Hellbender Press Plans Return

The once defunct, local environmental paper looks to make a comeback

After a yearlong hiatus from publishing, the local environmental newspaper Hellbender Press may soon be making its way back to newsstands.

Relaunching a print publication is a bold move in today's media industry; newspapers and magazines are themselves becoming headline fodder as they cut their staffs or close their doors altogether. According to Paper Cuts, a project that monitors cutbacks in the newspaper industry, 2009 has already seen more than 14,000 job losses at newspapers across the country. Can a publication that has already floundered once find success in such a challenging climate?

New editor-in-chief Amanda Womac says she thinks Hellbender Press can buck the trend.

"The loss of newspapers across the country is a detriment to democracy, and I think it's a shame some of the longest-printed newspapers have closed their doors," Womac says in an e-mail interview. "However, this does not scare me for the future of Hellbender Press. I believe that with a focus on the Internet as the primary source for news and a four-times-a-year publication with good, hard-hitting investigative pieces and regular columns, Hellbender Press will survive. We have a certain niche in Knoxville—we are the only environmentally focused paper printed in the area."

Hellbender Press (named for the large salamanders indigenous to the region's mountain streams) was founded in 1998 as a non-profit project of the Foundation for Global Sustainability, a local advocacy group that monitors social and environmental issues in the upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachia. Hellbender Press was initially conceived as a quarterly publication, but eventually saw a peak publishing schedule of six issues per year.

The volunteer-run newspaper was published regularly for several years, most of that time under the leadership of former editor (and current Metro Pulse contributor) Rikki Hall. They were tumultuous years, marked by funding problems and frequent lineup changes. According to Hall, FSG's resources were stretched too thin to give the paper the support it needed.

"I was in what I call triage mode, doing the most urgent tasks at any given time, whether that was distribution, advertising, reporting, writing, editing, or layout, but nothing was getting all the time or attention it needed," he says. "I loved Hellbender Press and treasure the years all of us devoted to it, but the time I used to spend working on the paper and dreaming of its future became filled with frustration and resentment, so I had to step away."

After being unable to rally the financial and editorial resources to publish Hellbender's spring 2009 issue, Hall submitted a letter of resignation to FSG's board. No response was forthcoming, he says, and no one stepped up to fill the paper's key position of editor-in-chief.

Until now. Womac, who joined Hellbender as a writer around 2004, intends to chart a new editorial direction for the paper when she revives it later this year. She says she'd like to shift the focus away from environmental commentary in favor of stronger coverage of environmental news.

"For the past 10 years, Hellbender Press editorial staff have presented environmental news stories alongside commentary about environmental issues," she said. "This commentary comes in a variety of columns written by a host of community members. These columns are loved by our readers and will be featured on the Web as well in the print edition. However, I have always believed Hellbender needed more of a focus on local and regional environmental issues through hard-hitting, investigative journalism. I would also like to involve the community more by having a column focused on local green businesses and people doing what they can to make Knoxville a more sustainable community."

Womac plans to build a website that focuses on breaking news, while printing the paper four times a year rather than six. She would also like to see Hellbender sponsor the second annual Writing Green environmental journalism conference, as well as other events with a focus on the environment and journalism.

As with most print publications, the main concern is finding enough advertisers to pay the bills and keep the paper rolling off the presses. Womac and her staff are all non-paid volunteers, and will be seeking donations as well as ad sales to finance the non-profit enterprise. "Our focus is on advertisers who believe in the idea of a local community and a local impact on that community," Womac says.

Womac plans to launch the new website—hellbenderpress.org—sometime around the first of January 2010. In the meantime, she and her staff will print an issue with the paper's new redesign and hope to have that hit stands by end of December or first of January. The paper will be distributed throughout the Knoxville area, with a print fun of approximately 10,000 copies, similar to the print run of the paper's previous incarnation. She'll be looking to volunteers to "help sling the papers across East Tennessee."

Womac believes an environmental newspaper, like Asheville's The Appalachian Voice, can provide an valuable service to its community, especially in light of the limited coverage many major newspapers are willing or able to afford such issues. "I think it's important for every region to have an environmentally-focused paper," she says. "With budget cuts and other issues plaguing newspapers, the environmental beat is one of the first to go. However, educating the public and keeping them aware of environmental issues both locally and globally should be a priority for any newspaper at this time. We are seeing the catastrophic effects of human-made global climate change and the time to act is now…. Having an environmental paper in the area increases the chances of the community focusing more on sustainability, and thus, more on the environment at large."

Hall agrees, and thinks a new incarnation of Hellbender could be more successful than the last. "[This area] can certainly support a newspaper that runs on volunteer labor like Hellbender did. Obviously times are tough for print publications, but I think we had viable ideas for how to run the paper. I was unable to assemble the team needed to implement those ideas, but with the right mix of talents and a dollop of investment capital, an environmental paper could thrive."