foia

Just let your soul glo …

I sat in on a Freedom of Information Act primer for members of boards and commission. It’s a very lengthy piece of legislation, but if you’re really curious, read it and weep. (Also, there is a citizens’ guide to the state’s FOIA law.) Here is my (very brief) summary of what you need to know:

  • If you are paid with tax dollars and can’t serve citizens without transparency, you’re not serving citizens.
  • Usually, just because a meeting can be closed to the public, it doesn’t have to be.
  • You can disclose what was said in a closed meeting. If there is an objection, tell those who object to consider Portsmouth. When in doubt, contact the city or county or school board attorney.
  • FOIA matters because, in part of public perception, trust and accountability.
  • If you contact a public official in written form, what you sent becomes a part of the public record.
  • You don’t have to be a journalist to use FOIA.

If you think the people who get paid with our tax dollars aren’t operating in the sunlight, contact the Virginia Coalition for Open Government or the
Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

Thirteen years

Now I want to hear more 1980s songs with the original vocals over updated arrangements.

We have reached the point that my first day working in Petersburg seems like a long time ago. I visited the newsroom about a year ago, but looking at it from the outside on Sunday and pointing out the conference room, the sports department, the publisher’s office, the window behind my desk felt like it was the first time in ages. It might have been that the city has finally reached a point in its slow revitalization that things were markedly different in some places. It might have been that I’ve officially been away from the Tri-Cities for more years than I’ve been there.

After stopping at that newsroom, I rode to Hopewell by way of my old house in the far western end of that city. I honestly haven’t been past that house in nearly a decade. Although I was there 1½ years, once the longest time I was at one address that wasn’t my mom’s house, I don’t have a great attachment to that building. I’d forgotten the name of the street that led to mine. I (correctly) guessed that it was the right turn. In all honesty, I all but stopped living there long before I moved out. And I had moved out before I started working in Hopewell.

And then I got to the corpse of the Hopewell News.

Anyone got $595,000 I can have?
I inadvertently uploaded an greyscale version. I feel that it works in this situation.

It still makes me sad to see 516 E. Randolph Road boarded up. But we had a good run. We kicked ass when I was editor there. As I’ve said repeatedly, I wish I could do it again knowing what I do now, but I don’t regret a single thing we did there.

And most of the newsroom staff when it closed now works at papers with the same coverage area that operate out of my old Petersburg newsroom. If things went a different way, I would have left that newsroom just to wind up in it again.

Hopewell has changed for the better, too. That made me happier than Petersburg’s upswing because, although our coverage was a little aggressive and probably more critical at times than it should have been, I was rooting for that little industrial city the whole time I was there. And beyond.

On the way back to Charlottesville, we rode through Richmond to view the skyline. It’s no New York, but it’s a close as one can get in Virginia. Renée misses Richmond a bit, but I honestly don’t miss the Tri-Cities or Richmond. And I hate that. I’m sure we’ll wind up in a city again — it’ll be a while because I genuinely like the direction my current job is going — but I’m sure it won’t be Richmond. We’ve grown apart.

I just looked back at some of my previous March 13 entries in the hopes there was something profound worth revisiting. No, unfortunately.

Well, last year was the first time that it felt like Petersburg felt like forever ago. Those memories of the year I was living in an apartment in Walnut Hill and also the memories of zooming up River Road for nearly two years to my house in Hopewell are beginning to fade. I briefly got lost in Chesterfield County while taking back roads to Petersburg I used to take often. I had forgotten about a faster route to City Point from the Hopewell News.

But a few names and events from 2006 to 2008, my make-or-break years as a journalist, still stick out. A lot of them were good ones. I hope they stick around for a while longer.

Of course they will. They’re people and places that touched me so deeply, I’ll never forget them. I’ll carry the Cockade City and the Wonder City with me wherever I go.

And I’m glad that I’m able to.

homeward bound

People Just Do Nothing secretly is favorite show.

I totally thought I recounted my trip to Maryland two weeks ago. To make a long story short, on Friday I got stuck in traffic, got caught in a small snowstorm and I had a hard time concentrating on doing work in a Starbucks when everything went down in Richmond the second I crossed the Potomac River. The following day, I went to Fairfax, where I hung out with three fraternity brothers. That Sunday, I got from there to Albemarle County in about 1:40, so there’s really no excuse for me not to visit people in NOVA more often or for them to come visit me. (And I know I’m really bad at going to Richmond, but I feel that it’s too close for me to crash overnight but too far for me to run down for a day and come back in the middle of the night.)

