The List: A few memorable moments from my nine years with Alive

From the Actual Brewing and Daily Stormer features to a 2022 concert review that brought this departing editor full circle

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Actual Brewing

I started as a freelancer for Alive in June 2013, first previewing a tour stop from Jason Isbell. A few weeks later, I was hired as an arts writer. In the years since, I’ve held a number of roles within the publication: music writer, assistant editor, interim editor and, since 2016, editor. With my time at Alive set to wrap this week, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the more memorable stories I’ve covered in the last nine years, along with a few random favorite moments.

Thanks again, Columbus. It’s been quite the ride.

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In 2014, the inaugural Fashion Meets Music Festival met controversy when it announced its initial lineup, headlined by R&B singer R. Kelly, currently in prison after being convicted on charges that he served as the ringleader of a decades-long scheme to recruit women and underage girls for sex. In Columbus, the prolonged public outcry eventually led to Kelly being removed from the festival by organizers, and we were there reporting on it each step of the way.

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In May 2016, I spent 24 straight hours inside the campus institution Buckeye Donuts, chatting up workers, talking to longtime customers and ordering but a single doughnut: a chocolate and peanut butter Buckeye in the minutes before I exited the shop. (Confession: I’m not a big fan of doughnuts.) Also, this is somehow only the second longest I’ve stayed awake for a story. Once, for Chicago RedEye, I watched 48 straight hours of the television series “24,” which led to me being awake for 57 straight hours. Would not recommend.

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In June 2016, a gunman opened fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 53 people and injuring 49 more. The tragedy inspired what is to my knowledge the only wordless cover in Alive’s history (courtesy former page designer Matthew Bailey).

Alive's Pride cover in the wake of the Pulse shooting

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On occasion, it’s nice to step back and let the folks who have lived the history tell it, which is what we did with a pair of oral histories that capture two uniquely Columbus institutions: one still going strong (Dick’s Den) and the other carrying on in the memories of those who experienced it (late, loved concert venue Little Brother’s).

While both are filled with memorable tales, my favorite might be from former Dick’s co-owner John Sondej, who recalled some of the fringe characters who populated the bar in its earlier years:

“We had the old-time tavern guys, like Winchester Shorty, who was always saying, ‘Go piss up a rope!’ Or George Wills, he ended up having throat cancer, so he had a tube going down his throat that he would pour the whiskey in. We were a shot and a beer bar. We always had the saying, ‘If you shake it we don't make it.' It's sort of changed now. You have to deal with it, but back in those days it was: ‘If you shake it we don't make it’; ‘Same-day service’; ‘Service with a sneer.’ We had one can of mushroom soup [behind the bar], and we had it because the law said you had to have food. No one ever ordered it, but even if they had we wouldn't have given it to them.”

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Alive’s editorial direction had already pivoted heavily by the time Joel Oliphint and I reported on Andrew Anglin, the Worthington-born founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, but this February 2017 cover still feels like a massive turning point for the publication, and it’s among the three or four features from my time here of which I’m most proud. Serving as editor, I always wanted us to be fearless in our coverage, and we lived up to that in taking on a story that might have otherwise gone unreported.

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The in-office moment Joel and I have shared most over the years occurred when some corporate type was taking a group on a tour of our Downtown building. Passing through the magazine wing, the guy leading the charge stopped at Joel’s desk, picked up a print copy of Alive, and gruffly said, “This is the youth weekly,” as he dropped the paper back in the pile.

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In early 2018, I read a short news story in the Dispatch about Wedgewood, a West Side housing complex, that revealed it had been the site of seven murders in 2017, which I thought warranted deeper investigation. I ended up spending weeks in and around the complex for this cover feature, talking to folks impacted by the violence, but also those working to better the community.

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Columbus police shot and killed Julius Tate, Jr. during a December 2018 robbery sting, later charging his girlfriend, Masonique Saunders, with his death under the antiquated murder felony rule. Everything about this story was gutting, from speaking with Tate’s mother, who tearfully shared how she could no longer hug her son, to learning about Saunders’ shooting death earlier this year, just months after she was released from detention after serving her time under a plea deal.

