Monday, October 27, 2008

R.I.P, Tony Hillerman

Any good journalism ultimately involves telling a story. What separates the artful from the mundane is the ability to find that nugget, that tiny detail that makes the story truly worth reading.
Tony Hillerman was never mundane.
Like millions of his fans, I was saddened to hear of his passing yesterday at age 83 in his beloved New Mexico.
The Navajo mysteries featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee, like "Dance Hall of the Dead," "Skinwalkers" and "A Thief of Time," have a prominent place on my bookshelf. They helped fuel a special kinship to the land during the trips I've made to The Rez and elsewhere in the Southwest where Hillerman's characters roamed.
Hillerman's voice was not that of a voyeur, but of someone with a reverence and unending fascination with the tribes who provided the backdrops for his absorbing tales. It's quite a legacy and a loss that will be felt in all corners of the literary world, not just the Four Corners in the Southwest.
Marilyn Stasio's obit in the Times reminded me that Hillerman first cut his teeth as a scribe, after he returned a wounded hero from the killing fields of Europe during World War II.
I'm proud to say we both have covering state government for UPI on our resumes, though he got to do it in Santa Fe, while I shivered through stark winters in Albany. He was destined to tell better, longer and more compelling stories than the wires would allow. It was a destiny that was amply fulfilled with each succeeding book.
As the Navajo would say, Hágoónee', Tony.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Palin Interview A Good Get For Chicago Tribune, But...

Does Jill Zuckman Get It?

The Chicago Tribune landed an exclusive, rare interview with Sarah and Todd Palin. While it was nice to see Palin grant a one-on-one with a newspaper reporter, in this case Jill Zuckman (far right), a read of the transcript indicates some missed opportunities. Or, maybe just a lack of time.
But if time was indeed not on Zuckman's side, all the more reason not to lob softballs at Palin. Maybe having Trig in the room during the interview unnerved Zuckman enough that she held back on the questions she really wanted to ask.
Instead, the interview dwells on:

1) Children, with special needs, like Palin's baby Trig:
I think the significance of the last six months now has been that Trig, for us, how do I explain it? He's been part of, what has been in our heart all this time in desiring to assist these families with special needs.

2) Being held to a double standard as a woman:
Certainly there's a double standard. But I'm not going to complain about it , I'm not going to whine about it, I'm going to plow through that because we are embarking on something greater than that, than allowing that double standard to adversely affect us.

3) That $150,000 wardrobe malfunction:
That whole thing is just, bad! Oh, if people only knew how frugal we are. The clothes that were loaned to us during the convention. And I don't think it was anywhere near...What did they say ... $150 grand? It wasn't anywhere near that.

And that was pretty much that. Palin stayed on message, even talking issues of intense personal interest to her. Zuckman didn't press on more-substantive issues and soon she was out the door.
In other words, both squandered a chance to tell us more than we already knew.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not Enough Horny Lads in Singapore Kills Off Maxim

Too Titillating or Not Enough Tits?

Singapore will never be confused for a den of iniquity. That should have been enough for the local edition of Maxim to survive. Lads on the make or who wish they were had a veritable media oasis where they could feast.
But maybe the nation-state's puritanical ways still loom large enough to scare enough guys from picking up the title, even if they could squirrel it away from their girlfriends or moms.
SPH magazines said falling circulation and "borderline profitability" prompted it to shutter the Singapore Maxim.
Of course, Maxim has suffered from lad-mag fatigue all over the globe. It could just be that it took Singapore a little longer to fall in line.

Foreign, um, International News You're Not Reading Because You're Too Depressed About the Economy

It really is a great big world out there. Some far-flung dispatches coming into the overseas desk:

Naked Marine Wearing Condom Threatened Rape, Former Gitmo Prisoner Claims
Australian national Mamdouh Habib says in new book the condom had "God is great" written on it, to compound humiliation, says Sydney Morning Herald.

No Thai Tranny Pageant
All the political turmoil in Thailand means one of the big social events of the season in Bangkok -- a transvestite beauty pageant, has been postponed indefinitely, AFP sadly reports.

Teaching Corporal Punishment at a Young Age
A 5-year-old Indian boy caught playing hooky was bound and dragged for 50 meters by one pissed-off principal, according to the Times of India.

Sex Change Turns Hen Into Rooster
The Sun (who else?) has what it calls an "eggs-troadinary" story, which no reporter takes credit for. Yes, they chickened out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dallas Morning News Show How Not to Lay Off People

Twisting In The Wind Can Be Worse Than Eventually Getting Pink-Slipped

I've been following the travails of what's left of the staff at the Dallas Morning News on the blog News Buyout 2008, which chronicles the latest reductions at what was once regarded as the nation's 10 best papers.
This was supposed to be the week when the grim reapers from Belo would swing the ax once more for the latest round of "involuntary separations," or whatever euphemism H.R. has cooked up.
So far, nothing, although some hints are given on how to read the tea leaves.
"Was an HR official seen in your department with an arm full of folders? Was the conference room's windows covered up with paper? Were cardboard boxes laying around today?"
Sigh. Having been through something like this before, it's the absolute worst way to lay off people. But it's the lawyers who control the process, and they don't give a rat's turd about morale. Still, how long does it really take to get all the necessary ducks in a row?
As one person on the inside commented on the blog:

"It's miserable. It's impossible to concentrate in the office (and the few chipper souls who seem to be oblivious to this don't help) and outside of the office you have brief moments when you realize you're actually not thinking about losing your job."

The ironic part, as one poster noted, is that the longer Belo takes to wring its hands over the cutbacks, the more expensive it gets. And isn't money, or the lack thereof, why you're doing the layoffs in the first place?

"The ONLY upside is that we all get to collect an extra week's pay that will be sorely needed after this shit shakes out. But the mental strain that the newsroom has been put under thanks to this delay almost makes that not worth mentioning."

I wish everyone at the DMN luck. Having been involuntarily separated myself back in July, I know the road that lies ahead is filled with potholes, regardless of whether you keep your job.

N.Y. Times Has Cash for Notecards, But What About the News?

No Reflection on Damon Winter, But We Need More News, Fewer Gifts

It was super-swell of The New York Times to enclose a gift "as a loyal subscriber" in last Sunday's paper. Inside an envelope, was a series of three notecards illustrated by photographs from the immensely talented Damon Winter.
Winter joined the Times as a staff photographer last year, a no-brainer pickup after looking at his work from The Los Angeles Times.
This showcase with the notecards is evidence the paper knows a good thing when we see it. Looking at his portfolio, it's hard not to.
Nonetheless, I'm concerned about the expense in sending out packages of notecards to hundreds of thousands of customers, some of whom jno doubt threw them away with the circulars.
Given the belt-tightening that is too often apparent in the daily paper, I can't help but wonder if this is money that could have been better spent for newsgathering. Most likely, the Times would argue the Winter cards are part of the marketing budget and have nothing to do with editorial.
But all of the money ultimately comes out of the same, increasingly ragged kitty. And more of that should be spent on sending Winter on more assignments, so his outstandng work can be seen in the paper more often.

Who's The Bigger Lunkhead? Michele Bachmann Or Her Press Secretary

Anti-American Obama Crack On "Hardball" Could Cost GOP Loudmouth Her Job

When last we left Michele Bachmann, she was appearing on "Hardball," and telling Chris Matthews that she was "very concerned" that Barack Obama "may have anti-American views. That's what the American people are concerned about. That's why they want to know what his answers are."
All of a sudden what looked to be a cakewalk for the Minnesota Republican in her House race has now turned into a nailbiter, with Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg (love that name) getting a big jump in donations.
Aw, jeez, wouldn'cha just know it, but now Bachmann is eating her own words and blaming Matthews for giving her indigestion.
First off, Bachmann claimed she had never seen "Hardball" before she came on the show last Friday, and didn't know what the show was all about. That's a real whopper given her propensity for being a media whore, especially on cable, as aptly points out. For a freshman Republican, Bachmann has shown more than her fair share of ambition. She has made herself readily available for bookers entranced by her attack-dog routine.
Bachmann accused Matthews of goading her into saying things like "the people Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large, the people who are radical leftists."
Chris Matthews can do many things, but one thing he can't do is force a congresswoman to utter dumb statements. Bachmann can do that on her own, thank you very much.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. It was Bachmann who Radar magazine dubbed America's holiest congresswoman. Among her crusades: founding a charter school where she sought to prevent Disney's "Aladdin" from being shown. The rationale: she felt it promoted paganism.
So maybe watching MSNBC isn't must-see TV after all. But still. Somehow you or someone who works for you knows who the hell Chris Matthews is, and that the last thing he's going to do is lob softballs. Not knowing that could mean Bachmann won't be in a position to have a sophomore slump.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Tsunami of Red Ink Washes Over NBC Weather Plus

It's no surprise that NBC is shutting down the 4-year-old Weather Plus especially after NBC Universal acquired The Weather Channel.

What is a bit of a shocker is word from NBC News chief honcho Steve Capus that the network would have pulled the plug even if TWC hadn't come on board.
As Television Week reports, it seems most affiliates put up a cold front when it came to using digital subchannels to house Weather Plus. Not enough affiliates means not enough revenue. Not enough revenue means unemployment.
However, that likely won't apply to the likes of Jeff Ranieri (right), who's made a name for himself doing live shots in weather hot -- and cold -- spots for "Today" and MSNBC, sort of a higher-octane version of Jim Cantore.
Willard Scott can't go on forever (can't he?) and Al Roker's never looked too enthused when he has to stand on a Gulf Coast beach with a Category 3 whopper just off the coast. Ranieri's got game, and it's a safe bet he'll keep on playing across the NBC platform, Weather Plus or no.

Bringing The Star-Ledger Back From The Brink

But It's A Safe Bet New Jersey's Largest Paper Will Be Back There Before Long

So, the bullying and threats by Newhouse at The Star-Ledger worked.
Enough non-union employees took a buyout, while two unions pressured to accept deep concessions gave the company what it wanted.
All parties were told they basically had no choice. Newhouse had threatened to sell or shutter the paper if it didn't get its way. Everyone decided to swallow hard rather than bluff.
As readers of this space know, I've long been skeptical of Newhouse's threats to shutter the Star-Ledger, despite claims it loses up to $40 million a year putting it and the Trenton Times out.
Getting rid of the Star-Ledger would have effectively spelled the end for two other papers, the Jersey Journal and the Staten Island Advance, which rely on the Star-Ledger for some of their content.
Maybe Donald Newhouse was that serious. Still, the thought he would invoke newspaperdom's version of the nuclear option remains hard to contemplate. But I can understand why staffers didn't want to find out.
Meantime, the Star-Ledger's newsroom will be about one-third thinner, after 130 reporters and editors take voluntary buyouts. What's telling is a lot more than 130 signed up to leave.
Editor Jim Wilse says the Star-Ledger will remain the "watchdog" of New Jersey despite the cuts.
Sounds like he's barking up the wrong tree.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Cool Foreign News You're Probably Not Reading Beacuse You're Obsessed With Sarah Palin

Some dispatches from correspondents flung far and wide:

The Guardian reports on how the major domos in the Yakuza, Japan's version of the Mafia, are trying to skirt laws that make them liable for crimes committed by their henchmen.

The Times of India has word on how the winner of Mr. Gay UK is now on trial for killing a man, and then cooking and chewing on pieces of the unfortunate chap. But it stands to reason. Defendant Anthony Morley has worked as a chef.

The Sun is very pleased with itself a day after an expose that found Starbucks outlets in the UK are told to leave tap water running all day, wasting 23 million liters of water daily. After the story ran, the chain reversed its policy.

The Globe and Mail has word on a gym in North Vancouver that caters to parents who want their kids pumping iron as soon as age eight. Soon they'll want to mix in some HGH with their Lucky Charms.

And The New York Times, one of the few U.S. papers that still has foreign correspondents (after the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, can you think of any more?), has sad news out of China that attempts to get two giant turtles to engage in a little terrapin nooky have gone for naught.

Phoenix Suburbs Lose East Valley Tribune as Daily; Could Be First of Many

Shrinking Its Way To Profitability, Oblivion

A double whammy for readers of the East Valley Tribune in the sprawling Phoenix suburbs. First, it's going to stop circulating in Tempe and Scottsdale. Then it's going to cut back to four days a week and become a free paper.
Free is good, right? Not necessarily. It might get more people to pick up the paper if they don't have to plunk down 50 cents. Then again, it's going to be harder to prove to advertisers who's reading the paper and how dedicated they are if they don't have to dig into their wallets to read it.
Freedom Communications, which owns the paper, is among the many suffering mightily from circulation declines, advertisers fleeing print and an economy that especially soured in the Valley of the Sun, where the real estate bubble turned into a mushroom cloud.
So, for now, it's better than nothing, or that could be the end result, after the paper trims the 40 percent of its staff who will exit with the change in frequency.
"We are not giving up on investigative and enterprise journalism," Tribune publisher Julie Moreno says.
But good luck finding it once these changes take effect.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Why StoryCorps Should Sign Kleenex As An Underwriter

