Friday, January 31, 2014

A Libel Suit with a Lesson for Magazine Writers and Editors

As described in Politico:

There's a debate going on over whether The National Review can survive a defamation lawsuit brought by climate scientist Michael Mann, which was green-lighted last week by a D.C. Superior Court judge after multiple attempts to have the case thrown out. 
Mann sued writers at National Review and the conservaitve think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2012 for calling his global warming research fraudulent and comparing him to "the Jerry Sandusky of climate science," adding that "instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data."
Damon Linker, a senior correspondent for The Week, says it's doubtful that the influential conservative magazine can survive -- even if the lawsuit is dismissed:
[T]he lawsuit may well be dismissed down the road. But the longer it continues, the more likely it becomes that Mann will eventually prevail, either by forcing an expensive settlement or by prevailing in court and winning a substantial penalty from the defendants. ... It's doubtful that National Review could survive either outcome. Small magazines often lose money and only rarely manage to break even. They certainly don't have substantial legal budgets, let alone cash to cover an expensive payout. Indeed, in 2005, Buckley said the magazine had lost $25 million over 50 years.

Two lessons, maybe:

1) Opinion is protected speech as long as it can't be subject to a "truth test" in the real world. I'd say a comparison of someone's scientific research to serial child molestation is a degree of defamation that can be "truthed."

2) If you don't have deep pockets, the very prospect of a libel suit can discourage you from speaking your mind. A big lawsuit might destroy a small publication.

Full disclosure: I think climate change is happening, and I question the motives of those who deny it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Clean This Up, But We Want to Keep It in Quotes

“Well, you know. What it was was…. I had met just this guy, this guy Fred, and, you know, I had just got back from Afghanistan – it was hard because my wife…. I bumped into him in a bar – that Irish pub on Clement, Ozzies? -  and he said, not much,  just said – I mean, he had been buying me drinks for fuck’s sake, all that bullshit - just asked, how many babies did I  - you know, all up in my face – did I kill? And I kind of lost it. And I kind of…. I had a gun, gun my daddy gave me, big old thing, an old 45. So I…So I , I pulled it out and I kind of lost it and so I shot, I shot, I shot him in the head there. And the blood, oh man the blood. But it’s not like I, you know, meant to. I mean, I meant to. But not that, man.”

Here's an excellent discussion of this issue from the American Journalism Review.

A New Magazine is Coming to Beautiful California

Online plus hardcopy inserted into the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle among others. It will be called California Sunday.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Rhetorical Menage a Trois

One of a writer's most useful tools - right up there with talent, persistence and a taste for poverty - is the rule of three. As illustrated in the previous sentence.

Define it broadly. Define it narrowly, in rhetorical terms, as the tricolon. But never define it late for dinner. (Okay, it doesn't always work.)

Comedians love it as a reliable joke formula.  Great speakers use it as naturally as they draw air into their lungs. (Scroll down to Quintillian: "The rule of three creates an illusion of completeness and finality.")

Working writers use it because it works.

I recommend the use of Three Magic in its simplest terms. If you are ending a speech story with quotes from the audience, include at least three because if you have three good ones, I always assume you have more than that, but if you only have two, I always assume that's all you have. (Does that make sense? I am simply describing my personal reaction.)

If you giving a string of examples in a story, give three, and it's even better if you give them in ascending order of importance, with the last one often delivering a surprise: "On her desk you notice three things: a stained coffee cup, a pencil broken in half and an autographed picture of Justin Bieber."

Or maybe, in a paraphrase even though you are not quoting directly, you repeat the same word three times: "He cares about the people, he kept saying. He says he really does care about them. The people, you know. He means the people."

We aren't rigid about applying this rule. Not everything works in threes. But keep it in mind. It's something I am aware of in my own writing, and naturally I think it's a hell of a fine idea. I could have said it's a hell of a heckuva fine idea. But come on.

(Here's a sample Rule Three joke from Jon Stewart. "I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.")

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Googled "groups that help refugees in San Francisco"

And these are the hits I got.

