There is a newspaper in Athens, Georgia that flies under the radar. It is written by a 61-year-old homeless veteran known as “The History Man.”
For the media-conscious, it is no secret that local print newspapers are in danger of drying up. In the past few years, Clarke and Oconee counties have seen the Atlanta Journal-Constitution withdraw its circulation, the Red and Black discontinue is daily print publication, and the Morris Publication Group, parent to theAthens Banner-Herald, flutter in and out of bankruptcy as it lays off staff.
In the midst of an industry in crisis, the homegrown The Athens Bird newspaper has sprouted up from the brick and mortar of the Classic City’s rich history.
Lifetime Athenian George Ball is the sole writer, editor, publisher and distributor of this true one-man operation.
The Athens Bird is a mix of citizen journalism, hyperlocal news, panhandle-al
ms, rant and scribble. However, Ball will be the first to tell you “there ain’t no hustle about it. This is the real news.”
Each week, Ball hand-writes the paper and photocopies it at Bel-Jean Copy & Print Center, less than 200 feet from the University arch. Depending on the loose change in his pocket, Ball prints from 40 to 80 copies every week. It takes Ball about two days to sell all his prints.
Bel-Jean employee Laura Cropp said, “I always get my news from George first. He’s been coming in here a long-time now.”
Skeptics may debate the value of Ball’s work, but there is no denying The Athens Bird is technically a newspaper. It has all the bona fides: current events articles, investigative journalism, advertising, editorials, sports coverage, public service announcements and reviews – never mind a few spelling errors and formatting issues. Ball’s craggy articles run about 50 words long and are crammed together on the page in a puzzle-like fashion.
The Athens Bird also stands out for employing an uncommon business model: the newspaper is strictly donation based. Customers negotiate their own price upon purchase. The going rate is about $1.
Public opinion differs on Ball’s journalistic efforts. Some view him as a valuable asset to the community. Others see him as just another vagrant.
A current Athens Clarke County ordinance prohibits “aggressive” panhandling, but asking for money on public sidewalks is constitutionally protected speech. Implications for the need of a business license are even more ambiguous.
Either way, Ball is a fixture in downtown Athens, Georgia. There is a demand for his product and a shared curiosity about his publication.
“The Athens Bird is worth every penny,” said third-year UGA Law student Brad Brizendine. “I was skeptical at first. But now, it’s my favorite newspaper. I pick one up every week. I always learn something new.”
On any typical sunny afternoon, Ball can be found around the intersection of Broad St. and College Ave. in his red, secondhand power wheelchair. Trench foot and the AK-47 bullet wound to his left ankle that he suffered in wartime Vietnam makes it hard to get around.
Living on the streets, Ball first started the paper about two years ago. “I needed money bad,” he said. “I still do.
“The Athens Bird came about because I needed a partner with my writing,” said Ball referring to his pseudo alter ego and namesake of his publication. “I needed someone who can cover Athens like an airplane or a helicopter.
[The Athens Bird] flies around Athens and investigates stories of murders, robberies, thefts, and stuff, and history, science, and politics. You name it, the Athens Bird has his head in there. He’s also working like Sherlock Holmes in England – like Scotland Yard.”
Ball is currently probing the streets for more information regarding a series of cold case murders around town involving young women, dating back to 1992, when Jennifer Stone’s body was found in an apartment on Hull Street. Periodic updates have been published in past issues, but a new investigation is underway. Sources remain strictly confidential.
With an eye in the sky and its heart on the street, The Athens Bird is significant for creatively contributing to the rich fabric of the press in Athens.
By William Wickey
Photo by Rachel Comerford