Why This Veteran Food Editor Is Breaking Into Indie Publishing

Why This Veteran Food Editor Is Breaking Into Indie Publishing

There’s nothing casual about making a magazine. I know this because up until a few years ago, I was eating, sleeping, and breathing print media as the editor of not one but two publications, Culture Cheese Magazine (my then-full-time job) and GRLSQUASH, my now-defunct self-funded indie mag side project. Between sticking to strict printer deadlines, managing a seemingly endless sea of freelancers, proofing until you want to cry (and inevitably missing at least a handful of typos), and somehow financing the whole endeavor—selling ads? Crowd-funding? Asking for donations?—print can feel, well, grueling. But it’s also so damn rewarding.

Once you’ve fallen in love with print it’s tough to fall out of love, which is probably why Dana Cowin is back in the publishing game, this time bolder (and broader) than ever. After a decades-long career as editor-in-chief of Food & Wine that ended in 2015, Cowin has turned to indie publishing. Speaking Broadly encapsulates her eponymous Heritage Radio Network show within its colorful, inspiring pages featuring the likes of Black Food Folks co-founder Colleen Vincent, writer and cookbook author Reem Kassis, chef Nini Nguyen, and more of the food and beverage world’s finest.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Left: Contributor Zoe Adjonyoh holds a copy of ‘Speaking Broadly.’ Right: Dana Cowin and contributor Victoria James.

Photo by Dana Cowin

MADISON TRAPKIN: ​​Okay, so the last time we spoke in person about Speaking Broadly was at K’Far in Philadelphia, in March of 2020…so much has happened between then and now! Can you tell me a bit about it?

DANA COWIN: So back when we were at K’Far, I was getting ready to publish the first issue in a month. Then the pandemic came and gave me an opportunity to develop a lot around the women-centered universe I’d been building with Speaking Broadly. This women-centered universe grew from a podcast to an octopus; It just grew all these tentacles. With the zine on hold, I began coaching women business owners, and it was really fun talking to them about marketing, creativity, and life.

I was still doing the podcast, and I wanted to support women in any way I could—that’s when I created Giving Broadly, which was a collection of products you could buy from women founded companies for the holidays. And I loved doing that because I loved the products. I loved the discovery, but I also really loved the women behind the products and their stories. I mean, what can any of us do when it all feels so out of control? You can connect one person to another person, you can create this wheel of positivity. So I spent two and a half years, creating a wheel of positivity.

MT: Now that the first issue is out in the world, what does it feel like to officially be part of the indie publishing community?

DC: I love it. I was in traditional media for—not an exaggeration—30 years, so publishing is something that I knew so well and I really was like, “I’m never going back to that.” But when I realized that I had something that I wanted to say, and that it was really through the beautiful voices of the women involved in Speaking Broadly, I was so excited.

When we first, first, first talked, my initial instinct was to go with a mimeograph. I really wanted to go all in on the indie side of things, staples included. But then when I met Meagan Bennett, the creative director and designer for Speaking Broadly, I knew together we could take this to a whole different level.

Photo by Meagan Bennett

MT: To me, indie zines are typically more beautiful than any mainstream publication because each indie mag is a work of art that exists in this larger context of the truly gritty, scrappy, do-it-yourself, stapled together zine culture. For example, look at Whetstone, Compound Butter, For The Culture, and of course, Speaking Broadly—y’all facilitate beautiful, compelling, and honest storytelling that simply isn’t confined in the way traditional media is.

That said, I definitely struggled a lot when I was making GRLSQUASH when it came to the business side of things. How could we make it profitable? Did we need advertisers? It’s been so interesting to have conversations with other indie publishers to hear how other folks do it. What are your feelings about the financial side of things?

DC: First of all, there are so many hidden costs, I just kept having to change and change and change plans. Things that I thought were going to work didn’t, and every new thing that didn’t work cost me more money. I’d planned to do everything in a really scrappy way, like mailing everything from my living room, and then Meagan was like, “Are you really going to do that?”

MT: I mean, I did, and it’s a lot. I wouldn’t recommend it.

DC: Yeah, all these little micro-decisions that I hadn’t counted on kept coming up. In the vein of learning along the way, what I’ve discovered so far is that there’s a beautiful community that’s supporting this zine one by one. I write people notes when they buy an issue because I look at every single little order ding; Some people will even buy five issues because it feels right for their community, and it uplifts my heart. But because it’s the first issue and we purposefully don’t offer subscriptions, finding our people and doing events with those people is how this zine will get out in the world. This feels like a version of a sustainable model.

MT: Events are a great way to generate revenue, and they make so much sense for a publication like yours because you can really bring the pages to life through food, beverage, and in-person conversation. What about advertising?

DC: For the first go round pre-pandemic, I really wanted to find sponsors and there were a lot of people who were enthusiastic, but it didn’t turn into anything. This time I didn’t get sponsors either, but I have gotten some great support. For example, Resy and Amex are doing a huge women in food campaign, so they’re taking copies of my zine for their events. Did you do that at all?

MT: Yeah, definitely. Your trajectory with this first issue reminds me so much of my approach to GRLSQUASH which never involved traditional advertising. Towards the end, I was in the early phases of launching a partner program because it felt more organic to partner with other women-owned organizations, or individual women, who were a bit more established than us who could help elevate our mission further. Like, “I love what you’re doing. Here’s what I’m doing. How can we work together and make each other better?” It sounds like you’re doing something similar, a very genuinely collaborative approach.

DC: It’s exactly that. Food & Wine‘s audience was quite broad, and I knew who those readers were. They were vast. This is… I don’t know, it just feels so special. There’s something that Speaking Broadly does that nobody else does. Food & Wine felt that way at the beginning, but over time it became incredibly crowded. Gigantic is not my goal with Speaking Broadly.

MT: In this context, bigger definitely isn’t better. Growing your platform organically through an existing network like the one you’d established with the podcast is so smart. Like, even if it takes more time, it just feels more natural.

DC: It’s been beautiful to that sort of community in the world. At Food & Wine, I was always cognizant of the fact that the people who we featured had to either be up and coming with the potential to be known later or they had to be well-established. But it was so nice with Speaking Broadly to be like, “You have a good story, I value what you have to say, and I can include you.” That’s the indie thing.

MT: Right, it really comes back to elevating everyone at the same time and using your particular place in the world to do so. Obviously Food & Wine and Speaking Broadly are so different, but you do have food as the common thread. Have you found other similarities or differences that have really stuck out to you?

DC: I guess the greatest similarity is the sense of discovery. Food & Wine felt really right at that time because it was incredibly authentic and natural during a period when the rest of the country was awakening to food. And similarly, Speaking Broadly is a revelation at a particular point in time where we know so much about food and we’re ready for more, we’re ready to have it just be part of our everyday life.

MT: It seems like your trajectory in the publishing world has evolved alongside your personal values, like it was a very natural progression from Food & Wine, to the podcast, to this new iteration of print that’s just the boldest, most beautiful thing ever. As someone who’s been in that world, it does feel like the future of indie publishing is very bright—we’re still seeing these new voices emerge, despite all the challenges that come with this sort of venture. As someone who’s at the very beginning of this, what’s your take on the future of indie publishing?

DC: I think it’s really about the money. Indie publishing is amazing if you can make the numbers work. I’ve experienced firsthand that it’s really hard to make the numbers work, and some people, depending on how passionate they are and how important it is to them, will figure that out. I actually think we’re in the midst of an indie publishing Renaissance where everything is very professional, very beautiful, like Cake Zine, which I love—

MT: I love Cake Zine. I read that cover to cover in one sitting. It’s so good and weird in the best way possible.

DC: Yeah, exactly. I think they sold out really fast. But even when projects like that sell out really fast, does whoever’s creating that zine have another job? What else are they balancing with their zine production? I think perhaps one of the true beauties of indie publishing is that it’s unexpected. It’s not particularly on a schedule as it needs to be. It’s done as the person finds passion, and it’s not about regularity in any sense of the word. And so I feel like that’s the beauty, and I don’t find that there’s a negative side to that, except as a consumer if you are desperate for the next iteration. I think it’s great because it gives a lot of flexibility without imposing.

MT: You’re not beholden to really anything in indie publishing—the unexpected nature of it is the beauty of it. You can do whatever you want. You could make the next issue of Speaking Broadly a coffee table book.

DC: Exactly.

Photo by Meagan Bennett

MT: I think the world of possibility is so beautiful, and also that you’re making a physical thing that people can hold in their hands and pass along when they’re ready.

DC: That’s so sweet, and yeah it does make it exciting for all those options for the future. The subhead for the first issue was “Conversations with Humanity,” which is to say that the next one could be a different “Conversations with Humanity,” considering what we’re all going through. At the moment, I’m setting my sights on doing climate and forest work as it intersects with women chefs and food, but I don’t know, I’m just open to the universe.

MT: That reminds me of how you call this first issue a time capsule, and in a way each issue is a time capsule because of the way print media works. I think that with a project like this it’s important to be open to what speaks to you and what’s speaking to your community right now. Create the thing that keeps the community wheel spinning.

DC: Exactly.

MT: I can’t wait to see future iterations of your mag, whether you make 10 more issues or you make a thousand more issues or just one, whatever. Whatever happens, I think it’s so cool, and I think it’s going to be really, really beautiful to see this current issue continue to come to life through the events that you have.

DC: Yeah, I’m so excited about that! And in general, I’m excited to see what happens and to keep going.

MT: That’s all you can do—just keep going.

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