The Next Cool Thing: Great Writing From the Middle of America

 

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)

This Tuesday, September 11, 2012, file photo shows the Cleveland skyline taken from the city's Edgewater Park.

When news outlets and websites write about the industrial Midwest, the coverage can vacillate between boosterism and “ruin porn,” often at the expense of telling compelling stories about the people and complexities of cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Belt Magazine, an online publication based in Cleveland, just celebrated its first anniversary with the release of Dispatches from the Rust Belt, a collection of the magazine’s best content.

The American Prospect spoke with Belt’s editor-in-chief Anne Trubek about the magazine’s first year and its mission to elevate longform writing and first-person essays alongside original reporting and stories from—and for—the Rust Belt.

TAP: Where did you grow up and what brought you to Cleveland? And what made you stay for nearly two decades?

Anne Trubek: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin—so not the Rust Belt, technically. I moved to Northeast Ohio in 1997 to take a job at Oberlin College and I moved to Cleveland proper in 2006. I am still teaching at Oberlin, but much less. And I live in Cleveland because I really enjoy living in Cleveland!

Anne Trubek, founder and editor-in-chief of Belt Publishing

TAP: How do you distinguish between “Midwest” and “Rust Belt”?

Trubek: I see it in terms of the agricultural Midwest and the industrial Midwest, and I do think they are two cultures—Madison is the agricultural Midwest. We can talk about agricultural Midwest on Belt, but I do think it’s a little different. Do you think factories or do you think farms? That’s the difference between the two.

TAP: What made you decide to start Belt Magazine?

Trubek: We did this book called Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. I didn’t ever think it would get as big as it did, but the community really grabbed onto it and said, “We need more things like this!” About eight months after the book came out, people were like, “So what’s next?” I hadn’t really planned anything. Then I thought, well, what if we continued through the venue of an online magazine, and then continued to do books? Let’s do a Kickstarter and see if we can get an online magazine going.

That’s the detailed story, but I think the larger picture is that it was clear there was a gap, and that people were excited at the thought of it being filled. I thought that was a very meaningful thing to do, to fill a gap that a community feels it needs filled.

TAP: You just celebrated your first year anniversary—congratulations! What do you think went well this first year, and what do you hope to improve in the next year?

Trubek: I’m really proud of the quality of the writing. I had three areas that I wanted to focus on—longform writing, commentary, and first-person essays. I thought, these are what people love to write and to read. We’ve had some stunning first-person essays from people who are not professional writers or freelancers—some of them, it’s their first publication. Some of those have also been our most popular. And those just make me extraordinarily proud.

Going forward, we would like to have much more Rust Belt general content. We will continue to run a lot of Cleveland content, but we’re [hoping to have] more freelancers pitch us ideas about the Rust Belt—either different cities, or the Rust Belt in general. I would also love to get more timely reported stories. It has been much harder to find people who are willing to write, or who propose to write, news-y reported stories.  We also have a very small staff—it’s not like I spend a lot of time seeking out such writers. But they haven’t been coming.

TAP: Are there certain areas that would benefit from having more reporters?

Trubek: More harder news stuff—politics, economics, what’s really going on with particular organizations or institutions. More investigative pieces, and more timely pieces. We’re never going to be a news organization, but I’d like us to do more responding to recent news or following up on the Rust Belt implications of a national story—things like that. We run a lot of history and a lot of essays, so we get a lot of history and essay pitches.

There are a lot of stories not being told. Even beyond the latest cuts [at Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer], it’s just the slow dwindling of journalistic outlets and the dwindling of freelance reporters.

TAP: How do you go about finding new writers? Do you feel like you’re reaching a diverse group of voices?

Trubek: Mostly, we are responding to pitches. There’s not a lot of commissioning happening. I am very active in trying to get more women bylines, and I’ve been doing that work in different ways for a number of years. At one point, I went to social media and said if we don’t get more women pitching I’m just going to shut down Belt for a week. We have a predominately female staff, which is important to me. There are a lot of other voices that aren’t being heard, but I’m doing what I can with half the population, and that’s a real priority for me.

