a full salary. When truly talented people produce work in some very meaningful sense, it’s priceless. We would always pay our writers. And for anyone who contributed, we would pay their rate if we could. But to the editorial talent, to the team, what they were paid in was freedom. There’s this real rising to the occasion that takes place, but when I would ever give them a stipend—usually they’d agitate me for that—they’d say, “I’m being paid $500 a month by The New Inquiry” as some symbolic thing. It’s very special to get to express yourself, your full range of capabilities, and again, to think with people. That’s so valuable.
In the workplace you are not going to think with your colleagues. You don’t get to struggle over ideas and really hone skills as a professional thinker. The workplace is very different, so it’s a gift to have that space.
I would say, if there isn’t a place for you in the media, good news—the media is broken anyway. Make your own space. You might have to be your own patron, as I almost always was. The New School paid for me to do The New Inquiry. I always had to make it work because when it’s at its best, it was never about the money. If you can build a room where it would be an honor to be included, then you’re doing the right thing, that’s it. Just no fancy grownups. Your job is to kill the father. Kill the father.
Katherine Peach 27:04
Okay, let’s bring on Jon. Jon is our instructor this semester. He’s been with the program for five years. He is the founding editor of The Point magazine, a thrice yearly magazine of philosophical essays and criticism, which started in Chicago where he’s from. He’s actually currently in Chicago, so he’ll be talking to us through Zoom.
Tobias Lentz 27:32
He’s from Chi-town. Is that what they say?
Katherine Peach 27:36
Tobias Lentz 27:42
That sounded much cooler in my head.
I’m Jon Baskin, and I am the Assistant Coordinator of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program. I came to the program in 2017. Previously, I had been getting a PhD at the University of Chicago in a program called the Committee on Social Thought. And while I was there, I started a magazine called The Point, and it was on the basis of having had that experience of starting my own magazine and running it with a couple of friends for several years that I ended up in the CPCJ program with Rachel and Jim. And then I started teaching this class. I believe this is my fourth year teaching the Multimedia Lab, which is really kind of the capstone of our program, where students collaborate on a publication together.
Tobias Lentz 29:07
Can you give a few words on your specific role in this class and in creating BackMatter?
Yeah. I take myself to be the sort of head of the editorial side of the magazine. I’ve always co-taught this class with someone who has more of a design capability because that’s not something I have and I never was able to do it, even in my own magazine, so I certainly would not be able to advise anyone else with it. I’m helping the editors to think among themselves, but also helping the designers and the podcast people and the marketing people about all the different ways that the editorial mission can be expressed and realized and executed in the magazine.
Tobias Lentz 30:01
What’s the best advice you can give students on creating something from scratch? Because it felt like whenever we finally got together and decided on specific themes and some kind of form and structure the class just kind of took off. But how do you get to that point?
The beginning is definitely the hardest. I remember when we were starting The Point, we’d met every week at my friend’s apartment, the three of us for four months, just talking through what we wanted the magazine to be. But it’s really hard. In terms of advice, you have to trust yourself almost to an irrational degree. You have to be a little bit arrogant. I mean, you check yourself through each other, so it’s not just one person, but as a group you have to decide what you think is important, what you think is interesting. And ultimately, you have to kind of trust that if you really go with what you think is interesting, someone else out there will respond to it and think it’s interesting. You’ll find an audience.
I think the worst magazines come from the market research approach. Like, let’s try and figure out what someone else will find interesting, as opposed to first looking within yourself and thinking, “What do I think is interesting? What do I want to read? What do I want to read that’s not out there? What reflects my sensibility?” I think all the best magazines have that feeling that real human beings thought about what was important to them and tried to capture it in this magazine, and then they put it out into the world. And it’s scary because it could fail to resonate with anyone. But you hope that it does resonate with people. So I guess that’s the advice: trust yourself to a slightly irrational degree.
Katherine Peach 31:54
When you started off you did a lot of different jobs within publishing and went to different cities to make that happen. Do you have any practical advice, especially for students like us who are going out into the world, other than believing in ourselves to an irrational degree? Is there something that you wish you would have known starting out?
Belief is not enough. Don’t believe the hype. I think that there’s sort of two tracks; on the one hand, you want to take what you can get and get your foothold in different places. I mean, I fact-checked for Laptop Weekly, Popular Science, and other magazines I had very little interest in the content of, but I still learned things from a lot of those experiences regarding how magazines worked. Being in New York, if you want a career in magazines, it’s not only where you work, but there’s events all the time. When I was living in New York, before I went to graduate school, I was going to literary parties and readings and poetry things—whatever I could find. I tried to go to a lot of those things and I met a lot of people and learned a lot. But I think that while you’re doing all that and thinking in this more network-y sort of career-wise, pragmatic way, which is something one has to do, you also need to remember that you’re in a world that’s ultimately about communication. You need to develop what you want to say in the world so that when you get your chance you actually have something to say, because you can have all the connections in the world and get a great job, but if once you get to that place you don’t actually have something you want to contribute to the public conversation, it’s all for nothing.
There are much easier ways to make a living. So you don’t want to lose sight of why you go into this in the first place, which is whether it’s artistically or through design, or through writing or through podcasting, that you feel like you have something to contribute, and you want to never stop developing that. And part of the reason I left New York when I did is that, while I felt I was making progress on the career side, I was starting to question what I actually wanted to talk about. I felt like I needed to know more and think more to get to a place where I felt confident, certainly starting a magazine, but even and certainly I don’t think I would have started a magazine if I had just sort of stayed in New York on the career ladder. But even to contribute to a current magazine or if you get an editing job that you really want, you need to have some sense of what you like, what you don’t like, what you are more interested in and what you feel like you can contribute. Keep developing that. It doesn’t always have to be grad school, it could mean traveling, it could mean reading widely, it could mean just keeping your universe wide as you grow.
Tobias Lentz 35:05
Now, why don’t we talk about things we’ve done this past week? What have you been up to regarding the magazine?
Katherine Peach 35:11
There was a lot of working with the designers to get the podcast transcripts prepared so that they could be included in the print publication, which was really exciting for me. Hanna, who worked on this spread, did a beautiful job. But who knows? By the time this actually comes out that could all change.
Tobias Lentz 35:46
I'm very happy that it’s going to be part of the print magazine because we are trying to aid it vocally. And I think it’s interesting to see how the class, as we’re entering the last kind of final steps of BackMatter, to see how stressed people are getting, but also how it’s all coming together. Like, we just saw the PDF of the whole magazine and it looks beautiful. Every single story, every single page is so very well thought through. People have just done an amazing job. I’m really impressed by everyone and proud of everyone.
Katherine Peach 37:33
Do we have any advice that we want to impart as a takeaway?
Tobias Lentz 37:38
As a podcast?
Katherine Peach 37:39
Yeah, or just as students learning in the program.
Tobias Lentz 37:42
Always bring batteries.
Katherine Peach 37:46
That's an important one.
Tobias Lentz 38:25
And keep track of your calendar because as things get tight, especially when it’s very technical, planning is key.
And just have fun with it.
Katherine Peach 38:45
We’ve had fun, guys.
Tobias Lentz 38:47
Is that too cringe?
Katherine Peach 38:50
I don’t think so.
Tobias Lentz 38:53
Have fun, guys.
Katherine Peach 38:54
Look for where the joy is.
Tobias Lentz 39:43
Yeah. And stay on Slack.
Katherine Peach 39:46
Stay on Slack.