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.

What’s on your desktop? Productivity Apps I use

I figured I’d list the tools, plug-ins, and apps I use to keep my act together. Here’s a list of the more important ones.

  1. Google DocsGoogle Drive: Acquia is a Google Docs driven company (thank God). If you suffer in the land of Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook, there is hope. Change jobs and join a company that uses Google services and your life will be better. I’m Google-centric even though I own a Microsoft Surface. I despise Apple (long rant, but I hate Apple products). In this day and age I guess there are three choices: Google, Apple or Microsoft. I tried to be in love with Microsoft’s Office 360 and OneDrive, but Acquia is  on Google, my consulting clients are embracing it, I own an Android phone and an Android tablet so Google it is.
  2. Dropbox – long time fan. Use it for keeping my stuff synched up across devices and sharing with friends.
  3. Evernote  – paired with a Fujirsu ScanSnap scanner, I use Evernote for storing important personal documents (mooring permits, car insurance policies, etc.) and love the integration with the New York Time’s Cooking section recipe box. I use Evernote on the boat by taking pictures with my phone of oil filters, navigational lights, drive belts, etc.. so when I am at West Marine I know exactly what to get.
  4. Any.do – task and list manager. I especially love the integration with my new Amazon Echo. It makes it easy to just say, “Alexa. Add review blog post to my personal to-do list” and then have it appear on Any.do’s app on the phone or Chrome browser plug in. It’s a great reminder for everything that clutters up my “get shit done” lists.
  5. Simplenote – I take tons of notes. Simplenote, a freebie from Automattic, parent of WordPress, is a very nice tool. Microsoft One Note also fits the bill at times (see below).s1500_header2_tcm127-1195268
  6. Smart Recorder – Android app which I use to record interviews. I get a file which I then send off to a transcription service, two days later I have a transcript.
  7. Alarm Clock Pro – Android app so I won’t oversleep.
  8. Business Calendar – replacement app for the default Google calendar on my HTC 10. Worth the money.
  9. TripIt Pro – big fan of this for managing travel plans. I was tipped off to it by Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools and love how it simply works intelligently by watching my inbox for travel confirmations and then pulls them into the app..
  10. Microsoft One Note – I like OneNote and have been a fan off and on since it first appeared. The “record meeting” capability is crucial to me in some meetings at work. I use One Note across all my devices to keep track of meetings.

It’s worth noting  I like some of these things so much I will actually pay for premium levels from Dropbox, Evernote, Any.do., TripIt, and other stuff.  I also keep a subscription to the Microsoft Office suite — there are times when I need to really get detailed and nothing but the real thing — Word, Powerpoint, Excel — will do.

There’s a lot of stuff I’ve tried and rejected. Example: Nuance’s  Dragon NaturallySpeaking paired with a little Sony IC voice recorder never worked as hoped and I’ve never seen a more obnoxious spammy company like Nuance.

Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

Over the holidays I read Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, having been tipped off to the novels by my summer’s reading of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill and the strong endorsement of the previously unknown literary gem as one of the most beloved and high-impact pieces published between the two world wars. I’ve known about Sassoon since college when I read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory as well as Robert Grave’s autobiography, Goodbye to all That.

Siegfried Sassoon was one of a select group of young English poets who  went to war spouting the florid language of Kipling and Tennyson and returned (if they survived) utterly gutted by the horror of mechanized war. Sassoon survived. So did Graves. But others, such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen did not.

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In these centennial anniversary years of the Great War, I realize how deficient the literature I’ve found has served the experience compared to the masterpieces that came out of World War II such as James Jones’ The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Sure, there is All Quiet on the Western Front and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun but until I read Sassoon’s trilogy I hadn’t fully grasped the hellishness of France and the trenches. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August are an excellent historical introduction to the causa belli but in sum I guess the best literature about the First World War was indeed the war poetry.

Sassoon was raised by a spinster aunt in Kent’s Weald, the iconic southeastern rolling landscape that personifies the English cliche. Fussell, in his introduction to Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man rightfully points out Sassoon’s intense love affair with the landscape of Kent and his almost erotic evocation of a pre-war life spent playing cricket on village greens and learning how to ride with the fox hunt through coverts and over the fences of the local farms. Sassoon, who dropped out of Cambridge without completing a degree, had just enough of an inheritance to be idle and spend his days riding horses and getting fitted with new boots and pink hunting coats. The three books are a barely fictionalized autobiography.

