In memory of Alan White

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Alan White, Editor in Chief of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, passed away yesterday (January 19, 2017) at the age of 68. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, mentor to many, Alan was my first full time editor and my introduction to what it meant to be a reporter many years ago.

He was a gentle man, a keen reporter, and a very elegant editor who didn’t need to raise his voice or affect gruff bluster to command respect and inspire good work. His passing, in these dark days of journalism when daily newspapers feel so marginalized and hanging on by the thinnest of threads when they are needed the most, comes as hard news, especially given his long run at the Eagle Tribune these past forty years.

In 1983 I joined the Eagle-Tribune through my friendship with Alan Rogers, a classmate and neighbor who’s family had founded the paper in the 19th century to serve the mill city of Lawrence on the Merrimack River close by the state line with New Hampshire. I had been a student stringer for the paper during high school, but with hopes of landing a real job with a real paper I moved east from San Francisco with my future wife, rented an apartment in Andover, and started work as a cub reporter on Alan White’s New Hampshire desk.

The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation was about 60,000 and it’s footprint covered Lawrence and Haverhill, the towns along the river, and up north into New Hampshire as far as Derry. The Eagle Tribune was an afternoon paper, an anachronism today, so our presses started running in the late morning with the goal of getting the paper on the subscriber’s doorsteps by the time they came from the mills.

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I was assigned Salem, NH. That was a big beat for a new reporter because it was a bit of a wild boom town for Massachusetts residents who wanted to bet on the horses at Rockingham Park, buy beer on Sunday, ride the roller coaster at Canobie Lake or get a new refrigerator free from sales tax. My life consisted of driving around the town, checking in on the district court, the police department, the fire department, and, in the evening: attending meetings of the board of selectmen, the school committee or whatever civic group was holding an event worth a few column inches in the next day’s paper. Some days I would turn in three stories. Never did a day go by when I didn’t write something.

My first story was about a very dry and uneventful sewer bond hearing. I sat in the town hall meeting room, very confused by things like the open meeting law and executive sessions; occasionally amused by the cranks in the audience who took to the microphone to vent their theories or take jabs at the board members. I had a Canon AE-1 loaded with black and white  film, a blue Bic pen, and a reporter’s notebook that had the exhortation: “Accuracy-Brevity-Clarity” on the cover.

I was helpless. My handwriting is unintelligible at best when I work at it, but a total waste of ink when I’m nervous and trying to transcribe what someone is saying. Worse of all: I didn’t know how the notebook actually worked and was very confused by how the damn thing was supposed to be used because I didn’t realize the spiral binding was meant to be at the top, and not the side like a notebook I used in school. So I taped the meeting on a microcassette recorder for back up, followed every boring word and motion and vote until it adjourned at 10 pm, then finally went back to the newsroom to sit down and write my first story.

I wrote. I listened to the tape. I puzzled over the notes. I wrote some more. Eventually, after hours of work I sent the story to Alan’s queue in the Hastech editing system and went home for some sleep; knowing I was expected back the next morning to answer questions and put the story to bed.

But the next morning all hell broke loose. A police captain  was shot in his bed by his wife with about 30 minutes left before the presses were supposed to run. Delaying the presses meant all the delivery trucks would have to wait, the overtime for the union drivers would pile up, and there would be hell to pay. So, with lots of urgency, the ace reporter on staff went to work while other reporters worked the phones, others radioed in on walkie talkies from the scene, and the photographers drove like mad men to snap pictures and return in time to develop them and get them onto plates. While the reporter , cigarette hanging from his lip,  the editors looked over his shoulder offering edits as he wrote, wasting no time to wait for him to finish to actually edit it.

I felt useless but kind of exhilarated. Now this is News, I thought. This was a genuine catastrophe and these poorly dressed people were making something out of  the chaos against the clock. For the first time I witnessed a deadline. I saw spinning headlines, editors shouting “STOP THE PRESSES”, newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

In the middle of it all, going placidly amidst the haste, sat Alan White, a substantial man with his wire rimmed spectacles, and he summoned me to his desk.

“So this story here…” He pointed at the black screen glowing green with the words I had written the night before and I tried to look eager while reading his face for some desperately needed praise. “….is about 1000 words long and I only need 150. So. I am going to do this….”

Alan did some secret Masonuc keyboard-macro-combination-thing and popped the cursor to the bottom of the story.

“.…and get rid of all of this…..” He highlighted 90 percent of my First Story and with a dismissive tap of a key, deleted it forever.. “.…then I’m going to fix the ending here….” He wrote two sentences with only his index fingers and thumbs (because no one ever was a touch typist in a newsroom), looked at them with a little pride while something withered up inside of me and died. I. Was. A. Writer. Alan read the surviving six paragraphs silently, then turned from the screen and looked at me abd through me, thought for a moment, then  turned back to the computer and wrote the headline with no indecision. He hit another key, yelled at the copydesk to let them know they had incoming and dismissed me. “There. Done. See me after lunch.”

