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Friday, January 27, 2006

God's joy and laughter

Bach gave us God's Word, Mozart gave us God's laughter, Beethoven gave us God's fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words. — quote from outside a German opera house

Today we celebrate the 250th birthday of Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. So much has been written about him, but I found this in today’s LA Times particularly interesting.

Barney Zwartz, religion editor at the Age, an Australian newspaper, wrote that much of what has been written about Mozart over time is “appalling balderdash.”

Wasn’t sure where he was going at first, but then he ended his article with a solid illustration of the sublime and the divine in Mozart. His music makes my body tingle, my heart sore with joy and pain and brings unstoppable tears to my eyes. (The bold is mine.)

Today, many people find his music easy to listen to. But to conclude that Mozart's music is either facile or simple is itself unforgivably facile. As pianist Artur Schnabel observed, Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for artists. In Mozart, the sublime is often as linked to pain as beauty. In other words, his music is sometimes agonizingly beautiful; it makes the heart ache.

"It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach," said the theologian Karl Barth. "I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then, too, our dear Lord listens with special pleasure."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Roldo's Squeaky Wheel

Don't miss the debut of Roldo Bartimole's new blog focused on issues related to poverty and social justice.

Here's Roldo's take:


I hope that social workers, educators, reporters, physicians, nurses, advocates of hunger and homeless centers, social service agents, pastors, ministers, rabbis who are unable to write what they want in their newspapers, the poor themselves (who could tell the story more truthfully), others who in their jobs come in contact with poverty issues will tell their stories here. We want to know who is suffering, how and why. We want as much attention to the distressed as celebrities of all kinds.

Somebody suggested that it be called the “Squeaky Wheel.” So be it. Now let’s hear some squawking.

Meet the Bloggers fundraiser

Good pal Lori Kozey will be helping out with the "celebrity" bartending duties at the Meet the Bloggers fundraiser this coming Thursday, Jan. 26. Come out and have a beer or two to show your support of citizen journalism. Here’s the 411:

Who: Anyone and everyone who cares about moving beyond the sound bite.

What: Celebrity bartender fundraiser with happy hour prices for the duration of the event and some great appetizers.

Where: Pearl of the Orient restaurant, Beachcliff Market Square, 19300 Detroit Road, Rocky River.

When: Thursday, January 26, 2006, 5.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.

Why: (a) To raise funds to support Meet the Bloggers, the first of its kind nonpartisan citizen journalism project right here in Cleveland that offers in-depth exposure of political candidates and community issues, including an upcoming debate with the three Ohio Democratic gubenatorial candidates, Eric Fingerhut, Bryan Flannery, and Ted Strickland. All tips and donations will go toward transcription costs, so tip well and tip often! (b) To see George Nemeth in a kilt.

More details here. Spread the word.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Kaplan's CJR essay a must-read

Why does one become a reporter if not in large part to satisfy curiosity about the world? At least that’s a big reason for my becoming a reporter. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what motivated you to pursue a job that so much of the public mistrusts and for which you get paid so little.

I’ve said it often enough here, that I want to see the world and write about all that I see. I get physically antsy when I’ve spent too much time behind my desk. The wonderful thing about being a reporter is the actual reporting process. But given the nature of how we work these days and with budgets constraints particularly for freelancers, so much of reporting is done over the phone or the Internet. Much is lost as a result.

For example: Nearly two years ago I wrote a fairly in-depth piece about Amina Silmi for Lakewood Buzz. It was a story that moved me tremendously for many reasons. There was the social justice angle, the mother and children angle and the government trying to equitably if not compassionately enforce immigration laws.

Last year about this time, I tried to pitch a follow up story. Amina was deported to Venezuela, but she made the agonizing decision to leave her three American-born children here in the states. I spoke with Amina by phone when she was in Venezuela and she was at turns profoundly sad and weepy and intensely angry. It will be at least eight more years before she can return to the states to visit her children.

In my mind I pictured going down to Venezuela to meet with her, to describe the park in which she spent her first night, to spend time in her neighborhood with any family or friends she has. I spent time at her Lakewood home. I wanted to absorb how she was now living. But I know the editor of Lakewood Buzz, as much as he would love to have that story, cannot afford to send me. And another local editor very callously told me that she broke the law and therefore was of no interest to her readers.

So I Iet that story die. Maybe I should have pursued it more doggedly. But I don’t have the luxury of working on something that extensive (and costly to my own pocketbook) without the guarantee of a paid assignment. So I moved on. Occasionally I think of her and wonder how she goes on when her heart is fractured at the loss of her children…

I mention all of this because an essay in the January/February issue of Columbia Journalism Review inspired and reminded me about the importance of such work. Written by Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, it’s unfortunately unavailable online. So I’m going to spend the rest of this post pulling paragraphs that resonated in my journalistic heart. The piece is called, “Cultivating Loneliness: The importance of slipping away from the pack to encounter, and understand, the world firsthand.”

