Old-school lessons for the new-media generation

I spoke to a wonderful gathering of journalism students recently at the Ferrum College Women’s Leadership Conference, which gave me a chance to think about the things I’ve learned about journalism in 25 years — mostly by trial-and-error. By screwing up first, I mean.

I was also able to work a very important fact into my talk: Sources say that, apparently, I smell quite like Beyonce. (Sorry, the Internet does not provide scratch-and-sniff services at this time.)

Here’s the speech:

Journalism professor Lana Whited has asked me to talk to you today about being an intrepid paper girl in a multiplatform world. In the past year, I’ve blogged, shot video and posted it online, posted pictures to Facebook, used Facebook to find sources and keep in touch with them, written stories that have appeared in both newspapers and magazines and a trade journal — both in print and online.

But here’s the thing I’m discovering about having one foot in old media and the other in the new: The story is still the thing. Social media is well and good, but without the ability to go out and really engage with people who live outside our social and virtual worlds; to talk to them about their desires and fears and memories and dreams and to REALLY LISTEN to what they have to say— we aren’t helping connect people to one another in a way that helps them understand the larger world.

Take, for example, this photo, by my former colleague Josh Meltzer, taken on the first day of school for a group of Somali Bantu refugee kids. Assuming you’re not yourself a Somali Bantu, is this an image you would have seen on your Facebook page or twitter accounts? Doubt it. But underneath that beautiful picture – of kids clutching their teacher’s hand on the way to their very first sip of water from a drinking fountain – lies one heckuva story.

It’s not going to present itself to you on a social media platter, though. To get a story like this, you have to go out and engage with the real world.

As Ursula LeGuin wrote: “The story is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

Eons of genetic and cultural programming compel us to narratives with moral lessons, to stories with beginnings and endings.

Today I’m going to meld my own story in with five lessons I’d like to impart to you — themes that I wish I’d known when I was your age and just starting my career, back when I had no idea what it meant to be a “working mom” or wife or journalist/writer/teacher.

The first point comes courtesy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that real courage is having the guts to do the thing you haven’t before done.  In other words, take risks.

So picture me in the fall 1982, in the flat cornfields of northwest Ohio. I’m 18, and my Mom is driving me to college for the first time. We’re in her rusted-out Mustang with my life’s belongings — my Neil Young album collection, my stuffed Ziggy, my clothes jammed into milk crates I’d filched from behind the Dairy Queen.

My family is so poor that I qualify for full financial aid, which covers my tuition, room and board. Heck, if I put in a few hours each week mixing chemicals for the photojournalism department and writing briefs for the public relations office, Bowling Green State University is basically paying me to attend.

When I first got to college, I felt like a food-stamp recipient in the checkout line at a Whole Foods. But I quickly became a master at the fine art of fitting in. The one thing I’d NEVER talked about with my friends, though, was my Dad, who had died, of lung cancer and alcoholism, the year before. Then a feature-writing professor gave us a class assignment to write a personal essay and send it off to a real publication. I was nervous as a wet cat about sharing the complicated story of my relationship with my Dad, but I wrote, I gulped several times (and cried a lot), and I sent it off.

When the piece was published in Seventeen magazine, I got letters from people all over the country, saying they had been there, too, and thanking me for inspiring them to forgive.

I realized then what writers had the power to do: to make people understand themselves, and each other. I also realized, probably for the first time, that poverty wasn’t something to be ashamed of. It made me a more empathetic journalist, drawn to telling stories of the voiceless, and it gave me good material to draw from — if only I was willing to take risks and tell the real, unvarnished truth.

I moved to Roanoke in 1989 to write features for the Roanoke Times, and I’ve worked there on and off ever since. Last year, I was lucky enough to win a Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard, where I had the privilege of getting to know some of the finest journalists from across the globe: a British war photographer who covered conflicts from Cambodia to Iraq and who was kidnapped in Gaza; an editor who covered the end of Apartheid in South Africa; a BBC reporter in Zimbabwe keeps her work secret from the government; a science writer from the Washington Post who recently wrote a book called “The Hidden Brain.”

Some of them wanted to know why I stay in Roanoke when there’s such tragedy and intrigue going on in bigger cities and far-flung locales?

The answer is: There’s tragedy and intrigue going on here, too. But you have to work harder to find it.

This brings me to my second major piece of career advice: Find mentors — no matter what level you’re at; no matter where on earth you are — and never stop growing.

I was lucky to latch on pretty quickly to one of my first journalism mentors, a reporter named Mary Bishop who covered minority affairs, neighborhoods and the environment for our paper. Mary had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer reporter before she moved to Roanoke to be closer to her parents, and I consider it my great good fortune to have been able to talk out my problems with her in person, on the phone and over e-mail for two decades. She’s coached me on problems with stories, problems with relationships, problems in life.

Mary taught me a lot of nitty-gritty things about reporting — that the kitchen is the best place to do an interview at someone’s house, for instance. But she modeled for me two far more important things. The first I discovered in the early ‘90s when I dropped by her house on Christmas Eve to give her a gift, and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I later learned that she’d been out all day driving around — delivering Christmas gifts to some of the needy people she’d written about that year.

Mary showed me that it was OK to care about the people we write about. She also taught me that, while Roanoke might not be a place for big breaking news, there was definitely news there. You just had to dig a little harder for it.

For one thing, race scholars have deemed it one of the most segregated cities in the South, a fact I’ve seen play out again and again — in terms of housing, schools and a disproportionately small black middle class. In the mid-90s I wrote a series that examined why we had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.  In a story about how teen pregnancy had become destigmatized, I focused on a pair of teenage best friends who were both 16 and both pregnant. “If she was pregnant and I wasn’t, I knew I’d have to be,” one of them said.

I was away on vacation the week the story ran, and so I wasn’t around when the headline writer labeled the story “Pregnant and Proud,” and chose an almost clowning picture of them for the lead photo.

The story generated so much response that the editor actually had to call in extra editorial assistants to answer the phones. It made the national talk radio circuit. A lot of folks were calling me racist, saying I was intent on destroying the girls I’d profiled. A social worker wrote: “The girls could not have known the impact this would have on their young lives; this newspaper could not have not known.” Other critics said I glamorized them.

