The Zip episode 10
Scalawag is a southern rebel magazine (and not *that* kind of ‘southern rebel’). In today’s episode of The Zip, Megan speaks with Jesse Williams, cofounder slash editor slash intern at Scalawag magazine, a digital and print enterprise with a mission to spark critical conversation about the south, from the inside.
Megan: So, to start off, how does the mind of a local journalist work? Like, what do you see in the world that other people don’t? Or your writers, what do they see in the world that other people don’t?
Jesse: That’s a really, really good question. And I feel like this is going to be a theme, but I feel almost unqualified to answer it, so I just want to go ahead and disclaim any authority on that–
Megan: Okay, no authority.
Jesse: –before I start speculating. The first thing I’d say is that, you know, “Scallywag” isn’t truly local in the sense that we try and cover the whole South. And so our work is really about collecting perspectives and voices from a bunch of different localities, and trying to put them in conversation with one another. I think the thing that I’ve been thinking about is the need–the different kinds of knowledge of what is local. And the way in which there is a big difference between sending a reporter into a town, and getting someone who is from the town to write, whether that person is a reporter or not.
Jesse: And you can imagine–Where are you from, by the way, Megan?
Megan: Charlotte, and then upstate New York, so–
Jesse: Okay. Where in upstate New York?
Jesse: Syracuse. So you can probably–I bet there are, like–do you have, like, are there particular points of pride you feel vis a vis Syracuse?
Megan: Sure, and especially my parents, yeah.
Megan: I mean they’ll be like: “Oh man, this diner used to be so much different,” and, like, yeah.
Jesse: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, I feel the same way about my hometown in Winston-Salem. And some that stuff, I think is–you know, I think is relatively superficial. But other pieces of it aren’t, and they have to do with the identity of the place and what people there feel. And in particular places in the South, I think a lot of that sense of pride, or sense of specialness of place, is political, or relates to various kinds of struggles for justice one way or another. So I bring all that up to say when you have someone from a place writing about that, you know, I think they have access to a great deal–potentially–of information that just isn’t accessible to reporters who are dropping in for the first time. You know, especially in this later time in journalism when local newspaper are drying up, when even at the national level these longstanding papers where reports have well established networks of contacts and are very well sourced, when those networks are kind of fraying. And it becomes harder and harder for people external to a community to really understand, or have the potential to understand, the dynamics of play in any kind of local story. All of that’s a long way of saying I think the exciting thing that’s happening in the mind, not just of local journalists, but of local folks who have perspectives worth sharing, is a kind of complex interaction with long understandings of history or understandings of place that you can only really come by from living there. And sharing those up from specific places–and,again, kind of putting them in conversation with one another across the South–is something that really excites us.
Megan: Cool, so what you really look for is someone who knows the place they’re writing about. Who’s now. So, like, if someone came to you and said they were, say, from Winston-Salem but they’ve–this interesting thing happened in Atlanta that they wanted to cover. Would you be a little more hesitant because you’re like: “Well maybe we should get someone from Atlanta to talk about that”? Would it–is that your big focus? Is to make sure the people are really familiar with the place that they’re writing about?
Jesse: It’s something that we think about a lot. I mean, we don’t have the luxury to think about that exclusively.
Jesse: But then there are places that are very small, and sometimes so remote that it’s genuinely hard to find someone from that place. But, when we do get people–so, you know, this has actually happened a good bit–when we have somebody–take that Winston-Salem to Atlanta example, which is just an analog of the kind of conversations we do have all the time–there’s something very interesting happening in Atlanta, someone from Winston-Salem says: “Hey, I’m a reporter, I’m passing through Atlanta, I’d love to cover this.” And we’ll say: “Okay, that’s really interesting. We’d love for you to cover that.” As an editorial team we’ll also think: “Do we know someone in Atlanta that could cover that, too?”
Jesse: And what pieces of the story are best told from a perspective of someone who’s there / What can an outsider bring to the table that’s useful, or, you know, and less recognized and in some cases somebody from outside a community can be important, right?
Megan: Because they might see something things that the locals don’t see, or see different perspectives, or like: “Oh! This same thing’s happening in Florida, believe it or not,” you know?
