The Oxford American, the 19-year-old “Southern Magazine of Good Writing” that has been published in Arkansas since 2002 and run under the auspices of the non-profit Oxford American Literary Project since 2004, has signed a five-year lease on the buildings at 1300 Main Street that formerly housed Juanita’s. The business staff of the non-profit will move into office space on the property at the end of November or early December. The editorial offices of the magazine, which have been housed on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas since 2004, will remain at UCA.
The new space, which includes a stage, a bar, a restaurant kitchen and two large ground-floor rooms, will allow the Oxford American to broaden its reach, publisher Warwick Sabin said.
“I’m looking to continue to develop the Oxford American as more than just a magazine, to establish it as a cultural institution dedicated to preserving and perpetuating Southern culture in all its expressions.”
To that end, Sabin said he hopes the new location will eventually house a Southern cafe that will host noteworthy musicians, writers, artists, photographers, chefs, filmmakers, playwrights and others for evening programming. The potential for collaboration with local arts organizations like the Little Rock Film Festival and The Rep is great, he said.
Sabin’s vision represents a growing trend among media companies looking to expand beyond their publications. For many, like the venerable Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, which now sells concert tickets and develops web programs, self-preservation is the driving factor. Until advertising revenues on the web offset a steady decline in print ad revenues (if ever), publishers have to be creative about propping up their bottom lines. Others, like the two-year-old non-profit Texas Tribune, see it as their mission to engage with their communities. “Events are journalism — events are content. And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms,” Evan Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor and chief executive, told the website Nieman Journalism Lab in July. “We think much of the technology world embraces ‘push’ as opposed to ‘pull’ as a way to reach people. We are taking a ‘push’ approach to content, and that means going to people with content where they live.”
Over the last several years, the Oxford American has taken a similar approach, hosting dozens of events in Arkansas and throughout the South, including a writing summit held this summer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute that brought the New Yorker’s David Remnick to Arkansas and a “Future of the South” symposium held earlier this month at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Sabin said such programming occasionally benefits the editorial budget of the magazine, which publishes quarterly in print and monthly on the web.
Like the Tribune’s Smith, Sabin sees the programming as a way, in part, to “push” the magazine’s content to readers. With events surrounding the release of its popular Southern music issues, “we want people to experience the music and hear it themselves in venues that have some cultural significance,” Sabin said. Of course even if people who go to events don’t become readers, the Oxford American still fulfills its mission. That means, ultimately, Sabin is responsible less for selling a magazine than for selling the cultural vitality of the South. As I hope the Oxford American’s new home proves, that’s a sales pitch with growth potential.
In full disclosure, I worked at the Oxford American early in my career.