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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Kitchen blogging

The latest benefit of wireless — kitchen blogging! Oh baby!

I'm corresponding with some West Coast folks so rather than lose a day or two in the response time, I just plunked the laptop down on my kitchen counter. So while I'm preparing my family's Thursday night feast and catching up with the folks in Oregon and Arizona, I'm also blogging. Gotta keep the paper towels handy, however, to keep from messing up the nice white keys of my MacBook.

Fall is all about nature's bounty. So while that strong cool breeze blows in my western kitchen window (sadly, I'm in a fleece sweatshirt because I'm chilly), my kitchen is filled with the intoxicating aroma of jambalya and sausage. As I pour myself a glass of pinot grigio, I reach into my bowl of homegrown tomatoes. Mmm, so fleshy and aromatic. I could live on tomatoes and mozzarella and cabernet sauvignon. Since I have no mozzarella (or cabernet), tonight's tomato concoction is a simple mixture of cubed tomatoes, cucumber, onion and celery tossed with a red wine vinaigrette.

All my culinary efforts, however, will quickly dissipate as my boys arrive home from football practice. They'll suck up the food faster than the steam-cleaner sucked up the dirt in my carpets.

Lift your feet

Danny is off work this week and making his way through his to-do list of projects around the house. I'm very fortunate to have married such a domesticated man (though he wasn't always that way). Today's project is steam-cleaning carpets, a back-to-school tradition. They look beautiful, but let's just say my concentration has not been at its highest. As I was putting some items into my calendar, I chuckled at this quote by E.B. White, realizing that although I am a woman, my family treats me—and my writing—the same as his.

A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go.

Happy Birthday, Van!

Van Morrison is 61 today. He's one of my favorite musicians of all time and it's not because of "Brown-eyed Girl," though that is a good tune. (Technically speaking my eyes are not brown, they are hazel, but you wouldn't notice unless you're looking closely.) No, I just dig his music for its soulfulness and its very mellowness. Those romantic Irishmen make me swoon. In honor of his birthday, I've got him playing on iTunes. Here are the lyrics to some of my favorites, beginning with one of my favorite tunes of all time:

Into the Mystic
We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailor's cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic
When that foghorn blows I will be coming home
When that foghorn blows I got a hear it, I don't have to fear it
I wanna rock your gypsy soul just like way back in the days of old
-- and magnificently we would float into the mystic.

Tupelo Honey
You can take all the tea in China
Put it in a big brown bag for me
Sail right round, all the seven oceans
Drop it straight into the big blue sea
She's as sweet as tupelo honey
She's an angel of the first degree
She's as sweet, she's as sweet as tupelo honey
Just like honey baby, from the bee

I'll Be Your Lover, Too
I'll be your man
I'll understand
And do my best
to take good care of you
Yes I will

You'll be my queen
I'll be your king
And I'll be your lover too
Yes I will

Derry down green
Color of my dream
A dream that's daily coming true
I'll tell you

When day is through
I will come to you
And tell you of your many charms

And you'll look at me
with eyes that see
And melt into each other's arms

And so I come to be the one
who's always standing next to you

Reach out for me
So I can be the one
who's always reaching out for you
Yes I will, yes I will

You'll be my queen
I'll be you king
And I'll be your lover too

Crazy Love
I can hear her heart beat for a thousand miles
And the heavens open every time she smiles
And when I come to her thats where I belong
Yet Im running to her like a rivers song
She give me love, love, love, love, crazy love

Reliving history of the press

The late Dr. Norman Dohn was a likeable guy as journalism professors go — affable, accepting and knowledgeable. His class, "The Press in America," was a look at journalism's history, not a dull subject by a longshot. But in the mid-1980s, the idea of the Penny Press and the battles between Pulitzer, Hearst and Ochs seemed almost quaint. The Pentagon Papers were published. Watergate was a decade behind us and the halls of J-schools were filled with folks looking to leave their mark in a very traditional industry. Cable news was still a few years away and the Internet a good decade away.

I struggled to remain engaged in the subject. Perhaps it held less of my attention because it was taught at 8 a.m. in the cushy auditorium seats of Scripps Hall. If I had kept my notebooks, you could have seen my handwriting drifting off the page as I nodded off from time to time. But I think the real reason was that so many of the issues of that time seemed the antithesis of the industry I was preparing to enter. How naive and short-sighted was I...

Slate press critic Jack Shafer has reviewed a new book about the journalism wars of 1897. "The Year that Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms" by W. Joseph Campbell sounds as if it's a compelling read despite a horrendously academic-sounding subtitle.

Campbell writes of the battles between Aldolph Ochs' "just the facts, ma'am" journalism, William Randolph Hearst's "yellow journalism" and Lincoln Steffens' "literary journalism."

What brings this seemingly ancient battle to life are the parallels to today's journalistic climate, something I never saw coming back in 1986.

Shafer writes: Back in 1897, critics decried the "decay" of American journalism—sound familiar? Politicians sought ways to undermine the pugnacious press. Reacting to the provocations of Hearst's Journal, the New York Senate passed a bill prohibiting publication of caricatures without first obtaining the permission of the target. The measure died, as did a law introduced to the U.S. Congress requiring newspapers to reveal the names of the writers of editorials. Advancing technology was changing the look and feel of newspapers: In 1897, the New York Tribune published the first halftone photograph in a mass-circulation newspaper; color presses were being deployed; newer models of typewriters—some as portable as today's laptops—were coming into vogue in newsrooms.

This brought to mind conversations had at last week's SPJ National Convention and Journalism Conference in which a great deal was said about what is journalism, who is a journalist, how is journalism changing and how does mainstream media respond. I'm not sure there were any answers, but at least we finally may be asking the right questions.

Bob Cox, president and founder of Media Bloggers Association, of which I'm a member, was kind enough to spend a lot of extra time with journalists discussing the issues related to blogging. He was fresh from a workshop at Poynter, where many of the same questions of ethics and standards had been raised.

This column chronicles some of what he saw as the only non-journalist in the bunch at Poynter. But he admitted in Chicago that he's concerned journalists were fixated on issues about journalism and not about journalism online.

Yet, it was often a struggle to move the discussion beyond generic ethical issues such as accuracy and fairness and focus on those unique to online news — linking to third-parties, anonymous and pseudonymous blogs and comments and in-house blogs where “objective” journalists are often encouraged to express opinion.

