Catching The Drift
Co-founders Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka explain how their little magazine born at the onset of the pandemic captured the hearts and minds of young literary Brooklyn
Getting a little magazine off the ground is never easy, but The Drift launched at the start of a pandemic. Its founders, Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka, are in their late 20s, and as many of the articles they publish emphasize, they’ve come of age in times when despair doesn’t seem totally unreasonable. Their willingness to confront that with a spirit of exuberance and fun has won them a loyal following. Drift tote bags and baseball caps have become ubiquitous in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, and their offbeat, incisive pieces on topics as diverse as fighting forest fires as an environmental anthropologist, wealth inequality among millennials, everything wrong with Anthony Fauci, literary citation and search engines, the underlying politics of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, and the argument for using a lower-case b in Black, have not only fueled new conversations but inscribed and examined ongoing ones that more established publications are slower to pick up on. Which is precisely what the little magazine tradition is about.
For Barrow, little magazines have always been a fact of life. “I grew up in New York, which helps with that,” she said. “My grandparents were never involved in this world at all, but they were fans of it from afar and had ancient copies of Dissent in their attic.” But as a teenager, she was mostly interested in fashion glossies. Panovka also grew up in the city. Her grandfather was a correspondent for Look magazine who later became the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Chile. Her parents were both lawyers. She remembers them subscribing to The New York Times and The New Yorker, but not to little magazines. But Barrow’s and Panovka’s friendship didn’t spark until they each got to Harvard, where they both started taking an interest in magazines and participated in campus publications. One of Panovka’s professors, New Yorker staff writer Louis Menand, hired her as a research assistant on The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. “That book has a lot of literary magazine history,” she said. “I think that’s what piqued my interest.”
Panovka interned at The Paris Review in the summer of 2015 when it was still under the editorship of Lorin Stein, who would resign two years later after admitting to sexually harassing his staff, writers, and interns. Her experience in that office would inform The Drift’s first editors’ letter. “There was something disingenuous about the way #MeToo was treated in the media, which largely feigned shock at the discovery of abhorrent behavior that had been hiding in plain sight,” she and Barrow wrote. “The sexualized atmosphere Lorin Stein cultivated as editor of The Paris Review was no secret to anyone who read The New York Times article announcing his appointment: it called him a ‘sex symbol’ and a ‘serial dater.’” Rather than fostering Panovka’s interest in little magazines, the internship pushed her away from them. “It was something that made me want to get really far away from the New York City literary world,” she said.
Panovka and Barrow graduated from college in 2016. Panovka left for England on a Marshall Scholarship. Barrow moved back to New York, taking a job at Penguin. “I loved the people and the books, but it felt like a really long road,” she said. “Book publishing has really, really strong hierarchies and I think I was a little bit of a restless young person who wanted to do more of my own thing.”
In the summer of 2018, Panovka came back to the U.S. to visit her mother, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. That was also when she and Barrow started talking about projects that would allow them to address the gaps they were seeing in the discourse. “We thought a little bit about doing a podcast, which of course seemed more like the medium of the moment, whereas magazines seemed a little more archaic. But we both just loved magazines,” Barrow said. “We didn’t want to do a podcast that would be focused on us. We felt that we had a lot of smart friends and knew there were a lot of smart young people out there who weren’t getting their voices heard, and we really wanted to create a platform for that.”
By the following summer, they began working on their magazine. They started by orienting their relationship to the tradition. “Partisan Review and the mid-century era of little magazines got a lot of playtime,” Panovka said. “People were obsessed with the atmosphere of that time: This very, very masculine, very testosterone-fueled ethos where people would get into punching matches over ideas.” She’d found an alternative in the early 20th-century literary magazine The Masses, which Max Eastman, its best-known editor, called “a voice of the revolutionary class struggle.” It published Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, and John Reed. “We felt like The Masses had a different ethos that was much more appealing in our moment, post-Trump election, post-Me Too,” Panovka said. “It was a lot more playful, a lot more irreverent, took itself way less seriously, and was actually much more left-wing.” The magazine’s legacy is not uncomplicated, however. Eastman took a right turn later in life, becoming a rabid supporter of McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts and serving as one of the original contributing editors of National Review. Panovka argued that his drift need not mar the legacy of The Masses. “He had a real genius for pulling people together and for envisioning what a magazine could be,” she said, but he wasn’t the sole source of the magazine’s greatness. “He’s only one of many people who were involved in that scene,” she said, adding, “I guess I don’t need to cancel Max Eastman.”
