Tuesday, February 25, 2003

disingenuous bastards

My beef with the local Board of Education in Quakertown is that I've been busting my hump to cover stuff in the schools -- classes, special events, extracurricular activities, special achievements -- and yet they had the gall at their last meeting to claim it was my fault there wasn't more in the paper.

I told a couple board members what I thought of that sort of disinenguity, and have found that they're a little more willing to see that the district sends me things to run in the paper on a regular basis.

clarification

I guess I wasn't very clear, was I?

I work too many hours a week doing something that has become so familiar to me that it's ceased to be interesting except for times I'm able to do something really creative and fun with it, like the big spread I got to do last month on the Canada geese problem in Quakertown.

The product that we put out is inferior, and I can't stand having my name attached to it. My Crane's Ford reporter has been writing for 14 years and still can't write worth crap. Her stories are incomprehensible, which means I have to spend as much time editing them as I do writing my own. She's also obnoxious and condescending, thinks nothing of berating me in front of the rest of the newsroom but won't take criticism in private, and refuses to learn new ways to do her job. I've caught her plagiarising not once or twice but three times and she still works there, and her bias is so thick I could choke an editor with it. Actually, I have choked on it several times.

We're given no real support in terms of the job we do. Until November our terminals were 30-year-old MycroTech machines that lacked even an oops key or spell check. Our phone system is antiquated and now that it's starting to die on us, reporters are being left without phones of their own.

I'm asked to do essentially two jobs: Edit two newspapers and report for one of them. That raises questions in my mind about journalistic credibility within the community since everyone knows I'm writing editorials about the stories I'm covering, but no one up above seems to care.

The pay is low and apparently done without regard to a salary scale. I've been with the company since June and make $35,000 a year. I discovered a co-worker of mine has been with them for four years and is now an associate editor -- he outranks me -- and makes only $28,000. Our chief photographer makes only $24,000 a year.

Quality apparently doesn't matter. As I said, my reporter overwrites and writes badly, but has been here for four years despite her problems, which are readily acknowledged by higher-ups. Another reporter has been here for seven years and all she does is rewrite press releases from the Union County Prosecutor's Office. Another reporter, new to the business, has discovered he can get by with writing four stories a week about two towns -- barely enough to fill the front page. We have two photographers who take absolutely pathetic shots. A few of us care, but the company's apathy is driving us nuts. As I told a new editor last week, after a few months, you give up, and then something inside you starts to die a little more each day.

If I had a viable job offer doing something other than journalism, I would take it in a heartbeat. I believe in what I do, I just can't stand where I'm doing it.

God doesn't promise us happiness, nor does he promise us self-actualization or career contentment. He does promise us suffering galore if we follow him, but I don't believe this is what he meant. This is drudgery -- the sort of thing promised after the Fall, as part of a curse we're not obliged to live under if we live a life of faith.

I want out. I need out, before I go crazy and sell Girl Scout cookies made from chopped-up imitation Girl Scouts (like I want to go through that again). The economy sucks, and no one's hiring.

Bleagh.

I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.

This has been a self-pitying public service announcement. Thank you.

selling the paper

How to go about boosting circulation at the paper? This becomes especially important as do-not-call lists grow in popularity. Without telemarketing, newspapers are going to have to be increasingly creative in reaching the community and attracting and retaining subscribers.

I'd say this is particularly true for community weeklies, which usually lack the name recognition of their metro daily counterparts and rely on healthy circulation numbers to give them clout with advertisers, who of course pay the bills.

Heck, you don't have to convince me that telemarketing calls are annoying as can be. The mortgage companies haven't stopped calling us to refinance our mortage even though we already did more than six months ago. We usually get one a night.

Most small newspapers use telemarketing in conjunction with other means of promotion. For example, a new family moves to town. Their Realtor alerts the local newspaper, which gives the Realtor a discount on advertising, and sends the newcomers a free subscription for their first four weeks. Then, after that four-week period is up, a telemarketer from the newspaper follows through with a call asking if they would like to subscribe for an entire year.

