Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Death in the Family

Don Simmons at the races, which he dearly loved>

My friend Don Simmons died Monday and this one is difficult to take on two different levels, though it was hardly unexpected.

Don had been fighting the effects of alcoholism for years and I'm not certain he ever entirely shed the demon that simply destroyed his health a little at a time. He talked frankly about his addiction, always positive that the "cure" was just around the corner, but today he'd enjoy one more drink. Don was like so many alcoholics--of which I am one--in that he was extremely bright, in love with life, a marvelous talent at nearly everything he did and a warm and loving friend.

Don's AA sponsor--a guy who helped usher me back into the fellowship 15 years ago next month--told me recently, "You know I really like Don, but he's not going to make it. I hate to say that about anybody, but sometimes there's just nothing that will take." With Don, that was pretty much the story. And, frankly, I fully understand the grip of this disease, which for me is a living, breathing, shadowy threat standing just around the next corner holding a baseball bat and waiting for people like me--the addicted. We never win. We just delay.

A man named Mike Gangloff, whom I don't know, sent the following note about Don (which was delivered to me second-hand):

"I learned this evening that former Roanoke Times reporter Don Simmons Jr., known as Mick to many of his friends, died in his sleep Monday night at his and his wife Candice's home in Rocky Mount. He worked at the New River Bureau from I think about 2001 until early 2005, covering Pulaski County, and wrote many great stories.

"Besides being a reporter and editor, Mick was an excellent musician, dancer, cook, gardener and painter. For more than 20 years, off and on, he played 'country and eastern' music with a band known mostly as Petey & the Hellcats, writing original music and covering everything from Parliament-Funkadelic to John Coltrane to Led Zeppelin to the Carter Family, often in the same set. He had lived in New York City in the late 1980s and was friends with hip hop figures and DJs from that era. Closer to home, he loved to wander through fiddlers conventions flat-footing to whatever grabbed his ear.

"A couple years ago, after being diagnosed with liver disease, Mick ordered a guitar from famed Grayson County luthier and musician Wayne Henderson. He told Wayne that due to his health, he didn't have time for Wayne's notoriously long waiting list (Eric Clapton's order famously sat for a decade). Recently, Wayne delivered the guitar and Mick told me several times how much he was enjoying playing it.

"A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Evergreen church on U.S. 21 just south of Wytheville."

Don and Candice had recently moved to Rocky Mount and he was eagerly anticipating doing some more writing for the FRONT. He was working on a Rocky Mount-based story and was excited about it. Don had been named "Contributor of the Month" for a piece he did on the town of Floyd in, I think, our third or fourth issue. It was a story that simply sang with his voice, a lovely piece of writing from a man who understood these mountains and our people as well as anybody I've ever known.

It's going to take me a while not to think of Don when a story idea comes up that requires the touch of a master storyteller because that's what he was and that's what he wanted to be.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Of Explore Park and Salem Football

There's something weirdly fascinating about watching business opportunities develop in public. My old pal Chris Gladden once used the line "like watching a snake eat a rat" to describe something like Larry Vander Matten's attempts to convince Roanoke County that he knows what he's doing with the Explore Park re-do, or that pro football thingy Salem was--now isn't--involved in.

Vander Matten, who started with a 50-year lease on the Explore property and had it extended to 90 years by a trusting Roanoke County (my wife, Christina, says, "it's like giving a guy a raise for not coming to work"), has been dithering with this thing for a looooooong time. Now he has a dilly of a plan at a dilly of a price ($200 million). But, hey, he may not do it. He'll let us know in a year or so after he's talked to the bank (takes a while; those bank boys are slow).

Here are some highlights of the plan:
  • The new name would be Blue Ridge America (gotta get "America" in there to bring out the "family" element)
  • The park would employ 500 people in the summer and would have accommodations for 700 (including a bunch of people in the 60 tree houses and 100 cabins)
  • It would feature an equestrian center (Christina loves this part), lakes, shops, a golf course, a conference center, spa, and gondolas
  • We're told it would be "eco-friendly"
The park would "be like a national park on steroids," according to designers. Steroids or not, a lot of us in these parts would like very much to see something happening at Explore, which used to be a nice little teaching park where elementary school classes went for the day to see how early American settlers lived. My friend Bill Tanger has suggested that Explore would make a good state park, but my suggestion to him ("Tell that to the Republicans in the House who won't even fund public safety, health and education") is to forget that one, good idea though it is.

Meanwhile, over in Salem, history has been made: football is a failure. In this gridiron-mad little city, the new pro football minor league, in which Salem was to have had a team, has apparently had the air let out of the ball. The league would have charged up to $40 for a ticket (as my Mom used to say, "Who thinks of these things!?!").

This one was called The United National Gridiron League and a letter from the league apologized for the inconvenience of the cancelled season. Didn't inconvenience me; I wasn't paying 40 bucks for a ticket to see a bunch of arrested development, 27-year-old high school heroes hit each over over who gets to keep a ball.

When I first arrived in Roanoke, we had a minor league team called the Roanoke Buckskins. My most vivid memory of the Bucks (other than sportwriter Newton Spencer's burgundy team jacket) was the flood that hit Victory Stadium (no, it wasn't the first one) and wiped out all the team's equipment. Ferrum College divvied up some old practice wear and the Bucks temporarily changed their colors from Redskins burgundy and gold to Panther black and gold. These guys played before dozens of people and most managed to get up and go to work the next day. Most. Some didn't and lost their jobs.

