Friday, November 27, 2009

Journalism: The Basics, According to Poynter

The Poynter Institute, which journalists turn to for answers, has been Tweeting "things journalists should and should not do” lately (here), and following are some of my favorites, whether or not I agree with them. My comments in parenthesis/italic (I will leave the atrocious spelling, punctuation and the total disregard of AP style in presenting this as it was written. The Poynter might take this under consideration, since clear communication is the goal of any journalist and the rules to reach that goal, regardless of the delivery system, are clear).

Know the audience, what information they want/need & how they want to learn & share it. News is an activity, not a product. (This is vital, especially for a niche publication where the audience is not a general one. Getting out among readers and asking questions is required. Journalists might also learn about singular and plural pronouns and how to use them.)

Journalists should be active community members. If you aren't of the people, you aren't by the people or for the people. (Many publications discourage participation of their journalists in the community and I fully disagree with that. If a journalist sits in the office and talks on the phone, he knows almost nothing about the people of the community. You have to be one of them. No news happens in a publication's office. It's all outside.)

Get out of the office & out of the house. Don't hide behind your job or computer. Rediscover the "local" in "hyperlocal." (See above.)

Be responsive. When a reader gets in touch, listen & follow up. Without an engaged audience, you're talking to yourself. (I'll add, be respectful when criticized. Listen and understand why the complainer is so angry. If you let the reader complain unimpeded, then respond with respect, you earn his respect and the two of you can reach an accommodation that suits both your needs. If you're wrong, don't get defensive; get busy making it right.)

Journalists should never stop learning ... Learn a new skill or sharpen an old one. (Hear! Hear! I am 63 years old and in the last year have learned to blog, Tweet and use Facebook and Linkedin. All have been value personally and professionally. In the book Printer's Devil, the assertion is made that during Mark Twain's lifetime, printing changed more than it ever had before or since. That's unfiltered bullshit. Our industry has changed more in the last 15 minutes than it did during Twain's time and will continue to do so. If you can't learn the new ways, do something else. You'll be far less frustrated.)

Journalists should never plead ignorance about the business of news, who pays, how & why. It's not purist, it's irresponsible. (I'm not sure what's being said here, but it sounds like a lie to me. If you don't know something, admit it and learn it. No shame in not knowing; just in not being willing to learn. "I don't know" opens the door to "I know now.") (Update: David Perry, who writes for us at Valley Business FRONT, offered this insight on a question that obviously confused me, even though I'm both a journalist and an owner of a publication these days: "My take on this is: don't pretend you don't know that advertising pays your salary. The purist would regard the ad sales department with disdain; the responsible journalist would understand it, appreciate it for what it is and try not to let it interfere with his reporting.")

Never say you're unbiased. You are biased. The best journalists mitigate their biases, they don't deny them. (Indeed. If we had more of this openness, we'd have fewer people with suspicions about our biases. We have them. There's no shame in that. The shame is in allowing them to color what we write if we're claiming to be writing news.)

Never forget journalistic values when you're using new tools. (First, though, understand the journalistic values, No. 1 of which is fact and truth are not always synonymous.)

Impress people with your openness. Learn from everyone. Knowledge is collaborative. Questions & answers are communal. (I'll buy that.)

Understand why "good writing may be magical, but it's not magic." Use the process. (The process means that you have to work. Good writing is hard to learn and hard to accomplish with consistency. Lean on your editors; good ones are as valuable as your mama.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tautou's 'Coco' a Fine Performance

It occurred to me pretty quickly that Audrey Tautou is entirely too old to be playing a 20-year-old, but it took minutes for me to forget that this marvelous actress is 34 and looks every minute of it. It was the intensity of the effort, the ease with which she slipped into the personae of one of the 20th Century's icons of couturier, Coco Chanel (think "little black dress" with another Audrey, Hepburn, wearing it) in the French movie "Coco Before Chanel." It's at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to watch Tautou in this formative years biography without recalling the astonishing 2007 performance of
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie En Rose," for which she won an Academy Award for playing Edith Piaf, another strong, accomplished French notable who came from humble beginnings.