The Internet now makes facts so effortless to obtain that there is the illusion of knowledge where none actually exists. With so many low-budget Web logs that do little more than emotionally react to the headlines, rare is the commentator who does the field work necessary to earn his opinions – or even his prejudices.

• Above all, it is the lack of appreciation for geography in the broad, nineteenth-century sense of the word that is basic to an age of journalism increasingly given to summarizing from above rather than reporting from below.

• Journalism desperately needs a return to
terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing.

• In and of itself, travel writing is a low-rent occupation, best suited for the Sunday supplements. But it is also a deft vehicle for filling the void in serious journalism: for example, by rescuing such subjects as art, history, geography, and statecraft from the jargon and obscurantism of academia…

• Owen Lattimore, while traveling in Inner Mongolia, makes an observation that all journalists should take to heart:

“There is nothing that shuts off the speech of simple men like the suspicion that they are being pumped for information: while if they get over the feeling of strangeness they will yarn as they do among themselves. Then in their talk comes out the rich ore of what they themselves accept as the truth about their lives and beliefs, not spoiled in trying to refine it unskillfully by suiting the words to the listener.”

Just listening to people, to their stories – rather than cutting them off to ask probing, impolite questions – forms the essence of these and all other good travel books.

• Reporting emphasizes intrusive, tape-recorded interview; travel writing emphasizes the art of good conversation, and the experience of how it comes about in the first place.

• Rather than interrogate strangers, which is essentially what reporters do, the travel writer gets to know people, and reveals them as they reveal themselves.

• Travel writing emphasizes solitariness. The best writing, literary or journalistic, occurs under the loneliest of circumstances, when a writer encounters the evidence firsthand without anyone of his social, economic, or professional group nearby to help him filter it, or otherwise condition his opinions.

Kaplan writes of many travel writers works spanning a century and beyond. He references Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari (2003) and Colin Thubron’s In Siberia(1999).

Whatever the prejudices of Theroux and Thubron, at least they are the result of direct contact with the evidence – uncontaminated by contact with a clerisy of specialists, clustered in nearby foreign capitals. As Jack London put it, “They drew straight from the source, rejecting the material which filtered through other hands.”

• If anyone deserves a public service award for peeling back the curtain on distant societies, it is less the publishers of major newspapers and magazines than those of the
Lonely Planet Guides and The Rough Guides. These two series combine historical and cultural depth with intrepid, solitary research by young travelers who get to every remote location in a given country … In the 1990s, when it was particularly hard to get visas to Iran — and much of the information about that country emerged out of seminars in Washington — the best thing to read on the subject was Iran: A Travel Survival Kit by David St. Vincent, published in the Lonely Planet series.

• Reporting, — one of history’s oldest professions, even as it has gone under different names — will survive and prosper, while “journalism” as a respected discipline threatens to dissolve into another branch of entertainment. How will good reporting survive? Individual men and women will slip away from the crowd — away from the panels and seminars, the courses and conferences, away from the writers’ hangouts and e-mails networks — to cultivate loneliness.

And they will do this out of curiosity — for as the illusion of knowledge grows daily, the reality of places themselves becomes more of mystery.

Pick up a copy if you can. I’ve only captured a skeletal look at Kaplan’s essay. If anything he has the raconteur in me longing to be silent and fill my reporter’s notebook.

UN Secretary-General must have good name

What’s in a name? If you work at the United Nations your name is important. That’s why I found this article in today’s LA Times rather comical.

Apparently if you want the job of UN Secretary-General, you deny wanting it. One diplomat likened it to the infamous Monty Python skit in “Life of Brian” when a commoner is mistaken for the Messiah.

("I am not the Messiah!" the man says. "Only the true Messiah denies his divinity," a woman says. "All right! I am the Messiah!" he says, and they fall to their knees. "He is! He is the Messiah!")

Heh, heh. Funny stuff, especially given that it came from a diplomat.

Current UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana had this to say about his successor in the UN’s top job:

“They need thick skin," he said last month, moments before lashing out at a contentious reporter. "And they need a sense of humor."

More than that, I believe they need a good name. It should be written into the job description that the Secretary-General’s name must rrrrooolll off the tongue. And it should be complex enough that it gives pause to even the most confident print reporter, forcing them to look up the spelling (Is there a hyphen and if so where? O-U or just U, is it two Ns or one?) for each story. But it's great fun for broadcasters. Just think of Sylvia Pogglioli of NPR or Christiane Amanpour of CNN rolling the name.

I submit the names of past leaders UN leaders as evidence of the need for a good name: There was U Thant, of what was then Burma and is now Myanmar. Who could forget that “contentious” Egyptian leader Boutros Boutros-Ghali?

Then of course there’s Kofi Annan. But my all-time favorite in name is Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru.

Say it with me now: “Javier Perez de Cuellar.” See? It just rolls off the tongue. Very important.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Press Think guest on blogging local news

Check out this guest post on Press Think from Debbie Galant of Baristanet.

It relates to yesterday’s item I posted from Tim Porter.

There are so many interesting stories and people I meet in the course of writing for money that I’d like to share some of those stories on Creative Ink. If I was initially hesitant for any reason, I am no longer.

