Thursday, October 16, 2014

Best of the Best at UO J-School

I learned the basics of my craft while attending the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. I could credit any number of influences during my time there, but I will center on two professors who were particularly important to my early development. There is no doubt both men played a big part in making me the journalist I am today.

1. Dean Rea. I could write about Dean's Reporting I class and his famous "truth is a dime disappearing into the distance" speech, but every J-School grad knows that wasn't his acid test. That test was Law of the Press. I had upperclassmen tell me that you had to bring your A game to class, and even then there would be unexpected challenges. Turns out they were right.

Law of the Press centered on the important legal precedents of the day regarding the major factors in journalism such as impact of the First Amendment, libel, pornography, etc. It took me only a couple of classes to realize I loved the subject matter. I enjoyed diving into case law and learning about the foundational court decisions. Of course, Dean made sure to spice up the lessons. Classes dealing with pornography included photographs that cut close to legal boundaries. Lessons about the reporter's ability to adequate report events included a staged event in which Dean was shot by a student who "had a grudge" against him.

The toughness of the subject matter didn't fit Dean's standard demeanor. He was soft-spoken and didn't have an egregious personality. He seemed like a friendly uncle from Iowa. He was, however, a stickler for knowing the body of knowledge we were supposed to master. The method by which we were to show our mastery was the final exam, which carried almost all the weight toward a final grade. The test was held early on a Monday morning, and I tossed out my regular schedule in order to get ready for the final. Friday at 4 at Duffy's? No way. Going out with friends for a night of cards? Nope. Call up a female friend for a date? Not on this weekend. I ate breakfast with Mass Communication Law: Cases and Comment as my companion. My conversations centered on New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan and Time, Inc. vs. Hill, which meant that not many people wanted to talk to me. I was focused on nothing but Law in the Press. Studying for my other finals that week would wait.

The final was as brutal as advertised. True-and-false questions were hardly present. There were numerous long essay questions in which we were presented with a situation and asked to select a particular court case and justify our reasons for that selection. I tapped my brain, which was like opening the spillway on a dam. I wrote feverishly. I rolled out my arguments, and I listed my reasons. I walked out of the classroom feeling pretty good about my performance.

Grades were posted a few days later, and I rushed to Allen Hall to see my results. I missed an A by three points!!! Three points!!!! I went to Dean's office and pleaded with him for leniency, and I asked whether there was any way I could earn the necessary points. There wasn't. He said journalism meant performing at your best at a particular moment, and that I had fallen short of A-quality work. I walked out of his office as a crestfallen young man.

I had chances to talk with Dean several years later when both of us worked as copy editors at the Register-Guard in Eugene. I brought up the matter of the grade I received. "Three points?" he said. "I should have given you those. Three measly points? What was I thinking?"

Thanks, Dean.

2. Ken Metzler. He was the practitioner of tough love. No professor or teaching assistant ever attacked my ego as often or with as much strength as Metzler. (Notice I call one professor Dean and the other by his last name. That tells you something about their personalities and how they impacted a young journalism student.) If Rea's acid test was Law of the Press, Metzler's was Reporting II.

Here's where the tough love comes in. Every assignment I turned in for Reporting II got a terrible grade. I never got a D on any assignment until Reporting II, and I got several of them within the first few weeks. By a twist of fate, several of us in the class happened to meet up in the lobby of the library. We matched our experiences. Everyone in the class was getting the same feedback. Anyone getting a C was immediately lifted to an exulted status. Metzler went a step further with me. He pulled me aside one day and asked if I was serious about becoming a journalist. Of course, I replied. He said I should consider another major. Really? I worked my butt off for his class, and that was the response I got? That session only sparked a "I'll show you, you s.o.b." response from me.

Metzler softened his stance as the term continued. There weren't any A's given on assignments, but there wasn't the deluge of failing grades. I later got another side session with Ken, and this one went a long way to changing my outlook on a journalistic future.

One of our assignments was to line up an interview with a notable person in the state of Oregon. I chose to interview Larry Lawrence, who was a vocal advocate for gay rights. Back then, gay rights centered on not getting fired from jobs and not the right to get married. I interviewed Lawrence in the Erb Memorial Union, and it was a good session. I aimed to get information on his foundational beliefs and personal history. I can't remember how long we stayed and talked, but I felt good about reaching my goals. I wrote my story, and it got a good grade. It was only after class that I received that upbeat event. Metzler took me aside, and he said several students interviewed Lawrence. He told me Lawrence said my interview was the best of the bunch. Talk about a straight shot of confidence from my former "taskmaster."

