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20 years of Exberliner

Nadja Vancauwenberghe: “I’m not interested in doing something mediocre”

Exberliner turns 20! Co-founder and editor-in-chief Nadja Vancauwenberghe on how the magazine got started, two decades of storms and what's coming next.

Photo: Paula Ragucci

You said that if it wasn’t for Vladimir Putin, Exberliner would never have come into being. What’s the story? 

That’s a bit of a joke, of course, but it’s kind of a true joke, you know? I’ve been hearing that for 20 years: people come here, fall in love with the city, start some kind of wonderful project and it works or it doesn’t work – but it’s been their plan all along, it’s been a choice. I never went through this “falling in love with Berlin” stage. For me, Berlin was exile. It was coming here and not knowing what to do because my city of predilection was Moscow and my language of interest was Russian. I worked as a journalist for a news agency there for many years, but I was doing my own investigations and having the time of my life – until Putin came to power. The first few years of Putin were kind of okay. But then after doing some crazy investigation stories, including an undercover stint in Chechnya, I ended up being blacklisted.

Blunders may be the path to true creativity: “Exberliner “ is such a better title after all!

It happened very, very suddenly. And it was a huge trauma. I literally lost my job, my life and my flat pretty much overnight. I don’t want to compare it to what refugees go through, but in many ways it did happen to me like that. I had no other place to go, and no idea what I would do. My boyfriend at the time was living in Berlin and it took me a good six months to make the decision to actually move here. So the joke is definitely that if it hadn’t been for Putin and the Russian secret service, I would have never ended up in Berlin!

What happened after you arrived? 

I didn’t speak a word of German when I came, and it was like, what am I going to be doing here? I had no idea. I was here for a good three to four months, and instead of enjoying the great Berlin lifestyle, I would just lament the fact that I couldn’t even get hold of a single magazine in English. In Moscow at that time we had so much English-language media. At first I thought oh, great, so many things in English – but no, that’s just the German habit of using cool English words on magazine covers! One beautiful night, I was complaining about this to a friend of a friend, a businessman. And he looked at me and he said, “Well, instead of complaining, just do it!”. Maurice Frank, my boyfriend at the time, lived here and he hated his Deutsche Welle job. And then my other friend, Ioana Veleanu, who was French-Romanian-American and had been working for the Village Voice, started to say she wanted to come back to Europe – and her big thing was to start a magazine. So I said, “What about starting something together?”

So there weren’t any English-language city magazines in Berlin at that time? 

There had been two English-language magazines in the past, probably in the 1990s, but I wasn’t there then and they had never really taken off. You would keep hearing people, especially journalists stuck in their well paid jobs at Deutsche Welle or wherever, who thought that maybe they could do something more creative. The fact is a lot of people had at some point said, “I’m gonna start that Berlin English-language magazine.” We had no idea. We had no expectations. We had no connection to any English-language journalists here. The only journalist I knew in Berlin was Robin Alexander. He’d stayed at my flat in Moscow and became our first political columnist. Now he’s one of those big talk show stars and a big wig at conservative Die Welt. Funny!

For me, Berlin was exile. It was coming here and not knowing what to do

You studied politics and Russian. How did that transition into journalism? 

It’s complicated in France. I studied public law, then politics, then political sociology. Then I wanted to do my PhD about Russia, and I got a generous grant to research and live there. Meanwhile I was teaching at the Lomonosov State university, it was a great setup! At some point I started freelance writing. Ultimately, I ended up taking a Master’s in International Journalism at City University in London. My plan was clear: after that, I would go back to Moscow and start from scratch, and I would become a ‘Russian journalist’. In the early 1990s, there was almost no foreign correspondent speaking any Russian there. Then I was hired by AFP as a local journalist. It was not as glamorous as people think. You’d spend your days sitting there on the wires and just translating from the Russian news agency TASS – and if you’re lucky, in the middle of the night, a Chechen warlord would call you up – because they had a direct line to our bureau at the time! – and tell you that they had ambushed the Russians. In the morning you’d wait for the Kremlin to send a counter-statement.

