Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Tunnel vision

September 19, 2022

Miss Mia Sopaipilla is locked and loaded.

Everything old is new again.

Miss Mia Sopaipilla has rediscovered the joys of an old crinkle tube, some coarse wrapping paper, and a Wholeazon Amafoods shopping bag, all of which make fine sounds when run through, sprawled upon, or snuggled into.

Me, I likewise got back on the old hoss, metaphorically speaking, which is to say I started running again after giving my damaged toe a month of downtime.

Bikewise I hardly broke stride. Kept cranking out the 100-mile-plus weeks even with a pulverized piggie, and so far (knock on wood) I have avoided doing anything else inexplicably stupid to myself.

It’s nearly fall here in The Duck! City, but you’d hardly know it. Oh, the leaves are coming off the trees, but the weather widget says 87° in midafternoon and the hummers are still hitting the feeders like a cluster of knee-walking bog-trotters who just heard the barman call, “Time, gentlemen, time.”

Time, indeed.

A certain restlessness I ascribe to muscle memory. Come September Back In the Day® I would be in the early throes of cyclocross season, with a side of Interbike, and there would be much motoring and bicycling and running around to no particular purpose.

Your Humble Narrator at Dirt Demo circa 2005.

My Septembers are less hectic now. I did my last ’cross race in Bibleburg, way back in 2004, rocking a Steelman Eurocross but no spare bike, not even spare wheels. I rode to the course from the DogHaus, and when I flatted midrace, I simply replaced the tube and rode back home. It could be argued that I was not taking the whole thing seriously.

Thirteen years later I did my last Interbike. I lasted longer at that game because the finish-line payout was better and getting sockless drunk on the publisher’s dime was more or less a condition of employment.

But the publishers changed, and so did the game, and in January 2022 I retired, an event with all the significance of a mouse fart in a haboob.

I hadn’t expected to waltz offstage in the middle of a plague — which is over now, I understand, so, yay — but as the fella says, you go to retirement with the virology you have, not the virology you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Anyway, here it is September again and I still haven’t tapped my generous pension to buy a Peace Van and finally buckle down to the serious business of writing my great American road-trip story, “Travels with Snarly.”

Some days that Nobel Prize in Literature seems farther away than the finish line  with a slow leak and no spare. At least I’m still riding and running.

R.I.P., Barbara Ehrenreich

September 2, 2022

She took what they were giving ’cause she was working for a living.

Barbara Ehrenreich, the journalist, activist, and author who never lost touch with her working-class roots, has clocked out. She was 81.

Her New York Times obit draws from the introduction to “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” in which she recounts wondering with a magazine editor how the unskilled survive on the wages paid them and then blurting out something that she “had many opportunities to regret: ‘Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism — you know, go out there and try it for themselves.'”

Which is exactly what Ehrenreich did, of course, working and living as a waitress, hotel maid, nursing-home aide, and Walmart “associate,” among other things. Then she came back and told us all about it.

And though she would be writing it up, she wasn’t phoning it in:

People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk not because I acted like one but because that’s what I was, at least for the time I was with them. In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasn’t kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.

She was not, and is not, alone. And in her Evaluation at the end of the book, Ehrenreich proposed that those of us who live in comfort while others barely scrape by should feel not just guilt, but shame.

When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.

What a gift was Ehrenreich’s life. Peace unto her, her family, friends, and readers.

Sketchy way to earn a living

July 17, 2022

Back to the ol’ drawing board? Nope.

Back in the late Seventies, when I was more yappy pup than Mad Dog, one of the editors at my second newspaper asked me why I was dead set on becoming an editorial cartoonist.

“I think you’re a better writer than you are a cartoonist,” he said.

Well. Shit. Nobody else around the newsroom seemed to think I was a fledgling Woodward N. Bernstein. Especially me.

I didn’t love reporting, which precedes writing and can be a very heavy lift indeed. When bored witless at school-board meetings I often doodled in my reporter’s notebook. As a consequence coverage could be less than comprehensive. And now here was this authority figure telling me that words, not pictures, were my forte, my future. Bad news.

This wasn’t the first “Check Fiscal Engine” light on my career dashboard, either. An adviser at my first college had told me how many editorial cartoonists were earning a living in the United States (not many then; even fewer now). Might want to cast a wider net, the adviser advised. Instead I dropped out and fished blue-collar ponds for a while.

