Author Archive for tmangan

High time for an update

It’s going on several weeks since the last update — a few of you have no doubt been following along on my hiking blog, now carefully targeting the needs of Bay Area hikers. Any day now, a few Bay Area hikers will show up and start putting it to good use.

One thing I experimented with was adding Google ads to all my pages. The income was so trivial — two bucks a day if I was lucky — that I had to confront the fact that the time spent fiddling with my ad settings worked out in such a way that I was essentially paying Google to put the ads on my pages. Not a complete waste of time, but very near it.

It’s not that all my hiking and picture taking and blogging wasn’t turning into a paying proposition: When I showed all this content to the head of the features department at the paper, she promptly put me to work writing a hiking column for the entertainment section. A month’s worth of hiking columns equals a year’s worth of Google ad revenue; only one of them involves walking in the woods, so which would you choose?

The difficulties entailed in making money off online ads are stunning, and depressing: an advertiser, on average, is willing to pay is $4 for 1,000 ad impressions (an approximation of how many times an ad will be seen by an actual user). Say you’re a college-educated professional earning a good living in a place with a sane cost of living, and you make $4,000 a month. You’d need a million ad impressions a month to make the same money from ads on your blog. That’s 30,000 readers a day if you’re selling only one ad per page; sell five ads per page and you can get by with 6,000 — still a far, far cry from the 200 folks a day stopping by my hiking blog.

People do make money blogging, if they work very hard, zero in on popular topics like celebrities, porn, politics or technology and never take any days off. The market tells you the dollar value of your efforts in unsparing terms: zero if you can’t draw a crowd.

I was much happier blogging for free because I could write what I wanted, whenever I wanted, and take weeks or months off with no consequences beyond continued obscurity; I figure hey, if I was going to get rich and famous by blogging it certainly would’ve happened by now.

So, let the rest of the blogosphere fret over shaking loose a living from this. I’m in it for my own amusement and nothing more.

Job update

I’ve survived the most recent rounds of cuts. Those who were getting The Call will have gotten it by now.

The Merc will be lighter and slighter from here on in, I’m afraid, but as everybody who has experienced the Good Old Days knows, they never last.

The kind of week I’ve had

Actually nothing bad happened to me at all, but a wash of gloom at work has made this one of least blissful weeks in about as long as I can remember. I’m sure glad it’s Friday. What it was like:

Monday: After reading a story about the U.S. military apologizing because a bunch of young boys had been accidentally killed in an airstrike (kept in harm’s way by Afghan insurgents, some say), I read a story about a child-porn ring being run out of the UK in which unspeakable acts were performed live over the web on very young victims. Then I found out what happened to this soldier we wrote a huge series of articles about chronicling his recovery from a bomb blast that left a massive dent in the side of his skull. Something went wrong with his most recent surgery, leaving him brain dead and his family planning how to harvest his organs. Never knew the him beyond what we put in the paper, but I found myself thinking I really wanted that guy to live.

Tuesday: Word comes down that layoffs are on the way. As it turns out this would be the least-negative thing that would happen this week.

Wednesday: A co-worker well-liked by the whole newsroom dies suddenly at age 44. There’s no explanation for the cause of death, but we’ve been in the news biz long enough to know a cause of death is almost always given, with one exception.

Thursday: The newsroom is more like a funeral home; a vigil is held near the fountains outside in which co-workers praise the many qualities of our fallen colleague. The more nice things are said about him, the harder it is to reconcile the likelihood that he took his own life. Even harder to reconcile is the reality that whatever may have driven him to his grim departure, there was nothing we could’ve done because he gave no outward sign of trouble.

Friday: I’m strangely optimistic, a week like this has nowhere to go but up, right?

My favorite story in today’s paper

This guy in Palo Alto had his ’56 T-Bird stolen 31 years ago. This week, it was found in Southern California.

In some ways, Leung said, the car was always meant to be his.

In 1973, he was searching for a 1956 T-Bird, the only year with a chrome spare-tire holder in the back, only to find one for sale just three doors down from his father’s downtown Palo Alto restaurant.

“I fell in love,” he said.

Leung, then 28, got busy restoring it. He stripped off the sea spray blue paint and replaced it with white – making it match the T-Bird that mystery blond Suzanne Somers cruised around in during the movie “American Graffiti.”