TAP: So many publications are based in cities like New York, D.C., and San Francisco. What role do you see Belt having in making sure stories from the middle of the country are told, and told well?

Trubek: I see it as filling a gap. Another way to have done what I did was to yell in the national media about the lack of coverage of the Rust Belt. I was a freelancer myself, I could have pitched something and said, look at these stories, here are the numbers, here is what’s not being written about. But instead, my strategy is to just do the work, and then people will find it and say this is not just “regional.”

There are a number of high-quality regional publications. The New Yorker is the most obvious one—you don’t think of it as regional but it is. Texas Monthly and Pacific Standard are other good examples. There’s not a single example in the Midwest. People read those publications who aren’t in those regions because they’re interested in them, or because the writing is very good. That’s what I would like Belt to be seen as, and become.

TAP: What do you think some of the most common misconceptions about the Midwest are, specifically in the national media?

Trubek: When you ask that question, I imagine a couple of journalists in New York talking about the Midwest like, “Why would we want to write about that? It’s boring!” It’s not on the radar; they don’t see it as a place that’s particularly interesting. Or [they] see it as a place of spectacular failure, so then it’s voyeuristic. Like, “Look what happened with Detroit!”

Now, you get a lot of these trend stories about the Rust Belt coming back and often those are very superficially reported. But boy, does everyone on my Facebook feed love those stories! They get shared far and wide. It’s very tempting to become a publication that is doing that as well. But that would also miss the point, which is that what’s fascinating about the Rust Belt right now is that it’s both things. It’s both a spectacular failure and it’s coming back. It’s an incredibly complicated and fascinating time here.

TAP: Can you tell us a little bit about your publishing strategy? Is it harder to organize without the infrastructure of a city like New York, or do you see digital publishing as a kind of equalizer?

Trubek: We couldn’t do this without the web. It’s completely enabled us. We are very thin-pocketed, and so we can do a lot on a little. Plus, we are located in Cleveland, which is very cheap. Again, I like to think of it as a national publication with a regional focus (or that it could be that)—we’re not only writing for people in the region, we’re writing about the region. And certainly not all of our writers live in the region. So it [digital publishing] has a lot of flexibility.

Our goal is to do quality over quantity. We’re trying to avoid the trap of page views, which snares you into a cycle of putting out more and more things. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that strategy, but if everything’s like that then you’re going to lose certain kinds of writing. We have a membership model with the idea that we’re creating a community—people become members because they not only value what we’re doing, but [because] they want to be somehow part of a community. I think [as we’re] getting larger, all those questions become more complicated.

TAP: When you’re defining the region, are you trying to find how all of these places are similar or are you trying to think more in terms of what makes one city completely distinct?

Trubek: I think we’re doing both, and in some ways I feel like the magazine, in an activist way, is trying to say that we’re all in this together. There are a lot of similar issues in these cities that had their peaks around the same time, are facing similar problems now with housing and manufacturing loss. They have incredible cultural institutions that are about the same age, similar immigration patterns—there are so many commonalities.

One of the surprises I found is that there aren’t a lot of people who identify themselves as “Rust Belt.” They’ll see themselves as Detroiters, and they’ll be fascinated by anything we put up about Detroit. So I feel like we have to make a point to people—like, you should be interested in that Buffalo waterfront story, because Cleveland’s waterfront is even worse. But it’s a little more work than I thought to get Clevelanders to read about Buffalo.

It’s clear when I look at Google Analytics that when we run a piece about old train stations, anybody interested in train stations is going to read that piece. Or anybody interested in Lebron [James] or sports is going to read our sports coverage. Then you also have all the Rust Belt expatriates. They went to the Sun Belt; they went to the coasts; they’re fascinated by what’s going on at home. We’ve now gotten to a point where if a topic is interesting to someone, they’ll find us and not think, “Oh, this is some tiny little Cleveland thing.” We have a huge number of readers who are very invested, and some of them tend to think more regionally. But city loyalties run very deep.

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