Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Shame on You, City & County

In the wake of the arrest of Cleveland Works' executive director David Roth on drug charges, the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have suspended their contracts with the once-heralded welfare-to-work organization, leaving its future in jeopardy. That is a shame. But the larger shame is this: shame on both units of government for waiting more than eight years to do so, or to at least look closely into persistent reports about the worthiness of a prime and sensitive contractor. As I mentioned briefly the day of the arrest, the Free Times carried a powerful front-page story about Roth's proclivity for drugs, and it was way back in March of '95. So all this talk in the media and elsewhere about Cleveland Works employees, board members and others being "jolted" by the news is just silly, reminiscent of the Claude Raines character in Casablanca pretending to be shocked at the idea that gambling is taking place in speakeasies.

Try as they might, smart people couldn't easily ignore a very explicitly reported and well-written story, the subject of a two-month investigation, written by a guy, Mark Naymik, that's something of a protege of both Roldo Bartimole and Jim Neff, merely the two best investigative reporters in Cleveland in the last quarter-century. Yes, the story, headlined "The Fall of Cleveland's Welfare Prophet," was pretty hard to ignore, but other Cleveland media did their best to render the title premature, which helped the agency shove the problem under the rug for all this time. And you have to remember that time in Cleveland media history to get a sense of the dynamics: the FT was all alone in pursuing tough, investigative stories while the town was owned by a mad-dog mayor (Mike White) who played Karl Rove-style hardball, even trying to snatch the paper's street boxes in just one celebrated bit of extra-constitutional vindictiveness. And at the time, he was being left almost completely alone by the pre-Doug Clifton Plain Dealer, which later helped convince him to retire to the more genteel rhythms of the life of a country squire when it started really covering his reign of petty terror (the post-Clifton PD also made a point, for the first time, of hiring the best of the alt-weekly workforce, reporters like Naymik). In that environment, Free Times muckraking took on the character almost of Soviet samizdat literature furtively passed around on street corners by citizens schooled to ignore party newspaper propaganda in favor of more truthful underground papers.

While their contractors may have understandably reacted a bit hysterically in their immediate defensive shock over the article, why didn't these public officials with responsibility for expending public monies wisely ask some simple questions after the passions subsided a bit? Like, why would a reporter with a growing reputation for digging out ambitious stories invent these very specific allegations out of thin air? Like why wouldn't the subject sue the paper if these allegations were so unfounded? Didn't his documented findings at least warrant a closer look? Of course they did...

Hope for a Divine Outcome. Some books cause collateral damage, but Kristin Ohlsen's Stalking the Divine seems to have caused the opposite. For want of a better coinage, we'll call it collateral optimism. I mentioned last week that Rightie Rush Limbaugh is her newest and biggest fan, to her profound mixed pleasure. But I neglected to mention an even more interesting development. The author appeared on Dee Perry's WCPN After Nine show last week to discuss the book, along with one of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration who were her subjects. The nun wasn't so much interested in talking about the book, but rather kept circling back to the fact that some of her foreign-born colleagues are facing the threat of being deported because of snags in immigration paperwork. Sure enough, the PD's longtime crack courts/legal affairs writer Mark Rollenhagen wrote it up for the next day's front page. Which makes it pretty unlikely that this case will get lost in the shuffle at the Immigration Service. (if the PD doesn't follow up with an update on their situation, as I expect they will, WWW will soon do so). Kristin, take a bow, along with Mark and Dee (who did her usual good job today interviewing the husband & wife blogging team of Eric and Dawn Olsen)...

Monday, September 29, 2003

Callahan's 20/20 Digital Vision

Hats off once again to Bill Callahan, who's always there to patiently remind us that the power of the web and related technologies isn't only important for suburban yuppies, buppies and the like. If his decades of uniquely focused community organizing is any guide (and it is), his newly launched Digital Vision blog will instantly become the focal point and civic watering hole in this community for a rousing (and much-needed) conversation about issues relating to the digital divide. That virtual real estate will also make it easier to merge and marshall some resources and ideas from other similarly inclined groups and their social entrepreneur leaders: people such as Dan Hanson and his heroic Computers Assisting People, John Zitzner and the splendid ECityCleveland (which is already nicely connected with YoCleveland, a fascinating and well-funded federal effort to prepare inner-city kids for the future), Jim Cookinham and ever-stalwart NEOSA and even Consumer Credit Counseling's Jay Seaton (a veteran of everything from TV journalism to banking, but always with a social thread of public-service activism) who oversees an interesting public-education initiative called Cleveland Saves. Here's one possible way to kick off a group conversation among these and other interested parties: invite the authors of a new book on the digital divide for a chat and perhaps a book-signing. Three professors from Kent State University have just written a book, Virtual Inequality--Beyond the Digital Divide, which finds (based upon 1,800 surveys in low-wealth areas around the country), contrary to other reports, that America's digital divide is actually growing wider not narrower. It's being published this month by Georgetown University Press, and has received wide attention in the minority academic community even before it's available. In July, the journal Black Issues in Higher Education noted that the book "presents the digital divide in its human dimensions and recommends a set of practical and common sense policy strategies." Anyway, thanks again, Bill, for doggedly staying in focus.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Late Flashes

As the work week winds to a close this afternoon, I got a couple of jolts via email that seem noteworthy.

I wrote recently about John Carroll and its development/alumni office, reflecting on the time I spent there a decade ago. I didn't want to spoil the clarity of those good memories by mentioning the fact that I thought some directions in which the school has more recently been embarking are wrong. Too much fundraising (a capital campaign that has successfully raised in excess of $100 million) has, in my view, threatened the very underpinning of the school's soul. There's a new physical manifestation of that, an overly gigantic new Dolan Center building set down as if force of nature on what used to be the long-inviolable front lawn (which harkened back to the urban-pastoral ideal that Shaker Heights developers, the Van Sweringen brothers, were aiming for when they originally lured John Carroll to move its campus from the near west side as something of a founding anchor tenant in their grand urban design experiment). But what the hell: every alum of every university in the world grumbles about how their old school doesn't stay the same. And as I took pains to note in a long piece I wrote earlier in the year for the JCU Magazine, I'm a huge fan of what's actually going to be going on in that building: unique and unprecedented (for JCU) collaborations which will benefit faculty, students and even the region.

Anyway, I just got word a couple hours ago that the man who raised much of this money, former Harvard guy Peter Anagnastos (the successor of my former boss Paul Kantz), has just stepped down, for a job at Hawken. Which will of course set off a storm of speculation in some circles over the issue of whether or not that was voluntary. The fact that he's leaving for a seemingly far lesser post at little Hawken School and that he had riled the faculty enormously with his collaborative with industry suggests that he may have been sacked; on the other hand, it must be pointed out that he's a renaissance man (with plans to write and teach) who marches to his own drummer, and thus he may well have wanted to get off the endless fundraising treadmill, especially now that 96% of the current capital campaign goal has been raised. He came to JCU seven years ago with the goal of raising funds to rehab the school's science center, and quickly realized it would be easier to raise the money for a new one. Having seen it through to its recent formal opening, he's now off to other pursuits. We wish him well.

Second bit of news: Clevelandpress.com, the online namesake of a splendid old Cleveland paper that closed in June 1982 after more than a century in business, and which is good enough to prominently link to Working With Words (as well as Cool Cleveland and Mark Geyman's Ohio Biz), has just become a strategic partner with the Little Engine That Could: Careerboard, which now has quite a list of partners. The site will carry a co-branded job search section, not unlike the one Careerboard has with Crain's. The alliance will certainly help raise the profile of Dave Goebel's intriguing experiment on several levels. It will drive traffic, of course (and while Careerboard and Clevelandpress.com call the latter "Northeast Ohio's fastest growing online news daily," the very phrasing of that seems funny. I suppose it's meant as a dig at Cleveland.com, but it's pretty easy to go from zero to high growth than it is to add eyeballs at a high rate when you're already Ohio's most heavily-visited site, as Clev.com is). But just being in Careerboard's ecology will help. President Peter Tuttle, a veteran of the offline search business, has shrewdly stuck to his knitting, drawing back from aggressive national growth plans during the go-go years and into a more measured, and stunningly successful, war of attrition in a few selected markets. His savvy and patient accumulation of good partners has helped offset the significant advantages of bigger, richer and cross-promoted Cleveland.com's jobs section.

As for Goebel, it doesn't hurt that he's a veteran of another local tech success story, Flashline, and that he's currently associated (in a sales capacity) with yet another growing Cleveland tech legend, Pre-Emptive Solutions, based in Euclid, which is growing like widlfire operating as a mosquito on the back of partner Microsoft's elephant. The company, begun as a java specialist, has recently gotten on the .Net wagon, and Microsoft has opened the kimono nicely (Bill Gates himself stopped by their booth earlier this year for this photo-op worth millions). Co-founder Gabe Torok, a CSU grad, was regaling all comers at last night's NEOSA function, and well he should. As a developer of security code that prevents reverse engineering, it's got the post-9/11 wind at its back, if Gates & Co. aren't enough.

