Wednesday, April 30, 2003

A Little of This, A Little of That

"My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see."
--Novelist Joseph Conrad

In the crush of events--war, work, community projects & kids--I've neglected to recognize a couple, hell, a bunch, of important things of late. But to make up a little ground, I'll mention just three here now. And they go like this, in no special order:'s latest near-death experience, the ever-diligent Robert Caro's Pulitzer prize and intellectual-gangster-parading-as-Supreme-Court-Judge Antonin Scalia's recent appearance at John Carroll.
If you care about web publishing, you can't help but root for Salon, which was first out of the box with web-only journalism. Internet-fearing folk have been forever waiting by its death bed, ready to pounce in full gloat when it dies, hoping to prove that the web, alas, doesn't really work after all. But the site always manages to confound these Flintstones, by snatching an 11th hour reprieve from some deep-pocketed Californian or other with lib politics who also has a vested interest in proving otherwise about the web (interestingly, Adobe, whose founder is a former JCU faculty member, was an original keystone investor). The site, edited by the admittedly tiresome Bay Area knee-jerk-leftie David Talbott, has now racked up more than $80 million in accumulated deficits as it continues to search for some combination of models that will allow it to break even without these periodic half-million-dollar bailouts from its moneyed fans. As a one-time $35-a-year subscriber (who continues the daily habit for free, via daily one-day-pass sign-ups) myself, I wish it well. Over the years, it has published work from at least four fine Cleveland-connected writers, CWRU J-prof Ted Gup, whose two best Salon pieces may be here and here, the then-little-known Jimi Izrael (who wrote a smart take on Jesse Jackson and has since been appearing locally in Urban Dialect and Scene) and Kristin Ohlson, an old Cleveland Edition fellow traveler who wrote a heart-wrenching memoir of her son, and whose first book, Stalking the Divine, is awaited with delicious anticipation by anyone who reads this Salon piece. Plus, Salon carried a great eyewitness account of the 2000 Florida election stand-off (which I can't seem to find in the archives) by former Clevelander Mark Winegardner, who now heads the writing program at Florida State.
Alas, Gup looks as if he's following the Winegardner example, using Cleveland as a brief academic stop-off before going on to bigger and better elsewhere. He's leaving on a two-year sabattical, but don't be surprised if he never returns. Some people--well, lots of people to be truthful--found him aloof and insufferable--but by all reports the one-time Bob Woodward protege did well by his students at CWRU, where he brought the first-ever serious journalism education component to the long-time engineering-centric school.
As for Caro and his second Pulitzer (he won his first way back in the '70s for his monumental study of New York's development czar Robert Moses, The Power Broker, still probably the best book ever written about how things really work in large American cities), it's simply a recognition of his doggedness in chasing down the life and times of Lyndon Johnson through three thick installments (with a fourth and final book now underway). Caro is clearly an acquired taste. Not everyone wants to plow through these huge LBJ books. Bets are now on that the author won't live long enough to finish the last in the series. His three books on Johnson's pre-Presidential career have now actually taken longer to research and write than Johnson took to live them!
But the most interesting detail of all was buried in a Washington Post report on the prizes. Caro, just back from a research trip to the Johnson library in Texas, where he had gained access to a never-before-seen cache of LBJ documents, was just as excited about his find as by his latest recognition. "Yesterday Caro was so excited--about the fresh Johnson papers as much as the prize--he could hardly talk. 'These are documents that nobody has ever seen before!' the account went. After more than 20 years investigating a life, this guy still gets excited about discovering yet more new details. Simply unbelievable.
Finally, the loathsome Scalia, who came to JCU no doubt through old ties to his former law firm Jones, Day (which has done what you might call some "special ops" legal work for the university over the years, making various potential controversies go quietly into the night). Anyway, the Justice's refusal to allow media coverage of both his JCU and City Club addresses turned into a predictable one-day national uproar, especially since P.D. editor Doug Clifton had just been selected as Editor & Publisher's editor of the year even as he chairs the national editor's group on freedom of information. But lost in that smaller (merely cause it's ever-recurring) controversy was a larger, more important one: the impossibly constricted view of the Constitution that this powerful man publicly espoused. And leave it to trusty Nat Henthoff, simply the best and most dogged writer on the subject of freedom of expression, to pick up on it and make it a central point. Henthoff began his recent account in the Village Voice thusly: "On March 18, the Associated Press reported that at John Carroll University, in a Cleveland suburb, Justice Antonin Scalia said that 'most of the rights you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires' because 'the Constitution just sets minimums.'" He goes on to call it an "ominous speech," for which there was no actual text available, at least not one Scalia's folks were going to share. Perhaps, like the mob, Scalia wants to leave no physical evidence behind of his creative reworking of the Constitution.
Oh, well: at least JCU made the national news. Maybe next time it will be for a positive development...

