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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This, That, and the Other Thing

There’s not much fresh and revealing to be said about the funk and gloom of the U.S. economy. Just as sunny optimism drove stock prices and retail spending ever higher as if the good times would surely never end, today there is a brooding sense, not of dread – for, as a woman from Michigan remarked a couple of posts ago, if we can survive the Depression, we can wait out this recession – but of extreme care and caution across the land. Just as Wall Street endures downward “corrections” from time to time, individual Americans have launched corrections of their own to tighten up on their spending.

Bread line
Things have not reached the breadline stage of this 1932 photograph in Brooklyn, New York. But it will be a tough winter for many families
Certainly the loss of jobs, sometimes homes, and giant chunks from our retirement-fund portfolios will do that to a-body, as my mother used to say. But it’s broader than that. Even those who remain “people of means” seem cured, for the moment, of buying sprees and speculation. Patience and prudence reign.

And in turn our recent tight grip on our wallets has its own dire ripple effects. Chadwick Matlin in The Washington Post writes that a quintessential American institution, the shopping mall, is ominously threatened by the downturn. Many malls are for sale at cut-rate prices, and demoralizing vacancies are rising. The recent holiday sales slump, even bleaker than predicted, has sent some retailers to the brink of extinction in year in which almost 150,000 stores, and a number of national retail chains, have already closed.

Plenty of mall stores, like this one, are opening – in Dubai, where this photo was taken, certainly not in the struggling retail environment of the United States
Once again, negative psychology is afoot. Matlin points out that “every store that closes has an impact on the shops left behind.” And on consumers, already skittish, who are viscerally uncomfortable in malls with vacant and boarded-up stores. As Sherman Cahal and Randy Simes note in their “Urban Cincy” blog, “Cincinnati Mills, one of the largest retail centers in the region, has seen store after store shutter. This comes after millions of dollars of reinvestment into a massive mall sandwiched in between two others along a mall interstate of sorts.”

We’re Closed, and So’s the Next Shop

I’ve seen the death spiral of malls myself in the Washington area, particularly when an anchor department store goes belly up. It casts a pall over the mall, if you’ll pardon the rhyme, making it seem undesirable, even dangerous.

Empty store
Empty lots, and empty stores, are becoming an all-too-familiar sight at malls across the nation
The Post’s Matlin thinks that, in a world of big-box, one-shop stores and nearly effortless shopping online, malls’ time has come and gone anyway. Who in a nation obsessed with convenience and, now, cutting back spending has the time or patience to park what seems like a kilometer away and fight crowds (when there are any) and pay undiscounted prices at a mall?

Borrowing from President Ronald Reagan’s plea to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall, the headline to Matlin’s story read: “Tear Down This Mall.”

But then, where would our teenagers hang out?


One second can be put to a lot of positive uses. You can give someone a sly wink, smile at your spouse, pat your child on the head or back, give your pet an encouraging “good girl” or “good boy,” change the television channel from something inane to something uplifting, put a big check mark on your list of New Year’s resolutions, and so on.

You can even blurt out an “I love you” in less than the tick of the clock.

You can do two things at once in the New Year’s Eve leap second: smile and raise a toast to someone you care about
If you’re reading this before the year turns, you have some planning to do, for the world’s scientific community is squeezing in an extra “leap second” just in front of midnight on New Year’s Eve. And you know what they say: “Time is free, but it's priceless. You can't own it, but you can use it. You can't keep it, but you can spend it. Once you've lost it, you can never get it back.”

“They,” in this case, is motivational speaker Harvey Mackay. And isn’t it satisfying to know who “they” is for a change?”)

Atomic clock
Louis Essen (R), is credited with inventing the atomic clock. Its accuracy prompted a complete redefinition of the “second” to the time it takes for 9192631770 cycles of his lightning-fast device
Only someone like Art Chimes, VOA’s “Mr. Science,” could lucidly explain the reasons for the leap second, but it has something to do with compensating for the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. It seems that even the combination of brainy scientists, super-duper computers, and atomic clocks that are accurate to the gadzillionth decimal point cannot precisely predict the exact amount of time it will take the Earth to make that journey each year. Those clocks always end up a fraction of a fraction of a second fast. So every few years the men and women in the white lab coats decree an extra second to let the Earth catch up.

The last leap second was added in 2005, and don’t you wish you had it back?

This, or something approaching it, will be Carol and I, ringing in the New Year in dreamland. The part of Ted is played by the guy in the suave moustache. Note that the “Carol” character is zzzing as well
I’ll be taking my leap second a tad early, say a second before 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, as Carol and I turn in early. I plan to use that instant to raise a toast to her and to better times for the world in 2009. I’m pretty sure I can think all that in a second, while quickly raising my glass, though it will obviously take a bit longer to speak the words.

If you are reading this after midnight on New Year’s Eve, I’d be interested to what you did with your extra second of life.


Taking Time

OK, the leap second probably isn’t really bonus time on earth, exactly. It’s a high-tech bookkeeping thing. But it feels like this extra second - and certainly the complete February day that’s added in quadrennial leap years, are gifts not to be squandered. (2008 was a leap year. Did you make good use of February 29th?)

This makes me wonder why that additional days every four years don’t sop up all the time needed to get the clocks right. You’d think they’d serve as a sort of chronographic credit, so that we wouldn’t need those stray leap seconds every few New Year’s Eves. Get Mr. Science back in here.

This clock is probably not going to cut it as the world’s keeper of time, even with an occasional leap second, hour, or day
As usual in matters scientific, there’s a raging debate over the leap second among the intelligentsia, in terms mere mortals would never understand. (Maybe this is the “rocket science” we keep hearing about.) The folks at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, near Paris, propose scrapping the leap second, whose origin, naturally, traces to something British having to do with Greenwich Mean Time.

Hence the French aversion to the idea.


Saving Time – for Seven Centuries

Speaking of time, this is a great place to pass it, in no particular, haste, in this quiet Paris arrondissement, or district
Being mellower than the Brits and us Yanks, these Frenchmen believe a leap hour every 700 years would make more sense. I doubt even Mr. Science could explain why that is, other than an hour is much more civilized than a second every now and again. A full 3,600 seconds all at once would give us a chance to sip Beaujolais, break and butter and enjoy crunchy bread and a bit of brie, and talk about the French Paradox or something. I’m relatively sure that wine, bread, and the French Paradox will still be around 700 years from now, should the Leap Hour take place.

