Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Eagerly Awaiting New John Hart Novel

It has been more than three years since John Hart released his last novel, Iron House. His new one is due out soon. How soon? That's where the mystery exists. It is coming out in 2015, but no release date has been announced. I promise that I will be one of the first in line to buy a copy.

Hart is a brilliant author. Those who have read my blog know I hold John in high regard. I am rereading his The Last Child, which won the Edgar Award for the year's best mystery. Hart is a nice blueprint for a new author to follow. He nails character, plot, pace, tension. He is one of the few popular authors I know who delivers great opening lines, which was one of the key points made by noted literary agent Don Maass during his workshop I attended a couple of years ago. Very few popular authors have first lines hat pop. They don't have to. John doesn't need to, either, but he still delivers. The reader in me appreciates that.

I could go on, but I want to get back to reading The Last Child. And I will keep my eye open for that release date. Too bad it isn't being released early enough for my Christmas wish list. Maybe later, John. Thanks for giving us literature worth savoring.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Authors as God? That's an overstatement

I wrote in one of my earliest blogs that being an author was somewhat like being God. An author creates characters and situations, and is the great string-puller. The longer I live and write, though, I think my point reached too far. Humans are every bit as capable of doing things that keep other humans dancing like a puppet.

Think about the harsh words spoken to others. Certain series of words can drain the energy and emotion from a person or people, and it can even spark depression or another harmful state. A person with control over workers can shuttle one of his or her underlings into another position without any consultation. That move can even threaten that person's ability to hold a job. Managers and union members negotiate deals that can contain certain toxic results for those covered by that contract. A manager can be nice one minute, then turn around and rip an employee a few hours or minutes later.

You see, humans have that power. Many exercise it, and they don't care about the effects. That lack of empathy separates humans from God, by the way. God cares about his underlings. A human being doesn't have to, and in some circles it is advantageous if he or she doesn't.

So, I take back my earlier point, and I try to infuse my characters and situations with that knowledge. I guess that's part of learning to be a better writer. Of course, my situations are fiction, and my characters are imaginary. That separates me from the truly harmful ones among us.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Journalism tries to tackle money problems

I am going to be a money man this morning. It's not my favorite subject to write about, but times require a different perspective. Money and journalism used to be on friendly terms. It was a profitable business on a predictable basis. Well, you can forget those days.

Those of us in the business knew this was coming. One of my friends. Glen Crevier at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, told me about 15 years ago that he hoped we still had jobs until it was time to retire. The fallout at The Denver Post started several years ago. The first to go were mid-level managers in jobs that were seen as redundant. The steady decline continued over the years. Copy editing jobs were slashed. Job slots for employees who retired or moved elsewhere were not filled. A few jobs were cut here, a few more there. I was part of the dreaded reduction in workforce twice.

Now, The Post and all parts of the massive entity of Digital First Media are for sale. That's how bad it has become.

My job at YourHub wasn't immune from the damage. I had to notify five employees they were losing their jobs, and that was the worst day of my career. My own job was removed in April. There used to be five designers on the YourHub staff. Now there are three full-timers, and another who splits duties between designing and reporting (a decision I was forced to make when my staffing was slashed). Still, I tried to find ways to bolster the revenue stream. One project in particular had what I thought was significant promise. Here's some history behind that.

The YourHub website is divided into two parts. One part is for staff-produced material, which goes into the main Denver Post system. The other is for user-generated copy, which is created by members of the general public (from public information officers of corporations to soccer moms), and that copy goes into its own system. That was fine until the old UGC system completely collapsed. No one could post new material. We had to come up with a new way to do things. Four of my employees, who I affectionately dubbed the Gang of Four, came to me with an idea for creating a WordPress-based website. Those four (Joe Nguyen, Sarah Millett, Kevin Hamm, Laura Keeney) came up with a presentation that impressed me, but impressing me went only so far. I didn't control the newsroom purse strings, so I had the Gang of Four deliver their message to news director Kevin Dale. He loved it, and we got the go-ahead to develop the system.