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Get Your Nominations In

Best line encountered recently:

"He is a fine man who smiles at you with his whole face..."
--Mary Bradley Marable, a Cleveland actress who appeared in the movie Antoine Fisher, speaking about director and co-star Denzel Washington, as quoted in the spring newsletter of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese's Office of Ministry to African American Catholics.

If you ever tire of the whole coordinated Cleveland establishment and their coordinated, lowest-common-denominator decisions about the best this and the best that, please remember that there really is an alternative world of other groups with fresher ideas. Take Community Shares, for instance. Once ignored as a band of aging Heights social-venture hippies not so long ago, it has since become institutionalized as a real alternative to United Way. And it raises hundreds of thousands for causes in this town that the big daddy and its CEO volunteers find a little too controversial.
Anyway, to the point: Shares hosts an annual round of awards for social justice, and one that especially interests me is their award for social justice reporting. A contradiction in terms in these days of ever-safer local media you say? Well, almost. A couple of recent winners, the PD's Mike O'Malley in 2000 and Roldo Bartimole in 2001, were no-brainers. Roldo's merely been doing it for over 30 years, and soulful Michael O (whom I got to know and respect when I did some work for him at United Press International in the late '80s) is easily the conscience of the paper's beat reporters.
With that as background, Shares is looking for nominations for this year's award. But you'll need to get to it fast. Nominations are due by this Friday, May 2. Go to this page, fill out the nomination form, and get your voice heard.
My nominee for this year: Charlise Lyles. You probably haven't heard of her, but you should. She's the editor of an excellent foundation-funded magazine, Catalyst for Cleveland Schools, that covers the Cleveland schools in a knowing, aggressive manner, with just enough advocacy but plenty of independence too. It's a sister publication of an organization in Chicago that for over 30 years has been publishing a fearless, peerless voice known as The Chicago Reporter (tagline: Investigating Race and Poverty in Chicago Since 1972).
When it came to Cleveland in 1999, Charlise was tapped to edit. She proved an immediate success, even though her publication is far too little-known outside of the public schools and foundation circles. Then, about a year ago, while wandering through the local history section of the wonderfully shabby W. 25 St. Bookstore, I found out why her voice resonated so deeply on this subject. I came upon a memoir she wrote about her climb from the Cleveland housing projects to her later success as a journalist. Her moving book is called Do I Dare Disturb the Universe: From the Projects to Prep School. It's available on Amazon for $10, and I'm going to make it a personal goal to get this book stocked in a few other local independent bookstores, starting with the best of them all, Suzanne's Mac's Backs on Coventry. Perhaps we can even coax the far-too-modest Charlise to talk about her work, life and publication in some future event(s).