Barrow and Panovka didn’t plan on using the name — a New Masses revival was published from 1926 to 1948 — but their 501(c)(3) is called The New (New) Masses Foundation. They illustrate their print issues with images from it and The Liberator, the magazine Eastman and his sister Crystal founded after The Masses shut down in 1917 after the postmaster general claimed their issue was unmailable because it violated the Espionage Act. Instead, they landed on The Drift. They sent around a call for pitches to friends and friends of friends and started working on articles. “We were very focused on content first,” said Barrow. “It was only once we felt we had a good set of pieces in place that we started to even think about the logistics and the organizational structure and what we would need to make it a reality in the world.”
“We didn’t raise money at the beginning,” Panovka said. “In the end we each put in maybe $1,000 to make the website and that was it. But our strategy was we launched our website before we put any issues on it. We had a payment portal and we wrote up an announcement that we were starting this thing, an email to family and friends, and we asked everyone [involved in the issue] to forward it to 10 or 20 people, basically asking them to subscribe before it launched, which we figured only people who were our contributors’ grandparents and parents and friends would do, and that covered our first issue. We didn’t know how much we were going to be able to pay our writers before the launch, so everyone who wrote for the first issue wrote on faith.”
In early 2020, they reached out to other little magazines, including n+1, The Baffler, and The Paris Review. “We were starting to go to a lot of meetings and make the rounds and gather advice about what we actually needed to do in terms of printing, in terms of making a website, in terms of social media publicity, all the nuts and bolts,” Barrow said. “There were a lot of people telling us, ‘This is out of date, but when we first started, we were doing this. It doesn’t really apply anymore.’ Because there’s been so much change, obviously, in media, a lot of these publications are still in the throes of figuring out how they’re responding to that. So they were open about, ‘Yeah, we’re figuring this out, too.’”
They also started building a masthead. “The week before the pandemic, we had two meetings with potential editors. We were thinking maybe we could do weekly in-person editorial meetings. We were trying to build a staff, but we hadn’t really done it until the summer of 2020,” Panovka said. “Once we had a website, once we had graphics, we felt like we were in a position to bring people on. But until that point, it was really hard because nobody knew if it was going to exist.”
Tarpley Hitt, the editor of The Drift’s short-form review Mentions section and a writer at Gawker, was then a reporter at The Daily Beast in Los Angeles. She’d gone to college with Barrow and Panovka and was attracted to their project’s more contemplative schedule. “Working in digital media, you don’t get a lot of time to really edit a piece multiple times, or sit with an idea for a couple months,” she said, “so it was a nice change of pace to be involved in something where you were really close reading and doing multiple rounds of edits.”
(Disclosure: This reporter contributed two mentions to The Drift before joining The Fine Print.)
On the day the reality of the pandemic sank in, Panovka and Barrow were thinking about their magazine’s first party. “We’re sitting around planning it, and we’re looking at the news, looking at Twitter going, ‘blugh, I don’t know if this is going to happen,’” Panovka recalled. “Not only could our party not happen, but half of the content that we completed was irrelevant. We had a piece on nightclubs. None of it addressed this huge fact that had now come to define our world. So we freaked out a little bit and then we went back to the drawing board on some of the pieces and we commissioned a bunch of new pieces.” They also scrapped their plans to have the magazine in print from the start. Their first four issues would appear only online.
They launched their first issue on June 24, 2020, with, in keeping with a long little magazine tradition, a pugilistic editors’ letter. “It’s not exactly a fun time to start a magazine, nor is it a convenient one,” they wrote. “The list of reasons for despair is long. The list of arguments against starting a magazine in 2020 isn’t terribly short, either. But watching the existing magazines fumble their responses to the pandemic and then chaotically reorder their mastheads, we’re more convinced than when we started: it’s time for something new.” In some ways, the dislocation and pandemonium of the pandemic’s dawn created the perfect conditions for their new magazine to have an impact. “After the BLM protests had happened and things had settled again a little bit, it ended up being a very opportune time,” Barrow said. “People were very much indoors, very much online, very interested in reading something new, arguing about something new on Twitter.”
In the months after the publication of the first issue, Panovka’s mother entered hospice care, and she left New York to be with her, temporarily scaling back her involvement with the magazine. Her mother died on September 29, 2020.
