Sunday, February 26, 2012

Drake's book changing lives with the written word

Two long-feuding kingdoms - Chubolia, a place where everyone is fat, and Thinsylvania, a country where everyone is thin - find themselves in the throes of battle when the prime minister of Thinsylvania, looking for someone to marry his prince, kidnaps the Chubolian princess. Hamilton Fatz, the charmingly romantic Chubolian captain of the guard, and Big Jim McBiggins, a roguish mountain man, set off to rescue her, and must overcome physical and psychological obstacles along the way.

It sounds ridiculous I know, but that is the description found in the web page for Phil Drake's book "Fat Chance."

A tongue in cheek story aimed at the tween audience, from master funny man Drake. Who is Phil Drake you may ask? If you live in the SGV and have done so for more than 15 years, you may recall Drake's funny columns appearing in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. He has long since left the paper and now lives in Montana, where he is the managing editor of the Montana Watchdog, a branch of the n independent newsgathering organization that shares its research and findings with the public and other media organizations. It is a branch of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonpartisan policy research center and an associate member of the Montana Newspaper Association.

Drake is an individual who has impacted a lot of people's lives, mostly in a positive manner either through imparting some humor into their lives with his columns, or by writing stories around the communities he served, writing features and stories about the SGV. I first met Mr. Drake around 7 years ago when I was taking journalism classes at Mt. SAC.

At the time, I knew I wanted to pursue journalism as a career choice, but I did know that much about the Tribune or its editors. Phil Drake changed all that. He came to speak to a class and spoke about his job. I distinctly remember sitting in the newsroom and fielding a call from him saying he was on his way to speak to one of the classes, but he was lost, he could not find the classroom. I don't blame him, at the time Mt. SAC had just reinstated its journalism program and was operating the student newspaper The Mountaineer, out of a bungalow adjacent to the tennis courts, making it almost impossible to find, unless you knew the campus.

Drake spoke about his job that day, about the people he interviewed while working as a beat reporter for the Tribune. I remember he was sweating profusely, (possibly due to his walking around campus on a hot summer day in a suit and maybe being a bit nervous speaking to a group of strangers) but he relaxed and gave the students glimpses of life as a journalist.

I have never forgotten Phil Drake, I read his columns every week after that and was saddened to read one day he was moving back to Montana and leaving California behind.

Apparently, he was well thought of by his peers, when the Tribune started a "Here and Now" page of Tribune staffers on Facebook, Drakes countenance was used as the profile pic.

He has returned to the San Gabriel valley since then, mostly to promote his literary projects, and I for one hope he gets to write another book. I have not read "Fat Chance" yet, but it's on my to do list. Knowing the affable disposition of Mr. Drake, and his propensity to entertain with his writing, it should be a fun lighthearted romp.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Keaton's "The Paper" an entertaining journalistic romp

This is really not a review blog, but a blog about digital journalism and journalism and writing in general, but once in a while I have to do some movie reviews, especially those related to the profession that are extremely well done. Right now, I am in a bit of a journalism movie kick, ever since I started my Netflix trial account, and my queue is full of flicks related to this specific genre.

Last night I took a break from my GRE studies and watched "The Paper" starring Michael Keaton Glen Close and Marisa Tomei. In fact, this Ron Howard vehicle about a New York news reporter working at a small newspaper, in addition to being a great drama, also features a veritable who's who in 1990s TV and film actors.

There's Randy Quaid as the slightly eccentric and paranoid columnist, there's Robert Duvall as the ailing, aging alienated Editor in Chief, and there's even a whimsical performance by Jason Alexander of George Costanza Seinfeld fame.

There's also a cameo by that weird guy from the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer goes to L.A. and gets framed for a murder he didn't commit. Apparently this character actor was in demand at the time, as the killer in the TV show and as a bungling, wordsmith in this movie.

Yet the best thing about the movie is its frenzied, franatic pace. Even though it's somewhat dated now with ancient computers and references to beepers, director Ron Howard does a nice job of illustrating what it's like to live in the crazy world of deadline driven journalism, in a major metropolitan city like New York before the turn of the century.

Keaton really shines as the protagonist who has to choose between the profession he loves and the lifestyle he lives and between his pregnant, insecure wife (Tomei.)

If you ever worked in journalism you will appreciate some of the slice of life bits in this movie, like the rookie photographer who is sent out on a major assignment in search of the perfect page 1 shot, or the hustle and bustle of a hectic newsroom. However, you don't have to be in the industry to appreciate it.

