Friday, August 29, 2003

The Gig May Finally Be Up for Cleveland Works' David Roth

Channel 3's website is reporting that David Roth, the founder of the welfare-to-work organization Cleveland Works, was busted this morning for selling and using drugs. The station has beaten everyone to the story simply because of the long tenure (extremely unusual these days in local TV) of its excellent veteran reporter Tom Beres, whose reporting roots in this community go all the way back to the erstwhile Cleveland Press. The story is no surprise for anyone who's been paying attention to Cleveland for any length of time. The worst-kept secret in town was Roth's "problem." And the stories went from whisper to print a few years ago when Mark Naymik, who's now a political reporter at the PD, wrote an illuminating and devastating cover piece on Roth and his out-of-control ways in the Free Times. Devastating, one would have thought, but somehow it never got traction. Neither the PD nor TV followed up, and funding, while taking a momentary hit, appeared to recover.

How, you ask? Well, his leading sugar daddy has been Progressive's Peter Lewis, who has time and time again come to the rescue of Cleveland Works when it experienced financial trouble. Admirable in a way, but troublesome in another: Lewis is himself a notorious multimillion-dollar funder of marijuana legalization (along with his likeminded billionaire friend, George Soros), who was nabbed with some pot in an Australian airport some years ago. Pot is one thing, of course, but the anemic-looking Roth was always known to have (and is now formally charged with) partaken in more serious drugs such as heroine. Was Lewis his leading enabler?

And one last thing about the story: a correction. Roth DID NOT found the Free Clinic, as he is often said to have done (and which he never went out of his way to correct people about). That splendid organization was actually begun (with heroic seed funding by the Cleveland Foundation and lots of volunteer labor by dozens of local docs) by a sweethearted Mother Earth of a nurse named Jeanne Sonville, who recently died, and whom I profiled in a cover piece in the Cleveland Edition in the early 90s. David Roth simply came along later, and with his loquacious ways (plus a memorable TV commercial in which the then-ponytailed Roth calmly gave a pitch for the clinic) he hogged the spotlight. But facts is facts. In my reporting on the story about the roots of the Free Clinic, Roth also took credit for having launched the Mike White mayoral campaign from the offices of Cleveland Works, along with his then second-in-command (and later Mike White aide) Eric Fingerhut, who's now running for the Senate. This story was actually true, although as Fingerhut said when I confirmed the story with him: "David might not want to keep talking about that, since it violates his nonprofit charter."

Outsourcing at the Tipping Point

In a juicy story that has somehow escaped the notice of Democrats and American political pundits until now, an Indian newspaper reported way back in January that the Republican party has outsourced a significant chunk of its phone fundraising operations to India. The story might well get some traction in coming weeks, in light of the fact that IBM officials were overheard earlier this summer discussing plans to export lots more IT jobs overseas. That development (involving a famous old company that everyone knows, non-techies included), provided something of a "tipping point" in a story that's been gathering steam for some time, as our Jim Kukral well knows. Eagle-eyed ironists might be alive to the rich possibilities inherent in unemployed Americans getting fundraising calls from Indian workers who have taken their jobs. And it's a reminder that it's not simply higher-order IT engineering jobs that are going overseas in alarming numbers, but the even more plentiful and lower-level help-desk and phone bank jobs, too.

Given those dynamics, my friend Gary Baney's new startup, Boundless Flight, offers an interesting (at least I find it interesting) middle-ground value proposition: since we haven't a chance of keeping all the IT jobs here, nor should we really want to, let's keep the higher-order ones while the grunt coding work (rapidly becoming a commodity) is done elsewhere. An IT veteran of KeyCorp and Flashline, Gary has also taught IT engineering as an adjunct prof at CWRU, and he has a legendary ability to stay in touch with a far-flung group of his former students. Out of that network, and the fact that some of his students have since returned home to China, the idea for BF grew. While the BF mission statement neither appears on their site nor in the brief story Crain's did, let me share it with you here:

"Boundless Flight is a 'wholesaler' of software engineering (especially e-commerce and wireless) using CWRU graduates and offshore resources to provide our customers the greatest value possible while keeping 'the best and the brightest' in Cleveland. Additional areas of focus include helping organizations achieve excellence in IT management through augmentation staffing and expert middleware implementation, integration and ongoing management. The net intellectual capital of a population center is not to be measured in the number of software engineers, bio-engineers, chemists, etc. that are employed there. The net intellectual capital of a region is tightly compacted in the minds of the 2% of those technicans that are growing, changing and making a true difference in human discovery and innovation enablement efficiences. The value of a software engineering firm is not reflected by their headcount. It is probably the reverse of that, if anything. It is measured most accurately by their ability to promote, foster and sustain innovation in the companies they evolve products for. If they cannot do that, they have little long-term inherent value to themselves and even less to their customer base. Regions of the country that are viewing the growth of 'headcount' as a mark of progress are going to end up populated by commodity workers unless they can find, nurture and RETAIN the 2% that make a difference. (my emphasis added) That is our mission for Cleveland in software engineering."

What do you think? Is there some wisdom in that? Or is it impossibly elitist, or even simply a high-concept justification for partial outsourcing. We'd be interested in your thoughts...

And Speaking of Kukral. Hard to believe that Google is now celebrating just its fifth year in existence. It seems to have been around as long as the Internet has been here. It was only three years ago this summer, in fact, that Anton, Jack and I, among some other fun folk, were working on a giant venture-funded web project in the waning days of the dot-com bubble, when we came across an eye-opening story in the New Yorker on something with the impossibly cool-goofy name of Google. It was written by the very same Malcolm Gladwell that authored the above-mentioned "Tipping Point". For many people, it was the first introduction to Google. I know it challenged the very fundamental underpinnings of what we were trying to do with that site. And it has never failed to amaze ever since. And so I found it all the more amazing a few days ago when I happened to follow some links from Kukral's writing to an online Q&A he did with a web guru. She proceeded to make the point that as good as Google is, serious web search wouldn't fall apart if Google were to disappear tomorrow. After all, she noted, Teoma and Alltheweb are still around. That caught my attention, since I had never heard of either. So I did a test. I googled myself on each, and you know what--on that evidence, they're both damn close to the vaunted Google in both speed and comprehensiveness. In fact, Alltheweb may have served up slightly more meaningful links higher up than Google. All of which certainly bears further study.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Eric Takes the Dive

Congratulations to the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn for diving into the weblog format recently (Trib registration is free, and you can use the same user name and password at the Trib-owned LATimes). As the first real staff blogger (though he'll also keep his print column) at a major-circulation daily (with the arguable exception of the WaPo's media critic Howard Kurtz, who doesn't technically write a blog, but something pretty close most days), he'll be closely studied by the newspaper industry, which has dubbed such hybrids as j-blogs. This really shouldn't be that big a deal--Dan Gillmor has been blogging for a long time--but he's always been seen as the exception, in large part cause he operates in the Silicon Valley's hometown rag, the San Jose Mercury News. And traditional newspapers have so many hang-ups about editing control, and (like the PD and its sister Newhouse-chain papers) there are complicated issues of union rules that keep the print and online staffs strictly separate.

I remember Zorn only slightly from my time living as one half of a newlywed couple in Chicago's Lincoln Park in the late '80s, sharing one small Ford Fiesta and an at-the-time impossibly pricey $500-a-month one-bedroom apartment across the street from John Barleycorn pub. But then, in a town and a paper dominated by the likes of Mike Royko and Bob Greene, it was pretty hard for a guy like Zorn, writing mostly about suburban small-bore stuff, to stand out above the din of two nationally known bigfoots. But Royko and Greene are both now gone, one dead and the other forced to resign in a sex scandal. So in some ways, it's Zorn's town, though he scarcely has a chance of ever rising to those nosebleed heights of influence.

Anyway, I like the experimental tone with which he initially dove into the task. In an introductory column, after bragging a bit about how he's the "self-appointed digital pioneer" of the paper, the first columnist to invite email ('93) and have his own website ('97), he talks about this "emerging hybrid media form" and how he went out on a limb convincing the Trib brass, which is infamously conservative, to let him do it. And he nicely summarizes for mainstream readers what they should expect: "This will translate into generally short nuggets of opinion and information--columnettes--that often link to other articles and sites of interest on the Internet. The orientation will be local but not exclusively so, and the approach will be subjective, candid and personal...writers and readers will come to expect the immediacy and intimacy of the format, while publishers will find in it a new way to build and maintain valuable relationships with the public." Well said, Eric, and bon voyage...

The Lying Index

Washington Monthly, a legendary little magazine about politics and policy, housed in an infamously shabby office on Washington's Dupont Circle, today debuts a nice little feature. It convened a number of pundits and observers to judge the relative truth-telling abilities of the last four presidents, resulting in what it calls the Mendacity Index. The editors had some fun with it, too, drolly noting that "we believe their validity rests somewhere between the Periodic Table and the U.S. News & World Report college rankings." Anyway, the results may or may not surprise you, depending on your persuasion: The current occupant comes out worst, and his predecessor best, thus no doubt supplying O'Reilly with some grist about which to rant sometime soon.

