While Daniel Stedman may not have a desk at City Hall, a municipal vision as complete as his does seem rather mayoral. “Is it weird to get an omelette for lunch?” he asks the room. Burgers sizzle, a TV hums, and Stedman - the first citizen of the Brooklyn renaissance - is both feeling things out and right at home.
First, a quick introduction: Stedman, founder and CEO of Northside Media, is to Brooklyn what Elon Musk is to solar cells. Equals parts visionary, executor, and tireless advocate, Stedman moved to Brooklyn in 2003 and saw a genuine opportunity to shape his newly-adopted city for the better. That year, Stedman and his brother Scott began publishing The L Magazine, a small events glossy that catalyzed the first wave of 2000’s Manhattan emigration. Two years later, Stedman went from writing about events to throwing them: in 2005, he hosted the first-annual SummerScreen outdoor movie festival. In 2007, Northside Festival. The rest is history.
When I first reached out to Stedman about his vision for Brooklyn, he suggested we meet in one place and one place only: The Livingston Diner. Just a few blocks from Northside’s offices, the Livingston is a squat, family-owned full-service right off the Fulton Street Mall in downtown Brooklyn. The food? Cheap and delicious. The booths? Movable and pleather. In the shadow of a luxury condo project, this authentic slice of Brooklyn opens early and serves late. It’s a far cry from “brunch-y chic” - the kind of old-school place where everyone knows your name and order. Stedman’s been coming here for years.
While everyone here knows his name, today, even he doesn’t know his order. Then, gears click. Across a laminated table, the man behind Northside Festival, Brooklyn Magazine, SummerScreen, and nearly every public showing of Brooklyn to the world readies yet another localized spectacular: “Yeah, let’s do it. One Western omelette, with cheese.”
Like all of Brooklyn, I follow his example. Over omelettes and coffee, Daniel Stedman and I talk culture, community, and how his visions for Northside Media have shaped and defined Brookyln today:
Let’s dive right in. Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start Northside Media.
So, around 2003, my brother Scott and I both moved to Brooklyn - I was making short films, and he was a freelance writer for MIT Technology Review. [Scott] dreamed up this digest-sized magazine like what we had experienced during our brief time living in Europe. In Berlin, there’s tip Magazin. In Paris, there’s L’Officiel des spectacles. These were comprehensive, full of event listings, and everybody in the city used them religiously. Then we moved to New York, and we felt like there was nothing like this - not only in Brooklyn but in the whole city.
There was The Village Voice, but it was huge and unwieldy, and then there was TimeOut New York that just didn’t feel like something that a 22-year old living in Brooklyn would want on their coffee table. So, we started The L Magazine... which in retrospect may be the worst brand name in the history of publishing, but in a sort of academic sense, was exactly what we were doing: connecting Brooklyn and downtown.
The L Magazine had about a 12-year run. In that time, [The L] was a little ahead in capturing that “Brooklyn” partnership, because no advertiser wanted our Brooklyn demographic yet. While some other Brooklyn glossies were too ahead of their time and actually went out of business, The L Magazine - by bridging Brooklyn and downtown - was able to make it long enough. But, to keep it afloat, we had to keep throwing ideas against the wall.
What were some of those ideas?
The first was SummerScreen in 2005, which is the outdoors movie and concert series in Williamsburg that continues to this day. Local bands perform, but those local bands might include Sean Lennon, and then, of course there are great contemporary classics on screen. This was the first large scale event we attempted.
Right after, Scott and I had gone down to Austin to check out South by Southwest, and we were like, “All these bands playing SXSW live in Brooklyn - or if they don’t live here, they want to live here.” In addition, Williamsburg and Greenpoint have roughly the same geographic area as downtown Austin. Plus, Williamsburg had all these cool music clubs - so we started planning a music discovery festival for Brooklyn, by Brooklyn. In 2007, we launched Northside Festival.
The first Northside was four days, music only. Every club participated, all of the important record labels and bloggers really supported it - BrooklynVegan did a big showcase - and we created a music festival that was more about niche bands, not booking Radiohead.
So how did Northside grow to become the multidisciplinary experience it is today?
Northside proved to be really successful and exciting, but we also recognized that New York City was developing a tech scene. When we launched, I don’t think saying “I work in tech” meant any more to somebody than “I’m an investment banker.” It just wasn’t perceived as a creative field, whereas now, we perceive tech as just as creative a field as making music or independent films.