Tautou is stark and severe, even prickly, in this role, playing against a softer type she nearly perfected in movies like "Amelie," but I believed her and recognized the spark of what must have become a consuming ambition in Chanel's later years. Tautou is supported admirably by two lovers, played by Benoit Poelvoorde and Alessandro Nivola.

This is a slow story of the development of a lost soul into a woman completely fulfilled not by romance, but by her driving need to work and to accomplish. I liked it. Probably no Academy Award for Audrey Tautou, but a solid and capable performance, I think.

If you're interested in this French subtitled movie, get there this week. It's already in the screening room (where subtitled movies often find their homes) and my guess is it won't be around much longer.

Some Reasons for Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving from Christina and me^

Perhaps the single most important lesson I've learned in my decade and a half of membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is that gratitude trumps anything else that is going on at the time. If I'm grateful, there simply isn't room for negative emotion.

It is an almost impossible lesson to learn for a sober person, so imagine coming to it as a recovering drunk. It means taking responsibility for everything that happens in my life--everything, no exceptions. If I'm hit by a bus, it's on me. That's the only way I can be in a place where I can make the most of the situation. If I own it, I can change it by changing me or the way I look at it and gratitude sets that up nicely. It's a simple acceptance of the world as it is, not as I would have it be.

If that sounds a smidge fatalistic, it isn't. Why argue with a force as powerful as God or nature or however we choose to frame that power greater than we are? Fatalism is expecting the negative. Gratitude is being thankful for ability to see the opportunity.

I want today to live with gratitude in the following:

1. I don't get to see all of my family often enough, but I love them all and they complete me with their returned love. I am full because of that.

2. Our country is deeply flawed, but for the first time in eight years, I have the feeling that even though we're involved in a number of wrong policies (war, for example), I'm seeing so much more good being accomplished, especially internationally.

3. Valley Business FRONT is not as financially stable as we'd all like, but we're paying our writers and the magazine has been greeted with a kind of enthusiasm that evolves into excited anticipation each time we have a new issue go online. This has been 45 years in the creation for me and it is as much fun as I've ever had doing anything. I really love what I'm doing and the people involved in it with me.

4. (This one actually supersedes and makes possible all before it.) I'm sober and drinking is not a daily issue for me any longer. I don't smoke, either (16 years) and my diet is finally leveling out without meat. All these changes have been happy challenges, met head-on.

5. I have friends that I absolutely treasure; smart, good people who make me smarter and better.

6. My Tennessee Vols are coming back strong in all the sports I care about (OK, this probably doesn't belong here, but if you looked at the amount of orange in my wardrobe, you'd understand).

7. I get to fight for things I think are right, without fear. Thanks, AA, for that one, too.

8. I'll stop here for no reason except that there are so many more, it would take all of my Thanksgiving Day to give thanks for them and we'd be late in picking up Christina's mother to go to the Peaks of Otter for Lunch.

I hope your day's as good as mine.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'Art Stands Alone as Only Art'

'A profound lack of understanding of what public art should be.' The trash can above at the Patrick Henry shelter is a perfect example of nice art, lousy public works. It doesn't hold trash.<

A guy who has a reasonable reason for wanting to remain anonymous asked me to pass along the following thoughts of his about public art, as applies to the new bus shelter at Patrick Henry High School, mentioned here Nov. 15. I will give him his say without my own opinions, which, frankly tend toward his conclusion in the case of the shelter anyway. Here ‘tis:

"I don't think that art and certain public works projects can be joined because I think that public art and public shelter are absolutely mutually exclusive. This isn't to say that architecture can't be beautiful and inspring ... The City [of Roanoke] needed to hire someone to design and build a bus shelter ... This was a waste of public art money and a waste of transportation money. It's neither art nor functional.

"True art isn't architecture (or craft or therapy, etc.). True art stands alone for its own purpose of enlightening humanity, and whether it is William Faulker's 'Light in August' or Rene Magritte's 'The Six Elements,' art stands alone as only art.

"An artist serves humanity by producing a work that acts upon us through allegory. To be clear and brief on what art is, I defer to the definitions in the book The Philosophy of Art by Stepen Davies. A copy can be read here.