I ended up getting a good grade in the class. All those failing grades early in the term were a method to apply pressure and see how we reacted. His advice about seeking another major was another way to crank up the heat. Hey, journalism was sure to bring controversial articles into my experience, so why not get a taste of real life while I was still a student?

I could talk about other professors because I had a bunch of good ones. Rea, Metzler, Roy Halvorsen, Charles Duncan, Bill Winter, Karl Nestvold all gave me a wide-ranging foundation for my career. I owe each of them a debt of gratitude.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Twitter for Experience, Facebook for Friends

I don't live on social media. I have many other things to occupy me these days. I am writing my novel, working on getting a job (I have one prospect that I want very much), and I take care of my house as a stay-at-home caretaker. But I am on social media enough to know I prefer Twitter and Facebook more than any other websites. I like Twitter for taking part in ongoing events, and I like Facebook for the ability to contact friends, family and former co-workers.

I must add one caveat here. When I talk about these websites within a business framework, my preferences are reversed. A posting on Facebook with a business goal draws about three to five times as many responses as a tweet. Anyone taking a social media campaign into account has to place a high degree of importance on that fact.

My personal enjoyment of Twitter is never more apparent than when watching a sporting event. Twitter becomes a chat room for fans from both sides, and the byplay can be enjoyable. My favorite time is while watching an Oregon Ducks football game. I worked in Denver and Santa Rosa, Calif., during the golden days of two franchises, the current Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s. No pro team, however, can get me more involved in a game than the Ducks.

As long as the Ducks are on TV earlier in the day, a football telecast becomes a family affair. My dad, who is now 97 years old, comes over. So does my oldest brother. I am the only true Duck in the crowd. The others are Ducks in the sense of fans only, but that doesn't dampen their enthusiasm for the team. I enjoy that family feeling, but I want more.

I only have to get on Twitter to find other "family members" to follow the game. I receive a steady stream of updates from Rob Moseley, a former colleague at the Register-Guard and now the director of goducks.com, the university's main athletic website. I follow tweets of those on recruiting sites who follow the Ducks closely. I also follow former Oregon offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, now with the NFL's New York Giants and one of the best tweeters in the business. Schwartz is a great information source for the football strategy part of the game, especially on offensive line play. He also has great insights on his family life, particularly on his infant and the exploits of Oslo Pepperoni, the family dog. (Oslo even has his own Twitter account, which makes him a very smart dog indeed.)

All those voices add to the enjoyment of the game. I relay some of the best tweets to my family. They get as much out of them as I do.

On the other hand, I never use Facebook for breaking news. It serves a much different function. It is my best way to check up on the personal events of those with whom I shared earlier parts of my life. I have several high school chums, and a few from my college days. There are many contacts from newspapers at which I worked, especially The Denver Post and the Register-Guard in Eugene. We talk about spouses, children and grandchildren. We talk about trips we have taken, whether it is a trip to the Oregon Coast or a trip to Europe. We stay connected that way. It keeps us close on a more personal level.

I can embrace the business functions of both websites, and I utilize them well. I also could use YouTube, Tout (my personal favorite over Vine or Instagram video), and I could utilize Pinterest if need be. It's just not up close and personal, and I prefer both websites for their "social" connections. That's just the way I am.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Don't Be Afraid To Shake Up Media

I have written here before about my love of Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath. My coworkers at YourHub listened to me talk about the book, and I urged them to act based on things the book told us. The basic message is that we not only need to think outside the box but to build a new box. Not one of Gladwell's examples centers on journalism or media, but the lessons are easily applicable. There is a second source behind this blog entry. It is a video by advertising adviser Cindy Gallop on the need for her industry to blow itself up and be reinvented. (Here is a link: bit.ly/ZwIo32)

I will use some of the things that I thought of while reading the book, and I will relate them within the context of YourHub. I put five of those ideas out on Twitter earlier today, so those who follow my tweets got an early glimpse.

1. Don't accept limits placed on you by the system. YourHub is designed to be a counterpoint to the various suburban publications within the greater Denver area. We had teams that centered on Aurora and Adams County; Denver; Douglas and Arapahoe counties; Lakewood and Arvada; and Golden (including certain mountain communities) and South Jefferson County. The problem for me is that YourHub was expected to focus on second-level news stories. We were great at looking at local governmental activity, arts groups, new construction projects (from preplanning to pushing dirt), etc.