(Yes, yes, you were wondering about the French Paradox. I couldn’t fit the explanation into the previous sentence with any hope that its end would relate to its beginning. The paradox is simple: French men and women, who eat cholesterol-rich food, drink wine at the drop of a beret, smoke from morning to night, and exercise only by walking to the patisserie to get their chocolate croissants, wine, and cigarettes, somehow stay thin. When Americans do these things, our obesity rates literally shoot off the doctors’ charts. The answer – for which I owe a nod to travel writer Kelby Hartson Carr, someone who actually pays to eat, drink, and gad about France – is utterly simple: the French savor their food and their wine, and of course their language. I don’t know if they savor their cigarettes. Impatient Americans wolf down their food, drink to get high, and do a lot of it on the run.

So it’s natural that French people, who are in no hurry, would prefer a leap hour to a leap second, even if they have to wait 700 years to enjoy one.


I’ll Be Asleep If You Need Me

You may have wondered, back a few paragraphs, why Carol and I would squander the opportunity to wedge into the shivering, rowdy throngs at New York City’s Times Square and “watch the ball drop” to usher in 2009, or to gather with friends for toasts and hugs at midnight, or at a minimum, to sit pathetically in front of the tube and watch nauseously giddy TV commentators count down the end of a pretty sorry year.

Black ice
This is black-ice territory, a literal nightmare scenario for the Landphair-Highsmith traveling show
Washington temperatures often hover around freezing most New Year’s Eves. “Black ice” is a genuine threat, and we will never forget the time our car, speeding over the mountains in eastern Oregon on seemingly dry pavement soon after a spit of rain, hit a patch of black ice and spun several times into a guardrail, just meters in front of a speeding truck. So we don’t “do” black ice, especially when others on the road might be half blotto.

Times Square
We don’t even watch the famous Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop on television. Were this photo taken this year, there’d be just 13 seconds – not to the New Year but to the 2008 Leap Second!
Nor are we wild about toasts with strangers. We tried that once in some New Year’s Eve package deal. Picture three hours of small talk with assorted meter readers, university pedants, and National Zoo elephant keepers randomly assigned to your table. Nor shall we forget the sips of lukewarm cheap champagne, awkward hugs with the elephant keeper, hoots on paper noisemakers at midnight, then mirthless choruses of “Auld Lang Syne,” only one verse of which anyone knew:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
"And never brought to mind?
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
"And days of auld lang syne?"

The lyrics that follow are incomprehensible outside the heather – something about “auld lang syne my jo,” and a reference to taking “a cup o’ kindness yet.” That perked up revelers for a moment, though, thinking that the “cup o’ kindness” line would signal a champagne refill. The band trudged on, repeating the main refrain about 37 times. We all croaked “Should auld acquaintance be forgot” over and over until the music mercifully ceased. That was the cue for big, forced “Yeahs!” all around, more uncomfortable hugs, a promise to get together soon with the meter reader and his wife, and a dash to the coat-check room.

We don’t invite anyone in, either. The neighbors are out spinning on the black ice, the kids are spread throughout the East, and our local friends live several drunk drivers’ car lengths away.

No, better to hug Carol early, make that leap-second toast at 9:59:59 p.m., and get a good night’s sleep.

Rest assured, though, if you were beginning to wonder, that we are a jolly duo, not misanthropes, the other 364 days a year – 365 in leap years.


Who Dat? (As They Say in New Orleans)

Guy Lombardo
This is Guy Lombardo’s mug on a 1928 sheet-music cover. What was with the dark circles around people’s eyes in those days? Lack of sleep from too many late-night gigs, perhaps, in Lombardo’s case
For older Americans, “Auld Lang Syne” will forever be linked to Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo, who each New Year’s Eve from 1929 through the mid-1970s turned the song into his trademark and financial (Lombardo, by the way, in a curious non sequitur of a career, was also a world-champion speedboat racer. You’d have never guessed it, listening to the measured “Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven” that his orchestra played.)

Names like Guy Lombardo inspire pleasant reminiscences in about half the population and blank stares in the other – some of the latter believing that no one who matters besides Mom, Dad, and Uncle Bruce was alive pre-Madonna. (In fact, that’s the 21st-Century definition of prima donna!)

To anyone under 30, Guy Lombardo might as well be Guy Fawkes or Guy Lafleur. They haven’t heard of any of them, even when you hint that “Guy” is “Gee” in the case of Lafleur.

I mention all this because of a similar lighthearted generational disconnect in one of our morning coverage meetings at VOA. Mr. Science was discussing a new Pew Internet & American Life survey projecting Americans’ likely online habits to come in the year 2020.

Hearing this on the speakerphone from his post in New York, our colleague Adam Phillips piped up, “It sounds so Buck Rogers!”

I took quick stock of the reactions around the table. We’re, shall I charitably say, a seasoned bunch, by and large, and those with a touch or more of gray evinced a slight nod at the mention of Buck Rogers’s name. Others of more tender years, and those of any age born outside the United States, stared dully at the speakerphone box.

Impishly, I could not resist asking my 24-year-old compadre and Internet savior, Anne Malinee, if she know who in the world Adam was talking about. Of course not, and why should she? My intent was not to embarrass her, but to point out how “household names” in one generation can pass almost completely out of view of the next.

Name That Dead Person

Perhaps it’s inevitable in a furiously busy society that names like Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, Alan Shepard, Betty Boop, Buffalo Bill (or Buffalo Bob for that matter), Roy Rogers, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, Babe Ruth – and certainly Buck Rogers – are not the least bit familiar to whole swaths of society. I thought every American everywhere knew of Babe Ruth. I mentioned him at a family Christmas gathering, and four of seven people – teens and young adults – looked at me like I had just invoked the name of some obscure Mesopotamian potter.

Buck Rogers
Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who later became more famous playing Tarzan the ape man in the movies, is shown on this 1939 movie poster as the star of a series of Buck Rogers shorts that appeared before the featured film at theaters
Never fear. At the end of all this, I’ll give you a thumbnail briefing on each of these figures. But let’s first circle back to Buck Rogers. He was a science-fiction action hero who first appeared in a 1927 novella, Armageddon 2419, then in the first sci-fi comic strip. By the 1940s, kids across the country were packing Buck Rogers lunch boxes, aiming flashing and buzzing Buck Rogers ray guns at each other, and hurrying to the theater to see Rogers battle the Tiger Men of Mars.

I missed all that by a decade but had good fun with “Rocket Man,” a fellow with what looked like two propane canisters strapped to his back. He would leap off rock outcroppings, arms extended, and zoom across the sky as smoke gushed from the canisters.

Some other time, I’ll tell you about Flash Gordon.