Finally, after more than a month of daily letters to the editor — nearly all of them critical — someone wrote in and said:

“You would have thought that Beth Macy had personally impregnated several minors from the responses you’re getting. To fix a problem, you first must see it.” That series won statewide public-service journalism honors and a Southern Journalism Award for investigative reporting, and it sparked the creation of a citywide task force that led to a city office dedicated to prevention.

But it also taught me to think harder about how I presented people — and what impact my words could have on their lives. The girls dropped out of school soon after the story ran. I learned recently that, 16 years later, one of them just got out of jail, and the daughter she was pregnant with when I met her 17 years ago has already become a mother herself. The other woman is doing well, working as a fast-food manager-in-training. (And I’m in the process of trying to do an update story on her now.)

Whether or not there’s a direct correlation between the story and some of the bad things that transpired for these two, I have no way of knowing. But it has weighed on me over the years.

Which is another thing about being a reporter in a mid-sized city. Make no mistake: You WILL run into the people you write about at the grocery — one way or another you WILL be accountable. Some people will ask you to write their obituaries when they die; others might even think to call you when they’ve just invited their well-heeled friends over for ladies’ bridge club luncheon — and a rat turns up uninvited. I like that.

My mentor Mary was an unintentional model for the third point I’d like to get across to you today: There’s a big world awaiting you outside of work. No matter what field you go into, make time for friends and family.

This is something I still struggle with when I find myself in total stress mode about a story. Mary herself got so worked up over big projects that she used to develop an eye tic — and once stashed a bottle of whiskey in her desk drawer to calm her down enough to write. I can get so ratcheted up when I think I’m sitting on top of a great story that I can’t sleep until I nail down the first draft.

Both of us have struggled to find balance in our lives. It’s a trial-and-error thing for me that continues to evolve. I happen to know that I get a little nutty if I don’t sweat every day. In the winter that means going to the Y every morning before work. When it’s warm, my husband and I climb Mill Mountain in the predawn, while the kids are still asleep. I spend more time outside weeding and planting and replanting than is probably healthy for me or my plants.

I try to spend time cooking for and talking to and laughing with my kids, now 12 and 17. I try to always have something we’re looking forward to doing together, whether it’s looking at colleges with the teenager or going into debt for our upcoming, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa.

When a story drives me crazy, it helps to talk it out with people I trust — friends like Mary, or my husband, or an editor. I’ve learned that I work best when I stay organized. Here’s a picture my husband took when I was trying to make sense of some 50 interviews I did for a 2010 series on Lyme Disease. Note the dog, Lucky, who has a knack for being exactly where you don’t want him to be no matter what you’re doing. It looks messy but, trust me, this is Martha Stewart neat compared to what our newsroom looks like — and I actually know where everything is.

What I’m describing here is a life of trying to balance family with work; balancing taking care of others with taking care of yourself. It sounds simple and reductive, like one of those how-to guides you read in women’s magazines.

But it can be tiring and guilt-inducing (especially the parenting part), and often you feel like you’re not doing a great job at home OR at work. Bad things will sometimes happen, depressing things — teenagers, for instance. As Anne Lamott writes: “Life with teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out.”

When my kids were little, I left the paper for three years, during which time I taught writing part-time at Hollins University and Virginia Western and did a little freelancing during the day — while hopefully the kids napped. I ate a lot of really bad Whopper Juniors with cheese in the play zone of the Burger King on Franklin Road. On a good day, I could get an entire class of English comp papers graded while my little ones ate greasy chicken nuggets and disappeared in those primary-colored plastic tubes.

When I returned to my newspaper in 2000, I didn’t set out to focus on outsiders and underdogs, but those were always the stories I wrote best: The lawyer with stage-four melanoma who bucked her doctor’s two-month prognosis and, instead of getting her affairs in order, ran a marathon.I wrote about an important antebellum-era black educator  whose story had never been told, even though she’d been a huge influence on black Roanokers, including Oliver Hill, the architect of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation lawsuit.

Research for that piece led me to the Gainsboro Library, which gave me a wonderful glimpse into the history of black Roanoke. . . and introduced me to a 16-year-old wunderkind, who reshelved books. Salena Sulliva had grown up in the projects – but, with the backing of a powerfully strong African-American community at this library and a devoted single mom, she got a full ride to Harvard.

Which is another huge perk of staying in one place. Not only will your pal the librarian call you to say that Salena’s about to hear from colleges, and you really need to be there if you still want to follow up.

But when a plane full of barefoot Somali Bantu refugees lands on the airport tarmac, the head of the local refugee office will tell you that a helluva story awaits.

My husband and I had been mentoring a family of Liberian refugees, Zeor and Tailey Dolue – helping them fill out forms, teaching them to drive, taking them to job interviews and to Wal-mart, the only place they could buy “fish with heads.” I’ll never forget watching Zeor squeal with delight at the sound of a Diet Coke can clunking from the machine.

“There is a person inside that machine!” she said.

I was too close to Zeor to write about her — she has a niece in a Ghanian refugee camp right now whose name is Beth Macy Glay. But knowing Zeor made me realize that I wanted to help readers see themselves anew, somehow, through these new immigrants’ eyes.

Photo by Josh Meltzer | The Roanoke Times

So back to the Tarmac, and the shoeless mother. That was the starting point for a 2005 series on how these new African refugees were assimilating — or not, as was sometimes the case — into our midsized city.

I wasn’t sure how to frame the story at first. But my longtime collaborator, photog Josh Meltzer, had noticed that many of the Somalis were living in a single apartment complex — along with Cubans and Bosnians and working class whites and blacks.

Now even though Terrace Apartments was located not more than five blocks away from my own house, I’d never really seen it the way Josh did: as the most diverse nine acres in one of the most segregated cities in the South. Which brings me to my fourth lesson of the today: Embrace collaboration and change.

Josh’s curiosity drove me to see the place as the vehicle for telling this complicated but classic immigrant story. It was the first of three big multimedia projects we worked on together — each of which won national awards and brought us accolades and led to good things in our career. Josh won a Fulbright and then landed a full-time professorship; I went to Harvard, which has helped usher in new opportunities including freelance writing and a little bit of international reporting. In November, I won a travel grant to cover a medical mission in Haiti, a trip sponsored by the Dart Society for Trauma and Journalism in conjunction with the Nieman Foundation.