During the panel he moderated, poorly titled "The Good and Bad about Blogging," a number of issues were raised that seemed to me at least to show some of the breakdown between mainstream media and new media. Panelists were Casey Bukro of the Chicago Tribune and Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, Janice Castro, a member of Online News Association and Steve Rhodes of Beachwood Reporter. The program was recorded for podcast and I'll link to that as soon as it's available. Here's what I scribbled on the the scraps of paper in my program:

• Online is not Mars, it's just another way to reach readers where they are. Either get on the train or get run over.
• MSM often portrays the Internet as an ethical wasteland when in fact most of the major media ethical lapses have occurred in traditional media with far greater consequences than if Joe or Jane Blogger posting to 10 people in Iowa makes them.
• Standards should be across the board and not necessarily altered for delivery method.
• Some are concerned that their own in-house blogs are competing with user-driven content. The harsh reality of that is that perhaps the user-driven content is just plain-old more interesting than the house blog.
• News organizations have to figure out to use free content to their benefit.
• MSM complain about blogs but so few traditional journalists have read them. MSM has displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity in this regard.
• Journalists should be meeting with bloggers, cultivating them as sources and at the very least reading them. Blogs should be part of the regular reporting routine.
• Journalists in particular and the news industry in general should have seen blogs coming -- they should have invented blogs. (Steve Rhodes, formerly of MSM)
• Journalists in general (with few exceptions) continue to make sweeping generalizations about blogs and bloggers by bringing them all down to the least common denominator.

The mystery about editing blogs is baffling to me because we're still talking about writing. Posting to a blog is a form of delivery of that writing, like printing. News organizations are going to continue to edit their house blogs as they have always edited, with perhaps a keener eye toward what moves on the Web.

As example, Kevin Sites of Yahoo's Hot Zone writes on the fly as he travels as a solo journalist around the world. Part of the compelling nature of his blog is that you know it's being written on the run. There's an immediacy and urgency to his writing that is reflected in that site.

On the flip side, the PD has admittedly had problems figuring out the Web. When President George W. Bush was in town speaking last spring, it had sent a reporter to blog from the event. I kept checking Open for updates during the afternoon, looking for the Bush guffaw or the crackpot question. But there was nothing. The rather bland story that ran in the next day's paper was the same thing reported online.

Turns out, after asking about it, that the reporter had failed to charge his laptop battery and was unable to post live from the speech. I laughed because who among us has not forgotten to charge something. What should have been posted to Open that afternoon was something like this:

Open would have had live posts from President Bush's speech if only our reporter had remembered to charge his laptop battery. D'oh!

Sure, he would have taken heat from readers, but it probably would have been more in good fun than in the typical "PD blows it again." But I think it proves that the MSM is still struggling and still doesn't get how to communicate in this way. But it better figure it out because the question of online journalism has already been answered. My parents read news online, I read news online, my kids read news online. The news-consuming public is online. It's time journalism hopped on board.

Somewhere in a box in my basement is my textbook from Dr. Dohn's class. Not sure why I kept it, but I may dust it off to read once again about journalism at a crossroads. Who knows there may be a lessen or two worth reliving.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Duality of writing

Poynter instructor Chip Scanlan writes, "Serendipity is one of the most enjoyable by-products of reading and writing." I couldn't agree more. For evidence check out The Mechanic and the Muse, a nice little blog about the dual nature of writing.

Small schools transformation at Heights High

I spent most of last school year inside Cleveland Heights High School, following its transformation from a large urban high school environment to five small schools. It's an incredibly complex process that basically strives to provide more individualized attention for students, resulting in better outcomes because teachers, community members, parents and students are all engaged in the educational process.

During the course of the year, I and the seven other storytellers for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation would sit in on classes, meet with administrators, enjoy assemblies, observe scheduling meetings and advisory sessions, attend parent and community meetings. We would meet throughout the year to workshop our drafts, critique character sketches and scenes and discuss how best to present the complexities of transforming public education and the wealth of material we collected in the reporting process.

The result is Small Moments, Big Dreams: Real-life stories from five redesigned urban high schools, available today from KnowledgeWorks. My piece begins on page 36.

The assignment was challenging. How do we capture a year's worth of change in one publication? The answer was to sharpen our focus to provide a snapshot at how the reform is working, and to tell the story through people affecting that change. The stories are in no way complete, and that posed problems for some of the schools featured. But they do provide a look at the incredibly passionate people involved in the process, the seemingly insurmountable difficulties in changing the hierarchical structure of American public schools and the small successes along the way that show the blood, sweat and tears are worth the effort when the kids exceed expectations.

I was no stranger to Cleveland Heights. I cut my teeth as a cub reporter for The Sun Press covering Heights and I understand some of the dynamics that shape the community and some of the underpinnings of those dynamics. In addition to the people featured in the story, I read reams of other materials about Heights High and its history. I spoke informally with alums from a range of ages about their impressions of the school and its ability to reach kids of all ability levels.

A diploma from Heights High means something in this world. Its graduates sit in executive suites and Wall Street, are on the movie screen and the TV screen. They are politicians and business leaders and teachers and nonprofit executives and everything in between. As I get ready for this next year of following the change, the questions in my mind are how to address issues of identity in the small schools structure? How do you maintain this level of change over the long haul? What does the school look like when all of its students are in one of the five small schools? How does Heights continue to excel at educating the highest-achieving students while simultaneously raising the bar for all others?

No easy answers and there's no way to know what this school year will reveal. But I look forward to the challenge of Year Two.

Community engagement is but one piece of the small schools transformation. This year's piece addressed the challenges inherent in bringing community members into the educational process. Fairly early on the opening of my story became clear. The community's perception of Heights High is what it sees gathered at 3 o'clock outside the front of the school. "They could be having a prayer circle and I'd still get calls," said Meghan Zehnder, the small schools coordinator for Heights. And she's right. But it struck me at one point that these kids belong here. This is their community, too, and they are no different from kids gathered outside any other high school. Heights has never shied away from difficult community conversations. And it continues to have those conversations as the demographic realities of Heights High necessitated change. Fortunately, Heights has found a new way to reach its students, and so far, it seems to be working.

The first year after the campus was divided into five small
schools, academic performance on the state report card improved
from “academic watch” to “effective,” a jump somewhat equiva-
lent to going from a grade of D to B.

Bit by bit, the new Cleveland Heights High is making a new place for itself within its community.

Here's the intro to my story:

It’s 3 P.M. at the Cleveland Heights High campus and swarms of students
congregate in front of the school on Cedar Road, one of the main
thoroughfares to downtown Cleveland.

Hundreds of students slap backs, bump chests, chase each other, chat on their
cell phones, climb on concrete ledges and generally let loose in the little space
between the school and a busy intersection. Traffic slows to a crawl as passersby
approach the stoplight just yards away.

The students, caught up with their friends in the after-school mania of
getting rides and waiting for buses, are oblivious to the cars going by. To keep
the disruption in the neighborhood to a minimum, seasoned security officers in
their Heights Black and Gold quickly move the kids along, and a green and white
Cleveland Heights police cruiser regularly circles the campus.

It is just one of the measures Heights High leaders have taken to ensure good relations with the community — a community made up of many disparate elements. A block away is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and a half-mile to the south sit mansions and tree-lined boulevards.

The best hope for bridging the gap between Heights High and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights communities, many believe, is the school's redesign into five small schools. They believe that by engaging the community in the school's transformation and its operation, they can counter misperceptions and increase understanding of the school.

I hope you'll take the time to read on.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Narrative and the news

"One responsibility I really, really believe in is that when you are writing about tragedy -- when you are writing about someone's life -- you don't cheapen it, you don't make it bland or less by making it dull and straight when life is everything but dull and straight. Life is rich and wicked and foul and full. Narrative lends itself to that, but conventions are hard to kick out of the way." — Rick Bragg in the Nieman Narrative Digest.

