Saturday, March 13, 2010

Immersive reality

You're in South Carolina and you're dog is in Japan.

You are connected to your computer in South Carolina.

Likewise, your dog is connected to a computer in Japan.

You "pet" your dog, and when you do that with your computer, you actually feel his fur and warmth and the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes or pants.


Digitization of touch or tactile sensation is now possible (and is even happening.) Same with smell.

This is according to Adam Clayton Powell III, a recent visitor to our university. Powell, whose picture you see with this blog post, is vice provost for globalization at the University of Southern California. He's also been director of the Integrated Media Systems Center in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

All this means that Powell, the son of a famous civil rights activist congressman from New York, is quite knowledgeable about technology.

He said in a 2006 interview with "USC News" that great technology "is electric. It changes the course of history" and it "changes your perception of what is possible and what is human."

At Winthrop, where I teach and where he gave two presentations a few weeks ago, he spoke of Web technology "creating for users an experience indistinguishable from reality."

He talked a lot about users of powerful Web software experiencing "immersive reality."

Is it really possible that we humans can become so immersed in a digital environment that we cannot distinguish it from reality?

Mr. Powell intimates this is fast becoming the case.

I did some quick research and found that there's information on the Web about haptics, the study of the sense of touch. One source, in fact, says haptics is the future of user experience on digital devices. Another site speaks of haptics offering computer users a "richer, more enjoyable, more intense experience."

I know this: to touch and feel is intrinsic to being human. We all love to touch and feel another living thing.

And now computers might fool us into thinking we're actually having this precious human experience.

As for me, I'd prefer actually being with my dog and petting and smelling him in person, not from hundreds of miles away via a computer.

The song has it right: "Ain't nothin like the real thing, baby!..."

Turn up your sound and click on this link to enjoy that song, as sung by the Jackson Five.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Student newspaper shines "under fire" at Winthrop

It takes more than a fire to shut down The Johnsonian, the weekly student newspaper at Winthrop University.

Buildings may be closed, offices evacuated and classes cancelled (as they were yesterday) while restoration professionals and others continue to dig through the ashen rubble of the upper structure of heavily damaged Owens Hall.

A fire this past weekend has touched everyone on our campus.

But the student newspaper and student video magazine (Winthrop Closeup) have remained on the job--covering this huge story as it unfolds hour by hour.

Turn your sound up and click on this link to experience a video report--from Rock Hill cable station CN2--about our enterprising and first-on-the-scene student journalists.

Couldn't be more proud of them!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Big changes at our hometown newspaper in Rock Hill

Here's a piece I recently wrote for the Web site of the South Carolina Press Association. My story focuses on big changes at The Herald, our hometown newspaper in Rock Hill, S.C. The photos (above from top to bottom) are of: Gary McCann, Terry Plumb, Debbie Abels and Paul Osmundson.

By Larry Timbs
Special to the S.C. Press Association

Despite an announcement in late January that the McClatchy Co.-owned Herald in Rock Hill was cutting seven positions and outsourcing some newsroom and business operations with its nearby sister McClatchy Co. daily paper, The Charlotte Observer, Herald news decisions and Herald news reporting will still occur in Rock Hill.

That’s according to Herald editor Paul Osmundson, who emphasized McClatchy’s strong commitment to local news.

“A lot of decisions made by McClatchy (in an era of soft ad revenues for newspapers) are designed to protect as much as possible local news,” said Osmundson, editor of The Herald for the past three years.

Osmundson is not happy with reductions in The Herald’s newsroom staff, but he is confident that the latest changes will allow the 34,000-daily circulation daily to operate more efficiently, while still offering the public an outstanding news product—in print and online. Although declining to disclose a dollar amount in savings, Osmundson said the changes will make enough of a difference to be worthwhile. “…We wouldn’t have done it (made the changes), if it would not have been enough to make a difference, ” Osmundson wrote in an email message.

He emphasized that though some copyediting and design positions at The Herald were being outsourced to Charlotte (about 25 miles north of Rock Hill) the paper’s news agenda and reporting would be determined in Rock Hill.

