Tag Archives: alternative media

Media: AltDaily editor seeks public office


AltDaily editor-in-chief Jesse Scaccia is running for Norfolk City Council against three people who are not editor-in-chief of AltDaily. Among them is incumbent Councilman Barclay C. Winn. Photo by Sam Shinault.

NORFOLK, Va. – I’m glad to announce today that the online alternative media site AltDaily on March 20 announced what folks who read The Virginian-Pilot on March 9 probably already know:

AltDaily edit0r-in-chief Jesse Scaccia is running for Norfolk City Council.

Timeliness clearly is not this blog’s superpower. But I had a chance this week to speak with Scaccia and his rivals for the Super Ward 6 seat, presently held by Councilman Barclay C. Winn, the man with the most optimistic name in Norfolk government.

First, let me set the plate.

As The Pilot‘s Jillian Nolin reported, Scaccia is among three people who qualified to challenge Winn on the May ballot. The other candidates are John Amiral and Marcus A. Calabrese. As a proud resident of some whole other non-Norfolk city, I wish them all happy hunting.

This situation raises some questions for readers of AltDailywhich I’m on record as being, as well as for those who appreciate transparency in the local press. I wish AltDaily had noted Scaccia’s candidacy as soon as it became a matter of public record, if not earlier. However, they have acknowledged it both at the site and discussed it on AltDaily‘s Facebook page. Additionally, they’ve been clear about how AltDaily will try to avoid conflicts.

Here’s a graf from AltDaily’s announcement:

During the election any story on AltDaily that is in any way related to Norfolk politics will be edited by a member of our editorial board. AltDaily will not play a role in the campaign; should Jesse (or any of the other candidates) choose to purchase advertising on the site, they will have to pay for it.

And here’s Scaccia, responding to a reader’s concerns via Facebook:

If I win I’ll more than likely move on to a publisher role with AltDaily, with us bringing on a new editor-in-chief. I’ll still be a regular contributor, just with someone else at the helm making the overall (and daily) editorial decisions. It’s been 3 years of me–we could use some new blood/energy/passion here at the magazine, a fresh take on Norfolk/Hampton Roads and the role daily, independent, online media plays in supporting/fostering the community and culture. We’re stoked thinking about where an infusion could take the project. (J)

I spoke with Scaccia this morning, and asked why it took AltDaily a while to cover his candidacy at the site.

I felt like the news was out there. I mean, our paper of record had put it out there, so I wasn’t uncomfortable feeling we were hiding anything from our readers by any stretch of the imagination.

Scaccia said the decision was one he wrestled with, and one that AltDaily‘s leadership discussed at length.

We’ve had serious internal conversations about [it] – and they’ve been going on for a while now. And some people came at me pretty hard. But that’s good. That’s why they’re there. I mean, we all really love AltDaily and we all want to see it continue. So there’s a lot of people who want to make sure AltDaily has just as much credibility, if not more, on the other side of this.

AltDaily editorial board member Jay Ford, Scaccia’s campaign manager, told me he will not edit Norfolk stories during the election, either. Ford is listed as the treasurer of the campaign in Scaccia’s March 6 statement of organization, one of the records on political candidates available to the public via the Norfolk registrar’s office at City Hall. Additionally, AltDaily publisher Hannah Serrano is listed among those who signed Scaccia’s petition to get on the ballot.

Scaccia said:

In a natural month at AltDaily, which is what we essentially have between now and the election, I don’t know if there’s two seriously political – as far as Norfolk goes – pieces on AltDaily. And those will be handled by members of the editorial board. …

I think we made it clear. If we didn’t make it clear, please let me know. That’s something we need to be really up front with. That’s always been the key with AltDaily […] be up front. As long as you’re up front and you’re honest about the rules that you’re playing by and your intentions, then it’s easier to forgive mistakes after, if they should happen.

Scaccia and I discussed potential impact for the site.

I take AltDaily very seriously, and that was one of the big things I had to make sure I was at peace with going into this before I was going to sign up was, win or lose, can AltDaily make it through this with its credibility intact? And, you know, I feel very content that is the case. …

I think the most realistic scenario if I win is – and I think it’s time for this anyway, both for me and AltDaily – I would step into more of a publisher role, and we would look for a new editor-in-chief. Even if I’m a publisher, I’ll still be submitting columns that would be edited by somebody else and they’ll have ultimate editorial control. …

I think a 23, a 24 year old out of graduate school can get paid what we can pay the AltDaily editor and be fine on that, as far as their life, and it would be a great step for their career.