Buck Rogers inspired fantastic dreams of a future that would indeed one day, in real life, include elaborate space travel, if not yet encounters with Tiger Men.

Just ask Adam, but not Anne.


Another colleague, Julie Taboh, suggests that I add the phrase “above the fray,” used in my last posting on the newspaper business, to my “wild words” listings. I’ll do so below, provided she reads up on Buck Rogers.

As for the promised quick rundown of those “blast from the past” names awhile back:

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American communists who were tried, convicted, and later executed in the 1950s for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. I say “allegedly,” since doubt about their guilt lingers in many circles.

Alan Shepard, an astronaut, was the first American in space, aboard the Freedom 7 Spacecraft on May 5, 1961. He would later become the fifth person to walk on the moon.

Betty Boop was an animated-cartoon character in the 1930s. Her big eyes and flirtatious eyelashes had the naughty, come-hither look of a Roaring Twenties “flapper.” She became one of American advertising’s first sex symbols.

Buffalo Bill
Here’s one of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Cowboys” traveling show posters. Bill himself rode at the head of the opening procession each night
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody organized extravagant, touring “Wild West” shows in the early 20th Century. They featured such headliners as trick-shot artist Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, the last Sioux chief to surrender to U.S. forces following bloody “Indian wars” on the frontier.

“Buffalo Bob” Smith was the buckskin-costumed human host of the “Howdy Doody” TV program in the 1950s. It featured, besides Howdy the freckle-faced puppet, characters such as Phineas T. Bluster, Chief Thunderthud, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and Clarabell, the seltzer-bottle-squirting clown. What can I say? Our tastes were simpler then!

Like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers was a “singing cowboy” – one of the “good guys” in western movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. Later, on TV, kids across America watched him, his wife, Dale Evans, and some melodic cowpokes called the Sons of the Pioneers while away the hours in song around a campfire, between mild fistfights and a gun or two shot out of villains’ hands in their crusade for Western justice. All ended well each week as Roy and Dale crooned their “Happy Trails” theme song.

Lucille Ball, who starred with her husband, Desi Arnaz, in the top-rated series “I Love Lucy,” and rotund comedian Jackie Gleason, who hosted a variety show that featured many of his own tragicomic characters, were “must see TV” figures in the 1950s and ’60s.

Babe Ruth didn’t look the part of a gifted athlete, but he changed the game of baseball by knocking ball after ball out of the field of play and whetting fans’ appetite for these “long ball” home runs
Babe Ruth was an orphaned, paunchy, profane womanizer who, from 1914 to 1935, turned into a prodigious baseball player, first as a pitcher, then as the “Sultan of Swat” record-setting batter. Even in this age of lithe and sculpted millionaire athletes, The Babe is considered the best player of all time.

As for the two “Guys” besides Lombardo: In 1605, Guy Fawkes conspired with other English Catholics to blow up Parliament and King James I. November 5, the anniversary of the “Gunpowder Revolution,” is still celebrated as “Guy Fawkes Day” in Britain, if you call bonfires and burned effigies of Fawkes a celebration. Guy Lafleur was a gifted and graceful hockey player during the dynastic reign of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Le Demon Blond, as adoring French-speaking fans in Quebec Province called him, is the Canadiens’ all-time leading scorer. In another strange career move like Guy Lombardo’s speed racing, Lafleur now runs a helicopter-rental company.

Don’t be dismayed if you didn’t know about any of these people or characters. I didn’t know who Flavor Flav was until I looked him up.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

A-body. This is sort of backwoods-Pennsylvania shorthand for “anybody.” My mother would often mutter how hard it was for a-body to do this or that in the big city of Cleveland.

Above the Fray. One who stays above the fray remains cool and collected in the midst of turmoil. A “fray” is a fight that goes on and on. Some sources date the term to feudal times, when nobles, high in their castles, remained serenely unaffected by the squabbles of their vassals outside the gates below. When I hear the phrase, I think of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, watching the fierce fighting from atop a Fredericksburg, Virginia, hill in the U.S. Civil War. Lee is said to have remarked to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, [lest] we should grow too fond of it.”

Belly up. One who goes “belly up” has been financially ruined and forced out of business. The term likely originated at sea, where dead fish float upside down and sunken ships sometimes turn hull-upward in the briny deep. The term is not to be confused with “bellying up” to the bar, which is thought to relate to the notion that you are old enough to drink if your belt line reaches the bar.

Big-Box Stores. These are mega-stores, sometimes an entire square block in size, that sometimes carry an entire mall’s worth of products from fresh produce and meat to appliances and, in some states, even guns.

Blotto. Intoxicated, soused, stoned, pie-eyed, sotted, drunk as a skunk – not that we’ve seen too many inebriated skunks. The derivation is unclear; perhaps it popped up after one too many people were blotted out on the highway.

Gad About. In the 19th Century, a gad-about was a person with nothing better to do than drop in on neighbors, just to pass the time. Gadding about today is viewed as a pleasant interval of shopping or just ambling along, taking in the sights.

Gravy Train. When you’re on the gravy train, you have it made. Money is no problem, and you don’t have to work very hard. Gravy was long considered a luxury addition to meat or potatoes, and railroaders who pulled shifts on short, easy runs were said to be riding the gravy train.

Non sequitur. This old Latin term refers to a statement that makes little or no sense in relation to the comments that came before it. Something like, “I took my dog for a walk where the straws were longer than usual,” for instance, would be a real head-scratcher. The walk and the straws have no apparent connection except, perhaps, in the dog owner’s mind.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Inside Baseball

When people write about their own professions or subjects of particular interest to themselves, we call it “inside baseball.” There’s a danger that only others who share those interests will appreciate and enjoy the discussion. Others may find it esoteric or, gasp!, boring.

Wrigley Field
This is not exactly what we mean by "inside baseball." Ours is more theoretical
So I’m taking a chance with a bit of inside baseball about the journalism profession. But I think some recent developments have implications for us all.

There are three threads to this story, and perhaps coincidentally, all three involve the Gannett Co. That’s the U.S. multimedia giant that publishes 85 daily newspapers and owns 23 television stations. Gannett’s properties are renowned for their aggressiveness, profitability, tight control of a dollar, and emphasis on local over national and international coverage. Some doubtlessly disenchanted former Gannett editors and writers have peppered the Web with stories of alleged “sweatshop” demands on the staff at many of the properties.

Gannett is also legendary for its technical innovation and its willingness to try new approaches in a profession that is hidebound by romantic traditions. Founded in 1982, Gannett’s nationally distributed USA Today was the first, or one of the first, papers to emphasize compact stories, color graphics, and lots of photographs to grab readers’ attention at a time when they were increasingly turning to television, especially, when they wanted news.