"To be clear, I am saying: Genuine art can't exist in another plane in a futile attempt to serve a second master. Architecture can be influenced by art, but not to the point where its function is diminished. Genuine art is just that, and if it's public art, it needs to stand alone. I find most public art lousy.

"This bus shelter is a $40,000 waste of public funds and its not exactly Ed [Dolinger's] fault. He's an artist with clear self-interests, and if the City of Roanoke wants to throw some money at him, he may not have the critical judgment to refuse the money. Hell, he's probably just trying to make his mortgage payments and will take what he can get. ...

"The problem starts with the City or because it made poor decisions, due to a profound lack of understanding of what public art should be and what public shelter should be and how the two should never be merged.

"We need a good architect or contractor on this project. It would have cost less and served us more. But, first we need clear public policy that defines what public art is and what public works are, and I don't think we should be merging the two."

Carilion Not Interested In Disputed Land, Exec Says

Carilion CEO Ed Murphy with CFO Nancy Agee: Not interested^

When a Roanoke Times headline bellowed, "Court to let private land be seized for Carilion site" Nov. 18, I cringed and wondered just how much was wrong with the headline and the story that accompanied it.

Apparently, quite a bit.

The top of the story tells us that a circuit court judge ruled that The Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority can condemn land near the expanded Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech-Carilion med school. The strong suggestion is that Carilion wants the land and will go to any length to get it.

Apparently, nobody took the time to ask Carilion executives if that is the case. "We have no interest whatsoever in that piece of property," says Chief Financial Officer Nancy Agee. "We have much higher priorities for the limited discretionary funds we have available."

The story says the "ruling clears the way for the first seizure of property for the Riverside Center, a gleaming business park and medical school being constructed" and stresses that "the case pitted a small business against the region's corporate giant and a city government entity." David vs. Goliath, so to speak.

Not so, says Agee, pointing out that her sympathies lie with the people who own the land, Stephanie Burkholder and her husband, Jay. There is a flooring business on the site. Agee says she is opposed to condemnation of private property in a case like this. "I have told the city [Housing Authority] to just let it drop, that we aren't interested in the property," she says.

The Burkholders have reportedly been offered $1 million for the property by the authority, but turned it down as too low. "It's worth about half that," says Agee, "and I think we need to simply state that we're not interested in it. I'd just like to see the process stopped."

The story makes this accusation: "The Burkholders have contended that Carilion and the city colluded on a project they both benefited from financially, struck a deal in private, and then had the housing authority do their bidding." Agee says that isn't true and I'm inclined to believe her.

Lou Dobbs and the New Jersey Borders

I see where Lou Dobbs plans to run for the Senate from New Jersey. My guess is he wants to lock down the borders. It would be to keep the New Jerseyites* from escaping.

He'll be running against Robert Menendez, the Senate's only Hispanic member and he is quoted in the Huffington Post from an interview with Telemundo thusly: "Whatever you have thought of me in the past, I can tell you right now that I am one of your greatest friends and I mean for us to work together." Sounds like he won't need any coaching on political bullshit.

(* New Jersians, New Jersonians, New Jerseyers, New Jersians, New Jersicans? Not sure which, but you get the idea.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Public Radio Essay Was Run in Error

(Update: Gene Marrano says the essay will run next week on the Thursday "Studio Virginia.")

I'm getting calls about a public radio essay of mine on Radio IQ this morning that sounded unedited (it was) and that didn't end with an ending. I talked to Rick Mattioni at WVTF-Public Radio and he tells me that the electronic file of the essay was incorrectly pulled from the system and played.

The essay--about a square dance team in competition--will run on "Studio Virginia" (I hope this week, but I can't say for certain) and it will have a beginning, a middle and an end. It will not have sentences re-read because of a flubbed word, either. People who have had trouble believing me when I tell them that I don't read well out loud understand the truth of that now. Editing makes a huge difference in print and on radio. I've been fortunate enough to have good editors in both places over the years.

One note of gratitude: Normally when I blow a line, I stop and blurt, "Oh shit!" or something worse and start over. This time--for some inexplicable reason--I didn't do that. Thank you, Jesus.