Later in September, I'll be traveling to Anniston, Alabama, home of The Teaching Newspaper, to talk about a partnership between SPJ and the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism (a grad school inside The Anniston Star), for a narrative conference next February. I'm excited about the opportunities and the caliber of folks involved in this endeavor. As it happens, Rick Bragg is on UA's faculty.

In other narrative news, tomorrow marks the publication date of "Small Moments, Big Dreams: Real-life stories from five redesigned urban high schools," published by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. My piece about community engagement at Cleveland Heights High School is included. Hopefully there will be a link available to PDF on KWF site.

This was a rich assignment, but one wrought with many complexities, not the least of which was distilling a year's worth of observations into one 3,500-word narrative. It pushed me as a reporter and a writer and though we ran into a few snags near the end of the editing cycle, I'm hopeful it will be impactful. Just in time, too, because the school year begins tomorrow and so begins Year Two of the project.

Finally, I'll be speaking to Dr. Dick Hendrickson's Literary Journalism class at John Carroll University later in November.

Monday Mourning

My heart is heavy today. It’s probably aggravated by lack of sleep in the past week, but I’m dealing with the unexpected pain of having to give up something I dearly loved.

As of Friday, I am no longer the chair of SPJ’s National Freelance Committee. I knew this was coming, I knew it had to be, but I underestimated how difficult it would be emotionally.

During the 2003 National Convention in Tampa, a group of mostly female freelance writers galvanized to form the committee. Until that time, freelancers were largely a marginalized group of members, not necessarily taken very seriously by the Society’s leadership.

I helped to change all that by giving them visibility and a voice and a reason to remain engaged in the Society. That activity has been the ultimate satisfaction of my leadership in SPJ.

On Friday morning, I pulled together the best panel I’ve ever assembled. The topic was “Marketing Yourself as a Freelancer.” I knew all three panelists personally and professionally and had seen them all speak before and could attest to their ability to engage an audience. My hope was that this panel would be a home run.

The room was packed, my laptop was hooked up to projection screen and I pulled up Web resources and extra info as the panelists spoke. When we opened the room for Q&A, the questions were great, very specific and answered thoughtfully. Regrettably we had to end the session in only an hour. As the audience members rushed to meet our speakers individually, I knew we hit the ball outta the park.

High from the positive feedback we received, I walked into the hallway to learn that while I was moderating the best session I’ve ever pulled together, the committee chairs had met and I was officially replaced. My knees buckled a bit and I felt adrift as the wind died in my sails.

My identity for the past fours years in SPJ has been as advocate for the independent. The national board had approved its largest Legal Defense Fund grant ($30,000) toward the legal fees of a young indendent journalist who remains in jail on contempt of court charge. We were raising money in our tip jar to help pay for his living expenses and a few of us sported buttons that read, "Free Josh." But as I stood in the hallway trying to find my sea legs, it felt as if that advocacy had been stripped from me. It’s not that it happened or who replaced me — a great freelancer from Kansas City — it’s that I felt marginalized by the powers that be, that my work didn’t much matter. As I write, it sounds as if I’m whining, which I don’t mean to be. My emotional reaction just shocked me. It’s as if I’ve given birth to this baby and now someone has plucked him away and prematurely shipped him off to boarding school. Who’s going to help with homework, kiss him goodnight or make sure his shoes are tied properly?

And that’s the root of my reaction. I like to feel needed and clearly I'm sad at having to let go. I like to feel as if what I do, the lengths I go to help others, the connections I try to make, matter to someone. I know they do because I’ve heard from many freelancers who have thanked me for my efforts.

I’ll get over my grief because now my part-time work with SPJ allows me to do the same for the larger membership (only for this I'm actually paid). I’m very excited about that and saw the first blushes of success this past weekend at the national convention in Chicago.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On the road again

I'll be in Chicago tomorrow morning through Sunday for the SPJ National Convention and Journalism Conference. In between set-up, reports to the board, moderating two panels, running a committee meeting, attending committee chairs meeting, hallway conversations, talking membership, talking freelance, talking volunteering and leadership, receptions, happy hours and banquets, I'll try to squeeze in a few posts. With any luck, I can make it to the Newberry Library book fair.

Wise words on editing

"I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil." — Truman Capote

"All writing is a process of elimination." — Martha Albrand

"There is no great writing, only great rewriting." — Justice Brandeis

"I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter." — Blaise Pascal

"When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart." — Mark Twain

Monday, August 21, 2006

Monday odds and ends

Advice to a budding writer

We were in Columbus yesterday for my nephew Charlie's baptism when my 10-year-old nephew Todd told me about a story he wrote that got published by his school district last year. He's always been a bright and curious child, using bigger words than most kids his age. He asked if he could send his story to me to read. Absolutely, I told him. Being the diligent young man he is, the story was waiting in my e-mail when I got home last night.

Here was my response to him about "Snappy the Wolf":

Dear Todd,
What a wonderful story! I like your character, Snappy. He's a very noble creature. You have a very good message in your story about protecting our forests. And you do such a good job of describing the place where Snappy lives. That means you have something that all writers need—keen observation skills. You see the tiniest details, like how the light streams through in the morning, or what a thunderstorm looks and sounds like or how a cave can be a place of refuge, and make the reader see those details in his or her own mind.

I hope you keep writing and I hope you keep sending me your stories. Do you have a journal you can use to write down ideas? It's good to have and I always carry one with me. Sometimes I'll just write down something I see, like a color or sometimes I'll describe a smell, like the way the air smells after a summer rain. When I'm writing, sometimes I'll refer back to my journal to help me describe things. Sometimes I just write about what I'm thinking and that may give me an idea about a story.

A very important part about being a good writer is reading. Make sure you continue to read different kinds of things such as newspapers, magazines and books that interest you so you can learn how others write well.

I'm so glad you remembered to send me your story. Have a great first week of school and I'll talk to you soon. Keep writing!


Aunt Wendy

On this date...The Writer's Almanac

On this day in 1858, the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates began in Illinois. Slavery was once again becoming a big issue in America after a quiet forty years since the Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in territories north of the 36°30' latitude. But in 1858, there was argument about whether slavery should be allowed in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Republican Party had been formed largely to keep slavery out of the western territories.

When Lincoln received the Republican nomination to run against democrat Stephen A. Douglas for the Illinois senate, he said, referring to the question of slavery "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Douglas called Lincoln a radical, and Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of seven debates around Illinois. Each debate lasted three hours. Crowds in the thousands turned out, and newspapers covered the story across the country. Douglas won the election, but during the debates Lincoln had forced him into a position that alienated southern Democrats. Meanwhile, Lincoln won national fame as an eloquent speaker, and when he faced Douglas again in the 1860 presidential race, Lincoln was victorious, becoming the first Republican to be elected to the White House.

