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Dec. 4, 2015, 9:46 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Hopes&Fears wants to shine a light on the lesser-known corners of the modern urban experience

“We’re trying to create a nice, classically built magazine around that, online.”

A collection of responses from academics about whether humans can “run out of empathy,” in light of the world’s rallying behind Paris. What it’s like to be a bouncer in New York City. A visit to a Brooklyn slaughterhouse, with no details spared. A profile of a smokers’ rights movement leader.

These are among the mélange of stories that appeared on the digital publication Hopes&Fears, which launched this past February as an online magazine with an unusual backstory, covering life and culture with a heavy emphasis on design, original graphics, and photography.

hopes-fears-bouncers-story-original-illustration-screenshot

“We’re trying to tell stories of communities you probably don’t even notice. We’re trying to think more along the lines of cities than countries. When you think about a city itself, it offers way more possibilities to describe actual human lives,” Hopes&Fears publisher Vasily Esmanov said. “We’re trying to create a nice, classically built magazine around that, online.”

“I wouldn’t say there are any topics we avoid or are especially drawn to,” the site’s editor-in-chief Marina Galperina said. “We just want to understand things people care about across all industries, all subcultures. If we want to pursue a subject, we will pursue it in depth.”

Since February, Hopes&Fears’s editorial mission has become more clear, Galperina and Esmanov told me. It’s moved away from blogs, for instance, and makes a point of using only original content. There are more specific stories about neighborhoods and communities in New York City, since most of the site’s resources and freelancers are based there.

The site’s distinctive name dates back to the founders’ native Russia. In 2005, Esmanov, a photographer and blogger there, was running a street style blog that later evolved into a full-blown digital media company, Look at Media, which he co-founded with Katya Bazilevskaya and Alex Amyotov. Within Russia, the sites under the Look at Media umbrella are fairly popular, racking up around 6.5 million Russian visitors a month. In 2013, the group created the site Hopes&Fears, devoted, literally, to the hopes and fears of entrepreneurs.

The following year, they shut the site down — “Russia was not really in an entrepreneurial mood anymore,” Esmanov said — but kept the URL. After several months of nothing there, Hopes&Fears in its current form took over the original domain.

At the moment, Look At Media funds Hopes&Fears, but there are plans to raise some venture funding and sell advertising.

“We’ve been really good with advertising in Moscow, and I think it’s going to be similar here, and the market is obviously way bigger,” Esmanov said. His group, he said, found success in Russia, but had always wanted to do something for a more global audience.

The site’s visual identity stems in part from its close relationship with Native Grid, a publishing platform that was initially built for the sites within the Look at Media network, and which currently powers Hopes&Fears. Native Grid has also since begun to sell its tools to outside clients: A.J. Daulerio’s relaunched Ratter.com, for instance, runs on the platform.

“We had this amazing opportunity to use this very high-end technology behind our stories to make them look the way they do. That technology has really enabled us to do what we do now,” Esmanov said.

All Hopes&Fears stories are fully illustrated, painstakingly laid out, and rely on only original artwork and photography, whether created in-house or commissioned.

At the moment, Hopes&Fears publishes three to four stories a day, but it’s aiming to hit seven or more stories daily. Given the heavy production load for each story (and the fact that many stories are closer to 2,000 words long), that publication schedule is quite a feat for the small staff — the masthead lists 14 people. Most stories are written by freelancers.

Esmanov pointed me to one story exploring the making and makeup of various jihadi lifestyle magazines, which features excerpts of full-page spreads from the magazines. Another story, on how new words enter into American Sign Language, includes original videos of people demonstrating signs.

Galperina highlighted another story in which the Hopes&Fears team biked down 13 miles down the length of Broadway in New York with a typography expert, and then created small profiles for 26 different typefaces found along the route, detailing the histories and significance of each.

hopes-fears-broadway-typography-screenshot

The emphasis on highlighting lesser-known wonders of the world reminds me a little of the travel and discovery site Atlas Obscura (headed up by former Slate editor David Plotz). That site still attracts a large percentage of readers (more than 50 percent) in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, without any of the overt millennial targeting that sites like Mic, Vocativ, or Ozy go for.

Hopes&Fears is also striking a chord with readers in that age group: its core audience is between the ages of 25 and 35, and is 60 percent male and 40 percent female, according to Esmanov. Current monthly average traffic is now around 450,000 unique visitors and growing, with the bulk of the visitors coming from cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin. The average reader spends around three and a half minutes on the site — “people do read the long stuff.”

“I don’t like to gender our audience, and I never think of our content for any particular person with particular tastes,” Galperina said. “For me, what’s most important is depth. We’re pretty confident about the relationship we’ve formed with our freelancers, and readers’ response to our stories.”

As it grows, Hopes&Fears will need to expand its network of freelancers. Galperina and Esmanov also talk about forming small teams in other cities, to dig even more into issues beyond New York. So far, the site has avoided writing about broadly covered news topics like the 2016 campaign, but it will include a little more news coverage moving forward. The team is still tinkering with the best editorial strategy for that type of coverage.

“Vasily brought us a neon sign that’s hanging in our office right now that says, ‘No Bullshit,'” Galperina said. “And that’s what we try for.”

Photo of Hopes&Fears stamps from the Hopes&Fears Instagram, used with permission.

POSTED     Dec. 4, 2015, 9:46 a.m.
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