Tag Archives: the virginian-pilot

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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A resolution to get local in the New Year


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XV: Commentator and opinion writer Brian Kirwin


Sometimes a cutline is just a cutline. Sometimes it sets up a really obscure callback. Put the glasses on, Brian Kirwin! Put 'em on! Courtesy photo.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Beach-based opinion writer Brian Kirwin contributes to Bearing Drift and The Daily Press newspaper. He’s worked extensively as a political consultant. He often comments on public affairs matters through various forms of media. He works in public relations. He serves on the Beach’s Arts and Humanities Commission, too. And the man acts.

So he’s a sextuple threat — at least, he is if you only count things listed in the preceding sentences. There may be more, but that’s okay. As you will see, sometimes in America we make our own math.

By the way, Kirwin is a conservative. Who knows? Maybe that will come up.

Any more of an introduction to this Belligerent Q&A will only delay the pleasure.

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

I used to be that kid in the classroom who never got in trouble, but instigated everything. I’d talk to my ‘neighbor’ in class, then as soon as the teacher looked my way, I’d have this studious look on my face and another kid was talking back to me or laughing. Being that the teacher was usually a nun, the kid got his lights knocked out.

Today, I try my very best to be the same instigator I was when I was six. I’ll be on a conference call with several vaunted Republican leaders, and say the one thing that they usually don’t want to admit. I’ll meet with my Democrat friends, who invariably tell me how every time they say they know me, their friends get either sickened or angry.

I also do a fair amount of acting, and my agent usually books roles for me where I, with a fair amount of snark, tick off the whole audience. Life imitates art, ya know.

Q: You suggested that former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine run for the U.S. Senate on the slogan “A Do-nothing Governor for the Do-nothing Senate.” This recommendation seems insincere. Discuss.

Anytime I say something nice about a Democrat, it’s insincere. Democrats have ruined the country. They can’t have a decent talk radio show. Their newspapers are so ineffectual I think birds will start boycotting them soon, which could get messy. Democrats are the party of failure. They assume nothing good can happen in America unless dictated by government. Kaine failed at all his attempts to do stupid things as Governor, and the Senate has accomplished a big fat zero, so they do seem to have a lot in common. I do think the EPA may issue a mandate to Kaine to trim his eyebrows, though. The courts might just uphold that.

Q: Of the various kinds of opinion you write, I most enjoy the “round up” style “Kirwin’s Commentaries,” which give you a chance to riff on everything from the lack of conservative voices on public affairs programming (back when we had such things) to the flawed restaurant math of a half-pound containing 15 shrimp and a pound containing 25. Could you talk about that form and how it’s a different writing process that with longer opinion columns, if so?

Admit it – you love everything I write. It’s OK. My stuff is legendary and fun. Longer opinion columns are a like writing a symphony. You have to have several movements which build along the way to the finale. I write columns that way, usually in sections. Then tie some thematic threads through it and punch it up with a healthy dose of sarcasm.

Commentaries are like writing a song. All I need is a catchy hook, like a healthy dose of sarcasm. I look at something – a story, an experience, another column – and zing. The commentaries are a collection of ironic zings – a hat tip to Andy Rooney, if you will.

Q: When you’ve had 15 shrimp, are you really sitting there going, “You know what would hit the spot — maybe, 15 more shrimp?” Wouldn’t 10 cover it?

I think it’s pretty ironic to have a large number of something called a ‘shrimp.’ Besides, I’m a Republican. A Democrat would sit there and decide what a ‘fair share’ of shrimp I should have. How dare I have 15 shrimp when they think 10 should be all I’d really need. There are some homeless people in Chicago who don’t have any shrimp at all, probably because that deep dish pizza is all the rage. Anyway, I don’t need Obama’s socialist dictates about how many shrimp I should eat, or anyone else’s for that matter. This is America. If I want to eat 100 shrimp and go to bed smelling like Old Bay, I dare someone to tell me I shouldn’t. They’d probably accuse me of clinging to my shrimp.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about the apparent deep political polarity in America? Are we turning into the last two sections of The Stand?

