“Writing the City”: A New Collaboration Between Columbia Journalism School and Places Journal

Shade in the Skid Row neighborhood, Downtown Los Angeles. [Monica Nouwens for Places Journal]

Last month we published “Shade,” by Sam Bloch. The article is an ambitious work of urban journalism with a powerful message: in a wide-ranging portrait of Los Angeles, Bloch argues that shade is a civic resource, a requirement for public health, an index of inequality, and a new mandate for urban designers. A series of original photographs by Monica Nouwens provides a powerful visual counterpart.

“Shade” is also the first installment in “Writing the City,” a new collaboration between the Arts and Culture M.A. program at Columbia Journalism School and Places Journal, made possible by a special projects grant from Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown.

“Writing the City” offers recent graduates of the CJS program the opportunity to produce an ambitious work of longform narrative journalism — and to delve into an important topic that might otherwise receive scant attention.

To produce “Shade,” Sam Bloch worked closely with Places’ editors and with David Hajdu and Alisa Solomon, directors of the Arts and Culture program at Columbia Journalism School. In the following interview, Hajdu reflects on the opportunities offered by this collaborative project.

“Writing the City” is a unique collaboration between the Arts & Culture program at Columbia Journalism School and Places Journal. What was the appeal of the project?
The M.A. program in Arts and Culture at Columbia Journalism School is focused on journalism with intellectual ambition — reporting that draws on history, politics, aesthetics, and the complex vagaries of the human mind and human heart. The number of outlets for this kind of journalism is limited, and Places is among the very best. If we in the M.A. program tried to imagine a publication suited to our ideals, it would be Places.

The prize offers recent graduates the opportunity and the financial resources to produce an ambitious story early on in their careers. How does the prize complement the program at Columbia, for the school and for the students?
The prize demonstrates in tangible terms that probing, revelatory journalism has value. It takes a serious investment in time, effort, and intellectual capital to do the kind of work Sam Bloch did on this piece. The investment Places made matches the investment Sam made — and, in fact, made Sam’s investment possible.

“Writing the City” is designed to give young journalists the chance to focus on a topic that might otherwise receive scant attention. How important is it to foster new writing on the subject of the built environment now, and to bring new voices to the subject?
So much takes place so fast in the realms of architecture and urban development that it’s easy for journalists to cover events superficially and feel as if they did their job. Business stories on funding and critical reviews of new built projects need to be done; but so do deeper stories that make connections that haven’t been made or that see things from new perspectives.

Sam Bloch’s proposal for an article on “shade” was selected via an RFP sent to recent graduates of the Arts and Culture program. The response was enthusiastic. What brought Sam’s entry to your attention?
It was not at all easy to choose among the submissions we received. At least half a dozen would have been worth publishing — and, in fact, are still worth publishing. Sam’s proposal surfaced to the top of a strong pool for the daring of his thesis, challenging us to think in fresh ways about a phenomenon we think we know but really don’t understand. And his ambition stood out: in his proposal, Sam expressed his “hope to write about shade just as Carey McWilliams wrote of water, and Mike Davis of privacy: as contested, limited, technologically enabled, and a metaphor for inequality.” As such, his proposal — and the article that resulted — raises important and timely questions about race, class, power, and money.

Places has an intensive editorial process, and authors work closely with editors through several rounds of editing, from conception to development to line editing to fact-checking. What did this process bring to the development of Sam’s article, and to the collaboration overall?
Good editing is critical to the successful development and shaping of first-rate writing, and the editors at Places are among the sharpest I’ve ever seen. They worked closely with Sam for well over a year, guiding him through every step of his research and writing, with input from me along the way, as well. It was a true collaboration.

Places is an independent non-profit journal. At a time when the landscape of journalism is rapidly changing, where does the journal fit in right now?
With advertising revenues in decline across traditional media, for-profit publications are less able (or less willing) to support journalistic projects that take time and money to produce, especially if the readership is thought to be “limited.” New models of funding, production, and distribution are essential to produce the work the old models are no longer doing.

What does Places’ unique editorial mission of public scholarship on the built environment — that is, writing that combines the scope and immediacy of serious journalism with the precision and depth of scholarship — mean to you, and what does it bring to the field?
Places provides a home for the kind of meaty analytical writing that most publications don’t have the space for — or make the space for. Here at Columbia we’re looking forward to continuing our collaboration on “Writing the City.”

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