Tag Archives: journalism

On the gathering of news and its devaluation


Hat

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — I hesitate to be vocal on issues because I sometimes work as a journalist. There is an idealized objectivity people who do this sort of work are supposed to maintain. Objectivity is debatable, especially when you have worked in opinion writing, but imposing my own bias troubles me.

That’s especially so on social media, where I have avoided discussion of recent events in Ferguson, Mo., though I have followed coverage intently.

If you care about the lives of others, it is hard not to be concerned about the issues represented by – but clearly not exclusive to – what is happening in Ferguson. I happen to care about life, opportunity, and progress for people whether or not they look or love the way I do. Though I am not covering events in Missouri, I have taken note of some criticism of the media and the arrest of reporters on the ground.

I find the best way for me to support our potential for a more free and just society is to express my support for journalism and, however infrequently, engage in it to the best of my ability.

Sometime that means fairly, if critically, representing views reasonable people may not appreciate. This is important even if it’s only to document for future generations that somebody actually thought this thing in quotes and then went ahead and really said the thing aloud in front of other people, for Pete’s sake.

Whatever the issue, whenever it arises, I believe in news gathering as the principal means of aiding public discourses and offering potential paths for social change. I believe that people with access to better information make better choices. I believe that newsgathering outlets, at best, perform a service many of the people who benefit from this service take for granted, in part, because they cannot differentiate actual journalism from what some people say about journalism.

I know these people may come to miss significant newsgathering capabilities traditionally aligned – especially on local issues – with the print industry if journalists cannot determine ways to fund local reporting as they continue to transition online.

One small way to support efforts to provide light and context to issues such as what is happening in Missouri is by supporting efforts to provide real journalism designed to inform people, even when those people may not like what they learn from this coverage. It makes sense to me to urge people to invest first in local media, then consider national sources, such as those who have reported extensively on issues such as race and the militarization of local police forces. But there are ways of investing in news gathering in other communities and nationally, as well.

I hope people will consider supporting journalism for what it does, not only fault it where they feel it falls short. It’s easy to bash the media, but media is term that really discusses a delivery system for a wide range of content, much of it varying wildly in quality. Faulting a newspaper for not being as successful as website, at least not yet, is as absurd as it is a secondary matter.

When I say I support journalism, I mean that I support public-interest newsgathering itself, not the various ways in which news is delivered or the type of content that, however entertaining, is not exactly in the public interest. And I acknowledge my subjectivity on this matter.

Newsgathering organizations are doing important work right now in Ferguson. Many are doing strong work, for example, addressing issues that predate and will survive the attention we are paying to this place now. These are issues that touch many communities. This speaks to the universal nature of the specific story. This also speaks to the way one specific conversation leads to other discourses.

Journalists are also doing important public-interest newsgathering in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, where I live. It may not always be about the biggest national issues, but that’s kind of the point. Local reporting matters to people here, whether or not they appreciate it. Local coverage includes “localizing” national stories such as Ferguson, and, as The New Journal & Guide has done, forwarded reports from The St. Louis American, a newspaper serving the African American community in Missouri.

People who value journalism that reflects public debate, problems, and potential solutions should think about how information comes to them, understand the difference between gathering and disseminating news, and make an informed decision to support the process of news gathering by those they feel do it best.

Journalism is conducted at great cost, amid difficult circumstances, and faces heavy criticism from citizens and organizations that both consume its work, often for free, while they effectively or actually obstruct it through indifference, obfuscation, and generalizations.

Still, local news gathering matters. An online aggregator does not magically come up with real reporting on a local issue. I have never seen The Huffington Post at a local city council meeting. On that last one, all thanks be to Zeus.

A local newsgathering organization gathers news by using real reporters who earn real money by covering real beats amid real difficulties. Sometimes there are real lawyers, such as the times in my own career when I was prevented from attending government meetings or court hearings. I’m fairly sure just having a lawyer’s business card in my wallet cost The Pilot $150. And sometimes I called the number on the card.

Point being: real news that digs costs real money.

The aggregators swoop in later, and often so do other outlets with lesser resources. Surely newsgathering organizations are imperfect. In part, this is because they employ reporters, not aggregating bots like bogus Twitter “publishers.” Some criticism is deserved, but some is merely shooting a messenger without applying critical thought to a greater discourse.

There should be concern about smaller newsrooms, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need newsrooms.

We are simply better off as Americans with newsgatherers than we are without them.

Since real issues also exist here, wherever here is for you, people who say they support progress and diversity in our communities might support their local, significant newsgathering organization. Where I live, that might be The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk or The Daily Press in Newport News, both newspapers that maintain relatively substantial newsrooms, the ongoing issues of the print industry aside. [Full disclosure: I was a staff writer at The Pilot, and I sometimes write for it and sister publications as a stringer.]

The Daily Press recently noted the importance of and desire for local coverage in a story by J. Elias O’Neal discussing the newspaper’s recent redesign, which now includes stories that were zoned to readers of smaller geographic areas. O’Neal wrote:

The separate Town Square sections, which were traditionally folded over the main Daily Press publication, have been absorbed into the paper — an effort by newspaper executives to beef up local news content in the main body of the paper.

In the long run, the content matters more than whether or not it is on paper. Local news is the core product.

So what is support for your local newsgatherer? You can subscribe to the print or paywalled online edition. If you have the means, buy an advertisement, even a little one. Broke? You can also contact the news gathering organization. Or proactively share content from their original pages, not those of aggregators or blogs adopting their content. Write letters to the editor about issues that seem not to be covered or are being covered in ways you like or dislike. You can disagree with what they publish, and, as strange as it sounds to non-newspaper people, committed, transparent newsgatherers may very well publish your disagreement. Additionally, as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrated this week in regards to a staffer’s controversial tweet, legitimate newsgathering organizations tend to be clear about when their folks have made a mistake.

You can also subscribe to a number of smaller newspapers that engage in community journalism. In my community, these include The New Journal & Guide and The Suffolk News-Herald. Clicks and shares are nice enough. Subscriptions and ads – real support, not lip service – are better.

So what if you think this is all baloney?

That reporting is out of touch?

That real voices are still marginalized?

There are ways to demonstrate on your own. There are government meetings to attend. There are groups that need help, either with money or sweat equity. You can also help real journalism by getting smart about it.

Be a citizen.

Employ some of the tools of reporting to your citizenship. Google your state’s open records laws. Take ‘em out for a spin. Review court records of real cases involving real people in your community. Find out whether law enforcement and government agencies are representative of the communities they serve in either hiring practices or the people they cite for traffic violations.

Think critically. Ask questions. Do some legwork where there are real, local streets, not only by liking something you zip past along the information highway.

If nothing else, you’ll have a better sense of why aggregation is so frustrating to people who have done real journalism and would like to see a real future in it. Newsgathering is vitally important, increasingly undervalued work that places the cornerstone of pretty much every argument worth having.

Liking an aggregated story online isn’t enough. Your local journalists need a more direct form of affection.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XV: Author and journalist Mike D’Orso on Pumping Granite coming to paperback (Part Two)


DOrso@Stella2013_3

NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second and final part of a conversation with author and journalist Mike D’Orso, whose book Pumping Granite chronicled a Barre, Vt., quarryman’s sexual awakening.

Hey now. Beg your pardon. Misread my notes there.

Pumping Granite (And Other Portraits of People at Play) [Texas Tech UP, 1994] is a collection of narrative sport-related journalism that is getting a paperback edition nearly 20 years after its initial publication. It’s a great read.

