Alternative newspaper publishing might seem more like an anachronism than a workable business plan, yet since March, 2015 we in the Akron, Ohio area have been blessed with a vibrant, funny, and locally engaged alt-tabloid that is shining a light on our arts and music scene in a way that’s long been lacking.
Thirteen issues later, The Devil Strip is already a part of our regional character. Print publishing may indeed be a risky venture (it’s been accurately postulated that the quickest way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large fortune), but visionary publisher Chris Horne clearly saw that the alt-newspaper is not only the traditional publication-of-record for under-appreciated countercultures, it’s also the surest way to bring those cultures into the local mainstream.
A “devil strip,” for those outside the knowing Akro-sphere, is that narrow grassy swathe ‘twixt the sidewalk and the road—Clevelanders laughably and mistakenly call it a ‘tree lawn.’ Its infernal etymology is unclear but local legend declares it a uniquely Akron epithet. In fact there’s an old story, probably apocryphal, that has a kidnapping somewhere out west solved by a linguist, who identifies the culprit as a transplanted Akronite thanks to instructions in the ransom note to leave the loot “on the devil strip.”
“Devil strip,” then, is a silly little term that, thanks to its assumed exclusivity, has morphed into a weird point of local pride. The Devil Strip, on the other hand, is far from silly—it’s quirky and serious in turn, as occasion demands. More importantly, it too has become a point of pride thanks to its whole-hearted embrace of local culture, music, and arts. The city, in turn, has embraced it right back. Here’s hoping this group hug continues on for years and years….
Chris Horne, publisher and mastermind behind The Devil Strip, graciously lent me a bit of his time to discuss his work, its meaning and its future, and the thriving local arts scene that gets his ink flowing:
What is the Devil Strip? (Is it a magazine? A tabloid? A love-letter to Akron culture?)
I like that “love-letter to Akron culture” as a motto. Yeah, it’s a tabloid-sized magazine, an arts n’ culture alt-monthly. Just depends on my mood that day. Sometimes I call it “the paper” and sometimes I call it “the magazine.” Really, what we’re doing is pretty different from the alt-weeklies most people think of when they see something in this format. The big thing is that we’re a community magazine, both in content and concept. Building community is our mission. We haven’t exactly hit what we’re trying to become, but we’re getting there.
How many times this week has someone told you “Print is dead”? What drew you to a medium that conventional wisdom says is endangered?
Ha! Fortunately, zero times. I’ve heard it a surprisingly limited number of times since first encountering that line in “Ghostbusters,” which is my favorite movie. (RIP – Egon, er, Harold Ramis.) What drew me to the medium is that I’ve worked in the medium since I was in high school, but it’s more than nostalgia that does it for me. I think five years ago, for a number of reasons, I’d have been less inclined and less successful with a print magazine, but the zeitgeist is settling back down from its “print is dead” phase, understanding that there’s a place for print.
It isn’t just the tactile experience that I think works for us, or the democratic nature of a free publication. Our marketing budget is zero dollars so differentiating ourselves in a crowded online market would be tough because I don’t need to pull your attention from Ohio.com or Cleveland.com for our gig to work, but from Facebook, Twitter, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, etc., etc. But you can walk into Mr. Zub’s or Urban Eats or The Eye Opener and see our magazine for the first time, satisfy your curiosity about it for free and then have an uninterrupted experience with good, local arts and culture stories. In print, we don’t compete with 50 tabs open on your browser, and I’m not worried about stealing eyeballs from “second screen opportunities” because even digital natives approach print a little differently. So, for us, the magazine is a Swiss Army knife of opportunity, but it is one that is supplemented by the opportunities we have on the Internet too.
What’s in store for the Devil Strip? How do you see it evolving?
I think we could and should do a better job online, but I’m not in a rush. I think we’ll have more web stories that don’t originate in the print edition, and I think even the ones that do will be augmented by more sound, video and photography. Like bonus features on a Blu-ray disc.
The other thing is that we’re starting to tackle big stories by topic. We’re midway through our first such project, which will result in multiple documentary-style videos, podcasts, print and web narratives, reporting, photos and infographics, each designed to spread because we want the stories we tell to reach the people who need them.
We’re also finding ways to get off the page, planning events for fun and information. If we’d had more time, we’d have had some really interesting events around the recent election season, but by the time another comes around, we’ll knock it out.
How can your loyal readers help keep the Devil Strip rolling off the presses?
When you patronize a local business, which we hope is almost always, tell ‘em the Devil Strip sent you, if you saw their ad or picked up a copy there. I’m also contemplating a “writers’ fund” for some of these special projects and we’d likely take donations for them. But the basic thing is just be local, support local folks. When they flourish, we’ll flourish too.
