700 Beach Avenue

Here’s The Carousel Building, in a photo taken in 2017, that captures some of its magic and majesty — though the carousel horses are long gone. Photo by Bob Cuthbert

I booked Ocean Grove, not knowing it is the present-day home of a Methodist meeting culture that goes back to 1869.

No matter.

The ocean shines as blue here as it does a little north in Asbury Park (and there are no bars!)

But the sidewalk ends with a fence at Wesley Lake.

And, as if to do battle with its neighbor, there are stalwart — though empty — buildings standing guard at the southern edge of Asbury Park’s boardwalk:

The Carousel Building, Asbury Park Casino and the old nameless steam-heating plant.

Part of a complex designed by New York Beaux Arts architects Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore (designers of Grand Central Station.)

Fascinating, as old buildings are, especially when built with purpose and elan.

I didn’t know any of this as I gazed northward, only that it was odd that, what with Jersey shore prices as high as they are, that these buildings could be left to ruin.

Then, curious, I started looking at pictures.

And the past and the present shimmered back and forth.

I was maybe 5. It was a very special birthday trip:

me, my mom and dad. I have no memory of my brothers being there (sorry.)

We didn’t take many expeditions.

Dad worked like a fiend. His full-time job was for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a fireman, a job left over from steam days and protected by the union.

He also painted houses and made magic in our old house in Rahway, N.J. converting rooms to other rooms, renovating a living room to create a bathroom.

He made my room out of a pantry.

Not much time for day-long excursions.

He died when I was 11.

But here we were.

Me, 5, and me, 70, sharing Asbury Park.

Of all the wonders — to me — that arrayed themselves before me on that bygone day, none enchanted as much as the carousel.

The carousel. 

Then, its music beckoned. Now, its memories.

I stared at the photos of what it is, and like yeast the past rose up inside me.

The tracery of the elegant gates and windows, the marvelous roof that echoed the circular theme.

The DA, da, da, DA, da, da of The Carousel Waltz…

Oh I fussed for that carousel and demanded I be taken to it.

Elegant and enchanting from a distance, those carousel horses,

with all their finery, became huge and scary as they pranced above me to the music

And all my demands turned to tears.

Not until my dad took me on his lap would I ride those magical animals.

The ghostly music still reverberates.

And, oh, the wanting and the fear remains.

And though there is no magic in the building, nor magic arms for me,

I still stand and let the shimmer overtake me,

while endless waves crash.

Thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall!

It seems like a thousand years ago, when I was young and Russia was still the USSR, I took a trip to Russia with the man I loved, married and divorced (another story).

The USSR was sealed up pretty tight and I traveled with a group from Oxford University under the eagle-like care of our USSR-supplied InTourist guide. And bless me, I can’t remember his name, though I do remember he was better at word games — in English — than any of us!

We visited Leningrad (before it resumed its older name of St. Petersburg) and Moscow, and I was deeply impressed by how — compared to the USA — poor the country seemed. During one of our train trips, I saw a farmer working his field with a horse and plow. Hard work.

Hotels were very concerned about making sure we didn’t run off with the very small towels, and the sink did not supply stoppers. Of course, my boyfriend accidentally packed one of those precious towels. The chambermaid came running from the elevator and we had to unpack our suitcases to find the offending contraband.

So maybe the authorities were keeping a special eye on us.

You had to make a declaration of whatever money you had when you entered the USSR. And a declaration when you left. They were very concerned about black market wheeling and dealing in foreign currency. I seem to remember that a small fortune could be made selling jeans!

When I arrived, I didn’t include the travelers checks I had brought with me — I flew from Boston to England and stayed there several days before we went on the trip to Russia.

I bet you can see where this is going. We took a train from Moscow to East Berlin, and from there we were supposed to make a transfer for a train to West Germany. At that train station, there was the usual checking and double rechecking of paperwork and this time I stupidly remembered the travelers checks and declared them, forgetting that I had not written them in on my arrival.


The powers that be weren’t happy. 

The whole group was detained at the train station and we missed our connecting train. 

EVENTUALLY the mess was sorted out and we were free to go.

Um, where?

They marched us from dour, grey East Berlin, through Checkpoint Charlie, to West Berlin, 

Checkpoint Charlie was very quiet, oddly so considering all the soldiers and the guns and the lights. There was a narrow winding path rimmed with barbed wire that we walked, only our footsteps making a noise, our silence adding to the greater hush

In contrast West Berlin’s blazing 24/7 night life was overwhelming.