Here’s Debbie’s inspiration for Baristanet as written on Press Think:

I’ll give you an example. And this is a story that pre-dates Baristanet, but when it happened I thought, I wish I wrote for the local newspaper. If I wrote for the local newspaper, this is exactly the kind of story I would write. This is the story that, in a way, inspired Baristanet.

This involves the same pool where the lifeguards were all hanging around playing cards, only a year or two earlier. After a long political battle, the pool had just been built, but because of construction delays, it didn’t open until the last day of July. With the entire swimming season compressed into one month, tempers flared, especially on those afternoons—and there were a lot of them—when the pool closed for late afternoon thunderstorms.

One Friday afternoon, with not a cloud on the horizon, after I’d put in a full day of writing, I walked to the pool and was astonished to find it closed.

There had been no thunder; I’d been writing the whole afternoon on my front porch, half a mile from the pool. The parking lot at the pool was empty, but one by one cars arrived. Moms and kids spilled out, their arms overflowing with towels and pool bags. We all stared forlornly at the chain-link fence and wondered why the pool was closed and where the lifeguards had gone.

Well, somebody said, they must have closed the pool for thunder and made everyone go home. The policy was 20 minutes. So if we kept waiting, the lifeguards would come back and re-open the pool. We waited 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, longer. No lifeguards, no pool manager.

People pulled out cell phones, called town hall, the mayor, members of the pool’s board of trustees. Nobody knew what was going on, and people were furious: me more than anyone. That’s the moment when I imagined writing about this for a local paper. It was exactly the kind of thing that was never covered in the local paper—it didn’t, after all, happen at a town council meeting or come from a press release—and it was exactly the kind of thing that everybody talked about.

When the manager finally did appear, hours later, he offered no excuses and no explanation. There’d been thunder. The pool was closed.

We found out the real story months later, after it was discovered that the pool manager had been embezzling money from the pool. It turns out that hot August afternoon, he’d heard some distant thunder and decided to close the pool and take his entire lifeguard staff out to the movies.

These are the stories that people want to know. They still want to know why the pool is closed on a sunny August afternoon. These are the stories that you almost never get in the weekly local newspaper, which is typically staffed by 20-something journalists straight out of school and with no ties, or real sources, in the community.

They also want to know if the hot new restaurant that just opened is any good, whether their neighbors are also furious about new leaf raking regulations, and why the 6:18 from Penn Station was being held up in Bloomfield, and not allowed to continue on into Glen Ridge.

Adversity as encouragement

You never know what drives a person to succeed.

I found this story on the cover of today’s Metro section very interesting for a number of reasons. I think it’s a solid profile of younger person quietly making a difference in this town. We need to hear of more of them.

But what really frosted me was this paragraph:

Getting to where she is today wasn't easy. Her mother had to borrow money to pay her fees at Padua Franciscan High. She was told by a dean at the Case Western Reserve University law school that her degree from Bowling Green State University wasn't prestigious enough to be considered for a scholarship, even though her transcript showed only one B in a sea of A's. Ruda would have the last laugh when she finished first in her law school class.

Huh? A degree and exceptional grades from one of our state’s fine public universities is somehow not prestigious enough for another of our state’s fine universities? Perhaps if she came from a well-to-do family with the proper Cleveland pedigree and the purchased Ivy League undergrad education to go with it she’d be more “appealing” to the admissions department at Case?

This seemingly small statement in this very interesting profile speaks to the fundamental problem with our system of education. To think that there are people in positions of power and influence in the system that can so easily dismiss those who have to work their way through school shows how little they understand the power of adversity to drive ambition. These deans and advisers and counselors are clueless as to what breeds success. Hint: It isn’t spoon-fed.

It doesn’t only happen in colleges, though I would surmise it is most prevalent at that level, where so few faculty members actually get to know their students let alone what drives them. A friend of mine painfully recalls an adviser, who was an academic dean, telling him, “Kiddo. You and Ohio University aren’t a match.” Fortunately, he stuck it out and didn’t listen to this bow-tied pompous professor.

There are also plenty of so-called high school guidance counselors with similarly misplaced good intentions. When my younger brother, Scott, was a senior at Berea High School, a grossly misinformed guidance counselor told my parents and my little brother that he was “not college material.” Hmm. How many successful people today have been told something similar?

My brother, who was not college material, made the Dean’s List two quarters his freshman year at OU and continued to excel academically throughout his four years. He worked his butt off, while being a member of the OU Marching 110 drum line and a fraternity. He even tutored my less-than-bright roommate through freshman algebra so she could graduate.

When I was at OU’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, I had a well-intentioned adviser who told me repeatedly that if I didn’t work at the student newspaper (the OU Post) I’d never get a job in journalism.

As I told him repeatedly, I needed to make money from my jobs in college in order to stay enrolled. I couldn’t afford to spend the time and work for slave wages at the Post because I would be forced to drop out for a quarter or two if I didn’t earn enough money. As it was, I worked in the admissions office opening the mail through my work-study grant, gave campus tours, babysat a local bar owner’s three boys (good preparation for my life) and eventually worked as a bartender.