Friday night lights in Alaska

An interesting look at the gridiron in today's LA Times.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What dreams may come

In the days prior to the start of a new school year, my dreams are always fraught with the bizarre, the forgotten, the humiliating. etc. My mom used to have the "we overslept and missed the bus on the first day of school" dream every year. The same can be said for my dreams prior to leaving town for a big convention or conference. That those two events are overlapping this week is enough to turn me into a zombie.

This morning I awoke after having a dream about not being able to find my work clothes for the conference. I was in sweat pants (which I never wear) and hadn't showered and I was supposed to be dressed in a suit for a reception. Decided that today I'm going to get some of my clothes together even though I don't leave until very early Wednesday morning.

Yesterday morning, I awoke pre-dawn after dreaming the middle school had changed Patrick's teachers (who are incredible this year) to a cross between a nasally school secretary and baby-talking preschool teacher. I grabbed his schedule, tacked to his bulletin board, and was relieved to see that nothing had changed from earlier in the summer.

Since tomorrow we're off to Columbus for my nephew Charlie's christening, today is all about getting last-minute school stuff together and getting organized for my trip. There's only one cure for such sleeplessness: lists. Once I start crossing things off those lists, the dreams dissipate. First up is the most important one detailing all homefront events next week, including:

Ryan's first football scrimmage
Michael's open house
Patrick's football practice
Trip to Costco to buy lunch stuff
Ryan's eighth-grade pool party
PSR sign-ups
Pick up mom at airport Sunday morning

Danny is such a trooper. Don't know how I'd do this without a supportive spouse. Surely I'd never sleep.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Meet Jill in Behind the URL

My good pal Jill Zimon is this week's Behind the URL on BFD. Be sure to take a peek and then stop by her site and wish her a belated happy birthday!

Cheers, my friend! I'll miss you in Chicago.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Finding courage on a coaster

How do you give courage to a child?

That was the only thought in my head as the young college girl checked that the bar was locked into place in my lap. As I looked over at Patrick standing on the outside, my heart was breaking for my middle son.

Moments earlier as we stood in line for the Blue Streak, his first roller coaster, I could see his heart beating out of his skinny chest. His lips were white and while most kids laughed and joked in line, Patrick was deadly serious, not once cracking a smile.

Nothing I could say would ease his mind. "Cedar Point could never stay in business if people got hurt." "Do you know how many tests they run before these coasters even open?" In fact, I tease him that he has a war waging in mind, but that’s in fact what happens.

“Can I fall out of this coaster?”

“What if it breaks down on the track?”

“What if it leaves the track?”

“Has anyone died on this coaster?”

He doesn’t verbalize any of this, but I see it going on behind his beautiful green eyes. I want to swallow his fear and never let it surface in him again. But I can’t take it from him because it’s part of who he is.

As he and I prepared to get into our seat, he started crying and panicking.

“Mom, let me out! Let me out! I can’t do this! Let me out!”

And so I let him pass through and walk to the exit ramp. Maybe he thought I would join him, but I stayed put. A few cars behind me, Danny and Ryan were ready for the first ride of the day.

As the train pulled away I looked at him with my most compassionate, “but I would have kept you safe” look. He immediately put his head down.

I don’t remember much of that very short ride, except that I’m pretty sure my back will never be the same from getting jostled so violently. I was thinking what a long day it would be at Cedar Point if we couldn’t convince Patrick to ride.

We had surprised the boys that day. While Michael was having a sleepover at Grandma and Grandpa’s we took the older two to Cedar Point. But as the train pulled back into the loading area I saw him standing in front of the Blue Streak sign with his T-shirt pulled from the neck over his face.

The neckline of his T-shirt was soaked from tears. He was ashamed and embarrassed by his fear.

“Patrick, I know you’re scared,” said Danny, “but we’re here all day. I want you to promise me you’ll try one coaster. You might like it, but you’ll never know unless you try. If you don’t like it, you won’t have to ride.”

Patrick was crying, something he does easily still at nearly 12, and said he wanted to ride but he was just so scared. But he promised his Dad he’d give one a try.

As we headed toward the Millennium (because Ryan was chomping at the bit to ride the big ones), we passed the little Wildcat. “I can ride this one,” Patrick said, suddenly brightening up.

“Well, okay,” Danny said. “This looks good. We’ll all go.”

Ryan rolled his eyes a bit, but was willing to wait a little while longer for the Millennium in order to help his brother overcome his fear.

As we waited, Patrick seemed to grow more excited—and nervous. I saw him eyeing the intricate web of steel holding this contraption together. And I can guess the kinds of things that were going through his mind.

But he rode with me next to him. And though I occasionally heard him start to panic, he seemed to free his mind enough to enjoy. As we hobbled off, he was all animated and excited and said he loved the coaster. And so it was on to the next one.

The Mine Ride was lame and stopped twice during the run, which irritated both boys. And so we decided to try the Mean Streak. We stood in line under the wooden coaster, which fortunately meant Patrick really couldn’t see its size. We had a plan, however. He and I would look at each other going up the hill.

It wasn’t the speed of the hills and turns that frightened him. It was the slow high crawl up the first hill. The anticipation of what’s to come. As we climbed higher he noticed the blue of Lake Erie and how pretty it looked. And then we plunged to speeds he’d not yet experienced. At one point, he put his head down and said he was going to be sick. But then he looked up and found he was actually enjoying himself.

It was then that I realized that he had to find courage within. I would never be able to give it to him no matter how hard I willed it. That saddens me in a way that makes me feel inept as a mother. But as one who also is internally driven, I’m proud of his ability to conquer that monster.

After that, it was smooth sailing on the Gemini and the Magnum. He knew his limits and the Millennium would never be in the cards for him.

While Ryan and I went to wait forever in the Millennium line, Patrick told his Dad there was one ride he needed to conquer. They rode the Blue Streak six times that evening.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Monitor begins Jill Carroll's story

Don’t miss Part 1 of Jill Carroll’s story in today’s Christian Science Monitor. Here’s an excerpt:

They took me upstairs to the master bedroom. Within a few minutes an interpreter arrived, and an interrogation began.

They wanted to know my name, the name of my newspaper, my religion, how much my computer was worth, did it have a device to signal the government or military, if I or anyone in my family drank alcohol, how many American reporters were in Baghdad, did I know reporters from other countries, and myriad other questions.

Then, in a slightly gravelly voice, the interpreter explained the situation.

"You are our sister. We have no problem with you. Our problem is with your government. We just need to keep you for some time. We want women freed from Abu Ghraib prison. Maybe four or five women. We want to ask your government for this," the interpreter said. (At the time, it was reported that 10 Iraqi women were among 14,000 Iraqis being held by coalition forces on suspicion of insurgent activity.)

"You are to stay in this room. And this window, don't put one hand on this window," he continued. "I have a place underground. It is very dark and small, and cold, and if you put one hand on this window, we will put you there. Some of my friends said we should put you there, but I said, 'No she is a woman.' Women are very important in Islam."

Friday, August 11, 2006

Devil of a good story

I’m late to this book, but I found the two interwoven tales in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City so compellingly crafted that it read more like a novel than a work of painstakingly researched nonfiction.

