Soderberg: 14 digressions about the Baltimore City Paper, which is dead now

1. The Punishment Begins

Tom Breihan and Ray Cummings, two former Baltimore City Paper interns and big deal music writers who liked my amateur music blog, got me a meeting about possibly freelancing for City Paper with Bret McCabe, then the arts editor of the paper, back in 2007. Bret dropped a whole bunch of gems, told me what was good about my writing, gently told me what sucked, and gave me one of those pieces of advice that I now tell everyone—basically, a review is not solely a recommendation; the piece should be interesting to read on its own whether it’s positive or negative. My first gig: a review of UGK’s “Underground Kingz” and Common’s “Finding Forever,” which framed UGK’s sprawling double-disc of scrappy politics and mean street tales as better and more political than Common’s milquetoast woke-ness. An annoying contrarian streak that I’ve yet to shake was there, for the first time, earning me beer and weed money.

2. How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?

In 2014, a staff position at the paper. City Paper had just recently been sold to The Sun and there was a sense that it might all crumble immediately, but CP was hiring and I took the chance. I met with Baynard Woods, who I admired, had met only like twice before that, and mostly knew as a tuft of hair and bon vivant who wrote the shit out of anything and everything. He basically told me what to say and how to say it to get my dumb, self-destructive ass hired, I think because he liked me. It worked. Blame him and Evan Serpick, who I also only knew a bit but admired a great deal. I quit my job at SPIN, where I’d been for three and a half years, and that’s how it all really began.

3. A Hammer Blow to the Head Can Injure the Soul

In 2016, I covered a turkey giveaway hosted by 300 Gangstas the day before Thanksgiving. The day after the holiday—Black Friday—I reported on the aftermath of the police shooting someone near Greenmount and 33rd Street, and right after that a #NODAPL protest at a Wells Fargo Bank downtown. Then the next day, a protest calling attention to the police shooting on Greenmount and there, the baby of one of the activists died. Blood was coming from her nose and she stopped breathing. I saw it and memorized the scene, for once had the decency to not pull out my camera and shoot photo or video, and hugged some of the people I knew at the protest. Then I went home, filed a quick story, and didn’t really do anything except sit in bed for the whole next day and a half. And I had the luxury of just being an observer, a reporter—most of the other people there that day didn’t. Fellow reporters, remember that.

4. A Handful of People in the Depths of Silence

“I try and just hang out basically. I want to avoid operating like a conventional reporter in the sense that the story is whatever happens and the quotes come from an approach that’s more organic than asking for comment. Especially as a white guy, covering a deeply segregated city like Baltimore and because lot of the people I’m covering—or choose to cover—are people of color, I don’t want to intrude much or feel like too much of a gawking idiot. And so I’m kind of inhaling the atmosphere and moments and taking notes (and usually video and audio) and then I try my best to take those observations and tell a story with them. I have the luxury of being able to do that at Baltimore City Paper. And I try and just talk to people like a person, not a reporter. I’ll tell them I’m a reporter obviously, but again, I’m not looking for a certain quote or angle. I just chat. I also just try and go to lots of things. It’s easier to do that when there’s less pressure to file a story at all or a certain kind of story which is the case at City Paper. But by going to lots of events such as rallies or protests or other community-oriented stuff, the people recognize you, you make connections, those last, and so on. I think when people give you their time, any time, you have a duty to try and represent them honestly and ideally, in a like 360-degree way. That doesn’t always mean ‘positively’ either.” - Me in an interview with Ploughshares

5. A Reaper with the Power of Our Lord

In 2010, when SPIN magazine turned 25 years old, editor Charles Aaron wrote a piece titled “Scenes From  Marriage,” detailing his time with the magazine—“the coincidences, blunders, and revelations that helped shape my misspent adulthood,” he wrote. Celebrating the anniversary of SPIN is a bit different than mourning the end of the Baltimore City Paper—though hey, City Paper’s 40th anniversary was earlier this year—but I liked Charles’ filmic approach to honoring the publication he put so much time into by naming each section after an episode from “Scenes From a Marriage.” “I’ve decided to gawk at my SPIN tenure through the prism of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic riff ‘Scenes From a Marriage,’ a series of six vignettes that poke and prod a Swedish couple’s crumbling intimacy and eventual rapprochement (of sorts),” he explained. So I’m ripping his whole idea off for this CP send-off, except instead of “Scenes From a Marriage,” I’ve gone with the episode titles of Fassbinder’s 14-part, 931-minute miserablist TV series, “Berlin Alexanderplatz”—about an ex-con who tries to return to normal life and suffers and suffers and suffers some more—because it’s more my speed. By the way, I am often ripping off Charles Aaron, who thankfully hired me away from a terrible-though-high-paying start-up in early 2011 to write a rap column for SPIN, which really got my career going and would eventually deliver me to the Baltimore City Paper in 2014.

