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.