We found a train to take us across East Germany and I opened a window to say “goodbye” to the Iron Curtain. I was glad to have experienced it but really happy to be heading home to all our wacky freedoms. As I was waxing all philosophical, a piece of grit flew into my eye, as though the East was going to have the last word. I was busy tending to my eye and never saw us rumble from East to West.

Haven’t we yet learned how stupid walls are?

A Visit from the Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies doesn’t stand on ceremony, he makes house calls.

He whispered to me in the doctor’s voice telling me that I had cancerous cells in my pap smear.

He came to me, a week earlier, actually, when the doctor said he was seeing some abnormal cells, and wanted to do another pap test.

He came to me, years earlier when previously I had had an “abnormal result.” and a re-test found nothing amiss.

Clearly, the emperor is a patient soul.

Now, however, there was something amiss.

There are a million ways to respond to this news and my response was “get on it.” I phoned Sloan Kettering and made an appointment with gynecologic cancer specialist, Dr. Abu Rustum. And he scheduled me for a laparoscopic hysterectomy in two weeks time.


I didn’t broadcast the news, but told the man who has since become my husband, and my daughter, who was about 30 at the time. She and I were re-building a badly frayed relationship. I could say that our relationship deteriorated because of the divorce but really, it suffered because of pain, deep emotional pain that made me less the mother that I wanted to be, and her pain, which I guess made her less the daughter she wanted to be.

But was time running out?

The man in my life had received only very cursory approval from her, which I understood, since my daughter and I were still standing far apart, trying to rebuild trust and show respect. She was all grown up and I could not presume anything.

But that man, ah, that man. We had worked together in a newsroom for years. We had come together only two years before in mourning, both of us having lost the editor we both loved and respected and he had lost his fiancee three months before that. Death rimmed us. When I looked into his eyes I saw the fear he was trying to hide — the fear that whispered “Oh no, not again.”

The emperor isn’t death, exactly, but plays the role of John the Baptist, preparing the way.

And what was that way? That this man would love and lose again? That she would never become the daughter she wanted to be? That I would not get to live this new love that was just blooming? That I would never get to be the mother I wanted to be?

I left both of them at the swing doors that led to the operating theaters. Both of them standing, apart. And I walked into the future.

That room was cold as I was prepped.

And then I was groggily awake, warm, with my two great loves each holding one of my hands. I knew then that the emperor holds miracles in his: Of love finding its way through time. 

Each of them, a miracle.

 Eds. note: Yes, I borrowed the emperor and his title from Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-American physician, biologist, oncologist, and author. In 2010 he published The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, It’s a great book, and not nearly as depressing as you might think!

For My Daughter, Later

When I was old, but younger than now, mom was thinning out — becoming a handful of bumps in her hospital bed. Aunt Julia was making noises about clearing/cleaning upstairs — mom’s half of the house they shared in Oyster Bay. 

(We all have different ways of grieving. They were very close.)

I went, self-appointed, owning up to the only-daughter role after half a century of dodging. 

I went, the least qualified. 

(Does anyone ever get qualified to sort out the stuff of a lived life for the not-quite-dead yet? To do what I could. Could? Should? These were always getting mixed up in my mind.)

So I went upstairs. I didn’t cry. I was alert, like a squirrel, and twitching with stoppered feelings I didn’t dare unplug. An emotional amputee, I had cut off the arms that trapped me. I had no hands for this task.

I’m sure I moved things around. My mother was alive here in her things — much more here than in that hospital bed. There was a time in her decline when she didn’t recognize us, her children. That was sad. Now? I couldn’t tell you if she even knew she was alive. But she persisted with her stubborn Irish will.

One of the few boxes I did open was full of photos. Old photos back from the time when photos were precious artifacts of once-in-a-lifetime events. 

Some faces I recognized. The official ones, the ones in their own mats, those I took home to keep with my stuff. Even ones of people whose faces I didn’t know. I know enough to know: This is family.


Now I am older, and the story re-ignites in a plain brown envelope from Scotland.

Photos from my father’s family, pictures from the one time Dad was able to go back and visit. (Not for him the sallying back and forth that stitches frayed families together these days.) 

Faces, shining, beam at me from long ago. 

OK, too much, back you go into that brown envelop. For safe-keeping. (mine? theirs?)

