behind the news

Long all-volunteer, Guernica Mag looks toward paying its contributors

The 10-year-old online mag hired its first full-time employee and is launching a second Kickstarter
July 10, 2014

Ten years after a professor told Guernica Magazine founder and editor in chief Michael Archer to open a free magazine and let it fail as an experience, the publication is still up and running.

In the past decade, even as online writing outlets have proliferated, Guernica has continued to attract writers and editors to its pages, all working without the promise of compensation. Some come and go, but most are repeat contributors or long-serving editors. Now, the New York City-based magazine is retrofitting its fund-free mission to pay staff members and sustain the publication without compromising its original literary focus and team loyalty.

The magazine is bringing on publisher Lisa Lucas as Guernica’s first full-time, paid employee. She has held the title on a volunteer basis for two years. And in an effort to generate the funds to pay writers, too, Guernica has also announced the launch of a print magazine which will be the product of its second Kickstarter campaign. The first, held in October of 2013, raised funds to pay writers who contributed to a series of themed issues examining politics, art, and culture in America. Guernica staffers hope that an annual print edition will engage readers that don’t read digitally, a community that Lucas says is often left out of their work.

“At Guernica,” Lucas says, “we know who we are and who we aren’t. We are inclusive, not exclusive.”

According to Lucas, though Guernica hasn’t paid contributors for most of its existence, its editors don’t have an entrenched stance in the free content debate, with the priority, rather, being “making sure that there is good writing out there, that people want to read our work, and they value the place that we hold,” Lucas said.

That place has been an outlet where young writers and essayists receive close, dedicated edits while seeking to make a name for themselves, but that won’t pay the bills. Lucas said that while there is the expected turnover within a volunteer organization, the opportunity for a quality edit and to write alongside big names such as Noam Chomsky, Billy Collins, and Claire Messud has maintained the operation’s consistency and cultivated loyalty among its 30-plus staff. Guernica’s reputation attracts writers who want to produce original content, are committed to its mission, and want to be associated with its work.

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But there are obvious challenges to preserving the ideal Guernica. The magazine is not fighting the same battle as when it started. There is no dearth of outlets for young writers; the challenge for those writers is to cobble together a living. For Guernica to continue attracting its traditional talent base, its focus needs to be stable enough not just to make a name for its contributors, but also to help them make a living.

Significant donations would help ensure its longevity in the current media environment, so in addition to crowdfunding campaigns, Guernica also has a newsletter with ads and is holding an 10th-anniversary benefit. All the money that comes from these initiatives, small and large, will go directly back to writers.

However, Kickstarter campaigns and small benefit events cannot sustain an entire staff. But Lucas hopes that, with her full-time focus, she can develop supplementary publications, modify the organization’s business model, and leverage its nonprofit status so “Guernica at 10” will become “Guernica at 25.”

“What small literary magazine has 30 full time staff?” asks Lucas. “We need to make everyone feel that they are learning and are compensated, so we need to find a model that works.”

Julie Lasson Fromowitz is a CJR intern