Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sac Bee's Marcos Breton on tap for Column Writing class

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - This week the column-writing class at CSU, Sacramento is hoping to hear from Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton as a guest speaker in class. Breton, who in the past has written about and sports and other feature-type stories for the newspaper, now is a major city-side columnist.

In recent months, he has written a lot about the Kevin Johnson-Heather Fargo race for mayor of Sacramento.

And most recently (Sunday), he wrote about the controversial Proposition 8 which state voters just approved.

  • Tolerance or intolerance?

  • Marcos Breton
    Marcos Breton

    Breton was scheduled to speak in class a few weeks ago, but like so many other staff members at the Bee, has been busy doing his job - and a lot more - to help the newspaper with its struggles in the down economy and had to cancel.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2008

    AP's Chelsea Carter talks about heading to Baghdad

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Sacramento State alum Chelsea Carter told an audience of about 50 students at CSU, Sacramento Monday that she would be required to wear body armor and a helmet - at least some of the time - when she is working for the Associated Press in Iraq, but that getting an overseas posting has been a dream of hers for years.

    Carter, a former State Hornet newspaper reporter outlined her career that took her first to the Lodi News-Sentinel in Lodi, Calif. after graduation with a B.A. in Journalism in the mid 1990s. She then was hired by the Associated Press and worked in Charleston, W. Va. , New York and Southern California and has also worked as a national writer for the AP.

    Later this week, she will be flying into Baghdad to be a foreign correspondent for AP.

    Most recently she has been working as a military affairs reporter for the AP. She was on board the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in 2003 when President George W. Bush made his now-famous "Mission Accomplished" speech about the war in Iraq.

    She also told the students about a very tense moment she had during a near-riot and fight in New York City while she was covering the Million Youth March. She watched the riot and fight take place and barely escaped.

    She said that she learned that day she could put her fear of personal safety aside when pursuing a story.

    "I can do anything for the job," she said.

    Admiral Fox and Chelsea Carter
    Journalism Professor Sylvia Fox, left, and AP's Chelsea Carter

    Sunday, November 09, 2008

    Chuck Yeager, 'The Right Stuff' on tap for Literary Journalists again

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Tom Wolfe's classic book about the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff, will be up for discussion again Monday night in Literary Journalism class.

    The book got generally good reviews in the first round of class chatter - I even got to tell my Chuck Yeager story.

    Chuck Yeager about the time he broke the sound barrier

    A much older Chuck Yeager

    I had just taken over as editor of The Union newspaper in Grass Valley in 1980 - after a particularly bruising time in the newsroom with a rebellious staff. I came back from lunch to find a grinning Chuck Yeager, sitting in my editor's chair with his cowboy boots on the deck, heels digging into some papers I had left there.

    I went straight for the desk and told Yeager to get his $^%&#&* boots off my desk, embarrassing the then-chair of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, Eric Rood, who had brought Yeager in to show him off.

    He and Yeager had served in the US Air Force together.

    I had no idea who Yeager was, and in hindsight all these years later, I probably still would have told him to get his $^%&#&* boots off my desk had I known that the cocky guy sitting in my chair was the legendary Chuck Yeager.

    Yeager and I met a few times after that at Nevada County social functions and laughed (sort of) at that incident.

    Wednesday, November 05, 2008

    An evening on the town at the Hoppy Brewery

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The students in my column writing class fanned out across Sacramento in groups of four or five Tuesday to have dinner at various restaurants.

    It wasn't just hunger that drove them - it was part of an assignment to write a restaurant review.

    One group went to the Hoppy Brewing Company on Folsom Boulevard which was packed, partly because anyone who had voted in Tuesday's election was eligible for a free beer.

    Judging from Hoppy's, the turnout was phenomenal.

    Hoppy Brewery building in Sacramento
    Hoppy's in Sacramento

    My original plan had been to drop in on the various groups at each restaurant, checking to see how it was going.

    But the one free beer, coupled with what I think was a looooong wait for service, kept me rooted to the booth at Hoppy's.

    But I still get to read all the reviews, due Friday.

    Monday, November 03, 2008

    Literary Journalism takes a look at 'The Right Stuff'

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Literary Journalism will take a look at Tom Wolfe's book about the beginnings of the U.S. space program - The Right Stuff - for the next week or so.

    Wolfe's style - a classic in the Literary Journalism genre - shines through in this book as he puts the reader right inside the capsules of the first U.S. astronauts.

