Meet the Minds: Female-Led Independent Publications
Written by Carmen Bellot
While many tend to focus on the fashion industry’s glamourised roles, there are thousands of positions outside of the ‘cool job’ category that can often be overlooked. In our Meet the Minds series, we aim to uncover the positions often hidden from the limelight; showcasing all the different ways you can make your mark in this creative sector.
This week, we’re interviewing the women behind some of the UK’s most popular non-mainstream publications. Dissecting everything from feminism in pop culture today, the history of Black anarchism to the rise of digital fashion, these three publications – BRICKS, gal-dem and Polyester Zine – are telling stories that often don’t grace the front covers of newspapers and magazines. To learn about how they started and the fantastic personalities behind them, read on below.
“So many communities for so long have been spoken by, about and for in traditional media outlets, and I think that is alienating for people to read, so consistently in what we’re told is ‘objective’ news and reporting.”
Suyin Haynes has been the Editor-in-Chief of gal-dem since 2021. She joined the team when it first started in 2015, and after working as a reporter for TIME, she returned to the magazine to pursue this leadership role.
You helped create gal-dem’s first print issue and now you’re its Editor-in-Chief, how did it feel returning to the magazine and what vision do you have for it?
That first issue seems like such a long time ago! That time was really my first start and experience in journalism when I was in my final year at university in 2015. It felt really special to return to gal-dem last year. I’m really grateful to be working with such an ambitious team who truly believe in our mission of reshaping storytelling in British media (and beyond!) and amplifying underrepresented narratives and communities.
The ‘vision’ is not mine alone – we build this together, as an editorial team and as a wider business. gal-dem’s nature has always been collective, and it’s really important that the editorial team and wider company work together on the future vision of where gal-dem is going. Looking forward, we’re thinking about ways we can collaborate with other outlets and organisations that share our mission, alongside how we can work more closely with our communities to inform the stories that we are telling. Exciting times ahead!
gal-dem has grown so much since its inception, how does it stay true to its message while keeping up with the changes of the publishing industry?
This is a tricky balance we’re always thinking about, and why so much of what we do emphasises our membership model – which we’re actually just about to relaunch. It’s really important in thinking about our future as a sustainable, independent media company that we build gal-dem alongside our members. Their support is invaluable, and enables us to do the work we do. One thing that’s different about gal-dem compared to other publishers too is that the commercial team is very aligned with the editorial team. We are discerning about who we partner with, and we ensure that any partnerships are created in-house by gal-dem’s networks and communities. I think consistently being aware of our values as a team and organisation is so important, and really runs through everything we do.
How do you think your role as a reporter for TIME prepared you for this position at gal-dem?
In my previous role at TIME, I learned so much: about reporting on stories with security and sensitivity concerns, about letting the reporting guide my storytelling, about building trust and relationships with interviewees and sources. These are all really important skills for any reporter, and ones that my team develops with our network of freelance writers – some of whom may be writing for the first time ever, let alone the first time with gal-dem. Being at TIME also helped me think about international storytelling, and the vast potential there is to reshape tired narratives, tropes and stereotypes within this field. But of course, that role and organisation is a very different one to where I’m at now. I think what I’ve carried through both is being willing to adapt, as well as staying humble and curious – there will never be a day in this job where I don’t learn something new, and I wouldn’t want that to change.
Often the stories gal-dem champions aren’t covered in mainstream media. In your opinion, why aren’t they?
Simply put, the ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ media industry (in the UK at least), is not diverse enough, meaning there’s a lack of will, knowledge and expertise to cover these stories. Things are improving of course, but there’s still so much work to be done. So many communities for so long have been spoken by, about and for in traditional media outlets, and I think that is alienating for people to read, so consistently in what we’re told is ‘objective’ news and reporting.
I mentioned trust earlier, and I think that’s crucial to the work we do. In the summer for example, we had a reporter go to the Grenfell vigil on the anniversary of the tragedy in that neighbourhood. She found that when she introduced herself as a reporter from gal-dem, interviewees opened up to her and were willing to talk to her in ways that they weren’t with other media outlets. I think that says something about the reputation that we have built among the communities we have, and will always continue to serve.