Okay, to be fair, this is a neo-liberal mag, and any whoppers George W. has told are fresher in people's mind. But what really caught my eye on the former point was a related poll conducted by Beliefnet, the online community that's a testament to the power of spiritual ecumenism. In an unusually pointed fashion for that site, visitors are asked of the last four presidents "are they egregious liars?" As I write this, 66% said yes for George W, whose dad thus far comes out best.

Beliefnet, by the way, is still around in somewhat truncated fashion despite having suffered through a Chapter 11 filing last year. The once highflying site burned through more than $25 million in venture capital, much of it supplied (to their unending embarrassment) by Cleveland's Primus Venture Partners, which took the lead on a $20 million round of capital injection, adding about half themselves. But don't look on the Primus site for any details--all references to their investment in Beliefnet were erased soon after the trouble surfaced.

Get Those Resumes In. I recently came across this interesting job listing by Tri-C, and the position sounds like something potentially right up the alley for someone in our vast network of smart aesthetes. It seems the eastern suburban campus is looking for someone to direct its Center for Arts and Culture. You'll need a bach, natch (that's bachelors degree), and five years of performing arts management experience, plus background in budgeting, fundraising and grantwriting. Knowledge of the local, national and international arts scene wouldn't hurt, either. You can find more info at the school's site. But application review begins Sept. 8th, so get going...

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Into the Quagmire We Go

A single death is a tragedy,
a million deaths is a statistic.
--Joseph Stalin

That may well have been the only smart, insightful thing the Soviet dictator ever said. It suggest that he understood both the human mind's inability to embrace abstraction and its related preference for narrative of the particular, a dynamic upon which all literature--and good journalism--is built.

The heartbreaking story on today's Times front page about the Iraqi youth who bled to death after being shot by U.S. troops is full of the gray-area Rashomon murkiness of war, especially a war in which the liberating force has come to seem more like a hostile occupier to the locals. Did the dead kid throw a grenade or didn't he? Did the U.S. military try to get him medical attention, or were the troops too worried about snipers to put that first? And how much did the language barrier play a part?

The skillfully written and well-reported story (interestingly enough authored by John Tierney, a favorite of deposed Times editor Howell Raines, who continues to haunt the Bushies from beyond the career grave) is important not simply for the tragedy of this one family, as tragic as that is, but for what it suggests about the larger quagmire into which the arrogant, ignorant Bush gang has led us. Then, on the editorial page comes the second part of today's one-two punch: Tom Friedman's column. In his signature calm, even-handed way, he describes with some splendid on-the-scene observation and analysis how the U.S. will be forced to not simply rebuild Iraq, but to build the country and the society again, "from scratch." And even if that were possible, how much (remember this cost of war running clock?) might that cost? This Washington Post story suggests that old Iron Pants Rumsfeld has lost all ability to squelch truthful talk by government officials about the real cost of putting back together his mess. Even his handpicked "occupation coordinator" is beginning to divert from the hymn book. The piece contains some interesting new information about 45 countries that have pledge money for the reconstruction. But the lack of detail arouses my suspicions that this might just be of a similar nature to the much-hyped war "coalition" or the White House statistical trickery about tax cuts. Have a few dozen of the world's smallest countries been subtly reminded about their foreign aid allotments enough that they've agreed to pony up $1,000 each for the cause? Stay tuned for that one.

But remember a larger vivid irony that helps give shape and color to this emerging narrative of quagmire (a very Vietnam word, which Colin Powell built his military career around not reliving): the post-war death toll has just now equaled the toll during the official shooting phase of this campaign. That's too juicy a fact for even the dimmest observer to miss. And the American public really isn't that dim, no matter what Karl Rove thinks. Which is why George W. has begun yet the latest leg in his steep drop in the polls. And also why the Dean campaign, more than a year before the election, is taking on the character of a mass protest movement more than a traditional political campaign (I went to an Akron Dean Meet-Up a couple of weeks ago, where more than 50 fervant fans watched a bootlegged CD of his speeches. In one, Dean angrily rasps from behind a lecturn about how the arrogance of the Bush White House has helped mobilize more political volunteers than at any time since 1968, in the midst of anti-Vietnam fervor).

Meanwhile, as the media senses increasing presidential weakness and a public appetite for, or at least acceptance of, stories that depart from the White House line, look for more attention to be focused on some inconvenient loose ends, like the still-missing Osama, who unlike the still-missing Hussein actually did constitute a real threat to the U.S. As always, a British outlet keeps pulling on this thread. The only similarly comprehensive domestic story recently about the missing Osama that I can recall is Jane Mayer's excellent take (unfortunately no longer online) in a late-July issue of the New Yorker, "The Hunt for Osama." It's worth a trip to your nearest library.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Prayers for Roldo, Patron Saint of Civic Participation

I received word from Roldo Bartimole recently that he's having yet his latest bout of chest pains. He's due to have an angiogram later this week, so please say a quick prayer for the continued good health of our town's living embodiment of free speech and citizen participation. The lonely path he's carved for himself, the only one his conscience would allow, has helped lead the way to at least three heart attacks (at least that's what he admits to) over the years. And the fact that he now qualifies for Medicare hasn't seemed to slow his righteous pen much (he reports that "I'm having almost too much fun with the convention center. It's like batting practice.") Anyway, I hope you'll join me in wishing him rosy health. Better yet, why not drop him a quick note to let him know you're thinking of him? His email address is Sorry to invade your privacy this way, Roldo, but I know lots people would want to know...

And speaking of civic participation, there are some key events this week and next that I would suggest ought to be on your radar screen. RTA is due to hold information meeting for the public today (downtown), tomorrow (East Cleveland) and Thursday (Midtown Corridor) on the controversial Euclid Corridor Project. Check times and details here. At a quarter-billion dollars, it's the biggest public transit project in Cleveland history, and preliminary work replacing ancient water and sewer lines is due to begin this fall. All the federal dollars raining down on this project helped create this handsome and comprehensive project website and may soon yield these futuristic-looking buses on the route. But will the money be spent wisely? Why not show up and judge for yourself? And as a tool to aid in deciding if these meetings are purely p.r. smoke screens or honest attempts to solicit public input, take this handy tool along with you. It's written by Genevieve Ray, a battle-hardened veteran of the local historic preservation wars, and provided as a public service by David Beach's EcoCity Cleveland. No word yet on plans for wi-fi access along the route, but perhaps Steve and Sandy will show up and advocate on its behalf. And please, don't mention this project to Roldo. That would give him a massive coronary attack for sure.

Next Up: Session on Merging Artistic and Civic Vision. Next week, CSU's College of Urban Affairs hosts a day-long conference on Sept. 4th entitled "Merging an Artistic and Civic Vision: Law, the Arts and Urban Planning." The fee is a reasonable $35, and information and registration are available here. It's almost guaranteed to be a particularly yeasty environment after the convention center crash & burn, which took the Artsies In Support of Going On the Public Teat down with it (And note to CPforA&C: you'd be well-advised to get a more-forceful, more-articulate spokesperson than that meek young woman Julie Adrianopoli who feebly tried to raise the flag for the arts tax on WCPN's After Nine a couple of weeks ago. I'd say she didn't merely fail to win new converts, but she might have lost a few true believers. While I don't buy what he's selling, at least Tom Schorgl makes a forceful case). And will the conversation, agenda and speakers be subtly infected by the fact that it's partly underwritten by the Forest City-endowed Ruth Ratner Miller Center for Greater Cleveland's Future? Don't know. As Fox News would say, we report, you decide...Meanwhile, though, why doesn't someone check out the persistent rumor that Mayor Jane's hubby, longtime city planning director Hunter Morrison, will also be the beneficiary of a Forest City-bankrolled academic perch in the not-too-distant future. Did I say rumor? I meant formless, wafting thing that people tend to repeat, absent evidence. But knowing how Sam Miller & Co. operate renders it a little more believable...

Get Your Vote in on Bike Rack Locations. And as long as we're on the subject of citizen participation in planning, I hereby propose a test. Why not send along this page to anyone you know who uses their bicycles in Cleveland proper and ask them to consider acting on it. The city planning department seems to be seeking our input on where to locate 500 bike racks this year, so why not take them up on it?

Cleveland's Unused Architectural Gem. Finally, I have an idea on where Thomas Mulready might consider locating his next Art/Tech/Dance event. As the son of an architect and incorrigible lover of wondrous old buildings, I'd say the old Cleveland Trust Rotunda, closed to the public for nearly a decade and two years shy of its 100-year birthday, is the obvious candidate. It's said to be undergoing asbestos removal, and I think it's still owned by the Jacobs Group (which has been steadily unloading its real estate portfolio), so it might take some serious political juice along with plenty of luck to get it done. Then again, maybe T can plan a big blowout there for the building's centennary, with Willard Scott doing emcee duties...

