Journalism Alumni Find a Home in Berlin
by Cristina L. Azocar (’93)
“Local, kamikaze journalism only happens in places like Berlin,” Walter Crasshole (’07) tells me as he smokes a cigarette outside of a Georgian restaurant in Berlin on a stifling July day.
It’s my first time in the German capital, which I’m visiting on a side trip while attending a conference in Paris. I’ve come to Berlin to meet up with SF State journalism grads Crasshole, Daryl Lindsey (’95) and Dolissa Medina (’96), three alumni who took the dive and emigrated there. Each has left a distinct impression on the mediascape of the country’s largest city.
Medina, a documentary filmmaker who writes movie reviews for Cinema Berlin, helped organize this dinner when she learned I was traveling to Europe. We met in lecturer Mary Ann Hogan’s reporting class in 1992. Later, as director of the department’s now-defunct, high-school journalism workshop — the Bay Area Multicultural Media Academy (BAMMA) — I hired both Medina and Crasshole to mentor the students. Crasshole’s multiple-piercings and multi-colored hair helped the high-school rookies understand that journalism isn’t just a stiff-suit career, that people from all backgrounds are needed to tell the stories of our communities.
As Medina, Crasshole and I wait for Lindsey in the atypical 100-degree Fahrenheit heat, we long for the cold fog of San Francisco’s summers.
Crasshole honed his journalism skills as Xpress editor-in-chief in 2007, receiving rave reviews from his instructors. When he moved to Berlin with his boyfriend in 2009, Crasshole didn’t know German, and found the only way to support himself was by cleaning hotel rooms. He wanted to work for Exberliner, an English language magazine, and applied for an internship. Although the editor thought he was overqualified for the position, she hired him. Three months later he transitioned to web editor. As the magazine’s de facto senior editor, he worked on all aspects of the job, including its content management system, which he had to learn.
Soon after landing the position at Exberliner, Crasshole was invited to write for Siegessäule, Berlin’s free, queer magazine. His column, From the Eyes of the Crasshole, became the first English-language column in the magazine’s 30+ year history. But Crasshole is not your stereotypical ex-pat American in Berlin sticking to his native language. Now a naturalized citizen of Germany with dual citizenship, he translates books from German to English and writes feature articles for both Siegessäule and L Mag, a national lesbian magazine. And thanks to his bilingual journalism skills — plus a fortuitous interview assignment — Crasshole even befriended iconic German pop star Nena. The ‘80s singer of “99 Luftballons” fame hired him to translate and produce original promotional materials for her U.S. tour. It was a dream gig for Crasshole, a big fan of the singer, and the job also landed him a featured spot on her 40th anniversary TV special. Crasshole says that he still occasionally works with Nena whenever she needs help with English interviews.
Unlike Crasshole, Lindsey knew German when he arrived in Berlin in 2001 with an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship for young journalists who speak German. The fellowship was for two months, but he never went back to the States.
Lindsey worked on his high school newspaper and on the high school supplement of the Napa Valley Register and landed in SF State’s Journalism Department because “I didn’t know anyone who didn’t love it,” he said. The department lauds itself as a place where students can hit the ground running and Lindsey upheld its claim.
Immediately after graduating in 1996, Lindsey found employment at Wired. He credits the connections he made at the magazine with getting a position as managing editor of SPEIGEL International in 2004, the English site for Der Spiegel.
“It’s hard to get a job without connections,” Lindsey said as we order another round of beer to keep cool. Air conditioning is rare in Berlin.
Like Crasshole, Lindsey also does translations. His company DachaMedia translates investigative journalism from German to English. He’s worked on several prominent projects, including the Paradise Papers and the WikiLeaks/NSA scandal coverage. Through the latter, he worked closely with director Laura Poitras, whose 2014 film about Edward Snowden, “Citizenfour,” won an Oscar for Best Documentary feature.
Medina, a director of short films since 2000, hasn’t walked a red carpet yet, but she has won several awards for her nonfiction films that use archival news clips in experimental ways.
Like Lindsey, Medina worked as teen journalist starting in the seventh grade in her home town of Brownsville, Texas. She earned numerous journalism scholarships to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After two years, she concluded that the Midwest didn’t support her progressive views, and she transferred to SF State.
After graduating, Medina took a break to explore her journalism options, and ended up taking her media skills to Galeria de la Raza, where she worked as a publicist. Surrounded by artists, she realized that filmmaking was her creative calling, and in 1999 obtained her first film grant from the now-defunct Film Arts Foundation, which allowed her to take production classes. She continued to divide her time between short film projects and part-time journalism, which included working as an editor at a local film magazine and serving as an interim Managing Editor at El Tecolote. In 2006, she premiered her first major documentary, “Cartography of Ashes,” for San Francisco’s 100th anniversary of its 1906 Earthquake.
While completing an MFA in Visual Art from UC-San Diego, Medina went to Berlin on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2010 to research material for a documentary about “the myth of a city that’s in constant flux.” She believes that San Francisco, like Berlin, is a city that’s always redefining itself. But unlike the hyper-gentrified San Francisco, “Berlin is still a city of radical creation, particularly for queer artists.” Medina moved permanently to Germany in 2012 and has a German spouse.
Showing me around Berlin earlier in the day, Medina had pointed out the Stolpersteine on the ground. These ‘stumbling stones’ are concrete and brass bricks that memorialize the last place of residency of Jewish individuals who were victims of the Nazis. “Everywhere you go in this town, you walk with history,” Medina said, adding that the city’s layers of trauma and geo-political partition resonate with her as a Mexican-American from the border. Medina is currently producing her first feature length documentary called “Small Town Turn Away” — a personal story about returning to her hometown 30 years after her cousin died of AIDS.
As the four of us gather our courage to face the extreme heat outside, I realize that Crasshole, Medina and Lindsey all have indicated how lucky they feel to be using their journalism skills so far from home. All agree that SF State trained them well.
“I have never forgotten my connection to SF State,” Lindsey said. “It was the first place in my life where I felt normal, where diversity made me feel at home.”
For those who want to work abroad, Lindsey says they should, “be totally fluent [in the language of the country], don’t give up quickly and have a strategy to get as much experience as possible.”
Crasshole echoed Lindsey’s advice, adding how important it was to “be serious” and make the effort to learn the language as well as new skills. “Seeking out a publication in your native tongue isn’t enough. Be prepared to sacrifice the time to follow through,” he said. Medina hopes students take the ethics as serious as the other skills. “Journalism is under attack right now. The stakes are too high to not do due diligence in your reporting,” she said.
As we position ourselves to take the requisite selfies, I think how remarkable it is to connect with these three amazing journalism alumni who came to Berlin on different paths. The evening feels like a special transatlantic reunion, breezing us back from the scorching heat to the cool streets of San Francisco.