To introduce our 15th-anniversary special, founder Tyler Brûlé reflects on the moment that the magazine left the station, the storms we’ve ridden through and where we’re zipping to next. Plus: how the rest of the media landscape has fared since 2007.
I’ll start by laying down a marker. It’s approaching mid-February and I’m sitting on the upper deck of a Swiss railway dining car bound for Zürich, surrounded by fellow early-morning commuters sipping their capps and buttering their Gipfeli. It’s gently snowing outside but every now and then the sun peeks through the flurries to brighten the carriage. As we hurtle along the valley floor, the spirit in the dining car is reflective of the general mood, not just in this stretch of Mitteleuropa but across much of the world: protective measures scaled back, masks off, shoulders lowered and the promise of sunnier days.
The same mood can be felt in monocle’s Los Angeles outpost (isn’t it always sunny there?), on the editorial floor at Midori House in London and at my final destination, our HQ in Zürich’s Seefeld. For the past 24 months we have done our best to keep our tone level and determined. And whenever possible we’ve thrown open our doors to keep spirits high among readers and staff. While it has not been the easiest of endeavours, we are also hurtling along at speed to kick off the celebrations for our 15th anniversary – more on these later.
When I look back to the moment when we had finally rounded up the funding to launch this whole venture, we weren’t in a substantially different place. Traditional media houses were in crisis as editors tried to grapple with consultants who were talking about “digital transformation”; retail was being upended by new business models; the book trade was in crisis because of the arrival of tablets; and, just as we were getting started, the financial and property markets collapsed. For a brief moment in 2008, we weren’t sure if there would be enough money to see us through but, thanks to the support of patient investors, loyal readers and dedicated advertisers, we didn’t just muddle through – we started to thrive. As the world dusted itself off from the crisis and markets regained confidence, so too did our readers, who looked to monocle for a fresh narrative and new opportunities.
It was towards the end of 2008 and early 2009 that we started to find our editorial niche and had the numbers and feedback to prove that our message was just as relevant in Boston and Munich as it was in Jakarta and Taipei. Since then monocle has upped its tempo from 10 issues a year to the near round-the-clock operation that it’s become today, thanks to the addition of our radio service, newsletters and bureaux scattered across the world. Along the way, we decided that retail was a good way to engage directly with our audience and we now have 10 shops, as well as a book imprint and a growing conference business. At the heart of all of this is a dedicated team of editors, correspondents, researchers and designers who bring unique perspectives to how we cover the world.
Early on, baffled media chroniclers and readers asked why we were bypassing the big (obvious) stories and why we weren’t doing glowing profiles of the technology start-ups that were hoodwinking the market out of billions. Our answer was simple: “Because you can already find those stories elsewhere.”
Our response is the same 15 years later: we want to send our correspondents to cities less explored, to interview leaders and cultural figures on the up, and to profile designers and brands that have no interest in going global – instead they want to focus on quality and keeping manufacturing close to home. As some corners of the world have veered into ugly and pointless culture wars, we’ve found ourselves being asked where we sit regarding various debates about deleting artists, re-editing masterpieces and covering up works of art. In some instances, our responses are branded as being too lefty or too far to the right. When we receive correspondence over the course of a week from both those who feel we’re too liberal and others who consider us too conservative, we know that we’re doing something right as we want to be a voice of reason and common sense, which chooses to say things that others don’t dare utter. In the future, we want to ensure that we continue to play this role for our global audience because we don’t believe that the issues and history of one nation should become the concerns of the day for another.
This is the problem with a narrowing news agenda and the lack of backbone in the boardrooms of media companies that choose not to stick up for journalists or commentators who present a different point of view: we end up with a bland, global news cycle that doesn’t challenge, is focused on the loudest interest groups and ends up doing little for discussion or freedom of speech. You’ll notice that I’ve been encouraging our audience to read newspapers outside their home markets; it does wonders for improving your general knowledge and also offers refreshing points of view.
My train is now pulling into the station, the snow has stopped, the sun is out and shortly I’ll be striding towards our office on Dufourstrasse. My mission is to send this issue off to our presses in the north of Germany while also plotting how we continue to cover the world, where to base ourselves (Hong Kong is not the easiest place for a correspondent these days) and figuring out how to mark 15 years at just the moment when the world (and certainly our readers) is up for a proper party. Hope to see you in London, Zürich, St Moritz, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Los Angeles soon. Cheers!