Days later, as I was tidying up the many boxes that line my office, I came across those photos I took home from Oyster Bay, I was not looking for them, but they found me nonetheless, hopscotching through their time and mine.

When all these photos were taken, at weddings and anniversaries, this was my family. Even when I wasn’t here yet, as they are not here now. 


All those photos were old when I was young. Two strands of time twisting, the DNA of then and now leapfrogging on legs riddled by the sphinx.

I hold both the photos and my genes in trust from the unknown past to the unknowable future: when my face joins theirs in someone else’s stuff.

Or slips away, forgotten, when memory is exhausted.

Twelve Men


Imagine a river, winter-hungry, teeth of stone and ice, thawing,



its way up the river bank. It was only 2 feet deep on January 20.

Now it’s 22 feet of water,


Imagine a mine. Can you? A honeycomb of weaknesses built by hollowing out veins of rich coal. Hard coal. Anthracite. Galleries as wide as a church where the arteries are wide. Narrowing down to — just barely — the width of your chest where the black blood thins. Paths (they call them man-ways) sprawl in a drunken spree through eons of rock.

Imagine the men. Miners all, who because that’s what they are, go by other titles: the foreman, the topper, the electrician, the motorman, the laborer. Rip off the masks they wear in grey and grainy pictures of aging men, remembering.

See rock men, hacking their way to the underbelly of the swollen Susquehanna. Six feet under the torrent, then a few feet, then 19 inches. The law said give the river 35 feet. Thirty-five feet of earth insurance against the weight of the surging stew of winter water and ice, now as tall as a two-story building.

“If that river comes (down on us), we’ll be drowned like rats,” said Herman Zelonis.

Gene Ostrowski had nightmares about his bedroom ceiling cracking and falling on him and his young son as they slept together in the same bed.

They worked in the River Slope Mine, which followed a rich seam called the Pittston bed. As it neared the water, it lifted and rose some 50 feet to kiss the lip of the river before diving and deepening again.

“I no more than put my foot in the place and looked up, than the roof gave way. It sounded like thunder. Water poured down like Niagara Falls.”

That’s Assistant Foreman Jack Williams who was 62 on January 22, 1959.

Eighty-one miners reported for work at 7 a.m.

Seventy four were trapped.

Sixty two escaped.

In the darkness, lost. The way in is not the way out — the water has taken it from you. Squeeze through shafts, run up slopes, dig through rubble. Avoid the water nibbling first at your toes, then it will hang its heavy weight on your calves, your knees, your thighs. Sucks you down.

SIxty-two escaped.

Twelve did not.


The damnation of water gushing and gnawing soon quelled all hope of air pockets. The very next day the search for the living was called off. The bodies of the dead were never found.

The damnation of water rammed through barrier pillars and ripped through roofs, swallowing men first, then the demon trespasser took this mine, and ravaged other mines linked by tunnels and shafts until it took 7,000 jobs. A different sort of devastation.

The damnation of water created a whirlpool on the surface of the river, wider than a baseball diamond, and chewed into the river bank — a malevolent Milky Way that spun to drain the river dry.

To stopper the hole, they twisted the rail line that ran on the riverbank to deliver  “dozens of mine cars, tons of boulders, truck loads of coal waste, and hundreds of bales of wood shavings and hay.”

It yawned.

On Friday January 23rd, they rolled 60 monster “coal hopper (train) cars — fifty-ton behemoths called gondolas into the void.” Fifty feet long and 25 tons each.

The hole welcomed them and asked for more. The giant cars bobbed like Lego bricks and danced slowly into the hole. “That car would just keep going around a circle, down, down and zoom she’d disappear,” said George Gushanas, who supervised the campaign at the site of the breach.

And still it drank.

More debris, more fill, telephone poles and copper wire, hundreds of loads of breaker rock. (30-40 dump trucks ceaselessly feeding the beast.)

“Finally (on Saturday night) the whirlpool stopped.”

But the seeping and the creeping of the water underground did not. The waters slowed but the roll call of closed mines lengthened.

Those 12 men were already dead, but now Pittston mining itself was drowning, dying. All those jobs. (All that money.)

So a dam was built. They pushed the river out of the way to see its tender broken bed.

With 1,200 cubic feet of concrete and 26,000 yards of sand, they choked the treachery of the river, but ever-yawning catacombs of blame remained.


The morass of greed out-monsters the river, which spent itself in caverns and crevices, and was finally tamed by the hand of man.

