Alternative Reality: ‘California Divided’

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I thought that it was a good couple of weeks for alt weeklies as I surveyed recent stories published in alternative papers around the United States for the second installment in this regular reading list.

In Portland, the Willamette Week covered the city’s embattled mayor, Ted Wheeler. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, filed a charming profile of a blind pharmacist named Charles A. Champion. Christina Sturdivant Sani looked at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C. for the Washington City Paper. In Phoenix, a New Times reporter zeroed in on the questionable practices of Arizona’s former parks director.

Back East, DigBoston took aim at Massachusetts’ state gun purchasing agreements. All About Beer, the country’s oldest beer mag, was eulogized in Durham’s Indy Week. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, wrote an intense personal essay on his brother’s suicide. And the Chico News & Review published an amusing and informative dispatch on the Jefferson separatist movement in Northern California.

It goes without saying that I came across more good writing than I could include in this modest list. But I hope this mix of profiles, investigations, and personal musings will keep you busy until next time.

1. “Portland’s Mayor Is Struggling on the Job. And It’s About to Get Harder.” (Rachel Monahan, December 5, Willamette Week)

The Willamette Week, Portland’s best alternative newspaper, gives readers a long, detailed status report on the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, whose term began at the beginning of last year. Reporter Rachel Monahan portrays an ineffectual leader who is losing the faith of his allies after failing to deliver on a number of campaign promises, such as providing a shelter bed for every homeless Portlander.

No man is an island, but Ted Wheeler looks marooned. Next month will mark his second anniversary in one of the highest-profile jobs in Oregon politics—and Wheeler is struggling in a remarkably public manner.

No one doubts his intelligence or his integrity. But nearly all of the two dozen people WW spoke to about Wheeler say those qualities are not enough. They describe a mayor unable to move the city forward on challenges large and small. He’s disappointed the left and the right, while frustrating the institutional players who want to see Portland’s achievements measure up to its potential.

Wheeler seems unable to take control.

2. “Dr. Charles Champion, a Memphis Institution for 50 Years” (Maya Smith, November 29, Memphis Flyer)

Charles A. Champion is the blind proprietor of Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, TN. Maya Smith, a staff writer for the Memphis Flyer, has written a lovely profile of this 88-year-old pharmacist, who now spends most of his time greeting customers at the front of the store.

Opaque lenses hide eyes that, for the last four years, have been able to make out only faint light. The man in the glasses, wearing a white coat embroidered with “Dr. Charles A. Champion,” sits in a green chair in Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Champion is 88 years old, but still has his wits about him and shows up to work every day.

His wife of 60 years, Carolyn Champion, is sitting to his right. His cane, a stack of newspapers, and a plastic bucket of peppermints are on his left. Trusting his ears and gentle nudges from his wife, he gives one of each to everyone who walks by. Champion is the owner of the South Memphis pharmacy and has been there every day (Tuesday through Saturday) since 1991.

There are many fine details in this piece. But I liked this one in particular, a saucy quote from Champion, who has several strong opinions on medicine: “I turn down more people than I serve,” he says. “Just because you want a certain drug, it doesn’t mean you need it. I have to be the one to look out for people. I won’t give someone medicine just so they can continue living unhealthy.”

3. “California Divided” (Stephen Magagnini, November 29, Chico News & Review)

California’s Jefferson separatist movement has always served journalists well. In 1942, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle named Stanton Delaplane won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the “gun-toting citizens” who wanted to secede from the Golden State. In the Chico News & Review, Stephen Magagnini takes stock of the movement as it exists today in Northern California, which he describes as an “unlikely assortment of survivalists and hippies, pot growers and hardline cops, real estate appraisers and loggers, fencing instructors and gun lovers, Latinos and anti-immigrants.” Jefferson’s leader is Mark Baird, a rugged Trump supporter and something of a libertarian cowboy.

The movement has long been popular with a segment of rural far-Northern California, but Baird, 65, a strapping reincarnation of John Wayne, started breathing new life into Jefferson five years ago. The 6-foot-4-inch fire tanker pilot, rancher and Siskiyou County reserve deputy sheriff cuts an impressive figure. He sports a black belt holster, but instead of a sidearm, packs his weapon of choice, a copy of the Constitution.

Though it seems unlikely that the Jeffersonians will get their way, it would be foolish to dismiss the movement outright, given that Trump’s victory was a surprise to such a large swath of the American population.

4. “The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local D.C. News” (Christina Sturdivant Sani, November 29, Washington City Paper)

Christina Sturdivant Sani, the Washington correspondent for The Commercial Observer and an urban journalism fellow at Greater Greater Washington, takes a look at the underrepresentation of black journalists in D.C.’s media scene.

As a black journalist and native Washingtonian, I am equally proud to report local news and frustrated by my industry.

Beyond local black media, such as the Washington Afro American and the Washington Informer, there’s an underrepresentation of black journalists at print and digital outlets that cover D.C news.

