Welcoming 2013

Monday, December 31st, 2012

If you're reading this, the world didn't end Dec. 21 (I'm writing this ahead of time, just in case).

I said last year that I was going to do two things: be more patient and get more face-to-face time with people. The more patient thing definitely happened. The face-to-face time thing, not so much, but there's good reason for that.

One thing I didn't know when I was writing last year's post was that I'd wind up managing five departments at the gym. I honestly thought when I signed on there in September of 2010 it would be a short-term job, but when it turned into a career proposition, I wasn't going to bounce around other low-paying retail positions until I found something I'm more passionate about. I took the opportunity and grew with it.

I had my frustrations, sure. If I hadn't needed a job, I probably wouldn't have gone there, and if they hadn't needed a manager, they probably wouldn't have picked me. I think it worked out really well for both of us, though.

But I'm back to news, now. It's where I want to be. And I spend a lot of time at home, and I drink a lot of coffee, and I laugh a lot.

The other big change this year was the addition of a black Lab called Rufus, a rescue dog we learned a lot from. Talk about an exercise in patience. This guy has torn up carpet, gone through a door, and in general came from the shelter with such an excitable personality and a really really bad case of separation anxiety.

He's been hanging out with me late nights, and he reminds both of us to play a lot.

I've already written about what's up for me in the coming year. Of the 12 things I gave myself to do in the year, I've implemented numbers 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11 and 12, all in the first 6 weeks.

I'm spending New Year's Eve into New Year's day working. While I've tended toward the quiet for the Flipping Of The Calendar the past few years (and, honestly, didn't even make it to midnight a couple of times) I'm looking forward to it. It'll be a quiet night news-wise; most of our work, I'm sure, will be in college football and pictures of drunk people with noisemakers looking happy. I'll be cozy and warm, with coffee, JB and the pup. I can't imagine anything else I'd need.

Onward.

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In defense of 4 a.m.

Friday, December 21st, 2012

I used to get up early. Really early. 4:30 or so. Now I'm just going to bed at that hour. And I have to say I'm loving it.

It's been a tough transition; many naps, a cranky dog, and, well, it's only been three weeks and I'm not always real sure what day it is, but that's more an accident of shifting my weekend to Tuesday-Wednesday at the same time as shifting my sleeping hours.

I think we're good now.

I typically wrap up work between 3 and 3:30. At that point, I take the dog for a short walk (he's usually tired and cranky, but if we don't go out then, he'll be about 14-15 hours in between rest stops; it's for his own good, really).

There is nothing quite as still and dark and quiet as a dead-end suburban street as 4 a.m. approaches. Rufus seems nervous most nights – I'm sure the animal smells are different. Dogs and cats and squirrels during the day, but bats and owls and raccoon at that hour.

I get the coffee on, since JB rises at 4 – yes, she's rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as I'm getting out the last of the day's energy before going to bed – I do whatever's left of yesterday's dishes, and button up my to-do list.

It's at that hour that I come up with ideas. I'm really not flushing them out at that time (to be honest, I wrote this post the other day and scheduled it to go live at 4 a.m. on Firday, but I'm up pouring JB's coffee as it hits the site), but the blog post titles, the life changes I want to make, the items that make it to my "gotta go try this local place I've never been to locally" list, they tend to make it to my white board (which is 7' x 8', so plenty of room for it all) while most people are asleep.

Some of the ideas won't wait; I'll sleep a couple of hours and they're dying to come out. Others wait until a day off.

But while you're sleeping, I'm creating. That feels awesome.

Lessons from Sandy Hook Elementary: When to shut up, when to not

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

On Friday, Dec. 14, a young man killed his mother, then walked into an elementary school, killed 20 children (all six and seven years old) and six more adults, then killed himself.

I found out about this a few hours after it happened, while I was setting up to play racquetball. When I came home later in the afternoon, I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

One of the things I found out that time outside of news has taught me is that I can feel, intensely, even.

