Weblog of Leland Rucker
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Journalism

Everett Ruess is Still Missing

And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind

– Dave Alvin

So it turns out that the bones found by a reporter and brought to the University of Colorado for forensic examination weren’t the remains of Everett Ruess after all. National Geographic Adventure magazine, which has been trumpeting the finding as its own discovery for the last few months, at least this morning hasn’t corrected its story.

Dorothea Lange's photo of Everett Ruess

Dorothea Lange's photo of Everett Ruess

Kenneth Krauter, a CU professor in molecular, ellular and developmental biology department, told the Camera, “We still don’t know exactly why, but it’s my fault,” after a re-examination of the DNA findings originally conducted by CU researcher Dennis Van Gerven concluded that the remains were not those of Ruess, the young wanderer who disappeared near Escalante, Utah, in 1934 and whose writings have inspired environmentalists ever since.

It was a great story, but an even harder lesson that reminds us that even DNA evidence isn’t unassailable if it’s done incorrectly. And I really feel for Ruess’ family, which has had to endure an emotional roller coaster ride.

The original “discovery” changed Dave Alvin’s song about Ruess, an account of the young Californian’s life written in first-person style. It concluded with a chorus that reflects upon his early death and provides a wonderful commentary on the aging process.

You give your dreams away when you get older
Ah, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

And I guess that the Twitter feed that appeared after the “re-discovery” will probably go dormant again.

October 22, 2009   1 Comment

Sam Zell Unplugged Rocks CU Law School

Sam Zell answered questions from students and the public at CU Law School this afternoon.

Sam Zell answered questions from students and the public at CU Law School this afternoon.

It was close and registration was free, so I went over to CU, where Sam Zell, serial entrepreneur, infamous dealmaker, owner of the private investment firm Equity Group Investments and, according to Forbes, the 68th richest American, was speaking today at noon at the Wolf Law Building.

As advertised, Zell, a gregarious man with a big smile, pulled no punches whether talking about the characteristics of a good entrepreneur, the economy and our current administration’s efforts to control it or the state of the journalism industry, all things he spent time expounding upon during his one hour and eight minute interview session conducted through the Colorado Law School.

Zell began in the real estate industry, but among other things, he created Jacor, a radio broadcast company with many stations, which he sold for a hefty profit to Clear Channel Communications in 1999. His Equity Group is the largest owner of apartment buildings in the United States, and as Prof. Scott Peppet pointed out in his introduction, he sold his Equity Office Properties Trust for $39 billion last year on the day before the stock market started going down.

He had taught a class earlier in the morning, and he reiterated what he told students then: the three years he spent in law school were the most incredibly boring three years of his life, but law school taught him to think, to learn how to ask questions, skills he says he uses every day of his life, something a room full of law students certainly wants to hear.

When asked what makes a good entrepreneur, he said that failure cannot be part of your vocabulary. He said self-confidence (“whether justified or not”) was important, but even more significant was to be able to identify problems and come up with a solution. The two most underrated traits of entrepreneurs, he explained, are the ability to execute, whether by yourself or by delegating to someone who can, and building relationships with the people with whom you work.

Zell said he thinks the economy is “flattening — that’s different than recovering,” he added. He called Barack Obama “a president in training” and unsuitable for the job. And he targeted Senator Barney Frank, who he said pressed Fannie Mae to ease credit requirements in 2000, as the trigger to the current crisis. He also denounced the speed with which Congress was working to make changes, arguing that there will be many unintended consequences. “We need a period of relaxation,” he said.

Of course the subject came around to his ownership of the Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Cubs and which, given the amount of debt he took on to buy Tribune, has been criticized as Zell’s worst decision.

Zell doesn’t see it that way and took particular pleasure skewering journalism and newspapers. “People are just finding out how profitable newspapers were,” reminding everyone that until recently it wasn’t unheard of for newspapers, which had a monopoly on information at the time, to show profits of 30-40 percent.

Today, he says, you can get the same information from other places, and besides, newspapers, still thinking as a monopoly, have become incompetent and arrogant. “It’s a business that has made little progress,” he said, “and is using metrics that are no longer relevant.” One of those is home delivery. There is still a market for home delivery, he said, but not according to the current structure. Selling a newspaper at a machine for 75 cents but delivering the same product to your doorstep for half that price is insane, and a business model that will have to change in the future.

He questioned the future of newspapers sharing content with the Associated Press because, he says, AP, which today sells that same content to Yahoo and other search engines, is actually a competitor. When asked what newspapers should focus on, he said a couple of times, “local, local, local. I’m not going to the Chicago Tribune for news about Afghanistan. But for news about the Cubs, I would.” He said that, despite journalist’s objections, shorter stories were better because newspapers’ own research indicated people didn’t like longer stories and wouldn’t read them.

He got some good laughs out of a story he told about his plan to put ads on the front page of The Los Angeles Times. “I thought that God was going to strike me dead,” he said of the response from journalists, “and the building would fall down around us,” he said to applause and laughter. “But we did it, and we’re still putting papers out every day, as far as I know.”

When asked if newspapers should be charging for content, he said that could be a model, but not until newspapers decide what they want to provide that nobody else can. “Newspapers need to understand who their customers are and appeal to their customers.”

April 22, 2009   3 Comments

Questioning Rep. Polis’ News Judgment

A couple of newspaper articles caught my eye this morning. Jonathon Berlin writes of his years at the recently shuttered Rocky Mountain News. Berlin came of age at the Rocky during the first years of this century, when the newspaper relentlessly covered Denver and its politicians, winning awards and Pulitzer prizes for its efforts, and he wonders what will fill the gap left by newspaper closings.

Rep. Polis: A bit full of himself already?

Rep. Polis: A bit full of himself?

“As more journalists move on, who will do this kind of work? And how will the world be affected as less of it is done,” Berlin asks. “It’s not cheap, it’s not easy and it takes a very special collection of people and skills that budget-minded companies don’t often have the tolerance to incubate.”

Well, my congressional representative, Jared Polis, for whom I voted, answered that question in another story: bloggers. The Denver Post, the still-standing newspaper in that city, quotes Polis telling the Denver Young Democrats on Sunday: “The media is dead and long live the new media.”

I generally expect my congressman to know that media is plural, but I have given up on that one. But then he adds that since bloggers “killed the newspapers” and now “own the media,” they have a responsibility: “It’s important for all of us to reach out to some of those on the other side and present the progressive point of view.”

Bloggers killed newspapers? Replace newspaper reporters with progressive bloggers? Can Polis be serious? There are many reasons for the collapse of newspapers, but they have to do with numbers and corporate ownership and declining advertising, and despite what some bloggers want you to believe, little or nothing to do with bloggers.

Now perhaps our freshman representative, full of himself and the current progressive hegemony, was just trying to bump up his hip quotient with his young Democratic constituents, but it’s equally easy to say that Polis is pleased to see that newspapers like the Rocky, which often watched politicians like himself through a less-than-glowing lens, are going away, replaced with bloggers who praise his progressivism. If Polis has his way, there soon won’t be a Denver Post to print the idiotic things he says in public forums. Instead, “citizen journalists” will help push his agenda.

A personal note about “citizen journalists.” I am by trade a journalist and I write this weblog, so I guess you could call me a “citizen journalist.” What that means is that I write about subjects in which I am interested or passionate about. I don’t have an editor to challenge what I write or question how I write it. So I am not a “journalist,” and bloggers who say they are journalists are simply not being honest with themselves. Like me writing this post, they are advocates, not journalists. There is a place for both, but one won’t “replace” the other. And certainly not Rep. Polis and his blogging advocates.

March 3, 2009   1 Comment