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Zeke Magazine: Incredibly Powerful Global Documentary Photography Combines With Journalistic Collaborations To Bring Awareness Of What’s Going On In The World Around Us – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Glenn Ruga, Executive Editor, Zeke Magazine…

December 14, 2016

A Mr. Magazine™ Launch Story…

“Personally I love print and I believe a lot of other people do as well, both photographers and the general public who look at photography. It’s just much more compelling in print, particularly large, and that’s one thing that we’re committed to at the magazine; we make the photographs as large as we can. So, it really gives the audience a chance to experience the photograph in a way that they rarely can online.” Glenn Ruga…

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More than a photography magazine, Zeke is a force to be reckoned with. It is powerful and emotional pictures of the world we all live in, from one side of the globe to the other, but it is also journalistic collaborations of passion and depth that help us to understand and appreciate the dynamic photographs even more. Zeke is the magazine of global documentary, so says its tagline. And Mr. Magazine™ would have to agree that documenting current global issues and bringing awareness to those stories is certainly what the publication does best.

Glenn Ruga is founder of the Social Documentary Network and executive editor of Zeke. Also a graphic designer, photographer and a lifelong human rights activist himself, Glenn’s passion for Zeke’s mission is strong and his love of print obvious as you flip through the pages of this beautiful magazine.

I spoke with Glenn recently and we talked about Zeke and where it is today and where he hopes it’s headed. The hope is to build a strong subscription base and possible partnerships with others who see the same vision; a photo-driven magazine that brings back the conscience of us all when it comes to global awareness. In Mr. Magazine’s™ opinion, not since Life or Look has there been such a breathtaking showcase of photography.

So, without further narrative, here is the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Glenn Ruga, executive editor, Zeke magazine.

But first the soundbites:

On why he decided to launch a print magazine after being online first: It’s a combination of a few things; a few forces that were at work. One is that photographers really appreciate the opportunity to have their work in print. Since the advent of the Internet and so much of the work is going online, and that’s clearly the growth opportunity for photographers; it’s not really valued as much for them. To have their work in some type of print form is just so much more valuable done a lot of documentary work in the ‘90s in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia. I was involved with aid and advocacy groups there and doing both direct advocacy and humanitarian aid, but also doing photography.for their careers and their opportunities.

On what gave him the idea to do a global awareness magazine:
It’s a direction that I’ve always been personally headed for. My day job has always been in graphic design, and although I’ve been very involved in photography, it’s never been what financially supported me. I had done a lot of documentary work in the ‘90s in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia. I was involved with aid and advocacy groups there and doing both direct advocacy and humanitarian aid, but also doing photography.

On the biggest stumbling block he’s had to face with the magazine:
The cost of paper and printing clearly limits the number of pages and it’s always a trade-off; I would love to have more pages to showcase more work. But really the biggest stumbling block is the business side of it. The content; the curation, is the fun part and the easier part. There’s no lack of work to choose from. People are very eager to support the magazine with photography, but it’s really figuring out a sustainable business model to make it work. That’s clearly the biggest problem.

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On what he is doing to ensure the magazine has a future: Our revenue model is based on two things right now; one is paid subscriptions. Clearly, that’s a very important part of it. And growing our subscription base is critical. Another important revenue model is that through the Social Documentary Network we do competitions; we’re doing two per year right now, and the winner of the competition is featured in the magazine. So, one of the features in the magazine is always the winners of the competition and they pay to enter. That’s a significant source of revenue for the magazine.

On whether there was that one moment when something clicked and he knew that he needed a print component to complete his vision: It really didn’t click in any one, particular moment. The concept had gelled over many, many years. Almost from day one we had toyed with the idea of having some type of print presence with the Social Documentary Network. So, it was just a matter of what the right model for it was and when was the right time.

On whether he feels this digital age is the best of times or the worst of times for design and photography: It’s a declining industry; print publishing is in a very difficult time right now. And so much emphasis is going towards mobile devices. First it was electronic and digital, but now everything is focused on our mobile devices for content and information. We have a digital version; it’s never been the primary presentation of this, but we do have it and it’s important.

