Customer (dis)service.

07.20.18_ Commercial Appeal Newspaper 478 ©FochtA.JPG

It only took five minutes to end a nearly 30-year relationship.

This week, I canceled my subscription to the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, which I have read since I arrived in Memphis in 1989 and for which I worked for a (mostly happy) 15 years.

(Well, it only took five minutes if you don’t count the 40 minutes I waited for the Gannett customer service rep to call me back. Where was he? Iowa? Mumbai? I thought about getting my reporter on and asking him a million questions, but I was too sad.)

I have long felt like a chump for continuing to pay nearly $50 a month for a product put together by a company that so clearly doesn’t care one bit for me or the news that shapes my city. I have already read most of the stories I care about by the time they reach print, sometimes as many as two (!) days later. A new local daily online journalism source is coming in a few weeks, and I’m already in the habit of reading news online throughout the day. It was time.

But I am not one of the cranky chorus of disappointed Memphians who points out every stupid headline and ignorant geographic reference. I don’t relish how often I can’t find even one thoroughly reported story in a day’s paper or I see a column that went on too long that I know was used mostly to fill a space. I will never say, with a sneer, “Who’s left over there, anyway?”

The answer is that there are at least 27 hardworking journalists left in The CA newsroom (there were nearly 200 when I joined the paper in 1994), and they are doing the best they can. David Waters, John Beifuss, Linda Moore, Ron Maxey – these friends and former co-workers have adapted over and over to the ridiculous corporate imperative to do more with less. In journalism, that’s simply not possible.

My heart aches when I think of the stories that aren’t getting done – at all – in Memphis right now. Not just the slow-on-the-uptake local reporting about the MPD’s surveillance of activists. What happened to all of those worrisome stories circulating on social media about people who weren’t able to vote the ballot they wanted to in the August 2 election? Are there pedophile priests in the Catholic Diocese of Memphis hiding the way they were for decades in Pennsylvania?

And those are just a couple of the stories I can mention. Like all journalists, I hear things every day that should be investigated by a competent reporter with editorial support that doesn’t depend on preserving the status quo. Some of those stories would turn out to be nothing. But some would change our city for the better, even if they made people mad on the way.

This fascinating CityLab story from May even shows the economic consequences of a city losing a newspaper. "You can actually see the financial consequences that have to be borne by local citizens as a result of newspaper closures," say the researchers. 

We're not quite there, but losing our watchdogs isn't good for anyone, really. To reiterate, journalists are not the enemy. 

As my friend, the wonderful photojournalist Karen Pulfer Focht, put it, “It was never just a job for me. Nor you. It was a calling to most everyone in that newsroom.” Karen took the sad photo, above, not long after the CA building sold in April.

To be clear, I will still read The CA digitally, for a fraction of the cost of getting a dead-tree paper delivered to my doorstep every morning. But local news will never be the same for me.


Hey, I wrote a book!

MLH book reveal, 6-22-18.jpg

She was the first person who called me when I launched my communications business: Lee Meyers, the senior communications/marketing officer at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, was planning for the hospital’s centennial in 2018. Would I be interested in writing a history book to go along with the 100th anniversary celebrations?

Sure! I said. (Which is what I usually say when presented with an opportunity that sounds good but with which I have no actual experience.)

Today, I hold the finished book in my hands (the photo shows the cover being unveiled at a lunch this week by MLH CEO Michael Ugwueke and Donna Abney about which more, below). In some ways, it was some of the most comfortable work I’ve done since I started working for myself. In other ways, it was really difficult.

Mostly, though, it was a great experience, and I learned a lot, both about myself and about how to manage a complicated, detailed, high-stakes project. Here’s what I learned:

1.       No matter how much time you have, you’ll work right up to the drop-dead deadline. I’d never done a two-year project – or written an entire book – and I had planned to be finished several months before the final copy-to-printer date. I made an outline, a calendar, and set up regular check-in meetings. But that slack in the schedule evaporated, and we ended up doing final production on the book right up to the last possible moment. Why?