So no matter what field you go into these days, especially if it involves online communication, you are going to have to collaborate. Which is a business-y way of saying: Share your toys. Build meaningful friendships with colleagues that hinge on trust, honesty and mutual respect. Drink hoppy beer with them and make them meals when their wives have babies and, above all, wish them well. Your work will be better if you do.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some groundbreaking projects as journalism has had to sail through some pretty rocky shoals in order to reinvent itself. The story is still the thing, yes, but I’ve had to learn that I’m not the only one charged with telling it. Whereas it used to be just me and a single photographer on assignment, now I’m also working with videographers, multimedia producers, computer animators and data editors who use numbers to map out demographic trends.

I’ve learned to write and record narrative voiceovers for online slideshows; to be interviewed myself for television, radio and Web sites. I’ve learned how to set up and run my own blog for both personal and career use. I’ve used (and admit I’m a little addicted to) Facebook as a way to communicate with readers, solicit ideas and help get my stories out to a wider audience. Oh, and to post videos of my 12-year-old son playing his first jam session with a group of real musicians. The song was The Beatles’ “Come Together,” and I recorded it (shakily) on my phone.

In Haiti — where you can’t count on anything — I was supposed to cover a Salem-based medical mission in Port-au-Prince. But when the cholera epidemic broke out, the medical team was flown via U.N. helicopter to Northern Haiti, where we spent four days in the midst of heartbreak, chaos and life or death decisions.

One woman showed up at the hospital with two sick children, having walked in from the countryside. Her husband and mother had died on the way there, and she’d had to leave them by the side of the road — or risk losing her kids, too.

I kept in touch with readers back home via a newsroom blog and Facebook, trying to describe scenes like this:

Sounds from the cholera shelter: The slap of a doctor’s hand on a child’s arm, trying to raise a vein. A baby whimpering. An old man in a cowboy hat humming his wife to sleep. A young man with Dengue fever and legs afire who wants me to know, in perfect English: “I am a teacher.”

The photographer was unable to accompany us at the last minute, so I was suddenly charged with shooting pictures and video while taking notes for the print narrative I would write after we returned home.  I even set up and gave an interview for a report on Public Radio International’s “The World” from the hospital where we were based. Talk about multiplatform!

As rioting broke out around us and we found ourselves trapped for a day by the very people we were trying to help, I kept on reporting: madly note-taking, audio- and video-recording, taking pictures and sanitizing hands. It was one of the toughest, scariest and most exhilarating days of my career.

Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Always, always follow your gut. In journalism, it’s that flicker in the back of your head that seems to be telling you: This is a story worth pursuing. This is a person I need to keep in touch with because I have a feeling the story’s not over yet. (It rarely is.)

This is one of the best perks of being a journalist: Not only do you get to spend much of your time away from the office, you get to know people in the midst of amazing perseverance, tragedy and triumph. You get to listen. You get to be curious. And if you do both of these things with the purest of intentions, not only will you get to produce a good story that can educate or entertain or maybe even enlighten readers. But you yourself can be moved. I still have days where I can’t believe they’re paying me to do the job!

That scared 18-year-old who got to go to college on a full Pell grant? I actually got to meet Senator Claiborne Pell in 1998, for a series of articles I wrote about the erosion of federal need-based aid.

The 10-part series on caregiving for the elderly that landed me the Harvard fellowship? It all began in 2006 when I ran into a recently retired copy editor who happened to live next door to my babysitter. We were at her college graduation party when Lynn Forbish came up to me, her auburn wig askew and a glass of chardonnay teetering in her hand: “I retired because I have dementia — in case you didn’t know!” she said.

She asked me to write her story before she forgot it as a way to help other families struggling with caregiving and dementia. I knew I was sitting on top of a good story when she said, “Some days I can’t remember whether my bra hooks in the front or the back.”

More than a dozen articles later, I have an essay about Lynn in the March issue of Oprah magazine.

The story in Haiti came about because I got in touch with the Salem missionary I’d written a 2009 Mother’s Day feature about when the earthquake descended on Port-au-Prince some eight months later. Nearly a year after that, I found myself running a series of roadblocks run by machete-wielding thugs. I found myself in a cholera-ward overflow tent, holding my headlamp in the dark so a doctor could see to insert an IV. 

Not long ago, I was riding a school bus for immigrant students in Roanoke when up climbed a little girl named Jamika, a kindergartener who spontaneously gave me a hug. Then another. Then another.

“You smell good, like Beyonce,” she told me. Then she said: “You a little bit old —but I like you.”

I got the bus driver to take a picture of us and posted it, immediately, on Facebook. Of course.

I’m not rich by any means, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for all the six-figure salary jobs in the world.

So remember these hard-earned lessons: take risks, find mentors at every stage of the game, make time for friends and family, embrace collaboration and always, always go with your gut.

You could end up in a Third World cholera ward. Or at a marathon in Big Sur. Or you could end up on a school bus in Southeast Roanoke, smelling like Beyonce and laughing so hard you think you’re going to cry.

In praise of the fact-checkers

A fact-checker at The New Yorker wanted to know how journalist John McPhee was so certain that a river he’d been floating down was the exact temperature he reported.

Why, he’d simply hung a thermometer off the bow of his canoe and looked at the results.

I used to tell that story to my journalism students as an example of fact-checking at its finest. I also used to spout legendary crime reporter Edna Buchanan’s three rules for reporting:

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

Never trust an editor.

In other words, don’t count on someone else to catch your mistakes.

I’ve changed my tune on that one lately, having just survived a rigorous, occasionally sweat-inducing fact-checking experience. For the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, I wrote an essay about a crusty newspaper copy editor I used to work with named Lynn Forbish. As her mind slipped into dementia in 2006, she asked me to tell her story — before she forgot it.

A stickler for details, Lynn was the kind of copy editor who had no problem getting a reporter out of bed at midnight to check a fact. So it was fitting when an O fact-checker tracked me down on vacation recently to double- and triple-check several details in the story, which had already been through four editors at least.

Lynn’s relatives recalled some details differently than I had, including when exactly Lynn’s mind began to falter. Before her 61st birthday? After her 62nd? (It was sometime between the two.)

Which paper was it that she’d worked for in St. Pete – the Times or the Evening Independent? (Both.)

Another editor wanted to me to verify the anecdote about Lynn fighting a bull in Spain. Can a tourist really do that? Step into a ring with an angry bull?

