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“Ironically, running a magazine never was my dream.”

INTERVIEW! Exberliner has been out of print since April. Our editor-in-chief explains what's been going on behind the scenes, and why she finds independent publishing more daunting than undercover war reporting in Chechnya.

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“We have a mission,” says Exberliner’s editor-in-chief, Nadja Vancauwenberghe. (Photo by May Bourdais.)

Exberliner has been out of print since April. Editor-in-chief Nadja Vancauwenberghe explains what’s going on behind the scenes, how running an independent publication is more daunting than reporting from war-torn Chechnya and why EXB‘s office manager will be giving back massages to help a crowdfunding campaign.

[Visit the Startnext campaign here.]

Exberliner has been out of print since April and just started a crowdfunding campaign. What’s been going on behind the scenes these past two months?

Basically, our print issue was an early casualty of Covid-19. The year had started nicely for us. We were just finalising our April editorial when we got the first news of what would become a total cultural lockdown: theatres rescheduling their premieres, festivals informing us they might have to cancel. It was all very confusing in the beginning with the official measures and restrictions literally changing by the hour.

But by March 13th – it was a Friday! – we knew the Spielzeit was cancelled and that clubs, museums and cinemas would all have to shut for no one knew how long. This meant two things: that our culture sections were no longer relevant, and that all our main partners in business for the last 18 years had de facto nothing to promote with us anymore. What people often don’t realise is how reliant on advertising independent magazines like ours are. In our case, cultural partners. Add to this that printing is expensive and you’ll understand how the April issue was an immediate piece of collateral damage of the coronavirus.

There’s also been a lot of talk about crisis providing new opportunities. Could you see any of that from inside the Corona storm?

We had to generate more exclusive content every day, doing shorter, quicker, more directly informative formats. And, in a way, that forced transformation was really good, because within two weeks we had a whopping increase in traffic and our newsletter is stronger than ever. So it’s been a confusing time.

We had a whopping increase in online traffic but financially it’s getting really tricky – and we have no idea what kind of economic crisis is ahead of us. It worries me a lot.

The business has been super tough and financially it’s getting really tricky – and we have no idea what kind of economic crisis is ahead of us. It worries me a lot. But then again, we grew in popularity and are really getting there in terms of online reach. So, less cash but more readers! The thing is, it’s both exciting and frustrating because as we realise all the potential, how much more we could, should and would like to do, but we are coming up against the limitations of our resources!

What would you like to do in an ideal world?

Offer what this city really needs! Look, it’s no secret that Berlin has become so international that English is now this city’s second language – we’re not all natives, but we all communicate in English rather than German, which might be a shame, but that’s the reality we live with and it’ll  probably only get better – or worse depending on how you look at it.

It might sound a little strange, but it took this Corona disaster to make me realise how much this city needed an English-language magazine!

It might sound a little strange, but it took this Corona disaster to make me realise how much this city needed an English-language magazine – a reliable and professional platform where people who don’t master German well enough can find local news, insider’s tips and local reporting, something like, say, tip in German. A good example of that is the insane popularity of our daily Corona report – an in-depth compilation of the latest facts, stats, and local news only about Berlin. It’s been a top read on our site, people wait for it every evening – online. So I realised that as Berlin’s English-language magazine, we had a bit of a mission here, because at the end of the day for a lot of international Berliners we are the only resource they have to understand what’s going on in the city.

Most magazines have already asked readers for help. How have you managed to keep going, financially, these past months?

Like pretty much everyone else, we got some support from the state. The Senat was very generous to self-entrepreneurs, freelancers, medium-sized and bigger companies, but small businesses like ours, with eight employees and a lot of freelancers, were in an unfortunate place in between. We received the same money a solo-entrepreneur could claim, but for us it barely covered one month of paying our in-house staff of editors, designers, ad sales people, administration, plus our freelancers – from illustrators to drivers. It was a little help, but definitely not much.

Then, of course, you can get so called “Corona loans”, but not only are those extremely complicated and mean a lot of paperwork, but it’s also a huge risk because the banks give you very little time to reimburse them – the IBB Corona loan is only for two years. For now we managed to keep all our staff – some on Kurzarbeitergeld, but we top up salaries so everyone is getting what they normally would. That always was our priority, but the impact on freelancers is, of course, huge. 

