Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Tag: Newspapers

Karma comes home

That’s me, on the left, with WXXI’s Randy Gorbman, reporting live from the jazz fest this summer.

Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted…?

Oh, yes. Reporting on the Rochester arts scene. Music, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, literature. Dressing up your dog in holiday-appropriate costumes. The stuff that represents the best of humanity. All of that – or, at least my role in it – came to a skidding halt when I was laid off by the local daily newspaper in September of 2017.

But what the Democrat and Chronicle does not value – and I know, I was in the meetings – WXXI understands. I have been doing two stories a month for the area’s public radio station for a little more than year. Covering the jazz fest, the Fringe Festival. Most recently writing about the loss of Rochester Music Hall of Famer Bat McGrath. And exploring the tale of Lesley Riddle, the black country-blues singer who played a huge role working with The Carter Family to popularize country music in the 1920s. Then he was promptly forgotten, before being re-discovered in the 1960s after having lived in obscurity for more than two decades here in Rochester. A Rochester story that parallels that of blues legend Son House so much, it is almost uncanny.

But two stories a month is not enough for a community whose arts scene is so vibrant, so interesting. We face a lot of problems in Rochester. Poverty. A dysfunctional city school budget. Mistaking a plate heaped with macaroni, home fries, hot dogs and meat gravy as cuisine. But artistic creativity is not an issue in this city.

So on Monday morning, I started at a newly created position at WXXI. Arts & Life Editor, Which, I assume, means I’ll have to check my own spelling. And we have plans. Vibrant, interesting plans, although perhaps falling a little short of Oprah giving a car to every member of her studio audience. YOU GET A CAR! AND YOU GET A CAR! Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, and months, you shall be rewarded.

We’ll make it happen as fast as we can. The only things that will hold us up are technical issues. Like, I’m staring at the phone on my desk. It has 28 buttons on it. I don’t know how to use the thing.

The arts scene is equally complex. Our deep cultural scene must be represented by not only telling the stories of our hometown musicians, and artists, but by treating the city as every bit deserving of attention from the biggest names in the arts as any major city receives. The arts is how we celebrate the triumphs, and address the difficult issues, of society.

It’s important to remain on the razor’s edge of culture. I’m your guy, I stopped wearing yoga pants a few years ago.

I tried to make good use of my two years in exile. I had aging-parent issues. The dog got long walks. I read a lot; Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is astonishing, he wasn’t anything like the guy you learned about in junior high history class. I had my own book published, “22 Minutes,” the story of a Lake Ontario sailor and a tragic World War II naval battle. 

But here’s the best part: the support I received from friends and strangers was unexpected, beyond what I would ever ask for. My last act before walking out the D&C door for the final time was to post a message on Facebook, explaining I’d just been laid off. I expected a few responses. “Sorry Dude, I’ll buy you a drink if I ever see you again.”

Instead, a tsunami of responses hit. Outrage from hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom I didn’t know. Strangers stopped me everywhere – in grocery stores, in restaurants – to tell me how much they missed my writing, and how they’d cancelled their subscriptions.

And it just kept on coming. An unexpected support system emerged. At my going-away party – we called it “The Freedom Party” – friends presented me with a beautiful laptop computer and read poems about me. Friends gave me tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. There were lots of dinner invitations at friends’ homes. I’d walk into a bar and a glass of red wine would magically appear in my hand. We’d go out to eat at a restaurant and at the end of the night my friends had quietly paid the bill. I had several friends, suspecting financial hardship, offer to loan us money. Not just a few hundred bucks. I mean a few thousand dollars.

Amazing friends. I’ll never forget their support. I’ve written virtually every day on that new laptop. Blogs, freelance stories, a few songs, a novel about surrealist artists and robots. It’s better than it sounds.             

