How I Got That Story: Zane Fischer

The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Column talks about his work.

What do you have when you mix a low tolerance for idiocy and spinelessness joined with a big mouth? You have Zane’s World, a weekly column written by Zane Fischer for the Santa Fe Reporter.

“I try to come into topics like a bull in a china shop,” says Fischer, “but a bull that sweeps the piles into interesting new formations so that we can look at different ways that the plates and bowls might be put together.”

How did you get into alt-weeklies?

My background is in arts administration and nonprofits. I retired from the nonprofit word because it’s a painful job. I applied to be the arts and culture editor [at the Reporter] and was laughed at. However, SFR did hire me as an arts columnist and quickly began to beat the excess adjectives out of me, and their own nearly incomprehensible style sheet into me. It was hard work at first, but everywhere I go in the world, the first thing I look for is the local version of the alt-weekly. I had tremendous respect for the medium and the culture that I imagined would surround it. I learned to enjoy the editorial process and to believe wholly in the vital role alternative news sources play in the country and, especially, within regional communities.

Do you think you’re able to do your column differently because you are at an alt-weekly?

Absolutely. I don’t want to say that other regional publications pander to advertisers, but I guess I just did. I run into writers for more mainstream, conventional outlets all the time that are complaining that they’re forced to pull punches, play nice and toe the line. My column’s success — and its value — derives from brutal honesty and it’s not uncommon for an advertiser to take issue or offense with something I’ve said. The separation between advertising and editorial is sacrosanct at the Santa Fe Reporter and it allows a freedom and a voice that I believe readers can count on.

My editor, my publisher, the advertising director — they all understand the importance of this dynamic and if someone wants to pull a big ad — which obviously is where all of our salaries come from — they say, “We’re sorry to hear that, I hope you’ll reconsider.”

There’s never pressure on the writers here to take it easy or to softball an important issue. In my community, I simply couldn’t write the way I do if I worked for any other outlet.

How would you describe your column?

It’s a fusion. For example, I can attend a community meeting, a city meeting on planning and zoning and an art exhibit, and pick up on a thread of how they’re connected. My goal is to get the reader to picture this thread. The ideas come from the process of trying to be as much a part of the community as possible and then pretty much trying to call bullshit whenever it pops up.

Where do you get the inspirations for your columns?

Actually I read a lot, especially how Santa Fe is perceived from the outside. I also go to a mind-numbing amount of public events in town. And I rely on my relationship with the community and the readers to be informed. I’ll go weeks where my column is entirely source-driven: Phone calls, emails, anonymous letters, short chats at social occasions, public meetings or other events. But there are times when it’s triggered by a new sign or some small public works project or something.

Each winning piece reflects our ability — or inability — to change. Why is this topic important to you?

Change is a central topic to existence. Change is a way to seek bravery and leadership in our lives. It affects the lifestyle of my town, my region and my country.

Which of the three winning pieces has generated the most feedback?

The winning pieces haven’t generated many letters to the editor, but I do receive a fair amount of private emails and face-to-face dialogue. I’m delighted when people call me out or start a dialogue in response. I certainly don’t mind being wrong and I don’t mind it being pointed out publicly.

Since I’m always out at events, I don’t know if someone that recognizes me is going to be happy and say “Hi,” or punch me in the face.

What do you wish more columnists would do?

Invoke a dialogue. One component of a column should be the continuous dialogue with the readers. It’s all part of the process of building community, of which a column like mine is only a small part.

Read the columns that garnered Fischer a first-place finish in Column (circulation under 55,000):
Zane’s World:
Illusion of Progress
Neo Anti-development?

Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.