Behind the Press: Jesse Scaccia
For our second Fireside Session in Hampton Roads, we'll be talking about efficient and effective Marketing and PR practices on Thursday, October 5th.
To help give us some insight into how members of the press decide which stories to pick up and topics to highlight, we are excited to have Jesse Scaccia, editor at AltDaily.com, as our special guest speaker. But before we get his professional opinions, we wanted to learn a little bit more about the man behind AltDaily, NEON and so much more.
You have been the editor at AltDaily.com for several years now. Can you give us a brief history of the publication, why you felt it was necessary for Norfolk/HRVA, and what its purpose and goal is within the community?
JS: AltDaily was briefly called 24SevenCities.com. My original partner, Hannah Serrano, had been working at the print publication Port Folio Weekly, and when she saw them moving too slowly into the digital realm, she started the site that became AltDaily. I joined a few months after the founding.
The need for independent-minded media that celebrates local culture and fosters community conversations is evergreen, everywhere; HRVA is no different. We take a slightly different twist in that we are so openly activist minded. My philosophy has been that AltDaily isn’t so much traditional journalism, but is using the skills and modes of journalism to (hopefully) make our home a better place to live. So rather than just celebrate and talk about things like public art, civic engagement, government transparency, LGBT rights, marijuana reform, and mental health, we have attempted to make long-term impacts in those areas beyond just traditional media coverage.
I believe you have mentioned in the past that you are not a Norfolk “native.” Can you talk about why you landed in Hampton Roads and, more importantly, why you chose to stay?
JS: I landed in Norfolk through ODU, where I received an MFA in non-fiction writing. I chose ODU because they offered me a great fellowship, but also because Virginia always had a certain mystique for me. My dad would spend summers in Virginia…. And I lost him a few months before I moved here… so there was almost something karmic about it.
I had not planned on staying longer than my program, but I ended up falling in love with Norfolk and Hampton Roads -- through AltDaily, our projects, and some wonderful women that I was lucky enough to spend time with. I have lived in bigger cities, and while I love big cities, they can’t compare to the satisfaction one derives from feeling like you’re a part of a community striving together, which is what I’ve found here in Norfolk.
As a member of the press what are you constantly on the lookout for? What kind of topics or stories really peak your interest or speak to you?
JS: Right off the bat, approach is so important. Instinctively, as editors, we pay more attention to press releases and emails sent from people we know -- people who have taken the time to get to know us -- and who have addressed us as individual humans, and not just ‘Dear editor.’ Realness is attractive.
I am always drawn to passion. If it’s just business, I don’t care. But if it is an email from someone living their dream -- and it’s a dream they believe is making our community and world a better and brighter place to live -- they’ve got my attention.
EVERYTHING is interesting if it is presented with passion, detail, and a fresh perspective.
What’s different about the stories and perspectives presented through AltDaily (versus other publications)?
JS: I don’t have such an ego to think anything we’re doing is *that* different than the many other websites and publications out there, but one thing that differentiates us is that we’re always first person. We don’t feign to have completely unbiased, Godlike third-person perspectives from the mountaintop. AltDaily is real people writing about stuff that is real to them.
And, critically -- as I mentioned earlier -- we are an action oriented publication. It’s not enough to talk about a problem; you’ve got to be ready to be part of the solution.
What has been the most popular story or article on AltDaily and why?
JS: I just checked out analytics, and the most popular stories (since September 2012, at least) have been an article about why Norfolk is better than DC; a video of a student at ODU moon walking in the rain, and a story about the Black Widow of Norfolk (our own local super hero).
People want to feel good about living here, is the common thread. AltDaily is here for that.
AltDaily and you as an individual played a huge role in the creation and success of the NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) Arts District. Can you speak to the challenges that arose out of getting both city officials and small businesses to see your vision and help enact it? What did you learn from this experience about community buy-in and bringing very different people together for a single cause?
JS: One thing I learned is that you have to be willing to have conversations, face to face, over and over, treating each person and group you’re meeting with as individuals --- and you really have to listen --- and once you’ve listened, you have to be willing to adjust your vision to fit the consensus.
The only success worth achieving is shared success. When you have that attitude -- and people can smell it on you -- good things happen.
Another important lesson is having a vision on paper, with plentiful examples of best practice of what has worked elsewhere. Cities are naturally conservative, so they’re not often eager to be the first. But they’re happy to be the second if you show them all the success the first ones achieved.
Finally, having your ego in check is soooo important. People are going to disagree. They’re going to disparage. They’re going to push and pull and try to spin you around. Having a healthy sense of self allows one to better hear the legitimate criticisms, while also being able to deflect that ones that shouldn’t sink in deeper than the skin.
Would you like to speak briefly to the current culture of “fake news” and media bashing and what you at AltDaily do to combat this mindset?
JS: Oh man. I was a public school English teacher in a previous life so literacy is super important to me, and our country’s literacy level right now is in a sorry state of affairs. I see these conversations online and so often the discrepancies aren’t factual or ethical - they’re basic literacy problems. Our country needs to learn to love reading to be truly great again. Democracy (and capitalism) simply do not function without a well read electorate.
So what do we do to combat this? At this point, anything over 140 characters is probably adding to the literacy level of the country, so that’s good. We also try to make our stories and presentation fun, to encourage more reading.
It’s exhausting, though. None of us in web and print journalism are making real money. We all know our jobs are perpetually on the chopping block in this economic landscape. And then to have the president saying all this… it takes a lot of internal fortitude. But I think I can speak for most of us in this industry that we believe in this profession into our guts. Journalism is bigger than any of us. I am humbled to be able to do what I do.
Having built AltDaily from the ground up and having worked closely with perhaps hundreds of small businesses, what’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given? Is there anything you’ve been told that you’d suggest people ignore?
JS: Something that always has stuck with me is being wary of mission creep. Know what you do well -- and what makes you profit -- and be really, really good at that. It’s so easy to feel like your business should do everything. It’s a temptation that should be resisted.
The advice to ignore is from all the people who say you can’t do it. Because you can do it. With the right vision, a clear enough mind, and a willingness to sacrifice -- and you will have to sacrifice health/relationships/and fun -- there’s nothing you can’t do.