Is he looking to step down either way?

I think it’s likely that my time as editor-in-chief  is coming to an end.

They’re not hiring, though.

We’re not there yet. We’re taking things one step at a time. … This is really speculative. My life could be really different come May 2 or it could be exactly the same. I really don’t know what I’m going to learn through this process. I could end up on the other end and just really be energized – you know, if I lose – to keep working from the outside. And to be that voice … that tries to change things. But I don’t know.

Scaccia said his candidacy makes him feel like a “guinea pig.”

I feel like this is the direction journalism is going, as we’ve talked about before. I think we’re, just because of economic factors, because of the way society is changing, because of the divisions between rich and poor, for a million different reasons, I think we’re going more toward a world of activist journalism where it’s activism using the tools of journalism. I think that’s what hyper-local media is going to look like in the future. As long as that’s the future, I’m not going to be the [last] hyper-local, alternative magazine editor to run for public office. It’s going to happen again. And it’s going to happen again. So I think it’s good that we’re having this conversation and trying to figure out how things should work.

Earlier this week, I reached out to Scaccia’s fellow candidates to ask whether there were any concerns about the editor of a local media outlet seeking public office. For Isaac Dietrich, an advisor who returned my call to the Amiral campaign, not so much. He said they hope AltDaily will give their effort equal coverage. Beyond that?

We’re not in the business of saying that’s morally wrong to use his business and his organization that he started and founded and built up – if he wants to use that to his advantage, by all means he has the right to do that.

AltDaily obviously wants to avoid that perception, and has made it clear that Scaccia is not using the business for campaign purposes. I asked Dietrich whether a reporter for The Pilot seeking office would get the same response. He noted:

There’s a difference between The Virginian-Pilot and a blog like AltDaily. … We’re not in the business of attacking another candidate or speaking ill about Jesse.

AltDaily isn’t a news site, per se. It’s more of an arts, culture and opinion outlet, and activism clearly is part of its goals. The site is, as Scaccia noted this morning, “subjective from top to bottom, and never pretends to be otherwise.” AltDaily also has been a very civic-minded pub. Scaccia’s played a big role in that. Remember back when Norfolk wasn’t broadcasting work sessions and AltDaily went ahead and did it? That was cool. Among other things, AltDaily advocated for the legalization of street performances – the “busking” ordinance.

Calabrese told me he didn’t have “any negative concern” about Scaccia running, though he compared it “in concept” to Michael Bloomberg running for mayor of New York City.

I haven’t seen anything that would make me, you know, alarmed about it, but he does have a significant advantage. That’s a big bloc for him. That’s a big audience that he has. If they come out for him, he’ll definitely have a strong showing.

He added:

Could he definitely use it to get his message out? Yes. Will he? I don’t know. I would like to think that – for instance … [when] I announced my campaign, I did it with AltDaily. You know, they put an online article up. That was a pretty big help. …

I think the only thing that can be done is see what he does.

I also asked Winn, the incumbent, whether he was concerned.

Not really. Not unless he uses his media position to try to slant things. I don’t know that he’d do that.

As noted above, mainstream media is a different beast. Maria Carrillo, managing editor of The Pilot, said running for office is not an option in that newsroom due to The Pilot‘s ethics policy. A portion of the policy is quoted at the bottom of this post. The basic idea is to avoid the appearance of partiality or conflict because that would cripple the paper’s ability to do effective, objective newsgathering. Carrillo said:

We just wouldn’t allow it. It’s too tricky a thing.

On Jan. 1, I resolved here on the blog to continue writing about local alternative media, including AltDaily. I want to do that because I value its role in the public discourse. Additionally, I consume local media from various sources, primarily The Pilot, but also including AltDailyVeer, Bearing Drift, and Vivian Paige’s All Politics Is Local blog. Among others.

I have a stake in these publications as a consumer of their work, even when – perhaps especially when – it challenges my own opinions and understandings. Presumably, they want you and me to feel this way. Any publication that doesn’t, frankly, lacks real and lasting value.

