Sunday, March 14, 2010


For the first time in 13 1/2 years, I am no longer a full-time newspaper journalist.

It all still feels a bit surreal. As our industry eroded, wave by wave, I came to adopt Bum Phillips' old saying: There's two kinds of journalists, them that's been laid off and them that's gonna be laid off.

There's already been too much time consumed and words wasted lamenting the losses, so I feel no need to add to that.

Instead, consider this a short memoir. It's one man's journey, consequential to no one, but preserved before the memories fade away.

I never planned on being a journalist. I always envisioned something different, like teaching or meteorology, maybe both. Then I discovered I was too ill-tempered for teaching obnoxious youths; further, I was completely uninterested in physics and chemistry, prereqs to weather-related studies.

It was as simple as this: As a junior with major-declaration time approaching, I did the math. I had always been a fair writer. I always enjoyed sports. Why not be a sportswriter?

As a senior, I landed an internship at my hometown paper, The Times News in Lehighton, Pa. Upper management loved a free worker.

My first assignment was a football game between my alma mater and a high school that was within a block of our campus; you can see how close they are on Google Maps (click the Satellite view; Moravian College's football field, then in the middle of renovations, is the tan blob to the left).

I was warned beforehand that covering high school football was a pain, and my experience concurred. Stats provided by the schools were too often unreliable and usually couldn't be obtained on tight, Friday night deadlines, so it was up to us to keep the stats. If you've never been a journalist, imagine charting what happened on every play, how much yardage it gained or lost, who carried, passed or caught, whether a first down resulted, whether a touchdown resulted (and what time this occurred at), whether a penalty resulted (and figuring out what the new down and distance was after the penalty was assessed) and, possibly, who made a big defensive play.

And don't forget, you have 30 seconds or so to write all this down between plays.

What disappointed me most was that everything I had learned about the tactical side of football - passing routes, blitz pickups, blocking angles - was of no use. There was no time to dissect what went right and what went wrong unless it was obvious to everyone watching the game (a middle defender blocking a kick, for instance).

But I learned as a I grew older; when play-by-play charting became an afterthought, I was able to jot notes about what had happened and a key moment that made it happen.

My second assignment was much closer to the office. I filed from there that night, my first experience inside of a newsroom. I was stunned at how I felt it was simply the place for me to be. I felt at home there. I heard intelligent discussions about sports, the jocular banter you'd expect in an all-male department, and, for the first time, the sense of contributing something that was part of a much larger scheme.

I learned much more than that, of course. Emmett McCall helped me understand solid design principles; it took me years to figure out how he could so quickly take a batch of stories that were to be on a page and whip up a stable design that would prevent bumping heds and the like. Rod Heckman gave me appreciation for statheads and folks with a quiet, solid work ethic. Steve Stallone, who left shortly thereafter to move to the Hazleton Standard-Speaker, taught me how to cover events like a pro. Ed Hedes, our boss, stuck up for me even when I didn't deserve such treatment.

We only had one major shift in personnel. When including the weeklies that we owned, colleagues like Scott Pagel (hockey) and Kate Huvane (field hockey) not only became good friends, but taught me the skill and artistry of the sports they knew best.

And along the way, we had a blast doing it. Beers in the media lot at Pocono Raceway (on a Friday afternoon no less! But shhhh...), mocking the characters of 'Days of Our Lives' with Kate, listening to the Notre Dame fight song every f---ing time Emmett's computer booted up.

I was privileged in that Ed was OK with most ideas I proposed. I could cover Philadelphia Eagles and Penn State angles at the NFL Draft; so, for two years, I went to New York. We had somehow lucked into a credential for the Orioles-Indians ALDS in '97, so I went. (I'll always remember being on the field standing next to Jayson Stark, Pedro Gomez (both before they ventured to ESPN) and a third person listen to a discussion with then-Indians GM John Hart about a potential salary cap in baseball. All this happened as Stark was on the Fanavision in the stadium, doing an interview for a segment for 'This Week In Baseball.') I covered the first interleague game between the Phillies and the Blue Jays.

