OFFLINE MATTERS: An Interview Series —
Reluctantly Online with Jim Padlow
Text by Jess Henderson
Photos courtesy of The Pen Name
Text by Jess Henderson
Photos courtesy of The Pen Name
Offline Matters: An Interview Series is co-presented with No Fun Mag, a membership newsletter by Jess Henderson, author of the book Offline Matters: The Less-Digital Guide to Creative Work.
In our fifth interview of this series, Jess speaks with Jim Padlow, editor-in-chief of underground publication The Pen Name LA, on the mixed emotions of transitioning from being “100% offline.”
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You started the Pen Name newspaper in LA in 2015, as an anonymous underground publication – ‘an LA-based street rag dedicated to the nameless voices of the people.’ The Pen Name has only one rule: that every submission must be under a pen name. It was entirely offline (print-only, no social media) until June this year, and proudly so. What was the reason to start publishing the newspaper online?
Before I answer, it would be remiss of me not to mention my partner, The Captain. The Pen Name would not be possible without him. He is the architect of our world and father to the Boozehound, our friendly alcoholic basset hound mascot… COVID-19 is the reason for our shift to an ‘in-print & online’ format. Boring, I know.
The truth is, right as we finished printing the Spring 2020 issue, the ‘safe at home’ orders came down here in the US. The locations on our delivery route, consisting mostly of coffee shops, dive bars, record stores, book stores, tattoo parlours, barbershops, laundry mats, and biker gang headquarters, were all shut down by the virus. PEOPLE are the lifeblood of The Pen Name.
Once the virus hit, the people were gone. We discussed our options at length. We spoke with some of the regulars, and the choice was clear: Adapt or die.
‘The Pen Name is a collective of anonymous writers and illustrators dedicated to bringing you fulfilled enjoyment through the visual style of newspaper, and for the first time ever we are publishing online.That’s right, we’ve sold out. We’ve gone digital. We said it would never happen, but it’s happened. We vowed never to do it, yet here we are…’
I can imagine after five years of zero online presence, the transition to online must have been a somewhat painful decision. However, you’ve certainly done it in your own way. The online newspaper retains a ‘low fi’ feel of the printed original. There are no fancy interfaces, no quick and easy links to articles, and no ability to highlight or copy/paste.
You’ve also opted to have no archive function, so only the current issue is visible. Then when the next issue is out, the old one is gone. Can you explain some of the thoughts behind these decisions? Were there some principles you were trying to uphold?
We wanted to maintain the aesthetic of a newspaper. A newspaper is set in stone, so to speak. The website is a newspaper. Open it in your browser. Flip through the pages. Read the articles. Explore. Leave it behind for someone else to read.
Before the digital age, printed words held more power. Printed words were written by writers who knew what they were doing. Printed words were to be respected, revered. Digital words are to be skim-read and tossed into the toxic garbage dump of data. Through the process of information overload, we are being stupefied.
However, I must note, there actually are links on our website. They’re just not so easy to find. Our links have to be earned! You have to work for them. Like a scavenger hunt. Hidden messages. Hidden websites. I expect us to continue to experiment in this nature as we progress through this next chapter.
In regards to an archive function, there may end up being one. The Pen Name was always a fluid thing, even at the very beginning. I don’t know if the website will ever really be finished. Finished means over. I hope The Pen Name endures long after I’m gone.
I also think it’s important to note that the website has afforded us the ability to expand our reach into audio and video realms, should we feel so inclined. We have a whole new universe to play with. The Pen Name is supposed to be fun. More rules mean less fun. I expect we’ll keep it loose.
Initially you noted it would be online temporarily. A few months in, do you still think it will be impermanent?
Initially, I was naive. What I can promise is this: we’ll never stop printing The Pen Name. We’ll write it by hand if we must. Offline creation must be preached. Disconnection must remain a focal point. ‘DISCONNECT.’ Why does that word sound so evil? I say we clean it off and re-disperse it to the general public as a good thing. To me, ‘disconnect’ sounds like freedom.
‘Are you tired of the hot steaming stream of mind melting madness that is the world wide web? You’re not alone.Come read thepenname.org, where our contributors remember what life was like before the screens, machines, and social networks started sucking the life force out of humanity every second of every day.’
You have an undisclosed disdain for social media, and sort of our lives online at large. The Editor’s Letter in the latest issue expressed, ‘…Then 2020 came. The Pen Name made the decision to go online. We dived face-first into the pit of cyber hell, the unholy, all-encompassing evil vortex abyss that is the internet of this dystopian age. We’re coming to you live from whatever mind control apparatus you’re using…,’ and on your newly-minted Facebook page (created 24th June 2020), posts for submission calls open with ‘Good people of the social network nightmare,’ or ‘Greetings citizens of the evil mind-sucking social network reality.’
Can you tell us about where these feelings come from and your opinions on the social media networks of today?
Social media latched on to me like a blood-stuffed tick when I was still relatively young. I would contribute often and always. I became addicted, like everyone else my age, craving likes and praise from peers and strangers. I was blind to the hideous truth. SOCIAL MEDIA IS MIND CONTROL.
Social media keeps our minds engaged to subjects that have nothing to do with the world in front of us. All day and night, social media engages us, enrages us. It pulls our attention. It never shuts off. It never goes away. It’s always there, taunting us with its siren-like notifications.
In my twenties, I pulled away from the newsfeeds. I decompressed from the horrors of social media, and it was good. It was what I needed as a creator. I learned a lot about life on my own… Now, I’m back, fully aware of the new damage being done to my psyche. I’ve accepted the eventual outcome. If someone at The Pen Name must bear the cross of hashtags, engagement, and brand management, I want that someone to be me.
