Monday, December 30, 2013

A Legendary Singer Who Blends "Sound and Sense"

All five of the the Kennedy Center honorees this year made major contributions to the performing arts. But it was the last honoree who received the biggest applause and the most touching tribute: the one and only Billy Joel. The reason can be summed up in three words from Alexander Pope: "Sound and sense."

Bill Joel's tunes are as catchy as they are diverse. He's written ballads and barbershop, jazz and rock, classical and pop -- all with melodies that everyone can follow.

But it was not just the music that captured the attention of so many. It was the stories he told. Joel didn't just write about love. He wrote about the emotions we face trying to perform ("Pressure"); the challenges of growing up ("Movin' Out"); and ordinary people just trying to make a living, from the "Piano Man" in a bar, to the factory workers of "Allentown." It's that combination of the music and the words, the sound and the sense, that allowed Joel and his songs to become so popular.

In September, I'll be seeing Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. You might think it's a long time to wait for a concert. But in the lifespan of a legend, it's only a moment.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Brush with Inequality: Why People Really Hate Working on Thanksgiving

When Costco executive Paul Latham was asked why the company is keeping its stores closed on Thanksgiving, his answer to The Huffington Post was clear and simple: "Our employees work especially hard during the holiday season, and we simply believe that they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with their families."

But while closing stores is the right decision, his reason misses the mark. Let's be honest: is being away from family really why people hate working on Thanksgiving? As much as we all look forward to commenting on the size of the bird and praising how wonderfully moist it is this year (what's your secret?), the truth is that the meal and ensuing ennui are less important than what they symbolize: everyone, young and old, rich and poor, sitting together at the same table.

That meaning is turned upside down when people have to work on the holiday and face today's harsh reality: we don't all get a seat at the table. As much as we tell ourselves that America's the land of opportunity and the place where dreams are made, the truth is that some of us will always have to work on Thanksgiving.

When I began my career as a young journalist, I often had to work nights, weekends, and public holidays, and for good reason: it was a daily newspaper. But working those days always made me reflect on where I was and where I would be in the future. I was thankful that I had a job, a place to live, and food to eat. But I was frustrated that I had to work when so many others got the day off.

On Thursday, Costco and those retailers who remain closed deserve our thanks -- not for honoring tradition or time with extended family, but for something far more basic: giving everyone the day to call their own. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Living a Full Life on Social Media

At a panel discussion I attended earlier this year, a successful entrepreneur was asked what he does and does not want to see in a job applicant's Facebook page. His answer surprised us all: he doesn't care.  "We all live full lives outside of work," he said. "And I expect that my employees do as well. What's important is that they do their jobs."

At first, that statement might seem a little crazy. After all, most experts will tell you that posting photos of drinking with friends will convey to a potential employer that you're more into partying than working. Even if all your photos were taken at one party, employers will worry: if he can't present himself professionally on social media, how will he represent the company in "real life"?

These are legitimate concerns, and most of us manage our social media pages to reflect who we are and how we want to be perceived. But the reality is that as social media continues to grow, these "red flags" will become harder to find. Every second, our uncensored thoughts are shared with people on social media around the world and become trends that attract marketers and advertisers. A controversial performance at the MTV Music Video awards this year not only raised the profile of Miley Cyrus, but also led to one of the nation's most respected actors, Morgan Freeman, reading a definition of "twerking" on TV. Whether it's a Facebook Town Hall led by the President, or a "new language" of Twitter hashtags, the evidence is clear: social media has become a way to promote our original thoughts, publicize our "compelling" lives, and share our "funny" stories with millions of people around the world. And with all of us competing for followers, friends, and retweets, we'll all inevitably say something "cool" that we regret.

So is engaging in social media a risk worth taking? I'd say yes. Just remember what Taylor Swift once said: "All of my favorite people - people I really trust - none of them were cool in their younger years." Which reminds me: hey, @taylorswift13, can I get an RT?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

When Did Being Smart Become So Shameful?

Thomas Edison was probably the smartest guy in this room.
Below are two columns. The left column contains five quotations, and the right column features the famous people who said them. Without using Google, try to match each quotation with the correct speaker.

1) I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not the dumbest.
A. Michael Bloomberg

2) I'm not the smartest guy, but I can outwork you. It’s the one thing that I can control.

B. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
3) I’m a great believer in low self-esteem.  So consequently, if you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room and you think you’re going to have to work a little harder. . . you can actually do quite well.

C. Bill Rancic

4) I'm never the smartest guy in the room. I'm willing to work harder than most people around me, come earlier, stay later.

D. Nick Hornby

 5) I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues.

E. Jay Leno

If you can't figure out who said what, don't worry. The quotations all convey the same basic idea, which may seem quite noble. After all, there's nothing wrong with humility, even if it's used to highlight your strengths. But the issue I find perplexing is: why is being the "smartest" considered shameful while being the "hardest working" considered an honor? 

My guess it has something to do with the American values of hard work and opportunity. Concepts like "if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything" and "no pain, no gain" reflect how we think about success: it only comes as the result of hard work. Being smart means being arrogant and stubborn, and working hard means being passionate and devoted, spending all hours of the day devoted to your business. I'm all for hard work, and whenever I tackle a project I always give it my all. But is it possible that our definitions might be hurting us more than helping us? That we are focusing too much on quantity over quality, and on how much time we spend, rather than how we spend our time?

I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I think I know the answer. And speaking of answers, here are the correct responses to the quiz above: 1)D; 2)A; 3)E; 4)C; 5)B.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Is Negotiation Ethical or Exploitative?

Is negotiation ethical? Before you answer that question, think of all the times you negotiate with friends and family without even knowing it.  Pizza vs. sushi; watching football vs. going shopping; sitting on the couch vs. doing laundry.

But then, think of the time you learned that your friend spends $400 less a year on cable and gets the same level of service. Or consider how you would feel if you found out a younger colleague who does the same job as you at work is making $25,000 more a year. 

Whether you like it or not, negotiation is part of life. And while it feels great when you make deal, it feels horrible when you've been exploited. Since September, I have been taking a class on Negotiation at Baruch College, as part of its part-time MBA program. Each week, we split up into pairs or teams to improve our skills through timed negotiations. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to be aggressive or pushy to win. In fact, it is quite the contrary: planning, listening, and at times remaining quiet will often help you reach a more successful outcome. Still, no matter you negotiate, at the end of the day, there are often repercussions than can last far beyond the agreement.

When you learn that Frank bought the same car for $5,000 less from the same dealer, you're upset and will likely change your behavior the next time you buy a car. You might even see it as a competition, and be angry at Frank for "beating you" and jealous of his ability to secure a better deal. The same is true of receiving money, whether it be a peer's higher salary or a sibling's greater inheritance.

When I debated this question of ethics with someone recently, I was told I was a communist. That was a bit harsh. So we negotiated, and agreed I would be deemed a socialist. But just so I don't feel like I got the raw end of the deal:  socialism, despite its historic misuse, still helps millions of people around the world get free healthcare and education. Of course, whether those systems are truly free or ultimately helpful will be our next debate, and hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Making Boxing Safer

Heavyweight Mago Abdusalamov suffered a stroke after a fight Saturday night.

The Russian heavyweight Mago Abdusalamov had knocked out all of his opponents going into Saturday night's fight against Cuban Mike Perez. But as I sat in the crowd at MSG and watched Perez dominate, I thought nothing of the heavy beating the Russian took. He looked like one of the toughest guys I had ever seen and I had little doubt he'd be back to fight another day.

But the next day I learned that after complaining about a headache, Mago had undergone tests at Roosevelt Hospital and was found to have a small blood clot in his head. He was placed in a coma by doctors to keep the swelling under control and underwent surgery. After surgery, he suffered a stroke.

It's a sad story, and everyone is praying that Mago recovers. There is no blame to be leveled for the tragedy; not even for the referees, who in retrospect should have stopped the fight earlier. Boxing is inherently a violent and dangerous sport. The only question is: are there any ways to make the sport safer but still competitive? Here are a few ideas:
  • Softer boxing gloves - If the boxing gloves were softer, this would make the blows to the body and head less damaging. The punches will still hurt, but could potentially save a boxer's life.
  • Fewer rounds - People want their money's worth when it comes to a fight. But if fights were much shorter, the boxers could potentially fight more often. 
  • Points, not Knockouts: Everyone wants to see a knockout, but what if you couldn't win by knockout after the second round? What if the points for each round were determined by total punches landed, with no extra credit given for power shots? The fights would be more about the sweet science -- of dancing, ducking, and connecting -- than about killing your opponent. Ultimately, it's the tactics, not brute force, that make boxing so much fun to watch. 
In the meantime, if you would like to help Mago's family with its rising medical costs, you can donate via PayPal to or send a check made out to Magomed Abusalamov to BakanayAbdusalamova, PO Box 90174, Brooklyn, NY 11209.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Arturo Gatti - Micky Ward: A Lifelong Friendship that Started in the Ring