At my second college another adviser advised that I’d never find any kind of work at a newspaper, unless maybe it was with Ed Quillen, who even then had a reputation for blazing his own trail. As it turned out, this wizard’s palantír was off by seven newspapers, and I didn’t do a lick of work for Ed until I had quit No. 7 and gone rogue. Those who can’t do, etc.

But I digress. Back to Newspaper No 2.

Your Humble Narrator at Newspaper No. 3, circa 1980.

The writing was on the wall, as it were. Happily, I could read. And even write, a little, as long as it didn’t involve first walking up to strangers like some Monty Python constable: “’Ello, ’ello, ’ello … wot’s all this then?” I didn’t care for regular haircuts or wearing a tie, and I only liked meeting strangers over drinks in some dark bar.

But a few years earlier, at Newspaper No. 1, where I was a copy boy, I got to sit in at the copy desk now and then, and I really enjoyed the work. It was why I eventually quit and went to College No. 2, the managing editor having advised that I would pretty much top out as a copy boy without a degree of some sort.

So at Newspaper No. 2, after scanning the writing on the wall for typos, grammatical errors, and AP Style violations, I petitioned to relocate from reporting to the copy desk. And I spent the next decade moving from one copy desk to another, editing other people’s stories, writing headlines and cutlines, sizing photos, laying out pages, and occasionally slipping a cartoon past an editorial-page editor.

And rarely — very rarely — I wrote something under my own byline.

Almost exactly 10 years after I read that writing on the wall, I found myself inching toward the exit at Newspaper No. 7, where I had bounced from the copy desk to the sports desk to the arts magazine to the features desk. There were no chairs left unoccupied and the music was winding down. The idea of courting Newspaper No. 8 — and then Nos. 9, 10, 11, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum —felt like a long pull into a cold headwind.

And yes, I had taken up bicycle racing a couple of years earlier.

Your Humble Narrator post-newspapering, in his second act as a pro cartoonist.

So imagine my astonishment when I stumbled across an ad in Editor & Publisher, the industry’s trade mag. Something called VeloNews wanted a managing editor. I applied. Got an interview. Didn’t get the job.

But I did get hired as a cartoonist. Finally! Pro at last, pro at last, thank God Almighty, I’m pro at last!

Cartooning for VeloNews was my first gig outside newspapering, and cartooning for Bicycle Retailer and Industry News would be my last. The Alpha and Omega of my second act, as a freelancer.

In between I did a lot of other stuff, of course. Covered races and trade shows, wrote commentary, edited copy for print and online, dabbled in video and audio. But it was cartooning that brought me in, and cartooning that saw me out.

And you know what’s really funny? I retired six months ago and haven’t drawn a line since. But I just wrote 700-some-odd words, and for free, too, simply because I love doing it.

Maybe that editor was onto something after all.

Outside+ looking in

May 20, 2022

Ask not for whom the bike bell tolls.

Ring-a-ding-ding, bitches.

It was never a question of if, but of when. The Greater Outside+ Globe-Spanning Vertically Integrated Silo O’ Sports & Fitness, LLC, has begun excreting magazines and scribes, because that’s what vulture capitalists do: Gobble and shit, gobble and shit.

I knew my time was up last year when I saw the thousand-pound sack of boilerplate contract Outside’s drones expected me to sign if I cared to keep drawing funnies for Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.

After a quick semantic analysis boiled their bullshit down to its smoky essence — “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” — I trimmed it to a few salient grafs that cut straight to the chase, sent them off, and never heard another peep.

Not long afterward, I retired.

Now, the folks who stuck around and did the work are getting the old heave and also the ho. Talented types like Ben Delaney and Nicole Formosa, to name just two. It’s basically v2.0 of Competitor Group Inc., which gave Charles Pelkey and John Wilcockson the bum’s rush Back in the Day®. Same old guillotine, just different heads and an Outside Gear Box instead of the usual basket.

I can’t speak to the quality of the publications that lost staffers or are going dark entirely. I don’t read them. My subscription dollars are spent elsewhere.

