Remembering Darrell Preston

Someone asked me how old Darrell Preston was when he died earlier this week. Even though I’d known him for almost 30 years, I realized I didn’t know his age. So I did what Darrell would have done: I pulled his driver’s license records. He was 55.

I think he would have liked that his obituary required a records search. Had I ever asked him his age? If so, he probably said something like “Oh, I’m sure you have ways of finding that out,” with a sly smile that grew from the corner of his mouth. He loved to dig, and it didn’t matter if it was for a story or just idle curiosity. You knew he considered you a friend if he pulled your property tax records.


Darrell Preston, left, Catherine Smith and me in our Bloomberg days at the 2004 Dallas Press Club Katie Awards. (Darrell accused me of moonlighting as a waiter.)

On my first day at the Dallas Business Journal in 1989, he took me in his old red Jeep C-J to lunch at Chip’s, a greasy burger joint off Central Expressway. Most of the meal was consumed with awkward silence. Darrell was comfortable with silence in a way that few people are. He tended not to notice because his mind was always occupied, but not always with the present conversation.

He asked me what kind of music I liked. I shrugged. The Travelling Wilburys weren’t bad. He nodded, but didn’t say anything. “What about you?” I asked. “Well,” he said, and stared into the distance for a while. I wasn’t yet familiar with his habit of thinking about what he was about to say after he’d started to say it. “My tastes are a little more esoteric.” He didn’t elaborate.

Years later, laughing about the awkwardness of that first meeting, he told me he had been trying to keep me off guard to see how I handled myself.

I soon realized that in the DBJ newsroom Darrell, his desk piled high with files and notes on various investigations, was the guy to beat. He did the stories everyone talked about, stories that he spent months poking around in his spare time. He did the kinds of stories that I wanted to do.

For the next two years, we paced each other, each trying to do bigger, better stories. In the process, friendly competition grew into mutual respect. Then, one day, he paid me the ultimate compliment: he shared a source.

Our deadlines were on Thursdays, and on Fridays, Darrell was usually out of the office, working sources and getting the jump on the next week. The rest of us joked that he was really getting an early start on the weekend, because he often said “I have an interview in far north Dallas, and I’ll probably just go home after that.” Years later, if the weather was particularly nice, I might say to him, “It’s a good day for an interview in far north Dallas.”

Before headsets and cell phones, most reporters cradled the telephone receiver on their shoulder and took notes. Darrell reached over his head with his left hand, holding the receiver to his right ear from the top, and took notes on paper with this right hand. He looked like a contortionist, but he found it oddly relaxing. (Perhaps this explains his later love for yoga.)

When I interviewed for a job at the Dallas Times Herald, Darrell knew before I made it back to the office. As I walked toward my desk, he was holding the Herald in front of his face like Ward Cleaver. After I sat down, he folded it and slapped it on his desk in feigned disgust. “Oh my God. What a piece of shit,” he muttered under his breath. Then as he turned toward his computer he added, “who would ever want to work for that rag?”

I tried not to react, but he didn’t need my confirmation. He’d already nailed the story, and as always, his sources were impeccable. To this day, I don’t know how he found out. I wasn’t even offered the job until the following week.

Darrell went on to run the southwest bureau of the Bond Buyer, breaking news about the arcane world of municipal finance. Technically, he was a boss, but really, he was a coach to younger reporters. He always led by example, and he was at his best when he was digging in the places no one else bothered to look — zagging while everyone else zigged.

By then, I was running the Dallas bureau of Bloomberg, and when Bloomberg wanted to expand its muni coverage in Texas, I knew there was only one man for the job. He spent the next 16 years digging around obscure corners of the financial markets – muni bonds, insurance, pensions – making them more transparent. He broke a lot of news and won national awards that brought long overdue attention for his work.

I left Bloomberg (managing, with great effort, to keep Darrell from finding out first) and moved to Houston, but we got together whenever I went back to Dallas.

