Howdy. We’re here today to talk about the value of journalism in crazy times.
There has been at least one positive effect from our recent months of political turmoil: Readers are stepping up to support journalistic organizations whose reporting and storytelling they trust. Longstanding newspapers and magazines that provide unbiased reporting are reporting dramatic increases in subscriptions. Reports of all-time subscription records are coming from the likes of The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. Readers are clearly willing, in far greater numbers, to invest a little money to ensure the survival of news organizations they deem essential.
Now comes the time in the year when The Bitter Southerner will learn whether you, our readers, believe we are essential. Welcome to our fourth membership drive — the two weeks in every year when we ask you to join The Bitter Southerner Family, to support the brand of journalism and storytelling The Bitter Southerner practices. We believe the South deserves a wide-ranging publication that covers our region in all its colors and cultures — not just the things that look like A) a garden party staged for a magazine, and B) rednecks and hillbillies.
We hope you want a publication like ours badly enough to support it with a few of your dollars.
But before we ask you for money — and tell you what you will get in return — a bit of history is in order. If we ask for your financial support, you have a right to know the facts about our operations. And we will be completely transparent with you.
This time last year, The Bitter Southerner almost died, almost disappeared forever.
I won’t tell you just yet how that happened — and how it is we are still here and heading into our fourth year. As our erudite Southern Schooling columnists Todd Hawley and Adam Jordan noted a couple weeks ago, “First, in true Southern storytelling fashion, we have to backtrack.”
Specifically, let’s backtrack all the way to the end of 2013. After we managed to keep our promise to present “one great story from the South every week” for 23 straight weeks, I wrote a report to our readers, a recap of our progress titled “The Little Tribe That Could.”
The story had two purposes:
- To reveal how large our audience had grown in our first five months.
- To publicly thank the people whose work made that happen.
Few readers may recall that for the first 52 weeks, we published one feature story a week, although we had nary a cent to pay the writers and photographers and illustrators who contributed. I’ve told a good many stories over the years about how grateful we remain for those early contributions. We had prize-winning authors (and a few tenacious, talented amateurs) helping us create a new kind of publication about the South, simply because they believed in what we were doing.
As for the size of our audience when 2013 ended, we reported these numbers:
- About 27,000 people had visited our site — people from all 50 states and 86 other countries.
- About 5,200 people had subscribed to our weekly emails.
- About 12,000 people had liked our Facebook page.
- About 4,600 people had followed our Twitter account.
We were amazed at those numbers. When we launched on August 13, 2013, we had only a month’s worth of stories in the can, no promises we could find more, and no certainty that other Southerners would care about the publication we envisioned. But from our first week, people rallied to The Bitter Southerner.
Here are the numbers we can report today:
- Over the last 12 months, more than 700,000 people have visited our site. All 50 states are still represented; the list of other countries now stretches to 101.
- About 25,000 now subscribe to our weekly emails — a 380-percent increase.
- About 116,000 people now like our Facebook page — an 866-percent increase.
- About 20,000 people now follow our Twitter account — a 330-percent increase.
- About 39,000 people now follow our Instagram account. We didn’t even have an Instagram account until eight months after we launched.
Your next logical question will be: “Well, if the numbers look like that, how was it you almost died a year ago?”
I will spare myself and my partners the embarrassment of detailing any of our many mistakes. But it boils down to this: When four people whose skills lie primarily in the areas of creativity and data analysis start a venture, it would be wise for them to recruit a fifth — a business person, someone with knowledge of how to build budgets and create objectives and instill the discipline to make operations run smoother.
We did not recruit such a person.
As we hit the end of 2014, five months after our first membership drive and three months after opening The Bitter Southerner General Store, we had enough money in the bank to suggest we should attempt to make The Bitter Southerner a real business, instead of a side project built around our regular work. As 2015 began, we put three of our four founding partners on the payroll for full-time work, and we paid ourselves equally meager salaries, far less than we’d been used to making in the straight world.
Our assumption was that, by applying ourselves full-time to the work, we could figure out what we did not know about running a business, learn how to do it, and then execute.