2.       Expect the unexpected. In December of last year, the month I had originally planned to finish the writing part of the book, I ended up having major surgery. I was back at my desk by early 2018 (and feel great today), but I lost a lot of work time, and not just on this project. Which leads to …

3.       Ask for help. In matters large and small, Lee -- and the wonderful Donna Abney, a retired MLH executive (pictured above) who did most of the original interviews that form the backbone of the book -- were right there with me.

When I realized that I would never be able to figure out what to do with the 50-plus interview transcripts Donna eventually sent me, she made a road map to show me which interview would likely contribute to which chapter. I just had to ask her. She also talked me through the intricacies of managed care and hospital politics. Whew.

And Lee was remarkably calm and supportive as the weeks after my surgery slipped by. She trusted me to do my best for her, and her trust allowed me to do just that. She was a true friend, checking on me and moving obstacles out of my way. She challenged me to write clearly and helped me understand what was most important. Plus, she was right next to me on the final Friday before deadline, sweating the details as much as I did. It was a pleasure to work together.

4.       Writing is hard. No matter what kind of writing you are doing, whether for pay or for passion, writing well is damn difficult. How to get going? Anne Lamott is right: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair. I love her.

I discovered with this project, and maybe for other projects to come, that I needed large, unbroken blocks of time to get anywhere. Which is why I often wrote on the weekends, when there were fewer interruptions and I didn’t worry I should be doing something else for some other client instead. Sometimes progress was teeth-grindingly slow. Sometimes when I opened up a chapter-in-progress the next day, I was appalled at how lame it was. But eventually I could see where it all should be going and how to bring a reader – even a casual reader – into the narrative wherever he or she opened the book. I hope I have succeeded.

It’s incredibly satisfying to finish a project like this one, to see my ideas and storytelling come together in such a tangible way.

And now I know I can write a book. Guess it’s time to pull out my long-ago outline of the story I’ve always wanted to tell and get going. Stay tuned.

Defending my health care, AGAIN.


Dear Senator Alexander:

I’m working in a great little café in Nashville today (above), not far from your Tennessee office on Capitol Hill. As you surely know, yesterday hundreds of people gathered there protest the Senate’s latest proposal to trash the Affordable Care Act, known as the Graham/Cassidy bill, and urge you and Senator Corker to vote against it.

The reason I am in town is because my little consulting business, now almost two years old, is going pretty well! I think there are ways for me to collaborate with some of the folks I know here to build my business. It’s been a very productive couple of days.

But I can’t stop thinking – worrying – about how I’ll buy insurance for my family once the insurance I have now runs out in December.

Frankly, it’s exhausting. And infuriating.

I believed you when you said you wanted to find a bipartisan solution to the problems with the Affordable Care Act, and cheered when you sat down with Patty Murray for hearings. What happened? Why won’t you continue to work together to fix what doesn’t work about Obamacare? Why would you consider voting for Graham/Cassidy so quickly when you won’t even know (from the Congressional Budget Office evaluation) what it will cost?

I believed you and other Republicans when you said you wanted to create jobs and support entrepreneurs and innovation. Starting my own communications consulting business has been some of the most gratifying and exhilarating work I’ve ever done. But I may not be able to continue to do this work unless I can find an affordable insurance solution for my family.

It’s hard not to feel betrayed by the craven politics that are being played with our health care options. And I’m well aware that I am one of the lucky ones: We might choose to pay the exorbitant premiums that an individual plan on the exchange demand. Many of my fellow Memphians simply don’t have that choice.

I have written about my anger and frustration about health care before – when I found out how much the rates for a Cigna plan (now the only option available in Shelby County) would go up, I was sitting in my husband’s hospital room.

Please step up, vote NO on Graham/Cassidy, and commit to doing the hard, bipartisan work of fixing our health care system so it is fair to ALL Americans, not just those who have dependable work and enough money not to care.


