An Unlikely Road from Ole Miss


In the staircase of the Student Union at the University of Mississippi, there were was a brief excerpt from a poem, the Heart of Ole Miss. And part of that excerpt was this – “The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure…”
 
Last month marked 23 years since that diploma was given and my tenure there terminated. Ole Miss did what it good for me and set me free. For those two decades and change, I’ve been proud to be an alumnus of the University of Mississippi.
 
So it was incredibly heartwarming and validating this year to have the Ole Miss Alumni Association look back on those years and say, hey, we’re proud of you, too.
 
 
When I was an undergrad at The University of Mississippi
, I never dreamed the direction my career would take me. My ambitions were that at this point in my life, I’d be a weekly newspaper publisher. To say that helping to put tiny spaceships on giant rockets sending people to the moon was not on the map would be understatement.
 
And yet, those years in the journalism school at Ole Miss were the foundation for everything since. Reporting and writing professors like Joe Atkins and Robin Street taught not just the basic knowledge of the craft of journalism; they taught something far more valuable – how to become knowledgeable. A journalist had to be able to go into any unfamiliar situation and quickly gain the ability to communicate competently about it. Like schools or courts or county government. Or rockets.
 
In my younger days, I dreamed of winning the Silver Em award, the highest recognition Ole Miss gives its alumni for their accomplishments in careers in journalism. My career has long since taken me in a direction that doesn’t lead to a Silver Em, and I joke that I, instead, want the award for least-likely career for an Ole Miss journalism grad.
 
And that’s kind of what this article is.
 
The funny thing was, when they contacted me, I actually had the most recent issue of the Review on my desk, because I was about to write and tell them they should publish a feature about Chris Cianciola, the deputy program manager for NASA’s Space Launch System, which ain’t half bad for an Ole Miss engineering alum. (There’s a lot lot of Mississippi State alums on the SLS program and not a lot of us Ole Miss folks, and I love that all the State grads answer to a UM alum.) When they contacted me about an article, I immediately told them I was flattered, but they’d really rather write about Chris. They took down his name for a future article, but said they really wanted to write about my unlikely story.
 
And, I gotta say, they did a pretty decent job with it. Nobody’s ever written my story like this before, and I’m not displeased with the result.
 
“The University gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.” – Frank Everett, UM BA’32, BL’34

Europa and Eupora


Europa

This is Europa. It’s a moon.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter. Planetary scientists believe that underneath a shell of ice there may be twice as much liquid water as is on the planet Earth.

Eupora is a town in Mississippi. In the 2010 census, it had a population of 2,197.

Eupora depot

This is Eupora. It’s a town.
(Well, this is the old depot in the town of Eupora.)

What do they have in common? As best as I can tell, pretty much just me.

Sixteen years ago, I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Eupora. Today, I support the development of a rocket that could be used to send a probe to Europa. And I think that may be the only point of commonality between the two.

Last week, I was back in Mississippi around the test firing of an engine for that rocket at Stennis Space Center; the longest I’ve spent in the state in nine years.

Driving down, I had some extra time, so I drove to the Stennis area the slow way. I get back to Mississippi fairly often, and revisit most of my old stomping ground at least every couple of years. But last week I also had the opportunity to pass through towns that were the exception to that, places I hadn’t visited in 16 years.

I stopped at two newspaper offices and met current caretakers of publications I’d been general manager of. You hear a lot about the decline of the newspaper industry, but word hasn’t reached Ackerman, Mississippi. The town has a population of about 1,500 people, and still supports a weekly newspaper. (In those places where the newspaper focuses on local news, the local community still supports it.)

Huntsville is and to some extent always will be home. But Mississippi is and always will be a part of me. Time I spend there is restorative.

My first full day down there last week, someone asked me why I’d gotten in so late. As soon as I answered, I realized that the answer to that question was also my biography — I’d gotten to NASA via a long and winding road through Mississippi with detours through small towns and stops at several newspapers.