In the years since our debut, the digital world has grown exponentially and now dominates our media landscape. Yet, though much has changed, innovation and pluck have helped the boldest in print to survive – and flourish.
Amazon debuts the Kindle, intended to spark a revolution in publishing. It can store about 200 books. The rise of the ebook initially seems unstoppable: in 2010, Amazon sells more digital books than hardcover titles. But by 2015 ebook sales are in decline, while those of physical copies pick up again. In 2021, the American Association of Publishers estimates that ebooks constitute just 12 per cent of sales. Meanwhile a new generation of readers, retailers and designers is adding new life to the culture of reading books.
While local newspapers are folding in the US and beyond, an outlier, the Waterbury Record, launches in Vermont. Sadly in 2020 it publishes its last edition, along with many other titles that fall victim to the pandemic, including The California Sunday Magazine. Since 2004, the US has lost about 1,800 papers, with California losing the most dailies of any state. Elsewhere in the country, fresh blood is re-energising titles such as The Big Bend Sentinel and, as seen in Outpost News, a feature in our monocle Weekend Edition newsletter, there are still champions of local news who run successful businesses.
Facebook becomes the biggest digital platform after hitting 350 million registered users. What follows is a tale of growth and hubris, with Mark Zuckerberg’s business increasingly seen as a threat to privacy. Its recent rebranding as Meta can’t quite undo the damage of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal.
UK men’s magazines Arena and Maxim close. In the following years, fhm, Nuts, Loaded and Zoo also disappear from newsstands. The sector faces challenges in other countries too. Can men’s titles adapt and reinvent themselves or have websites stolen their function?
Minimalist magazine Kinfolk launches in Portland, Oregon, a year after the birth of Instagram, which helps to spawn countless copycats of its aesthetic.
Short-form video platform Vine, designed to capture diminishing attention spans, is launched. It ends up having a short life of its own, closing in 2016. Messaging app Snapchat will also come and go from most people’s phones. In 2020, Clubhouse becomes the latest app sensation that never was.
Podcast This American Life launches new production Serial. Within four years, the first two seasons are downloaded 340 million times. By 2021, Spotify would rather lose the entirety of Neil Young’s back catalogue than drop star podcaster Joe Rogan, and few people have never listened to a podcast (or guested on their mate’s one).
Germany’s beloved supplement Zeit Magazin launches an international edition, while French newspaper Les Echos starts a magazine of its own. Newspapers are struggling but weekend supplements can boost sales and advertising revenue.
Music magazine nme ceases its print publication but Rolling Stone relaunches. Spotify becomes the go-to for discovering new tunes but there’s room for one more encore from the music press.
A new daily newspaper, Domani, hits newsstands in Italy. Without cheery edicole on squares and streets around the country, how could a print title ever have made it out of the blocks?
The California Sunday Magazine wins a Pulitzer, eight months after closing. It’s a bittersweet moment but its fans can take hope from the story of The Village Voice. The New York weekly closed in 2018 but after LA Weekly publisher Brian Calle acquired its rights in 2021, it has come back into print.
Nordic streaming platform Viaplay plans to launch in several markets beyond Scandinavia and officially enter the streaming fray. It’s a tough, Netflix-centric world out there: since the US platform launched its streaming service in 2007, it has amassed 222 million viewers. But with Apple TV+ and Disney+ hot on its heels and niche players popping up in its blind spots, its reign might not last for ever.
The New York Times snaps up vocabulary game Wordle for a “low seven-figure” sum. It’s not the only newspaper that has figured out the value of puzzles. After all, sudoku had already proved a publishing success story. In the UK, The Sunday Telegraph invests in the country’s “biggest weekly puzzles section”; 22 new puzzle titles debuted in 2021 alone. And long-running magazines such as Italy’s La Settimana Enigmistica show that playing is nicer with paper and pencil in hand – especially on a beach.
Photographers: Rodrigo Cardoso, Andrew Urwin, Stefan Fürtbauer, Shin Miura, Lea Meienberg, Víctor Garrido, Francesca Jones, Conny Mirbach