    Wolfe was around the astronauts a lot during those days, 'immersing' in the culture as Literary Journalists are wont to do.

    Tom Wolfe
    Tom Wolfe

    The highest praise for the book I have ever heard comes from Sanders Lamont, formerly an editor with the Modesto Bee and Sacramento Bee newspapers (and others) who was writing about the space program in those days and had met many of the astronauts and characters in the book.

    "He got it right," Sanders has told me several times.

    From a journalist who was there, on the ground writing objective news stories at the same time as Wolfe was putting the Literary Journalism interpretation on events, that is high praise indeed.

    I once had an encounter with the famous Chuck Yeager. Yeager was never an astronaut per se, but a hot-shot test pilot who broke the sound barrier and who figures prominently in The Right Stuff. By the time I met him, I was an editor at The Union newspaper in Grass Valley and Yeager was retired, living on some property in nearby Penn Valley. He still had an attitude - and ego - as big as a house.

    It didn't go well, but that's another story.

    Saturday, November 01, 2008

    Lunch with former students brings back the memories

    SAN RAFAEL, Calif., USA - Catching up with former journalism students is always fun, more so when you can span two generations.

    Friday, the Admiral and I dined with Natalye Childress Smith, Josh Stabb and Bill Meagher - all students who suffered through my lectures and bad jokes over the years. Natalye and Josh are relative newbies, having just graduated and who are now working as writers for Crittenden Research in Novato, Calif. Bill works there, too - but as an editor.

    And while Josh and Natalye caught me at CSU, Sacramento in the last couple of years, Bill is a alum of Chico State where I taught back in the mid 1980s, before make the long academic trek down the valley to Sacramento where I have been since 1986.

    Four amigos
    A class reunion or a reunion of class?

    Bill was a student columnist for the campus newspaper, The Orion, and had (and still has) great news instincts. His columns about then Chico State President Robin Wilson got Wilson so angry that Wilson would call me late at night (because I was the faculty adviser) and rail about Bill's work.

    Wilson never said any of the columns contained information that was inaccurate, he was just totally pissed off that Bill had printed anything about him. And Bill broke many good (journalistically speaking) stories about Wilson, which kept my phone ringing.

    Seeing students succeed - as all three of them have, they have jobs after all - is one of the rewards of teaching. I suspect teachers at all levels get the same kick out of seeing their former students out there, practicing what was once largely a classroom exercise.

    The only sad part about such reunions is that they are usually way too short, as this one was.

    But I know the solution to that problem.

    Thursday, October 30, 2008

    Walking along the river - a story idea strikes

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - A walk out the back door (ok, the only door) of my house into the neighborhood to take a stretch, reminded me that stories don't have to be dug up, sometimes they are right in front of your face.

    I walked a half-mile to the Sacramento River, which looks ever-so placid these days (at least until the rain arrives this weekend), and while watching a ski boat glide across the water, spotted a river dweller, neatly hidden right at the water's edge.

    Home along the river
    A blue tarp to keep out the weather, a bicycle for transportation

    Whoever is living underneath the tarp is also living below the radar of most of Sacramento. From time to time, the police raid along the river, chasing out people they call 'transients.' I say call transients, because there are some folks among these river dwellers who are there by choice, living as free as is possible in the USSA, way beyond credit checks, snooping landlords, police and the ever-present TSA.

    This person - or persons - chose their spot well, as it's necessary to stand up on top of a concrete abutment to even see that there is a tarp and bicycle below.

    My writer-hero, American author Jack London, rode the rails of freight trains once, doing a chronicle of the lives of the men - and a handful of women - who took to the road at the turn of the 20th century. They did so mostly because of tough economic times, but some just to escape from, well, whatever haunted them.

    The River People.

    Hmmm.... now there's an idea for a literary journalism piece.

    Wednesday, October 22, 2008

    Dan Weintraub engages column writing in a 'conversation'

    CSU, SACRAMENTO, Sacramento, Calif., USA - Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub said he is bullish on journalism, less bullish on newspapers themselves when he spoke to the column-writing class at CSU, Sacramento Tuesday night.

    Weintraub, a veteran newsman who has spent the last eight years with The Sacramento Bee in a columnist's dream job, said that the evolving nature of the business is exciting as a participant, but that the impacts of the new information technologies on the newspaper industry have been devastating.

    One of Weintraub's newest Sacramento Bee projects, in addition to his regular column writing, has been to edit a new Bee feature called "The Conversation," a segment that is published both in print and online on Sunday, but continues through the week online with readers making comments.