Life in the minors is a tough thing.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Enjoy Being a Girl

OK, this is self-indlugence on steroids, but my little buddy Madeline and I had a great time this weekend and I thought I'd share it. (Auntie Grandma--Christina--got involved, too.) We went through bubble-blowing, drinking from a hose, catching a ball at a Salem Red Sox game, skipping rocks and, well, just bonding in the way grandparents/kids bond. I like it.

Now, back to arguing the Bush-Cheney-DeLay-Morgan Griffith case for abortion ...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"State of Play" vs. "All the President's Men"

There was a mini-debate last night in the lobby of the Grandin Theatre, where the six of us had just seen "State of Play," the newspaper thriller, set in D.C. If that sounds familiar, think "All the President's Men," to which this movie will inevitably be compared.

I asked the group for a comparison, based on entertainment value. My thought is that "State of Play" is far superior, but the vote was 1-5 on that one, with the five being torn between the movies and unable to determine that one is better. "They're too different," said one member of the posse. "One is fiction, the other's based on Watergate."

"Smith, you're crazy," said another, who generally says that to me, no matter the context.

"State of Play" is, loosely, about a newspaperman for a Washington Post knockoff (the Globe) chasing leads on a murder that spills over into a House of Representatives committee investigation--led by the reporter's old college roommate--of a Blackwater-type of para-military organization. Seems this organization has designs on taking over all foreign and domestic security functions (a real nightmare, if you're into nightmares). "All the President's Men," of course, was based on Bob Woodward's book about one of the biggest political scandals of the late 20th Century, resulting in the resignation of Richard Nixon. It didn't have an elicit sex component, which might have made the movie more entertaining, but, hey, we're dealing with old-line, pre-Christian Republicans here so we can't ask too much.

Both were written, directed and acted superbly. While "Presidents" had Jason Robards, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, "State," based on an old British TV series, features a slobby, plump Russell Crow as the reporter; my favorite actor Helen Mirren, as the executive editor; and Ben Affleck, solidly playing a congressman.

I always found "Presidents" to be a bit on the boring side because it depicted what the Watergate boys did without theatrics. That's honest storytelling, but not great movie-making, where entertainment is the goal. "State" stays right out there on the edge every minute, with armed evil lurking in the shadows. I don't know how accurate the depiction of the Blackwater faction is, but it's a chilling warning of what might be and that's good enough for me. It is hard news preachy and its reporters smarter than your average leather-burner. The reporters in "State" get away with withholding evidence from the police in a murder case (among other illegalities) that I'm not so sure would fly in real life, but, hey, it's a movie.

In any case, both movies are filled with the almost slavish belief that the only news worth reading in our society is contained in newspapers. "State" disses alternate news sources (one of its reporters starts as a blogger and winds up as a "real reporter"), but at the same time laments the economic reality of the compromises big news organizations are forced to make.

Ultimately, both are worth seeing. If you only get to see the post-movie, pre-credits Globe plate-making production in "State," it's worth the effort.

Friday, April 24, 2009

New River Voice Gets Non-profit Status

Tim Jackson's New River Voice, The Non-profit, is a reality. Here's his note today:

"Our legal paperwork is underway, and within a month the New River Voice hopes to have its non-profit status recognized by the state and IRS. Technically, we will have a nonprofit foundation that will, in turn, publish, but no need to get too specific at the moment.)

"We have lots of work to do: establish a board of trustees, finish writing bylaws and begin a fast and furious process of writing grants. But we could use some help right now.

"Please take a look at this link.

"If you know people who read the Voice or who appreciate what good journalism brings to a free and democratic society (especially in an area in which good journalism seems to be shrinking all the time), then pass along the link.

"We most need a few major financial pledges to jump-start the move.

"We're still about a month away from actually being able to take money (at least that would be tax write-off for the donor)."

Send contributions to :

New River Voice
PO Box 1411
Radford VA 24143

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Journalism At Its Best

There's a fascinating instant-journalism piece here at Editor & Publisher, covering how the Myrtle Beach newspaper is covering the giant fire. This is journalism at its best (and its rarest) in the case of the MB Sun News and the E&P coverage of the coverage.

By the way, my friend Kurt Navratil found this through a Twitter message. The circle is complete.

David Bowers and His Rightful Place

According to a story by Mason Adams* in this a.m.'s Roanoke Times, there seems to be a good bit of startled consternation among members of Roanoke City Council about the behavior of Mayor David Bowers (left) in light of his reduced "perks" and opposition he faces on some issues. To quote a Republican pal o' mine: Well, duh!

David is a lot of things, but peacemaker is not one of them. He can find a fight in the middle of a love-in, whether it's with surrounding localities, citizens or members of council and city government. He's no kum-ba-ya champ. David's great at ceremony, lousy at government. Always has been. Always will be. Anybody who's lived in Roanoke for 25 years could have told you that.

Now David's saying city council--because it began removing things like local mileage reimbursement, speech writers (my old pal John Montgomery used to write David's) and membership in a national conference of mayors (at more than $5,000 a year) two administrations back--has it in for him. It's always about David, even when it's not.

Most recently, because of some pretty dire budget predictions, council took David's secretary away and the howl went up. She screamed, he cried. He says he can't do the job the way he wants to without her. Fact is, David, I can't do mine quite like I'd like without a secretary, either, but fianancial reality intrudes on my convenience and, goodness-gracious, I have to adjust.

David is, in my experience, the best mayor we've ever had when it comes to cutting a ribbon, opening a bakery, welcoming a visiting dignitary, handing out a key to the city, giving a provincial pep talk or riding in a parade. He ought to stick to that, run the meetings and be happy he's where he wants to be.