Monday, April 28, 2003

It's Back

Even before it makes its re-debut in print, the Free Times website and, crucially, its archives, have now been restored to their proper place. You'll recall, perhaps, that the site and all the stories collected there vanished (via a redirect to the Scene website) just moments after the big bad New Times swept in as the acquirer, in that now-infamous restraint-of-trade deal that smelled so bad that even the ordinarily nose-plugged Ashcroft Justice Department recognized something was wrong. Among some folks who follow these kinds of things, the erasure of the database of previous stories was even more outrageous than the closing of the print paper.
You won't find the entire 10 years worth of stories on the restored site. The F.T. redesigned its site in 1999, and never did manage to migrate its archives from 1992 till that point onto the current database (a future project for a team of interns?). Still, you'll find plenty worth grazing for. A search for Roldo yields 231 entries (although there are plenty of duplications) and Eric Broder (click All Titles, and look for The Great Indoors) lovers will find almost as many entries for their boy. Amy Sparks fans will need to be a little more creative to find her stuff. (Try to enter just Sparks in the search box).
But for fans of the writer's writer John Hyduk, thought by some to be among the very best scribblers still working in Cleveland, the restored database is a godsend. If you never managed to save the paper version of some of his greatest hits, you can fire up the PC and revel again in his May 2001 cover story on writer Scott Raab or his '99 story, 24 Hours in the Justice Center.
We'll see how the restored print pub looks soon.
In the meantime, I've written an ode to the F.T.'s forerunner, the Cleveland Edition, for the May issue of Northern Ohio Live. Among other things, it's a long-overdue homage to my friend and mentor, Bill Gunlocke. Alas, NOL is another pub that doesn't put much of itself on the web...

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The John Carroll "Mafia"

Our blogging friend Steve Goldberg, noting the startling collection of John Carroll-affiliated folk who seem to be everywhere throughout Northeast Ohio's web, business, entrepreneurial and related circles, recently referred to this cohort as "the John Carroll Mafia." And a mafia it is, in all the best senses of that term: a densely connected, loving extended network--a family, really--of people who look out for each other and do business with one another and stay in touch with and learn from each other for life.
And so I was especially pleased to notice late last week that our alma mater finally has a handsome new home page on the web. It's just graphically appealing enough to catch the eye, and it's nicely organized to channel visitors into one of four funnels: prospective students, current students, alumni & friends and the ever-present FSA (faculty, staff and administration).
Those of us who have an interest in these things could regale you with stories we've heard throughout the years about various stop-and-start efforts to improve the school's web presence, at least bringing it up to the 20th century before we worry about the 21st. More contractors, would-be contractors than you can shake a stick at have pitched the work, done some of it, and gotten nowhere. Now, finally, we seem to have broken through this seemingly never-ending logjam and into some meaningful web presence. It ought to only improve from here.
One small problem, though: I still can't seem to find anywhere on the site a link to the university's quarterly magazine, and the antiquated search engine (hope they're working on that, too) doesn't help either. I admit to a special bias here: I once edited the mag, and though I left my baby to other hands almost exactly 10 years ago, I continue to think of it as almost my own.
And there's more pleasing symmetry here: I've now written my first major piece for the mag since I edited it, and it's just come out this week--a long (one would hope not dull) piece on what I would consider a real revolution for JCU: the John Carroll Collaboration with Industry, ushered in (in part) by the new Dolan Center due to open this fall, but also pushed through vociferous faculty opposition by some courageous, visionary administration types who insist that universities in 2003 simply must meaningfully connect with their regions and economies if they're to have any hope of remaining relevant, let alone intellectually vital. And "tenured radicals" (to steal a nice line) stuck in a '60s time warp, oblivious to frivolous things like job markets facing their students, will simply have to get used to that.
What will be going on in that building, which should especially please our friend Jack Richiutto (author of the brilliant book "Collaborative Creativity"), is some really radical, provocative collaboration of the type that everyone should have had access to as a college student.
And finally, I feel really doubly blessed this week to be luckily positioned at the intersection of all of these exciting collaborations between business and academia in the region. I also have a piece just published in the new Cleveland Enterprise Magazine about the amazing scope of executive education going on at the CWRU Weatherhead School, in the new Peter B. Lewis building. I spent the month of November late last year mostly camped out in that building, not long after it opened, talking to students, professors, administrators and others, trying to put my arms around all the unbelievable energy and initiative going on there. Then I tracked down a few students who had come from overseas for Weatherhead classes, and did email interviews with folks from Mexico City, Japan and New Zealand. The results are in the new issue of Cleveland Enterprise, little of which is on the web. But we'll see if we can't somehow soon engineer links to these two stories about the lively things happening at the intersection of universities and the economy.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

A Thought for Your Holiday

"Some day after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire."
--Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Happy Easter and Passover, my friends

Friday, April 18, 2003

Reserve This Date, Y'all

Best line of streetwise philosophy heard on the tube recently:
"Yeah, everyone's your brother---least till the rent's due."

