Page Two: Between the Lines
What editors blog about when they blog about editing
I was therefore a bit surprised when I followed a link sent to me by Roland Swenson, managing director of South by Southwest. What follows is Ortega's response to the "Page Two" column that appeared in the Chronicle issue dated July 23. The column was a bit of a boilerplate rant that I have presented in this column a few times over many years. When writing it, I did not even think in passing of Tony Ortega and The Village Voice. But I have to admit it was somewhat exciting to find someone else almost as thin-skinned as myself working at a weekly.
The following is excerpted with permission from the Voice's Runnin' Scared news blog. For clarity of context, it is edited very slightly at the beginning. It is followed by my humbled response and then by Tony's comment. There are other comments on Ortega's piece, but you'll have to go to the original blog to see them: blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2010/07/memo_to_louis_b.php.
MEMO TO LOUIS BLACK, EDITOR OF THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE By Tony Ortega,Wed., Jul. 28 2010
[...] It was great to hang out with you in Toronto, which for me is the primary reason I go toAAN conventions– to meet fellow editors and see if we can't help each other out in some way. For example, at that dinner we attended with David Carr, I had a great conversation with Tim Keck, publisher ofThe Stranger, and he and I explored some ideas for how we could join forces for a future event.
In hindsight, that trip to Toronto was really worth it for an editor who, like others, is looking for more ways to maximize the web, hold on to our traditional dedication to investigative journalism, and still have fun in a difficult economic era. Throwing back beers with fellow AAN members and telling war stories every year is simply a great rejuvenator.
So it's with some dismay that I readyour column this weekwhich suggests you took away a very different conclusion from our meeting. As in: the all-too-familiar and lazy slam at our company.
Before you embarrass yourself further in what you purport to be two additional columns which will no doubt explain to readers how editors such as myself have given up on the "alternative" ideal, I would hope you might check yourself and actually examine some facts.
It's pretty clear that you're talking about my company when you deride "'alternatives' becoming far less alternative" and that "specialize in 'gotcha' journalism, which is more concerned with with [sic] exhibiting embezzlers, corrupt elected officials, and pedophiles than with the regular workings of government." You also make the complaint that AAN's annual awards "honor the editorial content that is most like that of slick weekly and monthly magazines."
Well, OK, let's take a look at this year's AAN awards. TheVillage Voicedid particularly well this year, taking five first place awards and a third.
Our film critic,Jim Hoberman, who has been reviewing movies here for 30 years, took first place for his film column.
But I guess I'll have to have a talk with Hoberman about betraying our alt-weekly roots with his slick weekly writing.
We also won a first place for the political columns ofTom Robbins, another longtime veteran here. Week in and week out, Tom gives New Yorkers the best peekbehind the scenes of what's going on at City Hall,exposes the corruption in local union leadership, and in general cuts through the superficiality you find in the local dailies.
But I guess I'm going to have to have a talk with Tom about dialing things back and focusing on the "regular workings of government." Maybe he could have an exciting round table with some local activists or something.
We also won a first place for the music writing ofRob Harvilla, our music editor who happens to be newer – he's been on the job about four years now – and is, admittedly, a little younger than the folks who started alt-weeklies back in the day. But then, it kind of helps to have a younger dude covering emerging music. At least that's our theory. Rob won for his weekly columns, which tend to be some of the best music writing in the country.
But I guess I'm going to have to have a talk with him about maybe getting some more Dylan and Stones in there.
Our other two first places are awards that I know must freak you the fuck out, Louis. We won for best staff news blog (Runnin' Scared) and best staff music blog (Sound of the City).
I know blogs scare the crap out of some alt-weekly oldtimers. It's like, you have to write somethingevery daynow, and some of these kids are posting things practicallyevery hour.
I guess I'm going to have to have a talk with our blogging crew. In order to hang on to our alt-weekly roots, we're going to need to smoke a lot more weed, write a lot less, and get back to writing nothing but lazy political essays (what the hellwasthat opening bit in your column, Louis? Talk about old-school mush).
I guess you'll have to forgive me for letting you down, Louis. I told you I had a lot of respect for TheAustin Chronicleand I meant it. But I thought you were one of the smart ones and understood that in the fierce fight for our lives some of us are in, writing the same old lefty political essays has been completely drowned out by the noise of the Internet.
Carrying water for local lefty activists? Hey, that went out when those activists got their own Twitter feeds and Tumblrs and, of course, blogs. They don't need us anymore, Louis.
We made a decision some time ago that the only way we'd continue to stay in this game was to focus not on the same old political essay writing but on original reporting, surprising our readers by not being predictable, and by doing our best to piss off everyone -- right, left, and center.
Does that make us less "alternative"? Well, as plenty have pointed out, in the age of the web it's nearly impossible to define "alternative" anymore. But I know whatyoumean when you say "alternative," Louis. It's the old hippie ideal of endlessly pushing a lefty agenda to keep up your "movement" cred. Hey, good luck with that. But I live in a cutthroat town, and I have salaries to pay. Your version of "alternative" wouldn't last a month here. Instead, we'll keep on digging up original stories aboutpolice corruption,union skullduggery,hot bankers,hippie crack dealers,rotten landlordsandschool segregation.
And along the way, I'llcontinue to celebrate the legacy of this newspaperwhich, if you actually took the time to look at some of its oldest archives, you would see was born with a passion forinvestigatingandexplainingthis crazy town ina way the dailies couldn't touch. That, from the beginning, was what "alternative" was all about. And it's something we're just as passionate about now.
One other thing, Louis. Your paper, theChronicle, took home one of the most prestigious awards at this year's contest for aclassic piece of journalism: a story that questions the convictions of a couple accused of pedophilia.
Wasn't that one of the things you accused us of doing? Gotcha journalism about pedophiles?
I look forward to reading your next installment about what a hack I am.
The Village Voice
Louis Black says:
There is no way I could have been more taken aback by your comments. The Village Voice has long been the beacon paper that the rest of us aspire to and though its prestige had slipped over the years you've been returning it to its former glory. On top of that I've long thought that Michael Lacy is simply one of the best editors and writers in the alternative press bar none. Even though I have reservations about one company owning so many papers in almost every case Jim Larkin and Lacy have improved the papers they took over. Finally, I regard Patty Calhoun (of Denver's Westword) as the finest editor of writers among all the weeklies.
Having initiated the AAN editorial Awards, I am disappointed at the way they've turned out but I should have been clearer that I was not talking even a little bit about the quality of the winning writers and their work. I just don't feel the categories are expansive enough to cover some of the areas where weeklies excel.
I was thrilled to meet you, as The Voice has been a part of my life for most of it. I'm not going to list the numerous weeklies that I think have lost their way but there are dozens. I'll also plead guilty to lazy writing and lazy thinking (especially if it appears that my complaints about the award winners had to do with the quality of the work). I am disappointed in the current state of many of the weeklies but my writing was certainly not aimed at the Voice.
The next two columns by the way are going to be a very short incomplete sketchy history of the alternative press with a somewhat muddied chronology of the Boston papers in particular and a review of Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines, one of the few movies to tackle weeklies that has long been unavailable in any home accessible format (Amazon now has it on DVD, I highly recommend it).
I'm sorry you took my column the way you did while accepting all blame for not being clearer.
Yours in admiration,
Posted On: Wednesday, Jul. 28 2010 @ 5:06PM
Tony O says:
Well, you're no fun, Louis. I thought we'd get several more rounds out of this.
I got my gloves all laced up and everything.
I guess I'll just have to go over and slug Kamer, instead.
Posted On: Wednesday, Jul. 28 2010 @ 5:56PM