(*On another note, Mason Adams is one of the best reporters at The Roanoke Times and has been for a while. Given recent history, I don't know that is a good thing for him.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Brisk Journalism Discussion

That's me in the green shirt with my mouth open>

The intensity of the response to a talk I gave today to the Radford Rotary Club on the future of printed news surprised me. What was to have been a 45-minute lunch turned into nearly an hour and a half of back and forth with rapid-fire questions coming from a well-informed group.

My concern with a talk like this is that it's "inside baseball" and people outside journalism will have minimal interest. Wrong! Not only was this room full of business people who are sophisticated and well informed, but those in attendance had their own strong opinions. My basic premise in this talk is that our worry shouldn't be with the delivery system, but with finding a system that pays the journalists and keeps them working. Newspapers, in my estimation, are quickly becoming irrelevant. The question: what's next?

I have some ideas, some numbers, some gossip, some examples, but the truth is that journalism is in an intense state of transition and the only certainty is that it will change and the change will be dramatic, quick and will continue for a good while. Technology is driving it, of course, and nothing is more volatile right now than communications technology.

Today's my 45th anniversary in the business and, frankly, it's never been more exciting than it is at this very moment.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Protection of the Pulitzer? Nope

It was bound to happen: A Pulitzer Prize winner announced today is a laid off journalist (story here). He is Paul Giblin of the East Valley (Arizona) Tribune. The metro editor who oversaw the winning series (the co-writer was Ryan Gabrielson) for the Phoenix-area paper, Patti Epler, was another of 40 people laid off by the paper in October.

They and two other Tribune formers have put together the Web site Arizona Guardian, which covers politics and government. Remember that. It's important. It's where we're going.

The Pulitzer list is here. And, finally, grumpy old media critic Jack Shafer of Slate (a Web site, not a newspaper) has this eminently readable critique of the Pulitzers, capped by a marvelous suggestion of what to do with them in the future.

The Death of An American Hero

A couple of years ago, in a talk to a group of librarians, I told the gathered forces that they were heroes. Small, quiet, mousy, bun-on-top heroes. But big, majestic heroes.

The outspoken role model for librarians, Judith Krug, has died and left a marvelous legacy of fighting for your right to read what you want and, later, for your children's access to the Internet. She founded Banned Books Week and fought for the inclusion of a wide variety of books in libraries, including those she found personally offensive.

Her philosophy? “My personal proclivities have nothing to do with how I react as a librarian. Library service in this country should be based on the concept of intellectual freedom, of providing all pertinent information so a reader can make decisions for himself.” That was from a New York Times interview 30 years ago.

Mrs. Krug organized a group of civil liberties groups in 1997 to challenge in the Supreme Court a new law (the Communications Decency Act) that governed access to the Internet by children, and won that round. (That was one of those Republican laws that was anything but what the title of it suggested, much like the Healthy Forest Initiative.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Liberal Plant Signals Spring

One of the genuine delights of this moment of our year is to walk out into the backyard of the Smith Plantation on a 62-degree, sun-drenched morning, coffee cup in hand and absorb our bright, enthusiastic bleeding heart plant in full flower. It's the one covering a goodly portion of the garden spot to the left of the walkway. It is huge, healthy, cheerful and inviting, the kind of carrier of spring fever that lures us in for a deep drink of its beauty and promise.

The bleeding heart (Dicentra Spectabilis and sometimes called "Dutchman's trousers" because it resembles those, as well), is shown here in both red and white iterations from my back yard. It is a native of Japan (so's kudzu, brought over to the Philadelphia Expo in 1896 and covering barns ever since) and can come in several color combinations. The father of an old friend of mine bred the reds with the whites and came up with two varieties: red with white dripping "blood" and vice-versa.

There are some of these plants available on Roanoke City Market this time of the year. Pick a nice one and plant it in good soil, in a shaded area. Break it in half every three years and plant that half nearby. Soon you'll have a field of them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Where We're Going, Part Deux

Editor & Publisher, the publication many, many newspaper people have read closely for decades, has some important, though hardly surprising, news today: employment in newsrooms is down 11.3 percent (some 5,900 jobs) in 2008, according to the American Society of News Editors. It's the largest drop in the history of the survey, dating back 30 years. My guess is it won't be the last such drop, but it is significant, since papers dropped 2,400 jobs in 2007.

On the upside is this: online journalism is up a startling 21 percent, with 2,300 individual journalists claiming online only status (see the post below for an excellent example locally). ANSE President Charlotte Hall is quoted as saying, "The loss of journalists is a loss for democracy." Probably so, but I'm not so sure we're losing journalists. We're simply losing newspaper jobs at many of the 1,400 dailies in the country.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that North America's largest manufacturer of newsprint, Canada-based AbitibiBowater, has filed for bankruptcy.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Evolution: Non-profit News at NRVoice

Tim Jackson>

OK, here it comes. The following is Tim Jackson's and Taryn Chase's explanation of the next step in the evolution of New River Voice, his newspaper, turned Internet news outlet. Tim's a pro (I don't know Taryn, but I suspect she's pretty knowledgeable, too) and it looks like he's surrounding himself with professionals. This non-profit publication could well give our local daily a case of heartburn. Go get 'em!

"Due to economics and the corporate media being beholden to
advertisers and other outside forces, investigative journalism has
disappeared in the New River Valley. We believe that hard-nosed
journalism is essential to the democratic process and we believe that a nonprofit model is the best way to achieve our goals."

