My larger-than-life friend Mike Altenberg, gone too soon

Mike Altenberg and I met when we were 10 years old or so. We'd both joined the YMCA Boys Choir
Photo courtesy Mike Altenberg's Facebook page
in our hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, and for a variety of reasons (he was a tad chubby, I was a loner) we were both outcasts of sorts, so we stuck together in that way that 10-year-old boys do when they feel like they're a little different from everyone else around them.

We were an odd pair. He came from an affluent Jewish family, I was middle class and Methodist. He could be outgoing, even brash. I was, by comparison, the introvert. In our early days in the choir a lot of the other boys mistook Mike's confidence for arrogance, and teased him. I stuck by him, not out of any sense of altruism but because even at that age I somehow knew I'd found a kindred spirit. For the better part of the next two decades, we were the best of friends.

Through our tweens and teens and young adulthood, we made all of the mistakes and did all of the stupid and wonderful things typical of our age and gender. What I remember most is how fun it all was, and how that was almost always because of Mike. Even from the time I first met him, he was brilliant and funny and acerbic and irreverent in a way that few people are. He could also be cutting and (frequently) profane and profoundly irritating at times, but even though he abhorred sentimentality he he was possessed of a warmth and a bigness of heart that was rare.

Even through the fog of the intervening decades, I have so many memories of our times together. One night when we were in our early teens we sneaked into a theater to see "The Exorcist" with a group of older boys. When we got home to Mike's cavernous house his parents were out for the evening. It was eerily quiet, and we were both creeped out from the film, but of course, boys being boys, we couldn't admit as much to one another. So we stayed up most of the night watching any boring TV show we could find to keep from having to go to sleep and - god forbid - dream about Linda Blair spewing green pea soup. And this was in the days before 500 cable channels, so when I say boring, I mean boring. I distinctly remember us watching some entirely obscure tennis match at about 3 a.m., both trying to convince the other how fascinating it was. Scared? Not us.

But the problem with recounting such moments is that they are stripped of their context, the context being Mike. Trying to convey my times with Mike is a bit like trying to re-enact an old Monty Python sketch; if you can't convey the larger-than-life character of say, John Cleese, it invariably loses something in the translation. And Mike was just such a larger-than-life person. As any of his friends will attest, Mike was one of those people you just had to know.

Of course, friendships, like everything else, wax and wane with time, and as our twenties turned into our thirties Mike and I slowly but surely lost touch. He became an accomplished and deservedly renowned chef in Chicago, and I pursued a career in journalism on the east coast. We both married, had kids, and did all the wonderful things typical of our age.

And then, this morning, Mike's sister Lisa messaged me on Facebook to say he had died. Mike, a person who was more full of life than just about anyone I've ever known, was gone.

Now, I could write something pseudo-poetic here about a part of my childhood being gone, but that was gone a long time ago, and anyway I keep imagining Mike looking over my shoulder and grinning and saying something like, "give me a break, man. What a load of maudlin crap." (He wouldn't have said crap, but you get the idea.)

Instead what I'm going to say is this: It's not the loss of the past that's so crushing, but the loss of the future, his future. And I'm angry that Mike won't get to do all the wonderful things that people typically do in their fifties and sixties and seventies. I'm angry because my best friend's story has ended too soon.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I stuck by Mike, and that's true. Both of us went through some tough times as we made the transition from boys to young men, and I always tried to, as they say, be there for him.

But what I didn't say was how Mike stuck by me, that he was at least as good a friend to me as I ever was to him. And even though we hadn't talked in years, Mike had messaged me on Facebook a few months back and said he'd like to get back in touch. I messaged him back, but nothing came of it. We were both busy, too busy to notice that precious time was passing. I kept thinking we'd get together again, that maybe we'd spend some time in our fifties or sixties just hanging out. Maybe have a few beers, and a few laughs.

So more than anything I'm angry at myself for not picking up the phone or sending a letter. And when the anger subsides I sit in my chair in front of the computer, staring at the screen, a middle-aged man who has just lost something whose meaning he can't yet quite fathom, a grown man whose shoulders are shaking as he wipes away something that's gotten into his eyes.

Too maudlin? Sorry, old friend. Just this once, I had to say it.

