Paper Magazine, an Oral History

From a New York Times story by John Ortved headlined “Paper Magazine, the Oral History: ‘They Were Wide Open'”:

Paper Magazine made its debut in June 1984. The first issue was a foldout poster with a look as minimalist as the publication’s name, matching the raw aesthetic that reigned over Lower Manhattan in those days.

With its mix of bubbly enthusiasm and Gen-X skepticism, Paper became the scrappy kid sibling to the argumentative Village Voice and the lustrous Interview. Its readers were beautiful people and misfits, insiders and outsiders. Cover subjects included Sandra Bernhard, Naomi Campbell, Deee-lite, Kim Gordon, Cyndi Lauper, Queen Latifah, Chloë Sevigny, Venus Williams and Kim Kardashian.

The brains behind the operation were Kim Hastreiter and David Hershkovits, who had met while working at The SoHo Weekly News, an alternative paper that folded in 1982. On their watch Paper tracked all that was young, queer and cool in the culture until 2017, when it was acquired by EntTech Media Group.

In April, EntTech laid off the staff and sought a buyer. A few weeks ago, the media entrepreneur Brian Calle, who had resurrected The Village Voice and LA Weekly, said in an interview for this article that he had struck a deal to bring Paper back. In this oral history, the main players describe the highs and lows of a mostly glorious 40-year run.

Cyndi Lauper, musician: It was a very creative, inventive time. And there were no rules. You made it up as you went along. You invented yourself. That was such a great part of the ‘80s. It was so inspiring.

Kim Hastreiter, co-founder:
SoHo was bubbling. We were right in the middle of it, and David wanted to start a weekly. We tried to raise money for two years, but everyone rejected us. So we ended up just having to do it ourselves.

David Hershkovits, co-founder: We were trying to figure out how we were going to start this thing. I received a poster in the mail for a Kenny Scharf art opening. I was lying in bed and I unfolded it and went, “This could be something that we can make into a magazine. Do it as a poster.” It was visually stunning and different.

Carlo McCormick, writer, editor, 1984-2017: It started off a misshapen and unwieldy oddity in print. It celebrated a time of amateurism that’s probably been lost in New York.

Kim Hastreiter: I sold ads to Danceteria, Patricia Field, the Fun Gallery, the Pyramid. The ads were like $250 each. I would personally have to get the ad and collect the money.

In the early years, Paper was a D.I.Y. operation run mostly out of Ms. Hastreiter’s loft on Lispenard Street in TriBeCa. Richard Weigand, who was then a freelance designer at The New York Times, and Lucy Sisman, a designer and journalist who also worked at The Times, helped give the publication its distinctive look.

David Hershkovits: It was super hard because we didn’t have the equipment. We would go to The Times and produce a lot of the magazine secretly.

Richard Weigand, art director, The New York Times: I said, “Well, since we’re in the building, you might as well come and do it here.” I was stuck there all day anyway.

Todd Eberle, photographer: It was just X-acto blades and this thing called a waxing machine. They would have column lines drawn out, and you would literally paste a piece of text onto that column. And then there would be a freak out, because they noticed a comma was missing. I remember searching around on the floor, trying to find a waxy comma.

Kim Hastreiter:
You didn’t sleep. We were so exhausted. Onetime David had the matte knife and he said, “Has anybody seen a reverse apostrophe?”

Richard Pandiscio, then the art director of Condé Nast’s House & Garden, came aboard as the lead designer, working on Paper in his off hours. Soon, ad revenue allowed it to morph from a broadsheet into a perfect-bound magazine.

Kim Hastreiter: My parents lived on 12th Street, near Fairchild Publications. My father called me, hysterical: “They’re throwing away all the desks! I have them for you!” He had all these giant steel desks from the 1940s that weighed a million pounds. But we had to take them because they were free. And that put me over the edge because I had 10 gigantic desks in my house. So we got an office.

Debi Mazar, actress: Kim was on the pulse of everything. I was doing a lot of photo shoots for her, and we just became girlfriends — not lovers, but girlfriends. I was 16 and I was working at the Mudd Club. Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were my friends. No one was famous yet.

Anna Sui, fashion designer:
Kim had this column about things she was obsessed with. It made your month, if you were on that list, because everybody was reading Paper.

Kenny Scharf, artist: Of course, we were aware of Paper. Basically, it was the East Village Eye and Paper, and then some magazines in Japan like Brutus, that were writing about us.

Cyndi Lauper: It wasn’t like other magazines. It really documented the downtown scene.

Sally Singer, head of fashion direction, Amazon: I was a teenager in California and I would seek it out on specialized newsstands. It was a dispatch from a cool world that I didn’t live in.

John Waters, filmmaker: I had a subscription from the day I saw it.