Sometimes Business Is Like a Political Campaign

Owning Valley Business FRONT often feels more like a political campaign than a small business enterprise. And sometimes, we have to make the same kinds of decisions a political candidate has to make when his opponent throws up ridiculous charges. Do we answer the charges and bring more attention to them or do we ignore them (as did Al Gore and John Kerry) and take our chances?

I'm not one for ignoring casually inaccurate claims, but I need to exercise caution, something I'm not an expert at. My gut always tells me to go for the roundhouse punch-back. I won't do that here, though, even though one of our competitors says it has "assembled what is by far the most experienced and accomplished business journalism team in the region with a full staff of four members." That's so absurd I don't know where to start.

I'll just say this: it's "most experienced" staff has 47 total years in communications by its accounting (30 of them by one editor who is only marginally involved in the publication and has no previous experience with a business publication). Its business writing experience is a total of about seven years between two people (one of them working for me for 18 months while in college).

Tom Field and I have 75 years in communications and 25 total years in business publications. Add to that our 25 freelance writers with far more than 100 years' experience and you get the idea. (I won't get into how many awards we've won for journalism and community involvement because it'd sound like bragging.)

The remainder of the letter from this competing pub is equally wrong or exaggerated, but I won't waste your time or mine in charge/counter-charge. When you start dissing my writers, though, it pisses me off. They're solid, they're loyal and I wouldn't trade my crew for anybody else's in this region, especially a team that was drafted.

As the always cautiously vigilant Tom says, "All we really have to ask is that people read the two publications and make up their own minds." I think that works for me, too.

RT Headline: Typo or Social Comment?

When I first saw the lead headline in The Roanoke Times this morning, I thought "typo." The more I ruminated, though, the more I thought the headline may be social commentary and not grammatical error.

The headline is "Grieving family want H1N1 test performed." "Want" is obviously wrong in this sense, because family is singular and would take "wants" as its verb. Unless, of course, you consider family a system of separate entities and not a single unit. "Couple" has been problematic ("have been problematic"?) in the past. I consider a couple one; some say it's two. Same with family: one or many?

Our current society tends to split families among its various electronic gadgets (see the cover of the Nov. 17 New Yorker for an example; sorry, I can't find it to link you, so buy one) and the splintering has been going on all my life. "Family unit" sounds like an oxymoron. Sadly.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Me 'n' Maddy Down at the Ballyard (Again)

The house at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville was nearly full^

The teams in a group hug after hostilities ended^

Maddy above the fray^

Maddy and Christina ("Don't call me Mamaw!")^

Sleepy Maddy and "Don't call me Pampa!" (above)^

If the Orange fits, wear it!>

This grandpa thing seems to be taking hold. Yesterday, we took Maddy up to Charlottesville to see the University of Virginia play the University of Tennessee in women's basketball and did we ever have a blast! The kid loved the game (as did her parents and grandparents, save for Christina, who has two degrees from UVa--and she didn't mind all that much because we all knew Tennessee would win--77-63).

I'm a fan of women's college basketball, the game that Coach John Wooden--quite possibly the best coach (with UT's Pat Summitt) ever in any sport--said was the best and purest form of the game played today. The UVa-UT game underscored that. Tennessee is, frankly, a better team, but UVa is a Top 20 outfit and played with a high degree of talent and flair.

This was a game UVa wanted to sell out and it came oh-so-close (11,895) with the largest crowd in Virginia (the state, not the school) history for a women's basketball game. We got there a little early and with general admission tickets were relegated to one of the corners in the upper deck. The seat was fine, but I couldn't even buy box seats downstairs. They sold out in a hurry.

This was Maddy's first women's game of any kind and my guess is she'll be playing something similar to basketball soon enough. She was as riveted as a four-year-old gets with this one and did a lot of smiling, clapping and asking of questions ("What was she doing, Pampa?").