Seemed a fitting glimpse into the collective psyche of Chicago, a city not wholly unlike Cleveland in its Midwestern sensibility. Larson’s story begins aboard the R.M.S. Olympic, part of the White Star Line, on April 14, 1912. Daniel Burnham, an architect and the man behind the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, is reminiscing about the feat that was the World’s Fair.

Larson spins the yarn from Chicago’s rally and fight with Easterners to get the fair in the first place, the trials of pulling the White City together with some of the greatest minds in architecture in such a short period of time, the need to out-Eiffel the Eiffel Tower of the Paris World Exposition a few years earlier and the push to attract bigger numbers of attendees.

Interspersed throughout is a parallel and riveting tale about a charmingly mad doctor who seduced and later killed probably hundreds of young women who had come to Chicago seeking excitement of the Fair and the big city. How he managed to avoid detection by police for so long, and how he managed to build his “castle” of doom (complete with gas chamber and kiln) without any construction workers knowing what he was doing was ghastly. And that he made money from off his victims not only through insurance fraud, but also by selling their cadavers or parts of their bodies to medical schools for research compounds his macabre nature.

That the two worlds collided at the same time seems both expected and unnatural. For a while one wonders why the two stories are juxtaposed. While the two main characters—Burnham and Dr. H.H. Holmes—never cross paths, their worlds do collide at Jackson Park.

The details of both stories are rich—we see how Holmes spun his evil through a complex network of lies, charm, blue-eyed seduction and hubris through the careful archiving of letters, newspaper accounts, police accounts and even Holmes’ own prison memoir.

And we wonder at the extraordinary will and effort that brought about the World’s Fair and its lasting achievements. What a joy it must have been to research and write this book.

New stuff at the fair:
Shredded Wheat
Cracker Jack
The Ferris Wheel
The Midway

Notables who spoke:
Jane Addams
Woodrow Wilson
Clarence Darrow
Susan B. Anthony
Frederick Douglas
Samuel Gompers

Enjoyed performances by:
Harry Houdini
Scott Joplin
Buffalo Bill Cody

Others influenced by the fair or events surrounding the fair:
Frank Lloyd Wright
Elias Disney, father of Walt
L. Frank Baum

Long-term effects:
City Beautiful movement (Cleveland, San Francisco, Fort World, Atlantic City, St. Louis)
Creation of The Mall in Washington, D.C.
Columbus Day (Oct. 12) as a federal holiday
Chicago’s Miracle Mile and ribbon of lakefront parks
New York’s Flat Iron Building

Back to flight jitters

After a lifelong fear, I’ve recently acclimated myself to flying on a regular basis. No longer do I hold my breath on takeoff or landing, nor do I feel compelled to tense at every bump in the flight. It's like getting in the car or riding a bus. My hubby and I have perfected the timing of the drop-off and pick up to the point where I can check my bag (if I’m checking one), scoot through security and get to my gate just in time for boarding call.

Sure we could be pushing it with timing and possible security delays, but I hate sitting idly in airports. So far, our system has worked.

This summer has been lovely in that I’ve spent most of it at home, working early mornings and still finding time to spend some afternoons playing with the kids. But this week marks the shift as we all start to gear up for the school year and return to routine.

My summer ends with a trip to Chicago for the SPJ National Convention and Journalism Conference. That trip is quickly followed by two more in September to Atlanta and Indianapolis.

Just when I’ve gotten comfortable about flying, there’s the threat of terror attacks. Who knows what will happen in the next two weeks before I leave, but suffice it to say I considered driving to Chicago.

But then I think: Why should I change my travel plans? I mean, I have a hugely busy schedule during my five days in Chicago – nonstop meetings, panels, etc. My flight there gets me into Chicago by 8 a.m. And my flight home gets me back to Cleveland by 10 a.m. I need to be home as early as possible since the kids start school the next day. If I drove, I’d lose that entire Sunday with them.

So, I guess I’ll clean out my big traveling purse – you know, lose the several tubes of hand cream and the travel-sized tube of Crest – to comply with the new restrictions. And I won’t get my grande Starbucks coffee of the day with room for cream for the plane ride and I won’t bring my giant bottle of water. (Thank God Chicago is such a short flight! I hate being without water for any period of time.)

My biggest concern yesterday was that I be able to bring my cell phone and laptop since I’ll be working on these trips. Thankfully, those are allowable. And I planned to bring my iPod Nano (since I have one of my own now) even though I probably won’t use it on the plane. (I prefer to read.) But now I look at using it in public differently. Who knew such things as an iPod or key fob could be used for destruction?

Maybe I'll go back to the rosary.

How the terrorism story is played

Different reports from two of today's U.S. national papers and two British papers on the thwarted terrorist plot. Emphasis is added. Think it interesting that the U.S. papers do not mention the intent of detonating bombs over U.S. cities. Kind of an important detail to omit. Loss of life over the Atlantic is one thing; a bomb exploding in a jetliner over a major U.S. city raises the potential for devastation even higher.

The New York Times:
LONDON, Aug. 10 — The British authorities said Thursday that they had thwarted an advanced terrorist plot to blow up airplanes flying from Britain to the United States using liquid explosives that would have escaped airport security.
The officials said they had arrested 24 men, all British-born Muslims, who planned to carry the liquids in drink bottles and combine them into explosive cocktails to commit mass murder aboard as many as 10 flights high over the Atlantic.

The Guardian:
When the jets were in midair over American cities, they planned to combine the explosives and detonate them using an electric charge from an iPod, the security services believe. BA flights were among the targets. US officials said the bombers had been seeking to hit New York, Washington, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles. Other airlines targeted were thought to be United, American and Continental.

Washington Post:
"It's fair to say they were aiming for multiple flights, and some of the exact data of who they would deploy, and how many might be in one deployment, are somewhat ambiguous," said Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. "There were different data sets about their intentions over time that evolved over the period of time that we were following this. It did seem in more recent days to have centered upon carriers that had direct, nonstop flights between the U.K. and U.S.

"The real focus was to blow up airliners and the people on them," he added.

The Times of London:
Meetings of the Government’s Cobra emergency unit were told that the first wave of bombings was to have targeted five aircraft leaving British airports in the next few days. The destinations, US officials said, were New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. The plotters are said to have studied the timetables of three US airlines: American, Continental and United.

Security sources said that a second wave of attacks had been considered, with as many as 12 aircraft to be attacked.
Surveillance on internet traffic between the suspected terrorists indicated that they had considered setting off their devices simultaneously in mid-Atlantic but had also discussed trying to blow up the aircraft as they circled above the destination cities. The aim was to cause maximum death and destruction in the air and on American soil.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Tooth Fairy forgot

Mikey came shuffling downstairs early this morning with his head hung low, his lower lip protruding and carrying a Ziploc baggy.

"Hey bud, you're up awful early this morning," I said.

He held up the bag. "The Tooth Fairy forgot."

Oh crap! I felt about as big as the tiny little tooth in that baggy. How did I forget? I've been out of the Tooth Fairy habit for a while. But he was so excited yesterday. I should've remembered.