Then I did "groups that help immigrants in San Francisco." Some organizations repeated, but some new ones appeared.

Why We Use Attribution in our Stories and Cultivate Skepticism

Wendy Davis is a Texas politician with a compelling life story but - according to a Texas newspaper - in describing her life story she was less than ruthlessly accurate, you might say.

FORT WORTH — Wendy Davis has made her personal story of struggle and success a centerpiece of her campaign to become the first Democrat elected governor of Texas in almost a quarter-century.
While her state Senate filibuster last year captured national attention, it is her biography — a divorced teenage mother living in a trailer who earned her way to Harvard and political achievement — that her team is using to attract voters and boost fundraising.
The basic elements of the narrative are true, but the full story of Davis’ life is more complicated, as often happens when public figures aim to define themselves. In the shorthand version that has developed, some facts have been blurred.
The lesson I take from this is not that we judge her harshly. The point is that our sources don't exactly lie to us but that - when they tell their story - they emphasize certain facts, ignore others and shade things in their favor. As storytellers, we all learn not to overcomplicate the narrative. We strive for truth (let us hope) without always maintaining scrupulous accuracy.
 In short, our sources are us, if you know what I mean. So when we write we make clear where we get our information so that if the facts turn against us, it's clear that we didn't guarantee them and - given the  limited amount of time our masters gave us to do a story - did our best to adhere to that deep journalistic principle of IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.
How does that apply to this class, where as feature writers we drop attributions and otherwise seem to guarantee the narrative so the story flows?
We end our story with a Methods Box. Tell you readers how you learned what you seem so confident about knowing.

Our Elephant Friend, or Playing with Exposure as a Way to Tell Photo Stories

Here's a pretty little story about our BEFF - Best Elephant Friend Forever - with whom we hooked up in Zambia last summer. On the advice of Good Doctor Higgins, we used Exposure to present. This particular platform insists on keeping the photos LARGE. That, and the fact the more description you type in, the smaller the text appears, puts the emphasis on the images and not the prose. Also, it costs if you want to have more than three posts.

But the medium fits the message, which was: BIG elephant apparently interested in climbing into our bed for a threesome.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Three Sample Performance Stories with Notes

The Scene at Subway by DM

Without a smile the teenage girl with shoulder length black hair asks, "What can I get you?" (I like this: The first three words are the ‘theme’ of the piece. We see and then we hear. If DM began with the quote, the quote would lack context. With the quote late in the sentence, we immediately get the sense that it was said coolly without human connection.)

A quick response from the man across the counter, (Is that man DM? We don’t know. He’s keeping himself detached, observant and detached. His emphasis is on showing and not telling.) and the girl reacts. She turns her back and reaches inside a Windex-streaked (Windex isn’t the only way to clean glass. But it’s a shorthand way of saying a lot of things about the general cleanliness of the place, so I’ll let it stand.) bread oven.

(“As if”: This is a reasonable judgment concerning the speed with which this task is done. In context, it implies how boring the job seems.) As if it’s a task that she’s done a thousand times, the young woman places a 12-inch loaf (We understand this is a judgment, an approximation based on observation. The menu says these things are a foot long, doesn’t it?) of wheat bread on a white cutting board covered with crumbs. She pulls two clear plastic gloves from a small box to her left and blows into each one, making it easier to stuff her hands inside. (So much good detail, reminding us how in our daily lives we look but we don’t see. Also “stuffs” is a really good very verb? Want to talk about why?)

She reaches for a knife and slices the loaf of wheat in the middle, but not all the way through. Then, opening the bread as if it were a book (Not a great comparison but in context a very effective one. This job is just the opposite of the relaxed and informative act of reading.), she sets it down in front of her. As if folding laundry on a countertop, (This comparison may also imply something about the tedium of the job. Which job would you prefer, working at Subway or folding laundry??) the young woman rolls slices of processed turkey and white cheese, and places them on the bread.

