Confessions of a sports trivia nut: recalling my surreal Sports Jeopardy! experience

The question: “What is the most surreal experience I have ever experienced?”

The answer: Competing in May 2015 on Sports Jeopardy!, an offshoot of the immensely successful Jeopardy! television game show.

Of course, in the inside-out world of the program, the art is coming up with the question to an answer that is already, if cryptically, provided. The steps that I took to compete on the since-discontinued show can be traced to a friend’s heads-up, several months earlier, about how to get on Sports Jeopardy!

But in a broader sense, my appearance five Memorial Day Weekends ago marked the culmination of a journey that began when I was conceived in Fall 1967. That was around the time the St. Louis Cardinals were edging my beloved Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Given that is how I choose to describe my origin story, is there any doubt that I got multiple doses of “sports-obsessed” in my DNA?

During a break in the game-show action, Sports Jeopardy! host Dan Patrick poses for a photo with me. I was wearing my blue shirt after my profuse sweating under the studio’s bright lights prompted a producer to suggest that I change out of my “first string” orange button-down shirt.

Here’s a recap of the surreal experience, followed by video clips of the segment that first aired in August 2015, the 49th of Season 1’s 52 segments. (The show was on Crackle at the time, then shifted to NBCSN in Spring 2016 before ending that December after 116 episodes, in the midst of its third season.)

The Audition

Tipped off to the existence of Sports Jeopardy! by a high school friend (thank you very much, Mike Hammitt!), I went to the show’s website and filled out a form expressing my interest in being a contestant, as well as some of my credentials for being considered.

A few months later, an e-mail arrived, inviting me to audition on March 27, 2015 at the Hotel Westin in Chicago. There, after a half-hour “el” ride into the city, I encountered a throng of people who had descended on the Windy City from all over the Midwest: Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids. We numbered roughly 100, at least 90 percent men, and we were ushered into a large conference room.

I took a seat in the front row because I didn’t just want to be noticed—I wanted to be remembered, and maybe even memorable. Competitive much?

The Sports Jeopardy! crew, led by an enthusiastic, high-volume bundle of energy named Maggie, worked to infuse the room with energy. For our part, we did our best to create a pep rally atmosphere, if only to please Maggie and her cohorts and to burn off some nervous energy.

Then Maggie, bedecked in a baseball cap and casual attire, introduced a 30-question written test spanning a variety of sports. Some of the ground rules:

Don’t look at anyone else’s paper
Don’t worry about writing the wrong answer—it’s worth taking a guess, since all that matters are your number of correct answers.

(In fact, Maggie said, she had been telling people to guess “Guy” if they had no idea what to write and on a recent Sports Jeopardy! episode, that had actually been the correct “Final Jeopardy” answer: Ray Guy, the punter who had become the first at that position to gain induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)

-Don’t give only a last name, if you know the first name as well—for some questions, a last name won’t be enough.
-Keep moving forward. If you don’t know an answer to one question, turn your focus to the next one

A few moments later, the test began: a pre-recorded audio, and written scroll, of those trademark Jeopardy! blue slides. Every 15 seconds, unrelenting and unforgiving, the clues came. No time to rest on the laurels of nailing one, or to dwell in the land of self-recrimination for flubbing one.

The first five questions, I was confident that I got ‘em all. Then things got tricky, murky, and, in some cases, all but impossible: a clue about a golfer’s nickname that was beyond my reach; I was stumped by a clue about a 1960s soccer player—clearly not Pele, about the only player of that generation whose name I knew; and a question about a Japanese baseball team’s nickname.

I was beginning to feel pretty clueless when a question about an NBA Most Valuable Player revived my spirit. Then a baseball question that I knocked out of the park. And, finally, another NBA question—about another perennial MVP—that wrapped it all up. I got it right, and by my estimate, it was the 20th clue out of 30 given that I had deciphered.

But would it be enough? Was batting .667 Hall of Fame caliber or bush league, particularly when stacked up against this group of fellow sports fanatics?.