A few years ago, I had a book signing at a new store on the northern edge of the Metroplex. No one showed up – except Darrell. He’d driven almost an hour to get there. Let’s go get a drink, he suggested, then spent the next hour pointing out that the book store was too new, the location was bad, the store hadn’t promoted the signing – anything he could think of to make me feel better.

The last time I saw him, he took me to a barbecue place where they served big slabs of meat on butcher paper. We reminisced about the days when we would head to lunch early, to the original Sonny Bryan’s on Inwood, and eat barbecue sitting on tree stumps in the parking lot.

We shared stories of work, but we also talked, as we increasingly did, of family. We had daughters about the same age, and Darrell loved being a father even more than he loved chasing down a good story.

I knew him best as a reporter, but Darrell’s life was not consumed by work. He had a wide range of interests, a broad circle of friends, and countless adventures. His life was too short, but it was well lived.

This past week, I have tried to imagine what my career would have been like without him. Less fun, certainly, but also less successful, because he was the kind of colleague who made you want to try harder, to push yourself a little more.

Perhaps it’s a cliché to say Darrell was a reporter’s reporter, but he truly was. I think of him shuffling into the office, his arms filled with files and notepads. His desktop never knew sunlight. I think of it now, still piled high, I’m told, with the detritus of unfinished investigations, unwritten stories and leads waiting to be chased. With Darrell’s death, a bright light of journalism has been extinguished far too soon. I prefer to believe he has left for one final interview in far north Dallas.




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The search for `why’

Atlantic coverFor the past two years, I’ve been working on a biography of Texas oilman George P. Mitchell, sometimes (erroneously) called “the father of fracking.” Biographies are stories of people’s lives, but they really aren’t about the “who.” “Who was George Mitchell?” is a relatively straightforward question to answer.

Many people may be drawn to a book because they want to know the “how.” “How did George Mitchell change the world by developing fracking?” is an interesting question, but if you spend two years explaining it, you realize every biography attempts to answer the far bigger and more daunting question: why? “Why did George Mitchell develop fracking?” “Why did he pioneer sustainable development at the same time?” “Why did he believe these two seemingly disparate goals went hand-in-hand?”

The why is always the most difficult question, and it’s the question that most often gets lost in shorthand discussions on social media. I don’t post a lot of political stuff for the simple reason that very rarely are we given a chance to understand the why. Too often, the why of politics is drown out by posturing, platitudes and pablum (and, more recently, pugilism).

But I recently got around to reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s excellent piece on President Obama’s foreign policy, which was published in The Atlantic back in April. It’s extremely long but incredibly insightful,thoroughly research and reported, and well-written. Rather than deal with the politics, Goldberg focuses on the policy, on Obama’s thought process and on why he’s made the foreign policy decisions he’s made. Goldberg acknowledges the criticisms, but the piece is really designed to get inside Obama’s logic. In short, it’s all about the why.

You don’t have to agree with Obama’s decisions to be interested with how he came to them. Indeed, the piece points out that even many Democrats within his own administration disagreed strongly with the president. And you might decide, after understanding his logic, that’s he dead wrong. But the point is that at least you’ll understand. Foreign policy is complicated, and the answers aren’t short or easy. The beauty of the “why” lies in unraveling the complexity.


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The problem with software

pc-frustrationThe software industry loves to talk about “solutions.” It’s not clear whose problems some software makers think they’re solving.

For years, I have used a program called Evernote, which syncs notes, webpages, photos and other things you want to save across many different devices. It’s got an add-on that makes clipping, saving and categorizing web pages simple. It’s a pretty handy tool, and it’s free.

Because its free, Evernote is always plugging the upsell. Want to search amongst your documents? Upgrade to “Pro” – a subscription-based service that promises to be even better. No thanks. I’ll stick with what I can see works.

Now, however, Evernote has informed me that if I want to sync its program across more than two devices, I will have to pay — and a subscription, no less, not a one-time fee. For years, I have had my Evernote account on six devices. Why does software which does essentially the same thing every time you use it — indeed, that’s the reason for using it— warrant a subscription? What will I get next month that I’m not getting this month?

