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Posts Tagged ‘editors’

This is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

In blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, work on February 5, 2014 at 3:14 am

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, let’ s stipulate that it’s not always fun.revision1

OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.

Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.

But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.

Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.

Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.

Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.

Nor should it.

This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:

A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)

Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)

The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)

There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)

What do editors do?

At best:

– Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book

– Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it

– Offer some helpful sources

– Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject

– Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers

– Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic

– Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions

– Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership

– Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print

– Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct

– Question your logic and story structure

– Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish

It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.

But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”

At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.

A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.

If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.

My tribe

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, work on April 26, 2013 at 4:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I spent yesterday at the annual conference in New York City of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,400-member group founded in 1947. There were writers there with Pulitzer prizes and best-selling books and HBO series and made-for-TV movies and options and…

A girl could feel mighty small in that crowd!

The New Yorker

The New Yorker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not to mention editors from publications like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic and the New Yorker, four of the — arguably — most desirable markets for magazine writers in the U.S. (Only one of whom, from VF, was female.)

Instead, it was a terrific day of fierce hugs and nostalgia and excited shrieks over new books, and books currently being looked at by Major Publishers, and awards and pregnancies and a friend’s daughter accepted to a good (if costly!) college.

English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolat...

English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolates from participating countries in 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was Greg, who writes great stuff about nature and the outdoors, and Maryn, whose book Superbug, about MRSA (flesh eating bacteria) is absolutely riveting and terrifying, and Dan, with his new book about endangered wildlife of Vietnam.

In the hallway, I bumped into a woman with a suitcase and recognized Helaine Olen, whose fantastic book about how we’ve all been conned by the financial services industry I gave a rave review a few months ago in The New York Times.

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen (Photo credit: New America Foundation)

I served on the ASJA board for six years and still volunteer as a trustee of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can write a check of up to $4,000 — a grant — to a needy non-fiction writer within a week. (If you can ever spare even $20 for the cause of decent journalism and the freelancers who produce so much of it, I’d be thrilled if you’d donate to WEAF.)

So I know lots of people through that, and have given back some of my time and talents to the industry I’ve been working in since 1978.

I went out for dinner that night with Maryn and three new-to-me women writers, all crazy accomplished and of course the conversation quickly turned to — female serial killers. That’s what happens when you get a bunch of newshounds at the same table; four of us had worked for major dailies and all miss the adrenaline rush of working a Big Story. So we do it now for magazines and books and newspapers and websites.

It was, in the most satisfying and nurturing way, a gathering of the tribe — people who had come from Geneva and Paris and San Diego and Toronto and Atlanta and Minneapolis and Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine, all hungry to be in some small, crowded stuffy meeting rooms to talk about what it is we do and how to do it better.

We write. We tell stories. We wake up bursting to share the cool, moving, sad, powerful, holy-shit-can-you-believe-it? richness of the world, all the untold tales that surround us every day, just there, waiting for us to capture, pitch, sell and tell them.

That’s my tribe.

What’s yours?

Today’s journalism — plagiarism, scandal and other forms of editorial mayhem

In aging, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Technology, work on August 1, 2012 at 12:44 am
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently spent a few hours with a rising senior at a top American university who thinks he might want to become a journalist. I agreed, because he’s been interning for a good friend of mine.

He will graduate with $68,000 in debt.

But what, really, can I tell him?

I wonder if my field is still worth entering or committing to: financially terribly insecure, often poorly paid and sadly formulaic in its thinking.

The web’s ruthless drive to get news first destroys, at worst, the larger goal of being accurate. Of telling us why a story matters, not simply that it exists.

And, please God, not just telling us what another sad sack “celebrity” wore to buy a latte.

Here’s a heartening little tale, that of 31-year-old Jonah Lehrer, whose enviable trajectory of best-selling books and, (most coveted of all), a staff job at the New Yorker, recently ended with his admission of making shit up.

Dude, seriously?

If there is anything more annoying than the latest tyro being glorified, it’s finding out, (which keeps happening), they’re a lying plagiarist. Typical of these sorts of debacles is the statement from New Yorker editor David Remnick that this discovery is “terrifically sad.”

No, it’s not. When I Facebooked my feelings about this, several of my veteran journalism colleagues chimed in, agreeing with my disgust.