But before anything went from drawing board to reality, I delivered a message to the Gang: This new system must be able to generate more revenue. I hoped the new system would improve access to YourHub material on both sides of the website. More access would equal more page views, which would make YourHub more attractive to advertisers. The Gang of Four did a great job in developing strategies for the new system and getting them implemented. The resulting system is great. Our UGC contributors love it. However, the new system isn't exactly a revenue generator. Those access problems still existed.

My experience isn't new in journalism. Big ideas meet with limited results. I don't have the financial figures for The Post these days, but most media companies report falling ad revenues from both the print and digital sides. I know by combing the website that YourHub isn't having a great impact on The Post's bottom line. I hope it does better. And then there's that for sale sign for all DFM properties, which is a desperate sign of the times.

I watch the world of journalism from the outside now. Still, I know the hurt and uncertainty. There are so many great journalists on the DPost and YourHub staffs, and I fervently hope they all retain their jobs. That's going to require an influx of money, and that brings us to the same old problem. We work in a capitalist society, and we have to deliver or be sold. It's just the facts of life.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Best of the best at University of Oregon J-School

I learned the basics of my craft while attending the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. Yeah, I learned a lot of other things at UO, but these two professors gave me the foundation for a career. Their lessons didn't seem comfortable at the time, but I look back and appreciate their work. Sometimes you need a tough push to move forward.

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 major factors in journalism such as impact of the First Amendment, libel, pornography, rights of privacy, 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. Dean collapsed on the stage, and the "shooter" ran out of the room. We had to jot down facts about what we saw once Dean picked himself up off the floor.

The toughness of the subject matter didn't fit Dean's standard demeanor. He was soft-spoken and had a gentle 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 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 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 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."

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, etc. 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: The disappearing man

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: The acid-pen editor

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: My Pulitzer-winning mentors



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." 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 as a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate 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, the man 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 of copy, 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 small 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 in temperatures 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 many 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). I advise people to 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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Mini World Food Tour, Europe Edition

I do not pretend to be a food critic, the kind who picks apart all aspects of a restaurant and detect every seasoning used in every dish. However, I know what I like. That is all that is needed for this blog entry.

That said, here are my top three meals during our smorgasbord tour of west central Europe:

3) Bavette the Grill, Brasserie Nobel, Haarlem, The Netherlands: This was a lucky choice as Deb and I selected a place to eat on our first night in Haarlem. We took a charming walk along the Spaarne River and decided that the Brasserie Nobel looked like a good option for a meal. The bavette option made that come true for me.

The dish is flank steak (an overlooked cut of meat) with grilled vegetables and topped with bernaise sauce.  The vegetables included nicely seasoned potatoes and mushrooms (both personal favorites) and green beans in a savory sauce. The bernaise was a nice touch, adding another layer of flavor. I took the waiter's advice and ordered a Joppen beer, which is the wheat beer brewed in Haarlem. It was a nice complement to everything on the plate. In fact, it was such a nice complement that I had two Joppens.  (When in Haarlem, do as the Dutch do.)

Here's a good tip on checking out a restaurant: If there are many locals eating there, it's a good place. That became apparent as the various members of the wait staff conversed with diners. They talked like old friends as if the patrons ate there often. If the locals like it then it's thumbs up.

2) Mediterranean tuna in wasabi cream sauce, La Terrazza Metropole, Bellagio, Italy: I could have eaten the worst meal of my life at this place and still felt like I was in heaven. This is the patio restaurant at the Hotel Metropole Bellagio where we stayed. The restaurant is open air with a commanding view of the lake at table side, and ducks and swans swim by as you dine. The heat of the day (it only got into the 80s during our stay there) dissipated and the lake's cooling factor took effect. It was as romantic a setting for a meal as any I have had in my life.

OK, let's up the ante on this idyllic spot. I am not a big fish eater, but the tuna dish looked intriguing enough to try. I ordered it medium rare, which ended up being a nice choice for my tastes. They served two bountiful chunks of tuna encrusted in sesame seeds. The wasabi sauce was drizzled around the outside edge of the dinner plate, and I could choose just how much of the spicy sauce I wanted with each bite. The combination was delectable. Deb and I started our meal with mixed green salads that had abundant amounts of tomatoes, shaved carrots and other treats, accompanied by the ever-present olive oil and balsamic combination on the table. And this was the really good balsamic, a higher grade from Modena, Italy, where you have to be licensed to produce balsamic under the Modena banner.

