Readers Interview Damien Part 1: About Me, About Streetsblog

So, last week we came up with the zany idea to have you, the readers, ask me questions for our interview series.  We got so many good questions that I’m breaking up the interview in to two parts.  The first one will run today and is about me and Streetsblog.  Tomorrow I’ll answer your questions about Los Angeles, transportation issues and the past and future.

Me with the "2009 Activist Website of the Year" Award from L.A. Weekly.
Me with the "2009 Activist Website of the Year" Award from L.A. Weekly.

Tim Adams: What attracted you to this cause, as opposed to others in need of a helping hand? Did any one key event or memory steer you into this issue?

Joe Linton: What got you into transportation issues? Tell us a little about growing up, early influences, inspirations, etc.

When I moved to New Jersey from Washington, D.C. to move in with Marybeth, my experiences were in public relations, politics and ocean environmentalism.  I was picked up to be the NJ Coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.  I was basically hired to be a lobbyist.  However, in the couple of weeks between when I was hired and when I started work, the ground shifted and instead of hanging out in the corridors of Trenton, I was traveling the state fighting highway projects and fare hikes while promoting this groundbreaking NJDOT program of Smart Growth/transportation planning called “New Jersey Future in Transportation” (NJFIT).

I was learning the policy on the fly.  Those first six months I was first person in/last person out of the office many days because I was just reading old files to catch up.  I didn’t learn about induced demand by reading a book, I learned about it reading testimony on old EIR’s.

Thus, my influences were the people I worked with and who came before me.  A woman named Janine Bauer, TSTC’s first executive director, was both a walking encyclopedia and such a powerful figure that some public officials would literally pale (Janine, if you ever read this, I’m referring to the team at the Meadowlands Commission) when she walked into a room.  Picture Stephen Box with a law degree.  I learned so much about transportation, and so much about how to be a good advocate from her.

I owe a lot of people at TSTC a great debt.  Jon Orcutt, who ran the show after Janine left, went on to become the policy head for Janette Sadik-Khan, providing a great example of an advocate who changed the game from the outside and inside.

Michelle Ernst was the best researcher I ever met, I often referred to her as “my brain.”  I would get on t.v., she would do all the research to get me there.  Loved that.

Walk Bike Eagle Rock: What was it like starting to write LA Streetsblog?

Josef Bray-Ali: Do you see a future when a professional editor will take command of Streetsblog LA and tighten up the prose, fact check better, and eliminate typos and grammatical errors?

Writing Streetsblog is hard.  It’s gotten easier over the years.  But it’s hard.

Because I was coming in as an outsider, there was so much history I didn’t know and so many people I had to meet.  I’m still meeting people and learning new things, but stories took longer to write because I had to do so much research to write any story.

When you look at the other Streetsblogs, they are written by professional journalists writing from an advocates point of view.

I’m a professional advocate that’s writing several stories a day.

Big.  Difference.

When I look back at some of the stories from 2008, I’m embarrassed at how bad they are.  Factually they’re great.  But they’re sloppy, disjointed and sometimes hard to read.  I think we’re well beyond that now.

Biking In L.A.: I’d like to know where you see L.A. Streetsblog going in the next few years?

This year we’ll begin to expand and nail down enough fiscal support that we know how we’re going to pay our bills for 2012 before 2012.  We’ll open at least two weekly community columns.  We’ll also produce six Streetfilms on our own.  If Clarence can make a trip out here, we may get up to 10.

By the end of 2012, we’ll have local reporters submitting occasional stories from around the County.  I’ll be writing much less, editing a lot more, and fund raising to pay for all those new people.  The blog will have a lot of new content, readership will have tripled from our current level.  It’s going to be awesome.

In 2013, I’ll hand over the reigns of L.A. Streetblog but stay involved as the Westside Reporter and I’ll work with local writers to open Streetsblog San Diego and Streetsblog O.C.

MU: What do you see as the key role of advocacy blogs like Streetsblog and how do they avoid simply being an “echo chamber” that preaches to the converted?

Matthew Stafford: How do you see LA Streetsblog reaching out to more in the community in the future? There are many people who could easily be converted to livable streets advocates, but there needs to be that initial connection.

Our expansion plan is all about finding local writers to contribute local stories from their community.  I think that I do a pretty good job seeking out stories from outside my neighborhood and our core issues, but there’s nothing like having a person on the ground.  Having a network of local contributors will also allow us to build more relationships within these communities.

Incidentally, to make this kind of expansion happen, we’re going to have to triple our budget from last year.  If this sounds like something you like, consider making a donation at the link at the top of the page or in the tool bar on the right.  If you’re in the market for a bicycle, consider our sponsor Flying Pigeon L.A.  While I’m optimistic we’re going to get there, have a long road to travel to reach our fundraising goals.

You’ll also note that unless a community group is being nakedly dishonest or over-the-top ridiculous in their arguments, Streetsblog treats their concerns with respect.  For example, I think that the community in South L.A. has every right to be concerned and skeptical about a light rail line going through their community after experiencing the safety problems with the Blue Line.  There are other arguments against the Expo Line that are, let’s say, less rational.  Those less-rational arguments are treated as such.

In addition to increasing readership and getting our word out “on the street,” it’s important to have the right people reading the website who work for the City, or Metro, or are elected officials.  Cultivating those relationships are important so that the noise we makes echoes with people in power.  In 2008 and 2009 I literally would have to email our articles to those officials or go to a meeting and testify.  Now, they’ll email me or write comments (sometimes with anonymous logins) without any prodding.

Josef Bray-Ali: Yo homie, can I get a job with you guys someday?

How bad a sign should I consider it when our best advertiser asks for a job :)

  • Great interview – esp like reading the future goals of Streetsblog LA – great stuff.

    Way to go Damien – all you and your whole family have contributed to the LA Region progressive transportation scene is awesome!

  • Scott Olson

    I can personally attest to the dedication and persistence Damien exhibited at TSTC here in NJ – we fought an incredible 6 year battle against an awful road widening together and for all intents and purposes, beat DOT…that is until stimulus funds from the Obama administration breathed new life into the project – NOT the change I had hope for when I voted. :-)

    You folks in LA have a real gem on your side – Glad to see you are doing so well, Damien – Hi to Marybeth – we miss ya here!

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