Here Be Dragons


Tweet from @ElectronJon:

Good point from @davidhitt on @SpaceX #Dragon: “A private company can now do a thing NASA cannot. The winds of change are blowing.”

When I made the tweet, it was just sort of an off-hand remark about the rendezvous. Having it called a good point made me stop and actually think about it.

And, it’s true. NASA no longer has any capability to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and a private company does. In fact, a private company has arguably done something that NASA has never been able to do, with Dragon’s unmanned rendezvous with ISS.

But this is not a bad thing.

Lots of private companies can do things NASA cannot, from building cars to saving you money on your insurance. And that’s OK.

Under former administrator Sean O’Keefe, NASA had this as its mission statement: “To understand and protect our home planet. To explore the Universe and search for life. To inspire the next generation of explorers …as only NASA can.”

That last bit of the mission statement served two purposes. One, it was a reminder of the goals and capabilities of the agency — to do the things that no one else can do. NASA’s bailiwick is not the mundane; it’s the extraordinary.

But it was also a reminder of NASA’s responsibility to the nation. NASA needs to focus on doing the things that only NASA can do. It would be irresponsible for NASA to waste taxpayer money duplicating the efforts of others instead of investing those funds in its own unique missions. If a task is not one “only NASA can” do, leave it to the others that can do it.

If NASA needs a car, it’s not going to build a car. It’s going to buy a car. Building cars is not an “as only NASA can” task. It’s a task better left to private industry so that NASA can focus on its unique capabilities and responsibilities.

A year ago, within the United States, delivering cargo to the International Space Station was an “as only NASA can” task.

As of last week, it no longer is.

And that’s rather amazing.

How I’m Doing


It’s been a week since I got the call that Nicole had died. Random thoughts since then.

• Last Wednesday drove home for me what it is to be a writer. I had to write something that day. It was a need. I was not going to able to sleep unless I did.

• I cannot say how much the response to the post I wrote last week meant to me. I got more views of my blog just from Facebook last week than I have Facebook friends. I have never had the online community gather around me and express love and support as happened last week. It was amazing, and I appreciate it. There were moments that I struggled with the fact that I couldn’t be at the funeral, so it was special to me that I was able to share about her with more people than if I’d been there.

• I went to her grave on Monday. I wasn’t entirely sure where it was, but finding it was part of the adventure. It was strange.

• And that ties in to the other overarching theme of the week, and that is that it’s just been sort of random. My emotional landscape fluctuates, and I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about it, so I just let things wash over me as they do. There is a lot of sadness, but it’s a very bittersweet sadness. There’s no pain in the sadness, there’s a peace in the sorrow. Oddly enough, I’ve never had to deal with death quite like this, and it’s a very strange thing.

• Today was our engagement anniversary. I really wish I could go back to where we got engaged today. But life, as it turns out, goes on.

Selling Eyeballs, or the Self-Inflicted Death of Newspapers


I’m sitting in Starbucks, about to write this post about the news that The Huntsville Times is among several newspapers that are about to change from seven-day dailies to three days a week. And across the way from me, a couple of 20-somethings randomly start talking about it. “The news is going to be old by the time we see it!” “I know everybody has smartphones, but I still just like the actual newspaper.” “Man, I’m gonna move.”

It’s sad news. I worked at The Huntsville Times 20 years ago, and it remains the largest paper I’ve ever worked for. As of this fall, however, it will be published less frequently than my college paper. How the mighty have fallen.

I spent the bulk of my newspaper career at weekly newspapers, and I am proud of the work done by weekly newspapers and believe in the community function they perform. However, I was not unaware of a perceived status difference that went with publication frequency. The more often a paper is published, the “higher-status” it, and, correspondingly, the community it serves, are. Huntsville’s paper just tumbled a notch or two. I find it a little sad that Decatur can support a daily but Huntsville cannot.

A friend whose son works in newspapers was commenting on the shift this week. The news came as his son found out the paper he works for in Texas will be closing down. At least, my friend said, the papers in Alabama realize the importance of adapting to the modern age and going digital. And while that’s a great thought, I’m not sure that I buy that’s what’s happening. I fear this is less an evolution into the future as it is a way to squeeze a little more blood from the turnip before its dry. There is more required to adapt than simply printing fewer papers and calling that “going digital.”

You don’t go digital by investing less in print. You go digital by investing more in digital.

