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Journalism: Q&A with Frank Batten Sr. biographer Connie Sage


NORFOLK, Va. — Connie Sage, a former writer and editor for The Virginian-Pilot, has penned a biography of the late Frank Batten Sr., founder of The Weather Channel and known in these parts as the man who led The Pilot through some of its greatest journalism triumphs.

Batten became The Pilot‘s publisher in 1954 and chairman of Landmark Communications in 1967, serving until he turned the reins over to his son, Frank Batter Jr., in 1998. Frank Batten Sr. died in 2009.

Sage will discuss and sign copies of Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Prince Books downtown. In addition to her time in The Pilot newsroom, the Edenton, N.C., author also worked for the staff of Landmark Communications.

The following conversation took place Monday. It has been edited for clarity and length. For those readers who don’t know, I’m a former Pilot reporter. Full disclosure.

Again, the talk and signing is at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 18, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk, Va. Admission is free. There is metered street parking, nearby garage parking and a surface lot behind building with limited parking.

You should go, but please don’t park in in Pete Decker’s space unless you are Pete Decker.

Q: I hoped you could talk about your career as a reporter moving up to editor, and how you joined the corporate side of things.

That’s going back a ways. I started out as a reporter in December of ’77 in the Portsmouth office and then worked for several years in Portsmouth, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Then when The Pilot and (the now-defunct evening paper) The Ledger merged, I went out Chesapeake when we started The Clipper (a community tabloid published within The Pilot) office out there, and I was the assistant city editor working with Ron Speer, to whom the book is partially dedicated.

From there I came back into Norfolk. I was the commentary editor and then the metro editor, and then was the staff development and training director under (former Pilot editor) Cole Campbell. I kind of figured since I had one foot out of the newsroom, when they had set up their first communications director position, the first corporate communications position they had in many, many years … that I would take the elevator up one flight.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your job there?

I was director of corporate communications. We had Landmarks Magazine, which was the first magazine the company ever had, that went throughout the whole company, and I did a news of the week and press releases and whatnot. … After that, I was still doing that, but then I shifted over to a staff development and training role where I was recruiting both journalists and sales people. I retired in 2004.

Q: When I was a reporter starting out, I had a much different view of the folks running the show than maybe I did later at The Pilot. I wonder what were the impressions of Mr. Batten when you were first starting out? If you had any interaction with him?

Not much interaction. No more than most of us had. He was always a friendly person. You’d see him in the elevator in the Norfolk office. You rarely saw him if you worked in one of the bureaus. But he was always very easy to talk with.

When I went I went up to corporate it really was eye opening because I think many of us, or at least speaking for myself, as reporters, unless you’re covering business, I didn’t think much about the business side of business, and the business side of the media business, and, in particular, ours.

Q: I take it you got to know him a little bit more up there.

Yes. He had a wonderful sense of humor, very self-effacing, incredibly humble. His door was always open. You really could just walk in. I don’t think that’s the situation these days, but, then again, I haven’t been around in several years. Of course, he had some protective secretaries, but you could always just walk right in and if he wasn’t on the phone or something he’d be more than happy to talk with you.

I think he was an unusual person in that he believed leadership was the most important quality for business, and that you had to have the ability and the instincts and the desire to lead. You had to have a desire to win and you had to do the right think by setting a standard for ethical business practices. I wrote down a list of things that he had talked about, and unfortunately a lot of that got cut from the book. I’m going mention that in my talks.

He said a leader needs to have integrity, clarity of vision, a purpose you could understand and communicate, strong values, a strong team – and that means picking the right people and creating an environment where they can succeed, developing them, and letting them make mistakes. He was really one who could not abide by backbiting. … He was really big into trust, which he got from (his uncle and local newspaper magnate) Col. (Samuel) Slover. He was a sincere person. He was authentic. He had high integrity.

Q: He really built a paper that really reflected and led the community.

Absolutely.

Q: At what point did you realize that was the culture of The Pilot? What were his thoughts on why that was?

I think all papers strive to be. I just think it’s something that, the Landmark culture – and you and I don’t know what it’s like today. When I started writing this book, one of the things we started talking about – not with Frank, but within the media community – was that Landmark never had had any layoffs. And now all that’s changed, of course, with the economy, but it was a culture that I think was inculcated in us the minute we walked in the door.

Those who didn’t fit into that culture left on their own. Well, some may have lost their jobs or gotten fired, but most of them, if they didn’t fit in, left. And that might be maybe not being as competitive as some big city newspapers, but there was a sense of collegiality. …

It was kind of in the air. I don’t know if you felt it.

Q: I did.

And I think from talking to people, particularly when I was recruiting journalists really and the salespeople, it wasn’t that way other places. … It just seemed there was a higher calling. …

If there was one fault it was it was too paternalistic. It was too family oriented. By that I mean, dead wood was kept on when it shouldn’t have been, because it was Frank’s belief that trickled down through all the managers, I believe, that you took care of your people and you made it work. And he regretted that to a certain extent. He knew that was a mistake he had made by keeping some people on longer than he should have. Of course, that was at the top ranks. But he moved people around, senior managers, senior newspaper executives, and gave them different jobs. Which was helpful for them. No one was ever pigeon-holed into a spot.  Again, because Landmark never grew hugely like the major newspapers. It was a medium-sized, privately-held company, and I think that’s another distinction. …

There weren’t a lot of places for reporters, editors or senior managers to move up to. You might go from a community newspaper to a Roanoke (The Roanoke Times, Va.) or a Greensboro (The News & Record, N.C.), or from a Greensboro or a Roanoke to The Virginian-Pilot. That was it.

