Why an inclusive history of CityLife matters

Now that the last issue of Las Vegas CityLife has rolled off the press and the eulogies are coming in from all directions, I suppose it’s natural to wonder aloud about journalism-type things. I’ll leave the big questions — why does this keep happening? — to bigger minds. No, I’m focused a bit more narrowly. I’m focused on the strangely missing history of CityLife’s diversity. There’s been some swiss-cheese nostalgia happening and that’s a problem. Let me explain.

As I was reading the reflections piece in CityLife this week, I had this sinking feeling — are they really going to go through the entire history of CityLife without mentioning a single woman who worked there? After a nice mention of Heidi Walters chutzpah, there was a lot of ink before any more  — Amy Kingsley and Dana Gentry — made an appearance. I don’t want to take anything away from the nostalgia offered by Matt O’Brien, Andrew Kiraly, Steve Sebelius, Scott Dickensheets, and others, but what the fuck? There were no contributions by the few women that graced that newsroom worth mentioning? Nothing about Megan Capehart’s feminism, Beverly Bryan’s esoteric voice, Ivy Hover’s feisty crusading, Jennifer Prosser’s dry humor, countless freelancers, or (dare I say it) yours truly? (Just to be clear, I am fine with not being mentioned. I have my own platform right here to say whatever I want whenever I want. So I’m good. I just thought it would be an elephant in the room if I didn’t add myself to that list.) It’s no secret that the CL experience was a very specific kind of boys club, but give me a break, guys. Lest you forget: CityLife was founded by a woman, Alisa Fuller!

I know I’m going to take some grief for this — CityLife is dead, why are you picking on them? — but I think this kind of selective nostalgia is worth talking about beyond what was or wasn’t good about CityLife. This is an issue that is bigger than any one newspaper. This is about why representation matters.

A recurring theme of the many ruminations of CityLife has been how instrumental it was at starting the careers of some pretty talented guys, including O’Brien, Kiraly, and Mike Prevatt. But it launched some lady’s careers, too, as Kingsley shares about her first job in Las Vegas in the CL reflections piece:

“On my first day at CityLife, Lehman Brothers collapsed. I thought it was going to be my last day at CityLife, but luckily, it wasn’t. The paper, and my position there, weathered the first, early days of the financial crisis, and I got to know a little bit about Las Vegas from the bottom up.

“For four years, I worked with some of the best in the business. I came out the other side a better reporter and writer than I ever would have been if my career in Las Vegas had come to an abrupt end in September 2008.

“I thought, having weathered that upheaval in 2008 and 2009, that CityLife would stick around a little while longer. But at least we all got to make some noise in the time we had. So long, CityLife. It was fun while it lasted. Hell, sometimes it was even more than that. Sometimes we did work that mattered. And a lot of that work would not have been published if not for CityLife.”

I don’t know about Kingsley, but I can say for myself it was damn hard to get my seat at the CityLife table, just as it was for many of the women who worked there. Let me tell you, I could not, as O’Brien or Kiraly did, just walk in there with some scraps of creative fiction and get a shot. (And this is nothing against the talents of either of those men, both of whom I count as friends.) Here’s how O’Brien explains it in CL:

“In early ’98, shortly after moving to Vegas, I walked into the CityLife office with a few Raymond Carver-rip-off short stories and part of a screenplay. I didn’t have any journalism clips. Instead of laughing me out of the office, the editor encouraged me to pitch him stories. I did, and few weeks later my byline was in the paper. It was a welcoming and open-minded publication and a great place to launch a career.”

Look, that’s awesome. It’s romantic even, in an old-school kind of student-of-the-world budding writer kind of way. I mean, don’t we all secretly want to be Edward Abbey? Meanwhile, many of the female writers I know who worked at CL had other jobs before they even got a shot at the cool kids table. I worked at a magazine and a daily in Oregon before moving to Las Vegas and toiling for four years at The Views, a group of community weeklies once described in CityLife as “crap front to back” (by Geoff Schumacher, a former CityLife editor and eventual publisher of The Views — awkward). When I first applied to CityLife in the early 2000s Matt O’Brien suggested I try working somewhere else first, because The Views were too much of an albatross to overcome. (I’m paraphrasing. And he said it in a very nice, well-meaning kind of way.) In fact, when I left The Views to go work at CityLife in 2004, one of my View editors tried to convince me to change my mind. “They’re going to treat you like shit,” he said. (Thankfully, he was wrong.)

