Rock On, Stressed-Out Journalists

Journopalooza Fundraiser Features Plight of Ink-Stained Wretches

Posted January 7, 2009 at 3:41pm

Journalists will trade reporter’s notebooks for guitars and soulful vocals this Friday during Journopalooza, a concert of amateur bands whose members are otherwise employed in the news business.

Advertised as the “First Annual Charity Battle of D.C. Media Bands,” the concert will be held at the National Press Club and will feature four groups: Suspicious Package, Nobody’s Business, Anchorage and the Surge. Band members represent media organizations including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers.

The proceeds of the concert will be divided between the Journalist Assistance Fund of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which offers aid to journalists who are incarcerated or threatened while reporting, and the various scholarships and training programs offered to aspiring journalists through the National Press Club’s nonprofit arm.

Christina Davidson, who is largely responsible for organizing the event, said she initially raised the idea in jest after noticing a proliferation of journalists who play in bands during their leisure hours.

Davidson, a friend of the members of Suspicious Package, said Journopalooza’s inception more or less coincided with the group’s desire to move beyond the practice space of drummer and Pulitzer Prize- winning cartoonist Tom Toles’ basement.

“They always joked about going on stage but never really ventured out of the basement,” Davidson said.

Alan Bjerga, vice president-elect of the National Press Club and a reporter who covers the Agriculture Department and food policy for Bloomberg News, said he attended a Suspicious Package show at the Rock and Roll Hotel (1353 H St. NE) and saw the band’s potential to generate attention.

“I just saw the incredible crowd they brought and all the journalists in the audience,” Bjerga said. “Of course with the NPC we’re always looking for ways to benefit the journalism community.”

As Bjerga considered organizing a concert, he soon discovered that Davidson had already contacted four bands with the same idea in mind.

“It turned out to be a perfect match,” Bjerga said. “We had a venue and were looking for bands; they were looking for a venue. And thus Journopalooza was born.”

Jon Landay, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy and lead guitarist for Nobody’s Business, said he and some friends — who at the time of the band’s formation were all journalists or government officials — began playing music to distract themselves from the stresses of working in Washington.

“We started out as a diversion from the inside-the-Beltway routines or demands,” he said, adding that the band “gave us an outlet for our musical aspirations, if you will.”

Landay said Nobody’s Business is up to the challenge of Journopalooza.

“There’s some pressure,” he said. “I don’t know what people expect to hear, but I think we’ve surprised a lot of people in the past. We’re pretty tight, and we get people on their feet and dancing.”

Bjerga also testified to the quality of the acts lined up. “They all play around town,” he said. “They’re all legitimate bands. These are not backdoor bands looking for their first gigs.”

Bjerga said the Journopalooza’s different beneficiaries represent two distinct sets of issues facing journalists. The concert draws attention to both the current anemia of the American newspaper industry and the plight of journalists imperiled by the volatility of the regions they cover.

“Mainly what we’re out here to do is have a good time but also to raise awareness of journalistic issues,” he said. “This is a very challenging time both domestically and internationally for journalists.”

Landay praised the Journalist Assistance Fund, drawing on an anecdote about a colleague in South Asia who received a death threat and saw his family attacked before the fund “came to his rescue, literally” by supporting him while he went into hiding for nearly a year.

“It’s a worthy cause, given the growing insecurity of journalists around the world,” Landay said.

Landay also noted the important role the press club’s scholarship program plays in helping to “ensure the education of journalists who play a critical role in maintaining our democracy.”

Elisabeth Witchel, coordinator of the Journalism Assistance Fund, explained that the fund helps journalists obtain legal assistance, establish “safe havens” or pay for transportation to a foreign country or medical help.

She offered the current case of an Iraqi cameraman who was shot by an alleged insurgent and has since been unable to work. The fund has located an American doctor who has agreed to treat the cameraman free of charge.

Frank Smyth, Washington representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists and a friend of many of the performers, said the fund’s mission has been lent additional urgency by the fact that more of the journalists who were imprisoned worldwide in 2008 were working for online outfits than for any other medium.

This places online journalists in particular danger because they are “operating essentially as freelancers or individual contractors” who lack the “institutional support” of a more structured media outlet that can help them when they run into trouble, Smyth said.

Although he could only conjecture about whether there is a correlation between caliber of reporting and ability to nail a tough bass line, Smyth said the standards of objectivity governing sound journalistic practice might not be in place on Friday. “We all understand what good journalism is, but music is a personal matter,” Smyth said. “What someone might think is good music, I could disagree.”

Noting that since the event was first publicized she has seen her mailbox inundated by requests from other media-based bands, Davidson said she hopes Journopalooza can become a tradition.

“I hope people will have a good time and we’ll raise a decent amount of money for good causes,” she said. “Hopefully it will be big enough and successful enough that we can make it an annual thing, and next year have 10 bands.”

Tickets to Journopalooza are $20 online at journopalooza.com or $22 at the door. 8 p.m. on Friday at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW. Doors open at 7:15.