Prince Books and Borjo Coffehouse are hosting an event for the new edition tomorrow. It starts at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 7, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. Borjo is at the corner of Monarch Way and W. 45th St.. There is nearby metered parking. The event is free. Beverages and eats will be for sale. Of course, you can also buy the book.

I caught up with D’Orso last week. The talk discuses how good reporters and nonfiction storytellers make their own luck, and how what you cover becomes a part of you. For those who missed the first part, you can find it at this link. Full disclosure: D’Orso and I are friends and former staffers at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

The last part got into reporting and spending time with subjects to find those special moments and notes that make stories sing – what D’Orso calls “telling detail.” We pick up with developing sense of place and then chew on how the writer comes to be almost one with the subject. This has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: One of the things I think you do well is world-building. A story that I think is a good example of that is “Beyond Bull Durham,” which is kind of this comic but tragic and also emotional story of a team that’s struggling, and through the eyes of this woman

You’re so right to catch that. Yeah, it’s hilarious, but it’s pathetic, and it’s real. It’s sad.

Q: How did you find that story initially?

I lived in Williamsburg, Va., for 17 years, so I always knew there was a Single A – the lowest level – minor league team … playing over there at War Memorial Stadium over in Hampton. I knew the Virginia Generals were over there, and I’d seen that the Generals had a horrible record. I thought I’d just go over there and do a story on this horrible [team]. That was the hook. Here they are, they’re at the lowest level of baseball, and they’re the worst. It was just so much more. I hardly talk about baseball [in the story]. There’s no baseball being played in the story.

Q: It’s not about baseball.

Right. The woman, she and her dad are really the central story.

Q: I learned a lot [about storytelling] from working with photographers at The Pilot.

So did I. We’ve talked about this.

Q: Right.

[The photo department] was where I lived. That was my office.

Q: A story I talk about a lot when I talk to other writers is – Ian Martin was a photographer at The Pilot. He and I had to cover an event at a [child care] center where there was a [Heinz pickle] mascot, Private Pickle, visiting. And he and I got there and one of the first things that happened was that, when they were going to bring the mascot out to meet the kids, the costume couldn’t get through the door. So they pressed the head in, and the thing comes out, and then the head of the mascot pops up and the kids jump. [Laughter.] Ian and I just looked at each other, and Ian’s first thought was, “Okay, we’re not just doing a story about some mascot.” So that changed what it was.

Right.

Q:  Can you talk about going out to do the story and how it –

How the story changes. Absolutely. When I first came to Commonwealth Magazine, which was my first job as a professional writer, I learned early on that I was going to be surprised. I was going to find a lot more than I bargained for. And it was important to be open to that. It’s a cliché that so many reporters come in with the story they want, they get what they want to get their quote, and they go out, and they write their story. You know. I haven’t seen that. The people I’ve worked with at The Pilot, they’re fantastic reporters. They come in as blank slates. Sure, you have a broad idea, an expectation, but you’re ready to be led wherever they lead you.

Q: Can you give me an example on this story?

With the Generals? Oh, my God. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, as soon as I met the general manager. She was this 20-something year old woman who knew nothing about baseball. I didn’t realize, basically, the team was a gift from her daddy. As soon as she said that, I knew who he was. [...]

And then all the evidence was just piling up. And, the thing was, she would share these stories with me and not realize how poorly they reflected. You know, like home plate being put in backwards by her brother. I went over a couple days. [The first day] there was a meeting. That was the meeting I opened up with. This kid comes in on a little scooter, and he’s in charge of program sales. … It was like manna from heaven.

Q: There’s humor in the story, but I don’t feel like you’re making fun of them.

Absolutely not. I always have compassion for my subjects. You know, show don’t tell. I want to bend over backwards to give them humanity.

Q: There’s a love in there for the game.

That’s what I got from the players a little bit, and a respect for the game, too. The respect. I hope that came through without saying it overtly. [...]

We get so deep into the story, and we’re in an absurd world. When I switch the story in that section to the players’ viewpoint, we’re reminded, hey, for them, this is baseball. These guys want to play Major League baseball. This is their life.

Q: Did you have contact with them after the story ran?

He wrote me a thank you note. He thought it was a great story. The dad. [...] I didn’t get any anger or praise from her.

Q: The last story in the book, about Dennis [Byrd, a former New York Jets player with whom Mike co-authored Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd; the 1993 book chronicled Byrd's struggle to walk after a spinal injury caused paralysis].

It was about writing.

Q: Well, let’s talk about that.

That was a story – I had no medium to share that story. I’d just finished writing that book, and I was immersed in it. It was in me. It was in my mind. And I thought sharing that story gave readers a glimpse into what we do and how we do it. This was the perfect opportunity to share this interesting little glimpse of what it takes, just a little slice of reporting. Just out there in the middle of a prairie at midnight in Oklahoma with this NFL football player who is paralyzed. That’s what life is all about – having experiences. Who has more experiences than people who do what we do.

Front Pumping Granite Cover

Q: In the original epilogue you talk about that process where you become ‘entwined’ with the source.

And then leave like a one-night stand.

Q: Can you talk about what happens when you’re really open or really present when you’re reporting?

When I’m open and present with the subjects?

Q: Yeah.

Well, that is the key. From the very first story . The Pilot is the first newspaper I worked at and the only one. I had already developed a process of reporting after three years with Commonwealth Magazine that I share myself with – that you [the subject] understand what I’m there for. I’d make that clear at the start. Everything is fair game. There’s no off the record or whatever, unless – and then we’ll talk about it – there is. With that understood, I’m a person and so are you, and I’m going to share myself. We’re going to have a conversation. We’re going to have a relationship. I’m not going to interview you. We’re going to have a conversation. It’s not just a one-sided assault, you know? And there’s no transgression. There’s no journalistic violation there at all. [...]

It’s also not any kind of subterfuge. I am interested. That’s the kind of person I am. When I talk to writing groups and they ask, ‘what are the keys to writing?’ Really, it’s what kind of person are you? How are you with people? There are so many people I’ve seen come and go and they’ve gone to journalism school and know all the nuts and bolts, but their social skills are lacking. That’s where it all starts. When you talk about creative writing, that’s as creative as anything else. What is your approach to people? How do you get them to open up. I do it by sharing myself.

Q: When I first came to The Pilot [in 1996], some of the [sources] would be surprised at what ended up in stories. Do you ever get people feeling violated by what you included?

I’ve never had a person — I think it’s because I really do put myself in their shoes, and I also put myself in the shoes of a, kind of, imaginary court of journalism. You know, there’s going to be judges judging me. I really put myself in their shoes. I’ve had spouses call me after a story or write me and say they broke down in tears. They didn’t know this or they never saw their husband open up or whatever. That’s a big point of pride for me, that I do earn their trust.

Q: If you’re talking to a young reporter, and they’re going out to do a feature, do you want them to talk through ground rules? Like, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m doing.’

Right. People, they’re not just material. They’re not just fodder. That’s a mistake some young writers make. They lick their lips. You’ve got to keep the sense of the humanity of your subject. [...]

I always keep in mind how will I feel to pick up the paper and see myself eight columns wide and see myself there laid bare and naked. And that’s going to live forever. I feel tremendous responsibility, whether it’s positive or negative, that it’s accurate. That it’s true. [...] It’s not them that I’m after. It’s the truth – the story. You can ‘get’ anybody. I’m out to get great story.

