Monday, June 21, 2010

Jonathan Metz

Many of you have heard about the ordeal of Jonathan Metz, 31, the West Hartford, Connecticut man whose arm became wedged inside a basement boiler earlier in the month. Faced with the unbelievable decision of having to sever his own arm or to slowly slip into consciousness and die from a combination of infection and exsanguination, Metz was placed in a position few can truly fathom. He could smell his flesh beginning to rot and he knew that gangrene would soon spread from his decaying arm throughout his body, releasing toxins that would eventually shut down his organs. Because of the position Metz was in while cleaning the boiler, he was neither in a full sitting or standing position. He screamed to no avail for hours on end and had left his cell phone upstairs. He would not be able to sleep, but he did drift in and out of consciousness for the two days of his crisis. The thought of being found by his parents or others days later gave him the courage to consider the options he had. He famously pondered, "What would MacGyver do?" Like a wolf whose paw has been caught in a trap, Metz made the choice for life. Over a two-day period in terrible pain, bleeding and without food and only limited water from the boiler, he took the brave, painful route of tying off his arm with a tourniquet and almost completely hacking off his own rotting limb with several saw blades that were in reach of his one free hand. The pain was so severe that he could not complete the operation entirely. A small set of nerves underneath the arm sent such unbearable paroxysms of pain that he left a small section of his arm still attached to his body. When Luca DiGregorio, a co-worker, came by to check on him and discovered the door locked and Metz's dog Porsche yelping at the door, he called the local emergency services. First responders from West Hartford ripped down the door, only to discover the weak and frail man in his basement still wedged in the boiler at the verge of death, the floor covered in a mix of blood and waste from the boiler. It is a life choice that was similarly faced by mountain climber Aron Ralston seven years ago. Ralston's arm became pinned by a boulder while single canyoneering in Utah. For five days he, too, had to consider what other course to take before he used a pocketknife to amputate his arm just below the elbow. Metz's arm was cut just past his shoulder, but doctors say his actions probably saved his life. Released from St. Francis Hospital in Hartford after a week, he will require a new prosthetic arm and donations to recover the cost of the surgeries and that device are being sought on a website here. This story has captured much of the nation's attention over the course of the last several weeks and Metz took the Today Show's Matt Lauer on a tour of his basement and described for him in gory detail what was going through his mind during his crisis. It made for very gripping and compelling television watching and his positive outlook and total lack of self-pity were especially moving. However, what many of you don't know what is Metz's New Orleans connection. Metz was an undergraduate student at Tulane University from 1997 until his graduation in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. While here he met and fell in love with his fiancée, Melissa Mowder of Kinston, North Carolina. Metz later completed his Master of Business Administration graduate degree at the University of Connecticut and has been working as an insurance industry financial planner. Prior to the accident both Metz and Mowder had been planning a fall wedding in New Orleans, a city that has meant much to them through the years, especially after its recovery from the catastrophic flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina. Both of them indicate the wedding will take place as originally planned. It is safe to say they are both grateful to have that choice and Metz's ordeal and his positive attitude towards living life will serve as an inspiration to others in Connecticut, Louisiana and throughout the world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The future of journalism, part 2