What it is is someone who’s gotten the sort of opportunities most of will never even get near treating them carelessly. Sort of like the Yale grad who was fired this summer from her reporting job at The Wall Street Journal.

It’s like being given the keys to a shiny new Escalade and dinging the doors because…you can.

For those of you living outside the U.S., perhaps less familiar with the narrow and slippery rungs of privilege here — getting into an Ivy League school, (Lehrer attended one as well, Columbia), is extremely difficult. Every year there costs about $40,000+. Then gilded doors swing open to you, at places like the New Yorker, many of whose staffers also attended prep schools and Ivies.

An article in the June Vanity Fair was a name-drop-fest of elite privilege and Ivy log-rolling:

Ben Bradlee, the managing editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991…hired me fresh out of college as a night police reporter the year he took the paper’s helm—we had been members of the same undergraduate club at Harvard…Harvard has been a big feeder of The New Yorker over the years, particularly the Lampoon, where I was the jester, dancing on the table in a multicolored jingling outfit at Thursday-night black-tie dinners, from 1965 to 1968.

Charm and connections offer these folks rare and much-coveted opportunities to publish in the most respected and influential of outlets, while, almost daily, dozens more journalists are being fired, their odds of getting back in at their previous level of skill or wages, slim to none; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008.

Many of us, and many over 45, are now working at home for a fraction of our former incomes.

Freelance pay rates today are often as low as they were 30 years ago, (while the cost of living has risen tremendously), typically paying $1/word.

If you’re writing 3,500 to 5,000 words, you’re cool. But very few publications still assign at that length; more typically 500 to 1,200 words. You do the math on the volume we now need to pump out to simply get the bills paid. Pre-recession, the big mags were paying $3/word; now you’re lucky to get $2/word.

Yet the way journalists think and behave editorially hasn’t changed much, or enough.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece by their media columnist David Carr, writing on the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals:

Now would seem to be journalism’s big moment to turn that light on itself, with deeply reported investigative articles about how things went so wrong: the failures of leadership, the skewed values and the willingness of an industry to treat the public with such contempt. The Guardian correctly suggested that the arrests were unprecedented in the history of newspapers.

But because it is the news business and the company in the sights is News Corporation, the offenders are seen as outliers. The hacking scandal has mostly been treated as a malady confined to an island, rather than a signature event in a rugged stretch for journalism worldwide. Collectively, the press in the United States put more time and effort into pulling back the blankets on the indiscretions of Herman Cain.

But journalism’s ills don’t live exclusively on Fleet Street or stop at British shores. While American newspapers don’t publish in the hypercompetitive landscape that played a role in the tabloid excesses in Britain, the growing ecosystem of Web and cable news shares many of the same characteristics and, all too often, its failings. Economic pressures have increased the urgency to make news and drive traffic, even as budgets have been cut and experienced news professionals tossed overboard.

Here’s an excerpt from a new autobiography by a top American editor, describing how print fell prey to digital media.

Do you write for a living — or hope to?

What do you think of media these days?

Are women writers being ignored?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, men, news, women, work on April 5, 2012 at 12:04 am
0New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York T...

New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The latest American National Magazine finalists are in, and the list is — as usual — heavy with the names of male writers, whose work appears predominantly in the Big Name Magazines, the ones that every seriously ambitious writer here eventually, (or even initially) aspires to: The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Esquire and The Atlantic, to name a few.

Here’s a piece in the American monthly magazine Mother Jones on this issue:

And now the problem has once again reared its head: On Tuesday, when the 2012 National Magazine Award finalists were announced, exactly zero women were nominated in the big brass-ring categories—reporting, features, profiles, essays, and columns. (Some women did get nominations in other categories, most encouragingly two nods in public interest journalism, although more typically for pieces about breast-cancer economics and “mommy tucks.”)

Erin Belieu, founder of a group whose goal is to encourage women writers, VIDA, tells MJ:

A friend of mine defines this kind of intellectual segregation as the “tits and nether bits” ghetto, a place in which women only speak to other women. Meantime, men are allowed and encouraged to speak to whomever they want. These issues and questions are ones we at VIDA hope editors may think through in the future when assigning articles to reporters. And we also want to give women writers the confidence to say, “Hey, I can write about whatever I want. I have authority. I have expertise. I have a unique perspective as a person, first and foremost.”

