Off the Page is an exclusive series produced by the NMAF that reaches out to former National Magazine Award winners to find out what their awards have meant to them and what they’re up to now. Off the Page will appear each Thursday on the Magazine Awards blog during the fall of 2012. This week we catch up with three-time National Magazine Award-winning writer Curtis Gillespie, editor of the new magazine Eighteen Bridges.
NMAF: Some might call it a bold venture: launching a publication of narrative non-fiction journalism—a magazine of big ideas—in an age when long-form is seemingly subsumed by Internet media and niche publishing. Perhaps that’s a misconception. As an editor and an award-winning long-form writer, what were your founding objectives for Eighteen Bridges; what did the magazine seek to achieve that wasn’t already on the landscape?
Curtis Gillespie: The founding objectives of Eighteen Bridges were very simple: marry sound research with compelling narrative. We wanted to offer a home for great writers who can also do trustworthy research.
Long form is more important than ever, because context is more important than ever. We’re awash in information, but lacking in depth and background, and that’s precisely why the long-form narrative journalism format is, I believe, essential.
This kind of in-depth journalism is expensive, and so most outlets are shying away from it. Digital-age, quick-hit, small-dose journalism is fine, but it needs to be supported by genuine investigative journalism that offers trustworthy and thorough research (to further our insight) along with genuine writing talent (to keep us reading!).
We didn’t see this style on the Canadian landscape. The Walrus is a great magazine, but doesn’t necessarily focus on narrative. Maclean’s is newsy. Brick is arts and culture. All are good magazines and serve their readers well.
The point of doing something like Eighteen Bridges is to create an immersive experience for readers, so that they’re enjoying a story but also gaining context.
NMAF: One of the pledges Eighteen Bridges makes to the Canadian readership is that it will “initiate vibrant debate.” What has informed this perspective that we’re in need of enhanced public debate in this country, and what is the role of narrative journalism in fostering such discourse that is unique among the myriad forms of Canadian media.
Curtis Gillespie: The “narrative” aspect is crucial. It’s our base camp, in a way. We believe in story telling as the perfect conduit for in-depth journalism, because we believe a magazine article should be both enlightening and entertaining, and that the two are not mutually exclusive. But this takes talent, hard work, and a clear editorial mandate.
Too often, newspapers and television provide facts, but no context. We learn the issues, but not the subtleties behind the issues. We don’t get to know the personalities in their complexity.
You can’t really have a vibrant debate without feeling well informed. Otherwise, conversations, arguments, debates and discussions are simply an exchange of opinion.
Our goal (if we can ever reach anything like the level of cultural penetration of a major media source) is to offer enough background and context to allow for vigorous discussions based on good research and compelling stories, rather than sound bites and quick hits.
If we can take the principles of narrative (characterization, dramatic arc, psychological and emotional inquiry, and so on) and use those to convey the stories that are shaping our world, then we’ll be creating journalism that people enjoy and value.
NMAF: Among the early measures of success for Eighteen Bridges are the ten National Magazine Awards nominations and 2 wins—Gold for Don Gillmor’s “All In” and Silver for Alissa York’s “Class Mammalia”—that came from just your first two issues from 2011. Was this a key step in the realization of your vision for the magazine, and what have the awards meant to the magazine and its future?
Curtis Gillespie: I can’t honestly say it was a key step in the realization for our vision for the magazine, since it would be unwise to ever plan on winning awards!
Having said that, we did feel that if we were lucky enough to get noticed at the National Magazine Awards in our first year of eligibility it would help us spread the word of what we are about and who we are trying to reach.
The NMAs mean a great deal to people in the magazine industry and to writers in general; they indicate what is working at a high level and signal to the country what might be worth paying attention to.
We were stunned and delighted to get 10 nominations and two wins in our first crack at it, partly because it means people might notice our magazine and what we’re trying to do with it; that we take issues that matter and create great stories about them. But more because it was recognition for some outstanding writing.
Don and Alissa were rightly recognized, but it also drew attention to many other fine writers.
We think it also showed, in some ways, that our rationale for creating the magazine wasn’t completely without merit!
Curtis Gillespie won 3 National Magazine Awards for his writing in Saturday Night magazine, and has been nominated for a total of 14 NMAs since 1999. He has also served as a judge for the NMAs. Eighteen Bridges was nominated for 10 NMAs last year, and won Silver in Travel (Alissa York, “Class Mammalia“) and Gold in Arts & Entertainment (Don Gillmor, “All In“; featured in the new NMA eBook). Discover more at eighteenbridges.com.