Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are Journalists the New Entreprenuers?

UCB Letterhead TT
I spent part of Saturday at a conference for recovering journalists. Oops. I guess I mean journalists in transition.

And there were a lot of them at “Spring Training for Journalists,” held at City College. There were current and former reporters and editors from the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune, and elsewhere. The bulk of the crowd seemed to be people 35+, although there was a smattering of young reporters as well.

In the past few years, Bay Area newspapers have shed 400 reporting and editing positions, which means there are a lot of people trying to reinvent themselves. And that’s what the conference was about – how to survive in this somewhat hostile, yet very interesting, media environment.

I missed the opening statement by Steve Fairinu, who has just taken over the managing editor position of the Bay Citizen, the new, not-yet-launched website that will cover Bay Area news. Apparently he was upbeat and inviting, and told the gathered reporters that he has a freelance budget and he intends to use it. 

It’s a smart move, because there is a great depth of talent in the Bay Area.

There were workshops on how to do multimedia reports using slides and sounds, and a keynote address by Davia Nelson, one of the “Kitchen Sisters,” on creating compelling radio documentaries.  There was a panel on writing books and on revamping your resume.

To survive nowadays, journalists have to wear multiple hats. Not only must reporters write and produce traditional pieces for newspapers, magazines, and radio -- usually on a freelance basis -- they also have to write for websites, start their own blogs, or even create their own small businesses by producing neighborhood websites.

One example of the new entrepreneurism is the explosive growth of nonprofit journalism organizations. The Bay Area now has the highest concentration of these new businesses in the nation. Mother Jones, New America Media and the Center for Investigative Reporting have been around the Bay Area for more than 30 years but have completely reinvented themselves in recent years.

Mother Jones has a vibrant website. New America Media has formed partnerships with thousands of ethnic journalists around the country and has brought their work to a central website. CIR, which has long partnered with CBS, recently created California Watch. Mark Katches and his team, which includes some longtime Chronicle reporters like Lance Williams, have seen California Watch stories appear in dozens of newspapers and websites around the state. San Francisco Public Press is a new consortium of journalists reporting on San Francisco news. Two of its stories recently appeared in the Bay Area section of the New York Times.

 Individual reporters are also experimenting with new forms of journalism, making life as a reporter much different than the days when one went into work at 10 am, found and reported a story, and went home at 7 pm.

My experience is probably fairly common. I worked for the San Jose Mercury News for nine years. Since I left, I have freelanced for a number of news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, the Chronicle, and San Francisco magazine.

Most recently I have been writing for the new Bay Area edition of the New York Times, but that opportunity will soon go away as The Bay Citizen will take over that section at the end of May.

I blog for City Brights on SFGate and for Ghost Word, my site about the Bay Area literary scene.

What I am most excited about is Berkeleyside, a local website I have started with two friends, Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor, both veteran reporters. It is what they call in the business a “hyperlocal” site, which means it focuses on a defined geographical area.

There are a lot of these sites popping up, like The Island, a site run by Michele Ellson about Alameda, Coastsider, run by Barry Parr, which examines life in unincorporated San Mateo County, and OaklandLocal, a nonprofit site started by Susan Mernit.

We write about issues large and small, and that it why it is so much fun. I recently wrote a story about the closing of Mr. Mopps, a beloved toy store on Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley. The post got dozens of responses and even prompted a few people to try and buy the business. (Nothing concrete has happened yet, but it may)

My post on why San Francisco Magazine had not included any Berkeley sandwiches in its list of the region’s top 40 sandwiches drew a heated exchange about the best places to eat lunch in town.

I wrote those more light-hearted pieces while I was writing about the closure of the NUMMI plant for the New York Times and still doing talks about my book, Towers of Gold, which came out in paperback in January.  Oh, yes, and also trying to sell ads for Berkeleyside.

