The whole point of free speech is not to make ideas exempt from criticism but to expose them to it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

No country for old men? Bill Harlan, BlogFather.


Let's see... I've known Bill Harlan since ummm... ahhh... y-y-yeah. Ok, now where was I? (Sorry ...senior moment.)

Anyway, Harlan and I first started working together in the late '70's. He was booking tours for a puppet theatre and I joined the troupe to be closer to my girlfriend. (But that's a whole other long story.) Bill and I were of course brilliant puppeteers, but we found we liked writing and designing ads and brochures and magazines and books together better. And yes, farting around, laughing, and talking about stuff like politics, religion, philosophy, science, news, art, music, ...whatever.

The upshot was, we started Black Hills Monthly Magazine together in 1979, featuring Dick Termes on the cover, and we recruited a whole bunch of crazy kids who went on to have rather distinguished careers in the communications industry. One of the articles Bill wrote was entitled "Extremely Deep Throat," (warning, don't Google it) a three part insider exposé about what it was like to work in the Homestake Gold Mine back in the day.

It was hilarious.

So hilarious in fact that Homestake still publishes it from time to time. Call it Harlan's first big hit. (That's a scan of the last page of XDT in the montage above.)

His breakthrough interview with Governor Bill Janklow was another one.

Okay, fast forward past the death of the Monthly three years later (we wrote stuff and drew pictures good, but sold ads bad) to 2004 to find that Harlan has become one of the Rapid City Journal's star reporters and an occasional stringer for Newsweek Magazine.

He's also a guy who's just become hooked on a newfangled thing called the WorldWideWeb (aka them "internets").

"So," Bill says to his publisher one day, I want to do a blog on the Sturgis Rally and I want to get paid for doing it." To which, I think his publisher said something like "A what? And you want to what?"

I don't know for sure how Harlan finally sold the idea, but thus began the RCJ's "Sturgis Blog" — the grandaddy of Mt. Blogmore. It was a riot. Check it out.

You see, Harlan somehow knew instinctively that the internet is all about bringing people together and building community. That's why later, when he would cover wildfires in the Black Hills, Bill Harlan was the first person people thought of if they wanted to really know what was going on "right now." But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Notice how, in his very first post, he invites everybody into the party. And the rougher the crowd, the more fun he makes it. Genius. I couldn't resist. I was hooked.

After the rally came political season, so Harlan, still high on the feedback fumes from the Rally, says again to his publisher, "Ok now I want to do a Political Blog." We'll call it Mt. Blogmore, you know like Mt. Rushmore, and we'll get all our readers to come in and write about politics.

To which, I believe Bill's publisher, and Kevin Woster, and Denise Ross said "A what? And let our readers write what?" Again, I'm not sure how he sold that idea either, but here's the first Mt. Blogmore post. Check it out.

As I mentioned above, Mt. Blogmore has covered everything from Bob Newland's fundraising bike trip across the state, to raging Black Hills wild fires, to a 600 comments+ virtual, internet, existential blogdrama of which yours truly became a semi-insane co-author by the time the thread finally came to a close.

These days, Denise Ross has her own blog, and Kevin's still playing host, housekeeper, and hatchet man in the cabin on Blogmore's back slopes even as at least one flock of new moderators has come on, been chewed up pretty good, and subsequently retreated to the safety of their old copy desks.

It takes a certain fine madness to be mayor, sheriff, dogcatcher, and street sweeper for a chaotic, wild and wooly Black Hills internet community. And Bill Harlan still stands out as the Seth Bullock of his day — keeping the peace even as he's provoking heated discussion.

Ask any South Dakota Blogger. Harlan was the man who taught us all — even his publisher. (Finally.) Notice that the Rapid City Journal now has more blogs than Carter has pills. But (and I'm just guessing here) those hosted by the folks Harlan trained are the only ones everybody reads.

So what's Bill up to now? Well he's back at Homestake, believe it or not, telling people about neutrinos, and the Higgs boson, and quarks, and gluons, and spin (no, not that kind of spin, PP.)

And up, down, charm, and strange. That's all physics talk, by the way.

So I keep asking Bill, "Hey Harlan, do you know anything about particle physics?" And he always looks at me and smiles and says, "Nope."

Right, Harlan. I remember when he used to say he didn't know anything about writing, or the internet, or blogging, or salesmanship either.

p.s. No, those two little pictures there aren't taken from the inside of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva Switzerland (which Harlan recently visited.) They're actually shots he took this 4th of July at another friend's house next to the Arrowhead golf course.

Although, if you look, real close, I bet there's a Higgs bosun hanging out in that top shot somewhere.


Douglas said...

Well, guess you just proved Bill Harlan is not the only old man who can write.

Denise Ross said...

Didn't somebody in the good ol' Blogmore days deem him the Blog-father?

If not, they should have.

Bill Fleming said...

I'm changing the headline right now.
Thanks Denise! Perfect.

Robbie Murchison said...

Well done, Mr. Fleming. I agree with Douglas.