But if these pubs aren’t profitable, I’m guessing it’s probably not Ben’s fault, or Nicole’s. Might have something to do with an overabundance of supernumeraries who don’t write, edit, shoot, sketch, or sell.

If I were showing people the door in an effort to save money I might start with anyone who uses the bloodless words “product” and “content” to describe “stories” and “photographs.” There’s always work for people who think everything is a commodity, including their souls.

Fence ’em out, not in

April 19, 2022

All in all it’s just another tree and a wall.

Good fences make good neighbors, they say. (Hint: Fences work best if the neighbors keep their gates closed.)

Fences, walls, and gates seem to be keeping deer and Russians out of the yard. But how do we keep the Russians — along with Elon Musk, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ron DeSantis, and the Kardashians, this last a species more invasive than deer, Russians, or kudzu — out of our heads?

A few of us were discussing this via email recently, and I chimed in thusly:

As a lifelong news junkie I hate to say it, but we should all try to pay a little less attention to what they call “news” these days.

Fully half of it is nonsense, and a quarter of it is something we can’t do anything about. The final 25 percent may have some bearing on you and yours, concerning something you can actually get a handle on. It will probably be local news. If you can find any.

What people like me used to call news 40 years ago was still pretty overwhelming on the supply side. We whittled it down and sold it in 24-hour doses, like allergy meds. It could boggle the mind at times, but most folks could take it, learn a little something, form a few defensible opinions.

Now anyone trying to keep up feels like a dog with his head out the window of a hopped-up Honda Civic doing 110 mph coming into the Big I at drunk-thirty on Friday. There’s just too much going on out there for one poor mutt to take in

Imagine my surprise when an industry bigwig agreed with me. Ken Doctor, a media analyst and consultant who is a longtime contributor to Nieman Lab, wrote that he too is trying to fence out the wider world with all its horrors while he focuses on nurturing a startup local news outfit in Santa Cruz, Calif.

I recently talked to an old friend about a project we were working on together. He could hardly engage, so troubled was he by the news from Ukraine. What’s going on in the broader world is bleak, more than enough to depress and deflate us. I’ve put all that in the back of my head because I have little time or room to address national or global issues on which I can have little impact. I’ve been working on Lookout now for more than three years, and it’s the hardest, most consuming thing I’ve done in a 47-year career. But as I, and my peers, focus fiercely on rebuilding our little parts of the planet, we focus on what we can change.

Well. Just goes to show you even a dumb dog can dig up a moldy Milk-Bone now and then, if he can just keep the deer and the Kardashians out of his yard.

Deadlines

March 21, 2022

Signposts are few and far between in the Deadline Forest.

I am a creature of the Deadline.

When I was cartooning for my high school and college newspapers in the Seventies the Deadline popped round once per week. From 1977 to 1991, it was in my face every goddamn night, except for the one time I worked for an afternoon paper, when it was in my face every goddamn afternoon.

And after ’91 … well, it got complicated.

By then I was a full-time freelancer and either had a lot or nothing to do, depending on whether anyone other than VeloNews was buying what I was selling.

I was a regular at VeloNews, which began its Boulder residency in 1989 with 18 issues per year and then quickly ramped up with additional issues, special editions, race guides, and whatnot.

When Bicycle Retailer and Industry News came along in ’92 I was a regular there, too. BRAIN was brand-new, and started off with just nine issues that first year. But it soon found its legs and took off like free beer at an Interbike booth, to 18 issues a year, plus trade-show dailies, Sea Otter specials, and all manner of other projects.

So, yeah. I wasn’t a daily newsdog any longer. But I still had me some Deadlines.

In the early days I did my share of straight news, race coverage, and feature writing, with a side hustle of copyediting and proofreading. But eventually I settled into the one-two punch of cartoonist-columnist: an editorial cartoon in every VeloNews, and a “Mad Dog Unleashed” column and “Shop Talk” comic strip in every issue of BRAIN, with extra-credit cartoons in the various Show Dailies and other special editions.

When I started helping run the VN website I added “Friday’s Foaming Rant” to the mix. That came around weekly.

At my peak I was choreographing a conga line of cartoons and columns, each of which had to give at least a wave and a nod to bicycling. This is a very small and shallow pool in which to fish for one’s supper. There are trees nearby, but all the low-hanging fruit was picked long ago.

Happily, I had the Deadline.

