Tag Archives: virginian-pilot

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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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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Writing Craft, Vol. IX: Writer and editor Tom Robotham (Part Two)


Writer and editor Tom Robotham, hard at work at the Taphouse in Norfolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — This is the second half of a two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham, a columnist in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine. He was the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly.

It comes up, you might say.

Part One of the talk ran last week, and it can be found at this link. It discussed, among other things, Robotham’s recent return to school as a student via the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Robotham also teaches at ODU.

We’re friends, and I used to string for PortFolio, among other things. So, you know, those are my conflicts (this time) for those who believe in objectivity, angels, and compassionate land barons.

Why don’t you ever call me, Columbia Journalism Review? I’m waiting, sweet baby. Damn, girl.

Read more about Robotham at his personal website and be sure to check him out in Veer.

On with it.

Q: When I got here (in the early 1990s), the sense I always got was that PortFolio wasn’t like the vision you had for it of it being a mini-Village Voice. It was more of a what’s-going-on-at-the-Oceanfront kind of pub.

When I interviewed for the job I pitched them on turning it into a real alternative weekly with hard news, edgy humor, think pieces, and even to the extent that we had resources to manage it, investigative pieces, which I’m proud to say we did a fair number of. I think they regretted hiring me almost from day one. How I stayed for 10 years, I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. But I had the advantage of having a lot of – once I demonstrated that commitment and that vision … I got the attention of a lot of former Pilot people. I used to joke that people graduated from The Pilot to PortFolio because I got virtually ever great writer from that golden era of great writing – (Mike) D’Orso, Lynn Waltz, Bill Ruehlmann –

Q: Joe Jackson.

Joe Jackson did some really long, in depth pieces for me.

Q: He’s a guy that still intimidates me. And I’ve met him. He’s a wonderful guy, but he’s just done so much stuff.

He’s so humble and so soft-spoken and just tenacious as a reporter. …

Q: I think probably most people know you from your editor’s notes.

I had taken my inspiration from Lewis Lapham, who was editor of Harper’s magazine. He wrote a piece called ‘Notebook’ and I just admired that so much. He adamantly refused to dumb down his writing, even though there’s a lot of pressure to do that these days … I did try to write in a very philosophical way. I made reference to a number of writers, especially Emerson, who probably ended up in every third column of mine. I wanted it to be more than ‘Hey readers, welcome: here’s what’s in this issue!’ I wanted it to be an essay that used the contents of the issue as a jumping off point but went beyond that.

Q: And that’s the thing, I think, an opinion writer really should do. I get a little frustrated when I read columns or essays that basically regurgitate the facts of the news report and just give it some one liners. We’ve talked over the years. I didn’t always agree with everything you wrote, but you were writing it. Can you talk about how you started off with your “Editor’s Notebooks” (in PortFolio) and how they evolved?

They ended up growing, for one thing. The space I took up the first year was less than it was, you know, say midway through my tenure and beyond. I started out sharing reflections. I’m hesitant to say it, because it later became a slogan at Landmark [which owned PortFolio and The Pilot], but long before those fliers went around, internal rah-rah fliers, I like to think I was good at connecting the dots. (Laughs.) I would kind of meander in my essays. I probably got that from Emerson and more so from Thoreau, who celebrated wandering both physically and intellectually. I always tried to come back to the point where I began.

Q: I think what you always tried to do in your essays was to return to your original point, but the path you’ve taken gives you another way of looking at the original point.

I guess I would think of it as a helix, where it seems you’re circling around the point, and if you’re looking down on it you’re coming back to the same point but if you look at it from the side you’re hopefully on a new level of understanding. At least, I felt that I was. All my essays were personal essays. I always wrote in first person. I wrote about my own life experiences and how they related to the subject at hand. Really what I was trying to do was say to the reader, ‘I’ve been thinking about this lately; come with me and let’s explore this idea.’ Really, I was writing in a way to myself, trying to work through this idea, hopefully in a way that appealed to other people. A lot of people seemed to like it. … I would get people who would say, occasionally, they didn’t like the first person stuff. They thought it was egotistical. I used to quote Joyce Carol Oates. She said, ‘The individual voice is the communal voice.’ … I always felt we have so much in common … that my experiences would be universal in some sense.

Q: (Recently for Veer) you wrote about NPR and right-wingers, very specifically. The feeling I had was that was a column that would appeal to people such as me who feel public broadcasting is important, but I didn’t think it would appeal, or be persuasive, to people who disagreed. Is there a need for a column or essay to try to persuade? Or is preaching to the choir enough sometimes?

Well, no. I would like to think I’m not just preaching to the choir. I think that’s a waste of time. I always felt like I was being reasonable, and I would admit when I stumbled and fell into the same kinds of things I hate on the right, which, you know, just these easy shots at people or clichés, stereotypes. I tried to ground those kinds of essays in logic and evidence. I think the only reason – I think you’re right about that column, but I honestly don’t think it was a flaw in my column. I think it was a reflection of where we are in our society.

Q: We’re just so polarized.

We’re just so polarized. I remember watching, when I was a kid, William Buckley’s firing line. He had Allen Ginsberg on there. Obviously, they were never going to agree, but they had an exchange, a civil exchange, and I think Buckley did grow and change over time. I think he was open to listening to people with whom he disagreed, and thinking about those things because he was a true intellectual. I think any open-minded, anti-NPR person could conceivably come read some of the points I was making and said, ‘Okay, that’s a good point; I still philosophically disagree with NPR, but maybe I’ll give it another listen; maybe it’s not as liberal as I think.’

Q: But when it runs with a headline like “Why right-wingers hate NPR,” or whatever the headline was, isn’t that the kind of thing that turns you off when you see it?