I’ve seen this firsthand, having worked in New York as a journalist since 1989. Read the cool magazines and year  after year the majority of bylines — and their editors — are men tackling the serious, smart, lengthy stories — of 3,500 or 5,000 or even 25,000 words.

Women’s magazines very rarely offer that sort of real estate to any writer, simplifying most stories into 1,000 to 2,000 words, barely enough to scratch the surface of a complex story.

And, frankly, many of us do not wish to write primarily or exclusively about health, nutrition, kids, celebrities, sex or marriage — the go-to evergreens of women’s magazines. It’s somehow (insultingly) assumed that women only want to write about womens-y stuff.

Which means that tough, complicated stories, the kind that only get coverage (and budgets to do it right) in the Big Name Books are hard to get your hands on. Unless you get the assignment — and enough pay to do the work well and enough room to tell the story intelligently — you’ve got nothing to show in order to win the next challenging assignment.

As much as this may horrify some of you, I did some of my best magazine work for Penthouse magazine, including the story that led to my first book.

Men and women writers all know why this issue is so important — being published at this elite level of exposure matters, a lot. Once your work has appeared a few times, sometimes even once, in the Big Name Books, book, film and TV agents come a-calling and other editors add you to their Rolodex. You need those names on your book jacket to prove you’ve got some heft, that your ideas are worth $26 and a few hours of a reader’s time and attention.

You need that level of challenge, to prove to yourself and to editors, agents and publishers, you’ve got the goods.

Being ghetto-ized into writing about mascara or breast-feeding won’t cut it.

Ambitious writers — of any gender — all want, and need, that street cred.

And women’s books aren’t getting reviewed either, according to VIDA, writes novelist Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times:

This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction, I’m not applying the term the way it’s sometimes used: to describe a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience. I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.

It takes some serious cojones to keep on pushing when you get the distinct impression your voice, ideas and perspective — whether “female” or not — isn’t wanted.

Women Too Busy To Die?

In behavior, business, culture, Media, news, women, work, world on September 5, 2010 at 1:05 pm
New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York T...
Image via Wikipedia

If you read The New York Times obituary page — which I do daily as it’s my hometown paper — you’ll soon notice (maybe) an odd detail.

Women never die!

Here’s a post from nytpick.com, which delights in poking at the Gray Lady:

And for the year 2010 to date, the NYT has chronicled the deaths of 606 men, and only 92 women.

Bear in mind that the population of women in the U.S. exceeds that of men, and is nearly neck and neck worldwide.

This disparity in coverage has gone on for years, virtually unnoticed in a society that decades ago granted full equality to women, and has seen huge strides in the prominence of women in virtually all fields of endeavor.

And not only does it show no signs of getting better — it’s actually getting worse.

In a September 2006 “Talk To The Newsroom” interview, NYT obituaries editor Bill McDonald (pictured above) was asked about the lack of what a concerned reader referred to as “gender parity” in the section. His stunning response somehow slipped by unnoticed.

“Ask me in another generation,” McDonald replied. “Really. The people whose obits are appearing in our pages now largely shaped the world of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the movers and shakers in those eras were predominantly white men.”

If you’re  a Lithuanian lute-maker (no offense meant, specifically, to either category) — and male — hang in there. Your time for posthumous glory will come. Men doing the most unlikely and obscure things end up in the Times obit pages every day.

I know for a fact that women do die, women who have achieved extraordinary success and influence in business, the arts, science, medicine, public service, education. But you’ll never hear about them in the Times. (Or The Wall Street Journal or USA Today or The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. You know the “papers of record.”)

I think it’s a toxic combination of two issues: male editors who don’t see women’s achievements as worth this level of honor  — and women, and their families, colleagues and employers who don’t make a (big enough) fuss about them and their value to the larger world, either when they’re alive or after they have died.

Women who vaunt themselves and seek public attention are often derided for their egos and glory-seeking, while men who do so are considered…normal.

Every single obits column that ignores women ignores half the nation’s population.

And newspapers wonder why they’re dying?

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Want To Write A Story — Live, On-Line? Tomorrow's Your Day

In Media, work on May 19, 2010 at 9:38 am
St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...

Even St. Augustine had to revise his material...Image via Wikipedia

Want to watch a writer at work — how he thinks, and re-thinks, and changes his mind? How about stepping up to the keyboard and making your own changes, revisions or additions?

Tomorrow’s your chance.

