Friday, August 12, 2005

The Web's melting point

I'm not one to sift through the past all that much, especially with respect to my prior work in journalism. There's something about reading past news articles I've written that leaves me a bit flat. It's as if, well, it happened, so what of it?

But there is some coverage I'm proud of, in retrospect. Most recently, the work I did in unearthing what Hewlett-Packard's (their Corvallis, Oregon operation) were likely to be in advance of any real announcement: That was picked up by the AP, and went statewide.

Also unusual stories, like Hydration Technologies, Inc. in Albany, OR, which makes these bladders that use osmosis to convert tainted water to a drinkable substance that is currently in use in Iraq.

Other stuff, too: interviews with veterans of the Pacific War. Coverage of a pair of murder trials. Stalking the wildfires that swept Southern Oregon. A retirement complex with tainted water. Stuff that matters to people on the street, more than the tech stories I've covered throughout my working life.

In the Bay Area job search, the past keeps returning. For example, I'm down here to cover the tech market, as I have at IPInferno, and as I did in the past at places like CBS.com, Cowles New Media, and Interactive Week.

All that means having a clip file, which I do -- but the fact is, I haven't maintained it as assiduously as some of my colleagues. A woman I worked with, Cathy Ingalls of the Albany Democrat-Herald, was quite meticulous. As each issue came out, she would remove a large pair of shears from her desk, and eviscerate the paper in quest of her copy. Where it went, I don't know, but each clip was painstakingly taped to a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper, and from there disappeared into the Ingalls archive.

Of course, I have a comprehensive set of Interactive Week clips from my time there. But my work on the Web? I've saved little to none of it. Why? Because I always thought it would be "out there."

Well it's not, as my recent quest of a good tech clip file has proven. And even archive.org hasn't captured it.

Here's a few cases in point:

Interactive Week: It launched in 1994, and I was the first reporter hired. Not the first editor, there were plenty of those. But first reporter. It started as a controlled circ. of 70k, and grew to 300k. I was its first Web guy as well. Long story short, it had a good run, but was ultimately folded into eWeek in 2002.

What happened to its content, much of which predated archive.org's existence? Near as I can tell, some of it was ported to ZDNet, which was ultimately acquired by CNet. After that? I don't know. All I know is the hundreds of articles I wrote are not to be found. I'm calling around at CNet to get some answers, but so far, no calls back.

Cowles New Media: I wrote for Media Daily for close to three years, reporting on things as various as News Corp's wars with Kirsch for digital satellite rights in Europe, to how the Internet ad market was doing. Two-three articles a day, plus a weekly column called Media Central Digest. Then Cowles New Media, subsidiary of Cowles Business Media was bought by McClatchy, and then the New Media division was spun off to K3, now Primedia, which also owned Inside Media. What happened to all that content? No clue. Archive.org still has my Digest columns, but no dice for the bulk of my work there.

CBS.com: The site's still up, but all the work we did in the way of feature content has been completely nuked. When they pulled the plug, they did it right.

In the end, that's about six years or so of my working life utterly vanished.

So I'm writing a piece about it. Something dealing with the ephemeral nature of data, and that while a single piece of email can have a nearly immortal existence on the Web, for good or ill, the flip side of the coin is that ultimately, the Web is an amnesiac space to put intellectual property.
Paper may not be forever, but it's a far less volatile medium.

As Bradbury noted, books burn at 951 degrees Fahrenheit. For the Web, all it takes is a judicious absence of voltage.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Manchester memories

It was one of both the pleasures and embarrassments of my life to have spoken with one of my author idols briefly on the telephone just months before he died.

That author was William Manchester, who wrote among other books, American Caesar, a biography of General Douglas MacArthur, as well as biographies of Winston Churchill, JFK, and others.

There was some controversy over whether he would ever finish the third volume on Churchill, the first two books of which I enjoyed greatly. Manchester, sadly, had suffered a stroke, and as he put it to me, couldn't think and organize like he used to.

He was an inveterate journo, and was as comfortable as it is possible for a Fourth Statesman to be in the corridors of power. I was more than a bit starstruck on the phone, and after I sensed I was irritating him with my questions, which happened quickly, I wound up the phone call by telling him that he had been and was still a tremendous inspiration to me.

We hung up, and I wanted to die, so mortified was I at what was my own rank stupidity. Of course he couldn't finish the trilogy. Of course he'd had a stroke. What was I thinking.
In my heart, I wanted to say to him, let me help you finish it. I admire you so much -- I'd do whatever it took. But here was a man at the end of his powers, and I knew saying such things would do no good.

I first encountered Manchester in print when David Reid, my long-time mentor, and author of West of the West, and Sex, Death and God in L.A., handed me a first edition of Manchester's The Arms of Krupp -- which is a lengthy tale about the Krupp dynasty, who were for three generations the armorers of Germany. It's a fantastic story about a family, three empires, and the bedfellows of capitalism and outright criminality.

Here was a man who felt that history couldn't be written without passing judgement on the actors. To do otherwise would be pretentious on the part of the author, and I have come to agree with him.

I now read that the third Churchill volume is being assembled from his notes, and put together by others working for his publisher.

I have no doubt I'll be able to find Manchester's spirit embedded somewhere in those pages, but what a loss that there are no more like him populating the shelves.

He died last June, and the world is the poorer for it.
Despite my own embarrassment at being starstruck and tongue-tied, I'll treasure the fact that at least I spoke with one of my idols before he passed on.

There's a wikipedia entry that sketches his life to be found here. One day, I hope someone will endeavor to do a biography of this giant among men.