All while the hands of men — these hands? those hands? — embrace the greed.

The leprous greed reaches and stinks and spreads. The system of mining in Pittson and beyond was a cocktail of greed. Sip,sip, swallowgulpguzzle. Drink and drink and drink and always the thirst for more.

Blame the greed of companies, the company men, the men they bought.They sliced and diced the labor laws and found new ways to lease the work to others, shedding responsibility and reaping more profits.

Blame the greed of the union, the union men who took bribes, who were mobsters, who became rich. A union president who was a bank president, who was secretly part owner of the Knox Mine Company, which owned this mine.

Shall we blame the miners, too? So many mining disasters before this one, a rich seam of death. Owners and managers point out to countless investigators that miners know the risks. It is a dangerous business, after all. And the investigators swallow it.

But this one? Here’s the harsh truth:

“Federal and state investigators had discovered the illegal mining (too close to the river) months before. They informed officials at the Knox Mine Company, but the mining continued. Finally on January 13 the federal government inspector ordered all work stopped. Yet on that date, Knox supervisors allowed the night shift to take 13 additional cars of coal. The rupture occurred at the precise spot of the last shift’s digging.”

Yet, no one, after layers of investigations, inquests and indictments, was ever found criminally negligent for the deaths of twelve men.

The miners paid with their lives, just because they wanted to get the rich coal that ran on and on, under the river. They knew, and mined, just because they were hungry for fatter paychecks …to buy their kids …


Twelve of them: Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Scottish and Slovak. The rich immigrant stew that lived and died in the mines.


Samuel Altieri

John Baloga

Benjamin Boyar

Francis Burns

Charles Featherman

Joseph Gizenski

Dominick Kaveliskie

Frank Orlowski

Eugene Ostrowski, who had nightmares sleeping with his young son

William Sinclair

Daniel Stefanides

Herman Zelonis, who foretold his own death “dying like rats”

The list of names is on a memorial on the grounds of what used to be — 54 years ago — a church in Port Griffith, a suburb of Pittston. It says “Near here….”

The small stone that marks the site is nearly lost, hidden this July in a peaceful meadow, off a rail trail, beyond a locked gate, with the sluggish Susquehanna innocently lazing nearby.


A footnote? Poets usually thieve like magpies, but you should know:

It took three Wolenskys, Robert, Nicole and Kenneth to write the books these quotes are from: The Knox Mine Disaster and Voices of The Knox Mine Disaster. Both published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Of men, mice and us

Gathered around the stage door of the Longacre Theatre at about 4:24, people waited.

Summer, but the usual sticky smells of midtown Manhattan were wafted away by a gentle puffing breeze that ruffled flags.

4:32, more waiting.

A stage door guard had already erected crowd barriers on the sidewalk. Those folks who had captured the squashed front row were stationary. The rest of the crowd churned as people pushed to gain a better spot. Some of the most aggressive — all elbows — were short young women.

Instructions were shouted from one family member in the rear to a young teenage boy in the front: “Nathan, just get Chris’ or Jim’s signature. No one else.”

James Franco and Chris O’Dowd were starring in Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s mythic masterpiece. They did a great job, translating the great sadness in the work to lodge in our hearts. That sadness lingered, like a toothache.

But hey, this is New York and what a typical New York thing to do: Spy a crowd and join it even before you know its reason.

Some less well-known actors emerged to cheers, but the old guy and the black guy just waved and went on their way, to blend into the human flood. Ordinary. Gifted.

Across the street, the matinee crowd for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was also letting out. I checked this out: that’s the show which won this year’s Tony for Best Musical, and it also won 3 other Tonys and 6 Tony nominations.

Our play won less of those plaudits. No outright Tonys and only 2 nominations. But what did it have in abundance? Celebrity!!

So there were, oh, about 300 people (and me) crowded round this stage door. Across the street, only a handful waited by that stage door. And actors there came and went, unknown. Gifted.

Nathan called to his mom: “Go over and get a picture of Bryce Pinkham. There’s no crowd there. This is crazy.”

Too true, Nathan.

Our door has opened several times, causing the crowd to surge. Four NYC cops show up, shaking hands with the stage door guardian, and that’s a sign that the crowd understands and there’s a bit more jostling for a good spot.

The door opens again. “It’s Jim!” shouts those near enough to see. This time the surge threatens the crowd barrier. And yes, it’s him, who, unsmiling, devotes a good 45 minutes to the devotion of his fans and others —like me — along for the ride. Bless him.

