In a time of increasing -- some would say alarming -- corporate control of mass media, feisty independent local journalism appears to be thriving here in Asheville, with no less than six weekly and two monthly indie newspapers on the street.
Admittedly, many are labors of love produced on shoestring budgets, but together they ensure that area residents can get their news from a variety of viewpoints, rather than being forced to rely on information that's been carefully screened to serve the interests (and bottom lines) of distant corporate owners. Nationwide, chains account for about 75 percent of all newspaper circulation today, according to Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen. (The Seattle Times Co. is a fifth-generation family-owned business.)
Asheville readers, on the other hand, can sample independent, locally produced news publications that span the political spectrum, ranging from the left-leaning Asheville Global Report to such conservative voices as The Asheville Tribune and the Mountain Guardian News & Opinion. In this, the local media scene evokes the early days of the republic, when passionate political debate spilled readily into print.
At least a dozen more specialty publications -- everything from the Asheville Disclaimer to Out in Asheville to Western North Carolina Woman to Zen Asheville -- serve populations and interests that may be ignored or underrepresented in the mainstream media.
Most of these publications are distributed free of charge, and all of them exist in the shadow of the daily Asheville Citizen-Times, owned by the Gannett Company of McLean, Va. According to its Web site, Gannett is the nation's largest newspaper publisher. The company owns 102 papers (including USA TODAY, which has a daily circulation of 2.2 million), 21 television stations and assorted other properties. Last year, Gannett reported operating revenues of $7.4 billion.
But that doesn't seem to faze the local Davids who do battle with this journalistic Goliath. "If it wasn't for the fact that the Citizen-Times was such a lousy paper, none of the rest of us would be in publishing," declares David Morgan, editor-at-large of The Asheville Tribune.
Citizen-Times Managing Editor Bob Gabordi brushes off the criticism, observing: "That's just David. ... His business strategy has always been to demonize the competition. ... Whether it's you guys or us, we're too liberal for David."
As for the range of local news sources, Gabordi says: "I think it's great. ... You can walk to any street corner and pick up a dozen or more points of view -- national, local, conservative, liberal. I think it helps us all."
Morgan, meanwhile, is one of several strong-minded editors and publishers who spoke with Xpress about the significance of independent, local news media. And however diverse their political views, they share a single-minded dedication to putting the issues and viewpoints they care about in front of local readers. At the same time, these journalists are also upholding a long-running Asheville tradition (see box, "Old News").
Running on fumes
Eamon Martin came on board as an editor at the Asheville Global Report soon after the nonprofit, volunteer collective was launched six years ago. Martin, who has studied sociology and media, says he was driven by concern about what he sees as "a serious public-information crisis."
Asked about the abundance of independent, local publications, Martin says: "I think it's a reflection of greater Asheville culture; the creative ambition of a large number of people who live [in] and love Asheville -- despite encroaching trends towards homogeneity."
The AGR (which began publishing Jan. 19, 1999) is the creation of three Asheville activists: Clare Hanrahan, Bob Brown and Brendan Conley. Its mission statement proclaims, "We cover news underreported by mainstream media, believing that a free exchange of information is necessary to organize for social change."
Is the paper achieving that goal? "Yeah, on a certain level," Martin replies. "We all have more grandiose ideas of what we'd like our impact [to be] for our efforts."
Still, in its relatively short life span, the paper has collected a fistful of journalistic honors (including, most recently, this year's Evan R. Mahaney Champion of Civil Liberties Award, which the WNC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union gave the AGR on May 14).
The paper has also won nine awards from Project Censored -- a media-research group that prepares an annual list of the 25 top stories overlooked or underreported by the mainstream mass media. The group, based at Sonoma State University, also honors the independent publishers who break those stories.
The AGR's awards, says Martin, have come for the paper's reports on such diverse subjects as U.S. soldiers executing prisoners of war in Afghanistan; Attorney General John Ashcroft's efforts to strike down a law that holds government leaders, corporations and senior military officials liable for human-rights abuses committed by Americans in foreign countries; a U.S. soldier who refused to shut down an Iraqi television station; and a U.S. threat to invade The Hague if any American personnel were brought before the International Court of Justice there.
There are local stories, too, but AGR volunteers expend a good deal of their energy scouring the Web for obscure but important global news. Martin also says he's proud of the Triangle Free Press, a similar publication launched recently in the Raleigh/Durham area by people inspired by the AGR.