Figures you’d look to liberal Stephen King for political theory and analysis. I think there are much better Stephen King books to look to for politics. Like The Shining – The ‘Overlook’ Hotel as a metaphor for the federal government, whose boiler explodes because we hired an incompetent caretaker – Hi, Barack! Or Carrie – the liberal’s fantasy about what religious people are really like and that they’re one bad prom from taking out an entire town. The Stand is pretty much junk, although it’s somewhat amusing seeing liberal fantasies play out. Liberals like stories of massive self-imposed destruction. Like Obamacare.

Q: If it comes down to it, where should we head? Boulder, Colo., or Las Vegas? I mean, that Randall Flagg fellow is awfully charismatic.

You lefties fall for charisma too easily. Instead of being a follower, try being a leader for once. You’ll be surprised how much fun it is forging your own future than trying to find the right idiot to tell you what to do.

Q: You are a contributor to Bearing Drift, which recently announced its merger with Virginia Line Media. When I spoke with Jim Hoeft, he suggested some exciting possibilities for expansion and new ventures. What are some things you would like to see Bearing Drift do that it isn’t already doing? And when you guys inevitably do a sitcom, starring you of course, what’s the premise you’ll pitch?

There already are some good political sitcoms now that they stream the Democratic Virginia Senate online. I actually think sitcoms are pretty lackluster lately. It’s a half hour of dramatic standup. If we could do some throwback sitcoms that actually had some storytelling, in the tradition of All in the Family or Good Times, then we’d have something.

Actually, I think Bearing Drift needs a conservative version of Saturday Night Live. Skit comedy is the way to go. Maybe the liberals will pass the fairness doctrine and NBC would have to program us.

Q: Can I play the weird relative who drops in a lot but isn’t allowed to handle sharp things, use the stove, or control the TV remote?

I always pegged you as the guy who needed to include his middle name to make up for some deep-seeded insecurity. You can have the tv remote anyway, since all these networks are showing pretty useless stuff that don’t have much creativity anyway. I’ll pop in a DVD and watch you hopelessly try to change the channel for a few hours. Remember, relatives aren’t weird. Just in-laws.

Q: What do you think it says that we live in a country in which many people who have just eaten 15 shrimp can pretty much go ahead and eat 15 more shrimp? Or at least 10, depending upon the accuracy of the scales/mathematical acumen employed within a given shrimp-dispensing restaurant?

I fear for a world when the person calculating the bill can’t do simple math. I wish we lived in a country that didn’t bother to count your shrimp in the first place. We regulate way too much. We tell fishermen how much to catch. We tell Detroit what a car should weigh, and now we have cars that get totaled if you lean on them with the wrong kind of boots on. We tell toilet makers how much water a flush should be. We have so many regulations that it takes 18 years to build a four-mile road. One-hundred fifty years ago, it only took six years to build a nationwide railroad. Liberals hyper-regulate everything, and I’m pretty sick of it being so much of a pain in the neck to accomplish anything. My dream is to have a country that couldn’t care less how many shrimp I have.

Q: A concern I have from both my brief time as newspaper columnist and in reading some of the opinion voiced via local media is that compromise and the art of finding common ground do not seem to be valued. When you write for Bearing Drift or The Daily Press, do you feel you are preaching to the choir, meaning appealing primarily to conservatives, or do you hope to reach a wider range of people and influence them? Is that why you agreed to do The Daily Press gig?

Now that you mention it, your newspaper column career was pretty brief. I accepted The Daily Press gig because they asked. I love writing. I love entertaining. I couldn’t care less if I influence anyone, although if people are influenced by me, kudos to them. They’ve shown remarkable intellect. As far as preaching to the choir, every choir has its fair share of sinners. I’d write for The Washington Post if it meant I’d have legions of lefties ticked off at my spotlight on their silliness. If The Daily Press was really smart, they’d syndicate me. But some of their own scribes have dreams of being like me, so I doubt they’ll make the good business decision to do that and instead stay up late at night trying to be like me. And they’ll fail again.

Q: This past summer you criticized a fairly low-key editorial by The Virginian-Pilot noting the amount of energy consumed by the boxes people use to record television programs, even when said boxes are supposedly turned off. How do you get from that to “that’s the trouble with these liberal ninnies” and “I’m tired of these effete snobs telling free people what they should and shouldn’t do” and “I’m going to stick my carbon footprint up their tree-hugging butts”? It seems that you’re criticizing an editorial that ultimately suggests not regulation but moderation.