Fighting brought Ward and Gatti closer together.  Photo:
Hugging between opponents is ubiquitous in professional sports -- especially boxing, football, and basketball -- where athletes have often competed with or against each other in the past. But the embraces of  Arturo "Thunder" Gatti and "Irish" Micky Ward after their three legendary fights belied something far more unique. The two didn't just share mutual respect; they loved each other.

As told in a touching documentary on HBO, their trilogy of fights brought them closer together. Ward won the first bout on May 18, 2002 in a majority decision, after which the two hugged and ended up recuperating in the same hospital together. Gatti won the second fight in November, after which the two got to know each other while still feeling the pain from the fight. In a 2010 story in Esquire, writer Chris Jones captured that moment beautifully:
They had struck up their first real conversation in the hospital waiting room after their second fight, when Ward couldn't hear out of his left ear and Gatti couldn't feel his right hand. In each other, they had found that rare man who could withstand ridiculous levels of punishment, who could see hope even through rivers of his own blood. The lumps and burns and titanium plates only reminded each man of the other's love. One day, they decided, they would do things like golf together.
Their last fight -- in June of the following year -- went the distance, with Gatti winning again by decision. The competition was fierce with both giving and taking a barrage of hits. But it was not their fight that people remember; it's their friendship that developed afterward. Gatti continued to fight and take multiple beatings, and Ward stood by his friend, working in his corner and training him for his last fight in 2007. 

In 2009, Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil while on vacation with his wife and their 10 month old son. His wife was initially arrested by police and charged with first-degree murder after police said she choked him to death with her purse strap. Less than a month later, Brazilian authorities announced the death was a suicide and released her. Among the questions raised was whether his courage and 49 fights had taken a toll on his mind.

More autopsies and investigations have been completed and the debate over whether it was a suicide or homicide continues. Ward is among those still hoping Brazilian authorities will reopen the case. But no matter what happens, their iconic rivalry and enduring friendship will live on as a testament to the power of sports and the character of two historic champions .

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Opening the Marketplace: The Next Steps for Healthcare

Buying fruit is far simpler than choosing a doctor.
But as a patient, you still need to be an educated shopper.
Whether or not you believe in the new Health Insurance Exchange, it's hard to argue against the economic principle behind it: an open marketplace encourages competition, better products, and lower prices. The problem is that the the exchanges don't go far enough. The issue is not about how much you pay, but about how much others pay for the same service.

Most insurance plans only partially cover the price of a medical procedure and often, doctors will require patients to pay whatever their insurance doesn't cover. These extra costs can vary widely, and together with copayments and deductibles, leave many patients with medical bills they can't afford. We don't want to be cheap when it comes to our health, and asking for prices upfront somehow seems a little uncomfortable.

So how do we solve this problem? Obviously, there's no panacea. But here are two concepts that I think need to be part of the solution:

Reviews: Patients need to rely on more than just referrals to decide on their doctors. They need honest recommendations and facts. The website already provides physician reviews and allows patients to book appointments online; but to be effective, reviews need to be more widespread. There are privacy concerns for sure. Many patients don't want to talk about their medical struggles online. Still, to make healthcare more affordable, patients must be able to evaluate the quality of the doctors available.

Price Lists: Patients need to know the prices of procedures. Obviously, cost is not the only factor in deciding which doctor to see. But it is a factor and needs to be addressed. There are ways for people who can look up insurance and have a lot of time to research prices, but that is not practical for most patients. There are also websites that provide average rates for procedures by area, including Healthcare Blue Book and FAIR Health. But they don't tell you which doctor in your area has the best price. Customers need to be able to comparison shop and evaluate the quality of the available products to make educated decisions.

These are just a couple of ideas, and I would love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below or on social media.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Will Happen When All Newspapers Die?

The fact that print journalism is dying is not news anymore. People read less, look at pictures more, love listicles, and rattle off witticisms online as soon they pop into their heads. News executives are talking about "engagement" and "metrics", using staff to create advertorials, and redesigning their websites to remain relevant. The only question is: how will these changes affect what we know about the world?