It was difficult juggling the many jobs and the 16-18 credit hours every quarter, but it also was good preparation for juggling the many aspects of life. I had the good fortune to run into my adviser at an SPJ function in Detroit in 1992.

I went up to him and said, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” He looked at me a little sheepishly and asked, “What did I say?”

“You told me that I’d never get a job in journalism if I didn’t work at the Post. Well, I’ve been a working journalist since two days after graduation.”

He just shrugged his shoulders and said he was glad. At the time, all I could think of was, “No thanks to you.” But I guess I can thank him because I set out to prove him wrong.

Some of us rise to the occasion when faced with adversity; others crumble. Here’s to hoping our youngsters find someone who can recognize what kind of “encouragement” they need to succeed.

Rituals before writing

Author Toni Morrison in my new desk calendar "The Writer's Desk" on waking before the dawn as part of her writing process.

Writers all devise ways to approach the place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It's not being in the light, it's being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.

Do you have a writing ritual?

I need a clear desk and lots of light. The background noise of either softly playing classic music, a fan or my space heater sharpens my concentration. Gloomy days like today are ripe for writing.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Edith Wharton's library at The Mount

I’m not sure how I missed this other than to say it was pre-Christmas and I fell way behind on my daily reading.

In an age when greed rules and libraries are pulled apart, one lovely English gentleman sought to pull a noteworthy library together. George Ramsden, a British bookseller, bought the bulk of the 2,600-volume Edith Wharton Library in 1984 for around $80,000. The library, however, was incomplete and he set about completing and cataloging it over the next 20 years.

Last month, an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to offer $2.6 million for the complete collection to reside in the custody of The Mount, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Mass.

According to the Times article:

”The unique thing about this library is that she wrote about it in her autobiography,” Mr. Ramsden said. “She really tells you what books really meant to her. Even before she could read, she could be found alone with a book upside down in her hands. The physical presence of books continued to mean a lot to her.”

And this is from
The Mount’s
press release:

Edith Wharton’s library is a window on her life as a writer and the friendships she forged with other great intellects and artists of her time. In her autobiography, she wrote that “The core of my life was under my roof, among my books and my intimate friends.” Her library belongs to all periods of her life, from when she was a girl of ten up until a few weeks before her death at the age of seventy-five, and reflects both her deep American roots and her life as an expatriate in Europe.

The books have great value for scholarship in what they reveal about Wharton’s thoughts, the influences on her writing, and her intellectual development through the many annotations and firm pencil-strokes she made in the margins. In a letter to Sara Norton where she returned a copy of George Santayana’s Sonnets and other Verses, she wrote: “I send you back the little book with a faint scratch here and there to show you the detached things that struck me…this is the nearest approach to talking over a book together.”

And to top all of this wonderful news about my favorite 20th-century author, it seems that Hermione Lee, author of great biographies on Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, is writing a new biography of Edith Wharton.

I must confess, however, that the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by the late R.W.B. Lewis will be hard to top. It was masterfully written. I’ve read it twice.

Still missing Victoria

In June 2003, Hearst Publications ceased publishing one of my favorite magazines.

Victoria offered no in-depth journalism on the events of our world, its pages contained no celebrity profiles nor was it linked to any celebrity, and it offered no treatises on the state of the economy.

It was gracious and simple, filled with beautiful photographs and the simple stories of female entrepreneurs living their dreams of design, travel, floral, food, art, gardening and books. Every year there was an issue devoted to England, France and Italy, but also many treasures found stateside. It even featured a multi-page spread of Edith Wharton’s The Mount.

My sister Jen and I treated each other to this magazine every year. We fantasized about taking one of its excursions, (Literary England was on tops on our list.) settling instead for a more affordable trip to Washington, D.C.

The editors would find delightful old homes and gardens open for public touring. They would find and feature odd little streets filled with character as well as the obligatory, welcoming café. One January issue was devoted to all things white (and had me lusting for an oatmeal-colored cashmere throw).

Each issue would give me ideas for my own garden, some of which I tried, others of which I had always meant to try. But I felt peaceful thumbing the pages and reading the pithy stories. And in my hectic life that was worth double its cover price.

I found articles about Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and his modern-day writerly ancestor, Joanna Trollope. I picked up great biographies of Elizabeth I and read about modern-day women like myself who were keeping traditions both grand and simple alive.

I’ve yet to find a magazine that replaces Victoria. Make no mistake, I read many magazines, including those for meatier information and those for fluff, but I miss the peacefulness of reading Victoria.

Tim Porter on local news

From First Draft:

Local news is the franchise for most newspapers - in print and online. But offering more local news cooked from the same tired recipes is like opening a restaurant that advertises: Bad food, but a lot of it!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Boys will be boys and thank God for them

The book, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” has been on my “to read” list for a few years. You know that they say about good intentions....

Last night I tuned in to PBS to watch ”Raising Cain: Boys in Focus,” based on the book, and I found reinforcement and encouragement for many things I believe and try to practice as the parent of boys.