On whether the photography business is being hurt by the Internet:
The photography industry has taken a hit as bad as the publishing industry in the last 10 to 15 years, particularly the still photography industry, which I’m based in. For all of the reasons that magazine publishing has had a difficult time, so have still photographers. Their work has been much devalued and their day rates have gone down. For just middle of the road photography, particularly in journalism, so many publishers now just hand their writers cameras or phones and say you take the pictures; we don’t need photographers any longer.

On whether he is still seeing quality photography in today’s world of iPhones and Smartphones: That’s a very interesting question. It’s clearly a much broader question than simply about magazine publishing. I think the technical quality of photography has improved immensely because of digital photography. Just the equipment alone makes it so much easier to take a well-exposed, sharp picture with good color. But the intent of that picture; the meaning of that picture; what’s behind it; all of the technology in the world doesn’t improve that. What that relies on is the eye and creativity of the photographer, and the soul and spirit of the person behind the camera.

On what we can do today to improve photography: For one, we totally need to accept and embrace the new horizons for social media, and the fact that everybody has a camera in their pocket. Generally, photography is so much more ubiquitous than it ever was, but it means something different as well, than it used to mean.

On what picture he considers to be the most important one of his lifetime: That’s a hard question; Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier during the Spanish Civil War; the picture of the Napalm Girl from the Vietnam War by Nick Ut. And while I appreciate the question, for me the more significant question is, on a regular basis do we continue to see really good and meaningful images, or as you said earlier, has the general feel lost its impact?

On whether he thinks now is a good time for a photo-driven print magazine: It’s not the best of times, but neither do I think those times are gone. The challenge that I always face is that I believe people really love to look at photographs, and they love to look at Zeke magazine, but it’s hard to get people to make that decision to actually subscribe. I don’t know what the key is. I don’t have the resources to have marketing professionals or to pay for the direct-mail campaigns that a traditional magazine launch would require, maybe if I had those resources things could turn around.

On anything else he’d like to add: We can’t talk about any of this without talking about the role that social media plays, particularly in our lives of digital and visual information, and publishing. I think what we’ve all experienced is, yes, everybody can now publish their own work; everybody can put their work on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, but at the same time there is so much more noise as a result. The competition is so much greater than it’s ever been and that makes it almost harder for people to break through because of the chatter out there.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly at his home one evening: Cooking, having a glass of wine; I love being with other people and sharing a meal. I like going to the gym and to go for bike rides. Recently, I went hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I don’t take a lot of serious photographs myself anymore, and I’m always kicking myself because of that. Every week I say that I should dust off my camera again, but I just never get around to it.

On what keeps him up at night: Stress about money. (Laughs) And generally, and most recently, stress about Donald Trump. That has certainly kept me up at night. But over the last few years it’s stress about the financial situation with what I’m doing

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Glenn Ruga, executive editor, Zeke magazine.

Samir Husni: You’re the first person that I know of who named his magazine after his cat.

Glenn Ruga: (Laughs) I’m surprised because cats are so popular.

Samir Husni: (Laughs too) Take me back to April, 2015 when you launched the magazine and tell me how the magazine came about after being a website; why did you decide to go print after being online for a few years?

Glenn Ruga: It’s a combination of a few things; a few forces that were at work. One is that photographers really appreciate the opportunity to have their work in print. Since the advent of the Internet and so much of the work is going online, and that’s clearly the growth opportunity for photographers; it’s not really valued as much for them. To have their work in some type of print form is just so much more valuable for their careers and their opportunities.

The other thing is that personally I love print and I believe a lot of other people do as well, both photographers and the general public who look at photography. It’s just much more compelling in print, particularly large, and that’s one thing that we’re committed to at the magazine; we make the photographs as large as we can. So, it really gives the audience a chance to experience the photograph in a way that they rarely can online.

And then the third reason is, I don’t know if you spent any time looking at the Social Documentary Network website which we started in 2008, but the website is a very democratic, open platform where pretty much anyone doing legitimate documentary work will have the opportunity to publish that work on the website, which is great because that’s our concept.

