July 10, 2018; Seattle Times
Oxford American (OA) is a nonprofit quarterly journal of Southern culture and literature printed in a glossy format like the New Yorker and Harper’s. Its music issue is featured on National Public Radio and won two National Magazine Awards. The magazine also consistently wins high literary honors. Nevertheless, the Massey Family Charitable Foundation (Richard Massey serves as one of OA’s three board members) just saved the magazine from another near-death experience. Completing a payment plan initiated in 2012, the foundation paid off the $700,000 debt with a grant of $286,000.
The original work of many contemporary literary giants first came to light in OA’s pages. Publishing previously unseen work by such Southern masters as James Agee, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston also pleased many readers. But successfully delivering on its mission did not exempt OA from fulfilling all the many duties of any nonprofit organization.
Founded in 1992 in Oxford, Mississippi as a monthly journal, OA struggled financially even after bestselling author John Grisham became the publisher. OA suspended operations in 2002. OA revived in 2003, publishing four issues before ceasing publication again. In 2004, OA moved its operations to and in partnership with the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) as a nonprofit organization with founder Marc Smirnoff remaining as editor. In 2008, the Internal Revenue Service sought to collect back taxes that a former office manager embezzled. OA’s debt to UCA climbed to $700,000 after the school lent OA $150,000 to resolve the crisis.
In 2012, amid allegations of sexual harassment and other issues, the OA board dismissed Smirnoff and OA’s then managing editor. The former editor of Harper’s magazine served as OA’s editor until Eliza Borné was named the editor-in-chief in 2015. Ryan Harris was named Executive Director of the Oxford American Literary Project, the nonprofit organization that publishes the magazine, in 2016. Later that year, OA won its fourth National Magazine Award in the “General Excellence, Literature, Science, and Politics” category.
“We have made some difficult decisions,” Harris said. “We had to get financially much more austere than we had been and tighten the belt quite a bit.”
Harris said budget measures included eliminating some staff positions and reducing others’ pay. The magazine focused on fundraising and expanding from being just a literary magazine to also sponsoring special events.
“We’re starting to get people to thinking about the Oxford American as more than a magazine, but as a concept, a nonprofit arts organization” that is also about “empowering southern artists and giving them a voice to be heard,” Harris said.
The magazine’s editorial offices are located on the UCA campus. OA leases a building in downtown Little Rock to collaborate with other arts organizations. The building also includes OA’s South on Main restaurant and performance venue. OA recently introduced its video series, SoLost, “which celebrates getting lost in the American South.”
This tough literary quarterly with a robust online and street-level presence refuses to fade away to the delight of its readers and fans. OA matters. Summer 2018 is OA’s 101st issue. It appears to be stable and poised to grow. Many people, not just in the South, need and want all that OA can continue to give them.—Jim Schaffer