Tuesday, August 18, 2009

This one is hard to Digest

There are a lot of magazines in the nation, some big, some small.
The biggest used to be the Readers' Digest. No more. Now, it's about to meet all its old friends in Bankruptcy Court.

For someone of my generation, that's hard to fathom.

Let me be perfectly clear here. I never liked it.

The Digest always had a right-wing approach, and the articles often were shadows. Writers were not able to develop plots or themes with the precis they were required to submit. But the Digest always paid well, either for the silly Humor in Uniform slices or Americana, many of which I suspect were fabrications wrapped around nuggets of truth.

But the articles were about the right length for bathroom reading. Don't get me wrong: I never subscribed, but my parents and in-laws did. But the Digest always was highest in circulation of any magazine with the possible exception of TV Guide.

The Digest also had Condensed Books, in which rewrite people turned novels into Pablum for those without the attention span to read the real things. There also were record collections, some of which also were condensed.

The Digest was printed in many languages, with the same condensed version of life.

I think the bankruptcy will be prepackaged, like the one from which the Journal Register just emerged.

Let's see -- The Readers' Digest Condensed Bankruptcy. It fits, doesn't it?

Page 2

Robert Novak died Tuesday of brain cancer. He was 78.

Like the Reader's Digest, I never liked him, either.

His politics was just a bit to the right of Attila the Hun and he wasn't a nice man.

How do I know? Let me tell you a story.

Back in 1970, I was a neophyte in the news business, first a reporter then managing editor of the Wethersfield Post weekly newspaper in Connecticut. I had been working in news about a year when I was invited to a luncheon in Hartford.

Thomas J. Dodd, the sitting Democratic U.S. Senator from Connecticut, was up for re-election and he was in trouble. He had been accused of using campaign funds for his own purposes and censured by the Senate. The accusations, by columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, had all but ruined his chances for re-election, but he decided to fight on.

The luncheon to which I had been invited was a last-gasp effort by Dodd, father of current U.S. Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, to retain his seat.

I was seated at a table near the back and found myself sitting next to Bob Novak, part of the famous columnist team of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. He dutifully ignored me and everyone else at the table.

After the meal, Dodd rose to speak, tearfully all but begging for his seat. It was painful to see. But even more painful was the reaction of Novak. He stood, made rude noises, catcalls, everything but the Bronx cheer. It was disgusting.

I said something like, "Look, Mr. Novak, you are this famous columnist and I am working for a weekly paper in Connecticut, but don't you thing that after eating his food, you owe Dodd the courtesy to listen to what he has to say?"

He told me to shut up and mind my own business, or words to that effect. I was mortified.

That was the only time I met Novak in person, but as far as I was concerned, he was a rude person who didn't deserve the success he enjoyed.

And now he's dead. And so is Tom Dodd, who died the next year. And his son is having ethics problems tied to a mortgage he got for one of his homes.

And the world goes round and round.

Page 3

I am concerned with the thinking process, of lack thereof, of some of my fellow citizens.

I was listening to public radio, when the host was airing some comments from listeners about the health-care debate.

One would think that listeners to public radio are a bit more intelligent and informed than watchers of Fox News and listeners to the radio crazies like Rush Limbaugh. But based on today's performance, you might not be correct.

For example, one fellow from Tennessee was saying that he was dead set against any government role in the reformed health-care package. Dead set against.

He did say, however, that he was for making the insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions and making them cover people who now have no insurance coverage. He also did say he wants the premiums to be set low enough so poor people can afford them.

But no government interference. How can capitalism function if we keep fooling around with it?

I have a question. Who is it that is going to assure that the insurance companies cover the people they don't cover now, for less money than they charge now? Who if not the government?

Others say they don't want government bureaucrats deciding who gets coverage? Who, then? Would you rather have insurance company functionaries whose marching orders include saving the company money in any way possible? That's what he have now, which is why you have stupidity like no pre-existing conditions and sick people kept out of the system.

And, please, let's leave the Death Squad silliness to people like Sarah Palin, whose rhetoric shows what happens to the brain if one uses too much hairspray for too long of a time.

I have modified Medicare. I love it. Bring on government single-payer system.

Page 4

Thanks be to God and some great doctors, we had a bris for my grandson on Sunday, Aug. 16. And I can now introduce you to him by name: Aaron. He's named after my grandfather, Aaron Honeyman, who used the name Harry in his working life but was called Aaron.

The affair went perfectly. For those who are unfamiliar with Jewish practice, a bris, or more correctly Bris Milah, is a ceremony in which he is circumcised and he is officially welcomed into the Jewish people. In Genesis, God tells Abraham to circumcise himself and his sons as a perpetual mark of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The bris is a continuation of that covenant. If you don't know what circumcision is, look it up.

