10 April 2017

Grid Magazine shares their unique Process of Writing and Depicting Travel


In a time where every minor travel detail is shared online, embedded with a gratuitous selfie and a hashtag, where does one find meaningful stories on travel? Very few service this need quite like Grid Magazine does. Starting out as a platform for the founders’ best work, Grid Magazine took on a life on its own and morphed into a love letter to the country it serves. The magazine unapologetically publishes long-form stories with emphasis on substance rather than brevity, the storytelling complemented with arresting photo coverage. It consciously veers away from well-worn tourist destinations, focusing instead on the off the beaten track places and interesting people. After all, three years down the line and the Philippines still hasn’t run out of interesting stories for the Grid Magazine to tell.


With the magazine’s relaunch into a longer format and a quarterly release, we talk to the Grid team about their journey. Admittedly, our team came in a little late in the wake of the their official relaunch, but thankfully, the Grid team doesn’t mind – theirs is not a time bound story anyway. Reflected in the way some of their stories do not see the light of day in years, the Grid team does not mind waiting for the right time.

In this discussion, we follow Grid Magazine’s story from the beginning leading to their relaunch. We visited the laidback Grid office (with desks propped up by pallets, mind you) and the Grid Magazine team – Sonny Thakur (Photo Editor), Chaz Requiña (Digital Editor), and Nina Unlay (Features Editor) – was only happy to share their story.

Photography by Marvin Conanan

Sonny Thakur

Before anything else, we’d like to look back to the beginnings of Grid. What were the guiding principles of your team that led you to come up with Grid way back in 2014?

Sonny: Most of the founders of Grid are photographers and writers, so from our point of view, one of the objectives was just to create a platform for ourselves. We were all working for or sending out stories/photos to publications like Conde Nast, Travel and Leisure, and other travel outfits, plus we didn’t have our own. I guess it was us just wanting to start something we could play with, really. The reason I got involved was that so I could produce work that I wanted to produce and have my own platform. I think many of the other founders share that same belief, but this is my point of view.

Can you share the thought process behind the "not a travel magazine, but a magazine for travelers" manifesto?

Chaz: One of the reasons why we’re not a travel magazine is when people think of a travel magazine, they’re like “When are you going to Tokyo? When are you going to Singapore?” but we’re focused on sharing stories of the Philippines and the other Filipinos. One thing that I like to think is a common thread is that when anyone looks at our photos or read our stories, there’s a certain pride in being a Filipino, even though maybe you’ve never been to Cotabato or maybe you’ve never been to Baguio. You’ll read these stories and you’ll be like, “I’m Filipino. This is the Philippines. This makes me want to travel the Philippines.” This makes you want to go discover it in a way that it puts you in a place that you’re really proud of your culture and your history.

Chaz Requiña

Would you say it’s more of story- or people-driven rather than destination-driven?

All: Exactly.

Sonny: It’s always been that. We’ve never been a destination-based magazine. If you look at our stories from the very first issue, we must have gone back to Boracay at least half a dozen times but we’ve come back with very different stories. We understand what a travel magazine is and we want to be able to bridge that gap as well. Of course we’re gonna have readers that want to know where to stay, where to eat, and we can give them that information. But first and foremost, it really is story-based versus destination-based.

Nina: I think it’s worth noting that when Grid started, we were the only publication that really focused solely on the Philippines. We don’t go international, and until now we don’t do international stories because our focus is [the Philippines]. In our manifesto, there’s a line that says “Grid is a love letter to the Philippines.” It’s really what it’s meant to be. I came in Issue 2 so I wasn’t here from the very beginning, but I hear stories from our founders where they say that there were people who would say that it’s kind of crazy to just focus on the Philippines, you would run out of things and we’re here three years later and there are so many stories that we haven’t run and that we want to run. The way we see it is that we’re writing stories that other travel magazines aren’t writing, and in a way that we want them to be talked about.

Nina Unlay

While we’re in the topic of stories, can you tell us about the process of coming up stories for your issues?