Finding Memories of 9/11 in a Walk Through a Neighborhood Park

Part of the Garden of Reflection Park (photo by Sean Rogers)

Where was I when the planes hit the towers?

In a classroom at the community college where I teach journalism. I had a news website projected onto the wall, with a live shot of the north tower belching smoke. When it became clear that this was no accident, I told my students to grab their reporter's notebooks, fan out across the campus and start interviewing anyone and everyone they could. We'd need stories for the student newspaper.

They filed out, and I sat there alone for a moment, watching the image on the screen. Somehow, the sight of a skyscraper sliced through by a jet wasn't what was most frightening, probably because the idea of it was still so beyond comprehension.

No, what was most disturbing, what brought home the magnitude of what had happened at that point was the fact that the federal government had ordered every jet in the nation's skies grounded. Every jet.

I called my wife, who works in Philadelphia. "Stay away from any federal buildings," I told her. "And Independence Hall. And the Liberty Bell. Come home."

A few weeks after the attacks I organized a marathon reading of obituaries of those killed, taken from the pages of The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. On a warm, sunny day much like 9/11 itself, dozens of students lined up at a podium in the college's quad to take part. Many wept as they read, not just out of a sense of shared grief but because they knew someone who had been killed. After all, 18 of the victims came from Bucks County, our county. Nine were from our little town.

I concluded the event by reading not an obit but a column by Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon, penned just days after the attacks. In it, Bill ruminated on how the term "hero" is so loosely applied to pro athletes:

I don't mean that we should not have a proper appreciation of our athletes and of their astonishing skills.

Only that hero is a word to be bestowed with extra care.

These last few days, the rubble has been filled with them.

In their memory, we go on.

It was the single most moving piece I've read about 9/11.

The following spring my students and I organized a forum on news coverage of the attacks. The panelists included journalists from The New York Times and the Daily News, NBC News and Fox. Steve Capus, then the executive producer of the "NBC Nightly News," told the audience how producers had to censor much of the footage from that day because camera operators kept inadvertently capturing footage of people jumping to their deaths from the towers. News reports estimated that as many as 200 people jumped, rather than die from the smoke and flames.
Such footage could never be aired, Capus said.

Charlie LeDuff of The Times was asked what he did when he first arrived at the scene of destruction that came to be known as Ground Zero.

"I put down my notebook and picked up a shovel," he said.

I didn't personally know anyone killed in the attacks, and I can only imagine the pain of those who lost loved ones. But like everyone else I was changed by that day. For a time I tacked to the right politically, and was bullish on nearly anything our government could do to bring the terrorists to justice. When a friend from New Zealand visited we argued about the war in Iraq. I was trying to explain to him what 9/11 was like, what it meant to be attacked that way, and suddenly I heard myself saying:

"We thought the world was coming to an end."

But the world hadn't ended. It went on, and so did we. Months passed, then years. As my kids got older we tried to explain 9/11 to them, in bits and pieces, when they asked. We tried to make sense of something that made no sense, then or now.

And like, I suspect, many others, we were always torn between needing to remember and wanting to forget. For months I made an evening ritual of reading The Times' "Portraits of Grief," the paper's attempt to eulogize every soul lost that day. Somehow I felt I owed it to those people to know their stories.

Then one day I simply stopped. I just couldn't do it any more.

Likewise, my wife and I watched any number of 9/11 documentaries the first few years after the attacks. But more recently the DVD of "United 93," the film about the flight where passengers literally fought the hijackers to the death, has gathered dust on a shelf. We bought it, every year or so we think about watching it, and every time we decide on something else.

These days, when I think about 9/11, I take a walk. There's a park a stone's throw from our house with footpaths, benches and a grove of young oak trees. At the center of the park there's a fountain with twin jets of water representing the two towers, and around the fountain, etched in rounded glass panels, are the names of those from our county who died, including Victor Saracini, pilot of United flight 175, which slammed into the south tower. The park is called the Garden of Reflection, and it is a memorial.

The park probably won't be the grandest tribute to those lost on 9/11; that distinction will almost certainly go to the memorial at Ground Zero. But what's wonderful and perfect about it is this: It is full of life. Walkers crisscross the footpaths, kids play pick-up games of basketball and volleyball, and in summer there's a vigorous community garden where locals grow tomatoes and lettuce.