Thing is, in the summertime we all seem to go to bed at the same time, so I'm not able to complete the transaction at night. So this Tooth Fairy usually does her business in the early hours of the morning.

But I forgot, plain and simple. And he was devastated.

Being a 7-year-old, I marveled at his plausible explanation for the oversight.

"It's that stupid headboard. The baggy fell behind my bed and she couldn't see it down there," he said in earnest.

"Do you think, Mikey? Maybe we should tape it to the headboard tonight so it doesn't fall behind your bed," I said.

"Yeah, maybe that will work. But what if she's not strong enough to pull the tape?" he asked.

"Well then she can just open the baggy and get the tooth out," I said.

He seemed satisfied with that answer. And so I breathed a little sigh of relief and have put a Post-It on my nightstand that reads, "TF." Think we may up the ante on this tooth to $1.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Poetry in the morning

I have a new morning ritual, thanks to my friend, Cathy. The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor now sets my creative day. I look forward to listening with my first cup of coffee every morning. So many interesting little tidbits in this short podcast featuring literary facts and a poem of the day. Today's poem is a downer called "Afraid So" by Jeanne Marie Beaumont.

Today marks the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, with money from a British man who had never set foot in the U.S. Curiously, we still don't know why he gave his money to us. He never even corresponded with anyone here.

This also marks the publication date of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. It was off to a slow start, however, taking five years to sell the first 2,000 copies.

And today is the birthday of P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins. She once said: "Mary Poppins is both a joy and a curse to me as a writer. As a writer you can feel awfully imprisoned, because people, having had so much of one thing, want you always to go on doing more of the same."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The legacy of Marlin and Jacques

My household is a bit sleep-deprived this week. Why? Shark Week on The Discovery Channel. That’s right, we’ve watched virtual sharks, learned about the ones best suited for adapting to global warming, watched a group of lunatic filmmakers attempt to prove whether or not sharks respond in the way the Great White of Jaws' films did and we learned about Dirty Jobs – Jobs That Bite.

I make light of their fascination, but I have to say it brought me back to my childhood when our entire family would gather on Sunday nights around our one tiny television to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

There on our black-and-white television was this white-haired old man with a high-pitched voice who would wrestle anacondas in South America and struggle to save a cheetah in Africa. (View some of the classic videos to jog your memory of Marlin Perkins.)

Before there was Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin or Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin there was this lovely man who roamed the planet bringing wildlife to our television screens. An even larger world opened to us once we got our first color television. Wild Kingdom and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau brought the oceans and the animal kingdom into our five-channel world.

Looking back through some of the classic video footage, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the activities were a little nutty and barbaric. What were they going to do with a “bagged” anaconda? Questions, I was always asking questions.

It was through this show that I first saw a flock of pink flamingos stretch across a sun-glinted river in Africa or realized the thickness of a lion’s mane as it ran across the Serengetti. How could you appreciate a gazelle’s quickness unless you could observe it in Technicolor across your screen or smell the elephants slapping dirt on their backs to keep cool and sense the danger of killer snakes in the water?

The oceans had always represented fear to me probably more from their size and my own ineptness as a swimmer, but also from what is hidden in their waters. Jacques Cousteau showed me the beauty and grace of the ocean as well as its tempests. I still yearn for yearly refreshment of the ocean. Early on these shows engendered in me the naturalist and fed my wanderlust. But more than anything I wanted firsthand experiences—not to wrestle anacondas, mind you, but to see things for myself, to observe and record.

Wild Kingdom—still on at 7 p.m. Sunday nights on Animal Planet—may have pioneered the format, but today there are great deal more channels and shows bringing the wild kingdom home.

However, television alone didn't feed my appetite. Stacks of National Geographic magazines also nourished my curiosity with terrific writing and reporting that leapt off the page and an appreciation of fine photography. I remain hopelessly inept and perpetually in wonder of the photographer’s eye.

I’m not sure what vocations will call my three boys. Right now they are boys interested in the blood-and-guts awe factor of sharks. With any luck, some of the larger messages about caring for our oceans and life on this planet will stay with them. I hope so because even now, in their boyish way, they seem to appreciate the beauty of the wild.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Working on my Web site

When I first left the comforts of full-time employment two-and-a-half years ago, I thought about launching a Web site. But I wasn't sure what to include, how to organize, how I wanted it to function, etc. I'm glad I waited because now I'm pretty definite about what I want.

Coming soon is Creative Ink is taken as a domain name, so after wracking my brain for clever site names, it was my wise hubby's suggestion to just use my byline. I've registered the domain and my good pal and designer Brian Willse, who will be designing, suggested I also register in case folks miss the middle initial.


Simplicity Is it me or do writers have some pretty complicated and overwhelming sites? I want people to find the basics and find them quickly—home, bio, articles, books, blog, news, contact.

Professional I can't stand Web sites that look as if a 10-year-old constructed them, all junky and cluttered and amaeteurish. That's why I've opted NOT to use iWeb or any of that homemade software. Writing is a business not a hobby for me and I want my site to reflect that I'm a professional who gets paid to write. Here and here are a couple of writer sites I like as models, not necessarily for design but for navigation, content and simplicity.

Archive My bookshelves, closet and basement comprise my morgue of articles. It's overwhelming to me to fathom properly archiving all my work. So I'm creating a virtual space that allows me to showcase my most recent and best work. Since my pitching focuses primarily on national publications these days, I find many editors ask if I have a site where they can see my work. Time is of the essence now.

Business cards As in, I need to order more business cards. But I didn't want to do so without incorporating my Web site and blog.

The blog I've had some trouble this summer keeping up with my blogging activities. I believe if Creative Ink is part of my Web site I'll be more purposeful in posting since it will also be used as a marketing tool.

Content management I want to be able to handle administration to update frequently. I'm constantly writing new stuff and I want to make sure new articles are posted. Plus, I'm including a news page with information about any speaking engagements, etc.

Expansion possibilities Down the line I'd like to offer a newsletter or some such method of communicating to subscribers.


• Should the tone be personal (as in About Me and My Web Site, blah, blah) or should it be third-person (About Wendy, etc.)? Bear in mind that I'm striving for professional. My copy currently reflects how my bio is written, which is third person.

• Does anyone have suggestions on how to highlight work no longer available online? (18 months worth of PD articles?) And don't say scan, because newsprint looks like crap when scanned.

• Does it make sense to organize articles by topics or by publication? Within the topics or pubs they will be listed chronologically.

• Do I put a welcome message on home page or simply put up my navigation? Are welcome messages too hokey?

Of course I welcome any and all suggestions.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Behind the URL is up

Jerry Ritcey of Red Wheelbarrow is this week's Behind the URL on Brewed Fresh Daily. Check it out here.

This is my favorite line:

I think we all need more time to have adventures that may make good anecdotes, as that is the most fun to read, as well as write.

Indeed, Jerry.

Much-needed elixir

"You’re in the book", read the subject line of an e-mail received two days before Christmas. Connie Schultz had just received the final page proofs of Life Happens from Random House and saw the column about a harried mother of three had indeed made the final cut.