I can only assume that Evernote’s revenue model isn’t working, and it needs a “solution” — one that comes at my expense.

I spent 12 years working for Mike Bloomberg, a man who made a fair amount of money in the data and information business. One of Mike’s first rules was that once you offer customers something, you never take it away. So while new functions were constantly being added to the Bloomberg terminal, nothing was removed from it, and the price stayed the same. (The pricing model may have changed in the 12 years since I’ve been gone.)

The point is that Evernote is taking away something it once offered me at the agreed-upon price, which in this case happened to be nothing. The fact that it was free doesn’t change the equation, other than Evernote clearly doesn’t care if I stop using its product since I’m not paying for it anyway.

But I would be far more likely to pay if I didn’t feel Evernote will simply keep gouging me.If it changes the terms once, how do I know it won’t decide to limit that number again in the future? It’s model is: if you like a little, you should pay for a lot.

There’s a better approach: Show me what your product can do, and charge me a fair price for it. Let me decide if it’s worth it. Don’t lock features away behind a pay wall. Put everything on the table and let the product speak for itself.

That’s the model used by another software program I use, Aeon Timeline, a versatile tool for building and comparing custom timelines. It’s handy for book projects like my upcoming biography of Texas oilman George Mitchell.

I knew Aeon was a great program because it allowed me to use it for free for 30 or 40 tries. During that time, I got to figure out just how it would work for me, and what I could do with it. I wound up buying it before my free trial was up. In fact, I bought multiple licenses.

I’m sure Aeon doesn’t have the revenue stream or the broad appeal that Evernote does, but it definitely has the right approach to selling software, at least from a company loyalty standpoint.

Unlike most products, too much software is sold incomplete. Software developers want us to buy into the idea of their products’ potential, then convince us to pay more to make it realize that potential. It’s a little like buying a car even though it doesn’t have wheels because Chevrolet says it is planning to add 19-inch custom aluminum rims later.

Software, of course, will always need upgrades. But when companies knowingly stunt the product offerings, it’s reminiscent of the old bait-and-switch tactics of used car dealers.

I know Evernote works, and I may even break down and pay for the subscription, but I don’t trust the company. Its relentless attempts at upselling show it is more concerned with its own revenue than with providing a service to customers. This may be a “solution” for its business model, but it makes me want to find a different program that does much the same thing. In other words, it makes me want to find my own “solution” — one that I’d be willing to pay for if I felt the company would treat me fairly.

If anyone knows of any, I’m open to suggestions.

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How Michael Dell low-balled investors

0813_Business_680x382In my first story for Texas Monthly, almost two years ago, I chronicled the buyout saga at Dell Inc. In that piece, I predicted that Michael Dell would prevail in the management-led buyout, which he did, but not before activist investor Carl Icahn convinced him to put more money in the deal, which he did.

It turns out, though, Icahn may not have gone far enough. This week, a Delaware judge ruled that Michael Dell and his partners shortchanged shareholders by more than $6 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for most of those shareholders. As the Journal notes:

The victory is a hollow one for former Dell investors, few of whom are eligible for compensation due to the intricacies of Delaware law.

All told, the buyers likely will owe a handful of former shareholders who challenged the deal about $35 million, including interest.

It’s one more reminder that management-led buyouts rarely work to investors’ benefit.


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A Long Time Ago, in a Theater Not so Far Away…

OriginalTheatricalStarWarsPoster-thumb-550x869-41517I went to see the long-awaited Star Wars sequel this past weekend with my wife and daughter, and inevitably I found myself thinking back over the years to when I saw the original.

“Star Wars” — and back then, that was its full name, no “A New Hope”– was the first real movie I ever saw in a theater. By “real” I mean a new release played in a theater that actually showed first-run films. My parents and I had moved to Texas about a year earlier, and although most people would consider College Station in the mid-70s a small town (its population was about 15,000 at the time) it was about 10 times the size of the town we left in central Pennsylvania.

