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Friday, June 22, 2007

Mercury News Tragedy

The Mercury News reports today on the suspected suicide of a beloved editor, Rich Ramirez who was found dead Wednesday morning. A longtime colleague of his told me that "he was a wonderful human being, endlessly helpful who gave his entire life to journalism." People are devastated at the Merc where grief counselors were on hand and an impromptu memorial took place.

I wouldn't know what drove a great person like him to take his life, but it couldn't have helped that the Merc is in the throes of yet another round of layoffs about to be announced. On Wednesday, there was a full staff meeting in which new management announced that the number of layoffs would be forty. Nobody is to come to work on July 2nd. Those who are to be axed will receive a call at home. The goal is to get down to 200 employees on a staff that numbered 350 a few years ago. Mr. Ramirez had been told privately that his position as assistant to the Executive Editor would be eliminated but that he could transfer back to the newsroom.

For the rest of the news staff, there is some relief that the layoff number is forty, when many had expected sixty, but the layoffs hang over everyone's head like a "game" of Russian Roulette. It's not a good time to be looking for work in the shrinking newspaper industry.

Condolences to the Ramirez family in their time of devastating loss. Best wishes to the entire Mercury News staff with the hope that they are given the encouragement and space to grieve and share the myriad feelings they must be going through - rocked by grief, shock, and personal angst.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Father's Day Love

On Saturday morning I went out onto the deck and a guy (pictured above) was sitting there in disguise. It was an uncomfortable moment as I bent down and looked at him because I knew it must be some friend that I wasn't able to recognize. When he pulled off his Groucho Marx glasses, nose, and mustache a few seconds later, I was simultaneously mortified that I hadn't instantly known him and dizzy with pleasure that it was my son Alex who had come up from San Diego. It was the furthest thing from my mind that I'd see either of the twins this year. I last saw Alex in December when we went in our unusual family constellation to Mexico - a vacation that was also his and Zac's college graduation present.

Alex has been hard to reach in recent years, his time consumed by the pleasures and routines of his extremely social lifestyle - the many friends, the always sweet and pretty girlfriend-of-the-year, the daily weightlifting, the restaurant work, and until last July - his schoolwork. When I call on the phone, he is always enroute to something or other and has to get off quickly. But he also has the knack of immediately charming his mother or me as soon as we're together with his happy, loving attention.

He definitely made this one of my favorite Father's Days ever. We went on two big hikes, ate great, and went to a zydeco concert at a nearby little nightclub.

The surprise visit was arranged by his mother, Deborah. We ended our marriage over twenty years ago, but found our way into a glorious friendship fueled by mutual admiration for the other's co-parenting skills. We always lived within a couple of miles of each other - sometimes closer - and the boys alternated whose house they went to after school/daycare every other day. (This week Deborah and I are going out to celebrate 30 years of friendship.)

The first day's hike included Alex, me, and Deborah at Hidden Villa where Alex and Zac went to a two week day camp numerous summers. Alex talked about his new job for a fast growing company that rents and sets up huge draping for conventions and concerts. He has quickly risen to a manager position that will begin in a month. He joked about his commitment challenges when it comes to girlfriends and wondered if he's ever really fallen in love. The three of us each took a stab at defining love. Alex's definition was about finding someone who does wonderful things for you. Deborah and I both spoke about how it is just as much about what you want to do for and with your partner – the ways you want to discover them on deeper and deeper levels, care for them, and build a history together. We both acknowleged that for every day that you are fully in touch with those vibrant feelings, there are many when you are just going through motions.

What I forgot to acknowlege was what was right in front of my face, perhaps obscured by its very pervasiveness or because it was camouflaged by the equivalent of a Groucho Marx nose and glasses - but there I was spilling over with more love than I could ever contain with every step along the creek and under the sun as we climbed the formidable hill together.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Newspaper Layoffs: The Daily Planet is Melting

Are our Bay Area daily newspapers grinding to a halt the same way that arctic glaciers are melting just out of our sight?

I had breakfast with a friend who reports for the San Jose Mercury News and he said that they are bracing for a 25% reduction in their 250 person news team. Last October they negotiated a temporary reprieve from any layoffs and as of July the pink slips can start tumbling off the printing press. Time flies when you're running around investigating and writing stories to inform the public.

Three weeks ago at the San Francisco Chronicle, they announced a similar 25% reduction that has already begun. Both papers have closed down their Peninsula Bureaus (tho the Chronicle did it a few years ago). John Curley, a Chronicle editor who spent 25 years there and is a sophisticated Web 2.0 guy, was one of the ones who was pushed out. You'd think they'd be promoting the folks who can blaze the path for the paper to prosper with web services.