1) Lamb sausage, Le Cafe du Commerce, Paris: OK, it's Paris so great gastronomic offerings are commonplace, right? Well, we had one so-so meal while in the City of Lights so great meals aren't guaranteed. We chose this restaurant on the advice of the young man at the front desk of our hotel. He said it was a place where a lot of the locals gather for dinner (there's that tip about a good restaurant again) and it was well worth the time. I also had seen mentions about the restaurant on blogs, and that added a layer of trust in my book. We actually showed up here twice for dinner, but the place doesn't open until 7 p.m. so we went elsewhere on our first visit. We arrived properly late (by our usual dining schedule) the second time, and, oh, my, was it worth it.

Again, I don't usually order lamb or veal. It's that "eating a young animal" thing. But they didn't have my first choice on the menu available that night, and I took a chance on this second option. Well, Little Lambie was delicious. It was a big sausage like a quality brat that you would throw on the grill on a football Saturday. Everything from the texture to the seasoning (not too little, not too much) was perfect. They added roasted potatoes, cooked apples and a small green salad on the plate.

I also got to try out my limited French vocabulary. "Deux sauvignon blanc, petit, s'il vous plait." And I must have done it correctly because my waiter replied, "Merci, monsieur." And the resulting wine was pretty darned good, too. Deb and I topped off our meal with dessert. She had the creme brûlée, which was delicate and delicious. I ordered a lemon sorbet with just a hint of vodka that was poured over a French cookie, and it was all contained in a bowl of molded white chocolate. Magnifique.

Here's another reason Le Cafe du Commerce gets so many recommendations: The bill was paltry by Parisian standards. Deb and I had salads, the main courses and desserts, and the entire cost was 58 Euros. In Paris, that's a steal.

I left some really good meals off this list. There was the salmon with bernaise at a little bistro along the Rue de Grenelle in Paris (the place also had the best pinot noir); pork steak at the Hotel Alpenruh in Murren, Switzerland; cheese fondue with a side of roesti at the Hotel Eiger in Murren; pork cordon bleu at the Hotel Rheinfelderhof in Basel, Switzerland; cannelloni at Taverna Capitan Uncino in Venice ... the list could go on. And that overlooks our favorite breakfast spot, Grand Cafe Brinkmann on the Grote Markt in Haarlem. The breakfast menu was small, but ordering the Turkish yogurt with fruit was a must, as was the coffee. OMG, the coffee was magnificent. They serve Smit & Dorlas, which is brewed in Aruba and earns the top ranking in my best cups of coffee ever. My wife loved that they served a small cookie with each cup, so there's that, too.

I rolled out the superlatives in this review, but all of them were earned. That is one thing that makes Europe so wonderful. I will follow in a couple of days with my top three cities we visited. That's going to entail some hard choices as well, but I love to examine fond memories.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Writing Ongoing; Blogging, Not So Much

It's six weeks since I posted my last blog entry, which isn't a good statistic. You can believe this next statement or not: I have been too busy to do regular blogging. Want proof? Well, here goes.

REASON NO. 1: Three weeks in Europe. This wasn't a a nice parting gift for having my job at The Post eliminated. I didn't book this trip as a way to soothe frayed feelings. Deb and I decided to go to Europe long before the guillotine fell, and there was no way we were going to be denied. The best part of being gone so long was that I wasn't putting more responsibilities on others at Denver Post Online or YourHub. The Post did that by eliminating my job, so I left with a clear conscience.

I will detail the trip in blog posts over the next several days. The only hint I will give is this: It was as marvelous an experience as I could have scripted.

REASON NO. 2: I have been working on my novels. No, let me clarify. I have been working on one of my novels. I started my term of unwanted unemployment by diving into all four novels that are in the construction phase. I moved among three main characters and four story lines, but I abandoned that strategy. The reason? I felt I wasn't giving each novel the time and attention it required. Some novelists can juggle multiple creations; I learned I can't. My work on the single novel is proceeding nicely. I will give details once the project nears the finish line.

