A Thank You to Our Readers and Some Questions About the Future
by Chuck Reece
You know that feeling? When something eats at you inside, and you think you must be the only person in the world who feels it? As we grow up, of course, we learn that when we muster the courage to speak, we often discover we were not alone after all.
The Bitter Southerner began with just such a feeling — the notion that the work of Southerners still exists under a shadow, no matter how many great things we create. This pissed us off. Made us bitter, as it were.
What casts this shadow? It’s the fact that too many people (Southerners and non-Southerners alike) insist on defining the South by its inglorious past instead of defining us by what we do today.
We cautioned readers in our opening essay that The Bitter Southerner wasn’t meant for folks who still glorify hoop skirts and rebel flags.
“The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us,” we said. “It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.” We said we intended to focus on “another South ... a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions (and) people who face our region's contradictions … determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window.”
The Bitter Southerner, we said, was “for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time.”
We had no idea, five short months ago, how big “the rest of us” actually was. Turns out the answer was: bigger than we thought. Way bigger.
We were not alone. Not by a long shot. We said back in August that even before we launched this thing, we could feel the beginnings of “a little tribe” forming. Today, as I write this, four days before Christmas, more than 5,000 of you have subscribed to our weekly newsletter alerting you to every Tuesday’s story. Almost 12,000 of you follow our Facebook page. More than 4,500 of you follow us on Twitter.
The tribe ain’t so little anymore.
In early December, we teamed up with our friends at Grocery on Home in Atlanta and Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Ga., to do a series of two shows called the Southern Storytellers Series. We were curious: Would a live audience respond well to two different kinds of storytellers on the same night? Could a prose writer, with nothing to do but just read something, actually open for a master songwriter like Patterson Hood and not get the rotten-tomato treatment? Two BS contributors, Susan Rebecca White and Charles McNair, proved it could happen. Both left the stage to cheers and ovations, nary an ort of thrown vegetal matter stuck in their hair.
Both nights were great. On the second, three people who’d won tickets on our Facebook page occupied one of the front tables. Before that night, they’d never met. I stopped by their table to say hello and thank them for coming. They told me they’d quickly discovered they were all Alabamians — natives of Mobile (Julie Nelson), Birmingham (Charity McDaniel) and Huntsville (Oliver Gee). “We’re already friends for life!” Julie shouted over the pre-show nightclub din.
For me, that moment was payment aplenty for whatever sacrifices I’ve made to bring The Bitter Southerner to life. I hope every single person who’s contributed to making the BS real has stumbled into at least one moment like that, when you find yourself in the company of a Southerner who thinks about the South in new ways and realize how glad you are that you’re not alone.
We’ve been able to do this because a bunch of people sacrificed. They gave time and talent — not just moments, but great whopping chunks of their calendars — to The Bitter Southerner.
Writers who have been nominated for Pulitzers and won Townsends spent days writing challenging, heart-wrenching pieces for us. Photographers who can make thousands of dollars for a single image offered us their existing work for free and even hit the road to shoot new images for us. Musicians, artists and restaurateurs allowed us to become part of their lives for days at a time as we tried to capture their stories. Bartenders and bakers, God bless ’em, stretched their brains and their palates to invent new recipes for us — and for you.
The four of us who work on The Bitter Southerner week in and week out — Dave Whitling, Kyle Tibbs Jones, Butler Raines and me — squeezed bits of BS work into the minutes before, after and between the work we all do to keep the lights on and food on the table. Each of us dug into pockets and purses to pay for a photographer’s gas money and hotel rooms, or to promote our site on Facebook, or to get T-shirts printed. As for Stacy (my loving, talented and unfailingly supportive wife) and me, starting The Bitter Southerner involved selling our beloved 105-year-old house in Atlanta, in whose dining room the BS was conceived, so I could leave my job, take on freelance work to pay the bills and then follow this crazy idea.
