Citizen Green: Standing up a newspaper in an incubator culture

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by Jordan Green

Jordan GreenI think often about the story told to me about the founding of the Rio Grande Sun, the weekly newspaper in northern New Mexico that gave my first job out of J-school.

Robert and Ruth Trapp helped found the newspaper in 1956 with another couple. As John Foster, my editor in the news department told me, the Trapps believed the community needed a newspaper. The owner of a local car dealership in Española invested $500 to help them launch the paper, but according to Foster, once the Sun started exposing corruption, the car dealer forever swore that he wished he had never made the investment.

It’s a strange business, journalism. The idea of building a revenue model around an enterprise premised on holding up a mirror to the exercise of power in government and business while telling the stories of a community’s highs and lows is counterintuitive, to say the least.

But ultimately, where better to get financial support for a newspaper than the community it serves? Whether through direct donations, loans or advertising revenue, there’s really no substitute for support from the community. A grant from a government or a foundation would allow us independence from the people we’re writing about, but at what cost? We would then run the risk of internalizing the agenda of our outside benefactors.

Our Kickstarter campaign — which on Sunday surpassed its $10,000 goal to pay for newspaper boxes and establish an investigative fund — has prompted an outpouring of support from not only readers, but also family members, fellow journalists and hometown friends. We’ve deliberately refrained from soliciting money from people who we write about or might write about, although we haven’t turned away any contributions. We presume they understand, similar to every business that advertises in our pages, that their contribution doesn’t change the way we write about them.

Starting a business with fellow journalists Brian Clarey and Eric Ginsburg, along with the other members of our ownership team — Maria Recio, Ellen Kern and Allen Broach — has forced me to make a paradigm shift. The tenets of watchdog journalism to which I’ve always subscribed — skepticism, holding people accountable and second-guessing public and private actions — spring from a conservative well. I’m struck that starting a business and trying to produce something that has value to one’s community acts on a more progressive instinct. Business is politically progressive? Bear with me.

We’re trying to build our capacity, and we’re finding that our interests are aligned with others who are also trying to build as opposed to tear down — people who are opening galleries and coffeehouses, launching art shows and staging concerts, bringing people together for street parties and making investments to restore old buildings for new uses. We’re taking a risk to create the kind of publication that hasn’t been seen before in the Triad, and cheering on others who are taking similar risks to breathe new life into our cities.

I’m struck that much as we need to scrutinize the initiatives of our city governments to make sure taxpayer money is being spent wisely and to question who stands to benefit and who stands to lose, we also don’t want our elected representatives to be paralyzed into inaction.

Regeneration requires bold experimentation and the risk of failure. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We launched our Kickstarter campaign with back-to-back parties in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, at a bookstore and an art gallery respectively. It was crucial that we hold the two events around the same time to avoid slighting people in either of the two cities, which are more or less evenly matched in population, cultural assets and economic activity. I don’t think people in High Point, the third largest city in our readership area, would have resented it if we didn’t hold an event there. But when Patrick Harman invited us to hold a party on Washington Street, the historically black business district in High Point, we jumped at the chance.

Harman’s family foundation has made significant investments in Washington Street by providing funds for residential home weatherization, paying for transportation to the park for neighborhood children and rehabbing a crack house, now leased to an art gallery at nominal cost.

When we celebrated our first seven months in business with some 40 readers, supporters and friends at Jackie’s Place, it felt great to be part — even if only in a small way — of the revitalization of Washington Street. I couldn’t help think about John Coltrane, who grew up on nearby Underhill Street, how even though his family’s resources might have been meager, the right elements were in place to nurture his talents. How he went on to make beautiful music, becoming one of the greatest jazz artists of all time with the recording of A Love Supreme, an album of breathtaking beauty.

All the elements are in place to make something fabulous and inspiring here. Along with Jackie’s Place and 512 Collective, small businesses like Green Door Wheel Works and the Brewer’s Kettle in High Point, Scuppernong Books in Greensboro and Reanimator in Winston-Salem, along with any number of incubators, coworking facilities and maker spaces, are breathing new life into the region. Beyond just covering the culture, we at Triad City Beat consider ourselves to be of the culture.