Category Archives: Journalism

An Announcement That Calls For Some ‘Patching

First I did a google image search for “cabbage patch.” That turned up a bunch of creepy dolls. So I tried “cabbage patch gif.” Slightly better, but nothing mindblowing.

Then it occurred to me that there must be, somewhere on the internet, a gif of Tyra Banks doing the cabbage patch.

Duh, I was right.

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling right about now, as I’m pretty frickin’ excited to be starting as a staff writer for Washington City Paper at the end of the month.

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Filed under D.C., Journalism

“Apply Lipstick, Tell Your Joke About Ghosts.”

I really love my friend Christie’s “The Rules Of” series she’s doing for GOOD magazine.

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In Defense of A Certain Celebrity Profile

I could not disagree with Alyssa more about her take on Edith Zimmerman’s brilliant GQ profile of Chris Evans. She found it “disconcerting” and writes:

It’s not so much this profile, which is really not so much a profile as a chronicle of hanging out with an action star, that read as odd to me. It’s that Zimmerman’s piece comes on the heels of the March issue, in which GQ published Jessica Pressler’s account of spending the night with Channing Tatum, a couple of Snuggies, and a bottle of tequila. For GQ, sending out a female reporter to get tipsy and a little frisky with an otherwise indistinguishable slab of beef appears to be their stab at creating a novel and enduring journalistic form, akin to the New Yorker’s revealing anecdote, followed by a statement of a larger problem, followed by an origin story. At this rate, I’ll be making it rain in strip clubs with Ryan Reynolds by November.

Her point about Jessica Pressler’s night with Channing Tatum is somewhat well-met. But it’s also fairly common for GQ profiles to boil down to a few hundred words of “I hung out with this person.”

Still, I think Alyssa is missing what made the story so wonderful. Chris Evans is essentially a nobody (an up-and-coming nobody, sure) in Hollywood — he’s not a great actor, and he’s not even playing a great hero (sorry, Captain America fans). If Edith did this with a person who was important or particularly interesting, like Barack Obama or even Robert Downey, Jr. that would be one thing. But Evans is exactly what Alyssa describes him to be: an indistinguishable slab of beef (who is apparently much loved by his mother, as all boys should be).

So, what do you do when faced with an assignment to profile of a handsome movie star whose credits include “Harvard Hottie” in the Nanny Diaries and the lead in Push, a movie I think I was the only person in America to see?

I guess you could dig around and try to find out what makes him interesting. Or you could take this opportunity to explore the absolutely bizarre experience of writing a celebrity profile. Edith writes:

Despite his publicist specifically telling him not to, he invited me to come to his going-away party. “My poor publicist,” he said. “She knows I like to drink. She was like, ‘Please don’t drink too much, please just don’t drink too much—you’re gonna take this person out, and they’re going to ruin you.’ ”

We were heading our separate ways for dinner first. I said I was going to call a cab, but Chris laughed and insisted on his driver taking me back to my hotel. In the vast backseat, Chris was even more flirtatious than before, touching my arm and my knee. At this point, which was a…number of drinks in, it was easy to forget that it really was an interview, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind that something might happen (and that we’d go to the Oscars and get married and have babies forever until we died?). But there was always the question of how much of it was truly Chris Evans, and whom I should pretend to be in response.

Let’s face it: most celebrity profiles are completely worthless. Either you suffer through Hirschbergesque atmospherics like what the weather is like and if the person has a purple couch (for 95-lb female stars, it’s all about how much pasta, or burgers, or beers they consumed), or you get long, winding profiles that will ultimately conclude that so-and-so is “complicated.”

Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, but I’d much rather read a story about what it’s like to try and interview a handsome, charming celebrity and spend time in fancy places and fall a little bit in love with one’s subject. In divulging the ethical roadbumps all journos in these situations are sure to face, Edith is telling us more than we would ever learn by reading what Evans’ workout routine is. And that is writing by a woman that I can get behind.

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Filed under Journalism, Sexism, Women

Ben and Jane

Historian Jill Lepore has an op-ed in the Times comparing the life of Benjamin Franklin with his closest sister, Jane Mecom, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I read something so relevant to my interests in the NYT.

