When Stephanie Barna became Editor of Charleston City Paper in 1997, she was 27 years old. A former Creative Loafing freelancer and CBS affiliate in Savannah, Barna quickly jumped into the Charleston scene, crafting the tone of the City Paper with her smart voice and smart ass delivery. Her knack for nailing the city’s trends, shaping its opinions, and forecasting its future would become the key to the publication’s success.
So it was a surprise to all of us in 2014 when, after 17 years at the editorial helm, Barna announced her retirement. As she explained to then-news reporter Paul Bowers, “I was thinking about the paper as being my child. So the paper is getting ready to hit its 18th birthday next summer, and it seems like a good time to let it go.” To which we all thought, “Let go?! Fat chance.” As any mama will tell you, you never really let go of your baby and even though Barna’s byline frequency has waned, her impact is felt every day, as we try to live up to her standards and carry on the smart and snarky legacy of this paper’s founder.
So, here we are, 10 more years. How’s it feel?
Well, it’s bittersweet because I left during that 10 years. And it was definitely my dream job. So it was very hard to let go of it. But I feel like I put it into good hands and it’s been shepherded well and I’m proud to see that it continues.
I do feel like it needs to evolve faster and better. It worries me that it still looks the same. But I think that the content is stellar and continues to do well and I think it’s still an important voice in the community and that’s what matters to me.
When you started the paper in ’97 did you have grand plans for what City Paper was going to stand for?
No. I definitely felt trepidation about being a newcomer. In the beginning I wrote a ton. I was just an outsider trying to see what the issues were. I let my opinion form organically based out of the information I was gathering. I didn’t have much of an opinion about Charleston except that I thought it was a cool place. And then having lived in Savannah where I mistook the racial issues. There was like a placid surface level and I mistook that as being “Oh wow, there’s no racism here.” That was naivete and it was like “Oh wow, it’s like the ’50s here.” I had learned that lesson from Savannah so I knew there was a deep well of stuff in Charleston that people were not willing to acknowledge.
I think that’s actually the most exciting thing to me currently that’s happening in Charleston is that race is actually a conversation that’s being had and I think it’s long past due. I had always wanted to do the Race Issue and make it this big, broad, diverse discussion and I feel like that sort of happened without me having to do that. I wanted to put that conversation out there and now it’s just happening and I think that the City Paper being a part of that conversation is huge. And the diversity of voices in the paper itself. When I started, I didn’t even have any natives writing for me. When I first met native Charlestonians willing to write for me and acknowledge my existence, that was very exciting for me because people were really weird about it in the beginning.
I was gonna ask you about that. What was the initial reaction? The first couple of issues were people like, “What is this thing?” When was the point when Charlestonians got that you weren’t leaving? When did you know what people thought of the City Paper?
Oh my god, probably not until I left the City Paper to tell you the truth. I was just always behind my desk and so I was not really able to get out and about. We had these grueling deadlines and I was always stuck and I had babies, so I never really knew. All I knew back in the day was from hand written letters to the editor. We didn’t even have an email. I just knew, my first story I did, actually the neighborhood story, the save the city one where I went and interviewed all of the neighborhood associations, they were shocked to see me. They were like, “Oh you’re serious.” Then, after that, a lot of people would call me. It was just working the beat. Once they saw someone working a beat and that cared about it, they responded to that. The seriousness you put into it reflects and comes back to you.
What was the first story that you felt you really nailed? Have some memory of that?
Probably Hurricane Floyd.
I’ve seen that cover.
Yeah. We came back on a Monday or something and people were pissed and all the writers were pissed and they all wanted to share. That was one of those really fast turnarounds. I was not really accustomed to doing much breaking news really. I was much more long features and stuff. So that was exciting because it was like “Yes, City Paper.” We tapped into the pissed off and there were lots of conversations around it.
When that happened, did you feel some sense of license, like ‘We can do this again. We understand what people are thinking?’ When did you feel you got braver with stories and started challenging things?
I remember we did a Heritage or Hate (2008) issue during the big debate on that. We became the forum for people of opposing views to be heard which I liked. My goal is always that people felt we treated them fairly and were honest and authentic and not bullshitting. I was interested in hearing all the viewpoints. You can’t fight against something if you’re not clear on how they’re defending this racist symbol. How do you justify it? Then they’d do these tortured historical justifications and it’s like, “Yeah see?”
One thing I think that’s interesting to follow in the past couple months has been the Baltimore City Paper shutting down and other alts closing, and it’s really upsetting to me to see it happening, since I’ve been a part of writing for City Paper for 12 years now. But for you, as an owner, is there still a place for alts? What is that place?