Here’s a wild idea…one writer, Matt Bell, starts his own short story, writes it on-line for a few days, lets two guest writers take over — and tomorrow — you’re up!

I wonder how many people will take up the challenge. Writing is, typically, a private, unseen and invisible process, the machinery whirring away — we hope! — inside our heads.

I had dinner this week with a fellow writer who asked how my book was coming and what my process is. I usually bang out as much as I can, perhaps 1,500 words, maybe 2,000 at most in one go, then stop and take a break. My eyes and my head get tired.

I do some housework or stare at the sky or read a magazine or take a swim class. Then it’s back at it.

I let new material sit for a few hours, preferably a few days, a cooling-off period that allows me to read it more objectively. I print it out on paper and edit in hard copy only. Then I revise on the computer. One joy of being a writer is that no one tells you how to do it. There is no “right” way. You can scribble on a napkin or use a quill pen on parchment or a Mac at the beach.

The final product is yours, all yours. If it’s lousy, well…

I still have 44,000 words to produce to meet my contractual agreement within the new few months. It’s enough to make me huddle in the fetal position beneath the duvet. But, no.

Finding the right ones, making sure they read smoothly, that the entire story is compelling and engaging, are all part of my job. I did use two terrific researchers to help me gather material for this book (the last one used four). Kelly and Peter are both so skilled that, of course, they each just got hired into full-time journalism jobs and are no longer available.

I’d love to add a bunch of elves to my workshop to lighten this load, but, in the real world, it’s not an option.

Women Who Hate Women Who Write The Wrong Things

In culture, Media, women on May 5, 2010 at 8:07 am
Angry woman, Female head, nice nose, hair band...

Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

Fascinating and honest post by Emily Gould on how women hate women who write the “wrong” stuff and how annoying it is:

So I become, once more, the kind of person I can’t bear: the female critic who despises any female writer who doesn’t project what she feels is the accurate or ideal vision of modern womanhood. This critic believes it is her job to tear down women who are “off-message” because there is only so much publishing space allotted to women, and so more attention for them is less attention for her and other worthy types. This critic lives inside us all, but she is also embodied, occasionally, by real people. One of them, an online “feminist” columnist, once wrote a supposed defense of  “women’s voices” that dismissed something I’d written because the photos that accompanied the essay were of me lying (rather unprovocatively, to my mind) in bed. She’d said that the question wasn’t why my voice was being heard–the implied answer being, presumably, my bed-lying ways–but why others weren’t, “in a media landscape in which there are a severely limited number of spaces for women’s writing voices.”…[There is a ] kernel of truth at the heart of that columnist’s infuriating declaration that only a handful of women’s writing voices are heard, and that those prominent voices are too often salacious, self-revealing, “unfeminist”, or otherwise unworthy. Wrong as she is, she is right about one thing: women have not yet come so far that we can shrug off worries about being misrepresented.

It is tempting to feel resentful when we don’t see ourselves or our stories or our ideals reflected in the prevailing narratives of femaleness. Luckily, there is an alternative: instead of simply criticising other women’s stories, we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our own stories get told. Creating something takes a lot more effort than writing a bad review or a dismissive blog post. But if we don’t make that effort, if instead we keep insisting that a mere handful of female writers are qualified to speak for us, we’ll miss out on the larger truths that are to be found somewhere in the chorus.

I love this and wish we were having that conversation more often.

But we’re not.

The blogosphere, by its nature, is disembodied and asynchronous. There are women out there, of all ages, writing stuff that makes me dance with joy and others whose neck I’d truly like to wring, utterly mesmerized by issues I find trivial and/or inane and/or so deliciously titillating  — lurid sex!! celebrities!! celebrities having lurid, preferably adulterous sex!!! — they’re absolutely guaranteed gazillions of pageviews, book deals, fame, fortune! (No doubt there are women whose hands might reach happily for my neck, too.)

It’s one reason I’ve given up reading most “women’s magazines”, and am so damn grateful for the alternate universe — literally — of the blogosphere. Magazines’ vision of what it means to be female is so narrow, white, thin (or dieting really hard to get there), middle-class, aspirational and, natch, dying to get married and have babies, stat! I know it pleases the advertisers, without whom there would be no magazines, nor the pay rates that make it worth my while to sell a story to a magazine editor. I get that.