Monday, August 25, 2003

Anton, Tiger Woods and First Energy

This is an unlikely trio, to be sure: my friend Anton Zuiker, the world's most famous athlete and the Akron-based utility. Still, for various reasons, these subjects are at the top of my mind today.

We begin with Anton , both because of his latest blog, a simple, genius idea, and because of a recent comment he made about blogs that seems especially fitting given today's NYT. A story whose central focus is about a blog has finally hit the front page of the Times, for what I'm reasonably certain is the first time ever. And I was thus reminded of a sage observation Anton (for all of his ever-expanding stuff, go here) once made in the comment section of our mutual pal Jack's gassho: Mr. Z noted that he's increasingly come to think that blogs in themselves are about as interesting a subject about which to write as pencils. What he meant, of course, is that the medium/instruments themselves are utterly neutral and lacking in importance themselves. It's the conversation, communication and ideas which flow from them that are the notables. The parallel to today's story by Amy Harmon is apt: she rightly writes not about blogs themselves, but highlights a great application of the medium, as a support-building community by and for people trying to lose weight. And Anton is due for a second salute, for yet his latest blog, this one that he set up for his JCU Class of '92. It's a brilliant way to better stitch together a scattered cohort and offer some communications/updates on class members in between the quarterly class notes published in the alumni pub. Every class in every university ought to start one tomorrow. A tip of the hat to Z man for leading the way, as always...

Worst Energy. That's of course the predictable nickname that wags have assigned the energy company First Energy that's increasingly being fingered as the source of Blackout 2003. I was amused by the outpouring of shock and surprise by more than a few NEObloggers to the recent PD piece about First Energy's lobbying power in Columbus (which only skimmed the tawdry surface of the story). On the one hand, it's a positive: a vivid reminder of the general earnestness (as opposed to "snarkiness," the adjective reflexively used to describe bloggers' tone by lazy web-phobic journalists bent on finding a universal description for millions of highly individual voices). Unfortunately, their surprise over the idea that a Fortune 500 giant operating in an indutry undergoing a transition from highly regulated to largely deregulated would have an extensive lobbying/influencing structure is also a reminder of their unsettling naivete about politics and business. In any event, the Village Voice's excellent muckraker James Ridgeway points out here that First Energy has some serious juice not merely at the state but at the federal level, as well.

And finally, we come to Tiger Woods. Yesterday, thanks to mom generously giving up her tickets, my oldest son and I were blessed to be able to head down to Akron to take in the spectacle of the NEC golf invitational at the beautiful Firestone Country Club. But let's cut to the chase, here: mostly, this served as an opportunity to follow Tiger Woods around 18 holes and marvel at not only his skill (Michael's focus), but also the entire raucous pageant that surrounds the appearance of one of the five most famous people in the world (my focus, as a rare golfer).

It was a blast to be able to get within 5-6 feet of Tiger on several occasions, though not without some serious hustle and strategy (for instance, occasionally traveling two or three holes ahead of where he was at the time). The sheer size of the crowd following him, the equivalent of the infamous "Arnie's Army" that used to follow Arnold Palmer, is breathtaking. On most holes, you could observe people lining up shoulder-to-shoulder, three, four and even five people deep, along both sides of fairways 400-500 yards long! Do the math on that for a moment. And around the tee and the green (the beginning and end of each hole, for the golf-challenged), it was often a dozen or more people deep. In short, a sea of humanity.

Living as we do in the age of pro sports spectacles that blare rock and rap music at the kind of ear-piercing decibels that seem to suggest no one under 30 is in attendance, golf's pastoral, 19th-century gentleman's rules can seem pretty welcome, if at times annoyingly prissy (like when the raised-hand "marshalls" insist that you stop walking, even though you were slowly and quietly soft-stepping 200 feet or more from where a player is about to take a shot). I spent half the day trying to imagine NFL referees insisting on silence before a goal-line stand play begins.

Anyway, as for Tiger, he was amazing. Who cares that he finished several strokes back? Through much of the day, he was just two strokes back and coming on. More importantly, the whole look and demeanor were amazing. His laser-like concentration is cool, and it never flagged. When once he bent over to pick up a branch that fell on the ground just in front of his ball (the scene unfolding not 10 feet in front of us), Michael whispered in my ear (though waiting, of course, till after the shot): "You could sell that branch on e-bay".

Now, Jack, I know that I've teased you for years about your love of golf, which I tend to casually dismiss as too much a reminder of the Eisenhower era. In truth, my take on golf is a tad bit more complicated. I rather enjoy playing myself, but never get in enough rounds to really improve. More to the point, I think it's one of the dullest games on the tube, ranking just ahead of bowling. But as a pro sport witnessed in person, it's sublime. Not only do you get in some serious exercise (I was pressed to my lungs' capacity keeping up with my 14-year-old greyhound), but up close, the golf swing of a professional is a thing of chilling, chiseled beauty that only a person lacking in all the senses could fail to be impressed with.

And then there's Tiger, who takes it into almost a theological realm, like Ted Williams did in baseball. All I can say is that the scene on the 14th tee yesterday will vividly stay with me for years, in large part of course because of the shared memory with Michael, but also owing to the graceful majesty of Tiger's gifts. Golfers, for the most part, are thin, compact guys (and local boy Ben Curtis, who wed the very night before, seems downright tiny). Tiger is a tad bigger than some, though all in the shoulders, not the torso. But to watch him from a dozen or fewer feet swing into his tee shot on 14 was something akin to reading a great poem the first time, or seeing an impossibly beautiful woman who seems to redefine the idea of beauty itself. The unbelievable concentrated explosive energy that went into the ball, and with the smoothest, most graceful controlled effort, took the breath away momentarily. The energy unleashed by the swing seems not unlike that of an NFL linebacker's savage hit after running at full speed in the open field.

It was yet another pungent reminder that greatness and the quest for unattainable perfection--whether in painting, poetry or the least exalted pursuit you can imagine--is a wondrous thing to behold. And doubly so up close.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Bombs, Blackouts and Computer Viruses

Sorry, but the mind is a bit numbed and the spirit just a tad low today as I try to take stock of all these converging disasters befalling us, here and overseas. Many if not most find their common thread in bad, even arrogant, leadership marked by a stubborn failure to do the hard but necessary things. And viruses wouldn't ordinarily mean much in that context, but for the fact that it largely killed a day's work for my best pal, John Westropp, who's a web editor at the Cleveland Clinic (which got hit). Pound for pound, he's one of the greatest men and most sublimely gifted writers I'll ever know, so I hate for him to lose even a moment, and for no reason but the savage arrogance of virtual terrorists. That of course can't compare with the feelings in the hearts of those who mourn for the dead U.N. workers who've given their lives to peace-making, only to have met with a cruelly violent end in that region that keeps breaking hearts with no end in sight.

But here's the good news: as compensation, my spirit was also buoyed by last night's too-quick (cause of kids' schedules) visit to Joseph-Beth bookstore, to drink in the spectacle of Kristin Ohlson's new book and the loving spirit that surrounded her. She's an acquaintance and colleague from the late, great Cleveland Edition (and here). And it was nicely fitting that the splendid little article written about her in yesterday's PD, was authored by yet another former Edition scribe, the gentle, book-loving teacher and writer Kathy Ewing. I couldn't stay long enough to negotiate the snaking line to wish her the best, but I did get to witness the good turnout and see her beaming pride in the moment, a coming-out party for her local admirers, some of whom might recall her role in a splendid community-building vehicle. Armed at the time with little but grit and perseverance, she and her pal Mary Grimm co-founded the newsletter Ohio Writer, which lives on under the sustaining and better-funded embrace of the Poets' and Writers' League.

Please know that her book, Stalking the Divine, isn't just any book (as our colleague Barb Payne, who tells me she has a review in the pipeline, can surely attest). It's a wonderfully written and deeply felt story that will resonate with anyone who's taking stock in their life and in their faith, whatever that faith may be (plus it's set in Cleveland, in the most unexpected places). And after the events of the last few days, well, you'd have to say that faith is all the more important. In fact, it's about all we've got...

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

The Day After

Okay, there's only time for a few quick hits today, if I have any chance 'tall of making it down to Shaker Square and Joseph-Beth bookstore for the 7 p.m. function on behalf of Kristin Ohlson's brilliant new book, Stalking the Divine. Join me if you can.

The big news in Cleveburg, of course, is the mayor's decision to finally give up the ghost on the Convention Center. It was perhaps a foregone conclusion, but it now nakedly holds up for all to see how bankrupt of ideas and energy is our Cleveland political/business/shadow government establishment. In its place is beginning to rise something else, the bare outlines of which are growing only slightly less foggy daily (more about which later).