Tech wasn’t perceived as cool when first launched Northside, but once it was, we launched Northside Innovation. That really transformed the company - doing this discovery festival that’s not about the headliners, but the exciting creatives in music, film, and technology. The Innovation conference - which includes the tech conference, content conference, and new this year, the journalism conference - is at the center of it.
The other really significant, impactful thing that we do is Taste Talks, our food conference. It launched in Brooklyn, very much inspired by the conference aspects of Northside, but obviously it came through the meat grinder a little bit differently. One of the things that’s unique is that we always have what we call a “Festival Curator.” We had April Bloomfield curate our first festival, and now we’ve had Mario Batalli, Questlove, Khalees, Paul Kahan, Sean Brock, as festival curators.
And these huge chefs all know what you’re doing and want to be a part of it?
I mean, they’re people we think will put an interesting take on a food conference. There’s the full day of symposia, then we’ll do dinners and parties, but we’ll also do an “All-Star Barbecue” where we match up cultural personalities with culinary personalities. It’s always really fun, and the chefs and participants always tell us that it’s just fun to sit at a grill all day with someone that they admire but may not really know, or, someone who’s a close personal friend.
Chefs get asked to do a lot of food events where they tend to do the same thing with the same crew, then rush back to their restaurant for dinner service. At Taste Talks, by doing these mash-ups, they’re able to just grill - I mean, who doesn’t like grilling?
How long before Aziz Ansari shows up? When are we gonna get Mr. “Master of None” behind the grill?
Well, we had George Takei!
So, we’re friends with Aziz, and we talked with him about it, so whenever his schedule allows it. We like Taste Talks to always be unexpected. We’ve had Chef Manny Matheison from Toronto - who has a show on VICE - cooking with his favorite tattoo artist. We had Action Bronson cooking with Chef Michael White. A little bit unexpected, a little bit irreverent. But only a little bit. We kinda just go by our own code.
What was your proudest moment watching Northside grow?
The big anniversaries. All of them. We’ve been in business for 14 years, sold the company 2 years ago, then bought it back 9 months ago, but if I had to say a favorite moment, I’d say the 10-year anniversary party at Union Pool. I don’t think any of us could have believed we’d still be publishing, still be working with some of the same people we’ve known for over a decade. It’s really all about building and nurturing that family.
Looking back at ten years must've been crazy.
You saw what Brooklyn would become, and ten years later the world catches up.
Oh man, they’re still catching up. I still hear brands say things like “We’ve just identified Brooklyn as a place where we should be, so let’s get active.” Great. Welcome to the party.
What was your vision for Brooklyn Magazine when it deviated from The L?
Brooklyn Magazine was originally meant for The L Magazine reader as they grew up. I mean, The L really was always just an elevated zine. Brooklyn Magazine really launched to be a bit more sophisticated, more like a lifestyle product about Brooklyn.
Now, Brooklyn Magazine is really working hard to achieve these twin goals that seem oppositional but aren’t necessarily. On one hand, telling the story about passionate, exciting Brooklynites that garner international excitement - some of the people who help make Brooklyn this epicenter of creativity - while also talking about and reporting on all of Brooklyn’s ethnicities, races, genders, and neighborhoods.
I mean, there’s over 66 neighborhoods in Brooklyn. We really do feel a commitment to report on and talk about all of Brooklyn, but there’s so much Brooklyn. There are so many languages spoken in Brooklyn that it’s even difficult to do that comprehensively.
Five years down the road, what do you think those same neighborhoods will look and be like?
Man, that’s a good question - five years? So much has changed in the last five years. When we launched Northside Festival, Kent Avenue was a garbage can, with a couple holes in the fence so you could walk out onto the water and sit on a tire. There was no development. There were no high-rises. There was no Duane-Reade or CVS.
How and why is Brooklyn gonna change in 5 years will all be defined by policy makers and real estate developers. So, I don’t know what’s next for Brooklyn in the next 5 years.
I’ll say this: we launched Northside Media in Dumbo in 2003, then got priced out and moved to downtown Brooklyn, but soon, we move back to Dumbo. Well I can’t pretend like I really know the in’s and out’s of every single development firm - and they’ll be the first to tell you that they’re in it for financial reasons - some have structured their business so that their financial interests are aligned with the community’s interests. We’re moving back with one of those developers tomorrow, and they’ve been good to us.
What can you tell me about the Livingston Diner?
It’s family run, it’s been around forever, and it’s just really good food. Anywhere you see cops and firemen lining up to eat is a good sign. Just get in line - it’s gonna be good.