Executive Managing Editor Amanda MacLaren sat down with founder Dan Shannon to talk about Durham Magazine‘s past and what lies ahead
Photography by John Michael Simpson
Durham Magazine launched 15 years ago this month, so we thought now would be a good time to talk about our city and how it has changed, as well as how the media landscape has changed. First, starting a city magazine in 2008 was far from a sure thing, wasn’t it? Those were tough economic times with an unprecedented recession.
Yes and no. Durham was already a great city with a fabled past, but there was something special in the city’s DNA – it’s fair to say that everyone could feel something special was happening; Durham would become the most interesting and exciting city in North Carolina, and that’s exactly what happened. I think of then as the beginning days of Durham’s renaissance. Insofar as the recession, we tightened our belts and kept going.
What were some of your snapshot impressions of Durham at that time? What were you seeing in the city?
Durham was and is robust, exciting and fast evolving. In the early aughts, downtown was not yet a destination area, but there was an enormous amount of investment and number of influential businesspeople in city and county government, Downtown Durham Inc., Durham Chamber of Commerce, Capitol Broadcasting, a nascent American Underground and Duke University pushing, pushing, pushing the reinvigorating of downtown. It seemed overnight that the “new” Bulls stadium and American Tobacco Campus opened, DPAC opened, the fine-dining restaurant Revolution opened, West Village renovated into an upscale residential downtown from the bones of tobacco mills, but it was all years in the works. Time takes time.
Look at our city today – sophisticated, arts friendly and still welcoming and neighborhood-centric. There are new professional theaters opening up, there’s Duke Performances, Carolina Theatre and there’s American Dance Festival’s studios, a world-class center of modern dancing. Who expected to find that in Durham? And give DPAC the credit it is due. It is the largest, most successful venue between D.C. and Atlanta. Not only do we get all the Broadway plays, we also get music and comedy. DPAC has become a wonderful, welcoming center for the arts.
And you took a bet to start Durham Magazine.
As a business bet, I wasn’t worried. Getting it right so the magazine serves its market is the hard part. Cool things were happening, young people were flooding into Durham. It’s really an organic thing. DPAC opened. Revolution restaurant opened. West Village was still there, and there was the beginning of renovations of old tobacco-legacy buildings. We had such great restaurants – Parizade, Mad Hatter’s Café & Bakeshop, Magnolia Grill. It was so dynamic. And the risk of shouting out names is you’re going to exclude so many others, but our first editor, Matt Dees, publisher, Carl Johnson, and my business partners, Ellen Shannon and Rory Gillis, got us up and going and cannot go unmentioned.
Once you put out your first issue of Durham Magazine, what was the response?
Oh, the response was so welcoming to the idea that Durham was getting its own magazine. When we got our first issue off the press, I called Mayor Bill Bell’s office and said, “I’d like to come by and show our first issue and explain what we’re trying to do.” And he said, “What time are you available tomorrow?” The next day, Mayor Bell was enthusiastic and supportive. And anyone who knows Bill Bell knows that he loves Durham.
What did he say when he got the magazine in his hands?
You would have to ask Bill his thoughts, but I got to watch him look over the entire magazine. Always a gentleman and honest, Bill said, “Keep going, this is going to be great for the city.” We discussed the importance for a lifestyle magazine to reflect its readership, the mix of stories and subjects, the feel, the sense, the need to capture the wonderfulness of Durham’s mosaic. No one issue can ever fully represent what it is – you need a year’s worth of issues before you can get a true sense of the magazine it’s going to be, before you get its tone, before you get its sense, before you get its feel. Anyone who looks at one magazine will never understand that magazine or that city. It takes a mix – that’s been my experience.
We’ll talk a little bit about the challenges that we faced as a magazine when it came to COVID-19, but what other challenges has the magazine faced over its 15 years?
You just want to always be fair. If we’re going to write about food, just by way of example, we don’t just focus on one restaurant. We want to support everyone’s experiences, both the readers’ and the restaurant owners’, but we aren’t – and can’t – always be completely fair. We try to be as inclusive as humanly possible. That’s an ongoing challenge. Our response is we put out a high-quality publication and provide beautiful showcases in magazines and digital marketing to advertisers. We created our food events, Taste and Sip & Savor, at DPAC. We had to cancel those during COVID-19, but they’re coming back. These are very high-end food events that are perfect for Durhamites, Durham Magazine and local restaurateurs. For that matter, the definition of local news has changed.