The Sports Jeopardy! clue crew retreated to another room to tally the results. About 20 minutes later, they returned. With Maggie again stoking us up, the “Rocky” theme began blaring from the speakers. A stack of papers in her hands, she began reading the names of qualifiers. With each name, someone stood up and the rest of us cheered—each, like a bench-warmer straining to make eye contact with the coach, pining for our own turn.

It became clear very quickly that Maggie wasn’t reading these in alphabetical order. As the song neared its conclusion, though, something else was apparent: she hadn’t called my name among the more than dozen that had been announced. As the last strains of the theme sounded, my heart began to sink. Then came the sweetest sound from Maggie’s lips:

“We’ve got more!” she declared. “We’ve got more!”

They struck up the song again and my hope stirred anew, even in the face of the dwindling stack of sheets in Maggie’s hands. Nearly another agonizing minute into the song’s second round, I heard what I had been straining—had almost been willing—to hear from the get-go: “Matt Baron!”

With a mixture of joy, gratitude and relief, I rose to my feet and threw a flurry of shadow punches to my cohorts. Alive to fight another round!

When the winnowing of contestants was complete, there were 22 of us—all men, ranging from a few in their early 20s to one guy who looked to be about 60. At this point, I felt all the pressure of performing lift from my shoulders. From here on, I resolved that it was going to be all fun, all icing-on-the-cake adventure.

For the next phase of the audition, I was the first one called to the front. Two others joined me and we played a shortened mock game of Sports Jeopardy! Whereas I felt I had qualified this far by the skin of my teeth, during this stage I sensed that I did about as well as anyone else—and much better than most.

I “buzzed in” consistently ahead of my two competitors, scored the most points, and then began answering questions from Maggie. This was the part where she was probing for personality.

Favorite sports teams, favorite sports memories, my own (very modest) athletic background. Here’s where I poured it on: how Red Auerbach once chewed me out for my poor shooting form, how I met my wife playing co-ed touch football, how I came up with an inflation index for home runs that was featured in Sports Illustrated.

I shamelessly name-dropped LeBron James too, since I had interviewed him a few times many years ago. To use the sports cliché, I “left it all on the field.”

About an hour later, after all 22 qualifiers had gone through the paces, we were told that we’d all be considered for the show. But there were no guarantees. If we were going to be on the show’s first season, already nearing its midway mark, we’d get a call by the end of April for a taping sometime in late May.

Waiting for the Call

Over the next five weeks, I was in limbo. Would I get the call? If not, would I get a call to come out for an episode in the second season? Would there even be a second season?

I had kept friends and family abreast of the process, mostly through Facebook, and I’d get questions along the way. Did you get the call? Do you think you’ll get the call?

“I’m holding it all loosely,” I’d tell people. Deep down, though, it was a battle between not letting my hopes get too high and holding out fervent hope.

By the afternoon of Thursday, April 30th, the program had fallen off my radar. Immersed in my day, the phone rang with a 310 area code displayed on my screen. I picked up, expecting to hear a sales pitch or maybe a call related to one of my PR clients.

“Hi Matt,” a young woman’s voice declared. “This is Aimee from Sports Jeopardy! Do you have a minute?”

My heart leapt. At that moment, there was nobody in the world who could compete with Aimee for my time or attention. No close family member, no world leader, nobody at all.

Descending into Trivia Madness

My episode date was set: Saturday, May 23rd. The first few weeks after getting The Call, when friends would ask what I was doing to get ready, I affected a nonchalant air: “I’ve been preparing my whole life. I’m not doing anything different than usual.”

That calm, cool and collected front lasted until around May 15th. For the next week, I found myself up late at night, looking up NCAA men’s hockey champions, reviewing the list of Heisman Trophy winners, bolstering my knowledge of tennis, golf, Olympic history, league leaders in various categories, and on and on.

