From the moment that the idea was first mooted, 48 Hour Magazine, aka 48HR, got a lot of people talking (including the lawyers). The premise was simple: “As the name suggests, we’re going to write, photograph, illustrate, design, edit, and ship a magazine in two days.”
Created by a team that included a Wired contributing editor, a former senior editor of Dwell, and the founders of user-generated JPG magazine, it worked like this: on the first day, they unveiled the theme, and gave people 24 hours to submit their work. On the second day, based inside Mother Jones‘ offices, they edited, designed, proofed, uploaded. On the third day, they rested. HP’s print-on-demand service MagCloud then did the rest.
48 hours. One 60-page magazine. So how did it turn out?
Firstly, I should say that this is a subject I know something about. I editorially directed (ie. watched with interest as Kati and Guido pulled in ridiculous hours and did amazing work) our “made in two days” 108-page Colophon magazine, and am currently in the process of making Stranded magazine, also to be printed and distributed through MagCloud.
However, this was something different, a magazine stirred by online buzz, fried on a piping hot timeline, flavoured with a spicy theme, and then served almost immediately, while still sizzling. I couldn’t wait to give it a taste.
The cover (above) has a great deal in common with some issues of the designer’s earlier mag JPG – that is, shortened title in white, bright background, one word theme on the cover. The energy of the cover comes from the words rather than the monochrome photo, which is curiously unengaging.
Structurally, the early pages (pp6-14) are laid out as ‘shorts’, a standard magazine opening gambit of shorter pieces that flow together, to get you into the feel of the mag; after that, most articles are one or two pages, accompanied by photos or illustrations.
The longest article in the whole mag, with the only double-page, full-bleed image, is a four-page photostory about NASCAR.
There are also a handful of infographics scattered throughout, including this one by a team from GOOD magazine.
The design is by Derek Powacek of the original JPG, the remarkable Strange Light, and the true-story literary mag Fray. It has much in common with all three, in particular the latter. Eschewing outsized headlines, pull quotes, long intros, or opening spreads to articles, the vast majority of pieces stick to closely to Fray‘s template, including its two-column grid. Put the two magazines side by side, and at first glance, it’s hard to tell one from the other.
There’s nothing wrong with this choice per se – given the time restrictions, choosing an existing template seems perfectly reasonable. When you take into account how it was put together, and by so many cooks (the masthead lists 27 different staff, outside of contributors, the whole magazine feels remarkably slick in many areas, with fewer typos than most mainstream monthlies. Flipping well done, everyone.
Also, despite being a user-generated mag, and therefore restricted by the quality of what came in, there are some really well-written pieces, including Reeves Wiedeman’s interview with a ticket tout, Evan Ratliff writing about Dr Pierce’s amazing remedies, and Douglas Wolk on the fading of James Brown.
The concept – making a magazine over a weekend, and putting it on sale straight away – is a great one that deservedly got a lot of attention. In the first 28 hours, there were 1,502 contributions, a truly amazing number – many of whose creators will presumably buy the mag, whether they’re in it or not, so creating a great marketing/business model of people who feel that they have an investment in the concept. It also has an intriguing-sounding revenue split.
However, there’s a number of problems with 48HR, the biggest of which is a consistent mismatch between the concept of the magazine, and the result.
What makes the magazine interesting and different and fun and exciting to people is the process of its creation. It is, according to its own description, “a raucous experiment in using new tools to erase media’s old limits.” Yet when you read the magazine, there’s a distinct lack of rauc. As you turn the pages, you feel nothing of the urgency of the experiment or the new tools with which it was created.
The design is, like Fray, clean, calm and literary, all of which somewhat contradicts the magazine’s own theme of Hustle, as well as its unique selling point as being a product of concentrated panic. As you read the pages, you get no sensation of excitement or adrenalin in its layout, no feeling of being made seat-of-the-pants. Sure, that’s quite an achievement in itself – but especially for the first of its kind, it feels like an unfortunate disconnect.