I had relied on a family member’s recollection for that detail. But it was one of those stories that had been told and retold so many times that it turned out no one really knew if or how Lynn fought the bull.

She had, albeit a small one — only it wasn’t in Spain, it was Mexico, according to the newspaper article we finally tracked down, written by Lynn herself. As a wonderful byproduct, that fact-finding mission produced a keeper of a photo of Lynn brandishing a red cape — resolute, brave and absolutely beaming. (I considered it bonus proof that the old gal really had faced down a bull.)

A reporter now for 25 years, I’m sorry to say that most newspapers simply don’t have time to fact-check with the rigor of a monthly magazine — although a certain British copy editor named Suzanne likes very much to keep me on my toes.

I like to think the magazine pieces I’ve written in recent years have had a positive spillover into my daily work. Surviving the fact-checkers has made me try harder to prevent those humbling, late-night “How do we know this for a fact?” calls from Suzanne.

After my November nail-biter of a trip to Haiti, I had to describe what it was like to navigate through angry protests and roadblocks as the medical team I covered fled cholera-decimated Limbe. But were there six roadblocks or seven? And at what point did we arrive at the scariest stop, the one with the blocked-off bridge and the man who clutched both a machete and a stick as he ran straight for us?

In the front seat of our truck, I was so scared I only took notes between roadblocks, after the danger was passed. And you try making sense of notes written while riding on dirt roads with mattress-sized potholes at the same time you’re thinking, man, I really wish they had guns instead of machetes.

At least with guns, death might be mercifully quick.

It took several follow-up interviews with team members before I felt comfortable describing the escape in detail. The bridge roadblock was the fourth, we all agreed. There were six roadblocks in all.

Part of the medical team, in all its post-rescue glory.

The whole ordeal lasted how long? Not one of us had a clue, a detail that spoke volumes about how the brain processes trauma. Could have been 20 minutes, could have been 90.

When is a fact really a certifiable fact? What do you do when people remember things differently, as they ultimately will?

When you’ve been reporting for as long as I have and in basically the same community, it can be tempting to not make that extra phone call, not challenge that source you’ve been calling on for years, not give that piece you could’ve just written in your sleep a 16th or 17th going-over before you turn it in.

For my recent series on the politically contentious issue of Lyme disease, I knew I couldn’t rely on old habits when I interviewed a doctor who greeted me with, “I’ve been looking forward to this as much as a root canal,” then proceeded to pick apart my every question. (When I casually asked what tick-precautions I should take when I hike up Mill Mountain, he shot back: “Well, are you in shape?”)

Which is why I decided to record every interview for the series — something I rarely do — even though the transcription time doubled my work.

Should anyone question the validity of my quotes, I wanted my own thermometer in the water, my McPhee-level proof. (See a fabulous interview with the literary journalism master in this Paris Review.)

McPhee has written that the worst checking error is calling people dead who are not dead. I’m happy to say I’ve never committed that sin, though I once used the wrong pronoun on a second-reference to a person, giving him — or her; I forget which — a print sex change. Once when was I was very young and rushed I made reference in a profile — of an English professor, no less! — to the writer William Thoreau. Ugh.

It’s the things you think you know that get you into trouble every time.

Long live the fact-checkers.

Bull castration, mountain bikers and other joys of returning to the Star City

Star-topped Mill Mountain in the distance

My  first solo mountain bike on one of my favorite paths: I’m less than a quarter-mile up the Monument Trail when I nearly slam into him. Actually, I hear his rattletrap bike long before I see him. His brakes are squealing from several bends away, like the sound of Norfolk-Southern rail cars screaming to a stop.

He’s not your typical mountain biker. He is helmet-less with baggy gym shorts, a T-shirt and Malcolm X glasses.On his feet are black dress socks and blue Reebok flip-flops, the kind soccer players wear when they’re off the field. I pull over so he can ride past me, but he stops and gives me a friendly stare.

We’re near the edge of this Mill Mountain trail, Frisbee-throwing distance from residential traffic, when the stranger asks: “If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke?”

I assure him he will. He thanks me and white-knuckles it down the trail.  I’m half weirded out, half wondering if my imagination has just conjured him up.  I turn to make sure he’s really gone.

Home again, home again, jiggity jog (and Tom, bless him, did DMV duty).

If I keep going, will I end up in Roanoke? It’s a question a lot of people have asked me lately. It’s been exactly a year since we left this small Southern city for the bustling (and R-less) Beantown, the land of crazy drivers, fabulous grocery stores and genuinely big news. We’ve been back for nearly two months now, and some people want to know: How was your year at Harvard? Are you glad to be back?

I’m never sure what to say. The first question is a no-brainer: My year at Harvard was amazing. I was paid — for the first and only time in my life, I’m sure — NOT to work.

But no one really wants to hear that, and I get it. I really do. They’re more likely to want to hear how awful it is leaving it behind. I get that too.

Will I ever again know this many people willing to help me move?

I know of one former Nieman who cried at her desk her entire first week back on the job. Another told me his readers picked apart everything he wrote  — either he was trying too hard to sound high-and-mighty Harvard, they complained, or he was not sounding Harvard enough. Yet another told me she returned to her paper with renewed rigor— but, honestly, she seemed depressed. An international fellow from 2009,  she kept referring to our class as “the robbers” and said it was too painful to re-enter Lippman House.

No wonder they brought in counselors to talk to us about re-entry.

I’ll admit, there were days when I worried that returning to the same job I’ve had for 21 years would feel like a step backward. And then I actually stepped back into the old job, occupying the same old dusty desk , with the same old desk lamp (sorry, Rex; I had it first) and even the same telephone number.

I checked in with my editor and then I did what I always do when I want to find a story so good I can get lost in it: I promptly left.

I don’t care how many meetings you sit in, or how much computer-assisted research you say you’re doing, or how much office face time is politically wise. This is one of my story idea mantras: There are no good stories in the newsroom.

My first story back ran Saturday. Found it at a gas station when I ran into a trusted source and old friend who runs a Mexican store. He’d already pitched it to a younger colleague, who confessed he hadn’t known where to begin. I began it with this question: Are Hispanics really being rounded up and deported from our region and what happens to the families that are left behind?

My second story also ran Saturday. As someone with the so-called families beat, I got a tip about a story that explored the very definition of family. A relative of the source had recently passed away, and his same-sex partner opened up their rural Franklin County newspaper — only to find that the editors didn’t consider a gay partner family enough to list among the survivors.