Anyway, I thought Bill Callahan had by far the best take on it all, and our boy Zinsser would love his brevity: In all of about 250 words, he provides it a small, unemotional burial, and then calmly goes on to congratulate Campbell on facing facts, stopping just long enough to give the back of his hand to the PD's "usual tin-eared fashion" editorials. Do read it all, please. And for weeks, even months of insighful background reporting and commentary leading up to it, you'd be foolish not to review the work of our man Chas Rich, who deserves special applause for his sheer brilliance and doggedness at sticking with this subject, calling attention (among other gems) to the fact that the PD's Sam Fulwood seemed to utterly change his tune in quick order, with no real explanation (something I'd otherwise have missed). Great job, Chas, you covered this better than ANY writer in Cleveland, I'd say (with the possible, and unfair, exception of Roldo). This day and this subject fills me with hope for and pride in (as never before) this growing network of citizen reporters and commentators. And as the Carpenters would say, we've only just begun...

Only one main dynamic has been missed in all the commentary/writing on the issue, and so I'll supply that small missing bit: suburbanites (mostly white) who pine for regional perspectives and lampoon the nearsightedness/myopia of Cleveland-only pols who fail to see the larger regional picture unfortunately don't seem to appreciate the powerful forces at work on a Cleveland Mayor and City Council that aren't there for others, chief among them the black vote as powerfully articulated/threatened by the again-muscular Call & Post. Under Don King's ownership, it has re-entered the fray with the kind of strong, no-nonsense, thinly veiled threatening editorials and other coverage that made a king-maker out of the late editor William O. Walker. And the revived C&P and its words have to weigh heavily on anyone who runs for office in a town that's just over half black, and who must be left to ponder (more about which in coming days) whether this one was dictated or at least influenced by George Forbes, Arnold Pinkney, Council Prez Frank Jackson (less likely) or maybe King himself.

Now, it's one thing for the average citizen or even community activist not to grasp this fact, but I find it a bit shameful and ridiculous that few media folks ever even read the paper, rendering them (in my view) utterly unable to grasp even the basics of Cleveland brass-knuckle power politics. The C&P's editorial last week on the subject pf the convention center seems nowhere online, so I'll reprint it in its entirety here (note to Working With Words' legal department: please page me immediately if you get any threatening correspondence from Don King's rights & permissions people).

Anyway: Here it is, under the headline "Convention Center Sleight of Hand:

If the Cuyahoga County commissioners and the leadership of the city of Cleveland can't present a united front on the issue of building a new conv. center, how can they expect voters to support a tax increase to build it? Could it be that some parties to the negotiations don't really want a deal? This entire charade is taking on a new face and stalemate appears to be the real end game, with the folks at 601 Lakeside shouldering the blame. Early on, Cleveland leaders established a list of demands that all parties acknowledged should be included in the inter-governmental Agreement. When the commissioners met and passed their plan Monday, it ignored the principles outlined during Cleveland City Council's public hearings. Missing is any mention of responsibility for paying millions of dollars to the former owner of the I-X Center, which Cleveland bought for airport expansion. As part of the purchase, the city agreed to increase the purchase price if a new convention center is constructed in Cleveland. The county commissioners totally ignored the careful work that City Council did to insure that the citizens of Clev. would not be stuck paying for or finding a new use for the current convention center complex if it is abandoned. Commissioners may have an MBE/FBE plan but it wasn't included in the convention center plan, they enacted nor did they agree to the union labor provisions that city council included in the draft. There are constant reports that the three County Commissioners invited Mayor Campbell and Council President Jackson to a private--and illegal--meeting where there allegedly was an agreement in principle. Those principles were abandoned early Monday as the commissioners hastily pre-empted city participation by proposing their own deal because 'we are not responsible for putting the tax issue on the ballot.' If city and county officials really want to do the right thing, honesty must be injected into the process. If the site is not right, or the money split is wrong, then talk about it and make some corrections. There is no reason to ignore the negotiation process unless there is another agenda. More than once city official has been left with the impression that the project is being carefully managed by the other side to let everyone down easy. And if it somhow makes it to the ballot, it won't live to see the light of day. There are dozens of questions that are totally ignored. They can't be answered by cute 30-second commercials. Unanswered, they represent the death of any inititiative to increase taxes for a convention center. Unilateral moves will be measured in voter resentment. This project is unleashing a lot of furstration and pent-up anger in the minds of voters. While power politics is a sure way to mess up the Convention Center project, it is also a good way to get linked to other 'welfare for the rich public projects' like Gateway, Browns Stadium and the Lakefront Line. There is a big downside to building a new convention center. There are no prospects of a big upside. The best this half-billion dollar deal can do is maintain the status quo. Nationally, the industry suffers from overcapacity and a willingness to pay to play with convention manager. Locally, the convention bureau is used as a stalking horse to hide ignorance of convention selling policies. There is no gain there nor was there ever any hope of gaining ground. From the beginning, the convention center issue has been congested with things like taxpayer support for art institutions and housing for the Scranton Peninsula, which shouldn't even be considered. If the Scranton project were feasible without a public subsidy, it would have been completed a decade ago. Arts institution support for Black projects is microscopic. Employment is even smaller. Why should Black voters back an issue that gives money to an arts community that neither hires them, nor serves their interests and cultural needs? Cleveland's demands MBE/FBE and union inclusion, and a minimum investment for neighborhoods and economic development need to be met. If they aren't, commissioners shouldn't put the issue on the ballot.'

Well, there you have it. After years of reading elegantly nuanced PD editorials that sometimes take waffling and subtly to new lengths, that may read to you like an enormous punch in the face from four big titty bar bouncers, or maybe a kick to the face from the man (Don King) who once kicked a man to death on a Cleveland street, only to be officially forgiven in a fascinating bit of behind-the-scenes gubernatorial corruption. As for me, I find its honesty and directness refreshing. I also think this editorial played no small part in convincing wobbly-kneed Jane, increasingly being called a one-termer and faced with building black opposition, only days off a national embarrassment that overwhelms her Today Show makeover in her national press profile, that she ought to quit while she's behind. We'll delve a bit deeper into this rich topic in coming days. In fact, maybe in coming hours..

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Pekar's Latest: He's On Charlie Rose Tonight

The Harvey Pekar "American Splendor" publicity tour rolls on. With the film having opened last week in many places (including Cleveland), the avalanche of favorable coverage and reviews have been no less than staggering. In the perhaps three dozen reviews/features I've come across in print and online, I can't remember one that's been less than warmly favorable.

But tonight the Splendorous One hits a new personal high: having appeared seven times on Letterman, where his cranky everyman persona served as an easy foil for the King of Irony, he's due to appear tonight on the Charlie Rose PBS show, which is a very different environment, marked by a clubby calm and the host's often grating attempts to prove his own intellectual weight by constantly cutting off his subjects. In short, let's hope that Rose allows Harv to get a word in occasionally, since he'll also be appearing with the actor who portrays him and both of the filmakers.

If I had to choose the most interesting review of Splendor, it might be the one that appeared last week in the Times, written by the dreadlocked stylist Elvis Mitchell, who will soon begin lecturing about film at Harvard, at the invitation of Renaissance Man Professor Henry Louis "Chip" Gates, once-embattled director of the university's Afro-American studies program. (Gates has an interesting Cleveland tie: for several years, he has served as chairman of the annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Ceremony, housed at the Cleveland Foundation and quietly, anonymously nurtured for years by my friend Diana Tittle, co-founder of Northern Ohio Live and much-decorated author extraordinaire (I won't attempt to do her justice here--her bio, alas, awaits a future posting). This year's ceremony and reception, open to all, is at the Cleveland Play House's Drury Theatre, on Sept. 18th at 8 p.m. Don't miss it, it's annually one of the best cultural gatherings in Cleveland. Go here to RSVP online).

Anyway, back to Elvis's review. Among other virtues, he puts his finger on what has, or at least had, always bothered me about Pekar: "As played by Paul Giamatti, Harvey is a gray wad of anger that spends his time in his cavelike apartment, with shelves sagging under the weight of his collection of record albums and jazz 78's, sputtering to his equally powerless pals about a world that he refuses to understand. (emphasis is mine)" That's the nub of my problem with him, I now realize: I always found him not merely misanthropic, but a misanthrope who didn't want to try to understand the world or its complexities. In truth, though, the body of his work over the decades constitutes a formidable struggle to work through to some kind of understanding, however peculiar it is to him (and however universal it has since become for many).