My problem with the second-level ideal was that it didn't help another main YourHub objective, which was to develop reporters and designers who could step into the main Denver Post newsroom. Only two made that jump to a reporting job directly. (A third did the circuitous route, going to Denver Post Online as a producer before getting a reporting job.) That second-level accent wasn't going to help my reporters get the kind of experience and clips to help them advance. I started seeking to have my reporters reach deeper for story ideas. I urged them to go to hospitals in their areas and visit neonatal intensive care units; go to churches and find out about the homeless who are being helped; go to agencies and see if they can trace soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan; etc. To do that meant we had to challenge the established YourHub system. I talked to someone about my idea, and this person told me that the main Post newsroom had sections that were designed to handle those kind of stories, and YourHub should keep our hands off. I can't disagree more with that statement.

I had only two such stories written during my time as YourHub's manager. Community manager Wes Gentry did a story on Street's Hope, a facility in Lakewood that helped prostitutes get off the streets and build a better future. I almost did handsprings when Wes said he was going to do that story. There also was a story by now-retired reporter Karen Groves that centered on two men in the Evergreen area who had differing levels of paralysis because of accidents. I had someone in the YourHub newsroom say that those two stories couldn't go together, but there were so many parallels between their lives that it was an easy fit.

I still believe in the standard I set there: Reach farther. Still do the second-level stories, but look for truly dynamic topics.

2. Think for yourself as a worker. This is more about establishing overarching policy than about doing individual stories. Each reporter or designer works independently on individual stories, pages or editions. One of my goals as a manager was to foster an environment in which my employees could suggest different ways to do things. A little history here helps.

I took a business personality test while working at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon. One part of my analysis resulted in the word Democratic. This idea of workers suggesting ways of doing things fits into that ideal. Give me input. Give me ideas. I ramped that idea up after I read David and Goliath. Journalism is facing trying times, and that won't change in the near future. It is an industry under intense pressure. To combat that, I pushed for new ideas and used David and Goliath as a framework. This won't be a popular point to make, but I got zero response. I decided to take a bold move, and one I figured might not be popular. I led off my weekly Monday morning meeting by saying that I would not be joining in the weekly team meetings, in which each team talked about upcoming stories and made sure our photographers were clued in on what was needed. I told them that they had all the power that morning, and they could work on any changes they wanted.

My idea went over with varying degrees of success. There was no great outpouring of new ideas. I asked each designer/editor to give me feedback on the way I handled things. The results could be tracked along lines of seniority. The most senior designer said it was no big deal and all that was needed was some adjustment in time and effort. The least senior, to put it simply, ripped me a new one. I was told I abandoned my leadership role, and the lack of time to adjust was a hurtful breech of policy. (It was different, but I didn't abandon my leadership duties. I just did them in a much different way, not following the "from the top down" management style and instead looking for a Democratic way of doing things.)

3. Be a manager open to new ideas. This goes hand in glove with the previous point. It is of no use to give reporters and designers the power to lend ideas if I am unwilling to listen to them and put those ideas into action. I have been a "from the bottom up" kind of manager for years.

I won't mention names in many of these stories, but I will make an exception here. Joe Nguyen was my designer for the Aurora-Adams County team, but he had time to do stories, come up with new ways of doing things, etc. I hope I was able to get across to Joe just how much his work and ideas meant to me. He also was my main IT guy. When we were looking to change pagination systems, I made sure Joe was my point man in dealing with the computer experts in the building. I lost a lot when Joe was hired for an online position in the sports department. (Sigh.)

4. Let writers/reporters/designers be creative. Don't be a micro-manager. I can't stress this enough. I gave my employees the freedom to explore. I didn't hover over their shoulders. I rarely held idea-generation sessions with a reporter unless that reporter had a history of not coming up with good ideas. I brought in the union rep in YourHub for one such session because of that rep's experience and knowledge. It was an invaluable aid in "reforming" a reporter. My point is that micromanaging can be a teaching tool, but it doesn't allow creative people to be creative. They think more about the next possible reprimand than the process needed to write well.

However, I still took time to sit down with each reporter, designer and community manager to get to know them better. Those sessions were always held on Thursdays and Fridays, the days of our lighter workload, and they all entailed having lunch or coffee. I should have done this much more often. Communication in a non-work environment meant we were able to be people and not workers. We got to know each other better. That can only be a plus.

5. Give the readers what they want, not want the system wants. Yes, YourHub needs to give information on government, agencies and the normal things of old world journalism, but it connects more with readers if that story affects them directly. It might be a story on a construction project on a certain major roadway, but I think the most effective tool for reaching readers is the personal feature story. If you give me a story on breaking ground on an apartment complex in Lakewood on one side of the scales and match it against the Denver story about a high school girl who found guidance and stability through a local boxing program, I favor the boxing story every time. Readers love to hear stories about other people, their problems and the solutions they discover.

