A little over five years ago I packed up my worldly belongings and moved from Myrtle Beach to Charleston. If you think Charleston is a conservative town, you should try living three years on the Grand Strand.
Unlike Charleston County, Horry County has a long tradition of Ku Klux Klan activity. That traditional culture is now overlaid with a vast influx of developers and get-rich-quick artists who don’t give a damn about the environment, public education, or the general welfare of anyone except their shareholders. As a result, Horry County politics are corrupt on an epic scale and there is not a building on the Grand Strand more than 70 years old.
Charleston, by contrast, has one of the nation’s oldest preservation societies, its leaders have demonstrated a strong commitment to environmental protection, and there is a deep tradition of civic pride and responsibility — even if it is sometimes expressed in a sense of noblesse oblige. One more thing the Holy City has over the Grand Strand is an alternative weekly newspaper — Charleston City Paper.
I like alternative weeklies for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that they have provided me with both freelance and staff writing opportunities over the years. Beyond that, they are more entertaining, more relevant to my tastes and interests, and they provide a kind of nucleus within a community, around which like-minded people may gather. In many cities alternative weeklies are the voice of the arts, of progressive politics, of minorities, of social criticism.
Alternative weeklies were an outgrowth of the turbulent 1960s and early ’70s. I know because I was there. In most cities the established media did not address the issues of the day, did not speak to the hip and angry baby boomers who were coming to dominate the culture. And so the young people started their own newspapers, referred to in the day as “underground” papers. These papers were the upstarts, the outsiders, not cozy with their city’s economic and social elites.
Papers such as the Milwaukee Kaleidoscope, the Berkeley Tribe, Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird, New Orleans’ NOLA, and the Detroit Sun showed their cities a way of looking at their world which they could never have gotten from their staid and stodgy daily papers. Where the old media saw a pasture of sacred cows, the alternative weeklies found a prime rib buffet. With their wit and irreverence, the alternatives shook up the local media scene from coast to coast. With their hard-edged investigative reporting, they sparked upheaval and reform in such cities as New York, Houston, and San Francisco.
The key to success for the early alternative weeklies was low overhead. Staff often lived in their offices and subsisted on take-out pizza and Chinese. Rather than owning a printing press, they contracted out the printing; rather than maintain the bureaucracy and infrastructure of a subscription-delivery system, they gave the paper away each week. (One of my favorite sleeper movies is a little gem called Between the Lines, which follows the lives and loves of the young staff of a Boston alternative weekly as it is about to be swallowed up by a corporate media tycoon. It came out in 1977 and was Jeff Goldblum’s first major role.)
I came of age with the alternative newspaper and I am proud to be a part of that tradition. I sold my first freelance work to alternative papers in Atlanta and Athens, Ga., in the 1970s, and later to an alternative in New Orleans, where I lived for a couple of years. I freelanced for other alt-weeklies, was a staff writer for Creative Loafing in Charlotte, and founded and edited a short-lived alternative out of Columbia, called Point.
Along the way, I also did some time with a couple of Columbia dailies, the late and lamented afternoon paper, The Columbia Record and The State, which still publishes. I much prefer the freedom, reflection, and informality that I still find in the alternative press, to the production line rigidity of daily newspaper writing.
The politics and culture of the 1960s faded away, but alternative newspapers were here to stay. In 1978, 30 alternative weeklies banded together to form the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. (That number now tops 130 papers, including City Paper.)
The number of alternative newspapers continued to grow through the 1970s and 1980s, though the mortality rate among them was high. The alternative newspaper culture seeped down from major metropolitan areas to smaller cities. It came to Charleston in 1997 in the form of Charleston City Paper — and not a decade too soon for this tradition-bound town.
Before I moved to Charleston in 2002, I wrote a letter to editor Stephanie Barna, telling her I would be coming to town and would be looking for freelance work. We exchanged a few e-mails and set up an appointment. In February, I drove to Charleston and met her at City Paper‘s old offices on King Street. We talked for a while, reaching no conclusions. I remember little of that meeting, except walking into her office. She stood up from behind her desk to shake my hand, and I was taken aback to realize she was a good four inches taller than me.
I moved to Charleston on March 30, busied myself with other writing projects, but kept in touch with Stephanie by e-mail. We had another meeting at her office that spring and I ran some story ideas by her. We set up a third meeting in early July. That was the day she asked if I would be interested in writing a weekly column for City Paper.
I’m sure my jaw dropped. I told her I would need to think about it — which I did for about a day and a half. My hesitation was in considering whether there would be enough material to write a fresh and original column each week. In retrospect, it was an idle fear. This, after all, is South Carolina, the most entertaining political theater in the world.
My first column ran on August 14, 2002. It was a shot at The Post and Courier, that most cranky and reactionary of newspapers, owned by the most cranky and reactionary of Charleston families. The P&C has remained one of my favorite targets.
Over the last five years I have written nearly 250 columns for City Paper and I hope to write at least 250 more. As long as I continue to receive the outraged letters from my “fans,” I will know that I am doing my job. I think there is a place for me here. There is certainly a place for the fresh and irreverent voice of City Paper among the church spires and traditional attitudes of this old town.