Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Closing out Column Writing class for the semester

CSU, SACRAMENTO, Sacramento, Calif. USA - The same technology that makes it possible for anyone with computer access to be a publisher (you are looking at it...) helped this semester to make my column writing class arguably the most successful ever.

It was successful because the students were able to write a column or two per week and post them for the entire class (and the world, via the Internet) to see.

From my end of the telescope, it created a nightmare of reading. Most weeks they had to write two columns, one assigned, the other on an area of specialization. But for them the practice was invaluable and the growth as writers was dramatic in a very short time.

I also learned a lot during the semester as these student-columnists wrote about nutrition, politics, cars, life at the mall, television and a dozen other areas. One young lady from Ireland (if she is from Ireland should I say young lass?) wrote about religion and did a fine job explaining different faiths in a humorous way that frequently had me laughing aloud.

But one column she penned about YouTube had the following paragraph, which, like several pieces written by other students, made me laugh so hard I sprayed my computer screen with remants of the Earl Grey tea I was sipping while reading.

"To summarize, if we were to take YouTube as a source we find that French people are apparently perverted, food loving, hotties, the Dutch enjoy nothing better than grabbing their tulips, the Irish are alcoholics with horrendous taste in music, the British are prudes and the Japanese are gadget-loving oddballs and, of course,
every nation has an unhealthy obsession with sex. No surprises there then."

The class gathered one last time on campus Monday night. It wasn't the Algonquin Roundtable - not yet. But with these writers, it might be someday.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Lisa Heyamoto talks about column writing with J-class

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The Sacramento Bee's newest three dot columnist came by my column writing class Monday night to share her insights into the column-writing bizz.

Bouncy and upbeat as always, Lisa Heyamoto managed to infect the room - even though most of the students are suffering from end-of-the-semester fatigue and near burn out.

She was as candid as candid can be in answering questions about where she gets her ideas, how she puts together her three-times-per-week column and how it is to work with various editors, either at The Bee or in Seattle where she worked before moving the California.

At 29, she is the youngest of all The Bee's columnists - by a factor of probably 25 years.
  • Lisa's column

  • She provided some serious inspiration for some of the students who have been reading all the doom and gloom about the newspaper and publishing industries. Work hard, she said, and take whatever job you need to get that foot in the door.

    Very wise words.

    Here's a brief clip of Lisa speaking to class.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007

    Jeffrey Young visits with a magazine-writing class

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. USA, CSU Sacramento campus - Jeffrey Young, the editor of Prosper magazine in Sacramento dropped by this semester's magazine writing class Tuesday night to dispense some wisdom - and crack a lot of jokes - in a guest-speaking gig.

    Since taking over the helm of Prosper last year, he has been carefully reshaping the product and also turning the website into something much more lively.

    Both the print and online Prosper products are works in progress, he told the students, and probably always will be given the way the business of publishing is changing.

    Jeffrey Young of Prosper Magazine
    Jeffrey Young

    A journalism pro, Young has written for Forbes and dozens of other magazines. He started his journalism career at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner - almost on a whim - while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

    Since then his resume went wild with clips from magazines and he wrote two books about Steve Jobs.

    Steve Jobs on book cover
    Book about Steve Jobs

    He threw out dozens of nuggets for the students in his short visit but stressed repeatedly that any writer who submitted a query - or whose story was up for consideration for being included in his magazine - had better capture his interest completely within a couple of paragraphs, or their future with him couldn't even be called dim.

    Tuesday, October 16, 2007

    If I went back into the news bizz it would be to write a column

    NAKED COFFEESHOP, Sacramento, Calif. - If I had to go back to a real, fulltime writing job again, I would probaby try to land a column-writing gig.

    Teaching column writing this fall - and doing some column-like writing myself in these postings and in other places - has shown me how much I still like to write commentary, mixed with news. Or is it news mixed with commentary?


    Today I had tea with the Sacramento Bee newspaper's new three-dot columnist, a young reporter-turned columnist named Lisa Heyamoto who hails from Seattle, Spokane with a little of the state of Hawaii thrown in.

    After two years of working as a reporter - doing bar reviews, among other things - she landed her current job, finding three or four odd tidbits about life in Sacramento for her three-times a week column. Three-times-a-week is keeping her moving pretty fast, but she is quickly making the transition from reporter to columnist.

