Sitting across a dinner table in Mexico City back in 2009, Nathan Thornburgh and Matt Goulding hatched an idea. Thornburgh, a longtime foreign correspondent for Time magazine, and Goulding, a roving food writer and editor who pioneered the bestselling “Eat This, Not That” series for Men’s Health, had an idea for a travel website that would publish stories that alchemized their two principal interests: food and politics.
I foresee it being a gloriously independent and somewhat futile business for the years to come.
The resulting site, Roads & Kingdoms, is a testament to both co-founders’ journalistic vision (and the digital design sense of the third co-founder, Doug Hughmanick), as well as their stubbornness to stick with longform for longform’s sake.
These are young guys but firmly old media, and that dissonance may be the secret to their success. There are no ads or sponsored posts. Roads & Kingdoms traffics in old-school authenticity, an increasingly rare commodity on today’s web. Any R&K story must have what Thornburgh calls an “intramural element,” meaning it is not a story only about food, or war, or demagoguery or sports, but some combination of these foundational themes. This gives the site the initial look and feel of a traditional travel magazine, until the shot of adrenaline kicks in, followed by a healthy dose of ground-level grittiness.
After five years in business — a lifetime in the online journalism world — Roads & Kingdoms has widened its scope, padded its profit margin, bolstered its staff and added Anthony Bourdain as a contributing editor. At last month’s South By Southwest, the R&K team announced a new collaboration with Bourdain and CNN. With the recently launched digital site Explore Parts Unknown, the R&K team will go deeper into each episode of Bourdain’s hit food-and-politics travel show to provide a 360-degree view of each location Bourdain visits.
They’ve experienced all this growth while maintaining, as Thornburgh puts it, the feeling that “this, what we do, is personal to us.”
I spoke to Thornburgh over a series of phone conversations on one of his stopovers back at his home base in Brooklyn. We talked about the site as a whole, as well as the story in which he traveled to Peru and drank the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca, which has long drawn seekers like William S. Burroughs to South America to partake in what the writer called “a complete derangement of the senses.” Lately, it has become the alternative medicine du jour, attracting everyone from tech tycoons to soldiers suffering from PTSD.
Thornburgh’s piece, which took him years to finish and covers, among other personal anguish, his grueling cancer treatment, perfectly encapsulates R&K’s strange — and strangely stirring — brew of entertainment, vulnerability, authority and storytelling that have become the site’s editorial hallmarks.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
It’s funny how there’s a lot of high-level worry about this industry, but sometimes you can just answer it with the same kind of approach that every small or midsized business has to take: Don’t spend a dollar you don’t earn. That’s surprisingly effective as a way of staying in business.
It seems like you have adhered to a unique editorial philosophy for the lifespan of the site. Is that true?
Have we stuck with it? Yeah. The level of fidelity has been super-high. That’s one of the things you win with your independence, and our kind of financially independent state. If we had large amounts of Silicon Valley money, then the business would have a very different trajectory, but every business model warps content on some level. You’re either going to go super-broad and hot-takey if you need to reach scale, or if you’re trying to go Hollywood scale and get stuff greenlighted, you’re only going to go with massive, deeply investigated stories. There are compromises everywhere. But I don’t worry about the partnership with CNN warping what we’re doing. R&K.com and all the R&K-stamped media, whether it’s the events or the podcast or the content, that’s all well within our control. I foresee it being a gloriously independent and somewhat futile business (laughs) for the years to come.
Looking back on the past five years, how do you think you’ve not only survived, but built a loyal audience?
Our voice is different, and I think probably custom-made almost for the internet and really our demographic. The key difference from what we do and traditional magazine-ing is that we don’t mind privileging the first person on some level to make sure our readers know who our writers are. It’s about establishing authority for the author. Part of that course is that we want to use writers who are local to the region they’re writing about, to find someone from that culture that they’re writing about, and can use that perspective in the story. That’s an important thing for readers these days, because the definitions of trust are different now than they used to be. It’s not a single, monotone, organizational voice. It’s about who are you and why are you telling this story. The length, and the desire to have every story we do reported from that place, it’s expensive, and hard to pull off, and the opposite of low-hanging fruit. That’s a really interesting challenge.