She confessed to allowing herself to get excited about the book and sent me a link to the book jacket. It took my breath away for a moment as sheer joy and terror co-mingled in the same cup. Book tours, TV interviews, speeches. Eeek! She would do well, of that I had no doubt. The sheer joy and terror was my own at imagining myself in her place.

Six months later I’m a bit tardy as I walk into the Oberlin Public Library. It was standing room only and I found my friend and writing pal Cathy propped against the wall. I join her as Connie tears up after reading the column about her dad and his lunch pail. “I get so emotional lately when I read my columns,” she said later. Her life is very different from her days as a columnist and it’s obvious she misses it.

She quickly regains control and proceeds to spend the next hour entertaining the crowd of mostly gray-haired folks with tales from her writing life and from the campaign trail. She is a natural, so relaxed and confident and funny. Her columns take on new life when she reads them in her animated voice. Words pop into my head like pacing, timing, dramatic effect.

I feel small and inadequate in her presence.

While waiting in the book-signing line, I thumb through the pages of “Life Happens.” And there I am, on page 114. Me, my name, my blog.

As I read the thirty-eight-year-old mother’s blog entry, I could almost see a younger version of myself float by, like the Ghost of Mommy Past.

It doesn’t take long for me to feel not inadequate, but blessed to have the connection to someone willing to share her expertise as a writer and her insecurities and joys as a woman and mother.

Connie asks hard questions of me. What kind of writer do I want to be? What kind of writing do I want to do? What am I afraid of? Over a year ago she told me that my voice was important, she encouraged me to use it more forcefully. Sometimes I succeed; more often I cower back into my familiar place of fear.

As she readies her Sharpie before each signing she says, “Tell me about yourself,” and the men and women standing in line share a story that I’m guessing would help her come up with an original inscription. “Brilliant,” I thought, and tuck that morsel away for “someday.”

She doesn’t ask me that question. Instead, she looks at me as if she can see the frailties and insecurities I try so desperately to mask and writes exactly what I need to hear.

Last night I read through most of her book. I flipped back to the Acknowledgements page and was stunned at the number of people named there. Writing is such hard work that it’s nearly impossible to go it alone. She’s fortunate to have so many people providing feedback, nurturing her writing and encouraging her forward. That’s harder to achieve as an independent writer. Those people aren’t in the next cubicle; we have to go out and find them.

I found Connie — or maybe we found each other. She is the kind of challenging, encouraging, nurturing model I need. For now she’s busy with husband Sherrod Brown’s Senate Campaign. I know that. But I look forward to when the campaign is over and we can talk more about writing and mothering and being a modern woman and all those things that nourish the female soul.

Until that time, I’m refreshed by her energy and confidence. Thank you, Connie for seeing through me and providing the proper dose of writerly elixir. I am buoyed … for now.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

New blog is a marvel

What a wonderful writerly mid-week treat! One of my favorite Cleveland writers is now blogging. Kristin Ohlson is now blogging at Book of Marvels. Here's an excerpt from her first post explaining the name.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels. It had a section for Wonders of the New World (which included the Golden Gate bridge, something I'd been driven over many times) and Wonders of the Old World, which included (I think) The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Queen Zenobia's desert city. The old wonders made me mad with desire and probably changed forever what I thought I'd be and see in the world.

Kristin is the author of Stalking the Divine, a beautiful book that follows the cloistered Poor Clares, but also follows her own spiritual journey back to the Catholic faith.

Do you know Jack?

There’s little in the way of good media criticism found in our national media, save for Slate’s Jack Shafer. He is maestro, not to mention just pure fun to read. Take his latest Press Box for example.

Shafer has crafted a witty letter to Jared Kushner, the new and very young owner of the New York Observer. He reminds him of the Observer’s strength in covering the press, New York politics and real estate and its general good looks, including the peachy newsprint.

But he also warns him that he has to be willing throw his cash around to get and keep great reporting talent to beat the competition on its strength areas, and at designers to keep it looking great. He laments the Observer’s inability to capitalize in any lasting commercial sense on Candace Bushnell’s, “Sex and the City” fame and so offers this: “If you want to be New York's power book but don't cover sex in all its permutations, you're not in the game.”

Channeling Charles Foster Kane he advises the young Kushner to find his Rosebud. If he hasn’t one, make one up. You know, add to the intrigue of a wealthy young man joining New York’s media elite. As Shafer notes, we still don’t know his reasons for buying the paper.

In addition to crafting well-reported columns and criticisms, Shafer has a great knack for pulling what could be rambling bits of information together into a succinct graph, such as this brief look at the ownership of vanity press.

As a vanity press mogul, you join a bag of mixed nuts. There's real estate's revenge on journalism, Mortimer Zuckerman, who runs (into the ground) U.S. News & World Report and the Daily News; Philip Anschutz litters driveways with his free daily Examiners in D.C., S.F., and Baltimore; and Bruce Wasserstein extends his claim to being the toughest guy in the room with the American Lawyer and New York. David Bradley conducts etiquette lessons at the National Journal and the Atlantic; Martin Peretz makes the world safe for Israel at the New Republic; and convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon is at this moment preparing us all for the rapture, Korean-style, with the Washington Times and UPI.

He’s one of the few columnists I have bookmarked because of the instructional value to his columns. He has a disdain for thinly reported anything, but particularly trend stories. Although he can artfully rip a trend story to shreds, he also provides tips about how to take the reporting even further. His reporting on the lack of reporting in these stories reveals how easily reporters and editors can fall prey to the latest trend. His push to limit use of anonymous sources has had an impact in national reporting and, perhaps as a result, in some local reporting. He points to Pulitzer Prize-winner Dana Priest of the Washington Post as someone who does a great job of using anonymous sources with specificity that gives her reporting credibility.

All of this is just one very big introduction to my latest profile in Quill magazine, which features Shafer. I’m not sure you can access unless you’re a member, so I’ve copied it below. When I get a little more time, I’ll provide a few outtakes. Wonder what he thinks of Ana Marie Cox being named Washington editor of Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Ten: Jack Shafer, Slate press critic

By Wendy A. Hoke

Jack Shafer has been called everything from a school monitor to one end of a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robot. But the self-professed news junkie tackles media criticism like a scientist, encouraging more skepticism, specificity and data in reporting.

Q: How did you get into journalism?

I studied communication, English and mathematics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I would’ve been a math major, but I was working hard to get As and Bs, and math majors didn’t have to work hard for those grades. I have no doubts that I could turn really good writers into B students in calculus. The two thought processes are not alien. In proving mathematics, you’re building a case step by step. If you flub up a step, people will call you out. I think that’s true in journalism as well, though I don’t think I could turn math majors into journalists.

I got into journalism as a freelancer in Los Angeles when I started freelancing for alternative weeklies and a political magazine called the
Libertarian Review. The minute I had any success, I left the country to travel. When I came back I went to Inquiry, which is now defunct and that’s what brought me to Washington, D.C. When I started writing, I realized I had something to say that I didn’t think anyone else was saying.

