Last week, the Black Mountain Institute announced that The Believer, the literary and culture magazine founded in 2003, will publish its final issue in spring 2022. It’s yet another blow to the world of print media, and reminded me of the other dismal headlines I’ve read this month lamenting the decline of small-town newspapers — and the ultimate cost to the communities they serve.
In a time when publications and newsrooms continue to struggle, Robert Sanchez’s tightly curated City Reads account is a beacon on Twitter. City Reads tweets the best writing from city magazines across the U.S., shining a light on local and regional stories that I might otherwise miss. Sanchez is a senior staff writer for 5280, Denver’s award-winning magazine, and has written many longreads we’ve read and enjoyed over the years. I chatted with him via email last week about the process of curation, the importance of amplifying city journalism, and his recent 5280 story on sifting through and reading the 8,500+ letters and postcards mailed to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, demanding justice in the Elijah McClain case.
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When and why did you launch City Reads on Twitter?
I’d been kicking around the idea for a City Reads page on social media for years, but things always seemed to pop up. Then the pandemic hit, and everyone in this business was really scared about the future of media. Obviously I was focused on what was going on in the magazine world, and obviously I was very stressed about what might happen in the city magazine world. I thought: “If this doesn’t get me off my butt to start this feed, then nothing will.”
With so many existing sites and newsletters that focus on curation, what motivated you to create this feed?
The whole idea behind City Reads is to highlight some of the good work being done at magazines, like mine, across the country. Too often, I think the attention gets sucked up by national magazines or big websites. Much of that is for a good reason, because a lot of it is awesome. But I just wanted to say, hey, there’s also great journalism being produced at magazines in Seattle and Denver and Dallas and St. Louis and Cincinnati and Charlotte and Maine. The fact that I’m able to highlight just a slice of that makes me happy. I’m not the guy who’s going to be responsible for putting the big spotlight on these works — because you, and others, do such a great job — but maybe I can be a flashlight.
I’m very fortunate to have — so far — spent 14 years of my life at 5280, a place that values good storytelling and wants to support it. In some ways, I think what I’m doing is a celebration of that. I want these journalists to feel a little of what I’ve felt in my career, that their work is getting noticed and that people enjoy it. City magazine journalists are busting their asses. Maybe this is just one tiny reward. If it is, I’m proud to do that.
I’m very fortunate to have — so far — spent 14 years of my life at 5280, a place that values good storytelling and wants to support it. In some ways, I think what I’m doing is a celebration of that.
As we’ve begun to work on our annual year-in-review project at Longreads, we’ve talked a lot recently about our editors’ picks process and why we recommend the stories we do, week after week. I’m curious about your own approach to curation. What do you like to read? What makes the City Reads cut?
I’m just one person doing this, so there’s not really a formula to what I post and why.
I think I have a pretty good eye for stories and writing, so I pick what I like because I think other people will like those stories too. I like to diversify my posts by magazine as well. If I see I haven’t posted from a region in a while, I’ll go through current and past stories to see if there’s anything for the feed. I also have a list of some of the all-time city mag stories from which I can pull. I don’t want someone to think I’m an idiot because I’m not also including a great Texas Monthly story from Pam [Colloff] or Skip [Hollandsworth] or an Atlanta story from [Justin] Heckert or a D story from [Michael J.] Mooney. I’m kind of all over the place, but that gives me freedom. Like I said: I’m one person doing this. It doesn’t do me any good if I start putting myself in a box and limit what I can post.
I’d love to start highlighting bread-and-butter packages that have been city magazine staples — best-of stuff, and all that — but those don’t always translate well in an online format. That won’t stop me from looking, though. I’m also always up for story solicitation. I’m glad that some folks have dropped me a DM or an email telling me something interesting was published. That’s really helpful, because my time is limited. I hope more people throw stories my way.
I hear you on shining a light on publications beyond national magazines and outside the big media bubble. We especially love to share essays and journalism from smaller outlets, whether literary journals or even blogs and newsletters. Are there any new or smaller city and regional magazines you’ve discovered that you’re really excited about?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of discovery, but one magazine that doesn’t get enough attention is Texas Highways. They’ve been doing consistently great stuff for years, and I wish journalists would look to places like that to have their work published. They’ve proven you don’t have to be the big kid in the room to do good work and to get a good edit. I think Down East, in Maine, puts out interesting things. Baltimore magazine, which isn’t necessarily small, has been finding its narrative voice and is doing well at that.
Have you read something recently by an emerging journalist, or a piece that may not have been widely read, that you’d like to recommend?
As for stories, selfishly, I think my magazine always has great stories. None of these people is an emerging journalist, but we had a story recently, by Devon O’Neil, on mental health in mountain communities. My editor, Geoff Van Dyke, did a beautiful essay on living with anxiety and depression. I thought Zac Crain, from D, did a smart profile on an immigrant in Texas who was running Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. I think a story like that underscores how city magazines can take very macro national issues and bring them down to a local readership in a thoughtful way. “City of Spies,” from Boston magazine, was worth the time to read. I’m sure most of those stories got play outside their traditional circulation areas, but I think more people should read them.
I think a story like that underscores how city magazines can take very macro national issues and bring them down to a local readership in a thoughtful way.