For starters, we'll be far less informed. Aside from crime, sports events, and "who wore it best?" polls, news is still broken mostly by reporters at local newspapers and wire services. And it is often these reporters that supply the material for the more popular media. (For a funny example, just check out this clip with news reports about Mike Myers' new baby. Could they all have the same news writer on staff?)

survey this year by the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of adults have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they want. Of those deserters, more than 60 percent said less complete stories were the most noticeable change in news today. The reason is simple: reporting actually does require skill and talent. Staff writers at a daily paper have to quickly find news to report and figure out how they will complete their stories in only a few hours. They have to interview both sides in a dispute, and present each of the perspectives accurately and fairly. And on tight daily deadlines, they have to distill the most important facts and quotes into a tight and compelling narrative that will both inform readers and keep their attention.

Don't get me wrong: citizen journalism, crowdsourcing, and social listening have enhanced journalism, providing reporters with a faster and far richer view of what readers think and feel. But given a choice of a one-sided rant and shaky cell phone video, or a short and structured story that represents all sides, what would most people pick? I would think the latter. There is simply no amount of packaging and marketing that can replace the value of old-fashioned reporting.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Finding the Empty and Bringing it Back to Life

A mother of four from Ecuador collects bottles and cans in the film Redemption.
Their bounty rattles down the streets of New York in clear garbage bags flowing over the sides of shopping carts. Their success depends on their efficiency and endurance, as they track down trash and hunt for bottles and cans once filled with things sweet and delicious.

It's hard to imagine these "canners" don't feel the pity, disgust, and fear from those more fortunate, from those who can't understand why anyone would collect that many recyclables. But the canners do what they have to survive. The documentary Redemption -- produced by Downtown Community Television Center and available on HBO on Demand -- shares the stories of a few of them. There's Susan from the Bronx, a former IBM saleswoman who needs more than social security to make ends meet; Walter, a former bouncer at the Chelsea Hotel, who's been living under the West Side Highway for 25 years; and there's Nuve, a mother of four from Ecuador who collects empties every day to support her family.

The film is quite understated: in 35 minutes, it depicts the typical day of canners and gives them a chance to talk about their lives. For me, it was tough to make sense of the canning phenomenon. Why are our taxes paying for each can or bottle redeemed? Why can't the money be used to provide jobs to some of these canners and give them a second chance at life?

I know it's complicated. The New York City Sanitation Department has enough employees; replacing them with canners will only make the problem worse. But like the canners, we have to be creative and work hard to find solutions. I don't know the answer, but I do know one thing: we won't find the solution in a bag full of empties.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

If You See Something Missing, Say Something

Less than a month ago, I reported a tree near my home that seemed to be on its last legs. It had all the tell-tale signs: scant leaves, brittle bark, and broken branches. But its most prominent and curious attribute were two small branches full of leaves, rising up straight to the sky.

My apartment building was built in 1941, and as I passed this tree every day, I couldn't help wondering what those two branches signified. Were they towers of life, guarding the tree from its own mortality? Were they symbols of rebirth, sprouting from the earth? Or were they some strange mutation beyond explanation? I'd love to say I found an answer, but as the great Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy would have said: "Damn it, Jim, I'm a writer, not an arborist." (By the way, if there are any arborists reading this, I would love to understand why those branches grow vertically. So please feel free to comment on this post or send me a link).

Still, the reality is that dead trees fall and kill people. So I went online and contacted New York City 311. Within a month, the tree was gone.

That troubled tree reminds me of when I was on the subway this year, only a few feet from a man who had gone commando, his wet pants sitting right beside him. Passengers took turns staring, rolling their eyes, and laughing to themselves. I exited at the next stop and notified an MTA employee. Within a couple of minutes, an announcement was made: the trains had been delayed for police activity and would resume shortly. The delay only lasted a couple of minutes, but the lesson was clear: if you see something missing something -- leaves, pants, whatever -- say something. There are people ready to help.

Monday, October 7, 2013

If Life's Not Fair, Does Justice Matter?

Read enough blogs and e-books about leadership and success, and you'll see one bit of advice that overshadows all others: don't be a loser. Or, to be more precise: don't let a few losses keep you from winning in the end. This concept has created an endless number of platitudes that offer little comfort to the aggrieved: focus on wars instead of battles, be resilient in the face of adversity, and remember how long it took to build Rome. But embracing failure seems to deny one of our basic traits: a desire for justice.

