Planes, People and Another Piece of My Heart

I used to get flashbacks every August.

The aching sadness would start to swallow me on the anniversary of the Aug. 2, 1985 crash of Delta Airlines Flight 191 in Dallas, followed by another collective sob on the anniversary of the Aug. 16, 1987 crash of Phoenix-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 255 in Detroit.

As a young reporter, I covered those crashes with both sides of my brain and 110 percent of my heart.

In the months after the Delta crash in Dallas, I and a team of two dozen reporters and editors at the late, great Dallas Times Herald produced a series on aviation safety that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism.

Two months later, I quit my job in Dallas and moved to Phoenix to marry an editor, the love of my life, Bill Waldrop.

Bill directed breaking news coverage as Criminal Justice Editor at the Arizona Republic, a big, metro daily paper that wasn’t particularly interested in hiring me. So I went to work for Max Jennings at the Mesa Tribune, a paper that was still small enough to be nimble and scrappy.

Bill and I were watching the television news shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday Aug. 16, 1987 when the crawl went across the bottom of the television screen: “A Phoenix-bound jet has crashed on takeoff in Detroit.”

Back then, we only had one land-line telephone in the house, so there was a bit of an arm-wrestle about which of us would call their news desk first and say, “I’m on my way in to cover it.”

He won, and was out the door in a flash, speeding downtown in his Datsun 260 Z.

Not long after, I was off to Phoenix’ Sky Harbor Airport to interview people who were waiting for friends and family to arrive from Detroit.

My dear photojournalist collaborator and friend, Gary O’Brien, still has a photo in his portfolio from inside the airport that night. I’m squatting down with other people, trying to comfort a woman who collapsed, overcome to learn her family member had missed the flight. He lived.

Photo by Gary O’Brien

Of the 157 people who boarded the plane, only one survived, a 4-year-old child named Cecilia Chichan.

I filed a story for the Mesa Tribune that evening, and also filed something for my friends at papers in Dallas and Detroit to include in their stories for the morning.

Then, after I cajoled him on the phone for a long while that night, Mesa Trib Managing Editor Sandy Schwartz relented, and Gary and I boarded a 2 a.m. flight from Phoenix to Detroit. The Mesa Trib had never done anything like quite like that before, and it certainly wasn’t in the budget.

When Gary and I landed after daylight, Andy Hall, a reporter working for my husband, was already on the ground in Detroit.

Gary and I went straight to the crash scene.

The aviation safety series in Dallas taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the fragile mechanics of JT8D Pratt & Whitney jet engines and the deadly vagaries of weather and wind shear.

As a 10-year-old kid, I learned the basics of aerodynamics by flying radio control planes with my Dad. I was his mechanic.

But the human factor arches over all.

For the “first responders” — EMS, Fire Department, local police and sheriff’s deputies — there is nothing more horrifying and debilitating than doing absolutely everything right – by the book – and not being able to change the outcome.

When big planes crash, people die. You can’t save them, no matter how hard you try.

When I met Wayne County Sheriff’s Lt. Norm Colstrand at the perimeter of the crash scene, I asked how he was holding up. I wanted the real answer, not just a polite response.

Colstrand was a burly, veteran cop. But he was overwhelmed with a primal pain.

We agreed that I would come back, long after dark, to see what he was guarding. He needed to share his pain with the world.

Having entered the game, the Mesa Trib doubled down and sent a gifted young writer, Doug MacEachern, to join the ground team in Detroit.

Doug mercifully agreed to connect with my husband and pick up my sneakers before leaving Phoenix. I’d been in heels since Sunday evening.

When he delivered them, I found a note from my husband tucked inside one sneak: “I love you – now kick ass!”

I wore those sneaks that night on a tour of the still smoldering crash scene.

Very fortunately for me, Gary and Doug were there. Doug tells the story here, better than I ever could.

I remember picking up the page, thinking deeply about the person who owned the book it came from, and tucking it away. It lives in my home in a file labelled, “Detroit Page.” It has seen daylight fewer than six times in 25 years.

From the start, I knew the plane did not crash itself. Even back then, passenger jets were designed to take off and fly with just one engine.