A story that I received more feedback about was about a Douglas County girl who won lots of money for showing her animal at a fair, but she took all that money and put it toward her young cousin's battle with cancer. The short headline we had on the photo on the front page said "Little Girl, Big Heart." People loved "Little Girl, Big Heart." It was something that connected with them directly. It also would have worked with a story about an Iraq veteran facing PTSD, or the trials of a young family with a child in a neonatal ICU, but I can't make that happen now.

This last part of this blog is directed at the YourHub staff. One of the reasons I pushed so hard to think differently was as a manner of survival. I felt we needed to push the envelope from the second-level stories as a way to exist. One of the most powerful statements I received as a manager was delivered on the day I was informed I had to dismiss five employees because of a reduction of workforce. I asked whether these cuts could come from anywhere else. The response? "YourHub doesn't win Pulitzers." I feared that all of YourHub might be cut someday. I still fear that although I was involved in a much smaller RIF episode, being one of two veterans released from the newsroom on April 24. I fear the call will come to reduce staffing by nine or 10, and YourHub will be the one in the crosshairs.

YourHub's biggest plus is that the workers come cheaply. Their pay is on par with the suburban publications and not the rest of The Post newsroom. The negative is that YourHub doesn't generate much revenue in the overall scheme. That doesn't create job security. I urge people to read David and Goliath, and adopt that kind of thinking. Don't just think outside the box, but build a new box. Grow in the process. Be creative. Survive.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Journalism Memories: Lyman Jones

Lyman Jones practically appeared out of thin air at the Sebastopol Times. He just showed up one day like a journalistic wizard. He was short, slender, middle-aged, and he wore half-frame glasses that he usually perched on the end of his nose. It took a couple of minutes for me to learn this man was extremely gifted. He was educated at Yale, and he served in a middle management position at the old Dallas Herald. He could comment off the cuff on Shakespeare, current pop culture, national and international politics, the arts, etc.

The friendship between Sebastopol Times owner Ernie Joyner and Lyman would seem strange to the many observers. Ernie was a radical conservative. Lyman was an Ivy League liberal who worked on the election campaign of progressive candidate Ralph Yarborough in Texas. But both men were tough-minded journalists, and they recognized the other's talents and commitment to their beliefs. Journalists who have been through the newspaper wars have a tendency to do that.

Lyman also was one heckuva great journalism professor, and he took me under his wing. He became the second reporter in the newsroom, and every day contained a little lesson. I will mention two of them. First, if you want to make a politician look like a fool, use his quotes. Second, learn the rules of the English language then be ready to violate those rules when needed. Some of the best writing comes from those who break the rules. I also remember one of his prime examples of good writing he relayed to me. A theater critic wanted to get across the idea that the lead actor in King Lear had a timid performance. His line: He played the king as if he expected the ace to follow.

Lyman's problem was that alcohol wasn't his good friend. I had to bail him out of the drunk tank one night. Alcohol also played a role in one of the most bizarre experiences I've had.

Lyman and I decided to go to a San Francisco Giants game at Candlestick Park. It was one of those rare Bay Area summer days with almost no wind, and we decided to go into the city after the game. We were in the Market Square area, and we decided to stop in for a drink at a bar. It was a clean place, and there were couples inside with a few folks seated on bar stools. We found two empty bar stools, sat down and ordered our drinks. The bartender was the typical amiable fellow. He and Lyman talked, and Lyman mentioned that he was a veteran who fought in World War II. He added that he was a prisoner of war of the Germans, and he said he saw atrocities on a regular basis. The bartender perked up and countered that a lot of his friends were brutalized by U.S. soldiers, and Lyman had no room to talk about German soldiers. The bartender walked away, and Lyman slapped my shoulder. "Let's get out of here," he said. "This guy is a damned Nazi."

We left our drinks and started to walk out of the bar. The bartender said something in German, and Lyman replied in impeccable German. I asked Lyman for a translation once we were out on the street. The bartender told him he hoped Lyman would break his arms and his legs. Lyman's answer was that he hoped the bartender's children and grandchildren would die young. "It's just the way Germans say I love you," Lyman said.

Lyman disappeared as quickly as he appeared. He didn't show up to work one day. Ernie and I did some sleuthing, and we traced him to the bus station in Santa Rosa. He bought a ticket for Sacramento, but the trail ended there. Lyman once boasted to me that he could disappear without leaving a trace. I think that was his plan. The only mentions I find of him are articles that appeared in a publication called the Texas Observer. I haven't been able to find any information on an obituary or other information source. The only thing I can do is be thankful is the short time we had to work together. Lyman was a great journalist who was saddled with personal demons. Both of those facts taught me a lot.

