Thursday, May 04, 2006

It's the Best of 2 Worlds--Jane Burns Edits And Writes In Wisconsin, Soon Will Hang Out In a Count's Castle And Drink His Wine In Transylvania

I started this with the intention of writing about Jane Burns' newspaper career.

Then the former Des Moines Register writer and editor mentioned to me that she and some friends will be vacationing in Transylvania this summer, and I immediately switched gears and became envious.

I knew Burns had been a traveler to some storybook places in this world for many years, and when she brought up Transylvania I knew she had, indeed, stepped up to the next level.

"I was actually wondering if you'd ever been there, being the world travler you are and all," Burns said when I asked her about Transylvania.


But, after listening to Burns describe the place, I'm ready to go.

I mean, bring on Bucharest!

Planning a trip to Romania, Burns said, "was kind of a fluke and proof you can find anything on the Internet. I was looking for something else online and stumbled across a link for a castle in Transylvania that is open as a bed-and-breakfast, and your host is a count.

"The count got his family property back when the Communist government crumbled and has opened it as a B&B to earn money back to restore all his properties. I had sent a link the place to friends who quickly said, 'When are we going?' because it sounded like a cool adventure.

"We would have gone last year, but my move to Madison [Wis.] made it impossible. And, yes, I did all sorts of homework to make sure this is all on the up-and-up."

Burns [pictured above with a friend] is enjoying life in Madison as a copy editor and sometimes-writer at the Capital Times, which she says is "the smaller of the two papers here and an afternoon one at that."

It's independently owned. The morning Wisconsin State Journal is owned by Lee Enterprises.

[The fact that Madison has an afternoon paper is news in itself. There aren't many afternoon newspapers anywhere these days in this Internet-TV-Radio-Instant News world].

"The State Journal is known as a conservative paper," Burns said. "In fact, we share a building and, if you walk in the front door, you turn left to come to our paper and you turn right to go to the State Journal. I don't know if they did that on purpose or not. The State Journal endorsed Bush, we usually call for his censure or impeachment about every other week.

"We kind of like the Green Bay Packers, benefiting from a business model that no one in their right mind would get away with today.

"I just wanted to get out of the corporate journalism world if I could, and it's a double bonus to be able to do that and work at the paper I grew up reading. My dad was a photo correspondent for this paper when I was a kid."

Burns came to Des Moines to study at Drake University, and she later did outstanding work in various jobs at the Register.

"I was at the Register as a news intern in 1982-83," she said, "then got a job there a few months after graduating, and was there until 2000 -- in sports as a copy editor until about 1986 when there were various titles.

"They were always changing them -- assistant sports editor, deputy sports editor, whatever. That was until about 1989. I wrote sports until 1996, when I went to the features department."

As a writer at the Register, Burns could handle any assigment. She became one of the best women's collegiate basketball writers in the nation, and has intentions of doing a book on women's basketball in the future.

In the features department, Burns' writing -- among other things -- included reviewing movies. Keep in mind that many of the same problems that exist at the Register now also existed then. I mean, the editor recently sent the most recent movie reviewer back to the copy desk.

How's that for 19th-century newsroom thinking? Sounds like typical to-hell-with-the-employee Gannett Co.-style philosophy to me.

My guess is that the bosses kept piling more and more assignments on Burns until she fled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she stayed for five years.

Wow, I'll bet it was a gigantic thrill for her to work in the same Star Tribune sports department as Sid Hartman, a sports columnist who has considered himself a journalistic legend for the last couple of centuries.

[That's me talking, not Burns. And I'm laughing as I say it. Hell, Hartman doesn't know anything about spelling and sentence structure, but he can take a joke. Right, Sid?]

"It was OK, nothing wrong with it," Burns said of her term at the Star Tribune. "After a couple years, though, I realized it wasn't where I wanted to make my career, and really was interested in moving back to Wisconsin.

"It's a good fit for me so far, not just because I'm home but because I'm working for a paper that really has a commitment from top to bottom to bettering a community we call care for greatly.

"Seems to me that's what journalism has lost in the past 20 years, and to be experiencing it again in a city I love is just an amazing thing to me."

Burns said she recently began "writing a column on media stuff." I've reprinted one of her media columns at the bottom of this essay, and also an op-ed piece Burns did for her paper.