So it's there that I go for my walks, a middle-aged man trying to shed some pounds. Most times I follow the paths but every once in awhile I stop at the fountain, and look at the twin jets of water, and ponder the names etched in glass.

And then, full of memories, I go on.

A daughter's final high school performance, and a proud dad reflects

One night not so long ago, my wife and I attended the last musical performance of our daughter Emma's high school career, and like any dutiful dad, I was shooting video with my iPhone.

But the concert, by one of Pennsbury High School's orchestras, had already ended, and instead of playing music our diminutive daughter was busy onstage, packing equipment into boxes larger than she was.

Don't get me wrong; Emma does play an instrument. Several, in fact. In the orchestra, she is one of the percussionists, the rear-guard musicians who play timpanis, xylophones and the like. But she stands not much more than 5 feet tall, so at concerts it was all we could do to see the top of her head behind the violins, cellos and French horns.

She was more visible in Pennsbury's marching band, where she worked her way up the ranks to become pit captain, the leader of those who, instead of parading onto the field at football games, are positioned in front of the bleachers, working instruments that are too weighty to be mobile.

And she was the pianist in Pennsbury's award-winning (and male-dominated) concert jazz band. Those concerts, especially ones where she got to solo on standards like "Body and Soul" and "In a Mellow Tone," were a revelation. Just a few years earlier, we'd had to badger her to practice piano, and now her fingers were deftly flitting across the keyboard. As a parent in the age of social media, I couldn't help posting videos of her solos on Facebook, invariably accompanied by the label #prouddad.

So it went from the ninth grade to the 12th. In the fall, the marching band played parades and Friday night football games, then boarded buses for competitions on the weekends. Spring meant the jazz band, with rehearsals five nights a week, concerts and more competitions. School orchestras were sandwiched in between everything else.

And after every concert and football game, Emma was always there, hauling equipment. She'll be the last one to leave, my wife and I joked. And she was. As Emma once told me, she did it "because it was my responsibility to my section and if I didn't do it, no one would."

All of this was a bit strange for us. Hardly anyone in our brood had ever attended a high school football game, much less join a marching band. And in a tribe of relative introverts, it was shocking to discover our Vietnamese-Scottish daughter was something of a social butterfly, with dozens of friends, musical and otherwise. Inheritor of her mom's beauty and brains (and her dad's quick temper and sarcasm), Emma is one of those people about whom the cliche is apt: When she walks into a room, she becomes its focus.

But what strikes me most, now that the whirlwind of Emma's high school years has blown past, is how hard she worked. Millennials catch a lot of flak for supposedly being self-absorbed creatures who do little more than send text messages. But between the curricular and extracurricular, my daughter racked up 60-hour weeks, or more, from one semester to the next. Most of her peers did the same. Truth be told, I didn't work half as hard at that age.

And so it was that on a cool spring evening, we sat watching our daughter on a cavernous stage, doing roadie work long after many of her classmates had left. Something compelled me to record that moment, probably because, as much as anything else, it was emblematic of a period of her life, and of ours, that after four long years was ending all-too soon. She joins her older brother in the collegiate ranks this fall, leaving my wife and me behind in the proverbial empty nest. It's an exciting time for her, something else entirely for us.

I didn't post the video of her that night; it seemed silly to show my Facebook friends shots of Emma hauling musical equipment. But I have it on my computer, along with photos of a kid who once hated to practice actually receiving awards for playing music, her face beaming in every picture.

Proud dad? That doesn't begin to cover it.

This column was originally published in the Bucks County Courier Times 

Learning Age-Old Lessons About Life From 'Harry Potter'

Last night I took my family to our little neighborhood theater where, with a few hundred other fans, we watched, or more accurately were transfixed by, the midnight premiere of the final Harry Potter film. My 12-year-old daughter, the biggest Potter fan in our brood, was in full Ravenclaw regalia for the evening, after having spent the last two days in a marathon re-reading of the book on which the film is based.

The audience, mostly older teens who had grown up with Harry Potter, cheered at the moments of triumph, laughed and applauded when Ron and Hermione kissed, and were, for teens, uncharacteristically silent at the moment when Harry meets his destiny. One young man, who'd been acting the part of Mr. Cool for his date all evening, whispered worriedly, "He doesn't really die, does he?"