Why do you think there should always be space for smaller, independent publications?
I think for many of the reasons outlined above! Whether it’s a local newspaper, or it’s a publication that highlights issues relating to specific communities, it’s so important that our media landscape contains a multitude of voices and perspectives, and that those who are often overlooked have an outlet and a platform to share and tell their stories. As much as there’s a lot to be done within traditional media spaces, I’m really heartened by the growth of independent media in the last decade in Britain — and how a lot of us have formed a friendly network. It’s all about collaboration, not competition.
What makes the gal-dem community special?
So much! I feel so grateful to be surrounded by people who have so much passion and care so much about our mission and values. We are all always pushing and challenging each other in the best ways. In terms of our broader network and community, it feels really special to have grown alongside original gal-dem [employees] who are now making huge waves in their fields, whether that’s journalism, music, arts, entertainment and beyond. And for those who are emerging in their careers, we’re so proud to be a place where many writers have had their first byline and entry into the journalism industry. That desire to drive forward storytelling and causes with creativity, care and compassion, is really special indeed.
“I think it’s my job as an editor to always be seeking out new voices and points of view which have perhaps been ignored by larger publications, to not rest on my laurels and be constantly researching new photographers and writers that we can bring in and publish.”
Polyester Zine was launched while Ione Gamble was in university, when she became obsessed with the notion of taste; “What makes something good or bad, cool or uncool,” she explains. “At the same time I was spending a lot of time on Tumblr and finding all of these amazing feminist and queer artists who were making absolutely amazing work that wasn’t being picked up on by the mainstream or alternative press. I grew up absolutely obsessed with print media, so wanted to create a space for this work and these ideas to exist offline.”
You launched Polyester after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, how was it balancing the responsibilities of a magazine and university while learning about your diagnosis and its effects?
It was definitely a challenge but I feel like the early years of Polyester were much of a more DIY effort and it wasn’t my full time job, so setting up the magazine really felt quite freeing compared to the rest of the life admin I was dealing with in terms of my diagnosis. It also was such a great opportunity for me to create something on my own terms in a period of my life in which my health and my own body felt quite out of control.
As a publication that focuses on feminism, how has cultural shifts over the last few years had an effect on the topics that Polyester dissects?
When we started, fourth wave feminism was kind of just bubbling away online and hadn’t become fully commodified yet, so we’ve definitely shifted to tackle that commodification and commercialisation rather than assimilating with it. I think it’s my job as an editor to always be seeking out new voices and points of view which have perhaps been ignored by larger publications, to not rest on my laurels and be constantly researching new photographers, writers, etc that we can bring in and publish. I do believe that our core message and ethos as a publication has remained the same, but over time it’s absolutely become less about ‘awareness’ of these issues and what we can actually do as a community to create positive change.
As the Polyester community and team grows, do you feel pressure to maintain the magazine’s identity without having to subscribe to traditional income revenues that might skew a mainstream publication’s opinion? E.g. influence from advertisers etc.
We don’t take on traditional advertisements on the site or in the pages of the magazine, instead opting to work on bespoke partnerships and projects with brands that we feel like align with Polyester’s vision and identity. We’ve grown really slowly and steadily over the last eight years, and I think that’s given us an opportunity to lay the groundwork of what we’re about and then naturally attract brands that won’t ask us to skew our point of view or dull it down. I feel pressure in regards to feeling responsible for our team and for our community; of maintaining the communities trust and of bringing enough income in to keep us as a publication afloat. But I feel we have a good balance; we’re still totally independent and self distributed, but now have more of the infrastructure to produce the projects and platform the stories we believe should exist.
You released a book earlier this year, how was it exploring these topics in a long-form format? Did you feel like you had more freedom to do so?