OK, enough blogging. Time to turn my attention to other things.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

I Don't Do Unemployment Well

It's been nearly a month since I had a job. That is my longest span without employment since I first stepped into a newspaper office just after graduation from college. The fact I am not grabbing my gear and heading into downtown Denver to do my job well isn't my greatest worry. It's that the job market looks bleak. I have been reviewed for two jobs I am more than qualified for, and the employers have bypassed me before  the interview stage.

You know that statement about anyone older than 45 facing considerable difficulty in finding work? I think I am seeing that up close and personal.

Not that I am sitting idle. I send out resumes and cover letters. I meet the requirement for unemployment benefits that I make five job contacts per week. I scan jobs lists from private companies and governmental bodies. I check Andrew Hudson's Jobs List for the Rocky Mountain region every day. There is an entity called Connecting Colorado that serves as a clearinghouse for unemployed workers and possible future employers. For the past few days, the website told me there are zero jobs that fit my skills. That didn't seem possible, so I scanned every available job from four counties (Douglas, Arapahoe, Denver, Jefferson). The lists included hundreds of available jobs. Not one of them was a natural fit for a veteran journalist with writing, editing, online, SEO, staff management skills.

I have one very good job possibility I filed for yesterday. It is a government job. My skill set is a good match. I would love to do that work because the department does work that is so rewarding. I wait for the results.

One issue I haven't faced is "what is my value now that I don't have a job?" Our jobs define us in many ways. It's a little like putting on a particular suit. People ask what we do for a living. To put it another way, they ask us what suit do we wear. I could tell them about my Denver Post suit, or Eugene Register-Guard suit, or Santa Rosa Press Democrat suit. The problem is that suits for journalistic entities have a big hole in the seat of the pants these days. The industry is wandering between business models, and neither has the power to pay all the bills. There has been a steady exodus of talented people from The Denver Post for more than seven years. That exodus is far from over.

But that isn't my concern anymore. It's the future that puzzles me. In the meantime, I have learned what defines me. It isn't a particular suit anymore.

I am a writer. I am working on three novels that are in different stages of development. I love the work, but there is no certainty of pay for those efforts. Still, I press on. I am a family man. I treasure my people. I love that I can be with my dad and celebrate his 97th birthday. I love it that my wife and I have more time together. Guess what? Our long friendship just keeps getting better. I love it that I talk to family members often. I am a loyal friend and worker. There has been nothing more positive for me than receiving a note from former co-workers that says they will gladly serve as a personal and professional reference for me.

My future? I wish I could predict it. This month without work? I am so over that.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I Lost My Job, and Other Irritations

I won't go in detail about the day, or the time. I was simply doing what I usually do on a Thursday morning. I did a round of social media (tweets and Facebook posts), and turned my attention to producing the electronic newsletter for the YourHub sections of The Denver Post. It was going to be an easy job. I already had every story link, headline, URL link for photos and wording for blurbs saved on a Notepad++ page, ready to paste into a template.

The job was easy. I was nearly done moving links to template when Kevin Dale, one of the powers in The Denver Post newsroom, called to me and asked if I could stop by his office for a chat. That was no problem, and I wasn't anticipating dire news. My job status had been jerked around quite a bit lately, and I expected that this might contain one more jerk on the chain.

Well, it did, but Kevin could have slammed my face into the wall and had less impact: Sorry to tell you, Chris, but we have to eliminate your job. When does this take effect? Immediately, he said. There was general chit-chat, and I shook Kevin's hand, and I walked back to my desk. I continued to take care of publishing the newsletter, and I sent out a couple of notes to notify fellow employees that I was out of the newspaper game, effective immediately. I triggered the newsletter, which went out to approximately 45,000 subscribers, at exactly 9:30 a.m. The newsletter was mistake-free, I believe, but I must confess that my final copy editing was a bit of a blur.

So what does one take away from one's desk when one is dismissed immediately? I have been a staff manager long enough to know the value of the directive, "document, document, document." I took the piles of notepad paper that had every electronic newsletter priority list I had done in the past 20 months. I took lists of EVERY social media posting I did for YourHub and/or Denver Post Online, and the exact time I posted. I took stacks of notes I prepared before each general staff meeting I led in those 20 months, listing major topics I discussed. I also took a folder on the one major personnel matter I had at YourHub, complete with all emails, lists of meeting dates, etc. If anyone wants to know what I did, why I did it and when I did it, I have facts and figures at my fingertips.