Gannett also runs Web sites that, according to the Nielsen/NetRatings service, reach about 16 percent of the total Internet audience.

In all, Gannett is a media powerhouse to which people pay attention. So . . . pay attention! Perhaps you’ll discern a connection of the dots among these developments. Perhaps not.

Bad News for Paperboys

• If you read my last post about the psychological distress of autoworkers and others in economically battered Michigan, you caught the comments of two editors at the Detroit Free Press, a Gannett daily. I did not know at the time – and perhaps neither did they – that the paper itself would soon be making headlines. The Free Press announced that come spring, it and the News – another Detroit daily separately owned with which the Free Press partners in news-gathering and production – would deliver printed newspapers to people’s homes only three days a week. Limited print runs for in-store sales and public news boxes will continue seven days a week.

People aren't buying newspapers as much as they used to. If they read them at all, many people scan them online
The Free Press reported that Dave Hunke, its publisher, said the move would, among other things, enable the two Detroit papers to spend some of the money saved on paper, ink, and fuel on their Web sites, to “develop new ways to deliver information digitally, [and] enhance multimedia offerings.”

“There is a day of reckoning coming for newspapers, which in my mind don’t change and change rapidly,” Hunke added. He noted without apparent rancor that customers were rapidly moving away from the printed product – “most people don’t read us that way” – as “lifestyles and technology have changed.”

And as customers turn to their computers and various hand-held devices to keep up with the world, Hunke said, “We can’t be afraid about moving at light speed toward that.”

• The second development does not directly relate to the Web, but it says something about the quick-quick, hurry-up-and-tell-me-something nature of the “new media.”

Paper rolls
You're looking at newsprint rolls that could some day, perhaps sooner than later, become historical artifacts
Bowing to what The Washington Post called “the march of technology,” WUSA, Gannett’s television property in Washington, D.C., announced that it will replace its traditional news crews with “multimedia journalists” who will single-handedly report, shoot, and edit their stories.

News crews in large markets typically include a reporter, camera operator, and often a field producer, plus an editor or editors back at the station.

Now a single “one-man band” – not necessarily a classically trained journalist but often a production person – carrying a camera and microphone as well as a notepad – will cover breaking stories in particular. “They’re passing out cameras to the janitors,” one unhappy WUSA staffer told me. Surely the person was exaggerating!

“The concept of a multimedia journalist, having his own beat, with an area of expertise, and a limitless virtual news desk is something we can get very excited about,” the station’s general manager told The Washington Post. To say nothing of the cost savings. The paper reported that WUSA “plans an across-the-board cut in reporters’ salaries as it increases their responsibilities.”

And Make Coffee, Too?

A lot of traditional newsrooms have empty cubicles - though maybe not THIS empty - as media companies downsize and consolidate job responsibilities in the hands of "mobile journalists"
“Mo-jos,” or mobile journalists, will be expected to report, shoot, and capture audio for stories and quickly upload reports and raw material to the station’s Web site, as well as appearing on air as needed.

As I noted, many WUSA staffers are less than thrilled. Veteran reporter Gary Reals – disclosure: he’s a friend and poker buddy of mine – accepted a buyout offer and is leaving. “It takes a lot of time to shoot and edit and write and prepare a story, and if you have one person doing all that, something has to give,” he told The Washington Post.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-TV News Directors Association, indicated that this one-man-band approach “could work fine for feature stories” but could be dangerous for the “mo-jos” in breaking-news situations, especially involving developing crime scenes and civil unrest.

Zuli Palacio is one of the VOA journalists who's a "one-person band," reporting and shooting stories, such as one for a feature assignment here, near Taos, New Mexico

(Some years ago here at the Voice of America, a New York consultant taught dozens of people from several divisions how to become “video journalists,” or “V-Js,” shooting as well as reporting and writing their own stories. Only a handful of V-Js remain, as later groups of senior managers concluded that, indeed, something does “have to give” when a journalist tries to combine research, reporting, shooting video, setting up lighting, capturing quality audio, then writing the story and editing its production elements for television.)

Winds of Change

• The third development relates to both Gannett and VOA. A couple of weeks ago, several VOA managers attended an American Press Institute seminar led by Mackenzie Warren, the director of digital content for Gannett Digital, which supports the publisher’s various online products and develops new ones. Just 31 years old and very much in tune with the Web culture, Warren came to his job at Gannett headquarters in northern Virginia from a position as managing editor in charge of editing, packaging, and distributing the chain’s Fort Myers, Florida, News-Press in print and online.

VOA managers came back thunderstruck from his presentation. (If “thunderstruck” is too strong a word, “amazed” fits for sure.) They were shocked by the warp speed at which online journalism appears to be moving, and wondering what it portends.

Mackenzie Warren
Mackenzie Warren makes no bones about it: He's a "new media" crusader

In particular, they were struck by Warren’s belief in the “one-man-band” approach. So struck by it that I wanted to hear details from Mackenzie Warren himself. Here is some of what he told me in a telephone conversation:

“Everyone is a publisher now,” he began. Not just newspapers or news organizations that host Web sites, but also bloggers and other “citizen journalists,” including those who quickly put up raw video of news events. No longer can traditional publishers smugly rest on their laurels as “trusted news brands” that news consumers are sure to count on for information, nor can they dismiss assorted providers of content as unqualified, untrustworthy, irrelevant rogues. Like it or not, more and more news consumers are turning to the Web – including these unaffiliated information providers – especially in crisis situations.

“Journalism is evolving not on our time frame but on the world’s,” Warren told me. People who turn to the Web want to know what’s happening this instant. To borrow Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase from 1964, “The medium is the message,” meaning that the delivery system – in this case, the Web – greatly influences how information is presented and received. When it comes to breaking news in its presto-change-o culture, there is no time for the time-honored journalism drill: carefully gather the story, meticulously write it, confirm the details with multiple sources, and submit it for vetting by one or more editors before it is worthy of putting in print or on the air.

“If you can’t give it to them right now, they’ll go elsewhere” and quite possibly never return, Warren told me. So journalists feeding the Web have to be swifter about “putting things up” as they encounter them, often without the luxury of review by other “sets of eyes” belonging to line and copy editors. There just isn’t time.

“I’m not suggesting that we should ever be reckless, leave out crucial aspects of a story, or not worry about inaccuracies,” he told me. But in the online world, “there’s a higher degree of forgiveness” about errors of grammar, syntax, chronology, and even facts, especially early on in a story. News consumers on the Web “don’t expect perfection,” Warren says. “They expect us to give them the story as best we know it” and fix mistakes later as they are discovered.