Sort of like in “rock, paper, scissors,” the human factor can overrule mechanics.

And so it had in Detroit, I learned through whispered hallway conversations with pilots and investigators.

Humans in the cockpit failed to extend the flaps on takeoff. Without that lift, the plane crashed.

To the relief of the reporters working for my husband, I finally left Detroit and flew home to Phoenix. He let them come home too.

The amazing experience in Dallas provided a template for the components that needed to be in the Sunday story.

The People.

The Plane.

The Crash.

Dave Becker, Scott Bordow, Ric Clarke, Jeffrey Crane, David Downey, Chris Feola, Earl Golz. Andrea Han, Eileen Myers, Robert Perez, Bill Roberts, Jeremy Stockfisch, Ed Taylor, Ben Winton, Rick Wiley, Dough MacEachern, Gary O’Brien and I provided the facts.

Then Doug wove the words together in just the right way, describing the purple bow her grandma tied around Cecelia’s waist that morning and the yellow blankets we saw that dark night tucked around victims on the ground.

After a long time, the ghosts went into remission.

But this August, they came out to mark 25 years.

And Norm Colstrand’s words echo in my brain:

 “You hear about the plane crashing into Mt. Fuji and that 520 people got blown across the side of a mountain, and you say to yourself, ‘Boy, that’s a shame,’ and then you go about your business.

Or your hear about a plane crash in the Canary Islands and that 582 people were killed. You shake your head, and you go on with your life.

“But this time, we can’t just go about our business.

“This time, death in its massiveness came to roost here.”

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New age journalism: With a pickaxe and a crap detector

This is going to be a little random, but I am grateful to Adrienne Flynn, my long-time friend, sister journalist, and now University of Maryland journalism professor, for asking me what I think journalism students should be learning these days.

Away from academia, these centipede legs sometimes take me on a run, when what I really need is to pause and think. And reflect.

So I did.

Anyone can be a publisher. Everyone is a publisher. Whether you blog or Twitter or update your Facebook status, or just text or email, we all publish news many times a day. And it’s accurate and fast. When Spain won the World Cup, Twitter beat the New York Times email alert by 15 minutes – an eon in ADD Twitter years.

Each day, people take and publish millions (or is it billions) of pictures from cell phones, not because they are paid to, but because they love to and are passionate about it. (amateur=love) Facebook edged out everyone else to become the biggest photo upload site in the world, and that was how many years ago?

Everyone can be a broadcaster, by uploading video to YouTube, live-streaming video with UStream or going two-way interactive with live video and live, commenting audience on Kyte. That my Nokia cell phone could stream live video to the web was a big deal in 2008. Today? Not so much.

Everyone can find information. First there is Google, where you can find out what people did say, and now, the second-biggest search engine is Twitter, where you can find out what people are saying about any topic at this very moment, everywhere in the world.

When all the world’s a publisher, there is no such thing as meaningful market share. I am typical: I go to 19 different places for my news every day. I am fickle. I follow shiny objects, not big, grey, pulpy lumps.

So what can make news organizations or journalists special when everyone can (and is) doing it?

Journalists have access to people and hidden information. They can put it in context, make it understandable and curate the flotsam and jetsam into a meaningful exhibit that helps people understand and make better decisions.

Journalists have special access to people and policy makers. Journalists can pose questions to policy makers, and they can — via live web casting — share that access with the community.

Think about the folks who hang out in city council chambers for hours, waiting for the “public comment” section in the end. What if you could give that access to people on a periodic basis? Often, normal mortals ask the most penetrating questions. I’ve found that policy makers agree to participate in the online “town halls” when a journalist is involved.

Journalists can find things that are not on Google. Important things. Like the HTML feed for 311 calls or the PDFs of a city council measure explaining how  ADA money will fund new sidewalks in a run-down part of town, or the scanned and PDF’d copies of each council person’s expense account. All those things are online at City Hall or somewhere, but otherwise invisible. (See Deep or Dark Web )

Journalists can find those things, put them online in context, in a visually comprehensible framework, and create people-magnets.