The program’s host and leading expert is Michael Thompson, a psychologist who works with children and families. Through the lens of specific boys’ experiences (ranging from babies and preschoolers to high schoolers) the program delved into the often undervalued and oversimplified inner life of boys. We often forget that even when they possess a man’s body, mentally they are still boys.

Though there were in-depth discussions about problems specific to those living in poverty or without fathers, it thankfully also provided a balanced look at the average boys who live in the suburbs with two parents.

Where big differences, both good and bad, occurred was at school. If a teacher understood that sometimes a boy’s fidgety behavior isn’t always something requiring medication, but could be managed with a walk around the school or an opportunity to blow off physical steam, they were more likely to succeed.

I had heard about the anti-boy bias that exists in some schools. When my guys were young I didn’t believe it exists. But I’ve seen it and it raged unchecked in their old school. One of the biggest reasons I pulled them from that environment was that they no longer felt comfortable in who they were there. They weren’t valued for their individuality.

I think it’s high time educators openly discuss how they treat boys and girls differently and what steps they can take to tailor instruction to meet ALL children’s needs.

Fifth grade is housed at Bay Middle School in our district. Essentially, these kids are still elementary students. Being in the middle school, however, they no longer have recess. Try telling a 10- or 11-year-old to sit still from 7:50 a.m. to 3 p.m.

But Patrick’s teacher is incredible in her understanding of how kids need to move and how they learn. She gets them up from their desk and does activities on the rug, then moves to tables and she keeps the pace moving. Fortunately, she has the space in her classroom to spread out.

She also understands Patrick’s apprehension about his fluency in reading. The class is reading a long book, averaging three chapters per night with a worksheet of comprehension questions and vocabulary. Good readers will plow through this story in no time. For Patrick, it could take hours.

Without his asking, she sent him home with the book on CD. So now he reads along with his headphones on and feels as if he’s “reading” and understanding the story without the stress of spending hours trying to get through the chapters. Best of all, he’s enjoying the story and reading more of it on his own. He's buoyed by the feeling of success.

Ryan’s seventh-grade science teacher is fabulous with the boys in her classroom. Rather than fight the excitement the many football players in her labs would have on game day, she would ask them about their games and encourage them in their efforts. As a result, she has their undying affection and has Ryan convinced that he wants to be a middle school science teacher.

But he does have one very young teacher who admitted to me during conferences that boys mystify her. I laughed, but she was serious. Their physicality intimidates her. To her credit, she has attempted some language arts exercises that tap into the competitiveness of boys. But she told me they were falling all over each other at the board.

Again, I laughed, knowing this is typical of boys. But this isn’t typical of her experience. She’s new to teaching and boys and since at least 50 percent of her student population will be male, she really requires some professional development training in educating and understanding 13-year-old boys.

For example, a 13-year-old boy isn’t going to put a pretty border on a social studies project. Their neatness is not always the best. But is the content there? Is it correct and presented in an intelligent fashion? If so, then knocking off points for not having decorative borders seems a bit unfair to me.

Michael has a tough time distinguishing between someone dying and someone getting killed. While we were getting ready for the day, he picked up a photo of my grandparents. He knows my Gram well, but my Grandpa died long before he was born. He asked, “How did he get killed?”

I tried to explain the difference between someone being ill and dying and someone getting killed. He still mixes it up, but I’m not overly concerned because though he thoroughly enjoys World War II movies, playing war and roughhousing with his older brothers, I know he’s just playing. Besides, he’s also a compassionate and caring friend.

And that was another issue raised in the documentary. Adults need to understand the distinction between a boys’ fantasy life (playing) and his real life. Playing war, macho posturing and wrestling is a way to express their feelings. When we come down on them for doing so we are effectively dismissing their inner life. And that’s dangerous to their development and maturity.

Here’s a synopsis of important statements from the program:

1) Americans are afraid of their boys. Think about a time you saw a group of teenagers gathered. Did you suck in your breath as you walked by? Did you assume they were up to no good? Did you feel threatened by them?
2) Boys want to feel safe in their home and school environments.
3) Boys will talk if we really listen and if they feel safe both physically and emotionally.
4) We need to find ways to connect with them somehow: sports, music, movies, art, drama, science, or games.
5) Boys need adult men as role models for compassion and caring.

What was most amazing about this program was that I watched it with Ryan. He came in a few minutes into the program after finishing his homework and he was riveted. “What is this?” he asked. “It’s a program about raising boys.” I didn’t say anything else but let him stay and watch as along as he wanted. He stayed for the entire program.

Afterward he looked at me and said, “That’s so true, mom.” Then he got up and went to bed. Perhaps I'll read that book now.

Trying to out an anonymous flamer

Does anyone know who this flamer is?

I love the way you bloggers spend so much time blogging and responding to each other's blogs. big circle jerk of underemployed "journalists" If you can't write, be a blogger, I guess.

Kind of ironic that you guys have so much time on your hands (because you can't get real writing jobs) that you have time to pontificate about writing....

