Back in the mid 1990s Tomáš Zilvar quickly moved from putting together DIY fanzines to publishing glossy titles like Tripmag and XMAG, magazines that were focused on electronic music at a time when that genre was really taking off among young Czechs. Today Zilvar, who is still in his early 30s, has two jobs: running the Prague office of the hip New York-based magazine and website Vice; and offering digitalisation services to Czech media outlets and authors keen to enter the age of e-readers.
When we spoke the other day, I first asked Tomáš Zilvar what the world of magazine publishing had been like here in the ‘90s.
“It was pretty exciting. When you look at the Big Mag exhibition which is happening in Brno right now you will find that there were so many fanzines. Even I didn’t know at the time that I had such huge competition.
“It was pretty easy, when you had a topic. People were desperate to get the new stuff, the new music. Our success was first with CDs. We started to release [free] CDs with the magazine because the major labels didn’t want to support electronic music. They were not releasing electronic music CDs or records and we were. That’s how we succeeded.
“I think it was a euphoric time which will not come back. From my point of view, I was younger, my skills were much lower, and I was more successful. I think that was thanks to the time, which helped us.”
You’re running the Czech version of the magazine Vice. What model does that follow? Is it free?
“Yeah. Basically, it started as a free distributed magazine, a street magazine, called Voice of Montreal. It started 15 years ago in Montreal. Now it’s in 30 countries. The magazine is only one part of this…more and more we call the magazine our ‘flyer’.
“For example in the Czech Republic we choose the model under which we put everything, all the information, on the internet first, and we put in the magazine just those articles that are successful on the internet. So for us it’s something like a catalogue. More and more we concentrate on doing video stuff, and also there’s an advertising agency behind…
“The medium itself is completely independent. We don’t say, thanks to whoever we are free. We are free journalists; we can do whatever we want. We don’t have to think about what to put on the cover to sell the magazine, which gives us a unique way to talk, to do journalism.
“That attracted clients. So basically the business model is that we make money from doing more and more advertising stuff and publishing on the internet. With web 2.0 and all the social media and Facebook stuff we are very successful, because we know how to talk with normal people, not in the old, official media way.”
I noticed on your website you have content in Czech and a lot of content in English. Do you know if you’re readers use both?
“I’m pretty sure they do, because our target market is young trend-setters. My experience is that we have a new Czech generation. They are the first Czech generation who can really be called Europeans…They travel, their second hometown is Berlin, which is our closest influential capital.
“I would say they like the US, they love the US, they listen to US indie bands, garage bands. More than for example in the ‘90s – the electronic music came from England, Germany…This generation is more US driven, because they are driven by the internet and the US cultural hegemony…you can feel it.
“But I would say we are global now. The first global generation.”
What does the future hold for the magazine business, say in the next 10 or 15 years?
“I think they will be catalogues of small community groups, around each topic. You can easily use blogs for this, but you won’t be so successful if you only have a blog. If you have a magazine on top and you can give out the magazine in the real world it gives it sense.
“But I don’t believe people will buy magazines in future. For example I just read that Newsweek was sold for one dollar, which says everything.
What about e-readers? I have never seen any Czech person, or anybody at all in Prague, reading one of those in public. Do you think they will eventually start catching on here?
“And I see people with e-readers every day. Maybe it’s because it’s the second part of my career: that I’m focusing on this digital process in the print media. We, together with our…friends in other companies, can say that we’ve sold more than 10,000 e-readers, these black-and-whites.
“But also don’t forget you have hundreds of thousands of iPhones and Androids, which can easily become e-readers. And now the iPad and all other tablets are coming. So with this I think you have a pretty big audience.
“They are definitely the end devices for using this digital data in a portable way, similar to paper. So I believe in these end devices. They will be the driving force of this shift and it will be very quick.”
Do you think the mainstream Czech media are ready for this shift?
“I just had a meeting on this topic at [newspaper and magazine publishers] Economia regarding Hospodářské noviny, which is a major economic press…I’m pretty sure all the Czech press is facing a decrease in copies sold, and a decrease in subscription.
“At some point they will have to decide whether to die or to improve into this new digital distribution model. It’s the same as with the music industry: the more the publishers wait, the more authors and journalists will be the driving force and will take over those publishers. So it’s up to the publishers, and I think they feel it.
“Ringier [press and magazine publisher], for instance, is 175 years old. And if you imagine Ringier has a turnover of three billion crowns and profit of half a million crowns every year in the Czech Republic, but 99 percent of their business is based on paper, and you come there and say, paper is going to die. They don’t know how to answer and they throw you out the window. That’s their first obvious reaction.
“So it takes time. But those who are clever will improve – quickly.