While cleaning the attic one day, I found a stack of newspapers. Democrat and Chronicles, and the now extinct Times-Union. All dating back to 1989, 1990, and when I first moved to Rochester, as assistant sports editor of the Democrat and Chronicle. I’m not sure why I kept them. The big news in Rochester then was serial killer Arthur Shawcross. But looking at those newspapers, now more than two decades old, I was astonished at how large they were. Not only their dimensions, but the number of pages. And on those pages, dozens of local bylines and photos. There were swarms of young and smart reporters like Steve Orr and Gary Craig. Crime news, sports news, society news, threatening weather, bowling scores. Each issue of those old newspapers was a portrait of a day in Rochester, yellowed, preserved like an insect trapped in amber.

It’s not like that anymore. Orr and Craig are still there, still smart but not quite so young, looking kinda lonely in the dwindling newsroom, the job titles on their business cards now reading something like Craig’s “Murder, Dead Gangsters and Ukulele Players Beat.” And he’s pretty good at it. Yet the baseball team, the Red Wings, is covered only when convenient. And our arts scene is a neglected mansion. One of our local rock bands, to paraphrase the president, “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” and you wouldn’t read about it.

But that’s the disaster that’s today’s media landscape. Corporate thinking is silencing one of the most-vital engines of democracy. Today, media properties are junk vehicles being sold for parts.

Robert Siegel, the now-retired host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” was in Rochester two weeks ago, and something he said struck me as the truth. Your local newspaper, wherever you live, is likely owned by some out-of-state corporation. Making decisions not for the community that your newspaper serves, but for the financial benefit of shareholders. Public radio, and public television, is a different business model. It does get some federal money. Sometimes donors step up with a big check: Thank you Betty Strasenburgh, Rochester activist and philanthropist, you’re why I’m sitting in this chair in the WXXI building on State Street. But mostly, WXXI survives through a public that acknowledges it must invest in some kind of media vehicle that stands apart from the forces that have disemboweled newspapers and commercial radio.

Two other D&C newsroom employees were laid off on the same morning as I was, both of whom had been there longer than me; I calculated that nearly 90 years of institutional memory went out the door that day. But WXXI is growing. Monday, my first day here, was also the first day for videographer Max Schulte, who I worked with at the D&C for more than 20 years. Arriving a week earlier, and now working on the fifth floor of this building, is David Andreatta, former D&C columnist, now the new editor of CITY newspaper; it’s a subsidiary of WXXI, so some of my writing will appear there. Denise Young is a WXXI editor, I once worked with her at the D&C as well.

You can see where this is going. The morning I was offered this job at WXXI, September 16, was two years ago to the very day that I was laid off at the D&C. Some folks say karma’s a bitch. But it depends on where you’re standing at the moment. Because karma is often the truth, revealed.

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My obituary moment

Last week I had caught my bus for the usual ride downtown and found a seat next to another fellow. He looked at me. “Hey,” he said. “You’re the guy. The newspaper guy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

A few days ago I was watching Paterson, a beautifully subtle film about a bus driver who writes poetry. After a conversation about William Carlos Williams, a Japanese tourist who was sharing a park bench with the bus-driving poet asked him if he wrote poetry.

“No,” the bus driver said.

Twelve hours later, the connection between these two scenes, one from a movie, one from my life, fell into place. In Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s dog had shredded his notebook filled with poems. How can you be a poet when you have no poems? So no, he answered honestly, he was not a poet.

It was the same thing when I got called into the Democrat and Chronicle Human Resources office on Tuesday. “We’re eliminating your position,” the editor said.

So now my answer to the guy on the bus will be, “No, I’m not the newspaper guy.”

Two characters, a New Jersey bus driver and a newspaper arts and entertainment writer, who no longer knew who they were.

It’s a dangerous thing to tie your identity to your job. I’m not sure where the tipping point came, but somewhere during my 27 years at the Democrat and Chronicle I could no longer tell the difference between my personal life and my professional life. Maybe it was the day at the jazz festival when a guy asked me for my autograph. I looked at him and said, “Are you joking?”