If I’m not mistaken, between issues 12 and 13 the Devil Strip went from a biweekly publishing schedule, to monthly. What happened there? Should we be concerned?
No, no cause for concern necessary. I’d heard from several folks that they’d barely had (or didn’t have) time to finish one issue before another came out. In the meantime, I was killing myself getting each issue out because the turnaround was too tight. We have an all-volunteer staff, including myself, and it was burning them out too. So I realized it was too fast for me, for our contributors and our readers. In the midst of all that, I’d gotten into the University of Akron coverage, which I was putting online as soon as I finished it, so I realized we have an opportunity to do more work directly online while giving the magazine more time to breathe. The extra time it’s given me allowed me to establish an amazing crew of (again, all-volunteer) editors and bring a sales guy on-board while I focus on growing the magazine. It’s been a pretty phenomenal couple of months since.
Is it fair to say that the Akron culture, arts, and music scene is your main beat? Why do you think these areas weren’t getting the coverage they deserved, pre-Devil Strip?
Yes, Akron arts, culture and entertainment is the heart of what we do and why we exist. I always envisioned taking on bigger social and political topics because this formats can approach things in a way the daily paper and TV stations can’t, but at the end of the day, the most rewarding stories are the ones we publish about that hole-in-the-wall eatery or an overlooked artist or an event that you’d have been mad to find out about after it passed. Nothing thrills me more than when I hear an Akronite–especially a native Akronite–say, “I had no idea that existed until I saw it in the magazine.” That’s the whole point: To bring these great treasures to the surface so we can be a better mirror for our community, validating the creativity, drive and passion the people here have.
Why wasn’t it getting covered? There are a bunch of things that come to mind. I think the main culprit is the media consolidation that left Akron with only one major news source. The ABJ has some excellent arts and entertainment writers but when you’re the primary source of information for half a million people, the fun stuff gets lost. I’m a subscriber and I’ve noticed the paper itself typically buries those stories so on top of all the content we consume on a daily basis and all the content that’s in each day’s paper, you have to dig several sections in if you want to find music, art, theatre, dining, etc. In our case, less is more because we’re like 90 percent arts and culture every issue so it doesn’t get lost. When you pick up The Devil Strip, you aren’t looking for who got shot or how city council voted or what the weather will be like. You pick up The Devil Strip because you want to read about arts and culture in the greater Akron area.
What’s the proper role for an entity like Devil Strip, in terms of local culture? Is it okay to cheer-lead (for lack of a better term), or should you stick to straight reportage?
Straight reportage, as most folks think of it, doesn’t exist. You can’t unbias yourself so you go for objectivity. That’s hard too because we all have a dog in that fight, and if you don’t, your work tends to be boring. So, I’ve decided we’d err on the side of acknowledging our bias, which is decidedly pro-Akron. I want to be fair to all people and every side and so on and so forth, but if we pass judgment on a topic it’s going to be whether it’s good for Akron or not. Hell, if we even pursue a story, that’s the end goal: To know whether it’s good for Akron. That said, I think cheerleading, which I consider to be blind loyalty, can be dumb and dangerous. I want The Devil Strip to be a little more about tough love than that. Sometimes, you have to speak truth to power and the truth can hurt, but in the end, it makes the community stronger. The danger in cheerleading–trying not to hurt feelings–is that you end up with mediocrity at best. Who wants to live in that city?
Arts aside, the Devil Strip took the initiative in reporting on the missteps of the new leadership at the University of Akron (seems like the Akron Beacon Journal was sleeping through the warning signs, and only woke up in time to follow your lead). What has this meant for you and your team? Was it a defining scoop?
It’s been a double-edged sword. Like I said earlier, I always figured we’d do serious reporting. However, I didn’t anticipate it happening so soon. In the end, the UA reporting has probably cost me as much financially as it has gained the magazine in reputation. That’s not because certain advertisers avoid us now–maybe some do, I haven’t heard of any–but because it kept me from calling on advertisers at all. I was already putting in 60-70 hours a week to keep the magazine going and when I got into those first few stories, I just didn’t sleep for like two weeks. I’ve worked in a newsroom for a daily paper and I’ve worked alongside reporters at TV stations, and the demands on them to turn stories daily is pretty intense, but this was unlike anything else I’d experienced. It isn’t a model for good reporting or for good storytelling, so it isn’t anything I want to repeat. That said, it taught me plenty about preparing for the next set of stories we pursue.
Working on any stories right now that’ll blow our minds?
Yup! I think the aforementioned special team project will be a big deal when it’s ready. And we’ve got our sights set on a couple of non-UA stories that are pretty vital to the city’s future.