Several names that now appear in the GA Voice masthead lost their jobs that day.
GA Voice Editor and co-founder Laura Douglas-Brown worked at Southern Voice for 12 years, the last three as editor; GA Voice Deputy Editor Dyana Bagby joined the SoVo staff as a reporter in 2004 and served as news editor at the time it shut down; Art Director Bo Shell started his journalism career as an intern in 2005 and worked his way up to art director for David magazine; and Web Manager Ryan Watkins joined Window Media in 2008 and served as web content and new media manager.
Current GA Voice freelancers Ryan Lee, Mike Ritter and Matt Schafer were also part of Window Media’s fulltime staff.
No one was willing to simply let the mission of informing Atlanta’s LGBT communities die. Douglas-Brown reported the closure via Facebook, using a laptop as some staff members gathered on the steps of the locked office. By the time she returned to her car and checked her cell phone, she had a message from Christina Cash, who had founded Southern Voice in 1988 and sold it to Window Media in 1997.
“Chris hired me as an intern six months before she sold the paper, and I was almost scared to call her back and tell what had happened,” Douglas-Brown said. “But when I reached her, our conversation immediately turned to ‘what next’?”
Finding our ‘Voice’
That was a Monday. By Tuesday night, Cash and Douglas-Brown had decided there was still a need and a market for an LGBT media outlet that included a print publication. On Wednesday morning, Cash gave the first interview about the fledging project. By Friday afternoon, Douglas-Brown had secured a domain name, bank account and mailbox for the effort.
Watkins and Bagby were on board from the beginning. Watkins built the website. Bagby continued reporting LGBT news even when she didn’t have an official publication to disseminate it.
“I told Laura early on that I would support her anyway I could,” Watkins said. “Her commitment to continuing the mission was contagious.”
Community support grew in the form of everything from kind words on Facebook and at community events, to donations ranging from $10 to $1,000. Donors knew the contributions were not tax-deductible, but would go to the start-up costs of founding the new media outlet. A $12,000 grant from the Lloyd E. Russell Foundation provided critical early funding.
A community meeting held Dec. 3, 2009, drew approximately 80 attendees, who voted overwhelmingly to name the new media outlet The Georgia Voice. The name honored the new project’s roots in the creation and history of Southern Voice, but also marked a separation from the past. As importantly, using “Georgia” in the name emphasized that the fight for LGBT rights, and the proliferation of LGBT culture, is no longer confined to the Atlanta area.
After the meeting, the project really gathered steam. Tim Boyd, who had worked with Cash early in his career as a sales executive at Southern Voice, joined the effort in December 2009 in a key business role; he is now associate publisher.
“The project felt right to me from the beginning,” Boyd said. “The level of talent and passion at the ground level made my decision to become involved much easier.”
The Georgia Voice, LLC, was officially incorporated in early January 2010.
With the addition of Shell as art director and experienced sales executive Marshall Graham, the start-up staff was complete. All had experience in gay publications. Six out of seven had worked for Southern Voice at some point in its history.
“When I learned that Chris Cash and Laura Douglas-Brown were leading the charge and starting the GA Voice, I knew immediately that I wanted to participate. I was honored to be asked to join this very talented team,” Graham said.
Shell said his decision to join the GA Voice came down to trust.
“On one side you had the person responsible for creating and growing a once successful grassroots newspaper and on the other was an award-winning editor whose life’s mission had been reporting LGBT news and raising an LGBT family. I trusted them and their partnership above all certainty,” Shell said.
Equal focus on new, traditional media
Unlike many newspapers that began in print and eventually moved online, the Georgia Voice was founded with an equal focus on both new and traditional media, believing both to be critical to informing and entertaining readers.
The website, www.thegavoice.com, launched March 5, 2010. The first article was a short piece about the announcement that the lesbian bar Paris Decatur would close.
“We hadn’t planned to start original reporting until the following week,” Douglas-Brown recalls. “But we learned of the closure, and I think we had all been frustrated journalists with stories to tell but no place to tell them for too long.”
The plan then, as now, was to be small and sustainable. The first print issue was planned for 28 pages. Advertising sales were strong enough that instead, it debuted at 32 pages on March 19, 2010. For the first year, the print edition averaged just over 35 pages per issue — never going below a minimum of 28 pages, and reaching 64 pages for the largest issue of the year, which celebrated Atlanta Pride.
“Our philosophy has been to partner with our clients and do more than just ‘sell ads.’ We develop campaigns of print, web and social media in an effort to move the advertiser’s business,” Boyd said. “Since the first issue we have had overwhelming support at both the local and national level, with more than 200 advertisers.”
The success in ad sales led to expanding the staff with the addition of Robert Pullen as sales executive. Like Boyd, Pullen had worked in sales at Southern Voice earlier in his career. He also serves on the GA Voice board of advisers with Lynn Pasqualetti, Sandy Malcolm and Rich Eldredge.
‘So many stories to tell’
The cover story on the debut issue of the GA Voice dealt with the civil rights lawsuit from the 2009 police raid on the Atlanta Eagle, and ongoing fallout from the unconstitutional raid on the gay bar would prove to be among the biggest stories of the GA Voice’s first year.
Other big news of first 12 months included anti-gay Bishop Eddie Long being sued for alleged sexual contact with young men — a story so huge the traffic crashed the website repeatedly — as well as the federal battle over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and President Obama’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.
“We had to upgrade our hosting plan twice in the first year because of our traffic,” Watkins said. “Response to our online effort has been amazing.”
In its first year, the GA Voice has also taken in-depth looks at issues and trends including the meaning and impact of Tyler Perry’s “Madea” persona, the increasing visibility of Georgia’s transgender population, the complicated relationship between LGBT people and organized religion and the impact of anti-gay bullying.
“There are so many stories to tell of people working for equality in our community and stories that need to be told of how we continue to face discrimination each day,” Bagby said. “The GA Voice provides that necessary outlet to read these stories — big and small — that impact our lives.”
Bagby was named one of the Top 10 Atlanta Journalists on Twitter by Clay Duda from The Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University.
Douglas-Brown was nominated for Business Woman of the Year by the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and was selected as one of the community grand marshals for the 40th annual Atlanta Pride Parade.
More importantly, thanks to the support of readers and advertisers, and the hard work of staff and freelancers, the GA Voice enters its second year on solid footing to continue covering the fight for LGBT rights and our unique LGBT culture around the state.
“I was certain we would do well our first year out,” Cash said. “But I must admit I am stunned by the level of our success. It confirms both the continuing need for LGBT media and the talent of the GA Voice staff. Every staff member was necessary to make this work and each one exceeded my expectations.
“Our future is solid due to their commitment and the generosity of our supporters.”
Editor’s note: A separate company with no connection to the former Southern Voice purchased the publication’s name and assets in bankruptcy court in February 2010. A new Southern Voice was published sporadically from April to December 2010, and now appears defunct. The publisher had announced Southern Voice would return the week of Feb. 10, 2011, but at press time, it had not materialized.