Rebirth of Print: Denver Magazines Opt for Paper in Digital Age

Denver magazines like Birdy and Suspect Press eschew digital publishing in favor of old media: the trusty printed page. Advertisers and readers alike are buying into the idea.
In an age of digital media, personal blogs, online corporate content and everything else attached with a .com, the era of the Xeroxed fanzine is largely over.

But local zines aren't dead. In fact, they're far from it if local publications like Birdy, Suspect Press, Modern Drunkard and Truly Rejected have anything to say about it. And along with their advertisers, writers, artists and other contributors, they're proving a very important point: There's still a real appetite for local zines on actual paper.

Birdy is establishing itself as a local arts zine that's attracting national talent, from Denver's Jason Heller, author of Taft 2012, among other novels and short stories, to artists from Los Angeles and across the country.

"There's  a hunger for the niche we're going into," says Birdy's Windmill Toppler (a.k.a. Editor) Christy Thacker. "I feel people are gravitating toward the visual."

Her cohort and Dragonslayer (a.k.a. Publisher), Jonny DeStefano, agrees. "There's something about being able to hold paper and read a story, to look at beautiful art and collect it as opposed to something you can toss aside," he contends. "We felt there was a dead space there and we took the opportunity."

"I think the rebirth of zines is the knee jerk reaction to living your life on the internet," says Mutiny Information Cafe and 3 Kings Tavern co-owner Jim Norris, who published a number of Denver zines, including The. "Zines are more of a reflection of a local area and are generally meant for people in a local area to pick up."
Brian Polk says paper wasn't a choice for Suspect Press -- it was print or nothing.
Suspect Press Editor Brian Polk espouses a stronger sentiment about printed zines. "I feel like if it's not in print, it doesn't exist. I don't read blogs, so going with a printed format wasn't a choice. It was either we're going to put out a publication in print, or we're not going to do it at all." As such, you won't find much more than cover art for Suspect Press' or, for that matter, Birdy, on the Internet at this point.

"I make the zine for the same reason I still play punk rock," says Polk, who plays drums with with Denver's Joy Subtraction. "I don't care if only a few people like it. It's what I want to do, and I know the people who do like it will really like it."

A contradiction in media

There's also an inherent irony in publishing zines like this -- just like there's a certain amount of ironic matriphagy in a local online publication discussing local print media. Thanks to advances in technology and software, these tactile magazines are more digital than ever before. "So much art is created digitally," Thacker says. "Curtis Tucker is one of our house artists. He got his start curating images on Instagram. He does physical collage and manipulates it digitally. It makes it pop."

Likewise, the use of publishing software has replaced coffee-fueled nights spent lurking over a Kinko's copy machine with tape and meticulously hand-positioned cutouts to create a black-and-white pocket rag after midnight. "People are doing such a good job now," Norris opines. "With the kind of money you used to have to do cut-and-paste magazines back in the '80s, you can do incredibly great zines in full color."

Suspect Press recently added two color pages, Norris observes. Meanwhile, "Birdy and Truly Rejected are shooting for the moon with the whole glossy thing. They're really nice but they still maintain that zine idea because of the content and commitment to localism."

Both Birdy and Suspect Press are planning on expanding with demand. Polk can see growing from 2,000 to 3,000 copies per issue. "If the interest is there, we'll certainly cater to it," he says.

The zine's cover art covers a wide spectrum of oddball art.Meanwhile Birdy is publishing 5,000 copies per issue and hopes to expand to 10,000 in the near future, with loftier long-term goals. "Expansion is in our future," says DeStefano. "We have a five-year plan and a 10-year plan. We want to keep this coming for a long time. Our content is the most important part. Even our ads must have an artistic appeal to them. We will expand but we will keep it something that is beautiful. We will expand copies and pages but not at the expense of the aesthetic."

Zines, which are typically grab-and-go freebies at places like Mutiny and 3 Kings, also have to appeal to someone other than readers: advertisers. Many of them see local zines as a good value. Norris is one of them. "A lot of people are duped into believing that through Westword you're going to reach a million people. You're just not. Not in the print ads and not with the online offerings." He points out that he uses ad-blocker software which he has to turn off just to see this ads online. His businesses, however, advertise in the local zines.

The zines also offer their own twist on advertising. "Our ads must have an artistic appeal to them," DeStefano says. While gaining more advertisers quickly can help a magazine grow, Birdy and the others aren't necessarily interested in carrying the latest Red Bull or Budweiser campaign. "We will expand but we will keep it something that is beautiful. We will expand copies and pages but not at the expense of the aesthetic."

Norris likes the approach. "I don't want my ad to stick out," he says. "The Modern Drunkard ads, Frank [Kelly Rich, the publisher] does all those ads on his own, so it looks like it fits the whole magazine, like it's an old-timey bar magazine. Truly Rejected does the same thing. They do all their ads and ad layouts so the whole thing flows. I think that the reader doesn't see as much of an advertising machine that way."

Still, there's enough of an appetite to support them, particularly at their launch. "We get all of our support from businesses who really like what we're doing and want to support it. They want to see something like Suspect Press in their community because they think it's cool," Polk says. "But there are some businesses who wouldn't want to advertise in a zine where some people might get offended by the things we print," he admits.

Suspect Press was initially supported by Dan Landes' City 'O City and WaterCourse Foods. While Landes has since sold WaterCourse, his restaurants have also advertised in Birdy. That magazine had another restaurateur, Kayvan Khalatbari, who owns Sexy Pizza, Sexpot Comedy and Denver Relief, as its first major sponsor.

As these zines gain a fan base, they're also gaining more access to advertisers. When Birdy launched in 2013, Thacker says she and DeStefano "hustled to sell ads for the first few," Thacker says. "I feel like more advertisers are coming to us and reaching out now. . . . Wax Trax just got involved. Illegal Pete's, even though we're friends with those people it took a while for them to advertise with us. It's a little easier now that we're more established."

At the same time interest from advertisers has grown so has interest from contributors -- and potential contributors. Polk says his idea for Suspect Press attracted writers from the get-go. "When I told people like Jason Heller and Josiah Hesse that I was starting another zine, they were on board right away. It's the same with the other editors, Dan Landes and Ken Arkind. They were excited about it the second I had the idea. So I didn't have to seek anyone out that I hadn't previously worked with for the first couple of issues."

Now Polk gets more submissions. "Sometimes they work with what we're doing and sometimes they don't. That's the nature of the beast."

Likewise, DeStefano and Thacker were originally worried about having enough content for their monthly magazine. "When planning it we were worried that we only had X amount of content. We didn't know if we could carry it," DeStefano says. "We recognized there's a lot of talent in Denver and a need for people to submit. We feel really proud that we're tapping into the community and helping people shine here."

Birdy doesn't have strict guidelines, either. Thacker says she usually asks for stories between 750 and 1,500 words. "I notice that people are responding to shorter pieces rather than these long, drawn-out things."

And content is still king. Birdy isn't looking for low-hanging fruit masquerading as art. "We don't want typical," says Thacker. "We want creative."

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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