Making a Magazine in a Pandemic
A Back Matter staff member shares the process of creating the publication (partly) remotely
After being admitted to the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) Master’s program at The New School for Social Research in Spring 2019, I was invited to the launch party for a student-created magazine called Back Matter.
With an open bar at Von in NoHo to commemorate the end of their semester, Back Matter editors gave toasts to months of production and passed out copies. Nervously mingling with my soon-to-be professors and peers, I flipped through the pages of the magazine, enamored.
Producing Back Matter has become a rite of passage for CPCJ students. The magazine typically covers the publishing industry at large, and students in the relevant course direct their issue’s theme and aesthetic, filling roles across editorial, design, web development, social media and marketing, publishing and business.
Formally known as the Multimedia Publishing Lab, the class was designed by CPCJ co-founder Rachel Rosenfelt, former publisher at The New Republic and founding editor of The New Inquiry, as a kind of capstone project, an opportunity for students from across The New School to apply their skill sets and interests to the full process of creating a magazine.
Now, the class is co-taught by Jon Baskin and Jesse Seegers. Baskin, who handles the editorial mentoring, is the CPCJ Associate Director and a founding editor of The Point, a thrice-yearly magazine of philosophical essays and criticism. Seegers — who has worked architecture, design, writing, editing, publishing, and research — serves as the design beacon and teaches core classes in CPCJ and at Parsons School of Design.
After that night, I committed to the CPCJ program. I was drawn to how it merged design and writing practices. Now, I am finishing up my second semester and pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate minor in Design Studies. At the beginning of Spring 2020, I enrolled in Multimedia Publishing Lab with the intention of stepping outside of my editorial comfort zone and getting more portfolio experience with print design.
“This goes to the heart of what CPCJ was designed to achieve,” Baskin said. “I think the founders, Jim Miller and Rosenfelt, saw from the beginning that too much of professional publishing is bifurcated into different departments that barely communicate with one another. One of the goals of the program, embodied most successfully in this class, is to help graduate students who can work across those divides.”
We began the semester applying for and receiving our positions, noted in the masthead above.
The editorial team picked out submissions, working with Baskin to guide student writers through the editing process. Second-year CPCJ students Taia Handlin, Editor-in-Chief, and Shulokhana Khan, Managing Editor, spearheaded this effort.
Meanwhile, the design team began to envision how the magazine would look and feel like. Creative Director Annika Lammers, a Parsons Master’s student, managed the overall visual concept, applying her spatial design skills to construct the physical publication. As Art Director, I spent hours with her pouring through other magazines and taking trips to Printed Matter, an artbook distributor in Chelsea, for inspiration. With the help of Seegers, we made mockups, printed them, printed them again, and then printed them yet again. We had big ideas of unique binding techniques, using the school’s risograph printer, experimenting with paper weights and textures. We worked with the editorial team to blend the thematic contents with visual expression. We created a graphic treatment to begin laying out the print product.
The publisher began seeking printing quotes, and the digital team drew up plans for a website and social media marketing. We set editorial calendars, print dates, and budgets, and we started planning our own launch party.
Then the world changed.
“We began this second edition of Back Matter in January. Then, none of us was imagining our current reality, structured by daily video chats and people actually debating if silk scarves are better or worse than bandanas in stopping a pandemic,” wrote Handlin in her Letter from the Editor. “We just wanted to make a sassy magazine that pokes holes in the immense, white, privileged landscape of publishing.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to trudge on virtually. We launched the new issue on the magazine’s website and began to roll out the articles and illustrations we had crafted.
It wasn’t easy. “We have had to relearn ways of communicating, sharing information, and effectively coming together to cohesively formulate the vision and content of the publication,” says Lammers. “We are now sharing different time zones from Australia, to Korea, to the U.S.”
“I cannot help but think that the initial design decisions made at the very start of the publication are reflective of our current surrounding environment,” Lammers says. “Back Matter’s hand-drawn illustrations, risograph-printed pages and sewn-bound finish strips back the complexities and reveals insight into the way we had to critically adapt and think about the publication.”
The Back Matter team is continuing to build out the website, publishing new pieces weekly. Cailin Potami wrote a piece on underrepresentation in publishing. Jessie Mohkami explored the gender gap in book club culture. Adji Ngathe Kebe explained how comp titles paved the way for the racist bestselling disaster American Dirt.
Soon, we’ll share a special section that responds to the landscape of media in a crisis. We are working to finish our final print design, with hopes of printing it in the fall, if those who are not graduating will be able to return to campus by then.
The ending of this semester is bittersweet. Instead of celebrating our work together at a bar in the city, we are sitting alone in our respective homes at our computers. Through blood, sweat, and InDesign tears, we will have the final design for a print magazine, but its future, like many things, is TBD. Still, we were able to provide a digital home to the works of some incredible New School writers and illustrators — graduate work and research that was produced in the face of global chaos.
Publishing, at large, has been forced to adapt. This issue of Back Matter will always be a relic of this time.
Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is the Art Director of Back Matter magazine and a Master’s student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism Program. Cover art is by Hector Gutierrez.