Category Archives: The Virginian-Pilot

Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part Two)


NORFOLK, Va.– This is the second part of my Q&A with writer Will Harris, contributor to The AV Club pop culture Web site, among others. Harris also has his own blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link.

If you want to read part one first, click this link, and an earlier Belligerent Q&A is here.

This portion of the talk deal with making it work as a freelancer, as well as approaching Q&As by structuring questions and knowing how far to push.

Q: Can we talk about the nuts and bolts of being a freelancer? One of the things I always had to struggle with was getting the invoices out.

Yeah, my wife has been very helpful in giving me a wall calendar so I can monitor when my assignments are due for various publications, when I need to send the invoices out. I’m lucky a couple of them send emails automatically saying, ‘Please give me your invoice tomorrow.’ Otherwise, I’m keeping track as well.

Q: I have a client when I was in New York who was a good steady client, but, basically, they would forget to pay me. Have you been through that with various publications?

Well, with [one publisher] there were occasions when I was unable to cash a check. I had to wait. There was no money in the account. … I attempted to cash a check and was told there was insufficient funds in the account. For the most part, I haven’t had an issue with people not paying me in a timely fashion.

Q: When I was a freelancer, I basically had to do magazine stories to afford to do the newspaper stories I wanted to do. There’s a lot of working for clients you maybe would not [normally] work for.

For me, the only one I do is [writing about] real estate, which I didn’t love to begin with but have pretty much grown to live with. It’s not even difficult, it’s just so completely different from anything I’ve done previously or that I am doing, I just feel I have to change gears at the same time I’m getting all these emails from other people I am currently writing for – I’m literally shifting gears as I have to write the piece.

Q: You have to take this work sometimes.

It’s a steady check. I get it every two weeks. It’s hard to reject that kind of regular money.

Q: I’ve – more when I was at The Pilot – but I’ve talked to journalism students. One thing I loved doing at The Pilot was talking to the high school program they had at The Pilot at the time. And the one thing the kids talked about is how they were going to write this, and they’re going to write that, and that’s not the reality of what it is to write. Especially, I think, when you’re a freelancer.

The real reality is if you’re going to be a newspaper writer you have to basically surrender to whatever it takes to get on the paper and work your way to where you want to be. Freelancing, it’s a little bit easier to pick and choose, but you still have to have an amount of foresight as far as what’s going to pay the bills.

Q: You’ve got to make so much every month, no matter what you want to write.

Right. I was talking about this the other night. Jim Morrison, a freelance writer, when I went freelance I talked to him first because he’s one of the few people I know who have made a living at it. The first thing he told me was, ‘You can make it in freelancing if you can get five [clients you can count on] per month. You can build a budget based on that.’ I’ve fortunately been able to do that.

Q: In New York, I made enough to pay bills but I didn’t have insurance.

If my wife did not have insurance through Norfolk Public Schools, then I would be out of luck, and would probably not be working full time as a writer.

Q: I would never want to write for The AV Club because I would never want to be in the position of screwing up a site I read every day. [Laughter.] If that makes sense.

It makes sense.

Q: But one of the cool things is I read The AV Club – and you and I have talked about this before – but I read it pretty maniacally. I’m pretty sure I go there once, if not twice per day to see whatever Sean O’Neal is writing or whatever. It’s really cool to know somebody who writes there. I wonder if people come up and talk to you about that or just, ‘How do you do it?’

A lot of people around here don’t know I write for The AV Club, outside of Facebook, but I have several good friends who say, ‘How do you get in with The AV Club?‘ The best advice I can give you is what Noel [Murray, an AV Club contributor,] gave to me, which is you need to have an in, and even then there’s so many people who want to write for The AV Club that it doesn’t even get you that far.

Q: How much of the work is pitched to you? Or how much do you pitch?

I pitch a lot. I’ve built a pretty huge collection of publicist friends during the five years I was at Bullz-Eye, and the four years at Bullz-Eye while I was in the [Television Critics Association], and it’s incredible how far The AV Club name will get you in addition to the people I already knew. You just jump to a complete other echelon with The AV Club.

The biggest issue I find is a lot of the publicists don’t know what The AV Club is but they do know what The Onion is, and you have to sell it as being The Onion AV Club at the same time you’re clarifying, ‘It’s not the jokes. It’s for real and it’s serious.’ It’s kind of a delicate line sometimes.

Q: Could you talk about pitching? My pitches used to be letters.

It’s email. I get so many emails from publicists pitching me interviews. Some of them are not obviously huge names. One of the things I love doing at The AV Club is [a feature called] ‘Random Roles.’ You don’t have to be a big name. You just have to have a very long career. By virtue of that, whenever I even get remotely interested in a pitch for that, I send it off and it’s reached a point now where I’ll say 70 percent of the time they will be like, ‘Go for it.’ [Harris checks to ensure] nobody else has pitched it. I’m very sensitive about stepping on anyone’s toes.

It is literally a dream gig.

Q: The comments just go off the charts on that site, and they’re not always very kind to the writers.

They’re not, but there’s perpetual criticism about ‘Random Roles’ about, ‘Oh, how come you didn’t ask them abut this?’ I seem to have built some semblance of a fan base in the comments section.

Q: I think one of the reasons ‘Random Roles’ works so well is stories with big stars usually suck.

One thing about ‘Random Roles’ is it can be a big star. Like Mark Harmon, when I set that interview up, he was the number one most-loved TV celebrity, and yet I talked to him for an hour and asked him about all this stuff he never gets asked about anymore. And at the very tail end of it, I asked about NCIS, and prefaced it by saying, ‘This has got to be the longest interview you’ve done in years where you’ve barely been touching NCIS.’

Q: People who are character actors, those people tend to be, for me, more interesting, because they seem to be more forthright.

Yeah. I think they’re rightfully convinced they can get work even if they mouth off.

Q: One of the things I like about The AV Club, and your writing specifically, is an appreciation for the forms. Whatever you think about reviews, there’s an appreciation for an art. One of the greatest things I’ve heard in my life is the commentary by Roger Ebert for Dark City. It’s a great commentary, and I think one of the few film commentaries I’ve listened to more than once. There’s such an appreciation for film. I think you really get a sense that the people writing for The AV Club, too, they really care about the form and they find meaning in it. How does that work for you to get to write about pop culture?

I’ve been a trivia geek since I’ve been in single digits. … I was just eating this stuff up because I’d never heard of it and it sounded interesting to me. I’ve just been an obsessive about pop culture since then. The opportunity to write about pop culture for an audience that, as evidenced in the comments section, loves pop culture as much as I do, it’s an honor. And not one I thought I would ever see.

Q: Is it difficult to get people who have reached a certain level of success in the entertainment industry and get them to sit down and to ask them tough questions?

I’ve rarely been one to ask the hard-hitting questions. Not because I don’t think I could, but because I don’t think I have an interest in them. I’m never going to ask somebody a gossipy kind of question like you’d read in a publication like People or Us Weekly because I don’t have an interest in that.

If you send a reporter who actually enjoys talking to an interview subject or just is friendly with them, I think you get a better interview. At a certain point, if you are friendly with the person, they will open up about the stuff.

Q: Do you feel that’s what happened with the Larry the Cable Guy interview? You asked him some questions about a situation he had [with criticism from comedian David Cross].

Yeah, but I asked at the end of the interview and I didn’t ask in a confrontational way. I literally said, ‘I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you talk about this. I’m really just curious what you thought of it.’ As a result, I had another half-hour conversation with him. It was arguably a hard-hitting topic, but it was not a hard-hitting question. As a result, I got some really great answers. I don’t know if that tactic works for me all the time or some people any of the time.

Q: Do you feel like you have to ask questions like, ‘Do you hate gay people? Do you hate Arabs? When you make jokes like that?’ Do you feel that’s a responsibility for a critic?

I think it’s responsible to ask those questions. It’s just not something I would want to do. I’m very aware of the difference between a real person and an act. I’ve interviewed Andrew Dice Clay and I know that’s an act, but certainly it’s offensive to plenty of people.

