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.

Turning, home

Given, you were, to the small green west,
a hundred years ago almost.
Out of time, for me, at least.

Another world before all those world
wars, even before your war had
become civil. But the train

(goodbye), it would have been steam, took you
away south from that story to
another. Here’s the great port,

more bustle than you had ever seen.
Huge it is yet too shallow for
that endless ship, a lighter

ferries you across the bay — your own
Styxx.  Away, from your beloved
land. Lost. Rejected. So was

a terrible beauty miscarried.
The tears that swelled from the last sighs
of land became the swollen

seas, the gray-green baptism of woe.
Borne off to the new Babylon,
far beyond the Isles of the

Blessed, west, more west; exiled from the
Castle of Want, alone, condemned
to the Dungeon of Plenty.

Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

Another bead on a family necklace
that already strung across the bruised sea,
not-so-sweet sixteen, to meet your sister
in New York.  Fear on quiet fear until
her outstretched arms. And you brought the next, a
cousin, to kitchens where you worked below
the American soil where you took no
root, no pleasure. No Irish need apply.

It was not, never home. Dispossessed of
your entitled future, farms and cows and
rock walls and turf and gentle rain and Crough
Patrick. Dragged away by that dear land’s drowned
dreams. No room, even in the stable, which
was always the old house when the new one
was built. The farm’s generations went back
from house, to stable, to sty to henhouse.

Ever more decrepit. Forced away, homesick
homelove homelostlonging only for the
home, which made you go, which now you knew did
not love you and now you cannot tell love
from fear from hate from fear from love. And all
your days spent in the big, white ship seasick
and sick of the sea and churning ever
away. So many people, all foreign.

None from your fields. Days above the freezing
north Atlantic frozen too some part of
you. Forevertobeheld in the grip
of this great conflict. Birthing, just like your
country, a grim war. Armed camps held at bay.

Ich am of Irlonde
And of the holy londe
Of Irlonde.
Goode sire, praye ich thee
for of sainte charitee,
com and dance with me
In Irlonde.

the farm girl
who set out,
who were you
when you came
into the
maw of the
tall gray east?

And there was the circling wind.
Blowing past, to futures,
the swirl and spiral,
crumbs on the water,
the whirlwind,
birds nesting at sea.
The wild geese calling to the Pilgrim soul,
nestling wrestling.

mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

She studied, became a hairdresser, proud and stubborn, never easy, married Frank McGuire, who worked on the subway. The old gold watchbroken, lies in its ornate ivory case: From Frank to Kathleen 9-5-38.

She had children, some lived. Some died. He died, too. I am the last child born to live, the only daughter, named Margaret for her mother, Margaret Kelly.

In the end, even Margaret leaves Swinford, coming to America to follow her long-ago children who all came to America to have strange lives and stranger children. But by then Margaret was deaf and found it hard to hear female voices.

Et clamor meus ad te veniat.

Frank sang: “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen.”
He never did, did he? But his sweat and
yours paid for the journey I took with you
back to Swinford, when it was still where your

family, my family lived. No boat
this time, a plane lands in Shannon,
and so we take the train, the

train, not steam anymore back and back.
The white stark cottage, the wet green
land, the faces that you know,

the faces that you don’t remember
that you don’t. That I never will.
Home. And not home any more.

And once more, she will go. Back again,
in her knotted sheets, her roiled
mind. The rosary gathers

dust, the children only tall strangers.
No restraints of love or place can
hold you back.  Back, to those fields,

to tend to
those cows, to
lay claim. To
forge anew the
self you lost.

Kathleen Kelly, mother mine, may you rest in peace.

Silence of the Lambs

Newsrooms, especially the ones I know best  — newspaper newsrooms — are a lot quieter these days.

Outside them, we have a sea of talking heads, like me, wagging fingers and pontificating about the news biz. But we hear little from the workaday folk who inhabit newsrooms, which are at very center of this wordstorm. Like the eye of a hurricane, they are eerily quiet.

There could be lots of reasons for that, such as, they’re too busy DOING the work to talk about it all that much. Or maybe it’s simply that most newsrooms have fewer bodies in them and all those ghost desks cast a pall, a grim reminder that you might be next on the layoff list. Or if you’re lucky (?) maybe another buyout.

A newsroom I used to work in, in fact several that I have worked in or knew, used to be full of piss ‘n’ vinegar folks who were hard to manage, smart, feisty and happy to deal in ground truths, whether it was about the local public officials or the editor they weren’t especially fond of.

Now? While there’s still, remarkably, a dedication to readers, to telling truth to power outside the newsroom, you don’t see much of the piss or the vinegar INSIDE those newsrooms.

Can you blame them?

No one in charge seems to be listening.