Tyche Hendricks is another example of a reporter who has multiple jobs. For years she covered immigration for the San Francisco Chronicle but recently left.  Since then, Hendricks has taught a course on international reporting for the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, has just taken a new position with KQED, where she will be the special projects editor for The California Report. She will publish her first book, The Wind Doesn’t Need A Passport: Stories from the US-Mexico Border, in June.  And since immigration is such a hot topic now, she is pitching op-ed pieces for various newspapers.

Sarah Henry is another example. A former reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting, she went on to report for the health magazine Hippocrates, and then wrote for a number of websites like Babycenter,, and WebMD. Henry recently helped write someone’s memoir and was a contract writer for Chronicle Books. Her website, Lettuce Eat Kale, about food issues, is very popular. Henry also writes a column on foodies for Berkeleyside.

Fortunately for all of us, there is a great resource; the Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. It, too, has evolved as the news business has changed. Its main focus had been on training reporters in newsrooms to do multimedia reporting. Knight still does that, but it also has started to train independent journalists as well. It offers conferences and trainings to independent reporters and its website has a great collection of videos on how to produce multimedia, set up a hyperlocal site, and more. The journalism school has also been welcoming to this new batch of independent reporters.

My talk at the “Spring Training for Journalists” conference, which was co-sponsored by the California Media Workers Guild, the SF City College Journalism Department, and the Bay Area Media Training Consortium, was on writing nonfiction books. I told the audience that journalists are well equipped to write books, because it takes a lot of perseverance to succeed. And journalists have that quality. We are trained to track down information, even in the face of daunting odds, and not give up until we get that information.

I think perseverance is the reason so many reporters will work hard to make the transition from the old media world to the new.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

David R. Dow: A Lawyer's Unsettling View on Executions

UCB Letterhead TT
David R. Dow is an attorney living in Texas and he has a job that most Texans don’t respect: defending death row inmates.

Texas is the kind of state that kills its criminals with regularity and doesn’t think twice. Unlike other states, such as California or Illinois, that have wrestled with the legality and methods associated with the death penalty, the majority of Texans seem to consider putting someone to death no big deal.

Dow is not one of them. As a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal aid corporation that represents death-row inmates, Dow has served as the attorney for 100 men on death row.

For dozens of years, Dow has fought to stop his clients from being put to death. It’s a mostly futile exercise, but after reading Dow’s memoir, Autobiography of an Execution, you understand why he does it. Even though the majority of his clients are cold-blooded murderers, (he thinks seven were probably innocent) Dow makes a convincing case that the death penalty strips people of their humanity. It also disproportionally punishes the poor and people of color.

“I used to support the death penalty,” writes Dow. “I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is. If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist, unprincipled regime, a regime where white skin is valued more highly than dark, where prosecutors hide evidence and policemen routinely lie, where judges decide what justice requires by consulting the most recent Gallup poll, where rich people sometimes get away with murder and never end up on death row, then the death-penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you to no end.”

Autobiography of an Execution is a highly readable memoir. Dow cuts back and forth between scenes of his clients who are about to be put to death with scenes of his wife and young son. Dow is conflicted because defending death row inmates, most of whom did commit the crimes for which they are jailed, takes time away from his family. The scenes of his young, innocent son who trusts the world contrast sharply with the scenes showing the indifference of the legal system. Innocence versus venality.

The most heartbreaking story in the book is of one man who has been sentenced for the execution-style murder of his estranged wife and two children. Dow calls him “Henry Quaker.” Generally, Dow does not concern himself with his clients’ guilt or innocence; his job is to spare them from death. As the book progresses though, Dow becomes convinced of Quaker’s innocence. It is heartbreaking and infuriating to see how the machinations of the law are so structured that they cannot pause to consider whether someone really should be put to death. Everyone passes the buck; no one accepts responsibility for making the decision that someone will be put to death.

"Our system of capital punishment survives because it is built on an evasion," writes Dow. "A juror is one of 12, and therefore the decision is not hers. A judge who imposes a jury's sentence is implementing someone else's will, and therefore the decision is not his. A judge on the court of appeals is one of three, or one of nine, and professes to be constrained by the finder of fact, and therefore it is someone else's call. Federal judges say it is the state court's decision. The Supreme Court justices simply say nothing, content to permit the machinery of death to grind on with their tacit acquiescence."

Autobiography of an Execution was published by Twelve, the imprint run by legendary editor Jonathan Karp. The house only publishes 12 books a year so it can give enough attention to each book. Being selected by Twelve generally signals that  the book will be big.

I am not convinced that Autobiography of an Execution will reach the bestseller list as its topic is so disturbing. But it is a poignant and moving book – and one that will leave you seething with anger. That is, after you get done crying.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dan Fost tells the tale of the San Francisco Giants

UCB Letterhead TT
Last night I went to a book release party for Dan Fost, who has just published The Giants Past and Present. It’s a big, colorful coffee table book about the history of the Bay Area’s most heart-wrenching team, which has not won a national championship since it moved here from New York in 1958.

Dan held the party at the Public House, the new Traci des Jardins restaurant in the ballpark. With a dozen beers on tap, dozens of flat screen televisions mounted on the walls showing different sports games, and great food, it was a wonderful place for a book party.

Dan is a former writer for the Chronicle (he now freelances for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others) so a number of his newspaper colleagues were there. Joan Ryan, whose new book is The Water Giver, was there, as was Jason Turbow, whose book The Baseball Codes, released in March, is now in its fourth printing. Benny Evangelista, who covers technology for the Chronicle, was also there.

I have known Dan since 1986 when we were both new reporters in Ithaca, N.Y. He worked for the town’s main newspaper, the Ithaca Journal, and I worked for the out-of-town competitor, the Syracuse Post-Standard.

It was so much fun to be a reporter in a small town. We tried to scoop one another whenever possible, but it was a friendly rivalry. When there was a murder, everyone cared. Much of the town would be glued to the newspaper or radio coverage and would follow the trial like it was the most important event around. We were big fish in a very small pond.

From the time Dan arrived in Ithaca, he stood out. (And not for his unruly curls, although they did garner him notice). He is a graceful and funny writer and his words always improved the Ithaca Journal. He has brought his deft touch to Giants Past and Present. The book has been getting lots of attention. Dan was on Michael Krasny’s show on KQED (with Giants President Larry Baer) and on John Rothmann’s show on KGO 810 AM.

Dan will be reading from his book tonight, April 21, at Book Passage in Corte Madera at 7 pm. He will be at the Los Angeles Festival of Books this weekend.

Dan grew up a Yankees fan but started to love the Giants when he moved here in the early 1990s. His son Harry may be the Giants’ biggest booster.

Here’s an interview with Dan done by a Giants blogger and one by the Marin Independent Journal.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dave Eggers Rides to the Rescue of John Sayles

UCB Letterhead TT
In 2009, The Los Angeles Times reported that John Sayles, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker and award-winning novelist, was having a hard time getting a new book deal.

UCB Letterhead TT
No publisher wanted to touch Sayles’ 1,000-page tome Some Time in the Sun, described as a tale about racism and the dawn of U.S. imperialism.

Sayle’s agent had sent the book to a number of publishers who passed, in part because of the gloomy state of the economy.

But Dave Eggers, the writer and San Francisco publisher of McSweeney’s books, has apparently purchased Sayle’s book and plans to publish it in the fall of 2011. The deal was reported recently on Publisher’s Marketplace. 

McSweeney's editor Jordan Bass told the Associated Press that the novel "felt like equal parts (E.L.) Doctorow and 'Deadwood'" and praised its "captivating pacing." 

This comes at the same time announced that it would be placing McSweeney's content on its website.

Some other recent book deals by noted Bay Area authors: (All from Publishers' Marketplace)

Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson's THE NEW INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, the story of how entrepreneurs are using web principles to rejuvenate manufacturing - and the economy - through open source, custom-fabrication and do-it-yourself design, predicting that we are about to see the collective potential of a million garage tinkerers unleashed on global markets

Author of the NYT bestseller Beautiful Boy, David Sheff's THE THIRTEENTH STEP, drawing on recent research and stories of the author's own and others' experiences to show what's wrong with how we approach addiction today and the best ways to treat and prevent it.