So ends my trilogy on the people who molded the early part of my career. I had two Pulitzer Prize winners, a tough Texan with a love of saying exactly what he wanted to say, and a Yale man with a storehouse of knowledge and a life with as many riddles as answers. I'd say that's a great way for a young guy to learn about the business.

(I apologize for the long delay in posting a blog entry. I have been writing and rewriting the first draft of a novel, and I tend to get very focused when I do that. I also wish I could find the picture I have of Lyman and me together on our common birthday from about 1976. I will post that if I find it in the many bins of old newspapers I have.)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Journalism memories: Ernie Joiner

To show just how different Ernest V. Joiner was as a newsman, I only have to detail the way in which I was hired. Ernie was flying from eastern Oregon to San Francisco to complete his purchase of the Sebastopol Times, a weekly newspaper in Sonoma County. He had a stopover at Portland International Airport, which was about 12 miles from where I lived at the time. I met him at the airport and handed him my book of clips from an internship I had while still at the University of Oregon. He looked it over while we both had our shoes shined. By the time he walked to the gate to catch his flight to SFO, he offered me a job, and I accepted.

Ernie once told me that he loved nothing better than "twisting the tail of the tiger." Oh, how Ernie could twist tails. His columns often crossed the line between being exceptionally tough and downright vicious. He took on governmental entities and law enforcement organizations, but he saved his most potent attacks for Democratic politicians and lawyers. He once wrote a column that blasted Willie Brown, who was the most powerful Democrat in the California Legislature. The column finished with a racist remark that included the n-word. It was such a bad reference I won't retell it here. Lawyers? Ernie was once quoted as saying that he would rather have his daughter be a prostitute than a lawyer.

I will tell two stories to put Ernie's style in perspective. He was one of a kind, and he stayed in small-town journalism because he could write anything he wanted without fear of reprisal from higher-ups who might rein him in.

While I was at the Times, a man from western Sonoma County was convicted of rape and sent to the state hospital in Atascadero. It wasn't a long time before the man was released and sent home. The man was in western the area for exactly three days before he was arrested for rape again. Ernie was livid. His column tore into the California penal system for botching the case and putting the women of Sonoma County in danger. His final line was something like this: If anyone sees this guy in western Sonoma County again, you have my permission to grab him and bring him to my office, and I will personally castrate the son of a bitch with a dull spoon.

Nice, huh?

When Ernie died in 1998, one of the stories told about him involved his time as publisher of a weekly newspaper in Texas. Ernie wrote stories about the sheriff being a bootlegger, and there were reports that death threats were made against Joiner. Ernie was sitting at home one night when a bullet shattered the window and barely missed him. What did Ernie do in reply? He pushed to have the sheriff be the subject of a recall election. His basis? Any lawman who could have such a clear shot and miss had no business being sheriff.

He had this combative nature even as a college student. He was the editor of the student newspaper at Texas Tech, and he was fired for running a story that asked students to name the worst professor at the university. He eventually got the job back because of student pressure, but he was fired again for another controversial story.  Ernie did indeed graduate, and while being handed his diploma the university president was reportedly heard to say, "happiest day of my life, Joiner."

The funny thing about this reputation was that Ernie was one of the nicest employers I ever worked for. He was soft-spoken and amazingly courteous. He had me over to his house a few times, and he was a gracious host. Oh, he could argue political points for hours, but he never got as nasty as he did in his columns. He was a gentleman's gentleman. He just never wanted anyone to find out.

I owe Ernie a lot. He gave me my first real journalism job. He taught me not to shy away from writing articles or columns just because they might be unpopular. He gave me a wide-ranging education by giving me the opportunity to write about politics, do cop beats, cover sports, be a photographer and produce pictures back in the soup-film-and-print-the-image days, and write feature stories. A couple of those features rank as the favorite pieces I have done. One was on a helicopter pilot for the Sonoma County sheriff's office (published about a month before the pilot died in a crash), and the other was on a free spirit called Tintype Gordon who ran a photography business in the Russian River community of Guerneville. Gordon had been a mid-level manager for IBM before realizing the corporate life wasn't what he wanted to do. He was a middle-aged hippie, and happy about it. I love nothing more than a good feature story about an interesting person, and I love it even more that I was able to write some of those stories. 