Yesterday I pontificated on the changes in newspaper newsrooms from the hectic days depicted in Hollywood movies like "The Front Page" and "His Girl Friday." The loss of a number of high profile jobs and the transformation of newspaper rooms from busy hubs of activity into much more quiet and empty halls of inactivity has been startling to me. When I first started to witness newsrooms, even the teletype machines from powerful news gathering services like the Associated Press and United Press International were ever clattering with bulletins and alerts signaled by a series of bells. A five-bell alert was an extremely grave or serious bulletin such as the death of a president or the crash of an airliner and to hear these machines start to peal meant heightened blood pressure and a racing heart. Today's news to a wired nation and pushed out to wireless handheld devices such as PDAs and cellphones has created a very different delivery of news to end users. Newspapers and wire services no longer serve as the primary purveyors of breaking news. For example, last year's back-to-back deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett and the "Miracle on the Hudson" were announced largely over Twitter and Facebook. With thousands of journalists graduating from traditional journalism schools each year, faculties and advisors have been busy keeping up with the technological advances and the ramifications for the Internet and mass communication in the coming years. Although the lead is much slimmer than it ever has been before, newspapers still own the largest percentage of annual advertising. That means that radio, television and the Internet all have varying degrees of success behind the powerful news organizations that own many of the nation's newspapers such as Gannett, Hearst, Newhouse and Fox. It also means that newspapers have the most to lose. As to TV and radio news gathering organizations, much of what has shaped them has been a change from traditional methods of news delivery such as daily newscasts to more breaking news reports with continuous coverage as well as more entertainment-oriented stories that in previous eras would be seen as gossip mongering or salacious. So what does the future of journalism portend for daily subscribers and journalists? Well, in case you didn't hear the pronouncement from none other than Microsoft's Bill Gates, the future of newspapers - indeed for all media - is to go to a paperless, online delivery system. According to Gates, all reading will be online in the future. Maybe that's a bit optimistic on his part, but you can read the story here. Frankly, I agree that newspapers and television will be profoundly impacted by coming changes, but despite the love affair technical gurus have with the Kindle and the i-Pad, I don't see libraries emptying their racks of books in favor of a method of digital delivery. What will prevent this from occurring, in my humble opinion, will be the authors and publishers who control copyrights. Scholarly researchers, for example, will probably resist posting to a digital nexus until it can be determined that this method is one that will be consistently available to all other researchers and at all levels of interest. Also, finding a fair way of payment to the holders of the intellectual properties will be of prime concern. Consider last year's battle with John Grisham versus Amazon and Walmart, which were selling his $25 books for less than $10 each! I look to the way record companies have suffered at the hands of Internet downloads. No longer are music lovers interested in purchasing entire albums by an artist. They merely download the songs they want. This means a considerable revenue loss to composers and the producers and recording companies who provide the backing for the sessions and pay for other administrative costs. Imagine how a concept album like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" or "Tommy" would be presented in today's digital delivery world. Journalists have much to fear as news reports get watered down into easily digested packets of a few well-chosen words. In-depth or investigative reports will undoubtedly suffer as news organizations are no longer able to afford to provide the backing to reporters or correspondents to generate reports over a long period. Will we become a nation of bloggers, using Twitter to alert our followers about breaking news or poking each other on Facebook? I'm not sure, but it certainly would appear that way. Since I consider myself both a journalist and a computer expert, I have my moments of indecision and feel the pull inherent in such a dichotomy. With all of the emphasis placed on ethical choices, to be made in the field, journalists are probably on a much better moral placement than ever before. The problem is that as the delivery method becomes more digital, there is a greater likelihood that hard-working journalists will become the morally-chaste victims of unemployment and corporate downsizing. Say it isn't so, but the vast majority of journalists coming out of schools could one day be singing the song "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The future of journalism, part 1

There was a time when the time-honored badge of journalist meant someone would be clanking out letters on a noisy Remington in a newsroom filled with ringing phones and busy, scurrying folks. Then, one by one, the manual typewriters were replaced by more efficient electric ones like the IBM Selectric that allowed writers to change fonts as easily as replacing a small aluminum ball. The quieter sounds of electric efficiency and the gentler ringing tones on the telephones made the newsroom a place where writers could think about their stories, while still being in a busy hive of activity. Eventually, the IBM Selectric II with correcting tape and early word processors became the most desirable tools of the newsroom-bound journalist as reams of paper continued to circulate around the busy room. Then, bulky keyboards would input stories which would appear on monochrome cathode ray tubes (CRTs). The clicking sounds of computer keys made the newsroom even quieter than they were beforehand and the numbers of employees took a bit of a dip. The cacaphony of keys clicking sounded like crickets chirping in midday. It wasn't all that long before the personal computer invaded the space of the newsroom and the quietness of the keypads coupled with the loss of personnel due to industry-wide downsizing made the solitude and cavernous nature of most newsrooms seem palpable. Paper copies are today non-existent, as editing is done on computer screens. In more recent years some newsrooms simply stopped running. The downturned economy shrank local advertising while the Internet and its free classified ads like on Craig's List and through Google, Yahoo and other search engine sites aggregated viewers elsewhere. The staffs of top publications have been decimated as publishers have decided to offer early retirement to top writers rather than continue to pay them salaries far above what they would be required to pay for less seasoned new recruits. So, progress has been made, for good or bad. Hard-nosed, cigar chomping and heavy drinking editors and reporters have given way to determined, no-nonsense women journalists and well-mannered men, who have transformed newsrooms into quiet dens of respectability and civility. There's still a lot of cussing going on, but it's usually directed at management these days. Some have taken to referring to newspaper offices as snake pits. Forty years ago newspapermen were on the short side of the ethical equation. Many would eagerly take gifts and accept free tickets to any and all events. Slowly, though, the concept of being more professional and ethical in the way journalistic business was conducted was considered. New rules were put in place. Gifts being lavished on reporters are simply not tolerated today and even critics and reviewers are expected to pay their own way to events, oftentimes reimbursements not being provided readily by management. So, a young budding writer can look forward to low pay, long hours and virtually no perks in a business model that is collapsing upon itself. What does the future hold for professional journalists? More on this tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