With Polyester, it’s more about platforming the voices of others, so any topic that I have an opinion of is usually explored in my commissioning rather than my actual work e.g. writing. Now we have the podcast, so I am putting my opinions forward more frequently about pop-culture on a regular basis via that platform, but for a long time I was really cautious of putting too much of myself in the publication and really anti being the face of it. I didn’t want to be a publication that just bolstered the Editor-in-Chief’s profile, it’s really always been about fostering that community and creating spaces. So in terms of writing Poor Little Sick Girls, it was definitely the first time in which the onus fell totally on me to develop an argument and really dig in to why I thought these things and the cultural moments that had brought us here. It wasn’t necessarily more freedom that I felt, but more of an opportunity to fully indulge and look back on how my work with Polyester has led me to the opinions I have, or the observations I make on social and cultural issues.
What do you see for the future of Polyester?
I’d love to have a bit more security in terms of Polyester for our team and to continue to grow at a sustainable pace. I’d love to do more print and events which foster community – a large portion of our audience is in the US and I would love to do some events and work over there. In a dream world, I’d love to look into developing an app or somewhere online in which marginalised people can feel free to be themselves away from censorship and the current restrictive, patriarchal nature of social media. I’d also love to become something of an alternative, radical Conde Nast and begin publishing other peoples zines and publications. But ultimately, I’d like the publication to continue to be an inclusive space, on a scale that keeps gradually increasing.
“I started BRICKS for a few reasons, one was to prove I could as queer woman from a council estate. 80% of the UK press is owned by just five white cismale billionaires and 80% of journalists in-house are also from financially privileged backgrounds.”
For founder and Editor-in-Chief of BRICKS, Tori West created an editorial platform to diversify the media landscape; in terms of who’s working for the publications as well as what they’re covering. With her magazine, she’s highlighting the stories of working class, queer and nonbinary people while also presenting them with creative opportunities, via the recently launched Learner Platform.
What’s the story behind why you started BRICKS?
I started BRICKS for a few reasons, one was to prove I could as queer woman from a council estate. 80% of the UK press is owned by just five white cismale billionaires and 80% of journalists in-house are also from financially privileged backgrounds. I never felt comfortable in editorial rooms or in the creative industry in general. Only 12% of the creative industry roles are filled with working-class people, so it really wasn’t a surprise. I couldn’t find an alternative, so I built BRICKS as a space for not only myself, but other creatives who felt the same.
You’ve been instrumental in highlighting creatives from minority and working class backgrounds through BRICKS. Since you started the publication, have you seen the elitist barriers of the publishing industry break down at all?
I feel like I’ve made such my own bubble, where we put these voices as the heart of our work, that I was shocked this year when the report came out that 16% of people in the creative industry jobs were working-class, actually dropped to 12%. What I would say however, is that it’s being considered and discussed a lot more within the industry. For example, Dazed did an entire breaking the class ceiling series online which was super great to see.
Why did you start BRICKS’ Learner Platform? How does it feel to give the community you love and support learning and job opportunities?
I started the Learner Platform because that 12% is never going to get any higher unless we stop gatekeeping and actively put systems/initiatives in place that support low-income people. Not only do we send the opportunities board out weekly to our members; which includes grants, collabs, fixed-contract roles and free workshops to upskill. We also publish practical guides, workshops and interview industry leaders for advice on how to navigate the creative industry in general. It’s so incredible when you receive messages from people who have found work from it.
Unlike mainstream publications, BRICKS is audience funded. Why did you decide to go down this route? Do you think more publications will move towards this model in the future?
We still heavily rely on brand partnerships for BRICKS to exist, but our audience is the most important thing in the world to us. We’ve built and nurtured our audience since its inception, so it would be such an incredible goal for us to be majority audience-funded. We’ve seen IG launch subscriptions for member’s only content recently which is really interesting. I do believe the media in general is slowly becoming more paywalled. I just want to make sure BRICKS is always financially accessible for low-income people to enjoy and learn from, hence why all our other content aside the Learner Platform is free to access.
How do you want the publication to grow in the future?
My main goal at the moment is to have our in-house team on fixed contract salary instead of commissions or retainers. I’d also love to be able to pay myself properly. Currently, we spend more funding the ideas of others than our time. Which I think is a reality for the majority of new small businesses, but we’re getting there! We’ve grown so much this year it’s super exciting, I can’t wait to expand our community and projects throughout 2023.