The last decade has been something of a golden age for family cinema. Pixar, with films like "Finding Nemo" and "Up," set a gold standard for computer animation by conjuring deeply felt and very human characters out of millions of tiny pixels. Japanese director Hiyao Miyazaki elevated anime into an art form with relentlessly imaginative works like "My Neighbor Totoro" and his masterpiece, "Spirited Away."

But nothing has captured the imagination of an entire generation like the Potter books and films, which chronicled the trials of the orphaned boy wizard who must face death, time and time again, at far too young an age.

Much has been written about the surprisingly dark, adult themes of the Potter books, which confounded the received wisdom that said people, especially young people, want escapist entertainment. True, the Potterverse is a wondrous and magical alternate reality. But of course the conflicts the characters must confront - good and evil, life and death - are ones we all eventually face.

I asked my daughter why she likes the Potter books and films so much, when so many characters in them die. "That's reality, daddy," she replied, with the tone of voice she uses when she discovers, yet again, what a dim creature her father is. Then, after thinking about it for a moment, she added, "Maybe, if we watch the movies now, later, when we really have to deal with those things, they won't seem that bad."

I knew what she meant, because I'd been there myself. Thirty-four summers ago, on a hot July night in the Midwest, I saw "Star Wars" for the first time. I was about the age my daughter is now, and from the moment the massive Imperial star destroyer lumbered overhead in the opening scene I sensed something that I would better understand on another night, years later, when I watched as Luke Skywalker tried to save his dying father, Darth Vader.

It's what I was reminded of again last night as we watched Harry, Hermione and Ron: On a warm summer evening, in a darkened movie theater, you can be transported to another world. There, in the space of just a few hours, you can learn age-old lessons about loyalty and friendship, courage and adversity and, most important of all, love.

This column was originally published in

From One Generation to the Next, Sharing the Pleasures of a Three-Minute Pop Song

I put a piece of vinyl on a turntable today for the first time in what must have been decades. My 13-year-old daughter bought a few ancient Beatles forty-fives from a Covent Garden peddler on our family trip to London last summer and had lobbied hard ever since for a record player. So I hauled my old Technics turntable out of the back of the closet and hooked it up to an old stereo in the basement. My excitement building, I poked around in another musty closet to fish out a few old Al Stewart records, then lumbered back down the basement stairs to cue up "Nostradamus."

At first there was an audiophile moment: the bass was indeed strong, the highs crisp and bell-like. Vinyl really did sound better! Then came the crackles and pops, and I remembered why CDs were such a revelation when they came along. Oh, well. When my daughter got home from school we had a teachable moment when I showed her how to gently lower the needle into the groove.

I'm not nostalgic for the good old days of vinyl; the shelves of my study are creaking with several thousand jazz CDs, and when I wake in the middle of the night I'm happy to have my mp3 player to listen to in the dark. Techier still, I store even more music and BBC podcasts in the cloud to listen to on my touchpad. It's all a far cry from the '70s, when my friends and I obsessed over stereo equipment and loudspeakers. Now just the idea of a receiver attached to speakers seems archaic. From one generation to the next, the technology keeps getting cooler.

But an unexpected pleasure of being a parent has been discovering and rediscovering so much wonderful music, movies and books through the eyes and ears of my kids. My daughter had her teenybopper pop phase a few years ago, but then she started borrowing my Beatles CDs. That led her back to Buddy Holly and Elvis, and forward again to the Rolling Stones and Queen. My son and I, both sci-fi geeks at heart, watch the new Doctor Who together on the BBC cable channel, and even occasionally sit down to a DVD of one of the classic Tom Baker episodes (my personal favorite). Of course, we're both "Star Wars" nerds, and when he was still in grade school we played "Rogue Squadron" together.

And it's not just blasts from the past, either. Indeed, from the animation of Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki to the Harry Potter books and movies, the past decade has been a veritable golden age of family friendly media. For years it seemed as if there was always another Pixar masterpiece to see, another Potter book to devour, and my wife and I enjoyed them nearly as much - and sometimes more - than our kids.

It wasn't always so. When I was a kid the generation gap was a culture war. I'd blast Led Zep from my bedroom, and my dad, who came of age in the 1950s, would yell at me to turn that crap off. Even my love of "Star Wars" was not something I could share with my parents, and when I entered my punk rock phase a few years later I was considered beyond help.

