When Time Out: Shanghai English came on the scene, we were admittedly skeptical about their success. Now they’ve managed to survive a year and plan a couple of pretty awesome parties besides – most recently their first year bash and an awesome movie night at Lola this weekend. I caught up with their chief, Toby Skinner, to ask a couple questions about how he felt they did living up to the grand ambitions he’d outlined when they first started.
When you first started the magazine, we asked why here, why now? You said you wanted to bring a voice to the city that was different, more professional and less beholden to advertisers. Do you feel like you’ve accomplished that?
Definitely. Though obviously it’s not really for me to judge how good the magazine’s been, I do think we’ve stuck really closely to the ideas that we had for the magazine at the start – for something that’s sharp, honest, packed with good information about the right things, and that puts the city and the reader first.
We’re not claiming to do something revolutionary – we want to do a top class listings magazine that’s honest, and we’ve worked incredibly hard to hit certain standards of writing, layout, photography. If you’re going to say ‘these are the best pizzas/cheap eats/ whatevers in town’ or ‘these are the best things to do in west Shanghai’ – and if you’re serious about providing the answers – you’ve got to go out and do a lot of research.
We’ve been on endless trips to the outer edges of Yangpu, Qingpu, you name it, and come back to say ‘that wasn’t good enough to go in the magazine’. That discipline is important, and everything in the mag fulfils certain criteria: ‘Is this what we’d tell our friends?’; ‘Is this something we’d want to read ourselves?’.
What have been the toughest aspects of putting out the magazine in the first year? Any lessons you’ve learned or experiences you wouldn’t want to repeat?
One of the toughest things have been putting together a quality magazine on a small budget, though that shortfall has largely been made up by our brilliant team being prepared to work late nights for less reward than they deserve.
Another challenge has been getting our distribution right – a lot of people have complained about not seeing the mag, which is partly because they go so fast and partly, sadly, that we only have a finite number of magazines. All I can say is that we’re working on it, and that I think we’re now going to the right places.
What was the most fun thing you guys did?
There have been a lot – I loved the ‘Go West’ cover story because it was fun discovering lots of cosy little izakayas, smart bars and great bathhouses in west Shanghai. I also loved the best bathhouses feature, for which we visited 20 of them and went to some very odd places.
Other highlights have been going to the bizarre but brilliant Cowboy Country Club near Tai Lake, and also watching Jake Newby get made up as a strangely convincing woman.
We do love going to the big new bars and restaurants, but the most fun things are the quirky little places that we go out of our way to discover. And probably the most satisfying part of the job is hearing that people have done something different after the reading the mag; or better, that some little guy has suddenly got loads of business because we’ve written about his place.
Looking forward to the next year, anything you plan on revamping or changing – i.e. more Time Out-sponsored events and the ilk?
In terms of the magazine, we’re always a work in progress, and we’ve been making little changes along the way. For example, at the start, a lot of people said that they thought we should have metro stops in the listings, so we started doing that. People thought the ‘He says she says’ column in the back wasn’t up to much, and we agreed.
This year we’re just planning to tweak things and just keep improving. We also want to do a few more supplements, like our Education Guide, which are as expert as the mag and an important extension of the brand.
…We want to keep doing things like that which show that we’re serious about showcasing interesting local culture.
Any plans for a website anytime soon?
This is the big one for the year, and we’re working incredibly hard on it at the moment. We’re tentatively looking at launching the website in the Spring, but the key thing is that we want to be 100 per cent happy with it before it goes live. Essentialy, the website will have the same brand values as the magazine – it will be sharp, honest etc – but it will obviously fulfil different functions.
Primarily, we want to have a big focus on events, so we’re clearly telling people what are the best things to do on any given day, and we want to have a very comprehensive set of listings (unlike the mag, where we often only list our favourite things). We’ll also have lots of fun bits and bobs – blogs, photo series, sections of the site for first-time visitors to Shanghai, as well as a weekly newsletter of the best things to do over the weekend.
What we won’t be doing is just transplanting magazine content onto the web, though you will be able to see the magazing in pdf form online. We’ve got a committed web team who’ll be doing regular updates every day, so the website will very much be its own entity. Perhaps the biggest thing is that we want it to be very clean, user-friendly and packed with information. There are good city websites in Shanghai at the moment, so it’s going to be a big challenge – but we’re really excited about it and confident that it’s going to be a success.