(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.
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.
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.