Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Complications of Literary Journalism

Quoting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
First, the interview with Robert Weschler

* Immersion reporting may justify edited accounts of conversation. Obviously we cut out fillers, and no one complains. Is conflation of time permissible? Is – as Bob Garfield suggests – everything between quotation marks sacred?

* Memoir is different

* Sophisticated readers get it, particularly when the quotes all sound the same person-to-person

What you can do in this class:

·      * vigorous descriptive language
·      * more generally, create your own tone
·      * be present in the story - that means I do not immediately reject an "I"
·      * to some degree “instigate,” though that’s tricky; you tell me: what would be “fair” instigation and what wouldn’t?

What you can’t do:

Make things up, including extreme compression of quotes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Self-Righting Principle

First page of Areopagitica, by John Milton
First page of Areopagitica, by John Milton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* I am less happy than I should be about The Bold Italic finding a formula that allows them to survive. Why?

* All news - and newsish - media have credibility problems of some kind based on ownership and editorial thrust.

* Thus, it makes sense that a point exists at which you lose so much credibility so that readers disregard the stories you do that you think matter.

* That, however, does not seem to be the root of my worry, not the primary cause.

* Maybe it's a problem of proportion. Too much TBI content is trivial, designed only to entertain. Moreover, the implications of that trivial content - consumption! hedonism! political and social apathy! - might dilute or smother more serious content.

* Or even if that is not so, my disquiet probably has something to do with the fact The Bold Italic is a kind of Information Silo. Let's assume some of its more serious content has enough weight to stand against the trivial. But perhaps the readers of TBI self select. Any bits of useful provocative fact in the magazine don't push readers toward useful new insights because those readers are there already. They are merely confirming existing convictions. This used to be called "preaching to the choir."

* Well, that could be it, but what gnaws at me is a concern that goes deeper than the growth of the Information Silo, and that is the notion that Milton was wrong.

* Milton? Here's a definition and a quotation.

THE SELF-RIGHTING PRINCIPLE: John Milton's contribution to free speech theory -- more than 300 years ago -- was that information and ideas need to be freely exchanged in order for man to gain knowledge and understanding and to discover truth. For Milton, the liberty of conscience was the fundamental freedom, necessary for all other freedoms to exist. Through the free exchange of ideas, he believed wise men would discover truth. 

Wrote Milton: "Truth is strong next to the Almighty." ... "Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple, whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?" 

This became known as the "self-righting principle" -- the notion that, in the end, truth will win out. 

* For years - consciously or not - I have used that idea to justify in part my participation in journalism education, a faith (which sadly may be the correct word) in the value of what I do. (Pause to talk about Potter Box.) But now I have to deal not just with the Information Silo - which suggests "truth" never reaches the ears of those who need it -- but Confirmation Bias.

Klein in Vox

This is a page from the Vox pitch to advertisers.

And here's something from The Federalist saying that Vox Makes Us Stupid, saying Vox is as guilty of just as much Confirmation Bias as those it criticizes.

Bottom line?: Faith in the Self-Righting Principle endures, I guess. USF Politics prof Corey Cook has an interesting take. The best thing so-called liberal news sites can do is to challenge the confirmation bias of their own readers.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Firewall and Credibility

But before anything else, we remember classified ads.

For most of history, most publications lost money, or at best broke even, on their subscription base, which just about paid for the cost of printing and distributing the papers.  Advertising was what paid the bills.  To be sure, some of that advertising is migrating to blogs and similar new media.  But most of it is simply being siphoned out of journalism altogether.  Craigslist ate the classified ads.  eHarmony stole the personals.  Google took those tiny ads for weird products.  And Macy's can email its own damn customers to announce a sale.

Read more:

A recent Chronicle front page

 The separation of “church and state” in publishing Bustle_June_13_s


For a long time — I don’t know how long, but it certainly predates my brief existence on this planet — the publishing world has talked about “church vs. state.” The concept is simple. Advertisers want to inject themselves into a publication, and journalists want to keep their writing pure. So, if you are going to advertise in the New York Times, you must do it in a way that does not encroach upon the content that would otherwise exist on that page.