Here's hoping that you can carve out a night to spend with a few dozen, perhaps as many as 100, of the most interesting folks in Cleveland. On May 15th, at 6 p.m. in the tasting room of the Great Lakes Brewery, we'll be putting on a celebration of local web journalism/blogging/choose the term you like best. For those who've known me for awhile, consider it this year's installment in my series of annual journalism events, where me and a few partners in crime try to feature what's new and interesting and vital in journalism, and pack the room with all the best minds we can find to host a group conversation that might just enhance our sense of community. Come to think of it, we kind of missed last year's event, but no matter...
In years past, the Press Club of Cleveland has been kind enough to serve as the official convener, and we hope they will collaborate on this one as well. But the initial main sponsor this time is an equally serious and dynamic group, the Cleveland chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. And the main champion is my longtime friend and colleague, and one of Cleveland's leading writers for more years than I can count, Jay Miller, who has done nothing but remove hurdles and otherwise help plan this event.
The panel of four is an all-star cast: longtime music writer and now hyperblogger Eric Olsen, veteran urban planning strategist Don Iannone, and code-writing king and regional community development/blogging activist George Nemeth. Finally, there's a special guest, a guy who I think of as an average Joe citizen, a transplanted Clevelander actually, who just decided about five years ago to begin commenting on Cleveland events and politics on the web. I think of Mark Schumann and his Cleveland pages as something of an e-Tom Paine of Cleveland. Lots of folks (though hardly enough) have read him for years, and I wrote a bit about him in the Free Times a few years ago. But for the first time ever, we'll all get to hear him talk about his work.
And here's the other agenda: to demystify the journalism/writing aspect for the techies, and to demystify the publishing technology for the writers and journalists, we'll be inviting a handful of technology groups to co-sponsor this event. Fast Company Magazine's Northeast Ohio Company of Friends group is the first of these fine orgs to jump aboard and join the fray (thanks to the smooth servant leadership of our zen genius Jack Richiutto), and we'll next be talking to Cleveland Clicks, the Association of Internet Professionals and NEOSA. If you have a similar, like-minded organization that you think ought to be involved, please let us know.
Here's looking forward to seeing you all on May 15th. For more information, don't hesitate to buzz me, either at or at 216.382.6548.
--John Ettorre

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Mac Cutting Through the Clutter, As Always

"In my opinion, successful projects involve teams of smart people who are willing and able to communicate."
--Tom McNamara, thinking aloud last week over lunch at Joe's Deli in Rocky River

We all have our favorite personal gurus, and I have plenty. I've been blessed to have several on the writing side, of course (all of which I'll be writing about here in good time). Others who are on the web side. And some are just simply wise beyond their years, due to some special mental acuity, unique blend of experiences or old-fashioned but uncommon intuitive sense.
But my friend Tom Mac is one of those rare birds who has a little of each. People are drawn to him for his special ability to bring his impossibly wide and eclectic background in business and life to bear on whatever it is he happens to be doing or talking about at that moment.
And always you leave the conversation or project with the feeling that you've learned something real and useful, gleaned an insight or a way of thinking about a challenge or perhaps a method of framing the issues that will equip you to better tackle the next thing.
And there's simply no measuring the value in that. I'd call it the very embodiment of grace.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

On Risk vs. Reward

"I love taking those kinds of risks (in acting roles) that carry the possibility of tipping over into disaster."
--Actress Kate Blanchett, interviewed recently on Bravo about acting