And toward the end of stay at home, I covered the college signing of a local kid who was going to play offensive line for the University of Richmond. What a random choice, I thought. What exactly is there in Virginia that would draw someone there?

By that time, it had become clear that remaining in Lehighton would not be a wise move. There's only so many years you can spend in a hometown of 5,000 people; when I had the audacity to pick against my alma mater in our weekly Grid Picks, I often had people ask why I wasn't more supportive of them. The most ridiculous comment of that nature came when Lehighton faced Berwick at the end of one regular season; then, Berwick was the class of eastern Pennsylvania football and the Indians were no match.

My own stubbornness didn't help. I didn't see eye to eye with management - the ones who enjoyed the free labor - and though I still feel as if I was right in my resentment, I now understand there would have been better ways to handle it. The general manager, for instance, was the publisher's son and had come straight from an underling advertising position. He knew nothing of production, from editorial to editing to printing; once, when I worked as sports editor of a weekly that served the area where he resided, he once requested an extra page - on production day! - to ensure that I would have enough room to print his son's youth league results. Even the compliments were half-assed; when I took a photo of a high school baseball player named Geoff Kelowitz, his subsequent e-mail commended me for my "nice photo of the Kelowitz." I burned bridges with them and though I'm sorry I did, I'm not that sorry.

I looked for the first train out of town, somewhere within a range of southern New England to Northern Virginia. My first job offer was at a small placed called the Manassas Journal Messenger. One my final day, Bob Urban - our then-managing editor at the TN and a man I continue to greatly admire - reminded me, "If those Southerners give you any problems down there, you just remind them that they're still batting 0 for 1." I didn't know at the time that Manassas was hardly "The South," which starts at Fredericksburg.

I plunged myself into an area I didn't know. My first residence was a room rented from an eccentric, single older woman. My room had no cable and I was not one to hang out with her much; the only way to keep up with the world was at work. So I worked often.

At the JM, I was immediately taken by a different style of leadership. It felt more professional and less collegial than the TN, and I mean to infer nothing bad about the latter. Lehighton and Carbon County is/was a small region where people knew people; Manassas was part of suburbia, sprawling and always in flux. Both styles served their areas well, and neither was better than the other; they were just markedly different.

Perhaps what was more striking was the divergent backgrounds of the people who made up the newsroom. Our editor was from southern Georgia and graduated from Florida; a copy editor had gone to Lehigh, just across the river in Bethlehem from Moravian; our sports editor was from west of Richmond but had spent time at U.Va. and Arizona State.

Really, everything was different. I was within walking distance of multiple businesses that were open 24 hours a day; I can think of maybe two such businesses in all of Lehighton. The nearest Best Buy was in Allentown, a 25-minute drive; in Manassas, there was one that was less than a 25-minute walk. On one route to the office, I passed maybe 30 restaurants, far more than any route in Lehighton would produce. I now had to worry about traffic and the federal government.

There were many lonely nights in Manassas, wondering if I'd made the right move. None was worse than when a fire consumed the townhouse next to us, forcing us to relocate while the house was rebuilt. I stayed with a kind neighbor and his family while more permanent housing could be found; I read thick classics to pass the night hours away, since I didn't want to be any more of a bother than I already was, considering my odd work hours. (The misery then paid off later with a sweet long-term apartment in a gated community in McLean, near Tysons Corner.)

But I also increasingly found my stride within the community, the paper and as a writer. The first story I ever wrote that I was really proud of involved a deaf eighth-grader who played basketball. His sign language coach, a female, had also played basketball and served as his interpreter. "When he gets yelled at, I yell at him through sign language," she said.

Within six months of arriving, though, changes were afoot. Our papers were being combined with another one in the same county, lengthening my commute by a great degree. After a few months, it became too much and three of us, all in sports, rented a townhouse nearer to the office. Thus began the fun years of the Woodbridge frathouse.