Sliding the unfinished sandwich in front of silver bins filled with (Have we talked about the Rule of Three? For thousands of years, rhetoricians have praised the effectiveness of the ‘threepeat.’) purple onions, olives, green peppers, and several other vegetable choices, she prepares to present the man (Or would customer be better?) with his options.

The girl looks up from the sandwich and makes eye contact with the man (Right here I like ‘man.’ Why?? Because it emphasizes the lack of sexual connection, which some think implicit in all commercial encounters.) across the counter. He looks down and makes a large circling motion over the vegetables with his index finger. In an orderly progression, (Is the tone of the phrase ‘orderly progression’ a little more formal than previous descriptions of the task? Yes, which through indirection emphasizes the mundane nature of the task. Right??) the girl distributes (‘Distributes’: I like the formal, multisyllabic verb for reasons just stated. Also, there’s the matter of variation. Nice contrast with ‘stuffs.’) his vegetable choices upon the sandwich in front of her.

(Momentary chaos! Don’t worry.) Unable to close up the sandwich without spilling its contents, the girl rolls it up in a piece of wax paper to keep it tightly pressed together. As (Key adverb. We looked ‘slow’ at something that happened fast.) quickly as the process began, the girl slices through the wax paper and sandwich, places it next to the register, (She is part of an assembly line, doing the same thing again and again.) and walks back to the front of the sandwich line to greet the next customer.

Summary: A nice piece of feature writing should be artful, rewarding scrutiny. Though I will ask you to have a ‘focus graf’ for some of your stories, in some cases the point is shown rather than told - though in that case I'd ask you to put a note for me at the end stating your Implied Theme. This story leads me to think through description that this particular job is boring, mechanical and unrewarding. What’s your interpretation?

Noah's Street Scene

Some may question what separates a street performer and a panhandler.  (A provocative statement of opinion suggesting the writer is an urban dweller who appreciates the nuances of city life. Though I love scene setting, not every story has to begin with a scene. In the following sentence, there is a certain formality in word choice and phrasing. Thus, through tone, the writer characterizes himself.) The skeptical may declare that there in no difference between the two. (Does ‘I’ work here? What do you think?) I like to believe that if someone has the nerve to perform in front of uncaring and potentially belligerent crowd they have some right to the (Change of pace, from formal diction to the simple and concrete.) change in my pocket.

(Boom. Big change in tone, from detached to conversational. Nice change of pace.) However, I can’t really decide with this guy. It seems as if he is able (Clever image.) to conceptually limbo under the bare minimum of street performance rapport.  I say this with lifelong respect for the (Lost art? This guy may not be doing it well, but we – urban dwellers ourselves – often see this kind of street performance.) lost art of painting oneself up and standing for hours on end. I can’t help but wonder why this guy has chosen to stand atop a milk crate in an unmistakably dank, greyish-white sweat suit. (I’m thinking I’d like more description, but for this assignment the word limit was 250.  Sometimes you have to ‘kill your darlings.’)

(Paragraphing matters! I like the fact this sentence has its own graf. That gives it emphasis. However, I’m not sure about the grammar. Who is under the fluorescent light? Placement of the prepositional phrase tells me it’s the writer, but I think he means the performer.) Under the fluorescent spotlight of the nearby (Simple detail creates contrast and makes scene concrete and credible.) Victoria’s Secret display, I (Once again self characterization through word choice: We are the superior being!) marvel as he forcefully shakes his white paper coffee cup (I like this image. It makes me sad. Passersby ignore, refused to see.) to remind passersby he is there.

(Hmmm. Check this out. Our writer is watching from a distance. He is detached.  Someone else has to trigger the street person’s action.) All seems lost until a stranger pauses in the shadows, and I am given the gift of watching a tightly choreographed robotic bow. All the while, the bulbous eyes and permanent smile of the man on the milk crate never move an inch (Uh oh. Eyes and smiles are on faces. I don’t think we need to be reminded of their location.) on his face.

