Photo credit: Flickr user Palo via Creative Commons

Photo credit: Flickr user Palo via Creative Commons

I turn 40 this year.

After rushing into an ultimately failed first marriage, I no longer get particularly hung up on where or who or what I’m supposed to be at a certain place in my life. While I’m not consumed by an existential wave of self-reflection, I have to acknowledge my 2014 went off the rails a bit, if for good reasons: deaths in the family, dog fighting cancer, armed robbery, etc. Now that we’ve turned out of the skid (great new job, healthy dog, etc.) it seemed a worthwhile endeavor to make sure 2015 had a magnetic north.

So I made a list.

The overall vibe I was going for was somewhere between basic weekly achievements and shoot-for-the-stars goals that would require some advance planning. It wouldn’t be the sum total of what I’ll accomplish this year. I wouldn’t include any goals related to my job, for instance. My ongoing fight against the forces of high blood pressure wouldn’t merit a mention aside from the efforts to work out more.

Some of these seem ridiculously easy (listening to new records, for instance) but I’ve found it’s easy to forget to do them even if they provide the spark to do more. Some are already in the planning stages and some (especially the activity goals) are grouped into one related topic.

I’m sharing them here because it makes it real. I won’t be posting updates unless they’re worth it. Though I suppose the whole point of making this list is to make my 40th year full of things worthy of discussion.

Health/productivity goals
1. Read six books
2. Work out three times a week
3. Listen to 12 new records and watch 12 new movies
4. Take an ongoing class in krav maga (or something similarly physical)
5. Re-learn Spanish

Family/house goals
6. Have a dinner date with Erin once a month
7. Paint our back porch stairs
8. Refinish the kitchen counters
9. Travel to England with the family
10. Go on a family road trip
11. Financial goal #1
12. Financial goal #2
13. Have a father/daughter outing with AG once a month

Creative/professional goals
14. Get published in a book and write a book proposal
15. Write 100 blog posts
16. Subscribe to at least one new magazine/newspaper
17. Read at six live events, including one I’ve never performed at and one that requires me to memorize a piece
18. Subscribe to the Beverly Review
19. Launch a South Side reading series
20. Learn to play the ukulele
21. Publish a piece in the Chicago Reader
22. Get on Chicago Tonight‘s Week In Review
23. Appear on a national TV show

Service goals
24. Join a board
25. Volunteer at a new organization
26. Launch a scholarship fund
27. Help a friend achieve one of their own year goals
28. Start Operation: Hydrate (more on this later)
29. Establish an ongoing recycling program in our house
30. Make an ongoing contribution of my mind, hands and time to the fight against youth gun violence in Chicago

Activity goals
31. Make a cocktail for every season
32. Buy and consume a bottle of Lagavulin (not all in one sitting, may be shared)
33. Pitchfork Fest, Hideout Fest or Riot Fest – pick one and go this year
34. Visit six Chicago museums: The National Museum of Mexican Art, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Driehaus Museum, Hull House and International Museum of Surgical Science, Museum of Holography, Museum of Contemporary Photography
35. Visit five Chicago bars: Cuneen’s, University of Chicago Pub, Twin Anchors, Schaller’s Pump, and Glascott’s Saloon
36. Visit five Chicago restaurants: Superdawg, Palace Grill, Nuevo Leon, Tufano’s, Gale Street Inn
37. Visit five historic Chicago places: South Shore Cultural Center, Pullman, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Union Stockyards Gate, Glessner House
38. See five bands live, including one I’ve been putting off for too long
39. Either finish The Wire and Battlestar Galactica or don’t but make a decision for crying out loud
40. Buy a new suit and a tux

Photo: Flickr user Palo via Creative Commons

And now, back to the news


Next week, I’m starting a new job as editorial director of Touchvision, an independent video news startup. It’s based in Chicago, but national in its reach and point of view. Our work can be viewed on mobile, tablet, desktop or television – anywhere there’s a screen. I’ll oversee the creation of our news product, make sure it has a compelling, relevant, distinct voice and get it in front of the right audience. Like most jobs of its type, it’s both creation and distribution. It’s a fantastic opportunity and I’ll be there with a couple of old friends, which is always a plus.

