• Berlin
  • 10 years of Exberliner – The inside story


10 years of Exberliner – The inside story

On the occasion of a 10 year celebration, our Editor-in-Chief Nadja Vancauwenberghe gives you, dear reader, a peek behind our print.

Image for 10 years of Exberliner – The inside story

Monday January 9, 2002

Phoned Ioana in New York and asked her: “If we found the money and started a magazine in Berlin, would you be in?” Her answer was a bold: “YES. When? I’m booking my ticket right away!” M and I have plans. We’re three now. And what if it were the beginning of something…?

A few weeks ago I unearthed this entry in a diary I had no memory of keeping at the time. A discarded ‘slice’ of life, jotted on a random page of an old notebook, crammed between to-do lists and my Moscow journalism shorthand notes. Little did I know, this random scribble would actually be worth mentioning 10 years later, as a milestone, a piece of history that would affect not only my life but also that of quite a few fellow Berliners – destined to become our readers, contributors or staff.

Over the years we’d fight over whose idea Exberliner was, who was to reap the credit (when being interviewed by appreciative journalists) or to be blamed when everything went so wrong, so many times. There’s no simple answer!

‘M’ stood for Maurice. He was the forerunner, the first ‘Berliner’ of the trio. With German blood and German tongue, he had made it to the new capital before everyone, before the idealistic masses of what we were later to dub ‘yukis’, before his high school friends who were to follow suit later, even before the euro. Following half a life in the US and a journalism degree in the London of his birth, Maurice had settled in Berlin nicely and was already getting sick of working for other people (Die Welt online and Deutsche Welle TV).

Founding a magazine had always been an ‘Ioana-Idea’. Born and raised in Ceauşescu’s Romania, she had fled with her family to the West and spent her student life between the ‘little Romania’ of her two-room Parisian flat and the Sorbonne’s department of political science where she and I had met 10 years before.

After London (all three of us went through City University journalism school), she had made it to NYC, the land of her dissident father’s dreams of freedom. She had cried flying over the Statue of Liberty (and would cry later looking at the Wall on Bernauer Straße). She witnessed 9/11 with her own eyes. 

Yet she was growing tired of New York – the Village Voice where she worked was already not quite what it used to be – and had set her sights on launching a magazine in Paris, a bad idea if I ever heard one.

I had just passed through my Heimat and sealed my decision to not go back: too much had remained the good old boring same since I had left the benches of the Sorbonne to teach and pursue my PhD in Moscow.

Berlin was different, open, unfinished, literally a building site. So, I unpacked my suitcase here as a mournful but grateful exile – a refugee from Putin’s Russia and his FSB Black List of undesirables. After years of loving the kick of intrepid journalism – from war to investigation on chemical weapons, from Chechnya to Moscow, from field reporting to the desk of a major news agency – I had to move on.

Faced with the choice of a career move (back to old Paris) and l-o-v-e (Berlin, terra incognita), I foolishly and rather unfashionably opted for the latter – the riskiest gamble of all.

My first few months here were agony: too comfortable to enjoy, too cheap and easy to be true; my freelancing for a few culture mags felt indulgent – I had risked my life in Russia, now I was losing my sanity. So when an acquaintance suggested that, with our combined experience, we should start Berlin’s much-needed English magazine and that he would be interested in investing some money in it – it did not fall on deaf ears…

From then on, things went too fast to be remembered.

(I couldn’t find any more discarded diary entries to help – with the exception of a paragraph on my decision to cancel a much anticipated hunting trip to Kazakhstan: “My resolution to dedicate myself to our new publishing project is at stake. I’ve got to be able to make choices – even if it hurts…”)

On March 5, Ioana landed at Tegel with a newly acquired American accent and her legendary indomitable faith and headstrong energy. (To my dismay, her only concern was finding a good gym here.) We left to meet our two business partners in the horse-breeding town of Verden in Lower Saxony on the same day.