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Sassoon ends the first volume — Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man — when he volunteers for the infantry as a junior officer. The second volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is set in the trenches of northern France and tells the story of his acts of reckless heroism, where he decided that rather than give into the fear and horror he would affect an insouciance that led his soldiers to nickname him “Mad Jack” and regard him as a good luck officer willing to take chances rather than cower in a trench.

Sassoon was wounding and returned to England, was decorated as a hero, returned, was wounded again, and during his convalescence decided to publish a protest against the war with the support of the pacifist mathematician Bertrand Russell.

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

“On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”

Sassoon sent that declaration to his commanding officer, threw his Military Cross medal into the Mersey River, and waited for a reaction. The reaction from the army was more genteel embarrassment for Sassoon than outrage. Before he could be tried for treason a friend intervened and declared Siegfried was unhinged and needed to be committed to an asylum. Sassoon was packed off to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland where he was treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, the pioneering genius in the treatment of shell shock as PTSD was known at the time. Through his work with Rivers, Sassoon came to the conclusion that the only rational decision he could make was to ask for a return to the front lines of the war, and so he was returned to the front for a third time, an experience covered in the final volume of the trilogy: Sherston’s Progress which was published in 1936, completed the series that began in 1928.

These books were beloved at the time of their publication and it surprises me they aren’t still read or better known in the U.S.. In my estimation the first volume is my favorite because of its amazing affection for the culture that existed before the war. I’ve read that Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is a similar expression of deep love for “the shire,” that bucolic country life of England that looms so large in my American mind as the “British Cliche” but which evidently did exist and lives on in the writings of Sassoon and others.

 

Vertigo for Christmas

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I don’t take many sick days except to spare colleagues some bug and I have always prided myself on a pretty stolid constitution that doesn’t give cause to much hypochondria or abuse of over-the-counter remedies. But this year Santa gave me an interesting “present” which I have to rank as the nastiest affliction I’ve ever endured.

The morning of Christmas Eve, I’m in the kitchen at 5:30 am waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, reading glasses perched on my nose, reading the New York Times on my tablet. I look up to peer at the bird feeders and become vaguely aware of a rotating feeling, a sinking stomach twinge of vertigo. I take a deep breath, read another story, and when the coffee maker beeps I look up and am greeted with another spin of the wheel. Damn reading glasses, I think, having left my usual set on my desk and not sure if the back up set are 2.0 or 2.5 or stronger.

I pour the coffee into the mug but the smell makes my stomach do a little flip. Motherf$%et, I think. You should have gotten a flu shot you idiot.

I walk into the room where my wife is reading, and it spins hard and to the left. I set the mug down on a table, roll onto the couch beside her, and take another deep breath. I don’t want to get her concerned so I say nothing, but she knows something is wrong and asks what’s the matter.

“Just a little dizzy, gonna rest for a second.”

I close my eyes, take another breath, and suddenly know I’m going to blow lunch.

“Wastepaper Basket. Now. Please.”

She leaps into action and makes it in time for me to retch. “Whoa….What the hell?”

I make it upstairs, crawl back into bed, lay in a fetal position and start a cold sweat. Another wave of nausea and to the bathroom I stagger. I’m sick!

But three hours later, the sound of happy holiday people bubbling from downstairs, guilt over gifts to wrap, errands to run, food to cook, and I’m back downstairs feeling much better thank you.

That was the preview of the blockbuster that followed.

Three days later, I’m sitting with the family, evening time, board games are being played, movie times checked, and dinner an hour away when the room decides to spin again. This time I calmly stand up, excuse myself, march upstairs, get a bucket just in case, and climb back in bed. Where I begin to shiver uncontrollably, soak through my shirt and the blankets in a few minutes, and sink into a total fog of hallucinations, wtenching vomit attacks, and acute sensitivity to light and sound.

Downstairs my wife is online researching symptoms. We come to the same conclusion — this is emergency room level and the only question is a ride in the Cotuit Fire Department’s ambulance or a car ride. I vote car. My sons help me slide down the stairs and support me as I stagger outside, barefoot, dressed in a celtics t-shirt and jeans they helped slide over my arms and legs, into the back of the car.

Because of the vomiting I didn’t spend more than a minute in the reception area at the hospital. I was rushed into a bay in the ER, wired up with an EKG, and then the questions began. IV was started, things beeped. My wife answered and there was a long reliving of my visit to that same ER a decade before after I was hit by a car while riding my bike and clocked my head good with a concussion that messed me up for two years and gave me wicked vertigo and nausea.

