No one waits in line at Hot Doug’s for a hot dog

One of the worst things about Internet culture in the last five years is its tendency to mock the unfettered joy of others. Someone’s always there to remind you there is some atrocity you should be rending your garments over instead of just…being…in-between the decisions that keep you up at night.

All this brings me to the line at Hot Doug’s.

hotdougsLet me make this clear because it seems to have escaped notice: Hot Doug’s is not, at its core, about hot dogs. And people do not wait in line at Hot Doug’s because they are interested solely in consuming a hot dog.

Hot Doug’s is both simple and complex. Simply, they are encased meats. Here’s where it gets complicated: I have never, during a visit, spent more time dining inside Hot Doug’s than I have waiting outside in its line. I would argue this is true for most people. So what happens in the line is as important as what happens when you sit down to eat.

This is why people who are selling their spots on Craigslist for hundreds of dollars are missing the point entirely.

I don’t blame people who have never been to Hot Doug’s for thinking a long wait in line for a place is bullshit. In any other case, I’d agree with them. But I’ve waited in line at Hot Doug’s for an hour in ten degree weather and been happy to do it.

We live in a world that is trying to eliminate any shared physical experience. The movies, the theater and the line at Hot Doug’s feel like the last semblances of humanity’s group project. (There is no line at Kuma’s. You put your name in and find a space of your own to wait.)

I’ve never had a bad experience in a Hot Doug’s line. Every time I expected someone would, for example, ignore the signs about keeping the doors in the vestibule closed on a winter’s day? Never happened. People want to be in that line so there’s a shared sense of responsibility.

Here’s why people waite in line at Hot Doug’s:

– Because the guy that owns the place has been standing longer than you (until this week, anyway). And he’s standing there to take your order. With a smile. And a warm greeting. And a reminder that you should just get the small drink instead of the large because it’s free refills.

– Have you ever had to wait for a table at Hot Doug’s? I haven’t. Do you know why? Because Doug Sohn and his team are wizards. I placed my order and miraculously – every time! – there’s a table waiting for me and however many friends I came in with. Doug knows exactly how long to make small talk with you and everyone else in line to make things run smoothly.

– Doug Sohn is the only person in Chicago to incur a fine for selling foie gras. Not Charlie Trotter who made it a thing. The little guy who owns the sausage stand on the corner of Roscoe and California. However you feel about foie gras aside, here is an example of an average guy telling grandstanding politicians to take a flying leap and getting pasted on the chin for it.

– If you are in line at closing time, you get a seat.

– The specials this week include salsa verde wild boar sausage with chipotle dijonaise, jalapeno bacon and smoked gouda and escargot and guanciale sausage with parsley-garlic butter and camebert cheese for nine bucks each and if you want gourmet food on that level anyplace else in Chicago it will cost you three times as much.

– This:

People waited in line at Hot Doug’s because all of this matters. And they voted with their feet. They said they wanted this to remain and were willing to put in the time necessary to make it happen.

So you, guardian of the free time of others, who mocked those folks who were waiting in line at Hot Doug’s?

They had more fun than you.

This Sun-Times headline is more false than controversial

suntimescoverThere’s a debate to be had about whether this Sun-Times cover is overly incendiary or whether its tone is or is not befitting the front page of a newspaper. But you could go back and forth on that and neither side would be right or wrong. Meanwhile, the New York Post would be all “How you doin‘?”

What’s not really debatable is how factually incorrect this cover is.

The issue comes down to the phrase “Here’s the reason….” It’s essentially saying “This guy did it.” Does current evidence seem to point to him as the culprit? Yep. But he hasn’t been convicted. A newspaper should probably keep its powder dry until that happens.

But even still, it’s false. Let’s say for the sake of argument you as the editor are comfortable saying he did it because of the Facebook post he left and his lawyer essentially admitting he did.

He isn’t the reason the fire happened. A person isn’t a reason. Those are two different things. We don’t yet know what the reason was that he (for argument’s sake) did it. So the word use is poor. Maybe the reason was mental illness. Maybe he was drunk and high on drugs and didn’t have all of his faculties about him. Maybe he was absolutely in his right mind when it happened but had a grudge against someone.* We don’t know yet. The reasoning behind it is still unknown. None of this is revealed by printing his photo.

And not to further split hairs, but the reason the flights were canceled is because the FAA doesn’t have a backup system in place for when the Aurora flight control tower is disabled. Capacity became an issue. The fire was a huge contributing factor, for sure. But it wasn’t the reason. At best it was one of two.

So nevermind the language’s potential consequences or whether he should be treated with kid gloves in copy. The headline, as written, is incorrect. And that’s why it shouldn’t have been printed.