But back to Goebel. You may recall that the PD's Chris Seper briefly noted the site's progress back in August (before he took paternity leave), writing that "Clevelandpress.com has drawn interest from a smattering of local minds eager to create a business model for it. John Ettore, a local free-lance writer active in technology matters, has tried to persuade Goebel to turn the Web site into an online Cleveland portal for Web loggers and online journalists." We'll see about that. But in the meantime, let's just say that we wish Dave continued good luck. Here's hoping that his budding portal continues to be populated by solid local writing and other web resources.

Creating the 'Persuasion Architecture' of Sites

Sometimes you'll come across a word or a phrase or perhaps even an entire sentence that's so crisp and resonant and descriptive, so good at distilling down to a small bite some larger themes & ideas, that you find yourself either smiling or thinking, aha. I've been fortunate to have come across a couple of these lately.

The first came via our colleague Don Iannone, who, in commenting on a gassho riff on the importance of focusing on personal strengths rather than weaknesses, observed that "so much of life is a blessing in disguise." On the surface that hardly seems a remarkable arrangement of words. It might well touch on a familiar notion, even (like life is what happens when we're making other plans). But there was something about the economy of his expression and the deeper emotional truth of the thought that really grabbed me at that moment. It got my brain's synapses firing.

Later that day, I stumbled upon a phrase even richer with meaning, because it touches even more directly on all the intersections of my work with words and the web: "persuasion architecture." In this interesting piece from the marketing newsletter Grokdotcom, which grew out of the late, great Industry Standard Magazine, this writer plumbs the rich depths of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory in discussing how those insights can be used to create "the persuasion architecture of your Web site." We won't go into an online tutorial on Maslow here, but suffice to say that the highest need in that hierarchy is for self-actualization, and this piece explores how visitors/readers emotions and a company's values can connect to make magic. And what's the main tool in making that connection? Generic corporate speak first produced by writing-phobic marketing people before being passed along for further dumbing down by factotums from legal, operations and upper management? Probably not (and if it somehow does, I hereby offer to write a case study for The Miracle Network). The magic connection comes quite simply from the right content, to use a largely discarded late-90s word. Or copy, to use another (only slightly less attractive term). Or, to call it simply what it is: good writing. Which is composed of words. And (full disclosure here) you're at a place called Working With Words. So don't say you haven't been warned about our embedded biases.

It's taken nearly a decade into the Internet age, but from where I sit at least, we've finally arrived at where the web always needed to go in the first place--largely serving as a static-free transmission belt for the written word. I've always been inspired by Project Gutenberg, an impossibly ambitious attempt to webify every book written in human history (copyright be damned). I think I especially love how it skillfully chose that centrally evocative word, Gutenberg, the world's first printing press, as a bridge to the electronic printing press, the web.

Of course, it's not simply former Industry Standard columnists turned "conversion-rate marketing" newsletter writers who are increasingly coming around to understanding the crucial role of skillful writing on the web, either. I'm heartened by how many of my colleagues are skillfully and forcefully making the case in a thousand small fires being set all over. This writer, a hospital p.r. person by vocation and a sensitive online writing columnist for the ClickZ network by avocation, complains about how boring most commercial websites have become, simply because they've gotten away from good writing, rendering the rest of their persuasion architecture useless. "Is anyone having a good time with the web anymore?" she asks, before later answering her own question. "It's been suggested blogs are the only place on the Web where there's originality. I'm beginning to subscribe to this school of thought."

As my colleague Barbara Payne has understood as well as anyone in Cleveland, and earlier, the real fun and challenge for web professionals in the next few years will be marrying the spontaneity, authenticity and vibrant voice of personal publishing (blogs) to the mostly deadly dull, inert wet rags that are most corporate/organizational websites. Visit her commercial site periodically to keep track of her increasingly rich exploration and action on that powerful idea.

And nationally, I'll nominate a hard-working guy who may be the top guru in this field of bringing human voice to the web, something of a Bill Zinsser for the online world: Nick Usborne. A longtime copy/content columnist for ClickZ, which has been losing much of its energy in recent months because of a change in ownership, he has more recently migrated to a similar site which now captures much of the energy of ClickZ during its glory days, Marketing Profs. In this piece, he recently preached about the central importance of words in any hopes of touching off viral marketing. "This is the net--and if the words aren't interesting, they won't spread...If your sales copy and content is interesting enough--really interesting--then people will notice it. They'll laugh, smile and be offended or amazed. And remember, they are networked."

By all evidence, through these channels, his own widely distributed email newsletter , his moderated discussion list and now a blog and a book, his gospel is increasingly being heard. The best proof: He's even being invited to those dreaded "usability" conferences, which used to be dominated by the deadly, almost souless geek dronings of usability guru Jakob Nielsen, whom I think of as the longtime leading voice of what I hope is the now-discredited idea that websites are more science than art. Nick replaces that approach with a simple proposition: sites can have human voices, and visitors, readers and customers prefer the warmth of art to the brittleness of pseudo-science (real scientists understand that science and art are merely two sides of the same coin). It's really pretty simple. Try this exercise, for instance: spend 10 minutes reading through Nielsen's work and another 10 on Usborne's, and then decide whom you'd rather have lunch with.

In a couple of weeks Nick is speaking in Boston on "How great copy can transform the online experience for your customers and your company." He notes in the promo material, for instance, that "a lot of companies, when creating their websites, invest 99.99% of their effort into technology that delivers the messages, but only .01% in the messages themselves." (sound familiar to anyone?). I say amen to that. And keep evangelizing, Nick. Your message is getting through. Stay tuned about our efforts here at Working With Words to get Nick to come to Cleveland to further spread his powerful ideas.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Blogfest 2/Blogger U. in the Works

In the belief (right or wrong, you be the judge) that 1). a thousand small community-building seeds which have since sprouted wildly were planted at our mass Blogfest in May, and 2). that those wildflowers, beautiful and awesome as they are, have only scratched the surface of what's possible for our rapidly enlarging cohort, and 3). that we could all use a fall energy refresher for our late-spring mind meld, I'd like to kick off the notion of doing Round 2. For a number of reasons which I'll go into soon, the last week in October seems perhaps the best possibility. The same venue, Flannery's Pub, seems as good as any. But we'll be listening closely for a group consensus on both the date and venue issues. So please send along your ideas, suggestions, enthusiasms, simple (or complex) rants about any or all of this, and we'll be sure to set the wheels in motion before getting out of the way of the wildly careening wagon, lest it crush us like a bug on the windshield of Lebron's stylishly appointed Hummer...

And Speaking of Community-building Events. Two upcoming events NOT to be missed. One is tonight, the long-awaited coming-out/coming-back NEOSA Nett Thursday. Let's just say that we ALL need to rally around our Moses, Jim Cookinham, and tell him (and any foolish doubters, if there still be such dinosaurs) in the loudest possible fashion (namely, our attendance) that NEOSA and Jim Cookinham are simply irreplaceable gems of the community. So find your way to the Riverwalk Cafe in the Powerhouse in the Flats by 5:30 this evening, or sometime soon thereafter. Let your voice and body be heard. And while you're at it, make sure you sign up for a bracing talk down in Canton next Tuesday evening, where a guru of a different but no less influential type, Tom McNamara (about whom I've enthused in the past), is set to speak to an IT group on the subject of "What is it they haven't told me about IT?" Cost is a pittance, 20 clams (a bargain at triple the price!), and you need to register by tomorrow, at 216.750.6674 or by emailing lisle@ferro.com. It'll be at Malone College, wherever that is. Thank god for Mapquest, no?...

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Potpourri Wednesday

No, I'm not referring to that obnoxiously scented stuff that young women in the blush of first love tend to leave out in a doomed attempt to stimulate their olfactory-challenged boyfriends. I mean it in the other dictionary sense of the term: a combination of incongruous things. Anyway, here goes. Strap on your seat belt as I race through some quick stuff, whose only unifying string is that it's somehow struck my interest of late.

When Next You Have Time, Wander Through This Outrage. If you ever wonder why civil libertarians as well as average intelligent Americans (like the sainted librarians, whom I'll keep mentioning till the cows come home) are deeply suspicious of John Ashcroft and his invasively un-American Patriot Act, maybe it's because we've been down this road before. And in our recent history, no less. Before Watergate and J. Edgar Hoover's death helped open the ugly can of worms that was Hoover's FBI for half a century, the bureau of course engaged in just about every imaginable variety of inappropriate snooping and garden-variety harrassment of innocents. While much of that is unlikely ever to be revisited due to structural reforms and a more alert media, the Act (passed a month after 9/11) does strike at the core of some of those governmental reforms, at least. In any event, thanks to the cumulative effects of another post-Watergate reform, The Freedom of Information Act, we can now view some of the most outrageous stuff from the comfort of our own Ikea. More of it is landing online every day. For a good central grazing spot, I'd recommend this site. But I caution you: make sure you have some time, a fast connection, and perhaps a mostly empty stomach. Though much of the worst stuff is redacted, there's a reason that the bureau has come to refer to files such as these as "raw intelligence reports." Still, as a civic memory exercise in imagining the government's worst in order to guard against a recurrance, it's hard to beat...

