Sunday, January 17, 2010

Five Year Roundtable

Jim: January 16, 2005, we published our first weekly edition. So this is our five year birthday and we're going to roundtable on that. Participating are The Third Estate Sunday Review's Dona, Ty, Jess, Ava, and me, Jim; Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude; Betty of Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man; C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review; Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills); and Isaiah of The World Today Just Nuts. Betty's kids did the illustration. This is a rush transcript. None of us expected this to last five years. I'll start the roundtable by yet again singing our "Creeque Alley." Jess, Ty and I were roommates. Dona and Ava were roommates. We all attended college in New York. We were all journalism majors back then. And we were always talking about starting up a website. Ava will say she was largely left out of those talks and only included because she was Dona's roommate and she's probably right. I had a crush on Dona and that was another reason to endlessly pitch, "We should do a website." And we got closer and closer to doing it but what pushed it was that C.I. came to speak at our campus. C.I. was speaking out against the Iraq War. It was a great speech and, after it was over, I was one of many waiting to speak one-on-one. When it was my turn, I said to C.I., "You do The Common Ills." It was so obvious because we all read that website and loved it. And C.I. was speaking the way she wrote. So I was the first person to make the connection and she was taken by surprise and really had nothing to say. I think out of fear of blackmail she agreed when I told her that some friends and I wanted to start a website. So she agreed to help, stating, "I really don't know anything." Which wasn't really true but I called everyone and we all got together at Ty, Jess and my place and started working.


Dona: And started flirting. At least you and I. And it was a pretty easy writing edition. Especially compared to the way things are today. We wanted to do group writing and we did that. And we only had two really obvious problems that night. There was a third but I'll let someone else grab that. Our worst problem was that we had a friend design a template during the edition and it was gorgeous and we all loved it. And then we go to publish our first story and somehow the thing crashes. And we spend forever trying to figure out why and can't get ahold of Paul, our friend who designed it, he's asleep and not answering his phone. I think we spent at least two hours tinkering with the template and finally C.I. and Jess said we needed to pick a standard template from Blogger/Blogspot or we were never going to get anything posted. So that's what we did. That took care of problem one. Problem two was our feature list. We were tossing out ideas and Jim said TV. He said TV plays too large of a part in college life for it to be ignored. Ava and C.I. both were against TV being included. And Ava wants to speak.

Ava: Just to emphasize what we were doing. First off, this 'talk' of doing a website was never concrete or specific. And that was clear as we planned what we'd do that first weekend five years ago. What we wanted to do then we either gave up on or, in many cases, never tried. We were students, our focus was going to be on college life. We did do some good stories on that at the start -- the abortion article, the rehab article and I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting. But there was a desire to be more out there and push the envelope more and TV just didn't seem to fall into that. Back to Dona.

Dona: Yeah, we did have a lot of plans back then. And what's so interesting is that we do push the envelope these days. But not in the way we planned. I'd like to come back to that topic. But the big back-and-forth was over to do TV or not and Jim pretty much decreed it would be done and so it was. Ava and C.I. went along and they had the best lines and ideas when we were writing the TV piece.

Jim: And after two or three reviews, that became Ava and C.I.'s beat because they did better than the rest of us. We were getting e-mails and personal feedback praising this bit or that bit in the TV pieces and it was always Ava and C.I.'s bits. So we smartly turned it over to them. And I cut Dona off to offer that summary. I'm tossing to Ty for five years ago reflections.

Ty: A great deal is made of the fact that Ava was left out -- and she was. It took C.I. standing up for her in that first writing session for Ava to be listened to. But in terms of left out, I also felt kind of left out because Jim was hot for Dona and Dona for him -- it had been obvious for weeks -- and now, during the writing, it was becoming obvious that Jess liked Ava. Now C.I. was leaving Sunday morning and might or might not ever participate again but I truly was feeling like the fifth wheel and that's probably what I remember most.

Jim: Did anyone else grasp that? Everyone's shaking their heads no. Our apologies, Ty. I want to stay with Ty because I think that's enough first writing edition talk. Ty had a secret -- woooh. And Ty went public with it. Talk about that.

