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A long, strange trip: The oral history of Creative Loafing


Above photo:
Creative Loafing employees brainstorming in the mid-1980s / courtesy of Debby Eason

In its heyday, Creative Loafing told a story of Atlanta different from the one chronicled in the Journal-Constitution, teased on WSB-TV, or splashed across the pages of Atlanta magazine. Here was a weekly paper that championed underdogs, miscreants, punk rockers, garage rockers, boat rockers, beat cops, line cooks, addicts, taggers, inkers, squatters, rappers, strippers. Also, of course, Democrats. And yet, it also reserved column space for conservative pundits such as Neal Boortz and Bob Barr. It was the place where, if you were 24 and your girlfriend had just kicked you out, you found a new apartment and maybe even a new girlfriend. It was the place to discover what bands to see, what restaurants to hit, what politicians to vote for. In the antediluvian age of analog media, it was Atlanta’s cultural (and countercultural) bible. It made you smarter, hungrier, grittier, cooler. And it was free.

Then, the internet came along and . . . well, you know the rest. If daily newspapers like the AJC have found an uneasy toehold in the digital age, alternative weekly papers like Creative Loafing tumbled down the sheer face of the cliff. The poof of smoke when they hit bottom is only now scudding past, and what’s revealed, in Creative Loafing’s case anyway, seems inevitable but also sad, like that feeling when Kodachrome went away. Last year, Ben Eason, the son of the paper’s founders and the scion who had lost the Creative Loafing chain in bankruptcy court in 2009, bought back the Atlanta paper. The business that had once boasted a staff of 70-plus people now has just four. The paper that once routinely published 160 pages weekly is down to 64, published monthly. Eason believes he can resurrect it, sensing an opportunity in the growth of digital ad dollars attracted to CL’s demographic.

Will he be successful? The odds are stacked against him, but if you care even a whit about Atlanta, you’d be churlish not to root for him. As the paper embarks on its most uncertain chapter yet, we talked with the people who built it, who nurtured it, who survived it. One truth became evident right away: Atlanta had never seen anything like it before—and likely never will again. Interviews have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.


“We will loaf creatively”

One evening in 1972, Deborah “Debby” Eason, a photographer for Delta Air Lines, and her husband, Chick, a math professor at Georgia State University, went to a GSU lecture by a visiting Russian scholar. Only 25 people showed up. That experience, and other poorly attended events, convinced them Atlanta needed a publication that told the public about all of the city’s cultural happenings—festivals, concerts, Wicca meetings. As the parents of three young children, the couple earned extra money by publishing custom guidebooks for Zoo Atlanta, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, and various corporations. After a trial run of a monthly magazine called P-s-s-t . . . A Guide to Creative Loafing in Atlanta, the Easons decided to launch a weekly free publication titled simply Creative Loafing. The four-person editorial staff operated out of the living and dining rooms of the Easons’ Morningside home; the darkroom was in the basement. The print run of the first edition—all of eight pages—was 12,000 copies.

Debby Eason: We didn’t know beans about journalism. We just knew people wanted to know what was going on in Atlanta. All the art galleries offered to pay us $3 a week [to be included in CL’s listings]. We eventually got the High Museum and the Atlanta Symphony to distribute the papers. We called all the bowling alleys and asked who got strikes. No one was publishing bowling scores!

Chick Eason: I had a buddy in the English department, a professor named Edward Franze. We would get together once a day, just bullshit. “If we are going to loaf, we will loaf creatively.” I was surprised no one had used it.

Ben Eason, the current owner of Creative Loafing, is the son of Debby and Chick. I was seven. My sister, Jennie, is one year older. Our job was to go hand out the paper to everybody that we possibly could. Jennie and I literally worked every job to the point where I had no interest in being involved in any part of the newspaper business.

Debby Eason: Everyone would say, “How can you afford to give it away free?” Nobody thought about how much you could make with advertising. We told the kids in college where to take their dates, what’s the good music, what movies are in the theater.

“We didn’t know beans about journalism. We just knew people wanted to know what was going on in Atlanta.”

After the city zoning department cited the Easons for operating a business out of their house, Creative Loafing relocated in 1973 to a house next to McDonald’s on Cheshire Bridge Road, where it operated for one year before moving to a house on North Highland Avenue.

Leara Rhodes, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, was the managing editor of Creative Loafing from 1981 to 1982. We didn’t have enough chairs. I went in as editor, and I didn’t have a chair at my desk. I took a decrepit, old, straight-backed chair with me wherever I went in the house.