The surge holds aloft either a cell phone or a program.

Hands outstretched.

That image stays with me. Walking down 8th Avenue, I suddenly know what those reaching hands suggested.

Famine-starved humans reaching up to a food truck, their hunger evident in their taut, anxious, even angry faces. And those hands.

And the surge on 48th Street — what is our hunger?


Singing Lessons

Rita Andreopolous was the kind of person who didn’t sing much. She could usually manage to lift her voice when she was at church — for one of the older hymns that she was familiar with. Sometimes, too, by herself, driving to the office, if there were some Beatles playing she might find herself humming along. But usually, she knew that she had no voice, and kept quiet.

She was the manager of a branch of a local 2-year college in northeast Pennsylvania. She felt the work that she did was important, and she did it well: Creating class schedules; hiring faculty, approving time cards; checking expenses; recruiting new students. There was a small office staff of four, and the full-time faculty of eleven, and then the ever-rotating adjunct faculty of 20 or so.

And the students. An odd assortment of late-teens and twenties, rising up to some 40- and 50-year-olds. They had the most amazing array of backgrounds, and it must be said, excuses for not paying bills or not attending classes.

Most of the time, they were just names on the page, and Mrs. Andreopolous was happy to keep it that way. No one guessed at the fierce fondness she had for all her strange brood of chicks. She didn’t engage them in long conversations, unless they came to her, seeking forgiveness for those bills or absences. Her demeanor during these conversations was what it always was: attentive, cool and efficient. A sort of academic nurse taking temperatures, and meting out sturdy advice that was respected in the strange way of these students, but rarely followed. For these interviews, she somehow gathered her passion into a dense ball — rather like the golf ball whose elastic is wound tightly to give the ball its propulsion. She used her devotion to empty herself of herself and simply listened. Her usually bird-like demeanor stilled. She had a strict purpose: To nudge this person towards the better life that Rita imagined — hoped — waited for them at the completion of even one course of study.

Her devotion to the cause of self-improvement had all the selfless courage of that first crocus that will bloom despite the snow. Luckily she survived because she sheltered from the withering winds of cynicism by never displaying this impossible optimism.

If she was one of many who supported these students’ early efforts, so much the better. But she was driven by the thought that for many of these “road not traveled” types, they were alone. Her specialty was a gift of seeing how to overcome the practical obstacles that lay low their unspoken hopes. Leave it for the faculty to rev their engines with the courses, it was, she thought, her job to get their seats in the seats. It was for those isolated souls that she worked. She helped them to learn the rules of the road for adult life, and how to follow them.

She had won the approval of her small staff with her efficiency. These days a lot is said about leadership, no one much mentions the priceless ability to not stand in the way and just let people do their best. And though the staff rarely noticed it, her quiet strength greased the wheels for the whole small machine.

For many of her students those sessions with her were just one of many conversations with authority. For a forever unknown number, she gave life to that restless pearl buried underneath the hundred suffocating blankets of ordinary lives. Some even remembered her. Her advice, when followed, changed lives. How she gave it, the words she used — her voice — was not.

Not Written By Robots, Not Read By Robots

“I admire their (CNN) commitment to cover all sides of the story just in case one of them happens to be accurate.”
                   Barack Obama, White House Correspondents Dinner, April 27, 2013

This zinger is a hoot. After I laughed, it made me think.

Accuracy. One of the holy of holies. Let’s add two more: Balance. Fairness.

It’s in the bones of most journalists to strive for those objectives. Yet that their absence is a commonplace criticism of journalism these days.

How is it possible that journalists striving to achieve accurate, fair and balanced reporting manage to create journalism that is said to be neither accurate, fair nor balanced?

Let’s dismiss out of hand reporters who don’t seek these journalistic virtues. They tarnish us all, but they are a dead end, in so many ways.

Let’s start the investigation with those factual errors in reporting that can bite even good reporters in the ass.These errors multiply in this fast and furious news environment, and certainly do serious damage to our credibility.

This damage has far-reaching consequences, since it fuels complaints about accuracy and fairness, even when those complaints are unfounded. It gives credence to all the complainers since if journalists clearly got these facts wrong, they might not have other things right either.

Back in the day when Walter Cronkite gave us the news, there weren’t many accusations of this sort. In fact, he was seen to be the national arbiter of what was true. Even when, in hindsight, we can see that he was not as accurate, fair or balanced as viewers believed.