6. Love Has Its Price

“There ain’t no nostalgia to this shit,” says Cheese at some point in season five of “The Wire,” the season about how the media is full of liars and frauds and corporate shitlords. And though season five is tempered by a sentimental newspaperman streak that I cannot get behind at all even as I stare down the end of this paper, it’s my favorite season because it’s so bonkers and cruel and petty and, as a result, really challenging. Cheese is talking about “the streets” when he goes off about nostalgia, but he could be talking about journalism, especially journalism at an alt-weekly where the act of putting together the paper is Sisyphean (you wrap up an issue and start the next one), where you’re looked down upon by most everyone else claiming “journalist” in the city, and where you feel like a major league asshole because a victory is, say, when the dailies locally or nationally deign to actually give you credit for some story or idea they basically jacked. Another lesson from “The Wire”: Institutions won’t love you back. I love the staff of the paper (in particular, shout out to Reginald Thomas II whose name I need to make sure I get in this piece somewhere and for whom City Paper will be one day framed as only where he got his illustrious start) and I love plenty of ex-CP writers (especially Lisa Snowden-McCray whose arrival radically reinvented this paper) and contributors, but I’m not so sure I love City Paper.

7. Remember — An Oath can be Amputated

“Objectivity” isn’t real. You can, however, be “fair” without being “neutral.” These were things that had nagged me for years of writing and reporting—but couldn’t quite get out. I knew something wasn’t right and didn’t know how to say it, but it was made apparent working at City Paper where there was a newsroom full of people who weren’t afraid to break the rules, even the allegedly sacred journalistic ones that for the most part manifest as a whole bunch of ways to protect those in power just like all rules and laws.

8. The Sun Warms the Skin, but Burns it Sometimes Too

Former City Paper Editor Karen Houppert told me I should write about myself more. It was good advice but also a terrifying assignment. To be honest, my whole reason for writing is to not think about myself. There is the legit and high-minded element of journalism—to get out of one’s head and to pull one’s head out of one’s ass and to write about the world around you—but that’s not really why. So much of my hesitation was typical dumb dude bullshit about being afraid of feelings. I began seriously writing in 2007 after my best friend killed himself and I needed something to do to get out of my head. I taught high school English from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., worked overnights at a Borders Books from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., and found time in between there to sleep and write. Getting reflective was a kind of reckoning. Fortunately, I had strong models of honesty in Karen’s work and via Maura Callahan and Rebekah Kirkman’s writing, which bobbed and weaved around art and politics and real life and their lives and felt open in a way that’s hard for me. Finding a way to get personal more often has made my writing better and it has made me more decent, real, and less terrible to be around.

9. About the Eternities Between the Many and the Few

The City Paper staff did incredible work during the Baltimore Uprising. Baynard Woods and J.M. Giordano were out there constantly (and Giordano literally took a beating from the cops for covering what wasn’t being covered elsewhere the evening of April 25 in Sandtown-Winchester) and Edward Ericson Jr., Evan Serpick, Brandon Weigel, and I were out there a whole bunch too. We covered what nobody else was covering for real, taking activists seriously, not buying into the police’s bullshit. The community seemed to welcome us in a way that they didn’t with other reporters. On Monday, April 27, which eventually ended with the uprising getting violent, we flushed any non-Freddie Gray content from the upcoming issue to devote it fully to the whole week of protest and action (which we could easily do because we’d been out the whole time) and everyone was working and writing and doing whatever they could do to assist (I remember Rebekah Kirkman in particular had to turn my notes from one of the protests into something coherent, and then she transcribed a massive impassioned phone conversation I had with Kane Mayfield into an op-ed). In a drowsy, joyous photo shot by then-CP editor Evan Serpick of all of us leaving after that marathon work day, we’re all smiling and fucking proud as hell, but you can’t see the whole all-nighter team—my dumb face blocks Rebekah out of the photo entirely and Brandon Weigel obscures most of then-copy editor Anna Walsh’s face. Journalism—pretty much always blocking out the women even when it’s doing its best and most important work.