On a practical level, the thing that’s allowed us to survive is our deep fiscal conservatism. As a company, we’ve been very cautious, pay ourselves dirt and have a lot of sweat equity. We’re cautious. We haven’t made big bets on building a community hub, or something like that that is expensive and still very unproven. It’s funny how there’s a lot of high-level worry about this industry, but sometimes you can just answer it with the same kind of approach that every small or midsized business has to take: Don’t spend a dollar you don’t earn. That’s surprisingly effective as a way of staying in business.
Many people may know R&K best as one of Anthony Bourdain’s many side projects, and the site and he seem to have similar guiding philosophies. How did the relationship with him start?
Matt and I had both met him in previous jobs. One of my editing jobs at Time was to run the 10 Questions page, and I had picked Bourdain out. I didn’t know that much about him, but had seen “No Reservations” a couple times and thought he’d be outspoken and ready to go to print. He came by, and he was great. Interviewing celebrities is like one long humiliation. Whether it’s them or their handlers, there’s someone there to remind you that you are an insignificant blot, a stain on this man’s calendar. Tony was totally the opposite. I think he took the subway, had no entourage, spent all the time we needed. The guy spits fire. He knows how to talk like nobody I’ve ever met, but was also really interested in the work we were doing and the journalism. So I had a good impression from that.
We asked when we started it, “Who would be an ally for us in this march?” We had a launch party at SXSW when we started the website in 2012, and we sent Tony an email to ask him to come out. It was no high-ticket event — it was at my brother’s house — and we got an email immediately that said, “No.” We were super-excited. He emailed us back! From there, though, we’ve gotten a few yeses from him, which, if nothing else, show us that we were creatively like-minded. And I’ll say this about Tony: He’s a guy who does what he says. He’s always very forthright, and he’s not going to tell you pretty little nothings he doesn’t mean. Everything he has said that we wanted to do with R&K, he has done. Particularly for a man with so many obligations and demands on his time, to put follow-through at the top of his list of values, I really appreciate that about him.
What’s the pitching process for R&K like? I’ve pitched before, and I assume any other writing-oriented traveler (and there are many of us) has considered it as well. Is there an archetypal R&K contributor?
We have a stable of writers we love and go back to often, and certainly our editors here, part of their job is to look at the world and say: “This is happening here. How do we make this an R&K story?” However, we do work a lot with people who approach us through the website and are interested in what we’re doing. A lot of them do come from folks who are not the usual British/American/Canadian/Australian suspects, and recognize we’re open to working with people from a lot of different places. A recent piece that’s made us really happy is the Azov Dolphins piece, about an American-style football team in Ukraine. This Ukrainian photographer got in touch and thought we would be interested, and that to me is a great example of a story where we didn’t go out and say, “We need to find an NFL team in a war zone,” but once we saw that story come in, it was the perfect story.
Is there something specific you’re looking for in a story? Perusing your site just now, I’m struck, as I usually am, by the variety of the articles. There’s a guide to getting drunk at Disney World just below a Q&A with an Iraqi fixer. Is there an editorial mindset that allows those to coexist?
I think that perfect story has to have some kind of intramural element. A perfect story for me would never be purely a food story, or purely a war story. It’s kind of got to combine elements, and that feeling of being a cross-section of elements, that to me is an R&K story. It’s really built into the name, two things connected with an ampersand. War and football? We’ll take it. Food and politics? That’s a typical piece for us. That’s how we look at it: Get a couple different surprising elements in the same room and kind of go from there.
You haven’t written a ton of articles lately. Why did the one on ayahuasca strike a particular chord for you?
In the first couple of years, Matt and I were traveling a lot as a kind of proof of concept, and our co-founder Doug was traveling with us as well. We picked countries that had a mix of politics and food culture that gave us kind of the meat we were looking for. For us that meant South Africa, Myanmar, Denmark and Peru. Peru was an interesting place because it has this super-interesting culinary scene that’s the South American answer to what’s happening in Northern Europe. Matt was really interested in that and covering that, and I wanted a feature story to kind of sink my teeth into, and one thing that was happening in travel and tourism in Peru was this travel for ayahuasca. There’s that curiosity of, “What the hell is that about? Is it what it seems in the news reports?” I did a quick Lexis-Nexis search, a lot of which were short-hit articles about a kid who almost died, or somebody got robbed, these little negatives of the experience. But I could tell there was no way for news articles like that to get into the why. Yes, there are negatives, but there has to be some value there, people traveling for it, wanting to bring it back to the States.