"The op-ed [about Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, pictured on the right] was something my smart-ass self felt compelled to write," she said. "But I like editing and I like writing, and I knew this job would be a chance to do both.

"On a personal note, the return home was rather ironic because just a couple weeks before I moved, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was a very rough time for her and all of us -- so the fact that I was here to help her makes me think this was all pre-destined in some way.

"And she has pulled through and is doing great, all things considered."

Burns said she "still gets back to Des Moines to visit aplenty," and was here for the Drake Relays last week. "I'm in touch with tons of ex-Register folks."

Indeed, several of them are going with Jane on the trip to Transylvania.

"We just like the idea of hanging out in a count's castle, and drinking his wine," Burns said. "Actually, I also like the idea of doing some hiking in the area and seeing a very different part of the world. I've since learned that Romanian is a Romance language like French, Italian and Spanish, so I'm hoping to be able to read some signs since I speak French and a smattering of Italian and Spanish.

"It looks like a beautiful country, and I'm really excited about the trip. I plan to spend a week in England first, to see [former Register photographer] Terry Farris and her husband, who now live in the Dorset countryside."

Burns said she's "been to England many times in the last 10 years and have seen Terry and her husband often, and stayed with them on my last trip there. The rest of my traveling party will join me there for a bit and we'll head to Bucharest.

"There are no direct flights into Bucharest from the U.S. You've got to stop somewhere. I think it's about a 3-hour flight from London. From there, we're going to be exceptionally lazy and have someone from the castle come get us at the Bucharest airport for a fee.

"Mostly because I like the idea that someone representing a Count in Transylvania will be at the airport holding a sign that says, 'Burns.' I'll have to get a picture of that.

"So between hooking up with Terry and Cos, hanging with Mary Challender, Kathy Berdan [now at the St. Paul Pioneer Press] and Lynn Olson [now at the Washington Post], it will be an old Register reunion."

One more thing about Burns.

"My Wisconsin accent is back securely in place," she said. "I sound like a bigger cheesehead than I ever did when I lived in Des Moines."

* * *

Following are two recent columns Burns wrote for the Capital Times:

Sometimes decisions are just too tough to tackle quickly

By Jane Burns

This decision has been a tough one. I've pored over it, mulled over it, pained over it and gone back and forth.

I've consulted friends, I've consulted professionals and now it's time to announce to the world where my head is at today:

I still haven't decided on a paint color for my dining room.

This has been going on for months. I thought I had it figured out but that Guava Jam just looked too peachy and Powdered Petals was just too pink. Neither will quite go with the Mexican Chile I want as an accent wall. It's a conundrum.

Now I know this decision doesn't just affect me. There are people to whom I've said, "When my place gets put together, I'll have you over for dinner." I know this has an impact on their life, but what are they going to do, not eat my food?

I also realize people are getting impatient, but maybe they should just enjoy my living room right now.

I don't like the way I've left things. That mousy shade of green is not what I want surrounding me all the time. But I have a hard time knowing that the changes I plan to make will really be the right improvement.

This is important stuff, this is the rest of my life we're talking about here. (It really is, when you consider how often I do major interior work at home.) Taking my time to get it right seems a necessary step.

I've consulted my family, and they really don't care. Friends say noncommittal things like, "I think that would work." I don't have any former friends who prefer sitting in hot tubs with teenagers, which is too bad, because they seem to be the sort who aren't shy about spouting their opinion.

So the question is: Why have I gone so public with my indecision?

Because I'm tired of the questions, really. That signing bonus has suddenly become a factor, even though I like to call it my federal tax refund. I'd like to step into a paint or home store and not be surrounded by questions, which, given the service of many bigger stores, really should not be a problem.

And the truth is, I love making people wait to hear what I have to say. I remember the intoxicating power I once felt as dozens, maybe hundreds, of people eagerly awaited every utterance I made while standing behind a microphone. But then I forgot the second "m" in "roommate," had to sit down and that was the end of my grip on the crowd at the Mount Horeb Elementary School Spelling Bee.

I suppose if I just committed to spend a half hour or so actually making a decision, it would help. That was the plan a couple weekends ago, but there were all those films to go to at the festival. Last week might have worked, but that would have involved actually leaving the house and I didn't feel very well. Then the notion of going to a busy shopping area on a weekend was too daunting and besides, it was sunny. Not that I did anything, but it was sunny and perusing more paint samples just didn't seem the right way to spend a sunny day.

