Monday, November 27, 2017

Act Like You've Been Here Before

I was vacationing in Nashville last month when I received an email from Jeremy Owens, the charming and immensely talented producer of the storytelling series, You're Being Ridiculous, inviting me to read at his most recent group of shows with the theme, "light bulb." (Tickets are still available for the Dec. 2 at Uncommon Ground Edgewater.)

I was well into a draft about a different subject — one I'll eventually finish — when Joe Ricketts abruptly shut down the DNAInfo and Gothamist networks (which included Chicagoist) on Nov. 2. So I called an audible and wrote a story for YBR about how Chicagoist grew into the site it became and what it personally meant to me. If it weren't for the doors that Chicagoist opened, I would still be a surly bartender even closer to death than I currently am.

This one is for everyone who wrote for Chicagoist over its history. For another take, my friend and onetime colleague Jim Kopeny has his reflections on his personal blog.


L-R: Some of the first wave of Chicagoist staffers: Julene McCoy, yours truly, Justin Sondak, Rachelle Bowden, Shannon Saar, Erin Shea Smith, Scott Smith, Mike Fourcher, Margaret Lyons, Kevin Robinson and Matt Wood, pictured at Gold Star before Chicagoist's 10-year anniversary party in October 2014 (Photo credit: Rachelle Bowden)

Chicagoist existed for thirteen years before Joe Ricketts shut it down a few weeks back. I was there for almost a decade, from its earliest days as a site finding its way to its final iteration as one of the most popular websites in the city. Even though my time at Chicagoist ended over two years ago, people say the same thing whenever my name turns the gears in their minds.

“What a fun job that must have been!”

And it was, but not in that cliched “if you love what you do for a living, it isn’t work” way, because there were days where I wanted to toss my laptop out the window, make a hobo roll and hop on a freight train out of town with my dog. What kept me sane at Chicagoist was one steadfast rule we observed throughout its lifespan: “Act like you’ve been here before.”

That rule and its corollary “fake it ‘til you make it” was what drove the site, especially in the early days of online journalism as a new, wild frontier. When Chicagoist launched in 2004, the concept of blogging was in its infancy. Gawker was only a year old, Huffington Post didn’t exist and Arianna Huffington was still a fucking Republican. Print journalism was relatively healthy: The Tribune and Sun-Times were thick with news and advertising, the Reader was the size of a cinder block and home to 15,000-word cover stories, but few in the print world recognized the threat the internet posed to newsrooms and how Craigslist would completely disrupt the advertising revenue model that was the lifeblood of newspapers. 

Few of the Chicagoist OGs had actual journalism experience when the site launched but we had moxie, a willingness to create our own thing and learn from our mistakes. The first wave of blogs took the news of the day, repackaged it with liberal doses of opinion and sarcasm and added context the original stories missed, hit “publish” and found an audience who understood the language we used to communicate.

We were wedding crashers, essentially. We showed up at a random reception hoping to down a few cocktails before getting kicked out and the next thing we knew, we’re leading a conga line with the bride and her blitzed father is trying to hook us up with his other daughter.

Another aspect to the “act like you’ve been here before” ethos was focusing our passions through our writing — we wrote about topics and subjects we couldn’t find in the dailies and weeklies. We brought aboard writers deeply involved in community organizing, political and social justice campaigns who taught our readers what it meant to give a shit about this city and its communities, and do the real, hard critical work it takes to inform themselves and others. We accepted writers who had deep connections to Chicago’s music, arts and culture scenes and could write about it with authority. We brought food writers into the fold who got creative covering the depth of Chicago’s food and drink scene on a non-existent budget while avoiding “pay for play” coverage. We had writers who taught readers and our fellow staff that a whole city and culture existed away from the North Side that can be explored without fear. As we informed our growing readership we also learned from each other, and formed a sense of teamwork, if not family.
A Chicagoist staff "Happy Hour" at Piece Pizza, some time in 2006. (Photo credit: Rachelle Bowden)

We took chances with our writing. We peppered articles with in-jokes that our most loyal readers understood. We had an “Ask Chicagoist” column that predated WBEZ’s “Curious City.” We had a podcast. We taught readers how to cure bacon inside a kitchen sink vanity and gave the process the very unappetizing term "sink meat." We criticized why City Council would rush to ban foie gras but took half measures legalizing food trucks. We clued readers to the existence of a marital aid called a “fucksaw.” We ran an April Fool’s Day article about a lost South Side neighborhood called “Little Hawaii” with doctored images so convincing, readers emailed us to learn more about this fictional neighborhood. We used publicly available crime statistics to map out Chicago’s douchiest nightlife districts
An empirical map of Chicago's douche vortices. (Map credit: Melissa McEwen)