Ernie also introduced me to the subject of my next blog entry. The man's name was Lyman Jones, and he was an iconic figure in my development as a journalist. He also came into my life in a rather surprising way, which just seemed to be a natural occurrence in Ernie Joiner's world. Heck, Lyman and Ernie were destined to have a common history although Lyman was a diehard Democrat and an Ivy League product. More on that next time.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Journalism Memories: Dave and Cathy Mitchell



In Field of Dreams, Burt Lancaster has a memorable line in which he says your dreams often "brush by you like strangers in a crowd." As I reflect on my journalism career, I realize the same thing can be said about important people.  The earliest part of my career was like that, but I didn't realize it at the time. Some notable journalists brushed by me like strangers in a crowd. I was a kid too focused on learning the ropes to be aware of who was teaching me.

I will talk about four of those journalists in my next blog entries. Today's topic: Dave and Cathy Mitchell.

My first journalism job after college was as a jack-of-all-trades for the Sebastopol Times, a weekly newspaper located about 60 miles north of San Francisco in the Sonoma County apple-growing and wine region. It was a nice opening gig for an Oregon guy who viewed California as paradise. My first days at the Times were spent with Dave and Cathy, who were in the process of clearing out after turning over control of the newspaper to Ernie Joiner, who hired me. The fact Dave and Cathy couldn't work for Joiner was a no-brainer. The Mitchells were Stanford-educated liberals, and Ernie was a conservative who today would be about five steps to the right of Rush Limbaugh.

I believe Dave and Cathy were leery of me. After all, anyone Joiner hired had to share his political leanings, right? That wasn't true. I was the standard just-out-of-college kid who leaned to the left on almost every issue. I still remember my first writing assignment. Cathy handed me a fact sheet about an upcoming theater presentation at the local high school. Theater writing wasn't my strong suit, and I was a kid in an area I didn't know much about. I wrote about 10 inches, handed in my story and waited for a review. "You write good material," she said. "Dave, this kid can actually write." That made me feel good, and I believe any tension in the newsroom disappeared. I worked well with Dave and Cathy for the short time we were together. They took me under their wings and gave me several tips on small-town journalism. Dave took me with him when he covered his last city council meeting, and he introduced me to the people I would be covering. That was a classy move.

The Mitchells then embarked on a journalistic journey that brought them international attention and fame. They took over the Point Reyes Light, a weekly newspaper in the Marin County town of Point Reyes Station. They did an investigative story on Synanon, the drug rehabilitation organization that had a facility in the area. They uncovered violent and corrupt practices in the organization. For their work, they received the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for meritorious public service. That was a tremendous achievement. Weekly newspapers usually don't show up on Pulitzer Prize lists. The Mitchells successfully defended several lawsuits filed against them by Synanon. Reports say they eventually received a $100,000 settlement from the group.

Dave and Cathy divorced a few years after winning the prize. Dave gave up control of the Light and went to work in San Francisco for a while. He eventually purchased the newspaper again and kept it until his retirement. The headline on a San Francisco Chronicle story on him in 2005 was perfect: "After 30 years as the muckraker of West Marin, Dave Mitchell has passed the torch." He still writes a blog, http://www.sparselysageandtimely.com/blog/. I haven't been able to find information on Cathy in the post-Point Reyes days. If anyone can fill in the gaps. let me know.

Their greatest gifts to me were their professional approach, their dedication to not pulling back from a difficult news story, and their willingness to help a newbie. That is one heckuva nice foundation for a young man wanting to stay in journalism for his entire career.



Monday, July 14, 2014

Best Cities and Surprises of a European Odyssey

It all started with a jet-lag day of Biblical proportions and ended with cappuccinos in Venice and a Smithwick's on draft in Dublin, but in between were great memories, surprises, occasional frustrations and introductions to fellow travelers from around the world. Here is my list of the best of the best and the most overrated of the rest from our European vacation:

Best cities we visited: 

1) Bellagio, Italy: Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows this already. I was effusive in my praise for this town to the point of saying that I could stay there until my dying day. The lead-up to getting here was less than ideal, but the reward was priceless. We took the train from Lucerne to Bellinzona, Switzerland,  and switched to the northern Italy commuter special. The last train was hot, crowded, and it stopped at every little town along the way. We finally reached Como, Italy, and our launching point for the joys of Lake Como. From the Como rail station there was a short cab ride, then a hydrofoil (fast boat, or barca veloce) ride into the heart of Lago di Como country. Forty-two minutes later we arrived in Bellagio. It was like stepping into a magical land.