American Jewish Press Association

Once a year the American Jewish Press Association meets to conduct business and assess where the industry is and where it is likely to be going. Previous year's meetings have been held in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Evanston, Illinois. This year the site of what is the largest gathering of Jewish press and public relations firms that cater to the Jewish community is Scottsdale, Arizona, a sleepy desert suburban locale not far from busy Phoenix. A partner in this year's event is Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media. Numerous faculty members from the school have taken part in panel discussions or have headed up interesting topics such as Digital Entrepreneurship. Much of the topics have dealt with the concept of social networking and how newspapers can take an active role in integrating social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter into their digital presence on the Internet. For some it is a logical next step; for others it is a frightening reality that looms large. Many have already placed some social networking into their scheme of things, but others have yet to figure out how to harness all of the possibilities and pitfalls these sites and applications portend. There is also the concept of raising ad revenue through this kind of integration as web traffic is increased and, by extension, more eyeballs should translate into more page views and unique visitors to newspaper websites. While not everyone has been ecstatic about all of the sessions, most have been satisfied that much of what has been discussed is pertinent to the future of newspapers and journalism. There's more to consider for the final day tomorrow, but first the Rockower Awards, the equivalent of the "Pulitzer Prize" for Jewish journalism, will be announced. It is all part of a very well-orchestrated conference and organizers are to be congratulated for a job well done.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Frankly, BP, I don't give a damn!

Thanks to the efforts of those in the media, there is a sense of urgency that the languid, viscous pools of oil and tarballs washing on Alabama and Florida beaches have made even more clear to our nation's leaders, particularly President Obama. When the oil first reached Louisiana shores and permeated the fragile marshes and estuaries known as the Louisiana wetlands, critics and commentators were appalled. With the loss of thousands of jobs and businesses closing down that had been healthy a little over two months ago -some that had existed for a hundred and more years - the pressure has been ramped up for a more rapid response. Do something. And for those on the sidelines, far north, east or west away from the crisis, there is one burning question: what can we do? As British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward attempts to get his life back, hundreds of thousands of honest, hard-working Americans who have had little to do with the petroleum industry are at risk. They want their lives back too. They also want their fragile ecosystem and ways of life back. The thousands of dead birds, turtles and other sea creatures have weighed heavily on the minds of the young and old. Vox populi - the voice of the people - has been issued from the collective mouths of the innocent and those responsible leaders we look to for action. The question we should all be asking is: are you listening, B. P.?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

D-Day 56 years later

Andrew J. Higgins with President Harry Truman

I was born nearly ten years after D-Day, June 6, 1944, but that date was stamped indelibly on my conscious as I grew up. I knew it was a turning point in the war, obviously, but I recognized it as more than just the first big push back at Hitler's stranglehold over Western Europe. It was costly in terms of human life, but the reason historians like the late Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley felt the effort succeeded was due in no small part to the influence of New Orleans and Higgins Industries, the local shipping company run by Andrew Higgins that provided the flat-bottomed landing craft that stormed the beaches like Omaha, Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword. General Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces said it himself after the war. "Andrew the man who won the war for us... If Higgins had not designed and built those LCPVs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different." That's an absolutely awe-inspiring thought about the importance of Andrew Higgins and the improbable war machine that he built up during the two years following Pearl Harbor. Some have reported that Hitler called Higgins "the new Noah." Despite the devastating loss of life, it was a positive morale builder for the Allies and a realization for the Axis forces that their reign of terror over Europe would one day end. Higgins' success is the reason that the D-Day Museum was constructed in New Orleans ten years ago with great hoopla. Today, the more impressive campus has been renamed the National World War II Museum and I am proud to say it is located just off historic Lee Circle on Andrew Higgins Boulevard. Ironically, Higgins died two years before I was born, but it took several decades more for his impact on World War II to surface again. Higgins would probably shrug it off, saying something like it was his civic duty. Yet others will point to him and call him the "man who won the war for us." Just thought I'd send a little shout out to a great American and a great New Orleanian on this great American holiday of remembrance.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A chip off the old bloke

