INTERVIEW 

Rob Orchard - interview

Concerns about the impact of the 24/7 news culture – is ‘first’ best or does ‘first’ often miss the point – led Rob Orchard and friends to launch Delayed Gratification, to provide the missing sense of perspective. As Rob tells Meg Carter, it’s been a steep learning curve, but one which is beginning to pay off, albeit slowly.

By Meg Carter

Delayed Gratification magazine champions print and perspective in a digital world that threatened both. Yet the very digital revolution it set out to counter has also created an environment in which small, independent – at times, contrary – publications like it can not just survive, but grow.

As digital culture has increased demand for products that are bespoke and niche, digital technology has lowered barriers to entry by bringing down production costs. Small wonder, then, that Delayed Gratification editorial director and co-founder Rob Orchard describes his relationship with digital as “vexed”.

And, he might well add: contrary. For while Delayed Gratification resolutely defies convention with its print focus – five years since launch, there are still no plans for a digital edition – one of its two full-time members of staff is head of digital while the title’s website, blog and social media play a crucial role in driving print subscriptions.

Delayed Gratification was conceived by Orchard and four other journalists who met in their early twenties working for Time Out in Dubai. All were concerned by the way digital media was accelerating the news cycle and, in turn, pushing many to compete on being first with a story ahead of being right; the rise of cut-and-paste reporting; and the squeezing out of context and analysis by PR-driven stories.

Launch

Inspired by talk of the merits of a slower, smarter approach – ‘slow journalism’ – they secured 400 pre-launch subscriptions from family and friends and self-funded the launch of Delayed Gratification: a quarterly, ad-free, print magazine dedicated to revisiting big stories from the preceding three months that had been missed, mistold or left unfinished by mainstream news media.

“We wanted to put a flag in the sand saying no, there is value in print and in quality journalism,” Orchard explains.

“We wanted to produce a magazine we wanted to read rather than a magazine we wanted advertisers to advertise in or a magazine to appeal to a particular demographic. We knew it was experimental, but we wanted to see if we could get a smaller group of people to pay a bit more that what it costs to do it and rally around the idea.

“And the answer was ‘yes’, though it has been extremely difficult. It took us four years to get to the stage where I was taking a salary, though we’ve always paid our freelancers, our designers, our journalists.”

Delayed Gratification launched in January 2011 with a 1,100 initial print run of its first edition headed by joint managing editors Orchard, also founder of Dubai-based contract publishing company Hot Media, and former international editor - now global content director - for Time Out, Marcus Webb.

As journalists by training, the co-founders had to learn by doing the other skills needed, such as subscriptions, general admin, accounts and VAT. Even today, Delayed Gratification has just two full-time staff – Orchard and head of digital Loes Witschge – working with freelancers and part timers ensuring overheads are low and costs tightly screwed down.

Today, the print run is 7,500 – 3,000 of which are sold on subscription for an annual £36. As a result of “strong performance” over the last six months, Orchard says he is now confident of growing the subscriber base to 5,000 by the end of this year and, beyond that, now sees 10,000 as “achievable”.

The indie resurgence

The magazine is capitalising on the current resurgence of interest in independent print titles, aided by a lowering of entry costs and the development of new mechanisms such as Stack – which filters then delivers the best independent titles at the best price direct to its subscribers’ doors.

“Ambitious twentysomethings who once might have found themselves entry positions at large, established publishers are now creating their own opportunities instead,” Orchard observes.

“Most successful are those with a simple idea that’s both good and unique who are prepared for the long haul, because people are buying fewer print titles and while you may grow in year one, that’s likely to be from minute to petite.”

Least successful are those who ignore subscriptions because they’re a bother.

“Relying on the newsstand is the worst idea, as if you sell 60 per cent of what you print and give to distributors and if you get 55 per cent of that cover price back three or four months later, then you are doing well. And none of that makes sense,” he adds.

“Everything is weighted against independents … and print publishers in general.”

Delayed Gratification’s no advertising policy came about as much for practical as altruistic reasons.

“We wondered if we could make it work. Then there was the fact that we didn’t have anyone on the team who could sell advertising. Realistically, no one would have wanted to buy an ad in just the thousand or so copies we produced at launch,” he comments.

“But there was also something that really appealed about having a space where no one is trying to sell you anything, because these days that’s unbelievably rare.”