Sends e-mail under

Good thing this person has such mastery of languge and usage. I suggested he/she stop reading and commenting and find something more productive to do with his/her time than read that which is so offensive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Get Wall Street out of the picture

I’m on a bit of roll today, finally getting caught up on some reading. Columbia Journalism Review is one of those pubs I inhale from front to back. I don’t always agree with their articles, but enjoy the industry perspective. Picking up on my last point in the previous post…

Can’t recall who first came up with this idea, but with all the brouhaha of Knight-Ridder possibly going up for sale and Wall Street crying, “we want more!” someone had logically suggested that K-R papers be offered for sale in each of the communities it serves.

That sounds so logical as to surely be viewed as ludicrous by the moneymen. But in theory it means that a civically minded investor in the Akron area could potentially buy the Akron Beacon Journal and save it from imploding and thereby disgracing a terrific community and multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning paper.

So I read with great interest this article by contributing editor Douglas McCollam. In it he asks the question on the lips of many who love their newspapers: “Is there any good reason for newspapers to remain publicly traded companies?”

Aside from Donald Graham, the late Katharine Graham’s son and chairman and largest individual shareholder of The Washington Post Company, who thinks going public was good for the company ("Our focus is not on the stock price, but on the value of the company,” he says.), the conclusion is that the industry needs to separate from Wall Street, which cares only about growth.

Here’s McCollam on why publicly owned newspapers, which generally have profit margins of about 20 percent, “extraordinary when compared to almost any other business sector,” don't work:

It hasn’t worked precisely because the real appetite of shareholders is for greater short-term profitability, not long-term strategic investment.

Why is this relevant? Because newspapers are stumbling in their attempts to be relevant in the 21st century and among younger readers. Giving ownership back to the individual communities gives them the power to meet changing needs. There is no cookie-cutter solution that will work for all newspapers. Changes in content and delivery have to respond to the local community’s needs.

But to get there, first you have to get Wall Street out of the picture.

Private equity investors may not be the silver bullet solution, but it will be better than the dog-and-pony show we’ve got now between owners and investors.

Dean Singleton, head of Media News Group, which invests in media properties is not alone his observation that: “newspapers are ideal candidates for leveraged buyouts because they have such high operating margins, meaning they can service a lot of debt without drowning in it.”

McCollam writes: “…at the very least (private investors) will get the newspapers off the quarterly earnings treadmill that currently drives so much decision-making in the industry.” And that breathing room could provide the “potential to give newspapers desperately needed space to plan and invest in long-term strategies, on both the business and editorial sides.”

Like all seemingly rational plans that shakeup the group psyche, this idea involves adjusting people’s expectations, according to James Rutherfurd, a managing director of Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a merchant bank that focuses on media properties.

“You can streamline the production and delivery, but if you don’t have a good product no one will buy it. To do that on a daily basis takes good reporters and editors and some vision of what people want,” says Rutherford.

And here’s what McCollam concludes:

What newspapers really need, above all else, is ownership that values journalism and understands that the work of gathering, writing, and publishing the news is an inherently inefficient business that is in a period of profound transition. The private press baron of the past might have been a blowhard propagandist with the ethics of a wharf rat, but at least he loved the trade. Compared with the lineup of bloodless managers and mandarins currently squeezing the life out of journalism, Charles Foster Kane looks pretty damn good. So while there is no guarantee that the private ownership of today would recognize the value of journalism, it has already been established that Wall Street does not. Maybe it’s time we took our chances.

I’ll drink to that! (clink)

Blog as "repository" for ideas

Did you happen to catch George and Mano Singham on WCPN yesterday?

It was an abbreviated version of 90.3 at 9 thanks to the Alito hearings, but nonetheless an interesting conversation about blogging. I was hoping for more and I do hope the station takes George and Mano up on a return visit. We hardly scratched the surface.

Mano, who writes “Mano Singham's Web Journal: Thoughts on science, history and philosophy of science, religion, politics, the media, education, learning, books, and films,” said something that rang so true I perilously scribbled it in my notebook while driving down I-90.

There are those who foolishly and mistakenly believe that bloggers’ only productive endeavor is feeding their blog, thereby perpetuating the blogger mystique. After all, why would you do something if you don’t get paid to do so?

Mano’s comment about why he blogs was that his blog serves as a "repository" for his ideas. Fabulous response! You know all those half-baked ideas you have: something you hear on the radio that causes you to yell aloud; or you read something that you’d like to think through a little further; or you have an idea you just don’t want to let slip. The blog is a place for those.

I’d like to add to that:

It’s also a laboratory where you can safely experiment with your ideas, turning them around in your head, testing your theories to see if they hold any weight whatsoever. Some do and some don’t, but thank God there’s a vehicle for such expression. It never fails that the item you think will generate the least response generates the most and vice versa.

The flip side of that, however, is how getting paid for your blog affects your writing. Would you be tempted to self-censor if you were writing for “the man?” Would you temper your tone and remarks to the point where your blog loses its voice and frankly its one distinguishing characteristic? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly something to think about.