We had a love-hate relationship with Billy Corgan and Steve Albini, regularly called out the Tribune’s John Kass on his Kassholishness, discovered that no amount of marijuana can mellow the easily triggered fans of Umprhey’s McGee, and stumbled into an online slap fight with Richard Marx, who assumed that all bloggers were in their mid-30s and lived in their parents’ basements. And we introduced millennials to the photography and writing of Art Shay, arguably America’s greatest living photojournalist. He wrote a weekly column for Chicagoist for three years and never missed a deadline, even as his wife of 60 years was slowly dying from cancer, which taught the staff, by example, the value of acting like a professional when my persistent reminders could not.

In acting like we’ve been here before, we hit upon a foolproof formula.

But there was another ingredient to that formula: we ran lean. By “lean,” I mean that no one was paid for the first couple years and I don’t feel that any of us who ultimately did make a living there earned what we felt our labor was worth. Chicagoist’s first paid full-time editor was hired nearly three years into its existence, and the beat editors were paid monthly stipends that may have covered the tab at one of our monthly staff boozefests (depending on how thirsty we were). I internalized the guilt whenever I told prospective staff that they would write for exposure, because I knew exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

In spite of that, Chicagoist had a queue of people interested in joining the site whenever calls for new writers went out because they recognized their work would reach a wide audience, and we editors worked hard to nurture their talents and instill a sense of professionalism so that the “exposure” could lead to better things, whether there or somewhere else.

One of the best Photoshops I even saw: Hawaiian emigres to Chicago kayaking in the shadows of U.S. Steel's South Works plant. (Image credit: Steven Pate)

By the time I became editor-in-chief in 2010, Chicagoist was a bullet train that constantly needed fuel to maintain top speed. Full-time editors had daily post quotas to hit — we called it “feeding the beast” — but being responsible for writing the majority of the stories on the site and managing a staff of editors and writers with day jobs was a stress for which I wasn’t completely prepared. As the only full-time editor for my first 18 months, I put in 12-16 hour days to feed the beast. It wreaked havoc with my personal life and my life-work balance. The long work days were a pattern I couldn’t completely shake, even as we added a full-time associate editor and brought on more staff to broaden our coverage. By the end of Year Three, I was burned out, increasingly detached from the tribe we worked so hard to develop and my work relationships with my bosses in New York, and my associate editors here, deteriorated. When I was finally fired two years ago, it came as no surprise and a great relief.

I moved on. I got a new job where I could work on the skills I allowed to atrophy while feeding the beast, and became part of another eager band of reporters that nurtures and encourages me to constantly improve as a journalist. And the work is paying off again. I feel as though I’m producing some of the best work of my career.

A part of the healing process was completely disconnecting myself from Chicagoist, which was necessary for me to figure out what I was without it, and to allow the staff to build on the existing foundation. One of the lessons I learned was that being an editor is like being a renter. You can arrange the furniture to your liking, hang photos and artwork on the walls, paint rooms and make minor repairs. But if the landlord chooses not to renew the lease, you’re out. I didn’t get to say goodbye to the staff I helped build and nurture in the way I wanted.

Joe Ricketts’ decision to shut down Chicagoist and DNAInfo Chicago was equivalent to him kicking everyone out of his guest house, and during the holidays, to boot. Having some distance from Chicagoist, I can look back at it fondly: the friendships that will stand the test of time, the unlikely relationships that turned into marriages, the staff that went on to bigger and better things in journalism and other corners of media, and the ones who took their experiences and created completely new things. And I can hold my head high knowing I played a role, however small.

A couple weeks back, a handful of us gathered at the home of our arts editor. We traded war stories and caught up on life and didn’t talk too much about the billionaire elephant in the room. We toasted the good times and what was left behind and the lives we hopefully enriched with our work.

We acted like we’ve been here before. Because we had.

