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Arts & Culture

Creative Loafing Remembered For 'Sheltering Readers From The Mainstream' Storm

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Sarah Delia / WFAE
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After 31 years of reporting the news, arts and quirky stories in Charlotte, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper Creative Loafing has printed its last issue. On Wednesday, the paper’s former publisher Charles Womack announced he sold the company to his son and it will now be digital only. This was a surprise to readers and staff who are now all out of a job. 

Creative Loafing was the paper you grabbed to find out what cool new band was playing in Charlotte or about the latest art exhibit. It was also a place for the news. Coverage included stories on tough subjects like sexual assault, the city’s civil unrest in 2016 and homelessness. It was where you went to read the strange and unusual stories about the city’s underbelly.

Bringing the weird to Charlotte readers was part of Creative Loafing’s motto “shelter from the mainstream.” Those are words the paper’s former Editor-in-Chief Ryan Pitkin tried to live by.

"I’ve always really tried to follow that as much as possible and that’s what it is, it is the things other people aren’t talking about," Pitkin said.

Writers for Creative Loafing had a finger on the pulse of the city. It was edgy at times, but it was that writing that captivated Pitkin from a young age. He said he started at the paper in 2008 as an intern. He then left for a job opportunity, but eventually came back. In 2015, Pitkin became the news editor and was named editor-in-chief in August.

"I’ve been reading this paper since I was 9 years old," Pitkin said. "I was so excited to have this chance to bring it my own direction and I really wish I could have done that for longer than three months."  

Pitkin said there were signs in recent months that some kind of change was coming. He said they were told to back up content onto servers. Pitkin also he had to fight to keep his freelance budget.

On Tuesday night, Pitkin said he got an email from the paper’s publisher saying there was no wiggle room on tomorrow’s print deadline.  

"Right after we sent it to print at noon — at about 12:04 — we all started realizing our emails were locked and we sort of all started to see the writing on the wall," Pitkin said. "And then five minutes later, our publisher — who doesn’t even live in Charlotte — knocked on the door and said we need to come in the conference room and meet. He told us basically, 'You guys are all out of jobs. I’ve sold the brand to my son and none of you guys will be a part of this.'"

Pitkin described Womack as somewhat apologetic.

"He just said 'I’m sorry I really tried, wish I could have sold this paper.' We asked, 'How is this paper not sellable?'" Pitkin said. "If he was really apologetic, he would have given us some sort of notice, some sort of severance, some sort of chance to maybe sign on to this weird digital thing he is building." 

In a phone call, Womack said it was an honor to have been the publisher of Creative Loafing. But he said “nobody closes a successful business.” He said he had encouraged the staff to contact the human resources department about cashing out vacation days and possible severance. Pitkin said severance was never mentioned.

The last issue of Creative Loafing, which hit the stands Thursday, had the headline "Ride The Blue Wave." It’s an election-heavy issue. Pitkin has several articles in the paper, ranging from politics to the arts.

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Credit Sarah Delia / WFAE
The final print issues of Creative Loafing.

He didn't realize it at the time, but he did have a chance to write a final article. It was in the second-to-last paper, the "Best of Charlotte" issue. Readers vote on many things, from their favorite yoga studio to news personality. WFAE received two "Best of Charlotte" awards this year. So, in that issue, Pitkin wrote a love letter of sorts to his staff.

"The whole thing was based on showing love to my staff because that is who I care about," Pitkin said. "There are people like Dana Vindigni, Courtney Michocik, Pat Moran. I can’t even put into words the work we did each week together. They were just amazing. That would have been basically the last article. And also the sales staff."

As for this new digital-only version of Creative Loafing, former publisher Charles Womack said content will be provided by freelancers — maybe even from former Creative Loafing writers after the dust settles. Womack added he felt like he put everything into the business, but that it was “a sinking ship.” He said it just didn’t make financial sense to continue.

As for Pitkin, he wants to keep covering the city. Hopefully, in the same way Creative Loafing did. He’s nothing but proud of the publication. It’s a ship he was happy to man, sinking or not.