Jesse: Right. Or, you know, they can have some type of topical expertise exactly as you’re implying where it’s like: “Oh, you’re one of the top five journalists about environmental justice in the country, so, yeah, we’ll let you cover the environmental justice story in Atlanta even though you’re not from there.”
Megan: That makes a lot of sense. So, back to “Scallywag” in general, would you tell me a little bit about your history? I know your website says you came about the idea about three years ago, and then you lead a kickstarter campaign for your first issue, but for you and and your cofounder Sarah, what were those first conversations like? Because I feel like what you guys have created is really cool and I feel like it’s one of those things that a lot of people would kind of sit around over beer and just be like: “Hey, that should really exist. We should really do that.” But how did you guys turn that into something that you actually did?
Jesse: Almost by accident, and with a lot of work. And a lot of work from our third cofounder Evan Walker-Wells who wasn’t part of those very first conversations, but from the moment we were like: “Hey, this should be a real thing,” he’s been an essential part of making that a real thing. But to be more specific, I was working in New York, Sarah had interned at the same company I was working at and we did start to–basically we sort of thought at the time, and it’s still true, the North Carolina legislature was just way out of line with the consensus of the vast majority of the people in the state about what needs to happen to make North Carolina a good place to live. And we were talking about the fact that we didn’t know where you could go to have a public, critical–and I mean that more in an academic sense–conversation, but and where you could go to hear the voices of people who were being affected by the kinds of political conversations that were happening, or not happening as the case may be. I think we were a little naive at the time about the fact that North Carolina does have a good number of resources for that kind of work, but nothing like that exists at the level of the whole South. And the South, which is often stereotyped in national conversations–
Megan: It really is, yeah.
Jesse: –just doesn’t have a voice for itself in any real way. I mean, there are a couple publications that try, but nothing is really dedicated to saying what actually is the South, who actually lives here, what do they need, what do they want, what kind of future do they imagine for themselves? And what kind of good work is being done to think about what that looks like, and to actually create it? So, we were really just into the idea of creating a space where the South could tell us more authentic stories and subvert those stereotypes. Because there are things that we, even, in the South hold, right? And that my understanding of what it’s like to live in rural Alabama is probably pretty naive and stereotyped.
Jesse: In the same way that, when I was living in New York, people thought that because I was from North Carolina I was still kind of a farm boy hick.
Jesse: So, we basically–I think the way it became a reality was by having a lot of conversations with a lot of people who had also–exactly as you described–had themselves had a conversation over beers at some point where it’s like: “Man, this should really exist.” And then when you say: “Hey we’re going to do this,” even if you’re kind of–I don’t think we knew we were bluffing, but just given the amount of work that turned out to be involved, for all intents and purposes, we were bluffing. People rally around it, you know? They say: “How can we help?” And then when you get enough people saying that–
Megan: You’re like: “I’ve gotta do this now, like, crap.”
Jesse: Right, yeah. And you’re able to, like, you know, come back though and say: “Okay, we’re going to take you at your word and what we really need right now are articles.” I mean, basically for the first–because the idea had momentum, it always had momentum, the–our approach has for a very long time been if we are able to continue to demonstrate that this is a viable idea, people will continue to rally around the idea and support it more in one way or another. Although at first that meant we need to get the articles together for a first issue which is a very hard thing to do when you’re like: “Hey, will you write for us?” and everyone’s kind of like: “Yeah, but, like, who are you and who else has written for you?”
Megan: Yeah, and you’re like: “Well, no one yet.”
Jesse: Right. Or, like: “So-and-so said they were going to write for us.” And we had fun in the printing of that. So that was, you know, we spent probably the fall of 2014 getting that first issue’s content together, and then we kickstarted in the spring of 2015. Obviously a lot of work went into both. We started to build an editorial board behind the project and they’re what make it work, you know? So, yeah, I’m sorry, I’m kind of rambling at this point. But it was–that first issue and the kickstarter was, like–once we got there, there was no going back.
Megan: Right. So, when you were building out like that at first–because I’ve also read–you said in another interview that you guys were wanting to fill in the gap in conversation, which I think is something you illuded to. But, like, with the way that you’re growing now, do you, like, what exactly is that gap? Because even just in, like, covering maybe more social justice conversations or things like that, is that something that you felt has never been covered at all, or is that something that maybe had been covered by journalists, but maybe now because traditional journalism is declining, it’s not being covered anymore? What is the gap you were seeing and how do you see yourselves growing even further to cover that gap?