Here, in the lobby of an unmemorable hotel, serious talks were held, contracts signed, making us the happy managers of one IoMauNa Media GmbH. We left the hotel heavily indebted but in good spirits. We owned a publishing house! Many a journalist’s dream – having one’s own paper – was becoming our reality.

A month, later we moved into our first office, a two-room shop front on Prenzlauer Berg’s drab Jablonskistraße, which we promptly furnished with basics from Ikea and three computers (not a single Mac!).

Maurice, who was the only one who spoke German and had a vague idea of what a Gewerbeschein was, took over business operations; Ioana, who hadn’t practiced design since journalism school but was confident she could do it, art direction; I, ‘naturally’, reclined into my new chief editor’s chair – an editor without writers, with the notable exception of Robin Alexander, a young German journo I had met in Moscow and who instantly accepted the position of political columnist.

Our start-up team was soon to be fleshed out by Richard, a multitalented German-bred American who was to help raise the infant paper until it could walk by itself, and Rosie, a tiny energetic Brit who ruled over the listings and whose high spirits and fortitude we missed sorely when she had to return home a year later. 

The ad sales squad was an all-Berliner duo – a skinny, cat-loving film intellectual called Sven and André, a fifty-something bon vivant recently laid off by the Tagesspiegel.  Chance encounters provided the rest of the crew: we met our music editor at a sidewalk café up the street, and our (shy) first film critic was escorted to our Jablonskistraße office by her brother.  I don’t remember worrying much about writers: we were journalists, after all; never did it occur to us back then this would actually be a problem.

A magazine is a business, not a sandbox for journalists.

Market realities command that successful magazine start-ups be the brainchild of marketing minds and design geniuses – looks and sales are the one and only decisive factor in this war. We were charmingly unaware of such simple truths. When our benevolent but pragmatic investor asked for a “business plan”, we’d rushed to the nearest bookstore to get up to speed on balance sheets and the difference between cash flow and a cash cow.

All I knew about business came from my partial reading of Das Kapital; Ioana was, well, a Romanian… Maurice had escaped the bright business future his family had in store for him to study English literature. Our revenue projections were shamelessly optimistic. Cluelessness has its advantages: it doesn’t burden you with paralysing thoughts. Plus we wanted to be different. And reality was to leave us with no other choice. 

Over the years we’ve learnt about the publishing industry the hard way: learning by doing and suffering: fiascos and shitstorms, lawsuits and scandals. Here are a few milestones on the road towards what we are today.

How we got our weird name

On June 10, 2002, following a long and laborious birth, a 32-page free newspaper named The Berliner saw the light of day  – 30,000 of them! It’s hard to remember what we felt. Tired, probably.

What we do remember though is that within two days of distributing the first issue, we received a wake-up call in the guise of a cease and desist letter from a lawyer. The name ‘Berliner’ had been registered as a trademark by another magazine. A few days later our rather dishevelled, exhausted trio was sitting in a Ku’damm attorney’s office across from a Herr Moshkovits, the publisher of a lifestyle glossy named  Berliner which happened to be starting up at the same time to fold only a year or two later.

Made compliant by the threat of a €10,000 fine, we agreed to immediately change the name of the magazine. Freshly hyphenated, The Ex-Berliner was born. (It was almost a year later, when the new Berlin branch of Neville Brody’s Research Studios redesigned the mag, that the name was compressed into a unitary EXBERLINER.)

How we learnt to say no to advertorials

Sometimes it was fate rather than lawyers that taught us a lesson in survival in the harsh world of publishing. While our naïve belief that we would be profitable within two issues and advertisers would flock to our free cultural newspaper in English was charming – finding capable ad reps who could reel in financially solvent clients who actually paid their bills turned out to be much harder than we expected.

At one point the team came to an existential crossroads. An Italian restaurant owner in Wilmersdorf had offered to pay us a decent price to write a “positive article” about his place – which was apparently considered normal among Berlin magazines at the time (and still seems to be the case). The whole concept of advertorials hadn’t crossed our minds.