10. Loneliness Tears Cracks of Madness Even in Walls

The effect of reading something about yourself that is, well, accurate is a bit like seeing someone who looks just like you and is dressed just like you across the street or something: a swift and effective existential crisis. Following the announcement of the paper’s death in July, I became the subject of a few stories instead of the person reporting and it was strange. In particular, CP contributor Annalies Winny’s piece in the Guardian about the death of alt-weeklies ends on a moment with me that kind of shook me to the core because it was frighteningly accurate. “Everything great and terrible about you is contained in that paragraph,” an ex texted me after she read the piece. It makes me seem like a bit of a crazy person, drinking bad beer, smearing tragic optimism all over everything but hey, it’s accurate. From that piece: “‘It’s not a “city paper”– it’s a paper for the middle of the city,’ he says, lamenting the dearth of City Paper boxes in poorer, mostly black neighbourhoods beyond downtown. ‘There’s not even a box in Mondawmin, the busiest transportation hub in the city’ – and the scene of unrest in Baltimore in 2015’ . . . He takes a sip from a can of National Bohemian beer, a brand founded in Baltimore. ‘The benefit of us basically being dead in the water is that we can do whatever we want with this thing.’”

11. Knowledge is Power and the Early Bird Catches the Worm

An email I sent to an intern from earlier this year titled “some of my thoughts/tips on reviews”:

-don’t give me fucking a yelp review, all right?? a review should be less a simple “listen to this record” or “don’t listen to this record” and more of a “this is why it is interesting or good or whatever.” i don’t think the point of reviews is to strictly tell ppl whether or not they should listen to it. often times, negative reviews of record even, can make me wanna hear the thing if the writer rendered the details right.

-avoid cliches. easy to fall into especially with music writing/criticism. but either say something in a straightforward and clear way or in a specific and creative way.

-Consider the possibility that a review of something can be as much a poem as it is a review

-try and draw original or unexpected parallels. example: the new Sneaks. I hear it and I hear a lot of ESG in it of course, and some other deceptively “naive” post punk stuff, but it also in a way makes me think of Schoolly D or like early Rick Rubin rap production (big splattering drums of early run DMC or beastie boys).

-use description or even summary as criticism. find ways to even when you’re just telling people the basics, include some criticism/observation. try and find a way to avoid indulging this binary where the part of the review is either “facts” or “criticism”

-don’t be afraid to take risks or get weird with it. if necessary i can help you rein it in a bit.

12. The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent

For City Paper in 2013, I covered a DIY venue that was raided by the cops. No charges, no police report, but some stuff got busted and it was fishy and racist and amid a moment—one of many—where DIY venues were being busted for some fuck shit. The piece I wrote, even as it highlighted police misconduct, essentially outed the venue. I fucked up and that screw-up still sticks with me, and it should. I’m sorry to the scene. This is privileged reporter white guy 101 and yet something that most reporters have yet to stare down and which I was fortunate enough to get early on: You’re almost always wrong in some way and you need to own up to that and when you screw up you need to shut up and listen first and never get defensive and let the people you’ve screwed over in some way tell you that.

13. The Outside and the Inside and the Secret of Fear of the Secret

“The Delaware toting ice is one of the most stirring spectacles I have seen. It makes you feel religious, or patriotic, or something.” - Joseph Mitchell, “My Ears Are Bent”

14. My Dream of the Dream of...

“A city without a paper like City Paper is a lesser city. I’m not sure where the stories we write and where the people you meet in those stories show up if we’re not around. Without us, you will have one less voice—one that’s skeptical and analytical and out there actually. . . . Look, Trump’s the president, this city’s a goddamned mess, Pugh’s off to a terrible start, and the city is going to lose its progressive media voices. Marc Steiner’s about to end his show and we’re basically dead in the water. For now, again like on the Titanic, we plan on holding on and doing great work until the end.” - Me in the blog post announcing the end of the City Paper

Brandon Soderberg was the editor-in-chief at City Paper.

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