All The Pilot’s editorials are low-key, low-intellect and have low-readership. Criticizing them is like hunting in a private reserve. Easy! To your point, the first step to regulation is whining about moderation. First liberals tell you what they think you should do. Then when you don’t do it, they move to force you to do it anyway. Newspaper folk never criticize people who use tons of paper resulting in the loss of so many trees, do they? But they whine about electricity that powers their media competition. There are so many inconsistencies in the liberal’s management of everyone else’s lives that I think the clearest response is ‘mind your own freakin’ business.’ If I want to eat a cheeseburger while watching three TVs and surfing my laptop, go curl up in a corner with your tofu, bottled water and a book. I won’t bother you. Don’t bother me.

Q: In August you lauded the The Virginian-Pilot editorial page for being three “right three times in a row.” In retrospect, do you feel you should have put a little more backhand into that compliment?

Actually, I graded them on a curve. They were more ‘not wrong’ than they were ‘right,’ but it was so much better than their usual level of ‘so wrong that it’s silly to even address’ that I felt they needed some positive feedback. I am a uniter, ya know.

Q: A bit more seriously, could you talk a little about your day job and your passion for acting? People don’t usually just take up these activities/vocations or enter the political arena accidentally. There’s meaning to it for them. What is it you like about these forms of communication and self-expression? How do they inform your writing?

I love provoking emotional responses. Watch some old promos from Rowdy Roddy Piper and you’ll learn a great deal about me. I was a wrestling geek as a kid, and it amazed me to no end how a person could infuriate thousands of people so well that they’d buy tickets to see them get the tar beat out of them. Acting provides that in a big way, and so does political talk and writing. The real secret is not to act. Just be an amplified version of your reality. People who fake it won’t succeed. This is the real me at a high volume. That’s why it works.

Q: If Kaine continues to avoid your fine slogan, may I incorporate it into my “replacing U.S. Sen. Jim Webb” fan fiction? Still working out the plot, but it will be like a Gogol short story with anthropomorphic disembodied eyebrows battling a walking football metaphor. Working title — The Fourth & Long Follicle.

Just cite your source. But please publish it before my daughter has grandchildren.

Q: A number of interest groups have taken to asking candidates to sign pledges vowing that they will or won’t do this or that should they be elected to office. Is there any value to this? Though you are not running for anything, will you sign my pledge that affirms good government is a practice that is situational and may involve compromise?

Why don’t you say ‘all campaign promises are lies, and once I’m in office, I’ll do whatever the hell I want, and you’ll like it.’ Same thing as calling everything situational and compromising. Your way, we wouldn’t have any need for campaigns at all. Why bother if whatever they say is subject to change based on the situation? Your path would result in the downfall of the nation. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if politicians just told the truth and voters could actually believe them?

Q: How about the pledge to make the laws of math apply to shrimp per pound?

Just don’t tip idiots. Problem solved.

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

Just a few Piper quotes:

  • ‘Don’t throw rocks at a guy whose got a machine gun.’
  • ‘When you were young did your mommy and daddy place the swing too close to the wall?’
  • ‘Just when they think they got all the answers, I change the questions.’

Playing us out is Rowdy Roddy Piper, in two parts.

First: A heart to heart with Andre the Giant:

And now, from John Carpenter’s awesome They Live, the greatest cinematic fight ever (with Keith David!). Was Ralph Waldo Emerson predicting this fight scene when he wrote “there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning” in 1841?

Most assuredly.

Also, most assuredly, this is not safe for work due to rough language and just a wee bit of pummeling:

Put ’em on!

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Writing Craft, Vol. IV: Author and journalist Earl Swift


There's a world outside every darkened door/Where blues won't haunt you anymore/For the brave are free and lovers soar/Come ride with me to the distant shore/Here's a picture of Earl Swift/(Chorus) Life is a highway/I wanna ride it all night long/Photo by John Doucette

Back when Norfolk, Va., journalist and author Earl Swift was kind enough to participate in a mighty fun Belligerent Q&A here at the blog, I promised a more serious craft talk with him would follow.