With Keith McMillan, Kipp Hanley and I, we all enjoyed a place to rest our heads and commiserate privately about whatever was going wrong with work. We were all single at varying points, enjoying our jobs and, for the most part, each other.

This also coincided as the most fun I'd had working in sports. We had a superb team with excellent writers and reporters, all of whom had daily newspaper experience before coming here. We routinely won awards, all of us, and were the best sports section in the state for our size, by any measure. We had different specialties and varying abilities, all of which came together for a halcyon era, at least by the standards I'd had.

Lacy Lusk was a baseball encyclopedia and a thoughtful reporter. (Once, while putting together a friend's going-away page, I pasted the head of Osama bin Laden onto the body of then-Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. Lacy happened by and saw my work. He deadpanned, "bin Laden's a lefty. Who knew?") Keith was a superb writer, unafraid to take on subjects that others would shy away from. Kipp routinely found outstanding human interest stories, and Dave Utnik was as descriptive a writer as you'd find. Marcus Rosano, our desk guy, was steady, unflappable and always willing to listen to gripes, professional or otherwise. I always considered myself a utility player, with comparable - but not superior - skills to any of the above. We all had fun and we kicked ass doing it.

When our clan broke up, a new wave of faces replaced them. Keith and Lacy moved on to bigger things; Marcus moved on to better things. Guys like Byron Barboza, Chris Errington and Tom Lawson helped bring in a new era; I don't know that our quality slipped a great deal, but the era was different nonetheless. Byron sat next to me, and could often be heard arguing with Tom about the inane topic of the day. At least there was life among us.

I was finding my stride as a writer and as a designer. I found myself sitting down at a computer after an event and struggling with the lede, as we've all done; my only credo - "write something intelligent" - reverberated through my head, a cautionary tale against the easy, too-frequent AP ledes of a one-line setup before the nut graf. As a designer, I appreciated the fact that I could clear off my calendar and produce an excellent centerpiece, provided I could find the materials and the know-how to do it.

I was also fortunate to cover some incredible events, some of which I'd written about before (numbers 1, 2 and 5 happened during this era). I covered the Washington Redskins part-time for several years. I had one-on-one interviews with people I could have never imagined, like Ryan Howard and Jack Nicklaus.

A year and a half ago, things changed. We were told that we were a community newspaper and, as such, there was no reason to spend resources covering 'national' sports like the Redskins (though no one could ever tell me why, since I was told specifically it was not a resource, financial or competence issue). The specter of layoffs was also imminent, given what was going on across the industry and that some layoffs had already occurred at some of our company's papers. We didn't know when or what, but the sense that something would happen.

A year ago, it did. Our executive editor decided she wanted a universal desk, one in which a set of copy editors are responsible for the whole paper; there are no sports-only copy editors, for instance. I was placed on the desk; my days as a full-time writer were over. I continue to have deep feelings about this move; lest I burn any more bridges, I'll keep them to myself.

This move also set the stage for my eventual layoff. In the fall, we began hearing of plans for a consolidated copy desk, somewhere far (Richmond) or very far (Lynchburg) from where we currently were. The drumbeat grew louder, and sources inside and outside our building confirmed that a move was imminent. By January, we'd received unofficial word; by mid-February, we received official word. We could move to Lynchburg or be laid off.

I took the latter.

I'll walk into that office tomorrow as a contractor, unsure of what lies ahead.

But I took tonight to look back, to revisit the good and bad. The journey has been incredible and, were you to read this to me when I was in Bethlehem, unbelievable. I met people and went places and saw things that were simply beyond my comprehension then. For heaven's sake, I sat in the front row of the Hoosier Dome, watching Florida beat UCLA for the men's Division I basketball tournament.

It was a good run.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Eclectic music tastes

So a friend recently remarked that I had the greatest mix of music ever. See, there's a thread over at SJ where you take your iPod/MP3 player and relate the first five songs on the shuffle. No skipping, nothing. Apparently my shuffle was varied and crazy enough to elicit such a response.

