Less than a day after the closure of Metro magazine, which he’d edited for a year, Henry Oliver had an idea: to create Essential Services, a zine available free as a PDF download (and in print at Britomart) that’s given him and all its contributors the chance to keep doing what they love for a while longer. Here, he talks to Jeremy Hansen about the shock of Metro’s closure, and about the pleasures of creating something new.
JEREMY HANSEN: Until very recently you were the editor of Metro magazine. Then came the shock news that Bauer Media, which published Metro, had decided to close its New Zealand operations completely. What was the day of the closure like for you?
HENRY OLIVER: We had received an invitation to a Zoom meeting, but it wasn’t immediately clear that was totally alarming, because even before that we had been trying to figure out what to do without being able to print and distribute a magazine [government restrictions under Alert Level 4 meant magazines weren’t classed as an essential service, so couldn’t be printed or distributed]. But in the morning there was a text message which said everyone had to make themselves available, which gave the hint that it was something more. I kind of knew it was possible that some titles might not make it through, but I didn’t necessarily think it would be a wholesale, company-wide, this whole thing is over. Maybe naively I had thought Metro was in pretty good shape, because we were quite a small team with a pretty lean budget and had a good year. But as soon as Brendon Hill, our CEO in Australia, started talking, the tone, the way he looked – it was obvious. You just kind of saw it and it looked like an incredibly hard thing for him to do. I was like, oh that’s what this is.
It’s one of those things where it also immediately made sense to me. I just thought, of course the work that would be needed to save a few titles would far outweigh the benefits for a company on the other side of the world [Bauer Media’s head office is in Hamburg]. You are a line on a balance sheet that’s pretty easy to cross out, and I guess someone worked out how much it would cost to make us all redundant and crossed out that line.
A lot of media made a big deal of how the inability to publish magazines was what tipped the company over the edge, even though this happened just over a week into lockdown. What’s your take on that?
That was different for different titles. As a bimonthly Metro was in a better position to ride it out. We were lucky that Metro had more of a digital presence that we could focus on. My thinking at the time was, we’ll just try and make the best go of being web-only until we can get back in the office. That’s very different from how The Listener or Woman’s Day or Women’s Weekly operated. The not being able to publish thing was a real shock in that there was an active decision that this type of media is considered separate, so getting information from The Listener was considered less essential than getting it from the Herald, or getting safety and health tips from Women’s Weekly, which they were doing, was less important than getting them from elsewhere. A lot of that was based on this assumption that you could get it from the internet. I heard a lot about how those mass weekly women’s titles aren’t essential media, but some of the biggest readers are people in rest homes and things like that, people who are isolated, couldn’t get visitors, and I think to say that stuff is inessential seems really wrong to me. There’s a more straightforward case of saying The Listener is an essential service, but there are lots of ways in which different media serve different needs. It just seemed a real shame that magazines weren’t considered important. We were making magazines because we loved to make magazines, and it was definitely still a magazine company. It did feel demoralizing for some people.
One of the criticisms of Bauer was that it had been slow to adapt digitally, but I guess you could also say there isn’t a big magazine company in the world that has managed this adaptation successfully.
Even though there has been so much decline in magazine revenues and ad revenues over the last 15 years or so, the magazine side was still more profitable than digital. Metro had been given its own website and we were trying to establish more of a digital-only business and get clients on board to do things digitally that weren’t in the magazine, but you would have to work really hard online to produce content for a client, and for that same amount of money all you have to do is upload a PDF of an ad and print it on a page. So you can see why even when you see the future is digital, it’s really hard to make that change while you’re still making better money off print products. At some point you’d have to make some hard calls and I don’t think we were there yet.
Had some of the magazines drifted off the radar a bit because they weren’t digital enough though?
When the decision was made that magazines weren’t essential services, that was writ large. We as a magazine industry were invisible to a lot of people, and lots of those people are in government. What we were trying to do was build out from this print product that is a kind of premium and niche good and build other things around that: a website, events, all sorts of things. For Metro, lots of people knew it because of the stickers in windows of cafes and ramen shops or whatever, and to me that’s still a reader. So what a magazine is needs to be kind of bigger and broader than some pages stuck together. There are still opportunities to serve those who are interested in that. But there are lots of people who aren’t, and I don’t think they’re coming back.
With all that said, why did you decide to make this zine, Essential Services?
This came up as an idea basically 23 hours after I got off that Zoom call [at Bauer]. It was really born out of this feeling that I had had quite a different reaction to what a lot of people had, in that I felt bummed that it had happened but I also that I got to edit this magazine for a bit over a year, and I loved doing it and it was a real privilege and it’s not something that’s owed to me. The people that owned it took it away and I think that rather than feeling anger about that, it was like well, I actually loved doing it, so what do I do with that? I wanted to edit and collate and feature different pieces of writing and imagery because that’s what I love doing, and a lot of writers and illustrators feel the same. That’s the whole vibe I wanted for the thing.
I immediately knew I didn’t want to make a website. I love websites and blogs and sites like The Spinoff, but the thing that I really liked doing at Metro was making a complete and discrete thing built out of lots of little things. That’s what we’re trying to do with this. The digital version is a PDF and e-book and it’s a unified publication. I just like this idea of one piece of writing leading to another. The writers and the talent that have come on board are amazing and I think definitely will attract lots of people to the publication. It’s available online everywhere, it’s free and people can just email it to each other. There’s no metric for us, no click rate. Then to have it printed and available at Britomart in a site-specific way is just really cool because then we can go, if you want this you can go here.
How would you describe the ethos of the zine?
I would hope to continue it. I quite like starting something: let’s just make one thing really good and hope we get a chance to make a second thing, and if we can make a second thing, see how we feel after that. It’s one step at a time and make each step as good as it can be. That allows you to approach it with a naivety that can be quite healthy. But I don’t want to be creating a long-term business plan around it, or around anything at the moment.
Essential Services zine was made with the support of Britomart and is available for download at essentialserviceszine.com. We’ll also have printed copies available at Britomart next week. Check out on social media feeds @britomartnz for news on when the print versions have arrived.