- Pop-Up's First Online Issue Bursts with Universal Humanity and Teaching Ideas
If the Netflix documentary Cheer, about a Texas college cheer team, left a sour taste in your mouth, check out Pop- Up Magazine's thirteen-minute minidoc about a Texas high school's mariachi band. Pop- Up Magazine, known for its glitzy live events, saves this sweet tale of young musicians competing for a state championship, to wrap up its first online issue. I won't blow the ending, but the storytelling is shaped by the pandemic that has forced all media makers to adapt on the fly.
In its first online issue, from spring 2020, Pop- Up Magazine (https://www.popupmagazine.com/) has gracefully made that pivot.1 Like Pop- Up Magazine's signature live events, "The Spring Issue: At Home" presents the work of writers, comedians, filmmakers, musicians, and illustrators—this time, in a fifty-minute YouTube video. This pandemic issue has a deceptively cheerful tone, helped along by the youthful narrators, jazzy original score, and clever use of illustration. But most of the story topics are deeply serious—loneliness during lockdown, hospital life in the time of COVID-19, an Ojibwe Tribe's use of dance to respond to the pandemic—told with grace, sensitivity, and ingenuity.
Before the pandemic, Pop- Up's popular "performance journalism" events were billed as live magazines. When Pop- Up Magazine's live "see it in person and then it's gone" brand of nonfiction storytelling first took off, it stood out, paving the way for later initiatives, such as the Moth (themoth.org), which hosts open mic story slams, for which tickets cost seventy dollars (however, since transitioning to virtual events, tickets go for fifteen dollars). But Pop- Up has been more ambitious, filling large theaters nationwide and incorporating the work of high-profile journalists, [End Page 107] filmmakers, and radio producers. As Lene Bech Sillesen described these events in 2015, "Pop- Up presents nonfiction stories narrated onstage. Long features follow shorter, front-of-book style pieces, all of which are organized into familiar categories such as op-ed, sports, and education."2
Having never attended a Pop- Up event—where ninety-five-dollar tickets used to sell out in minutes—I felt lucky to sneak into one for free through "At Home." However, the online issue is a different animal from the Pop- Up events. In fact, its very structure is exactly what the live events are not—nonfiction storytelling designed to be shared with the world for free.
"At Home" doesn't aim as high as Pop- Up's live events—and how could it? Its structure is modeled on a traditional print magazine format, and its storytelling is delightfully inventive, incorporating video, skits, original music, illustration, and animation. Pop- Up Magazine's "The Spring Issue: At Home" (sponsored by Google) kicks off with an editor's letter, before moving on to stories arranged into sections (Opinion, Business, Nature, Travel, Health). The topics, narrators, and sources for each piece are gloriously diverse. Pop- Up Magazine's spin-off, California Sunday Magazine, distributed in the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle print editions since 2014, has now also gone online (californiasunday.com). Its exploration of life during the pandemic, through reporting and photography, has been excellent.
The popularity of live personal narration and the recent successful pivots to online show magazine-style storytelling persists. I can't help but see in the "At Home" issue of Pop- Up the weathered resilience of my magazine- practicum staff. When the pandemic sent everyone home in March of 2020, my students were hard at work cranking out Echo, a print magazine created by journalism and design majors at Columbia College Chicago. They shook off their anxiety and grief to produce the magazine, via Zoom, Google Drive, and Slack, chucking some prepandemic features and adding new ones that reflected the times.
The storytelling approaches of Pop- Up and traditional magazines are not too different, either. I will show my magazine students how a video story about houseplants in the "At Home" issue mimics the "anecdotal lead—nut graf—transition to Source A quote" structure they have been...