I've rarely left Baltimore over the past five years—until last month, when I was here for only a couple of days. I missed the city deeply but the absence helped me see certain things, particularly things about myself, the city, and this paper, more clearly.
The last leg of my travel was to Salt Lake City for the annual meeting of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (formerly Newsweeklies). This column won AAN's award for Best Column (I emceed the ceremony, wearing the pictured nametag) and I was grateful to be recognized against so many other great writers and great people. I grew up on alt-weeklies and feel at home with them and the people who make them. They are my people, as I said last year when I got back from the conference. The problem is precisely that they are too much "my people." I sat on a panel about covering the police and minorities and all of the panelists were white, as was almost all of the audience. Everyone recognized this lack of diversity and it was one of the things we talked about. But I think what many people don't realize is that it is an existential threat greater than the internet and mobile and whatever else we spend our time complaining about. We won't survive—and don't deserve to—if we can't fix this problem.
It was particularly striking because The New Republic had just published an essay about how the Washington City Paper had nourished Jelani Cobb and Ta-Nehisi Coates under the editorship of David Carr. Coates' own remembrance of Carr when he died was even better and though, especially after death, some people have sort of canonized Carr, it's not like he was the magic white man who knew how to hire black people. Like the rest of us, he inherited a paper built on the words of white hippies. But he made an effort to do better, knowing it would make the paper better. We could all make that effort. And it's not good enough just to have black or Latino freelancers or columnists. We need people on staff who can sit in the meetings and help determine the direction of the paper.
I'm not attacking AAN, I am attacking myself. This paper is as bad as any other. Like the rest, if we want to survive, if we want to be worthy of survival in a city that is more than 60 percent black, we need black staffers. The paper was made up almost entirely of middle-aged males when I started here a couple of years back and now there are a lot more young women—even if they are, in some cases, working under shittier labor conditions than they should be—making decisions at the paper and the paper is much better for it. As they—I am no longer involved in the hiring process—make hiring decisions going forward, this should be foremost in their thoughts.
The Sun, though far better than us in this regard, has a bit of room to maneuver at the moment as its features section plummets into a big pile of shit. It lost its two best writers in the last month or so. Julie Scharper, who we awarded the "Best Journalist" award last year, took a buyout and then about a month later Richard Gorelick, who single-handedly ruled the city's food-writing scene, resigned. What the fuck? Right now, this leaves a features department which may as well not exist anymore. Just fucking kill it—or me. I mean, what, more fucking Tim Smith? Shoot me now.
As a reader, I'll miss the insight—and the concern with prose style—that both Scharper and Gorelick brought to the paper. But the features editor could take this as an opportunity to radically revamp the way we all think about features. It's clear that, like so many dailies, the feature section isn't taken particularly seriously by The Sun's editors. Given some of the bullshit stories that clearly come from above, there is, somewhere, a sense that anything that is not "hard news" is bullshit fluff. So, yeah, cut out the fluff and use this chance to decide what the purpose of a features section in a big daily is and really tackle it. You could hire someone to highlight the daily struggles in a neighborhood such as Sandtown by embedding reporters there to work on long series—since you can't give people book leave now, get reporters to do shit like what David Simon did for "Homicide" and "The Corner," but publish it serially. Y'all got the website that scrolls down forever (we do too, now), use it for some real long-form shit. People will read it.
I was thinking about all of this as I went to the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District's second outdoor film night. I have a little office space right across the street from where it is held and it is only a block or two from Lexington Market and it is the part of town I love the most. And the programming—several shorts, plus Spike Lee's "Crooklyn"—drew a large and a really diverse crowd, the kind of crowd that mirrors what you see in the neighborhood on a daily basis. After a short rainstorm, which many people bravely weathered, however, the main film was canceled—due, I heard some say, to a glitch with the DVD. Still, a couple dozen people milled about the grass and it seemed like a lost opportunity. Isn't there something else we could have shown? The CitiWatch footage, just obtained by The Sun, of the outbreak at the riot at Penn North on April 27? The Bromo District's Director Priya Bhayana assured those remaining that the film would be rescheduled, but there was a dispiritedness in the air.
And unfortunately, Isis Lounge, less than a block away on Park, was now closed. It was one of my favorite bars, but there is some question of whether it will open at all again. If it does, check it out, because it was a really beautiful place, what an unassuming bar should be. I don't join organizations, but it was a private club and I was about to join, if only so I could tell people I was a card-carrying member of Isis.
Instead, as I walked home for a beer with some friends, I felt great to be back in Baltimore—and acutely aware that, even if it is my home, most of the time I am walking around as cluelessly as I do in another country. The purpose of this column is to recognize my own ignorance—to try to know that I know nothing—and I am honored that the AAN's judges recognized that. But, hell, it's a job that never ends.