(Still) Making a Magazine in a Pandemic

Cailin Potami, Research Matters writer and Back Matter editor, reflects on the process of creating a magazine remotely with the Spring 2021 cohort of GPUB 6002:Multimedia Publishing Lab.

The Multimedia Publishing Lab course in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) MA program at The New School for Social Research came highly recommended from fellow CPCJ MA student and former Research Matters writer Alexa Mauzy-Lewis, who wrote about the course last spring. But I had no intention of taking the course; it seemed like too much work during the last semester of graduate school.

But during the fall, it clicked for me. I couldn’t think of a more gratifying way to sew up my strange, Zoom-mediated graduate school experience than by building something new with a group of people equally hungry to create.

Each spring, Multimedia Publishing Lab students produce an issue of Back Matter magazine under the supervision and guidance of Jon Baskin, instructor and Associate Director of CPCJ, and founding editor of The Point, and Jesse Seegers, CPCJ and Parsons instructor, and overall design expert. Each issue of Back Matter looks at the worlds of journalism and publishing through a different lens. With the exception of that loose guideline, each class has complete creative freedom over the magazine’s vision.

Under typical circumstances, producing Back Matter is an intimidating endeavor. We had no idea how making a magazine from start to finish would go from our apartments, scattered across the country, as a pandemic raged around us.

The Multimedia Publishing Lab met over Zoom each week to create the third issue of Back Matter.

Yet from the beginning, the process went surprisingly smoothly. We built out our editorial, digital, and design teams, as well as a wonderful one-person marketing and communications department, Hannah Hightman, Bachelor’s-Master’s (BA/MA) student in the BPATS self-designed liberal arts program. I became co-editor-in-chief along with CPCJ MA student Miko Yoshida, and we worked to facilitate a vision of a magazine without rigid hierarchy or perfectionism, where we would strive to create something original and representative of each person’s interests.

“The Back Matter media lab was a great learning experience for a number of reasons. It introduced me to the world of publishing and gave me an inside look at the process. It also gave me exposure to students with a wide range of skill sets,” says Yoshida. “I enjoyed the collaborative aspect the most, which hinged on mutual trust and a common objective — to create something meaningful.”

Traditionally, Back Matter prints articles that CPCJ students draft during the fall semester and workshop during the spring. While articles cover a wide range of topics, clear themes emerged, such as identity and community. A year into the pandemic, we’ve all been asking: What does it mean to be who I am? Who am I in relation to my communities — online and offline?

“The element of virtual collaboration and community in the time of COVID became a pinnacle of the theme of this issue, so it’s only fitting that our collaborative efforts existed on platforms like Zoom, Slack, Miro, and Gmail,” says Maya Bouvier-Lyons, CPCJ MA student and Back Matter art director. “I think our thoughts on the identity of the magazine were inevitably formed by those venues and avenues for communication.”

The editorial team worked with writers to help them grapple with these questions and highlight the themes already underlying their work. Jessie Mohkami, CPCJ MA student and executive editor alongside Nicole Collazo Santana, Eugene Lang Journalism + Design and CPCJ BA/MA student, reveled in this aspect of the work. “One of the best parts of being on Back Matter’s editorial team was getting to collaborate with writers on their pieces from the beginning until the end,” she says. “They brought their already strong pieces from last semester and we got to work together on how to cut down and shape the pieces. I’ve often been in classes where I’ve suggested edits or additions to a piece and I never get to find out what happens, but seeing the process through with the writers was so rewarding.”

The design team, led by Bouvier-Lyons and Olivia Heller, CPCJ MA student, represented questions of identity and community by incorporating collage as well as digital design cues into the print magazine, which Dalia Amellal, Back Matter print designer and Parsons Theories of Urban Design MA student, masterfully pieced together.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity this class granted me to be on the design side of things for a change,” says Bouvier-Lyons. “I was able to use an entirely different skill set from what I’m used to—thinking more visually about the big picture of the publication, and the smaller details that make up that whole.”

Likewise, the digital team — digital editor Sophie Lee, Journalism + Design BA student, and web designers Greg Coleman, CPCJ MA student, and Kevin Martinez, Journalism + Design BA student — brought collage to life online, thoughtfully adding analog and print notes. Together, we created something thoughtful, cohesive, and daring.

The Back Matter digital design team incorporated elements of collage and print, like in the website header (above).

It sounds cliché, but communication, compassion, and trust really made the magazine’s production possible across Zoom, Slack, and Miro. As managing editor, Christina Santi, CPCJ MA student, did the impossible — she kept everyone on task and on schedule across various time zones, on top of communicating with the printer, managing the budget, and working on her own piece for the magazine, “Can Fashion Sew Up Its Racism Problem?”. At the same time, Santi and the whole team made space for each other, listening intently to ideas and challenges, and always acknowledging the tremendous difficulty of navigating school, life, a magazine, and a pandemic. Each week in class, Yoshida took care to remind us that the magazine is a great learning experience, an opportunity to take on ambitious ideas without fear of failure, but ultimately, everyone’s wellbeing must come first.

“It takes a lot of trust and collaboration to create a magazine, and though that can be difficult to build virtually, I think the whole class was invested in making that a reality,” says Mohkami. “While there were some challenges presented by the virtual nature of the class, I think the entire team rose to the occasion and put in the time, effort, and communication to compensate for that factor,” agrees Bouvier-Lyons. “In a lot of ways, I think this would be a very different issue had we all been working on it together in a classroom.”

The print magazine — complete with thoughtful articles, an interactive online-in-print adventure, fun games, striking photos, and more — is hot off the presses, and its digital counterpart is now live. It has been an extraordinary gift to work on this magazine, and an experience I’ll carry with me forever.

Please join us at the Back Matter launch party, which will take place over Zoom on Wednesday, May 5th, at 7:00PM.


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

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.

AAnnika Lammers and Alexa Mauzy-Lewis working on Back Matter in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez, Back Matter Marketing and Communications Director
Jon Baskin on a class trip to Printed Matter in the before-times| Photo by Annika Lammers, Back Matter Creative Director
Back Matter staff meeting in the before-times | Photo by Hector Gutierrez

“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.

Screenshot of the print title for a piece by CPCJ student Fareeha Shah.
Full article available online.
Screenshot of the first-page layout for a piece by CPCJ student Cailin Potami.
Full article available online.

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. 


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz