Friday, October 24, 2014

1400 The Humility Lesson -- Arthur Gelb and Ben Bradlee

Sometimes events come together and take you down a peg.  They sober you up.  They hose you down and wash off the hubris.

Two such things this week:  finishing reading all 672  pages of a book, and learning of a death.

The book is “City Room” by Arthur Gelb.  The death was that of Ben Bradlee.
Gelb was managing editor of the New York Times. He was part of a small team that brought the paper kicking and screaming into modern times. Bradlee was executive editor of the Washington Post. He took an OK local paper and turned it into a national powerhouse.

Both papers were bought out of bankruptcy on the cheap early in their lives.  Both rose to be influential, feared, loved and loathed.  Both set standards for their industry and kept raising them.

When Gelb was put out to pasture, he left with countless stories about names every reader knows and countless stories about events everyone knows about.  His energy remained in the newsroom and in retirement, he continued to propel the paper on the trajectory he and others had established.

When Bradlee left his paper, his energy hung in the room for awhile.  But the Post started its slow slide down the tubes… to the point that the long-time owners sold out to Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos who seems willing and able to bring it back from the dead.

It’s a tough row for both papers to hoe.  The printed page, if not in its death throes, is on life support.

Old newspaper tales have a romance.  They’re about flesh and blood human beings. Interesting people. Quirky people. Quirky eras.

They are stories of times in which every employee wasn’t always looking over his or her shoulder hoping  the Pink Slip Gods weren’t stalking.

Many think Bradlee was trying to replicate the Times.  He wasn’t.  He was trying and ultimately succeeded in replicating the New York Herald Tribune.  Both were known in the trade as “writer’s papers.”  The Times was and is an “editor’s paper.”

There once was a place for both.  Soon there will be a place for neither.

The Times sets the news agenda for the rest of the industry and thereby for the American public.  The Post brought down Richard Nixon, published the Pentagon Papers when the Times chickened out under legal pressure.

Gelb was a genius wildman out of the Bronx and a product of “the poor man’s Harvard” as CCNY was known at the time.  Bradlee was a genius wildman
out of the Boston aristocracy and the 53rd male member of his family to graduate from Harvard, as Harvard was known at the time.

Backgrounds as opposite as opposite can be.  But with the same built-in story hound and “get it right” mentality.

Gelb died earlier this year.  Bradlee died earlier this week, so at this writing the myth builders are still at work, as they were with Gelb soon after his passing.

Except the myths weren’t all that mythical.

Two guys who did the impossible in the service of informing us.

You can read about their specific accomplishments easily elsewhere.

But when some of us old school old timers think about our own impact, we realize that the marks we leave can’t measure up to either of these guys.

Afterthoughts:

-The Post was credited with the Watergate story and rightly so... but without seed-spreading by the Associated Press and United Press International, it would have remained mostly local news.  The wires deserve some credit, too.

-For the first time in a century, the Times is being run by a frightened man, essentially a flyweight compared to his family predecessors. The newsroom is in the excellent hands of Dean Baquet, but he can’t do the job without the help of an expert publisher… which he doesn’t have.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1399 Let's Get Ready to Rumba!

Television performer and artist, Roger Price, once speculated that if all the rumba dancers on earth hip-checked in the same direction at the same moment while simultaneously grunting “Uhhh” the earth would fall off its axis.

Having no significantly better explanation for the current state of things, a rational thinker could consider that Price’s theory has been proven experimentally.  The Price is right?

America’s president has shown himself to be a liar, incompetent and impotent.  And the republican party in the House and Senate want to take us back to a time that never really was… when (white) men were men and everyone else “knew” who the Master Race was.

In the Middle East, a rump state is trying to rebuild the Caliphate on the backs of ordinary Syrians and Iraqis.  And we are sitting on our rumps.

Many people are busy-bodying in the Middle East, building false moral equivalence between Israel and and another rump state, while in New York a new opera by a seedy little man with a chicken neck and a permanent sneer glorifies as folk heroes the terrorists who pushed wheelchair- bound Leon Klinghoffer off a boat and to his death.

Poison Putin is busy disrupting Ukraine, after which he’ll be busy doing the same in Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.  And don’t think he’s going to ignore Poland, either.

Ebola has swum the Atlantic and our seaports and airports remain open to the infected, although the usual suspects may only land at one of only five airports. They are JFK/New York, Newark, Washington/Dulles, O’Hare/Chicago and Atlanta.  Wisely, they have not chosen Teterboro or Dayton International.

Serial killers are so numerous and prolific that they’re lobbying for their own history month.

School shootings are on the rise, but “zero tolerance” weapons policies can get a kindergarten kid suspended for carrying a rubber knife.

Last month was the hottest September on record.  Climate change deniers say it’s not the fault of human beings.  Maybe they’ll think differently when the Atlantic works its way to Cincinnati and the Pacific to Denver.

Okay, now who has all those old Xavier Cugat records, and can you copy them for use on an iPod?


Shrapnel:

--Roger Price (1919-1990) was well ahead of his time.  And to call him a “humorist” as so many articles about him do, is both inadequate and an understatement. He was a writer and artist (sort of,) and picked up some nickels and dimes as a publisher.

--Price invented Droodles, a strange set of line drawings which you don’t understand unless you can guess what they represent.  If you read the answer and don’t at least chuckle, there’s probably more wrong with you than there was with Roger. They appeared in newspapers each day and later were collected in a book or two.

--He also co-invented MadLibs. And in 1956 he wrote The Secret Handbook of the Me First Party (Ballantine Books.)  All though absurd and funny in its time, it has become a chilling description of American politics in the 21st Century.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please send accusations to wesrichards@gmail.com

© WJR 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

1398 Corporate Thank You Notes

You get those insincere thank you notes all the time, either on the phone or logging out of your account.  Thank you for choosing so and so.

It’s getting annoying, especially for those companies you don’t actually choose.

Like Bank of America.  Thank you for choosing Bank of America.  Nuts!

I’m imprisoned by my own bad spending habits and their bad customer vetting habits.  Three credit cards, all of them with significant but not monumental debt.

Thank you for choosing Capital One.  Same story.  But only one card.

Thank you for choosing JPMorgan Chase.  I didn’t choose you.  I chose the First National Bank of Moote Pointe, New York which was taken over at various times by three other banks, ending with Chase.

Thank you for choosing Verizon Wireless.  Are you crazy?  Yours is the only signal that reaches my house… and not too well, I might add.

The gas and electric companies … there really was a choice.  Does Columbia Gas ever thank me?  No!

Does West Penn Power ever thank me?  Not only don’t they… but they regularly send me little charts that show what an electricity hog I am.  “You use x-times as much as your neighbors and 2x times as much as your energy conscious neighbors.”

Oh, yeah?  So how come all the neighbors get the same b-s in the mail.

And more recently they’ve sent a note saying my contract is up in December and they’re not renewing.  I never signed a contract, but good riddance.

My dentist and periodontist thank me in person.  And they mean it.  And my few remaining teeth thank them back.  And THEY mean it.

The gas pumps at every filling station say thanks with electronic writing at the pump.  A nice gesture.  What would be nicer is getting rid of the tele-screens that try to make you buy other stuff.

And while everything that isn’t tied down is privatized, this bad habit probably will spill over into government, probably starting with the post office, a hybrid of government efficiency and private sector arrogance.

They’ve probably figured out how to make mail boxes talk, such few as remain of them.

“Last pickup at this mailbox is Mondays at 2 PM except holidays.  Thank you for using USPS.”

“Thank you for choosing the IRS.”  Of course.  We could have sent our tax dollars directly to… um … somewhere else.

“Greetings from your Uncle Sam.  And thank you for choosing the United States Army.”  “Thank you for choosing the Walter Reed Medical Center.”

“Thank You” used to mean something.  Apparently it’s now in a league with “have a nice day” or the theme song of the table waiters who near the end of a meal say “May I get that out of your way?”  Or “no problem” instead of “okay” or… heaven forbid, “thank you.”

Shrapnel:

--Only the good die young.  This cliche springs to mind on learning that William J. Ronan has died at the age of 101.  Ronan was architect and first chairman of downstate New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which thanks you for riding MTA, as if you had a choice.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

1397 Oil's Well



Let’s see if we have this straight:  Oil has become plentiful.  And prices are on the low side.  But demand is shrinking and we expect a price increase?

Doesn’t that violate some famous principle of economics?  Aren’t overstocks supposed to sell cheap?

Well… like many of those things we all know for sure, guaranteed, wrapped up, done, finished, here’s another one that’s not always true.

But, but, but… Adam Smith says it has to be so.  Didn’t Paul Samuelson… and he won the Nobel Prize? And Ludwig von Mises, the darling of the libertarians?

Joe has too many t-shirts and they’re cluttering up his warehouse.  So he knocks down the price, and bingo, they’re gone.

But not oil?  Too much production and the price is going to rise?

Yes, but.  Here’s the thing:  when the supply is too high the usual suspects will reduce their production. Presto, they kill some of the supply. So far, so good, right?

Then comes the United States, now among the world’s biggest producers.  This country’s huge oil output comes from shale. Fracking.  Which costs a lot.  So even though there’s plenty, we don’t benefit from supply and demand.

Oh, and there’s something else:  When they find oil from shale, the first few years the oil flows like Niagara.  After that, they have to frack deeper and deeper for less and less output.  That costs more. So… up go the prices.

Did you know that years and years ago, congress declared the byproducts of oil fracking are not hazardous?  But they can be.  So… a political decision based on no science.  And here you thought disbelief in science was something new the right wing cooked up.  Nope.  It’s been with us all along.

Environmental laws don’t apply.  Getting rid of that “non-hazardous” effluvia therefore is “no problem.”  Just put that slag anywhere, boys.  Not too near a river.  Unless it’s inconvenient or expensive to ship it farther away.

And don’t worry too much about the price increases either.  We’re used to paying four bucks a gallon for gasoline.

This problem eventually will find its way to natural gas fields, too.  So right now, gas is dirt cheap.  But ten years from now, watch what happens.

Good thing they don’t have to frack for water, else Perrier would be a bargain.

Energy independence has its price.

Shrapnel (Eboling for Dollars Edition):

--Ebola in Texas?  Maybe we won’t have to build walls on the southern border to keep Mexicans out.  Mexico will build walls to keep Texans out.

--Speaking of border closings, why haven’t we stopped letting people from Ebola- rich countries into ours?  Not permanently, but until this thing dies down?  That worked okay with Sars and Bird Flu.

Grapeshot:

-Eboling for Dollars… and the money -- charitable donations -- is not coming in, which is unsurprising… but where is Larry Kenny when you need him.

(Note to younger readers Kenny was NY-area host of “Bowling for Dollars.”)

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com

© WJR 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

1396 Medical Office and a Jiffy Lube

It started with a tragic comic joke decades ago.  A good friend with serious heart trouble checked into a hospital so puny and terrible we called it Astoria Medical Center and Exxon Station.  A combination hospital and auto repair shop where they rolled the patients out of the bays to fix cars by day and rolled them back inside at night.

Eventually, this was refined to Central Medical Center and Jiffy Lube.  But the deal was the same.

Now life imitates art.

We rolled into the parking lot of an auto repair shop the other day thinking we had made a mistake.  It has open bays exposed to the weather. Old Beater-mobiles in each. This was the address the doctor provided.  So something must be wrong.  Maybe a misprint on a website?  Maybe the patient wrote down a wrong address.

Nope.  This was it.  Kindly Old Doc’s office was in the indoor part of a place that does oil changes and tuneups.

Right near the doc’s check-in window, there’s a sign that says something about patients should forgive delays because they’ll get the same kind of extended attention when their turn arrives. Not a good sign.

The office is filled with fellow oldsters.  I appear to be the youngest of them.

They’re sitting around talking about... the things people talk about.  Like life on their farms and moose hunting.

The appointment was for 10:30 a.m. The clock said 10:20.  Asked about delays, the receptionist said “oh, 45 minutes, tops.”  I fill out all the “first visit” paper work.

Forty five minutes pass.  No one has been called in for examination.  No one has left an exam room.  

There are stacks of files placed in what appear to be random piles.  A radio is playing.  Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Passable.

An hour goes by.  There is some movement.  I’m expecting a fleet of ambulances to remove comatose patients cluttering the exam rooms. Wrong. Everyone who left was at least borderline mobile.   No fleet of ambulances.  But the exodus had begun at last.  That is to say occasionally someone hobbles out and someone else is called to hobble in.

An hour and 15 minutes.  A stack of files falls over and the doc and all the assistants gather to return them to stacked condition.  Random pieces of paper remain on the floor.  No award for excellence in record-keeping here.

Ninety minutes.  Bee Gees on the radio.  “I Started a Joke.” But 90 minutes wait is no joke.

I get up to leave.  Tell the receptionist “toss out my paperwork, okay?  I don’t have this much time to waste.”

She says “Hold on. You’re next.”  Ninety minutes is obscene.  I leave.  The car is blocked by a truck delivering auto parts to the main tenant.

Wow and happiness, still more waiting!  And a chance to inspect the rot and termite damage on the pillars holding up the indoor/outdoor service bays.

Gotta find a place where the waiting room chatter isn’t about hunting moose and occasionally someone sees a patient.

Or at least a medical office attached to an auto repair shop with an actual indoors.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

1395 A Few Good Menches

Harvey doesn’t look a day over 90.  Of course, he won’t disclose his age.

Harvey shuffles regularly from his little Cape Cod in Moote Point, NY to… to…

To where, Harvey?

“Oh, here and there.”

Yes, to here and there.  We don’t know exactly where “here” or “there” are. But on the table next to the door, where he plops down the mail, there’s an envelope with an El Al Frequent Flyer Rewards logo in the upper left.

Hey, Harvey, where does El Al fly except Israel?

“Oh, here and there.  Enough about my travels, sit down.  Here, I have some coffee for you.  Black, two sugars, right?”

No sugar, Harv. Gave that up the sugar years ago.  

“Well, I’m getting a little forgetful.”

Yeah, you’ve been around for awhile.  How old are you, anyway?

“Old enough.”

So what was so hush hush that you couldn’t talk about it on the phone?

“Oh you know I don’t like the telephone.  Especially these days with all those spies and such.”

Okay, I’ll ask again, and please turn up your hearing aid.

“I don’t wear a hearing aid!”

So what’s that stuck in your ear, something from the Secret Service?  An iPod?

“So, listen have you ever… Oh, how’s the coffee?”

Terrible.

“Good. So listen, have you ever considered working overseas?”

No way, Har-VAY

“Well not so fast, hotshot, maybe I can change your mind.”

So we go to his computer, an antique, really.  Runs Windows XP.

Windows XP? Aren’t you afraid of getting hacked?

“Hacked, schmact.  Who cares.”

Harvey types a few commands and up comes a website … The Mossad? It’s recruiting?  Out in the open?  Just like that?

One quick look, and …

This is from “The Onion,” right? Or Mad Magazine.

The Mossad is looking for a few good men?  Really?

“No, boychick.  This is the real deal.”

So the Israeli spy agency is having trouble finding recruits? No, but not always the kind they need at the moment. Speakers of languages they never thought about last century.  People with tech skills that didn’t exist last century.

So, Harvey… what!  You’re a recruiter?

“Nah, I still work for the Department of Agriculture. I’m an SCI, supervising chicken inspector, Kosher division.”

And you use an antiquated software program on a superannuated computer?

“I might have access to something a little fancier if I need it.  So what do you think, are you in or what?”

Nah.  But maybe you need an extra inspector in the Kosher chicken division?

“Are you kidding?  We can’t get approval for new pencils let alone new people.  And if this guy Perdue is elected in Georgia…”

I don’t know, but I don’t think he’s a member of the chicken Perdue family.

“What does it matter. Here, I’ll print you the Mossad page.  Take it home.  Think it over.  But now, it’s time for my nap.  Glad you liked the coffee.”

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014



Friday, October 10, 2014

1394 Old Media to the Rescue

We heard it all the time:  “You radio guys don’t know what news is.”  “You radio guys don’t give any depth and perspective.”  “You TV guys are all flash and hairdos.”

The first time we hired a newspaper guy to work in radio, a nice fella named Paul, he taped an interview that went on for what seemed like hours.  He asked good questions.  But far too many.  In the end, he had a huge reel of tape (yes, tape!) and didn’t know where to start editing.

Today, the demands of the internet are knocking old time print guys to the canvas.  Many of them just don’t have the speed.

Wire service people do. Radio guys do. Television guys do.

Newspapers are fast dying.  The mechanics of print just can’t keep up with those electrons.

Radio also is dying.  That leaves a lot of fast fingers and mouths ringing registers instead of bulletin bells.
But it also leaves a huge but aging pool of people who know how to push out a story.  And they can teach it.  Not in J-School, but on the job.  And this is where newspapers which eventually have to rely completely on the internet as their presses turn to rust have to turn for the expertise they lack.

Oh, sure… the big players have come a long way in the speed departments.  But for every Boston Globe there are a hundred smaller papers that need help.

Think of it! The depth of a newspaper report with the speed of radio!

But attention editors and publishers:  you’d better act fast.  As noted, the talent pool is aging as old timers become older timers and get comfortable selling cars, houses or burial plots, or learn to say “Hello, My name is Walter and I’ll be serving you tonight.”

The speed we’re talking about took years to take root.  It took years to grow.  And if you let it fade with the current generation… it’ll be gone.

Gotta visit cities with real all news radio: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle, Detroit.

Instead of watching CNN to learn what’s happening “now,” watch to see how they do it.  Tour their newsrooms.  You may then see how to put out a 500 word story and add to it later -- if you need to add to it at all.

Meantime, we broadcast dinosaurs will sit on the sidelines, remember the good old days when we were second class citizens and you were all smugness and superiority.

Shrapnel:

--Let’s look at the “radio is dead” picture from another angle.  It appears not to be true of our northern most state, Canada.  This time of year late at night you can tune to 740 a.m. anywhere in the northeast and get to hear what I mean.

--Speaking of allegedly antiquated business models, have you heard the reports that Amazon.com plans to open a retail store on 34th St. in Manhattan?  We’ve been awaiting that news since devising the Wessays™ Amazon Theory. It proposes that they’re going to try to do to Wal-mart what Wal-mart has done to everyone else.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014