But the magazine is really a way for us to do a much more curated presentation of this work. Where almost anybody can put their work online, it’s much more selective when it comes to the magazine. It gives us the opportunity to really showcase the best of what’s put onto the website. So, I think those three reasons are really what propelled us to do it.

Samir Husni: Were you the founder of the Social Documentary Network?

Glenn Ruga: Yes.

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Samir Husni: So, tell me more about the genesis of all of this. I know that you’re a photographer and I know that the tagline of the magazine is: The Magazine of Global Documentary. So, you’re not limiting yourself to any geographic area. Why did you feel that there was a need to document all of this global awareness? Truthfully, I discovered you through the magazine, before I looked at the website, and I was completely bowled over by the publication. So, what gave you the idea to put global awareness into a magazine?

Glenn Ruga: It’s a direction that I’ve always been personally headed for. My day job has always been in graphic design, and although I’ve been very involved in photography, it’s never been what financially supported me. I had done a lot of documentary work in the ‘90s in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia. I was involved with aid and advocacy groups there and doing both direct advocacy and humanitarian aid, but also doing photography.

I produced two exhibitions, one on Bosnia and one on Kosovo during that time. And both of these started out as physical exhibitions that traveled to different locations around the U.S. and to some locations around the world. But also in both cases, I produced a website for these exhibits. I have design and web design skills, but even for me it was quite an involved and arduous task back then, in the early 2000s.

It occurred to me that there had to be many photographers out there who had extraordinary work, but didn’t have the design skills that I have, and I thought it would be an opportunity to create a platform and tools for photographers to very easily create websites for their documentary projects.

My background has always been involved in human rights issues outside of my direct work. Even my graphic design work often works with human rights organizations. So, it’s really my background and my interests and proclivities that led me to the direction of global issues.

Samir Husni: As you celebrate the first anniversary of the magazine; what has been the biggest stumbling block for you and how did you overcome it?

Glenn Ruga: The cost of paper and printing clearly limits the number of pages and it’s always a trade-off; I would love to have more pages to showcase more work. But really the biggest stumbling block is the business side of it. The content; the curation, is the fun part and the easier part. There’s no lack of work to choose from. People are very eager to support the magazine with photography, but it’s really figuring out a sustainable business model to make it work. That’s clearly the biggest problem.

Samir Husni: What are you doing to ensure that the magazine will be here in the future?

Glenn Ruga: Our revenue model is not based on advertising. When we first started, with the premier issue, we were actually more successful with paid advertising because I think people were willing to get onboard right away and give us the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t think our advertisers really feel that our outreach and circulation is enough to justify the cost of advertising.

So, our revenue model is based on two things right now; one is paid subscriptions. Clearly, that’s a very important part of it. And growing our subscription base is critical. Another important revenue model is that through the Social Documentary Network we do competitions; we’re doing two per year right now, and the winner of the competition is featured in the magazine. So, one of the features in the magazine is always the winners of the competition and they pay to enter. That’s a significant source of revenue for the magazine.

And the third yet to be realized is that we would very much like to find a significant partner or sponsor that sees the value of the magazine and would like to contribute support to it financially, just because they see the value in it. And that is certainly a possibility; to find somebody. We just haven’t found that entity yet.

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Samir Husni: You’ve done the Social Documentary Network for six years now, but did you feel as though something was missing without a print component? Can you describe that moment when it clicked and you knew you wanted or needed a print magazine?

Glenn Ruga: It really didn’t click in any one, particular moment. The concept had gelled over many, many years. Almost from day one we had toyed with the idea of having some type of print presence with the Social Documentary Network. So, it was just a matter of what the right model for it was and when was the right time.

And two years ago was a time when I was really in a growth mode with the organization and really looking for new ways to increase our visibility and credibility in the field. To me it just seemed like the right time to pull it all together.