Because I believed you.


"Do better."

 Photo: High Ground News

Photo: High Ground News

I hadn’t thought about him in years, the most awful boss I ever had. He was a condescending and ill-informed bully, hiding behind a shiny educational pedigree in a city – Memphis – where he clearly did not want to be. It was a scary time in journalism, and for a while, his ideas were the answer to every question about how to “save” the newspaper.

I know now that he was also a racist, thanks to a heartbreaking recent Facebook post by a former colleague.  I’m only sorry – and embarrassed – that I didn’t know it then.

As I continue to process the terrorism in Charlottesville and think about my response to the hateful Confederate statues in Memphis, I see and hear often from my African-American activist friends about how I can help, and what they need to keep going.

One thing they DON’T need is to have to keep explaining what white people can do about racism. That’s up to me.

It seems to me that the first thing I can do is own it. My privilege makes it easier for me to step away from the pain and aggression and exclusion and go back to my comfortable life any time I want. (Not necessarily easy, but easier.) But the racism and hatred that fueled the violence in Charlottesville is only a new point on a very long continuum for my black friends. This IS America. I know that now.

The next thing I can do is try to see the world around me in a new way, as it really is. Where is the exclusion? What systems don’t work for everyone? Who is being marginalized and excluded, especially at work?

The Facebook post that has haunted me tells of meeting after meeting where my friend’s ideas and input were ignored, until she was finally physically excluded in a meeting room full of people. I wasn’t in these meetings, but I could have been much more aware of the power dynamics of race that were working so painfully against her. 

Finally, I can take action, especially as a business owner. What messages do I send by where I sit and whom I speak to at meetings and social events? How do I broaden my pool of potential clients and contractors to include ALL kinds of people? If I am helping make a hire, are there African-Americans in every pool of finalists?

I also find power in the prosaic: Where do I choose to eat ... do I seek out black-owned restaurants to try? What neighborhood might I explore on my way to an appointment to get a new look at my city? Whom should I call for coffee to find out how she’s feeling about things?

To admit privilege and complicity in racist systems and seek understanding and growth is difficult and uncomfortable. But the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King is fast approaching, and here I am in Memphis. 

I have a lot of work to do.

The Power of Showing Up.

The August Sunday afternoon was sticky and hot, and the rugby fans on the sidelines of the annual Elvis 7s Tournament were ready to go home. The sun was setting when I noticed a crowd around the scorer's table. What was going on?

Michael Donahue from The Commercial Appeal had showed up to cover the awards ceremony, that's what. Sweat was dripping from his famous bushy hair, his notebook and camera were in hand, trademark Chuck Taylors tied onto his feet. He chatted amiably with sweaty players as he checked the spelling of their names, shot some photos and a quick video, made sure he saw everyone.

Of course he did. Showing up and making connections with people was what Michael did best. 

More serious journalists sometimes sneered at him as just the "society" reporter, but his ability to see a story and interview just the right person to get it is unequaled. Though Michael worked in Memphis journalism for more than 30 years (he started at the old Memphis Press-Scimitar), he was always game for a new assignment, and stayed current with pop culture and connected to the real Memphis like no one else.

Corporate titans confided in him as he took their photos at parties. Young up-and-comers flocked to him at street fairs and benefits. His big heart and true concern for the people he met made him a magnet everywhere he went. Plus, you always looked good when Michael Donahue took your picture. He didn't like to publish photos that would make anyone look bad. He always wanted to believe the best about people, which was sometimes a challenge when, as his editor, I needed him to ask a tough question again.

Mostly, though, it was a joy to work with Michael.

Yesterday, this terrific guy got laid off from The Commercial Appeal along with nearly 20 other journalists, a heartless staff-cut cynically called "the first step to re-secure and level-set our economic vitality" by a Gannett executive who now runs what used to be our hometown paper. 

