Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Old School and New



Well, Rich Somerville, welcome to Humboldt County. Here's a briefing from The Town Dandy, and don't say I never did you any favors ... I sincerely hope you stay for a while, at least. But if you do end up moving on, please tell your reporters one thing:Don't sit on the story!

— "Town Dandy," Sept. 21, 2006

As it happened, they did sit on the story, at least until the middle of the next day. But the circumstances were not those I had envisioned back then, a time when the Times-Standard's parent corporation, MediaNews Group, was throwing people around left and right and apparently somewhat panicky about the insurgents over at Eureka kazillionaire Rob Arkley's Eureka Reporter. They sat on the story, so far as I can tell, in order to notify their chief's family of his sudden and untimely death.

The Times-Standard of today is not the Times-Standard of five years ago, or even two years ago. No matter what obstacles the penny-pinchers at MediaNews continue to throw in its path, it must be said that the Times-Standard newsroom of today is a fantastic little machine firing on just about all cylinders. I can't really say how much of this is directly due to Somerville, but the transformation under his reign has been a marvelous thing to behold. And not a little vexing, from our point of view. Again and again they've beaten us on stories that we would have owned, back in the day.

I got to meet Somerville very shortly after publishing the above piece, which poked fun at his advanced degree in "Alternative Futures" and other sundry details of his resume, which was all I knew about him at the time. He was about as nonplussed as could be imagined, and I later came to realize that this was not because he was simply a happy sort of guy (which he was) but because he'd spent a lifetime in serious newsrooms around the country. As irate readers came to learn, he was a naturally cool customer. He didn't fight back criticism — he absorbed it. He was a very shrewd fellow, really. Deceptively so.

Luckily, he and I had occasion to meet several times over the months he lived here, the last months of his interesting life. We served on panels and commissions together, gave presentations to groups interested in hearing about the newspaper business, did the KEET-TV fundraiser. He didn't make a big deal of it, but he always had a story or two from the old days, when papers were still printed with hot lead and journalism was absolutely the most glamorous imaginable job. I came to envy him some. But he was rare among old-timers in that he was really more interested in the present and the future, and he should have had more days ahead of him to see his "Newstradamus" predictions come true. He would have been there to help any way he could.

Rest in peace, big man.

Who is "Heraldo"?

The electrons have been buzzing with the question all around Humboldt County ever since the Humboldt Herald blog (humboldtherald.wordpress.com) debuted a couple of years ago.

For a few months, there, the Herald was a second-tier affair, full of lefty jeremiads and sporting traffic well below that of the mighty Buhne Tribune (RIP). But a few things happened. Ryan Hurley (aka "Capt. Buhne") retired from the scene, leaving a void at the top of the pile. At the same time, Heraldo, the Herald's proprietor, assimilated the old McLuhan lesson: Cool beats hot every time. The Herald forsook the blunderbuss for the rapier. It dropped its outrage and went arch. Where Heraldo would once scream and hector, now he just raises his eyebrow — to far more devastating effect. These days it's a reliably good read.

But sometimes the Heraldpisses people off mightily, and sometimes the pissed-off have cause for complaint. There are at least two reasons for writing anonymously. On the one hand, it makes for a cool art project. The author's work instantly acquires a mysterious and intriguing air. Readers make a game out of it, project their own guesses and fantasies on the blank canvas. It's fun — more fun than an actual flesh-and-blood human being sitting at a computer could actually be.

Then there's the other reason, and maybe this is best explicated by reference to an age-old bit of redneck wisdom: "Don't let your mouth write checks your ass can't cash." Anonymity relieves you of this obligation. Suddenly, the consequences of your actions no longer redound to you, but to your fictional persona, where they can be easily shed. If this allows whistleblowers to deliver the real goods without fear of reprisal, it also — and far more frequently — allows cranks to poison democratic discourse with baseless rumors, panic and outright lies. (See Gabriel Garcia Marquez's neglected first novel, In Evil Hour, for a prescient vision of what the Internet would become.) Also there's the question of disclosure, and it's amusing to watch left-wing media reform types fretting about sources of funding in politics, government, business and the "mainstream media" while at the same time swallowing the anonysphere whole.

Heraldo, despite his/her wit and ease, has sometimes made things personal — s/he has occasionally put thumb to nose in a way that would have been impossible were simple human decency part of the equation. So, anyway, friend and foe alike were intrigued when our colleague, the semi-anonymous Carson Park Ranger (eurekastandard.blogspot.com), announced last week that the first annual Humboldt County Bloggers' picnic (Sunday, Sept. 21, Scotia Fireman's Park) would feature an appearance by none other than the great Heraldo himself (or herself). Could it be? We shot an e-mail to H. He or she demurred. We twisted the arm. A total of 21 e-mail messages were exchanged in a matter of minutes. No results.

But we are ever reluctant to be scooped, and so while we wait for the great unveiling we will tell you what we do know. Heraldo, like Superman, has his/her confidants, possessors of the great secret. One of them is Scott Greacen, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. Greacen, we knew from a previous conversation, is a member of the Heraldo inner circle. We gave him a call Friday and invited him to come clean.

Our previous conversation, from a couple of months ago, had gone like this. We asked: Do you know who Heraldo is? Greacen said that he did. Who is Heraldo? "That's your problem," he said. How do you know who Heraldo is? "Someone who shouldn't have told me, told me."

This time we expanded the line of questioning. Greacen seemed to be enjoying himself as much as we were. Who is Heraldo? No answer. Does Heraldo work for you? "No." Has Heraldo ever worked for you? Long pause. "I'm trying to work through the possible permutations on this. I'm not sure I want to go there." Why did she come clean to you, then? He replied to the not-so-artfully deployed trick question with an "Uh, wha ...?" For what it's worth, I took his confusion to be staged.

See you in September ...

This Saturday night is a red-letter night for the new, expanded northcoastjournal.com. Barring any unforeseen technical glitches, we will be broadcasting actor Tim Robbins' speech and presentation at the opening of Dell'Arte's annual Mad River Festival in Blue Lake. (You can read about the event and the award Robbins is receiving elsewhere in this issue.) We're told the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night, so tune it to northcoastjournal.com to catch it all and check in at the North Coast Journal Blogthing throughout the week for updates. There's a link on our home page.

The show is brought to you in part by Arcata's fabulous StreamGuys, providers of fine streaming audio and video Internet solutions. It looks like we're going to be doing a lot more of these kinds of things in the future, at least until such time as StreamGuys realizes that we're getting more out of the deal than they are.

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