I could tell the concern was whether or not I was having a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage. I was drugged with Ativan and anti-nausea meds that wiped me out, so the next 48 hours were a blur of vomiting, beeping machines, strangers asking the same questions over and over.

At one point I woke up and saw my phone next to me on the table. I hadn’t seen it for two days so I picked it up and my text messages were filled with concerned questions from siblings and friends.

One of those friends, my best friend in fact, is an amazing doctor. He graduated from Harvard Medical School, did his internship and residency at Mass General — Doctor Dan is sort of a Seal Team 6 command0-level physician, who is scary smart, with a true photographic-memory and an inventive streak that has him on the leading edge of his specialty. He was in my text messages and was the only person I had the strength or fortitude to answer.

Here’s what went down in the wee hours of Thursday morning. The IV in my left arm had an alarm that went off whenever I bent my arm. This made holding a phone and typing on it pure misery as the beeping of the alarm made me vomit. You can tell from my misspelling and typos I was not having a fun time typing. But the point is — in the space of a couple dozen text messages, Dr. Dan pulled a Doctor House and diagnosed me, told me what to tell the attending physicians (I handed them the phone at one poinr), and six hours later I was released and sent home with a prescription for Famocyclivir (an anti-viral used to knock down shingles, cold sores and herpes symptoms) and a diagnosis that made every one who had been scratching their heads at the hospital smile and agree with.

The malady is called vestibular neuritis. It is what happens when a virus gets into your inner ear and inflames the vestibular nerve — the main connection between your ear’s balance system and your brain.  Basically Satanic Seasickness caused by a virus related to cold sores and chicken pox. It’s not that common, but boy does it mess people up.

My favorite part of the exchange, the point where I smiled, is when his ego kicked in and he told me to essentially shut up and give him another case to solve. Tele-medicine at its finest.

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So here I am, nearly a week later, and I’ve stopped vomiting. The world is still spinning, and it will be at least a week before I’m well enough to resume commuting to the office in Boston. My balance is very shaky, but my appetite is back, I’ve lost a lot of weight, and today is the first day I can sit down in front of a computer and type anything.

If you want to curse your worst enemy with something vile, consider asking the genie in the lamp to send them a case of vestibular neuritis

Part 5: Here’s the deal

So where are we today with this web thing?

Something is definitely happening, but like Mister Jones you don’t know what it is. It’s about much more than that old web stuff. If you read Mary Meeker’s latest state of the Internet, things are getting seriously goofy. Most people in Indonesia think the Internet = Facebook. Period.

Most people look at stuff through their phones. I think 60% of usage is phone or tablet, so the “mobile first” zealots can pipe down. They won.

Most searches are spoken these days because the bulk of the world’s Internet users are in China and other emerging markets, where I assume literacy rates are a bit lower than New Hampshire’s and people need to say their searches (“Ok Google. Tattoo Removal. Laconia“) rather than do some convoluted finger swiping to make a Sanskrit character that to my eyes looks like it came out of the Klingon dictionary.

Stuff is all over the place now, flowing through the pipes and landing on electronic billboards, the dashboard of your Executive Overlord’s Tesla, Dick Tracy Wrist Watches, Glassholes’ monocles….and who knows what will happen five years from now. Augmented Reality First Person Shooter Porn anybody?

Point being: if you’re still thinking web these days, you’re toast. But old habits die hard and so do old words, terms, and slang.

I think the problem is we’re undergoing Digital Hysteria 2.0. The first wave was back in 1995 when we all laughed at Dan Rather for saying four “W’s” when he tried to say a web address on air like a guy who forgot his helmet one too many times. The one that is happening now has fear behind it. I love fear. Other than sex, nothing gets people fidgety and reaching for their wallets than good old Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

This is what is probably what is happening behind the scenes: . CEOs have only so much time to absorb “thought leadership” and they aren’t going to read yours. They get a copy of the McKinsey Quarterly and they skim a couple articles that tell them what to do. Those articles talk about made-up things like “digitization” or “digitalization.” One means the phenomenon of growing fingers and toes. I think the other means ripping your old CD collection into MP3s. Anyway, the CEO gets all FUDdy when she hears she’s going to get transformed into the hereafter like ex-garbageman Wayne Huizenga and Blockbuster were by Netflix. So she reads this year’s flavor of Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction (and we all know how scary an Austrian with a Destruction theory can be) and convenes a task force to Digitize the Business.