It became a full-on free-fall into Sports Jeopardy! paranoia: what if I miss a question that I could have answered, if only I’d snagged that one nugget of trivia? The day before taping, as I packed for my trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, I seriously contemplated lugging along a 10-pound behemoth, Sports Illustrated’s The Baseball Book. It is a treasure trove of stories and decade-by-decade statistics encompassing more than a century of the national pastime’s Major League history.

I even placed it in my luggage for a few minutes before regaining a measure of my senses: in its place I stashed four recent issues of Sports Illustrated. Much lighter, and much more contemporary stuff.

On the four-hour flight to Los Angeles, I devoured all the issues, cover-to-cover—just like I used to do when I was a 10-year-old kid and had plenty of time on my hands. Only, this was panic-cramming, my lifelong “amateur” passion now thrust into the realm of money-making pursuit. Littered throughout every photo caption, every “Face in the Crowd” honoree, every story were, in my mind, an assortment of Sports Jeopardy! bread crumbs.

Fueling my descent into sports-show preparation madness was the fact that host Dan Patrick, at the time, was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. His “Just My Type,” a Q & A with luminaries in the sports world, appeared in every issue.

As I began to take on a sports-obsessed variation of Colonel Kurtz’s “Apocalypse Now” madness, I solicited trivia questions from friends. (A related confession: the Marlon Brando character from that 1979 film was my memory device to “lock in” the name of one of the top American divers from the 1936 Olympics, Frank Kurtz. He was featured in one of those Sports Illustrated stories that I combed for clues.)

Of the five waking hours in my Culver City hotel room, I consumed two delicious cookies provided by the front desk—and four hours in frenzied online sports research. Careening from one subject to the next, I even took a cyber-detour to the stats of Gary Allenson, the former Boston Red Sox backup catcher who I knew was born in Culver City.

Any rational observer would have seen that I had gone as certifiably nuts as the pecans in my Doubletree Hotel treats.

`Remember to Breathe’

The next morning, on the Sports Jeopardy! set at the Sony lot, I was among eight sports fanatics who walked into the Green Room to prep for the show. Our group was slotted for the final two episodes of the season to be shot over the next several hours. We consisted of six scheduled players, as well as two alternates ready if one of us succumbed to a last-second calamity.

We were shown our mini-bios to review for accuracy, given W-9s to fill out for our payday, and told to sign legal documents that admonished us that we would be committing a felony if we conspired or colluded to rig our match.

Next, we took turns in the makeup chair—a reminder that we would soon be under the bright lights of an actual game show. It was more than surreal to me. It was a blast, a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I reminded myself to savor. And there was also this reminder, one that my wife had conveyed in a text: “Have fun and remember to breathe.”

I said the phrase softly aloud, as my makeup artist applied the last few touches on my face.

We marched into the studio shortly after 10 a.m. and began a practice round, to get the hang of using our buzzers and going up against a few other contestants.

The Math Behind an Aggressive Strategy

Ever since getting the call to appear on the show, I had professed a “go for it!” game plan. I told people that I would “go for broke,” doubling down if I got a shot at the Daily Double. It may knock me back down to zero, but it was perhaps even more likely to send me into the lead—or even the rarefied air of the Top 3 point-getters from the entire season.

As a numbers-oriented guy, it was simple math: there was much more to gain than there was to lose by implementing this aggressive strategy.

The most I could win by playing it safe and aiming only for enough points to win my match: $5,000, versus $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third. So, the maximum potential “loss” (we were all playing with “house money” anyway) was $4,000.

But if I got lucky and had a crack at clues that may just be in my wheelhouse? I stood to win upwards of $55,000: $5,000 for the match win and another $50,000 for winning the season-ending tournament of champions being held in the afternoon.

Spoiler alert: why is this man smiling? I have just landed the Daily Double and am about to stick to my pre-game strategy of going “all in” with a “true Daily Double”–wagering all 6,000 of my points.

Already in the audience were two of the top three point-getters—the ones who had tallied the 50,500 (and slightly higher) points that taunted and tantalized us from the leader board directly across from our playing positions.

