Dare to Explore the Unknown, Innovate From Traditional Media—Fines Lee

In April of 2010, a magazine that operated as a social enterprise began appearing in the streets of Taiwan. Authorized by the British street paper organization, the current issue of The Big Issue Taiwan is not sold in any bookstore, and instead turns its distribution channels into job opportunities for the homeless, offering new possibilities for the living conditions of the underprivileged. In 2017, as the newspaper publishing industry continues to dwindle, a new medium chose to launch in the form of a newspaper—The Affairs may appear “old-fashioned,” but is really a breath of fresh air that differs from traditional newspapers from content to layout design.

While traditional media transitioned one after another in response to the impacts caused by the rapid growth of online media, Fines Lee, the man behind these two print periodicals, chose to go against the grain in a time when print media is in decline, choosing a path towards the less “mainstream,” and began a media exploration on paper amidst the rushing digital waves.

A Reverse Exploration from Digital to Analog

Prior to founding The Big Issue Taiwan, Fines Lee was a man of the Internet. Lee studied physics in university and joined the Internet industry with his first job at the newly-founded web portal Kimo. Responsible for the website’s news channels and selecting news reports from various news media websites, Lee is truly one of the first “content curators” in Taiwan. After leaving Kimo, Lee turned to the development of online services, putting himself into the planning, establishment, and promotion of auction platforms, web portals, blogs, social media sites, and other various services.

The online world changes rapidly. Lee said that he had accounts to a majority of the websites that were popular or had successfully established a business model, everything from business structure, user interface, to the context of use fell under the scope of his research. “Only later did I realize that these experiences I accumulated in the Internet Industry shaped my thought process regarding different media and context of use,” said Lee. Over a decade of Internet observation and development experience later become the foundation of Lee’s founding of Roodo. In 2009, as blogs were beginning to flourish, Lee wanted to create a different content platform which “contains topics that we follow and authors we want to invite, which basically established the platform’s media attributes and the ideas it wants to communicate.”

By consciously following art, culture, and social issues, Roodo’s attempts won the annual Click! Awards in 2009 and received recognition from the market. Lee, who was already exploring media management through Roodo, began considering the feasibility of developing a print magazine when inquired by a friend on his interest in expanding the brand into print but did not want to stop there. Meanwhile, Lee read about The Big Issue (UK) in an issue of the 2535 magazine, which piqued his curiosity in social enterprise magazines, and revealed to him Taiwan’s unfamiliarity towards the concepts of street paper organization and social enterprise. Therefore, Lee began his research on the feasibility of running a street paper in Taiwan by learning about the distribution of the homeless, the local homelessness organizations, and the positioning of target audience, “We can at least get more people to learn of the existence of organizations like social enterprises through the publication of The Big Issue Taiwan,” remarked Lee.

The first issue was titled “The Generation of Fools.” Lee invited the well-known hauren graphic designer Wang Zhi-hong to design the cover. (Image provided by The Big Issue Taiwan)

After nearly six months of preparation, Lee traveled to the UK to discuss authorization. On April Fool’s Day 2010, a magazine dedicated to “the generation of fools” is officially launched. Coined from Lee’s observations of the Generation Y (people currently aged between 20 and 35), “the generation of fools” is the first generation to grow up entirely in a cyberized and globalized environment, faced with a world of growing complexity and mounting challenges. Lee used Steve Jobs’ famous quote: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.” as the core philosophy of The Big Issue Taiwan, in hopes for the magazine to pique the curiosity and thinking of its readers and inspire them to form their own opinions on things.

Having determined its target audience at launch, the magazine not only attempted to incorporate a variety of perspectives in its content for “the generation of fools,” but also valued its layout designs; designers Zhi-Hong Wang and Aaron Nieh contributed to The Big Issue Taiwan and helped it gradually develop its own unique publishing style. Without relying on sensationalized promotions or any subsidy support, The Big Issue Taiwan reached break-even point just 18 months after its launch and experienced stable sales in the three to four years of operations that followed. Not only did it receive approval from the founder of the original The Big Issue (UK), the magazine was also awarded as the “Best Design” by the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). This helped boost Lee’s confidence in managing print media and reflected the people’s demand for this kind of media and content.

The cover of the 1 to 100 issues of The Big Issue. In 2018, a retrospective exhibition was held to record the trajectory of this magazine in Taiwan. (Image provided by The Big Issue Taiwan)

 

A Newspaper for the New Generation

The success of The Big Issue Taiwan did not slacken the pace of Fines Lee. Operating as a social enterprise, The Big Issue Taiwan provides homeless and socially disadvantaged individuals with jobs by allowing them to keep half of the total income for every magazine sold; the magazine also hopes to help them practice independent living and regain confidence through magazine sales. However, as The Big Issue Taiwan gradually gets on track in its promotion and management, Lee realized that even though the measures taken to direct consumers towards its vendors on the streets—such as not publishing magazine content online and constricting a subscription system (i.e. subscription price is higher than retail price; no personal subscriptions is available etc. )—can ensure the magazine’s unique social identity, but “they are nevertheless limiting to its distribution and social influence as a medium.”