(I’m thinking: Of course, you already knew he was trying to perform. You mean now he lives up to your standard.) So he is a performer. (I interpret this to me: The writer is wondering how this guy could improve his act and makes a reference to a Stephen King novel, a reference which SEEMS to end with the implication that the performer is pretty grotesque looking as is. Is that how you read it? Is this too ‘specialized’ a reference? How many readers would get the reference?) I wonder what would happen if he tried some white face paint like the pros I’ve seen before… then I imagine the clown from It and shudder.

(I like the first two sentences here.) Is he a statue? Is he a robot? Is he wasting his time or am I wasting mine? (But I don’t get the rest of this. My instruction: Rethink and rewrite.) We may never know but I still want see his dance up close- even if it will be the most expensive dollar I’ve ever spent.

Summary: In the Subway story, the narrator is invisible. Here the writer self consciously mediates the story. It is easier to figure out who he is and what he thinks.  We see his mind at work. It is significant, I think, that this approach puts more weight on the ending of the piece. He could have ended with ‘So he is a performer.’ But the writer has become a character in the tale and feels the need to end with some thought or action of his own as a payoff. I agree that he needs to have such an ending. But he has to work harder and think harder to bring it off - which he has failed to do.)

Street Corner

            (Classic beginning that foreshadows. Short sentences seem to say: Pay attention to each detail.) His hood is on. His pants are sagged down low. He wears all black, and a prepaid cell phone hangs from a lanyard around his neck.
Pacing back and forth on the corner of McAllister and Jones, (More foreshadowing. He’s a little scary.) he punches a fist into an open palm. (As an editor, I’d ask for a rewrite of the rest of this graf. He IS ‘making moves’ so you have to change that. What the writer is trying to communicate is that he is moving around, but he seems committed to staying on this little patch of ground. Also, I’m thinking another detail or two, and the writer won’t have to tell us his anxious.) He doesn’t make any moves or show any signs of leaving the corner, but he is anxious.

            (Why not cut the first two words? The writer can assert her right to sound expert about street life.) To some, he is just another part of the hustle and bustle of downtown. (I would recommend cutting the rest of the sentence after ‘stand out’ and going to ‘along with….’)He does not stand out from the rest and goes unnoticed, along with the trash and graffiti that surround him. (I would paragraph here, adding emphasis to what comes next. Also, you could cut the ‘however.’) However, there are those who do notice him and stop, as if they were looking for him. The people who do notice him are (Do we need to tell readers these are different types? I’d say not. Cutting would also open up more space for more description.) all very different: a frail old lady wearing slippers and murmuring to herself; two gangsters wearing snapbacks and gold chains; a nervous college student carrying a heavy book bag.
            (Crisp beginning to the graf.) Few words are spoken. The hooded man reaches in his pocket, pulls out an (Detail!) orange pill bottle, and within a couple seconds the exchange is made. As the customer hurries along into the depths of the Tenderloin, the hooded man looks around, then continues to pace. The day seems slow (We get it. Kill the next six words) for the drug dealer - there were only five or six customers in the 30 minutes on the corner. (New paragraph. Just that little pause suggests time has passed.) His phone rings, and, with a quick nod, the hooded man hurries north up Jones, on to the next corner. (This last sentence works for me. We hear the phone, and we see the nod. We have a direction and a street name. We know what awaits on the next corner. You don’t need to spell it out.)

Summary: As in the Subway story, the narrator is detached. As in the story of the street performer, the narrator is out in the city – in this case the tougher part of town, maybe taking just a little bit of a risk?? Is that how you read it? Or do you think it’s just showing off?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Repost From A Previous Semester: When Print Writers Struggle with Video

A couple of you asked me about guidance in making videos better. Here’s a recent post from News Videographer. I looked at the video and didn’t like it, but I didn’t know exactly why. The critique gave me much to think about. But the fact the original video seemed technically sound - at least, to me -   reinforces one of my primary points. Doing good video is not the same as doing a strong print story. In our class, the strong print story is the foundation. I want you to *play* with multimedia in this class, but – unless you have more free time than I do – I want you to concentrate on what this class is about. You will get full credit for spending a few minutes doing a Flickr collection of photos or doing an audio slideshow or doing three minutes of a video interview. If it’s too polished, however, it will not compensate for written work that is not up to par.  I’m grading the writing assignments A through F. The multimedia component of the course is pass/fail.