Here's how Tim and Taryn plans to do it:

"Our mission is a work in progress, but right now it goes something
like this:

"The New River Voice will:
• "deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism;
• "explore issues of social justice;
• "increase civic participation by giving citizens the knowledge and
in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government
and social progress;
• "cover the rich arts and culture of the region;
• "train a new generation of journalists via the use of local college
and high school journalism students, including an internship program
for collegiate journalists who will essentially serve as apprentices
to the veteran journalists on staff."

Tim's talking to former Roanoke Times reporter Tim Thornton, who would be a full-time reporter for the venture. Tim Thornton's doing some work for us at Valley Business FRONT and has has also been talking to the people at Public Radio and several other publications (including my pal Anne Adams in Highland County), as well. His work is excellent and he's a veteran with extensive contacts. NRVoice also wants part-timers and interns, as well as a development director.

Tim Jackson is, of course, looking for some bucks to get this thing started and you can chip in by e-mailing him at

For those of you wringing your hands over the future of investigative journalism, this may well be it: a pool of good reporters providing "content" for a charge or a donation. I continue to believe journalism is in good hands--despite some of the numbskulls who run dailies--and that it will continue to be.

The 'Elements' of the Business

As Public Radio pointed out in a brief feature this a.m. on the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (buy it here), the book is the closest thing journalism--or any kind of writing for that matter--has to a Koran*.

It has helped teach a couple of generations of us to write simply, directly and with at least some sense of style. Frankly, I had no idea Elements was as new as 50. My first mentor, Al Genemonte, gave me his worn copy in 1964 during my first week in the newspaper business (I couldn't even type at that point and had come in off the street looking for a door to the kingdom, something that simply isn't done these days).

I read and typed and typed and read. Often I typed Elements just for the exercise. After about three months on the job, I was given the keys to what I thought was paradise--the sports department--and told to put out the paper while the full-timers did other things (I never knew quite what, but I dared not ask lest they take back the responsibility). I was 18 years old and putting out a daily sports section for the Asheville Citizen by myself with only Mssrs. Stunk and White to guide me on most nights. "Putting out" the paper meant layout of local and AP copy, headline and caption writing, writing briefs and call-ins and overseeing the composing room making up the pages (you have no idea how ridiculous I felt telling veteran composing room guys, often three times my age, how to lay out a page).

In any case, The Elements of Style made an impression on and with me and I have presented many a copy to youngsters over the years. Maybe I should have bought stock.

* I use "Koran" here instead of the traditional "Bible" in order to piss off the right-wing xenophobes. Heh, heh, heh ...

(The following from Scott Martin of Franklin County: "Fresh out of college I hit the job market. I was fortunate to land a non-paying gig with the Boise Parks & Rec Department. I thought I was the man. I thought I knew how to write. I was wrong. I completely my first earth-shattering piece of public policy that I thought was going to help change the city and bring order to chaos (I think it was a review of softball tournaments or something like that). At the time, this was heady work. My report was to go straight to the Director and the Mayor. I toiled over it for weeks. When I was certain that it was perfect, I delivered it proudly to the Parks & Rec Director. The Director was/is a brilliant writer and he did not appreciate my writing style. He handed me a copy of Elements and directed me to a corner to commence reading. I haven’t put it down since.")

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Joy of Having an Adversary

Tim Thornton turned in his first story for Valley Business FRONT--the magazine I co-own and edit--last night and I was simply felled by its excellence. Tim, you'll remember if you've been following this blog, was asked to resign by The Roanoke Times a couple of weeks ago, another in a recent spate of dismissals of solid, experienced reporters.

We've managed to pull four of them in to our publication as contributors and Tim's the latest (joining Alison Weaver, who's done two covers and been named Contributor of the Issue twice; Rob Johnson, the former RT business editor who has written May's cover; and Jay Conley, who has written several stories so far for us). Each has been superb. We've also just given an assignment to recently-resigned Roanoker Magazine editor Marie Hodge, a woman whose resume would simply slay you.

Their job losses have been our gain, though I genuinely feel for where each of them is right now. Being without a full-time job in this economy is not pretty.

In any case, I'm fulfilling a fantasy I had a number of years ago after The Roanoke Times fired me the first time (and, boy! did I ever deserve it!). I really wanted to put together some of the alumni, especially those who had been run off for whatever reason, to compete with the paper. Now, we're doing it. We're not competing head to head daily on news, but we're competing for stories and we're winning a lot of battles.

The people who read our magazine tell us they love it. I can't remember the last time I heard "Roanoke Times" and "love" in the same sentence. I have heard "Roanoke Times" and "sumbitches" in the same sentence, though I have argued it ain't necessarily so. Lot of good people in those halls. We're also winning a lot of advertising battles in head-to-head competition and that's what will make us either succeed or fail, ultimately.

I honestly don't think I'd be having nearly as much fun with this project if we didn't have an adversary that we can pick at like a scab--especially one that is as easy a target as the RT often makes itself. It's simply a lot more fun than being out there alone, as we were at the Business Journal for so many years.

A Man for Our Neck of the Woods

Sen. Mark Warner (right) with Carilion CEO Ed Murphy this morning^

The more often Sen. Mark Warner comes through here, the more impressed with him I am. I've known him for a number of years, predating any political office. I met him at a fundraiser at the Salem home of Ted Rappaport, the former Virginia Tech engineering professor who was, as we once called him at the Blue Ridge Business Journal, "the Michael Jordan of cellular technology."

Ted's at the University of Texas these days, virtually operating his own school there and Warner, of course, went on to serve as governor and now senator. I remember that after meeting him the first time, I said, "He's going to be governor some day." It took about eight years.

