When I came to Kansas City to work for the Pitch in 2000, I was an enemy invader.
A few months before I arrived for my first day of work, the paper had been bought by a corporation, New Times, and there was a lot of tension between the new ownership and the old staff. For years, The Pitch (then Pitch Weekly) had been your classic alternative weekly staffed by underpaid, bleeding-heart, left wing writers who were free to write about whatever the hell they wanted to write, and who, truth be told, weren’t that good at it. New Times, on the other hand, owned a dozen or so papers around the country that all looked exactly the same, with formulaic stories that were beholden to no ideology, left-wing, right-wing or other-wing, and they’d won a shitload of journalism awards.
I’d wanted to work for New Times for a number of years. They owned Westword, Denver’s alt weekly, which I’d read since I was a teen, and I knew they paid well, had excellent benefits, and actually spent money on things that reporters need, like public documents. Plus I wanted to win an award or two.
When I sent my résumé to them in late 1999, I was working as editor of the Boulder Weekly, and barely making it on my meager salary. I applied at the same time for a job at the Lawrence Journal-World, and that job came through first, so I moved to Kansas shortly after the turn of the millennium.
Still, I kept in touch with the folks at New Times, just in case.
One early summer evening, I met New Times’ executive assistant editor, Andy Van De Voorde at McCormick and Schmidt’s on the Plaza for an interview. He said, “Joe, I want to hire you because I think you’ve got the taste for blood, and we need some good investigative reporting at this paper.” (Which was saying something, because at that point in my career I’d done little more as a reporter than exude ambition.)
I told him I’d think about it, my main hesitation being the paper itself.
Frankly, I thought it was awful, full of ponderous, thinly reported stories and loads of typos and grammatical errors. In a later conversation with Van De Voorde, I told him straight up: “The paper sucks.” Which pissed him off, I could tell, but he couldn’t argue with it.
I decided to do some due diligence and find out a little about what it’s like to work at the paper by calling up some members of the editorial staff. The problem was, the corporate staff hadn’t informed the editor, Bruce Rodgers, that they were looking to hire me. So when I called Shawn Edwards (a name I’d picked at random from the masthead) and told him I’d been offered a job, it came as a surprise attack in the escalating war between the locals and corporate headquarters, and a clear indication that Rodgers wasn’t going to be editor for long.
I later learned that Rodgers had forbidden anyone on staff from talking to me. He characterized me as a Pitch wannabe who was stalking the staff in hopes of landing a job.
I’m sure it sucked to be him.
After much thought, and also after coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t hack it as daily journalist, I decided I would take the job IF New Times hired a new editor for The Pitch. Van De Voorde said they weren’t ready to make an announcement about that yet.
I went to Colorado to visit family and friends and scheduled a meeting with Van De Voorde, who had office at Westword. He told me they were ready to make a change at The Pitch and he wanted to introduce me to the in-coming editor. That’s when I first met C. J. Janovy, who was managing editor of Westword at the time.
Her demeanor was very cool, almost smug. Later, after I got the job and we’d been working together for a while, she told me that she’d already known about me and my work at Boulder Weekly and she wasn’t impressed.
I started a month or so later, a few days after Rodgers had been officially dethroned and Janovy had taken his place. The longtime Pitchers were more or less cordial to me, but I’m pretty certain I rubbed them the wrong way.
I’m sure they saw me as a harbinger of the cold-hearted corporate journalism evil that was going to completely subsume the “Power to the People!” publication they’d all poured their hearts and souls into for years.
And I played the part.
At one of the first editorial meetings I attended as a staffer, I talked at length about the progress I’d made on my first cover story, an account of the Bledsoe brothers of Oskaloosa and the murder of Camille Arfmann. The highlight of the story was courtroom testimony that one of the brothers had confessed to the crime despite not having done it because he didn’t want it known that he’d fucked a dog.
Which is bad enough in its own right, and it had Janovy and maybe one or two of the other new hires laughing uproariously, but I decided to go for the kill by describing the Bledsoes as apparent in-breeds with sloping foreheads and too-small, flipper-like limbs.
I looked over at Rodgers.
I can still picture his shocked, incredulous expression. It was a look that said, very clearly, How could anyone be so mean, classist and arrogant?
But that was the ethos of New Times (now Village Voice Media). More on that tomorrow.