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Vancauwenberghe and the Exberliner team at Max-Beer-Str. 48. (Photo by Fabien Prauss.)

Why is print so crucial for Exberliner? Why not just continue as an online magazine?

There are two answers to that. First, it’s for financial reasons. Although our digital channels have been growing rapidly, print still generates the largest chunk of our income.

The second answer is that print is in our DNA! Exberliner was birthed by three writers in love with print journalism and very idealistic about the medium. Then, of course over the years, we understood that there was stuff you could do much better online – it’s a much faster, more reactive platform. We actually had big plans to grow our digital channels just before the pandemic struck.

Our very identity, that special EXB voice was always associated to the monthly magazine, its ethical standards and a journalistic ambition few could afford

In my opinion, print and digital don’t compete – they’re complementary. But our very identity, that special EXB voice, was always associated to the monthly magazine, its ethical standards and a journalistic ambition few could afford: no-nonsense, no-bullshit, on-the-ground reporting, long reads, face-to-face interviews – all firsthand! It really is where our credibility comes from and that’s also why people come to our website – we spent years building this credibility. 

There aren’t so many on top in the magazine business. Was your background in publishing? Was it a dream of yours?

Ironically, running a magazine never was my dream. Neither was Berlin. My background is pretty academic – basically political theory, which I taught for a while – and I always preferred investigative reporting to desk jobs. My cities were Paris (where I grew up) and Moscow, where I worked for a news agency and had a short-lived career as an undercover war reporter that got me in serious trouble with Putin’s regime.

Believe me, running a whole publication by myself (and should I add as a woman?) has in many ways been much more daunting than sneaking into war-torn Chechnya.

Often people think that is so much more glamorous and exciting. But it was damn adrenaline-high exciting to start a paper magazine! Believe me, running a whole publication by myself (and should I add as a woman?) is in many ways much more daunting and difficult than sneaking into war-torn Chechnya disguised as a special forces solider (laughs). It takes a lot of perseverance. But it grew on me, putting all these resources, talents and ideas together and building great content which people will enjoy reading because it’s informative, or intelligent or entertaining. I love the challenge.

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Our recent print issues.

You mentioned independent journalism. What does it mean to you?

Freedom. We always wrote what we wanted the way we wanted, keeping readers in mind. It means we’re not sycophantic about every place or event we cover, and might occasionally give a bad review to a restaurant everyone hyped – even if it means they’ll be pissed off and blacklist us (laughs). But it’s the price for journalistic credibility, and I like to think it pays off down the line. Then, it means that we gave ourselves the rare privilege to do the kind of reporting no one seems to have time to do anymore. It means not writing stories by googling them or patching together press releases, but actually having reporters going places and interviewing people. 

Of course, it’s work-intensive, but when you start doing that, the result is so much better – you end up with stories that smell different, taste different and have texture to them. You feel it’s something real. It’s like having food that’s been grown and prepared locally versus a ready-made meal that always tastes the same. I like to believe this explains the total miracle that three journalists could put together a magazine that’s still around after 18 years without any corporate or state support, completely independently.

The Guardian called you the best expat magazine…

I know people love quoting that! They actually called us “one of Europe’s best” (laughs). I’m not trying to spoil the claim, but to point to one sad fact: how many have survived out there?

For us crisis started from day two, 18 years ago – only 24 hours after we launched the first ever issue of what we then called ‘The Berliner’.

In 18 years, has there ever been a moment as existentially threatening as this crisis?

To be honest, we’re no strangers to the crisis modus. For us, crisis started from day two, 18 years ago – only 24 hours after we launched the first ever issue of what we then called The Berliner, we were sued for using a name we didn’t own the rights to. Fortunately, we solved the dispute by accepting to rename our baby. See, it’s another example of crisis giving birth to new beginnings: Exberliner is a much better name, don’t you think? Filled with the kind of charming life mishaps we so cherish over here (laughs) – hard-earned and adequately intriguing!

EXB‘s crowdfunding campaign is a little different from what other magazines have done….

… and coming rather late in the Corona game, I know! I actually resisted the idea of crowdfunding for a long time, because why should people help your business survive? At the end of the day, it’s your problem and not theirs. I guess that’s why we’ve never asked for anything, never tried to get a grant or public money. But when I saw campaigns from venues like ACUD, or support for Berlin’s indie Kinos, I realised these were spaces I love and I wanted to help them survive, they meant something to me, beyond the individuals running them. And maybe helping this magazine go through a tough patch is a little more than keeping a company alive. 

