WhenThe Bitter Southerner debuted last summer with the promise to “publish a great piece about the South each week” – on Tuesdays to be precise – most of us on the Coca-Cola Journey team were smitten.
As fellow Atlantans, we were drawn to the online magazine’s subject matter. As fellow publishers, we were intrigued and inspired by how they bring their long-form stories to life in today’s digital landscape, where “listicles” and GIFs vie for 140-character attention spans.
Over the last year, they’ve published weighty feature articles, essays, short stories, poetry, photo narratives, documentary films and even a curated series of cocktails bearing The Bitter Southerner name. Visually, The Bitter Southerner aesthetic is rendered through full-bleed photography shot in natural light, literary fonts, illustrated chapter headlines and other design devices that move readers through several thousands words without realizing they're staring at a screen.
Their three-paragraph mission statement can be distilled down to three casually worded priorities: telling stories, convening discussions, and enjoying a drink or two (sometimes simultaneously). The four complementary creatives behind the magazine – who hail from four small Georgia towns with a combined population of just over 42,000 – take their craft and their spirits, but not necessarily themselves, quite seriously.
So, it’s apropos that my first meeting with Chuck Reece (writing and editing), Dave Whitling (design/art direction), Kyle Tibbs Jones (social media) and Butler Raines (insights/analytics) took place at a bar, a cavern-like speakeasy of sorts in downtown Decatur, Ga. called Paper Plane. We settled into a horseshoe-shaped booth to swap stories about, well, stories. Our conversation went something like this:
What visual format – and overall readership experience – were you going for when you created the magazine?
DW: We had a lot of analog notions about how to do digital storytelling. When we got started, we asked ourselves, “What’s wrong with how we read stories online?” The type is either too small or hard to read, and the layout is too cluttered. The online versions of stories always feel like a compromise to the print versions. We knew we wanted to use rich photographs to air things out and allow someone to unpack the story. We used a lot of hooks from traditional magazines, including grabbing readers early with a big, beautiful entry spread, and offering multiple levels to read a story. We know some people are thorough and want to read everything from right to left, top to bottom, including photo captions. Others are a little quicker and skim through. We considered all of those things.
CR: There’s a bit of a method involved in moving people through a really long story online. The longest story we’ve run was called “The Many Battles of Atlanta.” It came in at 7,000 words, and we managed to get about 400 out of it because we were a little scared. A few weeks after we published it, I had someone say to me, “That story was great, I loved it!” He asked me how long it was and I told him. And he said, “I had no idea.”
You started out as a glorified cocktail blog, after the 'World's Best Bars' list shunned the South. Your first piece was a profile of an Atlanta bartender. When and why did you decide to expand your editorial focus?
DW: Our first opportunities to incubate the idea of The Bitter Southerner were to bring a few cameras over to a bar, take pictures, shoot some video, do some interviews and see what we could come up with. But a couple cocktail stories in, we knew we had more to say. It was a regional point to be made in the same context of the omission from the cocktail list… the dismissiveness. The assumption that the region is only this or that.
CR:The most popular media about the South today are reality shows like Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. What we’re saying is these sorts of caricatures do not represent the entire South and the many smart people here doing smart things. That’s the core of what we’re about. One thing that helped us get a foothold with an audience is that, from the get-go, we’ve acknowledged the complexity of the South with every story. We’re not going to write about anything without acknowledging any baggage that travels along with it.
Were you inspired by other publications or sites?
KTJ: We thought if we could land somewhere between the New Yorker and the Oxford American, that would be our dream.
CR: The New Yorker covers the whole world, but it has always maintained this unique ability to cover the city in a way that makes absolute sense to the people who live there. It’s reflective of their attitudes. And when we thought of what wed like to be, we wanted to treat the South in the same way.
DW: What we like about the New Yorker is their ability to cover as broad a range of topics as they do. Their only filter is good stories… the subject matter is far and wide. That was important to us. If you start trying to pigeonhole into regionalism, you quickly back yourself into clichés. And we would have figured that out if we’d just been a cocktail blog. The filter of the region felt both big enough and intimate enough. One of my favorite reader comments came from a guy who said, “I knew I loved The Bitter Southerner you ran back-to-back stories on Killer Mike and azaleas.”
BR: What inspired me was that we wanted to do something that was not already out there.