If people are hardworking, kind, and generous, we want to see them rewarded with success; if they are hurtful or lazy, we want to see them punished. Our desires often don't become reality, leaving us with the conventional wisdom: "life's not fair" and "business is business." But the reality is that no matter how much we try to shake off this concept of justice,  we can't. Fairness is a part of us.

In a blog post today on the Harvard Business Review website, N.  Taylor Thompson, a fellow at Harvard University's Forum for Growth & Innovation, writes about how fairness is an integral factor in consumers' decisions. When Netflix decided to split its DVD and video streaming subscriptions two years ago from $10 total to $8 each, they expected to attract some customers interested in just one of the services eager to pay less for renting movies. But what happened? Many Netflix users considered the split an unfair price increase for the services and more than a million of them cancelled their subscriptions. What should Netflix have done? Explain why it had to raise prices. Maybe the company should have said how movie rights are more expensive on streaming video than on DVD, and that it wanted to provide as many movies as possible to its members? Or maybe it should have talked about the new costs associated with developing original content for subscribers, like the popular show House of Cards? No matter what, providing a reason would have been far better than telling people nothing. By sharing their rationale, Netflix executives would have shown that they wanted to be fair.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

If You Can't Give Buskers Money, Give Them a Hand

Of the many careers suffering in our new economy, one seems to have the worst prognosis: music. It's not just because digital music is more accessible and affordable than ever before. Or, that in the age of sampling and rap-pop songs, there seem to be fewer original hits and more forgettable one-hit wonders. But rather, it's that most people who perform live music don't attract admiration; they generate sympathy.

You're not supposed to give money to people on the subway, and for good reason. It only encourages those in need to ask for more and avoid the many non-profit and government organizations that provide far more food and better services with your money. But at the same time, the fact that most riders ignore these buskers reflects our changing values. A bunch of kids breakdancing and hanging upside down in the subway may not seem like art -- but it does require creativity and practice. Three guys in ponchos and sombreros singing "Guantanamera" may seem a bit dated -- but it's still a beautiful way for Mariachi singers to share their talent with the world. The truth is that those crowded platforms and dark subway tunnels where we crush candy on our phones, read paperbacks and kindles, and curse about train delays -- they may be the only places where live music and dance will survive.

You can't stop progress, and that includes the fast-moving world of mobile communications. But I do hope that no matter how many distractions the future throws our way, we'll always find time to look up and appreciate the enormous talent riding right in front of us.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Selling to the "Singletons"

People who live by themselves today are not alone. That's because 32 million Americans live on their own, including about half of all adults in New York City and Washington D.C. So we should find out what's wrong and push them to get married? Not if you want to make money. As Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at NYU pointed out, these single people (whom he dubs "singletons") are spending more than those who are married. The average singleton spent $34,471 per capita in 2010, according to the federal Consumer Expenditure survey. Married people without children spent $28,017 and the highest-spending married people with children spent $23,179 per person. Klinenberg, who wrote the book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, wrote in Fortune last year that businesses are already targeting this growing demographic:
Home-improvement giant Lowe's (LOW) released a TV advertisement featuring a lone woman who is renovating her bathroom. Iconic car-brand Chevrolet ran an ad in which a single woman responds to a bad date by going for a drive in a Malibu with a female friend. Even DeBeers, which long pitched its diamonds as the embodiment of a couple's romantic bond, has sold a "right-hand ring" for unmarried women who want to treat themselves to elegant jewelry. Singletons are a rising presence -- and American business has only begun to respond.
So how should this affect our communication strategies? Here are a few ideas:

Target market: You often hear candidates running for office talk about middle-class families struggling to survive. But that excludes millions of people living on their own. Forget families or singletons: just call "them" people, residents, or men and women.

Logistics: Some people don't like communal tables at restaurants, but I do. If the goal is merely cosmetic -- i.e. to avoid the embarrassment of sitting alone -- then make sure you have a plethora of electrical outlets for mobile devices. If you want a more social atmosphere, then people at the table need to order together and share dishes. Not easy, but it works at places with great food in the south, like Buckner's Family Restaurant.