And like I’ve already said in my last post about the demise of CityLife, I love-love-loved working there. It was a highlight of my print journalism career. Bar none. So this is not about me shitting on CityLife. This is me using my personal story as an example of the difference between the experience of women in journalism compared to that of men in journalism. And, before we go on, I just want to point out that these are broad-strokes generalities. I’m not saying every single woman has these kinds of experiences or that every single man has it easy as pie. And this is absolutely not about any individual at CityLife, past or present (can I still say present if it is over now?). So let’s just dispel any gossip-track on this right now.

As Joe Jackson sang, it’s different for girls.

With the demise of CityLife, I have gotten asked more than normal why or when I will be doing more freelance. Because now that the market is getting flooded with out-of-work writers, that’s a good time for me to be looking for gigs? But, sure, let’s entertain that question, which I get on a semi-frequent basis all the time. The short answer is: I like doing freelance. I do freelance (ahem). But I don’t (and won’t) kiss ass to get it. And there is an awful lot of ass-kissing involved in freelancery.

I left CityLife in 2007. It was a decision of my own accord and based on my own needs — some personal and some professional. I had learned all I could learn in an alt-weekly environment. I felt burned out on the weekly grind. And I felt at that point in my career that I was at a kind of wall. I had worked at dailies, weeklies, magazines … what else was there? I wanted something new. I wanted something different. Hugh Jackson — another former CityLifer — had launched his very successful progressive blog The Las Vegas Gleaner. I was a big fan of the national site Feministing. So I saw the online model as a new frontier. It also felt reminiscent of my old college zine days (dating myself, I know). And, of course, I labor under the grand delusion that all writers have that someone out there wants to read my precious, precious words (sarcasm — there are no precious words).

Becoming an online media maven (ha!) has been a kind of education in journalism all over again. I became my own boss. Awesome! Shit! I have to worry about all the administrative crap that someone else handled for me when I was a staff writer. I’ve been confronted with the hard decisions that editors have to make. I’ve had to confront my own cisgender, white privilege and learn how to be a platform for people of color, trans* writers, and issues outside what I can find staring into my own navel. These are good things. And these are things that not all writers/editors/online brands concern themselves with — as we see on a regular basis, even within the feminist movement. And when I fail, it’s my failure. There’s no one to scapegoat. There’s no one to buffer me from your anger or my humiliation.

So now after almost seven years as The Sin City Siren — can you believe it will be seven years in May? — I have learned a lot about running the show. I’ve learned a lot about myself. And I’ve gone from reluctant leader to wearing that mantel with pride. I’ve taken my readers’ faith in me and done my best to turn that into action. And there’s been a lot of actionsyndication, media partnerships — at The Siren in seven years.

With all that said … let me return to that question about being a woman in a male-dominated media landscape. Now that we’re in the age of Online Media Killed the Print Media Star, it’s still a male-dominated industry. While it may be true that there is relative gender parity in who is blogging, when you parse that out to who is doing political blogging, it is still a man’s world. Daily Kos, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Five Thirty Eight, ThinkProgress — all of these were started by and continue to be dominated by male writers. Even the female-launched Wonkette has at times been written by a man. Indeed, you have to jump over to the feminist side of political writing to find blogs and sites founded by and dominated by women (or even people of color, for that matter) — RH Reality Check, Feminism 2.0, Feministing, Black Girl Down, Crunk Feminist Collective, Bitch Media, Bust, Moms Rising, Racialicious, Colorlines, and so on.

Then look at the difference between the success of Jackson’s blog — which I loved very much — and my own. His work got him national attention, a column in CityLife, and even his own (sadly) short-lived TV news show. I am nationally syndicated. I have made two appearances on local TV (one on Hugh’s show) and a few panel segments on KNPR. I’m not negating my own success here. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished as The Siren. And I’m not even saying that I would want the same things that Hugh wants, or that I have even pursued having the same kind of career. I’m just pointing out that the experience of a male political writer is not the same as a female one, even in the same town and with largely the same readership. (And I grant that this is not a great comparison — apples and oranges — but it is the best I have to illustrate my point. Las Vegas is not exactly a hotbed of political blogging.)

Representation still matters in all forms of media — online, broadcast, or dead tree — because we’re nowhere close to parity in the majority of newsrooms. This is why when a venerable community touchstone, like CityLife, dies it matters how much and how well women are included in the reaction and cathartic eulogy process. I would never, ever say that my contribution to CityLife was as important as those of Andrew Kiraly, Matt O’Brien, Mike Prevatt or Bill Hughes (who worked there for almost the entire 21-year run and ran the show for a short time in there somewhere). However, I would say that the contributions of female writers throughout its history were important and deserved more than a passing glance in any retrospective about what CityLife was and meant. If it is important that a newspaper like CityLife helped launch the careers of influential editors like Prevatt, O’Brien, and Kiraly, then it is also important that for however rare it might have been, there were women writers (and queer writers and people of color writers) making important in-roads as well. (It matters, too, that there was no real diversity in editorship at CL — a long line of white guys.)

