Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Year In Review (for 2005):

Our Year-End Salute To Some Remarkable People & Other Stuff
So We're A Year Late--We'd Rather Be Timeless Than Timely

Below is something I wrote at year end last year but never published/posted. Why? I kept tinkering with it, changing it, adding and subtracting to it. I kept seeing holes, things I wanted to add, others I wanted to rethink. And on and on it went. Anyway, we thought it might be fun to bring you now, a full year late. Some of the things I've mentioned here have changed a little in the year since I wrote them, and where that happened, I've pointed it out in an editor's note. So away we go:

Our Favorite Book of the Year:
(a four-way tie)

We've already mentioned, via brief excerpt (here) historian Ron Chernow's masterful biography of John D. Rockefeller, which we consider simply the finest book ever written about this region's history. It wasn't published this year, but '05 is when we read it, so here it belongs.

We haven't, however, mentioned three other astounding books, none of which is tied to this area:

Lincoln's Melancholy, a luminous study of the moods and madness that drove our 16th president. A stunningly well-executed book, from a guy (Joshua Wolf Schenk) who's neither academic historian nor a specialist on Lincoln. He pulls it off so well that it can only be considered a major victory for that hardiest of hold-out souls: the writerly generalist.

E=mc2--A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation. The book just flat out blew me away. It's a splendid example of an impossibly learned specialist (an Oxford physics don, no less) writing wonderfully for a general audience, which gives the lie to so many who say they can't translate complicated stuff into layman's English (the real reason is they can't write well). I especially love how the idea first occurred to the author. He writes in the introduction that while he was once watching an otherwise forgettable entertainment show on TV, the interviewer asked actress Cameron Diaz what was the one question she'd most like answered. "I'd like to know the meaning of E=mc2," she said. He took his marching orders, and turned it into a memorable book. God bless him.

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why it Just Might. Besides some brilliant hands-on advice from a been-there/done-it book editor, written in a sardonic wise-guy-with-tender-heart-delivering-tough-love style, it also happens to be the catchiest book title of the year, I think. I'll excerpt from these final three books in coming weeks. If I forget, you'll remind me, please...

Our Favorite Regional Book

Creative Essence--Cleveland's Sense of Place. It began as a series of lectures by longtime poet and arts advocate Nina Gibans. And this year, the singularly energetic Kent State University Press helped turn it all into a fabulous book, which I reviewed favorably in the pages of Northern Ohio Live a few months ago (alas, not online). There's also a brief Q&A with the author in the current Cleveland Magazine (they're always a bit late). Anyway, I recommend it highly. It happens to be the only comprehensive history I know about of this region's art and its artists. Please give it a look, will you?

Cleveland in Prose and Poetry. A wonderful new anthology gathered by the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland, and edited by the able Bonnie Jacobsen. This would make a great gift for anyone, anytime.

Our Favorite Writerly Migration

That would have to be one Steve Coll, an industrious middle-aged guy who was beginning to carve a status as a minor (though growing) legend at the Washington Post, where as managing editor he was odds-on-favorite to rise to the top job when Lakewood native Len Downie retires (soon). Earlier this year, after publishing a well-received book on Iraq, he chucked it all and went back to his first love, writing. But don't feel too bad for him, since he accepted a slot at the New Yorker, where his editor will be the former WaPo reporter David Remnick. Sure enough, he hit a home run in his first piece, in the Dec. 12th issue, a sterling mid-length piece on fugitive Osama Bin Laden's formative years in school. The piece (not online) includes a story about Osama's son's p.r. shop. We'd call it surreal.

Our Favorite New Local Blog Voice

This was a tough one, because there have been so many wonderful new writerly voices added to the regional blog environment. But in the end, we gave the nod to Tina Vance's Distracted Mind, a sometimes angry but always thoughtful and insightful writer. The fact that she's of tender years--mid-20s, I believe, and is the mother of a small child, makes her all the more interesting.

Our Favorite New Cause-Related Blog

The nod goes to my friend Marc Majercak's Leading Hands blog. Technically a group effort (though Marc is certainly the founder and main engine), this site is refreshing in how it tackles its subjects in a new way. I think we've all had it by now, in about Year 4 (or is it really 3 or 5 or 6?) with all those hundreds of me-too blogs. This one takes a fresh look at new subjects. And the design's pretty nice too (editor's note: this blog has since been discontinued, but there's an archive of sorts here). Marc has been a regular on the circuit for some years. A tech guru who spent some time at Progressive Insurance, he's now at an offshoot, But you can also catch him digitally DJing at various events (including the Web Association holiday party), armed with nothing but his Ipod. You'll not find a cooler guy in all of Northeast Ohio, nor one with more passion.

Our Favorite Re-Energized 'Local' Blog Voice

The quote marks around local are because Christine technically lives in New Jersey. But her heart continues to focus on NEOhio. And I'd say in the last year, this gen-next librarian has found her voice. The lady is a writer, and a splendid one. Check her out when you can.

Our Favorite 'Newish' Print Voice

Michael Gill of the Free Times, for his ability to dig deeply, write beautifully and for his astonishing range of subjects. Mike, a frustrated poet, has found his calling with prose poetry in the form of luminous weekly journalism. Like far too few practicing the craft here, he gets Cleveland's soul. I was going to point you to some of his leading gems, but found it impossible to decide which half dozen I liked best. So just keep an eye out for that byline, and sample his earlier greatest hits by either googling him or checking the FT archives and reading away as you have time, will you?

Our Best Corporate Use of Blogs

Okay, so our parameters for this aren’t global, nor even national. We’ve narrowed our search to this region. For 2005, the award goes to Ideastar, the highly entrepreneurial web developer based in Garfield Heights. The company’s founder and still its leader, Jim Fisher, was a journalism student at Kent State University, and that background certainly shows in much of the company’s work. There are an abundance of blogs connected with this company. Fisher has one himself, as does VP Mike Wise and Suzanne the search specialist. But the company’s overall blog may be the best of the bunch. It’s full of interesting photos, lively news and commentary (including news of Ideastar’s recent Weatherhead 100 honors) and just plain makes the company sound like one anyone would want to work with or for. In other words, this is a company that has figured out how to inject its blog with personality. Hats off to Ideastar and Jim Fisher. Please, dear readers, add your thoughts about your favorite regional corporate or organizational blog(s). If we get enough good ideas via your comments, perhaps we’ll even rethink this award. Or more likely, we’ll add to it.

Most Potentially Interesting Industry Convergence

Northeast Ohio Communications Affiliates (here). The region's entire advertising, p.r., journalism, printing and communications industry is slowly coming together to explore how they might modestly collaborate in ways that make sense for all of them. In other words, to explore where they have some shared interests. The conversations are sketchy, but thus far quite interesting. Do stay tuned...(this one, I'm sad to say, hasn't really gone anywhere too interesting yet, as evidenced by its website since being restricted. But we'll keep hoping).

Most Touching Thing I Heard at a Writers' Conference

One shy, retiring 60ish woman, who drove all the way from Dayton to attend a Cleveland-area seminar, when asked why she refused to call herself a writer for the longest time, even after breaking into newspaper column-writing as a largely self-taught novice: "I figured if I used the word, I might jinx myself." She still emails her delightfully folksy columns to me regularly. If you're interested in being added to that distribution list, let me know.

Most Mind-Expanding Experience at a Writers' Conference

Listening to local folk singer Anne DeChant beautifully expound on how writing song lyrics isn't too different from writing good prose. While her presence on the program confused some initially (a songwriter talking to a bunch of prose writers?), she quickly left everyone wowed with her soulful insights and hard-bitten wisdom about the creative process and the urge to express oneself. Those subjects, you see, are full of ideas and habits of mind that apply universally across every possible creative boundary.

Our Favorite Digital Archiving Project
Nuff said about that. It includes a range of goodies, and it's growing all the time. But among our sentimental favorites on the site are the Roldo archive and the holdings dedicated to the late Cleveland Press. Just make sure you have a fast connection and lots of time when you visit, because one can get lost browsing in there for hours (editor's note: I subsequently wrote about the Press here).

Most Innovative New Media Project (editor's note: I subsequently wrote about it here).

But look for this cool digital project this year: One Cleveland's Lev Gonick is setting up a wiki to help the editors of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History reach out to the general public for ideas about possible entries as they prepare yet another update of this singularly useful volume (note to myself, check in on how that's progressing).