During the time I was in Russia, there was a war going on. I found out that things are always much more complicated than what the media, including Western media, reports. Chechnya was totally off limits, it was impossible – no one would send me there because it was illegal. This brings up the question of how to investigate and how to do good journalism. I guess I’m from that old guard of reporters who believe in journalism, not as just putting two statements side by side, and thinking “oh great I’m being impartial”, but wanting to find out the truth. I see journalism as investigative in its essence. That’s what pushed me to smuggle myself into Chechnya dressed up as a Russian soldier from the Special OMON forces. Because I wanted to find out what was going on there. So sometimes it requires some guts, but you don’t need to risk your life in a war zone to be an investigative journalist. Even if you want to write a report about a new matcha café in Berlin, you should go there, you should find out for yourself. I guess that’s what helped me make the transition to starting a local magazine. And I must say that local journalism is less boring than news agency journalism.

We had to tell people, “It’s great that you’re an expat, but it doesn’t mean you’re interesting!”

Was that the idea when you set up Exberliner? Did you have a mission statement? 

You need to consider that this magazine was the brainchild of three journalists – which sounds a little vintage in a way. None of us really had a clue about business or marketing. When we first started, we called ourselves The Berliner because, you know, The New Yorker (laughs), and it was like, “Let’s do good local journalism, since we can’t do anything else”. The angle was to cover all kinds of culture, social affairs and human interest stories. We wanted to cover whatever we thought was interesting in Berlin, but in English. Actually, that kind of got us into trouble with the community. As soon as we started the magazine, people would call up and say, “I have a story, I’m American, and you have to write about me”. We had to tell people, “It’s great that you’re an expat, but it doesn’t mean you’re interesting!”. 

To be entirely honest, we had no idea what we were doing. It was initially a bimonthly on newsprint, and it was free. We had very old PCs, and a pretty dingy office in a pretty untrendy part of Prenzlauer Berg. And it started very badly when we almost got sued for using a name that was actually already owned by someone else. That’s how the magazine got renamed “Exberliner” (for “no more Berliner”!). Even something as simple as that, we didn’t even think of checking! But it’s empowering when you don’t know too much. And blunders may be the path to true creativity: “Exberliner “ is such a better title after all!

What was the reception like when you first launched the magazine? When did you realise that it was actually something that you could make successful? 

When we started, I felt that we had thrown ourselves into the wild sea – and now we had to swim. There was no other way. We were on the verge of bankruptcy on an almost daily basis in the first few years. I think our saving grace was we had no choice – we got ourselves into debt, all of us – we’d actually borrowed the money to be able to have a share in our own magazine. You put 100 percent into it. We literally spent our days and nights working. It’s hard to remember how we survived. 

The moment we really felt we had something was when we started getting the attention of museums and clubs and theatres, and then all of those people started to advertise with us, because it was interesting to them that we were in English and this was their window onto the international community. The culture sector understood our potential very early on. We were credible enough, and they gave us more credibility, which was the most important thing. Back when we started the magazine in 2002, our team was out trying to sell ads, and some café or restaurant owners would literally tell us they don’t believe in capitalism. That was Berlin back then. People would buy an ad in exchange for €500 worth of chocolate slabs!

Do you think it would be possible to start a magazine in Berlin now, the way you did it back then?

Definitely not. We started with €50,000. You would need a lot more money now, just considering the rent you’d have to pay for an office. I guess people could do it in their flat, but it was so important that we had a place to start our magazine. It was our mini headquarters, even if it was a really dingy little shopfront on Jablonskistraße! It really symbolised something. Why did Exberliner work out? There are probably so many reasons – but one is that at that time we had no competition. Over the years, we kept hearing about new competitors starting up and we would think, “Oh, shit!”

Do you have nostalgia for the early days of Exberliner?

I think it has always been evolving, getting a bit bigger, a bit more serious and more professional. Maybe because we were all growing up. The other day, I was looking back at some early material and I thought it was more edgy, a bit more biting, and definitely alternative looking. But then, if you’re too alternative, it gets complicated when you want to have credibility and make money. I have good nostalgia for all those contributors we had over the years, those past columns. It feels like people you shared a home with, I guess – like how in a family, you had brothers and sisters and then they grew up and they moved on to have a different life. But we still stay in touch. I was happy when I started reaching out to past contributors about this anniversary issue and everyone was so eager to take part. I’m still in touch with most of the people who worked with us, even from the first five years. A lot of people became friends through Exberliner. I know of at least one Exberliner baby, maybe there are more. Yes, there are more!

Are there any particular events that marked you over the years? 