This is it, starting below, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

His new film, in which anthropomorphic cars engage in an international spy adventure, has earned nearly $287 million at the international box office. This, despite the regrettable preproduction death of Paul Newman and the doubly regrettable continued involvement of Larry the Cable Guy, whose every utterance is the tonal reproduction of the sound a banshee makes when kicked in the throat. Oh, wait.

Yeah, I’m think of that new Pixar money grab. Swift wrote a terrific book that is 100 percent Larry the Cable Guy free.

His The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, had its latest strong review in The New York Times this weekend.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is also author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia. The Big Roads also has received favorable reviews in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

And, by way of full disclosure, Swift and I are friends. Without further ado …   

Q: Can you talk about how (The Big Roads) came about? What got you interested in the interstate system as a history?

Well, I’ve always loved road trips, and I’ve always been a bit of a techno-geek; I could identify most airliners by name, model number and manufacturer by the time I was ten, and could ID close to every tank used in World War II at 11 or 12. I could name pretty much every country on a globe, too. Some kids play sports; I memorized cubic yards of weird, arcane, seemingly useless crap.

I was fascinated to learn, at about the time I was perfecting my knowledge of tanks, that the interstate system boasted a numbering protocol, and I made it my business to commit some of the principal routes and numbers to memory. This was completely extraneous to my needs: I was years from getting my driver’s license; even when I got it, knowing such stuff came in handy only once in a very great while. Mostly, it occupied brain space that I would have done well to reserve for other matters. Calculus, for instance.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m watching a TV meteorologist serve up the morning weather, and I notice that his map of the Lower 48 has been reduced to its barest essentials—a few cities, the boundaries of the various states. And lastly, the interstate highways. At one point, any national map would have included principal rivers and mountain ranges. No longer: It features no topography at all.

It strikes me that I’ve come to see the country the same way, as a grid of high-speed roads. And that ushers a chain of mini-epiphanies: In the supermarket, I realize I can buy fresh asparagus and clementines and strawberries the year round; that a widescreen TV sells for about the same price in North Platte, Neb., say, as it does in New York; that Virginia Beach, the ultimate bedroom community, a quiltwork of subdivisions that covers a couple hundred square miles, was swamp and truck farms until the 1970s. Superhighways — the efficiency and ease of movement they offer — are the reason for all.

Not long after, I’m talking to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, an incredibly smart and gifted guy named Eamon Dolan. He’s been reading a proposal of mine in which I’ve pitched an entirely different book, and suggests that I instead tackle the interstates. It occurs to me that I’ve been preparing for the story. So I say: ‘OK.’

Q: There’s a great deal of history that coincides with your present-day reporting in Journey on the James, Where They Lay, and now (to some extent) this project, as well as some of your narrative features for The Pilot. What is it that draws you to history?

Living in Virginia, and especially in Norfolk — which has been settled since the 17th Century, and where every piece of property has been used and reused several times over — it’s hard to ignore the notion that our individual stories are part of a greater, never-ending narrative, and that each individual story is affected by those that came before and reverberates in some way to affect what comes after.

I find it reassuring, this idea that we’re all connected through time — that the environment in which we pass our days in 2011 is no accident, but the sum of human enterprise over centuries. And that each of us, however big or small our lives might seem, leaves a mark.

Q: This clearly was a very research and reporting-intensive project. Would you please talk about how you began this process? How did you determine where to gather records, and what was that process like?

In that it was Eamon’s idea, I had to figure out what the story was — like most Americans, I assumed that the interstates were a product of the Eisenhower administration, and that they were largely a civil defense project. It took about 18 months to figure out that they really dated to the 1930s, and were based on ideas that harkened a lot further back than that.

I started by reading everything I could get my hands on that had been published before, from Caro’s The Power Broker to Phil Patton’s Open Road to Jane Fisher’s Fabulous Hoosier. From there, I moved on to academic journals, then magazines. I was well aware that a book about an inanimate object, no matter how huge or compelling that object might be, wasn’t going to fly, so most of that early research was aimed at identifying a handful of characters through whom I could tell the object’s story.