Don’t you want to go to the map and zoom in on your block and see what people are calling 311 about, or how fast the city fixes things, or how that compares with other places?

Don’t you want to scour your council person’s or congress person’s expense account and see where the hell they went and what they claimed they spent and compare it to their peers’ expenses?

Don’t you want to be able go back to the part of the video in the public meeting where the developer told the neighborhood association that his high-rise would have friendly, street-level retail shops, and not a high wall that screams “Keep Away?”

When it comes to data, journalists can decide which bits and bytes to turn into eye candy to help the people formerly known as the audience examine it from all sides. I collect links to examples of  data visualization, and love this video of “Gapminder” data visualization software.

And then the journalists can help people annotate the information with their own stories. And they can put it in context so we know whether it is big or small, red or green, unusual or normal.

So the students need to be in newsrooms and bureaus to brainstorm and to feed off of each other and learn from you.

Teaching them to be mere news and photo and video publishers is too pedestrian. Everyone’s doing it.

They need to be archaeologists and artists, collectors and curators.

Give each of them a shovel and a crap detector (thank you Howard Rheingold!).

Tell them to dig until they find something that you don’t get on a simple Google search.

When they come up with something, tell them to examine it, and then write about it and weave a solid backbone of context around it, then make it visually understandable.

Then you curate it: Is it good enough for this most amazing exhibition?

And when it is good enough, then you put it to the people (journalists’ best co-conspirators) and say, “What do you think? Can you help us fill in the rest of this picture?”

Then you say to the policymakers, “These people raised some interesting questions.” And you give people access to ask their questions of the policy makers. So the community can be informed and people can make better choices.

I was going to add, “and Democracy will be safe,” but I don’t want to go out on a limb.

I have no idea if this is comprehensible or if it helps. But it is where I am going.

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It’s my birthday, I’ll count if I want to

I’ve never been afraid to go places few women have gone before, and to take names and kick butt.
Thanks to my father, I learned to rebuild the engine in a 1964 Dodge Dart so I had a car to drive in 1974. (I named it Rocinante and aimed it at windmills.)
I won’t reiterate the litany of “firsts” I punched through as a woman in the journalism bidness. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time busting through the “first” wall: The first woman photographer, the first woman investigative reporter, the first woman business editor, the first woman editor, the first … well, you get the drift.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of a lot of white guys trying to do twice as well as they did so I could earn a place at the table.
Today, my 54th birthday present was to not be the lone woman at a tech conference.
We were a crowd and a tribe! A flock and a pod! A gaggle and a group!
We were not alone.
About 22 percent of the people registered for Drupal Camp Austin 2009 were women.
I know. I counted.
That’s extraordinary in a world where six percent of people in Open Source software are women. In Drupal, the numbers are more like 12 percent, but that’s still a dreadful minority.
Thanks to @laurenroth, @shana_e and @equintanilla @vitorious @chanaustin this was not a “lone woman” conference.
Women came for many reasons, including that there were people at this conference who look like them. Anglo, Asian American, African American – we were there.

In every session there were from 13 percent to 29 percent women.
I chronicled the ratio in every session I was in, to the dismay of one South Austin cretin (please click to see what an idiot he is.)
It’s my birthday, I’ll count if I want to!!
The tally tells me how far we have come. Thank you for such a meaningful birthday present!

Future seekers need better rear-view mirrors

As a Unitarian Universalist, I have a tough time embracing the Original Sin metaphor in the discussion about where news organizations went wrong online.

Yup, there have been a lot of failures.

But what’s getting lost in the discussion is a very real record of some game-changing innovation and achievements.

Progress, it seems to me, depends on getting a clearer and more accurate picture of what did work – even inside the failures.

By way of background, Alan Mutter started the sin thing by claiming that newspapers’ Original Sin was failing to charge for content. He’s wrong. Many of us worked for newspapers that charged for online content back in the mid-1990s. It didn’t work, and it’s not worth repeating. But it is worth remembering and learning from.

Then Steve Buttry weighed in with a thoughtful piece saying newspapers’ Original Sin was failing to innovate. He’s right, although many of us did innovative online work for media organizations. More on that later.