    Lisa H
    Lisa Heyamoto
  • Lisa's column

  • And if her laughter is any indication, she is having a lot of fun.

    As a relative newcomer to Sacramento, the three-dot items don't come as easy as they might for someone who has been here for 20 years. But then in her case, the fresh set of eyes is showing the city a new - and younger - light.

    And she probably sees a lot of things other people miss, because her usual mode of transit around the downtown, mid-town areas of Sacramento is a sturdy-looking bicycle that brought her to the coffee shop this morning.

    Unfortunately, as we finished up our respective cups of tea (Earl Grey for me, English Breakfast for Lisa), it started to rain, which meant a soggy ride for the six blocks Lisa had to go to get back to her mid-town digs.

    "Don't worry about me," she said. "I used to live in Seattle."

    Tuesday, September 25, 2007

    Finding the time to write in a busy schedule

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The semester has roared along like a freight train ready to fly off the tracks with what has seemed like no time to write any blog entries, either here for students or on my other active areas.
  • Captain's Blog

  • From Where I Sit

  • Considering that I was updating all three almost daily just a few months ago, I had to ponder what-the-hell happened.

    Easy: students!

    I have four writing classes this semester and in each of them students are starting to crank out stories and columns - not to mention an almost steady stream of emails with questions about how to write those stories and columns, each taking a few minutes to ponder and reply to.

    The columns and stories are a joy, mostly, because I read about things the students are interested in and get their 20-30 year old perspectives. But every column I read, or story I critique, is time that I am not posting anything.

    So it was so strange this afternoon to find that between now and 6 p.m. - my next class - I had virtually nothing critical (relating to classes) that I needed to accomplish.


    The class providing me with the most stimulation/work/anxiety is the one that focuses on column writing. I opted to go sans textbook, which saved the students probably $100 in book costs but which has meant some serious uncertainy on the part of at least a few of students, particularly those who don't read columns at all.

    They're getting over that pretty fast.

    The stimulation part for me is seeing all the columns that can be/need be written.

    At our university in the last week, a semi-scandal arose in which the local newspaper published a story that the president of the university had written letters to help two local big game hunters go bag animals for a campus museum - a museum that will never be built. The real kicker is that these hunters were given credentials (based largely on the plea of the president) to hunt some animals that are now considered endangered species.
    And the hunters did indeed go to Tanzania and do some serious shooting, prompting the latest outcry from the Humane Society of America, the spokesman for which says that going out and blasting animals - so they can be stuffed and put in museums - is an idea that is about 100 years out of date.

    The campus pundits have been having a great time with jokes, from referring to the President as Ramar of University, to an clever twist on the university's unofficial motto (bestowed by the president): Leadership Begins Here.

    Since the news about the hunting and the president's involvement, it's been suggested that the new unofficial motto should be Taxidermy Begins Here.

    I think that last one is pretty funny, bwana.

    My column writing fingers are so itchy right now, I better take some benadryl before I do something foolish.
  • Big Game Hunt Criticized
  • Monday, September 10, 2007

    A new semester, a new class and new stories

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. USA - The next generation of CSUS magazine writers are hard at work on their first stories and today I just asked them to create a blog so that they can have an audience - and support group - for their work.

    When the blogs are created, they will be linked to this page.

    The class has some great story ideas, some quite sophisticated. Of course, a few people want to write about world hunger or global warming, topics that are probably beyond them for now.

    I am starting to pursue several stories myself this fall - one on the poisoning of Lake Davis, three hours north of Sacramento. The Department of Fish and Game is poisoning the lake to kill the Northern Pike (a non-native fish) that have take up residence in the lake. Of course, this will also kill every other living thing in the lake, originally created as a reservoir for drinking water.

    It would be tragic enough, but the DFG already tried this several years ago, failed, and had to pay nearly $10 million in damages to the people of the area for the gaffe that cost them tourist dollars and a lot of anguish.

    The Sacramento Bee has taken up the cudgel against these fish (which are prized in other parts of the nation as one of the best game fish in freshwater lakes). The rhetoric has been growing exponentially, including an editorial a few weeks ago that linked the situation at Lake Davis to the fictional town of Amity on Long Island.

    Yup, that was the city from the movie "Jaws."

