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Q+A: Nathan Thornburgh, Roads & Kingdoms

Roads & Kingdoms is an online magazine and production company reporting on food, politics, travel and culture. They publish longform dispatches, interviews and global ephemera daily, and work with correspondents, photographers and videographers from around the world. They won the 2017 James Beard Publication of the Year award and have been named SATW’s Best Travel Journalism Site. We sat down with Roads & Kingdoms Co-Founder and CEO Nathan Thornburgh to talk about the R&K approach to journalism.

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Is the traveler Roads & Kingdoms main audience?

Yes. Before Roads & Kingdoms, I was a foreign correspondent and my partner Matt Goulding was a food editor at Men’s Health. We had our own specialties and our own way of doing things. The travelers found us: our readers. The more that we talked to them the more we found out who’s reading us and why. A large section of our readership are people who had done a gap year, or had traveled for six months, or had lived overseas as kids and are now in their mid-twenties or early thirties. They are people who want to be out in the world, regardless if they have a job or a family. They still try to get out there and hold on to something that they remember about traveling deeply. I love that.

Are you mostly reporting? Or are you engaging with your readers in a dialogue?

Right now, it’s mostly reporting. Social networks can be a real force for dialogue and community. Increasingly, that’s driving what we’re thinking about and what we’re writing about. We had a reader who had sent us a Facebook message looking for a certain kind of Singaporean black vinegar. I love that she thought to message Roads & Kingdoms. We were super intrigued. So we brought the question to Simpson Wong who is a famous Singaporean chef here in New York. We asked him, “Have you ever heard of this in New York? Can you find it?” He was sick that day, but he sent his cook to Chinatown to look for it and he couldn’t find it. We have a writer in Singapore, Calvin Godfrey, who won a Beard Award for a piece he did with us last year. He’s a great writer, a very interesting and curious guy. We said, “Calvin what about this black vinegar? Can you find it out there?” He went to the factory, and they said no we don’t sell it to America. The more I talked to him the more I started thinking this could be a real story. It’s a very specific black vinegar. There’s a Chinese pig trotter dish that can only be done with this brand of bulldog vinegar. People make pilgrimages to this factory to stock up on it. So we went from a reader interest, to trying to find an ingredient, to discovering there might be a bigger story about that ingredient. I couldn’t think of a more perfect assigning role. So hit us up on Facebook with your bizzare ingredient requests. To me, that is evolution for us.

I image that wouldn’t be your typical process. How do you source the writers and locations highlighted on Roads & Kingdoms?

No, we’re not sitting around refreshing Facebook. The main way that we get our content is through our network of freelancers. Foreign correspondents who are still out there even after the big bureaus have shut down. It makes for an interesting cadre of people to call on. We have them follow up on things in the news that have a Roads & Kingdoms angle. Something that’s character driven. Something that intersects with food, music or culture in a big way.

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Is your readership mostly in the US?

Yea, it’s about 65% percent American and then kind of split between South Asia and the rest of the Commonwealth. We have local writers and essayists who write really beautiful pieces about India and Pakistan. I don’t think they’re used to seeing that coming out of the US. We happen to really care about those places.

Are the people writing Roads & Kingdoms articles always locals?

Yes, it’s a real goal of ours. Not just for the surface appeal of working with people who are native to that region, but you get a very different quality of story. One of the things that we try to fight in this business is the old colonial hangover that foreign correspondence has. The de facto has been American and British men; then women started to make some headway, but it was still very much an American centered system that would interpret and explain part of the country. If we can do that as editors working with the thoughts, ideas and words of people who are from these areas we’re going to be on the right side of history. They have long since fought for the right to tell their own stories. When it’s done well and it’s presented sharply there’s nothing better. It’s a challenge to find writers and communicate across different banking systems and time zones, but it’s worth it. It’s much better than parachuting into a place. It’s much better to have a personal and firm relationship to the place that you’re writing about.

Is the Roads & Kingdoms team going out and traveling?

