Berlin might be the planet’s most hyped city at the moment, but English language print magazine Exberliner was along for the ride well before The New York Times got hip to the German capital’s charms.
On June 25, just a few months after Editor-in-Chief Nadja Vancauwenberghe was quoted by the paper discussing the hyped-up cliché that Berlin is “like New York in the 80s,” the monthly magazine will celebrate its hard-won sixth anniversary.
Founded in 2002, by what Art Director Ioana Veleanu calls “three journalists tired of working for other people,” the magazine with a monthly circulation of 20,000 emerged when Berlin was poor, but few thought to call its ramshackle streets sexy. It has since become Berlin’s go-to city guide for English-speaking expats and visitors hungry for a piece of the edginess that many of Berlin’s denizens fear may soon disappear.
“I feel like a privileged witness,” Vancauwenberghe told The Local, sitting in the magazine’s busy pre-war office building in the heart of Berlin’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg district. “It’s the city where everything is going on. There are so many creative people and you can really feel that something is happening.”
And as curiosity continues to mount over Europe’s hipster haven, Exberliner is often the first stop for reporters sent to Berlin by the The New York Times, Vancauwenberghe said.
But things weren’t so certain for Exberliner in the beginning, Vancauwenberghe said. Originally from France, she found herself in Berlin after the Russian government kicked her out for reporting on the war in Chechnya.
“I lost everything because I couldn’t get back into Russia to get my belongings,” she said.
With nothing to lose and a nascent idea for a magazine, she called up two friends from her time at City University in London, where they had studied in a graduate program for international journalism together.
Her best friend of now 20 years, the Romanian-born French citizen Veleanu was working for The Village Voice in New York City at the time. She said she welcomed the opportunity for a change of scenery after 9/11, and moved to Berlin to begin the project. With their friend Maurice Frank – a native-English-speaking German who had worked for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and daily Die Welt in London and Berlin – the three set out to create a magazine based on The Village Voice alternative press model.
“We really dropped everything to do this,” Vancauwenberghe said. “We’d been through quite a lot, but we put everything in it and worked 17 hours a day at the beginning.”
The magazine’s first incarnation was entitled The Berliner, and was distributed for free in newsprint. A lawsuit over the name forced the trio to rename their publication after just three issues, though, and they chose Exberliner for subsequent issues as an ironic retort to their legal problems.
The free newsprint format didn’t last long either. “The German market didn’t get it,” Veleanu said. “They thought it was something for next to the Klo [toilet].”
A change to glossy format and a €2 charge legitimized the magazine for the German media industry, but the post-reunification Berlin economy meant the trio could only make small, gradual improvements as they frequently watched new ad clients go bust with their own new projects.
But six years later, Exberliner has eight full-time employees and walls lined with more than 70 covers that show the evolution of both the magazine and Berlin. They also host readings and performances at the city’s legendary Kaffee Burger, where their sixth anniversary party will also be held.
Much like the city they’ve opened up to the non-native community, Vancauwenberghe calls the magazine “an engine.”
“We’re overwhelmed by the power it has to carry new ideas,” she said.
The magazine’s anniversary also coincides with a new partnership with The Local. Beginning in June, we will carry exclusive articles and “The Best of Berlin” city highlights from Exberliner each month.