Each Monday evening, a team of 20 or so volunteers assembles at their office in the Flat Iron Building for an all-night marathon reading session, reviewing 200 to 300 stories and debating which ones should make it into print.
"I wish [the AGR] didn't have to exist," says Martin, who believes Americans aren't getting the information they need from the mainstream news media. "I wish the world wasn't that way."
The AGR is distributed every Thursday throughout Asheville, with a few copies traveling as far as Hendersonville, Boone, Hot Springs and Marshall. "We make the most out of 2,300 to 2,500 ... well-placed copies," says Martin. But the paper is also reaching a growing number of readers via the Internet.
"Through no effort of our own, our Web site is really taking off," he reports, citing "50,000 visitors last month -- with no promotion." The audience, says Martin, is "mostly people concerned about the monolithic, corporate monopoly of the public sphere."
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that the paper's dedicated staffers volunteer their services. "Once in a while, if we have more than $4,000 in our bank account -- which is rare -- the editors, if they so desire, may take a $50 stipend a week," Martin says without irony.
That hasn't happened lately; in fact, the paper almost ceased publication last month and had to mount a major fund-raising effort. The AGR, says Martin, has managed to pay off its debts and is in the midst of creating a more stable financial structure.
"It's pretty much a miraculous labor of love," he observed recently after being up till 4 a.m. helping put the paper together. The "satisfaction of doing good work [is] unlike anything I've ever experienced."
To Martin, that dedication -- and, indeed, the plucky paper's whole orientation -- is a "response to the lack of responsibility within the corporate-media sphere. ... We're a direct reaction to that, obviously," he muses, adding ruefully, "We're always running on fumes."
Saying what you think
The Asheville Tribune, founded by native son David Morgan nine years ago, shares the AGR's dedication to underreported news. The Tribune, however, tends to view the news from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, Morgan's also a firm believer in the importance of having multiple news voices.
"I had a lot of relatives in England," he reveals, "and over there you can read the left stuff and the very right stuff. I said, 'We should get all the sides.' ... My feeling is that the First Amendment was not put out there so that you could run around in the streets and write graffiti on walls or say stuff -- it's so that the press can inform the public of what is really going on with its government, its politicians, so people can make intelligent decisions."
For his part, Morgan didn't start out in life paying much attention to the news; he was busy as a sales rep for the family furniture business. "I wasn't political at all," he recalls. "I wasn't involved in anything."
But after he got married, Morgan gave up road trips to concentrate on retail here at home. That gave him the idea of doing something like the Kiplinger newsletters -- stringing together little news briefs supported by ads for local businesses (including his own). Accordingly, Morgan began publishing Newsbreak Magazine. But when he stopped by what was then Computerland South to sell owner Bill Fishburne an ad, Fishburne instead proposed that the two of them do a news-based talk-radio show -- and Morgan had his political baptism.
"We'd better be controversial," Morgan remembers saying. But he had trouble finding material in the mainstream media on the kind of topics he wanted to discuss on the air.
After just 22 weeks of shows, the radio station (WSKY) was sold -- but by that time, Morgan was already hooked, and he announced to his on-air partner, "I've got to start a newspaper."
"You're completely crazy," Fishburne told him -- just before agreeing to help. It took them four months to produce the first Tribune. Matt Mittan (then unemployed, but now a local talk-show host himself) volunteered to do stories; Fishburne (who's now also a prominent talk-show host) promised to write editorials. And the rest is history. Today, the Tribune family also includes papers in Weaverville and Hendersonville.
"Most of the media now, particularly the big media ... they don't have a clue what the news is," Morgan declares. "A lot of these other small papers, they have a clue what the news is. ... But it's not meant for mass consumption, because it is controversial. It does provoke you to think, but I think that's what we need. We need to get people the stuff so they can debate it -- so they can think about it. But if you give 'em mush all the time, it's a disaster."
The Tribune papers have climbed to a combined distribution of 32,000, says Morgan. The original (now published by Morgan's wife, Katrina) is found around Asheville, in Black Mountain, north toward Weaverville, south as far as Fletcher, and even as far afield as Waynesville and Canton. The two sister papers cover Weaverville proper and the Hendersonville area.
"I tell people they've got to look back," says Morgan, who now serves as editor-at-large. When the Tribune was launched, the Internet wasn't the explosive purveyor of news that it is today, and there were few indie papers around town, he notes. "All these independent papers, that's great ... all out there saying their stuff. That's the way it's supposed to be. People are supposed to have a voice -- be able to say what they think, you know?"