Todd Eberle, photographer: There was downtown and there was uptown. One never went uptown — maybe to the Met. And Paper was the first to kind of start mixing that up. It was a really interesting creative friction that caused sparks.

In 1989, to celebrate its fifth anniversary, the B-52’s posed for the cover. Still, it was more succès d’estime than moneymaker.

Kim Hastreiter: I worked for no salary for, like, eight years. I had to have other jobs.

Maggie McCormick:
Sometimes bill collectors would come. We had to hide Kim under the blankets on her bed.

Debi Mazar: I did hair and makeup, and I was good at it. I did a lot of work for Paper. I don’t think I got paid.

Todd Eberle: They didn’t pay photographers. It was all for the glory of being published, which was a big deal then.

Richard Pandiscio, art director, 1985-1990:
They gave me a lot of I.O.U.’s, which was cute.

While keeping an eye out for whatever was new in the culture, Paper included politics in the mix, mainly because the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the world the magazine covered. Joe Dolce covered the AIDS crisis; the graffiti artist Futura wrote about video games; and George Wayne documented nightlife.

David Hershkovits:
Reagan wouldn’t even say the word AIDS in 1984. And while this whole uproar was going on, Tina Brown put Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan on the cover of Vanity Fair, dancing, as if there was nothing wrong. We took a stand. It wasn’t that popular in those days.

Bethann Hardison, activist, former model:
They didn’t try to be diverse, because they naturally were.

Maggie McCormick, office manager, 1985-1993: There were just so many moments at Paper when you knew the world was being changed. I saw one of LL Cool J’s first performances.

Fenton Bailey, producer, former Paper columnist:
The vibe was, “Hip-hop is a fad. It’ll come and go.” And that was not the attitude of Paper.

Dennis Dermody, film critic, 1986-2017: I got a call from David Hershkovits. He said, “Listen, we need a film critic, and I hear you go to the movies all the time. We don’t pay.” And I said, “Well, that sweetens the pot.” But who else would let me put out an article called “How to Cook and Eat Macaulay Culkin”?

Christine Muhlke, managing editor, 1994-2000: I got to ask bell hooks if she’d write a column for us. I said, “I can only pay you $100 a month but I promise I won’t change a word.” She said, “Sweetie, that is the nicest, sweetest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Yes!”

Eileen Myles, poet, activist: I had just run for president, so I had this excessive idea of who I was, and I didn’t know where to go next, and those guys offered me this opportunity to be in their web. I wrote whatever the hell I was thinking about — millennial cults, labor movements, being queer living in the country. They were wide open.

Dennis Dermody: We were doing an April Fool’s issue in 1995, the year Disney was putting out “Pocahontas.” So I wrote this jokey article about how I saw a screening of it and it was depraved, filthy, and was going to get an NC-17 rating. La Stampa, in Rome, put up a big article: “Scandal Rocks Disney!” Disney held a press conference to say it was just a joke. David called me and said, “You’ve got to get down here, because your article is an international incident.” I couldn’t stop laughing.

Paper’s interns included people who went on to success in their fields — the costume designer Sophie de Rakoff, the musician Jake Shears and the New York Magazine deputy editor Alexis Swerdloff.

Kim Hastreiter: If you found someone smart, you dumped everything on them. “Want to write a cover story?” And they’d be in high school.

Susanna Howe, assistant, editor, photographer, 1994-1996:
Paper was like magazine grad school, because you were allowed to do so much that you would never be allowed to do at a bigger magazine. When I finally left, to go to Condé Nast, I quickly learned what big-boy magazine culture was: Being treated really badly. They wanted me to pick up their dry cleaning.

Mickey Boardman, intern, office manager, editorial director, 1992-2017:
I applied to be an intern in March of 1992. I basically got kicked out of school. I didn’t really like Parsons and they didn’t really care for me, either. But Paper loved me and they loved my crazy outfits. I was a crystal meth addict at the time. I would wear Lilly Pulitzer pants with a lady’s polyester blouse and a chandelier necklace.

Christine Muhlke: Mickey was interviewing this woman for the receptionist job, and a mouse got caught in a trap, and he was killing it with his bare hands while he was interviewing her.

Susanna Howe: I remember that so well. He thought it was OK to take two sticky traps and sandwich the mouse between them and then throw that into the garbage. And you could still hear it squeaking. And he just went back to his desk.

Vikki Tobak, intern, columnist, 1992-1997: Carlo McCormick, one of our editors, had just gotten arrested and put in a Mexican prison. It was like, “We’re not working today. We’re just focused on getting Carlo out of prison.” That was my first week.

Carlo McCormick: I was indeed incarcerated in Mexico, sentenced to 25 years federal time for trafficking in peyote, which, of course, I was not. I was there doing a story on the art of a tribe that used peyote for their sacred visions.