The headline may not have been the best choice. Headlines, I think, have always been designed to grab people by the lapels. I guarantee you that got a lot of right-wingers reading it, just like I listen to Rush Limbaugh. I know that I had a huge number of right wing readers over the years at PortFolio.

Q: You’ve written extensively about music. I loved reading about that, about jazz, about what you thought jazz said (in columns). How has jazz influenced your writing? Or has music influenced your writing?

I think jazz has influenced my writing a great deal because I improvise when I’m writing. I don’t know where I’m going, particularly when I start an essay. Most writing, I guess, but particularly when I’m starting an essay. Like a jazz musician, I start with an idea. With a jazz musician that would be the chord changes, right? And the rhythm and so on. And then I play the melody, i.e., I lay out the idea. And then I start to riff on it. I start to improvise. … A good jazz solo can’t just suddenly jump right back to the melody. It has to organically find it’s way back to the melody. That’s what I do with my essays.

Q: Do you write to music?

No. I tend to like music so much that my mind is pulled apart. No, I always write in silence. … Now that may seem like a contradiction, as I often write here at the Taphouse (a restaurant and bar in Norfolk where the talk took place).

Q: Maybe not when a band’s playing.

Right. I do like writing with white noise. I like writing in coffee houses and bars and things like that. That’s background noise. I like the energy of people around me, but I can put myself in a bubble in that environment.

Q: I can’t.

We all have these different sensibilities. Every writer has a different kind of environment. I write a lot at home in silence. Sometimes I put on music to take a break.

We spoke for a while about when Robotham left PortFolio, laying out some details of his departure in his last Notebook. The publication was later shuttered.

Q: Without dwelling too much on PortFolio, I think we have missed having a vital weekly alternative publication. PortFolio had a vision and a voice, and that went away.

They wanted a commodity.

Q: And it died.

And it died. And I think – well, they killed it. It didn’t die. They murdered it. And I think that – put this in a pull quote – I think that was one of the stupidest decisions that I’ve ever seen in my 30 year career in publishing. …

For one thing, they missed it. They tried to keep it alive and started it up again as Pulse (an insert to The Pilot) or whatever. They didn’t realize the importance of PortFolio to the community, but the viability of PortFolio as a business – much more viable than The Pilot. Daily newspaper are dying because that kind of information is best delivered online. More thought – magazines with more thoughtful, in-depth pieces, not breaking news. You know, ‘Navy SEAL memorialized at vigil’ or something, which is fine. That stuff now belongs on the web. There’s an experience people still crave, and I think the success of Veer is a testament to that. That suggests to me that publications like PortFolio when I was editing it are still very viable. That’s demonstrated by the fact that the best ones like Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., which is one of the best in the country –

Q: News is the issue. No one is doing the kind of alternative reporting (here) that makes Willamette Week significant, that makes the Boston Phoenix significant, that makes The Village Voice significant. Even Style (in Richmond, Va.) –

And even the Voice, sad to say, is backing off of that.

Q: But that’s something important that I don’t think AltDaily and Veer have quite figured out how to – not ‘figured out how to do’ – can afford to do yet.

I think [Veer publisher] Jeff [Maisey] would love to do that. I also think he’s trying … to run a business. One of the problems of course is that when you’re doing hard-hitting news, let alone investigative pieces, you have to have enormous resources behind you. You have to have some good lawyers. One lawsuit could shut you down and then some. That’s one reason I lament the abdication of responsibility by a lot of daily newspapers with the exception of The New York Times and to some extent The Washington Post, and even they’re not what they once were. Apart from the fact that they’re probably terminal as papers, not necessarily as news organizations, it seems to me they have a responsibility to do that kind of thing. In part, because they’re able. They have lots of money behind them.

Q: You’ve got to think locally, is the thing.

The other thing aside from lawsuits is reporting. Good reporting takes time and very few seasoned reporters are going to do it for free. You have to pay them.

Q: So non profit? Public funding? Are these viable options?

Oh, I think so. Yeah. I agree with you, as I understand your position, that that’s the way to go. Non profit. … That’s why I’m such a big supporter of NPR. They do good news reporting. They do great opinion reporting. For the record, it’s not all left wing. … NPR makes an incredible effort to be – NPR is the fair and balanced station, not FOX News.

Q: But NPR, with all due respect for our local affiliates, is not out there covering city council.

No. I was looking at The Pilot yesterday and going back to my experiences at The Advance. You know, ‘Man killed on I-64.’ …

Q: But that’s only a partial look at what The Pilot does. Because The Pilot does the fly ash stuff, and they do the great stories that Meghan Hoyer –

They have done – I’m not dismissing what they still do, but they do very little of it.

Q: I guess I’m amazed that they’re still doing as much of it as they are, and that’s a testament to the reporters they have there and the editors. The concern I have is about newsgathering capability. I would love it if Veer or AltDaily got some sort of non-profit grant to establish a reporting team. I just think it’s a risk for a publication to do. News is really hard. People don’t like news, even when it’s important – especially when it’s important.

Maybe another way to go, as if I’m writing an essay right now – I don’t even know where I’m going with this – you could have an advertiser sponsor a reporter. Bear with me. I know that sounds like a –

Q: Yeah.

Like a blatant conflict of interest. But theoretically, it’s no more a conflict of interest than, you know, Scripps Howard sponsoring somebody. It would only be a conflict of interest if, say, Norfolk Southern sponsored that –

Q: And it was about Norfolk Southern.

Just like a judge has to recuse himself in some circumstances.

Q: We got far afield there. Let’s talk about TReehouse. You started TReehouse very shortly after you left Landmark. (I was a TReehouse contributor.)