Sorry, Arianna: No Statute of Limitations for Phony Opportunists. But memory is a stubborn thing, of course. I know this because one-time conservative socialite turned California gubernatorial candidate Arriana Huffington complains in her blog that the media just can't stop asking about her unusual political evolution. Seems they keep asking her not about her stand on the environment, but about her wildly inconsistent career, from raw-meat conservative who goaded her ex-hubby into blowing $7 million on a failed bid for office, to now a supposedly crusading anti-SUV populist. I must point out, however, that the Greek Godess is quickly becoming famous among a hardy class of independent contractors, self-employed writers, for an entirely different reason: the whopping $400K-plus deduction it turns out she took last year against her earnings as a columnist and author. Learning of that amount, thousands of us lowly scribes promptly contacted our accountants and ordered that column in our tax returns be revisited with fine tooth comb. My guy reports that thus far, he's found an additional $17.86 I can claim as deduction. So lunch is on me next time...

Kristin Gets Rushed. One conservative who'll never cross over to the progressive side is radio blatherer (and ESPN football color man) Rush Limbaugh. Imagine how first-time Cleveland author Kristin Ohlson felt when a friend called recently to say Rush was talking about her book, and praising it for its crossover Baby Boomer appeal. She told friends and fans in an email earlier today that it was nothing less than a "personal and literary crisis." On the one hand, she (and especially her publisher) loved the publicity bounce from a nationwide mention. On the other, she abhors the source. As she notes in this new peppy piece she penned (notice the clumsy alliteration, a foreshadowing device) for the oddly compelling Killing The Buddha website, which is no longer really a best-kept secret, "Rush and I share exactly one opinion--we both like my book." Meanwhile, she seems thus far to be following the tried-and-true rookie author conceit: allowing as to how it's not her but rather her friends who are constantly checking her latest Amazon ranking or reading the latest review. Only in quietly unassuming Kristin's case, that might actually be truer than not.

Keeping an Open Mind on Iraq Coverage. When silly old Iron Pants Don Rumsfeld lectures the media about its unfair and unbalanced coverage of the continuing war in Iraq, smart people yawn. Ditto anyone else closely related to the White House Smoke N Mirrors Squad. But when a solid, reputable pub like The Hill quotes Democratic congressmen returning from a tour of Iraq to the same effect, it gets one's attention. Or at least it should. The Capitol Hill paper notes in this new piece that a couple of Dems think the U.S. coverage suggesting an emerging Vietnam quagmire are hopelessly overblown. Jim Marshall of Georgia even comes up with an eye-raising stat: "claiming," the paper is careful to word it, that there are now only 27 reporters in Iraq (down from 779 during the war, and those are mostly holed up in hotels). Assuming he didn't just take that chapter and verse from U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer, that's quite an interesting number. In either event, look for the major national media (many of which routinely use The Hill as a farm system, regularly poaching talent) to quickly follow up on this piece. Or not, for obvious reasons. If they don't look for the Pay Pal button to soon appear on Working With Words (the prime web real estate where your eyeballs now reside), to fund the very first of what we expect will be many future community-supported reporting junkets to see for ourself...

Alliteration U., or Tri-V & Tri-P. There are few industries where copy-cattism rages more fiercely than in the hallowed halls of higher ed. Chalk that up either to tight marketing budgets, or perhaps to the legacy of overlapping consultants. But I couldn't help noticing that right here in our backyard, we have a couple of splendid examples of east-west balance. Baldwin-Wallace and Ursuline College apparently each hired the same consultant. You know, the one who mandates that Tag Lines Must Be Three Words, All Beginning With The Same Letter. Thus we have B-W's Practical. Principaled. Powerful. And Ursuline cooly counters with its own alliteration, perhaps a sophisticated play on the black ministry's familiar three-part "call and response" technique: Values. Voice. Vision. Of course those two smaller schools don't have the bucks to really burn on true wastefulness. Our sources tell us that the new prez of the big boy in town, CWRU (sorry, Case, as it's been newly rebranded, if you didn't receive the memo) brought in his favorite agency from Minnesota, which burned through a cool quarter-million dollars recently for rebranding consulting BEFORE THE SCHOOL DECIDED NOT TO USE ANY OF THAT WORK. Asked about that assertion (from a Cleveland-area agency guy whose firm didn't get the work but perhaps should have), a long-time insider at the school raised his bushy eyebrows, cracked a knowing smile, and said, "Oh, more than that..."

Monday, September 22, 2003

Clark, Kerry & Dean Have Nothing on My Patrick

As the race for the White House heats up, you can perhaps be forgiven for having missed noticing another presidential race. Yes, the presidency of St. Gregory the Great School in South Euclid, Ohio, was also up for grabs last week. It's a fine school known for its distinguished list of graduates (including astronaut Carl Walz) who've gone on to do great and good things for the town, the country and indeed the galaxy. And yet the media coverage of that race was sparse to non-existent, owing no doubt to the fact that General Clark's entry into the other race sucked all the oxygen out.

So let me be the first media outlet to report the splendid news: my Patrick (a.k.a. Pattie) won, along with a young woman named Lane (whose family owns the kid-favorite Winking Lizard restaurant chain). You see, in an intriguing gender-balancing technique no doubt designed to ease the never-ending battle of the sexes, the school has co-presidents, one from each side of the gender fence. You'll no doubt see this news picked up by the AP today and subsequently flashed around the world. In all seriousness, though, we couldn't be more psyched. These kinds of early and unexpected successes are the kinds of things that, when planted in a kid's brain, can change their very self-conception. Patrick, whom I wrote about on his birthday, always knew he was a smart boy and a pretty good athlete. But I doubt he saw himself as a leader until an impossibly kind, life-affirming teacher who shall remain anonymous suggested to him out of the blue that he ought to run. That simple invitation inspired him to work many hours on two uniquely creative campaign posters (one bearing the likeness of Einstein and playing off his famous E=MC2 theory) that might well have tipped the race. In fact, my friend Jim O'Hare, who doesn't have any kids at St. Greg's but who nevertheless happened to be at the school recently helping a high school client with its marketing, noticed the posters and ran out to his car to grab his digital camera to snap photos of them. He later emailed them around to our mutual friends, with a teasing note. And so, digitally preserved, I'll make sure those posters get up on the web where I can link to them sometime soon. Okay, enough about my kid...

Listen for Eric on WCPN Next Tuesday at Noon. In my never-ending quest to keep putting bloggers and blogging on the local media map in slow, steady and sustainable fashion, I gave some thought recently to a simple question: who's the best, smartest and most probing media interviewer in Cleveland? The answer presented itself almost as soon as the question was formed: why, Ideastream's Dee Perry of course. Long a staple for her unhurried, gracious interviews on WCPN's Around Noon show, you may have grown to like her for the charity of her tone, for the way you can hear that big splitting smile in her voice. More recently, with the entry of the Ideastream merger of WCPN and WVIZ, she also gets in some face time on the equally good Applause TV show.

Anyway, I figured that we ought to pitch Dee on interviewing a blogger or bloggers. But in doing a bit of background prep before calling her with that suggestion, I found out that she'd already beaten me to the idea. A week from tomorrow, Tuesday the 30th of September, Dee is scheduled to have our boy Eric Olsen of megasite Blogcritics and the microsite Clev-Blog on After Noon. Do make sure to tune that in. As anyone who was at the May Blogfest knows only too well, his verbal pyrotechnics are well worth the price of admission.

Angel Investors In Our Lives. And finally, I enjoyed the nice addition my long-distance pal Anton Zuiker made to my salute on Saturday to my former boss Paul Kantz. While I focused on how Paul provided invaluable tangible and intangible support to my editorial independence while editing the JCU Magazine, Z, in his signature way, digs even deeper. He recounts how Paul, on just a day's notice, came up with crucial and significant financial assistance to help him complete his degree. And Anton goes on to wonder aloud if he ever really thanked him properly. Do we, can we, ever really thank those angel investors in our lives enough to recognize their contributions? Writing about them is surely a start. But I'd say an even better way is to pay it forward, living lives that help and inspire others in ways that mimic how we've been helped and inspired...

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Leaving JCU Behind, Without Really Having Left It

A couple of weeks ago, I hit a decade anniversary. Not for my marriage, but for having left the ranks of traditional employment to become an indy contractor. In February '93, I made a decision to become a freelance writer. I had a splendid, one-of-a-kind position, at the tender age of 35, as the University Editor of my alma mater, John Carroll University. I had an impossibly indulgent boss, Paul Kantz, who as vice president of development (meaning: fundraising) would ordinarily exercise close control over a university magazine and thus over the editor--me.

But Paul was a different sort. He had been a writer himself, for the Plain Dealer, before joining JCU, where he later edited the Alumni Journal. And he was a serious reader and unstinting fan of good writing. Perhaps even more important, despite his much-remarked upon intensity of work habits and, to some at least, lack of outward hint of a sense of humor, he had an exquisite understanding of the creative impulse. He seemed to understand deep in his DNA that creative folks needed a long leash, and should be made to answer only for the result, not the process by which they achieved it. He didn't merely avoid micromanaging the publication, which would be unusual enough, but rather he left it all to me to decide what it should contain. During the interview process he said he was looking for a managing editor of the campus, a nice way of thinking about it, and I warmed to that vision. It didn't hurt matters that when I soon dug into the archives to peruse issues he had edited years earlier, I liked what I saw. So I took the job.