In those halcyon days, journalistic lack of accuracy or fairness or balance wasn’t the all-too-common excuse – especially of politicians – for information made public that made them uncomfortable.

In fact, it wasn’t until the media began its relentless pursuit of the elusive truth about our involvement in Viet Nam that politicians began to resort to what has now become a well-practiced evasion. A modern day equivalent of shooting the messenger: That the story is inaccurate, that the reporter is biased.

As reporters reported what they saw, the people whose interests were not served by that reporting realized that the best defense is a good offense and rather than attempt to counter those reports, they just ran an end run around them and claimed the reports weren’t true.

And it widened beyond pols. As reporters reported stories that didn’t sit right with folks of one political/religious persuasion or another, those who felt that their “side” was not respected in the story — for example, that the reporting was insufficiently patriotic — could also take refuge in the charge that the reporting was unbalanced or unfair or inaccurate.

Now, everybody’s doing it.

And while I acknowledge that a completely unbiased reporter might be hard to come by, it is true that reporters are generally trained to aim for a lack of bias. Do they always achieve it? Certainly not. But I’m thinking that they achieve it a lot more often than they are given credit for these days. The truth is, there are lots of stories that are a routine part of the job for most reporters and they just don’t have a dog in the fight. That’s good.

How about we shift our focus away from the accuracy of the announcer/writer, and focus a minute on the reader/watcher?

Have we neglected to investigate the accuracy of the reader/watcher’s perception? In other words: Does the complainer have a dog in the fight? If s/he does, can they be trusted to be unbiased? So, is the president the best judge of the accuracy of a story?

Perception is a quagmire. Just look at most trial proceedings. Some of those witnesses may be lying, of course, but some really believe in what they’re saying. Many of the people imprisoned for a crime they did not commit are found guilty on the basis of the perception of the eyewitness/es. Then DNA testing finds them not guilty.

We trust ourselves. We know (we think) what we saw/heard.

In other words, we, the perceivers, judge some story as accurate or inaccurate, but that judgment is suspect. We are trapped inside the world that we know.

That’s as much true for me, a journalist, as for the layman or woman. If I — a diehard liberal — sit down to watch a debate between two candidates, it’s pretty obvious to me that my opinion of the outcome is biased. As would the opinion of my fellow watcher on the other side of the political fence.

If I were to write something about that debate, I would have to decide: Am I writing this as a journalist or as a partisan? In fact, that decision is made by a reporter working with an editor well before I watch the debate. Part of my preparation for the debate would be research into each side’s hopes for the debate and a whole lot more. When I watch it, I watch it differently.

The foundation of modern journalism is NOT that journalists don’t have an opinion, but it is that they don’t indulge in that opinion when they are reporting on a story. This is the attempt, not always successful, to be unbiased. (As an aside, I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had in the past few years watching debates. Away from my responsibilities in the newsroom I can root for whomever I wish!)

And even though I’m trained to find the neutral ground, it’s fair to question if I could accurately cover a real hot-button issue for me, like an anti-abortion demonstration.

The truth of the coverage depends a lot on where you stand. The closer to your passions an event or issue is, the more likely you are to see neutral coverage as unfair to your side.

Let’s get local.

If there’s a school board that’s handling a very tight budget and facing cuts, the open forum comments of the public will be viewed differently if you’re a teacher in the school district who might lose his job, or if you’re a parent of a third grader facing a long commute if a school is closed, or if you’re on a fixed income and you’re afraid that school taxes could be one of the things that might force you out of the home that you’ve lived in for 40 years.

In this case, the reporter following the story is not likely to be involved in the story. S/he is likely to be too young to have kids in the school district, and too poor to own a home. She does her due diligence, sums up the debate as best she can in whatever space is allocated to this story.

The next day (or that evening if the story is posted to the web) there’s a strong backlash. Many of those folks are angry, and their response leaves the hard-working reporter mystified.

Many people comment that the story is inaccurate.

Of course it could be, or it could just be that the readers/watchers have their own passionately held viewpoints and are looking to read about the meeting that they attended. The meeting where the “other” side said stupid things, and where “their” side said smart things.

I suggest that some of the less-than-flattering opinions that many folks have about journalists/journalism is fed by these perceptions. With the growth of the “reporting” universe, it’s possible to view the world solely from your own vantage point. Dearly held perceptions are now so ingrained in the culture that civil discourse has almost disappeared, replaced by talking-head inanities, infotainment on the evening news and the screaming vitriol of genuinely partisan faux-journalists.