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The day this February 2019 cover was published, Actual Brewing closed both of its Columbus locations, and a week later the brewery filed for bankruptcy. I’m still in awe of the collective strength displayed by the women who spoke on the record for this piece. Sadly, it’s not the only time I have reported on a story of this kind. In September 2019, I wrote about the sexual misconduct complaints filed against conductor Alessandro Siciliani of Opera Project Columbus, who continues to serve in the role.

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It still stings to look at the final print cover of Alive, which was published in July 2019 and finds Joe Camerlengo mirroring the cover salute offered by Bob Dylan on the last print issue of the Village Voice.

The final print cover of Alive

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For our first web-only “cover,” I reported on the still-unsolved disappearance of Tyler Davis, which centered in part on the true crime industry that has steadily been built up around these types of cases.

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In July 2020, the Ringer wrote about how alt-weeklies were continuing to thrive amid chaos, a portion of which focused on Alive. In addition to some incredibly kind words from writer Rob Harvilla, who called the paper “a crucial and tangible part of the Columbus I live in now,” the feature also includes a pull-quote from me that I need to get cross-stitched onto a pillow at some point (and that you can view by clicking here and scrolling down).

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Totally by random, we also happened to publish another of my favorite features the same day the Ringer piece went live. This one centered on a series of racist online attacks levied by a group of Bexley high school students against fellow classmates and explored the inequalities that continue to exist within the suburb despite its outwardly progressive leanings.

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I’ve also had the opportunity to write countless profiles centering the artists, chefs, musicians, activists and authors who have helped to make the city a better place. Here are a handful: Lydia Loveless, Saeed Jones, Richard “Duarte” Brown, Carly Fratianne, Hanif Abdurraqib, Paisha Thomas, Kenny Stiegele, Cameron Granger, David Butler, Nes Wordz, Don Bovee, Avishar Barua, Sam Craighead, Amber Evans, Vada Azeem, Micah Schnabel, Maggie Smith, Jacoti Sommes.

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While we’re talking about favorites, here, in my opinion, is the best headline I wrote in my time at Alive, along with what I consider a close second.

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The sinking kayak has been our go-to gif in the last two-plus years that Joel and I have kept Alive going as a two-person team. As challenging as it's been, I will add that I'm incredibly fortunate to have been partnered with Joel, who remains one of the most talented, empathetic and hard-working journalists I've ever known. Had it been virtually anyone else, that kayak would have long ago capsized.

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We dedicated dozens of features to the Black lives matter protests that hit Columbus in May 2020, but none hit with the impact of Joel’s feature on Buttercup, a bus owned by a group of hippie circus performers whom Columbus police falsely pegged as violent members of antifa in social media posts that continue to go uncorrected. Around the same time, I reported on Nathan Caraway, the local protester who turned up on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and was briefly confused for a member of indie-rock band the National. This was and continues to be an exceedingly weird time in which to live and work.

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We’ve written hundreds of features informed by the ongoing pandemic, but few have remained as relevant as this piece on “the myth of ‘nobody wants to work.’” 

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WOSU experienced a massive staff reporter turnover in the last couple of years, with at least two former employees citing newsroom culture as a factor in their departures. The exodus occurred in the midst of a labor conversation that unfolded simultaneously within the larger world of national public radio.

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There’s been a shameful tendency within journalism to dehumanize people killed by the police: embracing official narratives without question, focusing on criminal pasts, not treating the deceased with care. My hope is that we were able to push back on some of that with detailed profiles on Casey Goodson, Jr. and Henry Green, and I can’t thank both families enough for trusting me to tell the stories of their respective loved ones.

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I reviewed dozens upon dozens of concerts in my time at Alive, but covering Jason Isbell at Palace Theatre earlier this year stands out for a couple of reasons: 1) It was the first concert I reviewed in the more than two years since the coronavirus pandemic hit; and 2) It brought me full circle, in a way, seeing as the first freelance piece I contributed to the paper was an interview with Isbell. 

Plus, I’ll always appreciate his response to the review.

Anyway, it certainly bests this is the youth weekly.