With that in mind, here's the full list of bands on my iPod (thanks, Santa!). Eclectic, or just plain nuts?

(Please also note that some of these bands' tunes came via soundtracks and compilations, so this is not an exhaustive list of my CD collection.)

2 Unlimited
The 5th Dimension
The Alan Parsons Project
Alanis Morissette
Alice In Chains
Aretha Franklin
Az Yet
Bad Company
Barenaked Ladies
The Beatles
Better Than Ezra
Billy Joel
Black Box
Blue Oyster Cult
Bob Marley & The Wailers
Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
Boyz II Men
Bruce Springsteen
The Byrds
C+C Music Factory
Carl Douglas
The Cars
Chad Kroeger
The Champs
Cheap Trick
Collective Soul
The Cranberries
Creed (just one song, don't worry)
Culture Club
Damn Yankees
Dave Matthews Band
Deep Purple
Def Leppard
Depeche Mode
Dire Straits
The Doors
Dr. Dre
Elton John
Everything But The Girl
Faith Evans
Fleetwood Mac
Foo Fighters
The Four Tops
The Fugees
Garth Brooks
Gary Glitter
Gin Blossoms
Goo Goo Dolls
Grateful Dead
Groove Theory
Guns 'n' Roses
Hank Williams Jr.
Harry Connick Jr.
Iron Maiden
James Brown
Jefferson Starship
Jimi Hendrix
Jimmy Buffett
Joe Jackson
Judas Priest
KC & The Sunshine Band
The Knack
Led Zeppelin
Limp Bizkit
Lisa Loeb
Little River Band
LL Cool J
Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Mamas and The Papas
Mariah Carey
Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch
Meat Loaf
Montell Jordan
Monty Python
Motley Crue
Naughty by Nature
No Doubt
Ozzy Osbourne
Paul Simon
Petey Pablo
Pink Floyd
The Police
The Presidents of The United States of America
Public Enemy
Quad City DJs
R. Kelly
The Ramones
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Rider
Reel 2 Real
REO Speedwagon
Rob Base & DJ Easy Rock
Robert Palmer
Rod Stewart
The Romantics
Sarah McLaughlin
Simon & Garfunkel
Smashing Pumpkins
Snoop Dogg
Stone Temple Pilots
Tag Team
Todd Rundgren
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Tupac Shakur
Van Halen
The Verve Pipe
Willie Nelson

Monday, December 15, 2008

Graphic discussion

I've been around news all my life. My parents were religious local news watchers and, for most of the time when I lived at home, we subscribed to a morning and an afternoon paper. My least favorite part of going off to camp was the disconnectedness I felt; no TV and no papers meant I was cut off from current events - even if I had no geopolitical understanding and, therefore, no context to those events.

We were lucky, then, that I got to experience news from several viewpoints. We got broadcasts from New York (where there's always something going on), Philadelphia (and its ruthless press corps) and Scranton (where a local fair was as likely to lead the newscast as anything).

And it wasn't always the news that interested me. The graphics were a big part too; of particular interest were the openings: WPVI's legendary quick-hit video with Al Ham's "Move Closer To Your World"; WNEP, which still uses a different Ham composition; and WCAU's multi-person opening that was used before I moved south.

I suppose it's natural, then, that this curiosity carries through to today.

For some reason, instead of the openings, the thing that catches my eye today is how stations and networks introduce breaking news. So when I stumbled across these two examples, it made for a fascinating contrast.

First, CNN:

It's bold, it's flashy. Three notes and the climax. And it has traditional elements too: notice the strings playing after the other instruments have faded. If you're of a certain age, you'll remember that back when, the sound of a Morse code used to be popular on news broadcasts. They're keeping an eye on the wire, ready to bring you anything of importance that crosses it. (Note that this version doesn't have a voiceover, which is heard in this example.)

Now, onto BBC World:

It's much more stylish, in a European sort of way, with all its half-spheres and curves. The music is far less dramatic and, though urgent in its opening notes, less attention-grabbing.

