Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Report on the Skyline Writers Conference

As I mentioned last week, I wasn't around for the annual
Skyline Writers' conference last Saturday, but wanted to somehow participate anyway. So I put a call out to readers of Working With Words, asking if anyone might be interested in attending in my place. Judy Anne nicely stepped forward and took part in the festivities. I asked her how it went, and she was good enough to send along the following report:
I am delighted to report that the Skyline Writers Conference was both inspirational and humbling. Many of the writers in attendance, as well as the presenters, are exceptional. These folks, including a NASA scientist, a physicist, a lawyer, and an entrepreneur, are not among the reputed majority of Americans who read at an eighth-grade level and are clearly far left on the intellectual bell curve. Very sharp, insightful, engaging people who have deep curiosity and a natural gift for storytelling. I am so, so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the conference. I am certain that this experience will transform me in ways I cannot yet know.

The conference was located at the rustic Hines Hill Conference Center in the heart of the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The CVNP’s informal motto is, “It’s Amazing What Grows Here.” I’m sure those in attendance felt the energy and metaphor of this motto. A few comments about the presenters.

Cinda Williams Chima authors young adult fantasy (The Warrior Heir) but nonetheless imparted practical advice in a presentation that emphasized the elements and structure of good storytelling. “Know the rules before you choose to break them,” she wisely cautioned. She provided another dose of reality when discussing the post-publishing process—even though her second book is slated for debut in Spring 2007 and her third book is in process, she is still waiting for the 16-city press tour and an invite from Oprah.

Bob Carson brought humor and wisdom to the program, revealing some of his creative/unconventional approaches to getting his work--mostly articles and commentary with a humorous slant--published. He distributed a copy of a cleverly written, albeit unorthodox, cover letter that became the catalyst for a writing assignment that has lead to a monthly column. His success speaks for itself.

Sarah Sphar, editor of Northern Ohio Live, got the audience’s attention when talking about a magazine’s “lickability factor.” Someone once told her that the cover of a magazine should be so deliciously enticing as to evoke the desire to lick it. Hmmm. Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Michael Salinger, a widely published and accomplished poet, coached us with some provocative group writing exercises. Resistance was futile for the bashful but in the end the participatory exercises aptly demonstrated the power of imagery, experience and metaphor to improve our craft. In one exercise, we randomly crafted the seemingly nonsensical sentence, “Sixty-three recalcitrant oak trees slowly running along the river” and yet were able to attach meaning through metaphor from the words. It brought to mind (at least to mine) the Lewis Carroll poem, Jabberwocky. A good reminder to writers that we don't need to tell the reader everything...even though most of Americans do read at an eighth-grade level.

The conference was well-organized and the leadership unflappable, in spite of a no-show by the initial presenter. I spoke with many of the Skyline members who by my estimation have reason to be arrogant...none of that was apparent. My initial impression is that Skyline is a supportive group dedicated to ennobling the craft of
writing. The attendees (and the Skyline group) tend to be skewed in favor of a female, mid-40's demographic. Testosterone is perhaps needed. One personal insight: I'd better keep my day job. Maybe Sarah Sphar was right when she said, based on her background as a proofreader for an accounting firm, "accountants can't write."

How do some of these people write so well, so quickly? How do they keep to the thread without veering off on the barrage of tangents that assault the brain? Anyway, thanks again for being the catalyst for a great experience.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Real Person Beneath that Elegant Facade

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.
--Poet Wendell Berry
You can read an interview with the Kentucky-based poet/farmer here, in the excellent bimonthly magazine of literary journalism, New Southerner

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Week's Best Line

'I'm 61, which is too young for Medicare, but too old for women to care.'
--Kinky Friedman, the Jewish cowboy who's running for governor of his native state of Texas, on NPR recently. To learn more about his race, check his campaign website. To learn more about the man, I'd recommend this New Yorker profile from last year. The self-described governor-in-waiting also maintains a blog. Or rather, the campaign appears to be maintaining it for him.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Fall Season Begins

As I noted last year at this time, when you have kids, the whole family naturally tends to follow the rhythms of the school year. And so when they head back to school, fall begins, no matter what the calendar or mercury reading says. My boys started school at St. Ignatius today. For the first time, they drove themselves to school. My oldest begins his senior year, surely a rite of passage.