Even more interesting, though, was this Mitchellian observation about Cleveland's weather, which I've always maintained is a key but oft-overlooked source of many of our municipal ills, especially our inferiority complex. and no doubt a source of much borderline depression in many. You have to have lived elsewhere to appreciate how infrequently the sun comes out here. As Mitchell writes: "The movie takes place under the sunless skies of Cleveland, a land where bright daylight disappears from about early fall to late spring. The production design achieves the drab pallor through use of dusty brick reds, autumnal browns and oranges and dirty ballpark-mustard yellows: it's a Rust Belt palette." Wow--that's not only some great, vivid writing, coining a splendid new phrase (Rust Belt palette), but old Elvis appears to have some special inside knowledge of the city.

You Know Me: Always Ending on a High Note. Anyway, if the Cleveland weather gets you down, take a break by checking out this site. I checked the footnotes on how these imaginative guys (at least one an MIT grad) arrive at the number, and I think it's probably a pretty accurate running tab on what the Iraq quagmire is costing us. But apart from the simple financial cost, crushing as that is, check out this prophetic warning about the aftermath of an Iraqi war by the incomparable James Fallows, who has a magisterial take in the current issue on media regulation and the Age of Rupert Murdoch. Almost a year ago, long before the battle began, he was warning in the November Atlantic (which means he staked out the argument in about August or September of last year) about the complicated aftermaths of what could easily become the 51st American state. Too bad the former Jimmy Carter speechwriter never made it into the Bush II West Wing.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Gathering Around the Old Wireless

Blackout 2003 will no doubt be remembered for many things. But I'll remember it chiefly through the lens of the radio.

A wise person once observed that radio is better by far than television "because the pictures are better," a reference of course to the fact that radio listeners are forced to use their imaginations to add context to the audio in ways that they don't with TV, which doesn't demand much of anything, and surely not imagination. And that's all the more true of splendid NPR, which routinely crafts beautiful little audio hymns for the richly imaginative to feast upon. But during the blackout last week, with our local NPR affiliate WCPN caught without backup power (tsk-tsk, more about which later), I got the chance to go back to the AM dial in ways that most people haven't been in years.

With the power going out just after 4, I hurried home and found the family calm but bummed out about the power loss. With reports and rumors growing rampant in that first hour, I sought out one of the kids' small boom boxes with batteries, and took it out to the back yard to listen in. The family eventually joined me, prompting me to tease 14-year-old Michael and 13-year-old Patrick: "Isn't this great? This is what it was like in the 30s, with everyone gathered around the radio, listening to the news and talking about their day." Patrick's reply: "Was this like the 30s, too, dad?" as he chucked a nerf football at my head.

Anyway, the boys soon lost interest in radio news, but I stayed with it for hours. And here's what I found. Cleveland's WTAM, which has always staked its rep as the news giant, actually got a chance to deliver, with probably hundreds of thousands of TV-deprived people listening. Even the ordinarily lowbrow sports talk jock Mike Trivisonno smoothly shifted out of his ordinary routine and calmly moved into a more serious public service mode, taking call after call from listeners from around the area reporting in on the situation in their suburb. It was oddly soothing, even compelling, to hear this tapestry of ordinary folk become reporters, which of course had a special resonance for bloggers. Even more impressive, the station seemed to grasp just the right blend of that local input with periodic feeds from ABC news, reporting on the larger picture around the country. All in all, I'd give WTAM an A+. Too bad they don't get to serve this role more than once a decade or less. Who says Clear Channel (the station's new owner) is a heartless, mindless corporate drone? Now that they know the world is watching, they seem to be acting a little more responsibly--for now, at least.

As I moved around the dial, something else occurred to me, though. Unlike Pittsburgh (unhit by the blackout) and Detroit (which was very much affected), Cleveland doesn't have a station with historic call letters harkening back to the early days of the radio era. Steel town has KDKA, the first commercial station in the country, and Motor City has WJR. Judging by what I heard the other day, it would seem that each has retained something of its former primacy in their towns. Our equivalent would be WHK, one of the first six stations in the country, and while it still nominally exists, there's hardly anything still there of its former glory. Sad, but not really the end of the world, I suppose.

While I was quite impressed with KDKA's coverage, one ridiculous comment made me wonder about everything else. In response to a caller who mentioned the Internet, the DJ proceeded to opine that people would "be surprised at how so much of it is located in a single room." When I finished laughing out loud, I did wonder about how many more millions of Americans are that utterly ignorant of the Internet in 2003.

Still, the funniest and the most interesting observations about the Blackout came via the tube, after the power came back. Humorist Andy Borowitz observed on CNN that he called his parents in Cleveland to try to discourage them from looting, before dryly noting that despite the blackout, no one was observed trying to loot Madonna's new CD. And CNN's Jeff Greenfield, possibly the best journalist working in television right now, got off a good line about the spirit of the Blackout in New York. He called it "Like the (London) Blitz without the bombs."

As for WCPN, I can't imagine why it was nearly alone among local radio stations in being without back-up power. The million dollars-plus challenge grant that Peter B. Lewis has given the station has gone to good use recently, helping the station's long-mediocre news operation pick it up a notch (our Coolio Clevelander Tom Mulready sounded like a veteran radio DJ during a WCPN appearance last week, with the pipes of a younger Walter Cronkite). And the great job that they would have undoubtedly done during the blackout would have only solidified their growing position as Cleveland's electronic hearth, or audio town hall. But they never got the chance. A pity...

A Few More Scattered Blackout-Related Observations. I think the PD hurt itself by choosing to go with only half a news hole on its abbreviated next-morning edition. For reasons only publisher Alex Machaskee can say, it offered up five pages of so-so coverage and five pages of ads. It reminded me of the famous case study of the New York newspaper competition: During the paper rationing accompanying World War II, the NY Times was alone among the dozen or so papers there at the time in reducing the space for advertising. While a difficult financial decision in the short term, in the long term it was considered one of the prime reasons that the Times emerged as the strongest competitors. Having chosen the public good when push came to shove and it meant losing some money, it also served to hook a loyal readership that rebounded to its long-term benefit. Couldn't the Newhouses have forgone just a single day of ad revenues in the face of this historic crisis, even though they no longer have to worry about competition?

Motor City Pillar of Calm. I also came away charmed in a couple of ways by watching repeated TV clips of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (what a name combination!), who calmly took control of the situation from behind a podium in a way that our Jane Campbell, who looked rattled and high-strung, so clearly did not (and her ridiculous strategy to have her clueless press secretary try to dictate coverage may have just gone from momentary embarrassment to full-fledged disaster, with Sam Fulwood's PD story now gone national via a prominent link on the national media's favorite site, Romanesko Media News, complete with a photo of Jane--guaranteed to draw even more attention since few entries carry a photo of any kind. Romanesko, you should know, is widely credited with infusing oxygen into the NYT Jayson Blair story, keeping it alive as a national story for weeks. Jane may have to put off her plans to run for governor for awhile). Anyway, to my delight, I noticed that Mayor Kilpatrick also appeared to be wearing a small earing in his left ear lobe, surely making him the first male mayor of a major American city to be so adorned. I made sure I pointed that out to my oldest son, who's been taking some serious abuse from the parents of some of his friends over a similar decision. See, Michael, you've got some defensive ammunition now...

And speaking of my beloved Michael, who starts his high school career this week at St. Ignatius (whose well-stocked website is maintained by our friend Mark Geyman), he has decided in recent weeks to join the ranks of bloggers, with the debut of his weblog, devoted to all things basketball (the name of it, KingE23, is a reference to the sainted Lebron). To release his adolescent angst, I've encouraged him to write and articulate in any medium with which he's comfortable, which led to one especially memorable rant against his parents, in the medium of rap lyrics (which I'll of course keep private--but trust me, it was pretty interesting). So the blog is merely his most recent venture into those waters, which I hope will be a lifelong progression in using language. In just four blog entries, he has already done a couple of interesting things: posted from a remote location (while at hoops camp with his cousin on the west coast), and gone collaborative, by letting his buddy Tyler write the most recent posting. Good luck on your writing, Michael. Maybe in a couple of years we'll see if you'd like to get involved in this cool news collaborative for and by young 'uns, begun by a visionary 25-year-old BBC reporter as a way for fledgling reporters to gather some quality clips.

It seems National City's long-awaited refresh of its massive website has been postponed due to the blackout, which strikes me as a pretty good excuse. It was due to debut on August 15th, or Day 2 of the blackout, but thus far hasn't yet arrived. I'd guess we can look for it sometime this week, though. It was on this giant project (it can now be told) that I labored fulltime as an outside resource during all of May and into June. So I'm rather looking forward to the unveiling.

Bullshitter-in-Chief. I know George W. wasn't trying to be funny, but he again came away with the howler of the day/week/year, with this ridiculous bit of blackout-related BS: "I view it as a wake-up call. I've been very worried that our infrastructure is old." Is there a living, breathing person who believes that he's been worried about infrastructure of any type? The Prez seems to outdo himself each day in the lengths to which he will go to lie to us. Which is why we all need to join together in the solemn task of sending One-Term George off to a well-deserved early retirement...