That sort of applied telemarketing is nowhere near as bad as the spam telemarketing most people are familiar with, when a computer dials your number and then connects you with a live person. It's targeted, it's to people already familiar with the product, and it also has a much greater success rate.

No-call lists affect both forms of telemarketing, and for a small-circulation weekly, where every new subscription is important, no-call lists are potentially crushing to the subscription base. I'll be curious to see if there's a First Amendment challenge to the lists. I doubt it would win, in wake of things like the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and court cases like the one involving the Hillsborough (N.J.) Beacon about 10 years ago, but I'm sure someone's planning a case against it.

In the meantime, I'm still curious to know what tricks newspapers (and other businesses) have found to get subscribers without using telemarketing. A quality product and word of mouth often AREN'T enough for products with a purely local appeal, especially in a society as disconnected as today's.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that banning door-to-door solicitation is an unwarranted restriction of people's First Amendment rights to free speech. Restrictions on telemarketing also have been struck down for similar reasons; what has been upheld is the public's right to be left alone when they request it, hence the no-call lists and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which guarantees you money if a company fails to honor your no-call request.

On a somewhat unrelated note, after being visited at my house for the fourth time by a cable TV salesman, I called their headquarters and told them the next time one of their representatives came to my door I was suing for harassment and pressing charges for trespassing. They've left us alone ever since.

There are a few regional weeklies with good success rates -- I can think of two here in Central Jersey -- but they're the exception, not the rule. A business succeeds to the extent it defines and fits its niche; I like watermelon, as do millions of other Americans, but AT&T would be crazy to enter the watermelon business. People generally don't buy community weeklies to read about towns other than their own, and when a weekly starts running news about neighboring towns, circulation starts to drop precipitously. I've seen it happen.

And, no, radio and TV ads generally are ineffective for businesses with a local-only appeal. It works for a car dealership, because they can draw customers from all over the broadcast area, but why would someone in Penn Hills, Pa., really care about the local property taxes or schools in Monroeville, Pa.? It has no relevance to them, even though those two municipalities are next to each other.

Monday, February 24, 2003

editorial and circulation

The barrier between circulation and editorial is nowhere near as bad as the barrier between editorial and advertising. I figure at least you people have a clue what the readers want. Advertising just tells us what we have to put in the paper because they already promised it, and these people pay so-o-o-o much, and besides, it really doesn't matter that the writing is crap and deals with something 50 miles outside our coverage area.

As a consumer I'd welcome do-not-call lists in our state. Right now all we can do is use caller ID or a telezapper to get rid of the annoying telemarketers, but I can see what you're saying too. I'm sure someone's going to issue a constitutional challenge to these things since they abridge free speech.

One of the things our circulation reps used to do back at The Packet was they would target parts of the community with free copies of the newspaper, and then would call after a few weeks to see if the readers would like to subscribe. The other interesting idea I heard was getting Realtors to give free copies of the paper to new residents and give us their addresses and phone numbers in exchange for reduced ad rates. Then there's the give-aways and in-school promotions.

Of course, as a circulation director, you've probably come across these ideas already, along with other approaches.

The best I've seen that I can do as an editor is to promote the schools heavily. I'd like to have at least one school feature a week, and I'll run any submissions I get from the community, even if they look like utter trash. People always love to see their own work in print.

AAAAIIIIGGGGHHHH!!!!

I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.
I hate my job.

This has been a public-service announcement. Thank you.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

ha ha, it is to laugh

God has a sense of humor, but why does it always seem like I'm the butt of his jokes?

The Iowa Press Association announced its awards for 2002 tonight. I collected four awards -- my best year yet -- including second place for column-writing, second place for First Amendment reporting, third place for something else I can't remember, and first place ... for writing headlines.

DOH!

I was fired from The Times because they didn't like my headlines. And here I win my first-ever first-place award for them.

Some days I think I should just stay in bed ....

heinlein

To call "Friday" trashy is to insult trashy works. Personal deity, this is a book about a woman who gets gang-raped on Page 2 and her only complaint is that it wouldn't have been so bad if one of them didn't have bad breath. And it just kind of went downhill from there.