Earlier this year, I had a conversation with Scaccia about writing for AltDaily, though I have not done so. At present, it would be hard for me to write for a media outlet that has a senior editor running for office against someone I might eventually have to interview. Whether or not that editor is directly guiding my copy, the situation opens the door for perceived or real conflicts.

Most assuredly, others disagree. My background is as a mainstream newspaper reporter, though I’m also familiar with and have written for the local alternative press. Wherever you work, conflicts are a fact of life.

On my own, I have a number of professional conflicts that limit what I can write about here and elsewhere. This is a big reason I don’t freelance. Frankly, I don’t think of what I do here as journalism. This is, at heart, an elaborate scam to speak with awesome writers and steal their collective mojo. But others might consider it journalism, such as it is, which is why I try to specify my own conflicts with the subjects I interview here.

So do I have a conflict wrapped up in all of this? You tell me.

I recently let Scaccia republish a Q&A from this blog. It was for a good cause, so I’m grateful AltDaily got it before a few more readers, but the Q&A was a blog post in which I interviewed a friend about a group in which my wife is involved. The post specified my conflicts both as it appeared here and as it appeared at AltDaily. By The Pilot‘s standards – I used to work there as a reporter – I never would have been able to file a Q&A like this. AltDaily has different standards.

I learned Scaccia was running for office after I agreed to let AltDaily publish the Q&A, but also before it actually ran on the site. Did my own conflicts with the subject of the Q&A prevent me from asking Scaccia to pull it when I learned he was running for office?

Yeah, it did.

Even if it hadn’t, when you have a real or perceived conflict, questions about motivations can – and should – be asked. This is the way of things. It’s about how you answer. I think AltDaily has done that.

For those who dig such things, here’s a piece by Slate on journalists running for office.

As promised, here’s that selection from The Pilot‘s ethics policy:

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

‘The independence of our editors, reporters and photographers is not for sale….’

PUBLIC LIFE

Staff members are encouraged to participate in professional, civic and cultural activities. To ensure that our credibility is not damaged, staff members have a special responsibility to avoid conflicts of interest or any activity that would compromise their journalistic integrity.

Politics and social causes:

  • Newsroom employees should not work for a political candidate or office-holder on a paid or voluntary basis. Attendance at public demonstrations for political causes is forbidden, unless permission is granted by the managing editor or editor. Participation in such demonstrations is forbidden.
  • Taking a public stand on controversial social, religious or political issues is prohibited. Such expression is also prohibited on personal Web sites, social networks and other online forums. This includes signing of petitions, either on paper or online. Staff members may not write letters to the editor.
  • Holding public office or accepting political appointment is prohibited, unless specifically approved by the editor or publisher.
  • If a staff member has a close relative or friend working in a political campaign or organization, the staffer should refrain from covering or making news judgments about that campaign or organization. A loved one’s activities can create a real or potential conflict for a staff member. In those cases, inform a team leader and take steps to avoid conflicts.
  • Donating money to political campaigns and parties is prohibited. Donations to or memberships in organizations with political agendas should be carefully considered.
  • Staff members should use common sense when displaying bumper stickers, pins, badges and other signs. We should avoid items that promote causes.
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Writing Craft, Vol. IX: Writer and editor Tom Robotham (Part Two)


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

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

It comes up, you might say.

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

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

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

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

On with it.

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

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

Q: Joe Jackson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: We’re just so polarized.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Do you write to music?

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

Q: Maybe not when a band’s playing.

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

Q: I can’t.

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

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

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

They wanted a commodity.

Q: And it died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Yeah.

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

Q: And it was about Norfolk Southern.

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

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

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

Q: So TReehouse is gone?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Absolutely and really, I say.

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

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

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

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

Q: Why did you want to go back?

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

Q: Did you come here for PortFolio?

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

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

Q: I’m laughing a little.

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

Q: And well armed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: But you’ve written books.

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

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

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

Q: You worked in New York as a reporter.

I started out at The Staten Island Advance.

Q: What were some of the beats you covered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Was it worse than doing a weather story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining alternative media in Hampton Roads


NORFOLK, Va. – HearSay with Cathy Lewis earlier this month had a panel on alternative media in Hampton Roads region, which effectively was a discussion about the monthly print pub Veer Magazine and the online outlet AltDaily.