Q: The thing that David Cross was kind of pointing out in Larry the Cable Guy’s act is that he goes for the easy joke.

You could argue that if you go back and read his responses, his response was a little disingenuous, you could say. Kind of avoiding the direct accusations in favor of being, ‘Why me? Why’s he picking on me?’ If I was a different kind of interviewer, I probably would have asked a harder hitting question, but I still got a better answer than a lot of people would have gotten. I just didn’t feel the need to go for it. That wasn’t why I asked the question in the first place. …

If it had been like a major headline story and I had an opportunity to ask him about it that would be one thing, but this was four years after the fact. It wasn’t like I was waiting with bated breath to find out what Larry the Cable Guy thought of David Cross’ letter.

Q: What I was going to ask about was actually structuring interviews.

When it comes to asking questions that could piss somebody off, I invariably wait until either the very end of the conversation or at a point in the conversation when I’ve developed enough of a rapport with the person that they know I’m not trying to be a dick by asking them. …

If you’ve got somebody on the phone where they’re in a position to hang up on you, you can probably wait until you have everything else you need first, and then ask the question.

Q: Have you ever had anybody just get pissed off and hang up the phone?

Ving Rhames, more or less. … Basically, it was for Death Race 2, the straight to DVD prequel to the remake of Death Race 2000.

Q: That’s the saddest line anyone’s ever said.

I’ve talked to a lot of people for straight to DVD sequels. I’m not going to lie to you.

Q: But no other film can claim that superlative.

No. So I think it was the day before or even that day and they said, ‘Oh, Ving Rhames is going to do some interviews.’ Well, I’ve got to get in with that. They forewarned me that they were not going to have copies of the video to screen in advance. So we talked for about five minutes, and we were supposed to have 15, and it’s going pretty well. I very casually and not trying to draw attention to it said, ‘I haven’t actually been able to see the film yet, but I understand you do such and such.’ Before I can even finish the statement, he goes, ‘What do you mean you haven’t seen the film?’ I said, ‘They haven’t sent me a copy of the film. It wasn’t available.’

[Rhames then quoted the Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski as saying] ‘if you do not take your job seriously, I will not work with you.’ [Laughter.] So I wait to see if he’s kidding. Apparently not, so go, ‘Then the interview is over? I hope not.’ He says, ‘No, that was Stanislavski. I will finish this interview, but I think you need to, as a journalist, take your job more seriously.’ [The interview lasted about two more minutes.] I do take my job seriously. If they had a copy available I would have watched the film.

Q: What’s the name of the film again?

Death Race 2.

Q: Why didn’t you take your job more seriously?

Ah, again, I really have no more of an answer for you than I did for Ving Rhames.

Q: It’s not just a race. It’s a race about death.

The second race about death.

Playing us out is a trailer Stanislavski undoubtedly would have loved.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part One)


Chesapeake, Va., writer Will Harris sports a mashup tee combining his love of the United Transportation Union and Ram, Paul McCartney’s under-appreciated 1971 collaboration with his late wife. Oh, wait. I think that’s just a Futurama shirt with some letters obscured. So forget that first bit, though you might want to revisit Ram. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va.– Will Harris has a gig an awful lot of geeks like me wish we could pull off – TV criticism and interviews for the seriously fun The AV Club pop culture Web site.

Born effectively as the back pages to The Onion’s print and web operations, The AV Club of that has come out from under the shadow of its parodying parent to become a uniquely cool destination to read about the tube, flicks, music, and a strangely divisive substance called The Bieber.

Harris, a contributing writer at the site and for other publications, also has a nifty blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link, or check out his Twitter feed.

Harris, based in the Hampton Roads, Va., burb called Chesapeake, recently was the subject of a Belligerent Q&A here at the blog. You can read that at this link, but please let me apologize in advance for the whole Isabella Rossellini deal, and assure you I am keeping 1,000 yards away from her since I posted it. When the courts stipulate, I am compelled to stipule, which is to say I produce an outgrowth or two on the side of my petiole. Botany!

