Muriel Vega is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor. You can find her byline in The Guardian, Paste, Creative Loafing, and xoJane, among others. She also co-edits CommonCreativ ATL, an Atlanta arts magazine.
With The Bitter Southerner, editor Chuck Reece and his creative team explore the contradictions of the modern South.
If you still think of Southern culture as an oxymoron, Chuck Reece can fix that.
Reece is the editor in chief and co-founder of The Bitter Southerner, an online magazine based in Atlanta that publishes one long-form, multimedia-rich story from the South every Tuesday. It might be a look inside Graceland Too, the shrine kept by an unhinged Elvis obsessive in Holly Springs, Miss.; "Scale Highly Eccentric," a tribute to Flannery O'Connor in text and illustrations; or a piece about the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, aka the Super Bowl of Pork. Contributors include the novelist Charles McNair, sportswriter Ray Glier, and photographers Whitney Ott and Rick Olivier.
In other words, it's not Duck Dynasty.
"Anyone who feels that the South is misrepresented ... everyone feels a bit bitter about that," Reece explains. "They also feel a bit bitter about that moment when you move away from the South, and all of your friends are like, 'Gee, I bet you're glad to get out of there.'"
Together with Dave Whitling, his then-coworker at an Atlanta design studio, Reece started reaching out to writers, photographers, and videographers to get the stories behind all those unsung drinks (cocktail bitters were the original, primary inspiration for the magazine's name).
But soon it evolved into something bigger—a way to spotlight people who were making the South more interesting. People "who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time," as a manifesto on the site reads.
"Both of us, having grown up in small towns in rural Georgia, were ... particularly sensitive to how the South is portrayed in the mass media," Reece says of himself and Whitling, who is now the magazine's creative director. "We knew that the image the rest of the world saw of the South wasn't the same as the South we lived in." The idea crystallized when Whitling mentioned the Drive-By Truckers song "The Southern Thing":
You think I'm dumb, maybe not too bright
You wonder how I sleep at night
Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the Southern thing.
The Bitter Southerner now draws more than 85,000 page views per month; it has 13,000 newsletter subscribers and 32,000 followers on Facebook (the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood is not just a fan, but a contributor himself). Media watchers are taking notice. Forbes recently called the magazine the Vice of the South, and NPR's Michele Norris praised it on Twitter as "brave, curious and funny."
In August, The Bitter Southerner launched a 12-day membership drive that borrowed from public radio. It offered four membership tiers, with goods donated by Southern businesses and artists. The magazine also started a book club in collaboration with Atlanta bookshop A Capella Books.
Reece, who leads a full-time staff of four, counts the drive a success, though he declines to reveal any numbers. "The membership drive let us meet our two main goals: pay contributors, and begin to pay very small salaries to ourselves," he says. It also surfaced new opportunities to generate revenue, including audio and video productions (the magazine doesn't run ads).
Reece lives in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, a historic neighborhood that's seen an infusion of new residents and businesses in recent years, due in part to the opening of the BeltLine and Historic Fourth Ward Park. One of Reece's own stories for his magazine was about #weloveatl, an Instagram project that became a local sensation, growing to 50,000 photos that celebrate every dimension of the city's life.
"This city has changed so much," Reece says. "I'm prouder to say I live here than I've ever been in my life. Atlanta is so unstuck now."