    Software glitches have added to the adventure. But Weintraub says that "The Conversation" is still a work in progress.

    The students offered a number of suggestions for making the feature more interactive, including making it easier for readers to access the latest postings to "The Conversation." In a recent software shift, that function was somehow dropped.

    Here's a brief video of a portion of the presentation.

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    New reporters cover high finance at forum

    CSU, SACRAMENTO, Sacramento, Calif., USA - Reporters from my two sections of beginning news writing covered a forum on finances sponsored by the CSUS Economics Department Monday afternoon.

    While a good deal of the economic jargon from the five expert professors went over the reporters' heads as they scribbled in their reporters' notebooks, most of the students came away with a greater understanding of what caused the most recent financial debacle and what the nation can expect in coming years.

    They heard about asset-backed derivatives, credit swaps, unemployment rates and how the nation shouldn't worry about entering another Great Depression. Or about the growing unemployment rate.

    Whenever someone says, "Don't Worry," I generally start to worry more - much more.

    I asked a couple of questions, one about what the group thought about the sudden plummeting of oil prices and were they concerned about such wild swings in prices.

    The expert panel said not to worry about that either.


    The reporters will be taking their full notebooks to class Wednesday and attempting to write a 300-400 word story about the event.

    Here's a brief video of some of the proceedings.

    Thursday, October 16, 2008

    Dan Weintraub to visit column-writing class Oct. 21

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Dan Weintraub, a columnist for The Sacramento Bee will be coming to the CSU, Sacramento column writing class next Tuesday to talk writing, politics and perhaps a little about the future of the newspaper industry.

    He was scheduled earlier in the semester - the night of the second presidential debate - and had to cancel.

    Like many Sacramento Bee staffers, Weintraub has been adjusting to the new fiscal realities of the publishing industry. Among other things, he has started a new feature in the newspaper called The Conversation which goes into depth on different issues.

    The approach is interesting and Weintraub will likely talk about what it was like to launch The Conversation, as well as how it is going.

    Weintraub is a veteran member of the Sacramento press corps and believes in doing a lot of reporting before he writes a word for his column.

    Dan Weintraub
    Dan Weintraub

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008

    Marcos Breton on tap for column-writing class in October

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton has agreed to come in and speak with the column writing class at CSU, Sacramento Oct. 28.

    Breton has been at The Bee for 18 years and is a survivor of the recent layoffs and purges that have marked The Bee for the past year.

    His column draws comments - lots of comments - and in a departure from normal practice, The Bee's new editor, Melanie Sill, has at times had Breton responding to people online to the online comments they post.

    Marcos Breton
    Marcos Breton

    He was the subject of a question-and-answer session in Sacramento Magazine in 2007.

    Here is the link to that story:

  • Breton Q&A in Sacramento Magazine
  • Tuesday, October 07, 2008

    Column writers tackle the Obama-McCain debate

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The students in the Column Writing class at CSU, Sacramento gave out more than a few groans during the debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, but dutifully pounded out their 600-word columns with all writers making their deadline - about 50 minutes after moderator Tom Brokaw declared that the debate was over.

    A few extra groans came out when technical problems nearly made several students miss their deadlines.

    But they made it. And the results can be read by clicking on the links to the right of this column.

    Barrack Obama and John McCain
    Obama and McCain

    It was the first real on-deadline assignment for the group. Other columns have been done with days of lead time, though a quick look at tonight's columns convinces me that many of these students are as good - in some cases better - when pushed with a tight deadline.

    The general consensus of the columns?

    Well, of the columns I sampled (with the balance to be read Wednesday and Thursday), more than a few writers objected to the constant finger-pointing that did seem to mar the flow of the debate. Even when confronted with a yes-no question, both candidates filled the air with speeches.

    Here's a short video of the class watching Round 2 of the presidential debates.

    Column writing students to post analysis columns at end of tonight's debate

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Tonight's column writing class at CSU, Sacramento will join the ranks of pundits across the world by watching the Obama-McCain debate live - and then posting their columns immediately after the debate is over.

    Watch out Fox News, J-131 is moving on up.

    The opportunity popped up when our guest speaker for the evening, Dan Weintraub of The Sacramento Bee, had to bow out at the last moment. He will be coming in a few weeks to talk about political reporting and how he survives in this brave new world of almost-instant analysis.

    No doubt the students will have lots of questions about how he does what I am asking them to do tonight.

    Dan Weintraub
    Dan Weintraub

    Up until now, the students in the class have been able to write much more leisurely, with days of lead time.