“The product of the paper (The Herald) is physically going to be done in Charlotte,” Osmundson said, “but the decisions about the stories that we are going to pursue and how we’re going to pursue them will be made here in Rock Hill—ultimately by me. We’re going to decide what stories will go not only on the front page, but on A2 or A3, and on all the pages (of The Herald).”

Osmundson noted that because The Herald and the Charlotte Observer share the same computer technology or software, it will be easy to see—from Rock Hill-- Herald pages as they are being designed in Charlotte. Page design and copyediting decisions that had been made in Rock Hill will now be done in close consultation, by phone or by computer, with newsroom staffers at The Charlotte Observer.

“I think the paper (The Herald) itself will see no changes in content or direction or anything like that,” Osmundson said. “We’ll still be making the decisions on news here (in Rock Hill). . . The number one priority that you have in these decisions is how you can best protect the gathering of local news for the paper and online.”

Osmundson’s boss, Herald publisher Debbie Abels, said recently in an interview that the newsroom changes at The Herald were necessary to save money in an era when newspapers are coping with the effects of a lingering recession. She noted that even though some page design and copy editing positions for The Herald’s news, sports and features sections are being moved to Charlotte, Herald readers will get continued journalistic excellence from their hometown newspaper in Rock Hill.

“When readers pick up a Herald in the morning, it shouldn’t feel different to them,” Abels said in that interview (which occurred in a Herald story about the newsroom changes a few weeks ago.)

Changes at The Herald in recent months have included employees absorbing pay cuts of from 2.5 percent to 10 percent and the newspaper itself being no longer printed in Rock Hill on The Herald’s aging presses. Printing operations for The Herald moved to Charlotte in 2009, with Herald pressroom employees offered severance packages, retirement or opportunities in Charlotte.

The Charlotte Observer, too, hasn’t been spared pain. In late January, for example, the 250,000-circulation daily announced the latest in a series of money-saving changes; 25 full-time Observer employees, among them 11 newsroom staffers, lost their jobs.

Old Man Wayne Patrick: Rolling Over In His Grave?

Wayne Patrick, past president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, was for many years the owner and publisher of The Herald, known until 1986 as the Evening Herald.

In 1985, the News & Observer Co. of Raleigh, N.C., bought the paper from the Patrick family; in 1990, the McClatchy Co., now the country’s third largest newspaper company, bought The Herald and three of its sister community papers—The Yorkville Enquirer, The Clover Herald and the Lake Wylie Magazine.

Patrick, known for his lifelong commitment to journalism and for his community philanthropy, prided himself on producing one of the best daily newspapers in South Carolina.

Patrick’s Herald fought tooth and nail against the Charlotte Observer for the then highly lucrative newspaper advertising and circulation market in Rock Hill and York County, S.C. In the mid-1980s, for example, York County, S.C., was home to the fiercest newspaper competition (between The Herald and the Charlotte Observer) in South Carolina—and maybe even in the southeastern United States.

Patrick, publisher of The Herald from 1970-1993, died at age 66 in 2001. He didn’t live to see the now close collaboration between his Herald and its one-time arch enemy competitor, The Charlotte Observer.

Is he rolling over in his grave?

That’s not a legitimate question, according to retired Herald editor Terry Plumb, who headed The Herald’s newsroom for more than two decades, including at one juncture when it had 45 employees. (The size of that newsroom staff was probably bigger than most newspapers of the Herald’s size, because of the competitive situation in York County, Plumb noted.)

Plumb scoffed at the “rolling over in his grave” question:

“Whatever was said or done at the time then, the circumstances now are dramatically different,” said Plumb, who retired from The Herald three and one-half years ago and now works in PR for the U.S. Census in Charlotte. “Wayne loved the paper and he did a lot for the paper, but the time came when he sold the paper.”

Plumb, who worked 40 years professionally in journalism, said newspapers are doing just about anything they can do to survive in highly challenging economic times, and The Herald is no exception.

“It’s obviously a difficult time,” he said. “No one wants to see anyone lose their job in this business. . . There are newspapers that are having their pages laid out in foreign countries, and that’s hard to accept, but it’s not unlike what is happening in a lot of other fields as well. . .

“I hate to see it (the reductions in newsroom staff at The Herald), but hopefully this will allow them to keep operating for a long time.”