It's an occasion of great joy, except perhaps for the guest of honor, who cries for a few minutes and then is just fine.

Aaron was born on the Sabbath, which ordinarily would have meant his bris would have been on the following Sabbath. Although the bris includes actions usually forbidden on the Sabbath, it is considered so important that for this one ceremony, these actions are not only allowed by mandated.

But Aaron's first few days of life were not ordinary. He was diagnosed with a condition that required surgery. You cannot give a Bris Milah to a sick child.

Aaron recovered, however, and last week, the doctors and the mohel, the person who performs the bris, all said he was healthy enough. So, with great joy, I can now report that Aaron, son of daughter Malka and son-in-law Josh, is officially welcomed as a member of the Covenant of Abraham. Mazel Tov!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

For a video of the ceremony.

Until next time...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dark, dark days for former colleagues

Happy Thursday.

There was some vexing news in the New York Times this morning.

The Journal News, the Gannett paper from which I retired a few years ago, is slicing, no make that gutting its newsroom.

According to the story, everybody in the newsroom and advertising departments is out of a job. They will have to apply for their jobs, many of which have been reconfigured so their own mothers wouldn't recognize them.

When all is said and done, there will be 50 fewer newsroom jobs and 20 fewer advertising jobs. Last week, 57 jobs in information technology, production and finance. That makes a lot of sense in an outfit that is heavy on information technology and the Web.

This from a newspaper that has already sent advertising layout jobs off to India.

Those who follow this blog will remember that in July, Gannett cut some 1,400 jobs across the 80-plus daily newspapers it still owns, with USA Today not sharing the hit At the time, it said The Journal News, which circulates in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties would have to wait until August to find out its bad news.

It's August, and they found out the bad news this week.

The word out is that Gannett, in spite of slightly increasing advertising sales, may have to declare bankruptcy in 2011 because it won't be able to satisfy its obligations to its bondholders.

Gannett is the nation's largest newspaper chain. USA Today alone circulates more than 2 million copies a day, although many of them are either given away or sold for a pittance to hotels and airlines.

Back to the Journal News. According to the story, 25 percent of the newsroom jobs will be eliminated. Usually, one figures that a lot of open jobs will just go unfilled and that could be counted as part of the layoffs. But here, where they are taking all the the jobs and reshuffling them, I'm afraid that 50 newsroom people will be forced out the door.

The fact that 50 workers will lose their jobs is bad enough. But these are journalists, and this is a newspaper. People count on the newspaper to bring them the news, not necessarily the public relations releases that the government and business interests want them to read.

Good journalism shines a light on goings-on that some want to take place in the dark. Fewer journalists means fewer lights. There's also the BBI, the boring but important stuff, like, for example, if your garbage is going to be picked up this week. That's important, too.

I'm sick about this stuff. So many of the greats have already taken buyouts or early retirement offers, people like Dan Murray, who make sure the news got in the paper and Jeff Canning, who made sure it was accurate. People like Geoff Giordano, who put together the Twin Towers coverage and made it impactful but still full of facts. Folks like Mike Taylor, who knew everybody and everybody knew him. He knew stuff.

They're gone, and folks like Mike von Steenburg and Toni Maconi and Gary McGriff and Dan Donovan and Yaron Steinbuch and Reisman and Baird and Nancy Cutler have to work double duty to make sure readers have what they need. Yeah, I know I left out dozens of good and great reporters, editors and photographers and graphic artists and layout people and copy editors. The problem is there won't be titles like that. Who knows that there will be.

What there will be is 50 fewer people to assure that the reader gets his or her news.

Page 2

The crazy season is well along.

I remember when WTIC radio and WELI radio actually had news. Now it's the crazy screamers saying that the president of the United States intends to set into motion a strategy that could lead to the elderly being euthanized.

Think about that. It doesn't make any sense. Yes, people die because insurance companies and doctors and other professional screw up. But to schedule a meeting with life of death on the agenda? Please.

The screamers are ranting about government-run health insurance. The government will decide whether you get your surgery or your physical therapy or your wheelchair or whatever.

So, now an insurance company bureaucrat, supervised by a nurse, decides those things.

Look, I am under a government single-payer system. It's great. When I paid more in premium for a private insurer, I had a higher copay, higher fees and worse treatment. I have never been turned down for anything.

I remember, vaguely, the McCarthy era. A communist under every ashtray. Good people's lives ruined by hysteria. Here we go again. And who is in back of this stuff: insurance companies and others who have a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

People, citizens, screamers: You are being used and you are too scared or dumb or whatever to realize it. Wake up. Think. Ask yourself: Why would they do this? Conspiracy theories are fun, but not if they cost people's lives and health. Think, damn it.

Until next time...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A long time between posts, but a lot going on

Well, hello again.

It's been about a month since I've written in this blog, but what a month it's been.

First of all, thanks to all of you who have looked in from time to time. Thanks for your interest and patience. I'll try to be a bit more consistent.

Things have been happening around here and that's the main reason I haven't had time for this blog. Let's start with the most important thing.

About a week after the last time I wrote here, daughter Melanie gave birth to an 8-pound baby boy, her fourth and our seventh grandchild. Here he is with grandpa.

It occurred the same way many of the births in our family have -- timing unexpected. She went to the midwife that Friday and was assured that she had plenty of time before the baby was to be born. We had a fine Sabbath eve dinner and went to bed.

At 6 the next morning, there was Mel knocking on our door with the news that she was in full labor and headed for the hospital. It's the Sabbath so there would be no phone calls or other information until after the Sabbath ended, after 9 that night.

Needless to say, it was a tense time.

The phone rang after 9, and it was her husband, Josh, saying it was a boy and Mel and the boy were doing well.

Well, daughter Esther and I went flying down to St. Vincent's hospital near Greenwich Village to see the baby and pick up Josh.

There was, however, a problem. The baby wasn't behaving quite right. But the next day, Mel and Josh talked us into heading out on a planned week away. Josh was home from work, Esther was available at least one day and, frankly, we would have been in the way. Besides, we had promised my step mom, who lives in Maryland, that we would visit and didn't want to worry her by not showing up.

Of course, we kept in touch from the Washington and Philadelphia areas. A diagnosis was arrived at and the news was the baby needed surgery, which was to be performed at the end of the week. We returned to New York and waited.

The surgery went well and the baby is home from the hospital and, as far as we and the doctors can tell, is doing beautifully.

That was some three weeks. We are grateful to, first of all, God, and the doctors and other medical professionals.

A couple of days after being born, the baby was transferred to the Morgan-Stanley Children's Hospital at Columbia Presbyterian. This is one great place. The NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) is designed beautifully and the staff are angels.

One thing we learned, although we knew it before, was why young people have little kids. I don't know how Mel and Josh do it, chasing after two boys, 5 and 2. Tamar, their 7-year-old daughter, is a joy and helps as much as possible.

My job most days was to take the 2-year-old to the playground. There are a number of really great playgrounds in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. So, Avraham Moshe, the 2-year-old and I go off and swing on swings and play on playscapes and I chase him around, then come home in time for his lunch and nap. It's amazing how fast a 2-year-old's legs can carry him.

Of course, the others have to be taken to camp in the morning and then picked up from camp and taken to all the places kids need to be taken. My pal is Raphi, who is 5. I got to spend a lot of time with him and he's a joy, too. So, that's what I have been doing the past three weeks.

Page 2

Word came Friday that the Journal-Register Co., the parent of the New Haven Register and 18 other dailies in the East and Midwest, had emerged from bankruptcy. What that did was cancel a lot of mistakes the JRC and its predecessor, Ingersoll Corp., had made in buying up a bunch of newspapers for, basically, promises to pay at sometime in the future, and then being unable to pay off those debts.

Much of that choking debt has been canceled and JRC now has financing to the tune of about $225 million, which a lot of experts say it should be able to manage.

The company has promised to pay much of the tax debt it owed to Connecticut. Unfortunately, the judge allowed it to pay a group of executives about $1.3 million for firing workers.

Some of the people who ran JRC before it filed for bankruptcy weren't really nice people. Ralph Ingersoll II, who bought the Register from Stewart Jackson and family, squandered a lot of money on failed schemes such as the St. Louis Sun, which never shone and set very quickly, taking scores of millions of borrowed dollars, and the hopes of a lot of journalists, with it.

I truly hope the new JRC will learn from the mistakes of the past and has the wherewithal to offer its readers the kind of news and other information it hasn't been able to lately.

I have a history with the company. I worked there for 14 years was laid off in 1990, four years after Ingersoll bought the paper, because the finances were in such horrible shape. But that sent me off to other adventures, including stints at some of the nation's largest and most famous newspapers, so I guess they did me a favor.

So I truly do with them the best in their renaissance. The Register has some talented and hard-working journalists who deserve a chance to do their best undeterred by the financial woes caused by past owners.

Page 3

Higher on this page, I mentioned a trip to Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the next few days, if things stay calm on the baby front, I plan to talk about those and some tips on how to get superior hotels for not much money, as well as some other travel hints.

Until next time...