Our assumption was wrong. Despite a year of Herculean effort, we could not overcome our lack of good, old-fashioned business smarts. In early 2016, the money to make payroll finally dried up. Even a healthy season of holiday sales in late 2015 was not enough to keep us moving.
There was a particularly difficult, even tearful meeting, when we came within a rat’s hair of pulling the plug. The only things that kept us from doing it were a couple of small lights we could see at the end of the tunnel.
The first was illuminated by a few wonderful friends. With our founding creative director, Dave Whitling, and social-media editor, Kyle Tibbs Jones, forced to look for paying gigs elsewhere, Roy Fleeman, Bart Sasso, and Morganne Lee of the great Atlanta design firm Gentleman stepped in to help us with design. They are still with us today, and they do amazing work keeping the design standards of The Bitter Southerner at the level you’ve come to expect from us. Emily Raffield, one of the authors of “Saints of Old Florida,” stepped in with several months at the social-media helm until Kyle could rejoin us. And at just the right time, one of our fans, Mary Liebowitz, volunteered to keep our General Store shipments moving. Since then, Mary has worked for us every day and is now, officially, our head of e-commerce and customer support.
Roy, Bart, Morganne, Emily, and Mary: The Bitter Southerner loves you, and always will.
The second light had begun to shine in late 2015, when we began discussions with a longstanding, family-owned media company based in Athens, Georgia, called Community Newspapers Inc. When I am asked to explain CNI’s business, I typically reply by saying, “They are in the last sweet spot of the newspaper business. They publish 28 small-town newspapers — weeklies and biweeklies.”
Small-town newspapers are tremendously important in the rural South. Indeed, when one grows up in a small town such as Ellijay, Georgia, my hometown, one absolutely must read the local newspaper, even in this modern age when most news comes to us digitally. The local newspapers that serve small communities are the only sources of unbiased information and reporting for the citizens of those communities.
By the time we first began talking to Dink and Eric NeSmith of CNI, we had already spent almost a year trying to find an investor among Atlanta’s large community of venture capitalists, someone who might believe in our dream for a new kind of publication about the South. Our hometown’s VC community has done amazing work backing hundreds of great startups in the fields of technology, healthcare, and financial services, but we learned that the financial models of those businesses are very different from the models of journalism and media.
CNI, on the other hand, is a journalism company, well versed in what it takes to keep operations like ours running sustainably. They’ve been doing it for half a century. But more importantly to us, they operate consistently on their belief that “strong newspapers build strong communities.” And as we talked with the NeSmiths, we realized they saw, in The Bitter Southerner, a group of people dedicated to doing their brand of “community journalism” for a broader community, the whole American South.
CNI’s people, unlike those venture capitalists we talked to, aren’t camped out in beautifully appointed offices, sitting on piles of cash, trying to figure out where to invest it. In fact, the home office of CNI is about a dozen people working in the basement of a bank building in Athens.
In late March of last year, we reached an agreement that makes CNI a shareholder in The Bitter Southerner, and Eric NeSmith of CNI became our publisher. Their initial cash investment was enough to keep our lights on, and then, in April, we did our third membership drive, and about 1,600 of you contributed. We rose up from our deathbed grateful for your support.
As always, y’all are why we’re still here.
A good friend not long ago told me about his father, who ran a small business in a small town. His dad’s maxim, he told me, was that “if you take care of a business for five years, it will take care of you for 15.” We hope that old saw holds true for us.
Today, we are taking better care of The Bitter Southerner, as a business, than we ever have. We operate with greater discipline. We have budgets. We have specific objectives. We have processes that keep on us track.
But making our enterprise sustainable remains a challenge; it’s still very much a work in progress. We have three sources of revenue: your memberships and the contributions that come with them, sales from our General Store, and the sale of a limited amount of advertising.
In the old, print-era publishing models, advertising paid all of the bills. In the electronic age, that no longer holds true for every publication. It certainly doesn’t hold true for us.
In the last year, our readers have seen occasional ads, and we launched a series of sponsored stories for the Georgia-based Piedmont Healthcare. You can expect to see more of both in the future.
