Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Diplo dissected

Diplo Magazine first appeared on my radar just shy of a month ago, when they approached the organisation I work for to see if we'd be interested in contributing articles.

We said no.

Why? A quick look at their website was enough to see that theirs was not the kind of publication we normally write for. Their concept of "analysis of international politics and culture, using strong graphic design and illustrations to complement intelligent debate and discussion" sounded more than a bit art-studenty than our target audience, and I later discovered that it was founded by a group of Central Saint Martins art students who wanted to "do" politics on the side. The fact that they'd spelled it "compliment" on the front page of their site didn't do anything to win us over, either.

Intellectual snobbery aside, the idea behind the magazine was still intriguing, if a little odd, and I filed it away for future reference. And yesterday, I had the opportunity to dig it out again. Diplo, as it happens, is throwing a party this Friday. Not only that, but a theme party, to celebrate their latest issue, which is entirely devoted to Russia. The invitation (an open affair, printed at the back of the mag and sent out to mailing list subscribers) advises that "dressing up, fur hats and vodka donations are all encouraged". Which begs the question, what kind of international affairs mag throws a theme party?

Went to the party? Know someone who did? Tell me about it!

A quick stroll to Magma on Clerkenwell Road to pick up a copy (£2.50) and a few G&Ts later at the Three Kings, a thorough dissection of the magazine was underway.

In a nutshell:
  • It's slickly produced but seems to have no idea who its core audience is. Art students? Politicians? Children?
  • The "cutting argument" aspect of their alleged "strong design and cutting argument" ethos is noticeably absent. It chooses a topic to theme the issue and then runs with it to such an extent that it seems more like a school project than a proper magazine.
  • It doesn't have a single advertisement thanks to the exorbitant rates it charges, but has somehow managed to be printed in full colour on a monthly basis and distributed in select bookstores in London, Paris, Brussels and Rome.
  • Choosing one subject and running it into the ground every issue doesn't seem like the best way to get people interested, given that most of us have an attention span of about five seconds these days. And it does give the impression that the words themselves are secondary in importance to the artwork, in the sense that dedicating the entire mag to one theme allows for a consistent style throughout.
  • It doesn't have a barcode, meaning that it's impossible to find out any circulation figures or ABC stats about who actually reads the thing. And if you want to subscribe, you can't pay by credit card. Cheques only.
  • From the "sounded good at the time" bin, the one item (apart from the readers' letters page) in the April issue that doesn't focus on Russia is a bizarre two-page spread featuring scanned copies of e-mails and letters sent between Diplo HQ and various political institutions. Could have been interesting, were it not for the fact that the majority seemed to follow the line taken by a rep from 10 Downing Street, something along the lines of "thank you very much for sending a copy of Diplo to the Prime Minister. It is handsomely produced, but unfortunately we will not be able to consider a subscription." Yawn.
  • Finally, it talks down to its audience. Big time. I'm all for writing clear, accessible articles on complex political issues, but what kind of self-respecting politics zine writes things like "Russia is a big country. It is 1.8 times the size of China" at the start of a feature on Cold War history?!

Big deal, you might think. Just another London start-up destined to go the way of all things. Then why has Julie Burchill praised it for being "refreshingly strong (...), with honest and candid insight into international affairs"? And why, more worryingly, has BBC Four programme The Desk gushed that "this little magazine is biting at the heels of The Economist. It had better watch out" ? A quick trip to Borders at the N1 Centre in Islington revealed a thick stack of Diplos right in the middle of the front shelf of the Current Affairs section, casting a shadow over the more established titles. What is going on?


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