Three years later, Leung parked the beautifully restored car in the lot of his auto shop in downtown Palo Alto. He planned to take his T-Bird out for a spin. The next day, the chain blocking the lot was cut, and the car was gone.

Somebody bought the T-bird in EBay and took it to a Highway Patrol office to get help finding the vehicle identification number. The cops knew where to look, and when they found the number and ran it, voila, it came up as stolen. So, Palo Alto guy gets his car back, EBay buyer is screwed, apparently. Frankly, I think this is all karmic punishment for painting a baby blue T-Bird white, but I figure the guy’s paid his dues.

Dogs of doom, howling more

I just wanted to use that headline, which is from one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, called, cheerily enough, “No Quarter.”

No quarter means no mercy, a fitting description of how things are going at the good ol’ Mercury News these days. Come July 2, another round of slashing happens. We’ve got around 240 newsies drawing paychecks; the bosses want that number to be 200. They get what they want, which is the cool thing about being bosses.

Just like the last time this happened, nobody knows who gets the ax until the phone rings Monday morning, July 2. Presumably they do this for maximum productivity and minimum liability, but it obliges an entire newsroom to assume their jobs are not safe when 83 percent of the staff will remain. Upside is, we don’t have to suffer all this angst for 60 days like the last time.

Here’s the way things work in the business world: our union signed a contract with management in which they promised us there’d be no layoffs before the 30th of June. As far as I was concerned, it was as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise that layoffs would resume in earnest on the First of July. See what a pessimist I was? They’re actually happening on the Second, a full 24 hours later.

As I see it, it’s win-win: if no call comes July 2, I get to keep my job. If the call does come, I get lots of time off to explore all the opportunities I might’ve missed while working at the Mercury News.

As I said a couple weeks back, it’s a fun time to work in the newspaper biz.

Something that could happen only on the Internet

A couple summers back I went to the San Jose Grand Prix and did a write-up here. I posted this at the end of it.

The Marine Corps’ “chin-up challenge” attracted a bunch of muscular
guys. A T-shirt went to anybody who could chin up to this bar 20 times; this
guy had a surfer’s build and looked plenty strong enough to do the whole 20.
He quit after five, which made me wonder if he looked down at those Marines
starting to like the looks of him and started wondering if the grand prize was
an all-expense-paid trip to Baghdad.

Today, nearly two years later, a guy named John C. Anderson came upon this post and added the following comment:

I took the Marine Challenge in Davenport, Iowa.

I did 28 chinups and won a cap as well as a t shirt.
My older brother was a Marine, my younger brother was a Marine, but I was too busy bumming around my mother’s bars to go into the corp. And I probably wasn’t tough enough or disciplined enough to make it anyway.

So, I was proud to win the shirt and the cap and the Marines were proud of me.

Twenty eight chinups isn’t bad for a sixty two year old man.

Not bad, indeed, Mr. Anderson.

So, what kind of town is San Jose?

It’s the kind of town that’s so upright that it can’t even muster a decent corrupt politician. Yesterday we heard that San Jose’s former mayor, Ron Gonzales, will have all criminal charges against him dropped. Gonzales had all these charges against him because he cut a secret deal with a local garbage-hauling outfit — not to line his pocket, but to ensure he’d never get tagged with the blame for a garbage strike. Mind you this secret deal ended up costing the city an extra $11-plus million and Gonzales didn’t precisely have the authority to make this “labor peace” agreement without consulting his colleagues on the City Council. An ambitious prosecutor had it in his head that because Gonzales benefited politically from the deal, he could be charged with bribery and sundry other crimes.

Yesterday a judge said the indictments against Gonzales were bunk. So, game over. (Gonzales had been out of office for months because his term ended, so not much was really at stake anyway.)

I worked on the editorial page when this controversy came to a head — we called for him to resign; he declined, probably because he figured he’d done nothing wrong. Well, committed no crimes.

But what happened to the dear ex-mayor is instructive: He ruled like an emperor, ran roughshod over everybody at City Hall, and tried as he might to do as he damned well pleased and didn’t care who he pissed off. When the City Council got word that he’d cut this garbage deal behind their backs, the mayor’s comeuppance arrived: They couldn’t force him out of office so they did the next best thing: ruined his political career, guaranteeing he’d never, say, run for Congress or Governor or something.

Gonzales was a career local politico who, as far as I know, had no money beyond his paycheck. It had to have cost him a fortune in legal fees to make these charges go away, money he probably didn’t have and furthermore, probably can’t raise from supporters because he doesn’t have any. So, add major legal debts to his bill of woes.