But such is the difference between the cultures. We're more bold and loud, they're more reserved and stylistic.

So I don't know if it matters a hoot to anyone, just something I found curious: cultural differences as seen in news graphics.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A restaurant that gets it

I've found a new favorite lunch place on the Wednesdays when I trek to Ashburn (and, of course, assuming there's time to be had for lunch).

It's called California Tortilla; I've seen them refer to themselves as Cal Tort for short, even if it sounds like a small, forgotten branch of a law firm.

I used to get my daily dose of humor on the hilarious bumpers for Lucy. Then Sirius went and ruined the channel, turning it into a soulless wasteland (though thankfully it doesn't have a DJ, unlike most other channels).

These days, CalTort fits the bill. Those are some of the freebies pictured above. The napkin should be easy enough to read; the drink behind it has some poor sap getting a drink dumped on his head by someone woman who looks to be having way too much fun dumping. The tagline reads: "Refills are on us!"

Yes, it's a silly gag. But when a place is full of them, it shows you that it doesn't take itself seriously. And that brings a smile to your face.

Just above the soda fountain is a sign that goes where a Coke or Pepsi logo would be. It's a two-part sign that's split by the ice dispenser. The left side reads: "Bad Bob fills his water cup with soda." And it shows some guy, Bob presumably, getting the finger-wagging treatment from another, equally random guy, presumably an authority figure. The right side of the sign says, "Good Bob fills his water cup with water!" Same two random guys, except the lecture is now a celebration. Conflict resolution while you tap the Sprite spigot.

This is part of a long, backward "L" shaped counter; this is the very top of the letter. The sign reads: "Need Help??? Use Megaphone or Bell!"

Sure enough, down the counter a bit - where near the point where the two lines meet - there was a megaphone and a bell. I wonder how many people opt for the former...

For all the silliness, it wouldn't matter if the food sucked. Fortunately, it doesn't. Twice, I've tried the - brace yourself - Buffalo Chicken Wing Burrito, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has shared a bar with me. It's good, and the wing sauce they have works well with the rest of the ingredients; I daresay it would beat what most places pass off as wing sauce.

A quick aside: If you happen to go, for heaven's sake, get the smaller size burrito. Not knowing any better on my first visit, I got the large. When I was finished, about 5/6 of the way through that beast, I couldn't eat another bite. And that was after untold contents spilled because I wasn't smart enough to keep the thing in its wrapper.

For me, the gem of the place was this:

It's called the Wall of Flame. I was heartened to see such wonderful, and ambulance-inducing, sauces. Just to the right of the Jack Daniels-looking bottle (more on that in a sec) is our old friend, Dave's Insanity Sauce.

In my younger stupider days, I bought a bottle of DIS from a German restaurant/novelty store/beer store back in the Lehigh Valley Mall. I couldn't wait to actually use it on my food, so I took a dab and rubbed it off on the front right part of my tongue. That spot burned - and I don't mean smolder, I mean unrecognizably charred - for a good 20 minutes. Not unlike this guy's experience.

It's part of a line of super-hot, XXX sauces, ones that do their damndest to give you space for a tongue ring. Many have catchy and humorous names.

But the Jack-looking bottle caught my attention this day. It may have the greatest product name in all the glorious history of American capitalism: Professor Phardtpounder's Colon Cleaner Hot Sauce, the Elixir of Capsaecin Extremus!

There's something to be said for a bottle of sauce who's biggest words jump out at you: COLON CLEANER.

And it fits in perfectly at Cal Tort, where it seems no gag is silly enough if it makes your day.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

An important comment I hope everyone reads

A comment notification popped into the old inbox this afternoon. In full:

You know, I've been seeing this for a year, and normally I don't respond to ad hominem attacks, but finally, in this year of change, I thought I'd set the record straight.

