With no advertising, no marketing and limited online presence, the success of ‘XXI’ magazine has proven that readers do not need much persuasion to pay for beautifully presented, long-form journalism.
In the narrow streets of Saint Germain, where buildings seem to sag under the weight of their literary heritage, the doors and windows of XXI magazine are left wide open, and fresh air blows through the offices. Simply known as “vingt et un”, the magazine was launched in 2008, just as the death of print journalism was hastily being announced.
Laurent Beccaria, head of independent publishing house Les Arènes, and renowned journalist Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, had decided to launch the magazine they wished existed. “The aim was to create a post-internet publication. We wanted to do what the internet can’t do. Take the time to tell a story, with carefully crafted words, images and illustrations. To produce a beautiful object that you want to keep,” says Beccaria.
Saint-Exupéry had been an international correspondent for 25 years. But on-the-ground reporting was in decline with the omnipresence of cheaper alternatives. As a publisher, Beccaria noticed a new generation of readers were buying international literature and graphic novels, but he felt the options open to them were mediocre. “We decided to launch XXI because we wanted to do our jobs.”
XXI refers to the 21st century. It combines long-form journalism, narrative photography and reportage in graphic novel format. The only editorial rule is that subjects covered must tell a story about the world as it is today, in a way that incites curiosity. Readers might come across a footballing victory in Haiti, a man in China who fishes corpses from a river, a utopian city in India.
Rather than vying for attention on crowded newsstands, XXI is sold in bookshops. The idea was to attract a captive audience of curious readers, and ensure the €15 price tag was compared to the cost of a book, not a magazine. It also led to an unusual design feature, which is part of the magazine’s visual appeal. The cover is printed in landscape format, to lie on bookshop tables and be picked up and explored, not hidden away on a shelf.
Both editors admit that on the day of the launch they had no idea whether XXI would work. They had gone against every rule of marketing, and ignored loudly proclaimed ideas that young people didn’t read the news any more, attention spans were dwindling, and their only customers would be over-educated bourgeois-bohemian Parisians. They just hoped the phone would ring from time to time.
But it hasn’t stopped. Readers have shown they love the magazine to the point of causing embarrassment. “We get emails and letters from teenagers, pensioners, from Paris and across France. Readers are always sending us photos of themselves with the magazine. We had so many declarations of love on our online comments page that we considered taking it down; people started to think we were writing them ourselves,” says Beccaria.
The secret of its broad appeal lies in its narrative approach, or in other words storytelling, a notion which has been largely swept aside by the immediacy of digital news. “The difficulty we all face today is that the Earth is turning at a ridiculous speed,” explains Saint-Exupéry. “We’re in an avalanche of information which distorts our vision of the world, to the point where people no longer know what their place is within it. Stories bring back a sense of reality and help structure our identities.”
Quality in storytelling is also essential. With no advertising, sales are the magazine’s only source of revenue. “People get attached to XXI because the stories are told so intimately, whether in words or pictures. I spend time with a story and the characters stay with me like they would from a novel,” says Beccaria. This quality and creativity is achieved because talent is the only prerequisite. With different writers and artists for each edition, styles and perspectives are multiplied. Contributors are given the time to immerse themselves in their subjects, and the freedom to follow their instincts.
“The initial brief was short,” says Quintin Leeds, one of the two art directors. “We were asked to use a lot of colour illustration. We loved the idea, and all our usual frustrations disappeared. I can put in the kind of illustrations I enjoy myself.”
If the editors and designers enjoy a story, they suppose the readers will too. The figures show they tend to be right. The initial print run was 40,000, and the next edition will go to 65,000.
On the back of this success, the team launched another magazine in March 2011. 6 Mois is a slick 350-page biannual that is dedicated to a new style of narrative photography. “Photojournalism had increasingly become news, with more and more war reports, and hard-hitting images designed to shock,” says Beccaria. At the same time “the internet flooded our lives with images, but we don’t actually look at them any more. We realised there was this enormous space for telling stories, that nobody was using.”
In 6 Mois, each photoreportage is 30-40 pages long, so there is time to immerse yourself in the narrative. The images are accompanied with text, so readers can hear the voice of the photographer bringing meaning to each picture. The first edition told the overwhelming tale of a young American drug addict, photographed by Darcy Padilla, over 18 years. Like XXI, it contains no advertising, and is sold in bookshops, this time for €25. The first two editions sold even more easily than XXI, and plans are already underway for several international editions.
Beccaria underlines the importance of maintaining an open-minded approach to new directions in media. “Consumers are complex. Someone might spend all day on Twitter, and then sit down to read XXI. The future of journalism is not just about immediacy; that would be impossibly narrow. If you start from scratch, you can invent another tempo, which is equally contemporary.”
Mook and learn
“Mook” is the marketing term used to describe the illustrated, ad-free “half magazine, half book” format now seen on dedicated stands in French bookshops. Usbek & Rica was launched in 2010, combining reportage and graphic novel style with a focus on forecasting and innovation. It has recently paused publication until further notice. Feuilleton is the latest contender, launched in September, with a more literary focus. But it remains to be seen whether XXI and 6 Mois will still have company on the shelves once the hype has died down.