    Tonight, the deadline will be upon them with all columns to be filed no later than one hour after the debate is completed.

    I supposed I could start the class off like the announcers at a racetrack:

    Writers: Start your computers.

    Barrack Obama and John McCain
    Tonight's debaters

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008

    The Sacramento Bee's Rick Kushman tells TV tales to column-writing class

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The Sacramento Bee's television critic, Rick Kushman, kept the CSU, Sacramento column-writing class laughing for a good part of his hour-long presentation/conversation Tuesday night.

    At one point, he boosted his credibility tremendously by pointing out that he once was on the receiving end of a kiss from Tina Fey.

    Yes, that Tina Fey, the actress who does an impression of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that is better than Sarah Palin can do of herself.

    Rick has started a new column in The Bee - added to his other duties covering television. He detailed out some of the pitfalls of starting the column "The Good Life" from scratch - a column that "still evolving," he said.

    Rick didn't encourage anyone to leap into the world of print media, but he was encouraging for anyone who wants to write and be published in whatever media environment develops.

    "It's all about good-writing - all good writing."

    Sunday, September 28, 2008

    The Hot Zone and Richard Preston in Literary Journalism

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The Literary Journalism class at CSU, Sacramento will be discussing Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone, again Monday night after going through parts of the tome last week.

    The Hot Zone is about the Ebola virus, sort of. It's also about the potential of the disease, human reactions and how close the world might have come to disaster.

    It also ponders the question: Will the world face Ebola again?

    And when.

    Preston, a writer for The New Yorker magazine has written three books about viruses: The Hot Zone, The Cobra Event, and The Demon in the Freezer. But branched out with a recent book, called The Wild Trees about giant redwoods and sequoias. Sorry about that 'branched-out' pun.

    The Cobra Event was fictional, but was so well-researched - and written - that it prompted President Bill Clinton to spend many millions of dollars to get the nation ready for the bio-terror scenario that Preston suggests could happen.

    Preston was interviewed last year by Jon Stewart for the Daily Show. And like all Jon Stewart interviews, well worth watching.

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    Column-writing assignment on the mysterious Natalie Dylan

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The column writing class this week is writing about Natalie Dylan, a woman who supposedly graduated from CSU, Sacramento with a degree in Women's Studies.

    Why is she worth writing about?

    She is involved in an auction of her virginity - a very public auction that has involved Howard Stern and many major news organizations in the U.S. and abroad have picked up the story and featured it quite prominently.

    Yes, it's true. I can't make this stuff up. Who would believe it?

    Sisters pix two
    'Natalie' on the right, her sister is on the left

    The column writers' directions are simple: attack this column topic from any angle they want: rage, support, bewilderment...

    There are so many different angles that the writers are mostly likely to be bewildered by how to even start.

    Were I to use Ms. Dylan (which is not her real name, by the way) as a topic for a column, I think I would take a look at what could be a fairly elaborate hoax.


    Well, it seems that the woman, who says she is 22-years-old, claims that she is a fairly recent graduate of CSU, Sacramento and says she is supposed to begin her graduate studies in January - graduate studies in marriage and family counseling.

    Confirming any of all this seems to be beyond the abilities of all local (and even national) media.

    As I said, I can't make this stuff up.

    Saturday, September 13, 2008

    Deadlines and deadlines: Why making them is important

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The beginning of every semester brings a new crop of students, many of whom have never faced the absolute deadlines that exist in most journalistic writing.

    Whether it is something as simple as sending me an email (so I can create an email list for the class) or turning in a column or other piece of writing, there are always a few students who don't make the deadline.

    And then there is always the argument that the deadline is arbitrary and not grounded in any real need.



    My first newspaper job was at the Napa Register, in the circulation department where I pulled stacks of paper off the press and got them ready for delivery to the paper carriers all over Napa and Solano County. The press was supposed to start at 1 p.m. Not 12:59 (though going early would have been ok), but 1 p.m.

    If the press was more than a minute or two starting up, the phone in the press room would start ringing and within 10 minutes or so, all the department heads in the building involved in the production of the newspaper would be in the publisher's office, getting their asses chewed - quite thoroughly - by publisher J.V. Brenner as he would try to figure out where the fault was.

    When I moved into the newsroom a year later, as a novice reporter, I found out that if I was five minutes late with a story, it would likely result in my editor being late in what he turned into the composing room which in turn meant composing would be late to the plate-making department (for the press) and so on.