1. I was the starting guard for my JV high school basketball team.
2. I was a starting member of the tennis team for 2 years in high school.
3. I regularly played intramural sports through college and law school.
4. I taught tennis at the Special Olympics when I attended Cal.
5. I hosted the Tiger Woods Foundation Golf Clinic at Harding Park in San Francisco in 1999.
6. I play golf whenever I can, having taken up the sport in 1997 after watching Tiger Woods win the Masters. Something about "role model" and "opportunity" made me want to compete in a sport I had heretofore not identified with minorities.

If you bothered to read the entire transcript, you would understand the issues involved. If women are not provided a chance to engage in intercollegiate athletics, what does that say about our country? Everyone uses the old saw that "football, baseball, basketball" will be cut. The evidence hardly exists to support that conclusion, except perhaps in those rare instances in schools where the programs were marginal to begin with. The fact of the matter is, college athletics is more robust, and college campuses are richer, and our nation is stronger because of the passage and enforcement of Title IX.

Yes, sometimes choices have to be made. But the fact is, they have always been made in college sports. Prior to Title IX, campuses determined what mens' sports teams to support and which ones would be self-sufficient. Blaming Title IX for the demise of some mens' programs is an easy blame-shifter, rather than focusing on the fact that we are creating the same opportunity for camaraderie, teamwork, and excellence for young girls and women. I say that's a positive.

It certainly doesn't suck.

Michael Yaki
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

First, I'd like to offer sincere thanks to Mr. Yaki for taking the time to write his comment.

Here's the original post. I think Mr. Yaki missed the long-running gag, that people and things who committed silly acts got thrown into the ever-popular "You Suck" series. Other members of the club include current D.C. council member Marion Barry, electronics maker Sony, faux weight-loss product Lipozene, and the folks who compose the scrolling ticker on CNN.

So you are not alone.

All that being said, I stand behind what I wrote. While your accomplishments are numerable and commendable, particularly your involvement with Special Olympics, they do not qualify you to be in a position to be advising on aspects of intercollegiate athletics. I am as much qualified to be an instructional pilot at Delta based on my hours spent on Flight Simulator.

We agree on more than you may think. The growth of women's athletics in this country is a wonderful development. I pray that the WNBA stays afloat for as long as possible; they provide role models to a generation of girls that may otherwise find few of them.

Title IX, at its essence, is good legislation.

What it has become, however, is not good. It does suck.

See, the thing that blows my mind is this: You're essentially saying - and please correct me if I'm wrong on this - that collateral damage in men's sports is OK, so long as we provide opportunities for women's sports.

That, and your unfortunate choice of words in that hearing, are my primary concerns with you in your capacity as it relates to Title IX. (If you believe the Associated Press wrongly quoted you, please let me know and I will happily post that. I will leave it to our readers to decide.)

Here's what I want from our higher education system: Opportunities for all to participate in as many varsity sports as possible. These days, that is not possible. Wrestling programs are being eliminated at an alarming rate; other Olympic sports on the men's side have also been dropped frequently.

Much of this, as best I can tell, happens to bring a particular school in line with Title IX.

I have no concerns that the big three of football, basketball and baseball will be adversely affected. At the I-A/FBS level, football drives the athletic department; basketball helps out too; and baseball, in certain pockets of the country, is incredibly popular.

Instead, I worry about the minor sports. What if I have a son who runs cross country but goes to a school where the program is cut? What if he wrestles? Can I demand a campus wave off federal funding in order to support my son's team? I can, I suppose, but I'll be laughed out of the building (with a security escort, no doubt).

Let me say this as clearly as possible: My feelings have nothing to do with gender, race, ethnicity or even sport of choice. I will fight with all of my power to ensure that young women have a chance to benefit from athletics.

But what kind of a person am I if I don't fight with that same intensity for young men and their opportunities? Do they not deserve the same chance?

I want equality for all. Not some, or half, or most. All.

Title IX, for all the excellent intentions behind it, fails in that endeavor at this point.


Mr. Yaki, you are always welcome here. Though I disagree most vehemently with your position and the way you present it, I believe in the power of free speech as well.