Thursday, April 21, 2005

Escape from my own private Pennsylvania

In this time of transition, I've been thinking a great deal about my brief 1992-'93 stint as assistant news editor for the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times Leader. It was there that I experienced the first major upheaval of my professional life.

I headed for those hills after about four years of work at the now-defunct Haverhill Gazette, a smaller daily in northern Massachusetts. I get sentimental over my 1988-'92 "Gazettte period" because that was where I really began to learn how to be a reporter, working under the guidance of an editor whom I admired and respected. There was a "family" feel to the place -- literally, since I would sometimes take my newborn daughter into the newsroom. (She's now 13 years old. Yikes!) While I did my work, some of the writers and photographers would keep my baby occupied and entertained.

I moved from there to the ruins of Pennsylvania coal country because I felt it was time to make the transition to a larger paper with better pay and more responsibility, since I now had a daughter to support. I was brought in as an "outsider" to take over the copy desk, where it soon became apparent that my arrival was greatly resented. Two of the senior copy editors believed they should have been given my job, but the chief editors wanted to shake things up with some new blood.

Long story short, it was pretty much a nightmare from the beginning. I had to watch my back against the bitter editors I supervised, while trying to show my bosses that I was cracking the whip and making measurable improvements in the copy desk's work. I would stay awake nights, worrying myself sick over how to get my employees to like me, and my supervisors to notice the good work I did.

It was a hopeless situation, and I found myself turning into somebody I did not want to be -- a panting dog so eager for praise and acceptance that I tossed away nearly everything I had learned the previous four years. It was no longer about journalism at all, I lost this driving sense of mission to learn the craft and improve my skills. Now, it was a job. A middle management purgatory. A place that literally made me sick with worry over how everybody was perceiving me. My demeanor in those days was a great deal more "serious" than it is today. I certainly did not go around making wisecracks and emanating irreverence -- especially not to people who had control over my life and my family.

It's been an evolutionary process since then to get me where I am today -- more sure of myself and less likely to really give a damn about what others think of the way I practice my profession or what they perceive to be my attitude. Admittedly, I've probably overcompensated in my willful escape from the sniveling, cowardly kiss-ass I thought I was in danger of becoming.

Today, I'm probably my own worst enemy. But, like I wrote to a friend yesterday, I spent my 20s and early 30s worrying about what my editor or boss thought about my work, or whether I said the wrong thing to the wrong person. At the ripe old age of "pushing 40," I'm done with that. I try to let my work speak for itself. I keep my eyes directly on my core mission as a journalist without bothering to turn my head to the left or right to even listen to how it's being accepted or rejected by others. Some of my personal heroes are the ones who did not take the convenient positions of the moment, but stayed on their own path in the conviction that it will be proven correct in the long run.

And that's why I naturally float toward The Foresight Institute, a nanotech think tank whose members have always believed in the long-term vision of molecular manufacturing despite the way they've been conveniently marginalized by short-term nanobusiness interests. Oh, I've been critical of them, too, for what I've seen as their refusal to engage in issues of great importance to development of the nanoscale technologies that today call themselves "nanotechnology." Like I told Foresight members when they honored me with the 2004 Prize in Communication: "You need to remember that I am not your friend. It's just a matter of time before I write something that does not please you, if I haven't already. When I do, I hope you'll remember that I am only displaying the kind of independence that you all have encouraged in me."

This little blog is the only publication in existence that's dedicated to objective coverage of nanotechnology. And by "objective," I don't mean refraining from voicing an opinion. This is a blog, and blogs are all about opinions. I mean objective in the sense that I have no personal stake in any of the stuff I write about -- except that I'm fascinated enough by nanotech to want to continue committing random acts of journalism around it. But when all is said and done, I can decide to stop covering nanotechnology, move on to another topic and apply the same kind of standards of objectivity and readability that I have learned and applied throughout my career.

Foresight heard me, believed me and, even more importantly, placed enough of a value on the ideals of independence that its members took action to prevent it from going away. The Foresight Institute, its board of directors and the donors who make the work possible, including Larry Millstein who also sponsors the Communication Award, figured out a way to help me save my house from foreclosure. And it was not an act of charity. I'm going to do some "work-for-hire" writing for them to earn the advance in pay that their board voted to send me.

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds is a Foresight board member, and his support was key not only through the link he provided in his wildly popular blog, but also voting to help me through this crisis. My family and I are immeasurably grateful for Foresight's unsolicited, surprise, 11th-hour offer.

And it's not only the molecular manufacturing crowd that values my work. The head of a nanotech company that is very much into the nanoscale products of today -- in fact, has products on the market, also thought that I was enough of a worthwhile investment to advance me some money to save the ranch in exchange for future work. This, too, seemed to come out of the blue for me, and was unsolicited. The CEO, who wants to remain anonymous, wrote: "I believe that you perform a valuable service to the sector and would like to see that continue (as it benefits nano to have some objective journalism on the Web)."

Nice to get the affirmation from a sector that sometimes falls under my criticism. There are many other nanotech businesspeople and investors who tell me they value my blog because of its independence, and not despite it.

There are many other people to thank, as well -- the concerned readers who wrote to me with much-needed words of encouragement and job tips, the folks within the nanotech world who brainstormed ways to help me out and the family and close friends who were there when I needed them. I am deeply indebted to them all. And I never forget my friends.

Unlike my behavior during my personal "Dark Age" in Pennsylvania, I did not go out of my way to try to impress them or court their support. In some cases, I've been openly critical of them. And that's exactly why they want to see me continue this NanoBot experiment.

My gratitude to you all. Now, back to nanotech ...


Anonymous said...

Howard... good things come to good people... congratulations on finding a way to continue this wonderful news source as well as continuing the spirit behind it.

All the best... Charlie d'Estries

Anonymous said...

Howard . . . great to see you back in business!

Lawrence Gasman

Anonymous said...

Howard, good for you and your family and the nice people that helped you out. I enjoy NanoBot immensely.


Anonymous said...

Hooray for the Foresight Institute, and that anonymous CEO!

It is so refreshing to see the community and, surprise, the industry, preserve a resource as precious as Howard Lovy.

You are making an excellent investment. You'll probably never know all that Howard has done for you.

Hmm. . . that sounds bad, doesn't it? It's not. Howard is one of your bridges to the rest of the world, and it's always best to have a bridge which is intelligently constructed, and allows for two-way traffic. In the long run, that serves your interest.

Anonymous said...

Howard, I'm glad to hear things are working out for you, and that this wonderful source of information will continue! I wish you and your family the best.

By the way, I'm trying to steer my friends to your blog for info and update to nanotech!