    Saturday, March 17, 2007

    Time to invoke the '1-hour rule' for getting it all done

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - I think I devised this plan when I shifted from working as a newspaper editor to university professor, more than 20 years ago.

    In the news business, using your time wisely was rarely an issue - your deadlines made it so that you had to write and research as fast as you could, no matter what. And external (news) events dictated your schedule.

    Today, as a university professor with a multiplicity of responsibilities (chair of the university Faculty Senate, freelance writer, teacher, boat owner and, and, and...) I see that the nine things on my 'to do' list could easily send me into a day of furtive motion, which likely would result in nothing getting completed.

    So today, I am invoking what I call the '1-hour rule' for the items on the list: each will get one hour of attention, though it's clear that I won't need a full hour for some. At least I hope not.

    During the one-hour, I focus just on that one thing - in this case, updating this blog and sending out an email to my magazine writing class, directing them here. If I get done before 8:15 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, great. If not, I'll move on to something else, but I will have put in a solid hour. But, like the news business, I have a deadline to get this done and I can see as I type a little too slow that I better get moving quicker if I want to be able to cross this off the list.

    What's amazing is how much can be accomplished in an hour, if that hour is spent solely on one thing. It means no checking email, no peeking to see what today's high temperature is going to be in Tenacatita Bay, no calling anyone on the telephone to chat, no going out in the backyard to see if the fruit trees are still growing...

    It does include getting another cup of tea, however, because the caffeine helps get things cranking.

    The 1-hour rule works well for me and the people I've convinced to use it, say it helps them focus. One item on today's list is clean the patio. If I do give it a full hour, the place will shine.

    But I can't start thinking about that yet, I have this to complete - which it now is, in just about in 22 minutes.

    What's next on that list?

    Thursday, March 01, 2007

    The 'R' word is almost as verboten as the 'I' word

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - When professional writers get together and talk about research, they almost never utter the word, research.

    That's because the word is so loaded with all kinds of other associations (people in lab coats squinting into microscopes, someone sitting in a huge pile of books and reports...) that it's inaccurate.

    Certainly, there are times when journalists - and freelance writers - do research that requires stacks of books and reports, but most of what writers do is simply gather information in less formal ways. Writers spend much of time on the Internet, yakking on the telephone and, if possible, actually getting out and talking directly to people.

    In my magazine writing class, I can see the eyes glazing over when I say "You need to do more research," so if catch the "R" word before it escapes, I revise it to say "You need to talk with more people and find some documents..."

    If "research" is an inaccurate word for what writers do, so is the word "interview."

    Interviews usually conjure up visions of boom microphones and the glare of stage lights - not what 99 percent of interviews really are: brief conversations.

    When I call someone - or more frequently email - to ask a few questions, I say just that. "Can I ask you a few questions about...?" Or sometime I will say "Can we chat about...?"

    It less threatening and very few people will say they don't have time to 'chat."

    Consider the likely reactions to these inquiries:

    Do you have time for me to interview you for the research I'm doing?

    Do you have time to chat about a story I'm working on?

    Friday, February 23, 2007

    Using email for interviews is no longer verboten

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - At a roundtable discussion of student and professional journalists today, there were mixed opinions about the use of email in practicing journalism. Several student newspapers and news organizations have absolute NO written in their policy manuals.

    Most professionals seem to use email plenty. In some cases, it's the only way to get to people.

    In a entry posted here a few days ago,
  • Writing For Money, Feb. 15
  • I wrote about how I used email to contact representatives of the Legislative Analyst's Office about a report I heard them reference on television - a cable broadcast of a legislative hearing.

    If I had needed an answer or clarification of what I heard them say, I would have been quite comfortable using email.

    I use email frequently to track people down and to start conversations. If I have a detailed, complicated question, I know my sources appreciate getting the questions succinctly (I hope) in writing before we talk on the phone.

    And if we don't talk on the phone and they respond by email, they know that whatever material I use, they have a written record of.

    My advice to writers is let common sense prevail. If you ask a question via email and the answer seem odd or untrue, verify it somewhere else. That's just good standard journalism practice no matter where you got information from.

    But don't be shy about using your keyboard as a tool for gathering information. Editors 100 years ago told reporters not to trust a new technology that was becoming widely available then: the telephone.