I drove deep into the country to meet Chris Nichols — past two Bojangles, past the trailer parks, past the tanning/hair/movie-rental salons. He showed me the kidney-shaped swimming pool that he and his beloved had recently built, complete with a sign, “Welcome to Paradise,” and Key West colors inside the trim house. He showed me the cross necklace the nurse handed him moments after the doctor pronounced his partner of 23 years dead; and the note he later found tucked behind some bills he’d been about to mail — expressing that it wasn’t enough just to call yourself a Christian, you also had to express it in deeds.

I found my next story through my stomach, having become addicted to the  bread sold at a nearby farmer’s market before I knew anything about the hands that baked it. I still don’t understand what spelt is, but I’m grateful to have gotten to know Ginger Hillery, a recently widowed farmer and baker who raises five wonderfully quirky kids and runs a church under a willow tree next to her barn. I hope I’ll know her for a good, long time. She’s spiritually advanced, funny and — it might seem like I’m piling on praise here, but admit it, this is impressive: She castrates her own bulls.

“The definition of grace is unmerited favor,” she told me, explaining how she’s managed to keep the farm and the family going in the face of her huge, monolithic grief.

Will I end up in Roanoke? Perhaps the better question is: Will I be blessed to keep meeting unexpected people around the next delicious bend? Will I get to keep writing stories that otherwise would not find their way into anyone else’s definition of a traditional newspaper beat?

And why didn’t I ask that guy on the falling-apart mountain bike: What’s your name, and where on earth have you been?

I [Heart] the Hub

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I “graduated” recently from Harvard University, along with honorary doctorates Meryl Streep and David Souter and about two dozen new BFFs, aka Nieman Fellows. I put the verb in quotes because technically we don’t earn degrees or graduate; we audit Harvard classes and attend thrice-weekly programs and seminars at Lippman House, the program’s home base.

Monica, Audra, me and Janet at our faux graduation.

We earn “certificates,” which were handed out to us the week prior by Harvard President Drew Faust, who encouraged us to become the leaders of the new-media world. Faust spoke openly and engagingly, including about what it was like for her to travel abroad as a representative of Harvard and be “treated like a head of state.”

I can’t say we’ve been received as heads of state, but the Nieman Fellows have been feted and fed and saturated with enough intellectual fodder to last a lifetime, as I’ve tried to describe on this blog. We’ve been plucked from disparate newsrooms (and home offices) across the world and thrown into a challenging, welcoming environment that’s designed to send us back to our communities with renewed vigor and curiosity.

Among the things I’ve learned:

The Beeb (center) took me and Janet on an equally grueling hike in Quincy recently.

• How to serve a drop-ball in squash, a game I’ve become so enamored of that I’ll play even if it means re-aggravating the sciatica I pulled during my first time out last fall. (Props to my squash mentor, Martha Bebinger, who set a terrible example early on by diving for every single shot.)

• That Harvard professors were accessible not just through their lectures but also over drinks and dinner. Special thanks to Africa historian Caroline Elkins and public health professor Kathy Swartz, who were especially adept at dispelling the myth of the aloof, pinky-raised Hahvahd scahla.• That only Americans would add M&M’s into trail mix. This tidbit is courtesy of skinny South African pal Janet Heard, who also taught us our new favorite exclamation: SHAAAAAAAaaaa! It translates loosely to: Wow! Or, holy shit! Or, somebody get me a stiff gin-and-tonic! (In the realm of our dozen-plus goodbye gatherings, sending off the South Africans will be the hardest. They are the Scarecrow to my Dorothy; I’ll miss them the most.)

• That it’s possible for a municipality to spend twice as much per capita per school child than the norm, but only if it has pothole-riddled roads that would rival any Third World country. (Note to incoming Niemans: If you’re thinking of buying a new car, wait until the year is over. Our suspension is totally shot.) No wonder the Massholes are so crazed behind the wheel.

• That children continually surprise you. Max, the sullen 16-year-old, was so angry and depressed when we got here that he “quit” school on the second day. (We talked him into going after lunch.) Now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave — although we did have to bribe him with $10 bucks to participate in the year-end Nieman Kids photo. Eleven-year-old Will, on the other hand, told me at the end of the first day of school that no one talked to him at recess. “But that’s OK because that’s always how it is on the first day of school when you’re the new kid,” he added. (I covet his level of maturity, I really do.) Three days later, he was elected class rep by a bunch of kids who still like to tease him about his “country accent.” But now, he’s the one in our family who most wants to return home to Roanoke.

• That my husband happily carved out his own role as a so-called affiliate. Not only did Tom work full-time while sitting in on regular classes. He also had a mini-premiere of the film he co-produced, “A Gift for the Village,” with velvety-smooth narration by Nieman Lisa Mullins, anchor of BBC’s “The World” program. He gave his own sounding (life/work story) in May — and had everyone in the room laughing. He also initiated our buddy Steve Pike into the world of

Tom and Steve in Colorado -- or was it Vermont?

Landon Brothers: taking Steve to Vermont to snowboard with his crazy brother Mike and later to Colorado, to snowboard with his even crazier brother, Rich. He did untold favors for people here, just as he does back home — from video editing to technology training to printer-unjamming. And now he’s busy trying to figure out how we’re going to pack everything we brought up here into that 16-foot Penske truck, plus a couch we bought in the fall, plus a hutch and seven dining room chairs given to us by our Nieman pal Anita Snow. (They’re mementos from her AP days in Mexico City and Havana and, unfortunately for her/fortunately for us, they won’t fit into her tiny, ultra-expensive new apartment in New York, where she’ll be covering the United Nations for AP – but we will, when we come to visit!) Oh, and while we packed we helped the South Africans throw a braii (barbecue) to herald the opening of the South African World Cup. SHAAAAAaaa!

Gary Knight, our fearless default leader, on our winter outing in Stowe, Vt.

• And lastly, that I really, really hate goodbyes. It’s why I’ve been putting off writing my last Nieman blog entry. I’m one of those who likes to leave the party fairly early — while it’s still going strong — with a thank-you hug to the host and a quick exit out the back door. About half our buddies have already taken off for various points across the globe, from Kandahar to London to Toronto to NYC. We also miss our favorite Zimbabwean princess, MIT journalism fellow Firle Davies—known across the commonwealth for shouting “F—ing savages!” at passing cars who inadvertently splashed her and her tail-slapping Lab, Jessie, as they trudged through the cold Cambridge rain.

