Belt Magazine Bets on Community-Supported Longform Journalism and Triumphs
First-time visitors to New York, Los Angeles and DC typically have a decent understanding of these places before they ever set foot in them. With most major news media calling one of the two coasts home, audiences across the country are usually in the know about the good, the bad, and even the weather of these regions.
What about everywhere else in between? Most stories that occur in smaller news markets are lucky if they get national attention. Even then, it’s usually a passing mention that grazes the surface.
Because of this, audiences are left with a partial and disjointed narrative of these “flyover” cities. However, they have distinct personalities just like their east and west coast brethren.
Take Cleveland, Ohio as an example. In 2010, it was named “most miserable city in the U.S.” by Forbes. The community and public officials rallied to show there were plenty of things in Cleveland worthy of pride. Food, art, history.
National media attention soon followed, but most of these articles were also cursory roundups. This time, though, they were about the trendiest neighborhoods and hangouts.
Anne Trubek, author and founder of The Thinking Writer freelance community, noticed this narrative shift and had an idea.
Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology was published in 2012. “It started off as a lark,” she told me. “It came about when I was thinking about Cleveland’s writing scene and the spate of ‘Cleveland comeback’ stories. I thought: We can tell these stories as well as national outlets.”
The “we” was not just Trubek and the book’s co-editor Richey Piiparinen, but dozens of contributors from all parts of Cleveland. Some essays shared hopeful and heartwarming reflections of Cleveland, while others echoed the authors’ frustrations. As I wrote in a review of the book, “When taken altogether, they tell the balanced story of our city.”
I wasn’t the only person that The Cleveland Anthology resonated with. This “modest project,” as Trubek described it, was enormously well-received, selling out of its first two printings and prompting a second edition of the book.
“It was an amazing community effort,” she said. “The right thing at the right time.”
Six to eight months after the first anthology was published, people began asking Trubek what was next. “I didn’t have anything else in mind,” she admitted.
After considering readers’ feedback to the book, as well as Cleveland’s media landscape at the time, Belt Publishing decided to launch Belt Magazine in 2013.
A crowdfunding campaign surpassed the goal needed to put together the website, commission a few initial pieces, and pay their writers and editors.
The goal was to produce independent journalism that took an honest, deep dive into Cleveland’s – and the rest of the Rust Belt’s – story. Although the publication initially focused on Clevelanders as its primary audience, essays and op-eds pieces would demonstrate their relevance to readers across the country.
Although support is shrinking in many mainstream newsrooms for longform reported journalism, Belt Magazine has watched pieces like The Secret History of Chief Wahoo rocket in popularity. For Trubek, it’s something that “is very, very gratifying to see happen.”
Another story that has sparked a strong response from readers is Ferguson: Race and the Inner Suburb, which explores the struggles of places like Ferguson and the author’s hometown Euclid, Ohio.
Unsurprisingly, many of Belt’s popular pieces spring from Rust Belt Zeitgeist. However, the site also provides ample opportunity for writers’ personal passions.
Many of Belt’s articles have come from pitches and author submissions. This includes Matt Stansberry and David Wilson’s North Coast Biodiversity column about Northeast Ohio’s wildlife. While North Coast Biodiversity is the type of column that may not have found a home on other media sites, Belt and its readers have embraced it. In fact, the magazine’s publishing arm has compiled the essays into the book, Redhorse: The Rustbelt Bestiary.
In addition to focusing on quality instead of clickthroughs, Belt departs from other online media norms by refusing to install a paywall to fund operations.
“I didn’t want a paywall up,” said Trubek. “I see what we’re doing as a public service – I didn’t want people who couldn’t afford it to be shut out.”
Instead, Belt offers memberships to readers who would like to support the site. Similar to NPR funding drives, perks are offered throughout the year for the various levels of memberships.
Although Trubek admits there are challenges to reminding readers about the business end of journalism, the model has been sustainable for Belt. “We want to build a community that people feel invested in. We pay all of our writers and all of our editors – membership supports that.”
Belt’s books and events like the recent BELT Bar Crawl help round out their business model.
It’s all been paying off. When Belt Magazine launched in late 2013, the primary focus was Cleveland. Since then, they’ve expanded into other parts of the Rust Belt, including Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Youngstown, Ohio and Buffalo, New York. Anthologies have been published about Cleveland, Detroit, and Cincinnati.
Belt’s goal for 2015 is to build on the first year’s success. Anthologies about Youngstown and Pittsburgh will be published in May and September, respectively, with plans to tackle their first non-anthology book later this year – a guidebook to Detroit. In true Belt fashion, it’s titled How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass.
With many news organizations struggling to differentiate themselves and stay alive, Belt Magazine is a refreshing example of a publication that’s managed to do both.
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Amanda Hicken is an audience relations manager at PR Newswire. Follow her on Twitter @ADHicken for tweets about the media, Cleveland, and comic books.