This week we talked with founder, publisher and editor of North of the James magazine, Charles McGuigan.
Charles talks about how he started the monthly out of a garage in Richmond’s Northside; the importance of sustaining a hyper-local publication; why he chooses to put a literary slant to the magazine’s writing; the Gutenberg Revolution; the parallels between book sales and newspapers and more.
Please introduce yourself:
My name is Charles McGuigan, and I’m editor and publisher of North of the James, a regional magazine serving Richmond, north of the James River. Since founding the company in November of 1994 with my former business partner, Ellen Zagorin, and my former wife Joany Flick, who worked tirelessly to make this dream a reality, North of the James has always focused on the quality of writing, design and photography. It was Joany who gave the publication its unique look. Stories in our pages are fleshed out thoroughly, and written in a narrative style that draws the reader in. Or that’s my hope.
From the first time we published, we vowed to serve the local market and its economy. To that end, we only accept advertisements from locally owned and operated businesses—the exceptions being retirement communities and hospitals.
We started the magazine out of a garage in the North Side neighborhood of Bellevue and moved to permanent offices eight months later. One thing that separates us from other free tabloids is that we are home-delivered by my carriers to 10,000 households. We also do drop-offs at more than 100 commercial locations north of the James.
In addition to writing for North of the James, I write short fiction, and write and produce audio documentaries, which can be heard at Public Radio Exchange. I also do a weekly program of audio stories called “A Grain of Sand” for WRIR-97.3FM.
You started in a garage more than 20 years ago. What has it been like to stay with North of the James and watch it grow? What do you attribute the longevity to?
Watching the growth of NotJ was like watching my own children mature—a joy every day, even during times that were economically dicey. I mean this, too. I have a son and daughter who grew up alongside the magazine—one is about to complete college, the other is a junior in high school.
We have extremely loyal advertisers, some of whom have been with us since the beginning. We have managed to keep our rates very competitive and have worked with clients on pricing. More than anything else, though, the quality of our writing, photography and design has sustained us. If you consider the body of our editorial work, you will notice that each article is actually a story with a distinct beginning, middle and end. And everything we write about always contains the human element, and each subject is treated with kid gloves. We do not write about topics. We search out stories that readers will relate to.
I’ve noticed that you are usually responsible for the bigger features in the magazine and that those pieces tend to have a literary sensibility. Where does this come from and why have you made it a priority for NOTJ?
I generally write the cover stories along with several of the main features. But I also have a pool of exceptionally talented writers who also produce stories for the magazine. My preference for that literary sensibility comes from my own writing of short stories, as well as my deep admiration for many of the writers who are regularly featured in “The New Yorker.”
Journalism does not have to be staid and dry. There’s nothing new about this idea; just think of Charles Dickens’ “Sketches by Boz.” Finally, as you well know, a periodical is popular among its readers only if they enjoy the contents. And our readership over these past 25 years has been extremely loyal and continues to grow.
When you look for a story for the magazine, what does it have to have to make you want to write about it?
First and foremost, there has to be a story. What’s more, it needs to be evergreen, and resonate with universal truths, or at least hint at them.
What’s been one of your favorite pieces and why?
I would be hard-pressed to single out one cover story. We have profiled many people on our cover, from Tim Kaine and Bishop Walter Sullivan to Jay Ipson and Oliver Hill. Not to mention the scores of artists and musicians from Susan Greenbaum and Janet Martin to Tim Harriss and Nicole Randall. And each story is riveting. Of course, other covers are devoted to a single subject, whether hiking the length of the old RF&P tracks from Acca Yard in Richmond to the North Anna River in Hanover County, or canoeing the Chickahominy River from its origin in western Henrico County to the New Kent County line. It really is hard to say. One story does stick out. It was called “Abbie Waters: The Habit of Being,” and was about a nine-year old girl’s battle with a form of cancer that would ultimately kill her. She was a classmate of my son’s, and she had a rare quality of being that simply astonished me.
“Nothing will ever replace the printed word; the Guttenberg Revolution is far from over.”
Had you always wanted to run a magazine, or was it something that you fell into? Are you glad that you did it?
I always wanted to write, but in the 1990s, as I watched independent publications being gobbled up by media conglomerates, I felt it essential to create another voice in the market. And I didn’t want it to be newspaper, I wanted it to be a magazine. Since that first issue hit the streets in November 1994, I have never looked back, or even once regretted my decision.
Are you optimistic about the future of the industry?
Increasingly so. I think people have begun to realize the importance of print media. In this age where anyone can start a blog or a website that purports to be legitimate, many readers are now more careful about vetting news sources. We are, after all, living in an oxymoronic age of supposed “alternative facts.” Invariably, the most reliable news sources are still newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal and Harper’s Magazine—the standard bearers of truth that battle the armies of ignorance and misinformation, lies and outright propaganda.
The internet is an invaluable tool, and always will be. But print, I believe, will endure. When radio was first introduced as a medium, the demise of newspapers was predicted. Just decades later, with the advent of television, many predicted the twin deaths of both print and radio. I think all media will ultimately co-exist, and give greater dimension to the stories they tell. Nothing will ever replace the printed word; the Guttenberg Revolution is far from over.
Here’s something, too. Throughout the country independent bookstores have seen a significant spike in profits, while e-book sales have steadily declined. Kindle seems to be fizzling out, while actual books have regained popularity. I think this has happened for two reasons. Real books—with spines, covers and pages—require nothing more to operate than a human hand. The other cause is something less palpable. There is an undeniable pleasure in holding the book, just as there is in opening the pages of a magazine or newspaper. There’s even a smell to books and periodicals, and visually, nothing can compete with black type on white paper.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Only this: I earnestly believe we are living at a critical juncture in history, and it is more important now than ever before that writers challenge what they know to be wrong and false. The press needs to diligently call out every half-truth and lie promulgated by politicians and supposed media outlets, which are actually nothing more than propaganda machines.
We are called the Fourth Estate for a very specific reason. (Incidentally, it was the Irish statesman Edmund Burke, father of modern conservatism, who first used the phrase to describe a free press.) What it means today is that we watch the watchmen to ensure members of the other three estates—the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government—never act above the law.