I didn't like "Fifth Column" either; although it avoids the have-sex-with-everything-that-moves mentality that pervades Heinlein's other works, I really can't think too highly of its depiction of Asians, or its use of a weapon that kills people based solely on their race.

I think I read four Heinlein novels in all. In addition to the two aforementioned books, I had the misfortune of reading "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" and the good luck to read a book the name of which I can't remember. It's about a university course where students are required to survive on an alien world for the entire semester in order to pass. There's a supernova, though, and the school can't get them back because of the resulting distortions in space/time. The book is also the source of "dopey joes," which Niven, Pournelle and Barnes used in "Legacy of Heorot."

Actually that's another good book. I'd also recommend:
  • "Inferno" by Niven and Pournelle
  • "The Magic Goes Away" by Niven
  • "Crashlander" by Niven
  • "Playgrounds of the Mind" by Niven
  • "N Space" by Niven
  • "Limits" by Niven
  • "Inconstant Moon" by Niven
I didn't care for "Footfall." Part of it was that I was starting to recognize the stock characters and stock plot devices I've seen in other Niven/Pournelle works, part of it was that for all its hype as an alien invasion story that was done right it was still a weak story in that sense, but mostly it was because it was written from the same notes and ideas as "Lucifer's Hammer," which was a better book.

Actually, "Lucifer's Hammer" started out as "Footfall," but the editor found the idea of a meteor or comet hitting Earth (the weapon of choice of the Snouts) so intriguing that he told them to make it a natural disaster instead of an alien invasion.

"Ringworld" and "Ringworld Engineers" are good, as are "The Integral Trees" and "The Smoke Ring," but Niven was starting to fall into the Heinlein trap at that point in his career and gratuitious sex was starting to crop up more and more.


By Arthur C. Clarke, I'd recommend "The Fountains of Paradise," "Songs of Distant Earth" and possibly "Rendezvous with Rama" (though not its sequels), and the short story he based "Childhood's End" on).

Sunday, February 16, 2003

personal update

As I start to write this, snow is falling outside for at least the sixth consecutive hour. It started around 3:30 p.m., and is not supposed to stop until we've had anywhere from one to two feet.

Natasha and I got back about a half-hour or 45 minutes ago from a dinner with another couple and the pastor of the church we've been attending for the last month or so. The church unfortunately is named Cross Pointe — I say unfortunately because the last church we were involved in was named Crosspointe, and the associations are not positive ones — but we are considering joining the church and settling in for the long haul.

On the plus side of the church is that the church has a solid basis in Scripture. Sermons are at once practical and insightful — last Sunday, the pastor preached on Psalm 23 and actually gave me something to think about, which is pretty rare on a passage as popular as that one — the worship is contemporary, and the people seem friendly enough. Their goal is to reach students at the nearby university and seminary, actively engage the surrounding area and, oh, all kinds of other neat stuff.

The downside, of course, is that while they have these really nifty goals and have a few rough ideas on how they hope to accomplish them, the impression I got from talking to the pastor tonight is that they're really not entirely sure about that middle part, of how to get there. I'm sure you can see why I feel right at home in such a place.

More practically speaking, the church is located about 25 minutes south of here, and has virtually no children's ministry in place. That's a bit of a disappointment for us because Evangeline and Rachel are both children, and Evangeline in particular would benefit from a regular Sunday school or children's church experience. The distance also could be a barrier of sorts since it could limit our regular involvement in the church and the larger community. Not sure, though. We'll have to see. Certainly I've known elders who have lived farther than that from their church.

I'm fairly keen on the idea of settling in here. I left Crosspointe back in the late spring or early summer, and am ready to settle into a new place. Despite the name -- I really wish they would change it -- I do like Cross Pointe, and would like to be involved with it. I've been doing a little, by suggesting and providing video clips to accompany the sermons, and spoke earlier today with somebody who hopes to start a church drama ministry (something I helped to do back at Crosspointe), so we'll see. I also mentioned to the pastor that I have an idea for a Sunday school class I'd like to run by him, but we'll have to see how things go.

