What has stayed with me down through the years is the swoosh of the street cleaner trundling through downtown’s deserted streets about an hour before dawn. The noise would often startle me out of a pinpoint reverie while doggedly writing or editing some story — reminding me that the night was slipping away and I would soon have logged yet another all-nighter for Mountain Xpress.
I also remember getting goose bumps of pride and joy when the presses would start their slow turn, gradually speeding up until the floor shook and the thunderous noise made it almost impossible to talk, and the latest issue of Xpress emerged fully formed, a couple of hundred a minute — proclaiming things that seemed to me vitally important and indubitably true.
Asheville is a very small market to support a so-called alternative weekly. The only other similar-sized American city I know of that’s home to an alt weekly is Santa Fe (not counting a few towns with very large universities). When we began publishing in 1994, we knew we had to grow — a lot — in order to make it. We started out averaging 24 pages per week, with a circulation of 11,000. Well, we’ve grown each year, and we now average 64 pages each week with a circulation of 25,600. Our staff, meanwhile, has expanded from 11 to 30.
The happiest people working at Xpress are those who by their very nature are fascinated by local news, local events and local business. The more typical preoccupation with national and international affairs relegates practically everyone to the role of observer. Locally, though, each one of us can be a player (though the best remain intensely aware of the global human/ecological drama unfolding around them). It’s this love of active participation that fuels Xpress‘ obsession with the local — whether it’s news, arts or advertising.
Without strong communities, I believe democracy doesn’t stand much of a chance. And nothing builds a community like good local media. Television and the national press have many merits, but they tend to turn viewers into stereotypes and statistics, rather than active participants.
Strong communities are built on local dialogue: diverse people talking and listening to one another, breaking through the stereotypes. The public search for fair, viable solutions to problems requires a lot of listening, and then — as a community — making a choice. Xpress‘ job is to foster that dialogue and decision-making process.
What lies ahead for Mountain Xpress? Growth issues are presenting Asheville and environs with both pitfalls and opportunities. I hope we can help the area grow while maintaining its utterly unique nature. In an area so rich in both creativity and resources, local media should serve as useful guides, helping us remember what we have to offer — not what someone else somewhere else wants to dictate to us. And if we do our job well, Western North Carolina will teem with active, thoughtful citizens raising the raucous noise of grassroots democracy and cultural joy.
Nowadays I’m not around to hear the early-morning street sweeper. I head home from Xpress at a more reasonable hour to sleep. I also take weekends off to tend my small organic truck farm — I guess the irresistible pull of the local hasn’t finished with me yet.