And this has been one of the two biggest problems the newspaper industry has been facing — picking the wrong wars.

First, there was television, and then cable, and now internet. “The enemies.” And to rise to these challenges, newspapers changed their strategies to fight them. And in a move that the worst military tactician could have told them was a bad move, they chose to fight the battles on their enemies’ battlegrounds.

Television news excels at immediate, constant and universal news. CNN became a major player when it brought home the original Desert Storm war in Iraq in a way that newspapers never could.

And newspapers responded not by fighting on their on home turf, the things they do that CNN never could, but by trying to win an impossible battle of winning by being a not-as-good CNN.

The internet exists. There is news there.

Trying to save newspapers today by “going digital” would be like if, at its worst, Apple tried to sell itself by selling Windows computers. You thrive by doing well the unique things only you can do, not by turning to the things that others already do well. The Huntsville Times is the big fish in a small pond in the local print news arena. It’s backing off of that to become a smaller fish in a very big pond. Again, it doesn’t take a military genius to know that you don’t win battles by sacrificing your strengths and fighting on your opponent’s terms.

There’s a bit of irony here. It’s obvious to the outsider that the newspaper industry is on the decline. And yet, the newspaper industry has, at great length, decried its own impending death, and provided evidence after evidence that there’s no reason they can’t survive — interest in newspapers remains high, for example, they say, even among Millennialls.

So which is true? Are newspapers declining, or is demand still there.

The answer is both.

The demand is there, but newspapers are declining. Not because the changing world is killing them, but because they are killing themselves.

And this is the other biggest problem that newspapers face, a two-prong issue.

Newspaper owners are making the fatal mistake of focusing on margins instead of revenues, and are doing so because they fail to understand exactly what business they are in.

If I’m a kid with a lemonade stand, and I want to make more money, I can do that one of two ways. I can cut how much I’m spending compared to how much I’m bringing in, or I can increase how much I’m bringing in compared to how much I’m spending. I can use cheaper sugar and less lemon and more water, and sell a cheaper cup for the same amount. I can use the same materials, but charge a nickel more per cup. Or I could sell more lemonade at a smaller profit per cup.

Newspapers, as a rule, are going the former route. Cut costs to increase your margin, and thereby increase your profits. It’s a death-spiral — when you cut costs, you produce a lower-quality product. If you have a lower quality product, you’re going to sell less of it. If you sell less of it, your revenue drops. When your revenue drops, to maintain profits, you have to cut costs more. And on and on, until one day there are no more costs to cut, and you shutter the business.

A big part of the problem is that newspaper owners have no idea what they are selling. Are they selling news? Newspapers? Advertising?

All of those are part of the business, but none of them are the business newspapers are in, financially.

News has no value in and of itself. You can’t sell news. I can go cover a story, but as a media outlet I can only make money off it if I can charge for my means of distribution.

But even those aren’t my focus in business. Newspapers do make money off of subscriptions and single copy sales, but not much. These basically exist to offset the cost of production. Putting news on paper costs something, and newspapers that charge for their print product generally do so only to cover that cost.

Saying that newspapers are in the business of advertising is a bit closer to the mark, but still isn’t quite right. Newspapers are not ad agencies. You’re not going to go to the paper for a high-quality ad design. They are not marketing agencies, that can tell you how best to get your message to your audience. You might get a paper to build an ad for you, but, if so, it’s because your focus is not on the design. If newspapers sold advertising, then the cost of the ad would be based on the quality of the ad, and that’s not the case.

The truth is this —

Newspapers sell eyeballs.

What newspapers sell advertisers is not advertisements, but rather an audience for advertisements. The product that the newspaper makes its money from is being able to go into a potential advertiser and promise them a number of people that will see their message if they pay the newspaper money.

And newspapers sell eyeballs in bulk. As a general rule, you can’t say, “well, how many eyeballs can I buy for a certain amount.” The question is how much space you’re going to by in front of all of the eyeballs the newspaper can offer. The cost of that space is determined by how many eyeballs that is.

So, newspapers increase their revenue by being able to sell an advertiser a larger number of eyeballs. If you have a message, you want to get it in front of as many people as possible as effectively as possible and as affordably as possible.

So the challenge then is to increase the eyeball supply. If you want to make more money, you have to increase the number of eyeballs you can sell.

