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Culture & Artsby Fern Shen10:24 pmMay 12, 20100

Laid off by Baltimore Sun, journalists speak out on new website

Above: “Telling Our Stories” homepage, including photo by Elizabeth Malby.

As The Baltimore Sun‘s music critic, Rashod D. Ollison wrote bitingly and brilliantly about a wide range of musical genres, praising the sublime and skewering the schlocky with equal verve.

But it’s safe to say Ollison never wrote anything quite as scathing and personal as “The Invisible Black Homo Blues, reflections on my time at the Sun.”

The essay was one of many in a new website released today, featuring mini-memoirs, poems, photographs and other work by ex-Sun writers who got the axe a year ago, when The Sun fired a third of the newsroom staff.

“Telling Our Stories: the Days of the Baltimore Sun” was sponsored by The Writer’s Guild, East Foundation, and implemented with the collaboration of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. Following last April’s massive layoffs, ex-Sun writers were offered fellowships to “to tell a story arising out of their personal experiences during their time at The Baltimore Sun.”

And some of them really cut loose……

Here’s the opening of Ollison’s piece:

“So you see, I am invisible. Yet I’m hard to miss. I’m the black guy: bald, nearly six feet tall and over 200 pounds with artfully plucked eyebrows. I also mix my own scented body oils, so you probably smell me before you see me. Still, I am not seen. Now that the older black art critic guy moved to the editorial side and the sassy black fashion writer woman went back to metro and then left the paper shortly afterward, I’m the sole darkie in features. No good news for me.”

There are thinly-veiled references to specific supervising editors (“the Viper” and “Nerve Bundle”) and bitter reflections on being hired as the token “non-threatening” black guy.

The project has echoes of the old WPA Writer’s project, which supported American writers during the Depression by giving them assignments like collecting folklore and life histories or writing guides to the states. Today’s recession, coupled with the collapse of newspapers and other traditional media, created a similar sense of urgency among those who support writers.

“The Baltimore Sun fellowship embodies the Foundation’s mission – to perpetuate the art and craft of storytelling. By publishing their personal stories on this site, the fellows’ voices can now be heard loud and clear by people not only in Baltimore but around the world,” said Tom Fontana, president of the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation, quoted in Jim Romenesko’s blog. “As writers, we understand the power of words. We’re happy this fellowship program and new website are helping these fellows harness the power of words to get through this difficult time.”

Indeed, some of the contributors to “Telling Our Stories” write about what it felt like to have their profession and their own careers and identities wither and die, seemingly in an instant.

Sun photographer Chiaki Kawajiri described working on an award-winning six-part series on women with Stage IV breast cancer and then, a month after going to the White House to be honored for the project, her boss, Sun editor Monty Cook, was speaking at Johns Hopkins saying “The days of the six-part series are over.”

“Less than two weeks after his talk, I was laid off,” she wrote.

Not all of the contributions focus on the dark side of life at the Sun or the pain of being fired. The writers include reporters, editors, critics, copy editors, photographers, designers, advertising salespeople and market researchers. Many of them talk about the joys and challenges of working at the paper.

Photographer Monica Lopossay wrote about covering the post-apocalyptic world of New Orleans after Katrina and keeping herselfit together . . . until she heard the song America” being played.

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
… Let freedom ring!

The contrast of these lyrics with the devastation and abandonment the people of New Orleans had been living — dying — felt like someone had shoved a flagpole through my chest. I was visually reliving in my head the things I had seen and documented, and suddenly this music became the soundtrack to that. It was a total mental nightmare.

For the first time since I arrived in New Orleans, I busted out in tears. I cried so hard my DNA changed.


Fellows participating in the program include:

Steve Auerweck, Paul Bendel-Simso, Chiquita Bolden-Heath, Danielle Bradley, Phyllis Brill, Tyeesha Dixon, Doug Donovan, Deborah Lakowicz-Dramby, Ray Frager, Patrick Gutierrez, Beth Hughes, Fe Fung Hung, Doug Kapustin, Chiaki Kawajiri, Jiho Kim, Fay Lande, Linda L. Linley, Monica Lopossay, Elizabeth Malby, John E. McIntyre, Sandra Nash, Rashod D. Ollison, Ebony Page-Harvey, Alan Perry, Gene Russell, Denise Sanders, Norine Schiller, Franz Schneiderman, Matt Tustison, Charles H. Weiss, Linda White, and Teresa Wilson.

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