Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Writing's Long Tail

When you've written for a number of years, you tend to accumulate more than your share of stuff. Naturally, that includes mountains of files, notes, tapes and the other detritus of the reporting journey. If you're smart, you'll somehow save most of it, because there's occasionally reusable material in there--facts, memorable quotes, contacts or whatever. But if you want to stay sane, or remain married, you learn to file it away, safely out of reach, in a format that allows you to quickly put your hands on it when you need to.

But perhaps the most interesting thing you accumulate from the work is an ongoing close interest in how all the people and institutions you've written about are doing, even long after you entered (and then sometimes left) their life for the hour, day, week or months it might have taken to get their story. Happily, some of these human subjects become friends or continuing acquaintances. Many seem to be on the fence just a little, not sure how they should feel around someone who's shared their story with an audience and perhaps knows more about their life than they're comfortable with. They might have liked most of the piece, but there's perhaps that one fact, sentence or observation that still causes them to wince even after several years, and makes it hard for them to feel fondly toward its author. There are even a couple of folks, just two that I can think of, who can't look me in the eye to this day, no doubt so uncomfortable about the portrait of themselves that emerged that it still causes them pain. I nevertheless try my best to at least make eye contact and nod when I see them, or even shake their hands if they'll allow it, hoping to send the message that while they may not have liked the portrait of themselves that I produced, I nevertheless stand by it as an honest take, though admittedly my own imperfect, subjective take, however much it might have been supported by research.

Anyway, I watched with special interest a couple weeks ago as Bill Ford, Jr., stepped away from running the company his great-grandfather founded, essentially firing himself as the CEO (though he retained the chairmanship). Two years ago, I spent several weeks profiling Ford and his company, interviewing him by email but talking to many others directly. The
piece, reported in the fall of '04 and written just after the first of the year in '05, wasn't published until April '05, when the magazine in which it appeared debuted in Detroit. The article explored how he inherited the management reins of a dysfunctional company, perhaps a decade before he may have been ready, in hopes he might protect the extended family's fortunes. It also talked about the pressure he felt from Wall Street and the conservative right about his aggressive environmentalism, which he subsequently moderated. I wrote: "As the tight economy forces Ford to cut costs by as much as a half-billion dollars, the CEO hopes innovation, rather than lopping off heads, can do the job." Unfortunately, it turned out that innovation wasn't going to work, at least not fast enough, and so the company is going to lop off thousands of additional heads. It's a stunning tale of how quickly corporate fortunes can turn, especially in the perenially distressed American auto industry, and how severe the challenges of American de-industrialization really are.

Tomorrow I'll post another old article from my files that came jarringly to mind recently, with the death of the internationally renowned artist and CSU professor Masumi Hayashi, whom I met and wrote about a dozen years ago. Chillingly enough, the piece was about the then-newly rehabbed artists' loft condos into which she was moving. It was the very building in which she was murdered.


At 8:41 PM, Blogger Daniella said...

A CEO sans pareille, probably did not want to compromise anymore his values or be the ax man, I give him a lot of credit for what he did accomplished.
Thanks for sharing, I learned somethings I did not know.

At 10:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's a good point, Daniella, that he may have stepped down because he didn't have the heart to make these cuts himself. I never considered that, but now that you mention it, that might well be a large part of his reason. He was also getting pressure from Wall Street, but since his family controls something like 40% of the voting shares of Ford (while owning just a tiny percentage of the actual shares), he has far more insulation from that pressure than most CEOs.


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