Nina: We fight for it. (laughs)

Sonny: I think the great part about Grid is everyone that’s involved, every single person in the office are people who like travelling. We’re all like-minded. On weekends or whenever we can, we’re out travelling, we meet people, and we take a genuine interest in what they have to say. A lot of our stories are leads because we travel ourselves and we have friends who travel. We bring everything back once in awhile on this very table. We talk about things, we flesh out ideas, and then start doing research. Eventually, it goes from a conversation at a bar all the way to print. We just work on our leads and work with our friends. Like I said, everyone here lives the lifestyle.

Is it easy for you to come up with stories because you experience it yourself?

Sonny: I wouldn’t say easy, but it comes naturally.

Chaz: We’re also really glad for being super diverse. I’m from Visayas and so is one of our marketing team, Nina is from Davao, Sonny is from Baguio, so we’re a really diverse group in the office.

I’m curious, how big is your team?

Nina: Twelve, I guess. We have roughly 3 or 4 people writing for every issue, 2 people who work on the layout, 4 in-house photographers, and 1 web director. We’re a very lean team.


After about three years of Grid being published, what were the notable learnings that led to the relaunch?

Chaz: We wanted to be like field reporters, and we don’t want our writers chasing our photographers and vice versa because they only have three days to complete an assignment. Quarterly releases actually give us more time for production.

Nina: Another thing that we always say, especially me because I’m a writer, is that our founders liked to say that in the beginning that we were going to be doing a lot of writing. If you look at our stories, especially if compared to other magazines, another distinction is that our stories can go all the way to fifteen pages, which is super long for a travel magazine. So, in the beginning, it seemed like maybe people aren’t going to read stories that are this long or go this deep, but we found that our readers actually really enjoy reading that format. They prefer it. We’ve tried different types, like shorter pieces or itinerary-based stories, and they said “we don’t really like that, bring back the old stuff.” So we provide them with a different kind of storytelling that they can’t find anywhere else. We provide that, and the quarterly releases give us more room to do that. So we have more pages, and we’re allowed to write as many and as long as we want. It gives us more space to play around.

Sonny: We definitely listen to our readers. Initially, we were hoping that Grid would be this magazine that people would take to the beach, read while sunbathing, spill lotion on, get dirty, and then give to a friend to read, until it gets teared up a bit. But what we found out is that there was a small percentage of people that actually keep it with them. They keep it in their homes and it becomes this collectible thing. By the time we rolled out issues seven and eight, people were asking about back issues and would buy the whole bunch and it became a collectible thing. It became sort of like a book, always sold out.


Do you have plans of producing digital content, wherein it’s not available in your printed issue?

Sonny: There’s a huge amount of photography and writing that we have. We’re sitting on this archive, and we can always repackage it and share it online. The photography that you see in the magazine is gorgeous, but we also have this archive of unlisted photos that nobody’s ever seen before that we want to release online.

Nina: We have so much content online, including videos, really good videos.


That’s actually what I was wondering about. You have really great videos, but I don’t see it as much online. Do you have plans of expanding your content into other forms aside from text and photos in the future?

Nina: We do one original video per issue depending on the story, and we do one video that follows a story. In Issue 14, we did a video on Davao. I was the writer for that story and we had a videographer with us, so she asked us if she could produce a video to accompany that piece. So, we like to think of it as two separate things but at the same time, they’re complementary. Aside from that, we also have shorter videos.

Chaz: Yes, you can see that in our YouTube channel. For this issue, our featurette is coming out in about a month. It’s about Palawan.


Aside from your issues being published quarterly, are there any other changes in the new Grid Magazine?

Nina: Grid released quarterly comes with a lot of changes. Our issues are a lot more thematic now. For Volume 1, it was all about land, air, sea, Palawan, but it was also about less-conventional traveling. If you look into it, there are a lot of different sections that talk about tours that are new, and gear that you would want to bring with you that’s not for the regular traveler. They’re a lot more cohesive that way. With the quarterly release and the addition of pages, there are a lot of mini changes that come alongside it.