I wasn’t opposed to having one of them watch me later on—if he could bear the sight of seeing me play twice.

Before I could play, though, I needed to rehearse with the others. One of the Clue Crew members, Jimmy, came out and played host as all eight of us (including the alternates, still ready in case of emergency) rotated in and out of the three positions.

This was a prime chance to fine-tune our timing: just when to “buzz in” ahead of our counterparts. On any given clue, there is a good chance that at least two, if not all three, of the contestants know the question that would spark the answer appearing on the screen before us. Success or failure, then, hinged largely on my sense of timing.

Trouble with buzzing in led to my slow start–this image is from a moment before I was finally able to beat Fish and Curtis on the buzzer…on the 9th question! I answered it correctly. Overall, I answered 14 questions, 11 correctly. Fish was 21-of-24, while Curtis was 13-of-20.

Buzz in too early and I would be “locked out” for a quarter-second, which might as well be an eternity when going up against fellow sports nuts. Depress the button with my thumb or index finger prematurely and my only hope for racking up these particular points would come if someone else answered incorrectly and opened the door to a subsequent buzz-in.

On the other hand (so to speak), if I buzzed in a fraction of a second too slowly, then I had to endure the frustration of hearing someone else proclaim the words that were on my lips.

Does that sound just a wee bit stressful?

A kinder, gentler approach would be to allow each contestant to fill out his or her answer on a sheet, then hand it in for evaluation. Just like taking a test at school—or the initial screening test to see if I had the baseline knowledge to be considered for Sports Jeopardy!

Alas, the visuals of watching someone hunched over a piece of paper, scrawling answers, is not nearly compelling or dramatic enough for our fast-paced entertainment culture. Competitive stress is the undeniable price to be paid in exchange for testing my sports knowledge against a few other guys. What a great country…welcome to the big leagues…suck it up and buzz in faster (but not too much faster)!

By the end of the rehearsal, after starting out tentatively and getting shut out of most of the play, I had grown more comfortable with buzzing in. I began staking out timing turf.

Meantime, we all knocked out promotional spots in which we stated our name and hometown, along with an exhortation to future viewers to watch us on Sports Jeopardy! “only on Crackle.”

Also by this point, I knew that I would face another balancing act: consuming enough water to avoid being parched, but not so much water that I’d be hampered by a full bladder. In the 20 minutes between retreating back to the Green Room and returning to the studio with a live audience, I used the bathroom twice.

I resolved to take small sips of the bottled water that a crew member offered during breaks in the game.

Once on stage, emotions intensified. I peered out at my four guests—a brother-in-law and three friends, all of whom reside in Southern California—and, much to my alarm, nearly broke into tears. I nodded my head, gave a slight wave, then barely looked back at them the rest of my time on stage.

“Remember to breathe,” I told myself.

Meanwhile, Dan Patrick had begun his introductory remarks. Moments later, the board lit up with our categories. Game on!

The first portion of the 49th episode of the first season of Sports Jeopardy, including introductions. I muffed my cue the first time around, leaving my seat too soon and prompting a second take. Nailed it on this one, pantomiming a basketball shot with each hand.
In this portion of the show, after being shut out on the first eight questions (that dang buzzer timing!), I finally break through–and breathe a bit easier.
In this portion, Dan Patrick chats with the contestants. My grin on display here comes as I explain that, as a longtime journalist, I couldn’t afford a mid-life crisis more expensive than tracking my free-throw shooting.
Drama builds as we hit the back-stretch of the game. It ain’t over till it’s over!
The conclusion, including the Final Jeopardy round and the post-game banter with host Dan Patrick and my two fellow contestants.

Our daily shopping choices: a super-simple way to boost local economy amid COVID-19 era

During this COVID-19 era, any trip through the commercial corridors of Oak Park, Illinois—my community along the western border of Chicago—has revealed its potential as a post-apocalyptic movie set.

But here in my town—and wherever you are, within your community—there is a simple mathematical principle that empowers us to revise the script: shop locally, as much and as often as possible.