The Three “T’s” of Today’s Online World

Web users want information “on their terms, on their turf, and on their timetable,” Warren believes. And providers had better give it to them that way or step aside for those who will. News managers who are consumed with getting it right rather than getting it first soon won’t have enough readers to notice.

It’s a “risk-reward deal,” Warren says. You risk some mistakes for the reward of getting things up so quickly that you become Web users’ “go-to source” for information.

That’s a chilling thought for owners of traditional “news brands” and the old axiom that “it’s more important to get it right than to get it first.”

The delivery of news took a long time to evolve until recently. Now it seems as if there's a new approach every day
Mackenzie Warren, who is not at all uncomfortable being labeled a “new media evangelist and agitator,” insists that the “get it on fast” approach does not do violence to journalistic tradition.

“We’ve long had eyewitness reporting that goes straight from the reporter’s notebook to the consumers,” he says. “That’s what live television is. I think that readers value the immediate nature of this style of reporting and, while they’d not permit it in a printed newspaper – which is permanent and had the benefit of many hours of editing and production – I think they are demanding it in the Web version of newspapers.”

He adds that, in his view, getting it right and getting it first are not mutually exclusive. “I trust our professional reporters to get most of what they report right,” he says. “For 99 percent of the things we report first, we also report them right.”

Today’s news customers get involved in the product “much earlier upstream,” Warren points out. “We’re letting readers see what we’re gathering as we’re gathering it,” not packaging the information and putting a pretty bow on it before readers get to see it. “They see the whole lifespan of a story.”

Warren says that reporters must still be well-trained, vigilant, and ethical, and that their commitment to credibility, balance, and objectivity remains paramount. “I carry a copy of the [U.S.] Constitution with me,” he says. “That’s how much I value the safeguards of a free press.”

This is one of the delivery systems of today's "newspaper." What
would Johan Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press back around 1439, think about such a thing? It's amazing enough to those who live today

That copy of the Constitution, naturally, is not a pamphlet or book or parchment. It’s an interactive application on Warren’s iPhone.

What about editors? Are they obsolete? “Not at all,” replies Mackenzie Warren. “There’s a small minority of stories – those with special sensitivities or controversy – that demand continual oversight from an editor.” Otherwise, “editors can be a bottleneck [lavishing precious time on getting the nuances right]. We have to trust the good judgment of trained reporters on the scene.” Besides, editors so often find themselves trying to juggle two, three, or 10 stories, that none of them gets out quickly.


Mackenzie Warren believes that news executives can no longer sit smugly above the fray, deciding which stories to tell and when and how to tell them. The typical news pro “has never had to worry as much about ‘customer service,’ as those in other businesses have,” Warren says.

“They’d better start.”

And reporters had better get used to being “mo-jos” – mobile journalists, generalists – thinking on their feet, handling different kinds of equipment, telling stories verbally, visually, and in writing.

A Far Cry from J-School

One would think that more “old hands” besides WUSA’s Gary Reals would berate these developments or walk away from them. “My experience is just the opposite,” Mackenzie Warren told me. “They were afraid we were making their work obsolete, and they’d be left out. Once they get the right training and get into a cadence, they’re thrilled to be in the forefront of all that we do. They’re not cast aside. They’re on the cutting edge.”

And, he adds, not every old hand will be asked to grab the nearest hand-held camera and race off to fires and traffic accidents. “We’ll still need specialists” writing commentary and analysis, Warren says.

Could it be that all this talk of immediacy is really camouflage, an excuse for deeper cost-cutting by a company famous for being profit-wise and controlling the bottom line? “Never, ever, ever has cost come into it,” Mackenzie Warren assured me. “It’s all about better coverage. If it takes many mobile journalists to cover a story, that’s what the story will get. We want journalism to thrive.”

Warren acknowledges, however, that media outlets that meet users’ demand for quick, comprehensive information will build an audience large and strong enough to attract advertisers to pay the company’s bills and stockholder dividends.

As for newspapers like his company’s Detroit Free Press, Mackenzie Warren says they were always “a mile wide [covering a million things] and an inch deep. They’ll evolve into niche products, appealing not to anyone and everyone but to specialized audiences.” For all practical purposes, he believes, they’re already out of the breaking-news business.

So, what’s to be made of all this? Journalism is obviously mutating, and fast, into a sort of “ready response strike force,” not so much assembling information and making sense of it, but grabbing the latest information here, there, and everywhere and sharing it immediately, sometimes without much of a filter.

Journalism’s ‘New World Order’

For this “old hand,” and perhaps anyone else who’s over 30, this represents an unsettling concession to the demands of a busy, “instant gratification” world for fast, bite-sized information unencumbered by pesky nuances. I keep thinking, and worrying, about Mackenzie Warren’s three “T’s”: providing information to Web users “on their terms, on their turf, and on their timetable.”


Thanks Back Atcha

Got a couple of very nice mentions from other bloggers recently, which gave me the chance to enjoy what they are doing.

Nik Peachey's blog
Here's a screenshot of Nik Peachey's very nice plug of our blog

Nik Peachey, a teacher, writer, and technology consultant in Morocco, writes two blogs. One, called “Daily English Activities” and aimed at those for whom English is a second or foreign language. It has a lot of exercises for teachers and those interested in stretching their minds, and not just in English. One had a memorization test involving photos. Another, linked above, talked about stretching one’s vocabulary using “spidergrams” and “vocabulary webs.” These were challenging (but fun) in any language at any level. They reinforce the seriousness with which people around the world study English, not just to expand their minds but also in hopes of creating more opportunities for themselves.

This reminds me, briefly, of a memorable visit that I made to Indonesia, where I was pleasantly surprised to find college students not only watching undubbed American movies and listening to American songs in English, but also broadcasting in English on a campus radio station. It reinforced the reality that English – American English – is becoming, if not already is, the language of science, the Web, international travel, and youth. That does not make the language or our people superior in any way. But it does say something about the spread of American culture, not all of which is uplifting.

Nik’s other blog, called “QuickShout,” talks about developments in language and technology. I don’t know how he does it!: create two blogs and still have a life. Nor do I know how Nik manages to write such short and compact editions. Writing short is so much harder than writing long. I’ve been at it for more than 45 years and still don’t have the hang of it.