But in the real world, managing editors have to make some tough calls which lots of people don't like and won't understand, especially given the fact that this was not an independent magazine but a house organ for a $50-million operation. Understandably, some powerful folks thought that less rather than more exposure of controversial issues was better for the university, and would induce more and larger gifts. A moment of truth arrived when the then-president of the university, Mike Lavelle, unfortunately went into alcoholic rehab. It was common knowledge that it had happened, and while the news hadn't yet hit the general media, it certainly would before long. And so one day I got a call from a university muckety-muck named Doug, who explained to me that I would of course not be so much as mentioning this difficult topic in the university magazine. Rather than argue with him, I got off the line and called Paul Kantz. I boldly asked if he might talk to his peer Doug (they were each vice presidents) and explain why I would indeed be writing about the issue. He did, and I did, and the earth didn't end because of it. My non-confrontational but consistent argument that a Jesuit university's publication should be--must be--equally as dedicated to intellectual integrity and truth as the university and the Jesuit order are themselves got a crucial vote of confidence that day. And Paul Kantz, now semi-retired and living in Florida, became a lifelong hero to me for the first of what would be several more bracing examples of uncommon support for what just about anyone else in his position would have viewed as simple recklessness.

A couple of times I attended conferences of my peers, editors of university publications. And in private chats over coffee in between formal sessions, we of course traded experiences. It soon became apparent that several of my colleagues thought me a liar for insisting that no one at my school, not the head of development nor even the university president, saw a word of the issue before it went to the printer (I didn't rub it in by pointing out that even the president bent over backward, when calling occasionally to suggest a story, to remind me that it was merely a suggestion). It simply wasn't done that way. It of course made me all the more thankful to be in a position of such trust and autonomy, which made me only work all that much harder to produce a publication worthy of such trust.

Anyway, let me now circle back to the opening point. In February '93, I decided, with something of a heavy heart, that as wonderful as my job might be--as much as I loved covering students and profs, and traveling around the country to interview and write about such graduates as a rookie NBA referee, a Texas oil wildcatter and the father of America cable TV, Chuck Dolan--as a new parent and a freelancer who was spending perhaps 25 hours a week in outside writing, it was time that I stopped doing all three callings (parent, writer and editor) poorly and decide which two I should tackle better. One of them of course had to stay, and so I marched into Paul's office and sheepishly gave my six months' notice. That time lag would give me a chance both to recruit a solid successor for my baby (the alumni mag) and take him or her through one entire quarterly cycle of training, as well as give me some additional time to save money. And in early September, having handed the reins to a fine guy I recruited named Jerry Pockar, a sensitive and literate all-but-dissertation writer then laboring at the Catholic Universe Bulletin, I was off to other things.

I thought about all this this week because of a grand reunion I attended Thursday evening of about 20 of the most amazing colleagues I've ever had--my friends and fellow workers in the JCU Alumni office. A few--like Rosalie Massey and Pete Bernardo, two of the most spirit-filled people I will ever know--still work there. Irripressible Pete, once JCU's alumni director and now head of planned giving, is the closest thing to Mother Teresa I'll ever witness at first hand. Over the years, the former Army Colonel and his wife have taken in perhaps a dozen troubled kids to their home, many adopted. Rosalie, who has raised our spirits by battling life-threatening illness to a standstill, is perhaps even more selfless, if that's possible.

Most of the others, too many to mention them all, have gone on to marvelous successes. After leaving JCU, Claire Corrigan Woidke, daughter of legendary Cleveland judge John V. Corrigan, worked at the Cleveland Foundation, got her master's degree in nonprofit management and had three beautiful children with her Jim. She now serves on the board of the Irish-American Archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and does nonprofit consulting in partnership with a giant of the field, former Red Cross national president Steve Bullock. My special buddy Maryann "Beebe" Lutjen has just been lured from a position with Benjamin Rose to a grantwriting position at Ursuline College, where she rejoins our other former colleague Kevin Gladstone, a guy of uncommon wit and imagination (and a one-time hoops star at Iggy) who heads up development there. Susan Pellettiere is a high-powered bank v.p. with a baby on the way. Maureen Letsch, who lit up the office with her humor, energy and motherly wisdom, is enjoying her kids and grandchild, and helping her husband in his many entreprepreneurial projects. Elaine Mahoney, beatifically smiling grandmother to us all, was as warm and life-affirming as ever, excited to drive down to Columbus the next day to see her grandkids. And ever-avuncular wordsmith Michael Gallagher, contributor to Commonweal Magazine, translator of classic Japanese books and author of his own splendid 1992 book on Catholic activists, "Laws of Heaven," is now hard at work on a play.

And while he wasn't there in person, for me at least, Paul Kantz was very much hovering over our gathering in spirit. Back in the day, we often privately teased him for his habit of absently fishing for loose change in his pants pocket. But it was a deeper and more lasting change that I'll always remember him for, the change he helped pave the way for in thousands of readers who never even knew his role in bringing them a more truthful account of an institution they loved. And for that, I salute you Paul...

Friday, September 19, 2003

Revenge of the Nerd

Every political age and the cultural mood it produces, and is produced by, helps create its leading chronicler, often a mirror-image opposite sort. Nixon's paranoid scheming led the way to Woodward & Bernstein's tag team (half white-bread Illinois Wasp, half-East Coast Jew) detective work. Clinton's participle-parsing, protean alpha male Southern Baptist slickness provided fertile ground for the sassy pen of single Catholic moralist Maureen Dowd. And so we come now to Yalie-by-way-of-Midland frat boy George W., who has met his match in a guy who'd never have made it within 100 miles of his buddy list: nerdy Princeton economist Paul Krugman.

As you may have heard, Crusading Krugman has a new book out, "The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century," which was supposed to be a meditation on the post-dot-com crash, but instead circles back always to Krugman's overarching narrative: the story of Bush II and his radical, lying ways. Krugman, who of course has a column in the New York Times, has been blasting away at the Bush Administration's many sins in such a sustained, increasingly angry and pungent way as to almost defy description. It's the kind of unvarnished criticism of the nation's maximum leader which could easily get one jailed in probably half the countries of the world. And many of his fans have long expected him to be somehow muzzled (thus far, he's apparently only suffered some minor loss of a couple of especially explosive words at the hand of former editor Howell Raines). And so he just keeps blasting away at the soft underbelly of the current White House crowd's very legitimacy.

Crusaders can often be socially inept (he is) and maddeningly self-righteous (ditto). He came across in an hour-long Charlie Rose appearance earlier this week as pretty uncomfortable in his own skin, wildly darting eyes and all This profile of him last year by New York Mag media columnist Michael Wollf, a specialist in deconstructive profiles that sometimes only skim the surfaces, makes him look worse than nerdy, verging on nasty. But this far more substantive Washington Monthly piece last December, which pays more attention to his ideas and influence than his admittedly awkward manner, makes a strong case for him as the most important columnist in America. More recently, this verbatim Q&A interview with an interesting new political portal, Liberal Oasis, makes one think he's been reading too many of his own clippings. "I felt for a little while there like I was all alone, that they're all mad but me," he says, referring to how everyone in the press and country but him was swallowing Bush lies.

Now, Great Britain's brilliant Guardian newspaper adds the latest look at this burr under the saddle of George W & Company. It reports that the Times has to have someone delete death threats from his in-box and that his mail is handled with tongs (earlier, his official website once reported that someone, no doubt a Republican operative, had posted a message to a computer bulletin board offering to pay for negative information about Krugman). In other words, he's a marked man. Like the head of the librarian's association who glories in being attacked by John Ashcroft as a sign of her group's effectiveness, the barbs and wild anger pointed at Krugman are all the proof you need that he's long since gone beyond landing body blows on W. His constant pummeling from prime real estate has the champ dazed and bleeding. And from all the evidence thus far, Krugman's not the type to let up and get back to his corner until the bell rings, signifying the end of the fight. I'd call it revenge of the econ nerd.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Dems Finally on the Offensive

The Democrats have finally, at long last, decided to stop being doormats and to instead get into the ring. Too bad it took a disastrous botched war (based on a series of historic, bald-faced presidential lies), gaping deficits that will haunt your children's children and a sad loss of American goodwill and influence around the world in order to accomplish it. But let's just be happy anyway, and leave it at that.

The proof is not merely in the backbone-inducing entrance of Wes Clark to the race for the White House. He's too new and untested in politics for most of us to have much of a reaction to him, but surely it can't hurt that fellow Arkansan and Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton is behind him, raising heart palpitations from those who would love to re-elect Slick Willy if they could, but who would settle for him being a close advisor to the next president. And while you might be outraged that party elders have conspired to put this latest obstacle in the way of people's candidate Howard Dean, whom they're sure is unelectable, I sense a positive either way. Clark can't help but further sharpen Dean's tactics and strategy in ways that the rest of the field hasn't and won't, preparation which he'll need against Bush. And of course the dream team would be for a Dean-Clark pairing (perhaps in reverse order) in the general election, and nothing about Clark's entry into the race makes that less likely.

Conservatives are now completely on the defensive. Here are just two telling examples. This hilarious Fox network story, full of loaded words from the "fair and balanced" folks says all you need to know about how the Bush forces feel about having to take on a real warrior, not one who has to strike a pose by donning a flak jacket aboard an aircraft carrier. See if you can spot the words I mean (hint: using "cabal," to describe his supporters in a news story is a pretty good start). Item #2: Conservative bully boy columnist Bob "Prince of Darkness" Novak is now whining about the kind of hatred for Bush "that I have never seen in 44 years of campaign watching." He may be right, but he invites snickers for a partisan short memory about similar abuse Clinton got from Novak's side in '92 and '96, and for sins that can't hold a candle to Bush's.

Even the Democratic National Committee has gotten into the act of taking the offensive, debuting a new blog it calls "Kicking Ass." It notes, by the way, that AG John Ashcroft has privately held out the olive branch to America's librarians after having publicly blasted them for resisting being enlisted as auxilary gestapo, which I wrote about on Tuesday. Even the Missouri Mule decided that when it comes to setting yourself up as a moral arbiter, taking on hallowed figures like librarians is a loser's game.

Passionate Alex. If you have $40 to burn (assuming, as I do, that you're not a member), then you wouldn't think of missing this luncheon of the Sales & Marketing Executives of Cleveland next Monday. PD Publisher Alex Machaskee, generally considered a lame duck who will soon be forced to face mandatory age-related retirement (though never rule out a curve ball from the crafty Newhouses) will speak on the topic of Passion for Excellence. That pairing of speaker and subject might cause many longtime observers of the Cleveland media scene to choke on their lunches. But then, the kind of people who will come to this event aren't so much focused on Alex's excellence as they are on his penchant for exercising raw market power. To begin to grasp that power, which has humbled Cleveland mayors and far lesser lights, there's simply no substitution for visiting the publisher's office in the sparkling new PD building on Superior Ave., as I was fortunate enough to do last year.

To call it palatial is an understatement. I've interviewed lots of corporate CEO's over the years, but I can't recall any that had nearly as grand and cushy surroundings as this, nor any that seemed so consciously designed to impress and even intimidate. Machaskee has an entire floor to himself, with a giant banquet-style dining room facility just off his office for his frequent business meals. His office, which is so silent as to cause me to wonder if it had been especially outfitted so as to ward off noise from the street, seems large enough to fit a basketball court. The furnishings are so tastefully selected that they barely draw attention to themselves, not at all like the bold and garish effect once achieved in another unique Cleveland power den, the Climaco law firm offices, which Machaskee's favorite columnist Brent Larkin once memorably described (in perhaps the most vivid sentence he ever wrote) as "Ethan Allen meets Holy Roman Empire."

Somehow, through those uniquely murky Cleveland intersections of white and blue collar interests, Machaskee neatly carved a path which helped pay for all of these splendid surroundings: a negotiated labor peace that has become the envy of his industry. After more than 40 years of slowly biding his time, waiting his turn as he climbed the PD's organizational ladder, this Serbian-American son of Warren, Ohio, who got his start writing sports for the Warren Tribune, is obviously enjoying his twilight days. He's noticably mellowed just a bit, as he's inundated with recognition (click here, here & here) and invitations to White House dinners. It's been a decade-plus (since the Newhouses shoved out poor old Tom Vail, who sold the paper for $54 million way back in 1967, and who has a new Diana Tittle-midwifed book on his remembrance of nine U.S. presidents) that he's been this region's most powerful individual, and for now I'll let history judge how well he's wielded the baton. Let's only hope that whomever follows him as publisher grasps the tiller with at least a modicum of respect for the idea of operating in the public's trust. The chair is too important to do otherwise.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Quick Hits Today

Not much time today, I'm afraid, but still I feel the need to pass along just a few quick thoughts. So here we go.

All the Reefer Madness Fit to Print. Just when you thought the New York Times had absorbed all the body blows it could handle, with conservative enemies using the Jayson Blair episode as a club with which to try to intimidate it into timidness (which failed miserably), there comes yet another thunderclap of abuse. Only this one, a complaint about the paper's refusal to cover the crucial cannabis-legalization debate fairly, from something called The Marijuana News, probably won't register too loudly in the newsroom while a few small issues such as presidential campaigns and war in Iraq still rages.

Your Warm & Fuzzy Friend, SBC. Since when is SBC, the faceless Texas-based holding company that swallowed up Ameritech and lots more, a righteous warrior on behalf of customer privacy? Thus far, SBC hasn't been able to establish much of any kind of corporate personality on the way to becoming the largest of what used to be called regional Baby Bells. But it's new decision, which leaves it alone among the major telecoms, to resist honoring subpoenas from the record industry as it pursues its short-sighted witch hunt against kids downloading bootlegged music is something of a master stroke of corporate p.r. strategy. The company will no doubt eventually be forced to comply, since the disastrous Clinton-era Digital Millenium Copyright Act is about as anti-consumer as any piece of legislation ever. In the meantime, the faceless corporation will for once get to take a few bows for being a good guy before being forced to turn in its customers...

Witnesses on the Scene. Do you find yourself growing a tad weary of the slow, drip-drip coverage of the quagmire in Iraq? Is the traditional coverage growing a bit bloodless and routine? Then I recommend you try occasionally checking out this blog, written by a woman in Iraq with a flair for powerful observation and quick bursts of narrative. Neither a completely anti-U.S. rant nor a whitewash of the Iraqis, I've found its reasonably balanced tone refreshing (if still harrowing at times). It bears witness to some harsh realities of war that our media seems congenitally unable to serve up for what it believes are our tender eyes and ears. It describes the harshness of getting along with no running water for days at a time, and bears witness to such scenes as makeshift graves lining the main roads of Baghdad. For some companion on-the-scene muckraking, try the Baghdad Bulletin. Perhaps the world's major news organizations, after they get past the macro issues and the simple battlefield angles, have dug into topics such as whether or not non-governmental aid groups have succeeded in getting help to Iraqi homeless kids, but I haven't seen it. Except, that is, in this smartly independent pub established out of the United Kingdom.

Finally, Read This. In my enthusiasm last week about Esquire's new embrace of the web, however temporary it might be as it celebrates its 70th anniversary, I neglected to point you to one of the most interesting pieces of magazine writing I've seen all year. The author, Tom Junod, ordinarily known more for his silly (if silky) faux-intimate cover profiles of Hollywood stars (which are in truth subject to appalling levels of control by the subject's handlers), shows why he's a former National Magazine Award winner. This amazing tale of 9/11's equivalent of the Unknown Soldier, who fell to his head-first death from a top floor while being immortalized by AP master photog Richard Drew, reads like a morality tale on our culture's childish self-censoring of disturbing images and their underlying truths. When history happened right around the corner, Drew knew what to do. He simply grabbed his camera and got to work, serving in the process as a stand-in witness for the world. I urge you to print it out today and set it aside for the next chance in which you get a half hour to quietly drink in this moving story.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

We Regret To Inform You That Your Attorney General is a Horse's Ass

Regular readers of Working With Words (can there be any other kind?) no doubt have gathered by now that I think U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is one of the biggest fools alive. His appointment to such a sensitive post is all the proof I need--and there's plenty more besides--of the growing suspicion that the Bush II presidency represents the most radical right-wing administration in American history. But like every blustering ignoramus, the Missouri Mule's arrogant overreaching carries within it the seeds of his own eventual demise (politically speaking). Yesterday he pointedly took on the librarians for their continuing principaled resistance to the Patriot Act's provisions which call upon them to help spy on library patrons on behalf of law enforcement. Who will he take on next: retired septuagenarians school crossing guards? I loved the tart response from the head of the American Library Association's D.C. office (who is, after all, a lobbyist, a breed ordinarily devoted to maximum diplomacy): "If he's coming after us so specifically, we must be having an impact." As you read the coverage of Ashcroft closely in these days of growing media suspicion of the Bush agenda, one senses not merely a rising outrage over the AG's un-American tactics, but almost a "have you no sense of decency, sir?" kind of edge, which of course echoes the famous line used to open the flood gates of criticism to stifle the witchunts of old Joe McCarthy. The Times' provocative choice of words in the headline (Ashcroft Mocks Librarians...) seems designed to spur revulsion, which in this case seems appropriate. Here's rooting for continued junk-yard dog coverage of this entire reckless crew. And a special round of cheers for the librarians. I note via their association's website that in opposing the original act, they chose an apt quote from another sainted figure, Abe Lincoln, who wrote a friend in the closing days of the Civil War: "freedom is not some arbitrary right that is bestowed upon us because of the virtuous nature of our national character. It is a right that we must protect and defend in a time of both promise and peril if we are to remain in the future what we are in the present--a free and honorable people." Like Twain and Orwell, Lincoln's rich and timeless insights continue to infuse our contemporary debates with graceful common sense and sanity.

The Independent Republic of Cleveland Heights. Still, for all the righteous indignation stirred by the Patriot Act, lefty opponents sometimes seem hell-bent on proving that they can be just as silly as their opponents are sinister. Consider, for example, this public meeting scheduled for tonight at 7 in the Cleveland Heights library (according to the Cleveland Indy Media Center's calendar): it's called for the purpose of making "plans for getting a bill passed to ban the Patriot Act from Cleveland Heights." It appears to be organized by the ACLU, since Kim at kalabasi@acluohio.org, is mentioned as the contact. Now, I never attended law school, but I think I'm on pretty firm ground in pointing out that under our system, suburban municipalities don't have the legal authority to override laws passed by the U.S. Congress. And even if latter-day hippies don't know that, shouldn't ACLU lawyers? Of course, all bets are off in Cleveland Heights, home of the "nuclear-free zone," a similarly unenforceable bit of silly suburban sloganeering...

The Beauty of Web Publishing: Quick Rethinking. As I reread that bit of dyspepsia in the item immediately above, I had second thoughts, for a couple of reasons. So let me be clearer. For one thing, I must hasten to add that I love Cleveland Heights and all it stands for. In fact, it goes far further: without Cleveland Heights as a general beacon of urbane intelligence, as well as its various specific institutions (the Cedar Lee, Coventry, etc.) I simply wouldn't live in this area. We'd pack it up and move back to either Chicago or Washington, D.C., where Jule and I lived as young marrieds. Secondly (and in related fashion): while lefty latter-day hippies generally exasperate me, I'd be less than honest if I suggested that I didn't at least honor their intentions.

Anyway, all of that is merely by way of saying that I felt challenged by my own bit of knee-jerk dismissal of the aforementioned anti-Patriot Act meeting to dig a bit deeper into the topic. And here's what I found. This interesting piece in the Seattle Times (which picked it up from the Washington Post) notes that back in April, a small Northern California town became the first municipality in the country to pass an ordinance urging local police to ignore the feds' requests under the Patriot Act. It rightly placed the town's action within a larger context: "Across the country, citizens have been forming Bill of Rights defense committees to fight what they consider the most egregious curbs on liberties contained in the Patriot Act." Furthermore, it notes, Congress' only declared Independent, the infamous Vermont civil libertarian Bernie Sanders, had introduced a bill to restore privacy protections for library patrons. It's enthusiastically backed not just by librarians, but by such groups as the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. That all seems pretty germane to the point, doesn't it? So as the old Latin mass would have it: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...

Monday, September 15, 2003

Life Splashed in the Media

Did you ever experience a stretch of time in which you felt as though your life were lived through the prism of the media, in which people, organizations or stories you knew were served up for a wider audience to sample as well? I had a such a week last week, owing to a couple of stories.

The first involved an old high school crony of mine named Marty Gitlin, whom I haven't seen in perhaps 20 years, but who had his five minutes of fame, and then some. As Scene editor Pete Kotz described in this story last week, Marty stoutly labored for years as a sportswriter at the Lake County News Herald, patiently waiting for his turn to get into the larger, better-paying P.D. After more than a decade of being rebuffed (and being forced out of the business for financial reasons) he apparently got angry and sued the paper for employment discrimination (though I understand from a mutual friend that his suit focuses more on gender than race, contrary to the thrust of the Scene story).

Momentarily interesting, perhaps, but within a day or so, this modest case turned into something of a minor national story, after the influential Romanesko's media site (the favorite bulletin board of most everyone in the American media) caught wind and linked to the story. That in turn resulted in a number of letters from readers responding to the piece. Some were predictably snotty about how Gitlin could be so bold and egotistical as to suggest that, as he put it, "I hate to say it, but dammit, I'm good enough to be at the Plain Dealer.'" But one especially sharp Romanesko reader picked up on another, more vital angle: the outrage that a middle-aged guy with more than 20 years in the trade was still making only 30K, working fulltime.

The second story touching on our lives this week involved a close friend of my oldest son's, a St. Ignatius football player who was seriously injured in a harrowing helmet-to-helmet tackle during the freshman football game against Shaker Heights. Mark was rushed to Metro Hospital with a broken neck and no feeling below the waist, a story which made it to the PD front page on Saturday, accompanied by a blurry head shot captured from the Gesu (where they attended grade school last year) website. My Michael and his buddies visited Mark every day since, but the family turned away all attempts by the media for access, and declined to grant interviews. So PD print reporters did some good old-fashioned digging, and came up with a perfectly credible trio of pieces over the weekend. But local TV buzzards were another thing. Barred from the hospital, Ch. 3 videographers proceeded to climb trees outside the building and aimed their cameras through windows to capture images. Worse yet, reps for Fox's Ch. 8 did something they're barred from doing by the ethics policy instituted by the industry's leading professional group, the Radio and TV News Directors Association (click here for the ethics policy): they offered to pay for an interview. In this case, it didn't work, with a fellow football player turning down the offer for $100 for an interview. Look for further developments on this piece of the story, which I plan to pursue a little. In the end, the good news is this: Mark is making remarkable strides in his recovery. But we'll honor his family's request for privacy by not disclosing any more detail than that.

As for Marty, the ending is far grayer. I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy the onerous task of suing the mighty Plain Dealer, its corporate owner the Newhouse publishing empire and its vast battery of lawyers. They're rightfully well-practiced on playing defense and lasting out legal challenges from those who file libel suits, legitimate and otherwise, and the same legal firepower will be brought to bear on this case. But the sadder thing, in the end, is that Marty can't help but coming off at least partly portrayed as something of the mythical angry white male made famous during the Republican landslide of '94, an ignorant lout sent into a rage by the encroaching economic power of blacks and women (Kotz skillfully brings that up as a straw man, even as he mostly knocks it down). In truth, Marty is an impossibly earnest progressive on race and every other issue, raised in a justice-above-all-else Jewish family dedicated to unions and progressive causes of every stripe. And all the guy ever wanted to do was write for the local rag about his favorite subject, sports. Here's wishing that his story somehow turns out well in the end.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Online Pearls from Esquire & NYU

When it comes to leveraging the web, you'd be hard-pressed to think of two outfits with more radically opposite approaches than New York University and Esquire Magazine. NYU, situated in the heart of the world's media center, has nicely capitalized on that proximity in recent decades with a rich offering of media-centric courses and majors. Its journalism department has a reputation for being among the first to explore the rich possibilities of new media. Esquire, on the other hand, which was founded during the early days of the Great Depression as the first real men's magazine, has chosen to let the web mostly go by. In recent years, it's been too distracted by a series of new owners and a losing fight against the beers & babes "laddy" mags to give the web much thought. Its franchise as the leader in the men's category collapsed in especially embarrassing fashion: GQ, begun as a spin-off of Esquire, is now in the lead. Unfortunately, it too has recently succumbed to the dumbing-down spiral which has been nibbling at the periphery for years, but which is now in full flowering with the forced retirement (and subsequent quick death) of its long time editor Art Cooper. But Esquire and GQ share one thing: neither generally uses the web as anything other than a mere subscription sign-up service, which is roughly magazine strategy '96.

But all bets are off when venerable magazines hit an anniversary. I mentioned recently that Cleveland Mag. decided to stick large chunks of its rich archives on the web on the occasion of its 30th anniversary last year. The concept was simple and appealing: each week for 52 weeks, the editors chose one of their favorite stories from the 30 years and published it to the website, where it still resides. I'd have liked the idea even if they weren't so kind as to include my '94 cover story on then-PD political columnist Mary Anne Sharkey, who later became Gov. Taft's communications director.

Sure enough, Esquire, now celebrating its 70th anniversary, decided to do something similar, though on a far more limited basis. It has deposited on its site five spendid stories from its rich past. I recommend them all, especially Mailer's take on JFK and Tom Wolfe's high-octane look at the new south (in 1965). I hope they do more of this culling from the archives, which for Esquire are impossibly rich in splendid history-making journalism. They could take a page from the magazine masters of archive-culling, The Atlantic, which this week has a nice "flashback" on piracy, which includes a piece it first published in print in 1862!

As for NYU, its new-media laboratory hot-house environment has included an especially interesting innovation: a student-produced webzine called Read Me, which has been excellent. The new issue is devoted exclusively to blogging. Add it to the growing list of quality blog coverage I've been documenting in recent days.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Blogging Coverage Hits Critical Mass

First bloggers covered blogging. Then technology geek pubs covered blogging. Then, just a month or two ago, a few brave mainstream pubs began doing so as well, albeit (in most cases) poorly, with general assignment folk giving it the same kind of assembly-line glancing look that they might take with, say, a story on the annual apple-picking festival. What's different about the last 10 days or so, however, is the quality of pubs that have jumped in, and the quality of their coverage and analysis. In a word, it's become far more knowing. I've told you in recent days about the Harvard Business Review's and the Columbia Journalism Review's seminal pieces. And I somehow missed this great piece in the Economist from last month. It notes that "because blogging is becoming so popular, people are belatedly pondering its economics." Written from San Fran, the piece goes on to say that blogging "creates small, tight groups of readers that could make ideal target audiences for advertisers."