The “multiplier effect,” powerfully displayed.

In explaining the multiplier effect of local independent businesses, the American Independent Business Alliance states, “The multiplier results from the fact that independent locally-owned businesses recirculate a far greater percentage of revenue locally compared to absentee-owned businesses (or locally-owned franchises). In other words, going local creates more local wealth and jobs.”

In Oak Park, partly to blame for our ghost-town vibe is extensive road and infrastructure work coursing right through the heart of the community. Given the current state of business distress, with little traffic anyhow, our village leaders have wisely accelerated those efforts. That full-speed-ahead approach, sort of like quickly ripping off a bandage to hasten the pain, is about the only lemonade to come out of this historically humongous lemon.

Efforts to preserve physical health through the COVID era have had major side-effects, not the least of which is a business community with numerous members who find themselves on mercantile life support. It is a condition that prevails across the entire country. Solving the United States’ problems is well beyond any one local group’s capacity to remedy. However, any community grappling on the commercial home front can take steps to minimize the damage in their own backyard, and then turn the tide.

For those in and around Oak Park, not every dollar can be expended within our few square miles. However, making a conscious decision to allocate a few more pennies per dollar can make a meaningful difference, especially when considering the multiplier effect. A decade ago, that philosophy was at the heart of my role for two years as marketing coordinator of “Shop the Village.”

It takes a courageous man (or at least a brazen PR guy) to wear red boots, mask and cape in front of a flower shop–or anywhere else for that matter.

A coordinated initiative supported by the Village of Oak Park, Downtown Oak Park and other business districts, Shop the Village was a marketing arm for dozens of businesses partaking in the campaign the first year (spanning three months before and after the year-end holidays). The next year, 2009, building on lessons gleaned from that first year, we engaged a “Super Shopper Spotter” campaign. It featured a super-hero character played by yours truly.

This is not a proposal to bring back that Caped Crusader of Commerce. You do not need to put on big red boots or have campy humor to recognize that shopping locally is a practical, powerful way for us all to serve our own best interests. It is through our daily choices that we each have a super-simple, super-heroic role to play.

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The power of greater expectations–including when the media lets you down

How do you respond when someone is unaccountable or otherwise fails to meet expectations?

Many years ago, a mentor offered me wise words on how to handle these situations. His counsel went something like this:

“If you want to yell at them, or give them a piece of your mind, or tell them how they failed in some way, then be prepared to get in a very long line—because that’s the typical reaction. When they mess up, that’s what they are hearing from everybody else. Instead, be the person who stands apart by responding differently—assume the best in them, and that they want to do better, but circumstances came up that prevented them from doing so.”

In short, the better response is to give the other party an expectation that they want to live up to. Implicit in this process is keeping your eye on the prize—what goal do you have in mind? What do you want to happen as a result of your communication?

To be sure, “getting something off your chest” in anger and frustration, while “natural,” does not constitute a worthy goal. Those outbursts are merely unhinged, undisciplined reactions unlikely to move you productively toward a worthwhile goal.

Instead, as my mentor pointed out, be part of a very short line as you demonstrate respect for and patience with the person who doesn’t seem to “deserve” those things.

This approach has application in every area of life. In the media relations sphere, it could come in the form of how you respond when a client is subjected to unfair, biased coverage. Being a strong advocate for your client and practicing restraint are not mutually exclusive.

Case in point: not long ago, a media outlet (which shall remain nameless, in the spirit of this entire post) produced a blatantly slanted story about a client. Unfairness, bias and lack of professionalism oozed through the entirety of the article, which was topped by a headline that exposed the outlet was more propaganda tool than legitimate news source. (Sadly, that is not a rarity in our free-for-all, media-splintered world where partisan views drive so much of what’s covered as well as what is not covered.

I reached out to the editor (who also wrote the story) and rather than travel the “You biased, unprofessional hack!” route, I respectfully and firmly issued a challenge containing a few key points:

  • From your headline’s word choices to your omission of any input from my client, you are revealing your bias.
  • Your audience and the community deserve better
  • You can do better.
  • We respectfully request that you update your coverage to include our input.