Franklin, who’s on the $100 bill, was the youngest of 10 sons. Nowhere on any legal tender is his sister Jane, the youngest of seven daughters; she never traveled the way to wealth. He was born in 1706, she in 1712. Their father was a Boston candle-maker, scraping by. Massachusetts’ Poor Law required teaching boys to write; the mandate for girls ended at reading. Benny went to school for just two years; Jenny never went at all.

Their lives tell an 18th-century tale of two Americas. Against poverty and ignorance, Franklin prevailed; his sister did not.

At 17, he ran away from home. At 15, she married: she was probably pregnant, as were, at the time, a third of all brides. She and her brother wrote to each other all their lives: they were each other’s dearest friends. (He wrote more letters to her than to anyone.) His letters are learned, warm, funny, delightful; hers are misspelled, fretful and full of sorrow. “Nothing but troble can you her from me,” she warned. It’s extraordinary that she could write at all.

“I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters,” she confessed.

He would have none of it. “Is there not a little Affectation in your Apology for the Incorrectness of your Writing?” he teased. “Perhaps it is rather fishing for commendation. You write better, in my Opinion, than most American Women.” He was, sadly, right.

It continues this way, sketching the trajectory of their lives, and the fact that Mecom bore 12 children and buried 11 — something that surely stood in the way of any self-improvement she wished for. Lepore writes, “the story of Jane Mecom is a reminder that, especially for women, escaping poverty has always depended on the opportunity for an education and the ability to control the size of their families.”

There’s nothing I can add to this excellent essay, of course, so I encourage you to read the whole thing.

As an aside, I hit my 20-article limit last week, and the site kindly informed me. But I keep clicking links and have yet to be blocked by a paywall.

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You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio

If there’s no good reception for me
Then tune me out, ’cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head

In the above 1972 clip, Joni Mitchell says she wrote “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” because she’d never had a hit (the audience scoffs in laughter, but it’s true, at that point, despite having a loyal following for several years, top-of-the-charts fame had eluded her). She says she was trying to figure out how to appeal to DJs (“I was in a very sensitive place, you must understand, but I decided I’ll channel all this sensitivity into commerciality.”) She figured that radios appealed to DJs, so why not write a song that’s, on its surface, about the radio?

Oh honey you turn me on
I’m a radio
I’m a country station
I’m a little bit corny
I’m a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Broadcasting tower
Waving for you

I’ve sort of skipped over it it all of these years that I’ve had a copy of Joni’s “Hits” (not to be confused with “Misses,” a disc of b-sides and not-hits), but “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” is just what I needed to listen to this week. At one point, the guitar breaks, and she warbles, “honey, who needs the static, it hurts the head.” Good question.

Who needs the static?

I’ve had to fight my desire to tune out the static this last week, which has brought a lot of feedback of my City Paper piece. I’d say most of it is positive, and some of it is critical. That criticism breaks down into two areas: very contructive and straight hating (ha, I know, “hating.” Who am I, Chris Brown?). But Ta-Nehisi wrote a pretty great post yesterday critiquing the story and some of the criticism:

If you don’t reach outside your peer group, expect that your piece is going to be somewhat myopic. But with that said, I think it’s really important to consider “Confessions Of A Black Gentrifier” within the context of journalism about gentrification, and the fate of cities in general.

I cut my chops writing and reporting about D.C. for five years. I’ve written and reported on the problems of cities, and the problems of black people, for fifteen years. In all the journalism I’ve produced and consumed in that time, on the subject of cities, in general, and on gentrification, at large, I’ve never noticed any shortage of quotes from the black poor. Indeed the standard conflict pits poor black vs. yuppie whites. More broadly, there’s a recurring theme of black people being “pushed out” usually because of money.

From my perspective, Shani is introducing a narrative, and an angle, we see too rarely in discussions about the problems of the city. There is no question in my mind, that more reporting–and specifically more reporting beyond her social circle–would have made Shani’s story better. I hope she’ll take up that challenge in the future.

As I commented in the thread, both Ta-Nehisi’s interpretation of what I was trying to do, and his criticism of it were accurate. There is more reporting I could have done and more I would like to do. That’s kind of the beauty of not being dead yet, though, right? I can keep pushing. I will keep pushing.

