Sonja Katanic and Emma Cohen, founders of Plasma Dolphin (Image: Courtesy of Katanic and Cohen)

Poems, personal essays, fiction, and photoshoots colour the pages of Plasma Dolphin, an arts and lit publication by co-founders Sonja Katanic and Emma Cohen. The duo got their start online, but moved to print because the medium better represented their brand. But since money hasn’t quite poured in, they rely on crowdfunding, grants, and pure passion and determination to stay up and running.

Other publications using similar methods include Shameless, the Ryerson University-born magazine operated by volunteers, and Sophomore, a feminist fashion magazine. Shameless is a bit of an enigma in the shrinking world of indie publications. The feminist teen magazine, which launched in 2004, still publishes on deadline on a non-profit model.

That’s not the trajectory for most indie startups. In late November, Rookie Magazine, a U.S.-based teen girls’ magazine, announced its demise after seven years as an online and annual print publication, leaving many of its readers disheartened. Sonja Katanic and Emma Cohen spent high school reading the magazine, and are mourning the loss of an inspiration while carrying on a growing legacy of their own.

Born out of a high school art classroom in Waterloo, Ont., Plasma Dolphin is a literary arts publication that dives into the specificities of people’s lives. “We want to explore the threads and nets of the world, concepts that are large and vast, through detail and personal experiences,” the Plasma Dolphin website details. “Political and cultural commentary is essential to this, but we are not interested in large generalities – we’re interested in your particular experience within a larger phenomena.”  

If you want to hear the full magazine’s manifesto, the creators of the publication say it won’t be a quick one. “When we’ve looked at grants to apply for, they ask to describe the publication in 50 words. How can we do that?” co-creator Sonja Katanic asks. “The way that we’ve tried to differentiate ourselves takes a paragraph to explain…it’s too nebulous to explain in a few words.”

The Ontario Arts Council provides funding to independent publications that have been running for over two years. It also allocates money to specific groups, such as young and Indigenous artists. Magazine publishers can receive a maximum of $10,000, with total funds for publishing organization projects amounting to $94,250 annually.

For many, the costs of funding a magazine come from out of pocket. Stephanie Rotz, co-founder and editorial director of Sophomore says all staff are volunteers. When they apply for a position, it’s because they believe in the mission. “Whenever we interview someone for a position, we ask people to say what they’re hoping to get out of it, what they’re hoping to learn from it, and that’s really how I see Sophomore right now: aiding people into the industry,” Rotz says.

“Rather than create any sort of business model and monetize what we’ve done, we have decided to keep it going with its original intention — to create content for women, by women that is Toronto-based,” Rotz says of the magazine, which she began developing in 2014. They have a Patreon account for crowd-sourcing and use profits to help with the cost of shoots and any other administrative expenses that arise.

The end of an era

Tavi Gevinson created indie teen magazine Rookie out of her bedroom. Her final Editor’s Letter, detailed the difficulties Rookie faced with specific values that were not as sustainable in today’s media landscape.

“It crystalised the fact that so many people in publications don’t really talk about this kind of stuff,” Katanic says. Cohen says that she appreciated the transparency of the letter. It made her and Katanic feel that they understood more what their contemporaries were experiencing and how it was relevant to their own experiences — especially the financial aspects.

Cohen explains that her and Katanic often struggle with their desire to pay their contributors despite not seeking profit for their publication. “We’ve never made any money off of Plasma, but eventually that would be great,” she says.

While they aren’t completely against advertisements, Cohen says they are still in the process of figuring out how to operate Plasma Dolphin as a business in a way that feels fair and ethical. Cohen and Katanic are both students — Katanic at the University of Waterloo and Cohen at Concordia University in Montreal. However, they continue to collaborate on projects, such as their second print issue, Bad Faith, released in November of 2018.

Though their specific vision has sometimes served as a barrier for business elements such as grants, they believe it is the reason why they have continued to grow and succeed. “We do things that we’re interested in and form Plasma around that. I think that’s how we’ve been able to keep having traction,” Katanic says. Much of their content stems from inspiration in their own lives, such as books, films and music. Cohen also remarks that their focus on literary works rather than cultural commentary has helped define their unique voice.

Katanic says overall, she hopes their publication can build a community and be as accessible as possible — with or without profits. “Part of Plasma’s philosophy is we are never trying to limit ourselves — we always want to stay open to anything. It feels more fun to make an environment than a formula.”

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