I had a woman come to me, Shannon Bowman, who owns a local advertising agency, I think it might even have been the night I was fired. She said, ‘I think you need to start something else.’ We talked about starting up just a new alt weekly. It morphed into a website. She had the technical expertise I don’t have. I had the content and the name in the community. So I did that for a few years. She decided she had too many other things going on, so we parted ways. Now that is in hiatus because I can’t manage it myself. I’m not sure I want to be an editor anymore.

Q: So TReehouse is gone?

I don’t know. I recently renewed the domain name. I don’t know. I haven’t made that decision with any certainty. I am in a place in my life right now – I love teaching, second only to writing, and that’s really what I want to focus on, my teaching and my writing. Or my writing and my teaching.

Playing us out is Charlton Heston reading the Bible, which you will not get unless you read part one. Thanks to TR.

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Writing Craft, Vol. IX: Writer and editor Tom Robotham (Part One)


NORFOLK, Va. — This two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham covers a lot of ground, including the state of journalism, local alternative media, and the art of writing a coffee table book with Charlton Heston.

Robotham, a columnist locally in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine, may be best known as the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly, where, among other honors, he earned the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Leadership in the Community.

Almost just as impressively, he recently was featured in a Belligerent Q&A here. One of the reasons I wanted to do a longer talk was that Robotham recently went back to school in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. Which is awesome.

As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Additionally, Robotham and I are friends, dating back to the days he edited my sweet, sweet copy for PortFolio, no doubt drawing little stars and happy faces atop the print outs he absolutely and really then placed into a special folder marked “The Awesome File,” kept in his personal safe along with family heirlooms and an autographed publicity still of Kip Winger.

Absolutely and really, I say.

Robotham, while a student, is also an educator at ODU and the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.

Part two will be up in a couple days. You can read more about Robotham at his personal website and be sure to check him out in Veer.

Q: This is your first semester going back and you’re enrolled at ODU?

Correct. I’m only taking class at this point, a non-fiction workshop. I’m officially enrolled in the MFA program, but, because I’m teaching four classes, I decided I’d dip my toe in the water with just one since I haven’t been a student in more than two decades, let’s say.

Q: Why did you want to go back?

One, I wanted to get a terminal degree because I really love teaching and I’m hoping in this second half of my life I can – hopefully the second half and not the final eighth – I can get a terminal degree so I can get a full time gig someplace.

Q: Did you come here for PortFolio?

I came here six or seven years before PortFolio. My wife at the time and I were living in Manhattan and we had our first child, my daughter Sarah. That was in 1989. We moved to New Jersey for a year … I knew I didn’t want to do that commute. … I kind of wanted a stronger sense of community for myself and my kids. I was getting my master’s at the time in American studies at the Graduate Center of the City University, and I’d read this book called Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985). The subtitle is ‘Individualism and Commitment in American Life.’ It’s by Robert Bellah, a sociologist, and a whole team of people from other disciplines. It was a study of how our emphasis on individualism in this country has in recent decades fragmented communities, because people are so transient. And even when we’re not transient, we tend to hide behind our stockade fences with our huge garages in the front. So I’d started visiting here because this is where my (ex) grew up. She had this extended family, which appealed to me because I never did have that and it just seemed like the kind of place where you could really settle in and build a family and build a sense of community.

I freelanced for six years, traveled back and forth to New York City regularly. I had been working for Hearst Magazines in a division that produced books and videos related to the magazines. They kept me under contract, flew me up there on a regular basis, but finally that started to get old, getting on a plane once a week, pretty much. So I took a year off from any kind of job because I got a contract with this book publisher I knew who wanted to produce a book called Charlton Heston Presents The Bible. It was a companion to – don’t laugh.

Q: I’m laughing a little.

He did a TV series on A&E, a four-part series, and it was a really good series. It’s unfortunate that Charlton Heston became such a cartoon character because I got to know him and he was a really nice guy and really well read.

Q: And well armed.

(Laughs.) Well armed, too, but I didn’t see that side of him. He talked about Shakespeare and The Bible as literature. This was not a religious initiative on his part. He was interested in The Bible as literature and the historical aspects of The Bible. So each episode, he’d go to some site like Mt. Sinai, and talk about that, and then he would do these dramatic readings. So they wanted a coffee table book to go with this and they hired me to produce this whole thing. … That carried me for a year, and just as that money was running out I saw an ad for the PortFolio job. That was in 1998. I applied and I got it. I did that for 10 years.

Q: And that’s how most people in Hampton Roads know you.

Yeah. While I was doing my own thing, and especially since I was gone a whole lot, I always felt like I had just one foot in the community. Very quickly as I was editing PortFolio, a lot of people got to know me. I had a voice in the community. I became a very active public figure going to different functions and things like that, being a kind of spokesman for the magazine. I enjoyed that aspect of the job. That was kind of a culmination of my vision of wanting to be part of a community.

Back to your original question, of course, after 10 years and two months, I was fired. I’d always been at odds with management over editorial direction, but I managed to stay on my feet, to use a boxing analogy. A friend of mine once told me, ‘Use your jab.’ Which I did successfully for 10 years. But, you know, that was a function of (Landmark, owner of the PortFolio, The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and others) wanting to sell off the properties and everything. As a result, more closely scrutinizing the editorial direction of the paper. So we just came to blows about that and they gave me the boot. I immediately called folks I knew at (ODU) and asked whether they had any adjunct work. Within about five minutes I had another job. Not a full time job, but something.

Q: You mentioned a second reason to go back to school.

The second reason was I had always done, I’d written a lot of essays, a lot of feature stories, quite a bit of hard news, though that was never my strong suit. … I wanted to develop my long form narrative writing, and I felt that would (A) impose discipline on me, because I have to write to get grades and (B) help me polish my craft in a dimension I hadn’t worked at before, i.e., writing literary nonfiction with the techniques of a novelist – scene-setting, dialogue, all of that. So those two reasons – the terminal degree and the desire to be more disciplined with my writing. I’m working on a memoir now.