Tomorrow, I'm headed to Chicago to begin what should be an intellectually stimulating fall tour of writing-related events. Along with a handful of Cleveland colleagues, I'll be attending the SPJ national conference, and speaking Friday on a panel about marketing yourself as a freelancer. I'm looking forward to visiting my old haunts in leafy Lincoln Park (where I once lived as a newlywed, a very long time ago, and a place that remains in mind always) and other favorite Windy City spots. On September 16th, I'll also be speaking (about publishing on the web) back in Cleveland at Lakeland Community College's 23rd annual writers conference. A few days later, on the 20th, I'll begin a three-session class on column-writing, at the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland. And finally, on October 12th, I'm looking forward to being on a panel at the International Association of Business Communicators (check out their blog) with the sublime Cleveland-based novelist Sarah Willis. Not many details about that one yet (I assume it'll be a lunch session somewhere in downtown Cleveland) but when I find out more, I'll post it.

But needless to say, if you're an aspiring, rookie, intermediate or veteran writer--or even a serious reader--don't for a moment limit yourself to those events. There are so many more worth taking in, if you can. On Friday of this week, you can join my friends Jeff Hess and Mac's Backs Suzanne D at the PWLGC open house. A bit further east, the new Cleveland Heights Library will celebrate its grand reopening with a day of events on September 16th. Our gifted friends Kristin Ohlson (check out her new blog) and Michael Ruhlmann will be among the featured speakers. Meanwhile, Mike will also be the featured speaker at the annual Case convocation, the kickoff to the school year. This coming weekend, the westside-based writers' group Skyline Writers holds its annual writer's conference on Saturday, where Sarah Sphar, editor of Northern Ohio Live, will speak. It's not too late to register for that excellent event, expertly cobbled together by the talented writer Claudia Taller (who just published her first-ever piece today in Cool Cleveland, a review of the recent Tremont Art Walk).

I would be there in a moment to watch Claudia, Sarah and a few other pals and acquaintances in action, if I were going to be around that day. So please consider taking my place, if you can. In fact, let me up the ante. A free registration to that conference awaits the first two readers who email me today at the email address above (just put "Skyline Writers Conference" in the subject heading, please). And enjoy the rest of your week, will you? I'll be back in action here on Monday.

This Week's Media Column:
Will PD's Larkin Stay or Go?

Due to a vacation, I skipped a week last week in my every-other week rotation on the Media Hound column in the Free Times.
This week's column is about Plain Dealer editorial page editor (and the paper's institutional memory, especially on politics) Brent Larkin. He's among those who've been offered an early retirement package, and internal newsroom interest is beginning to run high about whether he'll stay or go. Here's hoping this column helps spark at least some modest external interest as well. I think it's time to let some new voices be heard more, and his leaving will surely facilitate that, as well as signal a real end to the unfortunate Alex Machaskee era.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Infamous Byline
Of Kitty Kelley A Tad
Jarring on TNR Cover

I did a double-take when I saw her byline this week on a
cover story in The New Republic. The infamous Kitty Kelley, who's been scorned in some quarters as the author of "bioporn" and celebrated in others as a fearless investigative reporter whose work generally stands up to close scrutiny, wrote a long piece about the Duke Cunningham defense contractor scandal.