Most Consistently Brilliant Columnist

An easy call, really: Vanity Fair's James Woolcott. Besides starting a blog this year, with the help of his then-Newhouse empire colleague Jeff Jarvis, he also become, I think, the de facto lead columnist for VF. That's because Chris Hitchens seems to have short-circuited some mental wiring as he transforms himself from Trotskyite to right-winger. We can only hope that's temporary. But meanwhile, it gives Woolcott a chance to shine all the brighter. Do read him--he's one of those rare pens who seems constitutionally unable to write a dull sentence. As a chronicler of the foibles and outrages during this era of the Bush imperium, he's simply a man without peers.

Most Satisfying Foiling of Rovian Skullduggery

The sacking of the White House plant who absurdly chaired the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for a time, at least until the agency's Inspector General (praise Allah for these bastions of independence, a remnant of post-Watergate reforms) blew the whistle on him. Ken Tomlinson was a pathetic neanderthal right winger. Special award goes to NPR's brilliant David Folfenflick for filleting this fat phony with a series of unflinching reports that could easily have cost him and his colleagues plenty. All in all, a proud moment for the quality media this year.

Dumbest Media Replacement

CNN's pathetic decision to replace the always-interesting, sometimes-headscratch-inducing anchor, Aaron Brown. His replacement, the pouting, smoldering Anderson Cooper (aargh). Note to CNN: Sorry, but the full-page ads in the New York Times, depicting Anderson fervently scribbling notes in a reporter's pad, fool no one. Save your money in the Promoting Faux-Reporters column of the budget and instead channel it to some real reporting.

Most Innovative Media Person
Nick Denton
Henry Copeland

Freshest, Most Innovative Thinker/Writer on New Media
John Battelle
Jay Rosen

Most Hopeful New Media Pulpit

Dan Gillmor's bi-coastal quasi-academic Center for Citizen Media.

Most Innovative Academic
Sandy Piderit (here)

Most Innovative Teacher
Mary Beth Matthews (here)

Mentors Who Keep Getting Better With Wisdom & Experience
Roldo Bartimole
Bill Zinsser

Best Use of Pink
Daniella's impossibly charming blog (editor's note: alas, Daniella decided to mothball her blog earlier this year. But we choose to look on the bright side: at least she's kept her earlier work right there where we can see and re-enjoy it).

Our Favorite New Print Pub of the Year

Alas, it's an empty category this year. We're still mourning the loss of Urban Dialect, the smart and sassy brainchild of Daniel Gray-Kontar and Clarence Meriweather and their fellow former Free Times renegades. Better luck next year...

Sorry to briefly break the upbeat new year's momentum, but we feel duty-bound to briefly bring you this momentary departure into a trio of Worst of Awards:

Worst Site Redesign It may have been done (or so I surmise) to try to hide the fact that far less fresh features are running than in the past, but whatever the reason, it's simply dreadful, a complete turnoff. The superior, timely writing (kind of) keeps me going back, but does the thing have to be so damn butt-ugly? It wouldn't be so bad if the site didn't look wonderful in its last iteration.

Worst Area Restaurant Menu 'Upgrade'

Great Lakes Brewery, which in mid-year got a new upmarket makeover, with higher prices and a new chef. But what stung me like a blizzard was the untimely demise of my favorite, even revered, dish: the legendary (to me, at least) bratwurst & pierogies platter. I noticed about a $5 increase, nearly a 50% rise, and still I was prepared to pay it, since it was so good. But when I saw what came out, I freaked: far less food, done up in silly frou-frou fashion, for far higher price. In the only personal example this year of hostility to a service person (I promise) I momentarily lashed out at my waitress. "You'd sure better hope I'm not a restaurant reviewer!" I said (I know, pathetic). When she sicced the manager on me to make nice, I was still steaming, promising to tell 200 of my best friends not to come there anymore (weenie that I am, I didn't follow through, at least till now). Please, GLB, if you're reading this, bring it the hell back...