So I can totally understand Brett Favre's decision not to decide anything decisive. He'll know when he knows and then he'll let us know, you know?

I'm willing to cut him some slack, which might be the operative word here. He'll make up his mind when he wants, eventually sharing with us his grand plan for 2006.

And then I'll ask him if he wants to come over for dinner.

Jane Burns is a copy editor for The Capital Times.
Copyright 2006 The Capital Times Freelance writers retain the copyright for their work that appears on this site.


A Look At 10 Days That Changed U.S.
The Capital Times
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Jane Burns

It never ceases to amaze me that every time politicians or world leaders discuss books, they never fail to mention that they love to read history. The reason I find this so amazing is because they never seem to learn a darn thing from it.
That seems increasingly obvious in the wake of the History Channel's intriguing series of documentaries, "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America."

Besides giving us 10 hours of food for thought, the network has also laid out the archetypes that permeate our culture today: the alienated loner making his name with an infamous shooting; a president thought to have been led around by a cunning aide; government that uses force to disastrous effect; teenagers who love to rebel; and brave individuals who stand up and say "no more." That gives every story current relevance, along with the notion that you can plan all you want but fate just takes its own path sometimes.

The series brings 10 award-winning documentary filmmakers on board to tell these tales, and despite the title, the History Channel hasn't succumbed to the VH-1 style of list-making. This isn't "I Love the '20s" or "40 Most Awesomely Bad Segregationists." In fact, it's not really a list at all.

The series began on Sunday and wraps up on Thursday, then starts over again in cable's handy immediate rerun fashion. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what airs when, just that perhaps Antietam was a good way to start the series by sucking in all the Civil War buffs.

The series began as a question posted on the network's Web site: What are the influential events in American history? After receiving hundreds of responses, the question went out to network staff. From there, a panel of historians got involved and a list of 29 days in 12 eras emerged.

The biggest ground rule was to stay away from more recent events; historical context remains impossible for something like 9/11. Indeed, the most recent event is the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi's Freedom Summer of 1964.

The series shines by avoiding the obvious. The earliest segment isn't Jamestown or the American Revolution but the 1637 Massacre at Mystic, the first significant clash between the English and American Indians. Besides foreshadowing centuries of atrocities, the film by James Moll (who won an Oscar for "The Last Days") follows the Pequot tribe into the 21st century, bringing a somewhat happy ending to a tragic tale.

Even something like the assassination of William McKinley seems of little significance in the grand scheme of the nation, but director Joe Berlinger ("Metallica: Some Kind of Monster") weaves a tale of an assassin so alienated even the anarchists he was trying to impress thought he was kind of nuts. "Assassination Vacation" author Sarah Vowell is on board that episode to add some insight.

But the film says the true significance of the event was that it brought Teddy Roosevelt to the White House. That bigger-than-life figure drew power away from Congress and to the president, where it has remained ever since.

Other events include Shays' Rebellion, the Gold Rush, the Homestead Strike, the Scopes trial, Einstein's letter to FDR urging development of an atomic bomb, and Elvis Presley's first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." (That episode airs tonight at 8.)

That might seem like a bone thrown out to make history seem hip, but it's a great moment to include and not just because it ensured the success of black velvet artists for decades to come.

If it's tough enough to imagine Elvis before he was king, it's just as hard to imagine a world that didn't involve marketers coveting teenagers' money. The Elvis phenomenon meant much more than music, and even all the former teenagers who grew up to be adults who hate punk and hip-hop can attest to that.

'Tank Man' endures: Those intrigued by iconic moments that change history will have to set their TiVo or make a tough choice tonight. Frontline pulls out another fascinating segment with "The Tank Man," exploring the mystery of the man who faced down tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and his significance for China today.

It's a tale of much irony; experts say China's embrace of capitalism came as a response to the uprisings in 1989, yet that deal with the devil has kept dissent unacceptable, and Western nations quick to make a buck help enable that dichotomy. The end result is that thanks to information suppression and Internet filters developed by companies like Yahoo! and Google, most Chinese under the age of 20 have never seen nor recognize the image of the Tank Man.

Tank Man remains a mystery, but his relevance remains in China whether they know it or not. And just like so many other things in history, no one saw it coming but it changed so much.

"10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America" airs tonight and Thursday at 8 and repeats at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

"The Tank Man" airs at 9 tonight.