The editor was wrong when she told me they were eliminating my position. Someone else will have to write the long Sunday feature stories about the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player whose wife didn’t get proper treatment for breast cancer and died, because the cult-like church they belonged to believed God heals all. Someone else will have to interview Brian Wilson, carefully navigating his drug-ravaged brain to discover the genius within. Another writer will have to find the words to describe the giant spermatozoa floating over the heads of 10,000 people last weekend at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.

The newspaper wasn’t eliminating my position. It was eliminating me. That’s just the language corporations use so they don’t have to deal with the humanity in the situation.

I believe I said, “I’ll go get my shit and leave.” My language might not have been quite that coarse, I can’t remember now. But that’s what I was thinking.

As my fellow newsroom employees gathered around my desk for the uncomfortable condolences and hugs, I couldn’t find the words to explain how I felt. Which was… I felt like nothing. I’ve always taken my job so seriously. Now that I didn’t have the job any longer, it was like I didn’t care. I hear 27 years of being rode hard and put away wet does that to a horse.

If they live that long.

I wonder what parts of me have gone missing, and which ones will return. A few months ago, I was told I couldn’t use social media for political comment, and I was not allowed to appear at public rallies; not as a speaker or anything official, I just couldn’t be there to see for myself what was going on.

As a condition of employment, I had to be someone other than who I am.

Big companies guard their images closely, and I can’t blame them for that. There are millions in CEO salaries to protect, shareholders must be rewarded for their investment. Yet news organizations use social media for political comment, and they are often observed at public rallies, if only to report what’s going on. They aggressively protect their First Amendment right to do so. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”

More so, I think.

My final act before walking out the offices of the Democrat and Chronicle for the last time was to go on Facebook. I typed:

Myself and two of my newsroom colleagues just got laid off at the Democrat and Chronicle. After 27 years here, I feel… relief.

That was it. I hit “send.” I figured a dozen or so friends might reply. Sooo sorry Dude, let’s have beers, I’ll buy… But if you’re reading this, you maybe know what happened next. Hundreds of people responded to my post. Other people added their own Facebook posts, and people responded to them as well. I can’t count how many people joined conversations. A thousand? More? I don’t know how many people read those posts. The Rochester Fringe even posted a statement that began, “Yesterday, we were devastated to learn of the layoff of Jeff Spevak, a true champion for the arts…” As of Friday morning, 13,000 people had viewed it.

I don’t know what to make of it. A city’s arts community responding with outrage to the news that the daily newspaper had dismissed its single remaining arts reporter. People cancelling their subscriptions. Praising my writing as though I’m some kind of keyboard savant. I inspired people? Musicians valued my judgment? People, I used to be a sportswriter, for chrissakes! I haven’t been able to read most of these hundreds of comments yet. What I have read thus far – and I will read every word, even if it takes me into next week – has made me laugh out loud and cry. I love you all. The arts fighting back. My unemployment tragedy is social media genius.

It will all probably go away this weekend. I’m sure the Democrat and Chronicle hopes that is the case. But for now, I’m enjoying my obituary moment.

I’m already recovering some of me that has gone missing. You’re looking at a piece of it. I’d given up blogging for a while, telling myself I would resume when I finished the novel I was writing. The book took a lot longer than I expected. A half a year ago, I stopped getting up at 6 a.m. to crank out the words. I was wearing out. I staggered to the finish line a month or two ago.

But I love how it came out.

Now I have all kinds of time on my hands. No excuse to not blog. And now that I have your attention, unintentional as it may be, I hope you’ll follow The Critical Mass. Dammit, I’m gonna get something out of this. I promise The Critical Mass will maintain the high degree of irreverence that defined it in the past.

I’ve started writing another novel. I’m on chapter two already. It’s coming back to me!

It goes back to Paterson. The Japanese tourist, the William Carlos Williams fan, is so pleased with the conversation that he leaves the bus-driving poet a gift. It is a beautifully bound notebook. He flips through the pages. They are all blank. He must fill them. The bus-driving poet is a poet once again.

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