(The following essay originally appeared in The TReehouse Magazine in January 2011. It has been lightly edited to fit the format here, but not for content. – JHD)
NORFOLK, Va. — A little more than a year ago in TReehouse, I expressed my hope the alternative news outlets in Hampton Roads would spend a little more time covering the dominant media outlet, The Virginian-Pilot.
AltDaily editor Jesse Scaccia had a much better idea.
The online alternative news and opinion site in February (2010) introduced a regular feature called “If You Read The Paper,” also known by the acronym IYRTP or, as Scaccia referred to it in an email exchange, “The Paper.” IYRTP, as I’ll call it to avoid confusion, has shown itself to be a flexible, funny, often astute barometer of local news, how it is gathered, and how the gatherers may fall short.
Scaccia said the seeds of IYRTP began while he read The Pilot at Yorgo’s one day. “I thought, man, this is just ridiculous how much they cover murders, rapes, and other mayhem the average citizen can do nothing about,” he said. Scaccia wrote a short, satirical blog post – “Hampton Roads: Where Everyone Dies” in August 2009:
Given that everyone already knows that murders occur on a regular basis, I can only guess that The Pilot is devoting this much space to murder news because I’m next. Well, if not me, then you.
Scaccia later fused a few influences – including The Daily Show and the work of ESPN’s Buster Olney – with the visions of contributors in developing IYRTP. The feature was a way to enhance the experience of existing readers, encourage interest in local news, drive some traffic to The Pilot, offer “mini op-eds” and serve a watchdog role over the dominant media outlets in our region. Scaccia grew up with newspapers around – The Ridgefield Press, The Danbury News-Times, The New York Times:
Part of what made reading the paper so satisfying for me from an early age was having my mom and grandfather there to chat with. The stories were never just the black and white on the page. They were also the way my mom and grandfather filtered the news through their biases and made it personal to their current and past lives. As an adult, I’ve found literally nothing more satisfying than getting The Sunday Times with a girlfriend, and then laying around all day trading sections, pointing out interesting facts or beautiful lines, and taking in the world through my eyes, her eyes, and then a shared vision through conversation. To put it more succinctly, the paper is more fun when you read it with someone else.
Scaccia wrote that the feature’s approach includes making the news more fun for people turned off by mainstream outlets and fulfilling AltDaily’s role as an alternative outlet:
When you look at The Pilot, while both their hard news reporting and editorial page are strong, just by the nature of the beast they’re not able to filter the stories creating our society through individual experiences in the way a dedicated blog can. In the past, we’ve had stay-at-home military wives writing, writing professors, environmental activists, cubicle workers, and older revolutionaries filtering the news through their lives. They’ve helped me see stories through a lens I never would have without this feature.
In the interest of full disclosure, I worked at The Pilot. IYRTP contributor John McManus is one of my professors at Old Dominion University. I’ve also written a bit critically about local alternative publications, including AltDaily. However, AltDaily has become a site that I visit regularly because of IYRTP. Even when I have not agreed with the commentary it has offered, IYRTP has challenged my assumptions on issues and topics I thought I knew fairly well.
Tom Robotham has been kind in allow me to use TReehouse to advocate protection of local newsgathering, including consideration of funding possibilities such as non-profit models and public subsidization. I won’t plant those stakes again now, but I wanted to mention a former colleague’s musings on the state of the media. In November, Tony Stein placed a few media sideshows – shouting heads, bloggers, etc. – beneath one big tent in an editorial.
Among other things, he repeated judgments about partisan commentators making political donations to candidates with like views – judgments that unfortunately conflate such talking heads with actual reporters. Stein also reminisced about how a reporter he knew shamefully wore a Kennedy button. He did not clarify whether this was timed to an election or the assassination. Let’s assume the former.
- The Internet is kind of an untrustworthy news source because of bloggers.
- Journalism would be better off as is, or, perhaps more accurately, back in the days when a rich guy could carved the initials JFK into the coconut-husked heart of a grateful electorate.
Yes, I’m paraphrasing. Such broad-brush treatment of bloggers is similar to how partisan hacks paint “traditional” news reporters.
The villains of the web are some aggregators that repackage and sell content others produce without due payment or, at least, credit. Many bloggers are different. Broad complaints, like a bad column, draw the shortest line to the nearest cheap point. They unfairly overlook what the web often does well – build upon existing reporting or offer comment on what may have been missed by traditional media forms. Scaccia said AltDaily is humbled and grateful to have the roster of regular contributors that IYRTP does. Behind Scaccia, McManus, Jesi Owens, B.C. Wilson, and Jay Ford, the feature is an example of how bloggers can add to the public debate and the understanding of local news.
As it happens, I found Stein’s comments online because Scaccia linked to it as part of a contribution to IYRTP. Scaccia – who has the very journalism experience Stein implied bloggers lack – addressed the issue of objectivity in reporting and AltDaily’s approach, which openly includes advocacy:
That’s why everything you read in AltDaily is in the first person. We are not, by most any old school journalism standard, ‘journalists.’ I love The Pilot and all other news sources that strive for objectivity. I thank them for it. I admire them for it. And, I hope, the people over at the real paper don’t look down at us because we are something different than what they are, than what they’re used to. Because that would be horribly biased of them.