Eventually, I had four main players. Carl Fisher, a wild man from Indianapolis, would get things started: In 1912, he proposed the first coast-to-coast motor road, the Lincoln Highway, and in so doing inspired the creation of a primitive, mostly dirt web of privately sponsored ‘auto trails’ in the teens and early twenties — the country’s first interstate road network. Thomas MacDonald, a preternaturally uptight engineer who led the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, turned that network into a rational, numbered system in the late 1920s, then oversaw the research and assembled the policy that yielded the concept of interstate expressways in the late 1930s. Frank Turner, MacDonald’s quiet, teetotaler protégé, took that concept and translated it into concrete and steel in the 1950s and 1960s. And Lewis Mumford, a writer and amateur urban planner, was among the first proponents of what we now know as limited-access superhighways, then evolved into their harshest critic — and in both roles helped shape what we got.

I fleshed out all four through their papers, which are kept by university libraries scattered around the country, and through their families, who supplied me with letters, photos and such. I wound up with more than 10 cubic feet of papers.

I didn’t settle on the last main character, a Baltimore homeowner named Joe Wiles, until six months before I finished the first draft. I knew I needed a character who represented the thousands forced from their homes when interstate highway construction ventured into America’s cities, but considered several cities as the setting for that drama before settling on Baltimore. Even then, I had another character in mind — Barbara Mikulski, now a U.S. senator, who by reputation helped lead the fight against the concrete juggernaut. The senator’s staff repeatedly promised that I’d get face time with her, and repeatedly failed to deliver. That turned out to be a favor to me: My research was to show me that her leadership of the fight has been overstated. In her place, I chose Wiles, who was in the thick of Baltimore’s ‘Road Wars’ from the start.

Q: I’ve always been impressed at your early research. What I mean is, you seem to have always done a lot of homework before picking up the phone to do interviews or heading to a location to report or pull records. Can you talk about preparation and planning in reporting?

Interviewing is an organic process. The more you know, the better your questions will be, and the better your subject’s answers will be — which will yield better follow-up questions, and enable the two of you to get into territory you’d never reach if you, the reporter, came into the conversation knowing nothing.

But beyond that, it’s a question of respect. You’re asking somebody to give you something you want but don’t have. It establishes that you value that gift, and that you’re serious about putting it to its fullest possible use, when you’ve done your homework beforehand. Fail to do it, and you broadcast to your subject that he or she is of little importance to you.

I’ve heard some journalists say they don’t prep ahead of an interview because they don’t want to be ‘tainted’ by research. I think anyone who suggests that winging it beats preparation is a fool.

Q: Could you talk about how you organized the narrative? Did you do a lot of outlining? Did you plan out the ways you foreshadow some of the events that take place later in the narrative, such as the events in Baltimore, or does that tend to take shape naturally?

I did do a lot of outlining. I’m a bit of a freak for structure: I believe that it dictates whether a story works. The skeleton is key: Pretty words are all well and good, but they’re like nice skin — they can’t obscure the presence of ugly bones.

This book’s structure morphed substantially over the three drafts I took it through. Initially, I had all five main characters making their first appearances early on, and kept the narrative threads braiding through the whole story. My editors at Houghton, who were terrific, suggested that instead I should introduce each character at the point at which he reached prominence. I wound up with a hybrid of the two structures, in that I had some of the characters make cameos ahead of their full-on entries.

At one point, I was all but committed to using Washington, D.C., as my setting for the freeway revolt. I liked the idea that the protests there occurred within sight and earshot of the guys pushing the highways into town. But Baltimore came to make more sense to me, because it was the example that the Bureau of Public Roads used, back in the 1930s, of a city that would benefit from the interstates — and as things turned out, it’s one of the few major cities in the country that is not penetrated by them.

Q: You demonstrate very clearly that Eisenhower was not the father of the interstate system, and that thought is a kind of mythology. Was this something you understood going in, or did it come in your research? Have you had any feedback on this aspect of the book? It seems like something that would be widely known to engineers, let less so in popular memory of the interstate system.

I didn’t understand it going in; the research made it plain. It’s funny: A good many highway engineers know of Toll Roads and Free Roads, the 1939 report that served as a rough draft for the interstates. They know of Interregional Highways, the report that amounts to an actual blueprint of the system, and in response to which Congress authorized the network in 1944. Still, if you were to ask them, whether employed by the federal government or the states, who is most responsible for the system, a bunch would answer, ‘Eisenhower.’