I had this banner made for a fundraiser Sam Abernethy organized at Nisei Lounge in 2013. It finally made it back to my possession. (Photo credit: Chuck Sudo)

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Manifesto for Surviving the Infinite Crisis

Like many of you, my emotions since Election Night have ranged from seething anger at people I believe to be rational thinkers who voted for Donald Trump—a toxic man who huffed and puffed and bluffed his way through a noxious election campaign to be elected president—to despondency over the damage this man, his Cabinet picks and a Republican-controlled Congress will inflict on our nation and the world. Trump, who touted his business acumen as his main qualification for the presidency, named people to his Cabinet who either have little understanding of what their new duties entail, are true conservative believers who will bring the same failed policies to their departments, or are billionaire donors who bought their way into the administration. Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos is all three! He's assembled a kakistocracy—government by the least qualified and most unprincipled citizens.

Congress, meanwhile, may be even worse than Trump. Since the new Congress was sworn in, there have been countless alarming signs of how the GOP majority wants to govern with Barack Obama out of the way, and it isn’t pretty. They're going to use everything at their disposal to silence dissent within the chambers of government and in the court of public opinion. Repealing the ACA is only the beginning. Wait until Paul Ryan lines up the votes to privatize Medicare and Social Security.

I have one concrete belief with politics: anyone who says that government needs to be run like a business should be involved in neither. This is because the majority of the businessmen and businesswomen who said that during my lifetime are plutocrats. They’re the corporate raiders, vulture capitalists and rent chasers who drain their companies of resources. They gut their workforce with outsourcing and automation. They obstruct organized labor and offer low wages. They emphasize investor returns over the well-being of their workforce. And when they’ve sucked the bones clean of marrow, they move to the next victim. People have died because of their actions; now that threatens to happen on a larger scale.

These plutocrats view government as the White Whale, the long-sought final prey to catch and enrich themselves, and Donald Trump is their Captain Ahab. Their motto is one that should be all too familiar to students of Chicago politics—ubi est mea? Translated from Latin, it means, “Where’s mine?” Donald Trump only wanted to win. He’s coming to Washington with that narrow stare and his puckered sphincter of a mouth, shouting “ubi est mea?” 

It looks pretty damn bleak, no? “End of the world” bleak, no less. And I felt that way when I turned off the television on Election Night. It was clear for hours that the returns wouldn’t magically swing in Hillary Clinton’s favor, and I decided to focus on what I could control. A good night’s sleep was the best course of action for that moment. Then I woke up the next morning, allowed myself some time to process what happened, and got to work. The world didn’t end that day just because Donald Trump won a narrow Electoral College victory. I had stories to file, sources to call, articles being kicked back to me by my editors for edits, newsletters to build, and it was all hands on deck as we worked to report on reaction to the election from Trump’s real estate peers. 

I’ve found solace in that routine since. Lather, rinse, repeat. The world still spins. I still draw breath. There is a glimmer of hope. I survived Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. I must have faith that despite the odds, this too shall pass.

Show up. Do the work. That’s what my friend Erin says and it's the motto I’ve taken with me into 2017. It applies to career, life and especially my contributions as a citizen. Democracy, especially this ever-evolving American version, requires effort. Casting a vote is only a small contribution. To that end, I've settled on a few things that will hopefully keep me sane as we enter the Infinite Crisis. Your mileage may vary.

1. The Work Starts at Home 

During his farewell address, Barack Obama asked us to take a look at our complicity in how government has reached this stage. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting the same results, then we need to ask ourselves why we continue to elect men and women to Congress and state government who continually fail to serve us. Obama also said that if you don’t like who’s representing you, grab a clipboard and run for office. Those remarks echo what Bernie Sanders told his supporters after the primaries ended. Sanders implored his supporters to drop the "never Hillary" mindset and “take (the) revolution” to the local and state levels. 

Here's why. Even as Republicans in 2008 wondered if they could retake Congress during Obama's first term, they employed an impressive ground game at the state level that has Democrats asking the same question today. The GOP now holds majorities in 32 state legislatures and have 33 governorships. Hopefully, the progressive and centrist factions of the Democratic Party will recognize this is a bigger fight that requires cooperation, and heed the call. 

Another reason why the focus should be at home: there's a tendency among voters that if we choose the right president, the country will fall in line and all will be well. That's like having a body ravaged by cancer and hoping a head transplant will heal it. We need to cut the tumors out of the body and start an aggressive round of chemotherapy. That means getting involved. Get to know the legislators that represent you. Study their voting histories and positions on issues that matter to you. Follow the money trail to see who's lobbying them. Go to town halls. Introduce yourselves to your elected officials and become general pests. Make it known you're watching them and that you'll do everything in your power to vote them out of office, if they don't properly represent you.

