Niche magazines flourish in Internet age

One is an indie design magazine swathed in a thick laminate, featuring perfectly chiselled and coiffed models in speck-free coats and dresses spilling across pasteltinted pages.

The other is a kitschy food journal decked out in scrawly fonts and a riot of gaudy colours.

Kinfolk and Lucky Peach are quarterly periodicals that cater to niche audiences and selling like hotcakes in a time when the Internet is siphoning away readers of print publications.

"Print is dying only if it's not done well and if your publication has no edge," says Mr Nathan Williams, editor of Kinfolk, in an interview with Life! at the Projector cinema. He and Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying were attending the U Symposium, a publishing industry conference.

Tall and willowy and sporting a turtleneck and jeans, the 27-year-old Mr Williams embodies the spartan, stylish aesthetic of his magazine.

Originally conceived in Portland, Oregon in the United States, Kinfolk has since garnered a legion following in countries such as Japan, Russia and China, where it has locally translated versions. It has few advertisements, is staffed by a lean team and "does well based on high cover price and good circulation", says Mr Williams, who founded Kinfolk with his wife Katie and two friends. A copy of Kinfolk costs US$18 (S$25).

An economics graduate from the Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Mr Williams left a lucrative, six-figure-salary career in investment banking in Goldman Sachs to start Kinfolk.

"It definitely felt like a risk, but I was very unhappy with that job. It was not right for me. This is a project I wanted to try," he says.

His gamble has paid off - Kinfolk's worldwide circulation stands at about 90,000 today, a whopping increase from the 500 copies of its first print run in 2011.

Mr Williams attributes the magazine's success to its "slow living" message, epitomised by, say, taking the time to mull about Proust with friends over an espresso-chilli rubbed steak in an era of fast and furious gratification. As a student, he would pick up copies of lifestyle magazine Martha Stewart Living for inspiration.

"Most of our readers live a fast-paced lifestyle, but it creates an appetite and need for those moments of slowing down. Whether it's Sunday mornings with a newspaper and coffee or a summer vacation… the magazine is a venue for those types of discussions. It's refreshing," he says.

Kinfolk does not just talk the talk, but walks the walk too. It has worked with local businesses in more than 250 cities, from Brooklyn to Barcelona, to curate communal meals for readers.

Says Mr Williams: "People come to our events to meet like-minded people, to cultivate relationships with the community, the city and others around them, not just family and friends, but strangers as well."

This is the first trip to Singapore for Mr Williams, who observes: "The community seems vibrant and collaborative. It feels like a garden city, with nature everywhere, just like Portland."

Also here for the first time is Lucky Peach editor Ying, 32, who is struck by the food, glorious food.

Raving about his favourite dish, Katong laksa, he says: "It blew the doors off for me. I've had laksa in America, but without the same ingredients and herbs. I never understood it till I ate it here."

Mr Ying founded the magazine in 2011 with food writer Peter Meehan and edgy Korean-American restaurateur David Chang, whose Momofuku restaurant group served as inspiration for the publication's name - Momofuku translates to "lucky peach" in Japanese.

"The magazine is for people like us, who are engaged in food on a more-than-casual level. You've to have a baseline knowledge about food. Ideally, our readers are curious not just about taste, but also in the stories behind food and how it touches other cultural things," says Mr Ying, an English literature major who worked first as a cook in California, then as an editor and designer at American publishing house McSweeney's before he started the magazine.

At 174 pages thick and costing US$12 an edition, Lucky Peach is a juicy treat for readers. It comes packed with news stories, essays, infographics, travelogues and guest columns by celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, who is "Uncle Tony, kind of a godfather figure" to the team, Mr Ying adds with a laugh.

The magazine's recipe has been a winning one - from its first print run of 20,000 copies ("I thought it was a huge mistake to print so many," recalls Mr Ying), its circulation has increased five-fold to about 100,000 today. Every issue has a theme and upcoming ones include the plant kingdom and breakfast.

But Mr Ying, who is married, admits that running a publication, as well as its website and a spin-off cookbook, with a small team of designers, editors and freelance writers, is no walk in the park.

"It's pretty intense. There's a lot of content to put out. People have been saying print journalism is dying since the first thing was printed. But I'm not worried about Lucky Peach. We're not trying to maintain any status quo. We're evolving and expanding, so I'm excited for it."

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This article was first published on March 16, 2015.
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