Civilization, according to Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue, ends at the shores of the Hudson River. Beyond that lies a reddish strip labeled “Jersey” and a barren yellow rectangle containing a few place-names (Kansas City, Nebraska) and rock formations, with three featureless lumps marked “China,” “Japan,” and “Russia” visible in the distance. County Highway, a new publication from the writers David Samuels and Walter Kirn, hereby claims “everything that is blank on that map” as its own. “If The New Yorker made New York City into a small town,” Kirn says, “we’re going to make the small towns of America into New York City.”

The first issue of their 20-page, print-only broadsheet, which bills itself as “a magazine about America in the form of a 19th century newspaper,” went on sale last week in selected bookstores, record stores, coffee shops, and dry-goods emporiums across all 50 states, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to Grand Forks, North Dakota. The paper’s stockist list reads like the itinerary of a whistle-stop tour from when presidents had mustaches. (They do, however, have a Web site and an Instagram account.)

Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover View of the World from 9th Avenue.

With its intricate, pastoral nameplate, multi-deck headlines, and leisurely features, County Highway has the look, feel, and even smell of an artifact. But it was conceived by its founders to meet the technological moment. “Because of covid, two large transformations happened,” Samuels says. “Remote work became acceptable. And that meant it was viable to live in the countryside or someplace you wanted to live and still make money from large urban economies.” It’s not quite the exodus some had predicted, but based on the latest census estimates, there are signs of a brain drain.

Traditionally, magazines were a portal from Nowheresville to the Big City. Samuels and Kirn want to transport readers in the other direction. “For every person who actually moved out and started beekeeping,” Samuels says, “there’s 10 people who still live in cities because they have to but wish they lived somewhere else. And this product is as much for those people as it is for the ones who actually bought that vineyard.”

Until Samuels called Kirn to pitch him on the idea of partnering on the newspaper, they had met only once, years earlier, for lunch with a mutual friend, but their careers have followed similar arcs. Both are ambivalent alumni of Ivy League schools (Harvard ’89 and Princeton ’83, respectively). Both were writing feature stories for the country’s better magazines by their early 20s. (Kirn is also a successful novelist.)

And, in recent years, these paragons of the elite have both become staunch populists, increasingly critical of, and controversial within, mainstream political discourse. Samuels is regarded with suspicion for his 2015 New York Times Magazine profile of Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes, which suggested that the White House press corps had been duped into backing the Iran deal, and for his contrarian political writings, while Kirn has raised eyebrows for his regular appearances on the Fox News talk show Gutfeld! and for his podcast, America This Week, co-hosted by Matt Taibbi.

“If The New Yorker made New York City into a small town, we’re going to make the small towns of America into New York City.”

Kirn is probably overqualified for the job of country editor. He grew up in Marine on Saint Croix, Minnesota, a town with fewer than 700 residents. “Its business district, centered around a park that featured a whitewashed wooden bandstand where actual barbershop quartets performed, consisted of a general store, a gas station, a hamburger restaurant, and a public library,” Kirn wrote in Lost in the Meritocracy. His father, a Princeton-educated patent lawyer, had converted to Mormonism and moved the family to an “Amish style” farm in the late 1960s. “He wanted to live in his long underwear, and go fishing and hunting, and forage for mushrooms, and have an ‘authentic life,’” Kirn says. “A ‘Republican hippie’ is what I would call him.”

Samuels, on the other hand, was “not a natural candidate for an outdoors life, or really surviving outside of Brooklyn.” He grew up in a middle-income-housing complex, since converted to condos, in what is now DUMBO. His Russian–French Canadian parents were secular but observed Orthodox Jewish customs and spoke mostly Yiddish and French at home. His father, the president of Rutgers University-Newark, “loved the outdoors,” Samuels says. “The great memory of his youth was going to summer camp. I would say that he totally failed to transmit that to me. I hated camp. I did not like being outside. I did not like bugs. I didn’t understand why anybody would willingly endure rural life.”

County Highway founders David Samuels and Walter Kirn.

But as a first-generation American, he had a “tremendous curiosity about the country,” and journalism in the 1990s gave him a “golden ticket” to go anywhere he wanted. Once he learned to drive, at 25, Samuels spent much of his time on the road, filing dispatches for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. “In that sense, I was already living in my imagined version of America,” he says. “And it was all always an America that was out there. It wasn’t in New York.”

Kirn, for different reasons, worked the same territory for Time, GQ, and Esquire. “Knowing that I had grown up in Minnesota and then moved to Montana, my editors decided I would be their American correspondent,” he says. “I kept being asked to do these stories, which I started to feel were setups, in which I was supposed to make the safari into deepest, darkest America and come back with tales of how bizarre and ridiculous people were. And often they were bizarre and ridiculous, but not for the reason my editors thought.” Now, he says, “I don’t have to be defensive anymore, and I can actually, probably with a good clear conscience, show how bizarre everything is because I don’t feel I’m being asked to.”

In 1999, while reporting a story in western New York, Samuels drove through Delaware County. His wife, Alana Newhouse, the founder of the Jewish online magazine Tablet, where Samuels is literary editor, recalls that “very early on when David and I started dating, he told me about this county, and wanted us, if the relationship were to get serious, to buy a house up here. And I thought he was nuts.” Then came the pandemic. In 2020, they rented and then bought a Victorian farmhouse with a pond, on five acres surrounded by 200 acres of watershed conservancy.

Samuels and Newhouse split their time between Delaware County and Brooklyn Heights, so their nine-year-old son, Elijah, who has a rare genetic disorder, has access to the care he needs. Kirn and his wife, the writer Amanda Fortini, live in Livingston, Montana, and spend part of each year in Las Vegas, where Fortini teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. County Highway’s managing editor, Ryan Baesemann, runs an agricultural commune in Northern California’s San Luis Obispo County. “This is a modern deconstructed workplace,” Samuels says, “rooted in the sort of mythical county of the imagination that County Highway is published from.”

County Highway’s stockist list reads like the itinerary of a whistle-stop tour from when presidents had mustaches.

In a note to readers, Samuels and Kirn disclaim, “We are not pretending to be backwoods innocents, or to convey homespun wisdom for the ages. Garrison Keillor is not one of our editors.” A glance at the masthead confirms that we’re a long way from Lake Wobegon. County Highway was designed by Pentagram. Lisa Orth, the creator of Nirvana’s stoned smiley-face logo, drew the paper’s nameplate. (If you look closely, you can just make out a pair of Masonic symbols amid the idyll.) Other contributors include Ted Mann, a co-writer of NYPD Blue and Deadwood; the firebrand political theorist Michael Lind; and Jonah Raskin, a Weather Underground member turned countercultural historian.

Instead of Knott’s Berry Farm, we get a visit to the Miracle of America Museum, in Polson, Montana, where Kirn comes face-to-face (to-face) with a stuffed, two-headed calf. Instead of a battlefield walk, we tour the hometown of Titanic Thompson, the model for Damon Runyan’s character Sky Masterson, whom Samuels dubs the “King of the Con.” Elsewhere in the issue, Jeff Weiss bears witness to the ravages of Instagram in Joshua Tree, Fortini investigates the origins of a popular century-old herbal remedy, and Armin Rosen reviews the Cruel World Festival, a sort of Woodstock for goths.

In recent years, David Samuels and Walter Kirn have become increasingly critical of, and controversial within, what’s left of mainstream journalism.

The tone ranges from Wendell Berry–ish refusal to Whitman-esque acceptance, with one obvious outlier. In the preface to Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a 2008 collection of his best magazine work, Samuels confessed that one of his “failings as a writer” is a tendency to become a “moonstruck adolescent” around his favorite musicians. And Kennedys, he might have added. There is nothing wrong with a newspaper talking to a presidential candidate, whatever their views, but Samuels’s Q&A with R.F.K. Jr. is indistinguishable from a campaign ad. Why pretend the interview is “On Falconry”—a subject that doesn’t even come up until more than halfway through—when it’s obviously just an editorial endorsement for their favored anti-Establishment candidate?

Attentive readers will notice that County Highway heralds no news, and with a six-times-a-year frequency, it’s not well equipped to break any in the future. So why publish on newsprint, the drywall of paper stocks? “People read differently on a printed page than they do on a screen. You’re not sitting there liking, disliking, being aware of social pressure,” Samuels says. “And because the cost of printing a newspaper is wildly cheaper than printing a glossy magazine or a perfect-bound literary journal, there’s actually the chance to build an audience and make money with far fewer subscribers.”

Copies of County Highway at Soul II Squeeze Records, in Eustis, Florida.

“What the magazine and print-publishing industry did in the 1990s, even before the Internet came along, was to de-monetize its own product, which is a first,” Samuels says, referring to the failed strategy of selling subscriptions at a loss to boost advertising. “They’ll never teach that in business school because it’s just too idiotic.”

So he dusted off the original prospectus for Harper’s, the magazine where he made his reputation, which was founded in 1850, in part as a promotional vehicle for the Harper & Brothers publishing house. “I laid out this 19th-century business model to our investors, and one by one they bought into it.” (Samuels declined to say who has invested.) Currently, Pentagram is working on a cover template for “tier two” of Samuels’s plan: an independent publishing imprint for both fiction and nonfiction called Pan-American Books.

County Highway is not just a paean to flyover country (a term coined by Kirn’s ex-father-in-law, Thomas McGuane). It’s also a defense of what Samuels and Kirn call “the American voice,” which, as they see it, is more of an attitude than a style. “It was a posture of, at once, amazement and receptivity to lunacy, and also a focus on hard facts,” Samuels says. “One of the things that made me so depressed during covid was a sense that the love for that tradition was being lost. People are throwing out all of these writers based on the fact that they were white, or they were male, or whatever, which was never important to me at all. Ralph Ellison and Joan Didion were just as much the heirs of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville as anyone.”

“American writing,” he adds, “has been around a lot longer and has done a lot more for the world, and for people’s souls, than the politics of the last five years.”

Ash Carter is a Deputy Editor at AIR MAIL and a co-author of Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends