Friday, January 30, 2004

The Cream Rises to the Top

The name Joshua Micah Marshall may have quite some way to go before being ranked up there with, say, David Halberstam or even Malcolm Gladwell in terms of recognizable bylines. But give him time: he's only 34. And with his Ph.D. in history now recently added to his credentials, he can focus his full attention on writing. And he's been increasingly dazzling of late.

Josh needs no introduction to the online world nor to the smaller (though growing) subculture of serious bloggers. His Talkingpointsmemo is a legend on several levels. It has brilliant content, of course. And it has an attractive, uncluttered look, beginning with the cool photo of the bespectacled author, managing to look both smart and bookish but also sleep-deprived. More recently it has made some much-watched innovations in the area of becoming self-supporting. Marshall struggled aloud on his blog last year over the ethical complications of accepting ads on his site (the major complication being that, unlike traditional publications, there could be no separation of sales and editorial, since he's both), before finally deciding to go ahead and do so, carefully. By the very act of full disclosure, of course, he rendered it a non-issue. Meanwhile, like the increasingly right-wing bully boy blogger Andrew Sullivan (who arch-enemy Eric Alterman rightly likened a few days ago to the nastiness of mob lawyer Roy Cohn), he was beginning to build a pretty good stream of general support from readers.

But that was all mere prelude to the most interesting experiment of all. Last October, in a feat of advanced planning that set him apart from the average writer let alone blogger, he told his readers that he was considering heading up to New Hampshire to cover that crucial presidential primary in January, and might they support his reporting trip? I liked how he explained the problem he was wrestling with: being a binary writer (writing for both traditional print pubs and for himself on the web) he could have convinced a magazine to fund his trip. Only problem then: he'd owe that pub his best material, and his blog readers would get sloppy seconds, as it's known in the trade. His readers quickly solved his conundrum. Within a day, he was showered with nearly $5,000 in online contributions, prompting him to turn off the spigot and even (honest, earnest guy that he is) try to refund some of the money, which was far more than he knew he needed. And this experiment in microsupport, while of course proving the loyalty of his readers, also raises a fascinating model for many writers.

But with a dazzling, even magisterial piece on the Iraqi war in this week's New Yorker, he proves once again why his readers would feel moved to support his journalism, regardless of the medium in which it's delivered. The subhead says it all: "did the Bush Administration create a new American empire--or weaken the old one?' By masterfully sketching the sweep of American history as it relates to war and the imperial tendancy, he deftly explains why most of America's wars of the last half century were mere "policing actions, small wars of management--of, in a sense, imperial management, like the 'little wars' that were a backdrop of life in Victorian England." Bush's Iraqi adventure, on the other hand, "weakened America's covert empire because, at a critical level, (his administration) didn't understand how it worked." He argues that because of its bumbling nature, the Bush doctrine ends up paradoxically becoming an unwitting form of world government. I'd call it required reading, so get thee to this story, and read...

Monday, January 26, 2004

The Power of Google

Silicon Valley Search Stalwart Google is stoking talk of a possible second Internet bubble with the news that it will soon go public, thus reminding some of how Netscape's IPO way back in 1995 (which seems nearly a century ago to some of us) kicked off the first round of frenzy. But of course the harder truth is this: by the very act of cashing out and turning the company over to more traditional businesspeople who will feel pressure as a public company to make more money and invest somewhat less in the pure, playful research that has always kept it ahead of the web's voracious innovation curve, Google will almost certainly be planting the seeds for its own, if not demise, at least less-crucial future. I hope I'm wrong about that, but I think not. But the Googlers have certainly turned the web in helpful directions, making search the hottest of all applications. And as our colleague Anita Campbell noted recently on her impressive Small Business blog, local search is where the heat is heading. Of course, Mark Geyman and his Ohiobiz (formerly Sitesonline), always knew that. He's a great example of someone who's been ahead of the innovation curve for basically a decade. If only Marko could have his own richly deserved IPO...

Google Vanity. Last week in the Times' Circuits section, came word of a new coinage: Google Vanity. It referred not to, as you might think, the number of times you're mentioned on a web search, but the fact that some people are purchasing their own names as Google keywords, in order to make it easier to find them rather than others with the same name. Of course, with my name, that's rarely a problem. While there have been times in my life that I'd have liked to be named Smith, my reasonably unusual family name (which, minus one r turns out to be a common first name in Italy) has helped in its distinctiveness when it comes to the web (as long as you remember to enter that second r). But remember: eventually, EVERYONE googles themself, and most people do it regularly. How do I know that, aside from anecdotal evidence? Easy: eventually everyone I write about on this blog will drop me a note, thanking me (thus far no angry flames, but give it time) for the mention. If I were more devious, or premeditated, (or, ahem, unmarried) I might even use that tool to plant a mention of each year's Playboy swimsuit issue models. Those I've written about enthusiastically (without first knowing personally) have included the likes of Chicago 20-something online scribe Claire Zulkey, with whom I now enjoy a nice occasional email correspondence (and do consider purchasing her new book, Girls! Girls! Girls!), as well as the marketing director for Joseph-Beth bookstores, who dropped a note after I raved about their Shaker Square store. I got a note of thanks from the webmaster for the United Way/Cleveland Public Library's senior outreach site, Seniorsconnect, and one from web-writing guru Nick Usborne whom I thought lived in the midwest, but who actually writes from Vancouver, British Colombia. The moral of the story: with the increasing power of web search and its chief agent, Google, there's really no such thing as dark, unread corner of the web, unless, of course, you're putting something up there that's not interesting to anyone. Eventually, those who need to find it, will.