I had a great time at Stennis last week. The engine test was amazing, and I was honored to get to be there for it.

But I also had a great time getting to Stennis last week. It was so nice to have the opportunity to revisit places that helped make me who I am.

I’m grateful for where I am.

I’m grateful for the journey that brought me here.

I look forward to the day we reach Europa. But I’ll never forget the days I spent in Eupora.

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.

Re-Pressed Memories


OK, this is another one of those posts that my sporadic blogging has caused me to be posting way too late, but I didn’t want to not.

Earlier this summer, I got to do a bit of time-traveling.

You see, this year, Ole Miss’ student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, turned 100, and a grand reunion was held at the university’s journalism school building.

Six years ago, we’d had a mini-reunion of several of the people I worked with, a sort of surprise birthday party I threw myself when I turned 30 (I knew it was my birthday party, most of the rest of the group didn’t). We’ve talked ever since about how we should do it again, and this time possibly plan far enough ahead to involve some of the more far-flung staff members who weren’t able to make it that time. When we found out about the 100th anniversary event, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

And, really, it was.

I saw friends that I hadn’t seen in 15 years, and, even with those I see more often, it was really great seeing everybody together.

The DM staff my first two years there was a very close-knit group, and I think we all imagined we would be friends forever. Over the years, we’ve drifted apart some from time to time, but it’s very neat seeing how, almost two decades later, we always tend to drift back together. And, as I’ve alluded to here, it’s been a rough summer for me, and it meant a huge deal for me to be surrounded by old friends who still love me. During my time at Ole Miss, far more than my dorm room, the journalism building, and the friends I shared it with, were home, and it was nice getting to be home that way again for a couple of days this summer.

Nik Dirga, who, being in New Zealand, wasn’t able to make the reunion, wrote a cool piece about the anniversary anyway, and I have to brag that The DM was named the 14th best student newspaper in the nation recently.

I Had A Dream


From a Plinky prompt: “Have you ever had a recurring dream?”

 


My longest ongoing recurring dream started not long after I began my current job.

Prior to that, I worked in newspapers.

I assumed I always would.

For me, being a newspaperman wasn’t so much what I did as it was who I was. I had the proverbial ink the veins, and, all too often, the literal ink on the hands.

Leaving newspapers to come to work for NASA was a big deal. I wanted the new job, and was excited about it, but the move involved some loss of identity. It would be cool, but involved giving up a little bit of myself.

But I did it. And was glad I did.

However …

Not long after I started the new job, the dreams started.

In the dream, I realized that I had made a mistake. A terrible mistake.

I was a newspaperman. I wasn’t supposed to be working for NASA. I was supposed to be working for a newspaper.

So I went back to work for a newspaper.

In the dream, I would go back to Indianola, and resume working at the newspaper there.

That part was pretty much the same every time I had the dream.

There was a little bit of difference in the next part.

I would realize that I had made a horrible mistake. I would realize that I wanted out. I would realize that I had romanticized newspapers, and that NASA really was much better.

The difference in this part was how long it took. Sometimes I made this realization the next day after I went back to the newspaper. Other times, I didn’t last that long.

Fortunately, in the dream, almost invariably, I never, technically, quit my job at NASA. I had just gone back to the newspaper without letting anyone know.

So, thankfully, I was always able to just go back to work the next day as if I’d been sick or something the day before and pick up where I left off with no one the wiser.

The dream was a good thing for me.

Leaving newspapers really was hard. And I really did have second thoughts some times. The dream let me live out those reservations without having to actually live out those reservations. It gave me a picture of the “what if…” scenario of going back that rang pretty true.

I was happier at NASA. And my rational mind knew that. But it was good for my heart to be able to experience that as well.

Newspapers were a very important part of my life, and I’ll always have fond feelings of that part of my past.

But that doesn’t mean that the present isn’t much better.

