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Monday January 9, 2002
Phoned Ioana in New York and asked her: “If we found the money and started a magazine in Berlin, would you be in?” Her answer was a bold: “YES. When? I’m booking my ticket right away!” M and I have plans. We’re three now. And what if it were the beginning of something…?
A few weeks ago I unearthed this entry in a diary I had no memory of keeping at the time. A discarded ‘slice’ of life, jotted on a random page of an old notebook, crammed between to-do lists and my Moscow journalism shorthand notes. Little did I know, this random scribble would actually be worth mentioning 10 years later, as a milestone, a piece of history that would affect not only my life but also that of quite a few fellow Berliners – destined to become our readers, contributors or staff.
Over the years we'd fight over whose idea Exberliner was, who was to reap the credit (when being interviewed by appreciative journalists) or to be blamed when everything went so wrong, so many times. There’s no simple answer!
‘M’ stood for Maurice. He was the forerunner, the first ‘Berliner’ of the trio. With German blood and German tongue, he had made it to the new capital before everyone, before the idealistic masses of what we were later to dub ‘yukis’, before his high school friends who were to follow suit later, even before the euro. Following half a life in the US and a journalism degree in the London of his birth, Maurice had settled in Berlin nicely and was already getting sick of working for other people (Die Welt online and Deutsche Welle TV).
Founding a magazine had always been an 'Ioana-Idea'. Born and raised in Ceauşescu’s Romania, she had fled with her family to the West and spent her student life between the 'little Romania' of her two-room Parisian flat and the Sorbonne's department of political science where she and I had met 10 years before.
After London (all three of us went through City University journalism school), she had made it to NYC, the land of her dissident father's dreams of freedom. She had cried flying over the Statue of Liberty (and would cry later looking at the Wall on Bernauer Straße). She witnessed 9/11 with her own eyes.
Yet she was growing tired of New York – the Village Voice where she worked was already not quite what it used to be – and had set her sights on launching a magazine in Paris, a bad idea if I ever heard one.
I had just passed through my Heimat and sealed my decision to not go back: too much had remained the good old boring same since I had left the benches of the Sorbonne to teach and pursue my PhD in Moscow.
Berlin was different, open, unfinished, literally a building site. So, I unpacked my suitcase here as a mournful but grateful exile – a refugee from Putin’s Russia and his FSB Black List of undesirables. After years of loving the kick of intrepid journalism – from war to investigation on chemical weapons, from Chechnya to Moscow, from field reporting to the desk of a major news agency – I had to move on.
Faced with the choice of a career move (back to old Paris) and l-o-v-e (Berlin, terra incognita), I foolishly and rather unfashionably opted for the latter – the riskiest gamble of all.
My first few months here were agony: too comfortable to enjoy, too cheap and easy to be true; my freelancing for a few culture mags felt indulgent – I had risked my life in Russia, now I was losing my sanity. So when an acquaintance suggested that, with our combined experience, we should start Berlin’s much-needed English magazine and that he would be interested in investing some money in it – it did not fall on deaf ears…
From then on, things went too fast to be remembered.
(I couldn’t find any more discarded diary entries to help – with the exception of a paragraph on my decision to cancel a much anticipated hunting trip to Kazakhstan: "My resolution to dedicate myself to our new publishing project is at stake. I've got to be able to make choices – even if it hurts…")
On March 5, Ioana landed at Tegel with a newly acquired American accent and her legendary indomitable faith and headstrong energy. (To my dismay, her only concern was finding a good gym here.) We left to meet our two business partners in the horse-breeding town of Verden in Lower Saxony on the same day.
Here, in the lobby of an unmemorable hotel, serious talks were held, contracts signed, making us the happy managers of one IoMauNa Media GmbH. We left the hotel heavily indebted but in good spirits. We owned a publishing house! Many a journalist's dream – having one's own paper – was becoming our reality.
A month, later we moved into our first office, a two-room shop front on Prenzlauer Berg's drab Jablonskistraße, which we promptly furnished with basics from Ikea and three computers (not a single Mac!).
Maurice, who was the only one who spoke German and had a vague idea of what a Gewerbeschein was, took over business operations; Ioana, who hadn’t practiced design since journalism school but was confident she could do it, art direction; I, 'naturally', reclined into my new chief editor’s chair – an editor without writers, with the notable exception of Robin Alexander, a young German journo I had met in Moscow and who instantly accepted the position of political columnist.
Our start-up team was soon to be fleshed out by Richard, a multitalented German-bred American who was to help raise the infant paper until it could walk by itself, and Rosie, a tiny energetic Brit who ruled over the listings and whose high spirits and fortitude we missed sorely when she had to return home a year later.
The ad sales squad was an all-Berliner duo – a skinny, cat-loving film intellectual called Sven and André, a fifty-something bon vivant recently laid off by the Tagesspiegel. Chance encounters provided the rest of the crew: we met our music editor at a sidewalk café up the street, and our (shy) first film critic was escorted to our Jablonskistraße office by her brother. I don't remember worrying much about writers: we were journalists, after all; never did it occur to us back then this would actually be a problem.
A magazine is a business, not a sandbox for journalists.
Market realities command that successful magazine start-ups be the brainchild of marketing minds and design geniuses – looks and sales are the one and only decisive factor in this war. We were charmingly unaware of such simple truths. When our benevolent but pragmatic investor asked for a “business plan”, we'd rushed to the nearest bookstore to get up to speed on balance sheets and the difference between cash flow and a cash cow.
All I knew about business came from my partial reading of Das Kapital; Ioana was, well, a Romanian… Maurice had escaped the bright business future his family had in store for him to study English literature. Our revenue projections were shamelessly optimistic. Cluelessness has its advantages: it doesn't burden you with paralysing thoughts. Plus we wanted to be different. And reality was to leave us with no other choice.
Over the years we’ve learnt about the publishing industry the hard way: learning by doing and suffering: fiascos and shitstorms, lawsuits and scandals. Here are a few milestones on the road towards what we are today.
How we got our weird name
On June 10, 2002, following a long and laborious birth, a 32-page free newspaper named The Berliner saw the light of day – 30,000 of them! It’s hard to remember what we felt. Tired, probably.
What we do remember though is that within two days of distributing the first issue, we received a wake-up call in the guise of a cease and desist letter from a lawyer. The name ‘Berliner’ had been registered as a trademark by another magazine. A few days later our rather dishevelled, exhausted trio was sitting in a Ku’damm attorney’s office across from a Herr Moshkovits, the publisher of a lifestyle glossy named Berliner which happened to be starting up at the same time to fold only a year or two later.
Made compliant by the threat of a €10,000 fine, we agreed to immediately change the name of the magazine. Freshly hyphenated, The Ex-Berliner was born. (It was almost a year later, when the new Berlin branch of Neville Brody’s Research Studios redesigned the mag, that the name was compressed into a unitary EXBERLINER.)
How we learnt to say no to advertorials
Sometimes it was fate rather than lawyers that taught us a lesson in survival in the harsh world of publishing. While our naïve belief that we would be profitable within two issues and advertisers would flock to our free cultural newspaper in English was charming – finding capable ad reps who could reel in financially solvent clients who actually paid their bills turned out to be much harder than we expected.