We've been doing a lot of soul-searching at Creative Loafing recently. It's the sort of introspection everyone should go through once in a while. This column is an invitation for you to join in.
The encounter sessions began after a change at the top. In December, our longtime publisher Scott Walsey retired. Scott spent 25 years building the sales side of CL. So his departure left a void. And, after a few months, the perfectly fine guy who replaced him, a former community newspaper exec named Scott Patterson, arrived at his own conclusion that alternative weeklies weren't his gig.
Then came the short tenure of Michael Sigman, a former LA Weekly publisher. He quit after nine days in May. We covered Mike's arrival and departure openly. It was embarrassing.
After that ordeal, Ben Eason, our CEO and majority shareholder, came up to Atlanta from our corporate office in Tampa. He announced that he'd serve as publisher for the rest of the year.
For Ben, who's a supreme networker, it's been a homecoming. He's an Atlanta native and Grady grad whose mother, Debby, founded CL. So he's reconnecting with old friends and is getting a better sense for himself of how Atlanta's changed over the last 20 years.
I was anxious about Ben's arrival. Since he took over CL/Atlanta in a merger five years ago, the company has been based in Tampa. The Atlanta office's culture and the Tampa culture haven't always been in sync. I was worried that Ben would be impatient in imposing his will on every aspect of the Atlanta operation.
But Ben's stay has turned out to be really good for us. He has a specific vision of the leadership role CL can play in the South, in metro Atlanta, and even down to the neighborhood level. It's very ambitious. It's very idealistic. And it has the potential to make Creative Loafing a more influential community forum for great ideas. Anyway, who better to unify our paper behind common goals than the guy who pretty much owns it?
So, Ben's spent the last month prodding a conversation here about CL's role in Atlanta and about the culture we have at the paper. The conversation revolves around one question: What are we for? It's a loaded topic, with a lot of sub-questions: What values does Creative Loafing represent? What do we care about? What things do we like about Atlanta? How do we want to see Atlanta change? And what -- even who -- do we think stands in the way of really making this city bettter?
The entire staff -- not just our writers and editors, but ad designers and computer technicians and marketing assistants -- responded with a flood of ideas. The neat thing was that across all departments, we seemed pretty much to agree: We want Atlantans to get to places without having to use their cars, whether it's by walking or bikes or trains or buses. We want more parks and protected natural areas. We want to enjoy the fruits of this region's amazing diversity: Southerners and Yankees; straights and gays; natives and the foreign-born; blacks and whites ... whomever. We want a city with character, one that's alive every minute of the day (and night) with exciting, enriching things to do.
And we want our paper to help the community reach those ideals.
In many ways, CL already does that. We tell people about concerts, food, movies, plays and all kinds of entertainment. We steer readers toward the best cultural opportunities the city has to offer, and we offer intelligent criticism of artists and entertainers. We celebrate the community each year with our Best of Atlanta issue, and now with our Urban Explorer's Handbook.
But it's in the civic realm where things get a bit confusing. That's not unusual for a newspaper. Journalists understand that people tend to get most interested in stories that involve conflict, pain and tragedy than they are in happy news or earnest do-good tales. The most well-meaning media people are certain that if we don't expose problems, nobody will solve them. That's even more true at alternative weeklies, which have a long history of slaying sacred cows and making fun of the emperor if he's not wearing any clothes.
I'm really proud of embarrassing a lot of emperors over the years. We exposed the way Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett was mismanaging her department, before finding fault with Barrett became cool. We laid out the potential abuses that could occur by allowing a private company like ChoicePoint to traffic in so much personal data of private citizens. We've catalogued Georgia Power's pollution, anti-Semitism at Kennesaw State University, and the pitiless severity of Atlanta's immigration judges.
Readers tell me they love that stuff. But they occasionally follow the praise with a complaint: They ask me why we don't get involved in pushing for ways to improve the community. And I think they have a point. In the process of turning over stones and looking at them skeptically, we could do a better job of offering readers a progressive vision of what we want Atlanta to become. And we could do more to empower readers to play a role in getting us there.
That doesn't mean we're going to engage in happy-talk. It certainly doesn't mean we're going to stop doing the good stuff we're doing. But I do want this paper to find ways to be more civically engaged: to identify important issues and to help the community figure out ways to grapple with them.
There are shades of old-time crusading journalism in this mission. Nowadays, the mainstream press seems so nervous about how it's perceived that it settles for a Milquetoast middle instead of tackling tough issues honestly, and instead of expressing true passion for the community. That provides a void for us to fill.
The point of this column is to include you in the conversation we've been having inside our building. What are you for? What do you love about Atlanta? What kinds of things do you want to see improve? And what kinds of things do you think CL should celebrate and give props to? What kinds of things do you want to see us push to make better?
I hope you'll send your ideas to me at email@example.com. By all means, feel free to send story ideas and tips; I'll pass those on to the appropriate writer or editor. But more than the single stories, I'm particularly interested in the big, ongoing issues that you care about in this community.
We're going to figure out a way to engage in this conversation online, so keep an eye out for links to it on our website at atlanta.creativeloafing.com. And I'll let you know in the paper how this conversation is progressing.
Ken Edelstein is Creative Loafing's editor.
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