For more about D’Orso, visit his site via this link. Playing us out is a message about granite from our good friends in Barre, Vt. – and beyond:

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Writing Craft, Vol. XV: Author and journalist Mike D’Orso on Pumping Granite coming to paperback (Part One)


The writer Mike D'Orso discusses the paperback edition of Pumping Granite at Cafe Stella in Norfolk, Va. Texas Tech University Press is publishing a paperback edition of Pumping Granite nearly 20 years after the collection of sports-related journalism first appeared because (a) it is awesomely essential reading and (b) folks in Texas do whatever the hell they want and they do so whenever the hell they want to do the thing they want to do. Photo by John Doucette.

The writer Mike D’Orso discusses the paperback edition of Pumping Granite at Cafe Stella in Norfolk, Va. Texas Tech University Press is publishing a paperback edition of Pumping Granite nearly 20 years after the collection of sports-related journalism first appeared because (a) it is awesomely essential reading and (b) folks in Texas do whatever the hell they want whenever the hell they want to do it. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – Author and journalist Mike D’Orso was the subject of the first craft talk I wrote for this blog a couple years ago, when we discussed the great story “The Project and the Park.” It captures the housing project near Harbor Park as that sports venue opened, and it is only one of 45 tales from his narrative journalism anthology Pumping Granite (And Other Portraits of People at Play) [Texas Tech UP, 1994].

Now Texas Tech University Press is publishing a paperback edition of Pumping Granite nearly 20 years after its initial publication.

Prince Books and Borjo Coffehouse are hosting an event for the new edition. It starts at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 7, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. Borjo is at the corner of Monarch Way and W. 45th St.. There is nearby metered and garage parking. The event is free. Beverages and eats will be for sale. Of course, you can also buy the book.

I caught up with D’Orso on Thursday. The talk includes dicussion of stories from this collection of his newspaper and magazine work, with a focus on spending time with sources and subjects. We also talked about structure, how good reporters and nonfiction storytellers make their own luck, and how what you cover becomes a part of you. I’ve broken the conversation into two parts. This is the first.

By way of full disclosure, D’Orso and I are friends and both former staffers at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. This has been edited for length and clarity. Additionally, we refer to the Latin term in medias res below, though it may not be clear due to the layout setting on this blog. It means starting a story in the middle of the action.

The collection happened after D’Orso wrote a story for The Pilot about a Norfolk woman who overcame a tragedy by writing poetry. Texas Tech University Press published her collection after she won a contest, and considered using D’Orso’s story as an introduction. The editor liked D’Orso’s writing, but the poet preferred that her collection not include an introduction. D’Orso picks up the tale:

[The editor] said, ‘Well, how about a collection of your newspaper and magazine stuff.’ I said, ‘Believe it or not, I’ve already had a collection published. Hampton Roads Publishing had done Fast Takes [1990]… but I tell you, I’ve done a bunch of sports-oriented stories.’ We just batted it around back and forth and we ended up coming up with doing a collection of sports-oriented stories. Sports had always been – I’ve never been a sports writer, but I played sports. I loved sports, but I never wanted to be a sports writer. So that’s how Pumping Granite came about. …

Q: So why now did they want to do the paperback?

That was my question when I got an email from [Texas Tech University Press editor-in-chief Judith Keeling] with marvelous news. They were going to come out with a paperback edition of Pumping Granite. What I gather is they – it’s always about funds with university presses – they came into some money. … She really just loved this book and wanted to put it out again in paperback. It’s got a whole new cover for it. [We] revised the introduction and the epilogue to make it more timely, and there you go.

Q: I wanted to ask you one or two publishing questions, then ask about a couple stories and a couple things about reporting, the deep dive. First off, these stories appeared in different publications. There’s stuff from Sports Illustrated, stuff from The Pilot, Commonwealth Magazine. So when you’re republishing work in a collection, do you have to do clearances?

In terms of the copyrights?

Q: Yeah.

You know, I just did it.

Q: [Laughter.]

I’m serious. I mean, I do know the contracts with Sports Illustrated, I do own that story. They have one time rights. That’s the big deal one.

Q: But newspapers aren’t like that. I don’t own any of the stuff I wrote for The Pilot.

Right. As I recall, when Fast Takes came out, I talked to [former assistant managing editor for features at The Pilot] Carol Wood and [former managing editor] Jim Raper at the time … and they were like, ‘Great. Publicity for the paper.’ So they didn’t mind. We’re not talking about big money. [Laughs.]

Q: I wanted to talk to you about “Hell on Wheels,” which is the first story. I really thinks it sets it off – I assume you didn’t change the order for [the new edition].

Right. The way I arranged these was, really it was fun. It’s 45 stories. It just came out to that nice number. I decided to pick one for each sport or activity. I could have five basketball stories, but I just threw four away. I made my own rule. They’re in alphabetical order. …

Q: I think it’s a very good way to start off the book because I think it shows pretty quickly some things you do well. There’s the introduction of the sport [auto racing], of the main character.

I was really looking for a story that opens the book. I was looking for an ‘A’ story, an ‘A’ sport or game story, and that’s why I looked up and thanked the heavens that [this was an 'A'story – auto racing]. That was published in the paper originally as a two-parter.

Q: There’s a really good introduction. You set the character and the scene, but the you also give the breadcrumbs. You give the information, that she works [her day job] at Chick-fil-A and putting on her uniform. The way you reveal the details of a person who has this other life. Can you tell about how much time you spend reporting and gathering the details? Then I’ll ask you about [structure] and spreading the breadcrumbs.

Gay Talese has this quote that what we do – meaning narrative nonfiction reporters. [He says] it’s the art of hanging around. All these great moments, all these great details, these great quotes, these great incidents or scenes or anecdotes, they just don fall into your lap immediately. They’re there because you hung around for four or five hours when nothing happened. Or a day or whatever. With my books, days would go by, but that’s books. They say God is in the details. Well, yeah, it’s in the ‘telling’ detail. You don’t just empty out your notebook. You know the old thing about the young writer, he’s worked so hard to get all this material he’s going to make damn sure they put it in the story. Well, no. I never went to journalism school. I never was taught all the rules and this or that. I’ve always believed very much in – you could call it instinct. All instinct means is it’s not magical. It just means you’re paying attention. It means you’re picking up stuff. You’re aware.

When I’m reporting, while I’m talking, while I’m getting all the obvious material, if anything just strikes me – it might just be something a person does, a little detail, a sound – if it strikes me, I might not even know why it strikes me, but I’ll put it in my notebook because it did. It resonated with me. I trust that if I share it in the way that it hit me, it will resonate with the reader, too.

Front Pumping Granite Cover

Q: I was a big fan of spending a lot of time. I think you give yourself more opportunities to find that little thing.

Absolutely. The more time you spend – Most people who know me wouldn’t exactly call me the most laid back, patient guy. But, as a writer, I’m extremely patient. …

Structure is really important. My typical, go-to structure is I will open up with an in medias scene.

Q: That’s what I was going to ask you about. Homer, he did that, too.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Q: In the second leg, you start giving up the breadcrumbs really well. You start building up the character. And you do that by dropping in short grafs. How do you approach that? Do you outline?

 I do outline, but the way I outline – Baby Boomers are the first visual generation. We grew up with TV. We grew up with movies. So I tend to see stories visually. I see them by scenes. I see them by cut and editing, by a wide angle shot, by a closeup. And, you know, you write that way. A written scene can be a closeup. It can be a panning shot. And the voice, too – third person, whatever, second person, and of course the tone. Point of view. That said, when I outline I outline by – I storyboard.