Alas, this is the curse/opportunity of all creatives, be they actors, writers, designers, artists or what have you. Without pushing the envelope, venturing just ahead of the pack, trying to do something fresh and new that's really worth doing rather than waiting for others to test the waters, there's no growth, no creative stretching of one's muscles. And in the end, if you're not growing, you're moving in reverse.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

On the Limits of Images

The world and all its media are awash today in images of victory in Baghdad, and they all seem to center on that now-famous toppled statue of Saddam. It led all the newschannels, was repeated on continuous loop on the 24-hour cable stations, and a color photo was above the fold of today's N.Y. Times, once known as the "gray lady" before switching to color not so very long ago.
That single image, of course, was supplemented by all the related scenes of crowds jubilantly whooping it up, kissing each other and U.S. soldiers when they weren't hauling off as much looted booty as they could carry.
You had to look, watch or listen pretty hard to find a subtler reality that wasn't remotely consistent with what you thought you had learned from all those TV and even print images. The veteran war correspondent Anne Garrels, asked this morning on NPR about the mood in Baghdad, said that actually the city's mood was "subdued," and that most people were actually fearful, largely staying home in worried anticipation of what might happen next. And so it would seem that in a vast city of about five million people (roughly the size of Philadelphia), all those celebratory photos and TV footage didn't really suggest the larger reality.
Sorry, I hate to be a contrarian here, but I'll have to trust the veteran Anne G.--whom I've watched and listened to for perhaps 20 years, and who is forced because of the medium in which she works to go well beyond the compelling visual image--to tell me what's really going on there.
It's of course no big surprise to learn that you can't begin to trust TV to give you a meaningful window on the reality of the world. After all, do you ever see your daily reality reflected on local TV news? Is your life really an endless belt of fires, murders and other mayhem you see depicted on the news, especially during the ratings sweeps months of February and November?
The newer, sadder development, though, is this: even the New York Times now finds itself carried along by the images they know their audience was earlier bombarded with from the tube, and it plays itself out in driving their coverage the next morning.
TV isn't subtly corrosive to the truth anymore. Instead, it's radically, systematically dismantling much of the culture's ability to arrive at some rough semblance of a realistic picture of what's happening in the world.
Which is all the more reason to once again celebrate a guy named Michael Kelly, who died earlier this week in the cause of bringing his readers a real three-dimensional testimony to that war, the first journalist to die doing so. His eyewitness reports of the first Iraq war, the Gulf War of '91, were so astonishing in part because of the near-media blackout of that war, when the only images we saw weren't on the ground but rather video-game-like sequences of bombing targets blasted to bits. Instead, we learned most of what we knew through his print reports, which were almost TV-like in their ability to paint a visual narrative of stunning images.
Given all of that, I found it especially telling to come across his comments a few years ago on why he refused to do television. As a certified print journalism legend, he could have appeared endlessly on the tube, growing famous and then rich. But as a network TV booker early in his career, he also understood better than most the medium's insidious ability to corrupt much of what it touches. Here's what he had to say about it in the Washingtonian Magazine a few years ago:

A lot of friends in the business start investing more energy in it (TV) than in their writing, and there's only so much energy to go around. On top of that--I don't have opinions on or know about everything, and television requires you to pretend a level of expertise that you just don't have. The stuff that you actually know--really know--is limited to that which you've actually worked on. I mean, I can go on and happily talk about what it's like to edit copy--but that's not what they want. I know that if you do a lot of TV and make speeches, you can double your writing income giving the same speech over and over again to audiences that have a fairly low standard. This is not Mark Twain going on the Chautauqua circuit. But you're talking about making at least $200,000 a year. And inevitably, in your values, this starts to replace writing.