Then something changed, and it wasn't just the technology. Many parents of my generation (if I can be so bold to speak for them) decided somewhere along the way to raise their kids differently than they were raised. Instead of trying to force our music down our kids' throats we actually tried listening to their music. In the process, something was shared, rather than fought over. In our family this has certainly been the case; I tune my kids into the Beatles, and they tip me off to Coldplay and the Black Keys. I consider that a pretty fair exchange.

Of course, none of it lasts forever. The movies end, the bands break up and the books reach their final chapters. My kids' tastes change, sometimes by the week, and I can't always keep up. Bigger changes are still to come; my son will go off to college next year, with my daughter not far behind. Each passing year moves faster than the last, and seems more precious. 

These days as we schlep from piano lessons to aikido practice my son and daughter sit listening silently on their devices, earbuds in their ears like a couple of Secret Service agents. My dad and I used to fight over what to listen to on the car radio; now, watching my kids in the rearview, I worry I'm missing something, that I'm being left out. But then sometimes I'll pop some Coldplay onto the car stereo, the earbuds will come off, and we'll listen together as the miles fly by and Chris Martin sings:

"I turn the music up,
Got my records on
I shut the world outside until the lights come on
Maybe the streets alight,
Maybe the trees are gone
I feel my heart start beating to my favorite song..."

It's a brief moment in time, just the length of a three-minute pop tune, but worth every second.

-Tony Rogers

This story originally appeared on

Trying Not to Dwell on That Day We Will Send Him Off on His Own

The other day my son Sean and I were waiting in the doctor’s office for his annual checkup. On the wall was one of those public health posters describing developmental milestones for children, from two months to five years and beyond. It included markers such as “is more creative with make-believe play” and “cooperates with other children.” I joked that as a teenager he had mastered this one: “Begins to act bored (cries, fussy) if activity doesn’t change.” We had a good laugh.

Sean is 17, a senior in high school. Next year he goes off to college. He’s in the throes of the university application mini-drama now, and the nearest school he’s considering is a four-hour drive. A day is coming that I don’t really want to think much about, the day we leave him at the dorm and take that long walk back to the car for the drive home. So I find myself measuring out this year as one of lasts: the last soccer game, the last Aikido practice, the last morning I hug him before he races off to the school bus.

But this is the season of giving thanks, and the relatives will soon arrive, so I set these melancholy ruminations aside to focus on the tasks at hand: stocking up on groceries and cleaning house. And thankful I am: I have a beautiful wife I adore, two kids for whom I’d step in front of an oncoming train were the need to arise, a job I love. I have nothing to complain about.

Yet everywhere there are signs of the stalking horse that is time. My best friend just celebrated his 50th birthday, and mine is fast approaching; I look in the mirror and see a face that has virtually nothing to do with the one I saw five minutes ago when I was 20. More to the point, I’ve lost three chums in the last couple of years; they were beset by a variety of ailments, but all went before their time.

And as we watch our children grow up my wife and I, as members of the sandwich generation, also contemplate what comes next with our aging parents. The last decade was all about the joys and travails of raising kids to eventually leave home; the coming years will be about departures of a different sort, as our world grows older and a little darker.

Of course, a similar process is happening on a far grander stage. Dennis Overbye of The New York Times reports that the stars are dying out and not being replaced as quickly as when the universe was in its younger days. “The universe has already made 95 percent of the star mass that it will ever make. As eternity goes on — and on and on — the cosmos, like Palm Springs, will be dominated by older and older stars,” he writes.

He adds: “Eventually the universe will be expanding so fast that most other galaxies will disappear from view forever.”

So we face a darker future in which we must rage against the dying of the light. But why rage? Even as we age along with the universe there is hope and even exuberance to be found. The other night I wished my mother a happy 79th birthday and we shared our satisfaction at the re-election of President Barack Obama. She’s a lifelong soldier for Democratic causes and as she enters her 80th year is as passionate about the good fight as ever.

And just as we have markers and milestones as children, so too do we have them as a species. That in a country where we once enslaved Africans we twice could elect an African-American man president shows we are maturing as a people. Around the world, democratic freedoms are slowly taking root in regions long hostile to such concepts. Yes, there are setbacks, but the long arc of history seems to point toward progress. Humanity is growing. The future seems bright.

