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.

Forever
nevernow
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.

H’mmm.

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.

Why?

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

IMG_0033

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.

“Ain’t no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time.”

Nor dreamers.

Over the past 10+ grim years in journalism — the traditional world of newspapers, TV and radio — there has been LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of bad news. Sometimes I get the feeling that journalists get the blame for the problems of traditional journalism. That if journalism  — and journalists — were better, there would be no problem.

Not true.

NOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUENOTTRUE

Creativity and yearning for connection lies dormant in most newsrooms, just anesthetized — or drowned — by the financial mess that has engulfed the world of most journalists still lucky (?) enough to have a job.

The first quote comes at the end of a short interview that Joe Sexton, the former New York Times sports editor had with New York magazine. He left with a raft of other editors in the NYT’s January downsizing.  Don’t even ask how many there have been. Either editors or downsizings. There or elsewhere.

A good way to keep track is to check in at jimromenesko.com, which is where I found out about the item that sparked my second sentence at the top of this entry.

The Record, one of New Jersey’s largest newspapers, is also offering buyouts and closing a special section – called Signature – it had bravely started as a way to showcase its best.

This is a quote from the paper’s editor, from his memo on the subject featured on the Romenesko site.

“Signature allowed so many of us to think about what we would do if we went a step further in our reporting, design, photographs and graphics,” writes Martin Gottlieb… “It makes sense to me to take the best of Signature… and feature them in the regular sections of the daily paper. As we do, there will be a measurable savings in newsprint costs.”

Hear that dreaming? Ain’t it just lovely? Hear the creak-crack-thud of the failing bottom line?

There has always been a passion to connect with readers and to create vivid stories about our world in the best journalists from Mark Twain to Edward R. Murrow to Joe Sexton (who was the guiding genius behind the NYT’s great multi-media effort “Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”) to the many brave souls in New Jersey who brought Signature to life.

Sexton brought the whole new-media toolbox into play to create the multi-layered story of one avalanche. He showed, as many have already done, that the will to use the host of new story-telling devices is alive in “traditional” newsrooms, as is the skill to use them well.

The sad truth is that folks doing these brave, smart things aren’t being rewarded by the companies that employ them.

And yes, I know, there are lots of smart folks working hard who aren’t being rewarded in these difficult days the way they should be. But very few of them are being blamed for those difficulties.

We need to frame our discussions of journalism differently, so that the desperately needed art and craft of journalism survives and thrives in the new universe.

A big first step would be to acknowledge the bravery of the crazy people who still populate our newsrooms and applaud those who struggle in colleges to earn the designation of journalist, despite all the bad news.

“If you are not asking yourself every couple of years how to once more scare yourself to death, then you are living something of the coward’s life,” Sexton says. “Ain’t no room for cowards in journalism at this moment in time.”

The Novice

I lift the blind and
there it is —  as silent as a forgotten
dream — the snow.

This, perhaps, the millionth time I lift my pen to see,
and hunt the words.

The land lifts behind our house as though
a bowl:
    wooded, tooth-picked with slim gray trees.
A mystery of whites,
    here, the ground, there the sky,
    but where they have their assignation, is lost
    in trees, and snow.
Each new fall is like a marriage: commonplace and extraordinary.

Nothing moves. Even the topmost branches hold still, with
their white shadows hugged close.

Forgive me, snow and sky and trees, that I must nail
down this moment. Scratching, always scratching
this itch that will not cease.

Forgive me, too, ancient priesthood, wordsmiths who have and will
bless our language with your arts.
In them, through them, with them is rekindled the love of the creator
for the work.

Forgive me, an old novice. You will know I have no choice
but to claim the itch — and these words —
as the wonder right of all who stand in awe,
and parse perfection with a pen.