Here's something extra for you, offered exclusively here on my blog! My wonderful blog... that I want you all to love... and visit frequently.
As many of you may have noticed in my posts on Ashvegas and Faceboook, I have alluded to a local publication that hired me, and then asked me to tone down my writing to appease their advertisers. Well, here on my blog, you can now read the true tale, one that I can imagine some people would prefer that I do not tell. I believe very strongly in a free press, and I feel as though this is not just a story about me, but it is a universal story about what is wrong with the news media in general, and that it needs to be told.
First let's start by saying that the Mountain Xpress came to me, and asked me to write about food for them. They had seen and enjoyed my food writing on Ashvegas, and wanted me to bring that same voice over to their pages. I said yes of course, and when we met they gave me three guidelines:
• They don't print reviews, so I would just have to write about food in general. I can do that!
• No swearing. Fuck no, I wouldn't dream of swearing in your pages, MX! I'll try to be funny anyways.
• This last one is paraphrased: "The publisher doesn't like for writers to say negative things about local businesses."
Um, okay, that's a little weird for a newspaper, but whatever, we all want a strong local economy, so I'll keep it up-beat.
We agreed that I would write a monthly food report from the River Arts District, and that the first one would focus on the changing grocery store scene here. In my usual fashion, I made it aaalll about me. I submitted my piece, my contact at the Mtn X liked it, and it was ready to roll!
Whoop! Whoop! My first paying gig writing about food! 800 words at 12 cents per word, Betches! Plus $20 a pop for pictures! Umgonna be rich!!!
Here's what I wrote:
Finding Food in The SFB /RAD
By Stu Helm
Stu Helm: The Food Critic here, with my first piece for the Mountain Xpress! If you don't know who I am, google "Stu Helm: The Food Critic" to find my writing. Beware: It's chock full o' swears! Plus, I use a lot of made-up words, teenspeak, and other annoying shortcuts, so be ready to either love or hate me. That seems to be the way it usually goes. :)
Aaanyhoodles... The MX asked me to write about the food scene in my new neighborhood, and I said, "Hell, Yes! Jus' gimme a word count!"
800 or less. GO!
Last year I moved to South French Broad Avenue, just down the street from the Middle School, a block or so up from the River Arts District (RAD). Before that I lived in North Asheville for 9 years, off N. Charlotte Street. It was great: Quiet, pretty, close to downtown, and plenty of easy access to one of the most important things in life: Good Groceries!
I don't own a car, instead I ride my bike (Bikey) pretty much everywhere I need to go. I rode to Greenlife Grocery on Merrimon Ave 4 or 5 days every week, buying my groceries by the back-pack-full. I loved it! Frequent trips to the food market are a great way to shop. They get me out of the house (I work at home), riding Bikey, and buying fresh food to consume within a reasonable amount of time. No stale stuff!
Of course, now Merrimon Ave is Grocery Store Mecca, with Trader Joe's and Harris Teeter recently plopping down an inch away from Greenlife (now Wholefoods) and Ingles and Fresh Market right up the other end. There is certainly no shortage of grocery stores in my old neighborhood. My new neighborhood? Not so lucky. I was bummed when I first moved here and realized that Greenlife is STILL the closest grocery store. It's about a 2.5 mile hump over downtown. I was depressed. For real. I had it so good before! I had moved to a food desert.
People were telling me , "Shop at Hopey & Co. and French Broad Food Co-op!" I tried both, but I'm spoiled. The design and feel of Hopey & Co. and the quality of their stuff was a far cry from Greenlife, and the selection at FBFC is just very limited, and specialized. My mom suggested Katuah Market, but that's about 5 miles from my house, and one Hell of a hump up some major hills on Bikey.
To make matters worse, poor Bikey got crushed by a giant ladder one day!
I was on foot for my first four months in my new hood, and noticed just how many other people were hoofing it up and down SFB all day. That makes sense because there's a bunch of low income and elderly housing toward the far end, and downtown at the other end. My fellow pedestrians were in the same boat as me, with a long hike to a good grocery store. I noticed that a lot of them shop at the Hot Spot, and that's... um... just simply not a good place to shop for groceries. I felt bad for everyone, including me! Easy access to good food is crucial, and we didn't have it.
BUT! There has been some good news for the SFB/RAD neighborhoods lately!
photo: Kathryn from Aardvark Farm at the RAD Farmers Market
• The Montford Farmers Market has recently relocated to the All Souls Pizza parking lot (Clingman Ave.) every Wednesday! I'm sorry, Montford, but that's huge for us! It looks like "Pizza Wednesdays" just became a new thing in my life, and will include buying fresh food at the market!
• I also heard that Hopey & Co is undergoing big changes, due to the remodeling of the building they occupy, and becoming a real grocery store, with real food. YAY!!! The sad part is that one of my all-time fave jams, Hi-Fi Cafe, is being squeezed out by the project. BOOO! So, while I'm psyched about the promise of a good grocery store close by, I'm bummed that my friends at Hi-Fi are closing up shop. Ugh. Development: It's good for some people, and sucks for others. Whatcha gonna do about that? Nothin'.
• While I await the changes to Hopey, I've gotten used to shopping at FBFC. It's actually a great little place, a lot like the "health food stores" that I shopped at in the 80's. As long as you go in knowing what they've got and what you want, you'll leave with what you need.