Sonny: Another example is our issue perception. We like talking about local talent and people, and working with local photographers in the Philippines. When we were bimonthly, we run two pages on photography. It would be one spread or two verticals and a brief description of the photograph, the photographer, and the camera. But now, it’s extended to six pages in this issue, and in the next, I would probably give two more pages for that to feature a project and not just a single image. We also try to push our photographers because in the general photography community in the Philippines, it’s easy to find a great single image but it’s very difficult to find photographers pursuing projects with cohesive bodies of work. That’s what we’re trying to find and feature in this section. Other sections that got added more sections as well was “GRID Eats,” where we talk to a person about food or drink and have them come up with a recipe for us. Before, it used to have two pages, but now, it has six to eight pages, depending on the people who cook for us.


Sonny, I’d like to know more about your role as photo editor. Can you tell us more about how your role relates to how the rest of team works?

Sonny: Assignments come in, and are very well-researched by our editors and writers. I digest that information and find a photographer that best fits that assignment. This means the photographer’s shooting style: Can he shoot underwater? Can he fly a drone? Have I worked with him before? Is he reliable? Is he going to turn in his photos on time? Is he going to lose his memory card? Little things like that I have to keep in mind.

We send the photographer out and try to keep in touch with him while he’s in the field, if he’s reachable, so there’s always open communication. When he comes back from his assignment, he needs to send me a wide edit in low resolution. I’ll make my selections and send it back to him, and he turns in the final files. That’s one of my roles. Another would be to help look for stuff to shoot for the travelling photographers in the Philippines. I guess my role as a photo editor would go for the workshops, as well. I try to conceptualize the workshops’ programs and look for guest instructors. I think that’s pretty much what I do. I also do print checks when I’m available.


So what usually happens is you get an assignment and look for a photographer, but has it ever happened that a photographer comes in, shows you his portfolio, and then you try to find a story or you try to expand his portfolio into something that can be published?

Sonny: Both are correct. I experienced an instance like this in our last issue. One of our workshop instructors, Luis Liwanag, approached us for his idea of going on a trip to Sagada. He went to Sagada for eleven days and pitched his idea. I have not seen any work of Luis from Sagada prior to this, but I was familiar with his work and his shooting style. He asked us if we wanted him to shoot it how Grid shoots. The general look of Grid is a network of people that have their own visual language and that’s why my pegs for him were images that he had shot before. So the references were his own photographs, not others. At first he was confused, but then I brought out pictures of other photographers just to give him a guideline, but reminded him that these were things that only happen in the US, so I told him to look for things that only happen in Sagada. And I think he did very well.

We get random emails from photographers who want to work with us but this just brings me back to what I said earlier about photographers having a great single image, but not really having a cohesive story or body of work. That’s why we have workshops as well. We reach out to them, we reply to them. I usually give them my two cents, how we can further develop it and how we can work with them in the future.


Nina: Our editorial process is different.

Chaz: My digital agenda is not to be like anyone else in the Philippines. I’m very adamant about that. When I cover a new restaurant, I want to feature that restaurant in a certain angle that’s interesting to us. We don’t want to cover every single restaurant. The same goes for stories. I don’t want to run a story that’s too much like a press release. That kind of detracts me from actually wanting to know more about it. A lot of times we deal with the people whom we want to teach about the actual process because they’re so used to instant gratification. I usually talk to Nina about their work.

Nina: I work as the Features Editor. The stories and pitches run through me. For Grid, we want to get writers who are really proficient in their field, who can be really specific on a topic - for example, we have one writer for food and textiles, and another for mountain-running. We’ve had someone write a story for us who’s not a writer but he wanted to write something and we said, “yes, let’s do it.” Because we have editors to help them out during the writing process, we can always help them out with the technicalities.

What we’re more interested in is that you have something interesting to say and that you’re very well-versed in it. I always go for the writer who is well-researched and well-informed. I think the same thing goes for the photography. We get all of these pitches, and we ask them what they want to do for us.