    Thursday, February 22, 2007

    Getting to know editors is the key to landing assignments

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A major part of becoming a successful freelance writer - and making some money - is getting to know editors, which is turn means editors get to know you, which in turn means the editors know your work, which in turn...

    I'm getting all turned around on this. Sorry.

    Earlier this week I had coffee with the new editor of Prosper magazine, Jeffrey Young, who is one of those free-wheeling, free-thinking kind of editors who are simultaneously fun and a writer's nightmare. Fun because they challenge writers and love new ideas. A nightmare because they will not accept half-effort on writing or research. The unmotivated writer need not approach Jeffrey Young.

    Jeffrey Young
    Jeffrey Young

    I would wager, however, that once a writer gets to know Jeffrey - and they agree on stories and styles - that writing for Prosper could become a good, regular-writing gig.

    The other side to knowing many editors is when stories pop up, you have many directions in which to sell.

    As part of Legislative Analyst's look at the proposed governor's budget this week, I found a half-dozen story ideas which I could aim directly at magazines for which I've written. Queries have already gone out this morning for a story on making last-year's "yacht tax" a permanent tax (it was set to sunset), a second on a strong recommendation that state university student fees not be hiked 10 percent, but 2.4 percent, and a third on health-care issues.

    All three are going to editors for whom I've written before and so the whole nervousness on the editor's part (Can this guy write these stories?) is missing. The story ideas will be judged solely on their merit - and space considerations - by the editors.

    Oops. Just thought of a fourth query, based on that LAO report. Time to get writing another email.

    Saturday, February 17, 2007

    Help for writers who suffer from 'I' disease

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The first batch of stories from my magazine class this fall will invariably have a few people who write their articles in the first person.

    What's wrong with that? Well, the biggest problem is that relatively few magazine pieces are written in first person, relatively few of the students writing these pieces have authorative voices to speak on the topics of which they write, and beyond that, well, it's just darned annoying to look across a 25-paragraph story and see "I" cropping all over the place.

    The record in my teaching came several years ago when a writer used "I" 47 times in a 500-word story - and complained that the 500-word limit was too restricting. No disagreement here, so when his paper was returned to him, my note pointed out that he had 47 more words to work with right away. He wasn't amused.

    In byline writing, the reason to avoid referring to yourself is that it's redundant. Your name is already attached to the article. So to say, "I saw the room was full of cats," is unnecessary. Instead, the writer should simply say, "The room was full of cats." (That would save two words.)

    The cure for "I" disease is simple: don't use "I" unless there is absolutely no way around it.

    But what about a first-person story? OK, a few first personal pronouns are ok, but very few.

    At least that's what I say.

    Thursday, February 15, 2007

    Mission Impossible time management works - sometimes

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - There are days writing and there are days writing but today all the pieces fell into place so neatly it was as if the scriptwriters for Mission Impossible had plotted it out.

    It started before dawn with an article due, which I hammered until I was about half done. I checked my email and discovered, gasp, that my Washington D.C. editors had a second major story they wanted done - ASAP. When they say that , they don't mean Anytime-Sure-Amigo-Please.

    So I looked at the clock and started writing my first story even faster, sliding it in the email an hour ahead of when I thought I would, giving me time to get the second story done, too.

    But it was the research for my third story that put things into the Mission Impossible category.

    I was scheduled to attend a legislative hearing - starting at about 10:30 a.m. - for a story due Friday. But at 10:30 a.m. - thanks to the second urgent story - I was just barely heading out the door to get there and, for some reason, I thought about the Cal Channel, a cable channel that broadcasts many state legislative committee hearings.

    Voila! One click and I was there, watching Kim Belshe of the state Department of Health explaining the governor's health plan.

    Senate Hearing on television
    Senate hearing on cable TV

    And for the next couple of hours, I recorded the session on my digital recorder - just as if I was sitting in the stuffy room downtown. It went fine. Great in fact. A little lunch, more tea, sit back, take a few notes.

    Then two talking heads from the Legislative Analyst's Office came on and started talking about a report they had prepared for the committee - a hardcopy, printed report that they circulated at that moment. And the report was dynamite - exactly what I needed to make my story newsworthy.

    Merde! That's why actually going to such hearings is safer. Now I thought I was going to have to go downtown, park at the Capitol (equally difficult to the task of trying to park on my university campus), run into the hearing room and pray the two LAO guys had the report available for the press.