It’s not just the financial woes of journalism institutions that endanger the craft, it’s this seeping perception that unless you report my world my way, you’re neither accurate, fair nor balanced. When, really, it’s the essential job of journalists to report the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.

A Tempest in Sullivan County

A Tempest in Sullivan County

Ice clouds spit and hiss/
the bald bird is upside down.
Tuesday strode, proud and helpless
into days of summer longing.
Winter’s grief waits to be born in
some swank Hoboken apartment —

rose-colored caress as his lips drink her musky sigh —
Hear their yesterdays, part.
Sun stalks the room,
too soon melts the moment.
Surprise! The child dies from the hunter’s bullet:
Why guns? Why not never, not one, ever.

The black cat of fate
sings its sweetest lullaby, and flies, late
to mother’s mourning, purring.
Sure, Meg will write and sit and think

and life will crush and maim, and maul.
Gentle bullet, why not slow your time and fail
to pierce the air, the wall, the
sleeping torso.

Cold, the wail of silence,
humming after the blast.
Rip, spit, smack.

Fool’s Gold

We’ve had years and years of the bean-counters’ metrics: declining advertising, declining circulation, declining profits. And, as an industry, we swallow more and more of this bitter medicine. Every year managers at all levels receive the newest set of measurable goals knowing these goals are not only not achievable but they are, really, poison to a very sick industry. Remember how they use to use bloodletting as the panacea for all ills?

We’ve been trained to ask for the leeches, when we are already weak and should be fed, not drained.

It seems to me that we in the news business — in ALL areas, not just the newsroom — have let “them” tell us who we are, and what we do. We have let them decide what the markers of success are.

Well, it’s April 1st. Time to play the fool no more.

We have been almost inchoate as we try to articulate what it is we do and what is its value. We haven’t had the counter-proposition to their neat columns of figures that spell gloom and doom. It’s true that some, like the oracle of Omaha, are turning the received wisdom about newspapers, especially, on its head. Once Warren Buffet says there’s value in newspapers, legions of bean-counters check their figures and wonder what does he know that I don’t?

Certainly I can’t profess to know what Buffet knows, but I’m guessing that most newspapers — most news organizations  — have some intelligence to offer on what is valuable about them. Only no one has ever asked.

It’s time — as Hamlet suggests — to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.

It’s time to find a new way to measure the inherent value of our news organizations and not just settle for the way “they” want to define us.

It’s time to ask ourselves: What is our value?

I suggest we turn their metric world on its head, and invent our own measure in something called qualitative metrics. For many readers, that term is an oxymoron. But in the wide world out there, academics, especially in the social sciences, have discovered its use as a tool for solving really knotty problems, finding answers to the why of things, not just the what.

It’s soft-tissue information, blood and muscle to add to the bones of the already existing quantitative metrics to come up with a better understanding of a problem. It’s talking to people, individually, to gain their varied perspectives. Most of the time those personal perspectives can agree on some points and will diverge on others. It’s up to the questioner to gather the information and make the best sense of it that he/she can.

So I’m saying that it’s time we took the time to ask each person in our newsrooms that central question: What is our value?

Each news organization, in any media, can define its questions to ask, its qualitative metrics for itself, though as this ripens we’ll begin to see similarities across the whole landscape. I also insist that this process is NOT just for newsrooms. The value of a news organization is broader than that.

It is, after all, one of our unique qualities that — in order for the former owners to make the profits they could make from these news engines — they harnessed the divergent energies of three powerful horses — newsrooms, advertising and circulation — and somehow saw how they could pull together.

Qualitative metrics to measure the value of a new organization must, in fact, break through the walls that have separated news and advertising and circulation. Not to sell our souls but to save them. The measure of our value lies in the combination of our roles.

For me, of course, the heart of the news business is always the newsroom — a room full of storytellers. It’s time to unleash the storytellers to tell our story. Not as one person’s notions, or hopes or blind ambition, but with those notions, hopes and blind ambitions united and made powerful.

I imagine this starting in newsrooms, since that’s where I’ve lived my “news” life. But something similar should happen in the news organizations sister departments

So, in a newsroom. Give the very top guy/gal — and it should be the very top — a week, a month, whatever to talk to each of his/her employees. It will vary according to the size of the newsroom.