I will string myself out on their black tar affection, if it means we can reach the ones who need us most. The ones lost in a sea of putrid selfies with babies and thoughts celebrities think while taking a shit. This is social media.
Advocates for social networks might counter with, “But look at all the good that can spread. The donations for charity. Heartfelt stories from around the globe. We’re connected like never before.” Blah, blah, blah, PUKE! There’s truth somewhere in their logic, I’m sure, but when I look around at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I see people drowning in racism, conspiracy, and vanity.
Social media is being used against us in more ways than we ever thought possible and it’s not getting better… I do fear what will happen now that I’ve taken the plunge into online content, but I take solace in knowing that if the day comes where I’m no longer fit for my role with this publication, the board will not hesitate to send me to the metaphorical guillotine… Nor should they.
If you swim with the sharks, two things can happen. You get eaten. Or you become a shark. In this case, I’m not sure which is worse.
You’ve described the Pen Name as ‘…a portal of telepathic communication.’ What have you learnt over the five years of the newspaper’s running that’s made it feel telepathic?
Most publications send their writers out in search of stories they feel their readership will care about. Not us. Our writers scrape the gunk from the forgotten parts of their brains and launch it in spitball-form through a computer-shaped straw to see what sticks to the ceiling of our office.
We want writers and creators who let people inside. Due to our pseudonymous requirements, contributors to The Pen Name are able to do this without fear of judgement or retribution. So when you read their work, you’re actually reading their mind.
‘We've engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.’
— Stephen King, On Writing.
The key theme of the newspaper is that everything must be written under a pen name. In other words, no real identities allowed. This is totally counter to the prescribed mandate of creative work today, which centralises the meticulous and careful crafting of the public profile and ‘personal brand.’ What was the initial drive to start a publication based on this and how has this element changed over the years, both in exercise, context and the output?
‘The faceless voices of the people.’ The Pen Name will not make you famous. We certainly won’t make you rich. And that’s the point. The pseudonym erases the ego. It creates a barrier between ourselves and the court of public opinion.
Some would argue, ‘But you’re not standing behind your work. You’re hiding from criticism.’ On the contrary, when you erase your personal connection to the project, the project stands alone without you. It elevates the work. We do not write to appease them. We write to appease us. We are the final say in this creative undertaking. This is how I hope our contributors feel. Proud to create work that means something to them. Proud to show that work to the world. Not proud for the sake of individual praise, but proud for the sake of humanity. Of creativity.
‘The pseudonym erases the ego. It creates a barrier between ourselves and the court of public opinion… Some might argue, ‘But you’re not standing behind your work. You’re hiding from criticism.’ On the contrary, when you erase your personal connection to the project, the project stands alone without you. It elevates the work. We do not write to appease them. We write to appease us. This is what The Pen Name is all about.’
– James T. Padlow, co-editor & operator of The Pen Name LA.
With the Pen Name you’ve become a proponent for forms of writing that are sometimes overlooked today or have ‘gone out of fashion.’ I’m thinking flash fiction, semi-fiction, classic strip comics (different to graphic novels or single-frame memes), episodic serials, and gonzo journalism. What is it you like about these genres and what do you feel is possibly overlooked within them?
I say it all the time, we want people to slow down. We want our readers to take a breath. Relax. Focus. Let their minds wander through our pages. Have fun. Get to know some of the regulars. You can pet the Boozehound, if you like. He’s friendly. He doesn’t bite… But, he does accept tips.
The Pen Name is a free newspaper. When it comes to the practicalities of keeping something running which is no cost to pick-up and read, how do you maintain it and how have you been able to do so for so long?
That was rule number #1. The Pen Name must always be free. We must give it away to the people. We sell mail-order subscriptions. We sell advertisements to businesses who believe in what we’re doing. We sell merchandise, but in reality, the reason we’ve been able to keep The Pen Name afloat is because we’ve spent a shitload of our own money on the cause… And you know what? It was money well-spent.
SPOTTED! The Pen Name Newspaper stand in Season 5, Episode 10 of the smash hit show Bosch on Amazon Prime!We’ve had a plethora of newspaper stands over the years, most of which have been covered with graffiti or stolen by bandits for scrap metal. But we can’t complain because pillaging is a way of life for the newspaper pirate. All is fair on the high seas of street rags in Los Angeles. It’s every vessel for themselves.
I’ve seen the Pen Name being spotted in TV shows and films. I suppose this is not unusual being based in LA. Is there a certain appeal about the look of the newspaper that makes directors keen to use it as a prop, or is it friends having fun and wanting to give the paper some exposure?
A little bit of both, is probably the best answer. We do have wonderful supporters who want to show love, but there have also been sightings where The Pen Name found its way into content organically. One of these sightings was season 3, episode 9 of the FX television show, “Better Things” where a stack of newspapers can be seen clearly in the background at the emotional climax of the episode.
The episode was shot two years ago, but we only found out recently since we made the transition to online content. The director and cinematographer must have seen the stack of newspapers and decided to leave them there. There is no way it was an accident… It was a proud moment. Some small validation to what we’ve been working towards these past five years. Even though we were completely offline, we managed to seep in through society’s pours. Like insecticide.
Any last words for the people of the internet?
Hurl your cell phones into the closest body of water. Hopefully, it’s a toilet. If you’re not ready for something that drastic, try leaving your phone at home and going on a walk. Bring a book. Find a bench, or a plot of grass. Read. Breathe. Repeat.
Long Live The Pen Name.
If you’re interested in supporting The Pen Name, a great way is to order a print subscription. A PayPal link can be found in the “Support” tab at thepenname.org. For just $20 a year, you will have four issues of The Pen Name delivered directly to your doorstep. (US residents only… for now, anyway.)