I also grabbed my coffee cup, and all the loose photos I kept on my desk in what I referred to as "my family shrine." They are photos of my wife Deb, my children, my grandchildren, and assorted nieces and nephews. I also grabbed the words to a song called "All That Remains" I had taped to the wall of my cubicle. It had been taped to the wall of whatever cubicle I called home at The Post for more than eight years. The song is by The Lost Dogs, and I suggest you do a Google search to find out why I put these lyrics there, and why the title above the lyrics reads: A Song for Deb.

I needed to drop off my work badge with Kevin Dale in the "leaving The Post" routine. He was in the 9:30 a.m. meeting of all the newsroom mucky-mucks. I simply walked into the big conference room, placed my work badge on the table, gave Kevin a soft punch in the shoulder, and said, "Thanks, dude."

I walked out with my backpack and my athletic bag slung over my shoulder. I didn't say a word. I walked to the elevators, punched the down button and left.

And that's how a journalism career that spanned several decades ended.

The ending was like journalism itself. No big emotional flurries like you see in movies. Just one man doing what he had to do, doing it as well as he could, and then walking away, feeling good that he could depart with his head held high and his integrity intact. A fellow coworker gave me a nice work evaluation when he learned I was RIF'd: Sorry to lose you, Chris. You've been a real pro. (Damn, those are good words to read.)

I will end this in the way old-school reporters ended their copy, because I am old-school all the way, and damned proud of it. Goodbye, journalism. It's been a helluva ride.

--30--

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fighter Still Remains

It's been awhile since I posted an entry. There have been several difficult weeks. I won't go into detail, but I will try to explain.

The movie Cinderella Man keeps showing up. The first time was when I got home from a work shift that went until the middle of the night, and I was able watch the final 15 minutes or so. I love the gritty, sentimental story of a man who took life's hard punches and kept coming back. It doesn't matter to me whether he won or not. The point is that he kept battling.

I was channel surfing this morning, and what was on? You guessed it. This time I watched the movie almost from the beginning, and there were so many scenes that weren't just good theater but life lessons that felt like a personal conversation. Sometimes life is tough. It hits you hard, and sometimes it kicks you directly in the crotch. But the point isn't that you've been kicked in the crotch, but what you do after that. James J. Braddock got back into the ring. He kept fighting. He never became one of the great boxing champions of all time, but he continued on with his character and integrity intact.

That is the definition of a champion.

Why this sudden reappearance of Cinderella Man in my life? Happenstance? A message that needs to be regarded? I don't know. I only know that the point is what I do after watching the movie twice.

I have dreams. I have goals, but there is a lot of clutter in parts of my life right now. It is time to clear out the clutter and move on. You see, those ideas of character and integrity are shining pillars to me. They are my anchors, along with family and faith. My God, family is such a blessing, a treasure. There also are all types of faith, and I reach to pull in as many of them as I can. It is a rich pursuit.

There is a companion piece to Cinderella Man. As I watched the movie, the lyrics to The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel kept coming to mind. I especially love the final verse:

 In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving."
But the fighter still remains.


Yes, it's a lot like that.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

"David and Goliath" Is a Masterful Game-Changer

I got absolutely hooked on Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath" and its focus on confronting problems. Part of it is Gladwell's style, which is so simple yet so thoroughly researched. More than that, though, is the forceful way in which he delivers major messages with such gentle force.

Here's some background: I led YourHub, the grassroots journalism arm of the The Denver Post, and I used "David and Goliath" as a focus for how we would confront our challenges. Gladwell's subtitle is "Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants." I find that very fitting for YourHub. We lost six employees to reduction-of-force moves within the past year or so. We still must handle a hefty list of tasks even with this smaller staff.

I think that qualifies us as a potential David, and I urged my employees to think about ways "to create David" and learn to conquer our giants. I made a daring move during my last staff meeting as the head of YourHub (I since have taken on new responsibilities within The Post newsroom). I gave my employees all the power to make suggested changes. I told them that everything from team meetings to approving page proofs for publication to whatever was in their hands, and they had the power to make things happen. I told them that this was the moment when they could lead in the most democratic manner they will probably ever have during their work careers. I know it's not standard managerial procedure, but I am sometimes a little daring.