We have an advisory committee that meets periodically and we had kicked around some ideas; everything from a very cheap type of publication to something that was more substantial. And I think we kind of met in the middle with that. It’s not a book and it’s not a monograph. The idea is to use the magazine model, but to make it as high quality as we can as a magazine. Having it perfect bound, rather than saddle stitch was a very important decision. Having heavier than normal paper was also an important thing; everybody who feels it thinks that it’s substantial and real. And that means a lot to the community that we work with; the photography community.

Samir Husni: As a creative designer and a photographer, what are the strengths and weaknesses of this digital age as it relates to graphic design and photography? Do you feel like it’s the best of times or the worst of times?

Glenn Ruga: It’s a declining industry; print publishing is in a very difficult time right now. And so much emphasis is going towards mobile devices. First it was electronic and digital, but now everything is focused on our mobile devices for content and information. We have a digital version; it’s never been the primary presentation of this, but we do have it and it’s important.

But in the same respect, we’re not a major corporate publisher that needs a huge circulation to survive. If we can hit a few thousand paid subscribers, we could pretty much do what we need to do and continue to grow and assure success. And I don’t think that’s by any means an impossible thing.

But getting back to your earlier question, selling print magazines, as you know, is a very difficult thing to do. And as much as people appreciate it, people still look at it as a magazine and we’re asking them to pay $17 a year for two issues. People love it, but it’s hard to get people over that hurdle to fill out a form with their credit card and say buy, because there’s so much free content on the Internet. It’s all out there free, so people ask themselves why they should pay $17 when I could go to the Social Documentary website and get this for free or go to The New York Times or anyplace else and get it for free. It’s a hard environment out there.

Samir Husni: Are you telling me that the abundance of free content online is hurting the professions of photography and creative design? As a photographer, is the Internet helping you or hurting you? Yes, you can upload any picture and put it on the web, but who is paying you for that picture?

Glenn Ruga: The photography industry has taken a hit as bad as the publishing industry in the last 10 to 15 years, particularly the still photography industry, which I’m based in. For all of the reasons that magazine publishing has had a difficult time, so have still photographers. Their work has been much devalued and their day rates have gone down. For just middle of the road photography, particularly in journalism, so many publishers now just hand their writers cameras or phones and say you take the pictures; we don’t need photographers any longer.

So, because of that the value of what a photographer gets paid has gone down and their work has gone down. We’re not paying the photographers, they’re generally happy to have their work in the magazine. We would love to be able to pay them; if we were more successful financially that’s the first thing that we’d like to do. But right now we’re not.

Samir Husni: Do you think that the quality of photography that we have now is better or worse? I look at some of those documentary photographers from the ‘30s and ‘40s in some of the old magazines that I have in my collection, and it’s like one “Wow” after the other almost on every page. And that’s the same reaction I had when I looked at your magazine. It seems that with all of the digital platforms, everyone who Tweets has become a journalist and everyone who takes a picture with their iPhone or their Smartphone has become a photographer. Are you still seeing that quality of photography that brings that “Wow” every time a page is turned?

Glenn Ruga: That’s a very interesting question. It’s clearly a much broader question than simply about magazine publishing. I think the technical quality of photography has improved immensely because of digital photography. Just the equipment alone makes it so much easier to take a well-exposed, sharp picture with good color. But the intent of that picture; the meaning of that picture; what’s behind it; all of the technology in the world doesn’t improve that. What that relies on is the eye and creativity of the photographer, and the soul and spirit of the person behind the camera.

As you say, looking at the documentary photography from magazines in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and today, that hasn’t changed or improved. In many cases, a lot has been lost. A lot has been lost because so many non-committed photographers, so many non-professionals are in the field now and they all think that all they have to do is point a digital camera at something and it’s a good picture. And as we all know, that’s not the case.

Samir Husni: You’re the doctor of photography here today, so what’s your prescription? What can we do today to change things, or has that train already left the station?

Glenn Ruga: For one, we totally need to accept and embrace the new horizons for social media, and the fact that everybody has a camera in their pocket. Generally, photography is so much more ubiquitous than it ever was, but it means something different as well, than it used to mean.