"Morning Edition" Friday Mainstay Grabs Heartstrings, Then Rips Them to Little Shreds

My wife often tells me how she listens to the weekly "StoryCorps" segment on NPR's Morning Edition on Fridays while driving to work and often starts to tear up.
I usually catch "StoryCorps" on podcast, but today I heard it in the car. Now I know how she feels.
For the uninitiated -- and please do change that status soon -- ordinary folks come to StoryBooths, basically mobile recording studios that travel the country, and talk about their families, their jobs, passions, triumphs, tragedies and guideposts that have made up their lives and legacies.
Since 2003, over 35,000 stories have been recorded, and one is broadcast each week on NPR. To be sure, not all of what we hear is tinged with sadness. Sometimes, we hear two family members sharing memories and perhaps healing wounds. Other times, the conversations are a way to say thanks or a version of "I love you."
For a few minutes you feel like you know these people and are glad to have met them. But "StoryCorps" grabs hardest, like it did today, with its tales of loss, especially when participants can celebrate a life instead of mourn a death.
Such is the tale of Andrea St. John, who fell in love with fellow teacher Kevin Broderick, who was dealing with a rare form of cancer.
St. John talks about when it became clear Broderick was terminal, she put on a dress she told him she'd wear at his wake. Broderick started to cry, and St. John apologized. But he told her, "It's just that you look so beautiful. I'm so glad I got to see you in that dress."
Broderick later told her when had gotten up that morning, he realized he was ready for the end. St. John asked him what that was like.
"Well," I guess it's the same thing you felt when you put the dress on this morning."
It's moments like these that make "StoryCorps" a treasure. And even if you wind up with a lump in your throat or shedding a tear, it will make your day.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

More Signs of Misery for White House Press Corps If McCain is Elected

Prickly Candidate Gets In Huff At "Tough" Questions Leveled by Des Moines Register

No doubt that Sarah Palin's biggest fan is John McCain. Not that he has a choice in the matter. So, he's extolling her virtues even if he doesn't necessarily have his facts straight or uses them a little too conveniently or unfortunately.
To wit: When McCain enumerated Palin's experience to the Des Moines Register editorial board, he cited her membership in the PTA, among other things.
Watch these clips from the Register session to see a McCain in action who appears to have little patience to field anything more than the softest of tosses from the media.
Which is not exactly what the White House Correspondents Association would have in mind, should McCain take up residence, liberal accusations to the contrary.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Relying On The BBC To Keep Alive 'Story of Possible U.S. Involvement In Rendition

Foreign News Takes Backseat to Election and Market Meltdown, But There's Still Plenty To Talk About

One of the beauties of the BBC is that it's not tethered as much as the American networks to its home base. Since versions of the Beeb are seen or heard just about everywhere, its correspondents go just about everywhere to cover worthy stories.
That means we got to hear this morning on Newshour a chilling report from Robert Walker on Africa's version of Guantanamo in Ethiopia, which may well be facilitated by -- wait for it -- U.S. operatives.
What's especially compelling about this report is that Walker actually speaks to a detainee in an Addis Ababa prison cell who has bribed a guard to get access to a mobile phone. Which shows you one way this version of Guantanamo is decidedly different than the real thing.
It's the kind of story you almost take for granted from the BBC, even as that organization finds itself not immune from budget cutbacks and shifting priorities.
So, it should come as no surprise that the BBC is also covering the U.S. election with aplomb. One way is by taking a bus across the country to chat with a wide spectrum of folks and perhaps puncture a few myths and perceptions about Americans along the way.
Today's stop was in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, which means the bus will conveniently find itself in St. Louis tomorrow for the Palin-Biden showdown.
Speaking of which, the BBC has an illuminating sidebar on how Palin kicked serious butt in debates when she ran for governor in Alaska.
It could mean Biden won't be able to walk all over her inexperience tomorrow. Or, it could mean the klieg lights on the national stage could show the cracks in that aw-shucks, hockey-mom populist routine that got her elected.