How the magazine has evolved

The approach taken to planning each issue remains pretty much as it was at launch, with much time spent picking out what the team feels is most important to cover – and prioritising those stories where hindsight provides the strongest new angle.

“With 120 pages to fill every three months, you can’t cover everything. And it’s also important to have a balance between longer and shorter stories, analysis and lighter stuff – all of which can change up to the last minute,” Orchard explains. “Much of which is all about old-fashioned magazine craft.”

Generous use of news in-briefs and infographics – of which there are fifteen or sixteen each issue – provides an opportunity to increase the number of stories covered and explore meatier topics in fresh and engaging ways.

“Infographics were a key feature from launch and have become a bit of a USP thanks to our good luck in bringing on board early on Christian Tate, our art director,” he adds. The thinking is that with three months of data about a story, visualising it in an engaging way is an alternative to a feature that’s also a really nice way of visually breaking up other content.

“Looking back, some of the early issues were quite haphazard. But we’ve got a lot better at knowing what works well as a story, we’ve got bolder with our commissioning and with more money to play with, are now commissioning bigger stories,” Orchard continues, citing a recent investigation into immigrants from Kosovo which took four months to research.

The magazine’s distinctive approach to editorial structure and design has also evolved.

To begin with, the team avoided regular sections such as Arts or Sport - and regular columnists, too – for fear of being tied to covering a subject even when there wasn’t much of interest to write about. Contents was also re-styled from scratch in each of the first few issues. Today, Contents has a steady format. And each edition of the magazine, which runs chronologically and without page numbers, is now punctuated by a monthly digest, Almanac.

Arguably, the magazine’s most striking visual point of difference is its covers, featuring art rather than news images … and no cover-lines.

“We had a real battle to work out just how a quarterly news magazine should look so it doesn’t look immediately out of date, and doesn’t look like all the other magazines,” Orchard says.

So a decision was taken to put artwork on the cover, “simply to look beautiful”, with an interview with that artist run inside. Issue one featured a work by US contemporary street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey. Others since have included Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and, in Issue 18 (Jan-Mar 2015), Mehdi Ghadyanloo - a street artist from Tehran.

First steps on the newsstand

The no cover-line policy came about as Delayed Gratification was conceived as a magazine for subscribers.

“As we were never really interested in newsstand distribution – because as we don’t sell advertising we don’t need sheer weight of numbers, and besides, the deals you get from retailers are rotten – we were never really interested in cover-lines,” he adds.

“Though, over the years, we realised the newsstand is the single best way to market subscriptions, to sell people an individual issue at a time and place when they are feeling relaxed and happy.”

Distribution began piecemeal in independent outlets before a couple of London distributors were secured and then, earlier this year, a deal with WH Smith Travel for distribution at selected train stations and airports was secured. And it was this that prompted a split run cover on Issue 18 (Jan-Mar 2015) with cover-lines just on newsstand copies.

Issue 18 also features five house ads intended to better sell to readers the benefits of becoming a subscriber. It’s all part of a new focus on adding value to the Delayed Gratification subscription, through which subscribers can attend slow journalism live events and practical workshops.

Orchard talks about the potential of producing a quarterly, single-themed ‘mini-magazine’ edition published in-between Delayed Gratification’s editions.

“Quarterly is a great format, but one of its problems is that it limits the frequency of your communication with readers,” he explains. “We currently do good business selling back issues, and might at some point have our own digital archive – but only accessible via a subscriber log in to readers who have already paid.”

Yes, digital media can – and is – used to highlight interesting Delayed Gratification content as well as quality content from third parties. But the team is determined not to give away its content.

“What I really want to do is to sell print magazines. We’ve discussed having a digital version of Delayed Gratification but if we were to do so, we’d want it to be the best it can be – like Wired magazine’s app, with great interactivity and amazing video, rather than a PDF of the magazine,” Orchard adds.

“But achieving that is obviously a colossal amount of work. And at the heart of what we set out to do was champion print and perspective, and I’m not sure how we’d do that by doing an app. So we have a vexed relationship with digital.”

So for the time being, growth depends on constantly improving the printed product and building Delayed Gratification’s community by adding value with live events. A monthly podcast is in development. Filmed documentaries are another possibility and conversations about licensing local versions of Delayed Gratification overseas are underway.

“Five years in, we’re more serious about Delayed Gratification’s potential and trying to take it to the next level,” Orchard enthuses.

Just don’t expect anything to happen overnight.