And even if you have the money to do so, don’t hire consultants to do this.

Hire instead someone to help the top editor do his or her usual job for the length of time it will take to get this done.

Top editors for too long have been stolen by the bean counters and the management team. It’s time for the management team to recognize that the solution for the current crises/mess lies outside the mahogany ghetto and in the rank and file of the people who do the work.

(I say this with all due respect. I have myself inhabited the mahogany ghetto and it seems a fine place to do the job that the yet more senior level managers ask for. I ask now, that those yet-more-senior managers, relinquish their death grip on the intelligence that inhabits most mahogany ghettos and let them be agents for inquiry.)

The best consultant usually gets those “best” insights from talking with the factory floor or the grassroots or whomever is at the coal face DOING the work. It would be a great exercise for the top guy or gal to have these conversations just for the revelations they might garner from their own people.

I’d suggest a predetermined set of questions to be asked; developed by each newsroom to find out the answer, for that newsroom: What is our value?

The questions that I’m thinking of — to start the discussion:
Why do you work in a newsroom?
Why do you work in this newsroom?
Is there anything about your job that you’re passionate about?
What do you think is our value? Or, why do we matter?

Sure some reporters are in a particular newsroom because it’s a stepping stone to another. Some copy editors are in newsroom because it’s the job they’ve been doing for so long they can’t figure out what else to do. Some clerks are there simply to pay the bills.

But if each discussion is an individual one, the interviewer should ask enough to find how this person fits his or her own value into the larger value story.

The next step is hard for me to dictate, since it should arise from these conversations. But at the very least, that editor should be able to enunciate the answer to “What is our value?”

He or she should be able to make it smart, thorough and meaningful, even to a room full of bean counters. It should be both abstract and concrete and talk about big issues and small ones.

Some of the insights gained in these interactions would reflect the very real interactions that each person in the newsroom has with the outside world. It’s not just the editor who gets stopped in the produce aisle to have a reader comment on something he or she likes or doesn’t like about the way something was handled. The interactions that each person in the newsroom has with the world OUTSIDE the newsroom has affected each of those people and their view of their job. It’s an invisible yeast that floats in through the windows like those yeastie beasties that helped to create Belgian beer.

After all, most people work hard in most newsrooms. They WANT their work to matter to the readers. Those reader opinions are the slow drip of water that smooths away rock. Clerks talk to readers about listings, weddings, and all matter of “small” stuff that readers find incredibly important. Reporters talk to movers and shakers all the time whose opinions about the coverage of themselves probably isn’t worth much, but their opinions of the news coverage in a broader context is valuable in a different way.

And on and on it goes. A cornucopia of insights just beneath the surface, which simultaneously can offer the value of the paper to the people to whom it matters, and a new way of doing things that increases that value.

There are benefits to these conversation that multiply as I’m thinking about this, even without the the grand prize that I’m touting.

There may be new ways of doing the newsroom’s job that could arise from these conversations, from simple (but very valuable) work flow improvements to what does and doesn’t go in the newspaper (or on air) and what goes on the website (and why).

At the very least, morale would improve immeasurably. Most editors get cocooned from their staffs even when they don’t want to. There’s so much to do in a day that talking to the rank and file is a sometime thing.

It also needs to be the top guy or gal since news organizations — like almost all other organizations — hire from outside and the result is, most leadership teams are NOT familiar with all the grassroots mechanisms that create the paper.

Intimate identification with the people and their work is the spark for the fire. No consultant, no matter how gifted, can piece the mosaic of the whole newsroom together the way the editor can.

No one is better suited to put the pieces together in a way that gets at the heart of what is THIS newsroom’s value.

There are next steps and next steps. Most should be identified by the people in each news organization.

If it were possible to marry the conclusions of the news department with those of the ad and circulation departments, what treasure might be revealed? What mistakes and missteps might be overturned?

And going further into a still more fuzzy future, perhaps there are different sorts of surveys for readers/users of the products. Maybe there’s a way that the trio of leaders from each of the departments go out as a team and hold the same conversations with people outside of the news organizations.

Or, there might be a way to marry up these sort of qualitative findings with the quantitative metrics that are already routinely gathered and mostly left to gather dust since those metrics don’t answer the fundamental questions.

What is our value? How do we strengthen it?

How we set our sights beyond the dreary profit and loss?

It’s time to stop wasting our energy mining for pyrite, and pan, instead for gold.