As an articulation of rare purity to his craft and his life's work, those words need no additional comment. But they surely help to explain why his legend, once confined to the world of writing and journalism, is now quickly spreading to a larger world.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Drudge, Round 2

Even at the threat of beating a dead horse, it would seem to me that I left some points unmade in yesterday's quick entry about the extraordinary financial success of the Drudge Report ( And simply put, it's this: advertising dollars follow audience--eventually. It's been an iron rule of media physics since there have been media--pre-Gutenberg, probably going back to cave paintings in prehistoric times (actually, these early scrawlings helped begin the clock on recorded history).
During the web gold rush of the late '90s, fashionable Interneties kept pounding the theme of the importance of buzz and the number of eyeballs (and "monetizing" those eyeballs, a ghastly usage) and growing big, fast. And like nearly everything during that era of comic excess, it was all both far too glib to last, but at the same time these mantras contained much more than inklings of truth. Human nature being what it is, most folks too easily believed the most extreme optimism about web advertising then, just as they subsequently embraced the post-crash, end-of-the-world scenarios. The truth, as always, was somewhere in between.
And a related truth, as Drudge has found out, is that "sustained" buzz, over several years--a tough thing to pull off--can build a real business. Especially on the web, where technology can far more efficiently track the effectiveness of particular ads than in any other medium (the ancient, and mostly true, statement about print and TV ads is that "I'm wasting half my spending on this ad, but I just don't know which half." The web ends that fuzziness).
But that years-long buzz can't be done with smoke and mirrors, but only with old-fashioned showing-up-every-day-and-working kind of effort. Love him or hate him, Drudge has kept at his thing, even after he left his cramped Hollywood apartment and moved to nicer digs in Miami (and added a single news assistant). He kept the site butt-ugly but useful, focusing on finding quick links to the most interesting things on the web (at least interesting to a few million of his readers) and even breaking a little of his own news through a variety of snitches (called "sources" by more respectable journalists), many in the highest profile newsrooms in the land. In other words, he delivered enough real value to enough people in the paying public that even the business side of the august New York Times has since found value in reaching his audience via banner ads, even while their editorial-side brethren continue to simply dismiss him as a mixture of joke and public nuisance, on the rare occasion that they even deign to take note of him.
Anyone with some long-term perspective of business and some elemental understanding of media understood that at some point the thicket of competing web advertising models would find some traction (no, people didn't want to pay per-click on banner ads when it became clear that almost no one was clicking on them, but simple ad "impressions" do count for something, especially when there are millions of them) and the whole sector would begin to recover from its all-but-total crash of 2000-2002. After all, the entire media advertising industry--print, TV, web and everything else, went through its worst year-to-year percentage decline last year since 1938, in the depths of the Great Depression! It wasn't only the newest medium that was suffering, everybody was crunched. But anyone with eyes could see that people were increasingly going to the web for news, information, entertainment, play, etc.--in other words, the world was embracing the web--and that advertisers would eventually follow.
Again, let me hasten to add that I'm not really a Drudge fan. I don't care for his politics, and I never went for his hokey schtick. At the same time, only a fool would argue against the notion that he's a bona fide web pioneer, whether or not you think it's journalism as you understand that term to be. And only a similarly foolish person, at least in my view, would fail to at least grudgingly (Drudgingly?) respect his persistence at sticking with the site for the better part of the last decade. As Woody Allen memorably observed, 80% of success is just showing up...
Okay, I'd say we're done with the Drudge phenomenon now for quite some time. Can't say that I'll miss the fedora...

Monday, April 07, 2003

Eat Your Heart Out, Drudge Haters

For a lot of us, Matt Drudge seems about as cutting edge as last Tuesday's soggy tuna fish sandwich. While he obviously helped put Internet journalism and blogging itself on the map--recognizing almost before anyone else how Usenet postings and a wide network of well-placed snitches could morph into e-journalism--the whole right-wing boy toy and latter-day-fedora-clad-Walter Winchell-wannabe aspect of the guy was a little over the top. It grew old after about a month. And that month was several years ago.
Which is all the more reason why the story in the new Business 2.0 on Drudge, Inc. will be an eye-opener for lots of people. It estimates that Drudge and his two-man operation (he uses a little known assistant) clears $800,000 a year from his site. It quotes the head of his ad outsourcing operation observing that ad space on the Drudge site sells out months in advance.
None of which will necessarily make you like him or his hokey persona any more, but as a model for building a web journalism site, you'd have to concede there may well be a few lessons in there for all of us, no?
--John Ettorre