You can’t bullshit the Deadline. It is not an essay question, or even multiple choice. You either make it or you don’t; true or false, right or wrong. And a freelancer only gets so many wrongs before an editor figures you are all the way wrong and stops giving you assignments and/or taking your calls.

The Deadline is harsh, but fair. It has no patience with the sluggard, but can be merciful to the weak. Sometimes, when the Deadline rumbles up to see you staring blankly into your wordless word processor or blank sheet of Bristol board, it rolls its Eye and growls: “Christ on a crutch. OK, hop in.”

“Where are we going?” you ask.

“Fuck do you care? Sitting there with your thumb up your ass. Can’t catch a ride like that. Hey, you gettin’ in or what? Tick-tock, shit-for-brains.”

So in you get, and before you can buckle up or even close the door, zoom, off you go, with tires smoking, on a high-speed, no-brakes tour of the back alleys in your brainpan, bowling over trash cans to see what spills out and leaning on the horn to get the Voices hollering.

At this point you are no longer writing or drawing. You are taking dictation and having trouble keeping up. …

When suddenly with a squeal of brakes your ride slaloms to a stop, your door flies open, and the Deadline kicks you sprawling to the curb. Where, in one white-knuckled fist, you clutch the finished Work.

“You’re welcome,” smirks the Deadline. “Pay window’s over there. See you next week, bitch.”

‘The Last Copy Editor’

February 8, 2022

• Editor’s note: I first saw this Peloton story at NPR, and then went straight to AP to see if the original was this fucked up (it was). Buried the lede. (Who gives a shit about a hapless CEO lateraled over to a cushy gig elsewhere?) Confused “there” for “their” and “its” for “it’s.” It took two people to write this dreck and at least two more to put it online. When the nuts and bolts are this bad, one fears for the solidity of the “content.”

I should pitch a movie, “The Last Copy Editor,” about a tireless comma-chaser, usage Nazi, and AP-style maven who fights tooth and nail against the corporate vultures turning journalism into bung fodder.

I see either Jason Statham or Bruce Willis playing me in the title role, maybe John Goodman as the evil hatchet man from Corporate.

Issa Rae as the sharp young reporter who joins me in my quest for editorial excellence. Bill Burr as the comically inept city editor always hitting on her. Edward James Olmos as the burned-out slot man whose copy of “The Elements of Style” is actually an ingeniously contrived flask of bottom-shelf vodka.

Bill Hader as the online editor, a jagoff whose first language is jargon. Stephen Root as the clueless hack who frequently misspells his own byline and always waits until 30 seconds before deadline to file. Natasha Lyonne as the wisecracking dyslexic photographer who says writing captions is not part of her job description.

And as always, Jerry Mathers as “The Beaver.”

R.I.P., VeloNews

January 12, 2022

The first edition of VeloNews in which a cartoon
by You Know Who appeared.

VeloNews was found dead on Jan. 1. It was just 50 years old.

Was it murder? Suicide? Natural causes? (i.e., a slow-moving form of frontotemporal dementia?)

Nah. Darwinism. Nature red in tooth and claw, baby. Or, if you prefer your poetry in the original Sicilian, “It’s strictly business.”

• Editor’s note: A tip of the VeloNews cycling cap to Steve O. for the sharp eye on the velo-news.

‘Story!’ cried the Editor

June 3, 2021

My last piece for Adventure Cyclist.

It’s hard to retire when you don’t have a job.

It’s even harder when you have a couple-three-four of them.

Still, I keep trying to find that hole in the fence, because I am a persistent mutt.

I successfully “retired” from my last real job in 1991, when I bid adios to The New Mexican and took up the uncertain life of a freelance cycling scribe. I like to think I beat the rush to the door. The writing was already popping up on newspaper walls from coast to coast, and I wasn’t one of the lucky few who would be offered a buyout. Mine would be more like a “Get out!”

So, rather than wait for the shove, I jumped.

Other separations have followed in the 30 years since I hit that door running, or maybe cycling. Either the magazines have gone away or I have.

This month brings my departure from Adventure Cyclist. It was an amicable separation. Deputy editor Dan Meyer asked if I wanted to review a bike; I thought about it for a bit, then replied, “No, thanks.”