Message: Focus on the universal benefits of your product or service. Eat Life cereal because it's healthy and tastes good (not because Mikey likes it). Use this Ocean Breeze soap because it makes you clean. (Great thinking from Kermit the Frog). Even diapers today could be changed by a single man as easily as a married woman. So don't pigeonhole yourself. Use people, instead of family members, to communicate your message.

Do you have any ideas about how to reach, or not exclude, the growing market of people who live alone? Please share them below.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reduce CYA, Boost KSA

I recently learned about a skill that executives need to use in their emails to move up the corporate ladder: it's called CYA. There are debates about when CYA was first introduced to the English language, but none put it more eloquently than the late William Safire of The New York Times in 1987. Safire defined CYA as "to diffuse responsibility," and related it to another ass-related term that means "to hustle."
The first two initials of C.Y.A. stand for ''cover your,'' and the dread ''a'' word is expressed variously as rear end, butt, behind, backside, tail, seat, or, if you are President Reagan, keister. The objection to the operative word is of long standing; a new sense has evolved that uses the word for the posterior as a synecdoche for the whole person, and now to move one's backside means merely to move oneself quickly. Thus the initials today are an anachronism, euphemizing a meaning that has changed.
While the digital age has made CYA easier than ever before, covering your ass is not a new phenomenon. Before email, there were memos filled in triplicate. And a few thousand years before that, there was the story of Adam and Eve, in which diffusing responsibility (and disobeying God) led to man's banishment from the Garden of Eden. So why is CYA an important skill that we need to learn? What would the world be like if we always had to take responsibility for our actions?

For sure, it would be a boring. It would be like watching one long post-game news conference, with the losing team offering nothing but cliches to explain their poor performance: "We had our chances and just didn't execute. We need to work hard this week and take it one game at a time."

But it would also create a greater sense of camaraderie, where everyone on a business team shares responsibility no matter what the outcome. Call it socialism, or a world of make-believe, but who knows? Maybe there will come a time when employees focus less on covering their ass, and more on kicking some ass.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Commander of Nazi Death Camp or Loving and Loyal Father?

Brigitte Höss of Virginia is an 80 year old grandmother who was recently diagnosed with cancer. But I'm not sure how sorry I feel for her.

Brigitte is not responsible for the actions of her father, Rudolf Höss, who built and commanded Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp where more than 1 million people were murdered. Nor should she feel bad about keeping the stories of her sheltered and luxurious childhood until age 11 to herself. But the way she thinks of her father now, and the way she understands the Holocaust today, gives me pause.

In an interview with Thomas Harding, author of a new book about the capture of Rudolf Höss, Brigitte said she knew as a child that her father ran a prison camp, but still doubts that six million Jews were killed during World War II. "Brigitte does not deny that atrocities took place or that Jews and others were murdered in the camps, but she questions that millions were killed," wrote Harding in The Washington Post. "'How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed?' she asks."

She said her father was forced by the British to confess that he killed more than million Jews during the War. “He was the nicest man in the world,” she told Harding. “He was very good to us.” She recalled them eating together, playing in the garden, and reading Hansel and Gretel, Harding wrote.

Eight years ago, I wrote a story for The Journal News about the recollections of four residents of the Lower Hudson Valley who were children when victory was declared in Europe in 1945. Among those I interviewed was a man who grew up in Germany during World War II and whose father fought in the German Army. The man said his father didn't join the Nazi party, a decision that both placed him on the front lines during the War and allowed him to move to the U.S. afterward. I remember asking if he was proud of his father. He said he was, and I don't blame him: like Brigitte, he was just a child who loved his dad. But there were also millions of children murdered during the Holocaust. As a Jew, I can never forget.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where Were You on 9/11? Don't Ask

For 11 years we've remembered the day that terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 innocent people. But I still avoid conversations that begin: Where were you on 9/11? I know it's an open-ended question that prompts us to share first-hand accounts of that tragic day and its global impact. But whether it's survivor's guilt, hypersensitivity, or both, I just don't feel comfortable sharing my story.

Maybe it's because I was a young reporter at a daily newspaper in the suburbs north of New York City, just getting to work with no idea how big a story it was. Or perhaps, it was because my job post-9/11 was to help find out who died and write about them. In the first few days and weeks, it was making calls and knocking on doors, trying to find out if husbands and wives knew the status of their loved ones. Soon, I was covering memorial services and funerals, from Central Park to Scarsdale, learning about the people who died just because they worked in those two towers. It was hard for sure; but I always felt lucky just to be alive. I saw the funerals as a chance not only to write about the lives of victims, but also to learn from them. Some weeks or months after 9/11, the news staff received an email from a top editor, recognizing the work we had all done and offering us the option to turn down another funeral assignment if it was just too tough. I remember appreciating that message: the editors recognized we were all human.