Sonny: If you want to work with us, you have to be a little more direct and specific. What do you want to do for us? I’m not asking you to hand over your stuff to us on a silver platter, but just be a bit more mindful about it.

Nina: At first, you just want the publication to know what you’re going to write about, how it’s going to be different because you might pitch something and go, “Hey, I know this place that you may not know about,” but the odds are we already know or someone else has pitched it too. We go to the same places and write stories over and over again, but it doesn’t feel different. So your pitch has to be more than “I know this piece of information that nobody knows about.” No, it’s supposed to be why it’s special because you’re writing it.

Sonny: We also appreciate it when people are persistent enough to meet with us. There is no chance that I would send a photographer out for the first time without meeting them. There’s just so much that could go wrong. For me, it’s very reassuring to meet with a person face-to-face and figure out how he works, how he interacts with people.


Individuality and bringing your own style seems to be important in your team. How do you usually partner photographers and writers on assignments, especially if you’re looking for distinct voices in their field?

Sonny: Usually we just joke around, “what if we pair them up?” There’s this section called “Drive-By,” so we decided to pair this driver/writer and photographer. And the story was amazing.

Nina: We’ve never had an instance wherein someone says, “I can’t work with that.”

Sonny: In fact, what’s really cool about it is that after the story, there’s this weird bond between them.

Chaz: The photographer-writer dynamic really enhances the story. I remember the jungle survival training piece we did.


Nina: Which also started as a joke. Some of the stories really started out as a joke. The joke behind that is that they wanted to send two people who looked like they wouldn’t survive the jungle survival training.

Chaz: So it was me and Nina.

Nina: Yes. Chaz now knows how to hunt for shrimp and fish.

Chaz: Yeah, and crab. And frogs. I could live off frogs.

Sonny: Some endangered bats too.

Nina: They are un-endangered. I googled them. They were just tiny bats, which we ate. So for your earlier question about how we find leads, sometimes we just play around with the flexibility, we joke around, and sometimes, it turns out into good story ideas.


With that freedom, how do you come up with coherent ideas? How do you combine all your ideas into a cohesive magazine?

Nina: It’s a really long process, and we shelve some ideas sometimes. If they’re too many, we put them in the next issue, in the lineup.

Chaz: We have a story way back in November, and I don’t think it’s going to see the light of day even in the next issue.

Nina: Sonny and I had a story since Volume 1, and we have been pitching that for a year, and it’s been a really long time. We all have our own opinions and insights, and it seemed like it didn’t fit anywhere so we had to ask ourselves what we were going to do with it. Then, this issue comes out and that was the perfect time to run it. Sometimes, it just boils down to the timing.

Chaz: Or a lot of people submit their work. Sometimes, our ideas internally don’t see the light of day for over a year.

Nina: Sometimes, when we talk about our ideas, we realize that they are half-baked and then later on, someone will throw in something new and we’ll remember that. We put it together, and now it’s complete. There are also stories wherein we realize a few months later that we don’t really need to do it.


What stories or projects can we look forward to from Grid Magazine?

Chaz: We have a workshop coming soon.

Sonny: We’re going to have another photography workshop, but that’s all we can say right now. It will be similar to the one we had in La Union. We’ll be shooting and editing for three to four nights and we’ll invite a couple of guest speakers.

Chaz: That’s going to be in the end of April or in May. So people can come to our workshops. We build our networks and we come together for all of the people who we have to thank for us coming this far. So there’s going to be more photographers and writers and collaborations.

Nina: Our first workshop was “GRID Open Call,” wherein we had photographers come in and bring their work. Our staff writer was actually the winner of that open call.


Chaz: You can expect more workshops with photographers and videographers.

Nina: Volume 2 is in the works.

Chaz: It’s bigger, and thicker.

Nina: Yes. In terms of destinations, you’ll be seeing lots of places.

Sonny: Lots of familiar places. Very unique stories for the next issue.

Nina: If you’re a follower of Grid, you’ll know what to expect because we’re not changing it up too much.



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