Q: The Weather Channel changed things a bit as far as the size of Landmark. I haven’t read the book, but the sense is he went into that venture with a kind of faith in what it might be. That success … did that change the culture at Landmark at all? I imagine it took some of the focus away from the flagship newspaper.

I don’t think it did. … That same culture permeated throughout The Weather Channel. I for one was always excited to say I worked for the company that owns The Weather Channel. Unless you were talking to somebody in the newspaper business that knew of paper like The Pilot … not that many people knew what Landmark was.

Frank Batten’s belief in bringing on the best people continued to The Weather Channel with Decker Anstrom, who he hired to run The Weather Channel and then brought him to be CEO of Landmark – that was under Frank Jr. …

I worked for the Syracuse newspaper, I worked for a trade newspaper in New York City, I worked on the Hill as a press secretary for a year – and it’s a lot different at other places.

Q: One of the things I have wondered is what The Pilot might look like now were Mr. Batten still in charge. Do you think we would have seen all of the layoffs and the reductions? Or is that too hard to tell?

It’s difficult to say. Possibly, just because no one has seen a combination of factors like we’re seeing now. It’s not just the downturn of the economy. It’s the whole ‘how do we make money when we’ve lost so much classified advertising’ and with the advent of the Internet.

Q: What do you think the big difference between his leadership and Frank Batten Jr.’s has been?

Frank Sr. was much more hands on. Frank Jr. is a delegator. Frank Sr. was passionate about the business. I don’t think Frank Jr. is, which doesn’t mean he isn’t a good businessman. I think what I saw was that, their personalities are opposite, but Frank Sr. was very outgoing and Frank Jr. is not. He’s more of an introvert.

But what Frank Jr. brought to the table that Senior did not, as you recall, was the whole adaptation of the Internet culture. Remember when he bought the Red Hat (stock), the famous quote about he tried to get his dad to buy some stock either for himself or for Landmark, I think it was for Landmark, and he did not. Frank Sr. said, ‘He got the Red Hat, I’ve got the red face.’

Frank Jr. was much more adaptable to the changing times. Now, would Frank Sr. eventually have been? It’s hard to tell. … They are very different, and the paper’s different for a lot of reasons.

Q: Where do you see The Pilot in five years?

Personally, I think there will always be a niche for community newspapers because people are still going to want … to see their kid’s Little League picture in the community newspaper. So I would think there will always be room for those. Now for dailies? Hard to tell. It may be what you and I both read that somebody will just want business pages sent to them. And will that be electronic? Who knows? The biggest problem for everybody is how do you make money now.

Q: One of the frustrations I have is I often talk to people who say, “Well, I get all of my news online.” I say to them, “How is TMZ covering the Norfolk City Council? I mean, how is TMZ investigating whether subdivisions in Chesapeake are built near fly ash?” And they don’t really think of that. The issue that I see coming from technology is it’s not that we need a local newspaper to write movie reviews. We need a local newspaper to go to the meetings and to do the stories about our community. Do you see something like that emerging from this?

It could be. I’m just going by what I read, the annual reports from news centers and whatnot. I mean, I read Poynter Online every day. I use myself as kind of an example. I’ve been, even though I’m pretty much at my house in North Carolina in Edenton, I’ve been living on a boat off and on for the last year, and we’re going to do it for another year. Backtracking, they stopped circulating The Virginian-Pilot where I live, and so the only way I can see The Pilot is online. And since I’m not here to get a physical paper – I was getting The Wall Street Journal – everything I read now, all the news, is online. We don’t have much access to a television, so all my news is coming from online. Do I prefer a newspaper? Absolutely.

Q: I think the legacy of Frank Batten Sr. in Hampton Roads is the newspaper. Nationally and internationally, of course, it’s the Weather Channel, and to people who are interested in business. … But The Pilot is the Slover family and the Batten family’s legacy here. I wonder what becomes of that legacy if we don’t have an outlet that can cover local news?

I would disagree with you about the legacy.

His legacy – it’s in the book – will be something called the Slover Trust, which was started with his aunt’s death. This is something started with his Aunt Fay Slover’s death. … We’re looking at 50 to 60 years from now, that money will begin to be distributed by the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. Depending on what happens with the economy and the world and the stock market, it could be worth billions and it could very well be the biggest in the country. Frank Batten Sr., because he was so self-effacing, he always said that was something the Slovers did, but that’s not really true. (I)t was Franks money that grew it.

That will be the legacy. It won’t be The Pilot. Just like all the other newspapers, television stations in town, they change. The names change. The Pilot’s been around a long time through the mergers and whatnot, but that will be the real legacy. That will be huge.

Q: I think about the future of local newsgathering organizations like The Pilot because TV stations don’t compare to what The Pilot does.

No. They sure don’t.

Q: I mean, is there a way to endow that? Or to kind of protect that core news gathering capability?

Boy, I don’t know. I agree with you about television stations, particularly in our area, though I don’t see them anymore. Landmark has two TV stations, as you are aware, one in Vegas and one in Nashville, and they are kick ass stations. Incredible award winning investigations that they do. And the future of The Pilot, look at Hamilton, 9½ years. (Former commonwealth Del. Phil Hamilton recently was sentenced on and extortion and bribery conviction, as discussed oh-so poetically here.) And all that’s because of (veteran investigative reporter)  Bill Sizemore’s stories. Even though the staff is probably half of what it used to be when we were there, or whatever the proportion is, and the resources have shrunk, and the paper’s smaller, we still have at The Pilot and, I guess, throughout the rest of Landmark, that sense of duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’m really proud of what The Pilot‘s doing. It’s wonderful.