More Notes Over the Transom. And speaking of notes from readers, I've been receiving some increasingly gratifying responses over the transom in the wake of a piece in the Free Times a couple of weeks ago about the Northeast Ohio region and its challenges and opportunities. But none had one percent of the emotional bang for the buck as something my good friend Anton Zuiker recently wrote on his blog. AZ, a new father for the second time, has been thinking about where he and his wife Erin might relocate after he completes his master's degree in medical journalism in May (Erin already earned her master's in public health down in NC's Tobacco Road, where they're currently stationed). And he writes that my hopefulness has made him at least rethink their move, ruling Cleveland back into the mix of possibilities. My only reaction: Gulp... Actually, though, if this region can attract such a bright, overqualified couple as Erin and Anton, then most of our problems will be solved. So please consider doing your part: if you get a moment, perhaps you might follow the links to Anton's personal page, where you can view his impressive resume. Why not print it out and put it aside while you think about some contacts you might have in your Rolodex that could help in his job search here in this region. That's a small but potentially powerful way to do your part for regional economic development, because if we've learned anything, it's that we can't leave all of that up to the experts...

Initial Dad's Column Now Online. I've mentioned before that one of my favorite projects of late is a new monthly dad's column I began doing in January for Cleveland/Akron Family. It provides a way to use some of the mountains of notes (mental and otherwise) I've gathered in 15 years of parenthood about my kids and about family life. More importantly, it allows me to begin making better sense of all the conflicting information and emotions on the topic, since as my guru of gurus Bill Zinsser brilliantly notes in his "Writing to Learn," the way we make a subject our own is by the very act of writing about it. And while the magazine's site is still a work in progress, and you can't find the column through the front door, I've noticed that you can go directly to the page to read the January column. The second will be in print (and then online) in a few days...

Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Changes Keep Coming

Events have a way of seeming to accelerate on you when you're by nature a change-watcher, as I am. And today/this week/this month feels like a day/week/month full of rapidly moving events that are full of meaning.

If you've been a jaded political reporter, campaign worker or some other brand of hanger-on attached to the traveling minstrel show that is the race for the Democratic nomination, you no doubt feel a new energy today, awakening to a suddenly contentious four-way (?) fight. This morning's Times seems to nearly reverberate with a new-found passion and intensity. Meanwhile, my friend Bill Gunlocke, himself invigorated by John Edwards' choir-boy earnestness, is at this very moment enroute from New York to Manchester by bus to take it all in at first hand. My standing promise to him: send me periodic email updates on the scene, and you just may grab the brass ring: the coveted title as the first-ever Working With Words political correspondent. Or, if like Bill, you're a longtime fan of the New Yorker, the appropriate running title should be "Letter From New Hampshire."

WCPN Town Hall. Meanwhile, closer to home, our beloved public radio station continues to outdo itself in provocative morning programming, offering up back-to-back After Nine programs with the kind of intelligent, knowing talk that's becoming routine. And while some are already dreading the impending loss of host April Baer (who's leaving soon for a spot at the NPR affiliate in Portland, Oregon), I'm not so sure that will really matter. I think she's been more a useful cog in a larger successful news and information system, which has benefitted from a few things: including three-quarters of a million dollars in Peter B. Lewis's money and the fact that local radio and TV's utter collapse as sources of real news and information have left WCPN as the last one standing in the Winner Take All Society, as the title of a recent book put it. In any event, I'm expecting her successor to quickly pick up the baton. Yesterday's program had Roldo Bartimole, with 45 unhurried minutes of his take on the town and its dynamics (more about which later). And today it was the Weatherhead School's appreciative inquiry guru David Cooperrider, talking about the latest thinking on effective community planning. The real strength, he said, is when a community can look at itself as a whole, rather than in separate silos. For years, he said, management theory in study after study held that the most effective groups are composed of about 6-8 people. "But what we never asked is, effective for what?" Maybe the most effective way to do community planning is to convene a "strength-based summit" of as many as 300-400 people, or even 1,000, to take stock of a region's current situation and to then plan for its future. Indeed...And speaking of Weatherhead, the unfortunate news arrived via email this afternoon that the bloodletting/head-rolling at the school continues: Dean Moshe Anvari is stepping down into one of those infamous heading-up-an-exciting-new-initiative kinds of jobs which, if history is any guide, are but mere face-saving placeholders while he hunts for something more permanent in the musical chairs world that is top academic management posts. Even some pretty plugged-in faculty members were taken by surprise, which of course means he was forced out...