Q: The placement of this discussion isn’t exactly a revelation, as it is mentioned briefly early on (7), but it’s meat comes roughly 150 pages in, after you have demonstrated the fathers of the system – “career technocrats” – laying out the groundwork. That was an interesting choice that seemed very natural when I reread the selection in the context of the earlier chapters. Then you reinforce it at least two or three times by noting Ike’s absences on major policy events involving the highways.  Can you talk about how you determine what information supports what is a fairly major point, and how you decided to lay it out within the text?

Insofar as this is the story of how the highways came to be, and not a hatchet job on Ike, I didn’t see much need to burden the reader with an opening rant over his being given unjust credit for the interstates early on. I laid out the story in a fairly straight, chronological line, and built a case for who really authored the system simply by relating their acts in the order they occurred; by the time you come to Ike, it’s quite apparent that he’s arrived too late to play a substantial role.

Q: One cost of the highway system in urban areas was the removal of people in slums and struggling neighborhoods to make way for roads. You mention this issue throughout the book, even stressing that urban renewal efforts involving highways target neighborhoods but fail to address the human toll. One of you most compelling examples of the human cost is in Baltimore, where the effect of a planned highway is shown through a middle class black community. What led to this choice? What was it about Joe Wiles and the Rosemont community that led you to use them to illustrate a larger point?

The main argument for Baltimore, from a storytelling standpoint, is that it was the hometown of Herbert Fairbank, who wrote the bulk of Toll Roads and Free Roads and was the ideological brains behind the interstate system. Fairbank used Baltimore in the report as an example of a central city wasting in blight, choked by traffic on colonial-era streets, and losing population and influence to its suburbs—then proposed that encircling the city with a beltway and penetrating its heart with a spray of radial expressways might not only unclog its arteries, but provide a handy tool for clearing slums.

Baltimore was thus the first city of the interstate age, the test case. For my purposes, it was all to the better that it’s also a pretty cranky place, and that the interstates envisioned for it were met with 30 years of protest so harsh that the plans were ultimately abandoned.

Q: Were you aware of Thomas MacDonald and the role he played shepherding the interstate system before you worked on the book?

I’d never heard of the guy.

Q: Though you discuss the shortcomings of engineers behind the system, and unintended consequences of the system, you seem to have an appreciation for Frank Turner, who lost property to a highway and simply accepted that his parents would have to move for a road project – and never used this fact to gain favor or understanding in his role with the system. And then there’s a really poignant moment toward the end of the book that I don’t want to spoil for those who have not read it. Turner, as much as anyone in the book, seems fully realized as a character within the narrative – yet he is someone dramatically different and perhaps harder to bring to life than a showman and businessman such as Carl Fisher. How did you find these stories in your reporting and decide how to deploy them?

As you suggest, Fisher was easy—the guy was a total maniac, each of his ventures bigger and scarier than the last, his every word grist for the newspapers. He was way beyond a risk-taker; he could be downright reckless. That said, he was no dummy, and he had great instincts. I had a lot of fun digging into his past.

Writing about someone who lives a comparatively quiet and careful life is always tougher. Frank Turner was especially so, because he was so damn good — a man whose heart was almost always in the right place, and who didn’t think too much of himself, and who was a loving and responsible husband and father, and who was good at his job and decent to the people who worked for him.

Lucky for me, he left a hell of a paper trail, along with three children and a large number of friends and colleagues I was able to interview. He also sat for several long interviews, the transcripts of which were in his papers at Texas A&M. They were invaluable.

Creating a real character out of him — and of Thomas MacDonald, for that matter — relied on inculcating the reader with an engineering mindset. I hope I was able to pull that off. Engineers get a bad rap as overly sober, numbers-driven, careful. The best of them are, in fact, enormously creative. They’re puzzle-solvers.

Q: I understand you have some magazines stories in the works, as well as another book. Will you please talk about what you’re working on?

I’m halfway through a book about a local man named Tommy Arney, and his struggle to restore an old car. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t like to talk up a project until it’s farther along. I have another book in the outlining stage that’s completely unrelated to cars or transportation — it’s set in the Deep South in the 1910s and 1920s.

