Thursday, November 6, 2008

The November issue of 'First' hit the stands a couple of days ago, bringing with it goodies to celebrate its latest milestone - the 6th anniversary of its inaugural issue. One side of its regular fold-out poster is covered in the covers of its past few years (the other side is the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull DVD poster - I guess they knew that not too many people would want to display that...), while a cardboard tear-out makes for a DIY popcorn box/kachang puteh container. I was shocked, actually, to see the 'Six Years' boast on its cover, and had to do a double-take. It seemed like just yesterday that I was seeing the first issue of First with its cover of the then precocious Harry Potter, when in reality that was all of 6 years ago (this must be something like watching your child grow up).

For those unfamiliar with 'First', it touts itself as 'asia's premier movie magazine' and looks kind of like UK's 'Empire'. When it debuted, it nicely met a need in the publishing landscape in Singapore, that had otherwise only seen the usual weekly entertainment mags and newspaper review columns. It's a magazine for movie buffs by people who genuinely get excited (and know something) about movies, and it shows. In addition to reviews that are not afraid to gush and which guard against over-intellectualisation, it's seen its share of features over the years. Some of these have been nicely sustained - like the monthly poking around at a reader's home theatre, while others have not been as successful - one of my favourites is a very funny and quirky section that culled suggestions from readers on mash-ups of various movies. It also made the transition from a somewhat 'niche' publication to one more mainstream with its acquisition in 2005 by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), Singapore's largest newspaper/magazine publisher.

For an idea of 'First''s comic and irreverent tone, one need look no further than its own nostalgic look back over its six years. Its first birthday is the only anniversary that is conspicuously noted (Neo was on the cover because he was the 'One', geddit?); otherwise the main events that the team seem to value would be their experiments with twin covers, dual covers and a lenticular cover (don't ask). Self-mocking and confessed geeks (recent references made include one to their Kim Possible fan art) , the 'First' team yet somehow manages to score exclusives with a number of the hottest stars in Hollywood.

'First' holds a special place in my heart because it was to it that my only letter to a magazine was written, and published. Not only that, but when I visited its office to collect the goodies promised for a featured letter, I saw an amazing workplace environment crammed to the hilt with movie freebies and posters, where people actually were surrounded by and worked with what they loved. That was before the takeover by SPH, so I'm not sure if it's still the same, but that vision of workplace heaven has stayed with me ever since.

Recently I was thrilled to notice that the 'First' website was finally up and running. While scanty compared to some overseas magazines, it's not bad for a local publication. My birthday wish for it, though, is that it would use the site, and its magazine, to increase reader engagement. That cherished section of mine that published readers' letters has been long-scrapped, and the contact email tucked away in tiny font in the dense column of its team credits. While engagement via twitter ala CNN would perhaps be a bit ambitious, it would be nice to see one of my favourite magazines lead the field in Singapore in updating what it means to be a publication in the new media age. In tone and in presentation, it's always scoffed at the stuffiness of its local peers, so why not open up even more and converse with the readers? A starting point might be a Facebook Page, or a regularly updated blog. Who knows, in listening it might just find a larger readership in Asia, and even beyond.

Do you have any favourite publications that you wish were online more? Do you think it would be wise for them to expand their engagement online, or would that just put them into unnecessary competition with blogs in their field?

Photo Credit: First Movie

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