Do to that, you have to give the eyeballs something they want to look at.

A newspaper cannot — CANNOT — succeed by any means other than creating a product that gives people a reason to look at it.

You cannot do that by cutting cost and quality. That reduces your eyeball supply.

You cannot do that by offering eyeballs something they can see somewhere else. That reduces your eyeball supply.

You have to provide eyeballs something they want to see, that only you can provide.

That means quality products, and that means unique products.

Newspapers have a niche. Even in this electronic, cable TV, internet, online, instant, digital age, newspapers can still provide an in-depth local focus that no one else can.

It’s the one battlefield — the only battlefield — on which no one can beat newspapers. On which newspapers will win every single battle they fight.

It’s the one battlefield that newspapers seem least willing to invest in fighting on.

And it does mean investment. It means reporters, with notebooks, with cameras, on the streets, in the schools, at city hall and the courthouse and the churches and the ball fields and the new restaurants in town and the scene of the crime. It means the people in the community seeing the faces of those reporters enough to recognize them. It means the people of the community seeing their names and their faces and their kids’ names and faces in the local newspaper.

Because CNN can’t do that. Google News can’t do that.

The local newspaper can.

Still the Rays of Youth and Love


Today also marks the anniversary of the death of my HHS classmate Beth Ladner, who died exactly one year before graduation. I’m not posting about that this year, but have in years past.

I grew up in the shadow of Huntsville High School. I have memories of driving past the school as a child and being fascinated by the senior wall, which stood atop the school and each year was painted with a design by that year’s senior class.

When I started sixth grade, at a Catholic school in Florida, some students were discussing where they wanted to go to high school, generally a debate between the supposed merits of the local Catholic high school and the public high school they were zoned for. When they asked me, though, I knew my answer — I wanted to go to Huntsville High School.

And I did. We moved back later that year, and I went on to attend Huntsville High. My class was the last to decorate the senior wall.

And, twenty years ago today, I became a Huntsville High School graduate.

It’s amazing to think about, that it’s been so long. The class is preparing for our twentieth reunion this summer; the first time we’ll assemble that we will have lived more of our lives after parting ways than before. I don’t know that I’ll be able to make it, but I do hope to catch up with some classmates while they’re in town.

The passage of time is driven home more by the fact that, since the last reunion, our Huntsville High has ceased to exist; the building we attended was torn down in 2004. I’ve substituted at the new building a couple of times this year, and while it is definitely still a Huntsville High, it’s not the same Huntsville High.

I’ve also subbed at almost all of the other Huntsville high schools this year, and it’s driven home what I already knew — I’m proud to be a Huntsville High School alumnus, and blessed that’s where I attended.

The anniversary has been looming for a while, as a reminder of aging, as a challenge to take stock of my life. Despite all that’s happened in the last 20 years, I’m definitely not where I would have wanted to be for this milestone, and I’m working hard to take that as a challenge rather than a discouragement. This too shall pass.

My brothers both were home-schooled during high school. It was an incredible and very positive opportunity for them, and I’ve had the discussion over the years over whether I would have wanted to have done anything differently.

But my life was shaped by the fact that I was in that place at that time. Newspapers were such a logical fit for me, and yet I really don’t know that I would have ended up there if I had not gone to Huntsville High School. My time there had an incredibly foundational impact on me, and always will have.

My Huntsville High School may have been torn down, but it still lives on in me.

Huntsville High School Alma Mater


Where the vale of dear old Huntsville
Meets the southern sky;
Mid the rustling of the treetops
Stands our dear old high.

When the evening twilight deepens
And the shadows fall;
Linger long the golden sunbeams
On the western wall.

When the shades of life shall gather
Dark the heart may be;
Still the rays of youth and love
Shall linger o’er thee.

School we love, high school
Live for aye, Our alma mater dear,
May thy sons be leal and loyal to thy memory.

Song Challenge Week 5 — A Song That Reminds You of Someone


OK, I started this quite a while back and then dropped the ball, but I’m going to try picking up the 30 Day Song Challenge again as a weekly project.


Week 5 — A Song That Reminds You of Someone

“Time After Time,” Cyndi Lauper

When I first came to this one, I skipped it and moved on to Week 6. Hard to pick a person I wanted to single out. This week it’s a little easier.

“Time After Time” was “our song” for Nicole and me because I was selfish.