In a city comprised of 47 percent black residents—the largest racial demographic in the city—it pains me that “mainstream” publications are majority white, most of them by a significant margin. It’s also telling that after writing for a dozen local news outlets, I’ve only had black editors at the Afro.

To its credit, City Paper gives Sturdivant Sani the space to take a look at its own track record with diversity. “Many editorial staffs around town, including Washington City Paper,” Sturdivant Sani writes, “could use a heavy dose of melanin — to document D.C.’s historically black culture and preserve the wellness of its black journalists.”

5. “Parks and Wreckage: Meet the Archaeologist Who Brought Down Parks Boss Sue Black” (Steven Hsieh, November 29, Phoenix New Times)

Steven Hsieh, a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, digs deep into an Arizonan archeological scandal. The protagonist of his story is Will Russell, who, while serving as a compliance officer for Arizona State Parks, blew the whistle on Sue Black, the department’s director who, with her deputy director, James Keegan, approached development “with more regard for awards and political ambition than archaeological sites,” Hsieh writes.

During Russell’s year and a half at Parks, he grew angry over practices he viewed as flagrant violations of state law.

Not long after he was hired, it became clear to him that Black and her allies, especially Keegan, did not value his role as a compliance officer. Parks leaders pressured Russell to treat antiquities sites not as cultural resources in need of protection, but as obstacles to development.

Records obtained by Phoenix New Times show Arizona Parks built gardens, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and cabins on several archaeological sites without following procedures intended to protect Arizona’s cultural resources.

6. “Fire Sale” (Chris Faraone and Curtis Waltman, September 27, DigBoston)

DigBoston, the cleverly named alt weekly, is currently knee-deep in an investigation into Massachusetts’ opaque state gun purchasing agreements, in collaboration with the Emerson College Engagement Lab and Muckrock, the non-profit news site.

Since the beginning of this year, our team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has examined hundreds of state purchasing agreements, for everything from heavy crime-fighting equipment to consumables for laser printers. Of the many contracts that caught our attention, the firepower free-for-all unpacked herein (SP16-AMMO-X85, abbreviated as AMMO in following references) stands out as especially dubious, with entities on all sides operating in an unchecked fashion despite being on the radar of state prosecutors. Nearly three years into the AMMO arrangement, a malleable open call that allows for multiple contracts to be approved under it, vendors have leveraged the opportunity to make millions of dollars off the state. For most of those procurements, there was no competitive bidding. And the process is far from transparent.

The second installment in the series was published in late November, and the next part, on tasers, will come out in January, according to Chris Faraone, who co-wrote the story and serves as DigBoston’s news and features editor.

7. “Saying Goodbye” (Anthony Mariani, November 15, Fort Worth Weekly)

A recent cover story for Fort Worth’s alternative newspaper — which, every week, publishes breaking news and cultural criticism along with a longform piece that usually tops out around 5,000 words — gets quite personal. Anthony Mariani, the editor of Fort Worth Weekly, writes about his brother Adam’s suicide, and the essay is sad, manic, and occasionally uplifting.

Everyone keeps telling me not to blame myself, that there was nothing I could have said or done to have changed a thing. But why? Why can’t I blame myself if that’s going to make me a better person, a better son to my mother and a better brother to my sister and other brother? And, perhaps most importantly of all, a better husband to my wife and father to my son? I was a lazy brother to Adam. There is no doubt about that. That is a fact. I could have called him more often. I texted him a bunch but rarely ever called. And I knew. I knew he was not doing well. Our mom exploded a couple of years ago when I chose to spend my vacation with my friends instead of with Adam. What’s the big deal? I whined. I even solicited Adam’s blessing while I was living it up with my buds. Ever humble and ever supportive of his little bro, he wrote off Mummy’s angst toward my vacation as her simply being her usual neurotic self. At least that’s what he told me. He was a good brother that way.

8. “For 39 Years, Local Mag All About Beer Shaped the Craft Beer Scene. This Is How It Collapsed.” (Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, November 27, Indy Week)

America’s oldest beer magazine, the Durham-based All About Beer, founded in 1979, appears to have ceased publication in mid-October. The magazine, whose website now sits abandoned on the web like so much digital flotsam, played a large part in elevating the country’s burgeoning craft beer movement, as Michael Venutolo-Mantovani makes clear in his detailed postmortem for Indy Week, the alt weekly serving North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

At the magazine’s founding, there were fewer than one hundred breweries across America, nearly all of which were mass producers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. But even then, AAB quietly heralded the ultra-nouveau movement of craft and small-batch brewing. Its fourth issue had a brief mention of newcomer Sierra Nevada—today the seventh-largest brewer in the U.S., with production facilities in Asheville. In the decades that followed, AAB found itself on the leading edge of an exploding scene.

It’s a sad moment when a publication goes under. Let’s pour one out for All About Beer.

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.