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Nadja Vancauwenberghe hard at work. What’s she working on? Find out over dinner, which you can book through our Startnext campaign. (Photo by Matt Unicomb.)

There are all those people around us, the extended EXB family – the readers, of course, but also so many writers, editors, artists and everyone else. This thing that’s been growing for 18 years is beyond me. So I made peace with the idea when I realised it’s not about begging for money. It’s about bringing what my marketing people call the “community” together. And since the Corona outbreak, we’ve received many messages of sympathy and support, and that’s really heart-warming to see how much people care about the magazine. Last week, I met a man who told me he’d been keeping every issue of the last 15 years and really missed the print version. In the end I thought crowdfunding could also be made a funt thing, and we started brainstorming and it turned into this team bounding:of sorts: everyone started pitching rewards!.

Is your office manager really qualified to give massages?!

Yes, Steffi isn’t only our beloved and trusted admin manager, but she turned out to also be a certified massage therapist, so she’s contributing back rubs to the campaign! To be honest I had no idea our staff and freelancers had so many hidden talents or side-businesses! Actually, every staff member, along with some friends and writers, are contributing rewards – our Startnext campaign has morphed into a big shop-cum-talent show! One writer has a small boating venture and is offering boating around the Landwehrkanal. Our art director is obviously going to give InDesign classes, our posh corporate lawyer is offering legal counseling, our resident astrologer will map out your astrological portrait, and so on.

Optimists are happy fools, pessimists unhappy fools. I’m too cautious to be either. But I’d be a fool not to believe that this crisis will give birth to new beginnings.

Other rewards include collector’s posters of EXB’s best covers, some dating back to 2003. We’ll organise classes and a journalism workshop, something I always thought was missing in this city. So we’re not just asking for money, but offering cool, fun stuff while involving people who’ve contributed to the magazine over the years, including amazing artists like Jim Avignon, who made our first cover in June 2002 and will make your portrait. Or a photographer whose work I love, Miron Zownir, who gave us one of his rare out-of-print books. There’s also one of my favourite artists, Sophie Iremonger, who gave us original artwork, and also our resident cartoonist and other artists, like Wolfgang Tillmans or DJ Alan Oldham, who simply appreciate the magazine and wanted to help out. And of course Berlin’s one-and-only Rummelsnuff who’s been the face of EXB through our Kino trailer, and has now contributed to the campaign. People talk a lot about “solidarity” these days, but when you experience it “in action”, it’s really something else. All in all, everyone who’s part of this Startnext campaign means something to us – and the other way around.

What about that €500 dinner with the publisher?

I know (laughs)! You might think the price tag accounts for a total lack of humility – or Michelin star food. Actually, it’s neither! The restaurant is just my favourite French hangout in Berlin, and I’d personally never spend that much on a dinner with myself. But to support EXB? Hell yeah! Basically, we needed a more expensive donation deal – and I’m the one with no hidden talents, so…

So what’s going to happen once the campaign reaches its target? What will you do?

The end of the campaign will coincide with the launch of a special Solidarity Edition, our big comeback to print after three months! It’s meant to be a one-off issue, filled with long-form interviews with and by inspiring artists, scientists, historians, philosophers from here and abroad who will reflect on the very strange time we’ve been going through. A bit of a rip-off of Interview magazine from the Warhol days, but also an attempt to step back and stretch our minds beyond the daily flood of Corona news and the maddening uncertainties surrounding the virus, and the impact the lockdown will have on our economy, society, our psyches.

There’s a lot to process. People are already talking about a time “before Corona,” so there ought to be an “after”. For us, I hope it’ll mean a return to our normal print schedule in September, but also to move forward with our digital plans.

Are you optimistic?

As fellow Frenchman Georges Bernanos so nicely put it, “optimists are happy fools, pessimists unhappy fools”. I’m too cautious to be either. I’m focused. I’m determined. Realistically, it’s going to be a few tough months. But we have so many ideas about what to do next with this magazine – so many projects. I’d be a fool not to believe that this crisis will give birth to new beginnings.