“This magical partnership”

By 1977, Creative Loafing’s circulation had climbed to 55,000, and the Easons were breaking even. CL’s biggest competitor for readers and advertising dollars was the Atlanta Gazette, which emphasized editorial more than listings. Readers would pick up both free papers, conflating the brands into something Debby Eason began to call “Creative Gazette.” To distinguish their publication, the Easons began charging 25 cents an issue.

It was a poor decision: Circulation dropped to 22,000. Homeless people in Woodruff Park would tip over the newsboxes and shake out the quarters. The following year, the Atlanta Gazette was purchased by Larry Flynt, the owner of Hustler magazine, who added civil rights icon Julian Bond to its contributors. Eason reverted back to the free model, but in 1978, facing insolvency, she ran a faux classified ad on the cover, pleading for investors. Three people, including two engineers who worked at Lockheed Martin, each gave $5,000. Twenty years later, when the paper was first sold, each investor made $1 million, according to Eason.

Debby Eason: The investors and small loans saved the paper. It kept us in business.

In 1979, Eason was introduced to Scott Walsey, then a 20-something owner of a backgammon nightclub located at Piedmont and Peachtree.

Scott Walsey worked at Creative Loafing for 25 years, retiring as publisher in 2004. We sold the backgammon club and opened up a seafood restaurant. I used to barter advertising for meals with Debby. She and I became friendly, and when I lost everything I had in the restaurant business, I went to work for CL as a salesman selling the convention guidebook Pocket Atlanta. In June of 1980, I moved over to Creative Loafing, and that year they did $105,000 worth of business. We never looked back.

Creative Loafing(From left) Creative Loafing founder Debby Eason, left, with columnist Tom Houck; Scott Walsey, then publisher, in his office in the 1980s; A 1990s-era staff photo outside the Willoughby Way headquarters

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

Debby Eason: Scott can sell anything. We had a great product, but none of us knew how to sell. That’s been my problem my whole career; I’m just not a salesman.

Ben Eason: Scott and my mom had just this magical partnership. They were just really good together.

Walsey: I handled the sales and marketing, and she handled the editorial and production. With Debby, it was all about the listings. She would never cut a listing. I don’t care if it was a band listing or a movie listing or some event at the High. “We’re not cutting out that event at the High,” she’d say. “Let’s cut out words or make a picture smaller, because if you’re a High Museum fan, and you go to Creative Loafing and find out that there’s nothing about the High Museum, you’re not coming back to the paper next week.”


“I’m not gonna work in sewage”

Creative Loafing wasn’t the first alternative weekly Atlanta had seen, but over the years, its size and ambitions crowded out competitors—The Great Speckled Bird; Poets, Artists & Madmen; The Sunday Paper. In the mid-1980s, in addition to food and culture coverage, the paper wrote about city scandals, AIDS in Atlanta, and racism in Forsyth County, the latter of which prompted Hosea Williams to organize a protest. As CL grew fat with ads, recent college graduate Ben Eason persuaded his mother and Walsey to expand beyond Atlanta. In 1987, they launched an edition in Charlotte. Sister papers followed in other cities—Tampa, Savannah, Birmingham, and elsewhere. Back in Atlanta, there was money in the suburbs. In 1993, Gwinnett Loaf began covering one of metro Atlanta’s fastest-growing counties. A year later, Topside Loaf, covering north Fulton, Cobb, and Forsyth counties, followed.

Meanwhile, Creative Loafing’s headquarters, after bouncing from Virginia-Highland (where employees could enjoy a meditation room) to Midtown, had settled finally in the Old Fourth Ward at the end of Willoughby Way, a dead-end street in the shadow of Freedom Parkway that was choked with kudzu. This was long before gentrification, before the BeltLine, before the bungalows had been torn down to make way for million-dollar modern homes. The paper’s new office was a former color-photography processing plant that had cost $185,000 and was, by all accounts, a dump. WSB’s 1,075-foot transmission tower loomed overhead.

CB Hackworth, communications director for the Andrew Young Foundation, was a columnist and contributing writer for CL before becoming editor in 1990, a position he held for just over a year. Next door was a big vacant lot. Our newsroom had a couple of windows that looked out there. Cars would come back there with prostitutes. We’d just stand at the windows and watch. They thought it was some private, desolate place.

“I watched the cops pull the body of a dead john out of a car parked in front of our office.”