Thanks, too, to recent commentators, including Patrick and Cui Litang, who passed along generous thoughts about my writing. My own time as an editor has helped me spot a lot of gaffes in time to correct them. And I have grown more and more comfortable with a cadence developed by reading my words aloud, not just on the radio, but also as I write this blog. I find that hearing the words often helps me pick the right word and tone. As my reader “Anonymous” called them, my “fantastic picture of words” derives from hearing as well as writing them.

I still struggle - as my editor and several of you readers have noted - to write succinctly. In the face of the discussion about immediacy and brevity above, I worry if there’ll be a place for long-form writing down the road. Perhaps one day readers will grow unsatisfied with Writing McNuggets and will demand something more filling.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Hidebound. Inflexible, stubbornly narrow-minded. The term may have morphed from the animal world, where the abnormally dry skin of a hidebound animal clings rigidly to the underlying flesh.

Rancor. Not just dislike or irritation but deep-seated ill-will and hostility. The term is related, in its derivation from Middle English, to the word “rancid,” so rancor is not a pleasant thing.

Rest on One’s Laurels. To be so satisfied with your abilities and accomplishments that you stop trying to improve. In Roman times, victors in battle wore a head-ring of leaves (laurels). Those who rested upon those victories often lost the next battle.

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Friday, December 12, 2008


This is written on Friday: Blacker than Black Friday in Michigan, after the U.S. Senate failed to muster enough votes to approve a $14-billion bridge loan to the reeling Big Three American automakers. People in that cold North Central state are dejected, frightened, and angry. But unlike the fictional TV anchorman Howard Beale, who famously sputtered that he was “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” in the 1976 movie “Network,” Michigan autoworkers and executives expect they’ll be “taking it” – on the chin and in their pay envelopes – for a long time to come.

Car spindle
This is how the U.S. auto industry is feeling about now. Wait! What’s that German car doing at the top?
When people here in Washington – or in Denver or Des Moines, or a small town in the Dakotas for that matter – have a bad day, we’re prone to saying, “Hey, could be worse. We could be in Detroit!”

But what could be worse if you live and work – or worked – there now that unemployment in “the Motor City” is north of 18 percent and about to spill past 10 percent throughout Michigan?

Journalists and politicians speak of “Detroit,” meaning not just our beleaguered “automobile capital” but the entire embattled U.S. auto industry, whose influence reaches well beyond Michigan.

Christmas car dealership
There’s not a lot of ho-ho-ho on the lots of car dealers this Christmas
One in ten jobs nationally – one in three in Michigan – is tied to the auto industry. When Virg Bernaro, mayor of Lansing, the state capital, recently led a delegation of 35 mayors and other elected officials on a trip to Washington to support an industry rescue plan, its members represented towns from coast to coast that depend not just on assembly plants or huge dealerships, but also on “Tier One” and “Tier Two” suppliers.

Tier One companies make parts and trim for Chryslers, General Motors brands, and Fords, down to the ashtrays and buttons on the radio. Tier Two companies, in turn, supply them. In a warped variation of “trickle-down economics” not stressed in business school, when an automaker founders or bites the dust, unpaid bills, job losses, and closures spread quickly to the little companies that feed off it.

That doesn’t count the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on selling and repairing American cars. Or the owners of the deli on the corner that sells most of its sandwiches to those who work at the plant or dealer. Or the dentist who built a practice from the same clientele – and so on, on down the block.

Dark Days

Congress and the White House are having about as much luck as this farmer, pulling the auto industry out of the mud
So, “rescue package” for the embattled automakers or no rescue package, times are grim in Michigan, where people know that when they bundle up and fetch the newspaper from the snow, the news they carry in will not be good.

On top of all these dark developments, Michiganders, like almost all Americans, have also been buffeted by bad news from their stockbrokers and mortgage lenders. But not every town or every person in Michigan is despairing. Most folks in western Michigan -- around Grand Rapids, where the health-care and furniture businesses retain some vigor; and up north, around Travers City, where resorts and vacation properties and ordinary homes are still being built -- don’t greet the day with dread, as do a lot of people in “car country” to their south and east.

Henry Ford's plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, hired thousands of former migrants during World War II, when the plant was converted from auto to bomber production. Ford had hired many southern African-Americans but switched to hiring whites after black workers joined the union
An irony is that Michigan was once a place that people by the hundreds of thousands hurried to move to, not get away from. During the Great Migration of the early 1900s, an estimated 7 million African-Americans, plus uncounted rural whites, poured into Michigan and other rapidly industrializing northern states. These places dangled good, steady jobs with benefits – a far cry from unrelenting, poorly rewarded toil under the hot sun in the fields and piney woods down South.

Good but not glamorous jobs in the auto factories turned Michigan into a “cash and carry” state: workers brought home a decent paycheck, paid their bills, put their kids through school, and splurged on only one or two modest pleasures, say a cabin at the lake or a nice driving vacation out west each year.

They were frugal, but there wasn’t much left over to save. Besides, why bother? Social Security and a good Ford pension would see you through your retirement years. And the parish church wouldn’t charge much to bury you.

The auto companies and the United Auto Workers are on the same side of the table when it comes to seeking help from Washington
Rampant entrepreneurship did not develop in Michigan to the degree that it did in bustling California or Texas and elsewhere, for the same reason. People put their trust in the long-term stability of the union and a good company job. Higher education was something for the kids: You don’t need a degree to solder joints on the line.

Rock Solid

We admire these “salt of the earth” people who are some of our last countrymen, or so it seems, who still actually “make stuff” with their hands and backs. They don’t deliver things or trade things or sell can’t-miss paper schemes. They go to work each day and make stuff. If we lose the auto companies and these automakers, we wonder and worry what America will make any more.

If the answer is not much, what does that portend?

Chevy Suburban
This extra-long Chevy Suburban sport-utility vehicle, and millions like it, played a role in the Big Three’s “fat years” and now, in in its lean ones
“Michigan is the nation’s economic story writ large,” Detroit Free Press business reporter John Gallagher wrote in October. “The state gave birth to the American middle class in the early years of the 20th Century, as rising productivity in the new auto industry boosted incomes for millions of working families.” The state routinely led the nation in per-capita income in the 1950s and ’60s, and just a decade ago. And just a decade ago, the Big Three could hardly count their money fast enough, as Americans drove off happy in the latest gas-guzzling minivans and sport-utility vehicles: Detroit’s metal mastodons.

` With 15-percent profit margins on SUVs, what was not to like about life in the Wolverine State?

An Unsettling Precedent

Timber was once to Michigan’s economy what the auto industry is now. The car folks hope their next chapter does not resemble the loggers’ last one
But a faint warning can be heard from a century past, when Michigan’s lumber industry fell from boom to bust in a flash. In the North Woods throughout the early 20th Century, roving crews of lumberjacks made short work of millions of pines, some 200 years old. They turned logs into boards that built millions of homes for many states around. It was not long before all that remained were sawdust and ghost towns throughout the North Woods.