So the reluctant grandpa is sucked in a little farther and the enjoyment of this little status is sinking deeper. But, hey, you are what you are and Pampa is what I are.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Way Too Many Pix from Grandin Xmas Parade

The boys of Roanoke City Council bonding^

Mayor David Bowers and his significant other^

Mary Bishop and Dan Crawford wish for peace^

Patrick Henry High Militia has corks in its guns because it is anti-war^

A young father takes a photo of his child^

A handsome young man is ready for Christmas^

This is a Presbyterian Church group, but I'm not sure which^

Some people like dogs, some cats, some llamas, some camels ...^

The Little Rascals has nothing on these little ones^

Nobody told Miss Roanoke Valley that if she holds this pose too long, she'll get stuck in it^

Oh, you think this is just a bunch of ties? Nooooo. It's a turkey's tail^

Big Gulps and Slurpees and hotdogs (the back of one, anyway) and a cup of coffee brought to you by 7/11, which is not to be confused with 9/11 unless you're talking about health food value^

Raleigh Court has its own Vikings^

The World Famous Norman Fishing Tackle Choir^

Here's our favorite movie theater. My wife and I get to walk to the movies^

Local Roots Cafe shows off its healthy foods^

Diane Elliot of Local Roots is a potato in her off hours^

He'll grow up to be a Boy Scout some day^

Scouts today, soldiers tomorrow? Let's hope they don't have a war left to fight^

OK, ask him if he really made this car (like the Little Rascals)^

A Boy Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful and doesn't pick his nose during parades^

Raleigh Court is a hotbed for transportation^

Pretty girl, pretty music, pretty flute^

Low fiving the Wild Things^

Santa got to ride the fire truck, which most of the kids wanted to do^

The Grandin Village Children's Holiday Parade, which kicks off the Christmas season and is the highlight of the social season in these parts, telling you a whole lot about what an adventure we're all living. This one's straight out of a Rockwell painting and wouldn't you love to have the freckles concession?

Today, as always, there were just about an equal number of people watching the parade and walking or riding in it and my guess is that just about every one of them had a good time, especially when the Norman Fishing Tackle Choir strolled by.

Southeast Industrial Sites Head Endangered List

This old steam train engine was one of the RVPF's successes. It was salvaged in 2009>

The Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation’s 2009 list of endangered sites and buildings this year is causing a special level of angst among its members because so many of the buildings are either being used or easily could be with minimal care.

(I will mention here that I am a member of the RVPF board of directors.)

The Foundation each year lists buildings it considers to be an important part of our heritage that are threatened with being erased from the landscape. This year an entire neighborhood of industrial buildings and facilities in the southeast section of the city is on the list. That grouping includes sites within the new Carilion Clinic expansion area, as well as buildings moving on toward downtown.

Among he threatened within this grouping are Virginia Scrap Iron & Metal Company, the Adams, Payne & Gleaves livery stable, Roanoke Iron and Bridge Works and street car barn, and the old Heironimus warehouse, which has been targeted for renovation for some time. Money has not been available for the Heironimus work.

Foundation spokesmen George Kegley and Mike Kennedy say the RVPF would like to see these facilities renovated and brought back as a commercial center.

The other sites are:
  • Roanoke Fire Station No. 7 on Memorial Avenue. It was built in 1922 and is being considered for demolition.
  • The former Roanoke Photo Finishing (RoPho) and a movie theater, most recently Downtown Learning Center on Luck Avenue and Second Street. It is owned by the Methodist church next door and could be torn down.
  • An 1888 parsonage on the Hollins University campus.
  • A bridge in Montgomery County built of steel truss, dating to 1917.
  • Daleville’s Boaz-Denton House, dating to the 1870s.
  • A Victorian home on Union Street in Salem, built in 1801.
  • Mountainsides that include 12 O'Clock Knob, the Dixie Caverns area, Fort Lewis Mountain, Stewart's Knob and Buck Mountain some of which are being logged.
The RVPF, which was founded more than 20 years ago, has seen the preservation more than 20 percent of he properties on its lists in past years, most recently the Patrick Henry Hotel and a group of steam train engines at Roanoke Scrap Iron and Metal.

Friday, November 20, 2009

'The Blind Side' Scores a Touchdown

OK, so we're two-for-two with movies this week. First, "Pirate Rock" scored nicely and now "The Blind Side" is everything the previews and publicity boys promised: a good story, told with heart, humor and without resorting to cheap tear jerking tricks.