Not having started there yet, it’s a bit premature to talk in detail about what Touchvision does and where it’s headed other than to say we create straight-ahead video news as well as features. But this video about a young woman who’s a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet gives a sense of the possibilities.* It tells a beautiful story with strong emotion at its core and reveals something about the world.

I really liked working at Cramer-Krasselt. It’s full of smart people who do great work and they tolerate a lot less BS than other places – especially agencies. I learned a great deal about how big international brands launch new ventures and conduct their business. When I turned in my notice, colleagues told me they appreciated what I do and will miss having me there. Everything you could ask for from a job.

And there’s no denying we’re in a difficult period for the larger media world and, more specifically, the business of journalism.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to be a part of it again. As much as I wanted/needed the experience of working in an agency environment, this is one of the most exciting times ever for news. It’s what I know best and what I love. And when I’ve had the most fun.

I’m incredibly excited. Can’t wait to get started. The thought of being in a newsroom again makes me a little dizzy.

That’s probably a good sign.

* It probably goes without saying but just in case it doesn’t: I didn’t have any involvement in the creation of the Joffrey piece. But I really dig it all the same.

Image by Theo Curmudgeon. Used and adapted via Creative Commons license.

Banners are broken. So is social media. Let’s fix it.

A colleague and I just wrote a piece for Digiday called “How to fix social media and banner ads.” It’s pegged to the twentieth anniversary of the first banner ad and a reflection of brands’ insistence on shoving their products into conversations where they don’t belong, a topic I’ve written about before. Our central thesis is pretty well summed up here:

…Banner ads have lost most of their usefulness in an environment that trades impressions for engagement. At the end of his piece, McCambley says banner ads need “to get back to asking customers: How can I help you?”

Marketers seem to be repeating these same banner mistakes with social media. What began as an opportunity for one-to-one conversation with people is now driven by like-based metrics that only satisfy the needs of a brand’s messaging strategy. What users really want and need runs second to the scaled-based approach that killed the value of the banner.

Read the full piece at Digiday.

If the above resonates with you, check out Social Media Strategery, a blog maintained by my former boss, Steve Radick. His thinking has been a huge influence on me over the past year. As a starting point, read his post on the dangers of becoming what you measure in social media.

My top 10 favorite moments at Chicagoist on its 10th anniversary

Chicagoist – a site I succinctly describe to the uninitiated as “a news and culture blog about Chicago” – chicago-istlaunched about ten-and-a-half years ago under editors Margaret Lyons and Rachelle Bowden with the backend marketing and infrastructure support of the Gothamist network (which at the time was just two sites). The site’s just getting around to celebrating this milestone tonight and I’ve been in full throwback mode all day. (I’ve been tweeting reflections and stories on Twitter under #Chicagoist10).

It may seem unremarkable now but at the time there were few sites trying to talk about the news the way the average twenty/thirtysomething person talked about the news. In Chicago, there was Chicagoist, Gapers Block (the older brother competition who always made us try to work harder), Eric Zorn’s blog and a handful of others mostly focused on specific topics. Chicagoist and Gapers were the only two group blogs I recall that tried to cover the whole city. (Red Eye, Chicago magazine, Time Out Chicago and the dailies were still very focused on their print products.) We didn’t always succeed in our efforts to cover all of Chicago, in part because Chicagoist had a downtown/North Side bias running through it for its first couple of years. This angered native Chicagoans (and oddly some transplants, too) but it also meant the site had a voice, the voice of someone moving into the city for the first time and discovering it. And as the site grew older that voice become more authoritative and it grew into its aspirations without losing the barroom skepticism that ran through it in the early days.

I started there as a music and movies writer, a few months after the site launched. This was my first audition post. (It is nothing special.) I left as a co-editor in 2007 to go work at Time Out Chicago. Chicagoist was an incredible training ground for writers who wanted to develop. Many of us wrote for free. We weren’t really editing each other early on. SEO and social-driven audiences were non-existent. So the site was often a mix of in-jokes, minor happenstances and hobby horses. I can’t count the number of times favorite movie quotes of mine became headlines. But it was also a chance to figure out who you were as a writer. And get better at it. Or to create a newsroom environment even though we all worked remotely. We even managed to throw the occasional event or five. It was legit to say that blog had a community around it. I still read the comments in those days.

