Locally-based webzine The Southerner carries the journalistic torch of the late Southern Magazine.
by Joe Tarr
In 1986, an upstart magazine called Southern found its way to newsstands across the region.
For Glynn Wilson, a freelance journalist who at the time ran a coffeeshop/newsstand in Birmingham, Ala., the magazine was a godsenda kind of New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly of sorts for below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Unfortunately, for Wilson and others hungering for in-depth, intelligent journalism about the South, the magazine was bought out after three years and eventually killed.
Ever since then, Wilson has been trying to figure out how to revive the voice
that was the Southern. Last year, he found a way by launching an online
magazine called The Southerner. While it's a much more modest endeavor
so far, The Southerner (www.southerner.net)
may just do the trick.
"There are tons and tons of literary magazines out there, but they don't do journalism," Wilson says. "There's not really a good Southern magazine that does hard-hitting journalism."
With only four issues published so far, The Southerner has a little way to go to meet that goal. But it's already winning admirers for its attempts and ambition. Started last year, the Internet publication has featured prestigious penmen like Gay Talese, William Styron, and Roy Blount Jr.
"He's going to save a lot of money by publishing it [online]. Of course, he's still going to run into some of the same challenges we did," says Linton Weeks, editor of the old Southern who now writes for the Washington Post. "Trying to define the South, you still have to ask the same questions: Is there a South? Is your idea of the South the same as mine? And what difference does it make? I think he's on the right track, and he's calling on good people. I like it so far."
Wilson admits that the idea of the South is a muddled one, and that the region's uniqueness is fading. "A lot of the distinction has been obliterated by suburbanization and television. The South looks like everywhere else now.
"But there's still a distinct culture. And people identify with the region," he says. "And in terms of the language, culture, and literature, there's still a distinctive style out there that people are following and fostering.
"The real question for publishing a magazine online on the South is: Are there enough people who think there is a distinct South to follow a magazine about it? We think the answer is yes."
So far The Southerner has published a hodgepodge of articles. There were stories about former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller's vision for education, chip mills, suburban sprawl, threats to the Okefenokee swamp, and controversy over waving the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina. One of the more popular issues was the one remembering pre-eminent Southern writer Willie Morriswhich featured essays by Larry King, Weeks, Will Nortan, Talese, and Styron (plans are in the works to publish this issue in a bound edition, Wilson says).
On a lighter side (or more sociological side) there have been stories about the growing popularity of hockey in the South, looking for fried catfish in New York City, a women's perspective on football, New Orleans' Bourbon Street, and an interactive short story about Elvis Presley in outerspacewhich solicited reader submissions. Each issue also features a short story.
"It's a noble and difficult cause. Essentially as a region, we don't take kindly to criticism, to cultural criticism. From outsiders especially. If anybody can do it, it's got to be done from within," says Weeks, who contributed a piece for the Willie Morris issue. "I think there's a lot to be critical about and a lot to celebrate... Glynn seems to understand that and be trying to strike that balance."
A former newspaper reporter, Wilson came to Knoxville to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Tennessee. He continues to freelance (he's written for Metro Pulse, and in fact, contributed to the defunct Southern Magazine). One of the reasons he started the magazine is that there are few publications that will print the stories he wants to write, he says.
"I like covering politics in a progressive, wide-open fashion, a little bit differently than you'd read in newspapers. Newspapers, especially in the South, are bland and mediocre and don't really foster great journalism," he says.
While at UT, Wilson has played around with graphic design and studied numerous web publications. Most model themselves after newspapers, other websites, or some combination thereof. Wilson tried a slightly different approach, designing his like a magazinewith an opening cover, then a contents page. The Southerner can be downloaded in an Adobe file, and then printed and bound (Wilson says it's the first online magazine to do this).
Wilson would like to have the magazine publishing monthly by summer. Before that can happen, he needs money.
Writers are currently paid only in stock, an arrangement that can't last long and still attract marquee names. Wilson would also like to have an office downtown (editors currently work out of their homes). He's confident he can find investors.
"There's so much money being thrown at Internet businesses. It used to be impossible to get investment capital unless you already had money, but there's so much money being thrown at Internet start-ups. I feel someone will fund this and take it up to the next level," Wilson says.
He has two more issues plannedthe winter issue due around March 1, which will include the winners of the first annual Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction; followed by another issue in the spring.
One thing that Wilson has no plans for is a print version. It took $7 million to get the Southern Magazine off the ground, and Wilson says he has no plans to go in debt for his magazine. "I don't really want to mess with a print version myself, but if some big media company wants to buy it and print it, let them monkey with it. I don't want to go to the trouble to do it myself," he says.
Ultimately, his plans are to sell The Southerner, making himself and anyone who invested in it a lot of money, he says. Ironically, it could mean The Southerner will meet the same fate as its model, Southern Magazine, did.
The old Southern was bought out in 1989 by Time, Inc. Time changed the name to South Point, and tried to make the magazine a male counterpart to its Southern Living women's magazine. It failed miserably, Wilson says.
Although he would be sad to see that happen to The Southerner, Wilson is not naive about the media business.
"I've designed this thing from day one to sell it. I just wanted to do it and create the model of the magazine for the future. If it stays around, there's certain sections I'd like to write for," he says. "The capital people tell me, 'Oh, you will be acquired.' I hope it's a good company."