Without changing the operational structure and social identity of The Big Issue Taiwan, Lee began contemplating the creation of another medium, so that issues and content can be communicated through more diverse channels such as in print and online, “so as to fully utilize their media attributes.” After years of gestation, this ideal finally took shape in 2017 as a “newspaper for the new generation”—The Affairs.

The Affairs interprets the old media “newspaper” in a new way, revisiting the new generation’s need for information.  (Image provided by The Affairs Medium Ltd.)

Unlike the majority of today’s startup media outlets that started on the Internet, Lee chose print newspaper as its initial content medium. He mentioned his love for reading newspapers as a youth and his subsequent discovery that newspapers did not mature as he did. Lee wanted a newspaper that belongs to this day and age that responds to the current demands and expectations people have for media. Perhaps through The Affairs, the form and content of modern newspapers can be redefined.

The Affairs is a ten-sheet newspaper that covers a variety of practical content concerning culture, arts and literature, design, outdoor exploration, and lifestyle & food; it also covers in-depth commentary and analysis on international affairs, business, and technology, presenting diverse content in a clean and simplistic design. In comparison to The Big Issue Taiwan, The Affairs doesn’t appear to differ significantly in content or design. However, The Affairs consists of denser, richer knowledge in its content and information. “As content media, newspapers and magazines bring different mentalities to their readers.” In contrast to the leisure of a magazine, Lee believes that newspapers are stronger in their “news,” and are better suited to carry more abstruse and lengthy content.

From online to in print, Lee believes that “‘new media’ is often considered online media, but I think there is a distinction between ‘content medium’ and ‘media.’ The medium is just a channel, whereas media relates to content management and the understanding and values we hold of the world. The Internet, however, is just a communication medium, and shouldn’t be used to differentiate the new from the old.” Lee also noted that each medium has its advantages and disadvantages, and that although an “analog medium” is limited in its ability to reach certain audiences, “it is still an important channel that connects us to the reader. Paper has a tangibility and tactility to it that makes it the more ideal medium to establish recognition and trust with readers.”

From art, lifestyles to scientific knowledge, The Affairs is quite diverse in its content. (Image provided by The Affairs Medium Ltd.)

Different from the traditional newspaper in its values, content, and layout design, The Affairs exceeded tens of thousands subscribers in just under a year since its launch. It was named one of the Japanese “Good Design Award Best 100” in 2018, and was awarded as one of the “Best Design” of Golden Pin Design Award. Lee was modest in regards to the many awards the publication won, saying that plenty of other publications have superior designs to The Big Issue Taiwan and The Affairs; but perhaps receiving such recognitions reflects the people’s demand and approval for this kind of media in this day and age.

Having started two print newspapers in an era when print media is either in decline or transitioning, Lee takes from his own experiences when he expresses his belief that though incorporating design in media can assist in enhancing its influence, it does not stop at discussions of aestheticism or a layer of superficial appearances. The designs in communicating information and perspectives help people think outside the box and break away from inertial thinking, so readers can explore and experience the world on a broader scale.

“When managing a form of media, not limited to print media, one would naturally hope to communicate content in an appropriate fashion through its medium. Therefore, it would essentially involve design, perhaps through including an illustration, selecting a work of photography, or adjusting the entire structure of the layout.” Lee believes that when designs are presented in the communication of information, “I would hope that it achieves a ‘balanced’ state. The communication of any information, no matter through words or images, will reveal your opinions and values on the subject. I think from the perspective of media or an editor, it is constantly about balancing the weight of the information.” Lee believes that it is easier for readers to absorb and feel the content only when it is in a balanced state, “this is actually a combined decision based on design, writing, and aesthetics.”

This aim for “balance” occurs in every issue of The Big Issue Taiwan and The Affairs. To Lee, there is no right answer, only a constant exploration for a more ideal way. This spirit for exploration also applies to media management. In addition to establishing the subscription business model, The Affairs plans to attempt different ways to further expand its influence in the future, such as establishing a website to simultaneously utilize digital media.

From The Big Issue Taiwan to The Affairs, to the copious potentials within The Affairs, it is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s poem Lee quoted in the first issue of The Affairs. As a declaration for the birth of this new medium, the quote also appears to correspond with Lee’s past experiences: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” His journey in media exploration continues.

 

About Fines Lee

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Big Issue Taiwan and The Affairs. Once a man of the Internet, Fines Lee founded “Roodo,” which won the Click! Awards in 2009. In 2010, Lee introduced the British street newspaper The Big Issue to Taiwan, successfully established a street-sales network, empowered the lives of hundreds of homeless individuals, and showed the public a different form of magazines and social enterprise. He founded the newspaper medium The Affairs in 2017, expecting to further explore the different possibilities of traditional media. This innovative approach was awarded as one of the “Best Design” of Golden Pin Design Award and was one of Japan’s “Good Design Award Best 100” in 2018.

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