Friday, January 05, 2024

Red Letter Poem #189

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.

To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.









Red Letter Poem #189





Margin: Heroes 



Not Wonder Woman, Bat-whoever


iron-on emblems, masquerade masks,

capes flapping their chests like loose shutters—


but others


who yank alarms, bolt into fire, strip off fear’s

top layer of skin and dive from cliffs,

swim to the call, mount the sinking raft,

fuel their pacifist hearts with gasoline and strike a match,

scramble from teargas, lock arms before tanks,

shout, write, paint, sit, go limp



                              ––Denise Bergman


I am writing this on the first day of the new year; perhaps it’s in lieu of a more traditional resolution.  In recent days, I’ve found myself saying similar things over and over in notes to friends (and to more than a few Red Letter readers who’ve sent me e-mails in response to my last installment) anticipating this ordinary but somehow momentous milestone.  We are not unmindful of the choices we’re facing, and the magnitude of their consequence.  We leave 2023 saddened, exhausted, more than a little terrified by some of the possibilities on the rise.  But we are also searching for any shred of optimism that will help us marshal our energies.  Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”  2024 may turn out to be both.   Reports about climate catastrophe have become something of the norm––whole communities undermined or even obliterated––and yet many governments still refuse to address this as a priority.  Authoritarianism seems to have spread around the planet like a new contagion.  And here, in a country that likes to think of itself as a ‘beacon for the world’, we’ve been flirting with a complete undermining of the Constitutional order, not to mention the social compact that has, for two-and-a-half centuries, bound our fates together.  It’s clear that a large segment of the American electorate is toying with the idea of selecting a fundamentally undemocratic individual to lead us––as if what democracy needed now was an Arsonist in Chief.  Will the American experiment burn like Rome, like the many great empires that vanished before us?


So, to counter these dark thoughts, I decided to bring you something of a change––in tone, if not in subject matter.  This new poem from Denise Bergman begins playfully but, even with its light touch, becomes something of a summons to our better selves.  In a sequence of poems called “Margin”, she casts her attention on a variety of lives that are too often marginalized in society today, offering them their well-deserved moment in the spotlight.  Here, in the litany of that final stanza, we recognize a host of actions that defy our mounting fears.  First responders, fiery activists, street protestors who try to bring the doom-machine to a screeching halt (even if that places their own welfare at risk.)  Anything but surrender to the reactionary forces that seem to prefer chaos, division, even destruction rather than dialog or compromise.  What’s called for in dire times are heroes; are you, am I the one we’ve been waiting for?   Denise has authored five poetry collections, the most recent being The Shape of the Keyhole (from Black Lawrence Press.)   One of her poetic approaches is to explore a single historical figure or situation so that we may better imagine the reality of that experience.  Keyhole centers on one week in1650 when her protagonist, an accused witch, is awaiting execution.  Sometimes even a clear-eyed perception can be a heroic act––especially if the verse is able to unshackle the heart.


Denise’s poem made me think of the final scene from the movie Jojo Rabbit––do you remember it?  In Taika Waititi’s surreal drama, a ten-year-old boy has been forced to serve in the Hitler Youth while all around him, it’s clear, the war is grinding to a close.  He’s like any child, trying to do what the world expects of him.  But, at the very same time, he’s been hiding a young Jewish girl in the attic of his house.  When Allied forces finally subdue the Nazis, and the two young people reemerge into the rubbled streets of their town, they are greeted (anachronistically, but joyfully) by David Bowie’s song Heroes on the soundtrack.  And they dance amid the destruction, determined to find joy in a world where such things have, for years, been banished.  “We can be heroes, just for one day. . .”.  Perhaps that is where we start: we rescue one moment from the encompassing darkness, choose one situation––close at hand or across the planet–– for which we can offer some relief.  Capes and spandex are, of course, optional.





Red Letters 3.0


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To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


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Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Journalist Dan Kennedy talks about digital community newspapers and the end of the 'ink-stained' wretch

Interview with Doug Holder

Well, I have worked in the trenches of community journalism for about 23 years now. Physical newspapers have gone the way of digital media. But still-- I must admit --I get the physical New York Times and The Boston Globe at my favorite coffee shop. I must look like a historical reenactor to many of the younger folks out there. I remember my father, (an advertising Mad Man in New York)--brought home a host of newspapers, and I became a junkie at a young age. My father was even afraid I would become a Collier Brothers hermit--  like the very men who drowned in a sea of newspapers in their Harlem tenement building. There are no more ink-stained wretches working the presses; the clean and efficient internet have to a good degree replaced the slap of the paper on the pavement with its yelping headlines, as we saw in so many old movies. So I was interested to interview Dan Kennedy, a former journalist at the Boston Phoenix and Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University, (who along with his colleague Ellen Clegg) collaborated on a new book "What Works in Community News..." This study deals with community journalism, digital media, and how community newspapers can survive in this bottom line milieu we live in.