    A story that was five minutes late could cause a domino effect that could make the presses a half-hour late.

    I never missed a deadline there.

    At the Sacramento Bee, when I worked as fill-in editor for the Forum section, the pages were to be sent electronically to composing by 5 p.m. on Thursdays. And if they didn't show up in the queue by 5:01, the phone would start ringing in then-editor Bill Moore's office where I worked, the secretary would come bustling in with a message from downstairs and within a few minutes after than, the big boss, Howard Weaver, was likely to start asking me 'What-the-hell-is-goin'-on?'

    There are reasons, of course, why sometimes things don't get written - and turned in - on time.

    Sickness, computer malfunctions, balky sources and plain old writer's block can all push the writer past that magic time.

    None of them (except perhaps sickness) ever gets the writer any slack from an editor. Deadlines are deadlines - including showing up on time.

    At the Petaluma Argus-Courier, we had one writer who was 15 minutes late arriving at work every morning. You could, as the expression goes, set your watch by his arrival.

    When I became his editor after about a year, I asked him why he was routinely late every morning. He said he just didn't know. He left in what he thought was plenty of time - even driving faster than the speed limit most of the way from San Rafael to Petaluma.

    But he was always 15 minutes late.

    I suggested another strategy that he had apparently never thought of: leave his house 15 minutes earlier every morning.

    You can guess what happened when he did start leaving his house earlier.

    When I have a piece of writing to do - any writing - I estimate how long it will take me to get it done, and then I double the estimate, starting waaaaay earlier than I think I need to.

    That system works well enough that I haven't missed a deadline since, well, I can't remember ever missing a deadline for turning in a story to magazine, newspaper, or web-based publication.

    That day might come, I suppose, but for now I have to close off this blog entry. I gave myself an 11:50 deadline to get this done.

    And I don't want to be late.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Column writers tackle rules that make no sense

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - My assignment to the column writers this week was to craft a column around the idea of rules - rules that seem nonsensical or weird or maybe even that do the opposite of what they were intended to do.

    Of course, it is also possible to write about rules for which their reason for existing has evaporated into the mists of the past.

    You don't have to think too hard to come up with those.

    One strict rule I remember from growing up was that if I ate anything - a single potato chip - I was not allowed to go swimming for 45 minutes. Why? Well, because if I did, I would absolutely get a cramp and sink like a stone. At least that's what my mother and and grandmother and aunts and uncles said - and enforced on me and my cousins.

    Since then, I found that the time varied greatly among people and their families. Some parents told their kids it was an hour, others a half-hour. When I became lifeguard in college, I discovered that the whole concept was mostly bull**it. You would have to eat a double-cheese burger and wash it down with a Big Gulp before there's a chance (a chance!) of any cramping.

    More likely even in that case, you would only cut loose with a burp that could knock a sleeping lifeguard right off their chair.

    That said, I did once have to swim out to rescue a soldier on leave who got a stomach cramp and did sink like a stone into 15 feet of water. But he hadn't had anything to eat or drink for several hours.

    Rules, rules, rules. I should get to read some very interesting columns Friday morning.

    Daycare rules

    Monday, September 08, 2008

    Back to the twin pursuits of columns and literary journalism

    CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, Sacramento, Sacramento, CA USA - With two heavy duty writing classes on my schedule this semester - Literary Journalism and Column Writing - it would seem that I should get inspired to get back to my own writing.


    Moving into a new house, after flying 2,500 miles to get here, took most of the writing starch out of me with this missive being the first writing since leaving Valois, New York more than a week ago.

    Que lastima.

    But these two classes (and two basic news writing courses) almost always provide a kind of weird kinetic vibration that gets me writing again after short respites.

    In Literary Journalism, we will be reading the works of Sebastian Junger, Hunter S. Thompson, Jon Krakauer and a half dozen others. The students will also be producing a draft of a major piece of Literary Journalism, after a semester of research.

    Hunter S. Thompson, R.I.P
    Hunter S. Thompson

    In column writing, students will be producing two 650-word columns per week - an admittedly heavy load - except that the work is, well, the work of writing and by the end of the semester they should be, for the most part, facil writers who can bang out a column.

    And me? I'll be reading a lot of student work, but also getting back to work on my fiction (Soundtrack, a novel that has been in progress for five years) and beginning a work of literary journalism about immigration. I say beginning because my best sources are in Mexico, a few houses from where I will be living this winter and spring.

    And, time permitting, I'll be back using this column to talk about making money with writing.

    Time permitting.

    Brass clock