Ron Zappe, the founder of Zapp's Potato Chips in Gramercy, Louisiana passed away on Tuesday in Houston, where he was undergoing treatment for cancer at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. A Houston oil industry engineer whose companies went bankrupt in the oil bust of the 1980's, Zappe moved to Louisiana to start up his "little chippery." It took a lot of guts and even more convincing to get the necessary financing for his envisioned potato chip business. Starting with a shell of a building that formerly housed a car dealership, he began to fry his own chips on site, inviting bystanders to sample his wares. Zappe was a tireless promoter of the thick chips fried in kettles of peanut oil that became his famous trademark. A showman and a flamboyant personality, Zappe never let an opportunity pass by where he couldn't promote himself or his tasty products. The most famous of his line was the super spicy and hot Cajun Crawtators, introduced 25 years ago. Zapp's employees would delight in throwing cartons of chips to waiting Mardi Gras parade fans in several parades leading up to the big day. Zappe himself would donate much of his product line to food banks and to the Red Cross, according to news accounts. He was unflappable and unstoppable if a microphone got in his way. Zappe recognized the importance of appealing to every segment of the marketplace. Zapp's licensed potato chips to local sports franchises L.S.U. (Tiger Tators) and to the NFL's New Orleans Saints (Who Dat? Chips), even when a Super Bowl championship was in doubt. Back in the 1990's he was approached by a local Jewish group seeking his okay to have his entire product line designated as kosher. It was revealed to Zappe that only about one to two percent of the population kept kosher for religious reasons, but that a larger share of the market (vegetarians, vegans, etc.) used kosher designations for making their purchasing decisions. The upfront fee for the supervision was just the beginning of associated costs for the designation of kosher such as redesigning packages with the kosher symbol and adhering to specific methods for maintaining the kosher status of his facilities. But Zappe was a wise businessman. He more than recouped his initial investment for the supervision within the first year and his company's sales figures have increased significantly, even in the years following Hurricane Katrina. Zappe was a guest at the Jeux To Deux fundraiser for Torah Academy a few years ago, appearing in a colorfully attired and flashy set of white tails. As one might suspect, he was extremely popular and his enthusiasm for the school and his promotion of Zapp's Chips were both highly appreciated. I actually saw him on the streets of New Orleans driving to yet another affair not so long ago. Among the more unusual characters in a city famous for unusual characters, Ron Zappe stood out. His business remains to carry on his legacy with about 200 employees on the payrolls. Zappe is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Something is busting out all over

June is here and that means camping with Boy Scouts and other summer activities, especially plays and musical offerings. June can often be the hottest month in New Orleans, which is strange when one considers that July and August should have that distinction. Last year I recall that July and August were much less severe than the onslaught provided by June's heat. But there is more to June than heat and high humidity. It is the natural consequence of school letting out and vacation time beckoning millions to travel to far away, exotic locales or to investigate and examine local sites with ever more inquisitive eyes. The trend to stay close to one's own environs might be prompted by the high cost of gasoline and the still sluggish economy, but I believe Americans will still take the time to enjoy themselves with their families and friends - both near and far - while the summer sky beckons. This is a great time of year for my friends from Cleveland as the gray skies of winter part for what seems like an all-too-brief, but busy time to enjoy the outdoors. Wine connoisseurs should check out some of the small bed and breakfasts that border along the wine country near Lake Erie. Ah, for a glass of a palatable sauvignon blanc as the sun sets on the lake. It is a magnificent way to spend a summer evening. While the media's attention has been on the spewing oil emanating from the Gulf of Mexico's floor, I have tried to take my mind off the protests and calls for action. I agree that something needs to be done, but I have learned a bit about what would probably occur were the government to take over the cleanup from British Petroleum's engineers at this juncture. Can you spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R ? First of all, I distrust government to do any sort of action better than can be had from private industry. The response of the federal government to the cries for help from victims of Hurricane Katrina and the lack thereof should be enough of an answer to the sharpest critics that we should let the feds take over the operation only when all other options have been exhausted. Second, like it or not, the most intelligent people acquainted with the equipment that has failed are from BP. To bring others on board and try to educate them as to the whys and wherefores doesn't instill in me any degree of confidence. Third, like it or not, BP literally needs to clean up its image. Their stock value has plummeted while this storm of controversy has raged. It would not be unreasonble for me to expect some of the top leaders to resign or be sacked after the crisis has disipated. They derive no benefit from dragging their heels. So, while I will be cheering the protestors on, I will also be praying that BP's people have some luck with their latest project, which is to slice the pipe below the blowout preventer (BOP) and try to make a permanent seal at the 5,000-foot level. Frankly, the likelihood that it, too, could fail and that there could be more oil rushing forth as a result scares the heck out of me. But they have to try it. The relief well operations won't be finalized until August in a best case scenario and if a hurricane or two get in the way, the target date will extend even further back. I prefer to think about the better aspects of summer: sun, fun and the outdoors. And there is yet another June that makes me smile on this first day of the month whose name she bears. I will deliberately be somewhat mysterious as I endeavor to protect her confidence, but I remember this June from some of my earliest childhood memories and I am happy to know we are connected. So, I will enjoy June for all of its charms and for its namesake. I hope you will do likewise.