And the stories that Corinne Reilly has been doing are just phoneomenal.

Q: Oh yeah. They’re great.

Where did she come from?

Q: Don’t know her. She came after I left, but she’s terrific.

Joanne Kimberlin. There’s some fabulous writers.

Q: Absolutely. So how did this book project start?

I was getting ready to retire early to write another book I wanted to do, and Dick Barry, who was working through Landmark historical, asked me if I wanted to do this. And I thought, ‘Well sure.’

It took a lot longer than I thought it was going to. It took a long time to interview Frank because of his limitations with his laryngectomy. Sometimes we’d meet three days a week for three hours at a time, or a couple times it would be with a couple weeks in between.

Q: Was he interested in the project?

Yes. He never saw it, intentionally. Never asked to. I might have run one or two things by him for accuracy, but the upside of that is I truly believe that because he was not one to – I mean, everyone has an ego – but his was so self-effacing that I think he would have changed a lot to give other people credit when the credit was really his. On the other hand, if there are errors, they’re not caught. He never asked to see it. I really enjoyed getting to know him as well as I did. He was really just a very lovely man.

One of the interesting things to me is he was a very closed person. At least with me … he certainly was never a raconteur, never volunteered stories. A lot of the answers were yes-no. (Laughs.) … And so it was just pulling things out of him. And I would ask him about how he felt about things and for the most part – except for The Weather Channel sale, which I really think did break his heart – he would say, ‘I can’t go that deep into myself.’ He could not or would not.

Where I’m coming full circle is that when I did see him being very profusely exuberant about something was about their dog. When he almost died, I think it was in 2000 he was in a coma, the daughter in California brought out a little black Scottish terrier. Well, this dog was the apple of his eye. He just loved this dog. … It was so interesting to see that side of him.

Q: So I’m clear, this project was funded through Landmark?

No, it was not. It was funded through the Norfolk Historical Society. I think there were contributions from Landmark people, but it was not a Landmark project. I have not been paid anything.

Q: That’s a big investment of time.

It was, but I wanted to be published, and it was a foothold to learn how to write a book. Because boy was it hard. I would have been lost without (former Pilot reporter and editor) Earl Swift.

Q: How do they feel about the final product?

I don’t know. … I think they’re okay with it. What I did not have access to were Frank’s personal papers in the house. And I don’t know how many there were. He was, and I probably should have put this in the book, he was disappointed, Frank Sr., that he never kept his own papers. There were a lot of boxes in The Pilot vault, and I would dig through those. That’s where I found some of the what I thought were the aha moments, like the letter from (the late publisher of The Washington Post) Katherine Graham, but his papers don’t exist. And if there’s any personal stuff at his house, I didn’t have access to it.

Q: What do you want readers to come away with when they read this book?

I think I want them to come away with what a virtuous man this was and how unusual a man it was, a business man, in this kind of climate and culture. …

What set him apart was his legacy, and that’s being an entreprenuer, being a leader, and of course you have to look at the Civil Rights movement in the area and how he took a lead on that … how unusual that was. How he took the lead in getting a four-year college in Norfolk, and became its first rector for two terms. And then secondly I would want people to know that here was a man who could have sat back, rested on his laurels … Even though he was this successful, he never stopped trying to prove himself to his uncle. Never. …

Because of several factors. Because his uncle (Slover) was so revered, so successful. He didn’t have his own father, and her was his uncle who was his father, his grandfather he was 54 when Frank was born; he moved in with him when he was one year old — he was his montor, as Frank pointed out. He used those terms. He was always trying to live up to him, just as I suppose Frank Jr. had to try to live up to Frank Sr. and try to fill those shoes.

Q: What are you working on next?

Well there’s kind of an esoteric one I want to work on. It’s about a 14th Century mystic named Julian of Norwich.

Visit this link for more information on the event at Prince. Information on Sage’s book can also be found at the University of Virginia Press site here at this link. And here’s a link to piece by Margaret Edds in The Pilot on the book.

And if you are interested in The Pilot, which still is an important paper despite all the challenges newspapers face, you might want to read The Pilot‘s ethics policy, which includes words from Frank Batten Sr. from the 1970s, in a statement called “The Duty of Landmark Newspapers.”

Among my favorite lines:

Newspapers live entirely on the bounty of the public. The ability of journalists to report and to comment is based upon a unique grant of freedom from the public. Thus our duty is clear: It is to serve the public with skill and character, and to exercise First Amendment freedoms with vigor and responsibility.

Our news reports should never be influenced by the private interests of the owners or of any other group. Our editorials should exhibit vigor and courage, always respectful of contrary opinion, never tailored to the whims of the editor or publisher.

And:

A great newspaper is distinguished by the balance, fairness and authority of its reporting and editing. Such a newspaper searches as hard for strengths and accomplishment as for weakness and failure. Rather than demoralize its community, the great newspaper will, by honest and intelligent journalism, inspire people to do better.

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Writing Craft, Vol. IV: Author and journalist Earl Swift


There's a world outside every darkened door/Where blues won't haunt you anymore/For the brave are free and lovers soar/Come ride with me to the distant shore/Here's a picture of Earl Swift/(Chorus) Life is a highway/I wanna ride it all night long/Photo by John Doucette

Back when Norfolk, Va., journalist and author Earl Swift was kind enough to participate in a mighty fun Belligerent Q&A here at the blog, I promised a more serious craft talk with him would follow.

