The Medium of Liveness: How Pop-Up Magazine Plans to Transform Journalism

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The Medium of Liveness: How <i>Pop-Up Magazine</i> Plans to Transform Journalism

Jon Mooallem is trying, too fast, to describe his own face. Well, sort of: The visage in question belongs, in fact, to Manolete, the famed matador of Franco’s Spain, though the two men bear such close resemblance that Mooallem himself might be trapped in the ’40s, dressed in the bullfighter’s ornate regalia. I’ve dropped in on the sound check for Pop-Up Magazine’s one-night-only appearance at New Orleans’ Civic Theatre, and from the front row this is the note I hear from senior producers Anita Badejo and Haley Howle as Mooallem, writer at large for The New York Times Magazine, crouches to listen at the end of the stage: Too fast. It’s a lovely yarn, toggling between Mooallem and Manolete; it’s self-deprecating but circumspect, with a slight sorrowful edge. And yet, without the drama of an audience—that thrum of expectation that passes from patron to performer—the segment loses air as it goes along. Without the drama of an audience, it’s not Pop-Up Magazine.

First held at San Francisco’s Mission Theatre in 2009, before graduating to the 3,000-seat Symphony Hall and thence onto the road, Pop-Up Magazine styles itself a “live magazine.” Its subject matter is that of a general interest publication—remote islands off the coast of the Korean Peninsula; the future of elder care; New Orleans’ black-owned bars—re-imagined as a series of multimedia stories—a concert, a play, a movie, a podcast, and a magazine “all mixed together,” as co-founder and editor in chief of Pop-Up Magazine and The California Sunday Magazine Douglas McGray describes it. It even features ads: a Candid Camera-inspired commercial for the “connected home device” company Nest; a Coach-sponsored New Orleans travelogue; a trailer for Amazon Studios’ coming attractions. But the operative part of “live magazine,” in Pop-Up’s case, isn’t “magazine.”

It’s “live.”

“We consider liveness to be its own medium,” Badejo says, speaking over the ambient noise of karaoke classics in an anteroom backstage. By this, as it happens, she does not mean simply that contributor and “reader” are in the room together. That segment on elder care? It’s Rose Eveleth’s choose-your-own-adventure speculative fiction, in which the audience participates by holding up glow sticks. Those overplayed ditties being rehearsed on stage? They’re for Brittany Spanos’ piece on “the top five most dangerous karaoke songs,” culminating in a full-theatre sing-along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “We’re looking for what we call ‘magic moments,’” Badejo continues. “Surprises that can only happen because our show is live and because it’s on a stage and because we go to the cities that we go to.”

In New Orleans, this site-specific approach assumes the form of L. Kasimu Harris’ loving photographic tour, “In the Barroom,” and novelist Nathaniel Rich’s tale of the infamous Axeman serial killer and the popularization of jazz. (When I meet Rich, a longtime New Orleans resident, earlier in the day, he explains that his Pop-Up Magazine segment is drawn from historical research he conducted for his new novel, King Zeno, albeit without fiction’s embellishments: “In the novel, I solve the Axeman case,” he laughs. “Which has not been solved in real life.”) In this, an “issue” of Pop-Up, which changes slightly with every stop on its mutli-city tour, is the very opposite of a magazine: Its stories are ephemeral, physically speaking, in a way the California Sunday’s are not.

That’s not to say they’re forgettable—Eric Eddings and Brittany Luse’s riotously funny “Scene from a Popeyes,” which deconstructs the genre they call “Black history art” and pieces it back together with help from Oprah, Beyoncé, James Baldwin, Ida B. Wells, Kanye West, Serena Williams, and illustrator Shyama Golden, is one I’ve been describing to friends since Friday night’s performance. As McGray suggests, contrasting Pop-Up which a digital news item you open and close, half-finished, while waiting in line for coffee, having a link (or a print edition) at one’s fingertips is no guarantee that the stories therein are durable.

“These are ways of bringing journalism to people so it’ll stick,” he says of Pop-Up and California Sunday’s distinct styles. “And it’ll become something like shared wisdom. It becomes less disposable, and we become part of people’s lives more. That’s what we’re trying to do in everything we create.”

The same logic fuels another of Pop-Up Magazine’s defining features. At a moment in which the Met simulcasts Così fan tutte to cinemas nationwide and stand-up comics can scarcely leave their house without recording a Netflix special, Pop-Up Magazine, which you can only experience live, is an analog phenomenon: It epitomizes the phrase, “You had to be there.” This is, McGray suggests, a pre-requisite for the kind of intimate, handmade, urgent, memorable journalism to which Pop-Up aspires. But it’s also, as Rich points out, a way to square space for reflection in a media ecosystem dominated by speed.

“It does speak to, I think, a large trend that I anticipate is happening in American culture, which is towards very purposeful disengagement from the noise,” he says, citing the rise of longer novels at a time when one might expect novellas, short stories, even “flash fiction” to be the most popular forms. It’s part of a long tradition of artists and others posing “the noise” as a threat to art and the ability to appreciate it, he adds, mentioning the collected essays of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but it’s been revived and strengthened of late because “the assault is so overwhelming.”

“There is a deep appetite for serious narrative and in-depth reporting, storytelling, and thought,” Rich says. “Really great narrative work succeeds because people create room for it. It becomes the priority.”

Becoming the priority is the goal of any outlet, of course. But Pop-Up Magazine, along with other recent experiments on the frontier of journalism—Buzzfeed’s AM to DM; Vice and HBO’s nightly news program; The Atlantic’s live events; the New York Times’ wildly popular podcast The Daily—is re-mixing expectations as well as media, in part by returning to the belief that the audience for journalism can be trusted to find, consume, pay for, and appreciate nonfiction without the crutch of the Facebook algorithm or the clickbait headline. It’s a work in progress: McGray tells me that Pop-Up Productions, which includes Pop-Up Magazine, California Sunday and the advertorial Brand Studio, is not yet profitable, though a range of revenue streams and a “really lean and scrappy” structure mean that the young company is “headed in the right direction.” Whether Pop-Up Magazine or any of the other aforementioned models—and countless more besides—is sustainable in the long term remains to be seen; the period of flux that followed the collapse of daily newspapers and general interest magazines in favor of digital-first publications continues apace, and anyone who tells you they have the answers (myself included) is either deranged or lying.

For now, perhaps, it’s enough to see Pop-Up Magazine as a form of (re-) engagement with the ineffable magnetism of stories that matter, and of disengagement from the noise. After all, it’s not until Mooallem’s first laugh lands—hard—that I come to understand Badejo’s description of liveness as its own medium. He still doesn’t quite wait for the laughs to pass, but the audience cues his pauses and pick-ups; as it proceeds, the segment accrues the momentum of any memoir, murder mystery, speculative fiction, field report; any concert, play, movie, podcast, magazine feature. By the time he reads a brutal description of Manolete’s face, and thus his own, Mooallem has the audience by the lapels, and my date doubled over, slapping his knee. I suppose you had to be there, but for one “magic moment,” the man up on stage got the pacing just right.

Pop-Up Magazine ’s Winter Issue concluded its seven-city tour Sunday night.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.