Saturday, January 31, 2009

Newsrooms and Fridays, a volatile mix

Reporters, like most anyone else, look forward to the weekends. It's not that they don't like, or love, their work, but they also have lives outside the newsroom.

So many times, after a busy week and putting in more hours than they are going to get paid for, reporters begin edging their way to the door early on Friday afternoon. Sometimes it is to do "research" or "stop by a source" on the way home, but mostly it is a defense mechanism not to spend your Friday night in the newsroom.

Politicians and governments often wait until late Friday to release bad news. That story gets put up on the wires and the next thing you know there's an editor with that "we need a local angle on this glint-in-their-eye."

If you are in the newsroom, you never want to make eye contact with that glint. What follows next is:

"Could you make a quick phone call and see if "x" will comment on this?" OK, that's easy enough and you get the comment.

Then comes the dreaded: "Why don't you go out and get some random comments on this story?"
It won't work to protest that you have plans because everyone else has already left the newsroom and you are now the bag holder. It's a game of journalism tag and you're it.

Might as well call your wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, kids, buddies and whoever else you were planning to spend Friday night with and tell them you'll see them next week because you now have a full blown Saturday story to do and it's 4 p.m. on Friday.

You head to the mall to get reaction, but first you have to explain the story, which no one has even heard yet, to the people you are trying to get a reaction from. After doing that, they may or may not comment and if you are lucky enough to get a comment it may not be pithy enough to satisfy your editor. So the process is repeated over and over until you get enough random comments to qualify as a "local angle."

That is the origin of the motto: "Nothing good every comes from being in the newsroom on a Friday afternoon."

And for an even better description here is a comment from anonymous on yesterday's brief reference to the Friday dilemma:

"The variation I heard was "Nothing good ever comes from being in the newsroom after 2 p.m. on a Friday."

As the reporters slowly melted away, the number of editors didn't, and some fresh ones even came in.

Eventually, there would be one reporter, usually working on a highly complex Sunday story, with three, even four, editors circling.

Their jaws would click-clack open with words like "fast assignment," "quick calls," "updates," "follow ups," "fast page proofs" and "short obits."

Toss in a power-mad copy editor famous for his inane demands and bizarre questions that he insisted be answered (between his long smoke breaks and Web surfing.) Visually, think of a proud but limping zebra surrounded by wall-eyed, slavering hyenas, and you're there."

That is such a perfect description that, one, I know for a fact that this person has, or does, work at the Flint Journal and that I wish I had written it myself.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Chiropractic: How I became an instant expert

After I posted my item on editor Larry Laurain another humorous assignment came to mind.

During my first week at The Oakland Press in January 1984 I pretty much was sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting to be turned loose on the police beat and feeling nervously unproductive.

In a newsroom there is nothing worse than to be a reporter who is not working on something. Because if you are not working on something, you are a target for anything. So it was with me that first week at the Press.

The only thing worse than being a reporter working on nothing, is to be a reporter in a newsroom on a late Friday afternoon. Reporters had several mottos at the Flint Journal (and if I forget some, I know the readers of this blog with fill in the blanks):

"You never know where in the Flint Journal you'll find a Page 1 story."

"It can always get worse." and,

"Nothing good every comes from being in the newsroom on a Friday afternoon." (I'll explain this one further tomorrow)

But I digress.

On the Thursday of my first week at the Press I was met in the morning with an assignment to attend a luncheon conference speech at the Michigan Chiropractor's meeting in Southfield. In retrospect I can see this was just a way to get me out of the office and out of sight for the day.

But armed with a map and a complete lack of knowledge about anything chiropractic I headed off early to the conference.

The speech was unremarkable, but I dutifully took notes and filed a story which I'm sure ran somewhere on the airplane pages, so called because they were deep into the newspaper sections, such as: B-12, A-10 or F-16. That's back in the day when papers had thick sections.

After three days of following someone around like a puppy dog learning the ropes, it was good to finally feel like I had earned a day's pay.

Fast forward a year or more: There was a breaking story about some proposed changes in Michigan law dealing with chiropractors. One of the editors began scanning the room for me, because somehow covering that one speech had made me the newsroom expert on the subject.

And so it was for my five-year career at the Press, any time the subject of chiropractic arose, it came to me.

That's why when I put together a package of newspaper clippings for my next potential newspaper employers, I left that clipping out.

To Auburn and back

Yesterday (January 29) my eldest son and I made the trek to my sister-in-law and brother's home in Auburn just for the day.