This is it, starting below, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

His new film, in which anthropomorphic cars engage in an international spy adventure, has earned nearly $287 million at the international box office. This, despite the regrettable preproduction death of Paul Newman and the doubly regrettable continued involvement of Larry the Cable Guy, whose every utterance is the tonal reproduction of the sound a banshee makes when kicked in the throat. Oh, wait.

Yeah, I’m think of that new Pixar money grab. Swift wrote a terrific book that is 100 percent Larry the Cable Guy free.

His The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, had its latest strong review in The New York Times this weekend.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is also author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia. The Big Roads also has received favorable reviews in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

And, by way of full disclosure, Swift and I are friends. Without further ado …   

Q: Can you talk about how (The Big Roads) came about? What got you interested in the interstate system as a history?

Well, I’ve always loved road trips, and I’ve always been a bit of a techno-geek; I could identify most airliners by name, model number and manufacturer by the time I was ten, and could ID close to every tank used in World War II at 11 or 12. I could name pretty much every country on a globe, too. Some kids play sports; I memorized cubic yards of weird, arcane, seemingly useless crap.

I was fascinated to learn, at about the time I was perfecting my knowledge of tanks, that the interstate system boasted a numbering protocol, and I made it my business to commit some of the principal routes and numbers to memory. This was completely extraneous to my needs: I was years from getting my driver’s license; even when I got it, knowing such stuff came in handy only once in a very great while. Mostly, it occupied brain space that I would have done well to reserve for other matters. Calculus, for instance.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m watching a TV meteorologist serve up the morning weather, and I notice that his map of the Lower 48 has been reduced to its barest essentials—a few cities, the boundaries of the various states. And lastly, the interstate highways. At one point, any national map would have included principal rivers and mountain ranges. No longer: It features no topography at all.

It strikes me that I’ve come to see the country the same way, as a grid of high-speed roads. And that ushers a chain of mini-epiphanies: In the supermarket, I realize I can buy fresh asparagus and clementines and strawberries the year round; that a widescreen TV sells for about the same price in North Platte, Neb., say, as it does in New York; that Virginia Beach, the ultimate bedroom community, a quiltwork of subdivisions that covers a couple hundred square miles, was swamp and truck farms until the 1970s. Superhighways — the efficiency and ease of movement they offer — are the reason for all.

Not long after, I’m talking to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, an incredibly smart and gifted guy named Eamon Dolan. He’s been reading a proposal of mine in which I’ve pitched an entirely different book, and suggests that I instead tackle the interstates. It occurs to me that I’ve been preparing for the story. So I say: ‘OK.’

Q: There’s a great deal of history that coincides with your present-day reporting in Journey on the James, Where They Lay, and now (to some extent) this project, as well as some of your narrative features for The Pilot. What is it that draws you to history?

Living in Virginia, and especially in Norfolk — which has been settled since the 17th Century, and where every piece of property has been used and reused several times over — it’s hard to ignore the notion that our individual stories are part of a greater, never-ending narrative, and that each individual story is affected by those that came before and reverberates in some way to affect what comes after.

I find it reassuring, this idea that we’re all connected through time — that the environment in which we pass our days in 2011 is no accident, but the sum of human enterprise over centuries. And that each of us, however big or small our lives might seem, leaves a mark.

Q: This clearly was a very research and reporting-intensive project. Would you please talk about how you began this process? How did you determine where to gather records, and what was that process like?

In that it was Eamon’s idea, I had to figure out what the story was — like most Americans, I assumed that the interstates were a product of the Eisenhower administration, and that they were largely a civil defense project. It took about 18 months to figure out that they really dated to the 1930s, and were based on ideas that harkened a lot further back than that.

I started by reading everything I could get my hands on that had been published before, from Caro’s The Power Broker to Phil Patton’s Open Road to Jane Fisher’s Fabulous Hoosier. From there, I moved on to academic journals, then magazines. I was well aware that a book about an inanimate object, no matter how huge or compelling that object might be, wasn’t going to fly, so most of that early research was aimed at identifying a handful of characters through whom I could tell the object’s story.

Eventually, I had four main players. Carl Fisher, a wild man from Indianapolis, would get things started: In 1912, he proposed the first coast-to-coast motor road, the Lincoln Highway, and in so doing inspired the creation of a primitive, mostly dirt web of privately sponsored ‘auto trails’ in the teens and early twenties — the country’s first interstate road network. Thomas MacDonald, a preternaturally uptight engineer who led the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, turned that network into a rational, numbered system in the late 1920s, then oversaw the research and assembled the policy that yielded the concept of interstate expressways in the late 1930s. Frank Turner, MacDonald’s quiet, teetotaler protégé, took that concept and translated it into concrete and steel in the 1950s and 1960s. And Lewis Mumford, a writer and amateur urban planner, was among the first proponents of what we now know as limited-access superhighways, then evolved into their harshest critic — and in both roles helped shape what we got.

I fleshed out all four through their papers, which are kept by university libraries scattered around the country, and through their families, who supplied me with letters, photos and such. I wound up with more than 10 cubic feet of papers.

I didn’t settle on the last main character, a Baltimore homeowner named Joe Wiles, until six months before I finished the first draft. I knew I needed a character who represented the thousands forced from their homes when interstate highway construction ventured into America’s cities, but considered several cities as the setting for that drama before settling on Baltimore. Even then, I had another character in mind — Barbara Mikulski, now a U.S. senator, who by reputation helped lead the fight against the concrete juggernaut. The senator’s staff repeatedly promised that I’d get face time with her, and repeatedly failed to deliver. That turned out to be a favor to me: My research was to show me that her leadership of the fight has been overstated. In her place, I chose Wiles, who was in the thick of Baltimore’s ‘Road Wars’ from the start.