Herald Newsroom Changes Result In Departure Of Award-winning Sports Editor

Much of the talk in Rock Hill about the employee cutbacks at the town’s community newspaper has focused on Herald sports editor Gary McCann.

McCann, 61, is one of only about 50 people in the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame (voted to that honor last year by his peers.)

He is the winner of numerous awards for his writing over a 40-year career in journalism, covered 17 Final Fours in basketball and won the respect of prickly, legendary Indiana University basketball head coach Bobby Knight.

But given the choice by McClatchy recently of whether he wanted to work second shift as an assistant sports editor at the Charlotte Observer or retire, with a severance package, McCann opted for the latter.

How do you replace a Gary McCann at The Herald?

You don’t, according to Osmundson and many others in Rock Hill, who credit McCann with helping put the Winthrop University men’s basketball team on the national radar scope.

“It’s hard to replace a hall of famer,” Herald editor Osmundson said. “You’re losing a hall of fame sports writer who has the respect of Bobby Knight. Gary is great. He knows the game and can report the game. . . Talk about hard work. We’re losing that knowledge and insight. We’ll certainly miss that at The Herald.”

McCann came to The Herald in 1998, after pulling stints in sports journalism at newspapers in Burlington, N.C., Greensboro, N.C., and Bloomington, Ind.

In Rock Hill, he became a brand for his sparkling coverage of the Winthrop University men’s basketball team, which won its first game in the Big Dance (the NCAA Tournament) a few years ago against Notre Dame. McCann was at that game to write about it, as well as at other “away” Winthrop men’s basketball games that year. He had convinced his superiors at The Herald that the Winthrop’s men’s team, then coached by Gregg Marshall (now the head coach at Wichita State University) would be very good and that it needed to be covered—at home and away.

“I went to my bosses the year Winthrop played Tennessee (in the NCAA tournament) and said this is going to be a really good basketball team. The Herald had never covered a Winthrop basketball team home and away. We did it, and that year, they beat Notre Dame…

“I wanted to cover the team because it’s college basketball, and it’s a sport I always loved,” said McCann, responding to the idea that many think he’s responsible for Winthrop getting nationally known. “If I made Winthrop basketball by what I thought was a good business decision, then so be it. I loved covering college basketball. I was fortunate that when Winthrop was the best it’s ever been (in 2007), I was there to cover it.”

McCann stressed that he was not forced to retire. He chose retirement instead of working in the Charlotte newsroom, he said, because he had worked second shift before (what he was offered to do in Charlotte) and he wasn’t going back to that; plus, his 17-year-old son, a senior at Rock Hill High School is on the baseball team, and second-shift work would cause him to miss most of his son’s games.

McCann, whose wife works at a sports marketing firm in Charlotte, says he’s comfortable with his decision to retire: “I don’t want anyone to think that the people who run The Herald said ‘You have to take this option or you’re gone.’ It’s kind of a byproduct of what the entire (newspaper) business is going through right now—trying to cut costs and keep the operation alive. I’m fortunate it happened when it did. . . My target age (for retiring) has always been 62. But I feel bad for the younger folks. . . and I hate it I’m not going to finish the season with the (Winthrop) basketball team.”

McCann’s leaving The Herald leaves a void at the newspaper, in the community and in Winthrop University basketball.

“It’s sad,” retired Herald editor Plumb said about McCann’s exit from the paper. “If I were the people at Winthrop, I’d be holding a funeral because Gary McCann has done so much to tell the story of the Winthrop basketball team.”

Likewise, Herald columnist and feature writer Andrew Dys wrote in a Jan. 24 Herald article that McCann leaves huge shoes to fill.

“Nobody in the country wrote about basketball better than McCann,” Dys opined. “He wrote about Earl “The Pearl” Monroe at Winston Salem State University in North Carolina in the 60s; about David Thompson in the 70s; Jim Valvano in the 80s; Christian Laettner in the 90s.

“…He came to The Herald and changed what Winthrop basketball meant to the city. It was no longer a niche sport in a small conference. Winthrop blossomed, and the fans went, in part, because McCann was the one who was doing much of the writing. He painted pictures of the games with words.”