2009 Herald Hunt

Great Herald Hunt yesterday. For once, the weather cooperated. No, it didn’t “cooperate” — it actively collaborated, and colluded. It was an unindicted co-conspirator. The kind of mid-70s low humidity day that makes people still want to live in South Florida despite the quality of driving there. And here’s  a fabulous Hunt quote in the paper today that perfectly captures the Hunt spirit:
“This might be it,” said Jeff’s brother, Rob, speaking of yellow dots on the pavement leading to the Venetian Causeway. “Absolutely not,” Jeff said. “I think that just might be for people working with the sewers . . . But we can’t rule anything out.”

herald hunt 2009

The full story, as usual, struggled to explain the Hunt, but it also included the puzzle-by-puzzle explanation.

After the last Herald Hunt, which took people an hour and a series of hints to solve, we intentionally made this one easier, and we succeeded. Huge percentages of the 5,000 participants seemed to have genuinely solved most of the puzzles, and the winner solved the endgame — the Final Solution (which requires solving all the preliminary puzzles first) two minutes after we issued the final clue.

Most people seemed to enjoy being able to get so deep into the Hunt and still be competitive, but a few complained it didn’t require “enough brain power” as one woman down from DC for the Hunt put it. I said, “So you won, then?” And she said, “Um, no.”

“Well,: I said. “Maybe if we had made it easier still, you might have.”

I Have Seen the Future of Journalism

… and it is surprisingly optimistic.

Just spoke at a high school journalism conference — 6,200 kids from around the country. There’s nothing like a Washington convention hotel filled to the rafters with bright, young, energetic, enthusiastic, having-the-time-of-their-lives 17 year olds. And this was a journalism conference?

I had to keep pinching myself. I’m thinking: what do they know that I don’t? What do they know that all the media pundits, corporate execs, Wall Street suits, and the moaning masses of working (and recently down-sized) journalists can no longer even imagine?

Based on the sheer tonnage of irrepressible perkiness I saw at the Wardman Marriott hotel this morning, I’d say that whatever problems journalism faces in the transition between a print world and a digital world will simply be swept away.

I told them about my first job in journalism, as a reporter at the Independent Florida Alligator – the Univeristy of Florida student paper. I knew even before college I wanted to be a writer. But I noticed something: I wasn’t actually writing anything. The only time I ever did was when I had a class assignment, and even then I couldn’t bring myself to do it until just before the deadline.

I had this realization while sitting on the side of a mountain on the island of Ibiza in Spain. It was toward the end of my junior year abroad program, and I had my journal with me, which I had barely written in. I was trying to write then, but it just wouldn’t come. So I was sitting there, all alone in this beautiful spot watching the waves of the Mediterranean beating on the red cliffs that jutted into the sea, and I thought: “What I need is a lot of deadlines.” Right then and there I decided that I would join the student newspaper.

When I got back to Gainesville, I found out where the office was and walked in unannounced. It was off an alley, a block off the main drag, in what used to be the kitchen of a greasy spoon restaurant. It appeared that nobody had even bothered to clean the place before the newspaper moved in, much less remodel. Directly above the news desk was an old stove hood, still thickly caked with black, toxic-looking grease. Beneath the hood was a guy with mustache and long brown hair who identified himself as the news editor.

“I’d like to write for the paper,” I said.

He asked if I had any experience.

“No,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said.

I asked him what did matter.

“Just show up,” he said.

And that’s been working for me ever since.

Sneaking Up On You

Usually, the delightfully eccentric Kyra Sedgwick is the only thing that captures my attention in the TNT cop drama The Closer. But the other night, something else jumped out and grabbed me by the lapels. Kyra wanted to go after a suspect in something other than a department-issued sedan, so she turned to one of her detectives and asked, “What kind of car do you drive?”

“A Prius,” the staffer responded with dawning horror. “But it is brand new, and I just washed it!”

Nobody denies Kyra anything, and this would be no exception. She commandeered the car. As they pulled out of the station the camera lovingly lingered on the Prius’s distinctively aerodynamic exterior before switching to an interior view. I began to get an uneasy feeling as it panned slowly down the car’s control panel, lingering unsubtly on the “Energy Flow Diagram” in the touch screen. My uneasiness turned to queasiness when they approached the perp, conveniently caught in the act of burying a body, and Kyra urges stealth. The detective responded, “This car has an all battery mode, so we can drive in without making a sound!”

Now I felt dirty. All I wanted was to slurp up a little free entertainment, when without warning, the hour drama I’m watching morphs into an advertisement for Toyota.

“So what?” my wife asked me. “It kind of fit the show, and it’s not like you don’t already know that this is commercial television.”

priusShe had a point. And ever since E.T. the extraterrestrial followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces more than a quarter century go, thereby driving a 65 percent surge in sales of the chocolate-peanut butter treat, paid product placement has become a given in almost every movie and television show.

But somehow this hit me as different. Previously, the advertising pitches began and ended with the “placement.” The product just showed up on screen, nothing more. This was something else. The Prius wasn’t just sitting at the curb, it had been written into a plot in a way designed to emphasize the car’s selling points. These characters we have bonded with were pitching us, playing us for suckers. It wasn’t about the art of making a good TV drama, it was about sales.

And that’s when I realized why it had hit me so wrong. Two times over the years, my wife and I had begun to make friends with another couple, only to discover that the new “friends” were really more interested in pitching us something than getting to know us. The first time, the husband cornered me and tried to sell me satellite TV. The other couple made my wife the target: they wanted to persuade her to convert. On both occasions, the evenings instantly turned to ash and we felt violated, our good will abused.

Now we discover that Facebook, that haven for online “friends,” is actually signing folks up to market products to their buddy networks. “People naturally seek out products and make buying decisions based on recommendations from their friends,” the promotional material for the “Market Lodge” program astutely notes.

Yeah, that’s because they trust their friends, and believe that friends have only their well-being in mind, as opposed to, say, a 10 percent commission on the sale.