It’s been a rough month or so for news publications around the country, with recent layoffs at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett, along with impending cuts at Vice and McClatchy. In mid-January, too, almost the entire editorial staff of The East Bay Express, Oakland’s alt-weekly, was laid off.

Despite the carnage, though, alternative weeklies continue to publish ambitious, informative work, performing a vital service at a moment when local newspapers are disappearing at an alarming rate. The Phoenix New Times, for instance, published an aggressively reported two-part series on Warren Buffett’s son, Howard, who has earned a reputation as something of a border cowboy.

Seven Days, Burlington’s alt-weekly, profiled Charlie Morrow, the innovative musician and composer who is pioneering a new kind of immersive sound technology. Spokane’s Inlander published an in-depth story about grizzly bears, always an intriguing topic. Alex Woodward, in the New Orleans Gambit, documented the history of redlining in the Crescent City.

In Madison’s Isthmus, Howard Hardee took a look at a new effort to house the city’s homeless population. Nicholas Dolan wrote about the abolitionist John Brown for Iowa City’s Little Village. And Gabrielle Gopinath, in Humboldt County’s North Coast Journal, wrote an engaging piece on a recently restored church mural that had been hidden from view for a century.

1. “Howard Buffett’s Border War: A Billionaire’s Son Is Spending Millions in Cochise County” (Beau Hodai, January 13, 2019, Phoenix New Times)

Warren Buffett’s sexagenarian son, Howard, is cast in the first part of this jarring exposé as an aspiring border warrior who has purchased influence along the Mexico-Arizona dividing line, where he owns land, in order to act out what seems to be a dangerous, puerile fantasy as a desert vigilante.

Buffett describes his activities on the border using the language of humanitarianism and concern for the “rule of law.” But closer inspection shows he is using the same dog-eared playbook, and walking in the same well-worn circles, as infamous border warriors and vigilantes who have preceded him along southeastern Arizona’s border with Mexico. Setting Buffett aside from some of his more notorious predecessors is his extreme wealth, and not much more.

Read the second part here.

2. “Charlie Morrow Creates Soundscapes That Mimic How We Hear” (Dan Bolles, January 23, 2019, Seven Days)

Charlie Morrow, the musician, composer, and sound artist, has always straddled the mainstream and the avant-garde. In college, he played trumpet alongside the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and later worked in the advertising industry, perhaps most famously penning the jingle for Hefty trash bags.

Now, Morrow is knee-deep in developing his own 3D sound design technology through MorrowSound, the company he founded, creating immersive sound installations in seemingly random places such as the Kaiser Permanante health hub in Santa Monica, California. Dan Bolles, of Burlington’s Seven Days, paints a vivid portrait of this amusingly eccentric polymath.

When wearing the signature black bowler hat that often tops his round face, Morrow almost looks like a René Magritte painting come to life. And there’s a certain surrealism to what he does. Where the Belgian painter famously juxtaposed ordinary objects with extraordinary settings, Morrow uses ordinary sounds to create extraordinary environments—often, as in the case of the Santa Monica waiting room, in places where you’d least expect them.

3. “A WSU researcher lived with grizzly bears in Alaska. She came away convinced humans and grizzlies can coexist” (Wilson Criscione, January 17, 2019, Inlander)

If you know how Werner Herzog’s grim documentary Grizzly Man ends, then you might furrow your brow at this story about Joy Erlenbach, a bear biologist at Washington State University who has spent 300 days over the past four years living with grizzly bears in the remote Alaskan wilderness. She believes that, in the right environment, humans can live peacefully alongside grizzlies.

Erlenbach says she knows how to read bears’ body language. They are not much different than dogs in the way they express discomfort. She remembers once walking on a path through tall grass when she surprised a mama bear, whom Erlenbach called “Nina,” and two large cubs. Nina was almost within arm’s reach. Erlenbach took a step back, but that upset Nina. So instead, Erlenbach froze, and Nina decided to simply walk past Erlenbach.

Wilson Criscione’s profile for the Spokane Inlander doubles as an expansive look at the ways in which people are interacting with grizzlies in the lower 48 states — often violently.

4. “How ‘redlining’ shaped New Orleans neighborhoods — is it too late to be fixed?” (Alex Woodward, January 21, 2019, The Gambit)

Alex Woodward investigates the racist legacy of redlining in this vital piece, examining how the widespread practice of denying credit to African-Americans still shapes today’s housing market in New Orleans.