I thought the radical idea might engender some radical ideas. I asked for feedback. When that feedback arrived, I realized my move was more of a litmus test for my employees. Some said the extra responsibility was somewhat difficult, but they took it in stride. Those comments were in line with "it was manageable" to "it is what it is." Some grumbled, sometimes with a lot of grumbling. The grumblers felt I had abandoned my leadership at a key time.

A chance like this comes along once in a lifetime for most employees. If I were on the receiving end of my offer, I would have grabbed it. So far I have heard one concrete idea: One employee suggested that we have one big team meeting with all five teams present rather than having five small meetings, which is the policy I inherited and retained. Maybe there were other ideas, but none were given to me. Maybe they were to my successor, but I don't know.

Anyway, back to "David and Goliath" and its impact. It challenges the reader to think differently. It isn't just a repeat of "think outside the box." It is more about constructing a new box. It is about seeing the challenges and constructing strategies that put the power for change in YOUR hands as a staff. But that's just the power of this book. It not only gets you thinking, but it entices you to make bold moves ... and then see where the chips fall.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: "Live by Night" by Dennis Lehane. The author hooked me with "Moonlight Mile," and add the fact this book won the Edgar last year (over "Gone Girl" and others) made this a must-read for me. I just started the book, but Lehane's opening of the first chapter is classic. Take the time to pick up the book (I had to wait for a long time before any copy showed up again at my Barnes and Noble store), or simply read the opening chapter online. Amazon provides links to first chapters on a number of books, as do most authors' websites.

So, off to write some in my second Daniel Pace novel and then enjoy the Oscars tonight. I will do a followup blog on the Academy Awards tomorrow.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Obscenity Is a Necessary Evil

I blogged about this earlier, but it bears repeating. Do I use obscenity liberally in my day-to-day speech? No. Do I consider obscenity objectionable? Most of the time, but it depends on the situation or context. If I hit my finger with a hammer, I will guarantee you that I will utter an obscenity. (So too will most, if not all, of the pastors I know.)

There is a key phrase I used, and it concerns the use of obscenity in the novels I write: It depends on the situation or context. Now, I have never had a character hit his or her finger with a hammer, so the use of an obscenity in that situation has been a non-issue. I do, however, have a detective who litters the literary landscape with f-bombs. My antagonist does, too, usually when he is frustrated by the way events are unfolding.

Why do I do that?

Because that is the way life is, and I want my characters to be lifelike and exist within lifelike situations. I don't think there are many places of work where you don't hear a few obscenities during the course of a normal day. I work in a newspaper newsroom, and, trust me, there are more than a few obscenities uttered every day. Many of those are uttered by people who have a great love for the English language. But newsrooms are populated by people who face intense deadlines daily, face situations that can be quite trying as far as subject matter they cover, and almost every journalist develops a hard shell because of the nature of their work. "Hell" and "damn" are the tamest words you will hear in a newsroom.

(I will include a quick aside here. That "comfort zone" with hearing obscenity in a newsroom can be tested. I worked with a photo editor who not only would have made a sailor blush but probably would have caused Satan to say, "Did I hear what I think I just heard?" The photo editor was a walking Merriam-Webster's of obscenity. The thing that was objectionable to me was that there was no context to the swearing. It was an almost constant barrage. References to coitus, scatology, parts of the human anatomy, disdain for the focus of certain religions, etc., were all part of the daily, minute-by-minute language used. It was overused, and it became tiresome and bothersome in a hurry.)

For every character in my novels who swears there is a counterbalance of someone who doesn't. Another lawman who works with the detective regards obscenity as objectionable, and he points that out to the detective. My antagonist is balanced by my protagonist (who has several major flaws in his nature, but use of profanity isn't one of them). I have a woman who uses a few obscenities, but there is nothing out of kilter in that. Some of the choicest obscenities I hear are from that gender that is rumored to be so nurturing by its very nature. Yeah, well, there is the ideal and there is the reality. So it goes.

My point is simple: People swear, it is a part of life. I will use that if it fits a character or situation. It doesn't constitute my endorsement of it. It doesn't mean I am comfortable with it. I also am not comfortable with murder, but I use murder in my novels. I am not comfortable with violence, but I use violence in my novels.