A battle ensued between the advertising ‘department’ and editorial, business realities and ethics. Were we selling our soul? Was this the only way to survive? True enough, the accounts were looking pretty dismal, and I was pregnant – not a good time for heroic starvation.

Mournfully, we decided to dispatch a journalist to go and write about the restaurant. By the time he arrived the next day, the place had burnt to the ground. Fate, in the form of fire, had intervened and extinguished Exberliner’s first and last advertorial.

How we lost our fear of lawsuits

For years, apart from a few minor instances – a threat from New Berlin Tours concerning an article about unsavoury practices in the tourism industry in summer 2009 or a few minor copyright infringements, such as a complaint about a photo of Bar25 harvested from Flickr and an unauthorised use of an online map, or a cover girl trying to get extra royalties by joining up at a model agency after the shoot – the lawyers left us alone.

That is until one day in March 2009, when a fax from an office representing the German Red Cross arrived: sex columnist Dr. Dot was illegally using the Red Cross symbol on her nurse outfit, as pictured beside her column – a breach of trademark law, which could cost us thousands of euros in damages.

A world-famous charity with a spotless reputation concerned about its image? No, more like a greedy Hamburg lawyer who managed to extract power of attorney from the Red Cross to hunt down abusers of the symbol – even ‘artists’ like Dr. Dot. The whole thing smelled like a ridiculous scam, but the lawyer wouldn’t back down: we ended up photoshopping broken red hearts onto Dot’s uniform!

How we learned to deal with writers’ wrath

The problem with expat writers is that they are by-and-large an unhappy species – outlets are few and far between, and the Berlin journalism pond is overpopulated with blogger types with literary ambitions and cumbersome egos, their degree of bitterness usually inversely proportional to their age and actual talent.

Acrimonious writers regularly threatened to sue, punch, or even kill me… for criticising, editing or turning down their prose. Being chief editor is an exciting job after all! The cheerful news is that the good ones seem to always make it in the trade – and by some god-ordained law, they’re usually the easiest, nicest to deal with.

How we got accused of everything

As early as 2003 I was already boastfully glossing on how we got accused of pretty much everything and its opposite (in my book, a real feat!), courtesy of ‘concerned’ readers whose letters we faithfully published in the mag. We stopped our Letters page in 2008 with the inception of our brand new website. Digging into eight years of letters to the editor, we rediscovered real gems and got nostalgic: surely enough there are more eloquent ways to express an opinion than clicking a ‘like’ button, and (often anonymous) online comments tend to trigger more monosyllabic half-baked thoughts/emotions than eloquent, articulate opinions.

Starting next month, we’ll resuscitate that noble old format: whether handwritten, typed on your vintage Remington or shiny new Mac, send us real letters – by post, fax or email – we’ll publish them!

Finally, all things considered

Some 123 issues and a few worry wrinkles later, we’re celebrating a decade of Exberliner with a big summer fiesta at Badeschiff (16:00-late, Sun, Jun 29). Berlin has changed: the Palast is gone, and Ioana is in New York (where she’s enjoying the recognition of being an Exberliner publisher among the big fish in the big pond). She’ll be back.

Exberliner has become a household name. Contributors and staff have come and gone; many have stayed for a good stretch, have even come back after a break; some interns have become editors. Others will never return and we miss them (Paula 1972-2011, but also Meagan and André – we won’t forget them).

No matter what, they’ve been the unruly yet loyal troops in an uphill battle in a rather adverse economic environment – it’s not always easy to be ‘indie’ and ‘free’. But the dedication and fortitude of our hardworking editors and writers, inspired designers, photographers and illustrators, resourceful sales and marketing people, trusty delivery drivers – and dedicated interns – have enabled us to do just that: survive and thrive as the fearless, independent publication we always wanted to be.

Nadja Vancauwenberghe, Editor-in-Chief