Mara Shalhoup, deputy editor of Atlanta magazine, spent 10 years at Creative Loafing as a writer and editor, including one as editor-in-chief. She left in 2011. It’s hard to remember that the Old Fourth Ward used to be as sketchy as it was. Not long after I started in 2000, I watched the cops pull the body of a dead john out of a car parked in front of our office. Rigor mortis had already set in, and his pants were down around his ankles. I later found out from the cops that it was his 21st birthday.

Ken Edelstein was senior writer at Creative Loafing from 1996 to 1998, left, and then returned as, effectively, editor-in-chief in late 1998, a position he held until 2008. There was a sewage backflow at a pipe under my desk, and the carpet got drenched. They fixed the pipe but didn’t replace the carpet, and when I complained, they simply cut out that piece. Now, my workstation was on raw concrete. That was their solution. This was an emblem of what drove me out [in 1998]. I would work anywhere, but I’m not gonna work in sewage.

Steve Fennessy, executive editor of Atlanta magazine, was CL’s news editor and senior writer from 2000 to 2005. I’d put a trash bin on the windowsill near my desk to catch the water during storms. One time, I noticed a smell—different from the usual one. Turned out it was a pile of dog crap under my desk. One of the ad designers had brought her pug in and let him run free. No one was shocked he chose my desk.

Michael Wall, director of farmer services at Georgia Organics, was a staff writer from 2000 to 2006. There was fungus that looked like shelled pasta. There were waterfalls where electrical outlets should be. Now, it’s some of the most valuable property on the BeltLine.

More memorable than the building were the workers. Although Eason herself was socially liberal and fiscally conservative—a sign on her desk read, “I can smell a liberal a mile away”—her employees reflected the paper’s readership: young, free-spirited, offbeat.

Edelstein: There was the guy who did work on Debby’s house. He became the maintenance man. He had an eyepatch.

Debby Eason: Bob Williams. Nice man. One-quarter Sioux. He did all the granite in our house.

Carrie Karas, a senior advertising specialist at CL, started as an advertising assistant in 1991. At one time, we had two guys that wore eyepatches. What are the odds? Mud, who was in IT, also wore black leather gloves with the fingertips cut out and a black leather vest and did impersonations.

John F. Sugg moved to Creative Loafing in 2001 from Tampa, where he had worked at Ben Eason’s alt-weekly the Weekly Planet. In Atlanta, he was a staff columnist and editor until 2008. At CL, we had to have an odd number of eyes.

Karas: There were all the guys in bands that would work distributing papers so they could have a van for their gigs at night. There was Harley, who was dating Carley, and they were hardcore bikers. They ran the general maintenance of the building.

Scott Henry was hired in 1998 as the assignment editor of the Topside and Gwinnett Loafs before coming to Creative Loafing in 2001 as a news writer. Every time I saw Debby, she was wearing a muumuu or a caftan. There were all these people who were either on payroll or were hangers-on. An old guy with a white beard would come in wearing flip-flops, collect his mail, and then walk out.

Hackworth: Debby’s tarot card reader once read people’s charts in the office.

Cliff Bostock served two stints as Creative Loafing editor—from 1982 to 1984 and 1986 to 1990 and wrote the “Grazing” and “Headcase” columns for 27 and 20 years, respectively. Every week, on the day the paste-up was being completed, I had to stay at the office and oversee things. The production staff was fond of weed, to say the least. They would go out back and sit in their cars for what seemed like hours. I would go out and slam my hand on their cars, screaming for them to get back to work. It was a nightmare, and I had no real power to force the production manager to do things differently. By the time I got back for my second term, things were better, although Debby would not fire the head of the production department, who still constantly kept things in chaos. She finally [fired him]. The last issue he was in charge of, he went through the Happenings section and put Debby’s phone number on every one of the hundreds of listings.

Debby Eason: That’s true!

Ben Eason: The ’70s and ’80s, it was like Animal House. Nobody smoked dope at their desks. But I think everybody smoked dope as soon as they went out.

Sugg: In 2001, we had been in Atlanta about two weeks, and my wife and I wanted to go to Savannah. We were told the company owned a house in Tybee that had three or four apartments. We get down there, and it was a very boisterous party in that building the whole time. I think there was only person who had worked for CL. I thought this was a pretty weird corporate thing and that there were a lot of hangers-on.

Henry: I came in for my job interview. In the front of the building, where the sales office was located, they had a life-sized cutout of, I’m gonna say Chesty Morgan or Kitten Natividad or one of these characters from a 1970s Russ Meyers film. She was wearing a tiny bikini top. Someone had attached this big ruler thing that went up the cutout where they were charting their sales. And it had a little sign that said, “Every day our business gets bigger and bigger.” And I thought, “I’m home. This is where I was meant to work.”