Then I take all my material, and then what I’ll do is I have a file folder for each scene on my storyboard. I’ll work my way backwards from all the material I have. I know I’m going to open with this basic part of the story, and throw everything [related] in that folder. And then, within that part of the story, I’m going to have a scene, scene, scene, and I take other file folders and take that material out and keep winnowing it down until I’ve almost got it down paragraph by paragraph. Not really, but section by section. There are also scenes I’m going to be thinking about in the beginning. ‘That’s going to be a great opening scene.’ And always you’re asking yourself, ‘What’s the story?’ Because you might have a great opening. I almost started out Plundering Paradise [HarperCollins, 2002] with a scene in a whorehouse … It was a great opening scene, but it didn’t work for the whole book. To me, that opening scene has got to serve the whole story. It’s got to be something that’s going to kick you off to the heart of the story.

[In ‘Hell on Wheels’], we learn right away she’s in a pink car. … She works at Chick-fil-A. And then there’s these badass guys she’s banging fenders with. You see she’s not a tomboy, she’s a sweetheart, but she’s tough.

Anyway, I work in medias, it’s almost a classic structure. Then you pull back. You reel back, go forward and finally meet that scene, and then go forward. That scene is typically right before a climax. Or it might be right at the climax.

Part two will be up soon. For more about D’Orso, visit his site via this link.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVII: Pop culture journalist Will Harris


As the journalist Will Harris so bitterly learned during a brief partnership, Elmo's one-two punch of icily avoiding pronouns and the rope-a-dope lovability ploy does not always translate into total supremacy in the blood-spattered arenas of the North American Chicken Fighting Association. Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. – Will Harris is a pop culture journalist, a splendid form of the muckraking arts that often dispenses with the muck by subbing in stuff that people enjoy reading.

Harris is a senior editor and TV columnist for Bullz-Eye, and he’s become a regular contributor to one of my favorite online destinations, The AV Club, a pop culture and criticism site that is a sister publication to The Onion.

Harris has written for a number of publications over the years. Additionally, and clearly most importantly, he was the runner-up in last year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest here at the blog.

He keeps a blog called News, Reviews and Interviews at this link. I recommend the Larry the Cable Guy interview, in which the subject opens up about a beef with comedian David Cross, as well as perceptions of him. There’s also an interesting discussion in the comments.

Harris can turn a phrase. He can write funny. One of the big things I enjoy about Harris’ work is that his writing often comes from a place of respect and appreciation for the possibilities of the various forms – movies, TV, music, etc. The best critics have this; the rest are just passing through.

And how much juice does this guy have now? When Morgan Freeman wants to drop the f-bomb, he asks Harris for permission.

This Belligerent Q&A was conducted via email. There is some brief potty mouthery below.

I hope to speak with Harris at a later date about freelancing, navigating conferences and junkets, and how he landed at The AV Club.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. I’m a street-walking cheetah with…no, wait, sorry, that’s not me, that’s Iggy Pop. (You can understand how people would get the two of us confused, I’m sure.)
  2. I’m a guy who got his journalism degree in ’92, worked a variety of retail, telemarketing, and I.T. jobs for more than a decade while continuing to do freelance writing and look for the elusive full-time gig in my field, and, after finally getting my foot in the door with Bullz-Eye.com as an associate editor, finally found the career I’d been seeking and have done everything in my power to make the most of it.
  3. I’m just this guy, you know?

Q: What is pop culture?

It’s the viewing, listening, and reading material that defines a generation even as it dates it.

Q: When pop culture gets on you, how do you get it off?

You don’t. Either it falls by the wayside because it isn’t worthy of permanence, or it sticks with you forever.

Q: Where do you, as a pop culture journalist and critic, place yourself in the pantheon of those engaged in the practice of assessing and, to some extent, propagating the entirety of thought and cultural reflections that represent the often media-driven, social collective of an increasingly globalized consciousness, which in turn could be said to reinforce culturally-dominant entertainments and artistic (and less artistic) works at the expense of marginalized perspectives? What are you truly assessing when you examine what is considered popular? What we value compared to what we should value? Also, what do they mean, the things I just typed?

I don’t think those things mean what you think they mean. But they might. I’m just a pop culture journalist and critic, so my knowledge and opinions – like those of my peers – shouldn’t be trusted any farther than you can throw them. They’re only ours. Yours are probably just as worthy. Well, almost, anyway.

Will Harris and the stars of Breaking Bad. Courtesy photo.

Q: You have interviewed Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad on various occasions, and even visited the set. How did this develop? If, after the next three interviews, the two of you join consciousnesses, how will your mental energy orb maintain dominance over the mental energy orb formerly known as Bryan Cranston?

The first time I met Mr. Cranston was at the Television Critics Association Awards in Pasadena, I believe, and I was subsequently part of the group of TCA members who was invited out to the Breaking Bad set the following winter while they were filming Season 3, which resulted in the greatest dinner conversation I’ve ever had. Subsequently, between in-person encounters and phone interviews, I have now interacted with Mr. Cranston more times than any other celebrity. In fact, I see and/or talk to him more regularly than some of the people who were in my wedding party. (Dammit, I knew I should’ve asked him to be a groomsman … ) But while he is one of the nicest and most genuine guys I’ve ever come across, someone whose head is on straight – he’s been happily married for two decades now, with a daughter who’s now in college – and whose many years in the acting trenches have enabled him to truly appreciate his success and not get an ego about it, I do not believe Mr. Cranston and I will ever join consciousnesses, as I invariably ask him about some obscure project on his resume which he hasn’t been asked about in ages, thereby breaking his concentration and preventing any such melding.

Q: What do you think of that show? Seems awfully fixated on meth.

A bit, perhaps. But no more so than Weeds is on marijuana. Hand on heart, I think Breaking Bad is the best show on television. Period.

Q: Your career field enables you to interview people such as Isabella Rossellini by asking her questions to which she responds in the actual voice of Isabella Rossellini. I suspect this is better than the Isabella Rossellini imitation I do after I ask Pretend Isabella Rossellini “Am I handsome?” And Pretend Isabella Rossellini replies, “Naturalmente – but only in the right light.” Emboldened, I then say, “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station.” But she spurns me. What am I doing wrong?

You’ve got to know when to walk away, man. Or when to stop talking. Or, in this particular case, when to seek out a licensed therapist.

Q: When Morgan Freeman asked you “can I say [f-bomb]?” during a recent interview, how did it make you feel that he phrased the question in such a way that he had dropped the f-bomb before securing your approval to do so?

If you were to go back and listen to the recording, you can hear the pride and amusement in my voice that he bothered to ask at all. But I like to think that, had I said, ‘No, I’m afraid you can’t,’ he would’ve offered an even more offensive word in its place, then upturned the table and said, ‘Morgan Freeman says [f-bomb] whenever the [f-bomb] Morgan Freeman wants. Now you get the [f-bomb] out … and when you hit the hallway, tell Michael Ausiello to get his ass in here!’

Q: Did you ask him “What’s in the box?” I assumed that question was edited out.

Actually, I asked him, ‘Do you still feel that ‘that reading stuff’ is out of sight?’ (He does, but he doesn’t like to take a public stance on it anymore. Too many publishing companies looking for endorsements, apparently.)