Powered by Plinky

The Demise of the Newspaper – Unintended Consequences (via Idle Ramblings)


I wrote a post a few days ago about the future of newspapers. My good friend Joe Gurner has taken the issue and gone in a very important direction with it — the impact of the potential death of the industry on superheroes.

If you’re still in the newspaper industry today and you take a long, hard look around, things don’t necessarily look good. The hard economic times of the past few years have taken their toll. They come on top of the fact that the industry as a whole has been slow to adapt to changing technology, changing readership and changing business models. In many ways newspapers have become dinosaurs, but the industry itself played its own role in keeping t … Read More

via Idle Ramblings

Foe? Sure.


This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “Enemies.”

 

Me at a DM reunion held a few years ago holding a picture of the photo I used on my columns when I started writing for The Daily Mississippian. Photo by Lain Hughes.

I should have been editor of The Daily Mississippian.

At the end of my sophomore year at Ole Miss, I decided to run for the editorship of the student paper.

I was the only person who met the qualifications to be editor.  They allowed two other candidates to run.  Next, of the three of us, I was the only one to finish the test demonstrating competency to be editor.

Then there was a meeting of the editor selection committee, composed of students, journalism professionals, and members of the university staff. I could relate the stories I heard of what happened in that meeting, or of the outside factors that supposedly biased the selection, but they really don’t matter. Long story short, I wasn’t selected.

I was upset.

In fact, I was bitter. Bitter against the system I felt had cheated me, and bitter against the candidate who won.

I left the official student publication and launched my own local entertainment publication. By any reasonable measure it was unsuccessful, lasting only four issues, but it succeeded in the important area of letting me spread my wings and get experience I couldn’t have gained at The Mississippian.

Over time, my bitterness faded.  The selection committee most likely did me a favor. I had potential; I needed discretion. Losing the editorship earned me some personal maturity and pursuing my own publication  earned me some professional maturity that I would have missed out on had things gone differently.

The candidate who was selected was a different matter. She hadn’t done me any favors. She got something that I had worked hard to be qualified for and she wasn’t. She squandered the opportunity she’d been given. That bitterness was harder to let go.

I saw her once, a couple of years later, at a wedding. Her gang and my gang avoided each other.

Over the years after that, there were only the occasional rumors, friends who had brief contact or had heard news. I didn’t really keep track, but listened when people had something to say, especially if it was bad. I wanted vindication. I wanted proof that the wrong choice had been made.

And then came Facebook. To her credit, she put in the friend request to me. She doesn’t use it much, so we don’t have much contact, but seeing her profile allowed me to catch up a bit on the intervening years.

I’ll admit, I’ll admit that, for a brief second there, I experienced a moment of schadenfreude that her life hadn’t turned out the way it seemed to be going way back when. And, making it even worse, some of it wasn’t even about that vindication I’d talked about. No, she wasn’t in journalism anymore, so there was that. But part of it was things in her personal life.

Ultimately, though, what I saw on that page was this — we’re both just people. We both weren’t who or where we were 17 years ago. She wasn’t in newspapers anymore. Neither am I. Her marriage had ended. So had mine. She’d found new things to make her happy, to fill her life. So had I. We really weren’t all that different. And the editor selection that seemed like such a big deal all those years ago really wasn’t. And the bitterness that seemed so worthwhile really wasn’t.

I’ve prided myself on not having enemies. I mean, sure there are probably people in other countries who would gladly kill me and all that, but I’m talking personally. There are people who I’ve been at odds with, and there are people I believe have done me wrong. But I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at not holding grudges. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at not letting bitterness influence me.

But if I were to be honest, there are probably people out there that I still carry bitterness against. And that Facebook experience was a good reminder that somethings just aren’t worth carrying.

For my 30th birthday, I had a secret birthday party for myself — I planned a reunion of many of my DM fellow staff members that weekend, telling no one that there was an occasion behind it. Back then, I was too petty to invite the person who became editor. If we ever do it again, I hope she can make it.