Howard Owens entered the conversation with another thought-provoking piece, saying newspapers’ Original Sin was keeping online units tethered to the mothership. Thanks to a history lesson from Steve Yelvington, we know there were several successful and independent online spinoffs that used little or no content from the mothership. More on their fates below.

Buttry countered that “Organization is not as important as mindset. And spinning digital operations off did not change the mindset.

Jeff Jarvis offered a variation on a theme by Owens, saying the real sin was not running the online unit as a business.

While rejecting the notion of original sin, Yelvington says newspapers failed by not confronting the basic question:

“What should we be doing to build an (online) audience without the benefit of the newspaper content?”

Welcome back to the Genesis.

Elizabeth Eisenstein, a wise scholar on the topic, reminded me earlier this year that since the industrialization of newspapers, the business model has been this: collect the largest audience, and then sell that audience’s attention to advertisers.

That worked fine until the audience’s attention fled to the Web.

“Perhaps the biggest threat to the subsidy of newspapers by advertising is the ease with which people can order and purchase all kinds of goods without leaving their desks and without scanning newspaper advertisements,” Eisenstein wrote after our discussion in May.

It’s not that Craigslist stole the ads, it’s that the Internet stole the audience!

And you need an audience to have a sustainable or profitable media business.

In our Twitter conversation the other day, Owens rejected my suggestion that TheStreet.com (where I was a managing editor) is a worthy example of a successful, independent, online-only news operation. “The Street isn’t local. Doesn’t address the problems for newspapers,” he said.

But I think hyperlocal on Wall Street has much to teach hyperlocal on Main Street.

The first thing TheStreet.com had to do when it launched in 1997 was build an audience and a sustainable business — from scratch, using online-only content. Some smart people at TheStreet.com quickly discovered that our subscribers craved tools almost as much as they wanted up-to-the-second news. So we gave them tons of tools and instant news. In 2001, we launched a 20-person microblog — evocative of today’s Twitterstream or FriendFeed — which became the hottest thing on the site. We built audience and a sustainable business. TheStreet.com posted its first quarterly profit in 2004.

Were there stumbles, conflicts? Of course. And we can learn from the entire experience — if we take the time to look and listen.

The idea of setting up independent corporate entities to let the online operation explore the waters without interference from the mothership is not particularly radical. As Yelvington and Jarvis acknowledge, several media organizations did it.

Here are some details from another example:

MySanAntonio.com was an independent corporation, half owned by Hearst, the parent of the San Antonio Express-News,  and half owned by Belo, the parent of KENS-5 TV. The converged combo was envied by others.

We paid our own rent in a separate building. We had our own servers. We had our own developers, designers and IT folks. We had our own 24/7 editorial staff and we had our own advertising sales people whose sole focus was the Web site. I was content director there from 2003 to 2006.

Sure, we ran content from the newspaper and TV station. But often the most popular things on the site were online-only creations, such as community-submitted pictures of the day it snowed, or the slideshow we updated with photos, stories and video of every local casualty of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We got enormous traction from online-only tools like the Crime Database, which since 1997 has let people search their neighborhood for news, or the traffic page with highway Webcams and a widget with the lowest gas prices in town.

Our very first blogger was a retired Presbyterian minister who filed via AOL Instant Messenger from Internet cafes in Zambia where he was on a mission in 2003. We ran an online-only politics blog in 2004 that was so good it went Web-to-print.

We did a bunch of innovative things at MySanAntonio.com. And we sold a lot of ads. The company turned a profit 2005.

I know from watching closely that another indie, the WashingtonPost.com, did tons of award-winning innovative things with its online-only staff, and I am under the impression the dot-com also did well, financially. It was not only in a separate building from the Post, it was across the Potomac River in a different state.

MySanAntonio.com and WashingtonPost.com shared something else. In 2005 and 2006, both sites had about a 53% market penetration, an astonishing figure for “newspaper” Web sites.

We built audience and we built a profitable, sustainable business. And we didn’t do that by simply republishing newspaper stories online.

As Steve Yelvington reminds us, the Cox Interactive Media projects set an even higher pace of innovation. The one project I saw up close, Austin360.com, started from scratch, with no help or interference from the nearby Cox-owned Austin American-Statesman, and it did something no one had done before: It created a searchable and vibrant entertainment calender and review site worthy of the Austin music scene.