It was a Chamber of Commerce weather day for northern California. The weather here is outstanding this week (last year it rained for the entire two weeks I was here). So the three hour drive up and back was made with at least one window partially down. I had almost forgotten the feeling of warm, fresh air. Traffic was light through San Jose, which can be a bottle neck on the drive to and from the East Bay.

My son, who will be unable to attend my brother's party (he didn't want a memorial) next week wanted to see Barbara and be in my brother's home.

Next Saturday, February 7, a number of family (including a group of cousins who haven't seen each other for dozens of years) and close friends will gather and remember the life of Michael B. Smith. As my son William said yesterday: "You can still feel Uncle Mike in the house."

Barbara, a truly great cook, fed us like kings.

It's been four weeks since my brother died on New Year's Day, but the emotions sometimes well up and overflow, as they did yesterday when it was time to leave and drive back to Aptos near Santa Cruz.

Barbara is doing well, keeping busy and her many friends are taking good care of her. I'm going back (glad I have a rental with unlimited miles) next Wednesday and Thursday to help set up the party. Then I'll return to the Bay Area, pick up my wife at the airport Friday and drive back up with the cousins on Saturday for the party.

Do I know the way to San Jose? Oh, yeah.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Larry Laurain, a reporter's editor

Some have challenged, and with some justification, that I have been very rough on some editors. So while it may sound that I take no quarter with editors I have actually had more editors who have been good or great than the other kind.

Here is just one example, and because the others are living and probably would appreciate not being named here right now, we'll just talk about the late Lawrence A. "Larry" Laurain today.

Larry was the City Editor at the Oakland Press during my first couple years there in 1984 and 1985. He was my first experience with a "big" city editor and it was perhaps somewhat unfair to measure those that came after against his standard.

In this case let's go to the end of the story: Larry died of esophageal cancer in August 1985. He had just served as president of the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at the time of his death. In fact, the chapter awards an annual $2,500 Lawrence A. Laurain Scholarship annually to a student in Southeast Michigan with an interest in journalism.

On his death bed in the hospital, he asked that I come and visit and he gave me directions to his computer file and a pre-written obituary. Another editor and I pulled up the file and it had "xxx" where the date of his death was. It included a short description of his successful battle over alcoholism which I'm sure he believed we would have not included in an obit we would have written about him. He wanted honest and so he wrote his own obituary.

Before I met him, his 17-year journalism career which included a variety of assignments, included The Royal Oak Tribune, The Macomb Daily, United Press International and finally the City Editor of The Oakland Press.

Larry was a steely-eyed, quiet man who often smoked a pipe back in the days when cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke was allowed in the newsroom. He was direct, but kind about it. If you messed up you knew from his eyes before you heard it from his mouth.

You could argue with him and he would listen. Sometimes you could even change his mind about an assignment. Having been a street reporter who covered cops, courts, cities, schools and the great range of topics that a beat reporter can cover, reporters more than not, respected his judgement on stories.

His editing style was to call you over to his desk and have you stand behind him while he showed you what he proposed to do with your story. If you disagreed and had a good reason, he would return your copy to its original state. Except on extreme deadline, he wanted your input on what he was doing to your copy.

All of that concern grew out of his long experience as a reporter and his dealings with editors.

He fiercely defended his reporters to the editors above him.

Example: The Oakland Press was my first "real" daily newspaper job. I had worked there for about three or four months when a source at the Oakland County Sheriff's Department pointed me to a shoplifting report that involved the Chief of Police of Redford Township.

The detective was upset that the episode had been handled quietly in court and that the man remained as chief of police because no one knew about it. The chief had lifted a small amount of film from a store and left without paying for it. The report indicated he had more than $50 in his wallet and was capable of paying the bill when he was detained by store security.

It appeared the chief was having more of an emotional breakdown than that he had become a criminal. When I told Larry about the story he told me to go get it. Of course, that meant I had to call the Chief of Police. When I first called him at work, he freaked and told me he couldn't talk about it at work and that he would call me later from his home. He also ended the conversation that if I was going to do this story his life would be ruined and he would not have a reason to live.

When I told Larry that, he told me to let him know when the chief called back because he wanted to eavesdrop on the conversation. (Probably because I was new he wanted to make sure I covered all the bases).

A couple hours later, the chief did call back and Larry picked up on another extension. The chief started with an impassioned plea that I drop the whole thing, that he was getting psychiatric help and that release of a story would leave him few options. It was obvious he was talking about suicide.

