Last time I checked with Tyler Brûlé in Helsinki last June, where we were both attending a conference, he was talking about his new publishing project: a global, high-quality print magazine that would "bond and glue all the people that roam the world". Brûlé -- founder (in 1996) and former editor (until 2002) of Wallpaper* -- said he was convinced that while "publishers are terrified and are downgrading their print products" to chase opportunities online, there was place for a good news/current affairs/design magazine with European roots and a global outlook that would be the core of a smart interplay between print and digital.
The magazine is now out, called Monocle. I picked up the premiere issue (March 2007) last week at Madrid airport, and brought it along yesterday on a transatlantic flight, and read it back-to-back. And it's a great magazine.
Let's start with the form. Running to almost 250 pages, slightly smaller than a newsweekly in size, Monocle has an austere cover (pictured at right), more austere than even the Economist's, reminding somehow of a science journal, yet very elegant and refined. With text in white and some discreet yellow on black background, the cover includes a main story presented through a headline and a picture, plus a short summary of the top stories in the five departments that define the beat of the magazine: affairs, business, culture, design, and edits (Got it? A-B-C-D-E). Inside, the layout is tastefully classic, almost reticent, but innovative -- long stories are introduce by a short preface, for example, which makes for an easy navigation -- with a visual precision and a subtle choice of fonts that invites to read.
Because this is a magazine that's meant to be read. Sure, images play a key role. True, it's full of advertising of the glossy kind that you usually find in fashion and luxury magazines. And Brûlé's own obsession with what he calls "the beautiful things in life" (design, fashion, architecture, restaurants and bars, the shape of the perfect travel bag - and of course airports and hotels) isn't hidden. But the man has been a war correspondent, too (he was wounded in Afghanistan back in the early 1990s) and both of his journalistic personas show throughout the magazine.
So, what's there to read? The cover story is a long and strong and insightful report on Japan's military fleet (large and sophisticated, although Japan, under its post-war constitution, is not supposed to have a navy) and its geopolitical meaning, by Fiona Wilson and photographer Yoko Takahashi. It is followed by stories on an Afghan radio star, China's rising influence in Africa, German wine exporters, the semiotics of Iranian president Ahmadinejad's "man-of-the-people" look, an interview with the Chilean Finance minister, Austrian lighting designers, a new hotel on Rio's waterfront, a report from Pitti Uomo (the fashion show in Florence), and so on, complemented by a collection of shorter but carefully (sometimes eccentrically) chosen and edited dispatches from all over the world, from investment in Budapest to the problem of lingerie stores in Saudi Arabia staffed by men, from violence in Somalia to fast train projects in China and Taiwan, from depression in Australia to reconciliation in Nicaragua, from ship design in Norway to graffiti removal in Milan, and plenty more.
After a few more Wallpaper-esque pages about what to buy or to read, the back of the magazine includes two additional extended features. One is a section called "Expo", which is basically a long, 12 or so pages, highly illustrated reportage, devoted this time to the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, where architect Le Corbusier and carmaker Louis Chevrolet were born, and where the Swiss watch industry is partially headquartered -- but which no one outside of Switzerland knows. The other is an original manga -- the Japanese cartoons -- that will be published in installments, and obviously reads from back to front. The magazine has an embryonic extension online, which includes some additional materials (interview videos, essential city guides, etc); to match Tyler's ambitions though, it would need to be developed: so far it is pretty basic.
Overall, Monocle comes across as fresh, original, careful not to be influenced in its editorial choices by the media system's herd logic (no stories on the "hot topic of the moment", and zero -- zero! -- celebrities and people gossip). It strives to report from the ground (what other magazines do less and less) and it includes practically no commentary nor opinion columns (hence, no "celebrity bylines"). The mag is also well attuned to its target readership, the emerging "global class": those multilingual frequent-flyers who work in profit and non-profit, know no borders, are based somewhere but live everywhere; those who know their way around Manhattan and London but are also familiar with Keflavik, the Silvaplana lake, or Roppongi (or at least can tell you without hesitation where these places are). Here is how Brûlé tells it: "a smart, forward-looking, single edition global briefing for a highly mobile, international audience".
So, yes, I like Monocle. A lot. Sure, this is just the premiere issue, and the goodness of a publishing product is to be tried over the longer term. And there are things missing: stories on science and technology, for example, which are playing such a defining role in contemporary culture and socioeconomic development. And it could also use some attention to environmental issues, which are almost absent from this premiere issue (how to design a hydrogen car, for example; or a feature on zero-energy houses; or a report on the project to build a solar plane; and so on: positive stories that cross several of the A-E fields covered by Monocle).
And one last thing: at 250 pages, printed on quality paper, the magazine is pretty thick (like a paperback) and heavy. It will be a challenge to fit it in the skinny little briefcases of global travellers. Still: the next issue will be out March 15, and I can't wait.