To raise funds for Mr. McCormick’s legal defense, Paper put on a show at Irving Plaza. Karen Finley, Richard Hell, the Psychedelic Furs and Deee-lite were on the bill. (Mr. McCormick was later exonerated in a Mexican court.) As the ‘90s moved along, Paper started featuring mainstream celebrities on its covers. When the magazine wasn’t covering parties, it was hosting them.

David Hershkovits: The ’90s were the most lucrative time for us. There were lots of ads. New York was exploding.

Vikki Tobak: Paper had a lot of power. Walking up to a door, I’d just say, “I’m Vicki from Paper,” and the seas would part.

Hunter Hill, publisher, 1993-2013: We didn’t have Condé Nast expense accounts. What we did have was a lot of cool people. Certain companies understood that and embraced it: Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Adidas.

Pedro Almodóvar, filmmaker: Kim has the best nose to smell emerging talent. When I released “All About My Mother,” she introduced me to two adorable beings, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. They were very trendy in the city.

Anna Sui: Somebody would call and say, “Oh, Paper’s having this party on the Manhattan Bridge.” There were hundreds of people, and I remember how exciting it was, just seeing the subway cars go by. It lasted 20 minutes before the police came. You felt like it was something special and renegade.

The media industry fell on hard times in the 21st century, destabilized by the internet. Like other publications Paper looked beyond its core business. It sponsored a concert series, Sounds of Paper. There were also Paper pop-up shops, an art store at Art Basel Miami and brand partnerships.

Alexis Swerdloff, intern, associate editor, executive editor, 2005-2012:
It became a little more professionalized at some point. If you had a musician who had an album coming out, it was useful to have their first piece in Paper. I kept a Lady Gaga album on my desk with a Post-it note from a colleague, saying, “You should go check her out.” And I was like, “Pass.” Oops.

Carlo McCormick: The big blow was 9/11. Advertising budgets just dried up.

Kim Hastreiter: The designer Stephen Sprouse called me and said, “Target asked me to do something.” I was like, “What?” This is like in 2002. No one was doing collaborations. I called up all these talented people and said, “Can you design something for under $15 for Target?” Manolo Blahnik did a shoehorn, Isaac Mizrahi designed a mothball that’s a cube, so it didn’t roll, and I ran it at 30 pages with the title “Hey, Target: How About This?” I got a call from Target’s chief marketing officer, Michael Francis. He said, “This is the best thing.” He took me to the Odeon and hired me. I said, “You have to pay Paper.” So I worked for Target until the day I left.

Michael Francis, former chief marketing officer, Target:
Kim helped us identify the right partners to engage. Frankly, we were borrowing the equity that they created with Paper. It was cutting-edge.

Carlo McCormick: I used to look down on other publications: “These magazines are way too much about marketing!” Well, Paper eventually became that, as well. It was a little sad and a little embarrassing to me, but I wasn’t the one trying to keep the lights on. So, no judgment.

Paper created its own marketing agency, Extra Extra. And it adapted to the internet, scoring an online hit in 2014 with a Jean-Paul Goude photo shoot featuring Kim Kardashian. In one picture, she is seen balancing a Champagne glass on her derrière. At a time when Paper’s print circulation stood at 155,000, the feature racked up 16 million web views in two days. It also got the attention of the media executive Tom Florio, who had served as the publisher of Vogue during his two-decade tenure at Condé Nast.

John Cafarelli, chief operating officer, 2012-2018:
The magazine was still a beachhead of the brand. But in terms of how we made money? We sold access and ideas to some of the biggest companies in the world: Target, American Express, Tiffany & Company.

David Hershkovits: It became a different business because of the internet. And I felt outside the content of the magazine as time went on. I saw the writing on the wall.

Tom Florio, chief executive officer, EntTech:
The Kim Kardashian cover shoot cost $10,000. And it took 30 million people to An Annie Leibovitz shoot at Vogue cost significantly more and only drove 750,000 views to their website.

EntTech bought Paper in 2017. As its identity continued to evolve, the coronavirus pandemic cut into its events business. In June, about a month after EntTech laid off the staff, Paper was sold to Mr. Calle.

Brian Calle: I’m passionate about figuring out ways to create a new model for these legacy institutions, but then also preserve the work itself. I think Paper is perfectly positioned to be the go-to avant-garde agency.

David Hershkovits:
Good luck to them. It’s not why we started it. We got our agency thing going so we could put out the magazine. The magazine was always primary.

Kim Hastreiter:
I had my knee replaced. The doctor asked me a million health questions. And then, his last thing, he says: “I just want to say thank you. Paper saved my life. I was a young gay, growing up in Indiana, and I found Paper and it made me realize I wasn’t alone.”

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