6.26.2010

Is that a clam in your pocket, or are you just happy sashimi?

With the rise of blogging, you sort of get used to the fact that nobody's actually reporting on anything. They're "curating", which can in some cases devolve into "cut-and-paste journalism," "recycling," or in some cases just plain "stealing."

But in the recent release "Shell Games," there's an extended dose of full-on reporting that'll make your inner investigative journalist start high fiving itself. Written by the Seattle Times' Craig Welch, a Kansas J-School grad that has spent his career in the land of newsprint and nine-fingered pressmen, "Shell Games" has the meticulous reporting of the best newspaper writing ... and the rich character of an Oliver Stone screenplay. It's a story of wildlife smugglers, and of the cops who love them. And while it touches on the illegal harvesting of everything from aquarium sharks to Dungeness crabs, it's main thread is uncovering the lucrative black market for the giant (and phallic) geoduck clam.

WO: I'm sort of fascinated by when you entered the story and who was your first contact? Like, did you do a piece on one of these guys when you were at the Olympia paper, then just kept tabs on them when you moved to Seattle? Or was it at the very end, when you realized what a ball of twine you'd happened upon?

CW: Actually, it was a little of both.

I met Ed Volz on a geoduck story in 2002 and started pestering him. Over time, he got used to having me around and just started talking. I asked him to make introductions for me. Eventually I would get him (and some others, like Bill Jarmon, Kevin Harrington and a bunch of Feds) to take me out to all the spots they did their work. They'd retrace their steps and show me where they'd been and what they'd been doing and thinking at the time. But all that took a lot of time.

First all I did was go in and tell Ed that I want to know more and more. I visited with him once a month or so for probably two or three years. Eventually I started collecting documents. I got thousands of them -- state arrest reports, federal agent memos, FBI memos. I got so many that I didn't read them at first. I just started putting them in binders.

Only when I sat down and read them did I realize what I had. Cops write reports after EVERY single contact and some of them aren't half bad writers. And they frequently included all this extraneous detail that I desperately needed in order to make a scene work. (Don't know where you are in the book, but during one interrogation scene there were four or five cops in the room and they all wrote about seeing the suspect puff harder on his cigar when the questions got tough. They even wrote about the cloud of smoke hanging above his head. It was awesome.)

Once I had most of the documents, it was pretty easy to know who else to go bug. And one of those guys, a retired federal agent, had kept audio tapes of a bunch of the undercover calls. He was planning on writing a book about it. But he was so excited, he sat in his living room and played them for me. (At the time I was just thinking of pitching a story to Outside, which he was all for. But then he passed away without ever writing his book ... so I decided I would.)

Once I was able to tell other federal agents how much I already knew, they were kind of into it, and pretty happy to share. It's kind of a small community, nationwide, and they all know each other. (The federal agent I met in LA who did the butterfly sting used to be an assistant attorney general in Olympia, for example.)

Sometimes, the material seemed too good to be true, but more often than not, they found a way to prove it. When one of the agents told me that the would-be hit man carried a teddy bear I told him I flat didn't believe him. So he opened up his files and showed me a photograph; someone had actually taken a picture of the guy before he testified in front of the grand jury HOLDING the bear.

Anyway ... the stuff I witnessed personally was almost all just at the very end. But -- with one exception -- I was able to get hours and hours and hours of interviews with every single state and federal agent mentioned in the book. (`course, I had to fly to Boston, South Carolina and Oakland and LA to meet them, but hey ... it's just money, right? Gulp.)

If I had it to do over again, though, there's one major thing I would do differently: I'd leave more time for the writing. I was racing the clock so big at the end that some of the chapters in the deep middle and near the end only got rewritten once. (The prologue, on the other hand, probably got rewritten 12 times.)

But someone once told me that no book is ever done. Authors just run out of time. So true.

6.18.2010

And so it begins: renewables and reality

It could be a Saturday Night Live sketch. Or maybe a Seinfeld episode. It might even be worthy of the Three's Company era of jiggly situation comedy. (".... Jack's passion for FILL IN THE BLANK is upended when Chrissy overwhelms him with FILL IN THE BLANK....)