The Washington Post added nicely to the conversation yesterday with this smart look at business blogs, clearly taking its lead from the HBR piece. "...like most everything else that begins existence as a hip underground trend, blogging has gone corporate," argues the piece, which springs from a meeting of about 50 people who call themselves the New Media Society. And like Editor & Publisher's Steve Outing, whose last column argued that email marketing is all but dead (because of spam and viruses), this group agrees, arguing that blogs will take their place. Surely enough, Outing, quite influential in the newspaper industry, followed up that column with this one this week, in which he suggests that it's time for newspapers websites to pick up their pace to TV's metabolism by--you guessed--adding blogs. "It's time for increasing the speed of news sites--to that of television news--and weblogs are the way to do it. And it's time to stop thinking of blogs mostly in the realm of feature and opinion content, and move the concept into breaking news." But he does understand the newspaper culture, too, noting that the major thing preventing that from happening just now is the fact that editors are worried that their gatekeeping function would be reduced. And finally, the new editor of Wired, Chris Anderson, who comes from The Economist, was profiled in AdWeek's Technology Marketing the other day. Asked how he keeps up with tech issues, he responded: "I don't look that much to journalists, not directly. I tend to look at bloggers." In any event, we're happy to see that Barb Payne got so inspired by the HBR piece that she went out and launched this initiative. Good luck with it, Barb...

Good News for Crain's Readers: Jay to Stay. Old Reliable, Jay Miller, who has been filling in with Crain's Cleveland Business while reporter David Bennett serves a tour of military duty in Iraq, warmed our heart by reporting that he's agreed to stay on as a fulltimer again, even after Bennett (who will cover manufacturing) returns. For Jay, this is a return to his roots. Almost from the beginnings of the paper (founded in 1980), he served as a freelancer, joining the reporting staff in 1982 and later becoming an editor. He left in '92 to join a start-up, City Reports, and later went back to independent writing for such outlets as Ad Age, Investors Business Daily and Cleveland Mag. He also covered regional events for the news service Reuters, filing stories on everything from record-breaking dancing sessions to the conviction of Congressman Jim "helmet hair" Traficant and the shooting this year at the Weatherhead School. He even found time to throw in ghostwriting duties for a Florida book publisher on books about local success stories RPM and Invacare.

Some of you know him--or at least know of him--in his role with SPJ, where he was instrumental in planning the Blog Fest in May. And you've also been reading his stuff in Crain's, where as holder of the government and economic development beat he has been and will be covering issues at the center of everything crucial to the region's future. Which is why I'm especially pleased that he's staying on. Few if any other writers in this town have his blend of savvy, street smarts and deep, sedimentary knowledge of the region's business, politics and economy, and he'll be calling on every piece of that in covering this crucial beat. Hell, the guy can even write well, though one doesn't always get much room to let it rip in Crain's.

When I think of Jay, I especially recall two telling situations, each of which reflect his deeply centered and stalwart nature. A history nut, often called an amateur historian (though I think he knows as much Cleveland history as any professional academic), after leaving Crain's, he led a giant year-long initiative in the mid-90s to mark Cleveland's bicentennial with a package of many dozens of stories documenting the city's history, including its business history. The entire staff took part, as did a handful of outside writers, myself included, and it resulted in so many sparkling stories that there were plenty left over after the special commemorative issue was published. I have always loved digging into history, but it was that project that really brought me an even deeper awareness and appreciation for regional history. And it was Jay that was the visionary here, patiently selling the project to his former (and now once again) colleagues at Crain's.

Second item: I once ran into Jay at a now-defunct newstand on Coventry. I had heard that a muckraking story he'd written for Cleveland Magazine on a sleazy parking-lot operator had resulted in the guy suing the magazine. Not a big deal, Jay calmly answered. "It was all public record." So he simply assembled a binder laying out his reporting for the magazine's lawyer, and the suit was dropped soon enough. But it was his matter-of-fact reaction to a libel suit, which would scare most writers out of their wits (even as it also perhaps gave them a jolt of excitement), that really caught my attention. He knows what he's doing, knows how to play the game, and he just goes about his job with the kind of low-key, no-big-deal blue collar work ethic that we've come to treasure all the more since 9-11. So keep digging into your crucial beat, Jay. We'll be reading.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Writing On the Run

"Get your facts first, and then you can
distort them as much as you please."
--Mark Twain

In a manner rivaled only by Orwell, Twain always has an uncanny ability to couch enduring truths in a pithy way that speaks across the decades, even centuries. And that great line of his popped into my head this morning as I took in some of the continuing back and forth on George's BFD, about the increasingly pungent issue of public funding for the arts. Tomorrow's public meeting at Trinity Cathedral ought to be interesting. The good news: it will be marked by a very un-Cleveland authentic public participation. I'll be watching closely to see if anyone in that vast gray machinery of the PD even finds out about it, much less covers it (to say nothing of doing so intelligently).

Virtual Come-On. Breast and penile implant come-ons, of course, litter the web and email inboxes. Our boy Jack even mentioned it this week, albeit in his signature restrained, Zen-bemused manner. But I think we hit a new low this morning, with a banner ad calling on browsers to "Improve Your Erection Quality" gracing some of the premier real estate on the web: the top of Slate's home page. It's all in service of a product called Levitra. And a while it's since rotated out, it'll no doubt rotate right back in. Because of the giant gravitational pull of the Microsoft MSN network, this is some of the highest-eyeballed territory on the web: Slate gets 4.1 million unique visitors, according to a Nielsen NetRatings June report. But I ask you: are erections best judged qualitatively or quantitatively? Get your answers in to WWW Central. We await your vote, breathlessly...

Founding Big Brother. In his ballsiest, most over-the-top move yet (which is saying a lot), Attorney General Ashcroft ventured to lower Manhattan yesterday on the latest stop of his whistle-stop tour in defense of the indefensible, the anti-democratic Patriot Act. And his choice of spots seemed either comically tin-eared or brilliantly provocative: he went to one of the great, though too-little-known, enduring symbols of American democracy and civil liberties, Federal Hall. Yes, he went to the very site from which George Washington was first sworn in as founding president, from which the first Congress wrote the Bill of Rights, where--in the case that laid the very foundations of America's freedom of the press admired around the world--dissident journalist John Peter Zenger was tried and jailed (and later acquitted) of libel for the affrontery of aggressively covering the founding fathers in his indy newspaper. As a founding battle cry for writerly independence, that long-ago case serves as even a brighter torch than Tom Paine's famous newsletters. Only, in a wonderfully Orwellian twist all his own, the AG is refusing to talk to the print media as a blanket rule--only TV cameras permitted. That's a particularly appalling new variant on the now-standard old political trick of bypassing more knowledgeable national media in favor of speaking exclusively to starry-eyed, access-famished local yokels. But there is justice: thus far, at least, all it seems to have gotten John A. and his boss are abusive coverage. And if anyone in the media, professional or amateur, feels on the verge of succumbing to the usual reductive right-wing hectoring equating defense of civil liberties (even in the face of terrorism) with lack of patriotism, quick, read this. It's a ringing endorsement, by an old lion of journalism, of the enduring idea that "in a democratic society the journalist is, in fact, exercising the highest form of citizenship by monitoring events in the community...(and) disclosing information the public needs but others wish secret for self-interested purposes." Someone, please send a copy to Ashcroft...

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Amateur Journalists Weigh In

The incomparable Matt Welch, whose work I've linked to before, has written some splendid stuff in a long career (just under a decade) for so young a guy. But his latest piece, in the Columbia Journalism Review, puts it all to shame, and stands as maybe the best article I've ever read about what blogging is all about, and where it really stands in the enlightened journalism pecking order. It's nothing less than a blogging manifesto that will slowly be read, reread and reflected upon by anyone who cares about the format. I especially love how he places blogging in the context as the true spiritual successor to alternative weeklies, which not so long ago were the real center of the journalism world, but which have been ravaged in recent years by increasing corporatization, chaining and the inevitable loss of vigor that has come as a result of its aging core audience (and the professionalization of its own operation). He rightly blasts alt-weeklies for their "politically monochromatic" nature and the "dull pieties of official progressivism" that often rob them of their energy these days. On the other hand, he notes that the best of amateur blogging is "connecting intimately with readers in a way reminiscent of old-style metro columnists or the liveliest of New Journalists." His best line zeroes in on the horrified reaction to blogging from so much of the traditional journalism community: "For lazy columnists and defensive gatekeepers, it can seem as if the hounds from a mediocre hell have been unleashed." But the fact that this vigorous piece appears in the leading journal of the profession--like the blogging piece I mentioned last Wednesday in the current Harvard Business Review--speaks loudest of all, I'd say.

d.a. levy Lives. Cleveland's late '60s beat poet, d.a. levy, seems immortal. He gets more mentions these days, perhaps, than when he was alive and walking among us. After missing WVIZ's much-talked-about portrait of the poet several times, I finally caught it on a reprised Applause segment a week or two ago, and it was worth waiting for, a moving video poem to a sadly tormented soul. I'll admit that my once-tepid interest in levy, who took his own life, has been sparked a little by our blogging colleague Mark Kuhar, whose Deep Cleveland project places levy at the center of everything. But Mark really ought to add to his site a link to this eye-opening interview he did with the webzine 3am Magazine, which I stumbled upon recently. "...what was most appealing to me was the fact that he was from the streets of Cleveland. And he didn't leave. The city was his inspiration and persecution," Mark notes of levy, going on to argue that in this, he was a fitting successor to Hart Crane and Langston Hughes, a couple of more famous native bards made good...