Before long, it had built an audience rivaling that of the established news organization.

But as Steve Buttry wrote, “spinning digital operations off did not change the mindset” inside newspapers.

Neither the journalists nor the business-side folks inside the newspapers appreciated the Web sites’ autonomy or innovation.

Rather than reward the innovations and business successes by putting the Web folk in charge of the future, many online operations got stifling bear hugs from the mothership and were finally merged and subordinated to the newspaper.

At the end of 2008, Hearst and Belo dissolved the MySA partnership, and the Express-News pulled MySanAntonio.com in-house. I can’t link to many of the online-only projects we created because they slipped between the cracks in the move to a new hosting and content management system.

As Yelvington described, Cox Interactive Media was dismantled, and “In the political infighting that followed, Cox threw away much of what it had learned.” Austin360, which once thrived because of its distance from the American-Statesman, now has the newspaper’s name prominently in its masthead.

The Washington Post cannibalized its Web site more publicly, as detailed in this City Paper article and interview with Jim Brady.

All of this is hardly ancient history. And it’s an incomplete list. Do you know of more examples? I know they’re out there.

Those who don’t pause to learn from the successes we had as we failed forward, face a longer journey.

Fair pay and fair play

Fair PayToday is fair pay day. Here’s my part:

I got into the journalism racket back in 1975, when the newbies were relegated to the manual typewriters and when it was considered too demeaning for a male reporter to be assigned to the “Womens” section of the newspaper.

Although I’d completed one meager semester of journalism in college, my gender was enough to qualify me to fill in for the Womens Editor at the Vineland Times Journal. I learned on the job how to describe the design, fabric and lace on the wedding dresses of the prominent daughters in town. I selected recipes, and crossed my fingers that the kind people in the back shop would save me from my non-existent headline and layout skills.

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

When the women’s editor returned from leave, the paper assigned me to fill in for one of the two staff photographers who was out for surgery for a month. My qualifications? I owned my own Cannon FTB and a lens or two, and I could develop film and make black and white prints (thank you Dad!).

I was pretty proud to be in the elite crew until I walked into the darkroom and saw the pinup calenders with half nekkid women on every vertical surface of the room. No, I was told, I could not take them down during my month in that job. That just wouldn’t be respectful of the men photographers, now would it?

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

Fast forward about ten years to the Dallas Times Herald newsroom, where my editor, Ernie Makovy,  was giving me my annual review. Makovy was a friend and teacher every day, so there wasn’t much for him to add. He told me to stop splitting infinitives, and said I wasn’t doing bad otherwise.

Well, OK, I’d been on a team of reporters who were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism, so I guess I wasn’t screwing up too bad.

Makovy reached in his pocket and pulled out a little folded piece of paper. He opened it, looked down at the scribbled number on it and said, “You’re getting a raise to $35,000 a year.”

Holy cow! That was more than $5,000 a year more than I was making at the time. But it wasn’t for prize-winning journalism.

“That’s to bring you to parity with the guys,” Ernie said, still looking down at the paper. Seems there had been a class action lawsuit, and the paper had either lost or settled, I still don’t know.

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

Fast forward to 2004, when I was hired to be Content Director of MySanAntonio.com. I looked at the roster of people working for me. I looked at their qualifications. Their experience. Their gender. And their pay.

The gender gap glared up at me from the page.

I hadn’t forgotten. And finally, I could change it.

So I did.

The Twitters tell the story

I was asked to be the wrap-up Rapporteur for the 10th International Symposium on Online Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin last week.

The conference had the Twitter hashtag #isoj, and, partly because it is Webcast live, people were watching and Twittering about it in real time on at least four continents. (Here is a link to the #isoj Twitter stream). By the afternoon of the conference’s second and final day, April 18, there were about 1,500 Tweets with the hashtag #isoj.

Thanks to some extraordinary panelists: NowPublic News Director Rachel Nixon, Paul Brannan of the BBC, chron.com Interactive Editor Dwight Silverman and statesman.com Internet Editor Robert Quigley, the “audience-as-storyteller” muse took flight.

