Friday, December 18, 2009

Joy in a jar

If only we could preserve happiness and ship it to friends and relatives to draw on in the new year. Our Christmas crafts projects are a start: Tins of cookies, Mason jars of spiced nuts and pound bags of muffin mix.

It's hard to re-create the Martha Stewart gloss with such infrequent practice, but nevertheless we want perfection from the start. Even the magazine projects from Real Simple aren't all that easy. But we work through enough missteps that the recipient finds the craft tolerable and the food edible. If only because we're keeping the sugared cranberries that didn't quite work out.

Dad wrote us, NO CHRISTMAS PRESENTS, PLEASE. But he did ask for a list of three things or events that bring joy or happiness. For me they're the ingredients of these craft gifts:

Caring. Life is so solitary an activity these days. I need to think about what others need. Few worthwhile things come out of pure self-interest.

Creating. Taking an idea from start to finish is still the greatest way to make a living, and I'm thankful this year I've been able to do that.

Sharing. Brenda's focus and persistence have been tested this year, so it's a joy to see her plans, for these gifts and her come out well. As we pack them up, we wish we could deliver them in person and wrap up a little more joy to the world.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The future of news: Tough it out

Have newspapers forgotten how to sell themselves?

A century ago, newspapers were literally beating competitors. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Examiner hired thugs to rough up their rivals, giving gangsters Dion O'Banion and Bugs Moran their felonious start. Fourteen news dealers were murdered in Chicago's circulation wars.

These days newspapers are only being studied to death. (Some of these studies are produced at USC and Penn colleges funded by heirs of Moses Annnberg, who hired O'Banion's sluggers.)

This weekend in Chicago there's a conference at Columbia College on the future of news (not the first in Chicago). On Wednesday came a report on what Chicago nonprofit agencies think of online news. The Tribune's media critic read the study and concluded they wanted something like mainstream media.

And Northwestern University the same day launched a website for collaborations between students in journalism and engineering, not the kind of collusion that was O'Banion's specialty. Broadly stated, all this effort starts from a single premise: The daily newspaper's profits are eroding, and new business models are slow to take hold. People in the media business can fill their schedule with many earnest panel discussions of the grave effect this will have on society.

Outside observers might conclude this is another example of media bias. Bigger companies than the Tribune and Sun-Times are failing, and there are few signs of a compulsion to examine whether the automobile is obsolete or if there's any future in banking. Perhaps this is a shared preoccupation of the media and the foundations that study civic progress. Their endowments are under the same pressures as are newsroom budgets.

The days of a dozen Chicago dailies are ancient history, and now companies that held a comfortable local monopoly have a worldwide web of competitors at their door. Welcome to my world. For a dozen years now I've worked in online media, and for more than a dozen years before that at one of the nation's few underdog print dailies.

Employing street gangs to gain market share is no longer an option. Marketers now try to understand their customers' problems and how they can be part of the solution. Newspapers of course have studied this too, and have identified a half-dozen needs that newspapers meet:

  • Enlighten the audience on issues they find important.

  • Educate consumers to make better decisions.

  • Enrich them with time-saving or money-making ideas.

  • Entertain them or ward off boredom.

  • Engage people who share interests or views.

  • Empower them to act on things that matter.

None of these are exclusive properties of newspapers but they're all powerful motivations. If news enterprises have to work harder these days to justify their worth, they're in good company. They can start by convincing themselves of their staying power.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

6 steps to street-smart projects

Consultant John Connellan tells of a client who was teaching his 4-year-old son Anthony how to ride a bicycle. Anthony was riding in the street for the first time and he kept drifting to the middle of the street.

"Stay close to the curb", the father warned. But Anthony kept weaving away from the sidewalk. Finally Dad lost patience and said, "if you don't stay close to the curb, I can't let you ride in the street anymore."

Anthony stopped his bike, turned around and looked straight at Dad. He said "What's a curb?"

There are all sorts of stories about children learning their boundaries. I like this one because it deals with our role in making the ground rules clear. I don't have kids but I face this all the time managing work projects. We all play roles in our company's success. But it can be hard to curb your enthusiasm and follow the game plan. If there is one.

In business, project management itself is misunderstood. People charged with keeping a project on track likely don't have final say in how much money it gets, or even who gets to work on it. Here I'm taking a few minutes to lay some ground rules for putting down ground rules.