He has always been smart, eager, outgoing and willing to listen to all comers for as long a time as they want to speak. He's like a sponge with the information. I sat in two different meetings with him today as he toured the state for town hall meetings and the story was the same: he was up on every issue, had an opinion, was willing to listen to others.

More than anything else, though, I appreciate that Mark--who has lived in Northern Virginia for many years--knows we're out here in the west. He has become our senator, moreso than any other I can recall. He was our governor, the first since Linwood Holton (and I'm counting Radford's John Dalton, who was from Radford, but didn't seem to pay much attention to us during his days in the mansion, as I recall). Mark Warner has worn a path to our door and, after we voted for him (and even after a good number of us didn't), he remembered us and he continues to.

We have two good senators in Virginia (Jim Webb being the other), but just one is a westerner . That's Mark Warner even though Webb grew up in far Southwest Virginia.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

So How Does That Corporate News Thing Work?

That's the Masters logo (intimating mastery over CBS, no doubt)>

I just got a disgusting example of how corporate profits permeate television news. During "60 Minutes," a news brief break noted--in its only entry--not that there had been a dramatic rescue in the pirate incident off the coast of Africa, where the American captain was rescued by the Navy, but that some guy had won a freakin' golf tournament.

Sure, it was the Masters and sure CBS has a contract to make certain the Masters is treated as if it is the most important event in human experience. The tournament ends on TV each year by a group of serious men sitting in front of a fire place discussing the tournament as if it would shortly lead to world peace.

I just hate being annoyed by these little idiocies, but, hey, how can anybody with even the seed of a brain not be?

How To Use Homemade Mayonnaise

The chicken salad (above) and the mayonnaise that makes it delicious (right)>

Mother Smith has just spent a little time in the kitchen (after a day playing in dirt) and we have a delightful din-din for you.

How about a nice chicken/curry/artichoke salad on a bed of spicy rice and lettuce, topped with Bulgarian white cheese*, rosemary and tomato slivers and punctuated with a smooth tomato/basil soup? And the topper: the salad is tied together with a homemade dill/chive mayonnaise, the base recipe furnished by my friend Steve Hartman, who owns On the Rise Bakery in Roanoke and cooks like an Iron Chef contestant (I mention a "base" recipe because using a recipe is plagiarism, so I add my own touch and call it "research").

The mayo, exotic as it sounds to those who've never made it, is truly easy. Here's how:
  • Toss one whole egg and a yolk,
  • 1 1/8 cups of Canola oil (don't use olive oil, healthy as it is, because it doesn't mix well),
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of brown mustard,
  • A tablespoon of lemon juice (or if you're creative, lime juice),
  • 2 teaspoons of chives (fresh or 1 teaspoons dried),
  • 1/2 teaspoon dill seeds (or a teaspoon of fresh dill),
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper.
Put everything except the oil into your blender cup, replace the lid, turn the blender on medium and start drizzling in the oil. It is absolutely crucial that the oil be drizzled and not poured. If your blender has one or more of those tiny drizzle holes in the top, more the better.

Blend the whole thing for about a minute and a half and it's mayo. Dip your finger in and slurp it.

The chicken salad is equally easy. Dice about 16 ounces of chicken (I prefer mixed pieces because white has texture, brown has taste) and add:
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry powder,
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts,
  • 10 quartered grapes (get Buelah to peel them),
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery,
  • 1/2-2/3 can artichoke hearts, halved;
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion,
  • 1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper,
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt;
  • Fold in mayonnaise to taste, starting with 1/2 cup.

* This is what Feta cheese aspires to be when it grows up and it is simply smashing. Get it at the Mediterranean food store in Grandin Village, across the street from the old (and unappetizing) Mick or Mack.

Redistribution? It's the System

George Will (right) is bellowing today about the current edition of "redistribution of wealth" as if it's new. He might look at history and he doesn't have to go far back. Think Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower; then Kennedy and Johnson; Nixon and Ford; Carter, who was preoccupied and didn't get to do much redistribution; Reagan and two Bushes with a Clinton among them to slow, but hardly stop, the upward movement of money.

"Redistribution of wealth" is the norm for our government, and depending on the philosophy of the party in power it's redistributed upward, downward or toward the middle. Republicans, of course, want money flowing toward the top one percent, insisting that it will "trickle down," leaving crumbs for the huddling masses. Dems (and others of us on the left) prefer to have government control as much of the wealth as possible, doling it out to those in need first, then those with ideas to increase employment and pay/benefit ratios. We'd also like to see health care and education among those "inalienable rights."

I have no idea why the right howls so mightily any time a president on the left makes his move to move from rich to poor and middle income the money many of them earn. Disagree all you want, but don't act so damn surprised. That's the system, boys.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Creeping Scourge of 'Socialism'

It is fascinating that even as newspapers decry the imposition of bloggers into their traditional domain, stealing "content," they continue to liberally quote from them. Maybe it's creeping socialism.

Today's NYTimes, for example, has a thoughtful opinion piece, heavily reliant upon bloggers, on the nation's sudden interest in socialism, noting along the way that just 53 percent of us believe capitalism to be a superior system, then pointing out later that most people likely can't define either system. (The Oxford English Dictionary says socialism is, in part, "... any of various systems of liberal social democracy which retain a commitment to social justice and social reform, or feature some degree of state intervention in the running of the economy." That's not exactly Karl Marx.

The quote I love is from conservative blogger Mark Thompson of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen: "When you falsely complain that every single thing your opponents try to do is socialism and absurdly hold your bloviating, unpopular selves up as bastions of capitalism, you probably shouldn’t be surprised when people start thinking socialism doesn’t look so bad, and capitalism doesn’t look so good. Let the record also reflect that I, personally, remain firmly with the 53 percent; I just don’t blame the other 47 percent for thinking otherwise."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Is Obama's Resume As Good As These?