And finally, congrats to our George Nemeth on his appearance in today's New York Times. Goes to show you that it pays to put your phone number on your blog. I also got an email from the Times's Amy Harmon Saturday morning (I only have my email address above, not phone #), but couldn't get back to her before her deadline. Still, it was nice to be stumbled upon by the NYT, presumably via Google. And even nicer to see George's comments (though it would have been nicer if they'd have published his URL).

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Thank You's All Around

Today I'm thankful. Thankful to Blogger/Google, for fixing the site problems I encountered the last few days. In hopes of establishing the common-guy plausability of doing a weblog (if I can do it, I like to tell people, you can too), I've always prided myself on doing this without any help thus far, despite some kind offers of assistance from some friends & colleagues with far better technical skills (whom I may soon take up on their offer). But in trying to add a comments feature to the site via Haloscan, I apparently flubbed the simple cut-and-pasting of the code, which gave me problems until a couple of cheery Blogger help deskers came to the rescue earlier today. Anyway, thanks (and by the way, Anton, that's a helluva cool-looking new blog. I'm beginning to lose track of all of your sites).

And as long as I'm on the subject of thankfulness, let me say that I'm also thankful for all the multimedia mentions I've recently received, along with links to this site. Some are recent, others long overdue. Anyway, here's a quick rundown:
Thanks to PD tech columnist Chris Seper for the mention in his Monday column, which began with a longer story on NEOSA's money woes before moving into a quick sketch of It was his last column before a nine-week leave of absence, perhaps to take some parenting time with this little bundle. Thanks also to the new link from's weblog page. And (this one is long overdue) thanks to our friend Dash, the anonymous Inside Business gossip columnist, for this mention back in late June.

Finally, thanks to all the bloggers I haven't even met who keep adding a link to this site. It's of course wonderful to be linked to one's friends, colleagues, goombahs and co-conspirators, and I do appreciate all those from the likes of Jack, Steve (welcome back), George, Eric, Bruce, Barbara, Don, Jim, Tony, Sandy, Anton and others. But it's an altogether different experience to stumble over mentions and links from those you don't know and have never so much as heard of, people such as this kind soul (who improbably and delightfully puts Workingwithwords in with her other two favorites, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail!), and this fellow, Richard Talbot, who calls me "quintessential Cleveland" (is that an ouch, or does it only sound like a put-down from a non-local?) before regaining his senses by calling this site well-written. Anyway, I'm much obliged to all. May this pub grow slowly, surely and virally...

Friday, August 08, 2003

Friday Roundup

Take a Bow, Eric. Congratulations to our colleague Eric Olsen on the one-year anniversary of his excellent Blogcritics supersite. In its brief life, it has already garnered a Yahoo! Pick of the Week and been judged among the best media sites by And I especially liked the fact that in a brief entry about the anniversary today, Eric links to my favorite book on writing, William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Take a bow, Mr. Olsen. Now get back to work!

Tony, Will You Join Me? This extraordinary item in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, by way of the excellent blog in Christianity Today, left me feeling the need to visit a black church sometime soon. Perhaps our friend Tony Houston has a suggestion or two for me. Even better yet, maybe he'll join me.

Why I love the Washington Post, Round 1. In coming days, I'll make the case that the WaPo, as its lovingly known in the trade, is very nearly the equal of the arch-rival NYT. And with its well-over half-billion-dollar investment (in accumulated deficits) in its website, I would argue that it's rapidly becoming an equally influential national paper, despite it's having decided against that strategy for the hard copy version. But a case in point for its excellence: in all the interminable coverage over the Californian electoral crack-up, nothing has even come close to this dazzling feature by Post Style feature star Hank Stuever. This great line pretty well sums it up: "California is behaving badly, like a disheveled celebrity gone off her meds," he writes. He goes on to describe the whole scene in a piece of brilliant reporting.

Rage of the Closed-Club Mastodons. I mentioned yesterday how even the Associated Press, the most establishment of media organizations, is slowly evolving in its acceptance of the new media order. But of course that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of mastodons still roaming the earth, equating the Internet with the end of civilization as we know it. Sure enough, today comes this splendid example of old-boy arrogance, from Newsweek columnist Mark Starr. Here is the money quote. When I was growing up in this business, our collective notion of what constituted the media was pretty uniform and certainly finite. It sure as hell didnt include every clown with a Web site and a grudge, every blogger convinced that his daily diary contains breathless prose, every shock jock with toilet tastes and even baser values (notice how he not-so-slyly equates blogs with shock radio?). All those now claim to be part of the media. And maybe they are. But too many practitioners of new media are working relentlessly to drag everyone else down to their subterranean levels. In his raging middle-aged, bespectacled beardedness, Im afraid he sounds and looks for all the world like a tired old academic digging in against pressure from students that he dust off those lecture notes for the droning monologue he's been giving over and over for 30 years and actually engage with the current world in all its raucous, maddening glory. His media pass, alas, no longer automatically confers special insight. The quality of his ideas and reporting, and the language with which he conveys them, have to compete for an audience with lots of new entrants, sorry to say. So dust off those lecture notes, Mr. Starr, and get to it.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Distilling the Poetry of Fact

"Updike, for his part, worked within the established conventions [of the New Yorker Magazine], but stretched them. 'It was perfectly obvious,' recalled Brendan Gill, 'that he was writing better Talk stories than anyone who had ever written them.' His data compilations on Antarctica, pigeons, and (audaciously) the universe were attempts to distill a poetry of fact."
--From About Town--The New Yorker and the World It Made, by Ben Yagoda

I find it instructive, every now and again, to go back through various books I've read and glimpse at those portions I've underlined or otherwise marked up. Over the years, I've evolved a kind of personal annotation system which I've recently come to realize hasn't really varied too much over about 25 years of serious reading, whether I was reading for pleasure, to mine the book for material or even for the purpose of reviewing it.

If a passage--anything from a few lines to an entire page--caught my interest, I would put a bracket around it in the margins. If it were especially interesting, or I wanted to signal to myself special interest in a smaller portion, I'd underline it. And really special stuff got stars next to it, perhaps even a few stars. Finally, impossibly vivid or sublime stuff that just screamed out at me got an exclamation point or two. Which of course made it hard to borrow a book from the library. But the aforementioned unauthorized biography of the New Yorker is especially good on this count. Besides that sublime observation on John Updike, I found these other little gems when I revisited it recently after having read it only a year or two before:

On editor William Shawn's management style, an impossibly zen-like blend of dysfunction and freedom-instilling restraint: "Shawn didn't just hire writers--he annointed them, as if to enter a secret and particularly holy religious order. Once selected, they found they were expected to find their own path to salvation." (I gave this one a bracket).

On writer Phillip Hamburger's recollection of sparring with Shawn over punctuation when going through a story proof: "he insisted that a hyphen was gramatically required in a certain word at the end of an article. I argued forcibly that the hyphen--the mere presence of the hyphen--would destroy the sentence. 'That's a ruinous hyphen,' I said. I wanted two separate words, and no hypen. I was quite worked up over the hyphen. Shawn was calm and cool. 'Perhaps you had better sit outside my office and think it over,' he said. From time to time he would pop his head out. 'Have you changed your mind?' he asked. This continued from about ten at night until close to two-thirty the next morning. Shawn finally said, sadly, 'All right. No hyphen. But you are wrong.'" (a bracket and two exclamation points).

On Truman Capote's method of reporting profiles: "Capote pursued a cunning, effective and prescient strategy: he never concealed his journalistic presence, but he generally disregarded the statements his characters made on the record, concentrating instead on the ways they revealed themselves when they assumed they weren't being observed." (an underlining, a bracketing, one exclamation point and four stars).

Blogging Coverage. The blogging phenomenon continues to be heavily covered by the general media as well as the media's trade press. And here are three recent pieces I've found especially compelling, for varying reasons. This Los Angeles Magazine piece does a good job of covering Mickey Kaus and his Kausfiles, which began as an indy blog before being merged into Slate. Like so many of the best, most serious non-fiction writers in the U.S., he cut his teeth at the Washington Monthly and later the New Republic during its '80s heyday, when Mike Kinsley "spawned an everything-you-know-is-wrong journalism, a mode of both speaking from the left and interrogating many of the left's preconceptions." This piece makes the interesting assertion that the blog culture tends to operate not unlike the cool clique in high school, in which "everybody starts talking about what the cool kids are saying." I think the writer nails it by observing that Kaus has pioneered a new kind of hybrid coverage: presenting "news while interpreting it--really, it presents news by interpreting it."

