State of play

Sat, Mar 15, 2008, 00:00

As one independent Irish publication closes after five irreverent years, another is just beginning, writes Fiona McCann

'IT ALL started on a damp summer's day at the Oxegen Festival in 2006 . . ." At least, that's how the editor's letter on the opening page of the very first issue of State, the newest home-grown music magazine to hit Irish newsstands, describes its conception.

"It came from Roger Woolman, who is a chartered accountant, businessman and music photographer, and also used to be Johnny Rotten in a Sex Pistols tribute band," elaborates Phil Udell, who co-edits the magazine with fellow journalist John Walsh. "He spent the whole weekend of Oxegen saying he'd got an idea for a magazine. As a photographer, he wanted to produce a magazine that he could put his photos in - that was the basic premise of it."

From this premise grew State, a slickly designed music magazine launched this month at no small expense, to a small and, some would suggest, saturated Irish market. Walsh argues otherwise.

"There's no mainstream monthly quality glossy here and that's basically what we're going for. Why should Irish people who are really into music, who want to read a six- or seven-page in-depth article about some musician, have to buy Q or Spin? Why can't there be an Irish magazine for them?"

His enthusiasm is convincing, but magazines in Ireland have come and gone over the years, and it's not always the finest that prove the most resilient. State's arrival coincides almost eerily with the departure of another beloved monthly publication, Mongrel, the final issue of which is currently lying-in-state at a pick-up spot in shops and eateries around Dublin.

Yousef Eldin, one of Mongrel magazine's original founders, has been noting the much-touted arrival of State, and says its creators' motives are strangely familiar to him. "A lot of their comments are quite similar to what we were saying five years ago, which was that there was this kind of void, that there was nothing worth reading out there," he recalls.

Mongrel lasted for more than four and a half years, its success such that many are surprised at its sudden departure. Eldin admits that the magazine is still riding high, with a print run of 20,000 and a close to 100 per cent pick-up, given that it's free, and more money coming in from advertising than ever before.

So why, at a time when other publications are eagerly entering the market, has Mongrel decided to fold? "There was probably a nostalgic element to it," admits Eldin.

"We had reached a point where we felt we'd achieved what we wanted to do with it. It had been editorially free - we'd been spoiled in many ways in being able to cover what we wanted to and indulge ourselves a lot in our own interests, and I think hopefully leaving it after just shy of five years was more dignified than maybe kicking and dragging it into a place where we were fed up with it."

The final issue, with its suitably irreverent Mass-card cover, recalls some of Mongrel's greatest moments, reprinting the by-now infamous interview with Bertie Ahern which first came out in April of last year, as well as an interview from the previous year with the three former Guantanamo prisoners known as the Tipton Taliban.

Much of the magazine's legacy, however, lies not just in its cheeky editorial content, but in quality photo shoots and a design aesthetic that marked it out from many of its contemporaries.

"We were quite lucky that we got some great photographers contributing for hardly any pay at all," recalls Eldin, who was also particularly proud of the design."We're kind of pleased that it kept that smart design throughout its course."

The Mongrel team, all still 20-somethings but now with a successful publication under their belts, still have plenty of energy to burn, and the demise of the magazine means all of this will have to be channelled elsewhere.

"I have a huge interest in going back to maybe doing documentaries and studying the photography side of it," muses Eldin, whose degree was in film studies at DIT. "It would be kind of nice to look at doing photography for something that's already established so that you're not worried about building your audience at the same time as working on the project."

The end of Mongrel will be mourned, but Eldin admits he never expected it to last as long as it did. "We honestly thought the first issue might be our one and only one," he recalls. "We spent hours labouring over every page and line to make it perfect in case it was the only one we had."

Almost five years on, he's keen to leave what has long been a labour of love before it becomes stale. "I just can't imagine if you've been doing something for 30 years that you really care about anything at that stage," he says.

Across the river at State's new offices, Udell and Walsh are bedding down for the long haul, however. "It's a long-term project," says Udell. "There's no point in doing it unless you think you're going to do it for years. We'll see you for our 10th birthday!"

Both seasoned journalists with a wealth of media experience between them, Udell and Walsh are very much aware of the difficulties of staying afloat in the cut-throat world of Irish publishing. "We know it's going to be tough, we're not under any illusions," says Walsh. "But we think we've got a really good team together and we're just going to give it our best shot."

Mongrel is dead. Long live State!