Ryan “R.L.” Nave, a St. Louis native and current Alabama resident, is the Director at Reckon South. He joined the team in May 2020. Reckon is an online publication that provides a platform for Southerners’ voices and catalyzes community. Before this role, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of Mississippi Today and prior to that, worked as an editor and reporter at Jackson Free Press. Nave has completed fellowships at University of Colorado Boulder and Northwestern University, and received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science at University of Missouri-Columbia.
Jake Gunther spoke with R.L. Nave about Reckon and how he has helped create an audience-focused style of journalism that highlights the voices of marginalized Southerners by telling authentic and important human stories.
How was Reckon born, and where do you see it going forward?
The Reckon origin story! Reckon was founded in 2017, mostly as a social brand, particularly social video, and it really started clicking during the Doug Jones/Roy Moore race. After that success, the company took a step back and said, ‘Okay, there might be something here. What more can Reckon be? We commenced this process through the Google News Initiative. Where we have settled is that there is an opportunity through Reckon to build a news brand for younger Southerners, particularly those who haven’t seen themselves reflected in legacy media.
If someone were to say, ‘Why dedicate all this time to just covering the South? What about the rest of the country?’ What would you say to that person, and how do you think the South has been forgotten in the conversation of America as a whole?
Well, there are a couple of pieces to it. Just from a business opportunity standpoint, 27 million people live in the South. The South has just as many people as the state of Texas. And so, there are a lot of folks who live in the South who have a shared cultural identity as Southerners where it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or Chinese Mississippi Deltas. On some level, we all eat collard greens, fried chicken, and drink sweet tea. Now that’s not what we cover, but we understand that that is a thing that binds all Southerners.
But also, we know that the South is actually the youngest and most diverse region in the country. I don’t think the South has been left out of the national conversation – [national media] just don’t get it right. The way a lot of Southern newsrooms go about their work is that they very much maintain this chip on their shoulders, ‘We’re going to prove to those Yankees that we actually do wear shoes and we do have all of our teeth.’ And we don’t care about that. We know that we wear shoes [laughter], we don’t need to do that.
We understand the nuances of diversity. We recently did a bunch of stuff around hip-hop. And in the national conversation, all Southern Hip-Hop is Atlanta hip hop. But we understand that Atlanta Trap is very different from Big K.R.I.T. in Meridian; it’s very different from Memphis Crunk.
So, we’re smart folks, we recognize that our audience are smart folks so we can start a conversation there as opposed to, ‘we’re going to be the ones to teach the country about hip-hop.’ We’re just Southerners speaking to Southerners and if anybody else wants to listen in to the conversation, great.
Part of the Reckon mission statement is, “Authentic conversations can lead to thoughtful actions.” Can you expand on that and how this style of engaging in conversations and learning stories from people can lead to meaningful action in the future?
Take the example of voting rights. After the Doug Jones upset in Alabama, you saw all those stories that said, ‘Doug Jones wins because Black women decided to mobilize.’ And if you live in Mississippi and Alabama, you know that Black women have always been the ones to mobilize with grassroots, progressive politics. So, our stories aren’t, ‘Isn’t it cool Black women finally woke up and decided to get involved in politics?’ Instead, it’s, ‘Okay if you think Stacy Abrams is dope, well there’s a Stacy Abrams in every county in the South.’
One, let’s use our platform to elevate some of them but also let’s get into the nuts and bolts of how the hell you organize a voter registration drive in the Mississippi Delta, during the pandemic.Let’s just find a smart person who knows way more about this than we do and just let them explain it. And get the hell out of their way and not insert ourselves in the story at all.
With so many different journalistic entities, whether they’re based in fact or not, it can be hard to recognize what’s important and what’s true. I think Reckon, in a way, is taking out all of the jargon and language and just letting the story speak for itself. How do these authentic human stories push the needle forward?
It depends on what we mean by pushing the needle forward. But a recent example of this is when we did some reporting on the anti-trans bills in the South. When one of the sources in the story [a trans individual] shared [the story] on Twitter, they said, “I’m so grateful for this story because it shows us in our humanity not just as activists fighting trans bills.” Which, as a political journalist, that’s where my instincts take me… these are folks who don’t see themselves reflected in media often, so let’s let Reckon be a space to show the fullness of trans folks. I think it was a powerful moment in our newsroom because it taught us that the way we’ve been trained is a lot of times wrong, and there’s no reason we can’t retrain our brains to think about it in a different way.
More importantly, that story resonated with the exact audience that we wrote it for. It’s understanding what information people are craving because it doesn’t exist anywhere else and figuring out a way to produce stories and videos and podcasts that serve that appetite.
There’s this consensus among some people on the moderate left that it’s okay to be complacent now that Biden is in the White House. Obviously, Reckon doesn’t hold that view whatsoever but how do you go about still making sure that the work doesn’t stop?
Well, the great thing about living in the South is that no matter who is in the White House, it’s a whole different world down here. But it’s also about recognizing that that’s always been the tradition in the South. The Civil Rights movement was born here. The South is the reason we have a Voting Rights Act. So, the fight don’t stop no matter who is in the White House. We know the cycle.
Even if we get a Democratic president, there’s going to be a kind of retrenchment to the states, and the legislatures are going to get active in trying to prevent everything that a Democratic administration is trying to do. You can’t live [in the South] if you want to work a 9-5 and then go to happy hour. To live here you have to fight. I get that that wears people out. I’m worn out, and I’ve only lived here since 2011, but it’s a fact of life. The trick is to figure out how to exist in spite of that.