When the founders of Mask Magazine first announced they would publish a style and culture magazine “in an age of unrest” in February 2014, they were starting from scratch. Thirty-eight months later, the independent media project reaches 750,000 people globally, has published nearly 200 emerging writers, and recently founded a new podcast network, mask.fm. With zero revenue from advertisements, a group of friends in Brooklyn are making waves in an industry struggling to find a sustainable home on the internet.
Hanna Hurr and Tyler Reinhard say they started Mask Magazine because they wanted to make sure there was a place for the communities that would inspire a resurgence of radical politics in popular culture. “When we launched, Orange is The New Black was one of the ‘wokest’ things in mainstream culture — so we asked a friend who had recently been imprisoned for resisting a grand jury to write a review,” Reinhard said of the first long form piece the magazine commissioned. “If you read between the lines, that strategy is still with us. Ultimately, it’s lifestyle content for people who want to completely rethink society.” It’s not the product story advertisers were looking for, but for a new generation of readers Mask Magazine offered something worth paying to support.
“Breaking into the turbulent online publishing industry was tough,” Reinhard continues, “especially from our backgrounds.” Reinhard’s former projects include Signal, the encrypted messaging app, and CrimethInc., the anarchist publishing collective. He says he moved to Brooklyn with Hurr explicitly to start the magazine. Hurr had led the Swedish-speaking School Student Union of Finland and went on to study Critical Theory in Minnesota, where she and Reinhard met in September, 2012. “I was an organizer at an autonomous community center during my studies in Minnesota and met Tyler when we both worked a benefit for CeCe McDonald,” says Hurr. By late 2013, the two founders had rented a small office in Brooklyn and were building the first version of maskmagazine.com.
Mask Magazine is behind a paywall, but it’s not the typical model. Unlike the metered paywalls used by publications like The New York Times, everything Mask publishes is free to read for the first three days. “We don’t publicize it, but if you checked our site often, you could probably read everything for free if you timed it right. But we have to balance starting conversations with making sure it’s possible to sustain them. Our readership pays monthly for access to the full back catalog,” says Hurr. The Mask Magazine subscription is available at a sliding-scale. Pay $3, $5, or $10 a month for the same access. “Sliding scale works. When given the choice to support us with more money, lots of people do. Our readers want to see this experiment succeed and we owe what we have to their support,” Hurr added.
“It’s an important part of the idea,” Reinhard says. “If we were to put ads in our articles, we would probably make more money. But that would encourage us to publish a different kind of story. From the outset, we’ve been concerned about the economic model behind publishing content.” In September 2015, Reinhard posted The Advertisement Industrial Complex on Medium, where he outlined the larger philosophy behind their experiment: “Ragebait pays. It drives traffic. It also insulates ideas from discussion, and flattens our lives into hashtags and campaigns. Perfectly arranged for data analysis, but terrible for capturing how we actually feel and experience the world. In reality, our lives are complex and difficult. So many of us are in fact marginalized by the culture we’re producing.”
If you ask Ripley Soprano about what it takes to run a modern publishing company, they will tell you culture has always come from the bottom. “Most people are surprised when I say we’re only a half-dozen people. They think we’re a big operation,” says Soprano, who runs social growth and partnerships, and co-owns the magazine. “The cultural moments that reframe important conversations have always come from the so-called margins of society. It only takes a small team to amplify it. If you do that without making every voice fit in a certain box, you’re doing something the publishing industry usually won’t. People just assume it takes a lot of people to do that.”
Tracking Mask down is not easy. “We could be anywhere…” Soprano whispers jokingly. In truth, the media company operates out of a living room in a collective apartment in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. “Fifteen years ago, we might have been a punk band.” Reinhard added. “We did all of this ourselves. Before we launched, I got a few books about writing code and built our tech. Hanna [Hurr] isn’t a native English speaker, and taught herself how to edit. She built the whole editorial pipeline on Trello. And when Ripley came on, they put the thing on a loudspeaker. Honestly, it’s got the same ethos of a punk band — it’s chaos to watch live, but looking back it seems like something coherent and new. This might look like a sound booth from inside,” Reinhard said of their new podcast studio, “but at the end of the day, it’s just a bedroom in our apartment.”
