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April 06, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Our Town: Criticism with a smile Our Town: Criticism with a smile (April 06, 2005)

by Don Kazak

Bob Holmgren has a sly sense of humor. He is quick to see the lighter side of things that the rest of us sometime take too seriously.

The 59-year-old Menlo Park photographer started a blog in mid-February about his careful reading of the Palo Alto Daily News. The comments and funny photographs are a hint at how he looks at things: In a discussion of storm drains, he posted a photo of a giant plunger.

His blog is: http://burningsquirrelreport.blogspot.com.

Burning Squirrel Report seems like a nonsense name. It derives from a Daily News headline -- about cops chasing a flaming squirrel -- that Holmgren thought epitomized the paper's fast-and-loose style of journalism.

He has posted a photo of a cat wearing an lime-peel (for a story on bicycle helmets) and called the writer of a Daily News editorial "irresponsible or crazy." But he did credit the Daily News for running a headline "Mummified body . . ." on page four instead of the front page.

He's also taken a potshot at the Weekly.

"I'm a tick on the butt of local journalism," he said.

Holmgren, a native of Rockford, Ill., has a master's degree in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. His photographs have appeared in Time, Newsweek, Fortune and Forbes, with others pending in National Geographic.

During our interview at a downtown Palo Alto coffee shop, he took out a tiny camera and shot photographs of me.

While he makes his living behind a lens, he's also comfortable banging out words.

When I asked him what his interest was in newspapers he said he reads Romenesko, the Web page (www.poynter.org/column) that is a morning necessity for many of us media types. That he would even know of it attests to his media savvy.

He said he's always read newspapers, including the Daily News, the Weekly and the Country Almanac for local news.

"The world is a big enough place for a lot of ideas," he said.

And he doesn't have a larger political agenda. "The common approach here is center-left," he said. "I'm more center-right. For me, it's just fun to have a say. I'm not interested in changing the minds of hordes of people."

But he pokes wicked good fun at the Daily News and, once so far, at the Weekly, for how it covered the recent buy-out of the Daily News chain by Knight-Ridder.

He's not a journalism professor and he has no pretense about what he is doing. But he is smart and funny.

"If someone has a laugh, if someone gets it, all the better," he said. "I don't want to be the town grouch."

He and a few like-minded friends meet most mornings for coffee and talk in a Palo Alto coffee shop. Their good cheer is as warm and welcome as the coffee they drink, and no one is spared some good fun.

Mike Liveright, a technology guy, said he and Holmgren are "not working regularly" (which is also what my editor says of me). Liveright, a Downtown North resident with an unruly head of whitening hair, is also quick to smile.

Holmgren told me later about how British actor John Cleese once walked into the coffee shop.

Cleese, of course, is a member of the famous comedy group, Monty Python. Holmgren had the audacity to say hello and Cleese, in perfect Monty Python form, looked at Liveright's hair and said he must be a Stanford professor. (He isn't.)

The Daily News is an obsession of sorts to this lively morning coffee group.

"The headlines are amusing and strange and don't represent the stories below them," Liveright said. "They are either cute or extreme."

Holmgren does have a serious intent: He would like more people to be interested in local issues, whether or not they agree with his views.

"I assume a lot of people think I am wrong," he said.

He's also a family man. I had to squeeze in a second interview around his time with his son, who was out of school after Easter.

I asked him if the Burning Squirrel Report would ever extend its interest to the Weekly.

"Anything is possible," he said, smiling.

"Everyone has a fair chance of being knee-capped."

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be emailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.


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