All the notes on the piano
John North publishes the newest paper in town, but he's hardly a newcomer to the business. North worked for various dailies and weeklies before launching his own publication, which he ran for 20 years. Based in Independence, Va., it was called The Declaration, displaying the same brand of wit that now brings us the Asheville Daily Planet.
"I thought [it] would be kind of a smashing name, because everybody reads Superman comics," says North. "Ultimately, we'd like to have a daily paper, so we're a weekly paper with a daily name. ... I'd like ... for Asheville to have an independent, locally owned daily newspaper for the first time, probably, in many years."
In between The Declaration (which he sold in 1999) and the Daily Planet, North took some time off to wander the globe. Friends he met along the way kept trying to steer him toward the West Coast, but North wanted to try Asheville first. "I've fallen in love with it," he confesses. "It's a West Coast city that somehow landed in the beautiful mountains of [Western North Carolina]."
Having grown up in Charlottesville, Va., North is a big fan of university towns, with their abundant activities and enhanced intellectual stimulation. So it's not surprising that he's looked to UNCA for both events to cover and contributing writers. "UNCA is just real lively for such a small university," says North.
"The freethinkers capital of the world is Eugene, Ore.," he proclaims. "But what I found there was, unlike Asheville, just the left spectrum -- which I find very interesting. ... But I like all the notes on the piano keyboard." Asheville, says North, is "a really fascinating city [with] the Billy Graham group to the right" plus a very strong center. "It's really tolerant of all the spectrums, and so I like that even better."
When the first issue of the Planet hit the street last Dec. 1, an above-the-fold headline proclaimed "New Paper Aims to Serve Area's Thinkers." The philosophical publisher does admit to having taken some ribbing about that from friends who've suggested that there might not be a lot of thinkers around. But otherwise, says North, "We hear a lot of good comments" about the paper. Distribution is between 5,000 and 6,000 copies, placed all over Asheville and into Woodfin, Weaverville, Black Mountain and Reynolds.
And for his part, North stands behind his original intent. "You've got a pretty intelligent population," he says, particularly noting the folks who choose to move here. "They're interested in what's going on locally and throughout the world."
As for the business of putting out a newspaper, "It's been a labor of love to some degree," North concedes. "But I don't run newspapers to lose money for a living. So it's on a trajectory. ... As for daily, we'll see how that goes. I'm sort of putting a challenge out to the community of Asheville -- like, you tell me you're not happy with the current daily. Well, we could be that if you want."
And while he admits that the spectrum of local publications is unusual for a North Carolina town, North feels it fits the city's profile. "This is like the Independent Republic of Asheville or something. ... So, I mean, the fact that Raleigh or Charlotte or Chapel Hill doesn't have a number of independent publications -- I wouldn't apply that. I'd [say] Asheville's more comparable to cities like Eugene or Boulder or Santa Cruz or Madison, Wis."
And however you look at it, "I think it's really healthy to have a lot of papers," says North, "and to make them all better."
Asheville and Buncombe County have been home to literally dozens of news publications since the mid-1800s. (According to the N.C. Newspaper Project, a joint effort by the State Library of North Carolina and the N.C. Division of Archives And History, the state's oldest-known paper -- the North Carolina Gazette -- began publishing in New Bern in 1751.) The earliest names on the local roster are the Asheville Messenger (1849 to 1852) and the Asheville News (1849 to 1867).
Over the next half-century, however, more than 45 different papers (many of them short-lived, and some simply name changes as existing publications reinvented themselves) served local readers, including: the Asheville Daily Gazette, Asheville Spectator, Asheville Pioneer, Asheville News and Mountain Farmer, Asheville Democrat, Buncombe Reformer, Daily Sun, Exlavigator, Highland Messenger, Fuller's Gleaner and Western Expositor.
In the early 1900s, local newspaper names often seemed to reflect the burning issues of the day: the Good Roads Bulletin, Anti-Saloon Advocate, Labor Advocate, Freeman, Vacation Voices and Southern News.
The Newspaper Project shows a local publishing drought between 1950 and 1994, with only a handful of new names cropping up: the Southland Advocate, Asheville News, Native Stone, Asheville Advocate and Green Line (which became Mountain Xpress in 1994).
Since then, however, all that has changed, and today's intrepid journalists are once again laboring to ensure that Asheville residents can choose who brings them the news.