    But given that it was the LAO office, I decided to see if the report was somewhere online.

    I couldn't find it.

    Merde deux.

    But seeing the age of the two LAO analysts (mid 30s, maybe) I sent them both an email while they were still giving testimony, after snatching their email addresses from the LAO website, listed under staff contacts.

    Email to LAO staff at hearing
    Email to LAO staff members

    Sure enough, as soon as they left the front table where they were giving testimony, one of them emailed me (from a Blackberry, I think) pointing me to a link to the report - which was on the website it turned out. I doubt I would have ever found it without help.

    Now, armed with a digital recording of the entire hearing, notes taking during the testimony, and a solid report from the Legislative Analyst's Office, I'm ready to start writing that story. Technology, a couple of good breaks, and the fact that I can type about 75 wpm all made it work.

    But no more writing until tomorrow. I still have the theme song from Mission Impossible running through my brain.

    Wednesday, February 14, 2007

    Writing to find out what you need to know

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - An old newspaper writer's trick is to start to write a story - leaving blanks where information is missing - and then going back to fill in what's needed.

    In magazine writing, it's a little harder, because the writing (and stories) can be more complicated, but the theory is the same: If you start to write the story and hit a wall, at least you know where the walls are. They could be informational, quotes needed, or simple understanding on the part of the writer about what-in-the-hell they are trying to write.

    Here's a quick example of something I will have to write Friday morning, that I could use as a prewriting:


    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A roomful of critics of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) health insurance plan slammed the details of his proposal at a four-hour state Senate Committee hearing Thursday, Feb. 15, the first public airing of the proposals outside of a press conference.


    The proposal, first unveiled XXXXX by the governor says that all California residents should have health insurance and mandates them to get it.


    The proposal includes requirements that XXXX.



    This kind of prewriting provides at least a template for the story.

    In a magazine piece, writing the first four or five paragraphs does the same thing, giving the article some focus. And perhaps more important, it forces the writer to really think about the story and how to make it interesting.

    It's better than staring at a keyboard and monitor.

    Monday, February 12, 2007

    The importance of meeting deadlines

    Originally uploaded by Brite light photos.
    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - When teaching magazine writing, one of the hardest concepts to get across is that of the need to make deadlines.

    By deadlines, I mean that when something is due by a certain time, in a certain format, and with certain information, it's due at that time, in that format and with the needed (or agreed-upon) information.

    Throughout most of college, students learn the very unreal lesson that it's ok to be late, ok to simply skip assignments, especially if they can plead being busy.

    It gets reinforced by instructors who allow work to be turned in past a deadline, usually assessing some small penalty - perhaps lowering the grade on that particular piece of work by 10 percent.

    In the publishing world, there is no 10 percent penalty - it's 100 percent. You make the deadline or else it doesn't get published. Period.

    But the larger penalty is that if a writer flakes on an editor - and doesn't get the assignment in on time - that writer is finished working with that magazine. Equally bad is turning in a story that is poorly researched and/or not the story the editor asked for.

    On the bright side, I have worked with many editors who are more than willing to help when problems pop up - a story turns out to be more complicated than initially envisioned, sources dry up, news events overtake the timeliness of the proposed story.

    But only if they believe I have already moved heaven and earth several times before asking for assistance.

    Sunday, February 11, 2007

    Writing every day, even a little, gets you there

    Originally uploaded by Brite light photos.
    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - One of the hardest parts of the writing business can be maintaining forward momentum.

    For me, that means researching a little and writing a little every day, inching towards completion, whatever the assignment.

    For one of my contracts, I have to read the wires daily to pull possible stories and if I am smart about it, I start working on research right then, too.

    OK, I'm not that smart most of the time.

    But because it is incremental, I know that every day I need to do some, as I did as soon as I got the assignment from Reuters to cover Rudy Giuliani's speech. Rather than wait until the night before he spoke to read up (and cram my brain), I scanned the news sites for the three days beforehand.

    It paid off in the speech, when I already had the background on Rudy firmly in the back of my mind when he spouted about 9-11 and events since. Also, the anecdotes he used were well rehearsed, based on my readings.

    For my magazine writing students, I suspect it's hard to think of the stories they have just started researching as anything but just another assignment for another upper division class.

    They'll learn quickly (I hope) that the real measure isn't me, it will be the editors that see their work and judge it.