When we started dating, we subjected each other to a bunch of favorite movies, including one of my all-time favorites, Strictly Ballroom, which uses the song to powerful effect and which, when I first saw it, gave me a renewed love for it.

And so I kind of pushed it as “our song” because of my love for the song and the movie, rather than letting something develop organically. Which didn’t stop it at all from taking root and becoming something beautifully “us.” It may have been mine to begin with, but there will never be a day that I will hear it and not think of her.

It was a dumb choice, in a way, more break-up song than love song, but it sounded sweet and had sweet thoughts in it. “If you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time.” I meant the words, and tried to live up to them. Even until the end, when she called me, when she needed me, I tried to be there for her as much as I could.

There were a few particular stand-out associations, like the signed copy we bought of the album it’s from, or the time that I tried, rather badly, to make a video of me singing it for her.

But the memory that stands out most —

We were both living in Eupora, Miss., the summer we got engaged. I was the editor of the newspaper, she was working at the Shell station and interning with the Department of Human Services. Reading the newspaper one day, I discovered that Cyndi Lauper was going to be playing a concert in Tunica, two and a half hours away that very night.

I picked her up from Shell, and just told her to get in the car. No explanation, nothing. And we drove to Tunica, with her passing through the middle of nowhere for hours with no idea where she was going or why, just amiably along for the ride.

Making it even better, she didn’t even notice the signs outside the casino where the concert was being held, and had no idea what was going on until I was actually buying the tickets.

She was happy. It was all worth it.

The concert was good, a small, intimate and very beautiful performance. But, yeah, when we got to hear her play “our song” live — that was a special moment. One I’m glad we shared.

Years later, that early memory is still one of my all-time favorite romantic gestures.

Suitcases of Memories — RIP Nicole Hitt, 1975-2012


This post is random and chaotic and disorganized and being written too late, but I had to write. I can’t not.

I have wondered frequently how I would find out, who would tell me, how long it would take. My friend Lain was the one to tell me, for which I am incredibly grateful, and it took two days.

Nicole Hitt, who for seven and a half years was my wife, died on Monday.

That is the first picture that was ever taken of us together, or at least a picture of that picture.

Our first date was on January 27, 1999. We went to Memphis and ate Mexican and got lost trying to find a movie theater and hung out at B.B. King’s Club and heard Ruby Wilson, the Queen of Beale Street. Nicole had asked me the night before if it was going to be a date and I was too chicken to just say yes so I told her we would go and have a good time and see how the evening goes and decide at the end. The kiss in her doorway that night pretty well sealed that it was.

Nine days later, I took her home to meet my family. I had already turned down a job that would have moved me away from her. I was head over heels for her stupid fast, but I knew that this woman would be my wife. My mom took that picture, the first of us. A while back, I found it at their house, and took a picture of it.

We were young, and happy.

That’s the last picture of us together. It’s not the last time I saw her, but that particular time, months after the divorce, I just really wanted a picture of us, so I flipped my iPhone around and snapped one.

At one point in time, I was going to write a book, a fictionalized version of our story, and it was going to be called “The Last Time He Saw Her.” Vignettes capturing the arc of a love affair. “The last time he saw her, she had just been the other sister.” “The last time he saw her, he had no clue how beautiful she would be in that dress.” “The last time he saw her, she was still his wife.” And so forth. Maybe some day I will.

Thirteen months, less a day, after that first date, I was standing at the front of First Baptist Church in Indianola, and the doors in the back opened and I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

This is not the time or place to discuss the issues that led us to fall apart. Nicole was, from long before I met her, haunted by demons that increasingly got the better of her. And eventually those demons led her, much to my dismay, down a road we could not walk together, and so we parted ways. I had hoped for a different outcome; I had hoped a different choice could be made. But one day papers arrived in the mail saying that we were now divorced.

We stayed in touch, to vary degrees, over the five years since. At one point, when it was the only form of contact possible, we wrote letters. Not e-mail, but actual letters on paper with stamps. I saw her occasionally. She stayed in Huntsville for a few months after the separation; that last picture was taken the first time I saw her after she moved, after not seeing her for months. When we started dating, if you count dates that last after midnight and into the next day, it was several weeks after the first date before there was a day that we didn’t see each other, at least briefly. That picture came after the longest I’d not seen her in years. It was strange. It was good seeing her, and I wanted a picture of us. The last one, ever.