If you're looking for a good Netflix recommendation to kick back with, you could do a whole lot worse than this 1994 drama. The funny thing is my teacher recommended this movie to me years ago and I didn't get to see it until now. Do you know of any other good journalism flicks I should watch? Go ahead and let me know!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

President's Day weekend musings

I would have to say that I am immensely enjoying the long President's day weekend. Thank you George and Abe for the much needed break in the work cycle.

While I don't consider my job to be too taxing, at least not until the semester gets rolling, it nevertheless has been good to get the much needed break and rest.

Friday night I attended a potluck mardi gras party thrown by one of the members in my writing group, and though I had visions of it just being an enjoyable night out meeting new people and making friends, while having some good food and drink, it turned out to be much more.

It turns out than when you get an intelligent group of adults together, their hobbies tend to be a little on the esoteric side, so while having a conversation with a member, the subject of gaming came up and this led to us discussing some D&D. As nerdy or geeky as it may sound to some, outside of full fledged LARPS (which I really have no interest in), I do enjoy both talking about and the occasional role playing.

This correlates with writing in the sense that RPGs and even table top games like D&D are rife with possibilities for inventive storytelling, which I believe also stimulate the imagination and the narrator in all of us writers. Some more than others, especially if they are accustomed to writing gaming campaigns and narratives for other players to enjoy, which is the prototypical job description for any GM.

So as a result of me venturing out and for the price of a velvet cake with cheese frosting and some beverages, which were my store bought contributions to the potluck (what can I say, cooking isn't one of my God given talents) I discovered our group is not only blessed with a number of great writers, but some of them share my passion for gaming.

In younger days, I was involved with Dungeons and Dragons, and I think this led to my interest in computer games, fantasy genres usually trumping most others (though I have enjoyed the occasional FPS like Doom and Quake) and in turn to my most recent love of mmorpgs.

Ironically one of the mmorpgs I enjoy playing most is DDO, which in turn led me back to D&D, funny how I have come full circle.

Some people love the community and virtual interactions in a mmorpg, while others prefer the personal touch of actually being in the room while playing a game like D&D. Whatever the case, both have a tremendous potential to both inspire and nurture the imagination, the latter probably more so than the former.

So just like Tobold, who recently shifted the focus of his blog from mmorpg discussions exclusively to his forays into DMing 4th edition D&D campaigns, my interest in such endeavors has been rekindled and it looks like now I will be part of not just one, (the Pasadena D&D group) but two pen and paper gaming groups in the still fairly new year.

OK, now back to enjoying my Sunday afternoon with some serious dungeon crawls in either EQ2, or world of warcraft, or both, before I return to the grind on Tuesday and have to think about deadlines, requisitions or anything else.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A reporter lost amidst public Relations practitioners

Sometimes we have to look back before we know where we are going. Other times, we are in neutral patterns, either because circumstances prevent us from forging ahead, or because we have internalized a problem or a situation to the point that we make it difficult on ourselves to move forwards.

Then there are times when we know where we need to go, and we have to make a detour, like when you are on a long road trip and you have to stop at one of those isolated rest stops.

I am not sure if my analogies make much sense, but right now I have been where I surmise a lot of reporters might be or where a lot seem to end up: I am doing what's essentially public relations work, but I am still basically a reporter by trade.

For me it's sort of means to an end, in this transforming journalistic landscape, I had to make a choice when an opportunity presented itself. Whereas at this same time last Spring I was putting my heart, body and soul into my freelancing work, this season I am working at the office of external relations for one of our areas major community colleges. I have a lot to learn!

When I was in college, I was a member of my school's PRSSA, Public Relations Society Student Association. My thought was that joining said organization, though I had no desire to go into a career in P.R., would be beneficial towards better understanding the symbiotic, and often adversarial relationship between PR practitioners and journalists. They co-exist in a media rich world and both work hand in hand in many occasions.

This week I started a job where the skills set I already possess as a reporter come in handy on a daily basis. Moreover, it will prove to be a valuable networking experience since I will come into contact with media professionals on a routine basis.

As I sat at my desk yesterday, set up my new e-mail address, and familiarized myself more with the inner workings of the job, I also wondered, how many of us relocated, displaced journalists or those who have crossed over into the Public Relations arena are out there?

My current supervisor is a former journalist herself.

So this is but a detour, a pit stop if you will. I will be back filing stories and worrying about deadlines soon enough.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

DC's "Before Watchmen" excites some fans, polarizes others

DC Comis recently announced that they would be revisiting the world and characters created by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore in their seminal comic book masterpiece "Watchmen" with an all new prequel starting this summer.