I was a general assignment reporter on 9/11. It happened on a Tuesday, and our weekly papers came out on Monday and Tuesday, so we wouldn't be going to press again for another few days. I didn't really have anything to write about, even though it was obviously big news, and a life-marking event for my generation.

But I was mostly numb to emotion for a few days. When I found out a friend had died, I took a couple hours off of work and played music, music that she'd enjoyed, songs she'd sung with me dozens of times. Generally, though I just felt like I should be informing someone of something.

In Daniel Schorr's autobiography, he says one of the things that made him a great journalist was that he felt emotionally removed from everything that happened, and able to report on it objectively.

I felt the same way about my ability to be emotionally removed. But I just couldn't be that afternoon. And let's be honest, some people want journalists to show they're human sometimes.

It was an interesting night, not only because we had different information coming from different sources throughout the night, but also because we have 12 different sites that we work with (when I say "we," I mean our team – I work from home, but there are always three or four others working from their homes and we're in constant contact), sites in different locations with different things important to them. We have them in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana; in Central Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley; in New Jersey and on Staten Island; all across Michigan; in industrial cities like Springfield, Mass., Syracuse and Cleveland; and in that liberal Mecca Portland, Ore..

These are communities with very different populations and very different priorities. And they all love their children.

If you followed the news at all over the weekend, you know that it was pretty much wall-to-wall coverage for the first day and a half, and now it's more of a human interest angle (funerals and profiles). During the first 12 or 15 hours or so, there was so much misinformation out there, much of propagated by news outlets, that it reminded me that sometimes we need to shut up and look for truth sometimes. And in some cases, maybe shutting up isn't the best route to take.

Media jumped all over information and drew conclusions without any real information. We know now that the shooter was Adam Lanza. He had his brother Ryan's ID on him, though, and some media outlets didn't think to account for the fact that maybe the person and the driver's license wouldn't match. Far from being dead in Connecticut, Ryan Lanza was wondering why people were writing shocking things on his Facebook wall. He was on the bus on the way home from work.

For several hours, the media had the wrong Lanza brother. Ryan deleted his Facebook account, and I'm sure there will be plenty of fallout from this as the months progressed. Don't be surprised if there are civil lawsuits.

An interesting side note on jumping the gun like that. Even in 1694, news organizations were concerned about getting confirmation. When did that stop, and why?

Lesson for the media: Sometimes you need to shut up and figure out what the facts are before you go blabbing out any old information you think you have.

You know who else should have shut up? Some people who just want their football. President Obama was in Newtown to deliver his standard "America is weeping with you, something must be done" speech on Sunday night [aside: Don't get me wrong, that's important for the people of Newtown to hear, I just wish we'd have someone speak from the heart instead of delivering the script sometime]. He interrupted the broadcast of the Sunday night football game for about 10 minutes.

Someone tweeted, "Get that nigger off the TV, we want to watch football." Yeah, that got him kicked off his college football team. He deleted his Twitter account, and one of the people he tweeted at had to delete his account, too, what with all the hate mail he was getting.

Another person he tweeted at in that post reminded people that he can't be responsible for every stupid thing the people he knows say.

That guy who got kicked off his football team, though, was definitely not alone in his sentiments. I hope other people suffered some consequences of not shutting up.

On the other end of the spectrum is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the country's biggest gun lobby. Just a few days after they thanked everybody for getting them to 1.7 million likes on Facebook, they pulled down their Facebook page.

They also went silent on Twitter for a few days, which is common for them in the wake of mass shootings in the U.S.

If you want to stay relevant, I think you have to say something, even if it is just a "We're mourning, too." I think it's really telling that they take a "let's go hide in the corner until everybody focuses on something else for a while" approach to these events.

Lastly, I want to mention something that might point to the growing maturity of the Internet as a medium.

You might have seen your friends posting a plea to stop stigmatizing mental illness called I am Adam Lanza's mother.

Well, one mother went back trough the author's personal blog and ripper her a new one for the things she was really saying about her kids in public.