In the publishing world, “church and state” is dogma. And, yet, it is a dogma so brainless and idiotic, that the only way it could possibly exist in the modern day is because generations of publishers have brainwashed themselves into accepting it… much in the way that young North Koreans view Kim Il Sung as their immortal leader, or the way a New England village stoned one citizen each year in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

 “My father learned it from his father who learned it from his father…” There are a lot of reasons why print is dying. And the separation of “church and state” is amongst the biggest ones. Perhaps it stands atop the list. The problem with journalism is that journalists feel a sense of entitlement that they don’t have to pay attention to the business. Their job is to write. Or to edit. And if the CEO or the sales executives can’t turn a profit, well, then they’re not doing their job. And if the parent company stops offering health benefits, or puts a furlough plan in place, or refuses to hire any new writers, well, that’s just the nature of the beast.

 A journalist needs to keep his head up and continue writing great pieces…into the sunset. Well, some of us are young enough that we actually have to think about the future. Some of us are young enough where the distant future — 20 or 30 years out — will still represent a meaningful fraction of our lives. And a world without publications is not one that will be very pleasant. And one of the ways that we can ensure healthy publications is to tear down the wall that stands between “church” and “state.”

Editors need to understand business. They need to know exactly why it is that modern publishing houses can’t sustain themselves. They need to see a connection between content costs, user engagement, advertising rates, and the future of the companies that put food on their tables. Advertising executives need to understand what the hell they are selling. In most cases, they have no idea what they are selling. And that’s the good ones. The not-so-good ones just make shit up entirely.

And as technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of the publishing ecosystem, everyone needs to learn a little bit of nerd-speak. As I have mentioned before, the coming together of writers, engineers, and salesmen is the name of the Publishing game in the 21st century. But it’s not just about them communicating. It’s also about them understanding how this all works. And actually giving a crap. An editor needs to realize why a $1,500 piece of content is not a sustainable concept. And if content is going to cost a fortune to create, then it needs to be part of a larger story that includes advertising sponsorship.

If you are going to fly a bunch of models to Egypt and do a photo shoot amongst the Pyramids… then somebody has to pay for it. Publishing CEOs need to lean on their editors to do things that — until now — very few editors have had to do. They need their editors to wear the CFO hat once or twice per month. On the first day of my new company, I am going to sit down with my editorial team and give them this speech, verbatim: “You are my editorial team. You have an editorial budget. You have a pageview goal. You have a quality bar. Make all three work.”

That’s it. They will very quickly learn how to manage a budget. If we need to cut freelancer costs, it won’t be because some “mandate from above” trickled down into their newsroom. It will be because they looked at the company’s P&L — the very same one that the CEO reviews each day — and the financial statement painted a picture in which editorial costs need to decrease.

Maybe it’s because revenue came in light, and so their newsroom is at odds with an 80 percent gross margin. Or maybe it’s because the average number of page views per article has imploded, and so we can’t spend $80 on each story. Or maybe it’s because Beauty content is driving no traffic, and they would rather re-allocate that freelancer budget towards Fashion.

Who knows? There are a million distinct reasons why a newsroom would need to reshuffle its priorities. And every one of those reasons can be competently discussed with a team of editors, every single one of whom is presumably (a) a grownup, (b) college-educated, and (c) smart.

Most of my editorial team will have degrees from places like Northwestern or Columbia — schools that would not have accepted me — so I’m pretty damn sure that they can read a simple financial statement. And when my advertising team promises Starcom that we can do a custom homepage takeover with a rich media overlay that predicts each reader’s favorite Skittles flavor, then that salesman will have to bring me a dataset to prove that user engagement did not crumble on that particular Thursday afternoon. And he will have to buy a bottle of Scotch for whichever engineer worked until midnight to execute the campaign.

Whenever a bunch of old media suits visited our office at Bleacher Report, the first thing they observed was that “everyone is just sort of sitting out there on the floor.” Nobody had offices. I didn’t have one. Our regional sales chief sat a few desks down from me. Right next to the Operations guru who executed his deals. And when he had a question about campaign feasibility, he simply walked 50 feet to the nearest Editorial cluster and asked them what was possible.

We didn’t have Sales on one floor and Editorial on another. Nobody was hiding in cubicles or behind office walls. And that is what a modern publishing house needs to look like. Because the walls between “church and state” are as damaging as the walls that keep Advertising on one floor, Editorial on another, and Engineering in a remote location. It does not work. It will not work in the 21st century.

A Slate writer praises Bustle. Sort of.

And here's a link to Bustle.

CEO of ChaCha says it's all about the transparency.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015