I get why it’s on the cover and even why it was framed around the flight cancellations. It’s a huge story that reminds me of the air traffic controller subplot of “Breaking Bad.” The drama of it is cinematic in scope but affects the way many people lived their lives over the past few days. Contrast this with the current Joliet murder trial that’s grisly and twisted but ultimately doesn’t affect the average person. This story plays well on the front page and has relevance.

But at some point, the front page of a newspaper has to not sound like the boozed-up guy on a barstool at O’Hare who missed his flight to Cleveland.

* Many news outlets have reported that this man was recently told he would be transferred to Hawaii. In the minds of many, this became cause and effect. But this seems like one of those fascinating details that, at first, seems to provide a reason but later turns out to be a McGuffin. Would the move to Hawaii mean he would be separated from family? Did it come with a demotion in title and salary? Does he hate coconuts? There’s so much more to this story but the flash of it seems irresistible.

Five Things I Learned About Side Projects From A Podcast About Barbecue

Earlier this week, I was a guest on Car Con Carne, the world’s only barbecue podcast recorded in a car (the show posts early next week). It’s hosted by my friends Mike Bratton, a professional voiceover artist, and James VanOsdol, former Q101 DJ, author, and radio host/reporter at WGN Radio 720 and Rivet Newsradio. I mention their CVs because this is a side project for them. They’re running a Kickstarter so they can fund it on the most basic level and squeeze in tapings around their paying gigs.

bmgmpMeanwhile, I’d recently started a small Tumblr-driven news blog about my neighborhood. BMGMP covers news about Beverly, Mount Greenwood and Morgan Park. Though I’ve made some media appearances recently and pay attention to news and politics in Chicago, it’s been a while since I’ve followed a beat in this way, even on a micro level. Following RSS feeds, tracking sources and seeing how stories develop over time felt a lot like riding the proverbial bike.

Both experiences have taught me a few things about launching side projects:

1. Play to your strengths

I worked in digital media and publishing for eight years before moving into content marketing, which has a similar skillset. Covering news is still a passion of mine. Plus, I live in the neighborhood I’m covering and things I see, hear and experience all end up as fodder for the site.

Mike and James are both professionals in the field of audio-delivered news and information. James hosted his own podcast on The Steve Dahl Network. They know how to produce an interesting show, book guests and digitally publish their work. And not for nothing, they’re both fans of barbecue in a city that’s seen a number of quality BBQ spots open recently.

A couple months ago, I was trying to get a design newsletter off the ground with a friend. The idea we had was great and there was probably a good business idea in it, too. But neither of us knew design well enough to create the editorial part of it which…was the whole thing, really.

All of this is just another way of saying “write what you know.” It’s a lot easier to make a side project a reality if you’re just remixing your current skills and knowledge.

2. Use available resources

Mike and James record their podcast in James’s Mazda RX3 instead of a studio. Rather than hinder their process, it makes what they’ve created better. It gives them a marketing hook (“the world’s only barbecue podcast…recorded in a car”), a healthy dose of verisimilitude (on more than one occasion the show discusses something weird that’s happening outside the car) and the ability to record from outside of any barbecue joint they like. Mike also has gear from his voiceover work that makes recording a podcast much easier for them than it would be the average person.

I’m not a fan of Tumblr as a publishing platform. But it works for now. It was simple to set up, even for the customization I wanted (no comments, small tweaks to the template), and costs nothing but time. I do about 30-45 minutes of work on it when I wake up in the morning. I’ve purposely made it a digital-only news source so it doesn’t require me to do any shoe-leather reporting other than what I’d already be doing. I’ve made sure Google can see it and I push traffic to it via Twitter. It’s the minimum viable product I wanted to fill a news gap in my neighborhood.

3. Start small

One of the reasons I started on Tumblr and not WordPress was to give myself growth goals: if I can keep up the site for a month, I’ll buy a domain for it and move it to WordPress. If I can keep it up for three months, I’ll consider adding features or creating a social presence for it. I didn’t want to spend a ton of time on it in the beginning only to discover I couldn’t maintain it. I haven’t let that many people in the neighborhood know it exists while I experiment with the format and content.

Car Con Carne records every two weeks. They’re starting with friends and colleagues as guests and visiting local BBQ joints. If the Kickstarter really takes off, they’ll make changes to the show and maybe even record in BBQ meccas like Memphis.

4. Don’t wait for perfection

I won’t speak for what Mike and James might change about their project but there are a ton of small things I don’t like about BMGMP that I don’t yet have the time to fix: the way photos embed, how permalinks show up and not having built a complete list of sources, to name a few. I haven’t even decided whether the name is something that works. Some of this is the direct result of starting small. But the best way to learn and improve is by doing. If I didn’t start, it would never get better. And speaking of…

5. If it’s worth it, you’ll find the time (a.k.a. It’s never the right time to start something new)

Like anyone else, Mike, James and I all have job and family responsibilities that keep us busy. In the two weeks I’ve been doing BMGMP I’ve missed a couple of morning runs. Eventually, I’ll re-adjust a find a new routine that allows time for all of it. (Easing up on my self-imposed publishing deadline of 7am would probably help.)