The result:

On the one hand, the editor deflected my corrections by pointing out, somewhat lamely, that my client wasn’t the focus of the story. (If not, then the client was a very close second place–and since when does that justify blatant and unfair bias?) But, then, to the editor’s credit, came implicit acknowledgment of the story’s skewed treatment. The editor promised to add, in an updated version, input from my client that I had provided.

That insertion came within hours, offering at least a semblance of balance to the story. Looking ahead, an even more important development had occurred: the publication has now been challenged to meet a much higher expectation for fairness and balance than they had previously exhibited. And, of course, that was my goal from the get-go.

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Epic math gaffe by Brian Williams & Mara Gay highlights great need for improved numeracy

When it comes to mindless journalistic blunders, there are brain cramps and then there are lobotomies.

Example of a brain cramp: the time in the late-1990s when, as a newspaper reporter, I referred to a high school student as “Dustin Hoffman.” He shared a first name with the famous actor, but not the last name, and my mind drifted into auto-celebrity actor mode as I tapped out my story.

The teen’s last name? I don’t remember, but I do recall his parents being peeved that I had interviewed the 17-year-old without their consent. (The story was about a teacher who had been accused of sexually assaulting another student during an overseas trip.)

To make my mistaken-attribution saga even stranger, those same parents’ upset was assuaged by what they saw as my intentional decision to shield his identity by concocting a false (and famous) last name. Apparently, they thought I was exercising some journalistic ethic in doing so. Nope, it was just a mindless blunder, of the brain-cramp variety.

Which brings me to that other type of journalistic blunder: the lobotomy.

A literal lobotomy, for those who are not familiar, is a brutal, discredited form of psychosurgery, “a neurosurgical treatment of a mental disorder that involves severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.” In layman’s terms, patients may be relieved of mental disorders, but there is a great risk that they will be left as docile, almost-vegetative souls.

A figurative lobotomy played out just last night, through a dialogue between MSNBC’s Brian Williams and Mara Gay, a New York Times editorial board member. The two astonishingly, staggeringly, mind-blowingly treated as truth a Twitter post that mangled math beyond measure—or, at least, by a roughly 650,000-to-1 ratio.

Here was the Tweet by freelance journalist Mekita Rivas:

Since deleted by the freelance journalist who posted it, here is the Tweet in all its mathematical ignominy.

In response, Williams declared, ““When I read it tonight on social media, it kind of all became clear…It’s an incredible way of putting it.” 

Incredible, indeed–as in “not to be believed.” His use of the word didn’t raise any red flags, however, as Gay echoed the word and chimed in: “It’s an incredible way of putting it. It’s true. It’s disturbing. It does suggest what we’re talking about here: there is too much money in politics.”

To quote the first words of New York Post’s Steven Nelson’s account of the debacle:  They’re a couple of on-the-airheads!

My bit of cleverness: MSNBC could stand for May Share Numbers Before Consideration.

The blame goes beyond Williams and Gay. It was not only their slip-up, but that of the entire crew, including producers and graphic design team. None of ’em recognized the abject absurdity of the tweet. (The actual amount would be about $1.53, or $999,998.47 less than was stated.)

As you may suspect, it wasn’t long before the cascade of corrections in the Twittersphere set the network straight and the instigator of the math mess deleted it, then updated her profile to state “I know, I’m bad at math.” Later, Williams’ show released this statement:

“Tonight on the air we quoted a tweet that relied on bad math. We corrected the error after the next commercial break and have removed it from later editions of tonight’s program. We apologize for the error.”

Mistakes happen, including math mistakes. But what was initially an innocent mishap by a single math-challenged individual should not have come anywhere close to being amplified by a major network like MSNBC. Theirs was a blunder of epic proportions, on an alarming level that rightfully would cause anyone to question the network’s judgment, discernment and intelligence on other stories.