It was also a time when there were few alternate sources of news and viewpoints on the same. Again, unfathomable if you’ve grown up in a media ecosystem, post-2010. When the dailies or other media sources did something dumb, sexist or short-sighted, we wrote about it. I know how trite this sounds now, but it was what made me proud to write for them. Scroll down to the “Special thanks to” section here and you can see all the folks who made the site what it’s been.

I owe most of my current career to getting my start there. So do many others. It’s also where I met my wife. So in some ways, I owe it everything.

Here are ten of my most memorable moments – nine good ones and one when I got a little over my skis.

10. The Dave Matthews poop bus stories
All the Chicagoist writers had their way with this legendary story of a DMB tour bus dropping its toilet after-products into the Chicago River. I took particular glee in it. We retired the topic here but it still gets referenced whenever fecal matter is involved.

9. Interviews and festival coverage
We started doing coverage of summer music festivals in 2005 when Lollapalooza returned. The first year we were still small so I just ran around Lolla with a digital camera, a notebook and a tape recorder. Other local sites would follow the wall-to-wall model as the music festival scene took off with Intonation and Pitchfork. But Chicagoist still does it best years later even as social media has changed the way live events get covered.

Chicagoist is also where I learned to interview people whether they were bands, filmmakers, authors, a friend of mine who was a ballerina and a burlesque dancer. Most importantly, I interviewed the guys behind Filmspotting (nee Cinecast), a show I guest-co-hosted a couple of times, which remains a highlight of my life in media.

Speaking of interviews…

8. WBEZ’s decision to drop jazz
It’s ironic how hard I went after WBEZ here since I’ve ended up appearing on its airwaves many times since as a panelist, which would not be possible without this switch. After I did this post, its VP of comms asked me if he could respond so we ran this Q&A.

7. The Get Well Roger project
When Roger Ebert first became ill, the staff crowdsourced a simple photo project: People uploading and tagging photos of themselves giving the thumbs-up.

6. That time I kinda fucked up
I hated Tucker Max. Still do. I count as a career highlight the time I was editor of Playboy.com and told his publicist we would never cover him as long as I was editor (which didn’t last long but still). But I didn’t do my homework on this one and the whole reason for it – Tucker Max supposedly operating a site under a pseudonym – was taken down hard in the comments (deservedly so) by people with more awareness of him than I had at the time. The rest of the post is sort of useless (though still true) without it. But he was in an ascendant period here and it felt important to talk about that. The world would eventually tire of his shenanigans.

5. Ctrl-Alt-Rock 1 and 2
We threw two local band showcases thanks in large part to the booking prowess of Jim “Tankboy” Kopeny. Ctrl-Alt-Rock was the name coined by our sports writer Benjy Lipsman. The first packed the house at Schuba’s. The second was at Double Door and was one of the last things I did with the site before leaving for Time Out Chicago. The second is my favorite because I convinced Jim we should book the Reptoids and a little band of U of C students no one had heard of called The Passerines.

4. The Double Door is closing hearing in which nothing happened 
Everyone freaked out because the Double Door might close. An online petition was launched. I went to to the hearing. The response to the loss of a great rock club forced the two sides to come to an agreement. I wrote this post because I sat in a courtroom for hours and wanted to make it worth something.

3. Guilting Pitchfork/Intonation into letting people bring in their own water
It is always ridiculously hot during Chicago’s festival season. The fest that would become Pitchfork Fest had a stupid policy of not allowing people to bring their own water. But their reaction to questions about it was what really irked me so I wrote this. Two days later the fest reversed its decision and allowed people to bring in their own water, a rule most summer festivals here now follow.

2. Questioning NBC 5’s ethics
I don’t know why this bothered me so much. Maybe because our site had a more stringent ethics policy for food reporting than a major television affiliate.

1. The Richard Marx letters
It’s pretty much standard for Richard Marx to go after someone in Chicago media when they do something he doesn’t like. My errors were minor to non-existent depending on your read of this. This was the first time I heard from a legitimately famous person I wrote about and it was a little weird. Justin Kaufmann and I later immortalized those emails in this live Schadenfreude sketch:

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.