The Sunday school class would be a little different from most Sunday school fare. My thought is to look at a different popular movie or TV series over a one-month period, and engage the class in literary criticism; i.e., what sort of message is this show sending about authority, morality, God? How does it act as a springboard for sharing the gospel?

"The Lorax" video, for example, has the Lorax rise into the air near the end of the special, with the promise that he could return with the hummingfish, Barbaloots and others if only someone will take care of the environment better than the Onceler has. In other words, the Lorax has Christ imagery attached to him, which makes him a point of contact with Christianity, as Christians can then talk about our own hopes of renewal and environmental stewardship.

I think it could be a fun class, but it depends on the interest and the resources I have available, as well as how much latitude I'm given in what to discuss. I doubt many churches would want their members watching "Sex and the City" or "The Sopranos" for a Sunday school class, for example, even though there's probably plenty of stuff to discuss there. (I don't know what, though, since I've never seen any of it.)

That's church stuff. Work has kind of sucked lately, and I'll be glad once another job surfaces that I can take. I started working at WCN Newspapers in June 2002, mainly because it was a job I was offered that I knew I could do in my sleep and because I had been unemployed since October 2001.

I had hoped I could stick it out a little longer, and I may have to, but the job is driving me nuts. The hours have been closer to 50 a week than to 40, the pay is only $35,000, and I've been working out the wazoo on Mondays and Tuesdays with the result I've often missed seeing Evangeline while she's awake on those days. Not a good deal.

I finally reached a breaking point of a sorts this past week. I decided that if I know I have a late meeting, I am not leaving until after Evangeline has been awake and we've played a little. I modified it later that week to work out a regular schedule I'm hoping I'll be able to stick to without failing to do my job or blowing off my family. My goal is to work 40 hours a week only, with something like 10 each on Monday and Tuesday, four on Wednesday and nine each on Thursday and Friday. In the meantime I'm praying hard for a new job and looking to see what turns up.

The good news professionally is that the state press association awards are due to be announced next weekend. My editor in chief got some advance notice of the awards when the association people called to confirm a few bits of information, and apparently I'm one of a few people at the company who "did well." I don't know if that means I won first place, or anything down to third place, but I'm hoping it means I've won a few awards, if for no other reason than they'll look good on the resume.

On a personal note, Evangeline started preschool this past week. We decided to enroll her to expand her social horizons a bit and expose her to skills and ideas that don't occur to us as quickly as they do to other people.

I wouldn't exactly say she likes it. Apparently she gets upset when it's time to leave and goes as far as sitting down in the parking lot because she doesn't want to go home. Preschool is every Tuesday and Thursday, and she has asked every other day of the week as well if she can go to preschool. She might inform us when she gets older that home-schooling is not going to be an option.

If that happens, we'll have to look into private schools since there's no way I want her going to Nova Bastille's public schools. (Among other things, the schools here have over a 50 percent drop-out rate, there's the gang activity, and plenty of other problems besides. Not the sort of thing I want to send Evangeline into.)

Evangeline took another big step this week. If you think I wasn't ready for her to attend preschool, you'd be right, but that's nothing compared to how I felt about this: Natasha and I have stopped being mommy and daddy. With a few exceptions, Evangeline has been calling us mom and dad. We still use the longer forms to refer to ourselves, but she seems to have decided she's too big to call us mommy and daddy. I'm not ready to be dad yet. That's not supposed to come for another two or even three years.

Also on the subject of Evangeline, her hair finally is long enough for her to do something she's been trying for over a year: put it into a ponytail. It's short -- about 3 inches -- and most of her hair doesn't tie back into the tail yet, but she's very proud of it. After all, daddy has a ponytail and mommy has a ponytail — maybe I should have said mom and dad have ponytails, but like I said, I'm not ready for that yet — so now she has one. She's a Big Girl, after all.