Q: I’ve always been impressed at your early research. What I mean is, you seem to have always done a lot of homework before picking up the phone to do interviews or heading to a location to report or pull records. Can you talk about preparation and planning in reporting?

Interviewing is an organic process. The more you know, the better your questions will be, and the better your subject’s answers will be — which will yield better follow-up questions, and enable the two of you to get into territory you’d never reach if you, the reporter, came into the conversation knowing nothing.

But beyond that, it’s a question of respect. You’re asking somebody to give you something you want but don’t have. It establishes that you value that gift, and that you’re serious about putting it to its fullest possible use, when you’ve done your homework beforehand. Fail to do it, and you broadcast to your subject that he or she is of little importance to you.

I’ve heard some journalists say they don’t prep ahead of an interview because they don’t want to be ‘tainted’ by research. I think anyone who suggests that winging it beats preparation is a fool.

Q: Could you talk about how you organized the narrative? Did you do a lot of outlining? Did you plan out the ways you foreshadow some of the events that take place later in the narrative, such as the events in Baltimore, or does that tend to take shape naturally?

I did do a lot of outlining. I’m a bit of a freak for structure: I believe that it dictates whether a story works. The skeleton is key: Pretty words are all well and good, but they’re like nice skin — they can’t obscure the presence of ugly bones.

This book’s structure morphed substantially over the three drafts I took it through. Initially, I had all five main characters making their first appearances early on, and kept the narrative threads braiding through the whole story. My editors at Houghton, who were terrific, suggested that instead I should introduce each character at the point at which he reached prominence. I wound up with a hybrid of the two structures, in that I had some of the characters make cameos ahead of their full-on entries.

At one point, I was all but committed to using Washington, D.C., as my setting for the freeway revolt. I liked the idea that the protests there occurred within sight and earshot of the guys pushing the highways into town. But Baltimore came to make more sense to me, because it was the example that the Bureau of Public Roads used, back in the 1930s, of a city that would benefit from the interstates — and as things turned out, it’s one of the few major cities in the country that is not penetrated by them.

Q: You demonstrate very clearly that Eisenhower was not the father of the interstate system, and that thought is a kind of mythology. Was this something you understood going in, or did it come in your research? Have you had any feedback on this aspect of the book? It seems like something that would be widely known to engineers, let less so in popular memory of the interstate system.

I didn’t understand it going in; the research made it plain. It’s funny: A good many highway engineers know of Toll Roads and Free Roads, the 1939 report that served as a rough draft for the interstates. They know of Interregional Highways, the report that amounts to an actual blueprint of the system, and in response to which Congress authorized the network in 1944. Still, if you were to ask them, whether employed by the federal government or the states, who is most responsible for the system, a bunch would answer, ‘Eisenhower.’

Q: The placement of this discussion isn’t exactly a revelation, as it is mentioned briefly early on (7), but it’s meat comes roughly 150 pages in, after you have demonstrated the fathers of the system – “career technocrats” – laying out the groundwork. That was an interesting choice that seemed very natural when I reread the selection in the context of the earlier chapters. Then you reinforce it at least two or three times by noting Ike’s absences on major policy events involving the highways.  Can you talk about how you determine what information supports what is a fairly major point, and how you decided to lay it out within the text?

Insofar as this is the story of how the highways came to be, and not a hatchet job on Ike, I didn’t see much need to burden the reader with an opening rant over his being given unjust credit for the interstates early on. I laid out the story in a fairly straight, chronological line, and built a case for who really authored the system simply by relating their acts in the order they occurred; by the time you come to Ike, it’s quite apparent that he’s arrived too late to play a substantial role.

Q: One cost of the highway system in urban areas was the removal of people in slums and struggling neighborhoods to make way for roads. You mention this issue throughout the book, even stressing that urban renewal efforts involving highways target neighborhoods but fail to address the human toll. One of you most compelling examples of the human cost is in Baltimore, where the effect of a planned highway is shown through a middle class black community. What led to this choice? What was it about Joe Wiles and the Rosemont community that led you to use them to illustrate a larger point?

The main argument for Baltimore, from a storytelling standpoint, is that it was the hometown of Herbert Fairbank, who wrote the bulk of Toll Roads and Free Roads and was the ideological brains behind the interstate system. Fairbank used Baltimore in the report as an example of a central city wasting in blight, choked by traffic on colonial-era streets, and losing population and influence to its suburbs—then proposed that encircling the city with a beltway and penetrating its heart with a spray of radial expressways might not only unclog its arteries, but provide a handy tool for clearing slums.

Baltimore was thus the first city of the interstate age, the test case. For my purposes, it was all to the better that it’s also a pretty cranky place, and that the interstates envisioned for it were met with 30 years of protest so harsh that the plans were ultimately abandoned.

Q: Were you aware of Thomas MacDonald and the role he played shepherding the interstate system before you worked on the book?

I’d never heard of the guy.

Q: Though you discuss the shortcomings of engineers behind the system, and unintended consequences of the system, you seem to have an appreciation for Frank Turner, who lost property to a highway and simply accepted that his parents would have to move for a road project – and never used this fact to gain favor or understanding in his role with the system. And then there’s a really poignant moment toward the end of the book that I don’t want to spoil for those who have not read it. Turner, as much as anyone in the book, seems fully realized as a character within the narrative – yet he is someone dramatically different and perhaps harder to bring to life than a showman and businessman such as Carl Fisher. How did you find these stories in your reporting and decide how to deploy them?

