Fifteen years ago, in keeping with Asheville's continuing love affair with upstarts, a small group of believers launched Mountain Xpress. It was a long shot.
Xpress started small, running about 24 pages a week, and slowly gained traction by virtue of its local focus and its chutzpah. We told readers that we published the news "from dance hall to city hall" and offered a commentary section that declared, "There seems to be a difference of opinion here." We had fewer sacred cows than was considered proper, and we played to the hopes of Asheville's small avant-garde, who yearned for their town to become more exciting, diverse and cosmopolitan.
Back then, Asheville was a quiet place economically and politically, run by an entrenched elite that favored the traditional route to civic progress: creating jobs by wooing big industry and national retailers. Tourism played second fiddle.
Residents got their news from the Asheville Citizen-Times, whose coverage reflected the elite's love of the status quo and a worldview still stuck in an earlier decade. But stirring the pot of public discourse — or agitating it, in the view of many — was an iconoclastic monthly called Green Line, an activist publication promoting "progressive" views.
Unfortunately, Green Line cost a lot more to produce than it took in from its subscribers, backers, advertisers and assorted true believers. After weathering seven years, largely through sheer obstinacy, the financial outlook was bleak. A detailed analysis, however, showed that maybe — just maybe — a second newspaper might be viable in this little town. But it would have to publish weekly, and it would need to reach beyond the boundaries of Green Line's not-so-large progressive constituency.
Asheville has seen its share of wild-eyed dreamers: Our town is an incubator, a fomenter of eccentricity, initiative and individualism. And the risk-takers rose to the occasion. About 250 people contributed money to help Green Line become Mountain Xpress — not as loans but as gifts to the community.
Shifting from monthly to weekly was an astonishing experience. The pace picked up fourfold, and it never let up. Our tiny staff lived and breathed the audacity of the effort, working for paltry pay (though we had, thankfully, closed the multiyear chapter of working for no pay).
Freelancer/staffer: "I won't work for so little money; I'm worth more than that."
Xpress: "This isn't about what you're worth — it's an experiment in community-building. We pay what we have — which, admittedly, isn't much."
Startups, of course, require large amounts of capital, and a few folks did the financial heavy lifting. I still recall the day a tall gentleman stopped by the office to ask a few unremarkable questions. Nodding pensively at my answers, he mildly inquired, "Would it help if you had some more money?"
"Sure — we could do a lot more," I allowed with a chuckle. That man turned out to be Julian Price, who returned (later that day, I believe) with a substantial check. Julian's philanthropy helped kindle scores of quirky, idealistic, dreamy local projects, many of them still with us today.
Over the years, Julian, and a couple of others who chose to remain anonymous, provided the lion's share of the capital for both Green Line and Mountain Xpress, not expecting ever to get a penny back, much less see any return on investment. And to this day, everything gets plowed back into making the product better and more reflective of the excitement that is Asheville. Now that's a business strategy you won't find at Gannett or other major newspaper chains.
At its heart, Mountain Xpress is an ongoing experiment testing the belief that healthy, democratic communities need locally focused media outlets that treat their "readers" as collaborators and activists. Xpress' preoccupation (some might say obsession) with all things local is fairly unusual; it certainly goes well beyond the mainstream media's current interest in local reporting. Beginning with Green Line, we've been practicing hyperlocal citizen journalism since the 1980s.
Sometimes it's hard to say no to major nonlocal stories. Like the time a distraught environmentalist practically demanded that we do a story about the danger of oil drilling on Alaska's North Slope, declaring it to be America's largest loss of pristine wilderness in the 20th century.
You can't justify ignoring the big stuff if your vision of "local focus" is limited to the time-honored role of hometown booster. But you can hold your focus if your greater goal is encouraging folks to get involved locally, where they can have both the greatest impact and the best chance to be heard, in the name of creating a healthier, smarter community.
When Green Line morphed into Xpress and advocates lamented the loss of the former's progressive stance, I used to counter, "We're still practicing advocacy journalism: We advocate that people participate in civic matters, regardless of their politics."
Taken to its logical conclusion, the slogan "Local Matters" makes us a booster for the individual, which is about as local as you can get. The idea is that everyone wants a place at the table, a chance to participate in their own unique fashion. I believe a healthy community has a higher-than-average ratio of participants to bystanders, and Asheville is definitely rich in participants.
Fifteen years ago, launching a weekly newspaper to promote community activism was a radical act. Today, there are more cutting-edge ways to convey the news, but promoting community activism remains as radical a vision as ever. And the new technologies give everyone a shot at being a publisher/blogger/originator of information — so there's a whole lot more room at the table.
If the premise is right, then the future should be wide open for this community of visionaries and doers. And you can expect Mountain Xpress to be right in there promoting the dialogue.
So that's our story: 15 years and counting. And to everyone who's taken part in the cause, in whatever fashion, happy 15th birthday!
• Jeff Fobes is the publisher of Mountain Xpress.