DW: Right. It was less about trying to be like another platform. We really only thought about how to tell the stories. We knew we wanted The Bitter Southerner to be thoughtful, and we knew we wanted to it be in-depth. We knew we wanted it to be smart and pretty. There is no other infrastructure around it. No ads, no departments, no sections. It’s just a block of stories. And they all follow a similar cadence, from photo essays to 5,000-word written pieces and everything in between.
CR: I don’t think we are, no. First of all, none of us are from a big city. I think the definition of “the South” has changed a lot in the last 30 years. We came through the Jim Crow era and had the Civil Rights Act passed. Since then, what it means to be Southern began to be proscribed, to a certain extent, by forces outside the South. Now the most popular media about the South are reality shows like Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. We don’t begrudge those families and would never say anything bad about them. All we’re saying is that those sorts of caricatures do not represent the entire South and that there are many smart people here doing smart things. That’s the core of what we’re about. To me, it's not about "big city" or "small town." We don’t come at it with any agenda except to represent the South as it is.
KTJ: The diversity of our readers is pretty incredible. I was just on the phone with a sweet elderly lady who wanted to give us $10.
DW: I've gotten emails saying "My granddaughter introduced me to this website." How many things do you find cool that you’d say, "My grandma would like this, too!"? That was a nice awakening early on.
You only publish one story a week. Why?
CR: Because at first, that’s literally all we could do. And it’s still all we can do. We learned pretty quickly was that what started for us out of necessity was valued by the readers.
BR: I think our audience appreciates our pacing.
DW: It was practical and out of necessity, yes, but it was also intentional. We knew we couldn’t keep a cadence up of publishing multiple times a day for many reasons. We didn’t want to. If we were going to do 3,000 to 5,000-word pieces with 20 to 30 photographs, you want somebody to feel like they can spend some time with a piece like that.
KTJ: At the core of everything we’re doing is telling stories that move our region forward. And we couldn’t – and wouldn’t want to – push out at a Huffington Post pace and be thoughtful and authentic.
Chuck and Dave, can you describe the creative dynamic between the two of you?
DW: There’s a dance that happens every week. Regardless of where it starts, it bounces back and forth seamlessly, with no ego. Chuck has always been open to the fact that there’s a visual reality to what he writes, and that sometimes a piece begs for more subheads, or a different rhythm, cadence or length. That’s something we figured out early on.
CR: If there’s one thing we’ve figured out that we may be a little ahead of the curve on is that collaboration between writer and designer, or photographer, anyone who’s lending any kind of visual element to the story. As a writer, you learn the truth of that old saying about a picture being worth 1,000 words. You have to be willing to admit that, fairly often, a photo really is worth 1,000 words and, therefore, 1,000 words have to go out the window.
You have a strong following on social. How do you use Facebook, Instagram and other channels to engage readers not only about the stories you publish each week, but also about other topics of interest?
KTJ: Just like we publish stories on Tuesdays, our "story" on social is a little bit about music, a little bit about cocktails, and a little about culture, history and literature. We can have some fun on social, and people notice that. It's how we’ve shown personality outside the long form. For us, social is about curating who we follow. I have a really good feel for who we should be watching. For example, I know NPR Tiny Desk Concerts are something our community loves.
BR: We don't do paid or promoted posts. We've invested the resources we have into building our community of fans on Facebook. And, naturally, through Twitter.
CR: We try to start conversations and further them. As our community has grown, we've discovered more and more stuff through them. Even if it’s starting up a frivolous discussion discussion about what Willie Nelson's tour bus smells like, it’s still a bunch of people who relate to each other. That’s been the biggest thing for us… people saying, “I’m not the only one who feels this.”
DW: Now expats in Seattle can say, “Finally I have something to show to my friends here that proves why I love the South.”
You just celebrated your first anniversary with a 12-day membership drive to stand The Bitter Southerner up not only as a brand, but as a business. Can you explain the thinking behind the campaign?
CR: Our first priority was to be able to pay our writers, then to pay ourselves. We also want to look at ways to expand the site’s programming. We quickly eliminated two options: putting up a subscription pay wall and selling ads. Instead, we decided to rely on our community of readers and give them an opportunity to join The Bitter Southerner at four levels… essentially the public radio fundraising model. Business and artists donated some things for us to give away, and we partnered with other indie Southern businesses to sell their goods in The Bitter Southerner General Store. We also launched The Bitter Southerner Book Club, which will feature signed first-edition books by Southern authors.
Where do you see The Bitter Southerner in five years?
CR: Still alive and kicking! How it evolves remains to be seen.