In that period, the team of associate editors became more involved. They had more time to help than they might have outside a pandemic context. “I don’t think we could have gotten that kind of buy-in from writers and editors during normal life,” Panovka said. “We started doing these weekly Zoom meetings, basically after issue one, with our team of editors, and they’ve been really fun. I think a lot of people felt like they were especially helpful just socially in the bleakest months of the pandemic.” Hitt concurred: “There was a period where a weekly Zoom with ten other people was the most action-packed thing happening.” But the norms of those early days couldn’t last. “We got very accustomed in the first year to having our editors around and available in the evenings, on weekends,” said Barrow. “They all, for the most part, have full-time jobs or are in grad school, but have been able to devote a really amazing amount of time.”
Things started to shift when the vaccines began to roll out widely last spring. “The first weekend I went out and did something on a Saturday night, I looked at my phone after a few hours and had like 60 text messages from various editors. Everyone was in working. Obviously, we don’t have that anymore,” said Panovka. Though they continue to host their Monday editorial meetings on Zoom, they’ve formed an in-person scene in parallel. “For everybody who’s in New York,” Panovka said, “it’s become kind of a social thing.” They started hosting larger events too. On June 24, in a bar in the East Village, they hosted their first birthday drinks. When they hosted their issue five launch party on October 7 in Crown Heights, the crowd had at least doubled, and there was a line to get in.
That reprieve from the worst of the pandemic also allowed them to return, with the fifth issue, to their previous print plans. “We had gone through the whole process already of touching a lot of paper samples and covers and deciding what we like,” Barrow said. But actually designing a magazine presented them with new challenges. “We had never thought about all the decisions that go into exactly where you place the page numbers, exactly how big the headings should be, what side the title should go on.”
One thing that’s stayed steady as they’ve moved through their print era is their commitment to intensive edits. “Vibe, Mood, Energy” was one of the last pieces to come together in their new issue. Mitch Therieau, a Ph.D. student at Stanford, cold pitched them the idea in late October. Over the last few years, he’d found that he couldn’t stop saying “vibe.” “It’s kind of saturated the way that I talk and think about the world,” he told The Fine Print. “I say it all the time, probably to the extreme annoyance of my friends and loved ones.” He wanted to figure out what the increasing ubiquity of that word and others like it meant, and The Drift seemed like the sort of publication that would allow him to tackle that question. “Since their first issue came out, it just seemed to me like they were occupying a really interesting niche in the criticism world. They’re interested in working with new writers — people who maybe have not been in the industry for decades and decades,” he said, “which is certainly not me.”
Barrow was intrigued partly because she catches herself overusing those words too. “We were already a little bit far along in this issue cycle,” she said, “but it was still just under the wire.” So Therieau rushed to get them a draft in a few weeks. “What I turned in to them was a bunch of pretty sentences with extremely vague ideas behind them,” he said. “The thing that I appreciated so much about Kiara’s and [associate editor Krithika Varagur’s], and later on Rebecca’s edits, is that they saw through the bamboozlement of the shiny sentences.” They encouraged him to land on a more firm conclusion and pushed him to work through those comments relatively quickly by their standards. “We had to do the first developmental edit in a week,” he said. “I was working at my usual slow pace for the first six of those days, then something clicked into place, and I wrote for a 26-hour binge.” The editors were happy with the result. “From there, we were just doing small line edits and tweaks,” Barrow said.
Therieau was thrilled by the process, but compensating writers fairly for that amount of work can be tough given little magazine economics. “They’re very upfront about their rates,” he said. “They paid me $400.” The lack of money can be tough on editors too. “We’re doing 15 drafts or whatever of this thing, and none of us are getting paid or are getting paid in a way that averages out to very little. That’s definitely a frustration,” said Hitt. Asked how she hopes the magazine develops in the future, she half-joked, “I hope a very rich person gives us a ton of money so we can pay the top rates.”
The founders aren’t making a living off The Drift either. In their first year, Panovka went back to working part-time for Menand, fact-checking The Free World. Since then, she’s cobbled together freelance assignments from The New Yorker, Harper’s, Bookforum, and elsewhere. “It’s all a lot of freelance stuff,” she said. “Kiara’s gigs are more stable.” Barrow primarily subsists off copy-writing. About a year ago, they started paying themselves a part-time stipend. Barrow described their pay as “something to help us round out the other part-time and freelance things that we’re doing to make this work.” Barrow said. “We have been paying ourselves a very, very part-time stipend, but I think we’re gonna stop doing that,” Panovka said. “What we really want is to be able to have a paid staff.”
Their next issue, the sixth, will be published online on Monday and in print soon. Barrow seemed surprised they’d made it this far. “We’ve seen many magazines come and go,” she said. “There was no reason for us to think that ours was going to do particularly well. Now, we’re happy with how it’s been going. It feels like it’s been around for a good amount of time. It feels like it’s going to stay for at least a while longer.”