I know you don’t like weak women
You get bored so quick
And you don’t like strong women
‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks

Oh, and “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” ended up being Mitchell’s first big hit, getting to #25 on the Billboard charts.

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Filed under D.C., Journalism, Race

Confessions of ‘Confessions of a Black Gentrifier’

Illustration for Washington City Paper by Robert Meganck

Where have I been?

Working. Working on stuff like this for Colorlines. Working at my actual fulltime job.

And, also, working on this.

Today, my first-ever cover story, anywhere ran in the Washington City Paper, which is somewhat surreal, because I remember being a young journalism student at Howard who was completely entranced with the awesome longform covers in the magazine. And now I have one. Well, I don’t know if it’s awesome, but I worked really hard on it.

A snippet (it’s long, you should instapaper it, or better yet, pick up a free physical copy in town):

When I moved here last summer, all I could see were the changes in my neighborhood. I’d attended Howard University from 2002 to 2006, and while I knew that the city was where I wanted to stay, I got a job in New Jersey and worked there for a few years.

It was pure luck that when I made it back, I found a house for rent in LeDroit Park, right around the corner from my old dorm. The change that had occurred in four short years was stark.

To put it bluntly: There were white people, everywhere. Now, they trek between Bloomingdale and U Street NW by way of the busy intersection of Georgia and Florida avenues, where just nine years prior, it was a place where black college students butted up against unemployed brothers lingering on corners.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The shift was happening even when I was in school, and it was quite noticeable then. A college friend noted at some point between freshman and senior year—after 2003, when Magic Johnson opened a Starbucks connected to the Howard University Bookstore on Georgia Avenue as part of a community development program called “Urban Coffee Opportunities”—that there were, as she put it, “just more white people around.”

Johnson sold his shares in the UCO program to Starbucks last year, and company CEO Howard Schultz bragged in a press release: “Together we opened several successful locations, including our Harlem store, which led the redevelopment of that now vibrant neighborhood.” While the Georgia Avenue store may not have helped economic development on that strip—there seem to be as many, if not more, empty storefronts as there were in 2003—it became a pretty reliable place to find white people on an otherwise largely black stretch.

White professionals and hipsters trickled in, slowly, visible even through the bubble of being a black college student, surrounded by 10,000 other black college students, in a largely black neighborhood, in a mostly black city. By 2004, they were regularly spotted making their way to and from the Shaw–Howard University Metrorail station. And by the time I graduated, white people were jogging up 4th Street NW through the campus, and walking their large dogs on the green lawn of Howard’s Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library—something longtime black residents never did.

The change was disconcerting, in a way.

More disconcerting, though, is that five years later, I walk my own large dog on the library’s green lawn.

The story of the black gentrifier, at least from this black gentrifier’s perspective, is often a story about being simultaneously invisible and self-conscious. The conversation about the phenomenon remains a strict narrative of young whites displacing blacks who have lived here for generations. But a young black gentrifier gets lumped in with both groups, often depending on what she’s wearing and where she’s drinking. She is always aware of that fact.

Read the rest at Washington City Paper.

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Filed under D.C., Economy, Journalism, Links, Race

Some Beliefs Are Wrong

Tom Lee takes on the single-spacing vs. double-spacing after a period controversy, with vigor:

Nor should we assume that just because typographers believe earnestly in the single space that their belief is held entirely in good faith. They’re drunk on the awesome power of their proportional fonts, and sure of the cosmic import of the minuscule kerning decisions that it is their lonely duty to make. Of course they don’t want lowly typists exercising opinions about letter spacing. Those people aren’t qualified to have opinions!

I thought Manjoo’s argument was weak, for many of the reasons Tom mentions, but that doesn’t change facts. Here’s a little-known law of graphic design:

The number of people wishing to fit a document onto the same or fewer number of pages as a previous edition of said document, despite the new draft being longer than the previous edition, is directly proportional to the number of people who turn in said document to their graphic designer with double spaces after every period.

Okay, maybe I made that up. But real talk: Double spaces are bad.

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