I remember reading that story on Rebecca Acuña in D Magazine! That was great. I also appreciate the flip side of this — how a well-written local story can appeal and speak to a wider audience, regardless of topic, and provide a window into a community. I was incredibly moved by your September story about the thousands of letters and postcards sent last year from people outside of Colorado to Governor Polis, asking for justice for 23-year-old Elijah McClain. You wrote that you’d spent 49 hours at the library, reading all of this correspondence. Can you tell us more about this process? What was your reading and notetaking routine, given the volume of material?
It was pretty straightforward, from a logistical standpoint. I’d been given access to all these boxes, and the states were already organized by History Colorado in a way that made it a little easier for me. The library wasn’t open every day, so I had to work around that schedule. I got Monday, Wednesday, and Friday access — from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
I brought a new notebook into the library every time, because I knew I’d be going through hundreds of letters each visit, and I wanted to keep all my days and states straight. I threw numbers on them — one, two, three, etc. — to keep things even more organized. I also wrote the names of the states I covered during each visit.
I had a good feeling about the process, and I just figured things would work out for me. It was such an interesting and unique thing I was doing — I felt it in my soul that something impactful would come of this.
Yes, it was an emotional —and ultimately uplifting —read for me.
I started opening letters by state. I still remember that a teacher in Baltimore filled her envelope with a massive amount of glitter, and it exploded all over me. (I found a contact for her, and said something like, “I got your glitter bomb.” She never responded.) After the Baltimore letter, it was easy for me to figure out what letters might have glitter, or whatever. You could feel it.
I opened letters and stacked them to one side on the table. I had to get the letter-opening stuff out of the way first, because that’s the demoralizing part. You don’t realize how long it takes to open a dang letter until you’ve done about 50 in a row. Then try 500 or 5,000. It doesn’t even feel like reporting, so there’s part of my brain screaming that I’m wasting time, and I have to go faster. But I also don’t want to shred the letter inside. At some point, I think it was with California, the great research librarians brought in a volunteer to help me open letters from that state. I might still be in that library if it hadn’t been for that volunteer. The researchers also saw the work I was putting in. During one holiday — when the library was closed — one of them came in and let me stay all day. (I ruined their letter opener by my seventh or eighth visit, but they didn’t care.)
You don’t realize how long it takes to open a dang letter until you’ve done about 50 in a row. Then try 500 or 5,000. It doesn’t even feel like reporting, so there’s part of my brain screaming that I’m wasting time, and I have to go faster.
Did you read every letter?
I wanted to make sure I read every one of them, because I thought there was a certain amount of power in that. Like, I know what every person said and how they said it. I know the stamp they used and if they hand-wrote or typed it. As a journalist, I felt more in control.
You ended up reaching out to more than 100 of these letter-writers. How did you narrow down the people you contacted?
You’d be surprised how many people left an email address or a phone number, thinking the governor or his staff might respond. After a while, I could hold a big stack of letters and guess how many contacts would be in there. I was within one or two every time. Pretty much, one out of every 40 or 50 letters had one email or phone number. Every person who left a contact was recorded in my notebook. I also took a photo of every letter that had a contact. If I emailed someone, I didn’t want to look like a creeper, so I had this visual evidence as proof where I got their information. There were far more than 100 of those contacts.
Between the library days, I’d go home and email or call every person I’d found the day before. There might be eight to 12 people. Once I got cracking on that, I got several emails or return calls. I’d set up an interview that day, or for the next non-library day. That’s how I filled my reporting week.
How did you select the letters you featured in the piece?
I ran across two letters from people who did not include contact information, but the letters were awesome. I was like, “I have to find this person.” One of them was a woman in Seattle, who ended up in my lede. The other was a teenage girl whose mother had no idea what she’d written. For the Seattle woman, I found her husband’s work email, and I found a private phone number from an event he’d attended. He did cybersecurity, or something, for a tech company. He was really freaked out when I called him at home. I explained what I was doing, and you could hear the tension in his voice drop. He had no idea his wife had written anything. I read him his wife’s letter, and you could tell he was so proud. He gave my number to his wife, and she texted me that night. We had a call the next day.
This gives me shivers. It’s wonderful.
For the teenage girl, I discovered she’d moved from Florida to another state. It was such a great letter that I knew I needed to talk to this young woman. I emailed the realtor who sold their house. I found some old work email addresses for the teenager’s mother. And then I found the mother’s Etsy page. I messaged her. Weeks passed. I did it again. Finally, about three or four weeks later, the mother emailed me and apologized, saying that she had thought I was an online stalker, but saw now that this was legit and was open to talking with me. At that second, I saw everything was coming together. I knew this would be a good story.
That’s awesome. Overall, I love how this involved curation, but in a different sense.
The rest of the letters in the story were picked either because I thought it was a nice backup on a point I was trying to make, or because the interview was so great. Like when I included the person who was saying that this was her third or fourth letter — it was important to get that in there. And then I had the architect from Atlanta who is an amazing person. We talked on the phone for nearly two hours, and he was so thoughtful. It would have been journalistic dereliction if I didn’t get that voice in there.
The TLDR version? Organize. Cast a very wide net. See what I catch. And then use only the best — most illuminating — parts.
It’s always great when you feel energized during reporting. That’s how I felt every day on this. What a great job I have.