I didn’t eat lunch. I sat at my desk while trying to look busy. I read the cheat sheet for the computer’s keyboard shortcuts trying to figure out the black art of making it do the things Alan could make it do.

The press started. The entire building rumbled and shook. All the shouting over the cop shooting vanished as if it hadn’t happened. One second the place was nuts. The next it was Alan White eating a sandwich out of a brown bag and reading the first edition with his feet on his desk.  When I saw he was finished I went back as requested.

“Look. I know you worked on that thing for hours, but you got to understand one thing this isn’t a short story about your grandmother’s funeral. Okay? Nothing personal, but when you don’t write tight then I have to spend all my time time cutting things back, looking around in there  for good quotes and I just don’t have the time. So… Tomorrow. Do better. Write less. Write fast. Write tight. Okay?”

“Yes Mister White.”

“It’s Al. Get out of here and go knock on some doors. Any questions?”

I had lots of questions, foremost was how the notebook thing worked. So I asked him. He stared balefully at me then took my notebook out of my hands and looked at my notes from the sewer bond hearing. “Whoa. Were you dropped on your head as a baby? Is this shorthand or hieroglyphics?”

I explained I wasn’t sure how to use it. His deadpan answer: “You write in it.”

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I explained I didn’t know how to hold it. It was long and thin and the spiral was on the narrow edge, not the long one. Alan squinted, genuinely puzzled by the question. He handed the notebook back and said, “Show me.”

So I demonstrated my lack of technique and tried to explain the notebook was poorly designed and maybe I should go buy a more traditional one with my own money and, well, sorry, I’d be fine. I wanted to get away from the embarrassment before I totally confirmed to him I was a cretin.

“Wait. Show me that again.” I wrote some more. Flipped a page, wrote on it to the bottom. Flipped the page again. Wrote on it.

“No. No. No. Not like that. Where did you go to college? Whatsamatta U? You’re wasting half the pages.” He grabbed it back,  folded the thing open onto itself so there was a blank sheet on either side and then demonstrated that the technique was to flip the notebook over — scribble down one side, give the whole thing a flip, keep scribbling, then turn the page over and voila, two more blank sheets. Flip it, write, turn the page. Flip it, write. Turn the page.

I was enlightened. Alan handed it back. “Want to know why it’s that way?” 

“Please,” I said.

“So you can stuff it in your back pocket.”

Three months later, while I was sitting at my desk covered with vending machine coffee cups with poker hands printed on the side (hole card was underneath the bottom), Alan came by, grabbed a waste paper basket, and cleared away my collection of carefully stacked and completed notebooks I had been saving for some future reference. I freaked out over the invasion but Alan kept grabbing stacks of notebooks and throwing them into the trash. “Um. I was saving those for….”

“For what? We don’t save notebooks.” Alan said.

“We don’t? I mean, shouldn’t I keep them just in case…..”

“In case of what? You want to frame them? Want to know why I throw away notebooks?”

“Yes. Of course…”

“Because the DA can’t subpoena a landfill.”

In six months Alan White taught me enough of the trade  that I was finally doing some real investigative reporting that made the front page on a regular basis and wasn’t six inches of deathless prose about the Salem Kiwanis luncheon buried deep inside of the New Hampshire edition along with the other little blurbs from Plaistow and Atkinson and Londonderry. In eight months he decided I was good enough to cover the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primaries and trusted me — me,  a callow 23 year old kid — to ride around the Granite State asking Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan and George McGovern and Gary Hart questions that would wind up with their answers printed on the front page.

Alan White taught me how to push for the news. He pushed me to get the courage up to ask a dead kid’s mother for a picture to run next to the story of her son’s tragic death by a hit and run driver while she was insane with grief, but still get the goddamn photo. He taught me how to cover a fire, a car accident, how to make cops like me and let me cross the police tape. And most importantly, Alan taught me how to maintain my objectivity, always challenge everything a politician told me, and for god’s sake learn to spell a person’s name right. The man was tough. The man was fair. He made me want to be better.

He was wickedly funny, took joy in the news we couldn’t print (Alan reveled in newsroom gossip), and was always the best election predictor in the newsroom, Alan was always ready to talk about fishing, his deep abiding passion, specifically striped bass which he hunted from his home base on Plum Island in Newburyport.

I realize now, as  I do the math, that the Alan White I knew, the New Hampshire editor, was only 33 years old at the time I worked for him. His patience, his  confidence in his reporters, his unrelenting standards for accuracy, all are the things that led him to become the editor in chief of the entire paper long after I moved on to other papers and the rest of my career. But Alan loyally stayed in that newsroom, even after the Rogers family sold it to a chain and it was absorbed into the great contraction of the news business that killed off lesser papers by the hundreds over the last 20 years.