The whole ethos of an alt-weekly is that it steps outside the popular meme. It examines the dominant discourse and offers important critique where needed. Offering coveted writing slots to those so often marginalized by mainstream outlets is a vital part of the grand-design of alt-weekly narratives and histories. This is why it disappoints me to see some voices heralded so much over others in the CityLife autopsy. That kind of myopia or selective memory is not just disappointing, it’s disheartening, because it sends a clear (even if unintentional) message to the budding young journalists-to-be out there. Even in 2014 you’re going to have to bust the goddamn door down to get inside and when you get there you might find that you have fashion your own seat because none will be offered.

I know there are going to be some who read this and think I am insensitive to talk about such things at a time like this, or, that I’m bitter for not getting splashy mentions. I’m not, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take because I think these things are worth talking about. But I think now is the perfect time to be talking about diversity and representation in newsrooms, especially when there are nascent (online!) publications (like this and this and this) looking to enter the vacuum that CL leaves behind. It is never comfortable to talk about the inequality and white/male/cisgender/heterosexual privilege that still dominates the Fourth Estate. So now’s as good a time as any.

It’s important to talk about these things because the vast majority of pitches I get for guest writing slots are by talented women of color who should be getting more writing slots at outlets all around town and aren’t because they’re edged out by the more well-known pool of writers who just happen to also be predominantly white guys. In recent years, almost every single guest writer on The Siren has been a person of color and/or LGBT. If being white endows me with unearned privilege, and if I truly believe in dismantling that privilege when possible, then I must walk the walk in opening doors for diversity when possible. But I’m just one media outlet, and a small one at that. The Sin City Siren has no staff and no budget to pay writers (as much as I’d like to!). The reality is that larger media outlets that do have budgets to pay writers need to be paying more attention to the diversity of their writers. That includes remembering those writers in reflections of ghosts of media past.

Talking about things like this makes me unpopular with certain folks who also happen to be editors and corporate bean-counters who dole out things like freelance gigs. For better or worse (probably worse), there are certain folks in this town who consider me “difficult” (that’s the euphemism for bitch, right?). I don’t think it has anything to do with the caliber of my writing or the professionalism I give to any freelance assignment, or I wouldn’t get any freelance gigs at all. (And I had these same feminist thoughts the entire time I worked in “straight” journalism, so obviously, I know how to keep it to myself on assignment.) The fact is that the journalism industry is still largely a boys club and strong women with opinions — especially feminist opinions — are not always welcome in that club. Just because I’m willing to call out our industry on some of the shit it does behind-the-scenes, I’m not going to be invited to certain parties (true story) or liked by certain power players. So be it. Somebody has to be the Lorax of the local media scene and I guess that has turned out to be me.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have The Sin City Siren and all of its faithful readers. (You rock!) I’m pretty darn happy working for myself and pursuing the projects that fuel my passions. (And I never have to worry about being fired for working on my screenplays or for taking a day off when my kid is sick.) I’ve been lucky to make some influential friends in our town who rather like that I tend to make the comfortable uncomfortable and won’t back down on issues that are important to our community just because people call me a whore or a bitch or threaten me (which have all happened, sometimes on a daily basis). Just yesterday Jon Ralston tweeted, “[Emmily] is full of passion and her blog posts can be brutal. In a good way.” (Thanks, Jon.)

This is a dog-eat-dog business. It’s not pretty or kind. I’m not complaining that the water gets a bit choppy at times or that the sharks take a few too many bites. All that comes with the territory. I’m not looking for ease or glory. But sometimes I have to use my own experiences as a way to tell the story about something larger. In this case, I want to make the case for why it sucks that the entire scope of what made CityLife great has not been celebrated. It’s not about me. It’s about history and it’s about what that history represents. Was it worth Matt O’Brien’s time to take a chance on me when he hired me in 2004? I like to think so. He told me at that time that partly it was because it was important to him that there be some diversity in the newsroom — including women. That matters. Every single time a CL editor chose diversity — in gender, sexual orientation, race — it mattered! All I’m saying is: Why wouldn’t you want to celebrate that? And why wouldn’t you want your legacy to include pushing the dial forward — being a leader and an example — for whatever comes next?

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