Member Spotlight: Oxford American Redesigns

On September 3, the Oxford American launched a redesign and later this month will introduce a new podcast, Points South, followed by a reading series, South Words, this fall. We spoke with editor Eliza Borné about the magazine’s history, the recent changes, and what’s in store for the future.

What is the history behind the Oxford American? When was it founded and what was the original editorial mission? 

The Oxford American was founded in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1992, by Marc Smirnoff. His founding vision, expressed in a “Declaration of Intent” published in the front of the inaugural issue, was that: “The Oxford American is a literary magazine, of general interest, established under the idea that it is time for a good general interest magazine to originate from the South.” He thought it was a shame that the South’s great writers had to send their work “Eastward” when they wanted to be published.

Despite its shoestring budget, the Oxford American punched above its weight, so to speak—publishing well-known writers like Richard Ford and John Updike while cultivating emerging talents like John Jeremiah Sullivan, Jesmyn Ward, and Donna Tartt early in their careers. In 1997, the first music issue launched, and the series—which includes a CD compilation along with the magazine—quickly became one of the OA’s most beloved projects. This year’s music issue will be the twenty-first edition. Readers can pre-order it now and pick it up on newsstands starting the week of Thanksgiving.

The OA has seen ups and downs over the years, such as a move to Arkansas, masthead changes—Smirnoff was fired in 2012 due to sexual harassment allegations; Roger Hodge served as editor from 2012 to 2015—and awards and recognition, including a National Magazine Award in General Excellence in 2016. One thing has remained the same: the Oxford American’s identity as a home for adventurous, exceptional storytelling that often pushes the boundaries of traditional magazine writing and prizes each writer’s voice.

Oxford American

Established: 1992
Mission: To explore the  complexity and vitality of the American South through exceptional storytelling, music, and artwork.
Genres & Subjects: Essays, Reporting, Fiction, Poetry. No subject is off limits, though we are primarily interested in the Southern experience, in all its complexity.
Circulation: 9,000 subscribers and available on 1,000 newsstands nationwide
Frequency: Quarterly
Subscription Cost: $39 annually

In 2002, the magazine relocated from Mississippi to Arkansas. What was behind the move and how did it affect the vision for the magazine?

In 2002, the Oxford American, then based in Oxford, Mississippi, ceased publishing for a year because the magazine could not meet its financial obligations. A publisher in Little Rock, Arkansas, invested in the magazine, prompting the move. That arrangement lasted for five issues, until the magazine folded again. (Turns out literary magazines are not lucrative investments.) In the winter of 2005, the magazine was reborn as a nonprofit quarterly, and the University of Central Arkansas came on as an institutional partner. This has proven to be a sustainable funding model for the OA: we’ve been in constant publication ever since and proud of our relationship with UCA, which has been fruitful for both parties—earlier this year, one of our editors taught a publishing class at UCA; the college regularly places graduate assistants with the magazine; we organize on-campus workshops, etc.

You took the helm as editor in 2015. What is your editorial background? 

I wanted to be an editor ever since I read Little Women as a child and became inspired by Jo March, editor of her sisters’ weekly Pickwick Portfolio. So in elementary school, I convinced a couple of neighborhood friends to start a newspaper with me (The Girls Gang Gazette); I enrolled in an intro to journalism class at Little Rock Central High School, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper; I was on the editorial staff of the Wellesley College newspaper; and I held several summer editorial internships. After college, I took a job as assistant web editor at BookPage, a monthly book review distributed in public libraries. In 2013, I met Roger Hodge at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and he recruited me to return to Little Rock and work at the Oxford American. This was truly a homecoming for me, as I’d interned at the OA in 2006—learning how to fact-check and line edit and start thinking more critically about the relationship between text and art. I’d always hoped to return to the magazine, and it was exciting to do so at the beginning of a new editor’s tenure. Especially because our staff was so small, I was trusted with substantial editorial responsibilities from my first day on the job. I was hired as an associate editor and was promoted to managing editor a year later, then interim editor when Roger left the magazine in 2015. After I’d served in that role a few months, our board asked me to stay on permanently.

What were your greatest challenges when you took over, what changes have you made, and what are you most proud of having accomplished so far? 

When I was named editor in October 2015, we had an understaffed editorial team, the magazine was in debt, and we feared our signature project—the annual music issue—was becoming obsolete (readers loved the compilation, but every year more people complained that they had no way of listening to the CD). One of my earliest decisions was to hire Jay Jennings, a magazine pro and fellow Little Rock native, as senior editor—if I was going to assume the editor’s chair at age 29, I wanted to have a trusted and more seasoned person on staff. Maxwell George, our current deputy editor, started managing the music issue around the time I became interim editor, and he has stewarded and updated the series in a number of ways, including leading the effort to provide a digital download card with our CD, which we were able to do starting in 2017. On our business staff, Ryan Harris was promoted to executive director in January 2016, and he has led an era of lean budgets and increased fundraising. As of a year ago, the Oxford American is debt free.

We’ve gradually made a lot of changes since I became editor: launching a popular story series on our website (The By and By); partnering with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University to publish more multimedia content; and redesigning the print magazine, starting with our Fall 2019 issue (no element went unexamined, from the logo and cover to the body type and presentation of artwork).

More than anything, I feel proud when I receive notes from readers sharing that the Oxford American is meaningful in their lives—that our stories inspire them, and stick with them, and make them feel more connected to their communities and the world. I’m proud when a writer tells me that their experience of publishing in the OA has changed their life—that it’s improved their craft, or connected them with an appreciative audience of readers, or even led to a relationship with an agent or a book deal. I’m proud of being a homegrown talent who now chooses to live and work and invest in the community that raised me.

More specifically, I’m proud of recruiting incredible OA contributors like Zandria F. Robinson, who was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for her deeply felt essay about family and grief and the blues; of working with some of the most exceptional writers of today, like Lauren Groff and Kiese Laymon; of publishing significant work, like a three-part excerpt from Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, or Nikky Finney’s “The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy.” I’m also proud of helping start the Oxford American Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship, which supports a writer of creative nonfiction during a nine-month residency in Central Arkansas. Of course, editing a magazine is a collaborative effort, and none of this would be possible without our editorial staff.

What inspired the redesign?

The magazine hadn’t been significantly updated since 2013, and we felt that it was time to formally examine our visual identity, especially because this year we started working with new art directors, Milton Carter and Mike Reddy (a.k.a. Carter/Reddy), who encouraged fresh thinking about our design. Every change was rooted in our desire to create a more enjoyable reading experience. The cover design is simplified and more contemporary, focusing on the artwork and the bold new logo; the body copy is easier to read; the layout is airier, with more white space. We want readers to feel that an Oxford American subscription is a good value. And it is: we haven’t raised the subscription price, but this year’s fall issue is more than 50% thicker than the previous year’s, allowing us to publish more artwork and special features like a sixteen-page graphic novel excerpt by Van Jensen and Nate Powell, and a long poem by Nathaniel Mackey, with accompanying art by Tschabalala Self.

The Oxford American is also launching two new programs: the podcast Points South and the reading series South Words. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired each of these programs and what you hope to accomplish with them?

The Oxford American has a track record of conceiving of and producing highly acclaimed multimedia projects. In addition to the annual music issue, the OA has published a Southern movie issue, packaged with an accompanying DVD curated by the OA, and an award-winning video series, SoLost, which ran online from 2009 until 2014. Our podcast, which is hosted and produced by my colleague Sara A. Lewis, builds on that tradition and is designed to reflect the richness and diversity of the magazine and its affiliated programming (for instance, we also present a concert series in Little Rock). Highlights from the first episode include an exclusive performance by Dom Flemons, a conversation with documentarian Ken Burns, and Rhiannon Giddens’s commentary on the erasure of black country musicians. The first episode will be available on September 18.

This fall, we are thrilled to be launching South Words, an author series featuring OA contributors. I have long dreamed of planning such a series, and this year, thanks to a number of funders and partners (most significantly, the University of Central Arkansas, the Six Bridges Book Festival, and the Clinton School of Public Service), we were able to make that dream a reality. Our inaugural season features Sarah M. Broom, Van Jensen and Nate Powell, Silas House, and Leesa Cross-Smith. Each author will appear onstage at a free public event in conversation with a local OA editor or contributor. And each author will visit UCA for an on-campus visit with students.

What else do you have planned for the next year?

Right now we are hard at work on our South Carolina-themed music issue: editing stories, listening to songs, arguing over final sequencing, digging to identify the rightsholders of obscure recordings, researching artwork, finalizing the concept for our cover design. The music issue is the most complex project of the year—the stakes are high, as our readers look forward to the issue all year long and they expect to be surprised and wowed, and song licensing is a byzantine process. Fortunately, it’s also one of our most pleasurable projects. Discovering new (to me) music is a joy, and I feel privileged to get to contribute to something so many readers will read and listen to and enjoy.