Inside there are no timelines, no insights about its creation, no neat touches such as “article submitted 22.38, edited 03.12, designed 10.59, signed off 18.44″, no signs at all of what makes the mag unusual. Having sold us on its amazing, insane, ambitious method of construction, all of the workings have been so well hidden, it doesn’t feel exciting at all. In the end, the ads are the most dynamic pages in the whole thing, never a good thing.
That sensation carries through to the text and the images. Many of the articles feel pre-written, or only slightly adapted, and almost none of them have a currency or relevancy to suggest that they were written on the actual weekend of the commission.
Sentences like “In 2007, I spent five days in Benzdorp” and “It’s late September and the mornings are dark and cold” are common, combining to make 48HR feel the opposite of what made the whole thing sound so energizing – a magazine of the moment, created in just two days. The idea of “Writers and photographers: you have just 24 hours to search your archives” feels far less interesting than what I thought the magazine was going to be. There may be no way to guarantee fresh content, but there are ways of emphasizing its importance, if they had chosen to take that route. It would have been far stronger and more urgent if they had.
There are more problems, too. The chosen theme, as I said, was Hustle. It’s probably my British ear, but I’m not entirely clear what that even means, and having read the magazine, I’m none the wiser. The closest I can guess is either “to be in a hurry” or “to scam”.
This lack of clarity proved to be something of a problem throughout the magazine. Is somebody who digs for gold legally in Suriname a ‘hustler’? How about a tout who sells genuine tickets outside the stadium? A shop girl who persuades somebody to buy extremely tight trousers? The chief executive of BP? A recipe for pulled candy? Someone who sells sunglasses on the street?
By the inclusion of all these stories, the magazine suggests the answer is ‘yes’, but without explanation or clarity, the mere definition seems a complex one. “It is what people think it is” doesn’t work either, as they’ve chosen which content to include, presumably in part related to if it matches the theme. A haphazard structure, with no clearly defined sections, merely adds to the confusion.
I’m also not clear about commissions versus submissions. The descriptions of the process suggest that the mag was entirely submission-based – in which case, how come some articles seem to have custom illustrations? Maybe it’s just mag people like me who notice, but the mix jarred.
Separate from the printed product, but no less important, is the online component of the mag. Having built up its fame through online buzz, 48HR‘s blog became all but forgotten throughout the magazine’s actual creation. All that build up… then nothing more than an archive YouTube link about coffee. No sneak peaks, not a single behind-the-scenes photo or revelation. Having posted regular inspirations and anticipation in the days preceding the big weekend, the blog was dropped at the one moment when it should have been at its buzziest.
In contrast, the Twitter feed was indeed updated through the weekend, but mostly with such unedifying comments as “5 hours to go” and “Trust that *things are happening.*” If the magazine’s point of difference is its creation, then couple of invited bloggers could have made all the difference in showcasing the personalities, the stress, the last-minute choices, the issues faced in making a magazine this way. Otherwise, what makes it different from any other mag?
In conclusion, the idea behind 48HR is great: to spend a crazy weekend involving people around the world, all creating something that itself becomes a printed souvenir of the madness. The idea clearly captured the imagination of 1,502 people, no mean feat.
This is, after all, Issue Zero of the project, and it has great potential, perhaps even inviting guest art directors/editors in the future, to maintain a sensation of the project being fresh and unexpected. As it develops, maybe a team of photographers will agree to be on standby, poised to shoot on whatever the theme is, with celebrities waiting and ready to be interviewed on whatever topic gets announced. I’d also love to see a few people/specific resources from the host magazine – in this case Mother Jones – getting more visibly involved, too, to make it feel like a product of the space as well as the people.
Overall, though, this first issue of 48HR is disappointing. By not highlighting the one thing that made it different, it simply feels like the worst of both worlds: a slick-looking magazine that feels rushed. Goodness knows, there’s enough of those out there already.