Q: We’ve talked before about how when I went into the (MFA) program, how little I knew about writing. As a journalist, you tend to develop a lot of tricks, especially for deadline writing. … I think what I found was a lot of my tricks weren’t really serving me very well. Do you feel that way with any of the work you’ve done? Do you feel you’ve fallen into habits that you want to work around?

I do. I would say those tricks work really well for newspaper articles, but newspaper articles are very different from books. Obviously, in terms of length but also in terms of that narrative that reads like a novel. For instance, this past Literary Festival I worked with Claire Dederer, the author of a best-selling memoir, and I showed her a feature story I’d written on martial arts, which I got into in 2005, and she said, ‘Obviously you are a very strong feature writer, but I want to encourage you to write more in scenes.’ And she went through my piece and said this could be a scene, that could be a scene. So, yeah, absolutely. I feel like I find it very easy to turn out a feature story. Now I’m struggling with a whole new kind of writing which I’ve attempted before but never seriously.

Q: But you’ve written books.

I’ve written books but they’ve all been, by and large, history. It came out of my American studies discipline. … Not academic, because I hope I write in more general-interest prose, but they’re not creative nonfiction, as we use the term. It was more ideas. I wasn’t telling a lot of stories. They were almost more like book-length essays.

Q: You didn’t feel you were telling stories?

No. There were stories sprinkled throughout, but by and large what I was doing was writing, I guess, what they call in the newspaper business ‘think pieces.’

Q: You worked in New York as a reporter.

I started out at The Staten Island Advance.

Q: What were some of the beats you covered?

I started out, like a lot of people do, on the night shift, the police and fire beat. I liken that first year or so to boot camp for journalism. One of the stories that stands out most was at a bout 2 a.m. when I was getting ready to knock off, because I worked the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, a report came over the police scanner that there was a five-alarm fire up in this poor section of Staten Island. So I raced up there, and it was raining … bleak, a lot of puddles on the ground, cold … stood there for like three hours to people from the building, mostly Spanish speaking people … After they finally put the fire out, I went across the street, did two shots of tequila, and went back and wrote my story. … I think like five people died, and there were dozens of people who were homeless, all poor people. …

So then about a year later, I started covering education (as a substitute) and the education reporter left and that became my fulltime beat. They also gave me a music column. That was great. Those are two of my favorite subjects to write about.

Q: When you’re at a relatively smaller paper, you have a lot more opportunities.

Yeah. Just as The Pilot wants to focus mostly on South Hampton Roads, The Advance … wanted to focus primarily on Staten Island. But as a music columnist, I had complete freedom. I interviewed people like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. You know, I could go to New York City jazz clubs for free. The perks of that gig.

Q: Music writing is the best scam in journalism. (Laughter.)

I loved education reporting, too. I used to get into a lot of the philosophical issues, too. The push for the so-called ‘gifted’ was really strong at the time, and I got into that conceptually, as far as interviewing people about whether that was really just a scam for affluent parents to get their kids into the best setting or whether that was legitimate. Stuff like that. I left there after about four and a half years. …

I still had to do general assignment pieces (sometimes) and the editor had subscribed to this widespread complaint that newspapers only report ‘bad news.’ So he started this daily front page column called ‘It’s Good News.’ It would be stories like somebody lost a wallet and somebody returned it with all the money in it. … It was just the goofiest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Q: Was it worse than doing a weather story?

Those I hated, too. I’d gag everytime I heard a reporter use the term ‘the white stuff. We’re going to have more of the white stuff this weekend.’ It was like, ‘Just say snow, for Christ’s sake.’ (Laughs.)

Q: At the time, they were probably referring to cocaine.

(Laughs.) I don’t think so, though it was the height of the cocaine boom. … Sure, there’s bad news, but most news in newspapers is either good or bad depending upon your point of view.

Q: I think that you had an opportunity with PortFolio, and continuing with the writing you’re doing now for Veer, to use writing to talk about thinks you care about. I wonder if it’s at that point you were already thinking, “Maybe I want to try another form of writing … where I can write about social issues.”

I was, and I wanted to get into magazines for that reason. … When I was still working for The Advance, I went back to a five-year college reunion and a friend said, ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ I said, ‘I want to be editing The Village Voice.’ I’ve always remembered that conversation, because I ended up doing that in a way. Not The Voice, but something like it here. Long before that, I got a temp job at Esquire … and then got a fulltime job as an assistant editor with Esquire Press, a book imprint. I really got sidetracked from my goal writing for magazines. I couldn’t break in. … Hearst bought Esquire. … It took me pretty far afield.

Two things got me back into writing. One thing, I had gotten pretty familiar with the magazine archives. Hearst owns all those (Varga) pinups from World War II. … Some book publisher came to us and wanted to license those images for a coffee table book, and asked, ‘Do you have anybody who can write this?’ … So I wrote that book, and I established this relationship with the publisher. I was getting my M.A. at the time, and had the opportunity over the next four or five years to do these other coffee table books. The other thing that got me back into writing is I was sitting there one day thinking how far afield I’d gotten and I’d let people convince me that if I wasn’t doing it by now, i.e., my late 20s, I’d probably never do it.

I remember reading Cosmopolitan one day, one of their magazines, and I’d gotten to know Helen Gurly Brown, one of their legendary editors of Cosmo, and I went, ‘I may not be Faulkner, but I can do this.’ (Laughter.) So I went over to Helen’s office and she referred me to their managing editor and he said, ‘Sure, give it a shot.’ So I wrote this feature article […] about job burnout. Young women, five years on the job, experiencing job burnout. … So that’s how I got back into writing after taking, it must have been, seven years without doing any writing other than promotional copy writing.