Jesse: Yeah. That’s a great question, and that’s something we debate a lot as a team as well is exactly who are we trying to reach and what are we trying to share? What we keep coming back to is the idea that there are a lot of voices that aren’t being heard in national conversations, and in Southern conversations that relate to the South, and there are a lot of really important stories that aren’t being told. That’s a way of saying those stereotyped understandings of the South obscure the fact that it’s an incredibly diverse place.
Jesse: It’s histories are very complicated and interwoven, and, again, this is a kind of generalization, but those stories of complex history aren’t being told. So I’ll give you an example. The first piece that we had that went kind of bananas online, that got picked up by the New York Times now out, was a piece by a man named David Neil who’s a lawyer in Hillsborough, and whose family has been active in North Carolina politics for a really long time, and he wrote about his slow discovery in the course of archival work that his great-grandfather, who was a family icon, former mayor of Hillsborough. By all accounts a great guy, a dedicated family man. In the 50s, he had founded a white supremacist country club, basically. Kind of a gentile white supremacist organization. To oppose the Brown decision in the integration of schools. This was called the “Patriots of North Carolina”, and they went on to have a virulent legacy throughout the rest of state history and in opposing civil rights. And a lot of the kind of latter-day, Jesse Holmes-type Republicans in North Carolina got their start within his organization. So that journey of personal discovery for him, and that way in which this one story that he knew was more subverted and more complicated than he had understood was exactly the kind of thing we want to share about the South at large.
Jesse: I think the other thing to say is–and by the way, they’re not all bad.
Megan: I feel like even that story is more in-depth than that because it was his grandfather, so he probably, like, if I had just heard of that guy on the street I would be like: “Wow, that sounds like a jerk.” You know? Like, old fashioned, North Carolina, of course. But probably, like you said, because it’s his grandfather it’s like this whole other side to what we see as a stereotype, and it’s much more complicated than just this guy was a white supremacist, because he probably–people are more complicated than labels.
Jesse: Correct, correct. Yeah, and that’s exactly the kind of point that he made in the article. It was his great-grandfather by the way, I just have to say that because I know he’d be upset if I didn’t get that right.
Megan: Clarification, yeah.
Jesse: I guess the other thing to say is that in terms of–back to that question, what the gap is–so that’s the kind of story we want to tell that we don’t think is being told, and that’s very important to us. In general, as well. If you say: “I really care about understanding what’s going on in the country, and I want sophisticated people thinking with me about that, I want reporters telling me important stories, and I want voices from communities around the country speaking on these issues that are relevant today. There are magazines that you can go out and choose from. You can subscribe to the Atlantic, subscribe to the New Yorker, depending on your outlook and exactly what kind of form speaks to you. There’s really no one doing that for the South. If you say: “I want to understand the South. I want to have the information that I need to know about the South from a kind of politically engaged–you know, I’m interested in the culture, I’m interested in the people, the places. There are magazines that touch on that, but there’s nothing that’s like ‘The Place to Go’, and we want to become that place.
Megan: That’s cool, yeah. And I was going to mention that in another question I have, is that do you guys see yourselves as the fill-in-the-blank of this–like, the eventual, I mean, ideally in a perfect world, like The New Yorker of the South. Or do you aspire to something like that? To a label that you can kind of grow into?
Jesse: Yeah, we definitely want to be ‘the something’ of the South. But I think even for me, and certainly other members of the team–and again, each person brings their different perspectives to the table–any publication you can point to now has big problems that we don’t want to admit. The New Yorker is like the home of stereotyping other parts of the country. I mean, you may have seen the famous New Yorker cover, this like–it’s the New Yorker’s view of the world, and it comes in centered on Central Park where you can kind of see out into the Hudson, but passed that it’s just a brief expanse of nothing in California.
Megan: That no-man’s land.