Once the lead editor in a newsroom was hired — by the publisher — to be the champion of that newsroom to other managers — including that very same publisher — and to the world at large. It was a commonplace of newspapers that the relationship between publisher and editor was respectful, but often contentious.

Over the past 10 years a subtle but profound shift in that role has taken place. Now editors are routinely expected to be the enforcers and representatives of the newspaper’s management or even the newspaper’s corporate owners, to the newsroom as well as to the world at large.

Of course there are exceptions, but these exceptions prove the rule. And most of those exceptions survive by flying under the radar.

To be blunt, senior newsroom managers are rewarded for talking budget, not story.

Yes, I know the blunt facts of circulation decline, and more importantly for the bottom line, the decline in advertising. I know when business is bad, you’ve got to tighten your belt.

But while these problems are real enough, they are recent. Go back even a decade and you’ll see profit figures for many newspapers in the double digits. Topping 20 and even 30 percent.

We already knew about the web back then. We already suspected it had the power to bring legacy news organizations to their knees.

But there was no money invested to fund the battle ahead.

From the very first time I had to handle a newsroom budget, I saw a line item for training. For the first few years it was repeatedly cut in one round or other of budget preparations. Then it was zeroed out.

The budget line lingered — like those ghostly desks — a reminder of opportunities lost.

Where once there were conference calls among editors to share bright ideas, now the conference call is likely to be a stultifying lecture from one of the corporate overlords  explaining in horrific detail how to process payments to a new vendor.

Corporate overlords are not turning to newsrooms to explore better ways of telling the news. They are turning to newsrooms only to find more bodies to cut, more desks to empty.

The Tweets that came this past week from a handful of Tribune employees all re-tweeted the story that Tribune, just emerged from bankruptcy, is handing over the sale of its properties to bankers.

Each one of those Tweets was unaccompanied by any comment. As if no comment were necessary, as if it had all been said.

That silence from such passionate folk seemed the saddest of all.

As though they are lost, and they know no one is looking out for them. They are  floating, as an editor I know said, “like bits of seaweed on a sea of mergers and acquisitions.”

“Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.” from The Education of Henry Adams

Before I talk turkey, let’s talk ketchup.

On Feb. 14th (Valentine’s Day, sweet day for a merger) the acquisition of Heinz by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was announced.

Not many days before,  Dell company founder Michael Dell, Microsoft, and the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners announced their deal to take computer maker Dell private.

Are these good ideas?

Beats me. I haven’t a clue. Remember, I’m a journalist, and, God help me, a poet. The making of money is a gene or a genius I do not have.

Here’s the way Heinz CEO William Johnson summed up the advantages of the acquisition, which meant the public company was going private offers (NPR All Things Considered on Feb 14, 2013):

“The deal provides Heinz with more flexibility, and as a private company we can be even more focused, more competitive, more nimble and benefit from much faster decision making.”

Nimble is good. So is faster decision making.

The NPR reportage on the Dell deal highlighted a behind-the-scenes dynamic. As a private company Dell can pay less attention to the quarterly returns and more to the innovation that often spells success for the long term — though it can play havoc with the short term.


If investment, and ignoring the hollering from Wall Street analysts are good ideas for a ketchup company as well as for a innovation-starved computer company, might they not also benefit a communications company? Especially a news communication company?

Newspapers, particularly, but most media outlets, get short shrift from Wall Street analysts who have predicted the imminent demise of newspapers and their media cousins, for more than a decade now. Oddly, those media institutions haven’t disappeared yet. I’ll grant you they are getting weaker.

Here’s another oddity: While circulation has fallen — cataclysmically — the number of eyeballs has risen. By that I mean, folks who still pay for their news, dead-tree variety, are getting more scarce. But the on-line readership of newspapers and many news-gathering companies has SKYROCKETED!

We have MORE people reading MORE news now than ever.

The problem lies not in ourselves, but in our stars, is how I might reverse Shakespeare’s phrase.

The problem is not that there aren’t readers for the news that journalists of all stripes are producing, it’s that no one has figured out how to make money off those readers.

And no one, for lo these many years, has considered newspapers, especially, a good investment. Yet there ARE all those readers… perhaps there needs to be some time and money spent in connecting those dots.

I’d hazard a guess the lack of investment is because too many people with money to invest have been listening to those doomsayer analysts who live in big cities, where multiple news outlets offer news in 57 varieties. And most analysts probably want their news ASAP or sooner, and they’re likely to be living on their smart phones and digesting news tidbits like a hungry dog chowing down on dinner… in the bowl or from the garbage can.

They prize fast and first. What is true takes a back seat when whiffs of a hint of a rumor can tank a stock or send it soaring.

The reality outside those media-saturated markets is entirely different.

There are many places where if there’s even ONE media presence it’s likely to be a newspaper, perhaps even a weekly newspaper. And the scarcer the outlets, the more the individual brands are recognized. Which should mean — shouldn’t it? — that those outlets are worth something?

