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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