He won two Pulitzer Prizes. Two. And through it all he patiently schooled hundreds of reporters — many of whom are still my good friends to this day, a couple of whom followed me from the Tribune to PC Week and Forbes like Dan Lyons and Russell Glitman.

Alan would have wanted to be remembered as a reporter. He wasn’t a “journalist.” Alan was a reporter from Worcester and proud of it.  He knocked on doors, questioned everything, but did it with a grace and focus I can only wish I  could  begin to channel today.I bet he would have edited this post down to half its size.

Remembering Pat McGovern

“Boston, MA – March 20, 2014 – International Data Group IDG announced today with great sadness that its Founder and Chairman, Patrick J. McGovern, died March 19, 2014, at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.”

via Remembering Pat McGovern | IDG.com.

I worked for Pat McGovern for eight months in 2005 when I was running online at CXO — the branch of IDG publishing that published CIO, CSO, CMO Magazines. I competed against his publications in the early 80s when I worked for PC Week, the arch-rival of IDG’s InfoWorld.

There are going to be a ton of Pat McGovern stories told over the next few days. Here’s mine.

While Pat was a lion in technology publishing he was also one of the first and most influential western businessmen to operate in the People’s Republic of China.  His presence in China, his reputation there to this very day, is legendary and made him the most well known and respected Westerner sin the Chinese tech sector. His VC investments in the likes of Baidu were early and massive successes. The man even spoke Mandarin.

During the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics I was surprised to find myself riding in the back of a bus with Pat on our way to a private dinner with Lenovo’s senior executives and some heavy hitting senior execs from Qualcomm, Google, Microsoft, Intel, AMD, etc.. I saw him sitting alone in the back of the bus, so I sat down beside him and started chatting him up, thanking him for the opportunity to briefly work for him before quitting to join Lenovo. He was legendary for his photographic memory and immediately made the connection and started peppering me with questions.

As the bus crawled through traffic it was apparent that most everybody sitting within six rows of us was eaves-dropping on the conversation, most of them unaware of who Pat was. He was a big man but a soft spoken one; not at all brash or loud.  So I introduced him around  to the people in the adjacent seats as the first Westerner to do business in Communist China, well before Deng’s market reforms that led to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” and unlocked the Chinese growth we marvel at today. I urged Pat to tell the bus the story of how he infiltrated China in the 1970s. The story went roughly like this: Pat was on a flight from Japan to Russia and figured out he could make a “connection” in Beijing. This is back in the era of Nixon-Mao and PingPong diplomacy. Let’s just say there were no princelings drag racing Ferrari’s around the third ring road back then. Anyway, the plane lands, Pat looks out the window, amazed he’s this close to the mysterious closed country. So he gets off the plane. The plane leaves without him. The Red Guard are confronted with this American standing in their airport essentially saying “Take me to your leader.”

Pat humbly regaled the bus for 30 minutes with the story of how he invaded China, set up the first Chinese tech publications, and earned the trust and respect of the Chinese government. When we arrived at the restaurant it was my Chinese colleagues who really lit up at the sight of him, hustling him away to a place of honor next to the chairman and CEO of Lenovo as befitted the father of Chinese computer journalism.

He was a genuinely great man. Here’s his story of how he entered China as captured in the official IDG oral history:

Continue reading “Remembering Pat McGovern”

Karen Hill: 1940-2013

Karen Ann Hill passed away this week after suffering a fall. She was 73 years old and arguably the best known face of recreational fishing on Cape Cod.

For Karen owned Sportsport, the little tackle shop in Hyannis that she inherited from her father, a beloved institution marked by the familiar sight of the Old Salt fishing in the parking lot wearing yellow foul weather gear, rain or shine. I knew the Old Salt before I ever met and became friends with Karen. It was one of those icons I first saw as a kid and have carried with me ever since, despite how much the rest of the Cape changes around me. Some motorist took him out a couple years ago. Karen had sold the shop already and retired. But the new owners knew that Sportsport wasn’t Sportsport without the bearded man in the red boat, and he fishes on to this very day.

I didn’t get to know Karen until 1991 when I first moved to Cape Cod full time to raise my family. Churbucks weren’t a fishing family when I was a kid. My father prohibited fish (aside from frozen Gorton’s of Gloucester fish sticks served to his kids) from ever being served (some old dislike he probably picked up in the 40s when a bluefish was about it when it came to protein for the table) and he certainly didn’t fish but he sure loved to clam. My grandfather wasn’t a big fisherman as I recall.. So there weren’t a lot of the father-son-grandpa-bonding-over-fishing-scenes in my youth. When I did fish it was with my brother, a dropline and a cracked open quahog from the Town Dock for scup and eels, the latter species terrorizing me.