    If they work a little each day - even if it's only to do an hour of reading - the deadline (in barely 10 days) won't seem nearly so frightening.

    Guiliani nearly declares at the GOP convention

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - It was all-out GOP politics Saturday as the faithful got ready to listen to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani speak at a luncheon, part of the state Republican Convention here this weekend.

    Rudy Guiliani at California GOP convention
    Rudy speaks the the GOP luncheon

    The luncheon hall was packed with conventioneers and press, among whom I sat as a reporter for Reuters, hoping that Rudy would declare his formal entry into the race for president in 2008.

    He didn't - though he came very close - and every time he asked the crowd if they would vote for him, they cheered wildly, much louder than they cheered the night before when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke at a dinner gathering of about 700 in the same Hyatt Regency Hotel ballroom in downtown Sacramento.

    According to the reporters I talked with at the press gathering, Arnold got a very tepid response from the GOP, many of whom consider him a traitor for agreeing to compromise with Democrats on many issues. That compromising is what got him re-elected in November.

    Rudy's speech said nothing about compromise and in his speech, he invoked Sept. 11 directly six times, Ronald Reagan at least as many, and he said that he supports the war in Iraq - and George Bush - completely.

    If he runs - or should I say continues to run - his campaign is likely going to be based on keeping the nation safe from terrorists, with precious little offered on what the nation needs domestically. "The war on terrorism is our greatest concern," he said.

    The ever-skeptical press pushed him as hard as they could in a press conference, during which he said that he had really already almost declared his candidacy.

    But a reporter from the New York Daily News told me that there is no way that Rudy would ever formally declare his run for the presidency in California. He has to do that in New York so that his likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, gets the full brunt of the announcement. New York has a lot of electoral votes, too.

    The food that was served at this GOP luncheon was an almost unrecognizable melange of chicken and pasta. The lunch served in the press lounge was probably a lot tastier - and it was free, too.

    And my story for Reuters? Well, because Rudy (called "America's Mayor" by Bill Simon in the introduction) didn't actually declare his candidacy for president of the U.S. - or say anything directly bad about any of his potential Democratic opponents - my Los Angeles Reuters' editor said I didn't need to file a regular story, just a long package of quotes and observations that may eventually show up in future Reuters' stories when America's Mayor does make things more formal.

    Story or not, Reuters will still cut me check for a pretty interesting day.

    Rudy with supporters at Calif. GOP convention
    Rudy with supporters at the GOP convention

    Tuesday, February 06, 2007

    Magazine writing class is takes up blogging, big time

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. - What should students in a magazine writing class do most: read, talk, listen to lectures or write?

    It's no contest, really, not if you have ever taught a writing class.

    Write, damn it.

    So, as part of this semester's magazine writing class at California State University, Sacramento, I'm asking my 25 writing students to start - and maintain - a blog with entries about what they are studying, what they are writing and, I hope, their successes at selling articles to magazines.

    The first 'blog' appeared just a few minutes ago and if the rest of class can match this, it's going to be a wild semester.

    Here's the link:

  • Natalye Childress Smith
  • Tuesday, January 09, 2007

    Ralph Thompson in 2005, at a library celebration

    PETALUMA, Calif. - Prue Draper, who was Social Editor when I was at the Argus-Courier in Petaluma in the mid-70s, sent me this photo of the late Ralph Thompson, taken last year at a library function. He was a marvelous editor - and great human being.

    Ralph Thompson - 2005
    Ralph Thompson, 2005

    Ralph had changed, of course. Twenty years will do that to you. But his basic looks, his face, and his kind of thin-lipped, understated smile had not changed since I worked with him in the 1970s.

    I learned just today that he had suddenly had a re-ocurrence of his cancer that put him in a lot of pain just before his death.

    Sad, but I'm glad that Ralph didn't linger.

    Here's the uncropped photo from last year of Ralph, his sister-in-law Marie, Prue and John Jackson, my very first editor who is still banging away covering sports.

    Never give up! Never Surrender!

    Ralph and the Argus-Courier Gang
    Ralph and the A-C gang

    Sunday, January 07, 2007

    Ralph Thompson of the Argus-Courier is gone, but hardly forgotten

    Ralph's plane
    Originally uploaded by Brite light photos.
    PETALUMA, Calif. - I just received word today that Ralph Thompson, my editor from 1973-1977 has passed away.