A 2016 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that people of color still are denied mortgages at higher rates than white homebuyers in 61 U.S. metro areas. And a 2018 report from National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that nearly 75 percent of redlined neighborhoods in the U.S. remain low- to moderate-income areas, and people of color live in nearly 64 percent of those neighborhoods.

Though redlining was eliminated with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, its damage was never undone.

5. “Housing Madison’s homeless” (Howard Hardee, January 10, 2019, Isthmus)

In Madison, Wisconsin’s alt-weekly, Isthmus, Howard Hardee writes about a couple of new supportive housing facilities, built to help the city’s homeless, that have been managed — somewhat shakily, it seems — by a Chicago-based company named Heartland Housing. There’s a lot riding on how well Heartland does its job, as the facilities are the first two projects in a larger plan, known as Housing First, to address homelessness in Madison.

The failure of Housing First in Madison would be, first and foremost, a tragedy for people living on the razor’s edge of poverty. It’s hard to overstate how much it means for formerly homeless people such as Melisa, 52, to have a roof and four walls after spending countless nights under bridges, on riverbanks and in the woods.

Melisa grew up on Jenifer Street, played soccer for East High School, and studied graphic design in college. Either she doesn’t understand how she became homeless or doesn’t want to talk about it. “I went through some situations,” she says vaguely. But she knows the streets were harsh. She made and lost friends. Some died. And she was highly vulnerable herself: One night, she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. “We just survived,” she says.

6. “‘Bright Radical Star’: When John Brown came to Iowa” (Nicholas Dolan, January 15, 2019, Little Village)

Before his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, the rugged revolutionary John Brown passed through Iowa, which Nicholas Dolan describes as a “bastion of the abolitionist movement” in his informative historical essay for Little Village, the publication serving Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Leading up to 1859 and that ill-fated scheme, Brown and his fellow insurgents spent several months preparing in a modest Iowa community, even recruiting some soldiers from its ranks. It’s a story that speaks to America’s complicated relationship with religion and violence, and Iowa’s unsung radical history.

7. “The Hidden Palace” (Gabrielle Gopinath, January 31, 2019, North Coast Journal)

Humboldt County’s North Coast Journal published this fascinating article about a recently restored mural in Ferndale’s Church of the Assumption, painted in 1896 by the little-known artist Franz Bernau. The mural had been hidden from sight under whitewash for about a century, but now churchgoers are treated to a vibrant display that, in Gabrielle Gopinath’s telling, recalls a painting by M.C. Escher.

When you enter the Church of the Assumption today, the effect is dazzling. It can be hard to tell where architecture ends and painting begins. This impression intensifies as you approach the rear of the church, where floor-to-ceiling murals frame the altar, reaching some 50 feet above the ground. Below the chancel window, the mural depicts a sanctuary curtain hanging along four bays separated by painted columns and topped by fan ornaments, all rendered in starchy trompe l’oeil.

Gopinath’s vivid descriptions leave you with a strong desire to see the mural in person.

8. “Ilhan Omar’s improbable journey from refugee camp to Minnesota Legislature” (Cory Zurowski, November 7, 2016, City Pages)

Ilhan Omar, the newly elected Minnesota congresswoman — and, along with Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women in the House of Representatives — has been the subject of a lot of intense scrutiny since she took office at the beginning of the year.

But that’s nothing new for the 37-year-old Somali-American, who got her start in politics in 2016, when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. That same year, the writer Cory Zurowski documented Omar’s somewhat tumultuous entry into politics, along with her circuitous route from Mogadishu to a refugee camp in Kenya to Arlington, Virginia, where her family first moved when they got to the United States — and where a young Omar struggled to fit in.

Classmates stuck gum to her headscarf when they weren’t trying to yank it off. None of her peers bothered to communicate, even to say hi. They stared instead. The new kid sat solo at lunch, a loner during recess as well. Omar’s English improved.

Then came her classmates’ questions: Does it feel good to wear shoes for the first time? Do you really have hair? Do you have a pet monkey? “I’d say the kids were curiously brutal,” says Omar, “but the lunch ladies were kind to me.”

Soon after her arrival in Virginia, Omar moved with to Minneapolis, and so marked the beginning of her rapid political ascent.


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.