The piece is not uninteresting, and adds at least some new elements to the still unraveling story of what by some measures is the biggest case of personal corruption by a sitting Congressman in American history. It relies on her usual M.O.: a key interview with a close (usually female) family member (in this case Cunningham's wife) who until now has remained silent, and who emerges to talk only to her. She couples this new interview with a mountainous surrounding "clip job"--reporting culled from other sources. But her new information contains a seemingly dubious fact that I simply can't get past: how does a 54-year-old woman, Cunningham's wife, have an 87-year-old grandmother? It's of course quite possible, but it nevertheless nagged at me as I read it. At the very least, it seems to cry out for at least a brief clarification.

Anyway, Kelley has used this recipe before, perhaps most famously on Nancy Reagan (whom she suggested in an unauthorized biography had had sexual dalliances with Frank Sinatra in the White House, based on the vaguest possible substantiation), and most recently on the Bush clan. An errant Bush daughter-in-law told her that George once did cocaine at Camp David (during his father's presidency) and that mild-mannered First Lady Laura Bush, of all people, used to deal drugs. Though the relative later tried to recant it, presumably under extreme family pressure,
the initial damning charges seemed to hold up fairly well to subsequent scrutiny. Naturally, the book was rolled out in September '04, just as Bush's re-election campaign hit its stride.

Indeed, Kelley makes much of her own assertion (which I assume to be fact, since to my knowledge no one has yet come forward to claim otherwise) that she has never lost a lawsuit nor been forced to retract material. She repeats that like a mantra, in the face of withering challenge, even ridicule, from the major mainstream media (most famously from Matt Lauer on the Today Show), some of which is clearly orchestrated by her powerful subjects as they try to lash back at her. Kelley's other suit of armor is of the photographic variety: I've noticed that over the years, she's frequently chosen to pose in her file-strewn office (like the photo nearby), no doubt hoping to drive home the idea that she gets her facts straight. She says she also hires her own independent fact-checkers.

She no doubt shopped this piece to TNR only because she lost a longtime outlet, probably as a result of that aforementioned political pressure. In the wake of the Bush family book, she was booted from her slot as a contributor to Washingtonian Magazine, where she'd been on the masthead for 30 years. For its part, TNR has its own long record of giving a national spotlight to controversial writers. Over the years, the sometimes-bizarre-but-always-interesting Camille Paglia has used TNR's pages to explore her ideas about art, culture and gender in her uniquely high-octane style. More memorable still, a dozen years ago, then-editor Andrew Sullivan decided to turn over nearly an entire issue to an exploration on race by the writers of an explosively controversial book, The Bell Curve, which argued that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.

Anyway, I encourage you to read this latest Kelley piece, and let us all know what you think.

Monday, August 21, 2006

More Bad News for Business

For several years, Inc. Magazine has compiled a list of the 100-fastest growing companies in urban areas.
This year's list, published in the June edition, contained companies from Cincinnati and Columbus, but none from Cleveland. A particularly interesting Cincy company, Intelliseek--a blog analysis firm--came in at #21, though it has since been aquired by Nielsen BuzzMetrics. If you're curious about the parameters from which the list is drawn, they're here. Meanwhile, Forbes has just published a list in which it ranks states on their business environment (specifically: business costs, economic climate, growth prospects, labor, quality of life and regulatory environment). Ohio comes in at #31, which, truth be told, is higher than it has been on various such lists in the past. Then again, the self-proclaimed "Capitalist Tool" is infamous for its sometimes-sketchy research on some of these lists, especially the most celebrated one, of the 400 richest people in the world. As I've written before, it continues to mostly take megamouth Donald Trump's word for it that he's a billionaire, despite much evidence to the contrary. In any event, all in all, it's a pretty uninspiring showing for the region and the state, I'd say.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Machaskee To Be Inducted
In Press Club Hall of Fame

In a development sure to give plenty of people a serious case of heartburn, the
Press Club of Cleveland will induct former PD Publisher Alex Machaskee into its hall of fame in October.

The decision comes after a vote of the membership, which will be announced at the group's annual meeting tomorrow, a lunch affair at Windows on the River in which Machaskee's successor, Terry Egger, ironically enough, will be the featured speaker.