As you suggest, Fisher was easy—the guy was a total maniac, each of his ventures bigger and scarier than the last, his every word grist for the newspapers. He was way beyond a risk-taker; he could be downright reckless. That said, he was no dummy, and he had great instincts. I had a lot of fun digging into his past.

Writing about someone who lives a comparatively quiet and careful life is always tougher. Frank Turner was especially so, because he was so damn good — a man whose heart was almost always in the right place, and who didn’t think too much of himself, and who was a loving and responsible husband and father, and who was good at his job and decent to the people who worked for him.

Lucky for me, he left a hell of a paper trail, along with three children and a large number of friends and colleagues I was able to interview. He also sat for several long interviews, the transcripts of which were in his papers at Texas A&M. They were invaluable.

Creating a real character out of him — and of Thomas MacDonald, for that matter — relied on inculcating the reader with an engineering mindset. I hope I was able to pull that off. Engineers get a bad rap as overly sober, numbers-driven, careful. The best of them are, in fact, enormously creative. They’re puzzle-solvers.

Q: I understand you have some magazines stories in the works, as well as another book. Will you please talk about what you’re working on?

I’m halfway through a book about a local man named Tommy Arney, and his struggle to restore an old car. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t like to talk up a project until it’s farther along. I have another book in the outlining stage that’s completely unrelated to cars or transportation — it’s set in the Deep South in the 1910s and 1920s.

Besides that, I’ve been writing for Popular Mechanics and doing a lot of radio interviews. Not least, by any means, I’ve been finishing an MFA in nonfiction at Goucher College; I’ll be heading up to Baltimore to collect my degree in August. What a great program. I’m going to miss it.

After that, I hope, I’ll be back to writing full-time.

You can find out a bit more about Swift here at this link to his site.

And I urge you to pick up The Big Roads. It’s a great read.

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Fortune winners, runners up will remain on display at Kerouac Cafe


Citizens of earth encounter 2011 Fortune Cookie of the Damned fortune writing contest entries on the walls of Kerouac Cafe, Norfolk, Va.

The exhibit of 2011 Forfune Cookie of the Damned fortune writing contest will stay up at Kerouac Cafe in Norfolk, Va., through most of July, not just a week, as I’d initially thought.

I found out during an informal gathering last night at Kerouac, 617 W. 35th St., Norfolk. No formal end date, but they’ll be up a couple more weeks than anticipated.

First place winner Gary Potterfield was not in the area. Third place winner Christopher Scott-Brown was not available. But second place winner Will Harris was on hand to get his prizes.

A brief video of the festivities follows, and you can see winners and runners up at this link to the earlier post on the contest:

Many thanks again to those who offered donations, discounts, and/or other considerations for the prizes: Prince Books, Naro Expanded Video, Kerouac Cafe, Local Heroes, Mike D’Orso, and Earl Swift.

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Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, reads Thursday at Prince Books


Norfolk, Va., author Earl Swift on Thursday will read, take questions, and sign copies of his new book,
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

The event is 7 p.m., Thursday, June 30, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk.

Also, on Wednesday, June 29, Swift is scheduled to do an hour with Hampton Roads radio personality Tony Macrini on Newsradio 790 AM WNIS. Swift expects to be on at 9 a.m.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is a journalist and author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.

The Big Roads has received favorable reviews from Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, Patrick Cooke in The Wall Street Journal, and in The Pilot. It also is among the summer reading “treats” listed by the Charlotte Observer. Some other reviews are forthcoming this summer.

Said Swift:

This has been an unusual experience for me. I’ve never had a book get this much attention.

For what it’s worth, that may be because it’s freaking terrific. Finished it last week. Highly recommended.

For those interested in inspired silliness, Swift recently participated in a Belligerent Q&A that can be found at this link, the most popular Q&A to date here. I hope to have more with Swift at the blog in the near future.

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Language, lines and listening


The following post isn't really about Ted Danson, but it is kind of/sort of, and people seem to like looking at the man, so here is a picture of him. Photo by John Doucette.

This post is about priorities, if you bear with it.

As both who read this blog know, the actor and activist Ted Danson and Norfolk, Va., author Mike D’Orso recently spoke and signed books at Prince Books. The talk was moved across the street from Prince to the Selden Arcade in downtown Norfolk due to anticipate demand. Good thing. Nice turnout.

Danson and D’Orso are authors of Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. I’ve written about the book and D’Orso before, and previous posts can be found here. The book’s website is here, and you can find links to some nice interviews with Danson there.

I’m not really going to get into the talk here, but I want to share two experiences – one I had, and one someone else had – the day Danson and D’Orso spoke.

In one case, a guy did not understand the concept of a line for the book signing.

By the line, I mean a formation of human being as a mutually agreed-to organizing principle amid a common activity. This is the third most important thing that distinguishes us from the beasts. The first two most important things are (1) language and (2) counting. And let me just list them with a couple other priorities for perspective:

  1. Language
  2. Counting
  3. The line
  4. Thumbs
  5. Isabella Rossellini

This is not to say language and counting are all that superior than the line. An argument could be made that we have language and counting mostly to tell people what number they are in the line. A sad, sad argument.

But say a line jumper gets snippy, you give them the thumbs as a way of demonstrating where they should be in the line. That’s a benefit of thumbs. I’m not about to get into doorknobs here, but certainly thumbs matter there. Also getting a pickle out of a jar. And so you have something to sit on during business meetings. Thumbs: another topic for another day.