Will, the Zim Princess and Tom in Elkins' Africa course. "I didn't understand any of it," Will said. "But now I've been to Harvard."

We gave Firle an “I [Heart] Boston” T-shirt as a going-away gift because she so did not [Heart] Boston, especially the weather. But even she’s reported, via e-mail from her thatched-roof home in Harare, a growing fondness for the place. I think it’s us she misses the most. . . although it may also be our steady electricity. And her daily Bikram.

No ironic Boston T-shirt necessary for me; I do love the Hub (you gotta love a place that officially nicknames itself the Hub of the universe) — but not for its pomp and grandeur.

I love it because of all the great people I’ve gotten to know so well, so quickly here — a rarity in middle age. Or as our default leader Gary Knight put it the other day at maybe the seventh going-away gathering of the month: “This kind of friendship will probably never happen again in our lives.” (He’s the default leader because he and his fantastic journalist/wife, Fiona, have ended up hosting the most parties. And though I’m older than Gary by a couple of months, I’ll always see him as a kind of big brother/journalism adviser/shrink.)

Friendship like this is something to be grateful for, and to hang onto, as we leave the Hub and head back to our far-flung locales and beloved old friends, and set about realizing what a gift this year has been.

Let the girls eat cake

I served my favorite cake in the world last night to 20 of my favorite gal-pals at the Nieman Foundation. It was a loud, raucous night, and not a little bit naughty. We toasted the end of our school year with several pitchers of Joana Henriques’ killer mojitos. She spent a full hour making them the Portugese way, the secret being to juice all those limes by hand — smashing them with ice, sugar and the back of a wooden spoon.  The barbecue was courtesy of our favorite Canadian foodie, Jana Juginovic, who really should have her own reality cooking show.

My Italian Cream Cake was for dessert. It’s a recipe I wheedled out of the folks who ran the Angler’s Cafe long ago. My friend Evelyn had loved the cake so much that she couldn’t stop speculating about its mystery ingredient. The answer is always: Buttermilk. And coconut. And cream-cheese frosting.

While I can’t divulge the contents of the after-dinner storytelling — it was soooo off the record — I can give you the secret recipe for this wonderful cake, with thanks to Mary Stuart VanMetre’s Mom, Nancy Barbour, who slipped it to me via her pre-school grandson long ago. Thanks, too, to Evelyn, for making me realize, finally, that dessert doesn’t always have to be a chocolate-delivery vehicle.

As someone who used to turn her nose up at cake in favorite of its crusty and more artful (or so I thought) brethren, pie — this cake was a revelation.


The Angler’s Italian Cream Cake

1 stick margarine

1/2 cup Crisco

2 cups sugar

2 cups flour

1 tsp. vanilla

5 egg whites, stiffly beaten

5 egg yolks

1 tsp. baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

4 ounces sweetened coconut

Beat egg whites in a medium-sized bowl and set aside, reserving yolks. Into a large bowl: beat margarine, Crisco and sugar. Add egg yolks and beat. Add flour and soda alternately with buttermilk, beating. Stir in vanilla. Fold in coconut and egg whites with spoon.

Grease and flour three cake pans. Add waxed paper cut to fit. Pour in equal amounts of batter and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. To flatten humpy layers: When out of oven a few minutes, lay towel across pan and press. (Flat layers stack better for icing.) Cool completely before icing.

For icing to layer and cover all three layers: 1 stick margarine, 8 ounces cream cheese, 1 box confectioner’s sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla. A topping of chopped walnuts on top is optional but yummy.

Ten random leftovers from Boston University’s Narrative Conference

I enjoyed covering the BU Narrative Conference for Nieman Storyboard this weekend: Got my picture taken with Gay Talese, whose talk I summarized here. Watched as Bill Keller turned peony pink when a woman gushed about him for a cringe-inducing five minutes. (Wrapped up Keller’s talk on the Storyboard here.)

Remembered again how fun it is to talk to strangers and then put their words down on a page (OK, pixels). Went back and reread Talese’s masterful “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and — bonus — found this ultra-cool outline for the story.

Talese takes notes on shirt boards that he cuts into 5-inch strips, rounding the edges so they fit in his shirt pocket. He uses an uncut shirt board for his outlines.

Here are some random nuggets from the lectures:

• Professor and Pultizer-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s declaration that it “takes about a year” before you can feel comfortable saying “Pulitzer” and your own name in the same sentence. Good to know!

• NYT editor Bill Keller on Romenesko: “Sometimes it gets people sort of spun up, reading comments about themselves. … I check it out because it’s the bulletin board of what’s going on in our business. … OK, I’ll say it proudly: I read Romenesko!”

• Biographer Larry Tye on the aftermath of a long newspaper series: “Instead of giving 100 talks on the issue, which is what I wanted to do, my editor wanted to know what I had for him tomorrow.”

• Boston Globe sports columnist and author Dan Shaughnessy said he could name only two good days during the entire process of publishing a book: “The day you get your money and the day the book comes out.”

• Magazine and book writer Adam Hochschild on plot: Homer invented the classic journey frame in “The Odyssey.” Shakespeare mastered the braiding of various story strands — the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch… .”

• While nonfiction writers Talese and Hochschild focused on what they learned from fiction writers, novelist Allegra Goodman said she often stole techniques from journalists: hounding cancer researchers to let her watch them dissect a mouse, for her novel “Intuition”; writing a scene set in a Home Depot for her new novel — while sitting on an actual ladder in the Watertown Home Depot.

• Talese resents it when fiction writers such as E.L. Doctorow place well-known people into fictional constructs. “I don’t want them to come into my little world of reality . . . and be in situations that aren’t verifiable or based on good reporting.”

• When the scandal over James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” broke, The New York Times called the Talese home, looking for his wife, Nan, who happened to be the publisher of Frey’s so-called memoir. Talese told the reporter he was appalled by Frey’s distortions and mistruths. “Then he called her [Nan] up and got a different point of view. And we didn’t talk for five days. That’s the story of marrying editors.”

• Novelist Ha Jin on Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s belief that the center of every novel should contain a profound insight: “The readers don’t have to get it, but your story has to have an inner message, something that gives it an aura. . . a depth and complexity.”