Q: Safe to say you didn’t want to write again so you could write about young women having job burnout.

No, though I must say getting $1,800 for an article that took me two days to write wasn’t too shabby. (Laughter.) And, furthermore, there’s a certain amount of ego – at least for me – involved in writing, especially back then, when you’re younger. Having my name for the first time in a national magazine was pretty cool. But, of course, I was far afield from my dream of being editor of The Village Voice or Paris editor for The New York Times. But that continued to eat at me. I didn’t think I was doing anything really important or meaningful. I kept that dream alive in the back of my head. When I got the PortFolio job, I felt the dream had been realized. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I felt it was really important work.

I hope to have Part Two up in a few days … Part two is at this link.

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Journalism: Q&A with Frank Batten Sr. biographer Connie Sage


NORFOLK, Va. — Connie Sage, a former writer and editor for The Virginian-Pilot, has penned a biography of the late Frank Batten Sr., founder of The Weather Channel and known in these parts as the man who led The Pilot through some of its greatest journalism triumphs.

Batten became The Pilot‘s publisher in 1954 and chairman of Landmark Communications in 1967, serving until he turned the reins over to his son, Frank Batter Jr., in 1998. Frank Batten Sr. died in 2009.

Sage will discuss and sign copies of Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Prince Books downtown. In addition to her time in The Pilot newsroom, the Edenton, N.C., author also worked for the staff of Landmark Communications.

The following conversation took place Monday. It has been edited for clarity and length. For those readers who don’t know, I’m a former Pilot reporter. Full disclosure.

Again, the talk and signing is at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 18, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk, Va. Admission is free. There is metered street parking, nearby garage parking and a surface lot behind building with limited parking.

You should go, but please don’t park in in Pete Decker’s space unless you are Pete Decker.

Q: I hoped you could talk about your career as a reporter moving up to editor, and how you joined the corporate side of things.

That’s going back a ways. I started out as a reporter in December of ’77 in the Portsmouth office and then worked for several years in Portsmouth, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Then when The Pilot and (the now-defunct evening paper) The Ledger merged, I went out Chesapeake when we started The Clipper (a community tabloid published within The Pilot) office out there, and I was the assistant city editor working with Ron Speer, to whom the book is partially dedicated.

From there I came back into Norfolk. I was the commentary editor and then the metro editor, and then was the staff development and training director under (former Pilot editor) Cole Campbell. I kind of figured since I had one foot out of the newsroom, when they had set up their first communications director position, the first corporate communications position they had in many, many years … that I would take the elevator up one flight.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your job there?

I was director of corporate communications. We had Landmarks Magazine, which was the first magazine the company ever had, that went throughout the whole company, and I did a news of the week and press releases and whatnot. … After that, I was still doing that, but then I shifted over to a staff development and training role where I was recruiting both journalists and sales people. I retired in 2004.

Q: When I was a reporter starting out, I had a much different view of the folks running the show than maybe I did later at The Pilot. I wonder what were the impressions of Mr. Batten when you were first starting out? If you had any interaction with him?

Not much interaction. No more than most of us had. He was always a friendly person. You’d see him in the elevator in the Norfolk office. You rarely saw him if you worked in one of the bureaus. But he was always very easy to talk with.

When I went I went up to corporate it really was eye opening because I think many of us, or at least speaking for myself, as reporters, unless you’re covering business, I didn’t think much about the business side of business, and the business side of the media business, and, in particular, ours.

Q: I take it you got to know him a little bit more up there.

Yes. He had a wonderful sense of humor, very self-effacing, incredibly humble. His door was always open. You really could just walk in. I don’t think that’s the situation these days, but, then again, I haven’t been around in several years. Of course, he had some protective secretaries, but you could always just walk right in and if he wasn’t on the phone or something he’d be more than happy to talk with you.

I think he was an unusual person in that he believed leadership was the most important quality for business, and that you had to have the ability and the instincts and the desire to lead. You had to have a desire to win and you had to do the right think by setting a standard for ethical business practices. I wrote down a list of things that he had talked about, and unfortunately a lot of that got cut from the book. I’m going mention that in my talks.

He said a leader needs to have integrity, clarity of vision, a purpose you could understand and communicate, strong values, a strong team – and that means picking the right people and creating an environment where they can succeed, developing them, and letting them make mistakes. He was really one who could not abide by backbiting. … He was really big into trust, which he got from (his uncle and local newspaper magnate) Col. (Samuel) Slover. He was a sincere person. He was authentic. He had high integrity.

Q: He really built a paper that really reflected and led the community.

Absolutely.

Q: At what point did you realize that was the culture of The Pilot? What were his thoughts on why that was?

I think all papers strive to be. I just think it’s something that, the Landmark culture – and you and I don’t know what it’s like today. When I started writing this book, one of the things we started talking about – not with Frank, but within the media community – was that Landmark never had had any layoffs. And now all that’s changed, of course, with the economy, but it was a culture that I think was inculcated in us the minute we walked in the door.

Those who didn’t fit into that culture left on their own. Well, some may have lost their jobs or gotten fired, but most of them, if they didn’t fit in, left. And that might be maybe not being as competitive as some big city newspapers, but there was a sense of collegiality. …

It was kind of in the air. I don’t know if you felt it.

Q: I did.