Guggenheim fellow Peter Orner's LOVE AND SHAME AND LOVE, a colorful mosaic of three generations of the Popper family of Chicago.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Northern California Awards Handed Out

UCB Letterhead TT
The Northern California Book Award ceremony was held Sunday at the San Francisco Public Library and Catherine Brady, a professor at the University of San Francisco, won the fiction award for The Mechanics of Falling. (She's in the photo at left) Tamim Ansary won in the nonfiction category for Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Dave Eggers won in the creative nonfiction category for Zeitoun. D.A. Powell won in the poetry division for Chronic. Here are the other winners.

The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association has handed out their list for the best books of 2010 and there was a bit of an overlap. Eggers won in the nonfiction category and Powell won for poetry. Abraham Verghese won in the fiction category for Cutting For Stone, Novella Carpenter won in the food writing category for Farm City, and Tom Killon and Gary Snyder won in the regional category for Tamalpais Walking.

Frank Portman won in the teen category for Andromeda Klein, Gennifer Choldenko won in the children’s literature category for Al Capone Shines My Shoes, and Shino Arihara won for illustrating Zero Is the Leaves on the Tree.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Library Laureates Dinner at San Francisco Public Library

UCB Letterhead TT
On Friday night April 16, the San Francisco Public Library is going to hold its annual “Library Laureates” dinner to honor Bay Area authors.

The list of 30 authors is a wonderful reflection of the diversity of voices around the Bay Area. Kathryn Ma, Allison Hoover Bartlett, Ethan Watters, Terry Castle, Jack Boulware, Joshua Braff, Charlie Haas, Don Lattin, Kate Moses, Steven Zinn, Victoria Zackheim, Merla Zellerbach, Lewis Buzbee, Tom Dolby, Greg Marcus, Randall Mann, Gerald Nachman, Joel Paul, Frank Portman, George Smith, Jacqueline Sue, Elaine Elinson, Stan Yogi, Janet Fletcher, Beverly Gherman, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Blanche Richardson, Kate Williams, and Mike Sullivan, will all be there.  And yours truly.

We meet in the library for a group photo and small reception and then apparently we go to tables scattered around the building for dinner. (I hope I get to sit in the San Francisco History Room) The theme of the evening is Urban Legends, and since the indomitable Kathi Kamen Goldmark is helping organize this event, we are all encouraged to dress up in costume. I am contemplating going as Isaias Hellman.

A few days ago I got an email from Mary Ellen Hannibal who runs a wonderful new blog for the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. It’s writing-oriented, with interviews with authors, book reviews, and news that will interest collectors and booksellers. The blog is called The Readers Review and I highly recommend it.

Here is an interview I did with The Readers Review. It touches on Ghost Word, uncovering the story of Isaias Hellman, any my freelance work for the New York Times and Berkeleyside.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Off to Los Angeles

I am heading down to Los Angeles again, this time to kick off a new lecture series called "Los Angeles Luminaries."

It will be held at the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry on Sunday at 3 pm.

It's the old house of William Workman, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1841 on the first immigrant wagon train to the area.

What's neat is that Isaias Hellman, the subject of my book, Towers of Gold, started a bank in 1868 with Workman and his son- in-law. Francis Pliny Fisk Temple. The relationship didn't last long. Hellman severed ties in 1871 because he thought Temple lent money too freely, without requiring equity.

Hellman turned out to be right. Temple and Workman formed a new bank without him, and it went bust. When Workman found out that he would have to relinquish his beloved home, he committed suicide That's the home that is now a museum.

In spite of the bank fiasco, Workman and Temple were major players in the development of Los Angeles.

Hellman also did business with Workman's son, William Henry Workman. They developed Boyle Heights together.

(The picture at the top is Los Angeles in the 1870s)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

I have long been a fan of Carol Goodman’s gothic mysteries, and I have long felt the same way at the end of her books: slightly disappointed.

