Now Then – Building Paper Castles in the Industrial Heartlands

Make Local Media


On paper, the UK can often feel like a cultural wasteland outside the capital.  It isn’t obviously – it’s a thriving, ever-changing entity, full of righteous gob and patient modesty.  But pick up a ‘local magazine’ in most cities in this fair kingdom and you’ll find something barely worth wiping your arse with – pages of corporate advertising, a few local listings of places to eat and things to see and a few articles, if you can call them articles.

Now Then magazine is a bit different.  Born in Sheffield in early 2008, Now Then wanted to look and feel worthwhile, and importantly have some bloody integrity.  They aim to ‘cultivate choice, voice and responsibility by providing a platform for independent art, trade, music, writing and local news’ and also ‘support Sheffield’s economy by only working with independent traders, community groups, charities and local government.’

Fine and dandy to have such sweet ideals for your adverts and suchlike, but can it work in the real world, in such a volatile climate?  Editor Sam Walby agrees this was very hard:

‘We have had somewhat lucrative offers from people like Guinness in the past, but we all know that the foundations of the project would be flawed if we compromised on our basic principles. We have definitely had to be flexible with how we work, as we’ve taken on new members of the Now Then team, but the fundamentals are still in place and always will be.’

Now Then seems to have stuck to its guns pretty well, only using a maximum a third of a page for ads, and staying noble about it.  As Sam says: ‘Adverts pay for the mag, but that doesn’t mean we need to promote any old shit that we don’t believe is worthwhile or beneficial to the community.’

Maybe the reason for success lies in Now Then’s parent operation, Opus.  A not-for-profit social enterprise, Opus is overseen by a board of three directors and around ten members. It’s the company that Now Then (and a number of other ventures, like the Opus Distribution service and Word Life poetry) operate under, organising arts and music events around the city.

The local magazines that work best seem to operate at the heart of goings on in their area.  They embrace a unique local identity, both for those born and bred, and those who’ve adopted the place as a home.  Nottingham’s local glad rag Left Lion works on a similar platform, helping arrange and support good causes and creative festivities.  But while Left Lion is useful pub-table fodder that you won’t be worried about spilling ale on as you chat shit with your mates, Now Then is a bit more of an objet d’art.

Each issue showcases the work of a different artist, beginning with the cover yet resurfacing throughout.  The work varies massively, from intricate graphics to dreamy photography to expressionistic drawing.  This is naturally more expensive to produce, and sensibly limits the number, Now Then gets snapped up pretty quick in the Steel City.  There are no dog-eared stacks of copies sitting back-of-house in pubs two months later.

Tone of content is also important to a winning formula in the local zine stakes.  A strong ideology helps weave a magazine’s identity, helpfully washed down with a spoonful of wacky humour.  Nobody wants page upon page of doom and gloom, neither are they likely to want an endless stream of dull, unfunny jokes.  It’s all about working a niche, but that niche is often simply what other local media don’t offer.

But for all the ideals and Northern soul, setting up something like Now Then requires a lot of organisation, a foundation of like-minded individuals, and several pots of elbow grease.  Even three years down the line, it requires a degree of dedication that would make many falter.  The pool of talent that have created the magazine have often had to hold down bread and butter jobs at the same time.

If you are thinking of setting up a local media project, Sam has the following advice:

  • Make sure you believe in what you are doing, otherwise the hard work might kill you.
  • Explore funding options early on and be creative and ambitious with your funding applications. It will be an easier ride if you have funding from the start, but don’t rely on it.
  • Don’t over-stretch yourself financially. Risks can pay off but gambling can be disastrous.
  • Develop a network of passionate, trustworthy people who have a range of skills and interests.

‘Now Then and Opus started (and remain) works of passion supported by volunteers. We think it is really important that good deed enterprises don’t rely completely on funding. Sustainable enterprise is a much better way of growing and developing an organisation,’ he added.

Now Then are currently laying the foundations to set up a similar project in Manchester. If you are interested in writing articles for Now Then Manchester, email, or if you’re interested in being a featured artist then contact

And don’t forget to have a gander at their online issues –

Now Then is designed by Jones –

Many thanks to Sam Walby & the folks at Now Then.

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