For my wrap-up, I went with the muse and tried something different: I let the audience tell the story through their Twitters.

This slideshow is not particularly linear, although I did “group” the Twitters around ideas: First, the back channel conversation, then the collaborative layers being added by the audience around the world, then the discussion of business models for news, then the discussion of non-linear multimedia storytelling. Last, I grouped together comments around the main theme of collaborating the news and news as a conversation.

Besides telling and interpreting and adding to the conference story, the Twitters told their own stories, including a matter-of-fact, but reverberating comment on the lack of diversity on the panels.

I’m sure I didn’t do this perfectly, but considering that I created this 80-slide package in real-time – and added the last slide just minutes before presenting it at about 5:15 p.m. that day – I think it is an interesting rough draft.

Please check out the slideshow and tell me what you think! I know that the audience (read: you!) often has far wiser things to say than the perpetrator of this blog ;~)

Newspapers don’t own journalism

I always thought it was odd to hear flat out declarations that there can be no life on other planets in the absence of water. How egocentric! So you’re saying that life can only exist if it’s precisely like us?

Really?

That’s the feeling I’m getting right now in the woe-is-us, hand-wringing sob-fest about whether life and our democracy can survive the death of some newspapers.

With all due respect to some great newspapers where I’ve worked, I don’t give a damn about the paper they’re printed on.

What I care about is journalism.

And you don’t need special 3-D glasses to see that completely fabulous, raise the rafters, award-winning, democracy-preserving journalism is being committed and published many times a day in life forms other than newspapers.

Guess what else?

Some online news operations, including two where I was a top manager, have been profitable for years, while upholding the highest standards of journalism.

Here’s a bit of what I saw from an editor’s perch:

Were we perfect? No.

Was it journalism. You betcha.

For more examples of the kind of journalism that’s been committed outside the world of paper, check out the Online News Association’s awards gallery, whose members range from the BBC News and Frontline to Slate and NewWest.

Fast forward to 2007, when the San Diego public radio station, KPBS, performed an amazing public service by using Twitter and a Google maps mashup on its Website to broadcast alerts and illustrate the danger during the deadly wildfires that swept Southern California.

Then in 2008, there was Josh Marshall’s unflinching journalism at Talking Points Memo, which prompted the resignation of the Attorney General of the United States.

Don’t get hung up on the life form: TPM is published with blog technology, and I get updates thrown on my browser’s front lawn by Twitter via RSS, (thank you Dave W!).

Update: And anyone who didn’t see Marcy Wheeler’s breathtakingly good journalism from the blog Emptywheel quoted on the front page of the New York Times, well check out the story right here.

That’s the kind of journalism that helps me sleep well at night.

I spent the first 20 years of my career inside print newsrooms, and I have nothing but admiration for the print folks whose journalism has made the world a better place. (Check out the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism. I’m proud to be on that list, in the company of a team of reporters from the late, great, Dallas Times Herald.)

It is precisely out of respect for those journalistic achievements that I will not lament the demise of newspapers that ignore the public good. David Simon details such a case in this chilling piece in the Washington Post. I’ve also written about instances where having a monopoly on the newspaper market turned watchdogs into sycophantic, naval-gazing, paper tigers. Those newspapers – and the corporations that own them – deserve to decompose with the fish.

But those forces no longer control the conversation – if they ever did. This is spring again, a time for celebration.

Centuries ago, the discovery of movable type meant that Martin Luther no longer needed permission from the Pope to publish his work.

And today, our ideas, conversations and questions won’t be stifled when the newspaper owners run out of cash and ink and stop their giant presses.

We control our own free presses with funny names, like Drupal and Joomla and WordPress, YouTube and Blip and Twitter, Flickr and Utterli and Ning.

And yes, Virginia, there really is a healthy and irrepressible thing called journalism.

Update: Please forgive my unintentional sins of omission and add the following to the list of great un-paper journalism: Politico, The Huffington Post, MarketWatch, Pegasus News and Voice of San Diego.
I will gladly add more as folks knock the cobwebs from my brain!