Gonzales wasn’t really a bad mayor — he had a decent vision for where the city ought to be going, as far as I could tell — but he was terrible politician. When he found himself in a jam he had nobody watching his back, so a minor controversy caused by a proper urge to spare the citizens of San Jose from the perils of a garbage-worker strike ended up forcing him to serve out his last few months in office friendless, powerless and disgraced.

Sort of a lesson there about how being nice to people is actually in your self-interest.

What a great time to work for a newspaper

The scene is a crowded meeting room full of nervous newsies. I cheer myself by noting our staff still outnumbers the available seating. Having to stand means there’s still flesh on the bones of this beast of a daily paper we put out.

Carole Leigh Hutton, our brand new executive editor, is having her first news conference with the staff, and she’s getting grilled like Tony Snow might if he’d just announced President Bush is bringing back the draft and college deferments will not be granted to the sons and daughters of the working press.

Hutton says layoffs are a certainty, but can’t say how many, or precisely when we’ll know who gets the ax. She does know that the annual budget she and her colleagues in the adminisphere are putting together will require cost cuts, and the numbers have to be assembled by the end of this month. Then, to their minds, the sooner they cut costs (meaning, us), the better chance they’ll have to make their budget numbers.

A newsroom full of reporters is bound to have questions, none of them polite. Just down from me, standing against the back wall, a young business reporter asks Hutton the least polite question of the day.

“Suppose I’m not laid off and get to keep my job,” she says. “Why would I want to stay?”

Nervous laughter across the room.

Finally, Hutton has a chance to say something that won’t add more goodies to our shopping bag of dread. And, finally, a newspaper executive says publicly what I’ve been thinking for the past couple years: the newspaper biz is broken, badly, and has to be transformed into something else — something, you know, large numbers of people want to read every day and advertisers will want to advertise in — and the transformation has to come soon.

So, those of us who get to keep our jobs get to be the transformers.

This could be a great thing. It reminds me of when Caterpillar Inc., which pretty much owns my hometown, was in dire straits in the early 1980s. Cat lost billions while laying off tens of thousands of my neighbors back in Peoria, but it did do something right: it retooled its outdated machinery and turned itself into one of the most efficient manufacturers on the planet. Today Cat’s still the earth’s biggest, baddest purveyor of fine heavy earthmoving machinery.

Technology and brain power saved Cat: They just went out and bought a bunch of robots to do jobs previously performed by people. Our problem is there are no robot manufacturers, to date, capable of automating what we do. And even if there were, our industry would not buy their products. Technology is not our thing. Our editing system is 20 years old. Our page-production system is 10 years old. Newspapers sat on their hands while Yahoo, Ebay and Google invented Internet commerce, and now it all belongs to them.

I used to think I’d always have a career as long as local businesses needed to advertise in their local rag. Frankly, I’m not sure they need to anymore. They can just flog their wares on Ebay for next to nothing and anybody with a computer can track ’em down in seconds. All across the newspaper biz, papers are seeing, for the first time, declining revenues. Used to be they could charge higher prices for ads and subscriptions because people had no choice but to pay. Now they have a choice, and that choice is biting our business in the butt cheeks.

In the old days, newspapers made so much money that they could print pretty much anything they wanted in their news columns. It got Nixon tossed out of office but it also created an environment where people got out of the habit of fighting and scratching to hold an audience. We’ve all got flabby beer guts where our save-the-industry washboard abs need to be.

Our new executive editor told us we have to stop doing things the old way and start building a product the market wants. I’d like a chance to take a crack at it. Heck, if the folks back in P-town could rescue a Dow 30 company from certain doom, maybe folks like us have a chance at turning our biz around.

Yeah, things look bleak today. And they’ll get worse in a couple weeks when more of us get our walking papers. And it won’t be easy trying to save a business with the people who got us in this fix to begin with. Newspapers used to be like the communist bloc before the Berlin Wall fell: they had a monopoly that gave them short-term power, but the corruption of power was eating away at their prospects for long-term survivability.

Well, the Wall has fallen.

Trying to build something from the rubble will be some fun, I expect. Am I worried about getting the ax? Not really. There are other ways of making a living. If I am shown the door, well, all I can say is, good luck rescuing the patient without people who believe the patient’s life is worth saving.

I’m not giving up on newspapers till they give up on me.