And I think from talking to people, particularly when I was recruiting journalists really and the salespeople, it wasn’t that way other places. … It just seemed there was a higher calling. …

If there was one fault it was it was too paternalistic. It was too family oriented. By that I mean, dead wood was kept on when it shouldn’t have been, because it was Frank’s belief that trickled down through all the managers, I believe, that you took care of your people and you made it work. And he regretted that to a certain extent. He knew that was a mistake he had made by keeping some people on longer than he should have. Of course, that was at the top ranks. But he moved people around, senior managers, senior newspaper executives, and gave them different jobs. Which was helpful for them. No one was ever pigeon-holed into a spot.  Again, because Landmark never grew hugely like the major newspapers. It was a medium-sized, privately-held company, and I think that’s another distinction. …

There weren’t a lot of places for reporters, editors or senior managers to move up to. You might go from a community newspaper to a Roanoke (The Roanoke Times, Va.) or a Greensboro (The News & Record, N.C.), or from a Greensboro or a Roanoke to The Virginian-Pilot. That was it.

Q: The Weather Channel changed things a bit as far as the size of Landmark. I haven’t read the book, but the sense is he went into that venture with a kind of faith in what it might be. That success … did that change the culture at Landmark at all? I imagine it took some of the focus away from the flagship newspaper.

I don’t think it did. … That same culture permeated throughout The Weather Channel. I for one was always excited to say I worked for the company that owns The Weather Channel. Unless you were talking to somebody in the newspaper business that knew of paper like The Pilot … not that many people knew what Landmark was.

Frank Batten’s belief in bringing on the best people continued to The Weather Channel with Decker Anstrom, who he hired to run The Weather Channel and then brought him to be CEO of Landmark – that was under Frank Jr. …

I worked for the Syracuse newspaper, I worked for a trade newspaper in New York City, I worked on the Hill as a press secretary for a year – and it’s a lot different at other places.

Q: One of the things I have wondered is what The Pilot might look like now were Mr. Batten still in charge. Do you think we would have seen all of the layoffs and the reductions? Or is that too hard to tell?

It’s difficult to say. Possibly, just because no one has seen a combination of factors like we’re seeing now. It’s not just the downturn of the economy. It’s the whole ‘how do we make money when we’ve lost so much classified advertising’ and with the advent of the Internet.

Q: What do you think the big difference between his leadership and Frank Batten Jr.’s has been?

Frank Sr. was much more hands on. Frank Jr. is a delegator. Frank Sr. was passionate about the business. I don’t think Frank Jr. is, which doesn’t mean he isn’t a good businessman. I think what I saw was that, their personalities are opposite, but Frank Sr. was very outgoing and Frank Jr. is not. He’s more of an introvert.

But what Frank Jr. brought to the table that Senior did not, as you recall, was the whole adaptation of the Internet culture. Remember when he bought the Red Hat (stock), the famous quote about he tried to get his dad to buy some stock either for himself or for Landmark, I think it was for Landmark, and he did not. Frank Sr. said, ‘He got the Red Hat, I’ve got the red face.’

Frank Jr. was much more adaptable to the changing times. Now, would Frank Sr. eventually have been? It’s hard to tell. … They are very different, and the paper’s different for a lot of reasons.

Q: Where do you see The Pilot in five years?

Personally, I think there will always be a niche for community newspapers because people are still going to want … to see their kid’s Little League picture in the community newspaper. So I would think there will always be room for those. Now for dailies? Hard to tell. It may be what you and I both read that somebody will just want business pages sent to them. And will that be electronic? Who knows? The biggest problem for everybody is how do you make money now.

Q: One of the frustrations I have is I often talk to people who say, “Well, I get all of my news online.” I say to them, “How is TMZ covering the Norfolk City Council? I mean, how is TMZ investigating whether subdivisions in Chesapeake are built near fly ash?” And they don’t really think of that. The issue that I see coming from technology is it’s not that we need a local newspaper to write movie reviews. We need a local newspaper to go to the meetings and to do the stories about our community. Do you see something like that emerging from this?

It could be. I’m just going by what I read, the annual reports from news centers and whatnot. I mean, I read Poynter Online every day. I use myself as kind of an example. I’ve been, even though I’m pretty much at my house in North Carolina in Edenton, I’ve been living on a boat off and on for the last year, and we’re going to do it for another year. Backtracking, they stopped circulating The Virginian-Pilot where I live, and so the only way I can see The Pilot is online. And since I’m not here to get a physical paper – I was getting The Wall Street Journal – everything I read now, all the news, is online. We don’t have much access to a television, so all my news is coming from online. Do I prefer a newspaper? Absolutely.

Q: I think the legacy of Frank Batten Sr. in Hampton Roads is the newspaper. Nationally and internationally, of course, it’s the Weather Channel, and to people who are interested in business. … But The Pilot is the Slover family and the Batten family’s legacy here. I wonder what becomes of that legacy if we don’t have an outlet that can cover local news?

I would disagree with you about the legacy.

His legacy – it’s in the book – will be something called the Slover Trust, which was started with his aunt’s death. This is something started with his Aunt Fay Slover’s death. … We’re looking at 50 to 60 years from now, that money will begin to be distributed by the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. Depending on what happens with the economy and the world and the stock market, it could be worth billions and it could very well be the biggest in the country. Frank Batten Sr., because he was so self-effacing, he always said that was something the Slovers did, but that’s not really true. (I)t was Franks money that grew it.

That will be the legacy. It won’t be The Pilot. Just like all the other newspapers, television stations in town, they change. The names change. The Pilot’s been around a long time through the mergers and whatnot, but that will be the real legacy. That will be huge.

Q: I think about the future of local newsgathering organizations like The Pilot because TV stations don’t compare to what The Pilot does.

No. They sure don’t.

Q: I mean, is there a way to endow that? Or to kind of protect that core news gathering capability?