But then at the more serious level, the higher level in journalism where we’re trying to inspire, educate and motivate people; I think the prescription for that just has to be the industry understanding what quality photography can do and what is lost if they don’t embrace that. And I think the major media out there still gets it. The New York Times gets it and they do extraordinary work. Who else? New York Times Magazine; it’s still one of the leading forces. New Yorker magazine when they publish photography; Time is having a bit of difficulty in this field. I think as a journalist entity and a newsweekly, it’s a very difficult space for them to be in right now, although, they do have good photo editors there.

Samir Husni: What picture comes to mind as the most important and powerful photograph of your lifetime?

Glenn Ruga: That’s a hard question; Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier during the Spanish Civil War; the picture of the Napalm Girl from the Vietnam War by Nick Ut. And while I appreciate the question, for me the more significant question is, on a regular basis do we continue to see really good and meaningful images, or as you said earlier, has the general feel lost its impact?

And I have no doubt that there are excellent photographers out there doing excellent work and that’s the core belief that I had when I created the Social Documentary Network and Zeke magazine, because I see this work often. But what I don’t see is a wide scale distribution of this work. And that’s one of the things that I want to be able to add to this world is the ability to showcase really good documentary photography work. There’s no doubt that there are photographers out there as committed as ever and doing as good work as ever, and the only limiting factor is the business model for publishing; editors can’t afford to pay them because there’s not enough revenue being generated.

I think the concentration of wealth is a huge problem, because investors expect such returns these days and that slides down what everybody else gets paid. It’s ridiculous that a photographer for The New York Times day rate is $250. I think that’s criminal. That’s a leading media organization in this country and they pay their freelance photographers so little.

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Samir Husni: With your experience, do you share my feelings that this is the best of times to publish a photo-driven magazine in print, such as Life and Look, or do you think those days are gone?

Glenn Ruga: It’s not the best of times, but neither do I think those times are gone. The challenge that I always face is that I believe people really love to look at photographs, and they love to look at Zeke magazine, but it’s hard to get people to make that decision to actually subscribe. I don’t know what the key is. I don’t have the resources to have marketing professionals or to pay for the direct-mail campaigns that a traditional magazine launch would require, maybe if I had those resources things could turn around.

People love the magazine, but how do you get people to really pony up and purchase a subscription. I don’t know what that magic key is and that’s what we struggle with every day.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Glenn Ruga: We can’t talk about any of this without talking about the role that social media plays, particularly in our lives of digital and visual information, and publishing. I think what we’ve all experienced is, yes, everybody can now publish their own work; everybody can put their work on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, but at the same time there is so much more noise as a result. The competition is so much greater than it’s ever been and that makes it almost harder for people to break through because of the chatter out there. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s certainly a challenge that everybody faces.

Unfortunately, it’s almost a race to the bottom as we saw in this last election cycle; the more outrageous you can be the more people will pay attention to what you’re saying. And it has nothing to do with truth, integrity or values; it just has to do with capturing eyeballs and clicks however you can, as we’ve seen with Breitbart News, which is in my view despicable and that they were successful because they didn’t care about any ethical issues whatsoever, as long as they could get people to pay attention and purchase their product.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine; reading your iPad; taking pictures; having a glass of wine; or something else?

Glenn Ruga: Cooking, having a glass of wine; I love being with other people and sharing a meal. I like going to the gym and to go for bike rides. Recently, I went hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I don’t take a lot of serious photographs myself anymore, and I’m always kicking myself because of that. Every week I say that I should dust off my camera again, but I just never get around to it.

I look at and watch a lot of news; I read the newspaper every morning before I go to work. I have a cup of coffee and I read The New York Times. I always catch the news at night. I’m involved politically as well; I just helped to organize a fundraising event for the Syrian American Medical Society, where we had nearly 600 people at a concert recently. That took almost six months of organizing, so I’m often involved in things like that.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Glenn Ruga: Stress about money. (Laughs) And generally, and most recently, stress about Donald Trump. That has certainly kept me up at night. But over the last few years it’s stress about the financial situation with what I’m doing.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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