Ty: Jim's talking about my being gay. He and Jess knew and most people I had classes with, if I spoke to them at any length, knew because I wasn't hiding it. But we had a few professors who were reading us back then including one who was just adament that I must never say that I was gay -- either online or in real life -- because then I would be the reporter just assigned to the gay stories. I don't know why that would be and it might have been and might not have been but his attitude, the professor's, became more and more homophobic and I became less and less enchanted with journalism. And I was talking to C.I. about it. And she suggested I stay at her 'house' that summer. Put quotes around 'house.' I hadn't seen it and I had no idea it would be that big. But she thought I just needed to get away from that mind set and do something new. She arranged an internship for me with a friend of her's who is a film director. And I had a blast. And I didn't hide that I was gay and it wasn't an issue. I went on to work for another director friend of C.I.'s -- as an intern -- and I just didn't want to leave. I didn't want to go back to campus. I was soured on it and just not going to go back there. And I really worried that would create a crisis. C.I. had participated most weekends by phone. And now here I was going to be another participating by phone. And we had already started bringing in a number of others and it just seemed like my move might unravel everything. But then Ava told me she was staying as well. Which meant Jess was staying.

Jess: Right. Ava hated New York. For a variety of reasons including xenophobia aimed at Latinas. And I didn't get that on our old campus. There were some obvious examples of it and I'd get that and be offended but I didn't get it really until we were out here that summer, the summer Ty is talking about. Ava and I came out here as well. Ava grew up out here, has family out here and it's a different interaction in the Bay Area then back east. And I did see the way Ava, back east, was being set aside or stereotyped. And, to be clear, I'm speaking of our old campus which was predominately Anglo White. And around the end of June, I think, Ava told me she wasn't going back. So I went ahead and made plans to transfer out here as well. That left Jim and Dona back in New York and you two only decided at the last minute. But that was a big shift and I would argue it changes the rhythm of the pieces. That might also be a result of having a little more experience but I can read a piece written when we were NY-based and tell that's where we were just from the way the piece reads.

Jim: And it's an improvement or a loss?

Jess: An improvement.

Jim: So that's one way we've changed. Dona, Ty, Jess, Ava and myself live at C.I.'s now. Wally and Betty do as well, but I'm focusing on Third. All of us got our undergraduate degrees. Dona and I went on to graduate school, Jess went on to law school, Ty works in the world of film and Ava's put plans on hold to focus on speaking out against the Iraq War. Huge applause for Ava for doing that, by the way.

Dona: And we're engaged.

Jim: Yes, Dona and I are engaged now. C.I., want to jump in?

C.I.: Yeah, I'll jump into note that we've forgotten someone: Dallas. I don't know when he started, I think it was the first edition, the first weekend. Am I wrong?

Jim: No, you're not. Actually, you called Dallas because of the template problems. When we were still trying to fix it, you called him to see if he had any idea and he logged in to look at it and said something about there were too many codes -- programming codes -- that weren't closed or something. And he put in links that first weekend. We were rushing to get something up -- a detail that's never changed -- and I was groaning about finding the links and inserting them, I was on the phone with Dallas, and he said, he was still logged in and he could pull up the article -- we'd only typed up the one -- and put in links for us. So that was a big help and Dallas has always been a big and huge help. And I'm so sorry for forgetting him. For our first year, a little longer in fact, C.I. was billed as a helper because she didn't want to be a part of Third.

Dona: Jim, you worded that badly. She felt that it was our site and she was happy to help but it was our site and she already had her own.

Jim: Okay, thank you. Rebecca was the first person brought in to help with an edition. Then Kat followed and then Betty. And now days it's just a cast almost as large as The Simpsons. Rebecca?

Rebecca: You had to call on me. Hmm. I wanted to speak later and I'll throw the chronology off here but too bad. Dona became adament that the site needed more than text. She felt that Third needed illustrations and that was a big change. Illustrations not only gave it a visual look but they also helped with the pacing of pieces. In addition, Dona was the one who always advocated for short pieces and would argue that we needed to vary the length of pieces. I believe that was a visual issue as well. Those were two important aspects that took place after the first year. Other than that, it would probably be the weekend writing edition where Jim told Ava and C.I. they were being identified as the writers of the TV piece. They didn't want to be singled out but Jim and others were getting tired of saying, "Thanks but actually that piece was written by . . ."

Jess: And it was getting tired of it. It wasn't being angry or mad about it. I still hear from my family about how great the TV articles are and the only difference now is that they say "Ava and C.I.'s articles" and I can say thank you and be happy. But before they were identified as the writers, the rest of us felt like we were Ringo or something, like people were coming up to us and going, "Ringo, 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' great song! You wrote a great song, Ringo!"

Jim: Kat?

Kat: The thing that surprised me the most was how much discussion there was before any writing took place. It was as if you were all going to do anything but actually write.

Jess: To twist Tom Petty, the writing is the hardest part.