In my son there is plenty of excitement about the future, about his future. He’s come of age during the digital revolution and so plans to study computer engineering. I’m not really sure what that entails but I try to imagine what he will be doing in, say, 30 or 40 years, how his world will change and be changed in ways that I can’t begin to imagine. That will be his world, not mine.

What I do know is this: my son has brown eyes and brown hair and, as I am forever telling people, lucked out in the genetic crapshoot of life by inheriting his looks and brains from his mom. He has a tendency toward shyness and solitude, loves soccer and “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins and is forever giving away what spare pocket change he has to charities on the street. He has the best heart of anyone I’ve ever known.

All this and more is why I try not to dwell on that day in late August when we will send him off on his own.

For now, there’s still time to listen to him play piano, to try to beat him at a game of chess, or to stand with him under a night sky and see the young stars burn brightly as their elders, slowly but inexorably, flicker and fade.

-Tony Rogers

This story originally appeared in the Bucks County Courier-Times

At 80, Dan Rather Still Wants a Life in the News

Long before he was the CBS anchorman at the epicenter of the "memogate" maelstrom that would effectively end his career at the storied network, Dan Rather was a kid in a hardscrabble Houston neighborhood witnessing his father's obsession with newspapers, and the news.


A Fake Distress Call May Have Cost Two Lives at Sea

BOSTON - The call, on a marine hailing frequency, was urgent and chilling: A ship somewhere on the freezing waters off Massachusetts was transmitting a last-ditch plea for help.

``This is the fishing vessel Sol E Mar,'' a male voice shouted in frenzy. ``We're sinkin'. We need help now!''

The plea rose into a scream. The transmission was abruptly cut. Then, there was only crackling static.

Coast Guard radio monitors on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard tried desperately to get the caller back to locate the ship and send help.

But just over a minute after the first call, another distress signal came in.

``SOS, I'm sinking,'' a male voice said. And then he laughed.

The Coast Guard officers didn't dispatch rescue planes or boats. The calls, they thought, were just part of the rising number of hoaxes.

Last Friday, five days later, they discovered they were wrong. The Sol E Mar was reported missing and the Coast Guard began a search for the father and son who manned the 50-foot fishing vessel.

By then, it was too late.

Read more... 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

'Born Into Brothels' Director Zana Briski Returns to her First Love: Photography

In the late 1990s, Zana Briski, a London-born Cambridge University theology student turned photographer, ventured to India to document, as she puts it, "the particular hells that women can go through - sex selective abortion, dowry deaths, the treatment of widows, child marriages." It was never her intention, she says, to photograph prostitutes - until, that is, she was introduced to Sonagachi, the red light district of Calcutta.


How to Choose the Right School for Your Child

When Lisa Altenberg Hershaft and her husband Marc moved from the Milwaukee suburbs to Fairfax, Va., a few years ago, they needed to find a good preschool for their young son, Jordan, and his baby sister, Celia.

"I wanted to get them into a place that would have a good social setting so they'd be involved with other kids," Lisa recalls. "I also wanted a place that wasn't enormous, with teachers who weren't apathetic, and an environment that was creative, where they didn't necessarily have to start doing academics right away."

It seemed like a reasonable list of attributes, ones that any parent might want in a preschool, but as Lisa quickly discovered, finding such a place wasn't easy. Many facilities were full, and others just weren't quite right. The fact that the Hershafts were new to the area didn't make the search any easier, and while Lisa spent plenty of time researching the topic, many of the websites she found were far from comprehensive.


An Exciting But Nervewracking Assignment: Esquire Writer Chris Jones Talks About Profiling Roger Ebert

For Esquire magazine writer Chris Jones, the chance to interview legendary film critic Roger Ebert was, frankly, terrifying.

Sure, he'd wanted the assignment. Jones, 36, had grown up watching Ebert on TV, and as his own journalism career developed - first at the National Post newspaper in Toronto, then on to Esquire - he'd come to relish Ebert's reviews and articles, the way many writers have. So when Jones' editors asked whom he'd most like to profile, Ebert topped the list.