Post-COVID work habits have certainly changed, probably forever. How does that work for you?
The world’s changed. We’re so plugged in now, and the whole version of office-and-work-from-home thing has become the standard. I’m old school, but I’m now happy with the way it’s changed to flexibility. Took me a while.
It’s still really good to have face-to-face collaboration – there’s no replacing it.
These magazines are creative products, and you need to bump into one another in the hallway for that idea or for this suggestion or for that bit of information. I was worried. And I think at the beginning of COVID-19, we paid a price in creativity because of our isolation. But our team figured out how to work through it all.
I agree. As much as it’s important that we be in our office and bumping into one another, it’s also important that we’re out there in the community and bumping into people.
Nothing replaces being out and about. I’d even go so far to say, that’s one of our secret successes. The joke about me was that I would go to the opening of an envelope. Durham Magazine has always had representatives at whatever’s happening, whatever looks interesting. That’s fun. You see people and you have a good time, and everyone’s excited and enthused. And I think it’s benefited our readers.
Switching topics, you titled your letter in that first issue, “An Unfinished Magazine.” So what did you mean by that, then, and do you still feel that way?
It is still an unfinished magazine. Is Durham a finished city? No. And we have changed over the years, hopefully for the better. You know, we’re a lifestyle magazine, so we’re talking about the arts, the striking – big and small – homes, the great food, family activities. We’ll never be a finished magazine. So, as long as the city is unfinished, so is the magazine.
In a part of that letter, you listed the fundamental elements of Durham Magazine. You wrote, “We are committed to making a positive contribution to our city. We will honestly and without fear or favor, tell the stories and concerns of our neighbors. We will become an integral, organic part of our diverse community. I guarantee it.” So, 15 years later, how have we done?
I’m proud of our record. No one’s perfect. Some topics and how to handle them still baffle me. Gentrification, for instance. But we do start from, “Will this story be of interest and useful to the readers?”
We don’t publish stories out of consideration of advertising. I know some people think lifestyle magazines are just vehicles for advertising; those critics are inaccurate. But we have a lot of credibility in our city because we are committed, and we are true to our values.
And do you feel that over these 15 years, we have become an integral and organic part of the community?
Yes, with a modest caveat: We get to earn that every issue. As the executive editor for Durham Magazine, you and I both know where we’ve fallen short. But the nice thing about a magazine is there’s always another opportunity in the next issue to get better. Our readers and advertisers don’t [write us off after] making one mistake. I believe most people are generous.
What is your saying – your favorite issue is always the one at the printer?
Ha! I can’t help it, but it seems to be true, doesn’t it? The one that’s at the printer, that’s the one I can’t wait to see. The other ones – well, they’re history. Although, there are some that I’m very fond of.
Do you have any favorites?
Certainly the first cover with Nana’s restaurant owner Scott Howell on our cover, eating a biscuit in front of Biscuitville. I thought the idea of showcasing some of our great chefs’ favorite breakfast places was funny. And I thought it was a fun way to kick off. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.
Another favorite was our first issue into the COVID era. We invited first-person stories from readers – some well-known, but all of them with personal stories – about “How We Live Now.” It was a scary time, and you can get a glimpse of tales of bravery.
Yes, and it’s fun to take each issue into the world and show people how to make the most of their city. Our magazine makes a statement.
Yes, our magazines say, “This is who we are.” And we strive to make our magazine reflect the people it serves. So we write for our readers, who range from their 20s to their 80s. We’re trying to serve the people who want to go out and do stuff, who make the most of their city and their communities. We distribute at retailers and mail thousands of magazines to communities all over Durham. If you flip through the pages, you would see that it looks like the city it serves. I tell our editors to think of our readers as our family or friends and advertisers as good neighbors. It takes a village.
We use the term “hyperlocal” a lot around here.
Our readers live in Durham; they don’t live in the Triangle. That’s not where people identify. They’ll say, “I live in Durham.” That’s their pride.