Editor & Publisher Mag has just posted this interesting interview with the online editor of a mid-sized paper, the Spokesman-Review in Washington State, which has recently added no fewer than nine blogs to its site. But what really caught my eye was this: this fellow, Ken Sands, sits on the board of the extremely influential Associated Press Managing Editors, which he rightly describes as being composed of "middle-aged print publication managers who don't seem to know yet what to make of online journalism." And yet, according Mr. Sands, they've just added a second board slot for an online person. I'd call that slow but steady headway (and have I mentioned that our own Society of Professional Journalists' chapter has recently decided to do not one but two programs in the coming year about online subjects?).

Finally, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal edit page, came this piece about politicians' blogs. It makes the case that politicians aren't cut out for blogging, because "blogging, in short, thrives on sarcasm." Well, I think that's just flatly, demonstrably, wrong as a general statement. Certainly in my cohort, there's a heck of a lot more earnestness than sarcasm. Still, as a former-cynic-turned-skeptic (a crucial distinction which I think too few people appreciate) I'm prepared to admit that my circle may not be representative. After all, none of my college friends did drugs or fooled around much with the opposite sex (though we somehow managed to have a helluva good time anyway).

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

America's Most Literate Cities

When you become the chancellor of a public university, my guess is that life isn't a ball of laughs. While the title sounds oh so important, I'd be willing to bet that one's work day is buried largely in the minutia of academic bureaucracy. And it's probably doubly worse if your early training was in journalism. And so John Miller, who got his journalism degree from Ohio University and now serves as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (not that one), apparently decided to do some interesting research as a sidelight.

What he came up with is a ranking of America's most literate cities, which purports to bring some rigor to what might otherwise be a spirited barroom debate. He looked at cities with a quarter million population or more, and ranked them on the basis of the circulation of newspapers and other publications and the number of booksellers, and on the number and quality of their libraries and the educational attainment of their citizens. As I drilled down into his methodology, I had a few quibbles, but only one major one.

So here's what he found: on an overall basis, taking all five factors together, the top 10 were Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, San Fran, Pittsburgh, D.C., Louisville, Portland (OR) and Cincinnati. Cleveland? It comes in at #20, or about four notches below its current ranking in the Census Bureau's listing of the country's largest metro areas. No real surprises here, really. But the most interesting findings, I thought, were when you take a look at the component areas. Cleveland ranks higher in newspapers (#13) and libraries (tied for 12th), the latter of which is no surprise, given our world-class Cleveland Public Library, yet another legacy of our rich early-20th-century robber baron heritage. But, and again no surprise here, it's our abysmal educational rankings (specifically, the percentage of residents that have attained high school diplomas and undergraduate degrees) that sunk us to 20th place. But don't feel too bad: Chicago was way down in 45th place and New York City two slots below that! And that has more to do with my biggest problem with the methodology: it appears to look only at the major city proper and not its larger metro area, which is the only meaningful measuring stick of American cities in the 21st century.

One other observation about this report: you would think that these rankings, which have been extensively reported in other cities throughout the U.S., would have been easy fodder for Cleveland pubs looking for grist for the inevitable benchmarking report story, only this one would be interesting for a change. Alas, no one in Cleveland has yet picked up on it (too few do much web reporting). Instead, our pubs take up valuable pages with such gruesomely illiterate fare as Cleveland Mag's current cover "story," on fashion makeovers for local TV anchors. Egad! The once-proud mag sinks ever further (Sorry, but I can't in good conscience link to it and make it any easier for you to find such stuff).

Another Pekar Review. Meanwhile, reviews of Harvey Pekar's movie continue in the New York media. I recently mentioned one in the Village Voice, and today we have another review, in the New York Observer, the neighborhood paper for the Upper East Side's media elite. And just in case readers might miss one acid sentence up there in the second graf, they ran it as a prominent (enlarged) pull quote: "Mr. Pekar lives in Cleveland, which sounds like a loser's punchline from the outset." Oh, well, I suppose if Harvey Pekar becomes your town's de facto cultural ambassador, you have to be prepared for bad things to happen.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Bookstores We Have Loved

I was in Columbus yesterday, and so that meant one thing simply had to be worked into the schedule: at least a 90-minute wander around the city's best indy bookshop, the Book Loft in the splendid German Village section of town. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a more appealing bookstore in the entire state of Ohio (and trust me, the bricks & mortars are quite a bit more appealing than their terrible website). It's in a century-plus converted home, with perhaps 20 rooms, stuffed floor to ceiling with books. The only minor negative: there's no room to put a sofa or even a chair.

Coffee shops and similar places for gathering, thinking and composing one's thoughts are of course key components of any area's writing and literary life, but for my money bookstores are even more important. In the last decade, Borders and then Barnes & Noble have obviously ravaged the pool of independents, as the twin superchains marched through the country like General Sherman bearing down on Atlanta.

In Cleveland, a handful of independent shops have somehow survived, but each is relatively small and thus highly niched, and therefore unequipped to take the role once occupied by, say, Booksellers before its demise about six years ago. Appletree Books on Cedar Hill in Cleveland Heights is perhaps the tiniest, and its owner is about 80. The Learned Owl in Hudson is a pretty nice experience, but it closes before dinner most nights. The shop on W. 25th probably has the best selection of local stuff, new and used. Suzanne Degatano's Mac's Backs in Coventry, adjoining Tommy's, is easily the most serious about supporting writers and writing, hosting frequent booksignings and writers' meetings. Its owner serves as a board member/advisor/champion of everything from the Poets & Writers League to the new publication Urban Dialect. And cozy Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls actually has some reasonable space for books, and it seems to take seriously its role as a literary center for the prosperous Chagrin Valley. The newest regional entrant is also in many ways the most interesting: Joseph-Beth. The jury is still out about these folks: the first Cleveland-area location has some of the feel of the old Booksellers while also somehow retaining at least a bit of a feel of the chain store. And we'll see if the Shaker Square location long survives the rocky retailing environment of its neighborhood, especially after it opens a new store in October in Lyndhurst's new Legacy Village, just a half hour walk (oh, joy) from my house.

Still, ever since some of us watched in horror as an unsmiling liquidator presided over a going-out-of-business sale at Booksellers in Beachwood, with owner Joan Hulbert off somewhere else as they closed down her baby, once a mecca for book enthusiasts, the sad reality is that this has been a second-rate book town. Don't even get older book lovers started about the demise of the hallowed downtown stores. They'll yack in your ear for hours.

And so hardened bookshop afficianados are left with occasional visits to our favorite out-of-town places. And for me, only one renowned destination remains unvisited: Denver's vaunted Tattered Cover. I've read about it, and pulled more detail from friends who have lived or visited there. And yet I've somehow never yet made it there myself. But thank god we have some family in Portland, Oregon. That's given me the chance to visit the even more revered Powell's City of Books a handful of times, including last year. While lots of well-known bookstores go for the upscale feel, Powell's has taken a contrary approach, with its city-block-square main location having the feel of a giant book warehouse. The star here is books, it seems to say, not spiffy furnishings and interiors.

Boston, for all its reputation as the Athens of America (for its thick concentration of colleges and universities) lost its best bookstore a few years ago, the impossibly appealing Harvard Bookstore on Newbury Street. It's yet to replace it with anything as interesting, in my opinion. Chicago, where we lived for a time, still has the venerable Barbara's Bookstore, on North Wells, about halfway between the Loop and Lincoln Park. While reasonably compact, it's worth browsing for hours. Unfortunately, in '95 my favorite (and even more venerable) Windy City bookshop, Stuart Brent Books, closed due to the retirement of its owner of the same name. But my guess is that the escalating rents along the booming Magnificent Mile didn't help any. It was a miracle of old-world bookishness, adorned with dozens of reminders of legendary Chicago authors like Saul Bellow who frequented the joint and its predecessor, Seven Stairs. The perfect place for a book lover to while the hours while a spouse visits more prosaic places such as Water Tower Place nearby.

But Washington, D.C., where I lived for a few years in the '80s, probably still has the best concentration of indy bookstores anywhere outside of Manhattan (which itself has been ravaged by chains, losing the likes of such neighborhood institutions as Shakespeare & Co.). Kramer Books at Dupont Circle is a bit cramped, but a Friday-night institution. Olsson Books & Records in Georgetown is a Saturday-afternoon-wanderer's delight, its owner having adapted to the realities of chain competition by holding his nose and selling Beany Babies. And perhaps best of all is Politics & Prose in upper Northwest, which to my regret opened just down the street from where we once lived, after we moved away. In any event, I couldn't pass within a hundred miles of that shop--no, make that I couldn't pass through the mid-Atlantic region--without making sure the itinerary somehow includes at least a brief stop there.

Having set the stage with this admittedly impressionistic roundup of bookstores in various cities, tomorrow I'll bring you word of a new study on America's most literate cities, which is considerably less impressionistic, full of actual research. Stop back to see where Cleveland ranks...