Now, on to this past week, which took some unexpected turns toward the end.

In honor of Black History Month, I named her Ida Bunny Wells.

On Wednesday, I pulled into the parking garage and spotted this little creature in a space near where I was going to park. I have a soft spot for stuffed animals — the one I received the day I was born is safely hidden in my mother’s house — so I decided to save it from being squished by a minivan.

I took it with me to work, snapped this photo of it and tweeted out that some kid’s lost bunny was safe and sound in my newsroom.

It went mini-viral.

Two days later, after prominent locals, regular folk and people from far-flung areas liked or retweeted it, a local TV station that had a slot open for a feel-good Friday story slid into my DMs to ask if I’d be willing to go on the air about the lost bunny.

I wanted to get this rabbit home, and my ulterior motive for this whole thing was to put the community in community journalism, so I agreed.

Aside: I’m sure we’re all will forget what DM stood for at some point in the distant future, and I can’t wait to look back at this fondly like posts from more than a decade ago that mentioned AIM.

They didn’t mention my job description, so I cropped out the channel. Because I’m petty.

So, a week that began with people being interviewed for a opening in my newsroom and also for summer internships concluded with me being an Area Man with a small-town story on the Six O’Clock news.

It made up for the cancellation of a civic engagement conference on Saturday due to a lack of interest. A part of it was to feature me as a part of a panel. I was looking forward to that. (It’s partially because I wanted to see if I could speak to a large group again without going into far too much detail about a double homicide. I did that once to a group of Virginia State University students about a decade ago. Needless to say, the offer to build a partnership there was never heard from again.

Anyway, although it partially was intended to be a way to get my publication noticed beyond my live tweets of municipal meetings, this segment showed that one of the local news editors really wants to get a kid reunited with a stuffed animal. That’s all that really matters. If a kid’s buddy goes missing, any adult worth a damn should pull out all the stops get it back to the kid. If we can’t at least do that as a community, we aren’t a community.

august

So, I didn’t write about what happened in August because too much happened in August, and I didn’t have time to catch my breath. I’m not even going to properly caption all the photos.

So, I left my old job and started my new one. I had to hit the ground running, and it’s been incredibly hectic, but I finally feel like my pay is equivalent to the amount of work I’m putting in, so it’s been great. I think things will work out very well.

Anyway, my first week culminated on the anniversary of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville.

Nothing truly violent happened this time around, but now there is an argument about how the police response was disproportionate  to compensate for the approach last year.

All I will say is that, from these pictures, I obviously was out there on the weekend because 1) it’s kinda my job and 2) I refuse to be afraid.

Anyway, while I was still trying to figure out things like where the bathrooms are, another week of work went down into the books, we set up some things, like having radio spots and then I took a trip with by brother Butler to the Danville area. We went to an event at Virginia International Raceway, but we got distracted by the AAF Tank Museum.

Butler works near a Lamborghini office, so we got VIP access. It was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done in my entire life.

After this, I felt like I was kinda getting the swing of things at work. We had a lot of breaking news, though (as a matter of fact, I need to do real work either later today or all day tomorrow — and I definitely have to do something tonight), but it’s been great to mostly have my weekends back again and not have the pressures of daily deadlines constantly hanging over my head. I mean, I have deadlines, but now the idea is to get the best and most accurate story out instead of the first. This has taken a great load of stress off me over the weekends and allows me to do things like go to my mom’s house, fire up the grill and play with my dog in her backyard.

And now, here we are: Labor Day weekend. August feels like it went by in the blink of an eye. I’m excited about getting more settled in my role at my new journalism job, having a better work-life balance and feeling more like a member of the community.

Friday night, I was on the Downtown Mall. There has been so much strife and unrest in our country over the past few years, but seeing it full of life and hosting a rally for the University of Virginia the night before its drubbing of the University of Richmond reminded me of what could be. Of what we hope will be.

moving in

I would show pictures of my new desk, but there’s a banner emblazoned with our name on one side of my desk and the sign on the glass behind my desk casts a shadow on my desk. Even without the photos, you’ll be able to figure out where I work within five seconds of searching on Google, but I want you to earn it.

