Performance Journalism


Just to be clear, the creators of Pop-Up Magazine aren't trying to outdo print mags.

The San Francisco event they've invented–the third issue happened this weekend to a sold-out Herbst Theater–is a stage show aimed to bring the best of magazines into "the medium of live," as Editor-in-Chief Doug McGray told me (his collaborators are Derek Fagerstrom, Lauren Smith, Maili Holiman, Evan Ratliff, and Dave Cerf). Pop-Up's got a masthead and table of contents, shorts, features, even integrated ads, and many of the contributors make their livings through words and images on the page (there are also film-makers and radio producers). There they all were, behind not laptops but a podium, spot-lit and performing.

Disclosures: Doug's a friend, and I worked with my Youth Radio colleague Brandon McFarland on his contribution to Pop-Up's first issue. But this time around, from my vantage point in the audience, I couldn't help but notice five things Pop-Up does better than print.

• Urgency: The show sold out in minutes (while print mags struggle to hold their advertisers). And then there was an after-party (see #5) that required special tickets of its own. I felt myself getting physically riled up booking my own tickets, as each little "available seat" icon blinked off before my eyes. Hate to say it, but that kind of flurry changes the way you think about an evening of journalism.

• Ephemerality: It's live, as in, no digital record. There's novelty now in content that's over and gone once it's done its thing.

• Spontaneity: There was this moment early in the show when the writer Jennifer Kahn was wrapping up her story about her 80-something-year-old dad's unlikely ascent in competitive weightlifting. When a home-video clip of his win ended, the man himself strolled onto the stage, trophy raised. It was pretty awesome, that unexpected shift from media to live. Across the show, the mix of off-the-cuff, scripted, and produced elements meant you never knew what was going to happen next.

• Draftiness: Pop-Up is unrehearsed. Many of its segments are built around bits and pieces of things that either aren't finished or didn't make a final cut. Like Josh Harkinson's photo presentation of his canoe trip through a hideously polluted Texas waterway. He closed by saying he'd pitched the story to Outside Magazine and they said no, they don't do stories like that. Moments like that one give live-audience "readers" a feeling that they're in on a process that otherwise only happens behind closed doors.

• Party: For his segment on food justice, the writer and chef Bryant Terry showed slides of his Oakland neighborhood's backyard edible gardens, which included Meyer lemon trees, which happened to be a main ingredient in a drink he then proceeded to mix onstage and plug as the special cocktail that would be served during the after-party in the Herbst's soaring green room. I've never been to a print magazine release party, and I'm sure they're fabulous. But the difference here is, there's less of a gap, format and vibe-wise, between the content and the celebration.

So, given all that Pop-Up has appropriated from print magazines, now I'm wondering, what can print mags steal back?