Monday, August 04, 2003

The Re-Chaining of Alt-Weeklies

Since its return to publication in May after the feds stepped in to undo a shameful deal between the two main alt-weekly chains, the Free Times has made much of the fact that rival Scene is part of a soulless alternative weekly chain, New Times, which it implies is a conflict in terms. And rightly so. Only problem is, as of about a week ago, the Free Times is itself also part of a chain.

That's because late last month the paper's Erie-PA-based owner, Times Publishing Company, purchased an alternative paper in Louisville, Tennessee, The Louisville Eccentric Observer. You probably won't read about it in the FT, though my guess is that eventually the Scene will catch on and do something with it (though possibly not, since the Phoenix-based owners may not want to call any more attention to the topic of chain ownership).

You may have noticed that FT editor David Eden has all but dropped the shrill, over-the-top anti-Scene blitz with which he came out of the boxes in May. He called for boycotts of the paper and rejection of its out-of-town owners and their cookie-cutter, centralized style of operating papers. While I agreed with many of his points, that line of reasoning struck me as pretty odd, given that the FT also had out-of-town owners, despite Eden's attempts to at least imply that he and publisher Matt Fabyan were the principal owners (they both have some ownership interest, but far from a controlling interest). That opened the door for a Scene counteract on that less-than-factual campaign. And in early June, Scene delivered, with this scathing piece by New Times co-founder Mike Lacey, in which he ridicules the FT's "bug-eyed attacks" on his paper. More to the point, he called it a "childish fabrication" for Eden to suggest that the restored FT was no longer part of a large corporation and chain-owned, but "locally owned and operated." His points, never publicly challenged by Eden and the FT, so far as I know, seem to have chilled the Free Times anti-Scene campaign, at least for now. But I would suggest that the Free Times does need to answer them eventually, since after all, the only thing a paper has to offer is its credibility.

And in recent weeks, Eden has had to deal with yet another creeping example of the kettle calling the pot black. To his point about much of Scene's editorial policy originating from Phoenix, with some (especially entertainment) stories being syndicated across the chain, the FT only last week ran a cover story on local golfer Ben Curtis written by a Philly Inquirer sportswriter. The connection? Shaker Hts. native Art Howe, a former Pulitzer winner with the Inquirer, leads the Times Publishing subsidiary which owns the Free Times (though Eden, obviously attuned to the touchiness of this issue, took pains to point out in an addendum note that this piece was written exclusively for the Free Times). In the same issue, the paper also carried a political column by the Philly alt-weekly, City Paper. You guessed it: Howe owns that paper. So I ask you: is the FT really that different an animal than the Scene, leaving aside for a moment Eden's laudable moral fervor? I'd say all of this bears further scrutiny, wouldn't you, dear Cleveland-area citizen/news consumer?

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, Randy Siegel, the son of the Free Times' original founder, and a guy who took over running the paper for several years after his dad died (before selling it to the chain that owns the Village Voice), was recently named publisher of Parade Magazine, that wan Sunday color insert in dozens of papers around the country, including the Plain Dealer. I always thought it was interesting that he went to Parade soon after leaving the FT, since the publication is owned by the PD's owners, Newhouse's Advance Publications, and Randy presided over a paper that regularly pounded on the PD. Just goes to show you that when it comes to making money in publishing, memories can be short.

Friday, August 01, 2003

How Hope Coverage Gives Me Hope

'Start by doing what's necessary,
then what's possible, and suddenly
you are doing the impossible.'
--St. Francis of Assisi

NBC's me-too political news summary ABC's "The Note," an exhaustive daily political news summary/background briefing paper is justly famous in political-wonk circles. Produced by the network's crack political unit of off-camera producers, and available on the web, it's packed with so many smart observations, solid reporting and links to other sources that it often influences the political zeitgeist, surely no easy thing in a world of smart print and online political mags such as The New Republic, The American Prospect and the Weekly Standard, among others. Now, belatedly, NBC has jumped into the fray with its own me-too product, called "First Read". Thus far (it's been around since July 1st) it seems pretty lame by comparison. My suggestion to NBC: scrap it, and put that considerable time and attention into something you can do well that isn't already being done better elsewhere. It's another reminder that the best products seep up from the bottom, often in an unplanned way. The Note, after all, began as a daily summary produced only for in-house ABC personnel. But it was so good that it quickly went viral, with copies passing all over the place. NBC's product, because it's a copy cat and consciously produced for a public audience from the outset, doesn't work. At least, not yet.

Pekar Gets Some 'Voice' Time. I'd have to guess that I'm in the minority on this, but I've always found Cleveland cartoonist Harvey Pekar pretty much a snore. I don't know whether it's all the dozens of awful local profiles that have been written about him over the years, his tiresome Yes-I'm-a-lowly-government-file-clerk-but-also-one-of-America's-leading-underground-intellectuals schtick or his impossibly boorish behavior on Letterman (okay, I don't like GE owning NBC either, but when a guy, Letterman, who no doubt didn't like it either, invites you to his house for some national publicity, I say just fricking bite your tongue and try to be somewhat thankful). Probably it's the combination of all three. Still, a large part of me does like and respect how he's stuck at it for so many years, and I'm quite looking forward to seeing his movie when it comes in two weeks to the Cedar-Lee. This week, the Pekar Publicity Machine grinds on, with this pretty interesting piece in the Village Voice. And speaking of the Cedar-Lee: god bless you Jonathan Forman. With the recent movement of the Coventry Madstone back to mainstream drek, the venerable one retakes its place as Cleveland's only true art house playing only thoughtful, intelligent films (well, in fairness, you have to include John Ewing's Cinametheque, but that's a little different animal). In the last few weeks, I've caught two movies at the C-L, The Swimming Pool, which was splendid and oh-so-erotic, and The Friedmans, which was simply stunning. In fact, the latter was a good example of how I've come to rely on the Cedar-Lee as a stamp of quality. I generally don't even bother checking reviews (when you do need to do that, Rotten Tomatoes is the place to go, cause it aggregates reviews from around the country) or otherwise reading up on a film. I simply know that if it's booked into the Cedar-Lee, it's going to at least be pretty good. And so a few weeks ago I stumbed into the Friedmans not knowing what it was about, only to be emotionally staggered by one of the most harrowing, perfectly told documentaries on possible child sexual abuse and family dysfunction I've ever seen. Stunned by what I'd seen, I wandered out of the movie and bumped into some old friends, who were in high spirits from a night out with the girls. I must have seemed like a zombie to them--they wanted to chit chat and gossip, but I was still trying to process what I'd just seen. Anyway, if you haven't yet seen it, go this weekend! And you might also think about signing up for Cleveland Cinema's email newsletter, "Sprockets."

Blonde Dumbshell. Who says there's no justice? Even conservatives are now embarrassed by Ann Coulter's over-the-top ranting. They're apparently worried that the Connecticut-bred dingbat's embrace of American history's third rail (touch it, and you die), Sen. Joe McCarthy, has made it too easy for the enemy to lump her in with more thoughtful conservative positions. In recent weeks, the Wall Street Journal and Andrew Sullivan have been among conservatives to blast her latest book. But I thought the best roasting of all was this magazine-cover parody in the Weekly Standard. Cable TV bookers, of course, can't resist her shrill bumper sticker bromiding, and she's apparently too dim to realize that people are laughing at her rather than with her. Meanwhile, though, be warned that Coulter is due to soon join the blogging world. A truly loathesome right-wing rag, Human Events, has left this placeholder for her.

Finally, a hopeful note about journalism. When Bob Hope died, it was of course no surprise that rivers of ink and acres of TV time were allotted to covering it. After all, it's an obvious story line, a century of joke telling, an American icon, yadda yadda. Still, for a lot of us I would guess, he represented something else: how tepid middlebrow mediocrity can often become enshrined as excellence in America. And yet, I came away impressed by how a number of outlets found an imaginative way to mark the occasion, delivering stories (and in one case a multimedia surprise) that, through compelling storytelling, actually made me care just a little about the man. Which is what journalism should be all about. I'd nominate this trio of stories for special attention on the Bob Hope front: This piece in one of my favorite webzines, Flak, by Chicago-based writer Claire Zulkey I've increasingly admired, part of a rat pack of 20-something sharpies who are doing some of the best writing, much of it online, in America. So I was surprised bordering on shocked that she would choose to write about this hopeless old fart Bob Hope. But she makes it worthwhile. AARP, the magazine of the American Association of Retired People, is of course all about covering old farts. And yet they found a truly compelling way of drawing online vistors into the story, with this great little Virtual Bob Hope cartoon app, a companion to the story "Fanfare for the Common Ham." And finally, British-based The Economist, which is simply one of the most splendid publications in the world and getting better all the time, delivers this gem of a send-off to the funny man. Thanks, guys, for reminding us that no subject is too mundane for those who bring some spark and imagination to them.