The beginnings are always terrific: a woman on her own in the world goes to some hermetically sealed place (a hotel or boarding school), encounters some interesting characters, and slowly understands there is an ancient death that has cast a pall over the place. And then the heroine gets sucked into the mystery, someone she loves is put in peril, but then she survives.

I was mesmerized by The Lake of Dead Languages, the first Goodman book I read.

I just finished Arcadia Falls, the story of a woman, Meg Rosenthal, whose husband has died and left her in debt. She sells their fancy house in Great Neck, N.Y., and accepts a job at a boarding school in the Hudson Valley.  She brings her daughter, Sally, who has been angry and rebellious since her father’s death, and enrolls her in the school, which is called Arcadia Falls.

The seeds of a great mystery are all there, and they carry the novel for a long time. The school is located at an old artists’ colony that was started in the 1920s by two women, who were also lovers, Vera Beech and Lily Eberhardt. Together, they wrote and illustrated a children’s fairy tale, The Changeling Girl, about a young girl who must choose between her family and self-expression. (That theme mirrors what female artists of the period went through: can one have a family and be an artist or does domestic life preclude an artistic life?) The art colony evolved into a school, which is still thriving.

But when a young student falls to her death, it brings back memories of another death: that of the founder Lily Eberhardt, who may have died on the evening she was leaving Vera Beecher for a man. Meg Rosenthal, who is writing her thesis on the two women, uncovers Lily’s long-lost diary, and sets out to determine why she died and if the two deaths are linked.

All of this is terrific stuff, as is Rosenthal’s relationship with her daughter and budding romance with the local sheriff. The book is atmospheric, creepy, and intriguing. But at the end of the book Goodman uses an old slight of hand. She pretends to solve the mystery of the death, only to offer another explanation in its closing pages. That's when the coincidences grow too pat and convenient. The closing pages of the book feel contrived.

Still, Arcadia Falls, like Goodman’s other books, provides considerable pleasure.


A interview with Carol Goodman about Arcadia Falls.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Put Girl in Translation on your reading list

One of my favorite books last year was an advanced readers' copy of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. It tells the story of a young Hong Kong immigrant, Kimberly Chang, who goes to work in her aunt’s clothing factory in Brooklyn. Since her Aunt Paula has paid for her mother and her to come to America, they become defacto indentured servants.

But Kimberly is very smart, and Girl in Translation traces her path to assimilation in America. Since she doesn’t speak English when she first arrives, Kimberly is placed in a class for low achievers. She is considered lazy and unremarkable. With time, and with her genius for math, she eventually gets into a private school. The more she excels, the more torn she becomes between the claustrophobic, Chinese-centered life of her aunt’s sweatshop and the promise of success in the larger world. It will be published April 29.

I was delighted to learn today that  Girl in Translation has been chosen as a May 2010 pick for the Indie Next List.

And what's even more amazing is that the book was pulled out of the slush pile, which Kwok talks about on her blog.

It’s hard to know how much of this book reflects the life of its author. But I suspect she has drawn heavily on her experiences, as she, too, immigrated from Hong Kong. Here’s a biography I found on the Asia Society webpage:

“Jean Kwok was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Brooklyn when she was five, and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. After entering public elementary school unable to speak a word of English, she was later admitted to Hunter College High School, one of New York City's most competitive public high schools. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia. Kwok has worked as an English teacher and Dutch-English translator at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and has been a professional ballroom dancer, a reader for the blind, a housekeeper, a dishwasher, and a computer graphics specialist for a major financial institution. Her work has been published in Story magazine, Prairie Schooner, Elements of Literature: Third Course, and The Nuyorasaian Anthology.”

With this book's publication, there is no doubt that Kwok will be noticed as a major American writer. The one sad aspect of her tale is that her older brother Kwan, who helped edit her book and who provided much of the material on which this book is based, died in the crash of a private plane in 2009.

Kwok will be at Book Passage in San Francisco on May 5 and at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland on May 6. Here is her schedule.