I don’t know. I mean I feel like the internet stole our voice. You know that tone. I mean the tone of the daily and an alt-weekly, the internet tone is not of a daily and now everyone is sort of writing in that tone. It’s personal, it’s objective, I think it needs to be online. I like what The Stranger in Seattle has done. The Stranger‘s always on the cutting edge. And for years you print something special that has gorgeous photography and really utilizes the print medium and keep the digital digital and go for the fast, cutting edge stuff. Why publish something again and again and again in just a different package? You should make it special.
Speaking of special, I think some people forget the role you played in covering Charleston’s food scene. I think the high tide of that era was you, and Robert, and Jeff. What was it like? Did you enjoy it? Was it weird?
Well, I’ve always loved reading food news. Like Cliff Bostick at Creative Loafing, that was like the one thing I read. I don’t know why. I never went to any of the restaurants. I was a college student too poor to go out to eat. I just loved the way he told stories and it was through food. So it always spoke to me and I always loved reading restaurant reviews. I knew it was going to be a big deal in Charleston.
Even from the earliest days?
Oh yeah, from the beginning I just knew it was something I was interested in. I was as interested in food as I was in music, and theater, and all that stuff. I’ve actually, in retrospect, I could be a cool hunter really because my interests have always been a half step ahead or whatever and I just trusted that I know what I like and that other people will like it too. I just sort of kept my nose in it forever. Then Sean [Brock] moved here. I wrote about him before he moved here. I was just researching who they had hired and I looked at my alt-weekly bretheren in Nashville and it was like ‘Oh I’m going to ask them.’ They were like, this is a big deal for us to lose him to you guys. So it was like, ‘Hey, let’s see where it goes.’ Luckily, I had a food critic who understood where Sean was in the grand scheme of things and it was interesting.
But it’s been interesting because I feel like food has lost its meaning here. It’s just become a commodity and it’s a real shame.
What role has local media played in that? We’re probably pretty guilty.
Eater‘s the problem. I mean really, it turned it into a gossip thing where, for us, the gossipy stuff was just an addendum. The important thing was the food and the culture and what it means. Well, when you focus on just what’s opening and closing and what the hot places to eat are, you’ve got people running around in herds to each new restaurant. And I’ve really rebelled against that personally because I don’t have to do it anymore. I just go to places that care about what they’re doing, care about me as a customer, and treat me well, and give me good value. Well, The Ordinary is not the best value, but it is good so it’s worth the splurge. I just focus now on places that make me feel good. When Shuai and Corrie open a brick and mortar you damn well know I’m gonna be in there.
Yeah, because it’s good stuff.
I don’t feel the need to be at every opening you know. Sorghum and Salt? I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I do feel like Charleston has become this commodity on so many levels. Actually one of my favorite stories we wrote was the Disneyfication of Charleston with the Mickey shadow.
Such a good cover.
I’d like to read that again. We’ve always had this tension between the tourism and the locals and it’s just gotten more and more intense and now that we’re the bedroom community of Brooklyn and JetBlue is like a $200 two-hour flight, people move here instead of Brooklyn because it’s cheaper. Now they’re making our rents go up. A friend asked, “Why do people keep coming here?” I was like,”I don’t know. There’s really not much more to do than a weekend.”
Could you have predicted Charleston would end up like this?
I felt like the recession just put the brakes on and gave us a breather. All this was getting ready to happen in this area. It just delayed it. Now, if you look at all the new development, we’re a commodity. We’ve got these big investment groups in Charlotte and Chicago and stuff. We’re not a little backwater any more which, the sad thing is, if this growth and development was actually helping us, it would be one thing. What are we gonna do? Our infrastructure sucks, our schools suck. We’re not leveling the playing field. We’re still fighting over frickin’ 526. Let’s get past perimeter roads. Let’s look at the bigger cities and see how perimeter roads have worked out.
And that’s something we continue to cover. So, what do you think is a story where City Paper made a lasting impression? The flag obviously. Is there something where you point to and say this was the thing?
Gosh, I don’t know. During my tenure? I definitely think for me the food coverage became my signature. I always loved Moredock reminding everybody like, “Hey this place isn’t all unicorns and fairies.” There’s some deep seated problems that no one was talking about.
What would you like to see for City Paper in the next five years.
I want it to be reinvented. I really want it to be freed from the past. It’s not an alt- weekly anymore. That’s what you need to understand. It’s like a trans kid. My child needs to come out and be what it needs to be in order to exist in the world that it’s in, and not try to be what it used to be.
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