And, obviously, my long-running blog (14 years!) is not affiliated with my job.

Anyway, I have nearly two full weeks of work left at my old newsroom. I went to my new place yesterday, where I got some questions answered and had some discussion of short- and long-range plans.

Additionally, I got my parking pass and my key.

I packed up most of my desk on Saturday because I didn’t want to do it with a lot of people about and I’d failed to realize it was my penultimate Saturday shift. For the longest time, I only had one or two personal effects on my desk. As I got older, I realized that it was kinda weird that I didn’t have pictures or other pieces of flair on my desk. Especially since there was a stretch when the only trinket on my desk was a mug with a photo of a former mayor of Hopewell on it.

She has a rose in her teeth.

Long story.

Today, I put my few trinkets on my new desk. Only my coffee mug and cell charger are at my old desk. When I finished, I sat alone there for a few minutes and let it all sink in.

It’s almost time for a new adventure.

let’s try a new change

For the first time since 2008 (and that technically doesn’t count), I have taking a new position in the same general area as the place I’m leaving. My commute will go to about one song to between one and three.

I’m working for another media outlet. It’s not a direct competitor, so it’s not a move based in Daniel Plainviewesque “I told you what I was going to do” like when I jumped from Petersburg to Hopewell.

I’ve spent six years with this company, nearly all of it with this paper. That is half of my career. I had fully intended to go the distance, but there is some uncertainty coming up and this opportunity arose in the midst of it. I’ve framed it as I would feel like an idiot if I didn’t at least try for the position and also if I managed to get it and turn it down. It was time to make another leap of faith.

My job is a lot like others I’ve had before — I think I only have to tweak one sentence in the “About Me” tab here. I’m excited about helping guide this publication into its next phase. I’m also excited this being a change not made of an overwhelming urge to leave where I am. It’s like the first time I left that newsroom. Although a lot of reporters (and editors) have come and gone there, it’s always felt like a family. It’s just time for me to leave home on my own terms.

My new place currently has a relationship with the old one, so it’s still not like I’m truly gone. What soon will be my former newsroom always will have a special place in my heart, much like The Hopewell News, may she rest in peace.

My biggest problem is that I really, really, really want to go by E. Devon Robinson on the things I write (this is a thing I did from middle school to 2008), but I don’t want anyone calling me Devon. No one’s ever called me by my middle name.

July 27, 2007

I’ve covered two things that involved brandished handguns. One of them was in my general direction. There have been other implied threats and tense moments, but the moment below stands out the most.

Hours after it happened, we made light of it in that way that some people fall into to cope. After the shooting today at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, I thought of it again. Although nothing bad happened to us, it’s not one of those instances where you look back at it and laugh. One of our reporters recently got a message from someone who had been holding a grudge for years. Occasionally, we journalists wonder if that irate caller actually will do something. But, despite what gets hurled at us, we journalists can’t let it stop us.

As Capital Gazette reporter Chase Cook tweeted in the wake of the violence, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” 

Here is most of a post I made here 11 years ago when I worked in Petersburg. I made a few minor changes for clarification and truncated it because it referenced another post that you can’t read.

Because of the way my newspaper building is set up, people who want to physically submit letters to the editor or notices for lifestyles or anything directly newsroom-related have to come up winding creaky set of wooden stairs to get to the newsroom.

Today, a woman came up to submit a letter to the editor and request a story. She was in our police blotter a while ago after being arrested on charges of prostitution, solicitation and trespassing. She wanted to clear her name or something — we reporters weren’t really paying attention because our online editor talked to her first and then directed her to our managing editor, who was about to leave for the day.

Since the editor was ready to go home, the situation was a bit out of our control and it happened in my county, he was both trying to get rid of her shift her over to me. I wanted none of it, so I dialed a state police officer who was about to retire. I got his voice mail and started to leave a message.

Suddenly, she just started screaming for my editor to run her letter and write a story because she was not a prostitute. She asked a man in a car for $5, she said. He asked her what she’d do for it, she said. She was not a prostitute, she reiterated. Then she yelled, “I’m gonna go postal! I’ll make the massacre at Virginia Tech look like a kindergarten!” and stormed down the stairs.