Harris met up with me a few weeks back at the Taphouse on 21st Street in Norfolk. Harris had a bourbon and diet Coke. To make up for his blatant carbs caution, I brushed some thick, refreshing Guinness onto my belly until I glistened like a dewy European hornbeam. Also botany!

Anyway, the interview went from there.

This portion of the talk focuses on how Harris got into music writing, the joy of freelancing, and then turning to TV criticism. It also includes me trying to make a foolishly hyper-local joke that makes up for with obviousness what it lacks in subtlety, unlike the awesome botany gags above.

Fortunately, we get through that quickly.

Q: You’ve got a neat story about coming to be a freelancer. Can you take me through the journey?

I really just wanted to write starting in about seventh grade. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that ability but I knew I was halfway decent at it. … Senior year of high school, I was actually on the newspaper staff, and I started to get more a feel for what I actually wanted to do. I went to a high school journalism convention in New York, and there was a guy there who was giving a speech about doing reviews for your high school paper. Basically, the thesis of his entire speech was ‘if you send a letter to record companies, they will give you free stuff.’ [Laughter.]

And that sounded really, really great to me. So I tried it, and sent a letter to I.R.S. Records [which represented acts such as R.E.M., The Cramps, and Fine Young Cannibals] and said, ‘I am a high schools journalist and would love to write a record review column. If you have any new releases you would like to send, I would love to review them.’ They sent me copies of Concrete Blonde’s first album, and the soundtrack to [the documentary film] Athens, GA: Inside/Out on vinyl.

What I really remember about that review is that it was the first and probably not the last but certainly the most egregious occasion where I totally wrote something inaccurate in a review. I referred to the version of ‘Swan Swan H,’ in reference to the original, as having intense orchestration, because I’d only actually heard it once and that’s what I remembered. It’s actually acoustic. That went into print and I still have a copy of it to keep me humble.

Q: What high school?

Great Bridge [in Chesapeake, Va.].

Q: What was the paper called?

The Bridge. [Laughter.]

Q: Makes sense. Did they change it to The New Bridge when they put the new bridge up?

I don’t think so but I can’t tell you that.

Q: What did you start out as?

At the time it was pretty much straight music reviews, because that’s what I was excited with. The idea of getting free stuff was a major impetus for that direction. … I’d just discovered alternative music – R.E.M., Morrissey, The Cure. I didn’t join the staff until my senior year. … And then when I graduated, my grades were not what you would call spectacular. I went to [Tidewater Community College] and I don’t know if they do now but they certainly didn’t at the time have a journalism program … I transferred to Averett [University], where I got my journalism degree.

I really didn’t do much actual writing until I got to Averett, and then essentially I’m writing for the newspaper on a regular basis.

Q: But you knew –

I knew that’s what I wanted to do, absolutely. I was writing for my own amusement. I wasn’t actually trying to send it off anywhere. There was really nowhere to send it, frankly.

Q: That’s kind of a thing, though. When you want to freelance, and you want to do a certain kind of thing, you want to be a music writer but you have to take a newspaper job. Did you find that right away that you couldn’t really write what you wanted?

No. I guess I did in high school, at first, because then I was writing just very basic stuff. I mean, whatever they handed me, I wrote. You know, who had the best fast food burgers in the area, to violence at football games. A variety of stuff. I mean, I still enjoyed writing it. … But then when I wrote the review, despite the fact that I wrote it very poorly, it seemed I knew what I was talking about.

Q: So you’re writing for the college newspaper –

The Chanticleer.

Q: What is it?

The Chanticleer.

Q: Really?

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: That’s a sweet name for a school newspaper. [It is French for “sing clear,” according to Wikipedia, which is French for “probably accurate;” it often refers to a rooster.]

Me [and former reporters for The Virginian-Pilot] Jim Washington, John Warren were all alumni of The Chanticleer. …

Q: Was there anything that really stood out from your time as a college journalist?

I had a column. Having looked back on some of those in retrospect, they were pretty terrible, but it gave me a feeling for wanting to spotlight the obscure. I think I still do now.