The reality of Creative Ink is that I do censor myself about many things. I work in this town and since I don’t have the title “media critic,” I find engaging in media criticism unpalatable. Do I have thoughts on it? Absolutely, and some very strong ones indeed. But I have to work within the admittedly broken system because it’s a key source of my livelihood.

That view may cause some bloggers dyspepsia, but that’s my reality. I am first a journalist and second a blogger. Until I make more money blogging than I do writing for print, I will continue to hold my tongue here and in comments elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean I won’t ask big picture questions about the journalism industry that frustrates me no end yet I love most dearly.

Time to write

The pamphlet lured me with it’s promising headline: Do you want TIME to write?

In a sea of otherwise uninspiring literature found at the SPJ InfoMart at the national convention in Las Vegas last October, this one was a grabber.

Ever since I’ve had the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at OSU tacked on my bulletin board. Sometimes I just glance over at it and sigh. Sometimes I pick it up and try to imagine myself with the time to write only what I want.

But then reality sets in and — resisting the urge to pitch it — I carefully tack it back onto my bulletin board to entice me and tease me some more.

Time to write. You’d think that an independent writer would have nothing BUT time to write. Sadly, that is not the case. I’ve barely had time lately to keep up with Creative Ink. Let’s face facts:

1) I’m a mother and wife first and that means my writing time is limited to those hours when children are in school (typically 8-3).
2) I don’t have the financial luxury of accepting only those assignments I want, though I’m getting better at discerning what works for me both creatively and financially.
3) As an independent, I’m also running a business, which means researching and pitching new “clients,” invoicing and collecting payment, budgeting, etc. So my 8-3 is not always consumed with writing.
4) I’m an early morning writer. Mornings (from 6:30-8), however, are filled with packing lunches, feeding the dog and marshaling my brood to get to the bus on time. In between, I sip my coffee and thumb through the morning paper, but there’s really no time to sit and write.

The Kiplinger Program at OSU is appealing on several levels:

1) It gives Fellows the chance to pursue their passion, whatever that may be, for six months.
2) You’re given a private office in a swanky new building, a stipend and access to extensive university library, faculty and guest resources.
3) You get to tap some great journalistic and intellectual minds, travel to DC to meet other great minds and mentor young journalism students at The Lantern.
4) But most of all you get to think beyond the harried, frenzied existence of hourly, daily and weekly deadlines.

Above all else it’s that last item that sounds divinely tempting. Think of what you could produce if only you had time to, well, think.

This is what the brochure promises:

• Focus on meaningful work that inspires you.
• Work on a public affairs print project of your choice. You may decide to produce an in-depth, multi-part newspaper series, write a shorter freelance article for a magazine or complete chapters for a book.
• Develop close connections with other talented journalists through dynamic retreats, field trips, seminars and other exciting events.
• Step back and reflect on your role in the rapidly changing field of journalism.

Sounds terrific. I’d love to apply. There are several catches, however.

First, you have to live in Columbus. That’s not so bad, but I’m sure my family would not want me away for even a portion of the week, let alone the whole week. Second, you can’t engage in other outside professional work, which would be great except for the third problem: The stipend for six months is $20,000 and that’s supposed to cover your accommodations and time. Travel expenses are not covered. It may sound like a lot of money for six months, but not when you realize that it has to cover your salary and living expenses, the money doesn’t sound so great.

Finally, the FAQ is a tad ambiguous about freelancers applying, something about 20 hours/week and detailed lists of publications, etc. Assembling all of that sounds daunting to a writer who scarcely has time to write.

So I’ll let the air out of that balloon for now and continue to dream about another day when I will have time to write what inspires.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Robust food for thought

I'm running around like crazy today, but wanted to point you to Jill's blog. She writes poignantly about being a Jew and some of the fears, anxieties, concerns, etc. that arise.

Hoping to get back to the blog later to see the discussion.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ch-ch changes

Kicked major booty on my run this morning. Amazing what making positive changes to your life can do for your spirit. After the insane fall I had with work, some things HAD to change. I think I wrote here about a weekend of tears of exhaustion after endless work without a break — or a paycheck.

Ever since, Danny and I have been brainstorming how to manage my business life better. The first step was to find some regular work that would allow for steady paycheck. In November I started a contract arrangement with the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. My job is storyteller for the small schools initiative at Cleveland Heights High School. It’s a good move for me on a number of levels:

1) It gives me a chance to observe education reform in public schools based on research from a leading foundation (and with the funding of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).
2) It provides a steady source of income.
3) It gives me a chance to get out of my home office and really hone my observation skills.
4) It provides an outlet to explore narrative nonfiction writing in a workshop setting with other storytellers around the state.
5) Let’s me hang around Cleveland Heights, one of my favorite cities.

Step two was to eliminate some monthly bills in an effort to reduce the amount of income I need to generate every month. As much as I loved having the landline, it didn’t make sense to pay for that, the rarely used fax AND the cell. So I’ve gone wireless with my communications. No more landline and no more fax.