It's the story of the Tuohy family of Memphis--a comfortably wealthy white Republican family--that virtually adopts an outsized African-American boy who is without a home and raises him (to become a pro football player). The story is ultimately a vehicle for Sandra Bullock, who carries it well as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the beautiful, tough, compassionate former Ole Miss cheerleader. She is the centerpiece of the family and she insists on bringing along Michael Oher and raising him with her son and daughter.

Director Michael Lee Hancock (who also wrote this from a portion of a book on recruiting) throws in some touching moments, but resists schmaltz and syrup, often resorting to humor in a movie with plenty of laughs and just enough tears to make it all feel real.

The recruiting scenes with all those Southeastern Conference coaches are fun for an SEC fan like me (Oher almost went to Tennessee, which makes me wonder if he might have saved Philip Fulmer's job). But at the heart, this is undeniably Sandra Bullock's movie. I've been thoroughly impressed with her as an actor since "Crash," but this is the SB we know and love: the bright, easy-to-watch, funny woman who can take over a light movie like this and leave you smiling as you leave the theater.

A Group Effort for Railroad Tourism

Frankly, it’s been a long time coming. The announcement by six rail-related museums and historical societies in in the region yesterday that the Virginia General Assembly has designated this as Virginia’s Rail Heritage Region has been in the works for some time.

The designation includes C&O Heritage Center, O. Winston Link Museum, National Railway Historical Society/Blue Ridge Chapter, National Railway Historical Society/Roanoke Chapter, Norfolk & Western Historical Society and the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

The effort has not always been fully coordinated and has not always been pointed in this specific direction, but the dream has been there since probably before what is now the Virginia Museum of Transportation was founded in the 1960s. The designation formalizes the group’s ongoing cooperative relationships with the goal of attracting more tourists—and more tourist spending—to the region.

The goal is joint promotion of the region’s significant rail heritage tourism assets: multiple museums, active rail lines, historic sites, and the activities of the historical societies. According to research by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, visitors to museums in Virginia spend 4.5 nights in Virginia, compared to an average of 3.2 nights by non-museum visitors. Museum visitors also spend more in Virginia: traveling parties that visit museums spend an average of $968, more than double the $449 spent by traveling parties that do not include a museum visit.

On the national level, according to research conducted by the U.S. Cultural & Heritage Tourism Marketing Council in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Commerce, fully 40 percent of all leisure travelers in the U.S. actively engage in cultural and heritage travel, and 24 percent of U.S. leisure travelers (36 million adults) plan to take a cultural/heritage trip within the next 12 months.

As evidence of the national and international draw of the partner organizations: The O. Winston Link Museum reports New York, D.C. and London as its second, third, and fourth top cities of travel party origin. Sixty-five percent of visitors to the Virginia Museum of Transportation originate from more than 100 miles away, with half from out of state or out of the country.

While the Norfolk & Western Railway operated in only six states, the Norfolk & Western Historical Society has members in 40 states and 16 foreign countries. The recent excursions hosted by the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society included passengers from Canada and many states across the U.S.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Blowing Away the Beauty in the Plaza

This old boy's blowing away one of the prettiest views in the Roanoke Valley^

In a Nov. 3 blog, I promised you a beautiful fall scene on the plaza in front of Fire Station No. 1, as soon as the leaves started falling off the Ginkgo trees. I've waited until now to follow that up with the "Hey! Get down there and look at it" entry because it wasn't ready yet. The leaves seemed to be falling, but my guess that the wind was blowing them away.

As you can see from the photo above, it's not God who's depriving you of one of the prettiest sights in the Roanoke Valley every year; it is the City of Roanoke, blowing the leaves off the brick walkway and wasting all that beauty. With the leaves in place, we have a golden carpet leading to the fire station. With them blown away, we have what we have all the time. A nice little courtyard with a bunch of people sitting at tables smoking cigarettes.

The guy doing the blowing didn't want me to take his picture and I suspect he'd seen the leaves as a carpet in the past and knew exactly what he was doing to this little spot of specialness. But it's his job, so we can't blame him.

Too bad, though, that the city, in all its efficiency, doesn't have a little space in there for a speck of rare beauty.