Machaskee is a complicated figure, but one who's had an enormous--and I'm sad to say, mostly negative--imprint on the region for many years. One well-researched book on the Newhouse empire (the family that owns the PD) noted that the PD has had a reputation in journalism as one of the more corrupt newspapers in America, and Alex ("the Snake," as he was dubbed some years ago by his newsroom critics) deserves much of the blame for that.

When Teamster president Jackie Presser's FBI files were opened to scrutiny some years ago, my friend Ken Myers (a former journalist and now a prominent civil liberties attorney) wrote in Crain's that they revealed that Machaskee, then the general manager of the paper, had tried to encourage the Teamsters to make trouble for the arch-enemy (now defunct) Cleveland Press. He was perhaps lucky these allegations first arose during the Teamsters-friendly, ethics-challenged Reagan Administration, because they seemed to most experts to be clear violations of antitrust laws, for which he could well have been prosecuted. The Press was then teetering on the edge of viability, and he well knew that problems with the union representing its distribution arm (delivery drivers) could push it over the edge. The Newhouses later touched off a scandal by buying the readership list of its shuttered competitor for millions of dollars, which to some sounded suspiciously like an illegal inducement to close a newspaper. A federal investigation into that matter later ended with no indictments.

In any event, Machaskee's opportunities for mischief grew geometrically once he became publisher, after he cruelly humiliated his predecessor and one-time boss, Tom Vail. Machaskee routinely and improperly meddled in the newsroom, installing a network of spies whose legacy is a culture of internal intimidation and caution that still exists to this day (although editor Doug Clifton has done his best to minimize its vestiges). His close friendship with and protection of George Voinovich, one of the most corrupt public figures of the last quarter century in this town and state, in turn drove many other forms of smaller and more subtle corruption. But the cumulative effect was devastating.

I would argue that by protecting then-Governor Voinovich and his henchmen, and by cutting what he called "vanity circulation" of the PD in such outlying areas as Columbus (which lessened the paper's influence over state politics), Machaskee played a crucial, perhaps central, role in the multifaceted state government scandals that continue to play out to this day. They've unfortunately happened to blow up on the feckless, well-meaning Bob Taft's watch. Still, nearly all of the seeds were sown by his cruder, more streetwise predecessor, who learned his brand of smash-mouth politics in the gritty streets of post-war Collinwood, where one learned to take care of one's friends and really take care of one's enemies.

This controversial selection naturally sheds some light on the Press Club itself (of which I've been a member off and on for years, currently on), which has been a tad anemic in recent years. But then, it operates in a town where it's often said journalism needs an oxygen mask to keep it barely alive. The club (which despite its name draws perhaps half its membership from among the p.r. industry) largely exists in order to confer annual statewide awards (presented at a banquet each June) and install those whose career contributions were deemed worthy into its hall of fame. The latter choices have occasionally been steeped in cronyism--like the decision some years ago to induct a thoroughly mediocre but well-connected PD highway-beat reporter, who proceeded to give a telling glance into her thought process by asking a developer to introduce her at the banquet.

In all fairness, the membership's choices for the hall been getting better in recent years, I think. And whatever his other sins might be, Machaskee's long tenure atop the town's only daily and his universal name recognition probably made him a cinch from the beginning.

Monday, August 14, 2006

My Old Man,
The Rock Star

Just as the high point of winter is Christmas, the high point of my summer (well, in addition to the trek to Maine) tends to be The Feast. That's short for the Feast of the Assumption, staged annually for about a century now in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood each year on the five days leading up to August 15th.

I love it for the red-brick-tiled road ambiance, for the food (of course), and for the abundant people-watching. With the thousands of people crowding into the streets, it's one of the rare times you can feel New York's density in Cleveland.

Mostly, though, I love it for the music. But then, I'm biased.