    He was the kind of newspaperman that is so rare today, well, I can't even say how rare because I don't know anyone quite like him.

    Ralph took me under his wing at the Petaluma Argus-Courier after a group of us young reporters managed to drive the incumbent managing editor to quit. Not the proudest moment of my life, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    When Ralph figured out what we trying to do (and I suppose it was fairly obvious) he taught me what he called 'Ralph's Rule for Revolutions.'


    Win, because if you start a revolution, and lose, it's all over.

    I gained a lot of respect for Ralph during that time and then in the ensuing few years, working as his assistant, he taught me a lot about how to tell stories, how to deal with angry readers (and sources) and to keep the good of the public always as our first goal.

    He also taught me to be patient, though example. We had a publisher who made only bad decisions, and, by God, he stuck by them (His name was NOT Bush, by the way). The same publisher once refused to let me run a story about W.T. Grant stores going bankrupt, because, he said (I swear this is true, I swear!) that the local store would cancel all of its advertising if I did so.

    Ralph just nodded his head and gave me the same look people give when confronted with the mentally disabled. We ran the story a day late, and Ralph put it on the front page, pointing out to the publisher that every other news organization in the U.S. had published it the day before. Our readers didn't suffer, but Ralph used that case over and over to show the publisher that I had better news judgment than the publisher did. So did Bonzo the Chimp, as we pointed out when the publisher was out of earshot.

    When I decided it was time for me to move on, Ralph did what good bosses to - he helped me find a good editor's job at another newspaper and was very supportive, even though it meant that he would suffer trying to find a replacement. His boss (the mentally-disabled publisher) and other people in the chain of newspapers I worked for, were less kind and gave him hell for helping me.

    He rather politely told them to go to hell.

    He had an amazing amount of backbone, perhaps a byproduct of being a fighter pilot in WWII - and being shot down. He also was just a strong person. But he taught me when to bend and survive in a business that is famous for chewing people up.

    It was sometimes a little awkward between us socially, because Ralph and his wife Hilda never had children and Hilda often would say in front of Ralph that I was like the son they never had.

    Personally, I think they could have done a lot better and used to say so to cut through the emotional fog that Hilda laid down when she made the comment. Ralph would have made a great father, though.

    When he retired 20 years ago, I surprised him and showed up at his retirement party. We had a great time, drank waaaaay too much, told stories about the mentally-disabled publisher and swore that we would keep in touch.

    We didn't, of course, but two years ago, I suddenly wondered about Ralph and tracked him down. We exchanged several letters and I even sent him a couple of videos I had made of my sailing adventures. His letters were full of good humor and optimism, even though I found out through reading his obituary that he had cancer.

    Ralph Thompson lived a full life and as I write this, I'll wager he has been reunited with the love of his life, Hilda, and they are bashing balls all over Celestial Acres Golf Course, drinking those damned martinis they favored and laughing hysterically.

    When they laughed, even if you didn't get the joke, it was impossible not to join in.

    It's no joke that he's gone, but as long as I teach journalism, his lessons will continue.

    Ralph, rest in peace. And if you can't rest, play another nine holes.

    Saturday, January 06, 2007

    When you write, you need a place that works well for you

    LA MANZANILLA, Jalisco, Mexico - This website has been dormant for a long time, while I have been busy writing for money for news companies, including Reuters. I covered a federal terrorism trial for them and learned that daily wire service copy is hard duty. I knew it when I took the job but forgot about having to run for elevators and rude FBI agents who would just as soon push you down a flight of stairs as say hello.

    But I believe the website will be revived this spring when I teach magazine writing again at my university and for sure when I finally leave the employ of the university. I hope to make this website part and parcel of that class. Watch for some interesting postings.

    Right here in Mexico, I find that my desire to hit this keyboard - and write all kinds of stories and articles and ??? is high.

    Here's palapa where I am writing from right now, during the day.

    Our seaside villa
    Palapa in La Manzanilla

    In the brief time I have been here (less than a week) I have written an article for a boating magazine, six stories about education and have several query letters ready to go out to magazines for stories I would like to write in the spring, when (alas), I will not be in Mexico but back in Sacramento.

    All of these stories, of course, are for money.

    More on all that later.