But it has become clear to us that advertising of any kind, at least in the near future, cannot be a primary revenue source for us. Instead, we survive mostly on two sources of dough:
- Direct support from you — when you join The Bitter Southerner Family as an Annual Member or Sustaining Member.
- Your purchases in our General Store.
That’s right. We depend on you, and we hope you depend on us to provide good journalism for our community. We described that community three years ago, during our very first membership drive.
The Bitter Southerner exists to support anyone who yearns to claim their Southern identity proudly and without shame — regardless of their age, race, gender, ethnic background, place of origin, politics, sexual orientation, creed, religion, or lack of religion.
That is the community we serve — people of all kinds who want to challenge all the old stereotypes about the South. You are our people, and we hope you will support us.
This year, we need more of you than ever to join the Family.
As I write this, our list of Bitter Southerner Family Members has 1,955 names — all of them people who make recurring, monthly contributions or those who have made a one-time payment over the last 12 months.
Let’s revisit the readership figures to make a point:
- Of all the readers who have visited our site over the past 12 months, our Family Members make up just 0.2 percent.
- Of all the readers who like our page on Facebook, our Family Members make up just 1.6 percent.
- Of the 25,000 people who subscribe to our weekly emails, our Family Members make up only 7.8 percent.
- No matter which audience number you pick, it’s clear that at least 90 percent of the people who read The Bitter Southerner regularly have not become members.
Really, y’all, this is as simple as a public-radio membership drive. If you believe that the stories we bring you have value, we’re asking you to make a little room in your budget for us.
Our goal this year is to end our membership drive with at least 3,500 members in our family. We hope you can find it in your hearts and wallets to join.
How can you help?
Join. Make your membership in The Bitter Southerner Family official.
Tell your friends and ask them to join, too.
We ask you for your support because we want The Bitter Southerner to be the kind of publication that points toward our region’s future. We can’t explain our approach to that better than we did in the statement of purpose we published immediately after November’s election, so we’ll just reprint that here:
No. 1: We believe absolutely that a prosperous South requires respect for every individual. Here’s how we put it in our mission statement, written on our first anniversary: “The Bitter Southerner exists to support anyone who yearns to claim their Southern identity proudly and without shame — regardless of their age, race, gender, ethnic background, place of origin, politics, sexual orientation, creed, religion, or lack of religion.” We give zero credence to anyone who comes from a place of racism, homophobia, or transphobia. We give no quarter to anyone who believes that others — simply by nature of who they are — are inferior. We believe every human is equal in God’s eyes. Moreover, religious intolerance has no place in the South if our region is going to prosper long after we’re gone. We don’t care which God you pray to, or whether you pray to none at all.
No. 2: You can’t talk about a prosperous future South without acknowledging the ugly and vicious parts of its past. The South defended slavery, enforced Jim Crow, beat down the marchers, turned out the dogs. It murdered and lynched people who wanted nothing more than equality in the eyes of their fellow citizens, as well as people who already had equality but supported the right of others to the same status. The South killed little girls, a subject Alabama writer Charles McNair examined poignantly in our earliest weeks. So, we must never gloss over our history, even if it’s something as simple as this: If we extol the virtues of okra, the little green vegetable that binds our gumbo together, we must always acknowledge the plant is not native to North America. It came here with the slave trade.
No. 3: I tell people that if you really want to understand what The Bitter Southerner stands for, all you have to do is swap out one letter in our name. Instead of the I in Bitter, slip in an E. What we want is a Better South, for everyone who stands up and declares himself or herself a Southerner. As our rock and roll buddy Lee Bains III of Alabama’s magnificent Glory Fires put it to us two years ago:
“It doesn't matter where your parents were born or what religious tradition you follow or what type of person you find attractive; if you say you're a Southerner, then you're a fucking Southerner, and we need to hear about it.”
And we do. We hear from you all the time — Southerners who don’t fit the conventional molds but love their home deeply. Folks like y’all are our kind of people. So, for the next two weeks, when we hear from you, we hope your voices will be accompanied by your financial support.
The Bitter Southerner loves you. The Bitter Southerner loves this complex and confusing region we call home. And The Bitter Southerner will keep spreading that love, with your help.