Three years behind the Blade

by David Forbes June 28, 2017

The Asheville Blade started three years ago. A look at where we’ve been, what we’re about and what we’re fighting for

Above: “Three years of the Blade,” artwork by Wendy Lou

I can still remember the feel of the particular kind of paper the Virginian Pilot used during the early ’90s. When I couldn’t finish the opinion page and the news section before rushing off to school I’d fold them neatly in my cluttered backpack.

I read — a lot — and I was fortunate to have a family that, despite the poverty we often faced, did so relentlessly. Books were prized, treasured. Same for newspapers. Every day my grandfather would pick up the News and Observer along with the Pilot and the Daily Advance. Sections were read, re-read, the topics parsed, passed around the table after mealtimes.

It seemed a window to a bigger world, one existing simultaneously alongside the more immediate questions of if the heat would work this winter, if we had enough money to fill up the car or if we would lose the roof over our head. Legislatures debating, wrongs uncovered by intrepid reporters, harsh questions put to the powerful. Columns pushing for reform. The press has an old mystique, and it’s not entirely unearned.

Even then I knew there were, on a good day, as many untruths as truths lurking on those pages. There were columns calling for reaction too, thundering against any number of groups’ rights and existence yet still treated as serious views worthy of publication. Even the less outwardly bigoted had their role in this: to this day I still find columns rolled out by well-heeled pundits, parsing policy and power like people’s lives weren’t on the line, grotesque on a gut level.

At the time they were blithely discussing a crime bill that would later devastate hundreds of thousands of lives. Soon they would talk about economic boom years that we saw little evidence of. With memories of foreclosure still wound-fresh, I was harshly aware of the remove in these pages from our lives and those around us, the unquestioned media assumptions that I couldn’t always put into words, the berth given — even by supposedly intrepid reporters — to some and not to others. Sprinkled throughout the papers were the ads I flipped past, bored when they ran for pages, depicting a world of gentry affluence that may as well have been on Mars.

But for all that the newspaper seemed, like the ballot my mom insisted we observe and question every single time she marched to the polls, a weapon and a tool. An imperfect one, certainly not always enough to stave off devastation or injustice. But a weapon nonetheless: fragile but sometimes powerful, in a world that provided few in our defense. That’s always stayed with me: both what journalism can be and how far its own mythology often takes it from that duty and potential.

When bored in class, I’d doodle imagined editorial pages, sometimes set in a far future from one of the tattered sci-fi novels I was devouring (Robots revolt in 2123! Are they justified? Time for a point-counterpoint!). At the library I’d delve into the topics I read about in the morning paper. As soon as I could, I started writing for the high school paper, then later the college one. There, I got my first checks (though still far from enough to beat the health problems that came with perpetually not having enough food), pissed off my first official (though they stayed in power for awhile) and realized that I liked asking questions, tracking down facts, trying to fight injustice and telling stories. I was fortunate to meet mentors who taught me more about journalism’s past and reality, its potential for good and evil.

I moved to Asheville and worked in a slew of jobs (anything that would pay the bills) as I had for a long time. I kept writing and reporting whenever an editor would take a story. A few years later, it became my living, even as the newspapers I kept reading blared about how my calling was a dying industry. For nearly seven years, I was fortunate to work alongside some amazing editors and colleagues at Mountain Xpress. I loved Asheville, but I also became more familiar with the segregation, injustice and culture of silence that loomed over the people of this city. When I freelanced outside the city, for publications like Coilhouse or NSFWCorp, I saw the potential of journalism done differently than the often-creaky mainstream model. The latter, focused on aggressive investigation and entirely supported by its readers, demonstrated that there was another approach besides filling blog post quotas and begging advertisers.

Indeed, as time continued much of the paper’s top leadership ended up mired in ego, incompetence and cluelessness. As these things go, the consequences ended up falling on the workers, and we started to organize for a union against heavy (and sometimes outright illegal) opposition. The publisher and editor ended up killing a heavily-researched story on slumlords in the county, because they didn’t want to print anything negative about landlords. They repeatedly tried to intimidate me into rewriting an in-depth investigation into a puff piece about how property owners could legally kick out tenants. I refused. As part of the ongoing union fight, we made the decision to release it anyway, to show how the actions of management were harming not just talented local journalists and workers, but the public’s right to know. The press is not just another business — it has to serve the people to have any point to its existence — and Ashevillians needed to see what was going on. I started a page named the Asheville Blade, figuring that might well be the only piece that ever ran on it. The Blade moniker has a history in journalism from abolitionist and pro-labor papers in the 19th century to some of the first professional LGBT media in the 20th.

I ended up out of a job, with limited resources. But along with all I’d learned from worthy colleagues and the people of this city, I’d also received a master class in how not to run a news organization, how not to pursue journalism. I started to think what a different course would look like.

With my savings and the help of some generous locals we managed to get together the resources to make it work. I encountered real enthusiasm alongside those predicting we’d be gone within the year and I should stop criticizing the way things worked in Asheville, leave the city and “go to grad school.”

Instead, June 13 marked three years of the Asheville Blade’s formal launch. Perhaps appropriately, I was working (there was an Asheville City Council meeting that night). Three years is a good time to reflect on where that particular path, along with the insights of a lot of incredibly wise people over the years, ended up.

Here’s what the Blade‘s about, what we focus on and what, after three years, continues to drive us.

