September 9, 2007

Double trouble

An interview with…


New Times Broward Palm Beach

Last month, in a private dining room at the Westin hotel in Fort Lauderdale, board members from the South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists were gathering for their regular bimonthly meeting. In the small talk before things got started, someone asked, “Did you read Norman today?”

“Blog or column?”

What followed was a wide-ranging analysis of both “blog and column.” At one point, a board member loudly declared, “I don’t read that blog. Ever.” Another backed her up.

Bob Norman’s writing has always triggered strong reactions. But until he started his Daily Pulp blog in February 2006, his enemies were usually the government officials he investigated in his weekly print column. For instance, disgraced Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom certainly isn’t a fan – Norman’s reporting directly led to Wasserstrom’s felony indictment last October. Norman also forced Gov. Jeb Bush to overhaul the North Broward Hospital District and uber-developer Michael Swerdlow to kill a massive condo project in Pompano Beach that would’ve ripped up a barrier island.

But when Norman launched his blog, he decided to dish it out to those who historically have a tough time taking it: other journalists.

While The Daily Pulp began as a critique of South Florida media, it sometimes wanders aimlessly, criticizing Israeli politics and expounding on sports (“Think I'll just talk baseball today…”).
Indeed, while Norman’s column is impeccably researched and edited, his blog can be rife with typos and sporadically updated.

Still, there’s no journalist in South Florida who has successfully pissed off two different audiences with two kinds of media.

Biggest difference between your print column and the blog?

The column, I hope, is a professional piece of journalism that has both impact and some entertainment value. The blog – well, if it’s so much as coherent on any given morning, I’m thrilled.

Which is more fun?

Probably the blog, only because if it’s not fun, I’m not doing it. The column means more, though. It feeds my soul, even if some weeks it’s just a lousy Whopper with fries.

Looking back on it now, one thing you wished you knew before you started the blog?

Well, the terrible truth is that I’ve made a lot of mistakes on the blog, and what I’ve learned is that you need to use restraint. It’s so easy to push that button. It’s actually taught me a lot about how wrong everyone can be, and how you need to apply the old journalistic standards on every post.

Does the blog have a different audience than your column?

Hard to tell. The blog’s audience is smaller, for one thing, and it’s read largely by media and political types. I believe, or like to believe, the column has a more general readership.

How do you decide what goes on the blog? What goes in your column?

With the blog, I go by feel. My time is extremely limited, so whatever is quick and convenient to post gets up there, while the more work-intensive stuff sits around, sometimes eternally. My column is based on news value and interest – and whether or not I think I really have the goods on, say, a county commissioner or not.

Any advice for others wanting to start a blog that’s more than “look at me, I’m blogging”?

If you’re not the next Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, or H.L. Mencken, you won’t get many readers because of your keen insight and wit alone. You have a better chance for success if you follow the old adage “write what you know” and come up with a well-defined concept. The Pulp, for instance, started as a media blog and almost immediately got a base of readership from the three big newspapers. JAABlog, by Bill Gelin, is tightly focused on the Broward courthouse. You know what’s lacking in South Florida? A really good local politics blog.

You rate South Florida media on your blog. Now rate your blog. How’s it doing?

Fair to middling. It’s got decent readership, but my enthusiasm for it goes up and down. The key is not to force it. I find the thing has its own natural rhythm. Some days it’s slow – so I don’t post much, if at all. Other days, the thing fills up naturally.

You're married to Sun-Sentinel reporter Brittany Wallman. Does having a wife who works at the Sentinel help or hurt your blog or column?

She doesn’t help in terms of digging up dirt on the Sentinel, that’s for sure. That good woman is as loyal an employee to her newspaper as can be imagined. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

More likely, does your wife get crap about having married you?

It’s a sad situation for her. She’s a respectable professional with the misfortune to be married to a scalawag like me. But, and I’ve said this before, people just seem intrinsically to know not to blame her for my tomfoolery.

Do you and your wife ever argue at home about mainstream vs. alternative journalism? Get heated? Throw shit?

We have more important things to argue about – like who’s going to mop the floor, get the kid to football practice, and wash the dried toothpaste off the sink.

Which is the best newspaper in South Florida: Herald, Sentinel, or Post?

Pound for pound, I’d say The Post. They’ve been doing some great local corruption stuff the past year or two. Then The Herald, followed by the Sentinel, which is a shame. With The Herald on a downward trend, the Sentinel really had a chance to become the leading newspaper in Florida. But they chose to go with marketing gimmicks like the “Help Team” over real journalism, downsize the news department to ridiculously low levels, and fill the local section with re-written press releases masquerading as community news. I love newspapers, but what has – and hasn’t – happened to the Sentinel is just sad.

Any opinion of local TV news? Have you one really like? One you can’t stand?

I don’t watch much TV news, but I’ve found that Carmel Cafiero, of Channel 7, is a good investigative reporter. And Michael Putney at least tries to keep an eye on the political scene, though his stuff is almost always too broad to ever really truly mean anything. One thing I really can’t stand – that makes me turn the channel and possibly throw a shoe if one is handy is when local news leads off with a television show that airs on its own network. It’s sheer promotion and it demeans everyone in the operation. It’s done all the time with "American Idol" at Fox.

Best journalist in South Florida?

Jim DeFede, although he’s not doing a whole lot of in-the-trenches reporting these days, what with his radio and TV work. When he was at The Miami Herald and, even more so, when he worked for the Miami New Times, he was the epitome of a muckraking city reporter. If anyone is my role model in this business, it’s Jim. And this place needs him, if for nothing more than for his knowledge of politics in Miami and Tallahassee, which is unsurpassed. Another diamond in the rough is Michael Sallah, the investigations editor at The Miami Herald who won a Pulitzer Prize at the Toledo Blade for uncovering atrocities in Vietnam. I just finished reading the book on it, Tiger Force, and it’s quite gripping.

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into the skulls of new grads and young pros?

Well, I’d like to tell them that real journalism isn’t for apologists and yuppies. If you want to be comfortable and lead a nice pleasant existence, go into P.R. or the insurance game. Real journalism – not the official, corporate, pansy-ass bullshit that passes muster at the big dailies these days – is for rebels, misfits, and hell-raisers. Basically, it’s for the people who know that the road less traveled, while it might be one big bad bitch to tread, will ultimately lead them to a promised land called Truth. Or the wrong end of a gun. One or the other.