As the result of these sacrifices, we learned something important: that the idea wasn’t so crazy in the first place. We learned there are thousands who’d like to throw off some of our region’s old baggage and redefine what it means to be Southern today. And we’ve learned that they — you — seem to enjoy gathering around the banner of The Bitter Southerner.
Next week, we’re going to bring you our first series — a deep, two-week look at the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization based in Oxford, Miss., whose stated mission is to “set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.”
When I first called John T. Edge, the SFA’s longtime director, about our idea, he asked me how things had been going with The Bitter Southerner and how I was balancing it with my other work. I gave him what has become my standard answer to that question: “I feel like I’m working twice as hard for half the money I used to make, but I love it.”
John T. told me I shouldn’t feel bad. Twenty years ago, John T. left what he refers to as a “corporate swine boy” job at a management consulting firm in Atlanta to enroll in the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, to follow his own need to understand the South.
“Last year,” he said, “was the first year since I left Atlanta that I made as much money as I did in my last year there.”
Was it worth it? I asked him.
He said that to him, it was. “Somebody’s got to try to fix this f&$k*#g place,” John T. replied.
To me, that remark captured the essential difference between New South people and Old South people. Folks like John T. (and us) acknowledge that every Southerner lives in the shadow of dreadful, selfish crimes — crimes that were simply too big for justice to surround, crimes that continue to color how the whole world sees our region.
We cannot even hope for justice for the past, but we can hope for reconciliation now and in the future.
Don’t get us wrong. We will never let The Bitter Southerner become overtly political. There’s no point, anyway. Our nation’s political dialogue is so rancorous and fragmented that it’s become irrelevant.
At The Bitter Southerner, we think it’s better to approach our stories truthfully and in the “spirit of reconciliation,” as the SFA puts it. In that spirit, we can talk about what every Southerner — black and white, rich and poor — shares: our stories, our foods, our drinks, our arts, our music, our architecture, all the things we have created together. We like the pledge that Louisiana-born New York Times columnist Charles Blow made a couple weeks ago: “to focus more fully on the power and beauty of the human spirit.”
The power and beauty of the human spirit make the South a weird and wonderful place. Otherwise, there is no explanation for how, over more than 100 years, the descendants of those who perpetrated the crimes that scarred us and the descendants of their victims have been creating things together. The richest veins of the South’s various cultures have somehow woven themselves together over the years into something uniquely beautiful. This did not happen because of a grand plan. It happened through the acts of individuals. It continues to happen, each act a tiny step toward reconciliation. And behind each act, there is a great story.
The Bitter Southerner’s sweet spot, we’ve learned, is capturing stories about the things we all share as Southerners. Stories about our struggles and adventures and the crazy, cool shit we create in the pursuit of reconciliation. That’s what we’ll keep bringing you, for as long as we can.
How long is that? Good question.
I figure stubbornness alone’ll keep us going at least through 2014.
But we have begun to think about how to make The Bitter Southerner sustainable, how to lower the amount of sacrifice that every person who contributes must make to keep this boat afloat. We’ve established a few basic priorities.
First, we want to begin paying our contributors as soon as we can. The photographers, videographers and writers who contribute their work to The Bitter Southerner deserve to be paid. This is only fair. And if we can pay, we can get more great work from talented people.
After that, we’d like to become able to pay ourselves. We are not fools, the four of us who do this every day. We understand the chances of getting rich on a publishing venture like this are slim to none, probably closer to the none side. But we do believe we have the potential to produce enough revenue to pay ourselves decent salaries and make The Bitter Southerner our full-time jobs. If we can do this full time, we can do it even better.
And while we do these things, we intend never to compromise our work. No matter how we choose to attempt making some money, we will not muck up our stories to do so. We want what you now enjoy about The Bitter Southerner to stay in place.
So how do we raise that money? All we’ve done so far is to sell 100 T-shirts.