Our editor followed her for a bit, which in retrospect was foolish, and when he returned told us that she almost knocked a customer down on her way out. He then called police.

As you may recall, this was about three months after the Tech shooting. She had a no-trespass order served against her. I don’t think I ever checked to see the outcome of her prostitution-related charges. We began locking the steel door between the newsroom and the rest of the building after that.

25th

I’m counting Iowa.

A week ago, I went to Omaha and back. I was out of my house for about 40 hours. I didn’t take a lot of pictures. We didn’t do enough sightseeing to do it.

I did the math and realized Nebraska would be my 24th state. Unless you’re traveling to North Omaha, it’s impossible to get to the rest of the city without going to a portion of Iowa that wound up on the western side of the Missouri River when it changed course. I’ve reached the halfway point of visiting all 50 states. I was on the ground in a vehicle in Iowa, so I’m including it. I made that ruling because I count it when I enter cities and counties in Virginia.

If I didn’t, I truly never went to Falls Church until earlier this year, which would have made it an incredibly small outlier in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years or so. And my first official trip to the city of Suffolk would have been my sophomore year in college, instead all of the times my family rolled through it from the time I was an infant.

Anyway, along with going to an awards dinner, we did a little touring of the city. We saw some of the Old Market and ate at Upstream Brewing Co. I had a burger made of Omaha steak. It wasn’t the best restaurant burger I’ve ever had, but it is No. 2, knocking down a place in Charlottesville. Out of all the gourmet burgers thrown at me, Smitty’s still is first (Theresa and I once had the menu memorized).

After that, we wandered a bit and wound up at the Imaginarium. It was a labyrinth of things from my childhood and other interesting items both old and new.

“This is the kind of place where, if you go down the wrong aisle, you end up in an ’80s fantasy adventure or an ’80s slasher film,” I said.

I was tempted multiple times to buy something, but then I thought about having to get things through the airport.

The awards were bittersweet, because it’s great that we’ve gotten recognized for our work, but what was covered was terrible. That’s the problem with a lot of journalism awards — we put a lot of human suffering on display, hopefully for the betterment of society or a collective vow to never do that again, so it sometimes doesn’t feel quite right to be feted for hard work we did to ensure a heinous event goes down in history. I put off writing this because I thought I would be able to say something more profound, but I also think I’ve reached my limit of justifying being proud of covering a murder trial or bringing down a corrupt official or writing 5,000 words on someone who is destitute and on drugs.

Anyway, we then got caught in a torrential downpour on our way to having nightcaps at the bar of Sullivan’s Steakhouse. It was there that it was cemented that #rvatank was national and global news.  (I’d like to point out that, if you scroll all the way down, aaaaaallll the way down, I am the origin of the hashtag.)

The next day, we were going to walk across a pedestrian bridge to Iowa, but we were dragging a bit and just toured the main Omaha paper. After that, we rode through Iowa again and headed back to Virginia via a three-hour layover in Atlanta. We had a layover in Atlanta going. It marked my fifth and sixth times in that city without seeing anything more than the airport and what’s visible from Interstate 85.

I say I’ve been there.

awards

Over the past few days, my newspaper won the top prizes in its category for the Virginia Press Association awards and my wedding photographer won a Pulitzer. I want to make a joke about the candid photo of me on my main page now is priceless, but Ryan took a photo of a tragic event.

It makes being enthused about this award awkward.

I’m sure you all know what happened in Charlottesville over the summer. I’m also sure you know that Charlottesville is no more racist than your average American city, so don’t be afraid to come here. In my younger, single days, I would have found a belly of the beast to live in out of spite, but I have a wife and want to have children and have no problem with doing it here. Other than wanting to land in a larger metropolitan area a few fives of years from now because my wife is from New York and I know there are aspects of life in an Alpha City she misses with every fiber of her being.

But we were struck with tragedy. Unlike other municipalities that responded to America’s most recent public racial strife with the swift removal of Confederate symbols, Charlottesville is hampered by state law. The City Council made decisions in part to challenge that law, which made it the target of provocateurs. That situation escalated quickly, and we’re going to have to deal with the fallout for years to come, unfortunately. The only comment I will make is that our state government needs to get out of policing the minutiae of local government, especially since that largely doesn’t apply to fiscal issues. Being a Dillon Rule state keeps Richmond from bailing out cities like Petersburg, but Richmond can force cities and counties to keep war memorials they no longer want. I say we should let them have more home rule, and if it leads to statues going up or coming down with each successive city council or board of supervisors, so be it.