Yes, we need to be walked every once and awhile. It’s the thing that attracts people to this particular place. Kaylee Hammonds was just in Korea doing a feature story. Cara Parks went to Hanoi and Yangon. I went to Taipei and Hong Kong. So we definitely invite ourselves along for some of the ride. We’re finishing up a book on Italy that my partner wrote. We did the layout, photography and cover design in situ. We are actually in the place where we could get the ingredients and think about how a book on Italy should be structured. We want it to be as experiential as possible. But at the same time DUMBO is home. I don’t quite believe in digital nomads as a core work culture. I still think it’s great to have an office to talk with each other. Making sure we have a good crew that’s always keeping the fire on here in Brooklyn is important.

What tips do you have for travelers who are looking for an authentic experience of a foreign place?

You can get specific recommendations like go here, here and here, but it’s more about setting a context for experience. If you’re in Japan for example, it’s knowing you should try monjayaki or the food stalls on a particular street, spend a bit of time at the big intersections like Shinjuku or Shibuya, and just watch people. Do that one thing. Do it in your own way and in your own time. It’s more about being curious. Japan is a tough one. You can never read menus. There’s very little English used. You’ll go some place and they’ll say we don’t serve foreigners. Their very apologetic and very polite, but they don’t have the capacity to explain to you the very systemized and ritualized way that they do a meal service. The act of walking into that place, that’s a start. It’s a little bit of bravery to go beyond your own boundaries. If you have that then you’ll find what you need to find.

What can we expect to see from Roads & Kingdoms in the future?

We’re starting to do destination guides. That’s big for 2018. We’re going out and getting writers and photographers to bring back R&K stories from specific locations so we can package them along with travel information. It’s still a very unusual form of city guide. We’ll be doing some deep dive journalism and longform pieces as well as the information you need to know like what’s the best way to get from the airport or what’s the best neighborhood right now. If done right, those things are super useful, but we also want to provide deeper context.

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How long have you been in DUMBO?

We started renting from The Atavist, which is an online publisher and platform, in 2013. We took over the lease from them over a year ago. I respect the work that The Atavist and Longform, which was also in the office space, did. It means a lot more than just having space; space is just real estate, but being in a place where people are doing the work that you aspire to do makes the difference.

You also have an office in Barcelona.

Matt, my co-founder, lives in Barcelona. The Barcelona office is not a bad thing. It’s on El Born market, which is a really rad neighborhood right across Via Laietana from the gothic quarters. It’s very central, the rent is cheap and the sun is always shining. There’s been some rumors of war there recently, but I think Barcelona is still an incredibly charming city.

What are some of your favorite places in DUMBO?

Los Papi’s. It’s a Dominican run deli. I’m from South Florida, and I lived in Cuba, so I’ve been around Cuban food my entire life. They serve a Cuban mix, a Dominican version of a Cuban sandwich, that is just the most incredible thing. It is so legit. It has half a lechón in there.  They’ve been in DUMBO for thirty three years. They’re super good dudes and they cook super good food. Anytime I’m feeling claustrophobic about being around a bunch of people that look and talk like me I go to Los Papi’s. I was talking with Rafi at Los Papi’s yesterday about the next thirty three years and how they will survive. When a forty story luxury condominium or whatever is built on the lot across the street who knows if people who just paid two million dollars for a condo will go in there. Money is a monoculture. That’s true all over the world. Their are people who want a similar kind of barista in Tokyo, in Adelaide, in Mumbai, in London, in Brooklyn, what I would describe as the monocle set. That’s an aspiration that I don’t share. I want the opposite. I want to feel a place where I’m at. There is a tension particularly in travel, in global culture, how do we experience the vanishing differences on earth? Some of the places that I’m most attracted to, which include Japan, have an innate alienation for the traveler. You can’t really understand it. You can’t fit in it. It’s not there to please your preexisting tastes on some level. That for me is something that is deeply enjoyable. Now you could go to Tokyo and have a very lux experience that feels kind of homogenous, but it’s very easy not to. It’s easy to have a very real experience and very dislocating very confounding and delightfully weird experience there. When it comes to DUMBO, the bones of this neighborhood are so unique, the atmospherics are great, a building like this is still something that you won’t find in other places. I just want to keep that.