• Talese on what he’s working on now: “I’m a reporter writing about my 50-year-old marriage. I’ve kept records. I’ve saved every complaining note from my wife.”

Shameless autograph-hounding of Gay Talese. Photo by Janet Heard.

Crossing one off the Cambridge bucket list

Near the top of my long list of things to do and see in Cambridge before we return home was to spend an afternoon touring the neighborhood of  longtime Cantabrigian Jan Gardner, who helps edit Nieman Reports. A former Boston Glober who still writes the paper’s Sunday Shelf Life books column (and did a fabulous interview last week with recent Pulitzer winner Paul Harding, whose “Tinkers” I’m dying to read), Jan took me on a two-hour walking tour of a community that turned out to be much more interesting that its name: Area 4.

Somewhere betwixt Central and Inman squares, Jan’s house is located around the corner from The Lost Sock Laundromat. It also sits smack-dab between a former VFW Hall that’s been refashioned into a mosque and a Jewish synagogue, and — get this — the two disparate congregations collaborate to feed the needy.

Arriving on foot at Central Square, we began by checking out some of the city’s colorful murals, including this one, painted on the side of Harvest Co-op Markets. A few blocks away Jan told me the story of Keezer’s (alas, it was closed), a longstanding used-clothing store specializing in suits. Presidents JFK and FDR were said to have consigned some of their formal wear at the end of the Harvard school year to score some summer-break cash. Had they been in the Nieman program, they’d have been trading them in for suits of a bigger size.

I’ve written before about Cantabrigians’ tendency to load their sidewalks on Sundays with freebie giveaways (in anticipation of Monday trash day), and here Area 4 did not disappoint. We soon ran into an old writer buddy of Jan’s named Bruce, who was found looking through an assortment of old suits and menswear. (Don’t know why the original owners didn’t take them to Keezer’s instead.) I’m not into suits, but I did manage to nab the very cool houseplant that Jan’s holding for me in the above photo.

We spent the rest of our walk nudging into cozy garden spaces, including this gloriously small Franklin Street Park with its Zenlike granite entranceway shaped in the sign of pi, with a wonderful glider for a bench.

Down the street we admired a hand-forged wrought-iron gate adorning a front-garden fence, with peek holes for the nosy gardener in me. We wandered into a nearby Open House for the heck of it (gorgeous, but a 2,000 square feet condo — for sale at $800,000!) and, yes, the realtor informed us, an offer had already been accepted.

After an arm-length spinach-mozzarella dosa at The Dosa Factory in Central Square, we capped things off with a short drive to MIT so Jan could show me the $283 million Stata Center, a Frank Gehry-designed Seuss-ism that makes Roanoke’s new $66 million Taubman Museum look like my four-square house in comparison. Architecturally, modern MIT feels a world away from the rest of Cambridge, with its buckled brick sidewalks and cozy crannies and signs proclaiming that In 1649 Something Very Special Happened Here.

There are so many irresistible places to explore here, I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. But I know this: I’ll miss it like crazy. And I haven’t even made my way yet to the new Lord Hobo, the mecca of craft beer, with 40 different kinds on tap.

Divide and conquer: at home and in the garden

My gardening pals will take one look at this photo and immediately get it: Frances, she’s probably already out there buying the Sherwin Williams’ Frida Kahlo blue! So, too, will Libba, who designed a rock wall around a pile of empty wine bottles leftover from her husband’s birthday party. (And who buys extra suitcases while on vacation — for the purpose of hauling home decorative rocks.)

With only a handful of weeks remaining in my Nieman fellowship, I’m all throat-lumpy about my impending goodbye to this place and these people I’ve come to love so much. A former fellow advised a while back: “You still have three months left! So you should think of it as the start of a three-month fellowship.” In other words, don’t obsess over how little time you have left, but focus on the abundance: Compared to my Real Workaday Life, where I get just four weeks of annual vacation, the fact that I still have three months off still lands me squarely in the catbird’s seat. Only now I’m down to just two.

So I’m making re-entry plans — gatherings I hope to have, stories I want to tackle, hikes I want to go on and gardening projects I want to undertake. Which brings me to the Blue Stick project I saw featured in an exhibit at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

“I heard about your little gardening idea,” my husband said recently, after my pal Janet let slip that I was plotting something similar of my own. “Interesting,” he added. “But how do you plan to pull that off?”

Paint, I said. And sticks.

“What kind of sticks?” he wanted to know.

The kind of sticks you paint!

For that matter, Captain Bring-Down: Does it matter if I actually undertake my own blue stick garden? Can’t a girl plot?

It was this time 21 years ago that Tom and I set out to cultivate our very first garden — vegetables, mostly, in the field in front of our rural Texas Hollow Road house. Tom got out the tape measure and marked off a space about the size of two refrigerators. Dorm-sized refrigerators.

I wanted half the field.

A “compromise” was reached. I got half the size I wanted, which was more than triple what Tom had in mind.

Then came the Colorado potato beetles. And the cutworms. The only thing that flourished was a gorgeous patch of okra, which neither of us really liked at the time.

Our gardening has morphed a lot, like our marriage. I respect those couples we know who run businesses together, but I honestly don’t get how they pull it of without calling Perkinson & Perkinson  — a pair of divorce lawyers in town. (I can never remember if they’re actually married or not, but the Perkinsons’ office phone number is similar to ours and we frequently get calls for them. So it’s become part of our vernacular that we joke about calling them after arguments.)

We’re in sync over our duties with the kids, but when it comes to other creative endeavors it’s best when we divide and conquer: I do the cooking, he does dishes. I buy the materials for science fair projects, he oversees the experiments — and the tears. Where garden projects are concerned, he doesn’t comment on the money I spend at plant nurseries on account of: It’s still cheaper than therapy. Most of the time. (Here’s a tip: If you buy several flats of seedlings, unload some of them in the front yard and some in the back, thereby watering down his ability to calculate the total.)

Although our tenants are mowing the grass, I don’t expect them to do the weekly (sometimes daily) chores required of maintaining my garden in the spring — weeding, trimming the shrubbery, hauling away last year’s detritus. It’s the first April in two decades that my fingernails aren’t all broken and dirt-encased from working in the yard (and my hamstrings aren’t toast).

