It’s hard to separate my personal life from that of the City Paper. You see, I’m the founding editor and one of the three owners along with my husband, who also works here as the advertising director. This newspaper is a lively, disruptive part of our family — like a snotty, demanding teenager who heaps abuse upon us, sapping our time, energy, and creativity. But we love it. Really, we do.
And lucky for us, our kids love their attention-hogging sibling as much as we do. At six months old my son Jack was wearing his own City Paper T-shirt (in his crib in my office); at two, he was proudly informing his preschool teacher that he worked with his mommy and daddy at the City Paper. Over the years, he’s helped cover kids’ events at Spoleto and has even started contributing to our blogs. It won’t be long before he’s a full-fledged critic full of snark and sarcasm. Ack, you see I’m just a sappy mother, like all the others, who will bore you with stories about my genius children, if you give me half the chance. Of course, because it’s our 10th anniversary, I can indulge the proud mommy in me and tell you the story of how this newspaper started and how our lives led us to this very cool little town where we’ve been able to become a part of a vibrant community and ultimately make just a little bit of a difference.
The story starts back in the early ’90s with a guy named Mongo. He’s always been a mythical creature for us, someone who was irreverent, nonconformist, and somewhat unforgettable. He started a newspaper, called it the Upwith Herald, and gained a reputation for what? I don’t know. I’ve never seen one of those early issues. In 1994, he sold the paper to Ben Miller and left for California. Mongo’s legacy for us has never been much more than an occasional “I knew Mongo” from old-schoolers who were here way back when. We had one picture of Mongo, or rather the back of his shaved head, that was tacked to a bulletin board for years. It must have gotten lost in one of the moves, because I haven’t seen it in a long time. Staff writer Stratton Lawrence and I actually tracked Mongo to Key West, thanks to the magic of Google, where Mongo’s been reigning as the self-proclaimed “King of Key West” since 2003. (Read Stratton’s story about our predecessor on p. 14).
His successor, Ben Miller, took the newspaper into a more legitimate realm, establishing offices, a regular print schedule (first biweekly, and then weekly), and hiring editors (which included current Preview editor Bates Hagood and Have Not! Timmy Finch). Miller ran the paper for a couple years, before he decided he was ready to get out. One night at a party, he voiced his desire to sell the newspaper to the boyfriend of his brother’s girlfriend’s sister (got that?) who happened to be the publisher of the Creative Loafing in Savannah. This is where we come in. Noel Mermer was that young publisher. He’d been in Savannah, transferred there from the Atlanta Creative Loafing, and was ready to get out of that sleepy Southern town. Noel’s spidey sense was alerted by Miller’s offhanded remark, and he went to work figuring out how he could buy the paper and launch his own publishing empire, independent of the Creative Loafing alt-weekly mothership. At the time, the Loaf had been in Atlanta for 20 years, one of the pioneers of the alternative press, rabble-rousing and muckracking in Tampa and Charlotte in addition to starting up new papers in Greenville and Savannah (both of which are no longer part of Creative Loafing).
Blair had worked with Noel in Savannah, establishing himself as a rock star salesman, promotions machine, and marketing genius (too much? Sorry, I am married to the guy and I do think he’s pretty brilliant). Me? I was working at the CBS affiliate in Savannah and freelancing for the Loaf, writing everything from features on Anne Rice to stories about mail bombs and Ross Perot’s third party. But Savannah was dull. We were from Atlanta and had moved to the coastal town on a total whim one day after a weekend trip. What the hell did we know? We were 23 years old and ready to escape Atlanta’s traffic and crappy job market. In Savannah we drank way too much, made some lasting friendships, got married under the live oaks in a gazebo, and quickly grew tired of the small town life. So, we moved back to Atlanta in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics and a scary bombing in the park. Blair and Noel had plans to start up a menu book publication in Atlanta, but Blair was trying to establish himself at the big Loaf, and didn’t have much time to devote to a start-up. We were also just trying to get by. The living was tough back in the big city, where the air was smoggy and the roads were clogged.
Just as we were crying in our beers, Noel contacted us about the opportunity in Charleston — there was a weekly newspaper there and the owner was interested in getting out. Were we interested in getting in? During the spring and early summer of 1997, we trekked to Charleston for a series of weekend-long meetings, scouting out the town, checking out the nightlife, talking about the possibilities, and crunching the numbers. Lots and lots of numbers. We met with Ben Miller, consulted lawyers, and eventually closed the deal in August of 1997, very excited to move to what we saw as a perfectly-sized city that fell somewhere between sleepy Savannah and ADHD Atlanta.
It was the beginning of a huge adventure for the three of us. Luckily, we each had our area of expertise and we meshed well together (even if we do drive each other nuts). Noel’s business acumen and extreme frugality made him the perfect publisher for a start-up. He knows how to stretch a penny and he also knows how to sell an ad. Blair’s sales ability and marketing sense got our paper in front of a lot of people. And the two of them worked hard to establish solid business relationships, many of which still endure today. My journalism background and small portfolio of writing clips made me the logical choice for editor. I may have been inexperienced, but I turned out to be smart enough to figure out what I needed to know along the way. We had the key players in place to make a go of it, but we knew we needed a great designer to really kick ass. So, we convinced Andrea Haseley to leave Savannah too and come with us.
Nothing compares to that initial year in business, putting out a newspaper week after week. When I flip through the issues of volume one, I’m amazed at how quickly the cover stories appear. That year runs in slow motion inside my brain. We probably worked harder those first months than some people work in an entire decade. But it paid off. We were able to distinguish ourselves from the competition and find a voice that people appreciated and responded to. We were able to keep our eye on the big picture, even though we struggled to keep our personal lives afloat on a weekly basis. While we never missed a payday for our staffers, I can’t say the same for our own checks. But those are the sacrifices you make for your babies, right?
Looking back, I think about all the people who have come in and out of the City Paper offices — from interns and art directors to columnists and contributors. I can’t say that I actually remember every single one of them anymore, but each one of them left a mark in some way, whether it was the one intern who literally got branded for an article (see Haze McCrary’s story on p. 31) or the guy who wrote blotter for that one semester back in 2002 (see Best of the Blotter, p. 45). We appreciate all of their contributions and we thank our past and present employees for all they have done and continue to do to keep the City Paper on the streets, week after week. Here’s to 10 more years.
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