Q: What do you mean?

Well, I was coming off working at a record store for a couple of years. I was listening to a whole lot of albums that were not getting a lot of promo or press. I enjoyed the opportunity in that column to spotlight something I really liked and I didn’t think anyone had heard of.

Q: So what were some bands you really enjoyed focusing on?

Back then I did spotlights on the Judybats, Material Issue … I think probably the favorite [one] I did was on The Replacements. I think that was the first time I really sat there and tried to take it seriously, not just as a listener but as a writer. I probably don’t want to look back on it now because I probably remember it a lot more fondly than it actually was.

Q: I started as a freelancer when I was in college for The Pilot, but I used to write music stories just for the money. You know, you write an album review, you get $25. I think there was a time where I looked at those reviews and I wanted to write about music I liked and also kind of placing whatever I was reviewing in the scheme of things. Not just saying, “Hey, this is a good record or a bad record.” Was there a time that you really developed an understanding of what you wanted to do with reviews?

Probably after I got out of college because of the fact that I wasn’t necessarily my own editor anymore. I had been able to edit my own stuff in the column and that showed. [Laughs.] Certainly in retrospect, anyway. It certainly didn’t bother anybody at the time. Once I was able to work under an actual editor that went a long way toward helping me hone.

I did my internship at [the former local music pub] Rock Flash.

Q: That’s kind of a great internship.

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: Well, if you want to write music –

Yeah. For what I wanted to do, it was perfect. Our office was at the Beach. We shared a parking lot with The Raven [restaurant at Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront]. It was really cool for what I was able to accomplish as far as building connections and getting the feel for dealing with publicists. It was a little hard dealing with the reality that not every editor and publisher cares as much about the actual writing as you would like them to. It was more about advertising.

Q: Yeah, you’ve got to fill that space around the ads. Did you write for any other local pubs?

Acrtually, you may have seen on Facebook, I still have the letter from when I applied [for an internship] at The Pilot … ‘We’ll let you know.’ [The Rock Flash internship was] cool. I don’t think it was paid. Totally unpaid. I might have gotten like $50 at the end of it. You know, ‘Thanks for working your ass off for nothing, basically.’ But I got it. That’s really what mattered in the long run. I started writing for them. I got freelance after I got back from college. That was the first recurring gig that actually paid any money at all.

Q: What were you doing while you were freelancing?

I was working at the Tracks at Loehmann’s Plaza the first year after college. Then I went over to Harris Publishing. I started on the phones there and was on the phones for about five years. I started getting ridiculously good interviews. In retrospect, I have no idea how Rock Flash actually pulled them. I interviewed Robin Gibb, Johnny Rotten, Jellyfish, the Posies, a laundry list of people who were either big at the time or went on to become very important. …

At some point it went from Rock Flash to Flash Magazine. Then it went from Flash Magazine to 9Volt. I can’t remember the exact series.

Q: So how did you go from that to [fulltime] freelancing? … There’s a lot of dues-paying in freelancing.

To say the least. Pretty much all I was doing was freelancing pretty much for 10 years, basically. Rock Flash to Flash to 9Volt. 9Volt to Port Folio Weekly for a little while, and then I was writing unpaid for a couple of pop music magazines. One called POPsided and one called Amplifier. …

So I was writing for them with my friend David Medsker. … We were both writing for PopMatters and he got a gig writing for Bullz-Eye and then bumped up to editor, and his first act of nepotism was … to bring me on. Six months after that, the publisher said you’re our most prolific freelancer by far, and as soon as we’ve got the budget, we’d like to bring you on fulltime. Six months later, they had the budget and brought me on as an associate editor fulltime. That’s where I was for five years.

Q: I freelanced twice in my career. I could never figure out a way to make a living at it.

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was going to make a living as a freelancer. I didn’t know anybody else who was freelancing full time. Everyone I knew was using it as kind of for fun and on the side. The full time thing with Bullz-Eye was really out of the blue. It’s not so much that it doesn’t really have to do with what your abilities are, but it certainly does absolutely have to do with who you know.