I went forward with the questions, most of which he declined to answer, but it ended with a second plea that I drop the story. When I got off the phone I really felt I had this man's life in my hands. "What now?" I asked Larry. "Do your story," he said.

When the editor-in-chief spotted the story in the queue and read what I was working on, she called Larry into her office and recommended he pull me off the story and give it to a more experienced reporter to handle. The closed door conversation was loud enough I could hear much of it from my desk in the now almost empty newsroom.

A half hour later, Larry emerged from the office and I looked at him like "what's up?" Again, he looked at me and said: "It's your story, do it." I worried that my story would drive a man to kill himself, but Larry reminded me that this was a person who was in charge of a large contingent of armed employees, his shoplifting and the reasons for it were indications he was not emotionally capable of doing that.

The story ran the next day, the chief resigned the next day and what I learned later was that the chief got help, that the stress of the police job was simply too much for him and he later went on to a fairly successful real estate career. So there was, fortunately, no dramatic end to the story.

But Larry stood up, looked out and fought for me. I never forgot that.

Another thing Larry would do to help reporters involved minor holes in a story. Say he wanted information from another city source, police source, etc., instead of bothering you while you working on your next thing, he would pick up the phone, make the call himself and add the information he wanted to the story. It was something he did that was very, very much appreciated by the reporters who worked for him.

Because he knew his way around reporting he became your helper, not your boss, although he was always that as well. There were a few times, a short press release would arrive on his desk that would normally be on my beat. I was always busy, so he would frequently rewrite the release, sometimes making a call to get a quote, and the story would appear in the paper with my byline on it even though I had never seen it.

That may seem like a violation of some kind, but I always appreciated the fact that Larry understood that even brief interruptions for a press release rewrite could cost you an hour or two on another project you were working on. And because story count at the Oakland Press was everything at the time (it was charted like daily stocks) those little bylines helped keep the wolf away from the door.

That leads to another example of how Larry was the first line of defense between his reporters and the editor. One time my story count dropped by half during a month. That troubled the editor who wanted to call me on the carpet, but Larry intervened and reminded the editor that she should check the schedule first as I had been on vacation for two weeks.

He reprimanded (and boy could he reprimand) in private, he praised in public and he never allowed the editors above him to interfere with his reporters. He often took a beating for me and others and I am eternally grateful to him for that.

As I have mentioned before, one of my first editors at the Journal was very much like Larry and those were the great days at the Journal. One time when I was arguing with him over an assignment, the Journal editor looked at me with a wry smile and told me: "You have now argued with me longer than it would have taken to do the story." We both laughed and I shut up and did the story. We recently talked about this incident, which he does not remember, but agreed it was something he would have said.

Being an editor is not easy, being a good editor is even tougher. But the editors that I have had and enjoyed working with were those who treated the job like an Army foxhole. They were in it with you and they never asked you to do anything they wouldn't do or hadn't done themselves.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My little stand for American made

One of the little pleasures I have in coming to California for a couple weeks (besides knowing that my wife will enjoy the peace and quiet of the house in Michigan during the same period) is insisting on an American brand car at the rental counter.

I sometimes get an odd look when I say I prefer driving only American brand cars, but they will always accommodate you. Today, I'm driving a Pontiac G6, which for all I know was assembled in Bangladesh, but it stands out on the freeways here which are filled with Hondas, Toyotas, Hyundai, KIAs and any number of other foreign manufacturers.

It's my little protest for buying American in a sea of "I'll buy whatever I want."

As an aside, the brand name KIA is one of the most curious names for a car. As any Vietnam veteran will tell you KIA, means and will always mean, Killed In Action. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a vehicle.

Just a thought for today. (And for my former editor friends (I'm talking you SC), I originally spelled Bangladesh - Bangledesh, but because I don't have you for a backstop anymore actually looked it up myself to make sure it's right. See an old dog can learn a new trick.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Booth editor says good-bye to his staff

Thanks to the blog "Inside Out" (link at right) for this item on a Booth editor doing a good job of saying good-bye to much of his staff.
For the complete "Inside Out" take go to:

And just in case you wondered: An embedded hyperlink and my lazy man's hyperlink both work pretty much the same.

Time to Spare: Go by air

Actually that's my father's motto as it relates to commercial air travel. Today was a great illustration of that on my trip out to California. (Where it's a balmy 59 degrees in Aptos, California - just south of Santa Cruz).

Left Flint on time at 6:10 a.m. (well away from the gate on time, but then it was time for de-icing. Which I heartily approve of as I would rather be late than be in a ball of flaming wreckage off Bristol Road).