Even in the big cities, where you get your news matters. It matters if you’ve heard/read about that court decision on NBC or Joe’s blog, even if Joe is a lawyer. Or the city’s union dispute, or the teachers’ contracts.

When there are enough media to create a media scrum, you’ll still turn to someone you recognize as a reliable source.

Brand recognition and credibility. Wow. That’s something to bank on.

News companies’ producers and publishers, from the corner office to the ad department to the newsroom have been starved of money for years and years. This is why they are not nimble, not innovative.

Analysts seem to relish hitting news companies when they’re down. Those analysts have developed the habit of blaming them for their lack of nimbleness, as if those on the ship would wish to sink it.

Many innovative ideas these days come from outside news organizations, from think tanks of various kinds, from university-based projects as well as those outfits stating right from the get-go that they they are not in the profit-making business, like ProPublica.

I applaud the increasing involvement of smart people from all sorts of places in the various news businesses. However, I still detect that the best thinking coming from all of them is straining to make itself felt at most news organizations, little or large. The purse strings are too tightly held for fear of that dreaded quarterly report.

I’m not going into the ins and outs of the benefits and risks of a leveraged buy-out for Dell, but I think it’s striking that Dell’s founder — who might know a thing or two — is joined by Microsoft, in walking this particular plank.


In the coverage given to the story on NPR’s All Things Considered on Feb. 5th, the conversation circled around some statistics on new patents gathered and studied by Josh Lerner, a professor from Harvard, who is also author of the book The Architecture of Innovation.

“When one spends money on R&D,” he said, “it’s expensed immediately, and it drags down your earnings, yet the benefits from doing it aren’t seen for years to come.”

Trying to figure out if this notion of increased innovation does indeed come from less emphasis on quick returns, he explored the number of patents granted to companies and compared the numbers between public companies and ones that went private.

He found little difference in the numbers. He did find, however, that the quality of the innovations was substantially higher in the patents for those newly private companies.

As summed up by NPR’s technology correspondent, Steve Henn: “These patents were cited by other inventors more often, and they had a bigger impact on these companies’ bottom lines…when managers are freed from chasing quarterly profits, they seem to make smarter long-term investment decisions.”

Let’s go back to Warren Buffet. Before he bought Heinz, he bought The Buffalo News. In 1977. He has had for quite a while a sizable share of the Washington Post. In 2011, when no one was buying, the oracle of Omaha bought the Omaha World Herald.

Last year, he bought 60-plus newspapers from Media General.

Two weeks before the ketchup deal was announced, he bought the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record.

“In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper, “ he said after the Media General purchase.

I recognize that his company, Berkshire Hathaway, is itself a publicly traded company, and that it could be sensitive to investors and analysts. But his track record shields him from that noise. He, in turn, shields the senior managers of his companies.

If it works for ketchup, why not newspapers?

Urgent Valentine


Urgent Valentine

The sun comes from behind me and I am shadowed, sheltered by our house.

Looking out, the trees still barricade the
far-away, even shorn of leaves.

The road that I can see is nearly black
again, its edges hemmed with snow,

the doubled back seam from plow or  shovel.
The rest – snow spotted, winter worn.

The sun streams shadow trees away from me,
and they fall immensely, soft from

the great spaces those beams have traveled to
this tiny spot of blue and green

that beckoned those rays, beguiling despite
distance and the dark. Born in a

maelstrom of energy and glow — constant
and happenstance — a flood of light.

From that sea, what few conquer night and cloud
to achieve the tree, the release

of long grey fingers to caress the earth.

From our own vortex of what is and what
is not, comes us. I want us to

be as intended as the sun, the sky.
As if we were meant to be — not

just another happy accident of
ray and tree. Not shadows. There is

a sun, and always will be for as far
as human mind can stretch. But its

yield is each day, each day’s passing. There is
sky, but its blue yield is only

a sometime thing, I am and so are you.
But us? That is the bluest sky,

rays that become shadows as they find home.

Greetings, Cactus Wren

Of all the days, this is the one I send you.

Scrubbed by the ice storm Monday, drenched by the rains of Tuesday,
this Wednesday I send.

I send the intermittent sun, our winter sun, almost warm,
tired from its journey through the dark. Still strong enough:
For awe of him, the trees fell themselves

and lay their shadows across the white.

Of course, I send the shadows, too, formed from such
immensity of scattered light that they can dance in the teasing wind,
which, too, I send.

See how the bright bluster of the sun puts that hemming grey to shame,
and blue seems for a few sweet moments to have the upper hand
in the battle for the sky.

And loses again. The snow falls.
The wind whispers of the blizzard to come.

We are winter, welcome us. From us comes the spring.