Q: Did Isabella Rossellini happen to mention whether she’s down with men of the, let’s say, “husky” persuasion? Please answer this one.

When I brought it up, her mind immediately went to thoughts of seduction. She even made a video about it.

Q: You have bravely waded into The AV Club comments section. For readers who do not know this online oasis of advanced thought and emotional consideration, please describe the sensation. What protective gear do you wear? Is there a ritual cleansing later?

Actually, I have been very, very lucky for the most part, as far more of my work for the AV Club has been in the field of interviewing rather than criticism, which limits the amount of vitriol spewed in my general direction. In fact, after my first interview (“Random Roles with Peter Gallagher“), one of the commenters wrote, ‘The comments above are all, like, sincere and shit. What’s going on here today?’ I’m as surprised as anyone that the readership has embraced me as quickly as they have, but I’m confident that I will somehow cause them to turn on me before long.

Q: What can we as a culture do to fight the spread of memes?

Stop being so damned creative. Creativity has always been humanity’s downfall.

Q: You sometimes string for our local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. When you force The Pilot to pay a fee to purchase the supple fruit of your freelance journalism, do you ever feel guilty for reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses?

In my scrapbook, I still keep a letter I received from E.F. Rogers, Jr., The Virginian-Pilot’s Assistant Managing Editor, Recruiting/Personnel, dated December 31, 1990. ‘This is to acknowledge receipt of your application for a summer internship on The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star,’ wrote Rogers. ‘Interns will be selected in January. If you are selected, we will be back in touch.’ The fact that Rogers did not, in fact, get back in touch with me handily assuages any guilt I may feel about reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses. If they’d only brought me into the fold as a full-timer when they had the chance, they certainly could’ve cut me by now, thereby adding more funds to the coffers.

Q: Did you happen to get Isabella Rossellini’s phone number? For the purposes of fact-checking, I mean.

Sadly, we were connected by a publicist, so she herself did not call in. I say ‘sadly,’ but for Ms. Rossellini, this is probably a blessing.

Q: When you ask a subject such as Larry the Cable Guy whether they appeal to the lowest common denominator, do you have to define the word denominator?

It’s so tempting to mock ol’ Larry, but the truth of the matter is that he was an incredibly nice guy, and he liked me enough to discuss something he’d never been of a mind to talk about in the press before. I mean, it’s a shame he went and wasted such great material on a little ol’ blog like mine, but I still feel a certain allegiance to him for having done so, especially given that I once completely tore Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector a new one. (Funny how it never occurred to me to bring that up during our conversation … )

Q: When you use the word denominator in front of subject such as David Cross, do you look up what it means before hand, just in case he wants to challenge your understanding of the word’s meanings?

I always have Dictionary.com at the ready, just to be on the safe side.

Q: Mad Men has returned. It is quite popular. Why are they still so mad?

Oh, that’s just the lung cancer and liver damage talking. They’re really a swell bunch of fellas.

Q: If you did indeed write down Isabella Rossellini’s phone number, where do you keep it? I’m thinking an address book in the center desk drawer. Of course, that might be the decoy address book. You’re a clever one, Will Harris.

If you truly believe that I have the budget to afford a desk with drawers, John-Henry Doucette, then I don’t think you really know me at all.

Q: Has a certain series of questions in this Q&A effectively furthered the popular notion that a certain actress is a desirable person or merely slapped around a dead horse through repetition? How do both of those techniques – identifying a referent of a cultural perception and engaging in reaffirmation of the referent – fit into writing about pop culture?

Fact: Isabella Rossellini is endlessly charming … or, at least, she was during the 15 minutes she was chatting with me. But, then, she is an outstanding actress. As for repetition in the field of pop culture, I always return to the Simpsons scene where Sideshow Bob steps on a seemingly endless number of rakes, each one smacking him in the face, each time instigating a low grumble. It’s funny at first, then it isn’t anymore, and then all of a sudden it gets funny again. This doesn’t translate to everything in pop culture, of course, but it works on a surprising number of things. Like, say, this Isabelli Rossellini gag.

Q: Seriously, you find that number, I’m sure she’ll be cool with you passing it along.

See, now the joke isn’t funny anymore. Remember what I said about knowing when to walk away? This would’ve been one of those occasions.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Did I mention that I once interviewed Isabella Rossellini?  (I’m not sure, but I think the fact that I’m bringing it up this time makes it funny again. If so, you’re welcome.)

Beyond that, I’ll just say that I appreciate your appreciation of my work, and I hope that my ridiculous obsession with doing research in advance of my interviews continues to pay off both for myself and the people who seem to like the pieces that result from these conversations.

To read more Belligerent Q&As, click on this link.

The Stooges plays us out. Sometimes we’re all just the world’s forgotten boy.

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A resolution to get local in the New Year


Patriotic bench outside the firehouse in Craddock, a community in Portsmouth, Va., the city in which I live. Photo by John Doucette.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — A few years ago, I became interested enough in a candidate for national office to do something rash: I allowed my email address to be joined with a good many email addresses on this guy’s digital Rolodex. Now this politician sends me emails regularly about matters big and small, and asks for money. As I was for many years a reporter, I’m used to such things. I’ve been on the email and fax chains of Republic and Democrat candidates for and holders of federal offices, and have come to think of the email rhetoric of politicians — particularly those hellbent on working in D.C. — as unusually well phrased notes from a series of teenagers I somehow adopted. That these teenagers have handlers and press secretaries to shape our discourse does not particularly change two core messages:

  1. Hey Dad, they say, I did this and that and this, all for you – ain’t you proud?
  2. Yo, I need some money.

Most recently, the politician emailed repeatedly to say he needed as little as $3, and – if I was lucky, of course – he’d even stop by for a family dinner. Actually, I’d have to go to him, presumably in Washington. Kids these days, they want the world to come to them. He didn’t even write the email himself. A mouthpiece offered:

And, don’t forget – if you’re one of the winners, you’ll get to bring a guest along with you.

With apologies to my plus-one, I’m not interested in becoming a winner. For one thing, I don’t eat family dinners in the District. My First Family is in the southern part of a Virginia region called Hampton Roads – in Portsmouth, the city within which I live; in Norfolk, where I work and attend school; in Virginia Beach, where I have family and occasionally go fishing; in Chesapeake, where my wife grew up and where some of my friends have settled; in Suffolk, an under-sung jewel that is the best place to go to get away from the other four cities for a little while. I’ll always pay attention to issues of national importance, and speak with my vote or, perhaps, support of this issue or that, but these places have needs, too.

So I suspect my $3 is not destined to travel far.