I created this side project as much for myself as anyone else. I’m not doing it because I think it will make money or get noticed or disrupt something or any of the other external reasons people start side projects. I’m doing it because it’s both fun and useful for me. If that’s true then it will probably feel that way for someone else, too. And all the reasons that get in the way of not doing it will cease being real obstacles and just be excuses.

What I would have said on In The Loop last night

Yesterday I was supposed to appear on In The Loop, WYCC-TV’s news and public affairs show. Unfortunately, as I was pulling out of my driveway to make my way to the morning taping I got a flat tire. So I missed it. (You can watch last night’s show as it aired here.)

I’ll hopefully appear on a future show, but it seemed a waste of research and talking points to not write about some of the topics they discussed.

8782370251_2584e8fecc_mAlderman Fioretti enters the mayor’s race
The narrative around Fioretti’s run for mayor is he doesn’t have name recognition or a strong constituency. The first concern can be overcome pretty easily and I don’t believe the second is much of anything. Even without entering the race, Fioretti polled 25% of the electorate to the mayor’s 43%. Moreover, while Karen Lewis has volunteers at the ready, the current mayor has to rent his GOTV effort. As for Fioretti, he’s been making the rounds, particularly in black churches and is a leader in Chicago’s progressive movement, mostly because the ward remap has given him nothing to lose.

Still, the problem with the narrative is it misses the real story: Chicago is having a moment for progressive politics. Too often, Chicago has favored a strongman view of the mayor’s office and we frequently seek a person to rally behind, rather than ideas or principles. (Witness the scramble during the last mayoral election for a consensus black candidate that obscured the actual concerns of Chicago’s neighborhoods of color.)

If we consider the race through this lens, this mayor’s race is seen less as a race between individuals and more as a contest of ideas. Crime is down overall, but in some neighborhoods it’s up. We’ve starved some neighborhoods of economic resources in an effort to make the Loop the economic heart of the city. Twenty of the 49 public schools closed last year were on the South Side. These are the big issues of the campaign – or should be – and it’s why there’s room for progressive candidates this year.

Finally, as Ben Joravsky reminded us this week, Chicago uses a runoff system for its mayoral election. Unless the mayor gets 51% of the vote, there will be a runoff in April. Plenty of time for any candidate to introduce himself or herself to voters.

Cardinal George’s recent column on gay marriage
The Cardinal is in ill health and regardless of his personal views, I hope for his recovery and comfort.

Anyone who reads the news can tell you we are still litigating many of these issues so to say there’s a uniform state law that governs all activity from economics to sexuality – which is what the Cardinal invokes when he says “sharia law” – is simply untrue. It’s a good line and one designed to provoke – in the same way that it was when the Cardinal compared LGBT advocates to the Ku Klux Klan (for which he later apologized).

But what we have seen is an increasing movement toward equality.

I’m not Catholic but I went to a Catholic high school and I attend a Catholic church. One of the things I’ve always found great comfort in is the church’s stance on issues of social justice and helping those who’ve been set apart from society, often because of laws.

I would hope the Cardinal comes to understand that people who have been denied equal access to marriage or certain forms of health care is an issue of social justice and that while the church may not change its stance on those issues, there is an opportunity for healing between the larger church and those who feel apart from it. Especially those whose marriage does not exist for the purpose of bearing children – older couples who can no longer bear or support children, adoptive parents, etc. – but still fulfills the greatest commandment of love.

The Obama presidential library
I’m glad the statehouse bill to set aside $100 million in public funds got stuck in a drawer somewhere. We sought to raise 250 million in private and corporate donations for the Olympics and raised 73 million the month before our bid was not accepted. The NATO Chicago committee raised $33 million in private donations. (Some of this has been returned back to Chicago’s communities.)

Say whatever you like about the mayor but the man knows how to fundraise. That goes all the way back to his days as director of Clinton’s finance committee in 1992. Chicago will already need to commit public funds to support the everyday operation of the library, so funding its construction with private and corporate money seems the better way to set financial priorities for our state.

The Obama Library is also symbolic and brings prestige to the city. We hear the pejorative of “Chicago-style politics” and it would help beat that back a bit and have a reminder that Chicago gave the country a president.

More people are moving to Chicago
As Greg Hinz said in Crain’s it’s too early to tell if this is a one-time thing or a pattern. But Chicago is definitely seen as a high-tech city despite whatever financial problems are plaguing the state.

What will encourage more people to move here is connecting our public schools into this burgeoning sector. Job training, mentoring programs and getting kids and parents to understand that there are career paths for them in the neighborhoods. Blue 1647 in Englewood is a great example of taking the 1871 model and applying it elsewhere.