We had a short walk from the ferry terminal to our hotel, the Hotel Metropole Bellagio. I researched this town and learned that the Metropole is the only hotel directly on the lake. All the others are separated from the lake by a main street. I also knew that there were precious few terrace rooms available, and I booked us into one as soon as reservations for the summer season were accepted in February. All the research paid off. My wife expected us to be in a Paris-sized hotel room with a small balcony. She was surprised when she stepped into a big, sumptuous room with a wide terrace that looked directly onto the lake.

Score one for Chris.

The exploration of Bellagio turned up great discoveries on an hourly basis. There are all manner of shops to examine, narrow cobblestone pedestrian-only alleys that lead up the hill, friendly shopkeepers who are only too happy to help, and residents who do their best to aid some Italian-challenged American tourists. We had two great dinners and two fabulous breakfast buffets at our hotel's restaurant, plus tasty gelato on the snack bar terrace on a semi-warm afternoon. The breakfast buffet rolled out everything from freshly cooked eggs to delicious European-style bacon (more like small cuts of ham than its fat-packed American counterpart), to croissants and sweet breads, to fresh cappuccinos and macchiatos. The buffet was included in the price of the room.

But no moments were more precious than the hours we spent on the terrace outside our room taking in the beauty of Lake Como. High hills tower over the water, and villas crowd against the shore. There is plenty of boat traffic from personal speedboats of the well-to-do to passenger ferries that kept a constant parade of visitors pulsing into the town.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You enjoy that great breakfast buffet then take fresh cappuccinos up to your room and stretch out under the shade of an umbrella and watch the beauty of Lake Como unfold while in the company of your best friend in the world. Ah, that's paradise.

2) Haarlem, the Netherlands: This is Amsterdam without the press of a million people. The town is about 10 miles west of Amsterdam and a quick ride from the Amsterdam Centraal train station. Want canals? Haarlem is honeycombed with them. Deb and I recommend the Haarlem Canal Tours excursion with Joeren. He is an excellent guide and uses a smaller boat to explore the area. We had just seven travelers on our tour, and Joeren slipped seamlessly from Dutch to English to give details of this historic city. Want a great city square as the focal point of your travels? The Grote Markt is perfect. (We recommend breakfast at Grand Cafe Brinkmann and its Smit & Dorlas coffee, which is the best we had in Europe ... or anywhere, for that matter.) Want World War II memories? Few places are better than the Ten Boom Museum, which is the home in which the Ten Boom family hid Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Want beautiful cathedral bells that serenade you with an on-the-hour show? St. Bavo's on the Grote Markt is the quintessential European church. Want a friendly wine-and-cheese shop that supplies everything needed for a great lunch? We recommend Tromp's, which is just up the street from the Ten Boom Museum.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You get an outside table at Brinkmann's and order the Turkish yogurt, which is served in a big bowl and is crowded with fruit, honey, muesli and nuts. Order the Smit and Dorlas with the little cookie served on the side, and watch as shopkeepers set up on the Grote Markt for the weekend market. Listen to the buzz of conversations in Dutch, German, French and English. It is the intersection of the world under a bright sun. That's just about perfect.

3) Murren, Switzerland: This is a tiny town in the Bernese Oberland, the mountainous region in south-central Switzerland that is dominated by three major peaks, the Eiger, Monck and Jungfrau. My wife selected this town out of all the offerings in the region, and her selection was perfect. Places like Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen are down in the valley, and a hot day can be commonplace in early summer. We took a cable car and then a small train to get to Murren, which is thousands of feet higher than the valley towns. There is about a 10- to 15-degree difference between the locations. What makes Murren so special? The views are to die for.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You walk onto your terrace at the Hotel Alpenruh and look at an array of 10,000-foot peaks that look so close that you can reach out and touch them. Or for a new experience, take the cable car to the Schilthorn and the Piz Gloria station. There is a huge James Bond theme for the trip because Piz Gloria was where they filmed the final scenes of In Her Majesty's Secret Service. But the Bond experience isn't the biggest thing here. We took the earliest cable car up the mountain so we could enjoy the fabulous breakfast buffet (which was generously paid for by the owners at the Hotel Alpenruh). Sit on the outer edge of the restaurant as it turns gently and gives you a 360-degree tour of the Swiss Alps as you dine. Absolutely fantastic.

The best surprises:

1) The European train system: Well, surprise might not be the perfect word because we heard about the efficiency and comfort of European trains before we arrived in Europe. We had the Eurail Global Pass, which gave us first-class seating on almost every leg of our trip. When the schedule says a train leaves at 07:15, it begins rolling out of the station at that precise minute. The only downside to train travel is that they don't post which track a particular train is on until about 20 minutes before departure. There are hundreds of travelers on an individual train, and the result is a lemming-like race to the particular track to find the car for first-class travelers.