Each year, my dad, now 79, plays mandolin in the featured Italian music group, which spreads out at the intersection of Mayfield Road and Murray Hill. Hundreds of fans of authentic ethnic music crowd around these old players in wonder, some even in awe, which never fails to leave me in awe no matter how long I observe it.

Older couples will dance, while some women stand alone, swaying to the music, their far-off look suggesting they're recalling their youth. But the more amazing spectacle is how young people respond. Stubble-bearded hipsters in their early 20s, who look like they just hopped off their skateboards will stop and listen intently, sometimes for a half hour. Groups of square-jawed guys with weightlifter's shoulders will grin in delight, some making a point to seek out the band members on their breaks, eagerly shaking their hands and thanking them for the music. I couldn't invent these scenes if I tried, so instead I just stand and watch with interest for hours.

The drill tends to vary little from year to year. While they're setting up, the band members bicker and kvetch like the older folks they are. The female lead singer will bustle around, taping the dozens of wires to the ground so no one trips, while one of the guys complains that the other isn't pulling his weight on the set-up. They grumble that none of the shops in the neighborhood would agree to let them stash the equipment overnight, forcing them to lug it to and from the gig each evening. But once they begin playing, harmony reigns.

Each year there's a handful of pleasing plot twists. Last night, as they all began doing sound checks, my dad tuning his instrument, a woman bearing at least a faint resemblance to a middle-aged Raquel Welch approached him, politely asking if she might perch on his lap for a moment while her companion snapped her photo. Naturally, he obliged. Photo duly snapped, she reached over to give him a peck on the cheek. Even from 30 feet away I could see his bushy eyebrows momentarily registering his delight.

The accordion player, Mike, likes to stand and survey the crowd, a big grin generally pasted on his face. My dad, on the other hand, tends to keep his eyes down, focused on the strings. He's a purist, I suppose, and doesn't like to acknowledge the audience during the set. But after they're through and they take a moment's pause before the next number, as applause begins to swell, he'll sometimes look around at his fellow players, shake his head and say out loud, "wow!" That's about as effusive as he gets.

Perhaps you're familiar with this traditional Italian music, full of peppy clarinet toots and the rolling organ-like sound of the accordion, if for no other reason than you've heard it a couple dozen times playing in the background of this or that wedding scene in one of the Godfather movies. If you know nothing else, you're probably at least familiar with the Tarantela, a famously upbeat swing-band kind of sound that always gets a crowd jumping, dancing and clapping in rhythm, as it did again last night. It's become a staple at weddings, even some of the non-Italian variety.

This chorale group formed about 25 years ago--during the first Reagan Administration I like to tease them--when my dad and one other player, a guitar guy, got started. They've added some folks through the years, and a few have passed away. They now sometimes play as much as three times a week, earning real money for folks whose average age is perhaps 75. My old man will sometimes brag to me about the loot he's raking in, years after he retired as an architect. I think he's mostly just amazed to find the group in demand, let alone being paid to do something they love, something which so strongly evokes for him his emotional ties to his own father, long since passed, who used to bring him along as a boy to various events where impromptu musical fests would break out.

Appreciation for music is learned early, and I'm disappointed to say it never took root in me. But my dad, growing up in a culture where music was as much a part of life as food, picked it up by osmosis. To this day, he can't read a word of music, not a note. And yet he can sit down at a piano or pick up any string instrument, and play wonderfully. It gives him joy like almost nothing else.

In some respects, it's an an awful long way from that ancient Abruzzi hill town overlooking the Adriatic, where he grew up and which he left a little over a half century ago, to Cleveland's Little Italy. But of course in other ways it's the shortest possible journey. If you're interested, tonight's the last night to hear the band in this year's feast. They begin playing around 7 p.m., and pretty women are hereby encouraged to take all the photos they like.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Great Writing Makes You
Care About Any Subject

It's an old story. You didn't care at all about a subject until a great writer drew you into it through marvelous language and evocative scene-setting. I didn't know I cared about jazz till I read Stanley Crouch's stylishly worshipful reveries to it.