It's unclear whether any execs at these papers have a plan other than the tried and true corporate cost cutting scenario of recent decades. (I've never understood how mass layoffs actually work in any industry assuming that most employees were working hard at something the company produces to stay competitive.) At a newspaper, will it translate into something like The Weekly Reader, that we got in grade school? Will the Merc and Chron end up merging somewhere down the line into a regional McNewspaper? Who's going to want to major in journalism anymore, let alone practice it? What am I going to put under my cereal bowl that simultaneously keeps me informed, entertained, and out of trouble for making a mess on the table?

John McManus seems to have an inside track on these events in his blog at Grade the News.

photo credit: dickie at

Friday, June 08, 2007

Web 2.0 Social Change has an Essential Active Ingredient

Last week I attended a very cool conference about social change and the social web. It focused on 21 nonprofit organizations who made their case for funding their particular web 2.0 strategies. At the end, we voted for three who received substantial cash grants while the remaining 18 got enough $ to make the conference well worth their time and effort. My job was to walk around and do short interviews (now called videoblogs) with attendees for Netsquared,the sponsoring organization. If one could transform the idealism there into alternative energies, we could have provided all the electricity for San Jose for at least six months.

There are those who talk about the amazing reach and interconnectivity of the internet in quasi-religious terms, as the harbinger of democracy, human rights, transparent politics, medical cures, and the catalyst for economic justice between nations. You hear a story about somebody in an African village who put a written agreeement from a big oil company onto the web that shows the unfulfilled promises made by the company - that subsequently led to an outpouring of angry emails to the company - that led to a positive course of corrective actions by the oil company.....and it does seem like the web is a pretty magical place where Davids can slay Goliaths and Right can conquer Might.

But it's important to remember that the technology is neutral and can be marshalled for any purpose. Orwell, the author of "1984," would have a heyday with the omniscient breakthroughs that Google has made, linking our individual online searches to our consumer profiles. It's important to remember that the same platitudes were exclaimed about previous communications technologies as they emerged – like radio and television. In the early years of radio, the majority of stations were operated by small decentralized, local companies, unions, churches, etc. and it looked as though everyone would have a voice. After the Rodney King beating was captured by some random person with a camcorder, it was thought that camcorders would usher in a new era of citizen journalism and empowerment. The technology HAS made a huge difference, but always as a tool, albeit an increasingly powerful tool.

Behind every social movement or viral outpouring that has occurred on the web, there is an individual or small group who dared to imagine an amazing outcome and to put the wheels into motion. The action may have been as simple as scanning and publishing an oil company document, but it mirrors the same courage and eloquent simplicity as when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. The activists describing their web 2.0 projects at the NetSquared conference are part of that tradition, and I hope that they see that the most vital ingredient of what they have set whirling and snowballing on the world wide web, is their own creative, courageous, imagination.

photo credit:Lena Zuniga, GK3 Project Team, Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) Secretariat

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Stick of Gum?

There's a story I will never forget about Neal Cassady, the icon of the Beat Poets who later morphed into the driver of Ken Kesey's psychedelic Magic Bus. He was entering a bar in Oakland and saw what was about to be a bloody scene. Four Black men were about to pummel a White guy. Without weighing any time consuming pros and cons, Cassady jumped into the fray tapping each man on the shoulder and asking in a loud, friendly voice, with an outstretched hand: "Stick of gum?" Somehow his package of Juicy Fruit gum disarmed a tense moment and a sure beating was avoided.

Cassady's creative courage has always seemed a luminous lesson to me. One time I tried to put it into practice and failed in my delivery, but more on that mishap in a different entry someday.

Yesterday, I pulled a book of essays down from the shelf, during my sunrise insomnia session. I read about a poet named Robert Desnos who was taken by Nazis in a truck crammed with men to a gas chamber. As they stood in line awaiting their deaths, Desnos jumped about in a jocular, animated way and asked men to let him read their palms. To each one he exclaimed that he saw a long lifeline, many children, and abundant joy. As unbelievable as it seems, according to Susan Griffin's essay, the Nazi guards were amused and decided to let this group live.

Griffin goes on to say that "social movements are driven by imagination....every important social movement reconfigures the world in the imagination."

The scientist, Jacob Bronowski, who was deeply affected by what he witnessed in Hiroshima after it was leveled by The Bomb, wrote:
"Order does not display itself of itself; if it can be said to be there at all, it is not there for the mere looking. There is no way of pointing a finger or a camera at it; order must be discovered and in a deep sense it must be created. What we see as we see it is mere disorder." To me, it seems he is talking about the importance of using our imagination.

More than the power of any particular political theory to reorganize society for the common good, I put my faith in the acts of persons springing forward in courageous acts of imagination to right wrongs and act as though a precious life is in their hands to save.