I’ve experienced a lot of major Berlin events in a very personal way. Stuff happens, and I get involved. The Ukraine war became a cover story and the topic of a whole issue of the magazine in April, but it also materialised in my life when one little Ilyusha from Odesa and his mum started living with me. In 2015, I experienced the Willkommen wave first hand through Rasha, a young pregnant Syrian woman who lived with my daughter and me for over seven months – she actually was a big Assad fan and hated my cats! (laugh)

One seminal moment for me was the very last day of the last exhibition at the Palast der Republik in 2005 before it was closed down forever. It was December, and there was snow everywhere on the Schlossplatz, and it was very dark. I remember it all so vividly. That felt like one of those turning points. I was a very pro-Palast der Republik person. It was like this huge dying whale. First they took away the asbestos, and then it was sentenced to death. And then there was that Zwischennutzung phase with the ‘Volkspalast’ takeover by artists and performers. It was amazing and such a perfect aesthetic contrast with the Palast’s all-Prussian surroundings. Berlin had missed an opportunity to own its past and it felt ominous with regard to the city at large, and its politics. By which I mean its very blanket treatment of DDR history, doing away with it all in a tabula rasa way.

tipBerlin was the guarantee that I could fold my little baby into a bigger home, a place where it can really blossom and grow in the future

The magazine’s survived through all these changes. And then in 2020 along came corona… 

It was a disaster for us, because of course we were reliant on culture. Our bread and butter was around 80 percent culture advertisements – which was always good, because that’s the advertisement you want to have, since it’s not something where you feel you’re selling your soul every time you have an ad. But then suddenly there was no culture anymore. Then two amazing things happened. One was that, even when a lot of those cultural institutions stopped advertising, they tried to still continue paying us as long as they could, because they knew that we needed them. That was really heartwarming. The other amazing thing is that I had a lot of editors and writers who offered to work for free, and that’s pretty much unheard of for freelancers! (laughs) We had to move everything online – then one of us had a burnout. And then we decided to do this crowdfunding – and every member of the small staff chipped in – our office manager offered massages against a €50 donation, our art director in-design classes – we outdid our target!

The first Exberliner magazine (then called “The Berliner”) and the latest issue.

But I felt it was about time we found a bigger roof. In terms of publishing, being entirely independent and running everything by myself had become unsustainable. At that time, I knew that tipBerlin were interested in doing something in English. Over the years, so many magazines and newspapers in Berlin have tried something in English then stopped, I think they never realise how difficult it is. How much work, determination, time and money you need to make it work. We had the credibility of 18 years and, for me, our happy marriage with tipBerlin was the guarantee that I could fold my little baby into a bigger home, a place where it can really blossom and grow in the future.

Do you still have a particular attachment to print?

Print is something a little special. I think that there are things you can do in print that you will never do as well online: the flow of things, the visual versus textual elements. It’s what you do as a publisher, and it is very unique and special. Another thing I’m very proud of about the magazine is how we try, as much as possible, to give a platform to the many very talented illustrators and photographers who live here. We had Jim Avignon on our first cover and again after; Miron Zownir’s photographs. Most of our covers are original artworks by Berliners, or ‘ex-Berliners’ like Agata Sasiuk, who’s come to be one of our signature illustrators in many ways. When you’re buying these individual little “Exberliners” each month, it’s the result of so much work, from so many Berlin people who put a lot of love and passion into it. And when we do feature articles, we’re not one of those magazines where someone is assigned a story and then we just publish it. 

My deputy and I spend a lot of time giving feedback, sending it back and forth, really striving to have what we think is the best possible article – and that, for me, is meaningful, because I’m not interested in doing something mediocre. I want people to read it and say, “Well, that’s interesting!”. What makes me very happy is when I meet people and they say, “Oh, I read a really good story in Exberliner”. I’m not humble about that, and I believe we can keep on doing it.

What’s next for Exberliner

There’s so much we can still develop with the Exberliner brand. There is so much potential for an English-language publication in Berlin, and we have to take that very seriously. Berlin’s foreign-born population grew by almost 70 percent between when we started in 2002 and 2020. Germans used to ask me about the international Blase (bubble) here, but there’s no bubble: What is the bubble in a city where you have so many internationals? The international people who come to Berlin, they come to be Berliners. They’re not your usual expats. They are often very creative and entrepreneurial, and they do things that are really contributing to the city they live in. That’s something very particular for me about Berlin – that Berlin has given space to foreigners to live and breathe, but more than that, to create and make the city their own. By doing that every day, they have helped to feed the city in a unique way – I think this is what Exberliner does, as well.