Tuesday, January 05, 2010

493. Alas! A Roadtrip Nation Interview with Ms. Sara Miller McCune

Shannon and I had anticipated in interviewing Ms. Sara Miller McCune... the book and magazine publisher, the entrepreneur, and now philanthropist... for quite a while... since October? But the cards of life fell as they did, and the interview finally was conducted... today! It was well worth the wait. In essence, we had an extensive interview with Sara, but we also had two short interviews with Todd Capps, who is the director of the Holden Foundation, and Michael Todd, the on-line editor of Miller-McCune Magazine, who is frequently a guest speaker to university functions in concern of communicating technical issues to society. I had met and spoken with Michael about 3-4 times before... and when the time is right (and my advisors won't kill me for it)... I hope to intern with the magazine....

Shannon and I have been very persistent about holding a filmed interview with Sara simply because she is one of those individuals who sees clear links with science and society, knowledge and change. The motto of the Miller-McCune Magazine is "turning research into solutions," which seemed completely common sense to her, but apparently is not a mainstream mode of thinking or mentality in journalism. One random man off the street heard the motto from our mouthes and he proclaimed, "Turning research into solutions?!! Ain't that what research is for in the first place?!! DUH!" Ya, well tell a scientist that... Hmmm.... When we asked Sara "Why do you think scientists perceive 'advocacy' to be a cuss word?" Her response was very logistical. In short, the way how science works is through peer-review. All you are trying to do is talk amongst and impress your colleagues in order to achieve credibility. After a while, scientists rack up a "track of credibility" which comes with the baggage of potentially multi-million-dollar laboratory set-ups... just a snowball earth of INERTIAL CREDIBILITY amongst academia, and for you to step out of character and start seeking dialogue to a broader public and express concerns about societal-environmental change pertaining to your research, then all this track record of credibility can be destroyed, slowly or rapidly.... Breaking your inertial credibility is not an option for academic survival... which is ultimately a form of financial survival as well.... And Sara said in similar words, well hey, since scientists aren't in the best possible positions to voice their thoughts, we as Miller-McCune Magazine can work right along side them and be the voice for them to facilitate the translation of research into solutions, whether policy change, grassroots change, or whatever change that needs to incur based on the new knowledge we have acquired. Then again, though the magazine also serves as a safe haven, a venue that allows scientists to express their views on human-environmental change. Scientists are actually frequent contributors to the magazine.

So, this is a very practical, matter-of-fact response I find as valid, but I also find it saddening that people are not allowed to say things simply because of preserving this inertial track record, this inertial accumulation of a certain reputation.... As if lack of freedom of speech is inherently embedded within this human system. *Sigh!*

As a run-down overview, Shannon and I showed up to the headquarters of Miller-McCune Magazine in downtown Santa Barbara around 2:30 pm. We were both somewhat distraught because Shannon's boyfriend Ben is struggling with a severe medical drama, trying to survive a staff infection that has implanted itself in his heart. Gosh, how horrible! All the best to Ben! Our thoughts are with you! But we managed to show up just in time... 2:56 pm, struggling to get inside 804 Anacapa. Apparently the building has historical significance... a little bit of adobe in there somewhere or other... and a changeover of interesting parties, all the way from restaurants to churches.... I was actually a bit thrown off by the layout of the building. First off, there were NO SIGNS anywhere stating that this place was "Miller McCune Magazine." It reminded me of this super-multi-million-dollar-space-ship-like-music-studio I ventured into off of Haley Street (Santa Barbara Sound Design). You could never tell that studio was there from the street; it looked like a plain white-drabby building from the outside! I always perceived journalism headquarters to be some giant big hub with people in crammed cubicles, and layers upon layers upon layers of clutter.... There was a since of common space among everyone. This building was much more spaced out. Everyone had substantial space to themselves, and potentially even their own rooms! There wasn't much clutter up on the walls. Honestly, I think the level of space is superb because I know myself that I do need a lot of space and time to be an effective writer....

Finally, Shannon and I were able to venture into the building, though it was a bit tricky, and we were greeted by Todd Capps, and then Sara soon after. We sat down and "warmed up," familiarized ourselves with each other, and Todd explained how the Holden Foundation was seeking to have more "cohesive efforts" in social-economic-environmental sustainability rather than all this piecemeal patchwork that is currently going on in the non-profit scene... or in general, which includes a redundancy in programs. The first problem is that several non-profits focus on one specialized subject without realizing the interdependent nature of the problem... like environmental groups not accounting for the social factors in environmental problems... or social groups not calibrating their issues of concern to the broader environmental context. The second problem is that several organizations are REDUNDANT in their efforts. I had come to this fundamental epiphany as an undergraduate about 7-8 years ago. I tried to make an "Environmental Resource Guide" toward the end of my undergraduate UCSB experience, and I was just simply frustrated to make a list of campus environmental organizations be simply redundant in their overarching mission statements. It turned out that each organization had slightly different (1) visions (2) methods of achieving those visions (3) issues (4) in different regions (5) composition of individuals. I learned that these redundant organizations reflected more so a byproduct of the properties of human behavior. Humans aggregate in small friendly groups by region / issue of concern, and when an organization reaches a certain scale, then a level of impersonal interaction occurs, and more strict bureaucratic regulations would have to be imposed to maintain the organization in one coherent piece, and dear lordy, who wants to make more bureaucracy in the world... we have enough already....