Mind Expanders. But all of this also comes on the heels of a couple of other giant personal mind-expanders: a first (of what will no doubt be many) get-together this morning with author/thinker/historian Steve Kurdziel, Cleveland's version of Jane Jacobs, and the man behind that increasingly illuminating series of six (thus far) pieces on the Plain Dealer's op-ed page (which I'll somehow link to soon, after we come to grips with's awful archiving feature), plus a catalytic planning session last night for SPJ. The latter was smoothly choreographed by my friends/colleagues Jack Ricchiuto, Wendy Hoke and Jay Miller, which should in short order enable this group to become even more of an emerging hub of interesting conversations and energy around some crucial and related themes about which Working With Words cares deeply: privacy, open records, literacy, good writing and (of course) a smart, honest and persistent media which delivers the building blocks out of which we can fashion an informed citizenry and a healthy community that works for everyone. Now, all of that might sound like a pipe dream to you, and perhaps 'tiz. But I say what the hell: should that really be too much to ask?

Friday, January 16, 2004

Tectonic Plates are Shifting

Okay, so I've been away for some time. For that I apologize. In coming days I'll try to describe all, or at least some, of the wondrous things that kept me from writing here--the projects completed, half completed or just embarked upon--and which prevented me from communing with y'all. But I've been both humbled and touched by all the email notes (and a few messages delivered in person) asking for a resumption in service. The two best: a plaintive email from an old friend a half dozen states away, who somehow found time even with a new infant recently added to the household, to drop me an email with the subject line reading "I need your words." (that tends to get your attention). I was equally touched to run into a nice fellow I know only slightly, a smart, genial lawyer whom I know only through having once coached his son in hoops, who mentioned being a reader. How'd you find the site, I asked, dumbfounded? He'd read a small notice about Working With Words in Northern Ohio Live way back in May of last year, and had been occasionally checking in ever since.

All grand and oh so humbling. But also a well-timed reminder about what counts in life: staying connected with good people. And sharing important words and ideas that can subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, change lives.

So I'm a bit awed to tell you about three things that happened this week, each connected to the other in certain ways, and yet all of which happened completely independently of the other. And in that way they seemed to speak, at least to me they did, of a kind of cosmic alignment of the stars, testament to the fact that god is good, and that he gives events well-timed nudges.

Early in the week, a longtime institutional voice of Cleveland journalism whose pen has recently been silenced after he found himself without a home in the print universe, allowed me to help set up a blog for him. It stands ready for him to use as a tool to reconnect to his audience, and it will be a splendid thing to behold when it arrives. Stay tuned for that.

By mid-week, a sprawling piece with which I've struggled, on and off, for the better part of the fall season, having finally been wrestled to the ground and finished and sent packing to an editor, was printed in the Free Times. Already, just two days after it first appeared, the reaction has been amazing and gratifying. My favorite result: I heard from Steve Kurdziel, author of that astounding series of pearl-like PD editorial page essays in recent months on the region, its history, economy and its potential. We'll meet soon, and perhaps challenge each other to continue on these themes.

And then the latest mind-blower, coming only yesterday: Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton, Editor & Publisher's editor of the year, and a stalwart man of the print age if ever there was one, begins his own blog, vowing to use it to better inform readers and engage them on the topic of how newsroom decisons are made. In his first post, he bravely wades into the river: "As a lifelong consumer of the written word displayed on paper, the prospect of talking to readers by way of a 'blog' is a little unnerving," he writes. "I've decided to tip toe into these electronic waters because I recognize that to ignore change is to be consumed by it."


So there you have it: just one day after I publish a piece which ventures the hope that even the traditionally rigid PD might soon be part of a smarter media landscape, Clifton instantly confirms that it's more reality than hope. Of course there's much left to be done on that front. And yet, his powerfully worded rationale for beginning to blog and venturing into uncharted territory tells me that the PD's evolution is reaching a stage more like that of at least a mini-revolution. Speaking as both reader and media critic, I say thanks for taking the plunge, Doug. And a giant welcome to the conversation, or at least this portion of it...

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Parenting is More About Faith than Art or Science

The late southern gothic, Christian mystic writer Walker Percy (if you don't know him, get thee to a bookstore or library soon) once observed of parenting that passing life's lessons on to our children is rather like two prisoners passing notes between adjacent cellblocks. You can never really know for sure that your message is getting through. But you keep doing it anyway...

Monday, January 05, 2004

A Couple of Thoughts to Frame the New Year

"I write to find out how much I know. The act of writing for me is a concentrated form of thought."
--Author Don Delillo

"I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."
--James Joyce