Big Freedia on the cover of The Bitter Southerner’s Birthday Issue. Credit: The Bitter Southerner (Photo: Business Wire)

On March 28, The Bitter Southerner released Issue No. 5 of its print magazine, celebrating 10 years of sharing the true stories of the American south. 

The Bitter Southerner started in 2013 and is now based in Athens. Today, the company has a bi-annual print magazine, the “BATCH” podcast, sells apparel and other goods in its general store, and has a publishing arm called BS Publishing – all while publishing weekly stories online that tackle the south in all of its complexity. 

“As we’re able to expose our stories to broader audiences, we’re able to help fulfill our mission, which is to continue to push against the typical stereotypes of the south,” said Eric NeSmith, publisher and partner at The Bitter Southerner. “We want to celebrate the many good things that people are doing in our region. We also want to face those hard truths head on. We push to do that every week through stories.” 

Roughly seven years ago, NeSmith’s wife shared a story with him about “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where residents are at an abnormally high risk of cancer. The story was in The Bitter Southerner. Barely a week later, NeSmith had a meeting set up with the publication. 

With a background in community journalism, the story itself appealed to NeSmith’s sensibilities. But he found the business’s economic model, which generates funds through membership and selling merchandise online instead of through ads, equally intriguing. 

“The model of the publication really intrigued me,” he said. “One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed is that we’ve been able to power all of our storytelling through ecommerce and the support of our members.” 

The fifth issue – or the Birthday Issue, if you will – features queer New Orleans-based rapper Big Freedia on its cover. The issue features a conversation between novelist Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Big Freedia about growing up in New Orleans, acceptance, loss, and reconciliation. 

“Having someone like Big Freedia on our cover is just so very exciting for us, and all that she embodies in her work and in what she’s able to accomplish,” NeSmith said. 

Other stories in the Birthday Issue include “A Letter from Home” from author and National Humanities Medal recipient Ann Patchett, an essay from Farhan Mustafa about the universality of the noodle, and a list of banned books to check out from the likes of Imani Perry, Joy Oladokun, Kiese Laymon, and Kishi Bashi. 

“We like to have an element of surprise,” NeSmith said. “We want to allow people to read something that’s unexpected.”

After 10 years of work, what’s next for The Bitter Southerner? “We’re never short on ideas,” NeSmith said. After introducing the physical magazine in 2021 and the podcast in 2022, there’s still more to look forward to. This year, you can expect to see the publication of two new anthologies, one a collection of food-based stories from the past decade and one a photo anthology called “No Place Like Home.” And, of course, more complex and regional stories about the South. 

“When I was at a community newspaper, I always said that a good community newspaper is a reflection of a community talking to itself. We apply a lot of that same concept to what we do here,” NeSmith said. “We built a community, and that community is able to talk back and forth with each other. Then we’re able to try and move things forward.”

Correction: this article has been updated to reflect that The Bitter Southerner is now based in Athens but was not founded there.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.