Besides that, I’ve been writing for Popular Mechanics and doing a lot of radio interviews. Not least, by any means, I’ve been finishing an MFA in nonfiction at Goucher College; I’ll be heading up to Baltimore to collect my degree in August. What a great program. I’m going to miss it.

After that, I hope, I’ll be back to writing full-time.

You can find out a bit more about Swift here at this link to his site.

And I urge you to pick up The Big Roads. It’s a great read.

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Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, reads Thursday at Prince Books


Norfolk, Va., author Earl Swift on Thursday will read, take questions, and sign copies of his new book,
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

The event is 7 p.m., Thursday, June 30, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk.

Also, on Wednesday, June 29, Swift is scheduled to do an hour with Hampton Roads radio personality Tony Macrini on Newsradio 790 AM WNIS. Swift expects to be on at 9 a.m.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is a journalist and author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.

The Big Roads has received favorable reviews from Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, Patrick Cooke in The Wall Street Journal, and in The Pilot. It also is among the summer reading “treats” listed by the Charlotte Observer. Some other reviews are forthcoming this summer.

Said Swift:

This has been an unusual experience for me. I’ve never had a book get this much attention.

For what it’s worth, that may be because it’s freaking terrific. Finished it last week. Highly recommended.

For those interested in inspired silliness, Swift recently participated in a Belligerent Q&A that can be found at this link, the most popular Q&A to date here. I hope to have more with Swift at the blog in the near future.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VIII: Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads


You are a saucy one, Earl Swift, Norfolk, Va., journalist and author of The Big Roads. Even when I crop out your tiny brass-studded leather novelty fez. Photo by John Doucette.

I pulled up to Crumbling Swift Manor in Norfolk, Va., in the warm evening air, my pad in pocket, pen in trembling hand. When I knocked, a petite dog announced my visit. Her master approached.

Earl Swift, former journalist and feature writer at The Virginian-Pilot, author of The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. A book with words, many words, words in a certain order of his own design so as to form a story about a topic that people can read after they buy it when it is released on Thursday.

Swift opened the door slowly, yet assuredly. He wore writerly intensity as plainly as a dancer in the All-Cowboy Revue might wear chaps and a red bandana mask. Briskly, we toured the manor house, a parade of wonders – a library containing what could only be called books, a dining room in which meals are eaten atop a table, a kitchen in which food is stored and prepared prior to the very meals that are eaten by people in the house.

Silkily, as he led me through his spacious home, I imagined an imaginary stable boy imaginarily saddling horses that did not exist in the pretend stables. No. Not horses. War-painted camels. Yes.

Those.

And then we were in his office. Where calls are made, a keyboard fingered, electrons spun into nonfiction gold. Overhead, above this hub of composition and concoction, was a handsome chandelier. No doubt his firmest demand of the landlord, made while the imaginary stable boy, awaiting the landlord’s pretend response, trembled, as had my hand, holding my pen in anticipation of this very moment. I demand, he must have said, this Earl Swift fellow, a chandelier above my writing space.

He signed a copy of The Big Roads, blowing gently upon the fiery ink that bore his cursive mark, this signed book so blessed, a prize to be won in the upcoming 2011 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest, which continues until June 15 at this very swanky online foolishness disseminator.

Or you could buy your own copy. Again, it goes on sale Thursday.

I took in his garb. Rugged. Manly. As though the conjoined lovechildren of L.L.Bean and American Eagle conspired to outfit Hemingway for his last great safari to a public park in Key West. Of course. Swift, who ventured along a mighty Virginia river for Journey on the James and tromped through faraway lands to report Where They Lay, deserved no less. His shorts were khaki, his polo cobalt blue. I announced this finding, much as Jonas Salk must have exclaimed, “I think we got this polio deal licked!”

Swift replied:

This is not cobalt blue. Maybe Columbia blue.

Columbia blue it was. I tried to note the rest of his clothes, but as I bent low to read the words on the back of his adventure sneakers, he spun away, as magically as someone pivoting using a combination of their legs and torso in the holy congress of simple movement. Alas, in determining the needed detail of his wardrobe, my welcome had expired like overindulgent rock star upon regurgitated Jack Daniels.

Point being, this Belligerent Q&A was conducted via email later.