Greg Land, a reporter at the Daily Report, joined the CL staff in 1989 as a copy editor and worked as a news editor, music columnist, and writer until 2001. The holiday parties were the best ever. One year, we had the Creative Loafing band with Debby on accordion and everyone else on everything. She would play “Roll Out the Barrel.”

Hackworth: Frequently when you walked up front, there were sex workers in the lobby, placing their massage ads.

Although the internet had yet to encroach much on print media, Debby Eason saw the writing on the wall. In the late 1990s, she launched the Creative Loafing Network, an online-only subsidiary.

Suzanne Van Atten, a freelance writer, was associate editor from 1996 to 2006. She was right. The future was the internet. But she didn’t know how to get there.

Ben Eason: I think it was like 60, 70 people working on the internet [side of the business] at the time. It was insane. Creative Loafing was very, very profitable. But it also hit rough patches at the same time because all the money that the newspaper made just went to all these ventures.

Debby Eason: It wasn’t that big. Like, five or six people at the peak.

Henry: It was like a shadow organization that was siphoning money and, from my understanding, not bringing in any revenue. It was an entire workforce, but it didn’t produce anything that got a lot of attention. It was all in beta testing. They had a movie, music, culture website. Scott Walsey realized the paper wouldn’t survive much longer with Debby spending money like that.

Walsey: She was focused more on the whole digital side, and I had to pay the bills.

Through years of sweat equity, Walsey had built up a minority ownership stake in Creative Loafing. Combined with Chick Eason’s share, as well as the other investors’, they had a controlling interest in the company. When offers to buy the paper came in—from Village Voice, but also from the Easons’ son, Ben, and daughters, Jennie and Taylor—Walsey, who had always wanted to retire when he was 50, saw an opportunity.

Walsey: Things were getting tight, and the opportunity was there to sell it. The Village Voice was interested, but they didn’t meet the price that Ben came in at. Chick and I tried to do a peaceful sale. Debby fought it tooth and nail. She hated her husband, she hated me, she hated Ben, hated her daughters, hated everybody because they were putting her out to pasture. It was just time. But in the long run, it was the right thing for everybody.

Ben Eason: I had to outbid the Village Voice guys. I ended up buying Creative Loafing in 2000 with the help of Cox Enterprises [the owner of the AJC]. So, Cox owned 25 percent of Creative Loafing. We ended up paying around $20 million.

At the time, the Creative Loafing chain of newspapers—which consisted of nine weeklies and one monthly—was the third-largest chain of its kind in the nation. Debby Eason, like many staffers and readers, bristled at the idea of Cox owning a piece of the city’s alt-weekly.

Debby Eason: The sale split our family up, for at least a couple of years. We had been talking about selling to [the Village Voice]. I wanted what was best for the company, and I don’t remember [Ben] even asking us about buying it. It was a total shock. I remember Carmelo Pino [CL’s Atlanta-based vice president, who helped oversee sister publications in Charlotte and Tampa] saying, “This is a hostile takeover.” I wasn’t ready to retire. I was 66.

Ben Eason: Mom is a really smart lady, and she’s kind of visionary. She wasn’t wrong. The problem was she couldn’t let up. She could have gone like 80 miles an hour, not 140. But that’s just mom, that’s who she is.


“We’re gonna cover the hell out of the city”

The most significant hire Debby Eason made before she lost control of the company was in 1998, when she coaxed Edelstein to return to CL, this time as managing editor. Two years later, he was named editor-in-chief. Boisterous, hard-charging, and eagle-eyed, Edelstein would assemble a team of journalists who investigated City Hall, covered (finally) the city’s rap artists, and got behind the scenes of pivotal moments in the Gold Dome, like when then governor Roy Barnes changed the state flag (which led to his defeat a year later). Edelstein lured flight attendant and part-time memoirist Hollis Gillespie from competitor Poets, Artists, and Madmen, gave a local photographer and stunt presidential candidate named Andisheh Nouraee a tongue-in-cheek nightlife column, and challenged young reporters to chase stories no other outlet would tell.

Edelstein: There’s a fetish for “balance” that just got stronger and stronger in mainstream journalism throughout the second half of the 20th century. Balance is like the old joke, “you don’t balance the Jewish point of view with the Nazi point of view.” If you’re going to be fair and accurate, then you need perspective. You also have to acknowledge your own point of view. That’s part of alternative journalism.

Wall had been a reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle in 2000 when Edelstein lured him to Creative Loafing, where he covered the General Assembly and the environment. He also wrote the first stories about what would become the BeltLine. I was not allowed to use the word “sprawl” at the Business Chronicle. That was frustrating. CL seemed more intellectually honest to me. Ken called me out of the blue. He told me he’d been reading the Chronicle and was impressed. Who knows if that’s true? But it was flattering. What was his pitch? A paycut at a much less reputable newspaper! That shows you how smart I am, ’cause I did it. With Ken, you weren’t just reporting but pursuing a larger story that you hope will one day lead to progress. He said, we’re gonna put together a team and make a difference. We’re gonna cover the hell out of the city.

Edelstein: I was very lucky that I came in at a time when Creative Loafing had grown enough that a certain type of professionalization of the staff was necessary. Creative Loafing had a sort of uneven editorial culture and record. The longer stories could be very good, sort of brilliant essays, but there wasn’t consistent narrative journalism that used multiple sources and verified the accuracy of those sources.

Atlanta was just taking off as this mecca for a new generation of people from both the South and from around the country. They were attracted to Creative Loafing because it was cool and hip. There were a lot of talented writers who saw this as a place where they could really create something and not be cogs in the daily newspaper machine. Each time I went out to hire, I had a larger pool of people to choose from because they were more excited about the kind of journalism that they could do at Creative Loafing. And each time I hired, they tended to stay for a little bit longer as well. The cultural milieu of the different staff members getting a buzz off each other was kind of creating a virtuous cycle.

Creative Loafing, despite its juvenile name, was gaining traction nationally. Politics reporter Kevin Griffis coaxed 2004 presidential candidates Lindsey Graham and Howard Dean to the office for interviews. Griffis also broke stories on the federal investigation into corruption within the Bill Campbell mayoral administration. Henry’s coverage—what he called “the sex beat”—profiled swingers, escorts, and coverage of the Gold Club trial. Fennessy investigated immigration court, animal testing at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and the road rage death of an Iraq war veteran in Midtown.

Shalhoup: With Ken’s support, I spent more than a year working on a three-part serial narrative that started with a seemingly outlandish tip. A young guy who used to deliver Creative Loafing was killed in the parking lot of the Velvet Room by a gunman who belonged to something called the Black Mafia Family. The more I dug in, the crazier it got. The same crew was connected to another high-profile killing, of Sean Combs’s former bodyguard. And there also were ties to a double-homicide, allegedly ordered by Mayor Shirley Franklin’s then son-in-law. There were even ties to a fatal shooting carried out by an up-and-coming rapper named Gucci Mane. A story like that, with so many dots to connect, would never have materialized without a mentor like Ken.

Shalhoup’s reporting would result in the 2011 book BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family.

Doug Monroe is a writer living in Athens. He worked at CL as a senior editor from 2004 to 2006 after a career at UPI, the AJC, and Atlanta magazine. Under Ken, it really flourished and did some great journalism. Ken was a very careful editor. He never ran roughshod over anything, though he could be hell to get along with at the time. He was volatile. Under him, I did some of the best stuff I’ve ever done. I don’t think Ken gets the credit that he should as one of the smartest editors there’s ever been in Atlanta.

Fennessy: Ken had unrelentingly high standards. It made us better reporters, better writers.

Wall: I didn’t know much about longform writing until he put me through his grinder. He’d say, “Give your best ideas the best sentences.”

Fennessy: But he could make you miserable. His tirades could tear the paint from the walls.

Wall: He could make you feel stupid, like the dumbest person in the world. Thank God for therapy.

Edelstein: I often felt caught in between. I wanted to fulfill the vision that Ben had, and, on an analytical high level, I think that he had some great ideas. On the other hand, I wanted to protect my staff from demands that were unreasonable or got in the way of their creativity and happiness. I know that at times I was passionate, and I tried to quell that emotion, somewhat. I know I stupidly lost my temper a couple of times—more than a couple of times—and always admired people who were more cool-headed than me.

Monroe: We were able to jump on politicians in a way that the AJC would not or could not. The AJC had gone soft on telling the truth about what was going on in the Republican party. They were doing that to suck up to the conservatives in the suburbs.

In 1990, CL began a new political tradition: the Golden Sleaze Awards, a scathing review of the General Assembly’s legislative session told through lawmakers’ misdeeds. Some elected officials welcomed the dubious honors; in 2016, state senator Judson Hill, R-Marietta, proudly sported a “Sleaze” button that CL gave to winners.

Nan Orrock was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1987 and has served as Democratic state senator since 2007. The Golden Sleaze issue usually landed right around Sine Die, when the General Assembly was winding down. You could see it sitting on desks all over the Senate and the House. If you were on the losing end of battles, it gave you some satisfaction to see the bad guys get nailed to the wall.

Earl Ehrhart is a Republican state representative from Powder Springs and regular recipient of Golden Sleaze Awards. It was always a seminal day when the Golden Sleaze arrived on the desks. The whole House pawed through them. It felt good the first time I got the award. [It meant] I had arrived as a conservative. If I have risen to the level that I’m the sleaze to those who disagree with conservative views, then I’m doing it right. Those that don’t get it have no sense of humor. Look, if you’re wound so tight you can’t take criticism, you don’t last long down there.

After the 9/11 attacks, Edelstein and the staff wondered how they could approach the issues of national security, terrorism, and foreign affairs. Freelance contributor (and later senior writer) Andisheh Nouraee suggested a foreign affairs column with a humorous twist. Hobart Rowland, an editor, suggested the name “Don’t Panic!” The weekly columns helped Nouraee land a book deal in 2007.

Nouraee: Just to give you an idea of how different times—and mortgage requirements—were, writing two freelance columns a week for Creative Loafing, I was able to afford a house. For five years, I had a job where all I had to do was make jokes.

Fennessy: I thought we should get more hot people into our pages, so I floated an idea where readers would submit nominations of service workers they found attractive and wanted to know more about. We’d track them down, photograph them, interview them. Ken said go for it. We called it the Lust List and ran it every Valentine’s Day. Imagine how the AJC would lame-ify that idea.

In September 1998, OutKast released its seminal album, Aquemini. That same week, Roni Sarig joined Creative Loafing as music editor. He was surprised at how little coverage Atlanta’s hip-hop movement was receiving in the city’s alt-weekly, which had already earned the derisive label “Caucasian Loafing.”

Sarig: Here you had this ostensibly liberal paper, but it wasn’t a paper that reflected the diversity of the city. It was more for white liberals. So one of my goals was to have the coverage reflect the actual city and not just the Little Five Points white guys. OutKast was the big story. There was some grumbling from the old-guard writers, who would say, “This is our paper, and you’re only giving me so much space to write about what’s going on at the Star Bar.”

Rodney Carmichael covers hip-hop for NPR. He was CL’s music editor from 2007 until 2012 and senior writer until 2016. I came at a time when Atlanta was planting its flag as a capital of hip-hop. And it felt weird to be at a publication in the city that was very much about arts, culture, and music where I was getting pushback on covering too much hip-hop, or that it was too popular to cover in an alt-weekly. Black culture has been historically marginalized, so what could be more alternative than covering that? It was a culture shock for me coming to CL. Maybe it’s the kind of shock that white people feel when they enter black spaces or come to a city like Atlanta. I grew up in the black suburbs of Atlanta, and my worldview of Atlanta was, this is a black city. All the culture and music is black. So when I came to CL, I got introduced to a side of Atlanta I had no clue about. I didn’t know there was this white Atlanta. I didn’t have a sense there was such a night-and-day cultural parallel or universe like the East Atlanta scene.

Besha Rodell is a restaurant columnist for the New York Times’ Australia bureau. From 2006 to 2012, she was CL’s food editor. I was working in a restaurant up until the point I started at CL. I didn’t come from any money. So, I understood how precious it is for people who go out to eat and don’t have money. You have to think about it in their terms, of people who are going out once a year for a special occasion. I always try to keep that person in mind because I was that person.


Through the Decades

Creative Loafing

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

1970s
Early issues mixed events with occasional news

Creative Loafing

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

1980s
A 1985 preview of the upcoming Braves season

Creative Loafing

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

1990s
A 1992 cover examined race relations post–Rodney King

Creative Loafing

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

2000s
The 2000s saw the biggest investment yet in editorial

Creative Loafing

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

2010s
A cover mocking the AJC’s move to the suburbs

Creative Loafing

Photograph courtesy of Debby Eason

2018
A recent CL issue—highlighting Atlanta music


“Every day I went to work, I lost”

After Ben Eason first bought the paper in 2000, he tapped former Tampa-area journalists, financial executives, and civic activists to serve as a kind of college of cardinals. Advisers and a band of consultants began traveling periodically to Atlanta to offer management, journalism, and marketing training. Where Debby Eason had invested profits in digital initiatives, her son invested in consultants.

Walsey: Debby and I had run CL on instinct and on what we felt was right; Ben ran it on the numbers. It was a different company. There was a whole level of upper management that I had to report to. If you worked for me, and you were doing a good job, I never cared what you did. Now, I had to start caring. I had to start getting involved in your bullshit. So, if you had been a salesperson working for me, I didn’t care if you got your nails done at three o’clock on a Friday when you delivered $40,000 a week for me. That all changed. You had to account for your hours.

Ben Eason: At its peak when we were running it, we were making more than $4 million a year in profit.

Fennessy: The paper owned a little bungalow next door to its headquarters on Willoughby Way. That’s where we’d gather to be lectured at by the consultants and advisers. When I think of the hours lost around that table . . .

Walsey: It got to the point where I didn’t fit in. It wasn’t in my personal culture. We were doing a Best of Atlanta event at Paris on Ponce. Ken was there, and we were waiting for everyone to arrive. I said to Ken, “You know what? I’m leaving.” I went home and said to myself, “I’m done.” I had a year left on my contract. I worked ’til Christmas Eve in 2004. That was that.

In the mid-2000s, as legacy media operations began feeling the pinch from the internet, alt-weekly chains, seeking economies of scale, began buying publications in other markets. In July 2007, Creative Loafing Inc., a mini-empire with four papers in three states, purchased two heralded alt-weeklies—the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper—and The Straight Dope, a longtime Reader-syndicated column by Cecil Adams. The deal granted CL entry into the third- and eighth-largest media markets in the country, according to Forbes. Eason and company borrowed $40 million to close the deal and settle old debts. Now he oversaw 275 employees. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. The housing market collapse, combined with the continued loss of classified advertising to Craigslist and the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, meant the company could not make loan payments. In September 2008, Eason filed for bankruptcy protection.

“My original ante in the company had grown considerably to six figures. But I lost it all in a flash.”

Ben Eason: From 2004 to 2007, every day I went to work, I lost. You’d see a revenue decline hit all the markets. It would add up to a loss every year of five to 10 percent. And unless you have some strategies or something to bail out an old model that’s dying, then you’re gonna lose value every day, until you’ve lost all the old revenue, and now, you gotta go invent your new stuff.

Sugg: Any financial person would look at the prospectus and say, “this is going to fail.” You’re borrowing far more money than the company’s worth, and revenues are declining. Why in the world would you want to do something like this? Ben had always sworn to the shareholders that we could cash out our shares. Most of it was handshake promises. My original ante in the company had grown considerably to six figures. But I lost it all in a flash.

In November 2008, with the company in bankruptcy proceedings, Eason fired Edelstein, the former editor says, after he protested the company’s push to make additional cuts to the sales and editorial staff rather than its top-heavy executive and operations divisions. Eason said it was a private discussion and declined to comment on the firing but called Edelstein one of CL’s most talented editors.

After nearly a year of bankruptcy court proceedings, a federal judge in Florida took the company away from Eason, awarding it to Atalaya Capital, a New York–based hedge fund and major creditor. Atalaya almost immediately started pumping money back into the Atlanta publication, installing a former St. Petersburg Times top executive as CEO and a team of journalism executives from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times as advisers, along with commissioning a redesign and marketing push. Staffers welcomed the investment but knew the Wall Street executives were fattening the goose for an eventual sale.

Thomas Wheatley,* articles editor at Atlanta magazine, joined CL in 2007 as a staff writer covering urban development, transportation, and the environment and later served as news editor. I felt like we could breathe again, and we had a net. We had ads on bus shelters, a redesigned paper, and did rounds of morning radio shows. It was the golden age of blogs, so our online presence was extremely strong. But we were also running ourselves into the ground.

Shalhoup: It was a relief to be working with these new owners, who we all hoped would be better protectors of the publication. They asked the right questions about how Creative Loafing could grow. I applied for the editor-in-chief position, and I got the job. I remember the CEO, Marty Petty, asking me what my plans were to better “monetize” our content. It was the first time I heard that word in that context—but certainly not the last. When I left the Loaf for the Chicago Reader a year later [that paper was sold by Atalaya one year later to Wrapports, the owner of the Chicago Sun-Times], it wasn’t because I thought CL was in trouble. I thought it was in a really good place and sensed it would only get better.


“I would have stayed there forever”

In March 2012, five months before SouthComm, a Nashville-based media company, purchased Creative Loafing’s Atlanta and Tampa publications from Atalaya Capital, longtime editorial staffers Scott Henry, Besha Rodell, Chante Legon, and Curt Holman were laid off. Debbie Michaud, who started at CL in 2001 as an intern, became editor in chief in October 2012. Despite diminished resources, the paper continued to win local and national awards with pieces on OutKast and the cultural identity of the city, the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods along the BeltLine, and food coverage.