With that in mind, I offer for your consideration some New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. I resolve to love my local community more than I have. I want to spend less time dreaming about the other places other people live and embrace the reality of where I live. I want to show the love more than talk about it.
  2. I resolve to continue loving local media despite the inherent flaws of any medium. I will keep my subscription to The Virginian-Pilot because this is the best and most responsible media outlet in Hampton Roads. I’ll try to support local public broadcasting in some way, either with a few bucks or continued attention here. I’ll try to support community newspapers of note, such as The Suffolk News-Herald and The New Journal & Guide, if only by picking them up on the newsstands from time to time. I will continue to read and write about Veer and AltDaily, and I will take them seriously on this blog because their efforts to provide alternative voices deserve real consideration and appreciation.
  3. I resolve to continue supporting local arts as a patron. Some of the best art I’ve seen has been in local galleries or festivals, and on local stages. I want to see more local music, more local plays, put more local artists on my walls and on the pages of this little blog. I’d rather see a failure that reaches than a success that plays it safe. I want to remember that living in a community with a strong arts scene, however uneven some work may be amid the much needed experimentation that leads ultimately to better art, is like love itself a blessing that must be replenished by love in return.
  4. I resolve to keep my charitable giving local. This is at least for the coming year, however tempting it can be to give through large charities based in other states. Additionally, I resolve to give directly to charities and avoid middlemen. If I want to give to a local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, for example, I will give to that charity and not through a fundraising firm that delivers pennies on the dollar. I will not support any charities that have failed to file their paperwork, because if a supposed charity cannot do that basic step they will fail at providing a service or program no matter how well-intentioned they are. I will remember that the local United Way is a good means of giving or finding worthy charities for those who do not know where or how to give directly.
  5. I resolve to consider my community before seeking entertainment elsewhere. One of the most appalling nights in my recent memory was at an unflinchingly secular “holiday” celebration/cash grab at a major amusement park in Virginia, complete with a stage play shamelessly bastardizing the “meaning” of said holiday. Which may be fine for some, but is more proof to me that commerce and faith should keep separate books. For what we spent there, we might have better enjoyed another fine day at the outstanding Children’s Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth and handled our Christmas business at home or in church.
  6. I resolve to pay attention to local government. As a (mostly) former journalist, I have a deep discomfort with political giving. But if for some reason I decide to spread some dough around, I will look first to candidates seeking local offices because they make the decisions that directly affect my life. I will try to attend at least one Portsmouth City Council meeting, not to speak or complain, but simply to let my city officials know I care about the work they do on my family’s behalf and that I value the work of the city employees who provide services, educate our children, and protect us from crime, fire and medical crises. Also, I love Light Rail. I’ll ride the Tide when I can.
  7. Most importantly, I resolve to increase my percentage of spending on local businesses, particularly independent businesses and corporations headquartered in our region and our commonwealth. I will continue to support the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, because the Chamber is working for the betterment of the local market. I will continue to seek out the fruits of local farms before buying at the big grocery stores. I will seek out mom and pops and try to blow less money on national chains. One of the best holiday gifts I’ve ever given to my wife came not from Wal-Mart or a national department store, but the gift shop at the Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum. This may seem a bit silly, but it’s a just peanut-shaped Christmas ornament. We talk about it and our times in Suffolk. We’ve done this every year that I can remember, and I can’t think of anything from a Wal-Mart that has ever generated a conversation. Chain eateries at malls can’t hold a candle to the many fine dining spots throughout the region. (See you soon, No Frill Grill. And Five Points Community Farm Market. And others.) I will remember that local businesses generally keep money in our community through reinvestment and the payrolls that support my friends and neighbors. Likewise, when I travel to other places, I will try to seek out local businesses there and reward the brave independent businesspeople making a go of it in an increasingly cookie-cutter America. I will read more books bought through independent and local booksellers.

My back yard begins in Portsmouth, and expands a bit to a region called Hampton Roads, and then to our beautiful Commonwealth on Virginia, and onward to our nation, and then the world. So, overall:

  1. I will remember that to be a member of a region and a state and a nation starts with being a member of a community. The communities that are represented best by regional bodies and state and national governments are the communities that best represent themselves through strong support for local industry, arts, media, government, etc.
  2. When I forget to do these things, at the very least, I will wallow in an appropriate pool of shame. I’m good at this. Believe me.

For now, the problem is that I’m all good intentions. So I hope I’ll stick to most, if not all of this, and pray my friends and neighbors will help me do so. If it’s a matter of spending $3 here or $3 there, I vote $3 here.

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William Ruehlmann, journalist and educator, retires from VWC


Dr. William Ruehlmann, a journalist and author who taught at Virginia Wesleyan College for 18 years, gives a wave and a smile. Photo illustration courtesy of Meghan See/The Marlin Chronicle.

Stories do not come to the writer. He must go out and meet them, and when he encounters one he must fasten himself to it like a fat man on a free lunch.

— Dr. William Ruehlmann, Stalking the Feature Story

William Ruehlmann is an educator, a journalist, and the author of two terrific books, Saint With a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye and Stalking the Feature Story. For the past 18 years, he’s been a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, teaching young people how to contribute to the world through writing and reporting. At VWC, he’s been the guiding force behind the award-winning campus newspaper, The Marlin Chronicle, and a longtime national leader in the Society for Collegiate Journalists.

He’s retired from VWC, which is why I am writing this. I was one of the fortunate students who gained practical knowhow, inspiration, and even a much-needed senior year kick in the behind from him. Students saw him off May 6 at the college, in a hospitality suite in which a projector showed picture after picture of an educator surrounded by his students. Naturally, we took more pictures.

I studied U.S. history at VWC after I got out of the Navy, but I spent a fair share of time with the communications students and contributed a few columns to The Chronicle. I remember discussion of reporting, fact-checking, ethics, and structure with Ruehlmann. His trust in students to make decisions when covering difficult topics. And how many of the stories written for his classes – rewritten and sometimes re-reported after his notes (always in green, as it is a less punishing color than the dreaded red pen) – were among the first that got me noticed by The Pilot.

I remember learning from Ruehlmann that writing, perhaps especially journalism, isn’t about the writer, but about the subject and those who will read what you write about it. In Stalking the Feature Story, he wrote:

Some egocentric scribes just can’t seem to prevent themselves from popping in and out of their copy like ‘Tennis anyone?’ types in midcentury melodramas. They interpose themselves between the reader and the subject, setting up a picket fence of I’s across their page.

Stay out of the story unless you affect it in some crucial way. Keep your eye on the material, not the mirror.

He led me to that water, anyway. I’ve tried to be as good as can be about drinking it.

Ruehlmann has a way of making the tough lessons a bit more tender. He is one of the first of many mentors and friends who have helped me learn that writing is something you need to feed in return – with fact, with judgment, and voices other than you own. When you get out of the way, and write at the service of the story, writing fulfills the writer. Better yet, it probably gets read and fulfills the reader.

Writing for Ruehlmann’s old paper, The Pilot, I returned to VWC in 2006 and spent time with The Chronicle staff while they made decisions about their coverage of a great tragedy, the murder of a security guard at the campus. Young journalists, many of them feeling the crime so profoundly, carefully consider each and every word they would publish. The decisions were to be their own decisions, with only the gentlest of guidance from their mentor. I remember a line from their editorial:

We are changed.

This past month, The Chronicle carried the news that Ruehlmann was retiring. The man ain’t done, The Chronicle reported. He’ll travel. He’ll keep writing his book column for The Pilot. He’ll write.

Ruehlmann, asked what he would miss about VWC, told The Chronicle‘s Kaitlyn Dozier:

The students. Unequivocally, absolutely, and entirely. I look around this newsroom, at the hundreds of students I have loved and who’ve loved me back. Yes, I will miss them greatly.

Meghan See, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, told Dozier:

But he wasn’t just a good professor. He taught more than just classroom material. He showed me how not to be afraid of voicing my opinion, uncovering the truth, and sticking up for something I believe in. I honestly think that without Dr. R, I wouldn’t have uncovered my passion for journalism. I often catch myself thinking, what would Dr. Ruehlmann do?

I had a bit of a smile on May 6, when amid the party I first saw The Chronicle‘s report on Ruehlmann – the story of the heart and soul of that paper ran downpage, below the fold. The staff had led the edition with the new student government officers, a room squeeze, and so forth. You know – the news of the community.