I write about life, with its high and low points. Obscenity is just part of that landscape.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Dennis Lehane Masters the Tough Detective Genre

George Pelecanos is a victim of poor timing. It isn't his fault. He's a good author, and his The Way Home is a decent novel. It's just that I started his novel after reading Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile. Sorry, but anyone writing in the detective/prison/mob boss area of literature is at a serious disadvantage when Lehane's work is involved.

Lehane writes well enough that some of his books have become movies -- Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island. A wise producer needs to grab Moonlight Mile. It has the natural hook because it is a sequel to Gone Baby Gone, with an older Amanda McCready again in extreme peril.

Part of Lehane's master's touch is the plot line. He has a 16-year-old Amanda, a series of American goons who enter the world of Kenzie and Gennaro (Lehane's protagonists in a detective series) and the Russian mob. Danger lurks throughout the novel, as expected. But Lehane separates his work from the lesser detective series through two things, dynamic dialogue and unusual and vivid characters.

Lehane's dialogue crackles. The exchanges are sharp but not in a forced way. There aren't a bunch of pop culture references thrown in to provide "authenticity." Kenzie and Gennaro talk like the married people they are. An exchange Kenzie has with a reporter is particularly entertaining. And, best of all, the dialogue between Kenzie and Amanda and Kenzie and Yefim, one of the Russian mob goons, is literary gold.

The development of Yefim's character particularly intrigues me. Yefim is a bad man in a Russian-mob way, which means he won't hesitate to do anything no matter the brutality involved, but Lehane injects his character with a vein of sinister charm. Yefim's statements often come across as a Russian trying to sound like a modern American guy. Here is a snippet of Kenzie-Yefim dialogue:

"I like the Sony, but Pavel swears by the JVC. You take two. You watch both with your wife and daughter, tell me which you like best. Hey?"

"Sure."

"You want PlayStation 3?"

"No, I'm good."

"iPod?"

"Got a couple, thanks."

"How about a Kindle, my friend?"

"Nah."

"You sure?'

"I'm sure."

He shook his head several times. "I can't give those (expletive) things away."

I held out my good hand. "Take care, Yefim."

He clapped both my shoulders hard and kissed me on both cheeks. He still smelled of ham and vinegar. He hugged me and pounded his fists on my back. Only then did he shake my hand.

"You, too, my good friend, you hump."

See what I mean? I am looking for a copy of Lehane's Live by Night but haven't found one yet on my journeys to Barnes and Noble. Maybe I will order it online, but it's next on my list of "want to read" novels. There is a good reason for that. The man is immensely talented.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie Trailers As Literature: American Hustle

I admire those who can put creative power into small spaces. I enjoy the great lyricist who can entice you with a few verses. I also enjoy the work of those who put together movie trailers. Granted, few movie trailers are great, but some rise above the crowd.

Take, for example, the official trailer for American Hustle.  It starts out with Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper looking at a Rembrandt that Bale says is a forgery. He asks the central question: Who is the real artist here, the painter or the forger? Then the trailer hooks me with the next phase: Led Zeppelin hammering out Good Times, Bad Times as clips from the movie are reeled out in rapid-fire fashion. As soon as that song hit, I knew I had to see the movie.

Why was that trailer successful? Two little things: It leads with a philosophical question that ties into the Abscam investigation that is at the center of the movie, and then it adds a song that says this is going to be a snappy experience for the movie fan. Simple, concise, edgy. (Just a warning: Good Times, Bad Times isn't in the movie, which was a minor letdown.)

The lesson here for writers is to achieve the same thing in each chapter, or in each section of a chapter. Each little section can be its own little movie trailer. Hook together enough of those "trailers" and you have a pretty darned good novel. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Am Writing New Material In My Second Novel!!!

I woke up in the middle of the night and had one thought banging against my brain. It was relentless, and I knew it was the right thought to have. It said this: "It's time to write new parts of a novel." So, I got up, pulled out my flash drive with the second Daniel Pace novel on it, and I started to work.