Though it aired Aug. 10, I finally had a chance to hear the whole thing this past week, and mention it here in large part because I’ve written about alternative media here and elsewhere, and I have a loosely scheduled interview for this blog that surely will touch upon the topic.

Lewis’ guests were:

  • AltDaily publisher Hannah Serrano and editor-in-chief Jesse Scaccia. AltDaily is an online outlet, though Serrano said they’ll role out a print product of some kind later this year. Looking forward to it. AltDaily‘s strongest content, including its sharp take on news reported elsewhere, could do well on the page.
  • Veer Magazine publisher and editor Jeff Maisey. Veer is a monthly publication similar in some respects to the defunct PortFolio Weekly, which Maisey once edited. Veer‘s website, which is fairly straight forward, is due for a facelift soon, he noted.

Overall, a good talk. I had one minor issue, and I’ll come back to it, but I want to stress:

  1. I love HearSay and public radio, and am glad Lewis covered this on her show.
  2. I consume both AltDaily and Veer Magazine, in addition to The Virginian-Pilot and a variety of other local media, such as Vivian Paige’s All Politics Is Local blog.
  3. The conversation absolutely is worth a listen at this link.

Lewis opened with a definition:

Broadly speaking, we might think about alternative media as those publications or shows or websites or institutions that share news that often because of commercial media business models aren’t necessarily part of the mainstream media.

So you will find stories in the alternative press that you may not find in your standard media outlets. And if you’ve been a media consumer in Hampton Roads for a long time you will probably recall (the now defunct) PortFolio Weekly.

Over the course of the show, she asked each guest to offer their definition.

Maisey said:

One of the positives of having alternative media is when the major media companies choose to pull back, whether it’s difficult economic times like we have now or whatever, alternative media, whether it’s AltDaily online or Veer in print and online, we’re able to fill that void to make sure that many important things in the community get covered that might not get covered at all.

Later he added:

I think being in alternative media, it’s also giving a second opinion. … It’s also about not being censored.

Serrano’s answer was cut short, unfortunately, but she tried to discuss independence – an often suggested flaw of The Pilot-owned PortFolio – while also apparently trying to note that some corporate owned pubs can do well:

Well alternative media, it’s interesting to describe because I think it’s mostly based on content but definitely ownership is a major part of it. Independent ownership of media is a clear definer, but I do want to make a specific point of the difference between PortFolio Weekly and a sister publication Style Weekly in Richmond which is also owned by Targeted Publications and (Virginian-Pilot Media Companies).

This comment was cut short, but Style is an effective alternative publication whereas PortFolio (for which I wrote from time time) was in some ways less successful, though they share/shared the same ownership. I think it probably has a lot to do with the fact that, with PortFolioThe Pilot effectively owned both the dominant paper and the “alternative” weekly in the same Hampton Roads market. Whereas The Pilot/Landmark owns Style in Richmond but the dominant outlet is The Richmond Times-Dispatch. The T-D is owned not by The V-P’s parent company but by Media General. Competition is good for outlets and consumers alike.

Lewis put the “what is alternative” question to Scaccia, prompting this exchange:

Scaccia: I think the word alternative in and of itself is kind of establishment-centric. So that’s not a word I would necessarily —

Lewis: What would you call it? Alternative as in alternative to the establishment with air quotes around that word.

Scaccia: Yeah and all the values that comes with sort of an establishment mindset. So I think we’re just something different, working in the same city as The Pilot and any other establishment mainstream media. … I think the benefit that we have is we kind of decided early on to object to the idea of objectivity. You never stop being a person. It’s not like you become a reporter and God lifts you up onto the mountain and you can see everything clearly now. So all of our writing is first person. … We have viewpoints and our writers certainly have viewpoints.

I think Scaccia did a good job summing up what makes some of AltDaily‘s content a worthwhile read to me, and also why the site is a different beast than Veer.

My very minor beef: I wish there had been more discussion of original public interest reporting, which is an area that makes good alternative media outlets even better.

HearSay airs from noon to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, on WHRV 89.5 FM. You can find out more about the program and its host at this link.

A link to AltDaily is here.

A link to Veer is here.

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