I enjoy being a book reviewer, but the time had finally come when I needed to say farewell to the weekly religious book reviews, despite it being a regular-paying gig. As of today you will no longer see my reviews in the PD. The burden of having to read a book every week for review became too much in light of the other projects that would be on fire every week. (Yes, I did actually read them. You can’t very well review without having done so.) I felt as if I was giving short shrift to everything as a result. I’m thankful to have had a byline appear weekly in the PD for the past 18 months. But the relief at not having to read books in the same genre week after week is intoxicating to say the least. Freeing, actually.

I’ve got a review I’m working on now for the PD Sunday book pages and I have another in the can for PAGES magazine March/April issue. Hopefully, I can continue to review for those outlets on an occasional basis.

One very large marketing project is nearing an end. I’ve enjoyed working with the people, but this project has dragged on way too long in my opinion. Another is in layout and the bulk of my work is done.

After discussion with the editor while in Las Vegas, I’ve started writing profiles of journalists with “cool” jobs for SPJ’s Quill magazine. First up is NPR’s legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg.

The one project that has been hanging over my head and really left me twisting in the wind was the pain management book for the Cleveland Clinic Press. Although I’ve had several chapters written, it didn’t feel comfortable to me and was honestly stressing me out. As of yesterday, I’ve finally got a better sense of direction for the book, clarification on the audience and some much-needed deadlines to complete the project. I’m grateful to the editor for letting me talk through my confusion and frustration.

Those are some little changes. I continue to write pieces for the Catholic Universe Bulletin because I really like Editor Dennis Sadowski and he gives me some amazing stories to cover. And I’m also working with former SPJ pal, Connie Swenson, on Smart Health magazine.

Having a stable of regular work frees me up to pursue more national work. To even think I could shoot off queries under the pressure I experienced in the fall was folly indeed. Maybe this year I’ll learn to be realistic about my time.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

No more driving in silence

I spent the better part of the past three months driving in silence. It wasn’t some lame attempt at achieving a Zen-like state; it was purely a function of not having an operational radio (or clock or keyless entry system) in my car.

About three weeks after we bought our new, used Windstar minivan in 2002, the electronic sensors went a little haywire. “Could be something, could be nothing,” the dealer informed us, “but let’s charge you an arm and a leg to find out.”

Feeling lucky, we took our chances and never had the diagnostics run or the short fixed. Come last December (as in 2004) when the van was due for an E-check, the engine light was on in addition to the parking brake and overdrive.

The nice guys at Bay Village Pro Care fixed the problem in a jiffy and without too much pain to the pocketbook so we could pass the E-check. But last fall, on one of those days when everyone has to be in a different place at the same time, Danny was working late and we were all running late, my car died. Caput. Nada. Nothing. Not even a jump could get the thing started.

So the next morning it was towed to Pro Care. Once again, the fixes weren’t major, but the fine fellows there did something to knock my clock, radio/CD player and keyless entry out of whack. We called to see if they could fix and they said bring it on in. Well, one thing led to another and we never got around to bringing the van back in. (This fall was EXTREMELY busy.)

As a result, I spent the past three months driving in silence. It’s not a bad thing, really. Gives you time to think, reflect on meetings, brainstorm ideas, mentally make grocery lists and notice the city.

But it was a drag going back and forth to the east side with no NPR and no clock (strategically set 10 minutes ahead to keep me on schedule). As it happens, I’m a much better driver when I have the distraction of the radio. If left to my own devices, my thoughts tend to wander (along with the wheel on occasion). Pretty scary, let me tell ya.

Happily, I am no longer driving in silence. Faced with some wicked car repairs on Danny’s car (let’s just say he was leaking a half-quart of oil a day), he became a man possessed in the search for not one, but two new, used cars over the holiday break. (We don’t buy new. Can’t afford to.)

After 10 straight years of driving a Windstar minivan, I had my first chance to pick my own car. It’s so darned cute and fun – a little Ford Escape. Love it, love it! It’s silver. I’ve never had a silver car. I’ve had two blue cars and three tan cars, so we really went crazy on this one. New model AND new color! Woo hoo!

People will think I’m crazy. When the salesman heard of my brood he suggested a much larger guzzler. Told him I couldn’t stomach the tank, the fuel costs and the environmental unfriendliness of such a truck. But I just couldn’t keep driving a minivan. It served us well for many years. But we’re rarely all in the same car together and when we are, it’s for short distances (to Grandma’s or church). So the time was right to get something a little smaller, a little more fuel efficient (only took $25 to fill up my tank today; that wouldn’t even get me halfway in the van) and, let’s face it, a little more hip.

Not that I care about appearances or anything. In fact, I’ve never been much of a car enthusiast. My first car was a Hyundai Excel bought from my older brother who was stationed in Germany in the Air Force. My dad told me it was the only car I could afford (of course he was right). After that, I just drove what Danny brought home.

But now I’ve picked my own car and I’m pretty pleased with the purchase. It’s just a start of some of the changes taking place over here at Wendy Hoke Enterprises. But more on that tomorrow….