Boy, I don’t know. I agree with you about television stations, particularly in our area, though I don’t see them anymore. Landmark has two TV stations, as you are aware, one in Vegas and one in Nashville, and they are kick ass stations. Incredible award winning investigations that they do. And the future of The Pilot, look at Hamilton, 9½ years. (Former commonwealth Del. Phil Hamilton recently was sentenced on and extortion and bribery conviction, as discussed oh-so poetically here.) And all that’s because of (veteran investigative reporter)  Bill Sizemore’s stories. Even though the staff is probably half of what it used to be when we were there, or whatever the proportion is, and the resources have shrunk, and the paper’s smaller, we still have at The Pilot and, I guess, throughout the rest of Landmark, that sense of duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’m really proud of what The Pilot‘s doing. It’s wonderful.

And the stories that Corinne Reilly has been doing are just phoneomenal.

Q: Oh yeah. They’re great.

Where did she come from?

Q: Don’t know her. She came after I left, but she’s terrific.

Joanne Kimberlin. There’s some fabulous writers.

Q: Absolutely. So how did this book project start?

I was getting ready to retire early to write another book I wanted to do, and Dick Barry, who was working through Landmark historical, asked me if I wanted to do this. And I thought, ‘Well sure.’

It took a lot longer than I thought it was going to. It took a long time to interview Frank because of his limitations with his laryngectomy. Sometimes we’d meet three days a week for three hours at a time, or a couple times it would be with a couple weeks in between.

Q: Was he interested in the project?

Yes. He never saw it, intentionally. Never asked to. I might have run one or two things by him for accuracy, but the upside of that is I truly believe that because he was not one to – I mean, everyone has an ego – but his was so self-effacing that I think he would have changed a lot to give other people credit when the credit was really his. On the other hand, if there are errors, they’re not caught. He never asked to see it. I really enjoyed getting to know him as well as I did. He was really just a very lovely man.

One of the interesting things to me is he was a very closed person. At least with me … he certainly was never a raconteur, never volunteered stories. A lot of the answers were yes-no. (Laughs.) … And so it was just pulling things out of him. And I would ask him about how he felt about things and for the most part – except for The Weather Channel sale, which I really think did break his heart – he would say, ‘I can’t go that deep into myself.’ He could not or would not.

Where I’m coming full circle is that when I did see him being very profusely exuberant about something was about their dog. When he almost died, I think it was in 2000 he was in a coma, the daughter in California brought out a little black Scottish terrier. Well, this dog was the apple of his eye. He just loved this dog. … It was so interesting to see that side of him.

Q: So I’m clear, this project was funded through Landmark?

No, it was not. It was funded through the Norfolk Historical Society. I think there were contributions from Landmark people, but it was not a Landmark project. I have not been paid anything.

Q: That’s a big investment of time.

It was, but I wanted to be published, and it was a foothold to learn how to write a book. Because boy was it hard. I would have been lost without (former Pilot reporter and editor) Earl Swift.

Q: How do they feel about the final product?

I don’t know. … I think they’re okay with it. What I did not have access to were Frank’s personal papers in the house. And I don’t know how many there were. He was, and I probably should have put this in the book, he was disappointed, Frank Sr., that he never kept his own papers. There were a lot of boxes in The Pilot vault, and I would dig through those. That’s where I found some of the what I thought were the aha moments, like the letter from (the late publisher of The Washington Post) Katherine Graham, but his papers don’t exist. And if there’s any personal stuff at his house, I didn’t have access to it.

Q: What do you want readers to come away with when they read this book?

I think I want them to come away with what a virtuous man this was and how unusual a man it was, a business man, in this kind of climate and culture. …

What set him apart was his legacy, and that’s being an entreprenuer, being a leader, and of course you have to look at the Civil Rights movement in the area and how he took a lead on that … how unusual that was. How he took the lead in getting a four-year college in Norfolk, and became its first rector for two terms. And then secondly I would want people to know that here was a man who could have sat back, rested on his laurels … Even though he was this successful, he never stopped trying to prove himself to his uncle. Never. …

Because of several factors. Because his uncle (Slover) was so revered, so successful. He didn’t have his own father, and her was his uncle who was his father, his grandfather he was 54 when Frank was born; he moved in with him when he was one year old — he was his montor, as Frank pointed out. He used those terms. He was always trying to live up to him, just as I suppose Frank Jr. had to try to live up to Frank Sr. and try to fill those shoes.

Q: What are you working on next?

Well there’s kind of an esoteric one I want to work on. It’s about a 14th Century mystic named Julian of Norwich.

Visit this link for more information on the event at Prince. Information on Sage’s book can also be found at the University of Virginia Press site here at this link. And here’s a link to piece by Margaret Edds in The Pilot on the book.

And if you are interested in The Pilot, which still is an important paper despite all the challenges newspapers face, you might want to read The Pilot‘s ethics policy, which includes words from Frank Batten Sr. from the 1970s, in a statement called “The Duty of Landmark Newspapers.”

Among my favorite lines:

Newspapers live entirely on the bounty of the public. The ability of journalists to report and to comment is based upon a unique grant of freedom from the public. Thus our duty is clear: It is to serve the public with skill and character, and to exercise First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility.

Our news reports should never be influenced by the private interests of the owners or of any other group. Our editorials should exhibit vigor and courage, always respectful of contrary opinion, never tailored to the whims of the editor or publisher.

And:

A great newspaper is distinguished by the balance, fairness and authority of its reporting and editing. Such a newspaper searches as hard for strengths and accomplishment as for weakness and failure. Rather than demoralize its community, the great newspaper will, by honest and intelligent journalism, inspire people to do better.

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A delegate and a poem, such as they are


NORFOLK, Va. — A federal judge in Richmond today sentenced former state Del. Phil Hamilton, who recently was convicted of bribery and extortion, to serve 9½ years in prison.

That sentence – meaning my lede, not Hamilton’s – is pretty much a total ripoff of Julian Walker’s opening line in The Virginian-Pilots online report. Homage, baby.