Here’s something funny — not! We have a little system here at T/S called Zemanta that suggests photos to accompany our posts. Or you can type in what you seek. Here’s one it can’t handle — “angry woman.”

Seriously! It offered me photos of women mourning (noooo, grief is a little different) and this very, very, very old statue. This is what I’m talking about, the narrow gauge railway along which women are publicly expected to travel: be nice! make people happy!

Tonight I’m off to hear an author (male) talk about his new, raved-about history of Paris, with a new friend, a fellow Francophile and an author of two books about cops. We met recently at a writers’ dinner and — how cool is this? — turned out we know the same lovely, gentle retired NYPD detective, the one who saved me from the con man, whom she interviewed for her book.

The way she thinks, and writes, does matter to me: fearless, tackling tough stories, telling powerful tales that are hard to winkle out. I celebrate women who write cool stuff.

I tend to ignore, (not trash), other women who write stuff I find stupid. It’s only my opinion and millions clearly adore what I find risible or tedious.

An early women’s magazine had the delicious name of The Delineator, and it published from 1873 to 1937, a good, long run. I like the truth of its title. That’s what women’s magazines do — prescribe and proscribe what’s normal and OK and acceptable. Which is why most of them are booooooooring, because the monocultural values they enshrine encourage women to — buy stuff! get married! have kids! work really hard at a white-collar job!

Pretty radical. It’s probably why I sat at the guys’ table in our high school cafeteria and did some of my best writing — sports, guns — for Penthouse. (And, yep, I also wrote for Ms. Go figure.)

Here’s Emily’s blog (and a plug for her new memoir.)

Journos, Are You The Pipe Or The Water? Readers, Do You Care?

In Media on October 19, 2009 at 6:42 pm
GatedPipe

Image via Wikipedia

As journalism tangoes between old-school, shoe-leather reporting and in-your-PJs-opining, I think of irrigation and what our stories are meant to be and to do.

I think journalism’s essential and unchanged job description is to offer smart, nuanced, researched, accurate information (and, yes, some entertainment value, but maybe 10% relative to these other components) — the intellectual equivalent of fresh, clean water gushing into the fields whose produce feeds us and keeps us alive and healthy. If all you consume, intellectually, is Doritos, you’re fat, happy — and consistently malnourished.

We are not the water. We are the pipe. From the beginning of my career as a college undergraduate, writing for national magazines, I knew my job was writing a story, not being it. Today, when I write for print, the same rules still apply: I’m just the conduit for the story, and my role in finding, researching, reporting, writing and revising it should be as invisible and seamless as the miles of pipe conveying water. I’m ideally bringing the reader something they need, and it’s my role and my responsibility to deliver it untainted by my views and opinions. (Every news story, I’m well aware, is colored by the inherent biases, and multiple filters, of the editors and writer, but each knows it’s also their job to leach these out as best they can.)

But I feel this as strongly as the air in my lungs, which is why blogging, (which I enjoy), sometimes feels to me like marathoning in ski boots — do-able but a little awkward and weird. Every time I use someone else’s reporting and ideas (credited!), I’m playing water, not pipe. The story is what matters most. I think many readers remain desperate for clarity, insight, analysis, history and context. No, not all readers, all the time.

Can we say “media hoax?” Can we say “What a (**&^%#@^^##! waste of time, energy and attention”?

But those of us who thirst for this clear, fresh water too often get a mouthful of PVC pipe instead — what now passes for journalism, in any medium: a toxic mix of ego, whim, fantasy, drama, posturing, eye-rolling and hand-flapping and chicken-necking.

Do you care if you’re the pipe or the water? Which would you rather be?

Which would you rather read or rely on?

The Devil Wears Nada — Does Anyone Still Long To Be A Glossy Mag Journalist?

In business, Media on October 14, 2009 at 3:52 pm
The Devil Wears Prada (film)

Image via Wikipedia

The scene I always find fascinating in the 2006  film “The Devil Wears Prada” is when Miranda Priestley drawlingly reminds her assistant Andrea, as she prepares to step into a crowd of Paris paparazzi, that “everyone wants to be us.” Only three years later, it feels like a century ago.