He may be the Most Important Theoretical Physicist Since Einstein, but Stephen Hawking has not Lost his Touch in the Classroom

Like any good teacher, Stephen Hawking knows he has to grab his students' attention and hold on tight.

That isn't easy when your field is theoretical physics. It's even harder when you are paralyzed and must use a machine to talk.

But Hawking succeeds, with the aplomb of a seasoned comedian who knows how to work an audience.


Jon Stewart Blasts Sensationalism in the News Media, but is it Really So Bad?

Is sensationalism in the news media a bad thing?

"The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart thinks so. In his recent appearance on "Fox News Sunday" Stewart charged that the news media is rife with sensationalism and that coverage of the Anthony Weiner scandal was an example of this.

"The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict and laziness," Stewart told anchor Chris Wallace. "The embarrassment is that I'm given credibility in this world because of the disappointment that the public has in what the news media does."

But is sensationalism really so horrible? And do people really dislike it as much as Stewart seems to think?


Feisty Chinese Journalists Get Brief Taste of Freedom in Covering Train Crash

When a high-speed train crash killed dozens of people in China in July, the Communist government tried to do what it normally does in such situations: Control media coverage of the event.

But a funny thing happened when government officials tried to dictate which aspects of the story to cover and which to ignore: Chinese journalists rebelled.

Instead of doing the government's bidding - focusing on the soft, human interest angles of the tragedy - Chinese reporters started asking tough questions about what might have caused the crash, and whether officials were ignoring safety concerns in a headlong rush to build a high-speed rail network.


Journalists Use Facebook to Find Sources and Promote Stories

Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites have gotten a reputation as places where users routinely post the most mundane details of their daily lives to their closest friends. "Carried out the garbage and now I'm heating up the leftovers" might be typical.

But a growing number of professional, citizen and student journalists who are using Facebook and similar sites to help them find sources for stories, then spread the word to readers once those stories are published online.

Such sites are part of an expanding array of tools - including websites, blogs and Twitter - that reporters are using to promote themselves and their work on the web at a time when traditional print journalism seems fated to go the way of eight-track tapes.


10 Years Later, Pondering the Meaning of Sept. 11, 2001

I didn't personally know anyone killed in the attacks, and I can only imagine the pain of those who lost loved ones. But like everyone else I was changed by that day. For a time I tacked to the right politically, and was bullish on nearly anything our government could do to bring the terrorists to justice. When a friend from New Zealand visited we argued about the war in Iraq. I was trying to explain to him what 9/11 was like, what it meant to be attacked that way, and suddenly I heard myself saying:

"We thought the world was coming to an end."


Amid London's Riots, a Simple Plea for Peace

LONDON - "Death to America," a wild-eyed man hissed at us on the street on our first afternoon in London. But even with Wall Street in a tailspin, it wasn't the U.S. that was about to ignite.

London was burning. Riots that began in a neighborhood where police had fatally shot a man would, over the next few nights, spread not just across the capital but to several other cities in England. In spring, images of the royal wedding - the kind of precision pageantry the Brits are so good at - had flashed across the globe. Now those scenes were being replaced by ones of masked youths burning and looting stores with seeming impunity.


A Farewell to a Friend From a Newsroom Long Ago

I've slogged away in many newsrooms over the years but the very first one I ever worked in was at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where, in the early 1980s, students published a plucky little weekly paper punningly titled the Parkside Ranger. It was there that I met Rick Luehr.


Are Japanese News Media Asking Tough Questions About Nuclear Crisis?

With the nuclear crisis in Japan growing seemingly worse everyday, some are asking whether the government there is being entirely forthcoming about things like radiation levels and safety zones and, by extension, whether Japanese journalists are asking tough questions of the government.


A Website Paywall That Keeps Readers Buying the Newspaper

It's practically gospel among media gurus that charging for online news won't work. Too bad no one told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The Little Rock-based daily has had a paywall around its website since 2002, long before most other papers had even thought of charging for online content.


The Technology of Journalism Improves, But Young People Still Ignore the News

Read up on the sturm und drang in the news business and you'll find plenty of pundits predicting the death of print journalism in the next five minutes or so, along with a few (like myself) who think newspapers have still have some life left in them. Whichever side you're on, the debate seems to mostly focus on delivery systems and business models - print vs. digital, display ads vs. pay-per-click, and so on.

