Jeffrey C. Billman and J. J. Marley: Slicing Pie-in-the-Sky

Editor’s Note: This is the 33rd in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

When Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer dreamed out loud about “transformational change” for his central Florida town, delivering a speech about a teeming, rebuilt city capable of hosting a Super Bowl even though it lacks an NFL franchise, Orlando Weekly staff writer Jeffrey C. Billman had heard enough.

Billman had just seen one of Harper’s Magazine’s annotations, this one done by a former colleague, Edward Ericson Jr., now a Baltimore City Paper staff writer. “It prompted a conversation in the office: ‘Why can’t we do something like that?'” Billman says. “We were just waiting for the right time, right place to do it.”

The Weekly’s art and photo director, J. J. Marley, who has recently left the paper, designed the winning feature. “I kind of jacked the Orlando [Weekly] logo and made it look like it was on City of Orlando letterhead,” he explains. “I have little fake sticky notes pointing to actual things [Dyer] said.”

Marley was really rooting for the Weekly to submit another format buster to the AltWeekly Awards: a series of trading cards for local politicians that the reader could cut out. But he’s lucky to have stuck with Billman’s piece. “Dyer, Annotated” brought Marley his third AltWeekly Award since 2002 and Billman his sixth in the past two years of the contest.

Jeff Billman takes up the story.

In retrospect, could the “Dyer, Annotated” piece have been done in another format?

To us, it was the most straightforward and simplest way to illustrate a point. For months, the mayor had gone around giving out million-dollar tax breaks to anyone who would do anything downtown. He went and made this major speech with pie-in-the-sky ambitions. A lot of it wasn’t grounded in reality.

This was a way to say, “Here’s what the mayor isn’t telling you. Here’s the context.” They’re real good at spin. A lot of the media around here will just carry his water. They won’t break down his speech and say, “Here, he’s full of shit.” That’s where I saw our role coming in.

Did you attend this speech?

No, actually, I didn’t. We had gotten a text of the speech — the mayor’s office is pretty good at publishing his speeches. It’s just one of those things where you scratch your head and wonder if the mayor is living on the same planet as everyone else.

How did the Orlando daily cover this speech?

The Sentinel here tends to ignore us when we beat them on something. Every year the mayor does a State of the Downtown or State of the City speech. They ended up doing 300 to 400 words, pretty straightforward. I haven’t seen them do anything that analyzed the speech.

What was reader reaction?

It had a pretty positive reaction. A lot of people wanted to have that perspective. Somebody apparently called in to complain that we didn’t have enough of the mayor in there. We had to kindly point out to the guy that the mayor’s entire speech was his counterpoint.

You called the mayor on his contention that Orlando features “interesting architecture, arts, culture, shopping and dining.” He also touted the idea of “positive surprises and spontaneous encounters with people.”

That’s just one of those catch phrases they like to throw around. They’ve really bought into this New Urbanist movement — the idea that you can just walk around town and meet all kinds of interesting people. It’s just a long way for him to describe the city as cool.

Did the mayor’s office react to the piece?

Every time I write something like that, they tend to shut me out for a week, and then they get over it.

The best part is where you catch the mayor quoting “the poet’s words … ‘Happy are those who dream dreams and have the courage to make them come true.'” You found the actual quote, from Cardinal Leon J. Suenens, a former Brussels archbishop: “Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.”

He got it wrong, significantly. That was our copy editor, Jessica Young, who caught that during the editing process. I had taken apart the policy part of the mayor’s message, but Jessica came to me and told me what I’d missed. To be totally honest, that summarized the whole speech: You take out parts to make it sound better. In reality, he skimmed past all the parts that might not work out as perfectly as they were talking about. That is quintessential Dyer. I’ve seen it more since then than I did before.

Has the Weekly done format-busting pieces since?

We did a piece this year: Our local basketball team had started talking of having the city build them a new arena. We made up our own plan, the Orlando-Weekly-plex, and described what we’d do if they gave us $200 million. We also did a rating system for mega-churches this year. We rated them on fire-and-brimstone presentation and the political bent. We’ve really opened that up in the last year.

How has downtown Orlando fared since the mayor’s speech?

Right now they’re moving slowly to the trifecta of the mayor’s plan: renovating the Citrus Bowl football stadium, building a new arena and building a performing arts center. There is a lot of building going on — a massive amount of condos. But a lot of it is building just for the sake of building. If you give enough tax incentives, people will come down and build. I’m not entirely sold on the idea that that will lead to the city they want in the end.

Marty Levine is the news editor of Pittsburgh City Paper.

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