The Isabella Rossellini thing is just and oh-by-the-way. Maybe you show them a picture of her to try to calm them down. I don’t know how the lady works, but she works.

So back to the guy and the line.

Lucy Couch, who works at Prince Books and is married to my fellow Old Dominion University Creative Writing MFA-er Ian Couch, apparently had to deal with a disgruntled gentleman with an implied past military affiliation, and an aversion to waiting his turn.

As I understand it, Lucy used language and indicated counting, but the guy wouldn’t have it. Dude just wanted a moment with Ted Danson. Right then. So if this disgruntled guy really had a past military affiliation, I’m amazed he couldn’t out-wait a little line or, say, buy a book maybe on account of it being a book signing at what is a book store, not some subsidized program to bring a bit more Danson to the masses.

This line simply was not some soul-crushing thing. When I was in the service, I’m pretty sure I waited in longer lines to eat chow more than once. And if I tried to jump the chow line? Out came language and thumbs.

Overall, this was a really cool line, with more folks seemingly interested in the environment than they were in how Danson used to be on a TV show called Cheers. Even the guy who asked about a Cheers reunion didn’t belabor it. Much. And some of us were there for D’Orso. This is Norfolk. He’s our guy.

So some guy was a jerk, and Lucy had to deal with it. Lucy held her ground, and he split.

Yay Lucy.

Boo some guy.

That’s the part that happened to someone else. Next is what happened to me.

Earlier, I’d ducked into a business. Through the mutual application of language, two seasoned gents learned where I was going and promptly busted Ted Danson’s chops for a prediction or statement he made many years ago about the oceans’ future – one Danson addresses in the book, by the way. And the men, as though channeling the talk radio drones that ripped into Danson at the time, had a nice laugh.

Though, to be fair, they liked him on Cheers. And Damages.

This reminded me that when I’d read Will Harris’ piece for The Virginian-Pilot on the D’Orso-Danson event at Prince, a couple of online commenters had raised the same points that spoke nothing of the merits of the science Danson is trying to put forward for our consideration.

Now, look: if you’re from Hampton Roads, you know that encountering the reader comments at Pilotonline.com should only be done in a cautionary way, to remind one to drive defensively.

Some of those people own cars.

But it also reminded me that there are a lot of people who seem to exist only to belittle ideas.

To some people, your words are useless and they don’t want to see the math. They don’t give a damn about lines, whether they exist for a reason, right or wrong. They want what they want when they want it, and they don’t care where it comes from, how it was gotten, and what it costs in the long term for short-term gain. You can point them to reality and they’ll say you don’t have the right to give them the thumbs.

What’s left? Help us, Isabella Rossellini – you’re our only hope?

I don’t know that a book changes how some folks are, no more than a silly blog post. I’ll read what Danson and D’Orso wrote, and so will some others, but I already make decisions about my seafood and where I shop and so forth. Maybe I’ll make better ones. Maybe not.

But I’ll try to keep an open mind. I wish more people would try. Ignorance, as it has been said, is not a sustainable position.

Some won’t consider that there’s any value to regulating overfishing by commercial fleets and protecting coastal environments and what have you because, well, they just won’t. At that point, they’re not in a conversation but in a bunker.

I’m kidding around when I say some actress is one of the key things that separates us from the beasts, and my list above, admittedly, is 99 percent bunk. But I’m convinced that language is the key to our humanity, both the written and spoken words. How we add to the pile of existing language defines us.

Part of that is listening. We need to understand the disagreement and the common ground before we speak and write. If we aren’t willing to listen to others, if we always put ourselves first, we can’t communicate. That means we’re incapable of collaboration and compromise for the common good.

That’s inhuman, and it’s scary that any of us find that condition acceptable. It’s even scarier that we sometimes don’t even realize we are actively refusing to hear truths that challenge our own.

P.S. Why can’t we count on Isabella Rossellini alone? She’s busy with um, specific topics, and the following video is (a) nutty and (b) probably not safe for work.

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Ted Danson reschedules Norfolk appearance at Prince Books


I never wanted to be a photo cutline. I just wanted to be close to Norfolk, Va., author Mike D'Orso. Photo by John Doucette.

It’s back on, baby.

Ran into Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko this evening in Norfolk, Va., where it is always sunny except when it is not, and she said Ted Danson is scheduled to come to Norfolk next month. And so it’s sunny again.

As you may recall, Danson had to cancel a planned visit in support of his recent writing project with local writer Mike D’Orso, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.

Danson was called away suddenly to battle the Yakuza, all of it at once, with his mighty anti-Yakuza Level 5 Power Handsome. Or he had to do some voice work for a cartoon. Okay, the latter is what discerning readers might call true.

Still, why do you hire the Danson and hide the handsome behind cartoon hijinks? Hollywood has been so confused ever since it went to the talkies.

D’Orso also sent out an email announcement this evening. And, so doing, he confirmed my crack reporting, which involved going to a store and running into somebody. Eat it up, Columbia J-School – two sources in a blog post! That’s like a hat trick, but with two things instead of three. Or a double threat. Because you can’t fight math.

D’Orso wrote:

We now have a new date and time set for Ted Danson to come and join me (and all of you – those can make it) in a discussion/signing of our book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. The event will, as before, be held at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, on Saturday, May 14, at 12 noon. As before, Ted will only be signing copies of the book (no other memorabilia).

Amusingly, D’Orso signed off in his email thusly:

Hope you can make it. It should be fun. – Mike D.