The other sentence – Hamilton’s, not my lede – is my cheap cue as a native Ocean Stater to inform Hamilton that he has a marvelous future at virtually any level of Rhode Island government. After all, my home state’s cookie jar has had more hands caught in it than, oh, let’s just let that thought end.

Walker reports:

The decision concludes this phase of a saga that dates to 2006, when prosecutors said Hamilton began soliciting a paid position through Old Dominion University with a teacher training program for which he helped secured $500,000 in state start-up funds the following year.

Hamilton, 59, was subsequently given a job with a $40,000 annual salary at ODU’s Center for Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership, a title he held for about two years until after the arrangement was exposed by The Virginian-Pilot.

He wasn’t taken into custody after the hearing, but must surrender to federal authorities by Sept. 19 to begin his sentence. His attorney said Hamilton will appeal the verdict.

So. The saga has another phase. Still, the Imaginary Board of Trustees has granted me permission to borrow the key to the Wayback Machine. Quite a fuss went up among the imaginary trustees when I invoked the timeliness clause. So the Wayback Machine is fired up, and we can revisit my terrible “poem” about Hamilton’s slippery dealing with a very fine public university where I just happen to attend grad school. Let’s travel together, way back to … May 2011.

Ahem:

‘Quid Pro Oh No (Revised)’

A delegate tried to secure secured funding

for a state university

with a string attached

and unlike the assembly

that bestows such funds

it wasn’t general at all – no! –

the string was specific,

tied to the assemblyman himself,

job hunting, job getting

in a ‘corrupt arrangement,’

federal prosecutors allege

prosecutors argued in court

with conviction enough

for enough of a conviction,

and so a federal court judge

named Henry E. Hudson,

whose initials are HEH,

was resigned to give the gift

that otherwise grows more elusive

as mortal men give it chase,

‘the toughest decision I’ve made

in my 13 years as a judge,’

this gift, the hardest time itself.

I promise I will have no reason to repost this “poem” for another 9½ years. That is a mere 8.6868 years for my friends who use the metric system. Respect to the math.

Exceptions:

  1. I’ll return to this bit earlier, perhaps, with good behavior.
  2. And what if the promised appeal goes forward, and perchance succeeds? We are nothing if not the sum of our revisions.

Back by popular demand, here is a pointless link to the post you just read.

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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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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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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. I: Mike D’Orso


Norfolk, Va., author Mike D’Orso’s new collaboration with the actor and environmental activist Ted Danson will be published March 15.

Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them is Mike’s 11th “collaborative book,” and he has written five of his own.

Previous collaborative subjects include former New York Jets player Dennis Byrd, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and civil rights pioneer and current U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

Mike’s working on a memoir and how-to book now. The working title is WITH… : The Long Strange Trip of a Professional “Ghost” Writer.

Mike agreed to answer a few questions by email. Only after he received the questions did he realize there were no backsies.

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

It often depends on the day – sometimes on the hour. At the moment, I am:

  1. A proud father (of my 26-year-old daughter, Jamie)
  2. A 14-handicap golfer (it’s been a long winter–a lot of rust to shake off)
  3. Hungry (it’s almost time for lunch)

Q: Apparently our planet’s oceans are endangered. What can we do to save them?

The first step is realizing the numerous ways in which the oceans are threatened, the extent of those threats, and how truly catastrophic the consequences will be if something (many things) aren’t done and done soon.

There’s no room here to list the dozens of courses of action that we as individuals (not just Americans, but all people), that our government (not just the U.S. government, but the international community), and that the global fishing industry can and must take to stem the tides of overfishing, ocean acidification, marine habitat destruction, insidious government subsidies, and corruption among commercial fisheries that threaten to turn the oceans into nothing but watery deserts within the next half-century.

Q: Regarding Ted Danson, how handsome is too handsome?

I believe the definitive answer is provided in the video found at this link in which Ted, of course, makes an appearance. (About two minutes in.)

Q: If we submerge Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them in water, will it expand into a giant sponge shaped like a commercial fishery?

Are we talking sea water or fresh water?

Q: The book lists for $32.50 in the U.S. and $37.50 in Canada. Do Canadians care 15 percent more than do Americans about the oceanic biosystem?

No. There’s a dirty little secret in the publishing industry at work here … it’s called the ‘Uncle Sam Discount.’ (The statute was hidden deep in the pages of the Patriot Act.)

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

Time for lunch!

If you followed Mike’s link to that video above, and either are a patient individual or reading this at work, you may have realized by the fifth minute that too much handsome cannot save too little funny.

Mike answered a few more questions on one of my favorite journalism stories from his days at The Virginian-Pilot, collected in his book Pumping Granite. I’ll post that this weekend.

A site for the new book is here. Mike’s own site is here.

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On AltDaily’s “If You Read the Paper”


A new essay is posted at TReehouse Magazine on a great feature at AltDaily, a local alternative news and opinion website in the Hampton Roads, Va., region.

The (week)daily feature is a regular stop for me when I surf online. As the essay says:

(If You Read the Paper) 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.

This essay followed up on some reporting (some might say bloviating)  I did about a year back on the local alternative outlet scene, and my hope that they would cover the health, importance and quality of The Virginian-Pilot, our local daily paper and my former employer.

As the essay notes, Jesse Scaccia of AltDaily had a much better idea. Hope you’ll check out the feature, TReehouse (run by former PortFolio Weekly editor Tom Robotham) in general, and AltDaily, too.

Links to some other essays and journalism I’ve written for Tom are on the right rail of this blog.

In other local alternative media news, Jeff Maisey of Veer Magazine, an alternative monthly print pub and online outlet, has launched Afr-Am, a new pub aimed at the African American community.

Haven’t seen it yet, but it’s supposed to be on the stands around town. We had another pub around here called Mix that Landmark, the company that runs The Pilot, did, but it folded.

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