If we do want to see downtown as the heart of the city and a place of aspiration we have to make it something that’s attainable for kids who live in our neighborhoods, not just people from outside the city.

People like to say that we don’t make things anymore and it’s just not true. But what we used to make with cotton and steel we now make with 1s and 0s.

Nick Wallenda’s walk across the Chicago River
Sure, why not? Seems like a great way to distract people from the Trump sign.

Image: Chicago Public Radio via Creative Commons

Facebook’s algorithms don’t read so stop writing for them


When it comes to determining what good content is, Facebook’s been acting a lot like Google.

In 2011, Google released Panda, an update to the algorithm which determines what users see and – more importantly – don’t see in its search results, particularly that crucial first page. The effect was immediate for some publishers and those that survived were forced to radically change their business models.

Panda was, in Google’s words, an effort “to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible.” Google’s subsequent algorithm changes only reinforced this mission to deliver high-quality content by making poor-quality content disappear.

With recent announcements that it would cut down on “News Feed spam,” and “click-baiting,” Facebook is essentially warning publishers not to create content for algorithms because algorithms could change tomorrow and wipe you out.

Sound familiar? This is what happens when we try to make content perform instead of inform.


Whether it’s Google or Facebook, the big gatekeepers keep telling us it’s a waste of time to write to an algorithm that might change at a moment’s notice yet we keep doing it anyway. It’s an ineffective way to spend scant resources and, ironically, the tricks we’re using to get people to click, share and comment obscure the fact that most publishers do create quality content.

Facebook made two recent changes to its News Feed algorithm. The first targets clickbaiters, those nefarious pages that either trick you into clicking a link with an enticing headline that never really pays off or keep a key piece of the story behind a link. The second is aimed at clever community managers who route around the lower reach of Facebook’s link posts by creating better-performing photo posts with a link in the caption. Both tactics will now result in posts with diminished visibility in the News Feed.

For brands and publishers already facing down the era of zero organic Facebook reach, these changes may seem like another shot across the bow: a suggestion that paid efforts will be the only way to guarantee a certain number of eyeballs.


The good news is if social marketers created this problem, we can also solve it.

First, let’s stop writing content for Facebook’s metrics and go back to relying on content that relates to our overall business goals: awareness, education or engagement, to name a few.

Let’s create content that’s concise, understandable on a scan within the feed and rewards the user for the time spent reading it. We know many people don’t read past the headline so why deliberately write it to obscure what matters most in a story? If we give a reader something of value at the beginning, they’ll assume we have more to offer at the end.

Most importantly, let’s consider the unique role each of our social channels plays in the overall marketing mix and stop focusing all our efforts on just one. When we’ve optimized our best content with an informative headline and an engaging graphic, we can share that link on Facebook and use paid dollars there to increase its visibility and earned media traction. Meanwhile, those gorgeous photos can go on Instagram or Pinterest and the clever joke or meme will get published on Twitter.

If nothing else, let’s make sure our content reads like it was written for a purpose and doesn’t resemble a hyper-caffeinated, all-caps email from our aunt. Readers will reward us with organic clicks, likes and comments and we can all sleep better at night knowing we didn’t goad them into doing it by appealing to their lesser demons.

After all, having conversation with humans – not algorithms – is why we started experimenting with social in the first place.

Image: guidedbycthulhu

U2 and iTunes: Being big isn’t always the best

U2 has always wanted scale. But it’s always been in a fight for itself about how to reach millions of people and what it wants to say to them once it has their attention.

Lyrically, their scope has always been big. If your second album has a song about the Polish solidarity movement, you’ve distinguished yourselves from the “I wanna hold your hand” school.

In the book U2 by U2, Bono says of The Unforgettable Fire, the band’s fourth album, “all we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin.” And though Bono said the were “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world” in 2000, they’ve often substituted “big” for “best.”

At some point though, trying to go big isn’t always the best.

Say whatever you like about the album itself, but U2 forcing its album on iTunes users evokes desperation. It seems to say “If you had the choice, we know you wouldn’t take it. So we’re not giving you the choice.”

Mike Fourcher at Vouchification says push distribution is the future and he’s not wrong, per se. But it’s only the future if a brand is OK with being ignored. He puts a fine point on it here:

This, in digital form, is basically the power newspapers used to have when they landed on everyone’s doorstep. You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there, and you could see them.

“You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there” is the operative phrase.

U2 via iTunes is what happens when a brand is less interested in engaged users and more interested in empty impressions. “They own it but haven’t listened to it” is such a long way away from how U2 started and what they used to mean. U2 was a band that with Zoo TV offered a pointed commentary on the role media plays in shaping image. Now they’ve let the mechanisms subsume them. The conversation in their art is beside the point.

Or, to put it another way, they’ve put all their money on being big, not the best.