At Chicago, a sprint (more like a fast waddle) from the American Eagle Gate at O'Hare in Chicago to the adjacent terminal to catch my next flight to Phoenix (Don't you love the multiple connections all in the name of saving money). More de-icing and we took off 30 minutes late, which didn't bode well with a 38-minute connection time in Phoenix.

Got in just in time for my luggage - but not me - to be loaded aboard the 10:55 a.m. flight to San Jose, California. No problem, we'll get you on the 2:30 p.m. flight to San Jose. (Something not so comforting about having my luggage arriving four hours before I did.)

I was not alone, a group of about 20 of us arrived at the gate just as the plane was pulling away from the jetway right on time. If they could have held the plane just five minutes, they would have had 20 very appreciative passengers, instead there was a whole lotta angry going on. It's always nice when someone else blows a gasket so you don't have to. I actually ended up feeling very badly for the young woman behind the counter and told her I knew it wasn't her fault.

Off to lunch at the Fox Sports restaurant and then still had a couple hours to kill. Found a free wireless signal at the airport and did a little work and then noticed that although the digital sign said "On Time" the jetway for the gate was missing one important ingredient - a plane.

The airline employee sweetly told us the plane was about "5 minutes late" and after 20 minutes, she came back on the microphone to tell us "the plane is on the ground and will taxi for about 10 minutes and then it will be at the gate." Obviously her watch is on a warp time that I'm not familiar with. But the plane actually arrived at the gate about five minutes after our flight was supposed to be taking off.

Then, of course, it took more than a half hour to deplane the passengers and load the $2 cokes and $4 snack packs aboard for our flight. Then it was time for about 130 passengers to shoe horn into the airplane including the group of 20 already very frustrated travelers.

We heard more talk of head winds slowing us enroute to San Jose and the long and short (mostly long) of it was that I arrived exactly 5 hours and 13 minutes after I was supposed to, on a bright, clear day with not a cloud in the sky. Not the worst airline experience that I have had, but considering this is the same airline that has proven its ability to land safely on the Hudson River, you would think they could work out a procedure that would hold a plane for five minutes so 20 passengers could accompany their luggage to the next stop.

Their was a silver lining. When your luggage catches an earlier flight, at least you don't have to wait for the endless carousel to find it. There was my little suitcase all curled up in the corner waiting for me.

And although I'm apparently too stupid to embed a hyperlink (actually I know how, I just am too lazy to do it, it's very similar to the Html embed of a Youtube, which I obviously know how to do) I am an ace at pirating wireless signals.

So here I sit overlooking the Pacific Ocean (well, it's two blocks away anyway) and I'll have contact with the outside world and the blog.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Blogger has media saving ideas

For those who like to wear their hats on backwards here's someone with a few tips on how to use social networking sites to help with news coverage:

Sports, the last outpost of the newspaper

OK, the headline is hyperbole. But I think one of the things people will miss most if newspapers slip into oblivion in the next decade or so is the coverage of local and professional sports.

In addition to local breaking news, the Flint Journal has always excelled (in my humble opinion) in covering high school, college and professional sports. As a former part-time sports writer at the Lansing State Journal during my college career, I can tell you that high school sports nights are a high energy production at any daily newspaper.

During the high school football season, all's quiet until about 9:30 - 9:45 p.m. and that's when the calls start trickling in as games end. The trickle turns to a flood and any young reporter can learn a lot about deadline reporting and speed when you only have three to five minutes to summarize a whole game.

Oh, and it better be right because a couple thousand people who witnessed the event will read your account in the morning paper and let you know if you got it wrong. Not to mention trying to get stats out of a losing coach who would rather be having a root canal than talking to you.

So what will happen to that kind of coverage as newspapers shrink or, heaven forbid, disappear altogether. Like breaking news and court coverage, I think a lot of folks will miss it a lot.

Guys like Len Hoyes, Dean Howe, Doug Mintline, etc. were household names in the community and their loss was already being felt when the current downturn came. News reporters might consider the sports department the toy department, but a lot of people, more than many news reporters like me ever dared to admit, buy the paper primarily for sports.

Tom Kowalski, a former colleague from the Oakland Press, has spent nearly all of his career covering the Detroit Lions (he ought to get extra pay just for that) but he knows that team as well as anyone, including the folks at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. He's also a pretty nice guy.

So for the folks who are bailing on buying or subscribing to the newspaper, just try and think of where you will get the Saturday morning coverage of your Friday night football games.

Mark Cuban has weighed in on this issue as well: (Borrowed :) this from the Fading to Black site: