Writing is hard work. If you’re going to put in the time, why not make sure that the final product is the best you can produce?
When you retain my services, you are tapping into more than 3 decades of experience in media and communications, working in the over-lapping worlds of journalism, advocacy non-profits, and the pressure cooker of national electoral politics. In addition these cross-cutting perspectives, I have an insatiable native curiosity, and bring a very-wide ranging body of general knowledge about many things historical, political, and scientific to bear.
As a journalist, I started off in a jack-of-all trades position at a small summer weekly in New York, The Fire Island News, where I was one of two editorial staff responsible for doing everything at the paper except selling ads: I wrote feature stories, took all the photographs, edited local columnists, wrote headlines, laid out the paper, and supervised the make-up of the paper at the printing plant on Long Island. There could not have been a better introduction to the business, providing a foundation that has informed all of my subsequent work, starting with several progressively more demanding managing editor positions where I worked with dozens of aspiring young writers.
I got into the world of advocacy and non-profits through reporting at The Real Paper on the Clamshell Alliance, a grassroots organization opposing the construction of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, NH. As the managing editor of The Real Paper, I supervised the paper’s 20,000-word special edition on what turned out to be the largest mass arrest for civil disobedience in U.S. history in 1977, complete with jailed reporters and press releases sent by Frisbee from inside the New Hampshire armory.
After leaving The Real Paper, I started volunteering for the Clamshell Alliance, where I became one of the organization’s principal media contacts. I also did televised debates with nuclear spokespeople, including a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Working inside this movement showed me how the mainstream media filtered news from a social insurgency. And I learned some hard lessons about the organizational challenges of maintaining an effective movement governed by consensus decision-making.
My experiences with how the media presented the debate over nuclear technology provided the impetus towards co-authoring the Sierra Club Book “Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Myths, and Mindset.” The book was dedicated to George Owell, and I was very pleased to earn the 1982 George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language from the National Council of Teachers of English.
In 1984, while working for the overseas relief-and-development agency Oxfam America, I got an opportunity to jump into electoral politics as the Issues Director of Senator John Kerry’s first Senate campaign. As a journalist and an advocate, I had been outside the electoral process. But as I had already seen in my advocacy work, there was a lot to learn by looking at communications from the different viewpoints of major players in the process.
In Kerry’s campaign, I was involved in the research and production of almost all campaign materials on the issues themselves, as well as on the records of the campaign’s opponents. I wrote issue briefs, press releases, debate prep, and the occasional speech.
After Kerry’s victory, I went deeper into electoral politics as the Research Director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where I served under 3 successive chairmen: Senators Mitchell, Kerry, and Breaux. At the DSCC, I:
- became a teacher of campaign research to dozens of Democratic Senate campaigns;
- produced reports on the financial and voting record of both Democratic and Republican Senate candidates;
- created a Senate Floor Votes Database that became an important research tool for Democratic campaigns studying voting records (until this information finally became available online through the Library of Congress’ Thomas website);
- developed one of the earliest uses of email in political campaigns (1986), an evening report over Compuserve to Democratic candidates on the statements and floor votes of their Republican incumbent opponents.
My interest in online communications led me to the Democratic National Committee after Clinton’s first win, where I persuaded the powers that be that the DNC needed to get into gear online. We started with what was then a state-of-the-art forum on Compuserve (1993), which grew into a lively community generating up to 5,000 messages a day, with a crew of volunteer moderators I recruited.
And when the Internet suddenly sprang into public view with the release of Marc Andreessen’s “Mosaic for X,” I lobbied for the DNC to join the web and got the funds to create the first national political party website (1995). In 1996, I managed the first Democratic National Convention website, which was years ahead of its time with gavel-to-gavel audio and video coverage of all podium speakers.
In 1997, I went back to the non-profit world, joining Lester Brown at the Worldwatch Institute as vice president for communications. Brown has arguably been the most widely published global environmental thinker (through his signature State of the World books, research papers, and magazine), and he wanted to expand the organization’s presence online. World Watch’s publications were translated into several dozen languages, creating a workplace that was inherently much more outwardly focused than the world of U. S. electoral politics.
I took one more dive into the political pond when I became the blogmaster for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in August of 2003. Howard Dean’s campaign (and to a certain extent, John McCain’s 2002 primary campaign) had showed that there were potentially enormous opportunities for campaigns to use the Internet to interact with voters, to raise money, and to identify field workers.
The Kerry blog worked because of the intense dedication of a small band of volunteer moderators whom I selected based on their knowledge of the campaign and their coolness under fire from flamers. These volunteers insured that someone was monitoring this live blog (no pre-moderation) around the clock. There were hundreds of thousands of comments during the blog’s 15 months, and the moderators were so deft that not a single one of these comments generated a negative story in the press (—and believe me, there were plenty of trolls out there who tried.)
The experience with the Kerry moderators gave me invaluable insights into what makes for a strong online community. The campaign fell short of doing as much with this resource as I would have liked. But in 2008, President Obama’s campaign, which included online vets from the Dean, Kerry, and Edwards campaigns, showed just how much could be done when a campaign brought the internet team to the table.
Most recently, I have been gaining another perspective on the world in Canada, where my wife and I have a small summer house on Petpeswick Inlet in Musquodoboit Harbour, about 30 miles east of Halifax. (Halifax happens to be a sister-city of Norfolk, VA, my hometown.) Since we started going there three years ago, I have become a board member of the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association, a very successful grassroots environmental organization that has been at the forefront of the struggle to preserve wilderness and reduce clear-cutting. Thanks to the miracle of Skype, I can participate in the monthly board meetings while I’m in DC. Working with ESFWA, I’ve been learning a good deal about provincial and federal politics and the very different operations of the parliamentary system, with its minority governments, snap elections and greatly shortened campaign cycles.
I’ve also had a chance to join with some neighbors in investigating the potential of the Transition Towns Movement (TTM) along the eastern Nova Scotia coast. (TTM is a world-wide movement based in England supporting grassroots-based groups which are developing plans to prosper in the changing world which peak oil and global warming are producing. There are some 356 official “transition initiatives,” and several hundred more communities that are “mulling.”)
Click here for a summary of my experiences as a writer, editor, and researcher, with links to some of the organizations involved.