Rare and Well-Done: Four current and former UofC students try to capture Chicago’s cultural zeitgeist

Jake Malone, Rory Tolan, Mikayla Lynch, and Theodore Nielsen (Courtesy of Stockyard Media)

Jake Malone, Rory Tolan, Mikayla Lynch, and Theodore Nielsen (Courtesy of Stockyard Media)

“This city was built on the back of the stockyards. And they’re dirty, they’re grungy… but out of that came a city that is so sleek, and so modern, with a downtown, with skyscrapers, and an opera house.” Sitting at a back corner table in the University of Chicago’s Hutchinson Commons, fourth-year undergraduates Jacob Malone, Theodore Nielsen, and Rory Tolan are talking about how they want to make their online magazine Stockyard into the cultural voice of Chicago. Tolan continues, “We want to denude the city all the way down.”

Stockyard first began to take shape in 2008, when Malone and Tolan, along with fourth founder Mikayla Lynch, came up with the idea as a way to bridge the gaps in Chicago’s disparate cultural life. “We needed a creative outlet, something that is missing at this university, and we felt that Chicago, which has such a vibrant arts scene, was missing a culture magazine that could bring it together,” says Malone. “New York has the New Yorker. Chicago doesn’t have that.” The group originally hoped to publish a paper edition, but the logistics proved impossible as print media is joining the stockyards as part of Chicago history. So Malone learned web design, the group adjusted their ideas to fit the Internet medium, and the magazine’s digital form, stockyardmagazine.com, was born.

The website is prettier than the stockyards were. White boxes carry text against an illustrated black background, with elegant red highlights as one of the few traces of stockyard blood. The magazine runs pieces in many different formats, including reporting, fiction, poetry, commentary, and reviews, and has published writers from New York, Washington, London, and Edinburgh. An impressive section called the Gallerie includes pull-up windows of well-curated images of work from several Chicago artists. The aesthetic is meant to represent what the founders identify as the central challenge of Stockyard: combining high and low culture. As Tolan acknowledges, “We dance a careful dance with intellectualism.” The editors take the selection process for articles seriously. While there are opinions of all kinds on the site,­­­ the writing is carefully edited to match a specific style. “My red pen is a hefty hatchet,” Tolan says smugly. When in doubt, the group refers to their namesake as the inspiration for their aesthetic values, appealing to the slogan “rare and well-done.” Every story ends with a red period, representing the blood spilled in the stockyards and, as Malone jokes, in the course of the magazine’s development, which “has spilled a lot of metaphorical blood and real tears.”

There is, though, another side to Stockyard. “This is fundamentally a business enterprise,” says managing editor Nielsen, who joined the project in August 2008 and also works with the business side of the magazine. The four founders, who officially incorporated Stockyard Media in August 2008, financed much of the project themselves and have actually begun turning a profit in the last few months. They recently started two subsidiary companies, one that does graphic design and another that will be running an online tutoring network for Chicago students. “We are all very aware that the success of this magazine means careers for all of us,” says Malone, and Tolan quickly agrees, “We wouldn’t be working this hard on a project that didn’t have a future.”

Its founders are serious, organized, and clearly dedicated, but Stockyard isn’t Chicago’s New Yorker, at least not yet. The site is still small and doesn’t reflect much of the gritty experience implied by the name, and while there are strong voices among the magazine’s writers, the quality isn’t consistent. One reader commented on the style in a story about Chicago’s absinthe scene: “was it about absinthe… or the author’s ability to make obscure references?” The line between what is an aesthetically and politically diverse cultural forum and what is a mess of egos can get fuzzy in many of Stockyard’s pieces. It is clearly not easy to represent the city built on the back of stockyards, where what is beautiful, what is true, and what is profitable are often very different things.

Chicago itself will decide if Stockyard will grow to fill the gap in its cultural and literary conversation. So far, the dedicated founders appear to be enjoying the struggle, and are not timid about stating their aims. “To me, the success of this magazine will be to give the city a reason and a voice,” Tolan says. He laughs and looks to Malone. “Or is that too pretentious to publish?”