Voices of the Midwest for the Midwest: New Missouri-based magazine focuses on the 'fly-over' states
It's likely that every single person in St. Louis has either heard someone refer to the Midwest as “fly-over” country — or maybe they’ve even used the term themselves. At best, the Midwest is viewed as behind-the-times. At worst, people ignore it entirely. A new Missouri-based publication, aptly-named The New Territory, is trying to change that.
“If you want to succeed, says the mainstream story, move to the coasts,” reads the vision statement of the publication whose coverage is centered on the Midwest. “As a magazine built by narrative journalists, creative artists and provocative thinkers of America’s heartland, we’re the voice of a region ready for its own identity. Our ‘Territory’ covers part of the original Louisiana Territory — south-central states west of the Mississippi River including, but not exclusive to Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.”
The quarterly publication, started by publisher Tina Casagrand, is based in Jefferson City, and employs the talents of St. Louis-based writers like Michaella Thornton. Both women joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss how they are covering the under-covered in the lower Midwest and what led them to work on the publication now.
“I’m hoping our part of it is to have a place to tell beautiful, long-form stories that capture that sense of place,” Casagrand said. “Once you start to understand a place, you can start to care for it. You start to identify it as your community and something that is important to you, rather than getting stuck in your ‘small-town’ mindset or your ‘city neighborhood’ mindset. We’re expanding beyond that and making the whole Midwest part of your identity.”
Casagrand and Thornton are both graduates of the Missouri School of Journalism at Mizzou and grew up with the tradition of community newspapers. While now may seem an unlikely time to go into producing a print magazine, Casagrand said that print is certainly not dead and that city and regional magazines had done consistently well even during the recession.
While Casagrand, whose journalism degree focused specifically on magazine publishing, said that “New Territory” is not your typical city or regional magazine, she said she drew inspiration from other quarterlies across the nation such as the Oxford American (South), High Country News (West), or Belt Magazine (Rust Belt) because they “support the culture of their place.”
“The Midwest doesn’t have that same long, literary tradition,” Casagrand said. “It’s been looked over in history and I think that’s a shame. In looking over the whole area, we lose a lot in the national culture. I wanted to put a lens specifically on the lower Midwest, because we don’t have a lot [of publications] here. That was one of my frustrations as a freelance journalist. I wanted to tell stories about this place that are inherently important but might lose their meaning with a national focus.”
About 17 million people live in the area that “The New Territory” covers. That’s about the size of the Los Angeles region, and those stories are worthy of coverage.
“So many stories are happening that are a reflection of the country, are reflective of the human experience that can be beautiful,” Casagrand said. “Because of our similar geography, in terms of landscape but also population history, our area is shaped by the Civil War: that has a very unique perspective that is worthy of investigation and celebration. Because it has been considered ‘fly-over’ area, kind of a blank slate, I think we have a very rich culture and influences coming from the outside that are fresh and being reinvented all the time here. Someone needs to document that.”
"Sometimes it is easy to buy the stereotypes or standard narrative that other people give you. Because we’re misunderstood as docile, Midwestern nice or super polite … but that’s not accurate." — Michaella Thornton
Thornton grew up in Missouri, but left the state as soon as she could after college. But she returned years later.
“What I realized is that when you’re a writer, you tend to start writing about home even when you’re not there,” Thornton said. “Having those experiences elsewhere in the country and other places in the world showed me that there really is a huge culture that is here. Sometimes it is easy to buy the stereotypes or standard narrative that other people give you. Because we’re misunderstood as docile, Midwestern nice or super polite … but that’s not accurate. One of the things I strive to do as a journalist and a writer is to dilate moments that put some of the things that we think about on its head.”
In its first issue, which debuted in April, “The New Territory” covered things like the oilfield business in Oklahoma, White-Nose Syndrome in bats, chronic childhood hunger and planning 1000 years ahead in the agriculture industry. The magazine also features work of local literary talent, photography and graphics.
Its second issue, which will be available in August, is themed “In Defense.” Stories covered include gentrification in Lincoln, Nebraska, a comic, science-driven feature about the Midwest’s prairies and an investigation into “Midwestern road rage.” That last piece is written by Thornton and examines how the perception of Midwestern politeness matches up with impatience on the road.
For Casagrand, it is important that the magazine focuses not only on rural stories or urban stories, but how the two interplay.
“There’s so much strength and diversity — socioeconomic and otherwise,” Casagrand said. “That’s important to me, to tell those stories, stories of immigrants and people who often get overlooked, whether rural or urban, to help build that idea that Missouri is not just a bunch of white farm boys, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Funding in a digital media age
"That's important to me, to tell those stories, stories of immigrants and people who often get overlooked, whether rural or urban, to help build that idea that Missouri is not just a bunch of white farm boys, there's a lot more to it than that." — Tina Casagrand
Casagrand said that the process of starting a magazine was easy, in some respects, because she has a very strong vision for it. What has been difficult is navigating the business end of things in a digital media world.
As it stands right now, the magazine subsists on funding from like-minded sponsors for the magazine. It also costs $15 per copy, which Casagrand said is unique.
“It’s a premium price because we are putting the onus of responsibility for content on the readers themselves,” Casagrand said. “That’s something that’s bold that people aren’t used to.”
That price keeps “The New Territory” independent from too much sponsor or advertiser influence on the magazine. Right now, the magazine is distributed through subscriptions but can also be found in St. Louis at the Novel Neighbor bookstore in Webster Groves.
Searching for writers, photographers, graphic artists and others
Another difference between “The New Territory” and other publications is that the staff works remotely — using Slack, the inter-office communication tool, has helped a lot, Casagrand said. Some of the staff members have never met one another. For example, Casagrand and Thornton met in-person for the first time in the St. Louis on the Air studios.
Much of the content is led by the ideas of freelance writers themselves.
“We are working on building a platform for people to realize their dream projects. I want it to be a cultural platform. It is a hard concept for some writers to get their heads around because they want to research the magazine, know the tone and write up to that. I say, as long as it has some spirit of the lower Midwest in it and you have a tie here, I’m willing to consider the idea.”
That, of course, means that the publication is looking for new voices. Here’s how you can do that.
“’The New Territory’ is what we make it,” Thornton said. “I would invite anyone who is interested not just to pick it up and read it but to contribute it. There are so many amazing stories we all have to share and I’d like for us to redefine what makes up the lower Midwest and challenge some of those stereotypes.”
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