Q: First off, why did you guys feel the need to write this book?

A: I’ve been working in this space for years—it’s actually my third book about the future of local news. Ellen Clegg wore a lot of hats at the The Boston Globe, and at one time ran the Sunday regional sections the paper used to have that covered local news. So the fate of community journalism is a real passion of ours.

About 2,900 papers, mostly weeklies, have closed since 2005, according to a study by Northwestern University, and corporate chain ownership is squeezing the life out of many of those that remain. What we wanted to do was shine a spotlight on independent projects that have risen up to fill the gap. Most of them are digital startups and most are nonprofits. But we also looked at for-profit newspapers, tiny radio stations and a large public television operation. What unites all of them is a passion to serve their communities with reliable news and information.

Q: You write that that community newspapers are essential for 'self-governing' democracies. How so?

A: Over the past couple of generations, we’ve lost our connection to civic life, and the decline of community journalism has a lot to do with that. How can you cast a meaningful ballot for mayor, city council, select board, school committee and the like if there’s no reliable source of news? Who is holding the police department accountable? How are you going to find out about the apartment building that’s being proposed for your neighborhood?

Ellen and I also believe that local news can help us overcome the intense political polarization that has come to define national issues. If we can relearn the art of cooperation at the local level, we may discover that we all have more in common than we thought.

Q: How important is it for the print newspaper to survive with all the digital opportunities we have now?

  A: It is not important at all. Most of the projects we look at are digital-only. In fact, Ellen is the co-founder of a startup nonprofit, Brookline.News, that is digital-only.

Q: I believe you started out in a community newspaper in the area. Are these good training grounds—a sort of minor league of journalism?

A: Yes, I worked at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn during the ’80s, and I’m happy to say that it’s still owned by the Haggerty family, who founded the paper in 1901.

I don’t think of community journalism as the minor leagues at all, and I wish more young people would build their careers around local news.

Q: Many fiction and poetry writers (Hemingway for one) have said that newspaper writing gave them good skills for their creative endeavors. What is your take on this?

A: Learning to write quickly and communicate clearly are essential skills for journalists, and I agree that those skills can be transferred to other forms of writing. I don’t write fiction or poetry, but I have written four books, and I rely heavily on what I learned in my 20s. This is Ellen’s third book. That’s a pretty high level of productivity, and our background as newspaper journalists has a lot to do with our ability to crank it out. I’ll leave it to others to judge the deathlessness of our prose.

Q: Many community newspapers are transforming into nonprofits. I know the paper I am arts editor for—The Somerville Times—didn't see the need to go nonprofit. Do you think non-profits are the way to go? 

A: Nonprofit is a business model, just like for-profit. There are hundreds of local news startups across the country, and most of them are technically for-profts—one- or two-person operations that are almost more passion projects than they are real businesses. Ellen and I found, though, that most of the larger projects with real reporting capacity are nonprofit, because in the current environment that’s where the money is. In fact, two of projects that we write about, The Colorado Sun and Santa Cruz Local, switched from for-profit to nonprofit after our deadline.

The problem with for-profit is that advertising brings in very little money compared to years past. A healthy nonprofit news organization is generally built on top of a three-legged stool: large gifts in the form of grants and donations from high-net-worth individuals, which I’ve learned is nonprofit-speak for “rich people”; voluntary membership fees from readers, sometimes in exchange for extra goodies like a newsletter or a T-shirt; and what is often referred to as “earned income” in the form of advertising—again, to use nonprofit-speak, “underwriting”—and, in some cases, an events business.

I also want to mention the hybrid model, by which a for-profit news site either works with a nonprofit or has a nonprofit arm of its own so that it can accept tax-deductible donations to support certain types of public interest reporting. That’s what The Colorado Sun was doing before it went fully nonprofit. It’s also a model that’s being used by a number of other news outlets such as the Storm Lake Times Pilot in Iowa, The Mendocino Voice in Northern California and, closer to home, The Provincetown Independent.

Q: Twenty years from now—do you think we will see a community newspaper void or a thriving landscape?

A: On the one hand, I think things are going to get worse before they get better because so many papers are still under the control of corporate chains and hedge funds. On the other hand, I do think things are eventually going to get better. Ellen and I are especially hopeful that our book will serve as a roadmap for folks across the country who’ll learn about these projects and say, “Hey, we can do this.”