Jesse: It’s, like, that’s exactly what we’ve been–and it’s not tongue-in-cheek, that’s what we’re striving against. Media in general is incredibly white, right? And it’s centered around the idea that the people that can speak to issues are uniformly people with deep education in particular topics or reporters who have longstanding kind of education in the trade. We think both of those sets of people are really important to have in the conversation, but we also want to bring in folks who don’t necessarily have that training, but who are actually, as we were talking about, on the ground to understand these local histories–who have an understanding of how these problems have affected their community.
Megan: Right. So, do you help develop writers who maybe have a lot to say or a lot of perspective, but don’t necessarily have the expertise or the experience to just–because, you know, writing longform journalism is very different than a lot of different types of writing. So is that something that you work with? Writers that have potential to develop?
Jesse: Yeah, we certainly do, and we certainly have. I think the other thing that we found is there are people who–you know, and we mess around with format, too, so not everything has to be longform–the other thing that we’ve found is that there are plenty of people who are great writers, who have great voices, who are passed over by–I don’t know, I don’t want to say mainstream media because I feel like that’s a loaded term–
Jesse: –but who are just part of the media complex and those conversations. So, in our next issue, we have a piece of work forthcoming from a man who is incarcerated at MC Central Prison–on Death Row, actually.
Megan: Oh, wow.
Jesse: And he’s a brilliant writer. A very sensitive thinker. But of course he’s actually published pieces before in the N&O, but that voice is just not present even though he’s a member of our community. And that’s, in some ways, an extreme example because there’s a physical barrier separating him from participation in the rest of the community. But there are plenty of people in small towns throughout the South, particularly people of color, who just aren’t sought by other media outlets.
Megan: Yeah, so, just to clarify for anyone who might be outside of North Carolina, the N&O is the more traditional media outlet based out of Raleigh. They’re a daily newspaper. So, another big thing I’ve been touching on in this podcast especially because “The Zip” comes out of “Zip Sprout”, which is a company that’s trying to help larger companies work with smaller local organizations, which also got me thinking about local journalism because so many newsrooms are having to shift the way they think about monetization. So, I guess for you guys, have you–I read that you guys are planning on funding, at least for now, through subscriptions. Have you thought of other ways–you know, sponsored posts online–or other ways of partnering with companies who may want–if you think about, you know, any sort of national brand like Home Depot or Rentacar, these examples of big, national brands who maybe want to focus in on the South, or maybe want to attract customers who are from the South, would you consider partnering with them to write a sponsored story about the South? And putting their logo somewhere on there?
Jesse: I feel pretty confident in saying, at this point in time, absolutely not. I think for us it’s really important that people trust that what they’re hearing is ours, and is authentic, and is authentic to the author who’s writing it. And that’s not to say that journalism with corporate partnerships or corporate sponsorships can’t be authentic in one way or another. I’m open to the possibility that it might. But I think on some level it deeply, deeply compromises your readers’ willingness to trust you. I know certainly if I ever go read something that has–Exxon is an extreme example–
Megan: Well, yeah, there’s a little–
Jesse: –partnered with an oil company to produce a story and it was kind of like: “I can’t,” you know? “I can’t get through this.”
Megan: Yeah, and that’s actually something I’m personally really interested in because I do feel like there have to be lines of ethics there. The ideal situation would be, like, they give you money and then that’s it, you know? It’s like: “Okay, thanks, we’ll put your logo on top but you don’t get any sort of control over what’s being published, you don’t get to read it before it’s published or anything like that. Realistically, I’m not sure if that’s what’s being done, or if that’s possible, or if maybe there are companies that are experimental enough to be like: “Oh, okay, yeah. Let’s do that. We want to sponsor true journalism and people aren’t going to believe it if we’re going over and being like: “Exxon is a great company that did all these great things.”
Megan: But I guess, in that sense, do you have plans for figuring out the future of monetization for Scallywag?
Jesse: Yeah, so this is a great followup question because I think it’s easy. You know, I recognize that it’s very easy to sit and say: “No, we would never touch that. We’re not dirty, corporate hacks.”
