The first column I ever wrote was called Town Talk. It consisted of a weekly collection of tidbits, each too small to constitute a story on its own. In those print-only, afternoon daily days, I knew people read it. One day I mentioned a former town manager — and lifelong townie. His middle initial was “B.” An associate told me the joke was, the “B” stood for “Bourbon.” So I naively put that in the column.
Oops. All hell broke loose. Old B was a teetotaler; if I remember correctly a recovered alcoholic. I never made that mistake again.
Nowadays it’s easier to tell how widely read you are. Web sites like ours are like patients hooked up to a dozen monitors, each revealing statistics. How many people are reading at the moment? How many so far? Are they dot gov? How long are they spending on a story? Where did they link from? The stats go on and on. (No, we don’t if you individually have visited the site. Don’t be like those ’60s people who weren’t certain Johnny Carson could not see them in bed through his camera in Burbank.)
Plus we get shares, re-posts, twitter mentions, social media postings and the occasional comment. We know what resonates.
The IRS piece concerned the agency being tied in knots over its Assembler and, to some extent, Cobol code. To this day no one from the agency will — officially — acknowledge the column or my inquiries. But given the tens of thousands of hits this piece got, I’m sure it must have landed on a programmers forum somewhere. For them, the challenge of updating code written directly to machine instruction sets is like a shiny seal to a polar bear. Something to sink your teeth into.
Cubicle life is also a big hit with readers. They like reading about it, hate the modern drift towards 19th century open plans. Government management, so enamored these days of anything vaguely “silicon valley” is caught up in the open plan boom.
Often the less obvious things that surprise me also capture readers. A case in point: The #9 column on the lifecycle costs of aircraft carriers. I knew they were expensive. So did you. But the price tag to decommission the original one, the U.S.S. Enterprise, perplexes even the Navy. Nearly as much to build the ship, launched during the Kennedy Administration.
At the end of the year, I’ve written not one but two shutdown columns. Looks like it won’t be the last.