The Holden Foundation seems to have a great mission in terms of synthesizing the patchwork, but before organizations can actually start having that type of mentality, I think we as a human species need to first start synthesizing the patchwork of our own minds.... Otherwise I don't see much of anything getting anywhere any time soon.... But hey, someone is out in the right direction... We'll see where it all may end up! I'm always open to new experiments! Nevertheless Todd was very open and welcoming to me and Shannon, and it will be interesting to see how the Foundation unfolds.

After the meeting with Todd Capps, Shannon and Sara sat around a wooden table in Sara's office, right behind a very colorful painting. They were very close to a brick wall, so I'm not exactly sure how that will pan out as backdrop footage; it may be slightly cluttering.... It's good to have distance between the subject and the backdrop.... Ohsy wellsy, it's all on the fly anyway.... I did set up a light stand to have a bit more brightness, contrast.... Shannon and I filtered out some main questions we wanted to ask Sara, and overall the interview went very well. Sara was conscious of her speaking softly, and it is actually very helpful for her to state that--I adjusted my camera's volume accordingly.

We ended up talking for about an hour's worth of tape, but I bet about 1.5 hours total. There were lots of jewels and gems that she stated, sometimes very blatantly, and sometimes very subtle. An example of subtlety was when she discussed how life throws so much at you, and you have to learn how to filter and prioritize. In a metaphor she whistefully stated, "You can't pick every single leaf that falls on the ground," and I thought that was a very clever way to make her point. The two blatant, screaming messages came in a quote and a metaphor. The quote: "Money is a renewable resource. Time is not," which I remember was stated by her son. The metaphor: "Life is an open book, not just for reading, but for experiencing, and for writing." This quote was paraphrased a bit, and Sara left the metaphor open-ended for us to interpret for ourselves.

Overall, Shannon and I listened to a fascinating suite of stories about how Sara came to founding Sage Publications, co-founding the McCune Foundation, and setting up the Miller-McCune Magazine. We even had some discussions about Sara's involvement in sustainable development projects in other countries, some through the the collaboration? with Dr. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University (I don't know how or why, but so many arrows have pointed me to the direction of Jeffrey Sachs, time and time again... hopefully it's not just me). Sara even referred us to one of Dr. Sach's programs on sustainable development. I suppose the academic publishing profession started when Sara just graduated from college, as an undergrad, and back in the day, there was still the expectation for women to be housewives, but she had a hunch she wouldn't be one of those. She applied for a few jobs in publishing, and was hired by MacMillan, Inc. (?) Since then, she fell in love with the profession of publishing. Sara specifically mentioned that she did not go to graduate school, though she did consider it, but she was always continuously learning on the job through her authors, and the publishing process itself. It seemed like everything fell into place afterwards. It was surprising to hear from Sara that "educational publishing" has not been so severely hit as other newspapers and other publishing houses in this "changing media climate," and that Sage Publications / Miller-McCune Magazine has of course established an on-line presence to coincide with print media. We also had a splendid series of digressions and personal anecdotes, which were a pleasure to listen to. As a "strict journalist," I probably would have "cut her off" because journalists are to get to the meat right away... but I honestly feel that this mentality is just a bit too inhumane at times, and I wanted the ambiance to be as friendly, conversational as much as possible. Digression is a property of human nature. Let one subject stream into the next even though there are a few curves in the road, or you didn't take the shortest route from point A to point B. There are a lot more gems in the videotape; I can't wait to crack into it, and find more golden soundbites!

It was unfortunate that Sara had to leave a bit in a rush. We didn't have enough time to get a couple of photographs, nor have her participate in our little "art project" of "name," "profession" "quote of the day" written out in our sketch book.... But it all worked out overall. Sara will send me the art project in the mail.

Our grand finale was a comical tour of the Miller-McCune Magazine by thee one-and-only Michael Todd, who somehow establishes his own humorous credibility through jokes of continuous self-deprecation. And honestly, he is VERY good... it works very well.... I will officially call this jokester methodology the SELF-DEPRECATING GLORIFICATION; I should try it myself! I wish Hollywood stand-up comedians would do this more frequently; their methods are SELF-OVER-GLORIFICATION. I can see why Michael does a lot of guest-speaking to several universities and other public lectures... he's just so fast and witty and spontaneous... making humor out of everything that everyone else could simply see as ordinary... even boring. It turns out that Michael has taken an interest in wildland fire management issues, as he has done an article in the past relating fire's contribution to climate change. He happened to (embarrassingly) stumble upon my father's quote, "Trees are bombs" in our little Roadtrip Nation quote book, and I stammered, "Oh, that's just my dad. He's a fire ecologist." And then a little chain of questions followed up to a point in which... oh that would be a great idea for my father to do an article on Miller-McCune Magazine addressing alternative policies/management regimes to deal with wildland fire! Oh cool, cool! My father has had so much boiling up in him, I think doing an article like this would really allow him to vent. I also told Michael that my father's been hammered by other media sources, but their interviews have been largely "shallow," in which they come bug you the day of the fire and forget the next day that you exist. He completely understood, and I said that would probably mean much for my father to have such an opportunity.... So, I have to hook 'em up, hopefully my dad can meet Michael directly!

Shannon and I left the meeting in good spirits, a bit frazzled in a wonderful way... our minds trying to process what exactly happened, but our thoughts soon returned to the other sad realities of Ben and the onslought of other school obligations. I knew I couldn't focus unless I recapped and did a blog.... So here I am. MENTAL DIGESTION!

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