There’s no better way to understand something than to jump in it. Trying to describe what’s happening while you’re stone-cold sober, you’re not going to come out of that with anything more than when you started. So the freedom to go and take these drugs and take the ride, that’s what I’ve won for having this scrappy and, at times, struggling media company.
What was your reporting process like, once you were “pulled into the ether?” I imagine you weren’t taking notes, even really mental ones, due to the drug’s power, so how did you document it?
I had good fortune with the shaman. He was very accommodating, so I did a lot of interviews and I was recording through the ceremony. We’re going to use some of the audio from the story in a new podcast we’re starting. (The producer promised she wouldn’t use any of the vomiting audio.) Now, anyone who’s ever been high on anything and had a pretty deep thought, and tried to engage that thought the next morning, will recognize that I had a bunch of tape, a bunch of stuff, but listening back I couldn’t really figure out what I was finding so incredible about what was happening. But I think from my mind, that’s a pretty interesting part about it. You can write the words, but what’s actually happening behind them? How do you get real meaning from it? I’m not sure. Really, at least in part, as I mentioned in the article, there’s a huge lag between when I did the ayahuasca, did all my notes, starting the article, and then finishing and publishing it. A couple of years. It took me a long time to put it into context. I had cancer, and eventually had some incontrovertible, fact-based stuff about Western medicine to compare that experience with.
Were you at all reluctant to do the second ceremony, after having what seems to be the best possible experience during the first?
That is a great question. I think context matters, when it comes to hallucinogens, and I think if you’re really feeling in the right frame of mind, then you’ll metabolize those things. I saw a lot of gory things on my good trips, so I wouldn’t say it’s a sanitized experience even when it’s going well, and since you’re writing for a journalism publication, the main question I had for Mother Ayahuasca was about journalism. I was having a lot of personal conflict and doubt about the things I had done as a journalist. Which is not to say I had been unethical according to our standards, but the kind of journalism I was doing was going and prying into people’s lives that are in tremendous tumult, grieving, death and so on, and asking a ton of questions about it. That was my job and I got to do it for TIME and it was a dream job, but I wanted to know, morally, am I good person doing this? I wanted to hear from this diety, from this experience, that it was OK, that I was still a good person. Here’s where it gets pretty good. All of this stuff is happening in your own mind, so lo and behold, I came out with a clean slate of approval from Mother Ayahuasca, which is very convenient. So I may have just been reassuring myself, but either way I came out thinking, you know what? It’s OK.
I was leaving the most corporate news magazine there is and starting my own thing, and suddenly I’m dosing in the jungle. I had kids, I had a family, and I had a lot of questions. That’s one of the things I love about ayahuasca, if you have a big life question, or death question, it can be really good for taking another look at those.
My sister went through a nearly two-year slog with cancer — surgery, radiation, chemo, infections from the radiation — and I can’t help but think, after reading your article, that ayahuasca would have given her that existential reassurance you talk about. Do you think the concoction will continue to become more mainstream? Perhaps not a doctor-recommended treatment, but at least one without the requisite stigmas?
The experience of going through and realizing I had cancer when I was down there, and Mother Ayahuasca had politely declined to mention that, had made me feel like it was medically less effective than they were claiming, but psychologically more valuable or important. There are many moments with cancer where you don’t know which way it’s going to go, what your particular prognosis is or whether this can be a much worse thing than they are saying. I always felt like in conversation with doctors, I felt like ‘Fuck it, if I get really bad news here, I’m going back down to the jungle, do ayahuasca and think about it.’ We’re all going to die, so if you’re looking at the road and it’s a crappy one, ayahuasca can help with that. I saw a lot of things without fear on ayahuasca, and that’s not my normal.