Worst Experience With a Bank

National City's abject failure to get with the times and service a new generation of auto purchase. It happened like this: We bought a slightly used minivan in mid year, from a pleasant middle-aged hippy couple in Cleveland Heights, via a free ad in Craigslist. So far, so good. The price was great, our parish credit union cheerfully drew up all the paperwork and okayed the loan, sending it along to National City for processing. And there it waited and waited and waited, and then waited some more. After a dozen calls to a branch manager there, who , referring it to it by some telling bank lingo (she called it a "casual sale") we finally got things approved, though only after we had to threaten to go to the Better Business Bureau (we had to pay insurance all the time on a car we couldn't drive). Because of that frustrating merry go-round, I got a special satisfaction out of this journalistic evisceration of the bank, by Scene editor Pete Kotz, published at about the same time we were also knocking heads with these dummies.

Okay, back to the bright and cheery side of life...

Our Favorite Article About Blogging.

Ah, there have been so many this year. But this masterful Washington Post Sunday Mag piece on two women who blog from opposite ends of the political spectrum is the cream that rises to the top. Here's a link to my earlier entry about the piece).

Our Favorite Example of Digital Media Convergence
Kent State University's School of Journalism. On a trip there in the fall, I learned from the students that the radio station is working with the student newspaper to deliver podcasts, and that the student TV station will soon be sharing a newsroom with the newspaper. Beyond that, there's a larger and even more exciting overarching initiative, called The Franklin Hall Project, which will house all student media together. Even if adults and their various media institutions are warring over assorted turf battles, student journalists seem to instinctively understand that they all have much more in common than not. A round of applause for them all.

And finally...
Our Working With Words Person of the Year

We think we'll keep this one open, at least for now, while our readers inundate us with their own ideas. Here's our criteria: the person who has done the most of anyone in 2005 to make Northeast Ohio a smart, literate, interesting place to be, a place that encourages learning, growth, innovation and reasoned debate. A place in which it feels comfortable to live, learn, love and get on with one's life work. It certainly wouldn't hurt if they've demonstrated a superior grasp of the native language, but that's not a must. Get your comments in by January 10th, and the winning recommendation will nab a complimentary copy of Creative Essence. Perhaps we'll also convene either a lunch or a modest cocktail party in honor of our person of the year, whichever they prefer (though we just might wait a full year, in a nod to our preference for timelessness over timeliness).


At 11:49 AM, Blogger Chris McVetta said...


In MY screenplay, you would have told the waitress at GLBC:


And ...scene!

Happy New Year from The Outer Edge!

At 12:04 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You too, Chris. Here's hoping we finally get to meet in the new year. As for the restaurant exchange, well, just reference that previous notion of Fran L's., about the limits of writerly fame.

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts! I have to say, I love Anderson Cooper, however.

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Jim Fisher said...


Great job and thanks for the mention.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim, you guys certainly earned the mention the old fashioned way, with imagination and skill. I know you'll (individually and collectively) top yourself in 2007. Have a happy new year.

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Kelly Boyer Sagert said...

Oh, my . . . so much more that I need to read! Thanks for this terrific and thought provoking list.

At 3:35 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Sorry to saddle you with so much, Kelly. This really was way too much. But then, it was an entire year's worth of accumulated stuff. A very happy new year to you. Hope to see you in New York in the spring for ASJA.

At 7:45 AM, Blogger Kelly Boyer Sagert said...

Happy New Year to you, as well . . .

At 9:06 PM, Blogger writelife said...

Cheers, John! The writerly Letterman list -- wonderful! And as for GLB, I couldn't find the pork loin salad on the menu. (That was ultimately OK, as I sucked down another beer and figured it was better to go fried -- as in Walleye Bites -- instead. Those are still tops.) Happy New Year!

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

Happy new year to you too, Kristen. I'm digging that new photo you have up, too. Very glam for the new year.

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Happy New Year...where and how can I find out more about the consortium to bring together the PR/communications/marketing/and etc. people of NE Ohio - just the medicine the doctor called for...perhaps I can help? The link you presented goes nowhere (at least for me...) please inform?
See you soon!


At 6:46 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Hi Rita, and happy new year to you too. I'll drop you an email with information and the main contact person for this initiative.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger Leading Hands said...

Hi John,

Nice job! Thanks for the mention. Leading Hands is actually back up after short updates.

Marc Majers

At 10:53 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's great news, Marc. Thanks for checking in.


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