Local knowledge

by Steve Watson in August 2013
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Local Quarterly 1

A love letter to small-town America, Local Quarterly is the New York-based magazine that sets off to discover the stories of a different town each issue. The mission statement will sound familiar to anyone who has seen Boat, the magazine that relocates to a different city each issue, but holding the magazines side by side it’s interesting to see just how different they are.

Boat’s focus on cities brings it into contact with a fairly international crowd – its locals could have been in town for generations or for just a couple of years, and the act of travelling half way around the world (to Kyoto, for example) brings the Boat team face to face with striking foreignness.

By contrast, Local Quarterly is a decidedly homegrown product. It focuses on the sort of people and places that are so often missed by the mainstream media, following co-publisher Diana Ecker’s belief that you can find interesting stories anywhere – you just need to know how to look for them. I met up with Diana when she made a brief stop in London earlier this week, and asked her to tell me a bit more about the magazine, where they’re going next and where she thinks the journey might take them.


Local Quarterly


So what is Local Quarterly? Where did it come from?
Our first issue was printed last Fall. We were a Kickstarter success – that’s how we got our initial funding for issue one. We covered a tiny rustbelt town called Jersey Shore in Pennsylvania. Our editor-in-chief drove through it one day and he wanted to see if we could pick apart a place and get to know people well enough and prove this theory that any place is interesting – you just have to find the stories and immerse yourself in them.

That was really great, but we realised that for the time we had to put into it we wanted to go somewhere a little bigger to get more out of the experience. So for issue two we went to Roanoke, VA, which has a population of I think 90,000, and I think it came out a lot better. Next up we’re going to Asbury Park, NJ, which is an amazing seaside town.

Do you find that you sell most of your copies in the places you cover?
Most of our sales have come from the general region of where we cover. We get people from everywhere in the US and we have a few subscribers from Japan and the UK, but yes, it definitely sells better to locals. We wanted this to be something that would be of interest internationally, because we see ourselves as sort of ambassadors for the real America. [The NPR show] This American Life has been a huge influence for me and I like to think of the magazine as This American Life meets National Geographic, finding those cool stories but then putting it in a very place-based framework.


Local Quarterly


Do you mind me asking how many you’ve sold?
We’ve probably sold about half the copies we’ve printed so far. We printed I think 1,000 of Roanoke, and we’re planning on printing 5,000 of Asbury Park and going with a distributor to see what happens. We’re in about 25 stores around the US right now but it’s hard because they don’t want to deal with a publisher directly – they want to deal with a distributor. So even if they like it, they have to ask whether they really want to write a cheque for $20. It’s just not worth it for them – the profit margin on a magazine is so slim. But this whole magazine has been a whole ‘why not let’s just do it’, so I think we’re going to be using Speed Impex, who specialise in distributing more independent magazines in the US.

So you turn up in a town, then what happens?
We bring around seven to 10 people, but not always at the same time. And we try to get local writers too, so we found local people in Roanoke through the universities, the newspaper, through personal contacts.

Is there a danger of you, the urbanite New Yorker, parachuting into these small towns and finding them quaint and funny?
We really try not to come off as fetishizing it. A lot of us came from small towns growing up so we don’t go in there with the attitude that we’re better. It’s always humbling because people always catch you off-guard. You automatically think that by living in a city you’re more worldly and know more things, but really you might know more about the art world or something but when it comes down to basic human relationships we always take away a lot. There are amazing people everywhere – just because you don’t live in a city doesn’t mean you’re not doing amazing things.


Local Quarterly


So when can we expect to see the Asbury Park issue?
We’re aiming for October for the next issue, and then we’ll be right onto issue four and we’ll see where it goes from there. We sell our subscriptions in batches of four, so if you subscribed tomorrow you’d get issues one and two, then issues three and four would come as they’re done. We took that model from Offscreen, because what if god forbid we had to quit? It’s very much a passion project and we’re really just focusing on keeping our heads above water and seeing where it goes. It’s not a money-making thing.

Is it sustainable? Will you still be doing it in a year’s time?
That’s hard to say. It’s not sustainable as we’re doing it now. Bringing a group of people to a place and paying to transport everyone there really adds up. And then there’s the whole cost of printing. Our editor-in-chief doesn’t have windows in his apartment any more because there are boxes stacked that high against the walls, but hopefully the distribution company will help us with that.

At the end of the day it’s worth it to us to get it out there in the world and see what happens. It would be fine if we ended on issue four because all our subscribers would have had their four issues, and it would be sad to end but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t try new ways of American storytelling. That’s what we’re really interested in – we want to keep on experimenting, otherwise really what’s the point?

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