2. Don't Fill Your Plate

Trump is going to treat the presidency like a toy surprise he found in a box of Cracker Jack. Despite what he's said publicly, he'll delegate his responsibilities and let Congress run unchecked in its overreach. And we're going to see a rise in states rights, which will please those states with GOP-controlled legislatures. 

With no interference at the federal level, advancements like LGBTQ rights, the rights of women to choose what happens to their bodies and marriage equality are in danger of being rolled back, and these GOP-controlled states will disenfranchise even more voters of color and the poor with voter ID laws and gerrymandering, if they can maintain their majorities in 2020. The Republican fiscal policies are so draconian that many of these states will become banana republics. Focus on where you can make an immediate impact. Find issues that matter to you on a local and state level that tie in with larger issues nationally, like public school funding or infrastructure improvements, funding mental health clinics and job training programs. And hold your aldermen and state reps as accountable as you do your senators and congressmen.

Support causes and organizations that line up with your interests with money and time. There are a lot of charities that will need help once the budget cuts hit. Pick a few and get to work.

3. Know What You're Reading And Where It's Coming From

Trump’s attacks on the press and his mastery of media manipulation should give everyone who believes in a strong, vigorous press some pause. But the constant attacks may serve as the tonic that heals an ailing industry. As a journalist, I have some skin in this game, and I’ve been relieved that the company I work for recently hired an ambitious editor-in-chief who understands the need for a strong press. More important, he recognizes that in reporting a story, there are more than two sides. There are multiple facets and it’s a reporter’s job to separate the wheat from the chaff, and present the truth. But it isn't free. Subscribe to the newspapers, magazines and online outlets that you feel offer the best coverage

Away from Bisnow, I hope to be focusing some of my energy on media literacy moving forward. This coarseness of political debate isn't a new thing, nor are the heated emotions that result from it—it goes all the way back to the Hamilton-Burr duel. What is disconcerting is the pace with which information, and especially disinformation, spreads. 

It shouldn't be that hard to separate credible reporting with something you read on or, yet it is. If you're getting your news from those sites, then you need to dig deeper before you retweet. Seek out other credible news sources that challenge your way of thinking. If you're only doing enough research on a story or issue to confirm your biases, you aren't doing enough. And, for Christ's sake, question everything Donald Trump tweets. He doesn't need a Joseph Goebbelshe's his own.

4. Intersectionality is Fundamental

I wish that we would defend the other articles and amendments to the Constitution the way the gun lobby embraces the Second Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment, in my opinion, may be the most important amendment in the Constitution. The Due Process clause, particularly, is the linchpin of the Amendment, and Trump's fanning the flames of racism and Islamophobia will put it to the ultimate test. This is where we need to recognize and encourage intersectionality. We can (mostly) agree that race and class intersect in America. So do women's rights, religious freedom, LGBTQ rights, and economic inequality. (I would add the disconnect between urban and rural areas, aka the "liberal elites vs. real Americans" argument.) You can't focus on one of these issues without seeing how it invariably affects another. If you recognize that, you can build support across a range of people and organize, and maybe understand why someone who voted for Trump, did, and get them to see the error (if they haven't already). 

As Studs Terkel famously said, "It's all connected."

5. Self-Care

Much of my post-election doldrums were spent arguing politics with an old Navy buddy who lives in Thailand and loves to pull out the "your sources are liberal media" and "Hillary was crooked" tropes whenever I posted something on Facebook about the Infinite Crisis we're about to enter. 

I realize now that I can't waste my time arguing with an old Navy buddy who lives in Thailand on Facebook because I'll too busy what I can to keep America free for him to return. So I'll be shifting my social media presence away from a political bully pulpit and back to their true intentions: cute photos of my dog and morning inspirational songs. Distance yourselves from your timelines because there is too much work to be done offline.

Human connection will be important as we enter the Infinite Crisis. Also important: supporting the arts. Some of the best stress releases I had last year were when I found myself behind a mic, telling stories. It reminded me that I can still write for myself and that the performing aspect is a rush. We need art and culture to help us through this. Share your talents through volunteerism. Support your friends who are creating art and making the world a brighter place. Art can be a political force. It can also heal and help us cope.

Find a good therapist. Not only are they sounding boards for your fears moving forward, they'll help you design coping mechanisms to deal with the despondency. If that doesn't work, they'll work with you to find the right prescriptions.

Yours for the motherfucking revolution! See you on the streets tomorrow!