For proponents of renewable energy, there's a strange writing on the wall that's starting to appear. I guess you could call it reality.

Beating on the drum for so long, it became de rirgeur to plead for support of any non-oil, non-nuclear energy source because the chance of getting it was about the same as Dick Cheney growing to be more than 5 feet tall. People felt they had to yell for wind and scream for solar because it was a very noisy room with the stereo cranked up and nobody was really listening, anyway.

Fueled by tax incentives (no pun intended), the radio has finally been turned down ... and renewables are popping up. Out East, big projects like Cape Wind are moving ahead, and small phenoms like the Solar Tracker are going off. Out West, conversations about building thousand mile pipelines for the new grid are inching closer to reality. And in my front yard, NIMBYs and "Renewables Now" are duking it out.

The good part about being involved in the political process (as wind towers and solar array debates are filling my evenings), is that you have all the information at hand. I've got the advocate powerpoint, the anti powerpoint, and the relevant legal decisions from just down the road.

The bad part is that it's no longer a pie-in-the-sky dinner conversation. There are lawyers around.

More to come ....

6.17.2010

Tommy Knoll & Earthwerx: Gentlemen, start your checkbooks

Last month, the US division of the niche climbing brand CAMP was acquired by their Italian parent company. As a result of the sale, the guy who had been running the show at CAMP ... Tommy Knoll ... not only has quite a bit of free time on his hands, he also has some "resources" to apply to a new venture. According to an exclusive interview in SNEWS, his plan is to start a group focused on acquiring small, soulful outdoor industry brands -- and to help them grow without getting so big that they forget their roots. Known as Earthwerx, the group will begin looking for those brands asap.

* You say you're looking to acquire cool, soulful outdoor brands between $2 million and $10 million in size, How many of those companies are out there?

Quite a few and increasing. Next time you're at Outdoor Retailer take a stroll off the main floor and you will find quite a few smaller, niche specific companies offering really interesting and unique products and services.

* And once they're in the Earthwerx group, what will happen to them then?

That's the secret sauce... the main thrust of our work will be to ensure these companies not only survive in a tough marketplace, but thrive.

* Did you ever consider spending your chunk of the sale on reinvigorating "The Piton"?

In all seriousness, there was a real demand for the, ah, news, The Piton was providing. Day jobs and other commitments took over and ultimately won.

* What's the difference between Earthwerx and a private equity firm looking to acquire outdoor brands?

What we have found is that although the Private Equity folks know how to manage and own businesses - we have found they are lacking in specific outdoor industry experience. This is where our team bridges the gap between capital and industry experience.

* When you were at CAMP USA, did you ever try on one of those randonee racing suits?

No comment.

* I feel like there are two threads here .... it's a "passion play", in that you're making a serious commitment of cash and personal time to a perennially low-profit outdoor market; but it's also a "money play," in that you're trying to turn a sizable profit and help others do the same. Can you really have it both ways?

We think so. There are many sectors in the marketplace where passion and innovation intersect to produce success - that's what we're looking for in this strategy. In our assessment, there isn't a shortage of passion and innovation in the outdoor marketplace but as you mention there is a shortage of profitability. We're looking to combine innovation and passion with the end result being success.

* Part of your success at CAMP USA was establishing a solid "direct-to-consumer" business .... aka, selling online without a retailer as a middle man .... while still maintaining an authentic "core" presence in small specialty shops. Is this easier than it sounds?

The marketplace has changed. Retailers are more accepting of brands selling direct because they see the value of greater brand presence - there is proof that a manufacturers brand presence equates to more traffic for them. It appears other manufacturers are also having this cross-over success. Ten, or even five years ago specialty retailers were resistant to manufacturers who were selling direct. We waited until the market was ready for and more accepting of a direct to consumer play and only then did we roll out. Direct to consumer models are commonplace now and if structured properly can be mutually beneficial.

* The more you sell online, the less people have a chance to touch and feel your product. But the more you sell in shops, the less profit a company makes. So, iIn figuring out how much to sell online and how much to sell in shops, what's the right balance?

I don't think one is mutually exclusive to the other - both have a role and a specific purpose - if planned properly. Specialty shops are the lifeblood of most manufacturers and brands - this is where community gathers, the product is on display, stories are told and transactions take place. From what I see - the moment that specialty shops stop building community is the same moment they begin their irrelevancy. With that being said, specialty retailers are not the only game around. Certain, particular consumers are only interested in buying direct for a variety of reasons and this will only continue. If the ownership and leadership of both specialty retailers and manufacturer brands work in concert with one another to create an optimum buying environment that includes elements such as holding price and preferred delivery then both models can work. There are plenty of case studies that prove this.

* I heard that you actually made some real money from the sale of CAMP USA this spring. How come you didn't take more time off?

You must be getting your news from The Piton!

6.11.2010

Wind power in our backyard? Part 2 ....




















With the recent interest of Citizens' Energy in the Mad River Valley ... and their open request for the community to "consider" a 24 wind tower project on the Northfield Range ... I've never seen people screwing themselves into the ground quite as hard. It's the dream that energy geeks have been waiting for! It's the nightmare of opening a pristine ridgeline to development! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!

There are undoubtedly numerous pros to the issue. Top of the list is that it will allow locals to put their money where their mouth is on environmentalism. It will offset some of the helplessness we all feel about the BP oil spill. It will help the region take a step toward a renewable energy future. And it will significantly defray local property taxes, possibly by as much as 10%. Or more.

But of course there are cons to the issue as well. In a state with only 10% public land, the undeveloped Northfield Ridgeline is a treasure. It's a critical wildlife corridor for large animals, a critical migratory corridor for birds, and the primary must-be-defended-at-all-costs resource of the Town of Waitsfield's comprehensive plan. A commercial wind farm will mean placing a service road on the entire length of the ridge. There'll be cement. There'll be fences. A commercial wind farm will also mean noise to some neighbors, and an illuminated ridgeline at night with all the safety lights they'll be required to put up.

The scenic impact? We don't know for sure as some people hate the idea yet others love it, but the question of where you'll see the farm is still worth considering. According to a "viewshed analysis" that a friend of mine just did (admittedly unofficial and impefect), you'll be able to see a wind farm on the ridge from just about everywhere .... in Waitsfield as well as far away Waterbury and even Stowe. The pink areas on this map are the places that would catch a glimpse of the spinning towers.

As a town planning commish -- part of the group tasked with writing a town plan that either supports or prohibits such a wind farm -- I've talked to a few dozen people about the idea of a wind farm over the last few weeks. In those travels I've met numerous people that are wholly against the idea, a great deal of folks who are undecided, and a sparse number of eager proponents. It's hardly indicative of a legitimate sample, but it's still food for thought.

Speaking as one member of the PC and not reflecting the opinions of the group or the Town, my instinct at the moment is to preserve the language of the current town plan: that ridgeline preservation is paramount, and that a commercial wind farm on the Northfield Range is prohibited. I feel that since we're in the 11th hour of completing the new plan, that to make such a substantial change to this fundamental building block would be potentially unwise, hasty, and reactionary.

However, I would encourage proponents of wind on the Northfield Range to petition the planning commission. If you're that supportive of a wind project, put it on paper. Let us know that as a community member, you want us to change the language of the Town Plan to allow for a commercial wind farm on the ridgeline. Make it as specific as possible (ie, a vague comment like "do you support wind in Vermont" will get us nowhere) regarding the number of towers you'd want to see.

By doing so, the idea of wind on the Northfield Range will take a very public, yet very specific course. It won't get tied into the approval of the entire Town Plan draft, and as such it will provide very specific input to the PC and the Selectboard. It'll also provide an opportunity for serious public discussion -- with plenty of breathing room so that all the pros and cons can be considered by all the citizens of the community.

Thanks for listening.