For me, Stanley Crouch has long been one of those special writers, the owner of a byline that demands you instantly stop what you're doing and pay attention, no matter what his subject might be (I'll try to occasionally write about other such bylines in the future). He honed his craft as a staff writer at the Village Voice back when it was still a national institution, but has since gone on to write a number of brilliant, fearless books that tend to eviscerate the kind of polite bullshit that both sides of America's racial divide like to peddle. Naturally, in the process he's managed to get himself labeled a neoconservative in some quarters and an Uncle Tom in others. I happen to especially love his virulent attacks on the whole sick ethos of ganster rap. He's now a syndicated columnist for the New York Daily News (you can check the column archive
here, read a profile of him here and eyeball his Wikipedia entry here). But just listen to the opening of his introduction to his latest book, Considering Genius--Writings on Jazz:

My interest in jazz began as a boy while growing up in my hometown of Los Angeles, where I was born in 1945. My mother had many old 78-RPM recordings of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. It was in the middle Fifties and the sound of jazz was rarely heard anywhere other than in the homes of record collectors and the clubs where musicians earned their livings in the underground world of the night life; for the most part, people listened to ryhthm and blues. I did not become aware of jazz in its contemporary and popular style until high school, because Lou Donaldson was on the jukebox at Miss Harris's, where everyone went to buy hamburgers after Jefferson High School let out. The hamburgers were sold by a monstrously large woman who had a giant mole on her nose and probably could have balanced a glass of water on her backside with no difficulty. She took orders, served the burgers and collected the money with such arrogance that the salt on the meat seemed an extension of her personality.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Letterman on W's
Faulty Elocution

As thinking people, we naturally tend to resist the straightjacket of declaring ourselves as one or the other polar opposites. Things generally aren't just black or white, simple yes or no, all good or bad. Years ago, my wife flew through the lengthy marriage test the Catholic Church administered in hopes of testing our compatibility, while I took almost twice as long. There's simply no way in hell to answer that with a straight yes or no, I silently thought to myself as I read half of the absurdly binary questions.

Still, there are some things that are simpler, and I think Letterman vs. Leno is certainly among them. If you like one, you're unlikely to fully like the other. And your choice of comedians probably says a lot about you. You perhaps won't find it shocking to learn that I prefer Letterman. A couple of weeks ago, he got off what I think may be his best joke ever. "Bush had dinner at Taverne on the Green to celebrate his 10,000th mispronunciation of the word nuclear." Well, okay--it was funnier to watch him say than it is to read it here. In any event, I can't picture Leno saying that. But then, maybe I'm not the best judge, since I rarely watch even a minute of his show.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Leading Innovator
In the Book Business

I found it on the remainder table, new but still marked down all the way to $4.98. At that price, it seemed impossible to pass up, even though I had a traffic jam of other books waiting in line ahead of it, beckoning to be read.

I knew the name Jason Epstein mostly as a co-founder of my beloved New York Review of Books (how in the world have I not rhapsodized about that publication before now?) and as a longtime editorial director of Random House, one of the biggest and best book publishers in the world. I had forgotten that he was also credited with launching the revolution in quality paperbacks a half century ago. And I just plain never knew that he was also one of the main creators of the Library of America, an unimaginably gallant attempt to permanently preserve a key part of our cultural heritage, the best books ever written in this country. He tells a pithy story about all the hurdles he encountered before getting funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which like too many institutions is far too deferential to the overcredentialed, underachieving Academic Industrial Complex. The bloodless eggheads nearly talked the project to death, but in the end, Epstein the book entrepreneur rescued it by plowing through their debating society and making it happen.

With a resume like that, you'd expect he'd be mired in the past. And you'd be wrong.