Chances are, Ruehlmann would not agree that he was the heart and soul of The Chronicle. Were this post on paper, he’d probably write a note right here (in green, of course) about how it’s the students who breathe life into their newspaper. He might mention later, in the hall or as we passed on the wide field near the chapel, that the editors of The Chronicle played his story just right.

Ruehlmann taught classes called Advanced Newswriting and Feature Writing and what have you, but what he taught all along were judgment, skepticism, open-mindedness, passion, freedom, and that there is truth, or sometimes truths, that must be discovered and shared.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VI: Columnist Mike Gruss of The Virginian-Pilot


Would you buy tapioca from this man? I did, and how. Now I have too much tapioca. Thanks a lot, Mike Gruss, features columnist at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Va. Courtesy photo.

As the columnist for The Daily Break – feature – section of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Mike Gruss has been followed around by a ringmaster. He has compared a Jeopardy champ to one of America’s famed wearers of the John Henry name. And he has written with wit and heart about the things that make the Hampton Roads, Va., region a great place to live, even when our local governments appear to be in a stupid contest.

And he does this three times a week, even. Not too shabby.

Gruss was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions via email. As always, there were no backsies.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. Alex Trebek. Wait. That’s probably what everybody says.
  2. Do you remember that one scene in Field of Dreams? No, not the one with Kevin Costner. No, not the one with James Earl Jones. Right, Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham. Now remember the guy who sold the unnecessary hats to Moonlight Graham’s wife. That’s who I like to think of myself as.
  3. Also, former William & Mary quarterback Lang Campbell.

Q: Tell us about this newspaper technology all the kids are talking about.

Ayech-tee-tee-pee-colon-backslash-backslash-doubleyou, doubleyou, doubleyou, dot, pilotonline, all-one-word, dotcom, slash, gee, are, you, ess, ess. Or facebook.com/gruss. Or twitter.com/mikegruss.

Q: Until a recent misunderstanding, I savored dressing like a ringmaster and repeating people’s orders in the cafeteria of the bus station at Granby Street and W. Brambleton Avenue. Naturally, I enjoyed your recent excursion with Ringling Bros. ringmaster Brian Crawford Scott, who, for a living, trades in what someone with a tendency to misapply musical terminology might call in relievo: “Your literary genius will be eternalized.” Can you explain the experience? And how did you look in that jacket? Be sure to speak up.

Brian was a great hype-man. The energy and language he brought to the most boring tasks we presented him far exceeded my expectations. Having him trail me for a couple of hours meant a lot of awkward stares, but it was worth it. Plus, that jacket was the awe-some, especially if you’re really into steampunk. It was also heavy. And made with real Svarokvski crystals. I didn’t get to wear it. In fact, I believe it was the first time it was worn outdoors because it’s worth a boatload of money. I was nervous he would trip on the sidewalk and rip a hole in his pants.

Q: You recently wrote about the hot Southern brand. As a transplant, do you feel the South’s marketing push slowly sinking into you like brine into the supple hide of a cuke? (Extra “unpaved street cred” credit: To paraphrase Insane Clown Posse: Freaking grits – how do they work?)

I disagree with the premise of the question. While, yes, technically, I am a transplant because I was not born here, and while yes, I still cheer for Cleveland-based sports teams, at point does one get to claim a stake in the South as their own?

I’ve lived here eight years. I’ve paid more taxes in Virginia than in any other state. I’ve made more charitable donations in Virginia than any other state. I’ve been called for jury duty twice in Virginia. (None in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, or Illinois, where I’ve also lived.) I’ve voted more times in Virginia than any other state. My wife and I own a house. When do I get to start identifying myself as a local?

Haha! You said cuke. I don’t know what that means. Maybe I am a transplant?

Regarding grits, would it be too stuffy, too inside baseball to respond: ‘Nobody does, man! Grit force, man. What else is similar to that on this Earth? Nothing! Grit force is fascinating to us. It’s right there, in your face. You can feel them pulling. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it. But there’s a force there. That’s cool!’

Q: When do you think the Norfolk Police Department will let me and my tasteful example of haute couture go back to the bus station cafeteria?

Have you tried Megabus?

Q: When Mal Vincent says “we” in his movie reviews, whom else is he talking about? Can only he see them?

Wait, what? You seriously didn’t know? Ha! I thought this was common knowledge. The other half of the ‘we’ is Pippa Middleton, of course.

Q: In my imaginary exit interview at The Pilot, I suggested they turn my cube into a gift shop. What would you like them to do with your desk when you retire?

Build a Viking ship. Wait. That’s probably what everybody says. Build two Viking ships. I have a big desk.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

I’m honored The New York Times Magazine thought me worthy enough to include in the Q&A section. This is a great honor and the culmination of a lifelong dream.

In closing, here is the greatest music video ever. This is not safe for work. Also, it will make you stupid. I don’t mean over time, either, but immediate stupidity. Frankly, you should not watch it. You are making your own bed if you click on this video. I know you’ll make the right decision:

How magnets work:


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Earl Swift shall rock you Thursday at the TCC lit fest in Norfolk, though in this headline ‘rock’ = ‘read to’


Norfolk, Va., author and journalist Earl Swift now has a more active name. His old-country handle? Earl Lentissimo. Photo by Saylor Denney.

Norfolk, Va., author and journalist Earl Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot, will read on Thursday as part of Tidewater Community College’s 10th Annual Literary Festival.

The festival’s theme is “How words can help consume delicious natural resources.”

Wait, I have that all wrong. TCC’s lit fest theme is really “Words of hope for our fragile planet.” Maybe next year.

But back to Swift.

He’s an award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in Parade and Best Newspaper Writing. In 2007, some of his best stories were collected in The Tangierman’s Lament. He’s also the author of the riveting Where they Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers, and Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia, which began as a newspaper collaboration with photographer Ian Martin.

Swift’s latest book is due to be published in June. It’s called The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. If I’d had a subtitle that long back in high school, I would have been more popular.

This past weekend, Swift said he was still choosing the selections he will read Thursday, but was leaning toward something from The Tangierman’s Lament, something from The Big Roads, and a project that is in the works. The latter piece is one he hasn’t read in public before. He hasn’t read anything from The Big Roads, either.

He’s looking forward to Thursday:

The festival has a theme: ‘Words of hope for our fragile planet.’ I’m kind of bound to make selections that are connected to the theme. That’s something that has made me come up with stuff that I normally wouldn’t do.

You can read more about Swift at this link to his website.

The Big Roads is a history of how the U.S. interstate highway system came to be, and how it “changed the face of a continent.” To me, that fits in well with TCC’s theme. Nothing bucks up a wimpy planet like a thorough paving.

Should be a great lit fest. By the end of the week, pretend experts say, the Earth will be 5 percent sturdier. And, forever more, space children will taunt Earthlings thusly:

Your planet’s so fragile TCC called it out in a literary festival theme.

The reading is at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, April 14, at the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center, 340 Granby St., Norfolk. Free admission. Info at (757) 822-1450. There is some metered street parking but the best bet at lunchtime downtown is one of the garages, either at Freemason and Boush streets, or at MacArthur Center.

Some of Swift’s books will be available for sale, too.

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The Newseum


Newseum entrance, Washington D.C., March 15, 2011. Vox Optima photo.