Everyone needs goals but not everyone thinks about the role of spelling them out. Four years ago I became a student of this process when my boss put me on project work and gave me a copy of "Project Management for Dummies." Don't be offended, he said, it's actually one of the better books on the subject.

A few more projects and a few more bosses later I was getting coaching from the head of the Project Management Office. He had me go out and get "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Project Management." So you see how I've progressed. (Don't be offended, he said, it's an easier reference than the PMBOK Guide. Those are the certification documents, and the Celebrex fine print is easier reading.)

Now, complete idiots may not know a what makes a good set of project goals, but the developer building Trump Tower and the developer building your accounting software will tell you the same three things about goals:

  1. Goals must be specific. Any idiot should be able to understand them. That's important because in this climate, the project could be out of your hands and left for some other idiot to figure out. Till then, you need to be able to explain the task to managers without them getting antsy and checking their messages.

  2. Goals must be realistic. You don't need a work example here. Go to Borders and look at the magazine racks. There are dozens of titles about building the perfect kitchen. I'm never going to be able to afford the perfect kitchen. When I remodel I'll be lucky if the electrical system is capable of running the perfect 5-quart mixer. Either way, the dough does not just make itself.

  3. Goals must be measurable. Part of keeping it real is putting down goals you can track. My bosses may expect perfection from me if I haven't sold them on the previous point. But at least my projects have to define what's good enough. Otherwise contractors don't know what to bid, and when they're finished you can't say whether they earned it.

To stick to these goals, three other things must be clear at the outset:

  1. Goals must have deadlines. The more deadlines, the better to move things along one step at a time. I ran status meetings for a boss that liked a one-line summary of each project, with just an end date for each. It wasn't too surprising when those ending dates kept getting revised later and later.

  2. Goals must have consensus. Sometimes it seems my main role running a project is just setting up meetings and taking notes. That would frustrate me till I realized that if you don't get everyone on the same page, things quickly get creepy, as in "scope creep." There's power in spelling out how far a group will take a . The first step in setting the agenda turns out to be sending out the agenda.

  3. Goals must have owners. If you've seen an e-mail from me you know what I mean. I get so many emails "FYI" that it's hard to know I'm actually being asked to do something. Almost every sentence in my emails starts with someone's name -- Joe, can you do this task? Chris, can you automate it? To get a job done it's not enough to just ask. I have to ask someone.

These half-dozen rules can help keep any project from sliding off the rails. Take a blank sheet of paper and devote it to any project that's giving you fits, at home or at work. Write down what you're trying to do, why you're trying to do it, and how you'll know when it's done. You'll end up with a much better grasp on the situation.

There are so many things we have to deal with in a day that it's hard to make much progress on any of them. But it's like riding a bicycle: Once you've learned how, you can pick it up at any time. If you know where to point yourself, it's easier to move straight ahead.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

25 edited things about me

    "25 Random Things About Me" is so February 2009. But anyone who works in a newsroom knows that some information just sits in the queue till things get slow:

  1. Brenda is God's most marvelous creation. Not that you aren't awesome too.

  2. My mom studied communications. My dad studied logic. I'm studying them.

  3. My bookshelves are flouting Zero Book Growth policy.

  4. Newspapers will die when laptops are cheap enough to leave on the L.

  5. Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio che ti fa mia.

  6. Playing softball on asphalt, I couldn't understand why anyone would slide into home.

  7. My 7th-grade chemistry class at St. Mary's: Watching the teacher handle test tubes.

  8. I shot news stories on a Bell & Howell Filmo.

  9. I wrote Fortran for a Univac 1110.

  10. I played in a band with Clark Terry.

  11. Why did I have to learn penmanship from Ditto but slide rule from Mimeograph?

  12. Time to break for coffee.

  13. If I don't cry at the opera, it's bad opera.

  14. Brenda calls me a raisinholic, but I can stop eating anytime I want.

  15. Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spirito tuo.