Instead, he has the mind of an innovator, which knows no age. Yes, Epstein thinks of himself as a relic. "Though I have been responsible for several innovations in the publishing business, I see now that each of them was intended to recapture the fleeting past. I am skeptical of progress. My instincts are archaeological." And he's old-fashioned enough to say things like this: "a civilization without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature."

At the same time, by being so thoroughly grounded in the industry, he has as clear-eyed a vision of where the book business is headed as anyone I've noticed recently. And here, he seriously departs from such towering figures of the book industry's old guard as John Updike, who has been carrying on a verbal jihad against a seminal piece on one possible future for the book industry, written by Wired Magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly. While I agree with some, perhaps much, of what Updike says, the towering arrogance with which he dismisses modernity with a wave of the hand won't win him many converts.

Epstein is an entirely different sort of "relic." In this book written in 2002, he talks about the pleasing possibilities that modestly selling books might find new life through the unlimited shelf space of the web, a phenomenon which has since been dubbed the "long tail." And this is only one of many ways in which he seems to understand the abundant opportunities for writers and publishers who intelligently harness the web.
Soon writers and readers will be able to meet again on a worlwide village green where writers may once more beat their drums or hire a Weems to drum up business for them. On the World Wide Web, future storytellers and their readers can mingle at leisure and talk at length. Writers of cookbooks, garden books, regional guides, and other reference books and directories can, if they like, compose their texts interactively with their future readers, as Weems probably did with his. So may poets and other storytellers, who will find at the end of the process that buyers, identifiable by their email addresses, await a finished work in either printed or electronic form or in forms yet to be devised...The best advertising for any books is word of mouth. For this the global village green offers limitless scope.

That will allow book publishing to again become what it once was, he says, not the appendage and poor cousin of the pop culture industry, but "a cottage industry of diverse, autonomous units, or so there is now reason to believe." Let's hope he's right.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Scattered Thoughts On the Cusp of Vacation

Bush Administration's Deep Concern for Freedom of Press. Quiz time--quick, who's the current U.S. Secretary of Commerce? Don't feel too bad, I couldn't name him either. Now that Bush pal and ace fundraiser Don Evans has left that post to go back to making some really serious money, his succesor, Carlos M. Gutierrez, is about as much of an unknown as a presidential cabinet member can be. But since he happens to be Cuban-American, the White House has been pushing him in front of the cameras and microphones a little more now that Cuba is in the news again, with Castro's ailments. I'm just glad I didn't have any hot liquids in my mouth yesterday when I heard him being interviewed on NPR, robotically saying some of the most foolish boilerplate b.s. I've heard emanating from the Bush Administration in some time, no small feat.

Asked about opposition to Castro's rule, he kept repeating the line that without the crucial component of freedom of the press in Cuba, we really can't begin to know anything about the opposition. You would think this fellow worked for a media-friendly organization, not a presidency that has tried just about everything to undermine serious media. Former chief of staff Andy Card even famously contested the idea that the press is a stand-in for the public, maintaining instead that they're just one more interest group selfishly holding its grubby paws out. So Secretary Gutierrez, please do us all a favor and can the crap about respect for freedom of press.

Truth in Poetry. He calls himself deadline poet. For years, Calvin Trillin has been supplementing his income from the New Yorker, where he's been a staff writer seemingly since the Pleistocene era, with a few dollars for wry poems he writes for The Nation. He likes to joke that these bits of verse bring him pay "in the high two figures," which is probably no longer true, but no doubt once was when the magazine was poorer (its circulation has fully doubled during the George W. presidency). In any event, I particularly liked his verse in the August 14th issue:

At last we're reading less about Iraq's woes.

And how the chaos there still moves apace.

With all the other Middle Eastern killing,

The papers simply cannot find the space.

His war, said Bush, would shake up this whole region.

And--presto!--would democratize the place.

It's shook enough to bury his debacle.

The papers simply cannot find the space.