Friday, April 04, 2003

Michael Kelly's Death

The entire journalism world got a pretty good jolt today, with the news that Michael Kelly became the first journalist to die in the Iraq war. It seemed eerily fitting, in a way, because he first came to national attention with a series of stunningly eloquent and vivid reports from the Gulf War of '91, writing mostly in the New Republic as a then freelancer, and winning a coveted National Magazine award in the process. It would be fair to say that he burst onto the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, having gotten his start at the lowly Cincy Post.
His career rocketed from there. He worked for the New York Times, New Yorker, and edited the New Republic and served as editor of the relaunched Atlantic Monthly. He was wildly controversial in journalism because he grew increasingly conservative, which helped get him bumped from the New Republic. He went after Clinton like a doberman, writing over and over again about his penchant for lying until even hardened Clinton-haters had had enough. Still, he somehow made the Atlantic into one of the two or three best magazines seemingly overnight, injecting passion and good writing into a century-and-a-half-old magazine that had become chronically musty. His idea to let William Langewiesche wander around the Ground Zero cleanup for months to write his landmark three-part series may come to be considered the master stroke of the decade in American journalism.
But like the best people in the business always do, he quickly grew restless. And at the height of his success with the Atlantic Monthly, he stepped back to serve as a consultant while, oddly, announcing that he was going to write a book about the history of the American steel industry.
No one who knew his work was surprised when that gave way to going to Iraq for the second Gulf war. He was the type that always needed to be around the action.
The New Republic today has the most fitting tribute of all, posting on their home page one of his dispatches from the Gulf in March '91. Here's what great war correspondence sounds, looks and feels like:

...after a couple of miles we came across a supply column of the Fourth Tank Brigade of the Saudi Army, heading to the front-line HQ. We flagged down a truck and told the driver the news. Within moments 35 excited Saudi soldiers crowded around the Iraqis, slamming clips of ammunition into their automatic rifles and carrying on in tremendous excitement as they searched the prisoners. They threw the Iraquis' few possessions, and the food we had just given them, into the sand. One zealous Saudi soldier even grabbed a Koran one Iraqi had been clutching and tossed it aside. They made the terrified prisoners sit in a line, and they shouted and waved their rifles about. Half a dozen prisoners began weeping in fear and begging for their lives. The prisoner whose Koran had been taken away crawled over to retrieve it, and clutched it to his chest for protection as he moaned and rocked back and forth. Another plucked frantically at his hair and his crotch in little agonies of terror, and shouted for his God. But the Saudi troops eventually calmed down, and gave the Iraqis new packages of food, drink and cigarettes. One young Saudi soldier soothed a distraught Iraqi by placing both hands on his shoulder and kissing him on the forehead. We left the prisoners in the care of a young Saudi lieutenant named Saud Otabi, whose beardless face shone with the pleasure of another glorious, bloodless. victory. It wasn't, after all, the Gulf War. It was the Gulf Rout...
RIP, sweet Michael.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