  16. How did Tall become the small size? In clothing, I mean.

  17. Best part of my desk set: My grandfather's pica pole.

  18. I sang at Cardinal Cody's funeral.

  19. I set type on a Compugraphic.

  20. My studies changed from art to journalism because my paintings all had text.

  21. My favorite color is gray.

  22. Games are meant to be played, not watched. Except playing baseball is mostly watching.

  23. Marvel Comics taught me Yiddish. That's meshuga.

  24. Less Facebook time means more face time and more book time.

  25. Sto lat, sto lat. Niech zyje, zyje nam.

  26. The best part about the web is that it will count to 25 for you.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Prairie style: White Sox at home on the Phoenix range

Chicago red hots are a tasty mystery in Phoenix. As our kosher dogs were groomed at the White Sox' new spring training home, the vendors asked if they were doing it right. And except for the celery salt covering more pickle than wiener it was picture perfect, right down to the kelly green relish. An empty container was labeled "TIPS" in Magic Marker so we primed the pump. That's the Chicago way.

The White Sox are working to get it right at Camelback Ranch Glendale, the new park the team shares with the Los Angeles Dodgers on the northwest edge of Phoenix. Vienna Beef dogs and Connie's Pizza lend Chicago flair to an otherwise indifferent menu, but pub brews from Gordon Biersch and Deschutes Brewery are a heady reminder that you'd really rather be spending March in the Western sun. I'll pass on the Lemon Chill, thank you.

We saw the Sox as nominal visitors in a split-squad game with the Dodgers March 5. The A-team was squared off against the Cubs in Las Vegas, which gave us a good look at non-roster players, some of whom like lefty slugger Miguel Negron were playing without names on their jerseys. Jack Egbert struck out 4 in three innings as a starter before Adam Russell (wearing #46) came in and gave up two runs to make things too interesting. Kelvin Jimenez lost the game 5-4 in the ninth.

We returned with my parents the next day for a non-Cactus League exhibition vs. Australian minor-leaguers warming up for the World Baseball Classic. Neither game made the Phoenix papers, but the lopsided 10-3 WBC warmup put more prospects in play. Gordon Beckham got cooking in a potential bake-off at second base, as the hinge in a 6-4-3 double play, and Brian Anderson stroked a solid opposite-field homer to improve his odds in the center-field derby.

Despite the comfy scenery, the Sox risk being visitors in their new ranch home: L.A. fans show up in quantity no matter who's playing, and although the teams share a Playbill-size gate handout I was toning up my flabby scorekeeping in a Dodgers program, the only scorecard available. But home-plate seats were available and affordable, and the outfield lawn's up-close bullpen view was an $8 bargain. And while the Herbie Hancock sample from US3's "Cantaloop" became an earbug between innings, it could not beat hearing again the Sox' opening "Pirates of the Caribbean/Thunderstruck" medley.

Another day of third-base wind and sun would have been perfect, along with a chance to stroll the practice fields beyond the outfield wall, which include park-dimension facsimiles of both Dodger Stadium and the Cell. Sadly, that was not to be. One consolation: Sox season tickets were awaiting the return to Chicago. Spring, bring it on.

Monday, February 02, 2009

25 songs on my iPod (Randomly chosen)

  1. Gideon Kremer/Keith Jarrett: Part, Fratres

  2. Thelonious Monk: Monk's Mood

  3. Kronos Quartet: The Cusp of Magic

  4. Maurizio Pollini: Chopin Nocturne #15

  5. John Moulder: Freedom

  6. Martha Wainwright: So Many Friends

  7. Rufus Wainwright: Release the Stars

  8. Joan Baez: Oh Happy Day

  9. Frank Kimbrough: Wig Wise

  10. LaVerne Baker: Without a God

  11. Michael Bates' Outside Sources: Prodigal

  12. Ron Sexsmith: Brandy Alexander

  13. Belle & Sebastian: Sukie in the Graveyard

  14. Ahn Trio: Oblivion

  15. Vic Chesnutt: Virginia

  16. Bob Mintzer Big Band: Swangalang

  17. Cedar Walton: Clockwise

  18. Cynthia Felton: Long as You're Living

  19. Dropkick Murphys: Rude Awakenings

  20. Boston Pops: Gaite Parisienne

  21. Jimmy Cobb Quartet: Never Let Me Go

  22. Duke Robillard: When Your Lover Has Gone

  23. Dandy Warhols: Bohemian Like You

  24. Calexico: Inspiracion

  25. R.E.M.: Gardening at Night