AltDaily hasn’t just relied on The Pilot for grist. On Dec. 20, Scaccia took an interesting angle by featuring articles that, in some cases, showed how the region is represented beyond the seven cities:
I’ve decided to find news from sources whose name don’t begin with Pi or end in lot.
Or just gave him a chance to riff a little:
ThomasNet News teaches us that Norfolk Southern will hold an investor day ‘for active sell-side analysts and the company’s largest shareholders’ at ‘the company’s state-of-the-art locomotive facility.’ That’s great! People with influence and money to invest coming to Norfolk! Right on, Norfolk Southern? Wait a second. That facility is in Altoona, Pa. Thanks for nothing, Altoona Southern.
And make points on how something as simple as a search engine represents the Beach:
Apparently VB charges $35 for non-residents to use their libraries. What does this mean? Nothing, except that maybe VB needs a more industrious PR arm. It’s a huge city with tons to offer, to put it simply. There should be bigger and better stories caught by Google News than this.
I site this example of the column because it looks at our community in a way we sometimes forget to look at ourselves. AltDaily has used its IYRTP forum to deliver commentary on news of local, state and national importance, as well as The Pilot. In some forms of what must be considered journalism today, It matters less that the journalist wears a Kennedy button and more that the journalist, in offering commentary or opinion, is honest about their willingness to do so.
McManus, on a wide range of issues, has managed to write with emotion, humor and guts, and counter some opinions that rely on the simple path to the cheap point. And he told me he’s writing for an outlet he believes in, an outlet that is trying to foster a community environment that makes Norfolk more livable and sustainable. He said:
I admire what AltDaily and Jesse and Hannah are doing. I think they’ve made Norfolk a better place to live.
Practically speaking, McManus said that the feature produces designated content for a site that needs it. More importantly, it gives people exposure to local news, and McManus “a bully pulpit” that he enjoys exercising and exercises well.
On Dec. 3, McManus started off his column with a reference to a Kerry Dougherty column in The Pilot on the removal of a video by artist and writer David Wojnarowicz from a Smithsonian exhibit on representation of gay and lesbian identity by American artists. Here’s Dougherty:
Some knucklehead – a curator, presumably – decided this would be the perfect time of year for the National Portrait Gallery to host a show featuring same-sex portraits called ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.’ The display included a video called ‘Fire in My Belly,’ depicting a crucified Jesus with ants crawling over his bloodied body. Geez, this is the best the gallery could do for Americans this time of year? I thought the folks at the Smithsonian were dripping with Ph.D.s. How is it possible that none of these geniuses had an inkling this exhibit was too edgy for a national museum – especially around the Yuletide, when families descend on the capital? Here’s a thought: If an exhibit requires a mature content disclaimer at the entrance, it doesn’t belong in the Smithsonian. Period.
… I’ll conduct only as much research as the author of the column I’m critiquing. To repeat her name here would be above my pay grade. Suffice to say that according to her, ‘The video in question, from the 1980s, is said to highlight the torments of very sick AIDS patients. No doubt it’s powerful and effective.’ … And if The Pilot paid her more, Kerry Dougherty could maybe have watched the four-minute video she refers to and learned the name of its artist, but then again ‘Wojnarowicz’ is hard to spell. Period.
It documents the cri de coeur of a man desperate for the world to notice that a neglected epidemic was steadily killing his lover and friends. Of the few Americans who truly cared at the time, a sizable fraction called that illness a scourge deserved by victims such the artist himself, who died while I was a high-school freshman, five years after he made the film in question.
My high school had a contract then with Channel One, which provided free TVs to our school district in return for the right to broadcast news segments to every sixth- through twelfth-grade classroom. One day Channel One reported a lawsuit over AZT, a breakthrough in AIDS treatment. The boy who sat behind me, a banker’s son whose hobby was killing deer in a local wildlife refuge, sneered audibly. I turned and gave some sort of protest. Whatever it consisted of, he and I got into an argument that ended with his question, ‘How come you like faggots so much?’
… Six more years passed before I came out of the closet to anyone, but later that same year, 1992, I learned David Wojnarowicz’s name when my then-favorite band, U2, used his photograph as cover art for their single ‘One,’ a song rumored to be a dialogue between a dying gay man and his father. The picture shows three buffalo falling off a cliff, and the liner notes state that Wojnarowicz ‘identifies himself and ourselves with the buffalo, pushed into the unknown by forces we cannot control or even understand.’
I can’t quote the whole thing, but here’s the link. I have some other favorites among McManus’s contributions, but I’m wrapping up with this one for a couple of reasons.
First off, McManus mentioned that people responded to it.
Second, there are voices in this world that push back against the forces that draw exclusionary lines, voices that ease our fall.
Finally, I get to read a few of these voices every week in AltDaily, for free, including one of our region’s best and bravest columnists.