No one, not even the auto industry’s naysayers, is saying that tumbleweeds will whistle down the streets of Flint and Detroit any time soon. But whole slum neighborhoods in some parts of the latter already resemble what one Michigander described as “Dresden after the bombings” – a reference to the German city destroyed by Allied air attacks during World War II. (It doesn’t help that already-frayed tensions in a city where racial unrest has simmered for decades and occasionally ignited that 95 percent of Detroit City is African-American and mostly poor, and – until recently, when upwardly mobile blacks earned enough to get out – 97 percent of the surrounding suburban population was white.

There are dark clouds over Ford, all right. Even darker ones over GM and Chrysler, which have fewer funds in reserve to weather a storm
With the national nonfarm unemployment rate creeping upward – from 6.5 to 6.7 percent in November alone – Michigan’s rate, as I mentioned, is bumping up against 10 percent. In some of those “Dresden” neighborhoods in Detroit, the figure is estimated to exceed 40 percent.

So the already downcast people of Michigan are a little fearful, too, about what the volatile combination of despair and widening unemployment could bring.

Slumped Shoulders, Eyes Averted

“You know how you pass someone you know on the street and say, ‘How ya doin?’” Ronald Dzwonkowski asked me. He directs the editorial board at the Free Press.

“We don’t do that here anymore. We don’t want to hear the answer.”

Spirit of Detroit
This statue on Woodward Avenue in the Motor City has no official name, but locals call it “The Spirit of Detroit.” Right now, spirits are low there
It’s bad enough that the auto industry teeters, but the Detroit Lions pro football team has assembled an abject 0-13 record as of this writing, the Tigers baseball team – picked to waltz to the American League pennant – finished last in its five-team division, and the once-mighty University of Michigan football team, which had played in 33 straight post-season “bowl” games, will compete in none this year after a 3-9 season that ended with a stomping by Ohio State, its archrival to the south. These are not trivial matters in a blue-collar state where sports are a useful distraction, especially now.

Did I mention that the state of Michigan just announced that it will cut its budget by $200 million? That’s hardly surprising. Many other states that rely on sales tax revenues have done likewise as Americans zip up their wallets in response to the ongoing recession. But the loss of good government jobs on top of hemorrhages in the auto industry is a crippling body blow.

Things are anything but OK right now in Michigan and in the homes of autoworkers
“The whole American dream, that’s a snow job,” the wife of a Michigan electrician told the Free Press in October. The paper found her and her husband several states away, living in a tent city in Iowa because they had lost their home and could not find work in Michigan. Reporter Gallagher closed his story with a reference to the itinerant camps of the Great Depression, quoting the electrician’s wife’s rueful suggestion that the late songwriter Woody Guthrie, who put the sorrows of the Depression into song, “should come back to write an anthem for today’s struggling families.

“These are historical times, I’m afraid,” she continued. Not grand ones, either, by a long shot. “Everyone knows someone who has been laid off,” John Gallagher told me. “We had nine people to dinner the other night. Three had lost their jobs.” Mirthful banter was at a minimum. Instead, he says: “Lots of gallows humor.”

Help for Fat Cats

There will be plenty of imports to eat if one or more of the Big Three goes under
What really “grinds” Michiganders, says Ron Dzwonkowski, Gallagher’s Free Press colleague, is the cheery willingness of the government in Washington to shovel $700 billion to Wall Street, big banks, and mortgage and insurance giants. It did not go unnoticed in Lansing and Monroe and Port Huron that President Bush twice made televised appeals for a Wall Street bailout. Nor does it escape notice in Michigan that those wagging a disapproving finger at the idea of a “Big Three” rescue plan one-fiftieth the came right out and said that if one or two of the Big Three automakers went bankrupt or folded, that was their tough luck. It served them right for getting into trouble in the first place. A “leaner” auto industry might be better for the country.

“For God’s sake,” one man in Michigan muttered to me. “This was a bridge loan, a lifeline, to be paid back, not a bailout.” A loan complete with a “car czar” to scrutinize the industry’s every move. On the way to work, I heard a Detroit autoworker tearfully react to the notion that it was they, the unionized labor force, that fouled the deal by refusing to accept deep wage cuts. “I can’t afford a pay cut,” she said. “I’ll lose everything.” She may anyway if there’s no paycheck at all.

There was no “stock czar” or “bank czar” on the case when financial houses gobbled from the federal trough, another worker complained, bitterly. “They used a lot of that money not to get loans going again to the little guy, but to prop up their own portfolios and buy more banks.”

And here’s something else that grinds Michiganders: It’s not as if they are making manual typewriters or rotary-dial telephones for which there clearly is no use any more. The Big Three still make half of the eight million new vehicles that sell each year in the United States. Or I should say, sold, before worried Americans began bypassing even the foreign makers’ dealerships. Ford still produces the best-selling small truck, and it and General Motors still bring in $200 billion a year or so apiece. (The figures at Chrysler, which is privately owned, are not public, but they are estimated at half of Ford or GM’s figures.)

A Few Regrets

Yes, our own companies’ greed trumped need as they kept rolling out the SUVs, the people of Michigan admit. Yes, we should have joined the “green revolution” far earlier, with smaller, more efficient products. But do we deserve to be beaten like the proverbial “red-headed stepchild”? Do those in power hate us, or our unions, so much that they’ll allow a century-old industrial giant of an industry to crumple and die?

Vacant motel
There’s a vacancy at this motel, and many vacancies to come, perhaps, on the assembly lines of Michigan’s automakers
Like some other Americans, the people of Michigan see home after home going up for sale or foreclosed and abandoned. “Vacant homes and vacant feelings is what we have here,” Dr. Steven Craig, a psychologist practicing in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, told me. He says a friend and neighbor, like many in Michigan, packed up and headed somewhere south where firms are hiring. The neighbor left behind what had been a lovely home that is now overgrown with weeds and vines. “It looks like the Munsters’ place,” Dr. Craig says. They were a creepy, but funny, family of monster-film stereotypes who lived in a mansion that had gone to rack and ruin.

So many Michiganders are heading to relatively prosperous Texas that a joke describing them is making the rounds:

“What’s the last thing that a Texan wants to see?”

“A Yankee with a U-Haul.”

There’s irony in that, because 20 years ago or so, the stampede of rented U-haul trailers carrying families’ every possession, was heading in the other direction, out of Houston. But by 2003, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, “U-Haul trailers leaving Michigan for Texas exceeded those making the return trip by a ratio of 100 to 1.”