Q: The big thing about stringing is you have to get people to trust you can do the work. So how do you do that? How important is that first assignment for a new client?

It’s very important. Certainly, with The AV Club it was invaluable. I was Facebook friends with [The AV Club contributing writer] Noel Murray for a year and he would occasionally hit ‘like’ on something I posted, so I felt he at least was aware of who I was. At some point he’d responded to something I’d written, so I sent him a direct message saying, ‘Out of curiosity, how do you get a foot in the door at The AV Club?’ Basically, he said someone had to foster an introduction to [The AV Club‘s editor] Keith [Phipps] and ‘I’ll do that if you like.’ Because I had a pitch. I pitched it and Keith said, ‘Would you be willing to collaborate with Noel, just because we’ve never worked with you before?’

Unfortunately, at the time I still was fulltime with Bullz-Eye. … Because I was so swamped for Bullz-Eye, I kept setting the piece for The AV Club aside in favor of something I had absolutely hard deadlines on, whereas I did not have one for The AV Club. It sat there and sat there and then I got the news at Bullz-Eye that I was going to be shifting to freelance whether I wanted to or not. That night, I sent an email to Noel and said, ‘Look, you have every right to not want to collaborate with me on this piece because I’ve been dormant for so long, but I had this pile and just kept shifting it because it wasn’t something I had a deadline for. I had to maintain.’ He wrote back, “I’ve got a pile like that. If you’re ready to start working on it, let’s do it.’ Within two days, I’d finished the piece and I’d worked harder on that than I’ve worked on any piece in my life. [Laughter.]

And then turned it in. I sent it to Noel first. Noel sent it back and said, ‘All right, normally I would send you my edits, but they were so negligible I don’t have anything to do but tell you you did great.’

Q: What was the piece?

It was an inventory on TV characters on real game shows. Like plots of episodes, Barney on How I Met Your Mother going on The Price is Right.

Q: That’s a really obsessive list.

[Laughs.] Yes. Extremely.

Q: That’s kind of The AV Club’s –

Yeah, I’d been an obsessive reader of the site, anyway. In fact, I had their book on inventory lists. I knew what I was getting into, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t aping it poorly.

Noel … sent it to Keith, and Keith wrote me the praise that ‘I really wasn’t sure which ones were Noel’s and which were yours.

That was invaluable in getting me a major foot in the door as a regular contributor. It’s a lot of relationships. You never know what’s going to turn into a relationship in the world of social media. It may be a very casual situation. They don’t know who you are. They just accepted your friend request. Versus them actually latching onto you because they like what they see. Virtual friends or whatever. Certainly, I’ve learned that social media is invaluable.

Q: How so?

A combination of self marketing, but also just meeting likeminded peers. I’ve certainly proceeded to bond with a lot of writers who I would not have ever had any way of crossing paths with were it not for Facebook or Twitter or stuff like that.

Q: When did TV coverage work its way into the mix?

Two-thousand seven. When I started writing for [Bullz-Eye] and realized how many promos they were getting, I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Once I started doing more reviews, I found out about the Television Critics Association. I found you could apply, and they were accepting online writers. I sent them an application. They wrote back and said, ‘You need to tighten up the site a bit.’ [A certain percentage of Harris’ writing needed to be on TV.] … So I started bulking up the site. I started doing regular news briefs. I started reviewing more DVDs whenever possible. … The time came when I applied in 2007 again and they accepted me.

In the next post, we talk about the nuts and bolts of freelancing, some of the stories Harris has covered, and finding the right balance of questions to make an interview click.

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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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William Ruehlmann, journalist and educator, retires from VWC


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

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

— Dr. William Ruehlmann, Stalking the Feature Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you tried Megabus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How magnets work:


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


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

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

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

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

But back to Swift.

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

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

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

He’s looking forward to Thursday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Newseum


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

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

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

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

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

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

A few images from the trip follow.

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I answered this earlier.

Q: What was the editing process on this story?

Very little, if any.

Q: Did it change from the first draft?

Very little, if any.

Q: Did you outline? Why?

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

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

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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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