Rachel is starting to become the little babbler. She's about 3½ months old now, and has started making the neatest cooing and trilling noises. Naturally I've thrown all sense of self-image to the wind, and I coo and trill right back at her. She's got the neatest little smile, and her blue eyes sparkle whenever she sees me imitating her. People give me strange looks, but I really don't care. I'm in love.

We didn't see Lumpy this weekend, to my disappointment. On the other hand, he was here for a birthday party last Sunday with his father, grandmother and two of his cousins, and that went well. I'm sure we'll see more of him again soon, just not this weekend. Rats.

This past week was also the week I hit the books again. I've been reading Tolkien's "The Hobbit" for I think the fourth time, but I also just read Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere" for the first time. Gaiman is the author of "The Sandman," an award-winning horror comic DC Comics published several years ago as part of its Vertigo line. "Neverwhere" isn't as groundbreaking a work as "The Sandman," probably because novels traditionally have had looser boundaries than comics have in the past forty years, but it's still one heck of a page-turner.

Probably the best way to describe "Neverwhere" is to say it's a dark, postmodern "Alice in Wonderland." The story centers on Richard Mayhew, a fairly ordinary fellow who's got the standard life and is going pretty much nowhere, and is content with it. Because it's a Gaiman novel, Mayhew ends up being swept into an otherworldly London that exists alongside the London in our world, but underground and generally accessible only to people who live there.

The book plays with a number of the historic names in London, particularly along its subway, and gives them literal meanings. "Blackfriars Station," for example, is a station where a sect of friars live — though again, you can only discover them if you happen to live in this unseen shadow world.

It's a good book, and has Gaiman's trademark motif of mixing the utterly fantastic with the utterly mundane in a way that makes them both novel.

I also recently read the first volume of "Rising Stars," a comic book by J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of "Babylon 5." I've seen a few "Babylon 5" episodes, but never liked them enough to watch the show on a regular basis. This comic might actually change that.

"Rising Stars" uses the major conceit of comic books, superpowers; but it treats them in what seems to me to be an original and well-thought-out manner. Its explanation of how the superpowers came to this group of people is about as contrived as any other explanation — a mysterious ball of energy hits a town and affects the fetal development of about 70 children there — but that's about where its conventional treatment of the superhero trope ends.

Powers range from the standard "Hey look, Ma, I can fly and I'm super strong!" to the unusual "Everyone sees me as what they imagine the most beautiful woman in the world would be" to the dull "I can levitate and make pretty sparkles in the air."

What really makes the comic unique is that these are people, not superheroes. One or two of them do do the costume thing, but they're generally regarded as flakes or opportunists cashing in on the idea of superheroics by the rest of the "specials." One uses his ability to enter people's dreams to become a psychologist; another, blessed with the power of invincibility, grows obese, and eventually becomes an indestructible gas station attendant.

Since none of the powers came with a how-to manual, each of the affected children had to figure out naturally what their powers are, just as real-life children have to figure what they can and can't do. A couple, even as adults, have no idea what their powers are.

That's the setup. The comic gets really interesting when a few of the specials start realizing their powers are wearing out, that the more they use them, the less potent they are. Where it gets ineresting is that if any of the others die, their untapped power spreads to the rest of the pool. The first volume in the series ends with some of the specials capitalizing on that, and all hell breaking loose as everybody grows more powerful, as old personality conflicts and feuds start to erupt.

That's all I've been up to this past week. I've been stuck on the book I've been writing with my best friend; I have ideas, but I'm having trouble writing them due to a lack of time and a lack of concentration. Sleep would probably help with the latter but not the former. I really want to get this done, especially since I'm the one who's held the book back so long.

It's almost time to go to bed. I just looked out the window, and it's still pouring snow. You can tell that I shoveled the walk when Natasha and I got home by the indentation in the snowdrifts. One of the nice parts about having all this snow is that I can pile it on each side of the end of the driveway and make it impossible for people to park there and block us in even partially. I'll be doing that again tomorrow, since we have Presidents Day off from work. (I still can't figure that one out.)