The first e-mail came in on my BlackBerry Sunday afternoon from a co-worker. It said “congratulations,” with the subject “ideaLab.” I had spent the early afternoon at the water park and was not exactly in a work state of mind, but my curiosity was piqued nonetheless.
I knew what the ideaLab was, having followed Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton’s blog and invite to all employees to apply, but I had not applied. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s a fantastic opportunity, offering 15 employees companywide an opportunity to experiment with an iPhone, iPad and Netbook 10 hours a week and receive a $500 monthly stipend. But only a year into my new role as managing editor of eight weekly newspapers, I didn’t think I had the time. After all, I was working 60 to 70 hours a week already and putting all of my energy into work. So, my initial reaction was that there must be two employees in the company with the name Michelle Rogers. It’s a big company, after all.
I immediately got online and checked out Paton’s blog. And there it was — my name on the list of “idea labbers” with a description — and there was no denying it:
Michelle Rogers: Michelle, editor of The Saline Reporter and The Milan News-Leader, part of the Heritage Newspapers group, is the only member of the Idea Lab who did not nominate herself. Michelle was selected based on her daily efforts at her community weeklies where she is constantly focused on growing her audience and has done so by recruiting community contributors and hosting local blogging seminars.
It was indeed me. But why? I asked around and didn’t get a concrete answer, except that a number of people were considered based on their various attributes. Hundreds had applied and I didn’t feel worthy. So many had expressed a strong desire and passion to do things I had no knowledge about, like creating apps. Create apps? I don’t even use apps. I basically use my Blackberry to make phone calls and check e-mail, and that’s about it. Sure, I have a personal Facebook account and I’ve been on Twitter for a year and a half, and I’ve set up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for our newspapers. I use social media, including blogs, and I’ve embraced video, producing local video for the last four years, but being given the weighty responsibility of helping to change the direction of an industry utilizing the latest technology was something I never thought I had the know-how or inclination to attempt.
So, after a freak out on the phone with our online editor, Jason Alley, and a few hours of the news sinking in, I started to embrace it. I took to heart what Jason said. He suggested making it a team effort. After all, several employees of Heritage Newspapers had expressed an interest in the very thing I had been chosen to do. So, why not engage them in the process and invite them to be active participants?
That has been exactly my approach. I’ve assembled an advisory group who will help me do the research, experiment with the technology and report back twice a month to me. In turn, I report monthly to corporate. The group is comprised of employees from various departments, from news and advertising to online and IT, as well as experts, including Michael McVey, a technology instructor at Eastern Michigan University, readers who use the technology already and journalism students learning about it and excited to help change the industry.
I immediately set up a local ideaLab Twitter account to post my progress and our corporate ideaLab leader, Jon Cooper, vice president of content for JRC, set up a corporate Facebook page for the ideaLab. This blog will be where I and my Heritage team members will post our agendas, meeting minutes, findings, ask questions and look for input.
It will take a few weeks, I am sure, before the technology arrives. While I wait, I can’t help but think about my late husband, Dave Hardy, the former IT director for Heritage Newspapers. He introduced me to the Internet and e-mail back in the day. He arranged for my first cell phone, through work no less, and he set up our home with Wi-Fi years before I even had a laptop to take advantage of it. He was, as one Rollodex card at work stated and I kept, the resident “tech guru.” Those he mentored in the technology field came to affectionately call him “Doctor Dave.”
Dave specialized in computer networking and wrote computer programs to create and customize an interface for the newspaper chain’s computer systems. In addition, he was a Certified Netware Engineer with Novell Inc. and a member of Microsoft Developer Network. Among some of his greatest achievements and accomplishments was helping to develop the Close-Up software, an early competitor to PCAnywhere. He also authored numerous articles about computer technology and networking for national computer magazines as technology was emerging in the 1980s and early 1990s, and was later dubbed a “microcomputer pioneer” by Micro/Systems Journal.
In the late 1990s, my husband also worked as a contractor with HelmsTech Corp. writing software, which included voice recognition systems, for concept cars making their debut at the International Auto Show in Detroit. He also facilitated the building of a mobile office in the Vision II concept car marking American Sunroof Co. Inc.’s 30th anniversary in 1990. He also operated his own Internet business called Detroit Download Central, for over 20 years. This business hosted such websites as the Heidelberg Project and numerous other businesses and nonprofit organizations, even before the Internet caught on commercially.
Sadly, Dave died Aug. 14, 2004, of cancer. But every time I get on my computer to report a story, edit copy, design a page, upload Web content, produce a video, send an e-mail, share a link on Facebook or Tweet something, I think of him. Beyond being my husband and the center of my universe, he was my connection to technology. He was the person who made technology not so scary. In fact, he made it exciting and fun because he was so enthusiastic about it and the never-ending possibilities it created.
As I wait for the arrival of my iPad, iPhone and Netbook, I am a little scared he’s not here to help me with it, but I know his former employees, Joe Manley, Jessica Spitulski and Jason Corneilus, will be there for me if I have any questions. And if the equipment arrives Aug. 14, 2010, on the six-year anniversary of his death, I might just think he had a little hand in this.