Still, I never turned down an assignment. It was not because I was better than other reporters, whom I hope took breaks whenever needed. But I guess I saw reporting as my duty to the victims and their families. It didn't matter where I was on 9/11; it only mattered where they were.

Monday, September 2, 2013

"The Newsroom" is to "The Wire" as Hollywood is to Reality

Discussing a story in the newsroom of HBO's The Wire.
A few weeks ago, journalists on CNN's Reliable Sources were discussing whether HBO's The Newsroom reflected the reality of life in a newsroom. The answer was, of course, no: it heightened office drama and competition between journalists to make the show compelling. It also sounded a lot like another show created by Aaron Sorkin: The West Wing. While The West Wing brought the White House to life, it was also preachy and over the top, with characters alternating between witty commentary and in-depth policy analysis with more speed and poise than even the smartest of our nation's presidents.

I can't help but think of a show only a few years earlier on HBO that was by the far one of the best written dramas ever: The Wire. The show depicted Baltimore drug dealers, police officers, drug addicts, politicians, and journalists as real people, struggling to survive in their jobs and their private lives. In the fifth season, the show goes into the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun, and brings together the problems that have plagued print journalism in recent years: from a reporter who makes up news (think Jayson Blair of The New York Times), to an executive editor who cares more about winning a Pulitzer than naming a source. There are even layoffs at the paper, something that has plagued newspapers across the country for the past decade.

Still, the most accurate depictions of life in The Wire's newsroom come from the moments that are most ordinary. There's the scene where the city editor is worried that he might have made a mistake in a story, and calls the copy desk in the middle of the night to double check. Many reporters are guilty of being that neurotic; it's part of a job where accuracy is key and your work is displayed in front of the world every day. And there are the scenes where the city editor is in the newsroom: focused and analytical as he assigns and reads stories, and frustrated and angry as he sees the integrity of the paper begin to crumble. It's not as frenetic and sexy as The Newsroom, but then again, life never really is.   

Friday, August 30, 2013

Improving Sports Coverage in Today's Global and Social World

The Cincinnati Bearcats have brought some of the fun back to sports coverage.
In a post last month, I suggested some questions that might make the dreaded post-game interviews a little more compelling. But there are bigger changes, that in our global world of social media, could take professional sports coverage to the next level. Here are three:

Native Tongue: The face of athletic competition in the U.S. has been changing for a while, with international athletes excelling in sports traditionally dominated by Americans. But instead of embracing the athletes' nationalities, we have asked them to be more like us. Why do pre- and post-game interviews have to be conducted in English? Foreign athletes and coaches can express themselves better in their native languages, and provide a better sense of their cultural identity to fans around the world. Interpreters can quickly translate questions and answers, and even know how to shorten athletes' responses if airtime is running out. Just look at the highly skilled interpreters used during and after boxing matches on HBO and Showtime, and check out this excellent article in The New York Times.  

Inside the Huddle: It's hard for athletes to describe what they were thinking during a sporting event. So why don't we cover more of the conversations they're having with their coaches and teammates in locker rooms, huddles, and meetings at the mound? I know. There's the fear of strategies and plays being given away to the other team; or worse, of the conversations actually being boring. But the reality is the opportunity far outweighs the risks. As the world of social media continues to grow, people are not just sitting on their coaches, yelling at the TV; they're joining fantasy leagues and  tweeting to the world what they think their teams must do to win. Wouldn't it be great if, with thirty seconds left in the game, we could always go into the huddle and listen to the coach explain the play to the team? Or, if during a tennis match, we could hear what the doubles players are saying to each other before each point? We already hear what the corner men tell boxers between each round. Getting that same access in other sports would make the coverage far more engaging.

Have Fun: Sporting events are entertainment. So why are athletes so serious all the time? Understandably, it's how they make a living and they need to be focused to excel. But now more than ever, that is not enough. Athletes need to be more like kids -- having fun, being honest, and not taking themselves too seriously. Whether it's Muhammad Ali, Allen Iverson, or Gael Monfils, it's those that are comfortable being themselves that create the most memorable moments. Instead of training athletes to offer cliched responses in interviews, teams need to encourage them to be more entertaining. It's not that hard; but it is so rare today that those interviews or performances that make the grade tend to go viral. And don't worry: athletes don't need to go as far as the Cincinnati Bearcats to have fun:)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Are We So Upset With Miley Cyrus?

Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter Miley.
Two days after MTV's Video Music Awards, the provocative performance of Miley Cyrus is still making headlines. I'm just wondering why.

She is not the first female singer to perform in a sexual manner; in fact, risque dancing is more the norm than the exception today. Salt N' Pepa, Madonna, and Britney Spears are just a few of the many artists who have used suggestive costumes and dancing in their musical performances. That's not even counting all of the men who push the boundaries in their work, often in even more explicit ways. If you need to see an example, watch singer Robin Thicke's video for "Blurred Lines." There is also an unrated version of his video you can find online.

So why has Miley been singled out? Do we think at the age of 20 she is too young to be performing like so many of her predecessors? Or was her dancing just too over the top for an event aimed at kids and teens? Both of these are fair points. But I think the biggest reason that we're expressing disgust at Miley is quite frankly ... because we can. The ubiquity of social media has provided everyone with a smartphone the opportunity to broadcast their opinions to the world. We live in an era where  the success of TV shows like "Fashion Police" depend on the quality of their insults, and where being snarky has become not only respected, but an art form. Gloating over other's misfortunes, or as you would say in German - schadenfreude - is not a new concept. But it is getting a whole new life and voice in our twerky world.     

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Toilet Paper Ads -- Brilliant or Full of ...?

To those who enjoy the bliss of the bathroom, an enjoyable read is just as important as a roll of bathroom tissue. And it is these two staples that seem to have inspired the creation of Star Toilet Paper: a startup that produces toilet paper with advertisements.

Since its founding in 2011, Star Toilet Paper has attracted a range of advertisers -- from restaurants to pet stores -- and received plenty of press (including a recent story in a New York Times blog). The toilet paper is free for merchants who use it in their bathrooms,  and the ads contain QR codes that customers can scan with their smartphones to receive digital coupons. But the company -- founded by brothers Jordan and Bryan Silverman -- hasn't generated much revenue over the past three years, according to The Times.

I suppose the reason is obvious: toilet paper is used to clean ourselves after going to the bathroom. No matter how clean a roll of toilet paper is, we associate it with its primary purpose. That's not to say that toilet paper ads don't spark conversation. At The Blue Note Grill in Durham, N.C., customers using the restrooms prefer the paper coupons over the the digital. “The toilet paper is a great gimmick for the restaurant,” the owner, Bill Whittington, told The Times. “On a busy night, we’ll see customers come out of the bathroom with a foot and a half of toilet paper, and everyone at the table will be looking at it."

The question is: what do they do with the toilet paper afterward? If they don't use it for a free dessert, I don't want to know. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Key Ingredients for a Great Corporate Bio

When you meet someone at a party, the first words you say are usually your name. And if you want to keep the conversation going, you talk a little about yourself: where you’re from, how you know the host(s), or what you do for a living. Should the process be any different when you visit a startup’s website?

To some degree, yes. After all, people visit a company’s website to find out more about its products or services, not its name. That process, though, should only take a few seconds. Immediately after, people will want to know who’s running the show.

There are many articles online about how to write a corporate bio, so I won’t bore you with them. I will just say that bios should be:
  • Short and achievement-based: Ideally a paragraph or two, and highlight specific achievements in your career that relate to your new company. For instance, if you’re creating a new social media site for donut shops, then you will want to talk about your visits to donut shops across the country, your popular blog about donuts, and your experience in small business and social media.
  • Relevant to your company: You don’t want to mention random information: that you love Star Trek, enjoy waterskiing, and have a wife, two daughters, and a dog (that is unless you are creating a social media site for families that eat donuts, in which case you’d want to talk about your family’s passion for donuts early in the bio). If you want everyone to know about your life outside of donuts – just include links to your social media profiles.
  • Feature a Current Photo: This is very important. You want people to know what you look like. It makes them feel connected to you and your company.
Want to learn more? Stay tuned for a future post where I will share some examples of outstanding donuts corporate bios. By the way, I like Boston Cream and Jelly without the powdered sugar.