It may sound impulsive, but it really wasn’t. I have outlived Mike Deme, the editor who brought me aboard. His successor, Alex Strickland, has moved on to another job, as have colleagues John Schubert, Nick Legan, and others.

It’s been 10 years. The bike biz is moving in directions that mostly don’t interest me. I’m an old white guy who doesn’t need the work or the money and should really just get the hell out of the way.

Also, my last two pieces, about the New Albion Privateer and the march of technology, practically wrote themselves. This could not continue. Call it a premonition: By the pricking of my thumbs, something banjaxed this way comes.

So I jumped.

Mike and Adventure Cyclist came around at exactly the right time. I was in something of a rut, basically just going through the motions, and reviewing touring bikes forced me into new ways of thinking. Alex and Dan continued Mike’s generosity. I had big fun and made good money, and now it’s time someone else had a taste.

A thousand thank-yous to everyone who enjoyed my reviews. And if any of yis bought a bike on my say-so, may the road rise up to meet you. With the rubber side down, of course.

Lever action

May 7, 2021

Many’s the swab who dreams of being the cap’n, arr.

There was something of a “these kids today” thing happening on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast this week, and go figure — it struck a chord with me.

Maron was getting deep into the comedy weeds with fellow comic Mark Normand, talking about their backgrounds, their neuroses, how they became comics, standups they’ve worked with and admired, differences in style, the mechanics of jokes, lines and the crossing thereof, and whether the crossing is worth the caterwauling from a vocal subset of the audience getting their knickers in a twist over the outrage du jour.

They both agreed with Harry Shearer, who once told Maron, “The reason people do comedy is to control why people are laughing at them.” They both bitched about the gatekeepers with the God complexes who had the power to decide whether they would get any stage time Back in the Day.

And they both seemed astonished that anyone might think there’s a magical short cut to where they’ve gotten by dint of hard labor, some high-speed bypass that skirts the long and winding road.

Maron said it was his podcast that saved him in his mid-40s, at what seemed to be “the end of the line,” when he had no clue about what he might do next with his hard-won skill set.

And the idea that “we live in this world where it’s like all of a sudden everyone thinks they can do this” is “fucking annoying,” he added.

“We will all be immortalized as content.” — Marc Maron, “Too Real.”

“Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth,” said Archimedes, speaking of the lever. A lot of us feel the same way. With the right tool, we think, we can do anything.

Mmm … maybe not.

In my racket — and in Maron’s, too — it was the trickling down of technology from Olympus that led to delusions of grandeur here on earth. A MacBook Pro and Microsoft Office don’t make you a writer. A smartphone camera doesn’t make you a photographer. A microphone and a Libsyn account don’t make you a podcaster. The TikTok app doesn’t make you … well, to be honest, I have no idea what TikTok does to you. But whatever it is, it can’t be good.

Some of us who came to bike magazines through newspaper work used to give the old hee, and also the haw, to what we called “fans with laptops,” wanna-bes who thought devotion to cycling and/or the sport’s celebrities outweighed the craft of asking smart questions, remaining skeptical, and writing clean copy on deadline.

All you need is love? Not even The Beatles believed that shit.

“Podcasts are like babies. They’re too easy to make, and not everybody should have one.“ — Mark Normand on “WTF,” with Marc Maron

It’s one thing to play. We have all these cool toys now. We can blog, shoot videos, record podcasts, self-publish books, and broadcast email newsletters, all with a few keystrokes. Damn the gatekeepers, full speed ahead! Hold my beer and watch this! Slap it all up on the Innertubes, the modern equivalent of Mom’s refrigerator, the gallery for all your childhood scribbles.

But gigging is something else. Chops make a difference if you want to turn pro.

What annoyed me about fans with laptops — and what probably bugs Maron and Normand about amateur comics and podcasters — is that too many of them try to skip the whole boring learning-the-trade thing and step right to the pay window.

Sorry, man. No cuts. Maron got there ahead of you. And he ‘s not about to step out of line and go back to his day job. This is his day job.

“What am I prepared to do outside of show business? Nothing!” Maron said.

Preach, brother. Preach.

• Editor’s note: Incidentally, Mark Normand is a funny dude. He has a podcast or two, and you can catch his 2020 special “Out to Lunch” on YouTube.