Kat: Yeah. And the editorial was always the worst. I got used to it before a lot of the others were participating. And Betty saw it and couldn't deal with it. But, those were rough.

Jim: Kat's referring to when we were all tired and the editorials would basically be, for the meat of it, C.I. and I knocking the topic around.

Kat: Your wording that nicely.

Jim: I am.

Kat: One thing we did different this edition was the editorial came first and that's never happened before. That's really all I have to say.

Ty: I'm going to kick in the first question from an e-mail right now. Why, Jonah wants to know, have we not returned to our list of what we listened to during the writing? He writes, "I know others find it as interesting as I do and a piece that is just a top ten list should be quick to write. So it would mean an easy article for you guys to turn out." Anyone?

Dona: I'm really the one who nixed it. I just felt like it wasn't that much to begin with and we'd been doing it for so long and I started seeing other people doing it, for example, I saw it at CounterPunch. And when I read it at CounterPunch, I just found it so boring. And I figured that a lot of people probably found it boring here as well.

Jim: Okay. Betty.

Betty: Well at this point the online community was The Common Ills, Rebecca's site, Third and A Winding Road. I wanted to start up my own site but I wanted to know what I was getting into. So I asked if I could call in on the writing editions here and I did that for four to six weeks before I started my own site. Looking back, if I hadn't, I wouldn't have started my own site. It was a lot of fun, whether I was just listening in or listening and participating. But, of course, when I had my own site, it was just me at the keyboard and a lot less fun.

Jim: Do you regret starting a site?

Betty: No. No. Not at all. I'll hit the five year mark this spring and at my worst, and I can be pretty bad as a blogger, I've still managed to put out a Black voice. There are so few online and we're so often overlooked and ignored. We're the ones that don't get linked to. And to know that and to still be able to blog and put out a voice is something I am very pleased with.

Jim: Rebecca was talking about Dona's move to push for illustrations here and we actually started running illustrations before that. Dona's pushing in 2006. But we'd already been reposting Isaiah's comics here starting in 2005. Isaiah's first comic was May 2, 2005. Isaiah does comics for The Common Ills and did that to give the site a visual presence. So we'll turn to Isaiah for evaluation of Third's visuals?

Isaiah: Okay. Betty's kids usually do some interesting illustrations. The new ones that will go up this week are more abstract. I think Third has some strong illustrations and I know there's talk of coming up with a new one for the TV articles but I'll just point out that if that happens there will be a huge backlash because that's been the illustration for over three years now. And before it became the illustration, there were several attempts that I know Jess, for example, wasn't pleased with. I agree with Dona that illustrations were needed and think her championing of the issue took Third to another level.

Jim: Okay, back to pushing the envelope. What Dona and Ava raised earlier. Jess?

Jess: I don't think we got complacent. I think we hit as hard if not harder every week. I think there are a lot of people in the last 12 weeks or so who would, for example, insist that we hit too hard. I'm thinking of one e-mail in particular.

Ava: I'd agree with that and note that our job is not to be a fan club. We're not here to shake pom-poms. The Iraq War was going on when we started and it continues to drag on to this day. Anyone who's walking around with a silly grin on their face is either drugged or willfully stupid. I think we live in outrageous times and, if you're not outraged, it means you've either dropped out or you've become part of the war machine. And, sadly, a large number of Democrats have become just that with their refusal to call out Barack Obama.

Ty: I'm really proud of the fact that you can look at what we were calling out in 2005 and read us today, five years later, and we haven't flip-flopped. We haven't said "night is day!" just because a Democrats in the White House and he's saying "night is day!"

Jim: I'd agree and C.I. and I were talking about something last weekend while we were running that I wanted to bring in here to go out on. We were talking about Beth's "Reflecting on 2009 (Beth)" and I noted how I'd voted for Nader and C.I. said she'd never voted for anyone but a Democrat in a presedential election and didn't think the day would ever come when that wasn't the case. Then 2008 came. So I'm tossing to C.I. to explain what she said.

C.I.: I explained that if I hadn't been doing The Common Ills, I probably would have voted for Barack. If I hadn't been doing The Common Ills, I probably would've whored myself out the way a lot of others did. I would've held my nose and voted for a War Hawk while kidding myself that he wasn't that. But doing the website, it forced me to stick to convictions. And there's an issue of responsibility that comes with doing a website. Is that what you wanted, Jim?

Jim: Yeah. And that's what the five years have been for me -- and I think most of us. The pieces here -- that you enjoy or hate -- force us to think things through, force us to debate and discuss and that's been the best thing about the last five years.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }