Belting It Out: Talking Journalism with the Founder of BeltMag 

Anne Trubek calls the Phoenix Coffee on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights her "home office." She's an inveterate multi-tasker who teaches courses in rhetoric and English at Oberlin College and writes books with offbeat cultural thrusts like the future of handwriting. Perhaps most notably, Trubek has founded a unique media outlet stemming from an anthology about Cleveland, its history and renaissance. BeltMag.com is six months old and establishing its footing in the Cleveland media landscape. In another offshoot, last Wednesday marked the inauguration of the second of two new monthly reading series affiliated with BeltMag at the Happy Dog. At Phoenix, over a warm cup of coffee on this polar-vortexy January morning, Trubek discusses BeltMag's emergent identity.

First things first, you've written a book about handwriting?

I finished it in the fall, yes. [It will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.]

So give me one crazy fact. Will we still even write things in 2050?

It will continue, but it will be the way we think of things like shop class and sewing. Although I've noticed you have very nice handwriting.

Anne, it's the handwriting of a serial killer. [Pulls out personal notebook for inspection.]

Wow. A graphologist would have fun with this. I have a chapter on graphology, which is the science of determining personality through your handwriting. It's all bogus, you know, it's like astrology. But they would say that you're very insecure.

I beg your pardon?

Yeah, because you write small. You know, small letters, small ego. It's all very stupid.

Ahem. So two new readings at the Happy Dog, huh? Someone's feeling their oats.

The fact that we're doing two just sort of happened. It wasn't planned. Sean Watterson and I were talking, and I'm very invested in the future of liberal arts and the humanities outside traditional academic venues and that's a lot of what I do in my writing.

One of them seems more academic.

We're calling the one Hot Dog University. It has a liberal arts bent. I was thinking, I have so many friends who are such great lecturers who'd be great and who could come up with topics. When I asked people, I said, imagine a 200-level lecture you would give. So they're not speaking about their areas of research expertise. They're speaking about more general topics. They may be Cleveland-related or not. And they'll be topics that would work in the venue. It's a tough venue. The professors have to be willing or need to realize that they can't yell at the people in the back who aren't listening like they might in a classroom.

The first one [Jan. 4] was about cities?

Yeah. And next month we're doing one on the history of popular music in Cleveland before rock n' roll, and that's with Daniel Goldmark who's a music professor at Case. Apparently, he's bringing his ukelele. We're also planning a talk on Hamlet, one on gangster rap. It's a wide range.

And what's the other reading [last Wednesday's Belt Out!]?

Belt Out! will have readings from Belt, but then we're also inviting Rust Belt publications from other cities to come introduce themselves to Cleveland. Next month will be Rust Belt Almanac, which is a print publication from Pittsburgh. They'll be coming in and doing some readings and talking about what they do.

Is the Rust Belt Almanac affiliated wth you guys?

No, they're separate. They did their own thing—they did a Kickstarter—and they're great. We haven't done a Pittsburgh anthology yet, but we're publishing two anthologies in the spring through Rust Belt Chic Press.

And how's that related to BeltMag.com?

Rust Belt Chic Press has an online arm, beltmag.com, and a print publishing arm. The print publishing arm started with the Cleveland anthology, and there will be two more this spring, Detroit and Cincinnati, which are being edited by people in those cities who collected all the essays. And we'll be publishing it.

Do you see more anthologies in the future? Other Rust Belt-related books?

You know, basically I accidentally set up a press. I went to self-publish the first book and we decided we wanted to print it ourselves instead of going through one of these services and now it's like 'Wow, I've got this press.' Like I said, I'd love to do a Pittsburgh anthology, and I think we'll do a "Best of Belt" in the fall, but I'm definitely open to doing books other than what I'm seeing as a series of anthologies from Rust Belt cities.

How's the online stuff going?

It's going great. I'm very proud of the quality of writing we have up there. Our goal is to ensure quality over quantity, so we're okay if we miss a big story and if we don't have something up for a couple days. I think people see us as a place for that. I think to be only six months old and to have people recognize us as a place where they can find a certain type of content is really wonderful.

And what type of content is that, exactly? How would you characterize it?

We're evolving, but we definitely don't see ourselves competing with Scene or the PD. That doesn't mean we won't cover news stories. We did a piece on demolitions. We have a really big piece coming up on the Burke Airport that will contain things -- I think -- that no one has seen before. We are not averse to doing things like that. It really has to do with whether or not we can get the writers of the caliber that can pull off something like that. It's not easy to do a long, investigative, narrative piece, but we're definitely interested in doing that. What we're not interested in is keeping up with everything. We're just too small for that. We don't care about page views; that's not our goal. As long as we can keep that in mind and by keeping it free to all with very affordable memberships, we can sustain ourselves.

So you're entirely supported by memberships?

Belt's revenue stream is advertising sponsorship and membership. The memberships are key. The Cleveland anthology book sales fund a lot of that. We have t-shirts and events. That's really how we raise our money. We have two outside investors, at a small amount. But we don't have big pockets or big people behind us. And I think we need to get the word out about that because we need more members.

You've got another event coming up, right?

It's Honeybucket, this great band, and they're doing a concert at the Speakeasy on Feb. 12, and basically we want to have a party, but need to bring in money for Belt, and this is a fundraiser. Tickets are $30, $25 if you're a member. And they're selling fast, because Honeybucket has some intense fans.

Honeybucket - is that some indie folk outfit?

Newgrass.

Any online pieces you're particularly proud of so far?

I love the piece we did on the priest in Detroit-Shoreway. It's called "The Entrepreneurial Priest." It was just beautifully written and about a really fascinating topic. And we have this wonderful photographer so we had some great shots too. I love the Anisfield-Wolf piece, which was our first feature. And the Van Sweringen piece: It's called "Train Dreams," and we're running the second part of it soon.

Who wrote that?

It's by Pete Beatty, who's wonderful. He's originally from Cleveland and is now an editor in New York.

Seems like you sort of have a monopoly on the quirky historical essay.

I mean I love history. And if you can get a good writer who can tell it well, I'm just thrilled. Cleveland is full of all these great stories that haven't been told or haven't been told in a long time, so it's easy if you get the right writer. And one of the things I'm most proud of—when we do look at page views—it's those long historical or cultural ones getting the most hits.

Do you have a stable of writers or are you still on the hunt?

We're definitely actively looking. We do get pitches but we're definitely interested in more. We pay $500 for longform which is very good. It's not easy to do, but if someone out there has the ability, we are so thrilled to hear from them.

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