The board of directors is crawling all over them and they get cotton mouth when they read about Yahoo letting 1.5 billion of our emails, passwords, mother’s maiden names, and shoe sizes slip into the hands of some “state actors” or the poor CEO of Target who got canned after a big security breach breached the company’s cash registers.

So damn right they care about this “digital thing” now. The “website” thing is important and they are scared because it seems expensive and complicated and this “digital disruption thing” feels out of control. “Digalization?” “Transformation? “Paradigm Shift?” “Freedom to Innovate?” Just do something. Anything.

These people aren’t big fans of Squarespace and Wix. They could give a rat’s ass if their CIO and CMO use chisels and stone tablets or a sky writing witch on a broomstick to get it done, they just want it done and done cheap.

So the CIO looks around the World O’Web and realizes things are really ugly. There are 20 content management licenses floating around the company. Websites with logins and passwords no one remembers. Ghost sites taken over by fringe groups using the “talk-back” forum on some abandoned marketing micro-site to plot decapitations or worse. No one knows who commissioned the damn things except they were probably made in 2001 by two aspie hipsters in Brooklyn with a long-gone web agency called “Sucking Chest Wound Digital.” The company’s General Counsel needs to refresh the terms and conditions on every web site the company has to make sure the regulators don’t start issuing fines for some breach of Germany’s new Bundesdatenschutzgesetz (“Don’t Look At Me Goddammit”) privacy regulations. And the CMO is freaked out that the Freedonia website has a home page hero better suited to an R-rated teen slasher flick than a company selling ERP-CRM-SAAS (which, if you say it out loud, sounds like a wicked case of borborygmus).

So the CIO comes in with a plan to quell the anarchy on a cloud-platform with amazing governance capabilities. The lawyer likes that. The CFO sees massive savings in software licenses. But the country managers hear “governance” and they think about the Sphincter Era when they needed to hide their little digital pirate ships. They hear not “governance” and “ROI” but that the No Fun Committee is being reconvened. Remember – this Internet thing was supposed to be about freedom and openness and the democratization of information which wanted to be free – and now it’s about fake news, foreign policy in under 140 characters, and the return of the Process Patrol with their Black Belts in Six Sigma and Conjoined Triangles of Success who get out of the shower to take a piss.

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The corporate developers get word that the CIO is out on the golf course or diving into a steak before a night in the Champagne Room courtesy of the sales weasels at Hooli, so they start polishing up their resumes and get ready to revolt because they have snuck in their own illegal open source pirate ships so they can just ship code and get shit done fast without waiting for procurement to buy them a license to whatever is being peddled on the golf course. Lotus Notes anybody? Why fret over bad software when you can download it for free, hack something together in a sprint, and get back to the Settlers of Catan game now in progress?

This is how open source snuck in the back door behind the CIO’s back and now the developers are in total control because they know there isn’t an unlimited supply of Boss Level Coders in the world and they have leverage now by threatening to quit, go to Google, or start Tightpants.com, raise a lot of money, and start competing with the dummies that wouldn’t take delivery from the Cluetrain. All Hail the New Kingmakers. They are in charge now, it’s just the world of enterprise b2b tech marketing and sales hasn’t figured that out yet.

We hold these truths to be self-evident

Mitch Kapor, when asked why Lotus succeeded in the early 80s, said he made a bet that somewhere over the next hill would come the ability to display graphs on IBM PCs. So he designed Lotus 1-2-3 to not only do rows and columns and perform the formulas all spreadsheets perform, he anticipated pie charts and bar charts.

The challenge is about stance and agility. Don’t fight the last war. Look over the hill. I was a goalie and the best advice I heard, the advice that changed the game was: Stay on your toes and anticipate the shot, don’t be stand flat-footed (or flat-skated). The content management world is undergoing one of those “paradigm shifts” right now because a lot of the vendors are fighting the last war, not the next.

First truth. Open Source won. If you make your living charging for software you are dead and don’t know it.

Second truth: proprietary “marketing clouds” are marketing babble for handcuffs. The history of software shows that “suites” of technology are always inferior to best of breed components. But then again adding the word “cloud” to anything makes it better and seem like heaven, doesn’t it?

Third truth: this stuff is the bullseye now. Whatever you want to call this Digital Experience stuff, it isn’t a sideshow anymore. Web Content Management was born in the late 1990s when the CEO needed a corporate website. It was a sideshow. A brochure like they handed out at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store along with Ski Sunapee!  tri-folds. Now this “stuff” is the heart of the matter, right at the center of the proverbial tech stack. Look, I don’t know about you but I rather use the damn website than get on the phone or stand in line to renew my license from some mouth-breather at the RMV. Digital is the thing now!  Derp. It’s everything now! Duh. So when a company or a big organization looks for the tech they need to deliver it, they have to look at how they are going to connect it to the back office where all the good stuff is – the customer histories, the patient records – and then how to get it out there into the chaotic world of tablets, phones, the Internet of Thangs, and the rest of it.