But all the geek-speak loses sight of a more fundamental problem: With each passing year, young people grow less interested in the news, regardless of how it's delivered.


With News Business in Crisis, What Do Journalism Professors Tell Students?

Falling ad revenue. Plunging profits. Layoffs. Downsizing. Bankruptcy filings.

The news in the news business can’t get any worse. Some days it seems as if those who write the first draft of history have little in the way of a future.

So what are journalism professors, those charged with grooming the next generation of reporters, editors and producers, telling their students these days about the news business in general, and print journalism, that seemingly most endangered of species, in particular?


Old and New Media Clash At Senate Hearing on Future of Newspapers

So the U.S. Senate held a hearing recently on the future of newspapers, which these days is about as oxymoronic a subject heading as you’re likely to find. There was the predictable new media/old media split between Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post proclaiming the virtues of the brave new world of online journalism, and James Moroney, publisher of the beleaguered (what paper isn’t?) Dallas Morning News, bemoaning the current state of affairs.

But the most alarming and yet ultimately inspiring testimony came from David Simon, an ex-Baltimore newspaperman who drew upon his experiences as an ink-stained city reporter to produce the acclaimed series “The Wire.”


Fussy College Administrators Are Taking All the Joy Out of Student Newspapers

Working for a college newspaper was always supposed to be, if nothing else, fun. You learned to craft a lede, felt the thrill of seeing your byline in print, and along the way pushed a few boundaries that could never be pushed in the real world.

But recently many college administrators have apparently decided that student newspapers should be nothing less than miniature versions of The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. College papers, they believe, should not only be held to the same standards as professional publications, but should also shun any stories that show a glimmer of youthful irreverence or wit, or involve topics that might actually interest college students. Like sex.


At a Community College in Pennsylvania, Students Who Are Still Excited About Newspapers

While the prophets of the digital media age would have us believe that newspapers are about to go the way of eight-track tapes, and that young people in particular couldn't care less about newsprint, what I've found is just the opposite - young people who absolutely love putting out a paper.


Many Journalists Love Teaching, But Find There Are Adjustments To Be Made

Journalists who become teachers say it can be a rewarding change, the chance to pass on some hard-won wisdom to the next generation of eager young novices. It can also be an opportunity to acquire the multimedia newsgathering skills that many j-schools are teaching.


Student Newspaper Advisers Often Face Retaliation for Controversial Stories

It’s a chilling but all-too common scenario: A student writes something controversial in a high school or college newspaper, and pretty soon the faculty adviser to the paper is taking heat from the school’s administration. Some advisers are reassigned, demoted or even fired.


More Reporters Are Creating Their Own Blogs & Websites

Google “Tim Harper” and the first thing you’ll find is his website. The freelance writer, author and journalism instructor’s busy site includes an archive of his articles, a bio, contact information and even journal-type entries chronicling trips he’s taken.

Harper started the site in the late 1990s to promote his books, but soon realized it “could be used for all my work, for building my brand as an author, freelance journalist, editorial/publishing consultant and part-time professor. I put up more and more samples of my work as editors and prospective clients became more and more likely to say, ‘What’s your website?’ instead of ‘Can you send me some clips?’”

Harper may have been something of a pioneer. But given the turmoil facing the news business, more and more reporters are starting their own websites or blogs, driven by the need not just to archive their work, but to create an online presence - a brand - for themselves.


Dismiss Michael Jackson For His Eccentricities? Maybe. Dismiss His Music? Think Again.

Since I have little way of knowing the details of Jackson’s personal life beyond what I read in the news, what I want to say here is that those who would, because of his strange behavior, diminish his accomplishments as a singer, dancer and entertainer miss a very big point:

He, quite possibly, brought more moments of pure happiness – the kind of happiness that has to do with the simple pleasures of being alive - to more people on this planet than any other human being alive today.


Journalists Who Turn to Writing Fiction Can Find it Tough Going

It's the dream of many journalists, one with particular appeal in what is a gloomy time for the news business: Write a best-selling novel, retire to a beach house somewhere, live off the royalties and leave the grind of daily deadlines far behind.

But Scott Flander, a former reporter who has written two books and is at work on his third, warns would-be authors that writing fiction involves nothing less than incredibly hard work and a complete transformation of the journalistic mindset.