Instead of this becoming a war, like that Oatmeal-Buzzfeed thing that happened, the two parents got together to start a discussion and find some common ground.

We, as a species, and we, as a culture, and we, as the media, have a lot to learn still. Mostly, I think it has to do with listening. If we listen to each other, we're going to be able to prevent some of these incidents in the first place.

Book Review: The Secret History of the World; also: The world will not end 12/21/12

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Let's start with this: The world will not end on Friday.

The Mayan calendar ends then. Or maybe it's an Aztec calendar someone found in Mayan territory (because they were kind of in the same area anyway).

But you know what could happen? The sun could come under the influence of Aquarius.

Yep, I can hear you. "Josh, you've gone over the edge, man."

Nope.

I don't know what role the stars and the moon and the planets play in life. Maybe they don't actually play a role – maybe it's more of a reflective or predictive thing, if you know where to look.

But I'm certain, after reading Mark Booth's The Secret History of the World, that there's something there.

I was a fan of the Hardy Boys mysteries growing up. This evolved into a love for "Unsolved Mysteries" and later "The X-Files." It makes sense, then, that secret societies and their beliefs would appeal to me.

Booth's history stems from hobbyism. He's interested in esoteric thought, and he's sought it throughout his adult life, and he's declined initiation into secret societies because he wanted to write about what he's found. He didn't want to take an oath that disallowed that.

Say what you want about conspiracies, some of the great minds in history – Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, and many more – were parts of groups like the Freemasons, Knights Templar and Rosicrucians, among others.

Roughly every 2150 years, the sun moves into a new zodiacal constellation, and Aquarius is next. I think it's easy to understand this as true. The only real premise you have to accept is that based on Earth's orbital path and rotation, we get different views of the sky. If you need observational proof of that, go to a location with a view of identifiable buildings or landscape (trees, etc.). Take a photo of the sunset, just as the bottom of the sun hits the horizon (or disappears behind the buildings or landscape). Go back in three months and duplicate the photo, then in six months and then in nine months. You'll see the sun is in a different spot in relation to the markings. [Or you had to take the photo from a different point to get the sun in the same relation.]

Some scholars have narrowed the time frame of this astrological transition to sometime between 1980 and 2016. So why not the upcoming solstice? It's as good a date as any.

What does that mean for us and the next few generations? Who the heck knows? Life may not feel any different. But if it does, don't be awfully surprised.

Anyway, that's not the crux of this nearly 600-page book. It's really a look into spirituality (including a large section on Christian spirituality), Sun God myths (Jesus was only the latest in a long line of figures who was born of a virgin Dec. 25, visited by magicians upon birth, called things like "lamb," had 12 disciples, was sold into slavery or imprisonment by one of those disciples, and resurrected after three days), prophets, art, magic and influence.

Booth writes of the beginning of thought, the beginning of language, the beginning of love, and the beginning of romance, as understood in secret histories.

It's not light reading. It took me about four months to absorb it, and I certainly read other books and essays, sometimes putting Booth's tome away for four or five days at a time to let the information sink in.

The book is a wonderful look at a perspective that, in all likelihood, is different from the one of you've been wandering around with, and it's written by a man with a genuine curiosity for both the subject matter and for writing. While the subject matter isn't easily absorbed, the writing style is; you won't need a translator for it.

Highly recommended reading.

Where is news headed now?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

You probably missed 'Hi and Lois' on Monday. Go ahead, click on it, I'll wait the 20 seconds.

Welcome back. The fact is, more newspapers are, in fact, stopping print publication, or severely decreasing it.

I'm working in media again now, after almost three years out of the industry, and online-only or primarily-online is much more of a reality now than it was in late 2009 and early 2010 when the only papers who were going that way were in serious trouble. Now, there are papers taking preventative measures and cutting their print runs before they get into serious trouble.

I don't think journalism is in trouble, and more importantly, I don't think good journalism is in trouble.

I think newsprint is, and I've been saying that for four years now.

Back to this new job I have in news. It's primarily a production gig. You won't see my byline very often, and when you do, it'll primarily be stuff like this cross-market roundup that will appear on a dozen sites in various markets.

Because I work on a dozen sites in various markets.

My job may be very different in a couple of months, though. I'm not sharing anything here that isn't public somewhere, but some of the papers affiliated with our sites are cutting their publication schedules in the first quarter of 2013. We actually don't know what the day-to-day operation of our particular corner of the company is going to look like.

In other RIP newsprint news, The Sporting News is ending its 126-year print run with the issue dated Dec. 13. A sign that it's a good idea? Its front-page columnist says nobody recognizes him as the guy on the front of the paper.

Let's be clear, this shift to online is not about the journalism. It's about technology. It always has been.

You simply cannot make someone purchase and read a medium they don't want to read. Sure, there are people who want newsprint. But there aren't enough of them. There are also people who want to see Hollywood make more religious films, but there aren't enough of them for Hollywood to actually do it.

Online news still has a reputation problem. Newspapers that are going online-only are competing with sites that just can't figure out whether they're going to do serious news or not, and they're going to have to take the high road if they want to stay relevant to their readers. Here's a great synopsis of online news's maturity issue.

To wit, there's a big story locally about a high-profile college basketball player not getting arrested. Someone locally grabbed a photo that appeared to have the kid in handcuffs being escorted out of a store in the mall. The police and mall security both said they had no idea what that was about, but the store didn't call them at all that day.

I've successfully gone 13,171 days without getting arrested. Nobody's ever done a story on me not getting arrested.

We have to find a way for journalism to stop reacting to rumors and do serious reporting again. Update: More on reacting to rumors – watch this TED talk from Markham Nolan on separating fact from fiction online.

Ben Huh makes a great point in the video in the top of this post: We don't need everybody to write the same story. We need people to be willing to share the basic story and do your own angle on what the story means to your readership.

Yesterday, there was a shooting at an Oregon mall. How many stories across the country are "this is what happened"? Well, CNN, NBC and The New York Times all ran bylined stories. They differ in their coverage only in that they spoke to different frightened people. Other than that, they're all just "this is what happened" pieces. The Huffington Post had the good sense to run a wire story.

Other news outlets across the country are running "here's what happened" stories, too. Why are news organizations putting manpower resources into that story? Run the wire piece, and put the manpower resources into analyzing what it means for your community. That's where news organizations can separate themselves.

For Syracuse, N.Y., what does it mean for the giant shopping mall we're hoping will bring people from hundreds of miles away? Will people stay away? Will the payroll increase as security needs increase? For Springfield, Mass., what does it mean for Smith & Wesson, a gun manufacturer with a large plant? Will more people want guns for self-defense in a situation like that, or will guns get harder to purchase?

This is where local journalism can set itself apart.

This has been a long rant, and I haven't answered the question I posed at the beginning: Where is news headed now?

The answer is, I don't know, but it's going to depend heavily on technology. I think tablets are going to be short-lived. I own one, and my primary use of it is as a reader and for light productivity tasks. I don't see that changing much for the tablet industry. Something is coming next; Mitch has some ideas.

If the news industry wants to survive, it needs to be willing to meet consumers at the delivery method they want to use. The organizations that do will survive.

On sprawl, and standing your ground

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012


[photo by skrewtape]

The deer aren't running away anymore.

They're only stepping back far enough to reassess the situation.

When I was reporting for the Chicopee Herald from 2000-2003, I understood sprawl primarily as a "white flight" phenomenon. It goes something like this. "OMG! People who look different from me are moving into my neighborhood! I'd better go build a house a little further out from the center of the city and bring my good neighbors with me!" And then every few years that would keep happening.

That's why houses and acreage grow as you move away from cities. If you want to keep people out of your neighborhood, price them out. When you get too far from cities, everything else is just farmland, because nobody wants to drive two hours to get a haircut. Or socks.

My neighborhood abuts a wooded area, and it's growing. The neighborhood, not the wooded area. In fact, this whole neighborhood was wooded, not too long ago.