You bought them all in less than an hour. This felt like a stunning success to the four of us, but T-shirts do not a business plan make. So we have begun to explore some options. These cover a pretty wide range, and to make The Bitter Southerner sustainable, we might have to choose more than one of them.
The obvious option, of course, is to begin selling advertising. Don’t worry. We have no plans to start filling the right-hand column of every BS web page with whatever the Giant Advertising Computers in the Cloud think BS readers might want to buy. That would be ugly, and you wouldn’t like it. We wouldn’t, either. That said, we do think a variation on the “sponsored content” model might have some potential. Think of it sort of like public-radio underwriting: “This week, The Bitter Southerner is brought to you by Company X.”
Another option worth exploring is some sort of subscription model. We’ve been very encouraged by the dozens of you who have said — without us even asking — that you would contribute to a Kickstarter campaign to fund The Bitter Southerner. This might be an option we could use to get started, but Kickstarter can’t make a business sustainable over the long term. So the question becomes, would any of you be willing to pay for some sort of annual subscription to The Bitter Southerner? The problem there, of course, is that we really don’t want to keep anyone from reading the stories we produce. So we’re in a bit of a Catch 22 with that option, but we think it’s worth looking at some of the questions it raises: For instance, could we find other ways to give readers who subscribe some extra value for their money while leaving our stories open to the world?
We already have plans to make more Bitter Southerner products, and we’ve begun exploring the idea of hosting an online marketplace of some sort — The Bitter Southerner General Store, if you will. Under such an arrangement, we could promote and sell merchandise and artworks created by Southern artists, artisans and craftsfolk. Such a marketplace seems very much in keeping with our pledge to focus on the work of “musicians, cooks, designers, farmers, scientists, innovators, writers, thinkers and craftsmen” in the South.
We’ve also begun to explore about whether the BS should exist in some sort of print format. As for what that format is, we have no idea. These days, it’s not just a discussion about turning a “web magazine” into a “print magazine.” There are a broad range of options beyond that traditional move, so we’ll see where those discussions lead.
Finally, we’re also looking at whether we might form partnerships of some sort with existing institutions — nonprofits such as educational institutions or for-profit companies with a particular interest in reaching our audience. Deals like that, however, generally come together over long periods of time. They rarely happen overnight.
We haven’t come to a single conclusion yet about which of these ideas, alone or in combination, holds the most promise for The Bitter Southerner.
Here’s what we do know: We’d have no options at all without the support all of you have given us so far. For that support, we believe we owe you, as they say in business circles, “transparency.” Meaning: We want to be honest and open with you about our plans for The Bitter Southerner. Not after we make them, but before. You should be part of that discussion.
In fact, we hope that you’ll be willing to take a few minutes and tell us what you think. How should we go forward? What ideas should we explore? What feels fair and right to you? We really want to know what y’all think. You have become like Mama to us: If y’all ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So we’ve set up a page called Share & Connect. That page does exactly what it says. It’s a place where you guys can just tell us what you think. We just want to collect ideas. If you’ve sent us a message on Facebook, you probably already know that we have not been able to answer them all, and we’ll probably not be able to acknowledge every idea you share. But please know we have read — and will read — every one of them.
We’ve also set up a new Submissions page, for any of you who want to submit your work or your story ideas. And all of you “content creators” (god, how we hate that term …) should keep an eye on that page, because over the next few weeks, we’re going to start putting up some specific story ideas, in the hope we can hook up with writers, photographers and filmmakers in particular places for particular stories.
We’ll be back next week with the beginning of a great trip to Oxford, Miss., with brief stops in Tupelo (birthplace of the King) and Birmingham.
Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for making the tail end of 2013 one of the most special periods of our lives.
Next Week :
In Search of the Welcome Table
For 15 years, the Southern Foodways Alliance — a fervorous little organization in Oxford, Miss. — has been on a mission to bring Southerners together around the one thing we all have in common: the fact that we eat. Part 1 of The Bitter Southerner’s two-part series on the SFA is next Tuesday.