Dang it! I ran out of words in my word count already, so I gotta wrap it up. I'll write more about the food scene in SFB/RAD whenever the X wants me too! I hope you don't mind!
- END -
This piece was all set to go to press, until the day before, when I got the following note from my contact...
You mentioned you were going to post on Facebook about your story coming out on Wednesday, but hold up on that. Jeff Fobes, our publisher, looked at your story today (just as we're going to press...sigh) and wants to pull it to have you rework the parts about the French Broad Food Co-op and Hopey & Co. Apparently these are two huge supporters of Xpress, and Jeff feels that the references to those stores cast them in a negative light that will not be well received by either of them.
We will still be running your story, just on July 30. I apologize for the sudden change of plans, but this is something we have to deal with constantly.
So, anyhoo, following is the offending paragraph. If you would, please try to rework it into a form that won't hurt any feelings. I think Jeff was most concerned about the insinuation that Hopey& Co. sells poor-quality food, and that French Broad doesn't offer a good selection. I had thought that softening the Hopey sentence paired with your closing comments about French Broad would do the trick, but I guess not. If you want some suggestions, I can do my best to give you some ideas. Just let me know.
"People were telling me, "Shop at Hopey & Co. and the French Broad Food Co-op." I tried both, but I'm spoiled. As a discount retailer, the design and feel of Hopey & Co. and the quality of its stuff was a far cry from Greenlife, and the selection at FBFC is very limited and specialized. My mom suggested Katuah Market, but that's about 5 miles from my house, and one hell of a hump up some major hills on Bikey."
Again, I'm so sorry for the 11th-hour change. :-(
I thought about it for an hour or so, then wrote the following response, showed it to Dawn, she gave it the thumbs-up, and I hit "send."
Thanks for this note, sorry for the delay in getting back to you.
I want to be honest with you and tell you that I'm shocked, and more than a little disappointed by this request on the part of your publisher. It's completely unethical as far as I'm concerned, as I am only telling the truth in the "offending paragraph" and I even went so far as to bring those two companies up again in the story to say that the one was improving, and the other was a "great little place."
I'm even reconsidering whether or not I can work for a paper who's editorial policy is so closely tied to their advertising policy. I am assuming that "huge supporters" means that they are monetary benefactors of the paper.
If they were "huge supporters" of a free weekly press they would have zero interest in effecting the editorial part of the paper. They would also have a chance to refute anything they might disagree with in my piece in your pages, or on the web.
When you said the publisher didn't want writers to slag local businesses, I could understand that to a degree and let it slide, because we're all in support of a strong local economy. To blatantly edit any editorial piece because it might turn-off an advertiser is just wrong in my opinion.
The paragraph doesn't offend, the policy does.
I'm going to stand my ground and refuse to edit the piece. You guys can chop that paragraph out if you want, or rewrite it if you'd like to, but if you do, I will not take credit for the piece and will not hype the piece or even mention on my Facebook page that I wrote it, and I will not work for the Mountain X again.
I know that this isn't your policy here, (name deleted), and I like you very much, but I just can't stand for that kind of economically based censorship. It's part of what's wrong with the media in general today.
Your publisher might consider the fact that I say the most horrible, yet truthful things on Ashvegas about restaurants that advertise with Jason, and he has never once asked me to change one word. He agrees with me about the separation between editorial and advertising.
Of course, if your publisher would like to run the piece as is, we'll get right back on track, and I'll happily continue to contribute monthly.
I'm sorry for the pinch that Jeff has put you in.
We parted ways after that, I didn't get paid for what I wrote, and it never got published in any form, until just now.
So, there you go. That's the true tale of my recent attempt to work with the Mountain X. I had tried twice before.
When I first moved to town, I emailed and called them to see if they needed illustrators for their paper, and I sent them my portfolio, which they ignored until I followed-up numerous times, finally getting someone on the phone who told me very glibly, in a semi-annoyed dead-pan voice, "We don't pay artists."
That sucks! What a horrible policy! Way to support the local art scene, MX. Of course, this was over nine years ago, so maybe that policy has changed. I have noticed more, better art on their covers in the past year or so.
Then there was the time I won in a very strange category of their "Best of WNC" readers pole. The category was called something like "The thing that the Mountain X most needs to add." They called me on the phone, told me I'd won, and I came in to their offices to get my picture took and everything. I talked to the editor numerous times about how they could "add" me to their paper. I even offered to draw a FREE piece of art for them, of whatever they wanted! That's what I do for a friggin' living after all, y'know? Nope. It never worked out. They never bit. They never "added" me to the pages of the Mountain X. I think they got rid of that category in the Best Of issue the next year.
One of the ideas I pitched to them back then was a "Fun Time Page" type of thing for kids, featuring a character I had invented called Banjo the Whistlepig. I thought they might go for that fer sure, but nope. Now Banjo is the dang mascot of a monthly newspaper that I have been publishing with my partner Tim Arem for going on two years now, called The Asheville Flyer for Kids.
I recently won another "best of" accolade from the MX readership for 3rd Best Social Media Personality, for my Food Critic Writing on Ashvegas.
Yeah, Man! That rules.
There are more pictures from the RAD Farmers Market posted on my Facebook page.