A New Way of Thinking About Content--
Plus Some Thoughts About Peter Arnett

Okay, so I've missed checking in for a few days. Guilty as charged. I've been involved in a couple of web projects that have taken on a velocity all their own, and I stole time from y'all.
But I come back to the task here renewed by a stimulating presentation I attended this morning down in Akron. My friend Drew Holland and his Interactive Media Group ( crew hosted a thought-provoking discussion on dynamic web content and online customer service at their very interesting offices in the Rubber City.
The main point, as Drew put it: "We need to create a website that listens." Here's what he means: Commercial sites that cater to customers, perhaps even sell products to them, are used to thinking of the customer service area as a separate, distinct part of the larger whole. And software/database folks are used to using a host of sophisticated tools and programs to monitor where users are going and what they're interested in. But as we increasingly move out of static content sites, he explained, we need to increasingly use tools that let customers drive the content of a site, based on their interests and inquiries. What he's talking about is knowledge management, an increasingly hot area. It involves taking all the knowledge that resides in an organization and intelligently and efficiently bringing it to bear with customers and other stakeholders to answer questions, help solve problems, sell benefits, etc., and often without taxing the infrastructure of an organization, at least if done right. And of course Drew & Co. have just the tool for the job--at a cool $18-60 K, depending on some variables.
Drew has a way of always swimming just ahead of the currents. For me, he will forever be famous for how he got his start in the web business. By his own telling, in the mid-90s, he wore a sandwich board in the busy Galleria shopping center in downtown Cleveland. It said "Ask me about the Internet." Happily, I drove down to the event with a mutual friend, Jimmy O'Hare, who rounded out that legend of Drew's early days with an even better story. Jim described how in 1994 a yellow-Macintosh-clad Drew, all of about 24 at the time, dramatically sold a gaggle of executives at a not-so-hip Fortune 300 company on why they should hire him to do their site. He talked just a bit about his previous work, glossing quickly over that story (because of course in '94 no one had done much web work). And he got the job.
That same can-do attitude has built IMG (no, not that IMG) into a minor powerhouse, probably Akron's leading digital development shop, and increasingly a well-consulted specialist in web content servers. A major web player in Cleveland keeps trying to merge with them, but thus far no deal. And they also have what might well be the coolest offices south of I-80...

Then there's the small drama over MSNBC and its decision to jettison Peter Arnett, the leading war correspondent of his generation, for having the gall to grant an interview to Iraqi TV and admit to some doubts about the U.S. war effort.
No big surprise, really. Large publicly held media companies are not really in the fearless truth-telling business, but rather in the assembling-the-largest-possible-mass-audience business, which is quite another thing. And that spinelessness only grows more pronounced in times of war.
But for me, the real pity here goes back to his time at CNN. Arnett was already an accomplished person before the Gulf War of '91, having won the Pulitzer for his Vietnam reporting for A.P. But he became internationally famous as a CNN correspondent when he became the last guy in Baghdad as the war began. A few years ago, CNN shamefully failed to renew Arnett's contract simply because he happened to do the voice-over narration for a scathing investigative report on the U.S. Army that was produced by a couple of veteran CNN producers, including John Carroll graduate Jack Smith, a former CBS Moscow Bureau chief (I can find a JCU connection in nearly any story). The Army went nuclear, threatening to drop all cooperation with CNN if the report wasn't retracted, and so they caved.
The CNN that wimped out by dropping Arnett wasn't the same CNN that most of us grew to know and love. It was being sold by its founder to a big publicly held company about that time, and thus was running scared. So it took the easy way out and showed Arnett the door.
What we forget is the curious mix of reasons why CNN first became such a big deal, and why it had an all-but-impossible-to-duplicate reputation. It was the product of a single, loud-mouthed visionarly millionaire (and later billionaire), Ted Turner who invented, nurtured and protected it until selling it in 1997. And he did one other important thing that's almost completely forgotten today: he forced it to become a truly international channel (by, among other things, literally enforcing a ban on the word "foreign"). And guess what: the world bought it. Almost overnight a single visionary from Atlanta, once nicknamed "the Mouth from the South" had forged the kind of international news identity that it took the only remotely equivalent organization, the BBC, over a half century to form.
This international cable station thus employed a New Zealand native (Arnett) to camp out in Iraq and get both sides of the story, not simply the U.S. side. People all around the world responded to CNN as a real international entity, not simply an animal of the U.S. and its often-narrow perspective about world events. Now, we simply take for granted that all the TV networks, including CNN, are simply U.S.-centered organizations, which is why so many Americans feel the need to get their news about this war from elsewhere.
Just goes to show that the only really serious, independent reporting by news organizations happens anymore by those family-controlled operations such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, run essentially as public trusts. And thank god for them, because TV journalism is increasingly becoming an oxymoron...