2) Travel pants: These are lightweight pants that are easy to wash and dry in a hotel room. They are very comfortable and quite adaptive to your needs. My travel pants were perfect for a bike tour in Copenhagen, the canal tour in Haarlem, visits to Notre Dame and Musee d'Orsay in Paris, hikes in the Swiss Alps, and days of exploration in Bellagio and Venice.

3) Good beer just about everywhere: I am not a beer snob, but I enjoy a good brew or two when the mood strikes. My favorites were the Grimbergen Dobble I enjoyed at a beachside cafe at Zandvoort aan Zee in the Netherlands, the RugenBrau (the local product of the Bernese Oberland, brewed in Interlaken), and the craft beer at Norrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen. Try it, you'll like it.

4) Courtesy, European style: It didn't matter if they were tour guides, train conductors, workers at the front desks at hotels, or just area residents, the treatment we received from Europeans everywhere was remarkable. We are especially grateful to the Italians who graciously shepherded us through the maze of streets in Venice so we could get back to our hotel in the Santa Croce part of the city. (More on that in a bit).

5) The joy of a great bike tour: We took only one during our visit, but it was exceptionally good. We went with Bike Mike (Mike Sommerville) in Copenhagen,  and it was well worth the price (about $58 U.S. per person). It was an 8-mile excursion, and Bike Mike couldn't have been any better as a guide. He loves his city and his nation, and his little lectures are filled with rich information on history, culture and city facts. The one surprising part was that Bike Mike could go from devout Christian one minute to obscenity-spewing Dane the next. He stopped at Sankt Pieter's Church near his bike shop in downtown Copenhagen and spoke eloquently about Jesus Christ and the meaning of Ascension Day, which was the holiday on the day we had our tour. At the next stop he might drop f-bombs and scatological references. It's just Mike, but be aware that this is his style. I highly recommend the tour unless you are someone with a nun's sensibilities. One side note on the tour: It was a great way to break up jet lag. Deb and I spent 30 sleepless hours going from Denver to Copenhagen (via JFK and Reykjavik, Iceland), and we were dragging as we started the morning, but physical activity is a great cure.

The biggest letdowns:

1) Venice: The city is drop-dead gorgeous and dripping with history. It also is puzzling to make your way around, and heat and heavy humidity are commonplace. We were there in very early June, but the humidity was already stifling. Think Atlanta with canals. The streets also are vexing even with a good map. We decided to walk from St. Mark's Square back to our hotel and got lost repeatedly. A particular street on the map might be a short alley. A major street might be a cramped venue for several blocks, often barely wide enough for two people to pass each other as they walk in different directions. The best way to get around is the vaporetto, or water taxi. The downside is that the boats are crowded, the sweaty weather results in hundreds of sweaty people, and the journey is less than comfortable.

2) Foreign money exchange: There are multiple ATMs in every city, but not every one accepts a particular bank card (even though I checked with our banks and was told that their cards would be good everywhere in Europe). My biggest headache was in the Hamburg, Germany, train station. I repeatedly was rejected by the ATM on the station's plaza. I eventually had to walk upstairs to a Deutsche Bank office in order to get Euros. There also is the thrill of trying to gauge the cost of things in American funds while in Copenhagen (the Danish krone is about 18 cents U.S.) or in Switzerland (the Swiss franc is about $1.08 U.S.). There also was the recommended ATM in Venice that said it offered the most honest exchange rate in the city. Wrong. This ATM gouged us for about a 10 percent higher fee than any other ATM we used on our vacation.

3) Pickpockets: There are warnings in just about every big city that pickpockets are working the train stations. Rick Steves' books warn about this and say to be careful when getting onto trains or going through turnstiles. Pickpockets like to bump you and steal your stuff at times when you can't do anything to stop them. They are on the other side of the turnstile or stepping off the train before you realize your wallet is gone. We adopted the Rick Steves recommendation: Wear a money belt. We had zero problems with pickpockets during our trip because of that.

The one thing I don't have on these lists are items from Paris. It is a magical city, but Deb and I tend to be small-town folks. Paris is loaded with rich treasures, but it is almost sensory overload. If you want great food and aren't bothered by hurried atmosphere at Metro stops and major boulevards, then Paris is a must. We enjoyed every day there, but we never felt relaxed. (Well, maybe there was that one time at the little bistro on the Rue de Grenelle that had the great pinot noir and grilled salmon.)

Here is a link to our collage of still photo images from our trip: http://youtu.be/Gjd0rvshLdU.