The “black-tag people” were back. (For years, Michigan license plates were black, and the watch was out for them in Texas.)

See You Later

This is not yet a Great Migration in reverse, but it has the makings of one, especially among the young. Already, Michigan’s newspapers are bemoaning a “brain drain” of young people who are leaving, likely never to return. They simply can’t find work in Michigan, or don’t want to, given the gloom.

American cars
Those were the days. New American car. Happy carmaker (here called an “autobuilder”). Satisfied customer
Older folks are hunkering down and, by and large, staying. Their roots sometimes stretch through three generations of auto workers. It’s the work and the lifestyle they know. They can’t come to grips with starting over, even in some sunny and upbeat spot. Comforting support systems are nearby in the factory towns: family, friends, church, union, dog park, corner tavern, bowling team. It’s one thing to contemplate a whole new start, and quite another to do it, given humans’ resistance to change.

So on the outside, people are “bucking up” as best they can – whistling past the graveyard, in the view of others who foresee decline and death for the auto industry ahead.

Inside, people are not doing so well. In many homes, dejection has turned to quiet desperation and feelings of failure, even though it wasn’t the rank and file that flew corporate jets to Washington to beg for handouts.

Dr. Craig says his patients “look to me for a lifeline, as a drowning man cries out for a lifeguard.” But if the nation’s greatest economists do not have answers, could Steven Craig have any?

Mad as Hell Inside

Mental health professionals like him describe a growing, generalized anger. “We played by the rules and did all that was asked of us,” their patients tell them, in return for what they hoped was a sliver of the good life: a sturdy little home, a ballgame or two, that place at the lake.

Once, too, families in trouble could lean on their elderly parents for emotional support and, if need be, a roof and a bed for a time. Now Mom and Dad are despairing, too, because of the Wall Street collapse that sucked the life out of their pension funds. The old folks, too, are asking, “What about us?”

Assembly line
An image of days to come? An abandoned assembly line after a plant closing. This one was in Illinois and made tractors. But...
There are danger signs ahead. Fearful Michiganders are putting off medical appointments, slashing their church and charitable donations, turning inward, avoiding friends lest they ask Ronald Dzwonkowski’s question: “How ya doin’?” Even small talk is to be avoided, since it is sure to touch on the weather (lousy again), the job (gone or imperiled), a vacation or home improvement (canceled), or the kids (likely stressed and depressed, too).

Down in Ohio, in my hometown of Cleveland, which has been buffeted by its own waves of steel plant closings over the years, Case Western Reserve University's Mark Chupp, a professor of social work, knows the drill. “Probably the worst long-term effect of economic downturn and hardship in a Rust Belt city is cynicism about the good life,” he says. “People are pessimistic and have been lowering expectations of the good life for a long time.

Unrelenting stress has no upside
“Sadly, what comes with this is the ‘couch potato’ lifestyle. We have one of the highest obesity rates in the country. People are ‘vegging out’ in front of the TV.” And he doesn’t mean eating vegetables. He means passing the hours mindlessly, eating poorly and, likely, slowly killing themselves with drink as well.

Collateral Damage

Back in Michigan, there don’t appear to be hard figures on the suicide, drunk-driving, domestic abuse, and divorce rates these days, but the sense from those with whom I’ve talked is that they are higher. Perennial stress, as a whole state contemplates the loss of a way of life, is a killer –of the depressed and of others.

And yet there a gritty reserve of hope remaining in Michigan. As Dr. Craig explains it, the economic fortunes of the auto industry have been cyclical. And in the past, the tough-it-out, weather-the-storm, this-too-shall-pass resolve has prevailed.

I talked with a woman in the little town (800 people) of Lyons, Michigan, which is now a bedroom community outside Lansing. Not only are four out of five people in Lyons still tied to auto-industry work in Lansing or Grand Rapids or elsewhere, but the old timers in town know what it’s like to have the economic rug pulled out from under their lives. Lyons once had an auto plant that produced interior trim for Chryslers. It closed tight in the 1970s during a corporate reorganization.

“I grew up on a farm. Life was hard, but we always made it through,” the woman told me. “My parents and their generation made it through the Depression. With faith, we’ll weather this, too.”

Faith in the Lord, she meant, not in Detroit or Washington.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the great automobile industry, others in Michigan tell me. So the fix for the auto industry will take a while, too.

If there is a fix.

Here’s what Dr. Craig tells his patients: “Do something. Take control of something, even a little thing like definitely deciding to send the kids to summer camp next year, or definitely deciding not to.” Dithering, indecision, hoping for better days, he says, are recipes for deepening disillusionment – and physical dissolution.

Storm Clouds Brewing

Then-candidate Barack Obama was all smiles at a Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, in May. He’ll have more serious work with the industry come January
What lies ahead for Michigan? A grim winter, for sure, and a long one. No bridge loan can fix that. And according to many forecasts, no matter how much money gets funneled to the auto industry once the new Obama administration takes office January 20, more cutbacks and layoffs seem as certain as the sunrise.

Long-term, the people with whom I talked envision a less-populated but more economically diverse state. Ron Dzwonkowski thinks Michigan’s future should be hinged to its abundant natural resources as a source of energy, enjoyable retirement, and recreation. Michigan has more fresh water, and not just from the three Great Lakes that touch it, than any other U.S. state, including neighboring Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Michigan may not have 10,000, but it has so many that everybody in the state lives within 75 kilometers of a good-sized one.

The lakes aren’t going anywhere. But, especially if one or more of the auto giants collapses, some of the people who own cottages on them could be.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Disillusionment and dissolution. The former means disenchantment. Even idealists can get disillusioned during hard times. The latter means decay or disintegration. Disillusionment can foster psychological and physical breakdowns.

Rack and Ruin. Utter decay. “Rack” is a variation of “wreck” or “wrack.” This is another phrase that always appears in this order. One doesn’t, for some reason, go to ruin and rack.

Red-headed stepchild. This wretch is always being severely beaten in a popular phrase. Stepchildren often get short-shrift when there are natural siblings around. Read the “Cinderella” story. As for why redheads get a double dose of trouble is not clear, except that they, too, are not as common in most families as are blonds and brunettes. No one is sure who first called attention to the plight of red-haired stepkids.

Wolverine. A foul-tempered, musky-smelling, burrowing weasel after which both Michigan and its largest public university’s sports teams decided to nickname themselves. Wolverines don’t back down from a fight – a welcome trait in the state’s current economic morass.

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