6.03.2010

Backpacker eats Climbing, Urban Climber & Mountain Gazette ("Less filling," says Dorn)

Yesterday, Active Interest Media (publishers of Backpacker and SNEWS) added three titles to their "outdoor group" roster: Climbing, Urban Climber, and Mountain Gazette. According to their PR, the additions will increase the group's combined readership to more than 1.35 million and its online audience to 430,000 unique visitors a month. In addition to being the editor of Backpacker, Jon Dorn is the general manager at AIM, and was nice enough to answer some wicked questions about the acquisition.

* Why is this acquisition a big deal?
It brings together two of the most venerable brands in the outdoor industry—Backpacker and Climbing—and two brands that share so much in the way of values, terrain, technique, and gear that you wonder why the combination hasn’t happened earlier. From a reader’s or advertiser’s perspective, it’s a big deal because we’ll be able to provide content and services we couldn’t as single titles. It’s a classic sum-of-the-parts equation. An example: The combined network of gear testers that we can now call on to review products in all of the Outdoor Group magazines is much broader and deeper. And that principle will extend across everything we do, from mobile marketing events to skills books to trade media and more. On a personal level, this acquisition is a big deal for a lot of us because we’re getting paid to pursue yet another passion—we’re all multisport enthusiasts here, and the continued growth of the Outdoor Group provides another outlet for adventure.

* If print is dead, why are you guys buying other magazines?
It’s a sign of our affection for the Northeast Kingdom and all of our friends in Vermont and Maine who depend on revenue from the paper industry. But seriously, who said print is dead? There’s certainly been a winnowing of magazine titles—those that didn’t have a solid relationship with their readers or a coherent editorial premise went belly up last year—but media consumers trust magazines more than websites, and print advertising is rebounding strongly in most segments of the magazine market. We have a very high degree of confidence that print remains essential, and that our company has a very solid blueprint—one that’s grounded in service journalism and an absolute adherence to the needs of our enthusiasts and industry. And, by the way, that’s a trick question, Drew, you sneaky SOB. You know we’re not solely buying or making magazines. Our business is successfully evolving to be much more diversified than that, and part of the reason we love this deal is the opportunity for growth we see in web, mobile, and events.

* What's the structure of the Outdoor Group? And how is it different or similar to a traditional "big publisher"?
The Outdoor Group structure is based on height. I’m the tallest, so I run the show as general manager. Kent Ebersole is next tallest, so he’s group publisher, in charge of all sales and marketing. Anthony Cerretani comes third, so he’s in charge of the web operations. And so on. But jesting aside, you’re probably wondering mostly about Climbing and Urban Climber. Mark Crowther, from Skram Media, continues as publisher, reporting to Kent. Dougald MacDonald, former editor and publisher of Rock & Ice and co-founder of Trail Runner, joins the team as editorial director, reporting to me. Our structure is not unusual in the publishing world, but what is atypical is the degree of local management we’re permitted by our bosses at Active Interest Media (our parent company). The company was founded on the idea that you hire people who know their industries and let them run their brands in a way that matches the needs and personalities of their communities. That’s makes us pretty flexible and guarantees that a really unique young title like Urban Climber won’t be subject to a corporate cookie-cutter template.

* At 6'11, do you have a hard time finding sweaters that fit you? I'm only 6'4 and it's a pain in the ass.
Sleeve length is a serious problem, Drew. Like me, you probably suffer from frostbitten wrists. It’s that gap between sleeve and glove that’s prevented me from climbing the 8,000-meter peaks. If I weren’t 6’6”, who knows where I’d be.

* Is the natural conclusion of this news that Backpacker is making tons of money?
Wait a minute—how can you allege that print is dead, then turn around and ask that?! [Bemused laughter ensues.] Here’s what I can tell you: Backpacker is a profitable and very solid business, and we all work extremely hard to keep it that way. We’re fortunate to be part of a company that is able to expand when others are shrinking, which is testimony as much as anything to how careful we’ve been in the last several years and how creative we can be in making acquisitions happen.

* Hostetter likes to tell me that she hired you at Backpacker. Is that true?
It is true, and for a song. I took a $10,000 pay cut when I started back in ’97, but it was the best decision I ever made. Mid-July will mark 13 years of living the dream…