Writing new material didn't happen. (OK, my above title is a lie. So, sue me.) I needed to reacquaint myself with the parts of the novel I already started. I got fairly deep into this second creation, but I put it aside for more than six months. That was because my first novel in the series needed to be revised. Those revisions took three forms: revisions I know I had to make; a learning experience at Don Maass' week-long writing workshop in Virginia Beach, Va.; and more revisions on what I learned from Don and his team. Those revisions mean going over and over material with which I am intimately familiar. It's vital, but it isn't the most fulfilling work.

Diving into the second novel again has a certain cleansing quality. There is nothing more I enjoy in the literary process than creating new situations and putting my main characters through a little bit of personal hell. Revisions are simply sprucing up old friends. Creating new material is liberating all those thoughts I suppressed. My brain says this: Run free, my darlings! Cause chaos! Find love!

I also enjoy the new novel because it takes a different slant than the first one. Yes, Pace faces peril. Every thriller writer needs to put his main character through that, but the type of peril he faces is a world away from that in the first novel. It has a delicious element to it. I also know what the third novel in the series will be about, but I will need to explore various areas of science to be prepared for actual writing. I will promise this: It will be a harrowing experience. Poor Daniel. I do miss up his life terribly.

I am sure I will have another middle-of-the-night epiphany, and I will walk downstairs, fire up the computer, and drag Danny through more misery. I couldn't be happier to do it.

Ain't the writer's life fun?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Death of the Oxford Comma? Of Course

I read with glee (in some cases) and angst (in others) as the world of teachers, writers and common people weighed in on the apparent loss of the Oxford comma. The death of the comma turned out to be in error; it was just the Oxford public relations department that was dropping the comma, not the university as a whole. The fire storm that started because of the rumored demise amused me. When I first saw the news, I had only one thought.

What took Oxford so long?

I am a man raised in journalism. Journalists rely on Associated Press style, which regards the Oxford comma as an unnecessary intruder. It should be written like this, "The American flag is red, white and blue," and not this, "The American flag is red, white, and blue." The Oxford comma died a quiet death in my world during my middle years in college. I first displayed this lack of respect for the Oxford dictates while writing a short piece of fiction for an upper-level English class. The instructor noted my "error," and I countered by saying that there was no such error because I was being trained as a journalist, and newspaper folks didn't think much of the Oxford comma. He said he would take my journalism training into account, but he added (quite gently) that the comma has a justifiable purpose even if the AP doesn't agree.

My biggest laugh in this debate came a couple of years ago when I was reading the blog of a young literary agent in New York City. She defended the Oxford comma with the passion with which a mother would defend one of her children. It must be retained for the love of the language, she wrote. She was adamant about that. What caused me to laugh was that she felt it necessary to drop an f-bomb into her writing. I had to wonder, what hurts the English language more, the absence of a comma or the younger generation's overuse of the f-word as noun, verb, adjective and adverb? I argue that the f-bomb is more abusive, unless, of course, you are in the throes of passion and find it convenient to utter the word into your partner's ear, or creating a particular character who injects that term into everyday usage (which I do in my novels).

Now, I try to ignore the AP influences in my manuscripts and insert the Oxford comma. I am sure I am probably 50/50 in using "proper English." Those journalist's ways are so entrenched that they go on auto pilot. I am not a lazy editor. I believe spelling, grammar and syntax are vital and must be defended. I am just not going feel as if I have committed a faux pas if I omit an Oxford comma here or there. So there. Deal with it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

My first cinema crush: Julie Christie

I was young, caught up in the swirl of emotions that go with entering adolescence. I loved going to the movies, and Doctor Zhivago was the movie of the year. I wanted to be swept away by the sprawling story of Russia in the period of revolution. I ended up being swept away by more than that.

I fell in love with Julie Christie, in only a cinematic sense, of course.

I was enamored. Her beauty was overwhelming. Her skin was flawless. Her hair was spun gold. And there were those eyes. Director David Lean knew the power of those eyes, and he had several shots where Lara (Christie's character) was seen in partial shadow, with those eyes highlighted. Ah, what beautiful moments.

What young man wouldn't fall for a woman as beautiful as that? The first crush is always memorable. But what is more remarkable is that I found a love from a beautiful woman that is far beyond anything to be gleaned from the screen. Julie Christie might have been a dream woman, but she was only a dream. I found something far better, and far more long-lasting.

And isn't that the most beautiful thing of all.