The Blade is reader-supported — We have no ads and no corporate backers. The Blade is entirely supported by our readers’ subscriptions (you can subscribe here) and donations (you can donate here). The contrast between the pressure I saw placed on newsrooms — even when it wasn’t directly said and even when reporters or editors resisted it — and the necessary independence of journalism is an ongoing problem.

Instead our readers fund us. This is a lot more stable than the traditional advertising method and allows for a far greater degree of independence. Rooting a news organization’s funding in advertising often bases its power in the gentry and the influential; the very people whose actions the press needs to monitor and check. The Blade‘s monthly subscriptions cost the price of a good cup of coffee. Reader support pushes us to improve, to prize courage and to pursue stories that would otherwise not get told.

The Blade was born out of a union fight — The way the Blade began shapes what we do. This publication is, and always will be, focused on the realities faced by working people in this area. The Blade believes in our strength when organized and that the theft of our time, culture and wages is an injustice that must be fought through every method at our disposal. This is the news organization far less interested in the fancy new restaurant than how the workers there are paid and treated. We act, inform and report accordingly.

The Blade is independent — The Blade focuses on views as well as news. There’s no shortage of opinion columns, perspectives and analysis in our pages. Occasionally, I write some of them. We’ll condemn or advocate as well as providing in-depth news. That is part of the power of a news organization.

But that power has to be independent. Among groups that might be pro-labor, for example, there are disagreements about tactics, ideals or the best way to proceed.debates about how to proceed. We try to portray reality fairly and to the best of our ability. We are accountable to our readers and the people of Asheville. We don’t take marching orders from any specific faction, candidate or group, even if they might also espouse a view similar to one we run in our pages.

Photo by Bill Rhodes

Journalism is about justice — Journalism that serves as just another institution to prop up those who already have power betrays its purpose. While news organizations have an obligation to be fair and independent, they also aren’t exempt from the human obligation to consider the consequences of their actions.

Too often news organizations forget that, embracing a version of “objectivity” that leaves existing norms unquestioned or even zealously reinforces them. Combined with a smugness about access, this can leave reporters stenographers or courtiers rather than journalists. If people in our profession aren’t trusted, too often that’s why.

At our profession’s best, we take to heart that we exist to hold to account, to demand better, to inflict consequences to help magnify the voices of those who have been ignored or wronged. Journalism is where people come when they have absolutely nothing left but a story and the fragile hope that its telling might change those who hear it. We have a duty to remember that.

The Blade cares far more about the struggling than the gentry, more about workers than business owners, more about those fighting to make rent on one home than those who own three, more about the marginalized than the privileged. Those latter groups do not need another voice. They already have an excruciatingly loud one that the rest of us have had to endure our entire lives. Media that furthers that rather than countering it makes the world a worse place.

No bigotry and no batshit — Journalists and media help set the bounds of a society, and have an obligation to repeatedly and seriously assess our role in doing so. Bigotry, which damages and even ends the lives of countless people throughout our society and city, is not a legitimate perspective, belief or culture.

We have an obligation to say so. The Blade labels bigotry as bigotry and does not have an ounce of sympathy for those who practice and promote it. There are an abundance of topics that good people can disagree on; whether marginalized people are human beings is not one of them. Journalism that treats it as such puts people’s lives and freedom at repeated risk.

For that matter, news organizations exist to debunk and combat delusions like chemtrails or anti-vaccine conspiracies, not coddle them.

So while we have and will continue to delve deeply into issues with any number of sides or perspectives, the Blade has a strong “no bigotry and no batshit” rule and tries to use what power is at our disposal to push these lies and those who espouse them as far away from influence and power as possible.

The Blade is longform — This niche was long missing in Asheville media, and is especially suited to analyses, investigations and perspectives that give a richer picture of the reality of our town. As an online publication not constrained by print costs, the Blade goes for in-depth, longform pieces in an effort to better inform the public and provide as much context as possible.

History matters — To that end as well, the Blade operates with the view that history always matters. Whether it’s Council debates stretching back years or how the legacy of the Civil War still affects things today, the past is real and continues to shape the present. Actions do not happen in a vacuum. So we incorporate history into pieces on current events, as well as focusing on pieces that highlight history specifically. Ideally, I’d like to see news organizations treat history as just much of a regular beat as local government or the arts. It’s that important and, sadly, often neglected.

Power matters — We encounter a lot of bullshit in our profession. At one time, a mentor of mine repeatedly reminded me that a way to navigate it was always to keep three key questions in mind.

Who and what are emphasized?

Who and what are ignored?

Who and what are considered expendable?

In short: power matters.

Journalism that operates as if it does not is not only furthering injustice but giving readers a false view of the world. Politics is about power. Institutions, cultures and governments do not treat everyone the same: how and why they do so is about power. Rights are nothing without power. Who policies hurt or help is about power. The Blade seeks to demystify power and grapple seriously with its reality and the way it affects the lives of the people of this city, whether that’s dissecting a decision from local officials or informing people about their ability to organize their own community or protect their rights.

Ashevillians protest a September 2016 Trump campaign appearance. Photo by Max Cooper.

Asheville is worth fighting for — This city is not a hollow playground for the gentry and tourists. It is not an investment or a product. It is home. It is our communities. It is power and life, culture and hope because we live here, because we make it possible and because it is ours.

The Blade exists because Asheville matters, because our city is worth fighting for, because its evils are real, its good tenacious, its people beautiful and its future still unwritten.

That’s the core of who we are, the core of what we strive for. That is what we fight for.

Some days are far harder than others, but three years on we are here and we are going nowhere.

Forward,

David Forbes

Editor, Asheville Blade