It's safe to say that Creative Loafing owes its reputation as the city's smartest, edgiest, most endearing rag to Ken Edelstein, who up until last week was the paper's editor for a decade.
The man lived and breathed the Loaf. From his disheveled mess of a cubicle, he'd impart his detailed recollection of a state Senate race circa 1998, or his vision for an Arts & Entertainment mega-section, or his adoration for a clever turn of phrase, a perfectly composed photo, and a well-crafted blog post. He was eager to talk, longwindedly at times, about the philosophy of newsgathering and his strategy for drawing readers to the Web. He obsessed on the grammar of every sentence he edited, calling out writers for their overuse of gerunds and each superfluous "that."
As editor, Edelstein had high standards and a resume to match. His knowledge of Atlanta – its politics, infrastructure, and history – runs as deep as his desire to improve the city he calls home. In a column he wrote last year, he characterized Atlanta as an impetuous young woman, and he offered her a bit of advice:
"Too busy to hate, too busy to wait, too busy for anything but the next hustle. ... You gotta clear your head of all the baggage from your past and aim a whole lot higher."
Nearly everyone who knows him would agree that "aiming higher" is Ken's mantra. He pushed his staff as hard as he pushes himself.
"He really gave me something solid to live up to as a journalist," says CL Food Editor Besha Rodell. "I care about the readers of the paper; my main sense of responsibility beyond them was Ken. I wanted to do good work for him."
The departure of Edelstein, who was fired Nov. 24, has left a hole at the heart of Loaf.
Says Rodell: "It's a really big loss, not just for the paper but the community."
Before he arrived at Creative Loafing in the mid-'90s, Edelstein worked at the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer's Atlanta bureau. Even among the outsized personalities that covered the state Legislature, he stood out.
"In a profession of individualists, Ken was uniquely so," says Dick Pettys, a veteran political reporter who worked alongside Edelstein at the Capitol. "He kept things lively on press row. He was funny, inquisitive, argumentative and a stickler for detail. I'm certain he was a great editor. I'm also certain there must have been some great knock-down-drag-outs behind the scene."
It's true that Edelstein was passionate about his beliefs, if not aggressive. He isn't one to back away from his opinions. Usually, that worked to his advantage – but not always.
It's been reported that Edelstein was let go because he loudly disagreed with upper management about the need to cut more members of his editorial staff. Two staffers already had been laid off in August.
Publisher Luann Labedz said that, out of respect for Edelstein's privacy, she could only attribute his termination to a "confidential personnel matter." She has encouraged the editorial staff to come up with a transition plan that everyone buys into. "We have the right talent on the ground to guide us through our transition period until we find an editor," Labedz said.
Edelstein had overseen the hiring of all but one of the paper's 14 editorial employees. News writer Scott Henry joined CL during a brief period when Edelstein had left the paper to become a freelancer.
Despite Edelstein's fierce expectations, he was more than willing to give young journalists a chance to prove their mettle.
Bill Addison, a celebrated food critic who's about to join Atlanta Magazine's staff, used his experience at the Loaf to land food-writing and editing gigs at the San Francisco Chronicle and Dallas Morning News. At the time Edelstein hired him as the Loaf's dining critic, however, he'd never written for a newspaper before.
Edelstein also promoted former listings editor Jerry Portwood and editorial coordinator Carlton Hargro to associate editor positions. Portwood has gone on to become editor of New York Press, while Hargro became editor of Creative Loafing in Charlotte.
CL Senior Writer Andisheh Nouraee describes a similar trajectory. "He gave me a chance," says Nouraee, who turned in his resignation hours after Edelstein was fired. "I wrote a column for him, and I found a career in that."
Nouraee and Edelstein met at Manuel's the night of the 2000 election. Nouraee, who was making a semi-mock bid for president, was cracking jokes about the returns, and Edelstein was wowed by his wit. Several months later, Nouraee, who'd been working at a PR firm, asked Edelstein if he might be willing to hire him as a photographer.
"No," Edelstein said. Instead, he wanted to know if Nouraee – who'd had no formal journalistic training – would write a column that parodied a traditional "about town" column. When Nouraee asked for a clearer picture of what the column, Scene & Herd, would look like, Edelstein pulled out a ballpoint pen and began sketching his vision on a page of the Loaf – a common practice of his.
"He 'drew' Scene & Herd," Nouraee recalled. "It was the most vague mandate. I knew what physical shape the column would take: four rectangles."
But Nouraee quickly hit his stride with Scene & Herd. Later that year – a month after 9/11 – he approached Edelstein with another idea: a column that would educate Americans on foreign policy with tongue-in-cheek humor. The column, Don't Panic!, put Nouraee's degree in Middle Eastern history to use – and went on to win a Green Eyeshade award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Though Nouraee is leaving the Loaf's offices, he's not abandoning its pages. "I'd like to keep my voice in the paper," he says. He will continue on as a freelancer, writing Don't Panic! and contributing to CL's news blog, Fresh Loaf.
He says Edelstein's departure contributed to his decision to resign, but it wasn't the only factor. Being away from the office, Nouraee says, will help him finish a book he's co-writing for teens about civics and international affairs. He credits Edelstein's faith in his work for his ability to land a book deal. "I would not be writing that book without having written the Don't Panic! column," he says. "That's huge."
I, too, have Edelstein to thank. In 2000, he hired me away from the Macon Telegraph and later promoted me to senior writer. He encouraged me to seek out stories that mattered, and he gave me the time, resources and guidance those stories deserved. In the eight years we worked together, he helped me find my voice, my strength, and my inspiration.
Like Nouraee, Edelstein's influence helped prepare me for my first book, which will be published next year. The book is based on a series of articles that Edelstein poured his heart into. He shared my excitement in unearthing each new development, each document, each fact. He worked late into the night to give the series the editing it needed. He patiently endured my panic attacks, my self-doubt, my obsession over every comma.
I think I speak for everyone here when I say, "Thank you for giving me a chance. Thank you for working me hard. And thank you for making Creative Loafing aim higher. You will be missed."
NOTE: This story has been revised to correctly describe Jerry Portwood and Carlton Hargro's titles at Creative Loafing.
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