Oh, and the fourth truth is if it gets hacked they’ll get fired. (nice knowing you Marissa)

Fifth truth: cloud hosting. There. I said it. Hosting. I used to be exhibit A in Wired’s definition of the “Slashdot Effect” in the 1990s after Forbes put Linus Torvalds on the cover and Slashdot sent a bolus of traffic towards Forbes.com and smoked our wimpy servers. Then AOL hosed us again in 1999 when they pimped our List of the Richest Plutocrats on their log-in screen. Moral of the story: when you need your site the most it will fail you.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

I love this stuff. I really do. I’ve been in the middle of it since I ran the Bibliographic Press and hand set No Smoking signs in the basement of Sterling Memorial Library in 1978 and I am glad for a career that had at least one tenuous theme running through it: tools for publishing stuff. That what I do now for Acquia and I’m at Acquia because of all the truths I just listed. But the future is going to be wildly weird. Content marketers are going to use machine learning to automatically develop custom content and their own special fake news for every visitor based on a total invasion of their personal privacy. And no one will read it and the content marketers are going to be out of work. Someone is going to hack the power grid and put us into the stone age again.  Chips will be embedded in our skulls.  In the future we’re all going to be Glassholes. But whatever happens, the stupidity will be breathtaking and very funny.

Part 4: You Talk like a #%^ and Your S$%t Sounds Retarded

Anyone who walks into a company today that has been doing this Digital thing for the last twenty years and tries to sell a vision around the Freedom to Innovate and Embrace Digital Transformation is going to experience what tech journalists called the MEGO effect. My Eyes Glazed Over.

Talk to the toilers in the vineyard, the poor souls on the front lines,  and just try to pitch them on douche-baggery like “content marketing” or “digital experiences.” You’re going to find they either tune out and start instant messaging to each other during the meeting that you “suck and should have brought Buzzword Bingo cards with you.” These wizened veterans of the web wars know a few things for sure and if you get them grumpy enough they are going to interrupt your pitch to tell you some brutal truths:

  1. Whatever they are building today is going to turn into a brown banana and need to be redone in 18 months.
  2. Whatever they are building will fail when they need it the most because web hosting was designed to fail under pressure.
  3. They have no money, no time, and everybody hates the website.
  4. Marketing consists of ass clowns.
  5. Whatever tools you sell them to build said hated website will screw them when it comes time to move to another tool because the CEO lost patience, hired a Chief Digital Officer who doesn’t tuck in their shirt and carries an iPad, has a Bluetooth headset and wants to create a Digital Center of Excellence using some dumb PaaS/SaaS solution the cool kids were talking about at LeWeb. But the CDO has a lot of Twitter followers, so they have influence and are a true Thought Leader.
  6. If you talk to them like children “Your customers have embraced the Internet and expect a thrilling digital experience” you will become a jerk and be placed in the spam folder.
  7. If you tell them to “Be responsive and agile and treat every visitor as an individual like Oreos did during the Superbowl when they tweeted during the blackout” you will become a jerk and made fun of and given a new nickname behind your back like “Douche Nozzle Dave the Sales Weasel.”

Look, this is the problem. Remember Chef in Apocalypse Now? The former New Orleans saucier who got off the boat and stepped into the jungle and almost was eaten by a tiger? Don’t get off the boat! Remember him talking about his experience as an Army cook?

“They lined us up in front of a hundred yards of prime rib. All of us.  Looking at it. Magnificent meat! Beautifully marbled. Magnifique! Next thing they’re throwing all this meat into big cauldrons. All of it. Boiling it. I looked inside. It was turning grey.” – Chef

That’s what marketers do to perfectly good technology. They  feel compelled to run down to the 7-11 and look for a can of Duncan Hines Chocolate Frosting and they smear that goo over their beautifully marbled meat in the hope that Google will find the goo because buzzwords like “Freedom to Innovate” and “Omnichannel Agile Platforms” attract attention because…..well because the competition is saying those things on their website and the Search Engine Marketing firm says those terms are what are hot right now and …..heck, why not?

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The horror. The horror.

Finally: Here’s the Deal