Like ASU honorary degree holder Mo Udall, Barack Obama (right) played a little ball.>

Arizona State University has determined that President Barack Obama is not properly suited to wear one of its honorary degree sashes, though he's the first African-American president of the U.S., has written two best-sellers, served in the Senate and in his state's general assembly, is a constitutional scholar and former college professor, a noted community organizer, a great father and husband and ... well, a teriffic role model.

So, who is he being compared to by ASU? Here are a few former winners.
  • Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, who is Richmond's mayor.
  • Nobel Prize winner (medicine) Leland Hartwell.
  • Craig Venter, founder of the Institute for Genomic Research.
  • Movie Producer Blake Edwards.
  • Baron Browne of Mattingly, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
  • Poet Rita Dove.
  • Secretary of Commerce Jesse H. Jones.
  • Novelist Tony Hillerman.
  • Labor organizer Caesar Chavez.
  • Congressman/pro basketball player Mo Udall.
  • Uncle Walter Cronkite.
  • Humorist Art Buchwald.
  • Singer/actor Pearl Bailey.
  • Financial columnist Sylvia Porter.
  • Henry Cisneros, the only member of Bill Clinton's cabinet ever convicted of anything.
  • Sandra Day O'Connor, a member of the Supremes.
  • Writer Edward Albee.
  • Dancer Martha Graham.
  • Tonight Show host Steve Allen.
  • Singer Leontyne Price.
  • Musician Pablo Casals.
  • Raul Castro (the Arizona governor, not Fidel's brother).
  • Astronaut Frank Borman.
  • Barry Goldwater (named after six years in the Senate and before running for president).
  • Ex-presidential candidate George Romney (father of Mit).
And a whole bunch more that you can find here.

Look for yourself to determine of Obama's resume is as good as those of these people. My guess is it's at least as impressive as that of anybody on the list.

Oh, It's Just a Little Philosophical Difference

Virginia's House of Delegates Republicans--led by the unconscionable Morgan Griffith of Salem--continue to define themselves in the most unmistakable of terms and for Virginians. That's both a good thing and a bad thing: good for clearing up whether they deserve to hold their seats, bad for Virginians' health, prosperity, hope and safety.

The latest outrage is their blocking of $120 million in federal money for expanded unemployment benefits in one of the worst economies since the 1930s--an economy they created and that their loyal opposition is desperately trying to solve, in spite of the Republicans' halting tactics at every turn ... like this one.

This piles on top of opposition to anti-smoking legislation (public health be damned), opposition to any kind of limits on the number and types of guns its dick-measuring adherents espouse, expansion of crimes for which the death penalty is imposed, opposition to abortion for any reason in a direct affront to the world's most imposing and urgent problem (population), opposition to environmental cleanup, opposition to taxing the very wealthy, opposition to creating a new economy based on solving all their previous screw-ups.

I would like it very much if each of these people, who seem completely lacking in anything that could be mistaken for human feeling, was asked to sit in a room with people who have been laid off or seen their jobs eliminated because of Republican policies and asked to explain exactly why these Republicans are in the mood to make life even more difficult for many of the very people who voted them into office in the first place.

Republicans say it's a philosophical difference. Let's give them a plate of philosophical difference and ask them to feed their families with it for a while. Compassionate conservativism my ass.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Ray of Light for Troubled Women

Poet Melanie Almeder reading from her book On Dream Street>

There's a story in the Roanoke Times this a.m. detailing my good friend Melanie Almeder's writing class for drug and alcohol addicted women at Bethany Hall. I recommend you read it here.

Mel's one of the truly good and generous people I've known and her work with these women can have a transformative effective on them. I've seen people in these settings given a new sense of themselves, become the people they should have been in the first place and I think you can expect nothing less in this case, especially with the compassionate and loving Mel teaching.

Mel's a Roanoke College English professor (a former Teacher of the Year there, nominated for Virginia Teacher of the Year four years in a row), author (On Dream Street is her recent book of poems), a great storyteller and much, much more. She was quite possibly the most popular presenter at our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference this past winter and she's a poet, for heaven's sake, a discipline that scares the hell out of most of us. I find it telling that she was so impressed with those in her class that she said that having this editor or that noted writer in front of her was intimidating. Fact is, she's better than all of the rest of us combined and the people who impressed her so much would be the very first to say that.

Mel makes poetry attractive, accessible and possible. As she must with these vulnerable, enthusiastic, fortunate women at Bethany Hall.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Covering Seats for Intimacy and Profit

Salem's newly-named ballfield will have seats at the ends of each of its general admission sections covered with tarps (above), reducing capacity to 4,968. Ryan Kalish (below) is one of two Red Sox who wears red socks>

If somebody takes you out to the ballgame Thursday night--the opening day at the newly-named Lewis-Gale Field at Salem Memorial Ballpark--you'll notice a couple of distinct changes. One will be the park's color scheme, which is now Red Sox red and blue and the other that four sections of seats are covered with logo-laden tarps.

The color scheme is easy to explain; the tarp not so much, unless you're a cynic. My guess is that the management has blocked off a whole bunch of seats it could have sold on opening day, but even worse is that it is moving the fans in the crowd into each other's laps. The business reason here seems clear: the effort to move fans from less expensive general admission seats ($7, same as last year) to more expensive reserved ($8, which is new) and box ($9, which is $1 more than a year ago), even as capacity is diminished by 1,074 seats. The potential is there to shrink general admission even further by covering more seats, one club official said.