We had a tree taken down last year. It took us 18 months to get it all cut up. At first, I thought it was inexperience with a chainsaw that had me dropping chains. Then I called in a friend, and he had the same problem. Then I brought in a pro, and he dropped 3 chains in the hour and a half he was here.

It turns out that tree was full of bullets – it had been here close to 100 years before roads and houses were put here, and that tree was probably some combination of target practice and innocent bystander on deer hunts. No matter, it just absorbed the ammunition and grew around it.

Back to the deer.

About two years ago, I took a walk out to the fourth block of my street, which had been clear cut, but had not yet had pipe or wires laid and had not been paved. There was a deer out there, grabbing some of the last of the season's grass. I waited while it ate, and then I wandered back toward the houses, leaving the woods to the deer.

The pipes have been laid now, the street is paved, two houses are up, and National Grid has been down there for a few hours each day to get electricity and gas lines out there.

Last fall, we had some deer in the yard snacking on our bushes and resting in the ivy (seriously guys, eat all the ivy you want). When they saw me taking photos from inside the house, they retreated toward the back of the yard. I didn't dare try to get outside to take photos.

Over the summer, the deer have come back a few times; I usually find out when I bring Rufus into the back yard and he gives chase. They usually just look annoyed, having to leave their spot. They would take off and go find another yard to lounge (and snack) in.

But last week, something happened that I haven't seen before. Rufus flushed a couple of deer from their resting place in the ivy, and they just hopped over the fence, and turned around. They probably figured out that one dog wasn't taking on three deer, and they just stood there, snacking on the ivy from the adjacent yard.

It felt a lot like they were starting to take a stand. Like they were saying, "You know what? You people just keep knocking down our home to build more homes and leave empty houses elsewhere. We've got nowhere to go, so we're just going to stay here. Do what you will."

We also see those deer in the yard late at night. I work until 3am five nights a week, and then bring Rufus out for a late-night potty trip. I've stopped taking him into the yard, because there are almost always deer back there [I wear a camper's headlamp when we're out after dark, and it reflects of their eyes].

If the deer are getting less scared of predators, and the catfish are hunting pigeons (not kidding, there's video there), we're clearly stepping on nature's toes, and she's not happy.

I am working to reduce my footprint, I hope you'll start to do the same. I'm not ready for catfish to come knocking on my door or for deer to come light my grill, and I think we're headed in that direction if we keep invading their homes.

The loudest key is the one that creates the space between the words

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

I've been doing quiet a lot lately.

I finished a nearly 27-month position at Gold's Gym recently. I learned a lot. One thing I didn't get any of while I was there, was quiet. With the overhead music going, the weights clanging, the elliptical machines whirring, feet stamping on treadmills, or people just saying hello, it was never quiet.

As I transition into this new position with Advance Digital, I've had a chance to do a complete overhaul of my day. I work from 6pm to 3am Thursday through Monday. I work from home. My sleeping patters are all messed up; it's going to take me a few more weeks to learn how to sleep late, rather than to get up at 8 and settle in for a 3-hour nap sometime before I sign in at 6.

Instead of turning on the radio now when I wake up, I know I'll get plenty of news throughout the day (unlike at the gym), so I pour some coffee and step into the yard with Rufus (we get a couple of walks in later in the day), return some personal email, do a run of Facebook and Twitter, and hit some house chores or read or go to the gym to get some exercise (somehow I'm doing that a lot more frequently, even though I only had to go downstairs when I was working there).

Some days, I don't talk to anybody except JB. She says goodbye when she leaves at 4:15am, and then whenever she gets home, that's the next time I open my mouth. The loudest thing throughout my day is typically the running of the filter on the fish tank, or Rufus's clicking on the hardwood. Right now I have the dishwasher going in the other room right now. I can hear every slight change in its cycle. The loudest thing in the room is the keyboard I'm typing on. The loudest key on the keyboard is the space bar.

The loudest key is the one that creates the space between the words. That's one to grow on, I think.