Amusing because Danson recently guested in the Beastie Boys video at this link, which is not safe for work unless your corporate pissing contests are a wee splash more than figurative. One of the Beastie Boys calls himself Mike D. Maybe that’s not really amusing, but it’s enough of a coincidence for me to get out of this post without bringing up the Yakuza again.

Anyway, the discussion and book signing starts at noon, Saturday, May 14, at Prince, 109 E. Main St., at the corner of E. Main Street and Martins Lane. If you head to Prince, there’s metered street parking and a couple city garages within easy walking distance. There’s also some free parking in the TowneBank lot behind the building on the Martins Lane side.

Previous posts with D’Orso can be found here. The book’s website is here. D’Orso’s website is here.

A glimpse of Danson in the Beastie video follows in this potty-mouth trailer:

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UPDATED: Ted Danson coming to Norfolk for talk with Mike D’Orso


During a recent reading at Borjo Coffeehouse in Norfolk, Va., author Mike D'Orso points out something in a book he is holding. The microphone pretends to understand, but the microphone has a painful secret — illiteracy. Photo by John-Henry Doucette.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 27

It’s back on, baby. Ran into Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko this evening in Norfolk, Va., where it is always sunny except when it is not, and she said Ted Danson is scheduled to come to Norfolk next month. And so it’s sunny again.

And you may recall, Danson had to cancel a planned visit this month to promote his writing project with local writer Mike D’Orso.

Danson was called away suddenly to battle the Yakuza, all of it at once, with his mighty anti-Yakuza Level 5 Power Handsome. Or do some voice work for a cartoon. Okay, the latter is what you might call true.

Mike D’Orso also sent out an email announcement this evening. D’Orso wrote:

We now have a new date and time set for Ted Danson to come and join me (and all of you – those can make it) in a discussion/signing of our book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. The event will, as before, be held at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, on Saturday, May 14, at 12 noon. As before, Ted will only be signing copies of the book (no other memorabilia).

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 19

Ted Danson has postponed his visit, according to Prince Books.

Prince hopes to have a new date to announce in the next week.

Mike D’Orso, in an email announcement, said Danson had to do a movie shoot:

Ted was extremely apologetic and we will set a new date soon. Sorry to all for the inconvenience. But rest assured he is still coming.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 9

Welcome back to the blog that does little more than tell lame jokes about blood-spitting rock’n’roll bass players repping high-end insurance products and walk-up whatever Norfolk, Va., author Mike D’Orso is doing. Look, it’s a niche. When you see one, you gotta carve it out before James Franco does.

A while back, I wrote about D’Orso’s collaboration with Ted Danson, Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them, published this past month by Rodale Books. D’Orso — he’s a friend, full disclosure — recently did a reading and Q&A at Borjo. It was great stuff, but it was light on Danson.

Now D’Orso says Danson is headed to Hampton Roads for an appearance at Prince Books, one of the last independent bookstores in these parts. A discussion and book signing starts at 1 p.m., Saturday, April 23, at Prince, 109 E. Main St., at the corner of E. Main Street and Martins Lane.

D’Orso, via email, said:

We’re going to have a nice casual sit-down conversation for the first half, then open the floor to any and all questions not pertaining to ‘Cheers,’ ‘Damages’ or ‘Bored to Death.’

So fire up those Becker, Body Heat and Three Men and a Little Lady questions.

Just kidding. Maybe just stick to ocean acidification, commercial fishing and so forth. Though if you want to ask something cheap — say along the lines of Apparently our planet’s oceans are endangered; what can we do to save them? — it’s been done. Got there first, didn’t I, Franco?

Regarding Danson, D’Orso added:

He – and I, if people want it – will then sign books before I toss him back in my Camry and drive him back to the airport.

And while you’re at Prince, maybe you could buy some books. It’s National Poetry Month. Twenty percent off poetry. Not bad, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you head to Prince, there’s metered street parking and a couple city garages within easy walking distance. There’s also some free parking in the TowneBank lot behind the building on the Martins Lane side.

Please don’t park in Pete Decker’s space. It simply is not done.

Nothing left to say, so it’s boilerplate time:

Here’s a link to info on the Danson-D’Orso book.

Here’s a link to a recent video interview with and story on D’Orso by The Daily Press.

Here’s a link to D’Orso’s site.

Here’s a link to a James Franco fansite run by a lady named Vanessa, who will pay or already has paid good money to see Your Highness.

Finally, here’s an absolutely pointless link to the very post you are reading right now.

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Mike D’Orso book signing Wednesday in Norfolk


Norfolk, Va., writer Mike D’Orso will discuss and sign copies of his new book this week at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University.

D’Orso, an award-winning author and formerly a journalist with The Virginian-Pilot, collaborated with the actor and environmental activist Ted Danson to pen Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. It was published by Rodale Books earlier this month.

The event is being held by Prince Books, a terrific bookstore in downtown Norfolk that for years has supported local writers – even when we haven’t had anything to sell.

Prince Books is one of the best things about downtown Norfolk. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

The discussion and signing is at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 30, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. That’s at the corner of W. 45th Street and Monarch Way. Pretty much all of the parking around there is metered before 8 p.m., so bring a couple of quarters.

As regular readers of this blog may recall – love you, Mom – Mike spoke with me for a couple of posts earlier this month, including guest starring in the inaugural edition of the inexplicably and, let’s face it, only relatively popular Belligerent Q&A feature.

Also a more serious discussion on one of his great journalism stories can be found here.

Hope to see you Wednesday at Borjo.

They have coffee and grownup bevs for sale. Just throwing that in there.

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