I don't like tight crowds and on most nights in Salem, you can spread out, chat with the people in your party and not have a kid with a long horn blowing it into your ear. None of that will be a given this year.

Short Pants

At media day today, I noticed that most of the Red Sox minor leaguers wore their pants in the fashion of the parent club's players: like pajamas, drooping down over their spikes. There were two exceptions, a newly-arrived Hispanic player whose name nobody seemed to know and Ryan Kalish, a four-year veteran outfielder from New Jersey. Ryan says he likes the knickers length of pants because "I like to be unique" and "the longer pants feel slower."

Ryan says the Red Sox organization allows players to wear the length of pants they like, but other organizations--he cited Cincinnati and Baltimore, whose Class A Frederick Keys will open against Salem Thursday--require players to wear the old-style knickers (which I like much, much better).

In any case, knickers or jammies, cheap seats or expensive seats, I hope to see you at the ballpark soon.

Studio Roanoke Opens To Full House

Writer Dwayne Yancey (left in right photo) and theater owner Kennard Smith following Yancey's permier play "Angel of Brooklyn" at the opening of Studio Roanoke (above outside and inside) Wednesday>

If there was any doubt that Kennard Smith's new theater venture, Studio Roanoke, would be successful, it was pretty seriously dismissed by the full house on hand Wednesday at noon for the theater's premier performance. Sure, it was a free lunchtime reading in a small theater, but every seat was taken and people were standing in the aisle.

Smith pronounced himself pleased and surprised after the packed house had filed out of the theater, which will be the home of experimental plays, music, lunchtime fare and No Shame Theater. The theater basically seats between 50 and 60 people and it is expected that its Best of No Shame presentations will quickly sell out (they're at 8 p.m.; No Shame Theater normally starts at 11 p.m.). The theater already has a substantial schedule for April and May (here's the schedule).

Distasteful, But Well Done

The Roanoke Times team of reporters Beth Macy, Amanda Codispoti, Pete Dybdahl, researcher Belinda Harris and photographer Kyle Green did an exemplary job with their story this a.m. on the four young Hondurans who were killed in an automobile accident Monday in the southwest section of Roanoke.

Reporters will almost universally tell you that this is the kind of story they hate to do. It is invasive of a grieving family, rarely necessary for the public good and goes against every bit of mama-based training they've ever had about snooping around people in pain. But readers expect it and it's part of the job. Pete Dybdahl and Beth Macy were feature writers until about a year ago and each is a fine writer. (In an earlier version of this, I had them still in features, for which I apologize.) Nicely written, well researched, but necessary? That's a question for all of us, I suspect.

(Note: I recommend strongly you read Beth Macy's response under "comments" below.)

A Good Start for the Awards Season

This has been a pretty good little stretch here for award nominations and wins. My partner in Valley Business FRONT and I were just informed we are winners of the first Arts Council of the Blue Ridge Perry F. Kendig Literary Award (I picked up one of those a few years ago for the Blue Ridge Business Journal, just the second publication in the region to win one at the time) and this morning I got word from the NewVa Corridor Technology Council that I'm nominated for a Technology Entrepreneur Award. I'm not certain that a publication in this region has ever won an NCTC award.

Finally, for the third year in a row, I was nominated for Virginia Commonwealth University's Communications Hall of Fame (didn't make it again, bringing thoughts of Susan Lucci to mind, as it has each time I've been nominated for the Roanoke Regional Chamber's Business Advocate of the Year Award--that'd be four).

Anyhow, awards are valuable for a new venture like ours because it gives us a little street cred when the awards are voted upon by people we deal with in business. Journalism awards, on the other hand, can be dangerous, in my mind, and we don't even enter those contests any longer (my guess is that we'd sweep our categories in a variety of contests). There is always the possibility that the motive in writing stories is to win awards when we enter competitions and the Virginia Press Association has had a couple of incidents of overt cheating in recent years that I find despicable.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Slop Me Another Taquila, Baby

I just got this press release (never having imagined what casually sloppy slackers bartenders are):

"Do you know how much profit bars and restaurants lose each week due to loss in liquor? Whether it's from sloppy bartending, over-pouring, free drinks or even theft, restaurant and bar owners have always suffered from this universal plague of the hospitality industry known as 'shrinkage.'

"In today's trying economic times, this hits many operators harder than others. In fact, businesses lose about 20percent of profit on average to shrinkage. With food costs rising, gas prices fluctuating, delivery charges from vendors continuing to climb, and theft among employees prevalent--what can local bar and restaurant operators do to control costs?

"Roanoke resident Mark Manson owns BEVINCO, a liquor inventory control service for business owners in Roanoke, Lynchburg, Christiansburg and Blacksburg. Speak to him about how his services, which include innovative technology and weekly audits, can help reduce shrinkage to a negligible 5 percent."

Studio Roanoke Releases Schedule

The new Studio Roanoke has just released its schedule for the coming month and it's impressive. As expected, it includes 11 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances of No Shame Theater, which made its mark as part of Mill Mountain Theatre's regular lineup (before MMT closed recently), poetry readings, an original script reading at lunch (free) and at least one play. There is also music on the schedule. Admittance for each event is $5 (excepting the 8 p.m. Best of No Shame for $10). Take at look at the schedule here.

The first lunch reading (patterned after MMT's Centerpieces) has been written by Roanoke Times editor Dwayne Yancey, a longtime member of the No Shame crowd. This one has a baseball theme.