Watchmen, in case you don't know, is one of the most important works in the history of comic books, perhaps the most important. It deconstructs the superhero genre so well, and it is an absolute joy to read from first panel to last.

The new series has polarized the comic book reading public.

More than 1,500 people voted in Digital Spy's exclusive poll, and a whopping 72.7% agreed that the original 12-parter is perfectly self-contained, worrying that the new seven interconnected series will ruin that.

Just 27.3% of the site's readers backed the new books, admitting that they would love to read anything new from the world of Watchmen.

Granted, while this is not a burning journalistic issue, this blog is also about the craft of writing and influences on my writing specifically, and influences on others, and it can be argued that while comic books were viewed by society with some derision during their long history, in recent years they have been mined by Hollywood as fodder for entertainment, some of the best superhero movies have comic books as their foundations, and comics themselves come from a literary genre dating back to the 1930s and 40s, mainly the pulps.

Back to the issue at hand, I tend to agree with those who think it will be a good idea for DC to crate new material based on Watchmen. While I did at first worry that a perfect series such as this should not be tampered, (If you haven't read it, shame on you, go out right now and pick up a copy, it's OK this post will be here when you get back, and no watching the movie does not count!) I am now convinced that we should allow contemporary artists try their hand at crafting some backstory for these wonderful characters, I know if I was a writer assigned to this project, I would be salivating at a shot of playing in this wonderful sandlot.

As an aside, I gave up buying new comics last July. I was a fervent collector, but Marvel has just inflated their prices on new comics so much, that it makes it financially prohibitive for me to dump money on new issues on a regular basis. I still occasionally purchase a series I find interesting, and I think that this might be the series which brings me back to my first literary love.

I mean some of the top talent in comics will be working on this project, the line up reads like a who's who in the industry:


  • RORSCHACH (4 issues) – Writer: Brian Azzarello. Artist: Lee Bermejo
  • MINUTEMEN (6 issues) – Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke
  • COMEDIAN (6 issues) – Writer: Brian Azzarello. Artist: J.G. Jones
  • DR. MANHATTAN (4 issues) – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski. Artist: Adam Hughes
  • NITE OWL (4 issues) – Writer: J. Michael Straczynski. Artists: Andy and Joe Kubert
  • OZYMANDIAS (6 issues) – Writer: Len Wein. Artist: Jae Lee
  • SILK SPECTRE (4 issues) – Writer: Darwyn Cooke. Artist: Amanda Conner

Come Summer time, I for one, will be buying and reading these books and basking in the creative after glow of some of the most talented folks who still produce superhero fare. Success or failure, DC should be lauded for trying to take the genre in new creative paths, not condemned for trying to "mess" with a classic.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Another community college newspaper bites the dust

I got this email from my journalism adviser Toni Albertson in my inbox this morning. It's an article about the demise of yet another community college newspaper.

As someone who got his training in the field from a community college and beyond (I got an A.A. from Mt. SAC, but prior to that I did work and took classes at several area schools including East L.A. College where I took some public relations courses and Citrus College in Glendora where I contributed and photographed for the student newspaper The Clarion)

I am a journalist by trade, so whenever I hear about a newspaper going out of print, this always makes me a bit sad. Not just because newspapers are essential for disseminating information, but also because I would be nervous about attending an institution where there is no watchdog to keep an eye on the machinations and moves of entities such as the student government or the administration.

From the article, it does not sound as though the Lance was discontinued for nefarious reasons, it may have been simply a casualty of low enrollment, but this is disturbing in itself, considering community college enrollments have increased as a result of the recession. When there are fewer jobs out there, people tend to go back to school to improve themselves, so if enrollment is increasing, why is the converse true for journalism at Shasta College?

It seems this college is reducing their journalism courses, rather than maintaining their program. If it is simply a matter of supply and demand, i.e. fewer students are choosing journalism as a career path, it would be one thing, but it sounds as though there are students that are willing to take classes to pursue a certificate program in journalism (the college doesn't offer an A.A. in journalism) and it seems that these students now will have to wait until fall to take the classes, unless enrollment dooms the program another semester.

Some institutions are trying their best to roll with the punches of a changing working world and incorporating said changes into their curriculum, teaching their students new era techniques such as social media, video editing and other skills set now necessary in journalistic and media related careers.

I think that Shasta College is doing its college a great disservice by phasing out the newspaper production class, and administration should do everything in their power to bring the newspaper back because without the proper training ground for students to practice their craft, they have little options for preparing for future careers. Also, the school needs a newspaper to watch over the entities which run the school, otherwise there is no accountability for their actions, or no entity in place to hold them accountable, which is a very dangerous and undemocratic way to run a school.