A Re-thinking of Roanoke's Priorities Organized

Three Roanoke activists who are among the new media leaders in the area have finally jumped into the political fray, but without party affiliation. It’s an effort to create an active citizen base in the Star City and it’s being called rethink Roanoke.

The organization is being led by Legal Aid lawyer and new journalist Hank Bostwick, Beth Deel of MyScoper and upUpPeriscope and Jeremy Holmes of Ride Solutions.

Says Bostwick: "People tell me that maybe at no other time in recent memory have the grassroots and netroots been so active in Roanoke. Every night in the Star City one community group or another is meeting, organizing, entertaining, or educating," says Bostwick. "An energy emanates from our City and people from all walks of life are starting to feel it."

Think Roanoke’s founders stress that they will work across party lines to create an open forum designed to spur creative commitment to civic responsibility regardless of party affiliation; so long as citizens understand the power they have to shape their communities, the group will be a success.

"We want participation," says Holmes. "We understand that, at the local level, party politics play a very small role. At this level, our leaders are also our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends and family members. They should be chosen because they are the best qualified to address the problems and opportunities that face us. But first, we all need to talk about and decide on what those opportunities are."

To get that discussion started, reThink Roanoke is organizing its first Star City Summit on Tuesday, December 1, 2009, at The Water Heater, 813 5th Street SW in Old Southwest Roanoke.

Those attending should begin to gather at 7:45 p.m. with the forum to start around 8 p.m. More information is available at, or the reThink Roanoke Facebook group.

Joe Dashiell Takes a Look at The Roanoke Times

WDBJ7 television in Roanoke has been running promotions for respected journalist Joe Dashiell's impending reporting on The Roanoke Times and I'm eager to see what one of the best news reporters in this region's TV history comes up with.

My guess is that The RT will try to explain its dramatic circulation losses during the past two years with explanations of "penetration" and "readership," both good gauges, but neither a true balance for combined circulations losses of 11 percent between Sept. 30, 2007 and Sept. 30, 2009 (the drop is from 88,267 to 77,816, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations). The Times has lost 9,000 readers in the last year and 4,000 in the last six months combined total circulation.

"Readership" (the number of people reading the paper as a whole, and there are often more than one per subscription) is down 3.3 percent weekdays and 4.4 percent on Sundays, according to ABC, representing the loss of 13,213 sets of eyes on Sunday.

The numbers online are better, up 12 percent during the past 30 days from 104,000 to 111,000. That seems to be a saving grace for many papers. I hear complaints that The Times' site is difficult to navigate and that it doesn't run certain stories. The difficult navigation, I have dealt with and on occasion I can't find a story that I know is in the paper version.

We (Valley Business FRONT) did two long pieces on The Times this past February (by Alison Weaver, who once worked there) and you can find them here and here. The first is an interview with Publisher Debbie Meade and the second a look at the paper's impressive losses among experienced personnel under Meade's regime.

Watch for Joe's story. He'll do a good job with it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another Good Friend Loses Her Job

The layoffs and firings just keep striking and many are hitting close. My dear and long-time friend Sue Lindsey, who once saved my life, has been separated from* her job with the Associated Press. She ran the bureau in Roanoke from 2005 to Tuesday and AP apparently will close it.

I haven’t talked to her today, so I don’t know what’s up next for her, but Sue and I are the same age—63—and options for our age group are limited in a job market. She’s one of the most talented writers and editors I’ve ever known and one of the bravest, most compassionate and very best people in my experience.

She has been a journalist, it seems, forever, including 19 years with The Roanoke Times. She was a reporter and editor and wrote a column for the editorial page for a while. Sue has always been private and was never totally comfortable with the high profile of an editorial columnist. She finally gave it up.

AP says it plans to cut 10 percent of its workforce across the globe and blames much of its problems on the fact that newspapers, who pay for its services, are suffering. Revenue is down six percent, it reports.

Sue’s job loss is the third among people I call friend that I’ve learned about in 24 hours. Last night at the VB FRONT Open House, a friend who is in public relations for a local college says she is a victim of budget cuts and my old pal JoLynn Seifert, who worked with us in ad sales at the Business Journal, has been severed by The Roanoker Magazine.