“We look for writers with that same DIY spirit,” Hurr says. “For many of the writers, this is their first time getting edited and published. We’re always looking for the voices missing from a conversation, or the people who insist on speaking up even without formal training.”
Hurr’s approach to editorial content focuses on the stories subscribers want to read, rather than what will get the most clicks. “We try to offer writers something uncommon: the freedom to publish deeper essays on themes and issues that other magazines edit out. The awkward, marginal, otherwise unspeakable stuff.” With this strategy, Hurr says, Mask Magazine can publish aspiring writers who couldn’t tell their stories elsewhere. But the model also creates a platform for professional writers. “Even when most professionals could get paid way more to write elsewhere, a lot of freelance writers choose to work with Mask because they appreciate the opportunity to participate in the experiment,” said Hurr.
And the same goes for the people featured in Mask’s long-form interviews. “The people Mask features will probably end up in Vogue, The New York Times, or with their own show at MoMa,” says Soprano, “like Juliana Huxtable. Sarah Nicole Prickett. Monica Mirabile of FLuCT … these were conversations with people who I’m sure will inherit the creative industry they’re breaking into now. We want to help that happen.” To date, Mask Magazine has published 100 longform interviews with creative and emerging thinkers. “The entire operation relies on its own question: to what extent is it possible to materially support ourselves through cultural production?” Soprano added.
In September 2017, Mask Magazine announced they would be creating a new podcast network, mask.fm. “It’s been a dream of mine to do podcasts,” Reinhard confided. “I started taking notes about how to build a studio many years ago, and this month we’re actually doing it. I can’t believe it.” Like the magazine, mask.fm will be supported directly by its audience. Asked to describe the model, Reinhard explains, “Here’s how it works: we invited some of our favorite thinkers to create podcast shows and agreed to cover all the distribution and production costs. Then, we all share one Patreon account. Each month, we divvy up that support money to the show hosts and producers and set a little aside for equipment upgrades.” Mask Magazine hopes mask.fm will reach new audiences and help expand the intersections between listeners. “It’s an extension of our editorial process,” says Hurr, “we have to listen to and value what makes our perspectives different so we can fully appreciate the power we have when our stories intersect.”
The shows launching with the network include: BRUJAS World, Health Autonomy at the End of the Empire, drumBOOTY, and T.W.I.G.’s Podcast. With the help of audio and program producer Yvette Hall, the network plans to add shows as the Patreon grows. “We’ll do as many shows as our time and budget allows. We’re just getting started,” Reinhard says.
Mask Magazine is fueled by audience support and affinity. People looking to help the project can get involved right now.
The best way to support Mask Magazine is to talk to people personally about why you endorse ad-free, DIY publishing. Send emails, post on social media, and reach out to anyone looking for a different perspective and model on culture. You can also:
Mask Magazine is always ad-free and subscription payments are the only source of revenue that pays writers and contributors. Subscription includes access to the full back-issue catalog of more than 900 articles of in-depth essays, long-form interviews, and cultural coverage. You can subscribe to Mask Magazine and join a community of supporters for a sliding scale fee that starts at $3 per month.
Once a week, Mask Magazine editors send out an email update about new articles, back issue content relevant to current events, and announcements about the project. A great way to get access to new articles that are for guest readers and subscribers alike is to sign up for the newsletter.
Mask Magazine credits communities that emerge on social media with their success thusfar. “We put a lot of time into connecting with content creators trying to make a name for themselves on social platforms like Twitter and Instagram,” Soprano says. “That’s where we notice the people that we think our audience would love.” Reinhard adds, “we think of social networks like our comment section. When we built Mask, we made a choice not to enable comments on our articles – we don’t really care if a page gets refreshed over and over, like most other publications. But we work really hard at maintaining a healthy social community. Participating in conversations there is probably the easiest way to help Mask reach more people.”
Currently, all of Mask’s subscription revenue goes to paying their writers, artists, contributing editors, covering rent and other expenses. “We don’t pay ourselves for our work. We could change that. There’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s only feasible for us to do this work if we can compensate ourselves for it,” says Hurr. To help them keep going, you can pledge a monthly donation via their Patreon page.