I visited the Newseum yesterday with several folks from Vox Optima, the first time I’ve seen it the museum in it’s relatively new location on the 500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

Among the great exhibits was Covering Katrina, on display until September. It’s a very moving series of displays that included front pages from throughout the initial period of the storm, examinations of the reporters covering the tragedy, and, for those overcome by some very powerful images, boxes of tissues at the end of benches.

Said Jim Washington, a former reporter for The Virginian-Pilot and my colleague at Vox:

It was pretty amazing. I was surprised how emotional the Katrina exhibit was, especially since its a news story we’ve been exposed to for so long.

A great museum. Worth checking out if you’re in D.C.

A few images from the trip follow.

A view from one of the upper levels. To the left is a recreation of the office of the late NBC journalist Tim Russert. Vox Optima photo.

Jane Howard of the Newseum discusses the ABC This Week studio in the museum in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.

Detail of a section of the Berlin Wall, on display at the Newseum, Washington D.C., on March 15, 2011. Vox Optima photo.

 

Well said ... at the Newseum, Washington D.C., on March 15, 2011. Vox Optima photo.

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Writing Craft, Vol. I: Mike D’Orso’s “The Project and the Park”


Mike D’Orso and I had a little fun the other day regarding his new book, written with the actor and activist Ted Danson.

I also asked via email about the craft of feature journalism writing. His answers are reflected in this post.

Among his writings, some of my favorites include sports journalism stories from Pumping Granite. A big favorite is “The Project and the Park,” the story of an evening at Tidewater Gardens, the housing project near Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va. Harbor Park was new when the story was penned for The Virginian-Pilot.

Here’s the lede, which instantly establishes two settings, the distance between them, and a main character:

It was an hour-and-a-half before game time at Harbor Park. The bleachers were empty, the grounds crew had yet to chalk the foul lines, but Catherine Newby was already settled into her seat – behind third base, beyond the left field parking lot, across ten lanes of interstate highway.

She’s 63, and has lived in the neighborhood for decades. Mike shows her appreciation for the park – the sound of music from the stadium, the lights in the sky. It’s a lesson in great reporting – not only going to a place and reporting through interviews and observation, though Mike is expert in such things, but also doing the research that allows telling detail within a narrative:

It is not a hopeful place. Nine out of every ten families living in its brick row buildings are headed by a single woman. Nearly half those households have an annual income of less than five thousand dollars. Ninety-seven percent of them are black.

None of which means a thing to Catherine. All she knows is this is her home. Those are her gardenias and petunias planted at the edge of her small concrete stoop. Those are her three metal folding chairs set up outside the screen door of her apartment. And that new stadium, its light towers looming above the traffic whooshing past on Tidewater Drive, is Catherine’s pleasure.

People from the neighborhood recall the story of opening night, as seen from there. There are scenes effectively, but it’s basically the narrative of the visit, interspersed with the game. The difference is a reporter with the ability to listen for great, telling quotes like this one:

‘Oh, what an evening!’ said Catherine. ‘You could hear the mayor, and Father Green, and the Star Spangled Banner. We all stood up and put our hands on our hearts when they played that. We sure did.’

Of course, not everybody is so thrilled, and the story ends with some real tension, and then also a gentle image seems to strike the right note while still being beautiful. I won’t spoil it, since you surely will go buy the book now. Anyways, I asked Mike a few craft questions about that story via e-mail. They follow.

Q: How did you find that story? Was that story assigned or hunted down?

Harbor Park was about to finally open, after months and months of construction, accompanied by dozens of stories about every aspect of the park, right down to how the hot dogs and buns would be shipped to the stadium.

It occurred to me, as I exited off I-264 one day, right by the ballpark, that this stadium literally cast a shadow over the housing project on the other side of the interstate – Tidewater Gardens. I thought about the fact that these people had watched this behemoth grow right before their eyes, and that it was a symbol of the monstrous class-and-economic divide that exists in America today between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ I doubted that many residents in Tidewater Gardens could afford a season ticket – or even the cost of a single game (including the exorbitant cost of concessions at a ballgame). In other words, though these people lived closer to this stadium than anyone, it may as well be a universe away.

Frankly, it also angered me that whenever The Pilot did a story involving a community like this, the reporters always interviewed and quoted the ‘usual suspects’ – a couple of community leaders and local politicians who always ‘spoke for the people,’ rather than approaching and allowing some of the people to speak for themselves. This was certainly the case in the one or two stories The Pilot had done in the previous months concerning the neighborhoods near Harbor Park – including Tidewater Gardens.

So I got Lawrence Jackson, a brilliant photographer with The Pilot at the time (and now an official White House photographer), to join me, and we simply went over to Tidewater Gardens on the night of a home game and roamed the neighborhood from about 5 p.m. (a couple of hours before game time), all the way till the final out was made, at about 9:30 or so.

We just played it by ear, chatting with people we happened upon, talking with them about their feelings concerning the ballpark, and always, inevitably, having the conversation expand into their feelings about their lives in general and about their community.

One point I hoped the story would make, although this wasn’t a stated or intended agenda, was to show that this community and so many like it – which are so often reduced to the broad, sweeping, and negative stereotypes that accompany terms such as “inner-city,” “public housing,” and “project” – is not filled with just crime, violence and poverty, but is also home to people and families, who have the same values, wants and needs as people in any other community … people who care about their neighbors, who take care of one another because so much care is needed and so little is provided, and who, yes, would love to be able to have a seat in that stadium over there and take in a ballgame. If they can’t do that, Lawrence and I found, some of them do the next best thing, pulling a chair outside the front door of their rowhouse, tuning the radio to the ballgame, and enjoying the evening like any other fan, some even standing for the national anthem, just like the people under the lights over there, across the highway. Just normal, ‘good’ people, making the best they can of their lives – that’s what that story boiled down to.

Q: How did you begin reporting it? Did you research the neighborhood or just drive out there?

I always like to do as much research as I can before going out for the actual ‘reporting.’ This gives me some understanding of particular issues, an idea of some issues I might want to explore, and it also gives me a few nuggets of fact that I can sprinkle throughout the narrative – not so many that they bog down the story to the point where it reads like a government study, but enough to illuminate a particular scene.

That old writers’ saw about ‘show, don’t tell,” should actually be “show AND tell,” in just the right proportion.

Q: You use numbers very quickly and very effectively in the story, to make a sort of point that quickly is humanized by shifting back to the people in the narrative. At what point did you gather your statistics on the neighborhood?

As I said, I gather a good amount of statistics before I go out and report. Then, when I come back,  I’ll almost always find myself looking up a specific fact or statistic I didn’t have before, prompted by something seen or said while I was out ‘in the field.’

Q: Why did you think this was an important story to tell?

I think I answered this earlier.

Q: What was the editing process on this story?

Very little, if any.

Q: Did it change from the first draft?

Very little, if any.

Q: Did you outline? Why?

I always outline before I write. I believe it’s always necessary to have some kind of map to follow. Nothing rigid. I ‘outline’ much like a filmmaker ‘storyboards’ his movie. That’s how I arrange and prepare a story prior to writing. I think in terms of scenes, very much like a filmmaker. Once I’ve arranged my ‘scenes,’ I then take my raw material – research, ‘field’ notes, etc. – and distribute it among the scenes, putting this quote or factoid in this scene, and that quote or factoid in that one, and so on. Then I begin to write, always with the flexibility that the scenes might be reshaped, rearranged, or restructured as I go along.

Again, you can learn more about Mike’s writing and books here. And this is the link for his new book with Ted Danson.

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