Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Tribute to Greatness

“Great” is one of those words that we simply use too often. Like the phrases some Oxford people think we have all heard enough, loose usage has devalued it into a pejorative, turning "great" into a lesser compliment than the equally diluted "awesome."

I have a soft spot for greatness. It is the genuine weakness that a parent has for a child or any one of us for a savior. I will spare myself further humiliation by mentioning no objects of my admiration. Except for one.

A few months ago a great man, friend and colleague died. David Mitchell and I collaborated in a world that had yet to coin the phrase “virtual meeting." In my 26 years at Reuters, I never met him or even saw a picture of him.

That is, until someone else I have never met and do not even know provided me with a happy snap of Mitchell in 1976, three years before our first encounter.

Last June I wrote a remembrance of Mitchell on a Reuters alumni site, and repost it here in a slightly different form (with apologies to Fred Gray, mentor and another great man) and the image, which helps to complete the picture.

David Mitchell, who with Tom Guinan and Fred Gray created, deployed and maintained the desktop editing system still in use in Reuters America and elsewhere, has died. Word from a mutual colleague is that Mitchell passed away a few weeks ago. I have no other details, but would welcome hearing anything about this great man.

Mitchell and his cohorts were the Reuters equivalents of the Internet Gray Beards: they practically invented everything that US journalists use to write and edit stories, and they decided on concepts and workflows and interfaces that seem to this day as the only way to do it.

David was one of the first technical people I encountered as a young pre-journalist; when I was a news dictationist, entering copy phoned in live from correspondents, there were endless formatting questions (agate, anyone?) as vexing then as even in more recent days. Mitchell had tremendous patience and a sense of humor which made it possible to for me to battle through one pain barrier after another.

Later on, when I needed detailed system information to create third-party applications that leveraged our quirky editorial mainframe and user interface it was Mitchell again who unlocked secrets and affirmed crazy ideas that just might work. In failing health even 15 years ago, he was always available and always utterly fluent in every matter, however obscure and unintuitive, that I presented to him.

It is not an exaggeration to say the crucial early successes Reuters New Media had creating programmatic desktop publishing solutions -- the core functionalities that powered real-time multimedia Internet news years ahead of the competition -- was possible only because neophyte dreamers were able to stand on his shoulders.

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