Sign of the Times. In a story that's unfortunately available only for subscribers, Crain's New York reports that Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and a number of smaller online startups are engaging in a hiring frenzy for advertising salespeople, as ad dollars continue their steady shift from traditional media to the Internet. Google alone is adding 35 ad-sales jobs in its New York office, the paper reports.

Hitch the Courageous. Christopher Hitchens is rightly famous for many things, including of course his remarkable eloquence and intellectual combativeness. While some of his fans, me among them, have been disappointed by his bizarre infatuation with the neocons, he has regained some respect lately with his decision to join the
ACLU's lawsuit against government spying. But never let it be said he lacks courage. He was one of a mere handful of people who publicly stood up to be counted when his good friend Salman Rushdie had a price put on his head (the famous fatwa, which was later revoked) for writing a book deemed to be too critical of Islam. And now, he's publicly standing up to someone who's apparently threatening his own life.

On his
website, which is not so much a personal site as it is a repository of links to all his writing (first begun by a Hitchens fan in Chicago) he tells this chilling story:

I receive lots of threats in one form or another, but the following has a peculiar interest in that it is signed. The website of the Atlantic Monthly received the following posting at 12.44 a.m. on 18 July: "Christopher Hitchens will be executed at 12.00 noon GMT on 20 July" The communication was followed, perhaps inadvertently, by the name I have to say that I admire his punctiliousness in respect of Greenwich time. I have written to Mr. Jackson to say that I shall be unable to keep the appointment and that he will have to reschedule it. I have also advised him that in cases of this kind I like to know details about place of employment, social security number, credit rating, family connections and all the rest of it. He has not thus far responded. If any readers have any light to shed, I would be grateful to hear from them.
Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Koch's Pearls of
Political Wisdom

'If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12, see a psychiatrist.'

--former New York Mayor Ed Koch, the man who was famous for asking voters "How am I doing?" said this during his 1989 mayoral campaign. The quote was revived recently by political columnist Joe Klein, who used it to open his new book, Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cuts in PD Newsroom are Imminent

Here's the new Free Times media column, published today. It focuses on new PD publisher Terry Egger and his austerity plans. They include eliminating at least some company cars, including the publisher's, and perhaps instituting quotas for the advertising sales staff. But more importantly, the paper will soon be offering qualified newsroom employees early retirement packages, in hopes of winnowing that staff by perhaps 30 positions. Alas, another sign of the times.
UPDATE: Jim Romenesko of the Poyner Institute was good enough to link to the column today (along the left rail). So this media column has gotten an excellent boost, with two of the first three installments reaching at least a modest national audience through the good offices of Mr. Romenesko, whose uniquely influential site I tried to explain here.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: The Poynter link, in turn, led to an interesting email exchange this afternoon with PD editor Doug Clifton, who naturally took issue with my notion that he's perhaps a little less intensely focused on his job than he once was. He had some interesting things to say, some of which I even found myself agreeing with. Anyway, I'll explore those issues in the next column, at least through means of an addendum to another subject.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Letterman on Trouble at the Leaner Times

A couple of weeks ago--July 19th to be precise--David Letterman turned his attention to the cutbacks at the New York Times in his Top Ten list. It was prompted by the announcement that the paper would be trimming its paper size, a move that seemed to suggest mild desperation to even the most casual observer. Anyway, here it is:

Top Ten Signs There's Trouble At The New York Times

10. Extensive coverage of recent fighting between the Israelis and the lesbians
9. Pages 2 through 20 are corrections of previous edition
8. Every sentence begins "So, like"
7. TV listings only for "Zorro"
6. Weather forecast reads "Look outside dumbass"
5. Multiple references to "President Gore"
4. Obituary includes list of people they wish were dead
3. Headlines fold over to create surprise Mad magazine-type hidden message
2. Restaurant critic recently gave IHOP four stars
1. Reporting that Oprah isn't gay, but Letterman is

You can view the show's complete Top Ten archives here.