So I say let me have my blue stick garden for now — or at least let me imagine it. By the time we roll into town in late June, there’ll be enough maintenance work to keep me happily, busily digging for weeks on end, with or without the Frida Kahlo blue.

But, seriously, Frances: What do you think?!


Lynn Forbish: “I have dementia, not [expletive] herpes!”

When journalist Lynn Forbish was diagnosed with a fast-moving dementia in 2006, doctors said the end wouldn’t be pretty. She could expect to live about five more years, and chances were she’d die of an infection, curled up in a fetal position.

But Forbish, 67, died Wednesday in a Janesville, Wis., memory care facility in much the same way she lived — on her own terms.

She’d started refusing food last week, clamping her teeth tight and turning her head; pretending to fall asleep. Her final hours were pain-free, with hospice workers and her favorite cousin by her side.

“She was done,” recalled her daughter-in-law, Katie Forbish, of Botetourt County. “As headstrong as she was, by God she was gonna go on her own terms.”

Profiled in a 2007 newspaper story, Forbish was known for holding reporters to her exacting, sometimes copy-skewering standards. From 1993 until her 2005 retirement, she served as the The Roanoke Times’ chief copy desk editor, the final arbiter on stories before they went to press.

When news broke at night or on weekends, her command presence enabled her to pull off coordinating phones, photographers and reporters.

Former reporter Lois Caliri described working with her on a sensitive story about opponents of a proposed AEP power line. Forbish questioned Caliri repeatedly before the story ran, weighing its merits and double-checking every name and detail.

Caliri recalled once telling her: “I love the way that. . . when you speak or need something, people come running.”

Forbish raised her eyebrows, as if to say: “They better.”

To live nearer her son, Forbish moved to Roanoke after copy editing for The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, where she also reviewed entertainers and minced characteristically few words, telling Milton Berle in print, for instance, that he needed a new shtick.

Divorced in the mid-‘60s, she began newspapering in her Janesville hometown, where she advanced from clerk-typist to reporter, covering cops and schools and writing features — while raising two small children on her own. To pay for braces for her son, she once worked three jobs.

“She loved newspapers because she loved to learn new things, and she thrived on that deadline rush,” her son, Larry Forbish, said.

She believed, too, in newspapers’ responsibility to educate and help readers, which was why she approached a reporter in 2006 with a request to write her story — before she could no longer tell it.

As the disease progressed, her personality mellowed. Forbish joined a church, took a boyfriend and stopped snapping at people who “patronized” her by trying to guess a word she couldn’t recall.

To tease her old coworkers about not visiting her more, she threatened to send them a Christmas card that read: “I have dementia, not [expletive] herpes!”

In July 2007, she moved to a facility in Janesville, where her daughter and many other relatives live. Before she became immobile, she liked to wander into other patients’ rooms to socialize and watch television. She loved laughing with people, even after she could no longer talk.

Not long ago, she re-asserted her legendary will by refusing to roll balls of yarn — she never was the crafty type. Relatives suggested music therapy instead.

“It was down with the yarn, up with the Beatles!” Katie Forbish recalled, laughing. “I’m just so proud that she kept her spunk until the very end.”

— Roanoke Times, April 16, 2010

Nicco Mele on why papers like The Roanoke Times should thrive

On a good day, technology increases people’s engagement with each other.

On a bad day, it’s all about the digital me. “It’s narrow-minded and parochial, and people only read what they already agree with,” said Nicco Mele, the man Esquire magazine dubbed “one of America’s best and brightest.”

The technology guru and Harvard media professor spoke to a smallish group of Nieman fellows this week, thanks to Chilean Nieman Fellow Alejandra Matus (who was just named a 2011 Mason fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; we’re so proud!)

Among Mele’s advice for journalists:

• Remember, it’s not about technology; it’s about people. “The Internet allows people to transact directly with each other and to bypass institutions.” Social media is king.

• How will newspapers fare? “I don’t see the large institutions existing in their current form in five, 10 years.” Accountability journalism — 80 percent of which has historically been done by newspapers, according Web guru Clay Shirkey — will instead be undertaken piecemeal, with no dominant model leading the charge. Damn the digital me.

Mele foresees enterprise journalism being funded by a cadre of foundations, old media, new media start-ups, and, gulp, corporations. “I think we’ll struggle with accountability journalism for 10, 25 years — but eventually it’ll get sorted out because hard news is important.”

• It’s 24-hour pajama time: Journalists should prepare to become freelancers mainly working on their own. “It’s the 1,000 true fans theory: the idea that if you have 1,000 fans who subscribe to you for $100 a year, you can live off that.” (See Paige Williams’ astonishing profile on Dolly Freed and her efforts to crowd-fund the story after it was killed by The New York Times Magazine.)

Mele told an interesting story about how he self-published the lesson plans of his grandmother, a retired middle school teacher — and sells 400-500 copies of it a year via amazon.com.

• Forget institutions; it’s all about people and social networks. “I don’t trust The New York Times. At the end of the day, the people I trust are my social network. They’re my old college roommates — the people whose faults and biases I already know!

“Large institutions to whom power is important will struggle and struggle and struggle with the Internet.

• • •

Just as I was beginning to get totally depressed (again) about the state of the print media, someone asked Mele to forecast the fortunes of medium- and smaller-market newspapers — and the picture brightened. Mele is a big fan of putting local news on the front page, even when there’s big news happening elsewhere.

Papers the size of The Roanoke Times should strive to become the “google groups” of their communities, offering hyperlocal news and connecting readers with one another in new and innovative ways. (Kevin Myatt’s fantastically popular weather blog came to mind here, as did the diehard followers of Doug Doughty and Randy King on all things sports. And I’d put Tad Dicken’s local music reporting up against anybody in the country’s; Tee-man has definitely helped turn our town into a happening music scene.)

In other words, forget trying to be sophisticated, big-city wannabe papers and embrace the local. “I don’t get the Boston Globe putting the Taliban on the front page instead of the major local story of the day,” he said. “They’re not going to be the international news source, and they shouldn’t even try.”

The Internet is about relationships — whether it be professional relationships via Linked In, or Facebook for socializing, or specialized networks that connect local chefs to local organic farms.

“The problem in the U.S. is that we’ve gone mass. And the Internet in my mind is lethal to anything mass.”

Get busy and get creative — not depressed, he added.

“I see lots of opportunity for hope, as long as you get back to the local and build it out from there.”