Ilan Mochari: I was waiting tables at a restaurant in Cambridge called Full Moon. I worked with a waitress named Jenn Bates, who’s an actress. She has since moved to the Bay Area. Jenn knew Holli. I don’t remember how they knew each other, but they were friends. When Holli moved up here and wanted to start a publication, she was just asking around if anyone knew any writers at all. I think Jenn mentioned my name to Holli. At the time it wasn’t, “Scout needs an editor.” Holli just needed someone to write the main article, which was going to be—you’ll never believe this—but it was going to be about the extension of the Green Line.
Holli Banks: I had worked for a small newspaper in Selma, Alabama right out of high school, so from ‘94 until almost 2000. Then I went off to theater school. I had done an annual Chamber of Commerce guide that was more magazine style with a group of women in Texas to supplement my less-than-lucrative acting career. … I moved to Somerville because my best friend moved to Cambridge. I moved the week after the ‘08 election. When I got here, I had no job and no place to live. I started sending out my resume. … I couldn’t get a job, I came to the most educated city in the United States with a musical theater conservatory degree. I saw all of these really cool, independently owned businesses. I was going to do a coupon book because I didn’t know how to put together editorial, and at the time I ran into Ilan and he was a writer and editor.
Ilan: I don’t think I have the editor’s note until the third one. And that’s when it began.
Lilly Milman: I was actually also waiting tables full-time when I interned at Scout, and then I spent a few months freelancing with our previous editor, Reena. I think it’s really interesting that you (Ilan and Holli) created something that I later inherited. Could talk about your initial vision for Scout?
Ilan: It’s important to credit Holli with with the initial vision and the launching. Holli is the entrepreneur behind it. Holli had the fortitude to stake her life on this at a time when—that was nine years after Inc. magazine was beginning to go online. To think that there would be a market for a print edition of a hyperlocal publication before everyone was using the compound adjective “hyperlocal…” But Holli had a sense had a sense that this would work.
Holli: When I first started, I was staying with a friend and using her dining room as an office. For the second issue, I got an office space and I actually lived in the back. I used a hot plate for the first three years. Luckily, there was a shower in there. It wasn’t supposed to be an apartment, but I think they were trying to rezone it so that it could be. Every night I was scared the police were going to come in and kick me out. … Those were the good old days.
Ilan: Once I became the editor, I think the way that we collaboratively shaped it was that with me at the helm, it became more devoted to serious journalism. Adam (Vaccarro) and Tom (Nash) were serious reporters. We wrote stories that I think people really liked. They might have even, in retrospect, been too serious. But I think that what was important about what we did was that it showed people that this wasn’t going to be a pennysaver. There were going to be real stories about their communities.
Adam Vaccarro: We did a story on Assembly Square that was really thorough and fair and told a really definitive history of all the fits and starts to get it to what it became. Assembly is obviously thriving at this point, but it took a lot of work to get it there. It was useful for us as reporters to understand the history to how it got there and it added a lot of context of how it turned it into the success that it’s become.
Ilan: There’s still an expectation that because you’re not paying for it, because it seems to be focused on your town, that you’re not going to find articles that are well written, that are about topics that aren’t mindlessly flattering to local kinds of businesses. Every time I open Scout, I’m really excited to see how that continues.
Holli: It’s not even just that there’s a new restaurant opening, but who started it and why and what are these recipes from?
Adam: Ilan definitely encouraged Tom and I to go hard at City Hall and have fun causing trouble and being skeptical about the direction of the city. Somerville was on the path to what it is today. It was, you could say, halfway through its generational makeover.
Ilan: My favorite story was called “Look Homeward, Soldier.” I basically got to walk in Memorial Day Parade with a Vietnam veteran. He gave me incredible access. It captured a side of Somerville that is like real, dyed-in-the-wool, patriotic New England town and not the sort of glitz-glamour, “put bacon on your donut” bullshit that I think a lot of people now associate Somerville with. And of course the photos from the parade are incredible.
Lilly: That’s another full circle moment, because one of the goals of this “Then and Now” issue is to shine some light on Old Somerville and Cambridge. We have a story in this issue featuring Lawrence Willwerth, a veteran who helps plan the first flag raising reenactment.
Holli: In 2012, people really started asking me to do a Cambridge publication. I had always envisioned multiple publications. That’s why the company is called Banks Publications and not Somerville Scout. I thought that Cambridge was too big and too diverse economically, but I had some advertisers. And Cambridge has been a bigger challenge. It’s remained a challenge to cover that much ground and that many neighborhoods with that limited small team that we must maintain to be able to do this.
Ilan: I still get every issue and read it. I think the magazine now basically resembles what the magazine looked like when I left it to Adam and Tom in 2012. I would say, though, right now the layout is much better, smoother. That’s been a wonderful improvement. And the other thing is that Scout still digs deeper to get a story that has not been told. My favorite thing about reporting for Scout was that I never ever had to deal with a public relations professional. You’re talking to the sources every time. And that’s not something to take for granted.
Adam: Local journalism has been devastated in the last 10 years. … So, to have had the opportunity to spend two months researching something, and writing a really thorough story that highlighted the issues in the city… There aren’t a lot of opportunities like that in journalism right now, especially at the local level. That was highly valuable to me. I’d done some freelancing before, but this was my first regular journalism job and Somerville was such an interesting training ground for that.
Ilan: So many times in life, you deal with a publisher who just cares about money and Holli cares about the magazine. When you have a publisher-owner, it’s really important. Many publishers throughout the world of journalism—they’re employees, and they’re judged by a singular single number: revenue. So when the owner, who’s also the publisher, is someone who’s also thinking, “I want a magazine that I can be proud of,” that’s rare. You don’t want the magazine that people just flip through for coupons.
Holli: I think it’s really important to share these stories and keep these cities still neighborhoods and still communities—you know, people knowing their neighbors. That’s what Scout’s always been about and I feel really good about that mission.
This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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