An indie magazine publication by Subsail

A reduced version of this interview was first published in the Coverage newsletter on March 1, 2018.

Sean Dagan Wood is the editor-in-chief of a positivity-rammed magazine. I'm super interested in his magazine's idea of publishing only "positive news" and wanted to dig a little deeper.

Dan R: You recently got Positive News into WH Smiths in the UK, a large step for an independent magazine to take. What steps or events led to this?

Sean DW: It’s something we’d been planning for a few years and we felt now was the time, given the response we were seeing to our mag. We have big ambitions and wanted to pull some bigger levers to grow our reach. We’d been diversifying our journalism, while continuing to strengthen its quality, and crafting the magazine to appeal to wider audiences. When we secured an interview with Russell Brand for the cover story of the current issue, we knew it was the ideal one to launch on the high street.

There is risk involved because publishers have to pay an upfront fee (if they accept your magazine) to be on their shelves—whether any copies sell or not—as well as covering the printing cost for the extra stock, and having to wait a significant time to be paid for any sales. So we waited until we’d proven the retail demand through independent shops first. Then we approached distributors and wholesalers who deal with the high street chains (and got advice from other publications too). We set up the relationships we needed to make it happen, agreed the strategy, and worked with them to pitch it to WHSmiths.

Then, in order to finance going into a sufficient number of shops, we appealed to our community to help make it happen. Because we have a mission to create a more constructive and balanced news media—and because we are a not-for-profit co-operative, co-owned by many of our readers—we receive passionate support from a wonderful community of readers who share our vision. I wrote to a number of our most supportive co-owners and invited them to help us fund getting Positive News into WHSmiths if they wanted to be part of making it happen. The response was amazing: they really wanted to see it on the high street and in the hands of more people, and they generously donated enough to cover our upfront costs for the first year.

DR: Do you have any inclination about how this will help create new readers or continue the magazine’s growth?

SDW: I think it will take some time to fully bear fruit, as the magazine becomes known and we establish the right supply levels and so on, but we hope that above all it will bring us into many more people’s awareness. Subscriptions are still our main focus for the print magazine; our business model is based on direct relationships with a community of shared values. So we hope to pick up new readers through high street retail (whether people buy a copy or just hear about Positive News because of the increased brand awareness that arises) who progress to becoming subscribers or supporting us directly in other ways.

There are significant practical and financial challenges with widening retail distribution. After working mostly with independent shops where there is more passion, integrity, and closer relationships, then some elements of how the high street supply chain operates seem a bit archaic at times. Not much about it feels particularly geared to work in the best interest of publishers, especially small ones. But it’s a great opportunity to help us grow, and we are very grateful to have been able to reach this milestone. We’re working to make the most of the opportunity and build on it. It is fantastic to see it on the shelves alongside the major news magazines.

DR: “Change the news for good” is printed large on this latest issue’s back cover. Do magazine publishers have a responsibility towards promoting positivity?

SDW: I think all magazines should take responsibility for the impact of their content. That doesn’t mean they have to be positive like us, but I think we all have a duty to consider how the information we select, and the way we frame it, might affect people’s thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s about taking more conscious choices around what we put out into the world as publishers and editors, rather than going along with accepted ideas about what a magazine should be. There is a culture in news journalism of focusing excessively on the negative but this is counterproductive as it too often leaves people feeling hopeless and helpless, and that limits our potential as a society, when there is in fact a bigger picture.

For us, we slapped our mission large on the back cover because it is at the forefront of what we do. We want to be profitable, we want to be the best at what we do, we want to reach as many people as we can and get their attention, and we want the magazine to look awesome. But this is all in service to our purpose of informing people in a way that is inspiring and empowering.

DR: What inspiring message or thought has stood out for you in this latest issue?

SDW: My favourite article in the latest issue is a feature about young conservationists, teenagers from the UK who are passionate about the natural world and about protecting it. Our editor, Lucy Purdy, interviewed them about how they feel about nature, and commissioned some lovely photography of them out in the field studying wildlife. I didn’t anticipate how impactful the article turned out to be. I was inspired by how clued up and optimistic they are, and how, despite the environmental crises that they are inheriting, it is their love of nature that shines through and which drives them. And despite that they are clearly digitally savvy, using social media to support their conservation work, the interviews and portraits we shot were really human. This revealed a different picture of teenagers than some of the stories we might usually hear in the news media, and it made me feel hopeful about the future in their hands.

The latest issue of Positive News is available online from (and probably your local WH Smiths!).