When I became a townie in 1991 I noticed the locals all driving around with fishing rods on their roof racks in the early spring and fall — something was going on that I didn’t know about and I decided I would take up fishing. Obsessive maniac that I become when I really get into something (fishing, Italian bicycles, watching complete archives of a TV series in one binge), I started to really get into fishing, developing a fishing jones I couldn’t appease. I read nothing but fishing books, bought nothing but fishing tackle, and coveted rods and reels like a sex fiend. I woke up at 3 in the morning to fish. I fished at 10 pm in January during a snowstorm on a beach in Sandwich  near the Cape Cod Canal on the stupid hunch that I might catch a tom cod. I didn’t but it was worth it for the story. I risked drowning night after night standing in the foaming surf on sandbars off the beach in Chatham fishing for a “keeper” (a striped bass over 3-feet long) and marveling at the wildness of the stars and the Atlantic all in front of me. I waved a fly rod so much in the wind that my shoulder fell apart and I had to stop for six months of physical therapy.  They say there are 365 fresh water ponds on Cape Cod? One for every day of the year. I tried to fish them all. Livelining, chumming, trolling, roll casting. You name it, I wanted to try it.

I even started “the Internet Journal of Salt Water Flyfishing” – Sportsport was the first advertiser.

And Karen Hill fed my habit. I basically moved her tackle store ten miles west into my garage over ten years, one sinker, one bobber, one hook at a time. I could have betrayed her and gone online, but that would have meant missing out on the unique retail experience that was Sportsport under Karen’s ownership.

First, there was no such thing as “ducking in real quick” for something at Sportsport. Karen never rushed. Ever. Stepping inside the door and getting out again in under 30 minutes was a miracle. The place could get very busy, and Karen would be winding new monofilament on somebody’s reel while a mob fidgeted to pay for their bait and get back to the fish. She had to hang up the phone to swipe a credit card. She totalled up all the little bits of fishing stuff — swivels, lures, buckets of writhing eels — on a scrap of paper, totalled it up on a calculator, and then put the total into the register. She usually swore at the register.

Second, she was the CIA of Cape Cod fish. If there were rumors of fish, Karen heard them first. And to get her to part with this intelligence meant buying something, even if it was a $0.30 lead sinker. eCommerce fishing tackle sites doesn’t whisper to you that “they’re murdering them at Dowses on purple Deadly Dicks” A photo of one’s self on the door of the bait refrigerator meant you were a made man. Cousin Pete and I schemed to freeze an October bluefish until February (they migrate to the Cape in May), thaw it out, drive it to Hyannis, and ask Karen to take a picture of us holding the earliest bluefish of the year for the fridge. I regret we never did it. She would have howled and called bullshit and then taken the picture anyway.

And then there was Karen’s School of Fishing. Feeling bored and beset with cabin fever on a sunny day in early April, weeks before the stripers and blues return? Karen would teach me the ins and outs of fishing for winter flounder and I’d walk out $50 poorer with flounder rigs, a chum pot, and the advice to fill it with crushed mussels and cans of cat food.

Her assistant Mark became a good friend and great fishing buddy. We sort of enabled each other’s addiction and would drive from one side of the Cape to the other just to catch the favorable tides at Menahaunt on the southside and Bone Hill on the north.

But most of all Karen was a friend, a good wise motherly lady in a business not known for a lot of ladies. She was blessed with a great sense of humor, a way of making you feel you were the most important customer she’d seen all day, a great laugher, and a true Cape Codder;  a veritable Old Salt herself.

One of the greats has passed. I’ll kiss my next fish on the head and let it go to swim another day just for Karen.

A couple cool obituaries of late

I tend to over-comment on obituaries, but two recent ones made for fascinating reading, both with deep and tangential connections to the glory days of the America’s Cup.

Most recent was John Cooper Fitch, who’s obit appeared in the New York Times on November 1, 2012.

  1. Race car driver (was on the Mercedes team that disastrously crashed into the crowd at Le Mans in 1955 and was to have relieved the driver of that horrific disaster, Pierre Levegh).
  2. Inventor of those round sand barrels one sees on abutments on offramps and high way bridges (inspired by the Le Mans tragedy.
  3. Yachtsman and socialite who met the Duke of Windsor (the one who abdicated because of his love for the American divorcee Wallis Simpson) while pissing together in a bush at some outdoors social event.
  4. Contemporary of the legendary Briggs Cunningham, another race car driver/yachtsman (helmsman on a couple winning 12-meters that defended the America’s Cup.

And second, but not inferior is Britton Chance Jr., renowned naval architect who designed several of those 12 meters. He passed away last month in Connecticut and earned his fame as the designer of the Stars & Stripes.  He worked with great names in yachting like Ray Hunt and Ted Hood.