Sommer Mathis, editor-in-chief, Atlas Obscura
Atlas Obscura began in 2009 as a website where adventurous travelers could log on and search for strange landmarks and attractions by region. Now, the company offers a digital magazine, a best-selling book with more titles in the works, and a business running international trips. “You have to do a lot of different things all at once,” says editor-in-chief Sommer Mathis. “If you can do that, and do it well and in a way that honestly reflects your brand, I think the future of magazines is actually pretty bright.”
For Atlas Obscura Magazine, Mathis and her staff look for stories with a strong sense of place. “They reveal something that’s in some way hidden or offer our readers an opportunity to experience a sense of wonder,” she says. “Pitches that hit on all three of those things are rare, so we get really excited when they do.”
One of these is a piece by Edward Dolnick titled “Why It Took Scientists So Long to Figure Out Where Babies Come From,” which begins, “Until 1875, no one in the world knew where babies come from.”
Another favorite is Peggy O’Donnell’s “The Politics of Pie Cutting at West Point’s Mess Hall.” Subtitled “Why United States Military Academy cadets fear pastry,” the piece provides a humorous examination of why West Point graduates have historically become stressed when slicing up pie.
“Those are very different stories,” Mathis explains, “but they do have something in common: they both revealed something truly interesting about a topic that most people probably take for granted as fairly commonplace.”
Editors at Atlas Obscura aren’t interested in receiving first-person travelogues or complete histories of a place or person or object. “The completist take isn’t the version we’d publish,” she says. “Instead, we’re much more interested in pieces that focus on some ultra-specific, much less obvious aspect of a story that’s worth revisiting, or even better, revealing.”