‘Icing on the Cake’: On Open Field, a Digital-Only Magazine
Open Field is a digital-only magazine, available only on iPad and iPhone, created in Australia and featuring an impressive range of contributors from around the world. All the proceeds go to charity organisation CARE Australia, for their work with women and girls in developing countries.
We spoke to editor Kirsten Alexander about how the magazine came about, how it’s produced, and what readers can find within its (virtual) pages.
What can readers expect to find in Open Field?
Readers will find stories, photographs, and video from women across the globe. Some of the contributors are well-known, some have no public profile at all. We hope there’s a wide enough range of content that readers can dip in and find something that interests them.
In issue one, contributors offer work around the word ‘Change’. There’s a terrific story about a child who eats a butterfly, not knowing this was considered an unacceptable thing to do. There are also tales about living on a boat, and giving up smoking, photographs from an amazing body artist, and an interview with one of the creators of the television show Afghan Idol.
In issue two, the theme is ‘Place’. That word inspired one writer to talk about her childhood in Turkey, another to write about working in New York, and another to explain the geography of the Appalachians, the place she lived after her mother left their family. Photographers share images of the Northern American landscape and the Luli Gypsies of Uzbekistan. A Canadian poet writes about building a home in the Yukon. And a fantastic Melbourne writer shares her experience of living in an Italian alternative community – one with underground temples!
I’m working on issue three now and the theme is ‘Body’. It’s early days but the wonderful thing that’s happening again is that contributors are offering the most surprising, creative and heartfelt work to us: writing from a female boxer, a rabbi, a playwright, and art from Nigeria, Holland and the UK.
How did Open Field come about? What was the journey from idea to publication?
Well, that’s an embarrassing story. Which makes it one of the better kind, maybe? Here goes: My partner, Dave King, ran a digital agency called The Royals. Back in 2011, The Royals consisted of Dave and two staff members. Dave has always worked in the digital space so he’s incredibly knowledgeable about technology. One night, he told me Adobe had released code that allowed developers to create iPad magazines. He said he reckoned he could build a magazine if I could find stuff to fill the pages.
Now, the reasonable response to this would be, ‘Awesome, let’s do it!’ But as someone who treasures words, and has made her living editing and copywriting, I took offense at the suggestion that ‘stuff’ – writing and photography – would exist in the service of technology. I mentioned the crowded magazine market, the fact that readers are discerning and not interested in trickery. I may have mentioned films based on video games. He repeated that if I did think of an idea for a magazine, he could build it. Minutes after stomping upstairs I did, in fact, think of something we could make that might have value: a magazine that could showcase talent, raise money for charity, and make the most of a new technology. Pride made me hold that idea until morning.
The rest of the journey to publication is about talented women saying they would share their work with us for free, a designer and three technologists knowing exactly what to do with it, and The Royals (now a company of four directors and a dozen staff) handling everything else involved with the deployment of the application.
As mentioned, profits from Open Field all go to CARE, to assist women and girls in developing countries. Why CARE – and what do they do?
We chose CARE because the idea was to make a digital magazine using our own finances and give the proceeds to charity. Not a path to personal riches, but one that would be rewarding in other ways, and a good thing to do.
I read about a lot of charities, and there are many worth supporting, but CARE’s strategies, transparency and history were impressive. They run programs that assist women in developing communities, in the areas of education, health, employment and leadership. They explain on their website – www.care.org.au – how giving money to women benefits whole communities. Once we decided we wanted to give to women, it made sense to include women in the magazine. So, Open Field is about a group of women sharing their work to raise money to empower other women.
Having said that, Dave and the three technologists (Pan Demosthenous, Ken Sum and Giovanni Ferron) who create the magazine are not women! But there is a clarity to the idea that seems to work and have a heartbeat …
You have some amazing contributors in Open Field, like Lily Brett, Claire Messud and Emma Donoghue. How hard was it to attract this calibre of writers to the magazine? And how did you lure them?
Every time a woman says yes to being involved, famous or not, my heart leaps. I am perpetually amazed. I’m a stranger to most of these women, asking them to work for free, and they never know whose work will sit aside theirs. The fact any of them said yes is a testament to their grace and generosity. When Clare Messud wrote back the first time – in fact, every time she wrote – I thought she might have accidentally emailed me instead of the person she really meant to email.
‘Lure’ is a good word though! I keep a list of women who I think would be dream contributors. Every time I read a great book, a compelling article, every time I hear a good interview, see a stunning artwork or photograph, or learn about a woman doing something I find interesting, I add her to my list. Before I write to anyone I read/see their work and try to understand what they’re doing. It’s stalking, really. And when I finally write to them I try to be polite, respectful, and not waste their time. I’m asking a big favour.
With charity publications like yours, the primary aim is to raise money and awareness, but you also need to entertain readers in order to do that. How do you make sure you meet all those priorities?
It’s hugely important to entertain readers! We love magazines and read a lot of them. Our primary goal with this one is to create an interesting and attractive publication that people want to buy. The fact we’re giving the cover price to a charity should be icing on the cake to a reader. I really hope they enjoy the spread of creative work we’re blessed to showcase.
We don’t work for CARE so we stay away from trying to raise awareness for their programs or strategies. We don’t want to mangle their message, just raise money so they can keep doing what they do well.
Your publication is beautifully designed – how important was that for you, creating a beautiful object?
It’s beautiful because of two people: Georgina Payne-Billard, who came up with some of the designs for the first issue, and Pam Batstone, who worked (tirelessly, patiently, cleverly) on issues one and two. Their work is exceptionally important because there are so many things for people to read on their iPad and iPhone – we needed Open Field to stand out, be clean and modern and pleasurable to read (not gimmicky like so many early iPad publications), tailored to the platform, and to show the work at its best.
Also, two remarkable photographers – Tereza Vlckova and Andrea Gjestvang - allowed us to use their work as our front covers, and without those images I think our sales would be halved! Their images are stunning …
What has been the hardest thing about working on this project?
For me, as editor, there is no hard thing. For the extremely awesome designer and developers there were challenges.
When we launched the first issue, we used Adobe’s Digital Publishing Platform. Adobe was among the most advanced of the publishing systems available that was reasonably easy to work with, so that made sense. But after we launched the first issue, a number of other partners came on the market and we decided to move away from Adobe. We settled on Magplus because of their multiplatform licensing options. (Adobe doesn’t offer the option of a license for a single-issue publication for iPhone. And since Open Field comes out once a year, it’s considered a single-issue application.) Magplus allows us to publish each issue on iPad and iPhone without paying a monthly fee. What that means though is that the designer and developers had to learn all of the peculiarities of the Adobe Publishing Platform and then MagPlus.
Also, they took on the job of making the second issue readable on iPhone as well as iPad. The clean design was always going to work well on a smaller screen but they did have to create iPhone specific layouts rather than relying on the software’s automated scaling down of the pages. (In addition to being talented, they have high standards.) And there are so many different iPhone screen resolutions now, across different models, so the design needs to cater to different dimensions and pixel densities. Those are the few complexities I understand – there were more, but they overcame all of them.
What has been the best thing about working on this project?
Working on Open Field is a joy from start to finish. Every part of it.