But I am wavering into being subjective.

And I digress.

I can’t imagine how it felt to capture something that marked the end of someone’s life, that marked the end of the illusion that America has moved beyond the mess that caused my mom to graduate from a segregated high school and made my grandmother fear traveling on unlit roads at night and enter a local grocery store through the back door even into the 1990s. If I were him, and it wasn’t my last day in journalism, I don’t know if I could have come back for another day of journalism.

And I’ve seen some things.

It’s part of the reason I know I can’t hack it as a beat reporter. I can handle that stuff, but my life cannot be just the accounting of human suffering. Those people need a voice, but I can do that but so many times. In my early reporting days, I tried to write fully about murder victims. It got overwhelming.

I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

But we have to do this.

If we don’t show humans at their worst, who will?

Who will tell these stories in an attempt to shame us all into being better to each other?

Who will pop the bubbles of the insulated?

Who will show those in similar situations the cold comfort of not being alone?

This is why I do this. This is why so many of us do this until we can’t anymore.

Collectively, as journalists, we can’t give up. And please don’t give up on us. Our humanity depends on it.

desperation

A few days ago, I saw this Washington Post analysis of homelessness and hunger among college students.

I scoffed. This is nothing new.

I knew at least one homeless college student. There were days when I was absolutely famished and didn’t want to ask my family for help because I was supposed to be an adult and doing this on my own, briefly had three jobs and, in theory I was guaranteed — up until my senior year, when my dorm was demolished there wasn’t enough housing and I could have been homeless if not for my fraternity brothers and I renting our unofficial official house —  three meals a day from the dining halls.

This didn’t end after graduation. After a few months of only eating beans, getting the occasional Wendy’s sandwich, gorging myself on whatever baked goods showed up in the newsroom and willing my credit card bills (and gas prices) low enough for some meat, I asked my mom for food.

From 2006 to 2009, my mom bought me groceries. Occasionally, she still does. I also try to raid her freezer whenever I visit. It’s more of tradition at this point. Or she sees a killer deal through the connections she still has from the restaurant industry.

Typically, whatever she bought me was all the food I was going to get for about a month. On paper, I made enough to live. I got paid between $22,000 and $24,000 a year at my first paper. I don’t exactly remember, but I know I made less than $12 an hour and absolutely did not reach $25,000. My rent was about $600. I had utility bills and a car payment I wasn’t expecting to have. I had college-related debt to pay back. From the start, I would get my check stub and realize that the entire thing was spoken for. And then some. I had a bank at the time that gave everyone up to $500 to use, minus overdraft fees, after hitting zero. You had 30 days to get your account back into the black. I mastered having about $5 in on the 29th day and then jumping back down to -$480.

I was constantly tired. Journalism is not an 80-hour job. We pretend it is. I’ve never worked at a paper where people put down ever hour they worked. I don’t see how some people have a second job beyond reporting. I walked into every day of my first six years or so of journalism not knowing when I’d get home at the end of the day. Even when I had food to cook, I’ve come home too tired to cook it. I went a day or two without eating because I didn’t have time to eat or had no time to prepare anything. When I lived alone in Petersburg, I’ve passed out because of that on more than one occasion.

On one particular occasion in early 2007, it took me entirely too long to have time to cook the chicken I put in the fridge to thaw.

It definitely had started to spoil.

I was in no position to waste food.

Yes. That happened.

Despite heavily seasoning it and baking it until it nearly was burnt, I almost couldn’t bear to eat it. Luckily, I had some liquor, so I figured it would help kill the germs or help induce vomiting later.

I kept it down. I don’t know how, but I kept it down.

This still feels embarrassing, although a dozen years have passed. It’s because I went too long being too proud to ask for help. And then, when I asked for help, I was too ashamed to ask for more help.

You’re better off looking back at the time when you had to eat at a soup kitchen despite being in your chosen career than looking back at the time you cooked and ate rotten meat.