Jesse: And I would love to sit here and talk at length about exactly what you’re bringing up, which is a number of different types of ethical questions in some ways–no decision that any one publication makes about how to relate to corporate sponsorships exists in a vacuum, right? When you consider the way that your audience uses, is influenced by all the other choices they make in their media outlets. It can be hard to separate what other people are choosing to do with what you’re choosing to do. That’s it. I have a lot of sympathy for people working in journalism everywhere who are having to make really hard choices about how to fund the work that they’re doing, keep believing this work is important, and finding it in an age where so much information is available for free–finding ways to get people to pay for it, or find ways to fund it. So, we founded ourselves as a nonprofit because we wanted to have as much flexibility as well could in terms of figuring out how to monetize our work or support it. We are still learning, and there’s a lot of learning left to do, and I think as you kind of imply, no one knows how journalism’s going to be funded in fifteen years or twenty years. I have a former colleague who works in the strategy department of the New York Times, and obviously if anyone has their ducks in a row, it’s them–but he says he doesn’t–they don’t have great visions for twenty years down–
Megan: They don’t have ducks, yet?
Jesse: They have some ducks.
Megan: They have some ducks, but not all the ducks.
Jesse: Yeah, not as long of rows as they’d like. So, for us, and we expect to continue trying to figure out what other people are learning, and we want you to get to take advantage of our flexibility. The near-term for us looks like the continual fundraising, so trying to find people who believe in our mission and want to support it financially. It looks like asking for grants from major foundations who have supported work like ours, and, we think, believe in what we’re doing. It probably does involve some kinds of corporate giving, but I think the idea would be more to find smaller companies in the community whose work we believe in and who believe in us to support us rather than working with major national brands. And lastly, we see most of that, ideally, as a runway point where we can be sustainable on subscription sales, or at least on various kinds of user and reader contributions. So other young publications like “Jacobin Magazine” which is a small, overtly socialist magazine, based in New York City. And this is therefore kind of ironic that they’re funded in large part on subscription sales. They’ve managed to get to a point within five years, at least at a kind of low level there’s sustainable based on a subscription base of 10,000 people. And I think we feel like we can get there as well if we play our card right. That’s at least the medium-term vision, and then depending on what Scallywag grows to become out of the plastic. We’d have to think of funding sources.
Megan: Which is fun because I think that then you’re positioning yourself in a way that you have to really serve your audience. You have to get enough people that are going to be like: “This is my Sunday morning read, this is something that I want to keep on with.”
Jesse: There’s an interesting balance in there. Because I think at times we think of it entirely transactionally, right? LIke, we need our product to be a winning product for this particular spot in the market, and we need people to pay for it as a product. That’s a really important way of thinking about it because it forces us to be honest, it forces us to think about the marginal cost of production versus the price that we’re charging and being honest about those financial fundamentals of our business model. And it’s also insufficient, right? Because on the other hand there’s a way in which people are supporting us because they believe in our misison, and because we’re speaking to a cause and to an idea of a movement that’s dedicated to building a South that really is an inclusive and just place.It speaks to the best traditions of its history and possibilities that haven’t been iamgines previously, and people want to support that, too. And so in some ways it’s more than just a simple transaction, although I’m sure–
Megan: It’s like the idea of what you are as well.
Jesse: Right, right. And so, thinking about that is also really important for us in terms of making sure that we’re asking for as much as we should be, and that we’re messaging effectively around who we really are and what we really believe. Of course, that also, by itself, isn’t sufficient so you really have to put those two ideas together to think about sustainability in that way.
Megan: If you’re all mission and no substance–
Jesse: Exactly. You know, one person who’s been on our minds a lot lately–not a journalist, exactly, but a writer and thinker who is just kind of a genius and changed the game for a lot of people is Polly Murray, who you may have heard of because she was born in Durham. But she was a woman of color, kind of gender nonconforming way before that was even a socially recognized thing, who did a lot of thinking about what a movement of justice for people of color and for women would look like. And, you know, in the 50s, before that movement began to have national traction, I think her perspective of writing from small communities in the South for a country at large.
Jesse: And around thinking about how to vision movements and kinds of change in writing that haven’t happened yet, but they need to. I would love to hear what you have to say, and also just–
Megan: Yeah, so she was a journalist and activist
Jesse: She’s an academic. An activist one, but yeah. And an ordained minister.
Jesse: Yeah, she was busy.
Megan: Polly Anne Murray. So, have you guys considered writing about her, or–
Jesse: We already have, yeah. We have some great people writing about her.
Megan: I’ll look into that then.
Jesse: Yeah, please do. I’ll send you some stuff.