I saw her a few times over the years since. Many of those were in hospitals. A couple were not. She showed me her Tuscaloosa during one of her better periods, when she was working on another degree, supplementing the master’s she already had. We went to church together during that visit, and I loved her church. Another time, I got to see her again in Oxford. We ate at an long-favorite restaurant, for old time’s sake.

It’s been two years since the last time I saw her. At some point, as her conditioned worsened, phone calls became more rare. At one point, they disappeared, as she was in a coma and then unable to talk. I heard from her for the last time earlier this year. At the time, I kind of thought it might be the last time, and that’s saying something. Nicole went through things that should have killed her several times over, and yet always she pulled through. When I talked to her last, it sounded like it would be impossible for her to recover, but she’d been through impossible before. At the same time, it’s inevitable to the human condition that, at some point, you stop recovering. If I hadn’t known better, the last time I spoke with her, I would have thought I was talking to a 90-year-old woman. She sounded old, weak. Worn. She was paralyzed from the neck down. At the time, I think I commented to someone that I could be honest with, that would understand, that an end to the suffering would be the best thing for her. I cannot imagine what life was like for her.

The health problems had gone on the entire time I knew her, and had gotten ever progressively worse. According to what I was told, the last straw was “Sepsis” — “a potentially deadly medical condition that is characterized by a whole-body inflammatory state and the presence of a known or suspected infection,” per Wikipedia. Ultimately, however, it was erosion, a body worn down by more than it could withstand.

Visitation will be from 11-1 today and the funeral at 1 p.m. at Coleman’s Funeral Home in Oxford, Miss., and burial will be at Delay Cemetery. Out of respect for her family’s wishes, I will not be there; I will be paying my respects in private at another time.

As I said, Nicole had her struggles. But through all of that, she had one of the best hearts I have ever encountered in this world. She was truly, truly loving and giving, and wanted nothing more than to make life better for others. As a counselor and social worker, she gave all that she had to her clients, at various times foster children, drug addicts, dying elderly, refugees and others. There were times the main thing keeping me going in the relationship was supporting her, because what she did was truly purely good. It amazes me what she accomplished, which would have been incredible even without knowing what all she had to overcome. Through the end, her thoughts were always for others.

In that respect, she has inspired me. I have learned so much through her, and it pains me, deeply, that I did not know the things when I met her that I know now. She was a precious, fragile doll, and I was a child too young and innocent to know that I didn’t know how to take care of this thing I wanted to play with. I made so so many stupid mistakes that I can only hope to use to make me a better person now. I’m grateful that I at least did see in time to tell her that I was so so sorry, even if it did no good at the time.

I could keep going, and it would still be inadequate. It was a weird thing, after the divorce, and particularly dating again, knowing that there was a woman out there who still wore my last name. It was an intentional choice she made, and it’s one that by now I am deeply deeply honored that she did.

I miss her, often, but increasingly in a strangely detached way. Losing her launched a series of changes in me that looking back at the memories I shared with her is almost like looking at the memories of a stranger. I know it was me, but, at the same  time, it wasn’t.

Several people have asked how I am. I don’t know. I’m good. Confused more than anything. I have no road map for how I’m supposed to feel about this. It’s a strange, strange thing, and I don’t know quite what to make of it. But, like I said, it was not unexpected, and not something I see as a bad thing, despite feeling very bad for her niece, so by and large, I’m well. I’ve cried, to be sure, but mostly I just really needed to write this.

For her, I am happy.

She was suffering. Badly. For a very long time. With no hope of not. And now, she’s not. Now, she’s whole and well.

But, more than that …

I’ve written once before about the child we lost, the tubal pregnancy she had. She had wanted children, and for many reasons, it just wasn’t an option for us. While the tubal pregnancy could have been much worse in many ways, it still hurt. But I believe that life begins at conception, and that means that, no matter how short a duration she was in this world, we had a child. The child that Nicole so wanted but couldn’t have in this world would be waiting for her in the next.

And, so, yeah, I’m happy for Nicole. Not only happy, but kind of jealous. She’s not only free of pain, free of suffering, but she’s there now holding Katelyn. Finally holding her child. And that’s not a bad thing at all. That’s not a bad thing at all.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do now, then I have ever done before… it is a far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known before.”

Farewell, Nicole.