My hope is that Michael and all of the other hardworking people who lost their jobs yesterday will find other work they love. But I know from personal experience that nothing replaces journalism. And nothing will replace what Michael Donahue meant to Memphis.



Fundraising is yucky.


It was nearly the end of the fiscal year at the nonprofit where I worked – like, the day before the final day of the final quarter. We still hadn’t received one big gift, though the donor had long ago promised he’d come through. As I looked at our spreadsheets that summer morning, I realized that gift was the difference between making our (publicized everywhere) fundraising goal and missing it.

I’d called the donor several times already, and though he was unfailingly polite, I knew I was getting to be a pest.

I could send another email, which I knew he wouldn’t read. He wasn’t an email kind of guy, and of course he didn’t text. At least with me.

Sometimes he just got busy and forgot to send us the check. It had happened before.

I could feel a knot forming in my stomach. What to do?

I’m remembering this story – and feeling slightly nauseous as I think of it – because I’ve been thinking a lot recently of how sometimes fundraising is yucky.

You have to risk hearing the word NO, or, perhaps worse, you have to risk being seen as an annoying pest. It’s hard not to overthink a request for a gift, especially a big one. It can all seem so personal – what if the donor doesn’t really care as much about my work as I thought? What if I’m asking too much? What if … what if … what if?

That’s why I was comforted, as I often am, by what I read this morning from Joan Garry, a national nonprofit guru who has forgotten more than I'll ever know about fundraising. (Want to learn more of what Joan knows? She has a great new book out -- I'm underlining on every page.)

I was looking for tips about how to help a reluctant fundraiser get more comfortable with asking for big gifts. She's already a great storyteller for her organization, and she's getting more help with research. Setting goals and figuring out how to carve out time is coming along, too. It's a great, young organization doing important work. The future is bright.

The truth of the matter is, though, sometimes you just have to do what you have to do: You have to ask. Clearly, politely, thankfully. Sometimes repeatedly. 

Which is what I finally decided to do with my big donor. I called him that day -- twice, I think -- and finally got him on the phone. He told me he was happy to write the check, but he'd put it in the mail.

"No need," I said, and jumped in my car to drive over and pick it up. 

Goal achieved. Lesson learned.


Thank you, Donald Trump.

The first time it happened, I was about to graduate from journalism school, and I needed a favor from a professor. He invited me into his office, then closed and locked the door.

“Sit here, next to me,” he said, gesturing to a spot on the worn couch. For the next 15 minutes, while I explained what I needed and asked him to help me, he moved closer and closer to me, finally putting his hand on my leg. I jumped up from the couch and got out of there as fast as I could.

No, it wasn’t assault. He didn’t push me up against a wall and try to kiss me (the People magazine reporter) or reach his hand up my skirt while also touching my breasts (the female executive in the first class airline seat).

But it was inappropriate, and scary. This was the person who would decide if I would graduate on time. Who, exactly, would I tell about his behavior? What would I say?

Of course I told my girlfriends, and many of them were sympathetic – this guy had a well-honed reputation for this kind of thing among the women in my class.

That’s why what Michelle Obama’s words in her amazing speech in New Hampshire yesterday had such resonance for me. The national discussion of “locker room talk” and how the Republican nominee for president has used, degraded, and objectified women over many years has been painful, much more than I realized before I heard Michelle say the words yesterday.

It hurts to remember the times when perfect strangers on the street in New York where I lived early in my career touched me inappropriately, and how mute I remained each time it happened.

It hurts to think that the professor from my undergraduate days went on to make advances on other women, and I never spoke up.

It hurts that it took all this time, and a national debacle of a presidential candidate, to bring this kind of a discussion out in the open.

Michelle is right: Enough is enough. I will no longer be silent about men who take advantage of their position and power. I will teach the young people I know best – my teenage son and his friends – to respect all people, and especially to respect and encourage the power of women and girls.

It feels good to tell these stories, after years of ignoring them. I am only sorry it took me so long.