I've been invited (with a group of other press peeps) to tour the new theater later this week and I'll have some interior photos for you at that point.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Bowman, Thornton Looking for New Gigs

Rex Bowman and his wife, Jennifer, at a Salem baseball game (above); Tim Thornton (right)>

Rex Bowman is looking for opportunities today and I suspect they're out there in places he doesn't even know to look yet. Tim Thornton's already landing softly into other things.

Rex is the two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who was laid off by the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday. That layoff of the Roanoke-based Western Virginia bureau chief came a week after he was named the winner of the J. Stuart Bryan Award, signifying the RT-D's best reporter for the year.

Tim was recently given little choice but to resign from The Roanoke Times after exemplary service for years there. (See previous posting.)

Rex says the T-D was more than fair, more than gracious with its severance package and in the way in which he was let go. That contrasts dramatically with the way many businesses facing the elimination of jobs react and I was truly glad to hear it. He deserves a good, appreciative sendoff, one made necessary by conditions he didn't create. He was a valued employee and the apper treated him that way. Rex was part of the bureau system created not that many years ago and Richmond's paper was a holdout in that regard. It has since announced it will concentrate its efforts in the Richmond area.

The dignity with which the T-D handled the situation with Rex, though, impresses me. Good for you, T-D. You might want to hold a seminar for some of your Western Virginia colleagues.

Rex says he'd love to get into the "country weekly editor" mode, and he'd be good at it, though my guess is that it's a part of the profession that won't be here in a few years. He'd be one of the old-style crusaders, which almost don't exist any longer (unless you count my pal Anne Adams in Highland County) because it's expensive and time consuming to do that kind of reporting.

Rex is running his first marathon next week and he and I will be able to catch a few more ball games for a while. He said he did his normal early-morning basketball game today, but wound up staying a good bit longer than usual because he could. I'm absolutely certain he will look back in a few weeks and consider the departure from the daily paper grind to have been good for him.

One irony: Rex was preparing a story for the Times-Dispatch on Tim's departure and the sudden and strong reaction to it. He was also working on a piece noting the 20th anniversary of the Pittston Coal strike, and the fact that the operators who were central to it are mostly out of the coal business today. Could have been a couple of fine investigative pieces, the kind both Rex and Tim are known for. That won't be done now. Too bad. But that's the reality of today's newspaper business.

Meanwhile, Tim Thornton (see previous post about him leaving The Roanoke Times) stopped by the office today to chat. There seems to ge a growing cadre of former RT employees out there looking to get busy with the next part of their careers. It's a good time to be in my editor's chair and be able to offer work to these talented people. Tim has already lined up a stringing gig with public radio and some freelance opportunities in the region, including a story for us. As bad as I feel for these guys' loss of income, I am grateful that they are available and offering their talents to us.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Times-Dispatch Ditches 59 More Jobs; Rex Bowman's Among Them

The bodies just keep piling up: today it was the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 59 jobs down. The T-D has fallen to 602 employees from 772 a year ago and its stock has hovered at record low levels for some time. The 59 is in addition to 31 that were open and won't be filled.

Virtually every department was affected by today's announced job losses, but there were few specifics on who's gone and who's staying. My pal Rex Bowman, who ran the Western Virginia Bureau in Roanoke and is probably the best newspaper reporter in this region, was among those laid off. He's been nominated for two Pulitzers and has a ton of press association awards, but as Tim Thornton's dismissal from the Roanoke Times shows us, awards don't mean much when compared to the bottom line.

Parent Media General's stock closed today at $2.32, up considerably from $1.25 March 6 and well below $1 last year.

The T-D says it has frozen salaries (actually extended the existing freeze), but is giving full-timers it let go a severance package. Reaction to the T-D story included this: "I don’t know what’s scarier, that a bunch of good reporters got laid off, or the T-D ran what amounts to a press release as a story. How can you depend on a newspaper to report on the world when it doesn’t have the courage to report on itself?" Sounds like a newspaper in our area, huh?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Another Top Roanoke Times Reporter Gone

My colleague Tim Jackson, who writes for Valley Business FRONT and has his own online publication, New River Voice, has an astonishing piece on the firing/resignation (your choice) of award-winning Roanoke Times reporter Tim Thornton in the current issue of NRVoice.

There are some serious questions being raised about Thornton's departure. Did he do something wrong? Is this a joke, an HR exercise, a test of executive "toughness," something with real merit?

Read Tim's piece. It's exasperating and very, very telling. Nice reporting, Tim. The story hit a nerve in the NRV, as you can judge from the comments at the bottom, 100 percent of which support Thornton. There's some real anger out there at The Times and I hear it almost every day for a variety of reasons. Treatment of employees is usually an in-house matter, but when those employees' names appear on your product and people know them, it becomes more personal. This is evidence.

Incidentally, I talked to a former president of the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Society of Human Resources Professionals and she says Thornton is almost certainly eligible for unemployment insurance payments because of a little-known labor defense called "constructive discharge," wherein you're told to resign or be fired. The Times would be responsible for much of the money Thornton would be paid in unemployment insurance benefits, she says.

(Here's a response that came directly to me and is anonymous for good reason: "I'll hazard a guess that Chris Winston was not happy about being part of Carole Tarrant's firing squad. This sounds like nothing more than an ugly way to unload an older, experienced reporter and his older, experienced salary. I've read all these Radford stories, and even learning that Thornton was taking a class doesn't make the reporting seem skewed to me. Frankly, I'm glad the App Studies folks have been willing to talk about what's going on, and if they talked because Thornton has contacts there, well, what reporter doesn't use his or her contacts? It sounds like he did everything possible to avoid creating a conflict. Pathetic, misguided bullshit.")