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

You know, if you added ‘young man’ to the end of that question, you could be my mom just after my eighth-grade science project went bad in the kitchen and those things got loose.

Or Sister Mary Michael, the headmistress of St. James Primary School in Twickenham, a suburb of London, where I attended the third through fifth grades and was regularly beaten on the back of my thighs with metal-edged rulers, and yanked to my tiptoes by my proto-sideburns, and where Sister Mary Michael (who had so lavish a mustache that it would arrest the blade of my 6.5-horse Honda self-propelled mower) once thrashed me with the sneaker of a four-year-old.

Or Dennis Tenney, graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan, self-described “song series poet,” and author of The Song of Eisenhower (New York: Whittier Books, 1956), whom I’m confident used the phrase often—though, it must be said, not to me personally.

Q: Your new book is called The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. That’s quite a subtitle. Were there any words left for the rest of the book?

A few. Though I didn’t use them. I’m pretty strict when it comes to the thematic programming of a story. I pick a few notes, and play them over and over. Like in Close Encounters. Only more realistic: I wouldn’t have some French guy running NASA.

Q: You pull the “myth” of Eisenhower as father of the Interstate system apart a bit with your reporting. So didn’t Ike do anything? Like hire a cousin for a paving contract?

I doubt he resorted to cousins. He had an extremely large immediate family, including a number of siblings with interesting nicknames, among which were Bike, and Fike, and Pike, and Wendy.

Ike was busy while president. He made bald sexy as hell; that took time. So did convalescing.

Q: If they make this one into a movie, who would you like to play I-70?

Gene Hackman. He has the reach. I can see him snaking through Glenwood Canyon. Rolling with the Missouri pastureland. And no one else could deliver Wheeling so full-force to the screen.

Q: Since I’ve known you through The Pilot, I’ve admired the way you handle complex subjects and can incorporate a number of sources/characters into such stories in ways that serve the overarching narrative. What does that sentence I just typed mean?

Is ‘overarching narrative’ the same as ‘narrative arc’? Using one of those phrases will get one’s ass kicked in South Norfolk, though I can’t remember which. In case you wondered, that’s why I’ve been avoiding the Campostella Bridge.

Q: Tell me about this Thomas MacDonald fellow. Is he why I can’t get off I-264 at Independence during rush hour? Or was that Herbert Fairbank? Were they the guys who made I-95 suck, especially in Connecticut?

Those men stayed out of Connecticut. Moreover, they forged a pact, early in their working lives, to avoid Rhode Island, as well one might; to get to Boston, they had to drive around. Did you notice my use of ‘moreover’? That’s how you can tell I’m a journalist.

Q: You contend that “we’ll be pumping more money, a lot more money, into the (interstate) network in the years to come” for maintenance alone. Why not ignore it? That seems to be working out great on Social Security.

You raise an excellent point. And remarkably, you raise it in 13-point Lucida Grande. I know of few others who would be so bold.

Q: What was it like collaborating with Ted Danson?

We spent a lot of time on his boat, The Decimator. It had five or six staterooms and a full disco staffed by snug-shirted eastern Europeans. I’m pretty sure most were Hungarian. Plus, of course, the boat’s rigged to pull a purse seine, so the food was great. Ted’s an excellent actor and a fine influence on young people. And when it comes to Pilates – I mean, he could turn professional.

Q: How do you like being interviewed by people who have not read the book?

What did you think of that one part where Ike eats the lemon meringue with his hands? It continues to surprise me that the incident had such a lasting effect on our infrastructure.

Q: Why should we read your book, which all its facts, research, perspective, and storytelling, when there are other books that won’t challenge my assumptions that everything is totally cool, that the landscape hasn’t been that radically changed by the de-centering of communities into suburban sprawl, and everybody just chill don’t worry about it we got a Chipotle coming in near the Wal-Mart?

Are you sure? Is the Chipotle really coming? I’d heard rumors. Man. You’re positive? Hold on a minute. I have to make some calls.

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

It’s always a pleasure to talk craft with you.

I’ll follow up with a real craft talk with Swift in the near future.

Some early reviews are in for The Big Roads, including this one by Jonathan Yardley for The Washington Post and this one by Patrick Cooke for The Wall Street Journal. Locally, the book is in stock at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk and will be available at other fine local bookstores.

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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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