I’m Your Vehicle, Detroit

DETROIT — Six days after returning home, two of the June 23-26 columnist conference’s field trips burn in me, tours of the Motown Historical Museum and the new heart-of-downtown home office of Quicken Loans.

Hitsville U.S.A.

The museum, informally called “Hitsville,” is in the two original houses in which Berry Gordy created the Motown recording label. Poverty, youth and convenience apparently led Gordy to set up in a residential block, eventually buying most houses there, each with a different business function. This also was a Malcolm Gladwell Outliers sort of monument: Its original stars (and writers and producers) were born within a few years of one another and many grew up in this neighborhood.

The one negative is this museum is it’s like a presidential library. You get only the good stuff about Gordy. He was no monster but neither was he a saint. The exuberance of the exhibits and most of all, the staff, overwhelm that predictable flaw. Museum visitors are organized into groups, guided to see a mini-documentary film then led through the rooms by guides who, besides lecture, sing and dance. By the end of the 30-40 minutes all visitors will have been persuaded to sing and dance a bit.

How else besides participating can one understand the genius of the analog sound effects Gordy used? (No one was recorded.) The most interesting is a 4×4-foot square hole in an upstairs ceiling exposing an unfinished attic. Singing or clapping under it created an echo — scratch that, created reverb, which would be recorded and used as a track. “Hey, young lady,” the tour guide said to a columnist, and he got her to sing the chorus of “My Girl” in the well. Little had we known that Tracy Beckerman could not only fill the room but sing on pitch. In the studio itself, he led the men in a Temptations-style clap and kick, and the women in a Supremes-like clap and shimmy.

Unlike most museums, we were not herded at the end to the gift shop, which I resent. But this is one time I might have bought a souvenir if I had had the time.The private museum allows no photography; there’s few photos online. But here is an AP picture of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee doing the guys’ step in the studio.

Quicken Loans

Quicken Loans hosted a lunch of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in its new headquarters, the top floors of the CompuServe building in downtown Detroit. Its executives want a lively urban atmosphere to enliven their young staff. They want to do right by Detroit and help revitalize its center, hit so hard this past decade. And the real estate there, plus government incentives, on this scale, is very affordable. Click here for a Detroit News report and a Detroit Free Press article. Quicken Loans had been in a suburb, overlooking a parking lot and a Costco, we were told. Now, staff had a view of the city skyline, the Detroit River and beyond.

It’s reminiscent of the high-tech campuses of Silicon Valley and Austin, but instead of sprawling horizontally, it’s vertical, several stories (20th through 23rd floors?). “We” are supposed to want to work in such environments. They’re said to be designed for creative people like us. My Beloved loved her Alltel Financial Services in west Little Rock and in other years IBM Global Services offices around the country.

When I am downsized from newspapers, this is what I am supposed to covet.

Door off hallway at Quicken Loans headquarters, downtown Detroit -- Rick Horowitz photo
Door off hallway at Quicken Loans headquarters, downtown Detroit -- Rick Horowitz photo

I was creeped out.

Give me dirty carpets and crumbs Continue reading

Paneling for the Benchley Den

This column also was published in the July 2011 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Once again, an NSNC columnist conference astounded its audience with information and fun. The June 23-26 session in Detroit catered to would-be and published book writers, gave fresh tips to free-lancers (and in “custom content” not just columns), took on humor and twisted its elbow, and even looked ahead to political coverage next spring.

Here are the overall lessons learned from “Rebound in Motown.”

  1. Branding is real, and it works. We’re writers so find a synonym — style, specialty, etc. — if you don’t like the artifice of brand.
  2. Straight columns need research, even humor and personal columns are enriched by research as well.
  3. Humor columns require jokes. Many nice people on the panels danced around the popularity of anecdotal columns to write, mention they don’t read well and rarely sell well. Jokes require punch lines, and punch lines require meticulous crafting.

Mirror: How did you find Detroit, Mr. Pollock?

Myself: The city of Detroit was about as I expected, yet better. It had its decline later than other Rust Belt cities and so its renaissance began later. It’s not quite fair to compare it to a place like Pittsburgh — yet. Businesses and residents are returning to the heart of Detroit, and we saw that.

The “better” part was how solid the street planning and old buildings are. The architecture of the high-rises is from many of the best decades of American design, built by people with the money to not blame budget overruns for any short-cuts. The streets are wide. There’s a lot of outdoor sculpture. Grand statues of great leaders. It’s like Kansas City, another Midwestern city famous for its public art.

Mirror: But what about its reputation?

Myself: I lived in Little Rock for many years. Just last May, Arkansas’ capital continued its surprising reputation by continuing to stay apace with Detroit Continue reading

Roger and Me

Roger Ebert receives the 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

version of this Brick is published at columnists.com.

Roger Ebert accepts NSNC Lifetime Achievement Award 25 June 2011
Roger Ebert accepts the 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award 06-25-11. Photo, by Cynthia Borris, of Ebert’s projection on a screen. He spoke via Skype from Chicago to NSNC meeting in Detroit.

DETROIT, Saturday, June 25, 2011 — Following is the acceptance speech of Roger Ebert for the NSNC’s Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award. Ebert’s physical condition prevented him from accepting in person, but he “spoke” live via Skype from his home in Chicago, using an electronic voice from his Macintosh. He then answered three questions submitted beforehand.

Ebert provided this transcript:

“By appearing this way on new media, I feel, in a way, I am letting down the team. But [conference host] Brian O’Connor and I have spent some time rehearsing with Skype, and I hope this will be an acceptable substitute for the glory of print. So anyway, hello in Detroit!

“It is my great honor to accept this award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I grew up regarding newspaper columnists as the most noble and brilliant of human beings, and nothing I have seen since, has caused that opinion to change. It is our job to take the events of our time and consider them with intelligence, and wit. In these days of  trashy celebrity, gossip which threatens to overwhelm the media, our job is more important than ever. So on this day when you meet in Detroit, I thank you. And I salute you.”

“Question. Has the Internet and the explosion of online movie and review sites diluted or enhanced the influence and stature of film critics?

“My answer: I think this Continue reading

Folio the Leader

“Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
— Attributed to Tom Lehrer

DETROIT, 8:47 a.m. EDT, Friday, June 24, 2011 — Hear ye, hear ye, (swat newspaper) I am Ben Pollock, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I hereby call the 35th annual NSNC conference to order!

[Swat paper? The NSNC doesn’t have a gavel, and I thought it would be fun to use a rolled-up newspaper in its stead. I had hoped to roll together the Friday Detroit News and Free Press, but inspiration struck at the elevator bank. On a table there as now usual were about four USA Todays. Gone are the days when a USA Today was slipped under every hotel room door.]

Take that, Gannett. I’m using USA Today as a gavel. Gannett, USA Today’s publisher, laid off 700 news employees on June 21 from among its many newspapers, so this is for them! (Whack! Whack!)

Your conference host, Brian O’Connor, will welcome you to Detroit in two minutes. I am welcoming you to the conference. I am glad to see you all here!

First, let me assure you that Brian has created an incredible schedule. You will be educated in writing and how to move your writing out. You will rock to Motown and be inspired by its art and decades of fomenting culture that has spread coast to coast and indeed the world. If you blink, you may miss something. If you go to bed before midnight tonight and tomorrow night, and sleep in just a little, you may miss value. You sure might miss some fun.

As the Ford slogan might go for us, “Have you written a column, lately?”

[It might seem self-serving Continue reading