On a Thursday morning in December 2016, I sent the first Southerly newsletter out to 150 people.
“The goal is twofold,” I wrote, “to shed light on the best journalism and the most pressing environmental, justice, and culture stories in and out of the South, and to rediscover this region myself, by getting on the ground and listening to a variety of communities. I’ll do some of my own reporting, and hopefully add other Southern writers’ work. I’ll include essays, investigative projects, narrative writing, photography, and more. My long-term plan is to get back to that original fleeting thought, and turn this weekly newsletter into a magazine.”
Many of you know the rest of the story: a Patreon page funded by readers, a feature in the New York Times (thanks Margaret Renkl!), a website built by a friend, a $5,000 grant. (A lot of unpaid hours and freelance jobs to slowly grow it.) And, then, a digital news outlet. (And many more unpaid hours and freelance jobs until I could pay myself.)
In July 2018, Southerly launched as an independent media organization. Since then, we’ve published over 200 stories; partnered with 24 international, national, regional, and local newsrooms and nine community organizations including libraries, nonprofits, citizens groups, and churches; worked with 83 contributors, 80% of those women and nonbinary folks and, since 2021, more than half BIPOC. We’ve paid people fairly and on-time, even with a limited budget. We launched a documenters program in southwest Louisiana that will continue under local ownership, ran an impactful community reporting fellowship that had 80 applicants for its first round, and distributed more than 5,000 offline resources including flyers, pamphlets, and zines to rural Southern communities.
Now, nearly five years later, Southerly is ending in its current form: We will no longer publish stories on our website or run our programs; I will be transitioning to a new phase of my career. Our website is staying live for now, and I’m pursuing opportunities to ensure the archives are kept available indefinitely. While I can’t share details yet, I am exploring options to ensure the community-led Southern environmental justice journalism we’ve built continues in a more sustainable way, while remaining free and accessible.
It has been a wild, beautiful, daunting, frustrating, transformational journey, and the decision to find a new path is difficult. But I want to ensure this important work has the support and funding it deserves to endure for the long haul.
As a founder, nonprofit leader, and manager, I’ve learned immensely from mentors, other organizations, organizers, friends, community members, colleagues, and, especially, through the JSK Community Impact Fellowship. There are two things I’m proudest of with Southerly: one, that the ethos—from that first newsletter!—has always focused on the people who need and deserve consistent, accurate information the most, yet face the biggest barriers to accessing it. And two: Southerly has evolved and grown to better serve those audiences, no matter the cost. Even if it meant changing how we operated, winning fewer awards, slowing down, or losing out on fancy funders.
Five years in, we are, in the truest sense, serving those people I originally set out to serve, whether it’s Spanish speakers via our work with Enlace Latino NC, North Carolina and Virginia residents fighting pollutive industries, or Black communities in south Louisiana rebuilding after hurricanes. (Speaking of: Follow Southwest Louisiana Journal‘s new site; the documenters program will continue under the leadership of Tasha Guidry in Lake Charles, La.)
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to readers, donors, contributors, and staff over the years. And most importantly, thank you to the Southerners who have shared their stories, offered their expertise, and worked alongside us. If you’re reading this and you want to start something of your own, I’m here to offer guidance and support. If you’re a journalist who wants to do more community engagement work, know that you can start implementing these practices anywhere, anytime, with any budget, and I’m here to offer support for that, too. If you want to follow/support similar organizations, check out these, which have inspired and educated me immensely:
- Canopy Atlanta
- Five Wards Media
- Conecta Arizona
- Enlace Latino NC
- City Bureau and Documenters Network
- El Tímpano
- Bloomfield Info Project
- Outlier Media
- Signal Cleveland
Stay on our newsletter list for updates on what’s next. Thank you for believing in Southerly’s mission, in environmental justice journalism as a public service, and in the community members who make this work worthwhile and possible. Southerly is journalism in its most useful and beautiful form, and I’m endlessly grateful to have shared this journey with y’all.
In community, forever,