The Real Bard of Manhattan. Some New Yorkers have been known to wonder aloud why their favorite columnist, Jimmy Breslin, never seemed to develop much of a following outside of New York, certainly nothing remotely approaching that of, say, the sainted bard of Manhattan, Pete Hamill. I think it's pretty simple, actually: they've read him at least once. Read this charming example of his bitterness and bile, directed at his grandchildren no less, and maybe you'll see why, too. Perhaps like me, you'll wait for the punch line that never comes, denoting that this is some kind of horrible, awkward joke. But alas, no. Meanwhile, the ageless Hamill keeps cranking out graceful columns and poetic books, and gets countless chances to speak for the city in movie cameos ("The Insider" and "the Paper") and documentaries, like the Ken Burns three-hour epic on PBS last night (more about which later in the week)...Might you perhaps be a tad obsessed by your blog? Take this test and find out...

Peer-to-Peer vs. Top-Down Politics. Moveon.org, the site-turned-political-force begun by a couple of SiliconValleyers during the Clinton impeachment days as an inducement to get Congress to drop it, has obviously become a power in politics, rivaling and perhaps even outdoing MeetUp. It rightly got a lot of attention for its recent virtual primary among the Dems hoping to beat George Bush. But how many also know that the site recently facilitated the raising of over $1 million (from more than 32,000 members) for the far less sexy, even pedestrian, issue of supporting the Texas Democrats who have bolted the state to stymie Republican redrafts of the state's electoral districts. I think that pretty well proves, as almost nothing has before, that the web has become an incredibly powerful force in politics. At least progressive, Democratic politics. The poor Republicans just don't seem to get it. Contrast the aforementioned peer-to-peer successes with this incredibly lame, top-down "GOP Team Leader" site masterminded by the clueless Republican National Committee. Everything from the home-page photo of George W. in a ten-gallon hat (at a time when half the world is concerned that the reckless cowboy is more than an image) to the stilted language and silly awards for writing canned op-eds is laughably off-key. But I admit, I couldn't help myself: I signed up for this lam-o site to see what I might learn about the enemy...

Monday, September 08, 2003

Wireless Arms Race in Local Academia

The formal dedication ceremony for John Carroll's new Dolan Center for Science and Technology unfolded on Friday, and it began with the usual blather from muckety-mucks like the new chairman of the board, plus hundreds of people turning out for the free buffet (nearly 4,000 styrofoam plates were used, I'm told). And of course, following the unwritten rules of these kinds of events, it also had to include the usual meaningless p.r. stunts done in service of the same old bloodlessly unimaginative grip-and-grin photos--like the appearance of the giant, three-foot-long scissors with which the president snips the ceremonial ribbon. But at least there was one thing worth having come out to learn: the university will soon have a campus-wide free wireless network, courtesy of Nextel and its president and CEO Tim Donahue, a JCU grad (and an English lit major, no less). That of course follows the recent news about the Case network cobbled together by One Cleveland. News of the wireless network caused some buzz among the several dozen neighbors whose houses abut the campus. Might they also be able to take their laptops out to their backyard and benefit from the network? We'll soon find out...Meanwhile, another technical (this one wired) arms race seems to be developing between web developers (begun by recent JCU grads) vying to be the contractors of choice. Thus far, our friends at Thundertech are far ahead. But at the Dolan opening, I also ran into the managing editor of the student paper, The Carroll News, who mentioned that the paper will soon be online, thanks to work by a company founded by a couple of 2002 JCU grads, who have also developed a site for the campus food contractors, Parkhurst. Here's a test: do you notice any graphic similarties between Thundertech and Insivia? It seems they share an attraction to sunflowers...

Was that the Super Bowl or the Browns Home Opener? Anyone who stuck around for the commercials between portions of yesterday's Browns game could be forgiven for thinking this was the NFL's last game--January's Super Bowl--rather than opening day. There were a number of the kind of high-concept, high-cost spots ordinarily reserved for the season-ending extravaganza. But the most surprising one of all was IBM's spot for Linux, the free, just-as-good-as-Microsoft open-source platform which it has been supporting in hopes of breaking Bill Gates' near monopoly on operating software. The spot gets your attention with brief cameo appearances by the likes of Muhammed Ali and former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood. The ad's placement suggests that IBM is now going to be making the kind of giant push on behalf of Linux that goes well beyond the IT department and straight to the board room...

Joseph Beth Takes the Direct Approach The Cleveland-born and -bred owner of Joseph Beth Bookstore, Neil Van Uum, was hearing from his staff at the Shaker Square location that lots of patrons were simply assuming that the location would close soon. You can't really blame them: they're merely drawing reasonable conclusions from a combination of three factors: the fact that the independent chain will be opening a new east side location next month, the continuing difficulties of retailers at the Square, and the fact that the bookstore has slowly grown smaller at this location since its opening. It all added up to customers constantly asking employees: "so when are you closing?" So Neil took a refreshing direct approach to squelching the rumor, placing a six-foot-high poster behind the register, bearing his likeness. The message reads: "Shaker Square has gone through some ups and downs in its continued rebirth, but continues to forge on. I found myself living outside of the Cleveland area after growing up here, and both my dreams and ambitions outweighed the realities of size when building the perfect bookstore: we started too big! Since our recent moving of furniture our store is now positioned to allow us to push through adolescence as Shaker Square continues on towards maturity. Rest assured that our commitment to the Cleveland market and to Shaker Square is unwavering. We remain committed to providing the greatest care in the selection of books, and the highest level of service in the Cleveland marketplace." Good for him. It seems that Neil has learned plenty from his experience as a graduate of St. Ignatius, which has had its own experience with staying and helping to anchor an urban neighborhood poised at a key crossroads.

Harpers Mag Cautiously Ventures Online Harpers Magazine, which like The Nation and The Atlantic has been around for about a century and a half, has proudly published some of the biggest names in American literary history. In recent years, protected in part from market forces (which don't treat literary magazines very kindly) by its nonprofit form of ownership, it has continued its high quality. But it has never shown even a bit of interest in putting any of its material online (unlike The Nation, which has a wonderfully comprehensive and constantly updated site and The Atlantic, which had one of the first and still best companion sites of any print mag in the world). But it's recently begun to slowly venture its toes into those waters. No doubt as an inducement to hard-copy subscriptions, it publishes a brief "Weekly Review," which it sends by email. Far more interesting, though, is the small selection of stories it places in an online archive here. Here's hoping that editor Lewis Lapham continues to experiment. One online strategy that's especially promising for magazines with such long, rich histories is to occasionally cull from its archives stories, or packages of related stories, that are somehow tied to events of current interest, as The Atlantic does brilliantly. Closer to home, Cleveland Magazine does the same thing, nicely showing off the fruits of its 30-year history with this nice archival feature used to promote its 30th anniversary or this package of profiles of Dennis Kucinich, which debuted when he decided to run for president.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Yet the Latest Watershed for Blogging

As the blogging/self-publishing phenomenon continues to spread ever more widely into the culture, even the dimmest amateur trend-spotter (such as myself) who pays attention to their environment could point to the latest meaningful watershed event just about every day. But I tend to think that far fewer of these are really pregnant with much wider meaning.

One, however, has just happened. In the latest (September) issue of the uniquely influential Harvard Business Review (sorry, you're gonna have to pay dearly for online or hard-copy access), an interesting story about blogging makes it not merely into the feature well but into the hallowed HBR Case Study format. Entitled "A Blogger in Their Midst," it tells a fascinating little tale about an old-fashioned big-company CEO who's about to speak at an industry conference, only to find that his audience has been utterly canibalized by another speaker in the same time slot. His dismay turns to confusion when he learns that that speaker happens to be one of his (unknown to him) junior employees who has become famous throughout the industry for her influential and widely read blog, which has attracted interest to the company's new product line as no million-dollar ad campaign ever could. The subject of her talk: "Blogging as the ultimate customer intimacy tool." The story, capped off with commentary by four leading management thinkers, unfolds as a voyage of discovery for the CEO. "You remember that book I gave you last year about gonzo marketing?" one of his associates asks him. "Her blog works just like that. These things get close to the customer in ways that an ad campaign just can't." I expect that a few thousand CEO's will be flipping through it in coming days and weeks (for many it will be the first time they're really encountered the word), making a note for the management committee or marketing department to provide some input and/or followup. In any event, it surely won't hurt the progress of business blogging any...