The embarrassing episode underscores why there is such a desperate need for improved numeracy, or math literacy, for citizens. And it takes on exponential urgency when it comes to those stewards of story-telling in the journalism realm.

That is why I developed “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” nearly 20 years ago, with journalists as my primary audience for the first decade thereafter. Traveling throughout the United States to spread the Go Figure Gospel, I have felt a strong sense of public service with every math-challenged reporter, editor or other media professional I have trained. These are often folks who thought they were getting away from math when they got into journalism–only to realize that numbers are inextricably linked with just about any kind of story-telling.

In recent years, I have expanded the program to a diverse array of audiences, including the general public. In fact, around the same time Williams and Gay were fumbling through this epic math gaffe last night, I was at the Itasca Community Library leading a numeracy workshop. With a focus on the 2020 Election cycle, the program was called “Lies & More Lies, How it All Adds Up.”

Among the topics that I covered: the one-to-1,000 ratio between one thousand and one million (1,000 thousands) and the same one-to-1,000 relationship between one million and one billion (1,000 millions). For example—and it is one that I have used for over 20 years in my myriad writings on numeracy—one million seconds is a shade over 11 ½ days and one billion seconds is nearly 32 years.

Fittingly, I referred to the Mike Bloomberg campaign spending in the “Golympics” quiz that is a key feature of my session. Here’s the question:

Michael Bloomberg spent over $500 million in a three-month span before dropping out of the race on March 4th, the day after Super Tuesday. What proportion of his net worth does that amount to?

  1. 9%
  2. Less than 1%
  3. 2.7%

The answer is “b,” or less than 1 percent, because Bloomberg’s net worth is over $50 billion. You may want to look it up to be sure, but trust me, you can take that stat to the bank.

Want to learn more about my numeracy programs, including the Election 2020-themed “Lies, Damn Lies & Navigating the Presidential Campaign Trail” sessions, with over a dozen scheduled in the Chicago area through October? Visit

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Obituary writing: an honor—and a serious responsibility

In my journalism career, I wrote or edited hundreds of obituaries. Most were everyday people who were not in the headlines much, if at all, over their decades of life. Some were notable individuals, and I would draw upon prior stories to flesh out this news of their passing.

Whether someone was renowned or a household name only in their own household, the bottom line for me was the same: this was a major responsibility that I took extremely seriously. Certainly, I strove to be conscientious in all aspects of my job, whether it was covering criminal courts, reporting on city hall, or featuring the folksy neighbor down the block.

But obits are a breed apart, and the reason is simple: barring a few exceptional cases, this is the last comprehensive story that will be written about the person. To honor their life, and those who loved them, it is essential to get the details right, and to do it well, and you only get one crack at it.

That passion for telling something so precious and unique as a person’s life story is at the heart of “Your Front Page,” a writing service that I launched in 2005.

My YFP clients have typically been the spouse or children of a person about to reach a milestone—60 years of marriage or 80 years of life, for example. The end product, a two-page custom publication that includes headlines, sidebars and photographs, is a surprise gift. Unsurprisingly, and to my humbled delight, it becomes a gift that keeps giving: multiple clients have told me how much they appreciate having the piece to share, years later, at wakes and other services after their loved one passed away.

This affirms my instinct, years ago, to begin using the term “nobituaries” to describe “Your Front Page” pieces—these stories were like an obituary, only the individual or couple being featured was still alive. Thus: “no obituary,” or “nobituary.”

Dru Carlson, female film pioneer.

As for actual obituaries, they are a recurring part of what I call my occasional “random acts of journalism.” Eight years ago was one of those times when I wrote the obituary of my dear friends’ father, Don Carlson. A few weeks ago came another opportunity, when I had the honor of writing about his widow, Dru Carlson.

As with her late husband’s career and overall life, Dru’s 87 years were remarkable in their breadth and impact.

On a related note, every two years, The Society of Professional  Obituary Writers honors excellence in obituary writing with The Grimmys.

If you read nothing else today, I invite you to read the most recent award-winning Grimmy work.

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