My hometown didn’t — and still doesn’t — have any fast-food restaurant chains, let alone a movie theater. The nearest cinema was the next town over, and it showed whatever movies it could get. “Jaws,” the biggest film of 1975, didn’t arrive until well into the nation’s Bicentennial.

My parents took me to see movies in that theater twice — Disney’s G-rated “Million Dollar Duck” and, a few years later, “Herbie Rides Again.”

My parents didn’t have much interest in movies, or popular culture in general for that matter. In fact, it always seemed to me that my dad thought entertainment had stopped progressing after the 1950s. Glenn Miller had done the best songs, and Katherine Hepburn had delivered the best performances, and everything that came after was pretty much a waste of time.

Perhaps because of their small-town roots, or perhaps because they were older than many parents of children my age, my mother and father were more cautious about how much violence and sex they allowed me to see on TV. My mother frowned on the original Star Trek series because it was, as she saw it, weird and violent (she always walked in during the mandatory fight scene that the network forced Gene Roddenberry to add in every episode). “Starsky and Hutch” had too much violence, sex and general crudeness. “Laugh-In” was too risque, even though my grandmother watched it faithfully.

When I asked to see “Star Wars,” it was the first time I wanted to see a PG-rated movie. This was no “Million Dollar Duck.” Given the implied violence in the title, my father decided — or, more likely, my mother decided — that he would take me. He sat silently through the whole thing, and didn’t say much afterwards. I think he understood why I liked it, even if he was generally unimpressed. I knew he would rather be somewhere — probably anywhere — else, but as was so often the case, he never complained.

The only time I recall him mentioning “Star Wars” at all was several years later, when he argued that movies had become all about special effects rather than great acting. No one in Star Wars was a very good actor, he said. They had special effects to carry the show, unlike Kate, who had to win over audiences with the sheer virtuosity of her performance.

Having endured Mark Hamill’s sophomore effort, “Corvette Summer,” I found it hard to argue his point.

It is, of course, ironic that I associate “Star Wars,” which set up the story of one of the greatest family dysfunctions in film history, with spending time with my dad. Unlike Darth Vader, my father had no dark side.

I could rattle off a long list of more significant father-and-son experiences, and I know I’m fortunate to have so many. But that day was the last time we went to a movie together, and though he lived another three decades, I believe it may be the last time he ever went to the movies at all. Seeing the series revived after all these years, I couldn’t help but think of that day once again, even though I suspect my father never gave it a second thought.



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The Uncontrolled Descent of Continental’s Legacy

Continental.airlines.b757-200.takeoff.arpJeff Smisek resigned suddenly as chief executive of United Airlines in early September. His legacy is forever linked to the merger of United and Houston-based Continental Airlines, where Smisek had worked since 1995. While the merger has been problematic, even by airline merger standards, Smisek’s departure also closes the door on the legacy of Continental itself. The carrier played a key role in redefining how airlines operate in the deregulated world, and it led the way on many innovations that today’s travelers take for granted. In the latest Texas Monthly, I take a look back at how Continental helped change the way we fly and what Continental’s loss mean to Houston.

As news of United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek’s departure reached Houston in early September, you could almost feel the collective response: good riddance. Even before Smisek was caught up in the corruption investigation that led to his resignation, many Houstonians resented him for merging their hometown airline, Continental, with the Chicago-based United five years ago. The move cost Houstonians more than first-rate air service—it stole a bit of civic pride. Just months after NASA ended the space shuttle program, Houston lost its only airline; Space City was grounded. “Continental had Houston DNA,” says Jeff Moseley, the former head of the Greater Houston Partnership. “To see it fold up and move out of town was painful.”

What hurt the most, perhaps, was that Continental was a paradigm of the sort of corporate innovation that Houston has long prided itself on. “Continental’s whole history was being a maverick airline,” says Phil Bakes, the company’s president in the mid-eighties. And much of that history was tossed out the window after it was swallowed up by United.

Read more here.

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Black Elk’s black marks: too little too

Black Elk’s black marks: too little too late? What indictment says about safety 5 yrs after Macondo @EnergyVoiceNews

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