Q&A: Naomi Starkman

A conversation with Penngrove’s Naomi Starkman, who runs Civil Eats with Editor-at-Large Paula Crossfield, about digital media, winning a James Beard award, sustainable agriculture, and living in Sonoma County.

What does the James Beard Foundation award mean to you?

I do think it’s a big deal that the James Beard Foundation recognized us, for a number of reasons. We’re a blog and we were named “publication of the year” amongst many different formats. Traditionally, they might name a magazine or some other kind of print edition, and I think it’s quite a statement on their behalf that they are supporting sustainable agriculture, because they are really known as a foodie organization that normally recognizes chefs, restaurants, books and food writing, and I think they are trying to elevate [sustainable agriculture] and are doing it at a time when they as an organization are also taking so steps to identify more with sustainability.

This is something that we’ve been doing for five years, and we know that we’ve been ahead of the curve. But I think we’ve reached a critical mass, and their recognition brings us to the front of the pack and allows people to say, in fact, critical, more content-driven reporting on food systems issues is really important.

What do you think this means for digital media?

I think we are unique. I like to call Civil Eats a community supported blog, kind of like community supported agriculture. We started because we found there was a lack of reporting in issue areas, and at the same time there was this burgeoning food movement. We tried to create a platform and a space for dialogue on important food-movement issues. It’s totally unique in that way. It’s not just a food blog; it’s actually a beloved space for people in the food movement, and for a long time we’ve worked with people who are not traditional writers—chef, farmers, advocates—people who are new to writing but who have something to say and didn’t have a place to say it. That’s different than a regular glossy publication and it is kind of scrappy, but I think there is a reason why Michael Pollan has called us the best online food and politics magazine. We know we’ve started a trend that’s leaking into larger [mainstream] reporting.

You’ve been volunteer-based but recently completed a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign. What’s the business model going forward?

With Kickstarter, we raised the most money ever for any news site of any subject, and that was really based on the community and the feeling that they had a piece of the pie. There was this great sense that if we didn’t fund it, it wasn’t going to happen and in order to do that, we needed people to step up. Going forward, Kickstarter is just that—it’s a project to help kickstart long-term funding of the site. In order to cultivate new writers and new voices and reach a wider audience, we need to hire and bring on other reporters. We’ve been able to hire and pay our managing editor, Twilight Greenway, and my goal for this year is to be able to hire a reporter based in Washington, D.C., to be on the ground and on the front lines. We’re not a nonprofit. I’d suggest we’re a “no-profit.” We’re not doing anything that has a profit model except for paying for reporting. But we have foundation support and individual support, and hopefully down the road we’ll have a membership-support model as well.

Where would you like to be in five to 10 years?

That’s what I’m in the process of figuring out. For so long I’ve had to serve as editor and now I can serve more as a publisher, and so my job is really to think about where does Civil Eats grow and go. I’ve always joked way before the Huffington Post had a vertical for food that we were like the Huffington Post for food. I would like for us to have that breadth and depth and multimedia component and video and really be like a news channel for food-systems issues.

Why do you live in Penngrove?

I love Sonoma County. I grew up in the Bay Area, and Sonoma County represents to me the best of why we love in the Bay Area. It still has a relative amount of ag land and Petaluma is my downtown, and it still has that old, cool vibe and it’s authentic and has local stores. I live in Penngrove because I live in a beautiful, bucolic place that’s not that far from the freeway, not that far from San Francisco, and it entitles me to incredible natural beauty and peace and quietude.

Sonoma County Library