"Trouble Brewing": The New Yorker's Charles Bethea on Tru Colors
The tragic double homicide at the home of Tru Color's chief operating officer, the son of the company's founder, caught the interest of writer Charles Bethea last summer. For the better part of a year, he researched a long-form piece on the company. The roughly 8,000-word profile appeared in the Monday, September 5 print edition. Two days later, Tru Colors CEO George Taylor Jr. announced the company was shutting down. WHQR caught up with Bethea to talk about the article — and the fallout from its publication.
So, first off, what got you interested in writing about Tru Colors?
I was actually out in Oregon, last August, when a colleague from North Carolina shared with me some of the local reporting that they'd seen on the murders of Koredreese Tyson and Bri-yanna Williams, the previous month, at George Taylor III's home in Wilmington. My colleague thought it was worth looking into the unusual company that had employed Tyson—and where Taylor III, whose father founded TRU Colors, was the C.O.O. After reading a few stories, I agreed. Once I got back to Georgia, where I'm based, I started having conversations with people about TRU Colors. Among them was George Taylor, Jr., who was keen on talking.
The piece is deeply sourced, and from some people who may have been hesitant to talk at first — how long did this take to put together?
I didn't really get deep into the reporting until probably last December. That's when I had my first Zoom meeting with George Taylor and then visited Wilmington—-the first of four reporting trips—and met Tyson's mother and a few other people at the center of the story. So I guess I spent about ten months on it. But I was also working on other things in the meantime.
Ok, elephant in the room: A day or two after the piece was published in print in The New Yorker, Taylor penned an opinion piece announcing Tru Colors was shutting down. Did you see that coming?
As with many things related to TRU, there was a positive narrative about how the company was doing and then there were complications that perhaps didn’t fit that story. Taylor told me that the company was expanding distribution and that consumers were buying the beer; he also said, in the final months of reporting, that he saw my piece as an existential threat to TRU Colors. I never got the sense that the beer was flying off the shelves—a local distributor told me that demand was low—which seemed like a big problem for the business. So while I wasn't hugely surprised by his announcement, it still came as a shock.
Related: In that letter, Taylor blames the reporting for scuttling an important financial deal, and wrote that the piece “presented a negative storyline, oddly choosing to omit context and facts that apparently did not align with the story’s narrative.” Do you have any thoughts on that description?
The reality is that, prior to my piece, no national media outlet had really scratched the surface when it came to examing the company’s business model or the murders of Tyson and Williams. I thought both were worth looking into. I interviewed more than thirty people for the piece, and it accurately reflects what I learned from them.
Here in Wilmington, I’ve heard a range of opinions on Tru Colors, haters, champions, skeptics, and agnostics. Did you come away with an opinion?
As I write in the piece, and as Taylor often points out, a lack of economic opportunity almost certainly plays a role in the persistence of gangs and gang violence in cities like Wilmington. And I understand wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who tries to create that kind opportunity—who tries to fill that void, so to speak, and who reaches out to those who have been excluded. But nearly everyone I spoke to thought that encouraging people to stay in their gangs was a risky approach, and possibly doomed to fail. Taylor didn’t bring a lot of obvious experience or expertise to the table—and nor did his son, who, in addition to serving as C.O.O., oversaw the “street team,” a group of employees who were tasked with diffusing violence on the streets of Wilmington. I would say that I came away from my reporting skeptical both of their approach and of their ability to carry it through.
What’s the feedback been like?
I've gotten nice notes from people who said that the piece did justice to a complex set of issues and stakeholders. I’ve also heard from people who claim to have been burned by Taylor in previous businesses.
Last question: You don’t have to answer, but I’m curious: did you try the beer? If so, what did you think?
I did try the beer. It's light. And a bit sweet. I'm probably not the target demographic—like the investor Charlie Banks told me, it’s a beer to drink on a boat or on a golf course or while you’re tail-gaiting, and I don’t golf or own a boat or do much tail-gating. I'm more of a porter or a stout guy—the best beer I've had in a while is a peanut-butter stout that my brother got me in San Diego. That’s not for everyone, either, I realize.
You can find Bethea's article online here.
Charles Bethea has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2008 and became a staff writer in 2018. He has published more than fifty Talk of the Town pieces, often on political subjects, including the creator of firstname.lastname@example.org, the gymnastics career of Roy Moore, and a sculptor obsessed with Donald Trump. In addition to politics, Bethea covers crime, local media, and the American South. He received a 2021 Mirror Award for his reporting on the loss of local news in Jones County, North Carolina.
Previously, Bethea was an editor at Outside magazine and a writer-at-large for Atlanta. His work has also appeared in Grantland, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, GQ, Rolling Stone, and Wired. He lives in Atlanta.