Wheatley: Mara’s and Debbie’s stints as editor were the silver lining of the chaos we endured during the bankruptcy and SouthComm’s largely hands-off approach. When the AJC announced it would stop endorsing candidates, we doubled down and created an editorial board. We were some of the first people to write about affordability issues in the city, the importance of downtown, and police shootings. Op-eds by Joeff Davis [CL’s photo editor from 2006 to 2017] played a role in the state removing a Confederate statue from the grounds of the Georgia Capitol. It felt like every other week there was a protest, and we were out there with the activists. For better or worse, we weren’t afraid to be wonky and occasionally preachy. That didn’t mean we wouldn’t strap a video camera to a cat’s collar for a cover story about pets.

Carmichael: There was so much transition going on in the city that decade I was there, 2007 to beginning of 2017. In the same way that Atlanta was becoming less of what I imagined it to be as a kid, I was becoming more of the writer that I had always hoped I would be. In a lot of ways, it was because I was so interested in how the city was changing and how unreal we were being in talking about it and dealing with it. There was a lot of freedom, and I got the opportunity to unleash.

Max Blau, a freelance writer, was a CL staff writer from 2012 to 2015. I would have stayed there forever. That’s a dream newsroom. The work that came out of that era from CL, for the lack of resources we had, was pretty remarkable. As I became more experienced and had more reason to ask for CL to invest in stories, whether it was travel expenses or open records requests, I saw the limits of what was possible. It became clear that, if I wanted to do stories that required investments, it might not be possible there.

In February 2017, SouthComm sold Creative Loafing for an undisclosed sum to a familiar name: Ben Eason. Almost six months later, he announced the weekly publication would become a monthly and exist primarily as an online presence. Two days after Christmas last year, Eason cut seven staff positions, leaving just one member of the editorial staff, music editor Chad Radford, who had started writing for CL in 1999.

Ben Eason: Creative Loafing’s brand is so unbelievably well-defined. We’ve got a lot of avenues to be able to take that, and, in particular, in the rich, new media environments. We just gotta get the old out of here—the old thinking and the old clinging on to stuff, which I think largely we’re sort of done with. We’re done seeing ourselves as purely a newspaper with a website attached to it.


“I actually cried outside the door”

Sugg: CL is kind of an abbreviated history of newspapers in general. They start, flourish, prosper, someone wants to become a media mogul, and they collapse and fail. There is nothing left of the alternative press.

Nouraee: I mourned the loss of that family for so long. And I felt lonely. I really wanted to figure out a way back in. But there was no way I could do that and make a living.

Fennessy: Before I came to Creative Loafing, I worked at a Gannett newspaper, whose DNA was all about suppressing individuality and creativity. Creative Loafing was a tonic. It didn’t just reward iconoclasm and idiosyncrasy, it demanded them. Sure, it paid crap and worked the hell out of you, but there was an esprit de corps I’ve never felt anywhere else. It was hard to leave, but it was time. My coworkers took me to the Clermont and paid Blondie to give me a lap dance. It was a fitting closure.

“CL is kind of an abbreviated history of newspapers in general. They start, flourish, prosper, someone wants to become a media mogul, and they collapse and fail.”

Blau: There’s no job like that in Atlanta anymore. There were many other people who had that job before me, journalists helping their readers understand what the city means to people who live here. I feel for the generation behind me, even those a couple of years younger, who won’t get that opportunity unless something changes.

Wheatley: I started reading CL when I was in sixth grade and buying band stickers in Little Five Points. I wanted every publication I ever read from that point on to have the same voice. I always wanted to work there and never thought I’d get the chance. The night I left, I actually cried outside the door of the office.

Patrick Hill, a talent buyer for the Bowery Presents, booked bands for 13 years at the Earl. I miss it, but I also can’t say that I regularly picked it up over the last several years. I’m as guilty as anyone of going to the internet and finding out what’s going on. There’s a reason people do that. It was relevant for a long time, and I appreciated its role. I wish there was something that took 30 minutes of my week, and I’d sit there and focus on it, but that’s not how I live my life right now.

*Editor’s note: Yes, Wheatley, the writer of this story, quoted himself.

This article appears in our August 2018 issue.

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Source: http://www.atlantamagazine.com/great-reads/oral-history-creative-loafing/

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