Video = Visual, emotional. Text = factual

By Angela Grant on Critiques
Dan Telvok of The Free Lance-Star posted his video on the critiques group on Wired Journalists, and he’s already gotten good feedback from the comments on his post. I exchanged messages with him and he expressed an interest in an additional critique on News Videographer. I’m taking a look at his video about a store that sells the “world’s best” hotdogs.
Hot dog store by Dan Telvok
The people who commented on Dan’s post on Wired Journalists brought up an important issue that I agree with. This video includes the wrong content. It has hard, factual information that Dan should have left in his print story.
Don Himsel: Video stories follow very closely along the print story as far as structure and pacing. I can completely understand why. It’s what we know.
Meranda Watling: One thought, however, is the VO seemed almost like a story written with the news dropped between anecdotes.
The video would have been better if Dan focused on showing the store and delivering emotional information. Dan’s print story very effectively delivered the factual information about pending renovations of the hot dog store. Instead of using the video to repeat those facts, use the video to do what the text simply cannot do effectively: Show the store by creating a visual story. Explain the importance of the store to real people by including sound bytes of the emotional thoughts of customers and employees.
Bob Hammerstrom commented on Dan’s post with advice about how to best create the visual story.
… keep the b-roll length to only 2-3 seconds each. Shoot more close ups, medium shots and wide shots, so that you have plenty to choose from. And, alternate them as you build the video. If you have a good variety, you can then do away with the zooms, and make cuts instead.
A past critique, Wide-medium-tight; wide-medium-tight, has more information about shooting sequences. Also check the end for links to two other critiques about the same thing.
In this particular video, everything seemed very far away. We see the employees behind the counter. Instead, go back there and stand two feet away to shoot medium and close shots; show the smiles on their faces as they greet and interact with customers. Go right up to customers making hotdogs and get two feet away. Get inside your subjects’ personal space so that the images you collect feel intimate and show the viewer an inside look that they normally don’t see.
To get the sound bytes of customers and employees explaining their emotional thoughts about the establishment, it’s important to ask the right questions. Don’t ask questions that will elicit factual information (for example, how often they come to the store). Ask questions that get them talking about their feelings. For example, ask them to explain the tastes and sensations of biting into a hotdog. Maybe it’s comfort food for them! Ask them to tell how important the store is in their lives. Maybe they stop by every day and chat with employees, so they feel like they belong there.
Remember: Video is an emotional and visual medium. Text is perfect for delivering the factual information. Because the Internet allows us the luxury of using whatever medium we want for the information that we have to deliver, make smart decisions and use each medium for its strengths.
This is a post from News Videographer.
Video = Visual, emotional. Text = factual
Department of Media Studies
University of San Francisco
UC 502
SF CA 94117
415-422-6250 (office)
510-836-4870 (home)

Listicles? Sounds Like Something Hanging from the Roof of Your Mouth….

But it's not. It's "article as list," and I stand with Wired Magazine in defending it as a useful tool in feature writing.

Lists are everywhere. They’re the bread and butter of sites like Cracked and BuzzFeed, and regular content or sporadic filler at dozens more. (Yes, even WIRED.) From the multimedia gallery to the humble top 10, list-format articles — listicles — are rapidly becoming the lingua franca of new-media journalism.
They’ve met with no end of resistance from the old guard, cantankerous readers and old-school journalists convinced that listicles (and their admittedly unfortunate portmanteau) are rotting our brains, destroying our attention spans, and generally contributing to the decay of all that is right and good. Listicles have been picked apart, analyzedattackedexplained, and defended.
Are lists overused? Probably. Useful things often are, and lists are really, really useful. Here’s why we like ‘em, and why they probably won’t — and probably shouldn’t — go anywhere soon.

A Videolicious Video: Our Mantra is 'Better than Nothing'