Q: How did you become a media critic?

Inquiry magazine folded in 1984. So I was freelancing, writing a lot about drugs. Some of my first best stories were revisionist accounts of the war on drugs. In the summer of ’85, I became editor of the alternative weekly Washington City Paper. I tried to hire someone as press critic, but no one would do it because they thought it would end their chance at working at The Washington Post. I had no aspirations to work at The Post so I decided to be the press critic. (The Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive now owns Slate.)

Q: Slate just passed a milestone — 10 years on the Web. What’s the biggest change (if any) that you’ve noticed in traditional media’s view toward new media?

I don’t think there was ever a group prejudice against online journalism. I think from the beginning established media judged fairly what people were doing in this new medium. In the summer of ’96 when Slate launched, also launched. It’s not as if we were a decade ahead.

Q: What prompted you to join Slate?

Mike Kinsley was one of the only persons I wanted to work for. I was a year into an editorship at
SF Weekly when the opportunity arose. Working for Mike and playing around with new media proved irresistible.

Q: Describe your writing process. How many papers, blogs, magazines etc. do you read in a day (and in what formats) and how do you formulate your columns?

I read three dailies in newsprint —
Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. I read the New York Times online and look at both newsweeklies. I graze the monthlies and read the political weeklies. I watch BBC World News twice a day. I’m a big fan of (the blog) Boing Boing and have RSS feeds for a lot of topics of interest such as methamphetamine. There’s nothing special about my news appetite; it’s just a big one.

Q: You often back many of your criticisms with your own sometimes-extensive reporting. How much time do you spend reporting for your columns?

It’s deceptive on drug stuff because I’ve been writing about this beat for so long it’s just stuff I know. For example, (a recent) pharm party piece (on teens partying with pharmaceuticals) I think I wrote the day I read the piece in
USA Today.

Other stories may be on a backburner, and I may be gathering string for months. Like every reporter, I triage what I have going at any given moment. I wrote a piece yesterday about an alleged $48 billion in ID fraud costs. I had already researched and reported out the ID theft story based on a
New York Times piece, but then read a well-done piece in Business Week and followed up with another column.

One of biggest things I worked on was a two-part magazine-style feature on the movie "Good Night and Good Luck." In that piece I congratulated the creators of that movie on capturing the look, tone and feel of the era, but also at having distorted history to make their political point. I saw that as press criticism because I went back to the historical documents to report even though it was a movie review. I’m as proud of that as anything.

Q: What column has garnered the biggest backlash from colleagues?

The most hostile response was when I wrote about a friend, Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette. I said she was squandering her talent with a-- f---ing jokes. Only in recent months has she been a little friendlier, but that really ended the friendship. How much of a break should friends get? I’d be lying if I said I never cut a friend a break, but it’s not that big a break.
New York Times reporter) Peter Landesman told (blogger) Daniel Radosh he’d have me fired the next day (after criticism of Landesman’s article on sexual slavery appeared in the Jan. 25, 2004 New York Times Magazine). I think he’s the only person to threaten to have me fired.

Q: You tend to be critical of trend stories. Why? And what are some of your other journalistic pet peeves?

Whenever a civilian reads a news story about something he knows a lot about, he’s appalled at the thinness. I try to approach every story with skepticism I think a civilian expert would have. Whenever you write a trend story, show me the data. Don’t show me the press release. Show me some demonstrable uptick in usage or occurrence. Where there is no data, it doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a story. Some are anecdotal stories, but that doesn’t always make it a trend.

I do like to write good stuff, too, like a piece about David Von Drehle’s 1989 Hurricane Hugo coverage and how it defies cliché and an appreciation of Marjorie Williams as a profile writer after her death.

Writers are the people I’m beating up on, but surely the editor bears some blame, particularly in the handling of the Duke rape story and the
New York Times WMD coverage.

I’ve been gratified by the way the press turned around on the issue of anonymous sources; at least they’re paying lip service to reducing them. (
Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter) Dana Priest is a good example of how to use anonymous sources. When she’s breaking stories like the CIA black prisons, she says this is who I’m interviewing without naming names. There’s a specificity to her reporting that makes it hard for government officials to knock it down.

Q: What is the role of a media critic in society?

To satisfy his editor. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to define it too narrowly. Is Jon Stewart not a media critic? He makes a point with humor, but he’s sending up the news media as well as people in news.
The Onion is another journal of media criticism.

Q: What advice do you have for young journalists?

Be skeptical. I’m surprised at the lack of skepticism for our own stories, because we’re always skeptical of others. People don’t really seem to ask hard enough questions. You can’t teach skepticism. If it’s not part of your character, then it’s very hard to acquire.

Good journalism is like good science and should produce reproducible results. Science is my inspiration when I’m writing my pieces and building in links. That’s why I’m so critical of insider anonymous sources. It’s much easier to believe a story if you give great specificity.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

History in the Cathedral

My latest UB story takes an up-close look at the Mortuary Chapel in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. I love doing this behind-the-scenes pieces. Just good fun. Here's a little taste:

History fills cathedral chapel

By Wendy A. Hoke

CLEVELAND-In the early 1990s, a well-dressed man walked through the wrought-iron gates of the Mortuary Chapel on the north side of the transept in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. He walked out with the encased bones of St. Christina, an early Christian martyr and one of the only complete saintly skeleton relics in the United States.

Fortunately, the box of bones was quickly found sitting in a church parking lot, undamaged. Today, the remains of St. Christina are safely tucked under the chapel’s altar, encased in bulletproof glass and surrounded by the burial vaults of six former bishops.

The Mortuary Chapel is the final resting place for Archbishops Joseph Schrembs and Edward F. Hoban and Bishops Amadeus Rappe, Richard Gilmour, Ignatius F. Horstmann, John P. Farrelly, Clarence G. Issenman and Auxiliary Bishop John R. Hagan.

This small, but ornate sacred space tells the story of its inhabitants, their Catholic faith and, through them, the history of the diocese.

Read more online.


There are cold-weather people and hot-weather people and these past few days have convinced me that I am most assuredly a cold-weather person. Dear God it's hot!

We took the boys to the pool for a bit late yesterday afternoon. (What else is there to do but close up in A/C or swim?) Although we spent much of the time in the water, it was still scorching. "I'm frying like a toasted cheeser," said Ryan in an homage to Hamm in the movie, "The Sandlot." Even the pool water was not nearly refreshing enough having baked in the sun for so many days.

I came home and did something I've not done since high school. After getting cleaned up I laid on my bed for just a minute and was out cold. I woke up for a bit at 9:30 and then went right back to bed at 10. I had trouble pulling myself out of bed at 8:15 this morning. That's the effect this heat produces in me. I'm visibly wilting in the heat.

Don't get me wrong, I hate freezing cold just as much as the next Clevelander, but I'd rather feel invigorated by the cold than fuzzy and lethargic from heat. This afternoon will not involve a trip to the pool, but rather to Dick's Sporting Goods to buy backpacks and football cleats. Ahh, now fall is something I can get energized about.

As my Dad always says: "This, too, shall pass."