On a better note, our office manager at the Business Journal, Susan Cousins (one of the most competent people I know), went to work today for the Creekmore Law Firm, which is getting a dandy in Susan.

But Sue. I’m really sad about this one. And, no, I’m not going to tell you how she saved my life because she would object. But she did and I’m forever grateful to her.

(*I say "separated from" here because I don't know what technical term AP used, but it's all pretty much the same. She won't be working for AP. A few weeks ago my pal Elizabeth Parsons was told by the Blue Ridge Business Journal that she was "laid off" on a Friday. The following Tuesday her replacement as editor was announced. Not sure how that fits in with "layoff.")

Is TV Trying To Kill College Football?

It is becoming evident that television's insatiable thirst for "content" is having a serious detrimental effect on college football. just minutes ago, I flipped the TV by a game between the University of Miami (Ohio) and the University of Buffalo, attended roughly by the population of a small dorm at Roanoke College. It was sad to see.

I can't find the official attendance at this point (the game's still being played), but the crowd is tiny on the side we can see and quiet on the side we can't in 30,000-seat Yeager Stadium. My guess the numbers are in low four digits.

Schools in Division I must average 15,000 per home game every other year if they are to stay there. That's a one of a number of requirements to be at that top level. In 2007, three MAC teams, including Buffalo, averaged fewer than 15,000 customers. Kent State was at 9,000. Last year Buffalo had a good team and went to a bowl. Those averages were without Tuesday games.

These are a couple of also-ran Middle American Conference teams that would draw decent crowds to their Saturday day games, but have no chance at large attendance on a Wednesday, school-night in a northern climate.

Earlier this season, the University of Memphis, which plays in the 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl, has a student body of more than 20,000 and is in Conference USA played before about 4,117 people in a Tuesday, rainy home game that was made for TV. Low attendance helped get Memphis' coach fired. (In an unrelated matter, UM's president is my former sister-in-law, a lovely woman named Shirley Raines.)

With college football on television virtually every night of the week now (Mondays seem to belong to pro football, but I'm not sure that will last), the product has become extremely thin and uninteresting, especially to the fans of the schools involved in many of these second-level games. The Tuesday and Wednesday games are especially sad and my guess is they're detracting from Saturdays because of saturation.

It would be lovely if television would exercise a little bit of thought and caution before televising these games, but that would certainly be a first.

A Stiff Sentence for Drunk Drivers in NY

I'm not sure how much of a threat the law has to present before drunk driving is curtailed, but New York seems to have taken a pretty serious step in the direction of dulling the enthusiasm of the imbibing crowd. The NY House today passed a bill that would make it a felony to drive drunk with a child in the car. That could mean four years in jail if it passes the Senate and is signed by the governor.

There's more to the bill: A first-time conviction requires that the drunk driver install a device in his car that would measure his booze intake before the car would start. Other states have that stipulation, but usually after two or more convictions. The felony is virtually unheard of. A felony is a serious crime (think murder, rape, robbery) and to my mind it is proper in drunk driving cases. Virginia classifies drunk driving as a Class I misdemeanor with maximum punishment at $2,500 in fines and a year in jail (rarely imposed). You also lose your driver's license. That's serious, but it's not the hammer presented by the NY law.

New York would join Arizona if it passes a law classifying driving drunk with kids in the car as a felony. Statistics have shown that the alcohol-level device installed on cars reduced repeat offenses by 65 percent, according to the NYTimes.

As one who used to regularly drive drunk (I'm a recovering alcoholic, as I've said before), and one who has driven drunk with children in the car, it is my opinion that I would not have driven drunk had penalties been as harsh as the four years in prison for a first offense that New York is considering. My guess is that most drunk drivers are good citizens otherwise who simply don't think about what they're doing. They'd think a little longer if they knew they were going to the clank for four years or more.

I don't normally believe that draconian sentencing does much beyond overburdening prison populations, but in this case, considering the offenders, my guess is that it would work much more readily as a deterrent.

There's no excuse for drunk driving. No logic for it. No explanation for it other than mindless, thoughtless stupidity. The prison sentence would serve as the 2X4 between the eyes that got the mule's attention.