I just heard Ruth Reichl on Terri Gross’ NPR show “Fresh Air” mourning the sudden demise of Gourmet, one of the most glossy of all glossies, of which she was editor in chief, a place she described as the best job she ever had — 10 years of big budgets, free rein and a wildly creative team. Gone. And gone for good with no warning. I also heard today from the partner of a long-time Gourmet staffer, agreeing they had no clue the axe was about to fall. For journos with a deep and abiding taste for covering, if not living, the best of things, what’s next?

True Slant harbors a few ex-glossy mag staffers, so they know what’s been lost.

Given the Conde Nast bloodbath, the widespread Titanic-ness of the magazine industry these days and the paucity of jobs available at any level, does anyone even want those jobs anymore? Will they even exist in a few years?

What is the staff media job everyone wants — that actually pays?

Jelly Donuts and Electric Fences: Sort Of Like Blogging

In Media on July 18, 2009 at 6:56 pm
Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park Ursu...

Image via Wikipedia

In 1970, my Dad made a feature film for Disney called “King of the Grizzlies”, which featured, naturally, a grizzly bear. While he’d been a celebrated film director for years, my Dad found directing a large wild animal presented entirely new challenges — how exactly do you direct a grizzly? Jelly donuts and electric fences, he told me. To entice his furry star to walk in the right direction, a crew member would hold out jelly donuts. An additional guide were the low-voltage, low-level electrical wires installed along the desired walkways, out of camera range. (Having literally run into one of these wires, designed to contain cattle, in a pitch-dark Irish field, I can tell you they work.)

That’s sort of what blogging — for an old-media old-fart like me new to this medium (a big ho-hum for some of you) — feels like. I’ve been writing professionally since my freshman year of college (no, I never studied journalism, instead English lit. at the University of Toronto) and quickly grew accustomed to, and enjoying the fact of, millions of readers reading my stuff.  Sometimes they took the time to write to me or the magazine or newspaper to say so, sometimes sent a clip of it by mail (paper, postage, that old-media thing) to someone they thought might enjoy it. Only once  did my writing elicit a wild reaction, and that unmediated, overwhelming, unanticipated international attention was both, to a young and ambitious journo, exciting and terrifying. I wrote a front-page story about Queen Elizabeth, after spending two weeks following her tour through three provinces, that examined the nature of celebrity. You don’t mess with the Queen, certainly in Canada, and hate mail poured in from Canada and Britain. One writer demanded I be hung, drawn and quartered. It was one of the few times so many readers at once made themselves, and their ire, fully heard.

This is my first crack at blogging for a large audience; I also blog about firearms, crime, violence and women at theopencase.com, but less frequently. For anyone who’s ever worked for a large, serious, old-media news organization — which I feel lucky to have done — it’s a distinctly disorienting sensation to…just write. Post. Publish. Not to worry if I’m treading on the toes of the city hall or education or media or health reporter; newsrooms can be insanely territorial places, where who’ll take your call and pass along a scoop can make or break your career. Not to have to wheedle and whine for days, sometimes weeks, to an editor why we really need to run this story. For better or worse, many of those filters disappear through the medium of  blogging.

What old-school journo’s also know, (and some of us miss), is that producing a newspaper or magazine or radio or television newscast is an industrial process. Whatever’s happening out there in the world has traditionally become “news” non-journos hear about only after much selection, sawing and carving and polishing and buffing. The finished product, as shiny and alluring as a new table, can sometimes no more resemble the “truth” than the trees-to-lumber-to consumer product it became along the way.

It also reconfigures the very shape of what you read here and how we choose to present it to you. Autoworkers on the assembly line know it’s their specific job to instal windshields, or seats, or dashboards, and maybe all of these. They don’t make the whole car, nor are they expected to — which we do here. Journalists still working within structured news environments, whether Time or CNN or The New York Times, are similarly chosen and hired to focus on, ideally deeply understand and produce one small piece of the puzzle, never the whole thing.

Here, for example, we write our own make-or-break headlines, even if we’ve never done it in our lives and are bumbling along, bear-like; writers never do, not for magazines or newspapers, anyway, whether  staff or freelance. Nor, typically, have reporters shot our own photos or chosen, all the time, whenever it suits us, what we want to write about or get you to think about. There is always an editorial hand, frequently many and sometimes competing, lying heavily on our shoulders. That’s not such a bad thing.

Freedom feels…odd. You’d think it feels great, right? Well, of course on some levels it does. But who’s there, other than your profound uninterest and single-digit pageviews, to let us know, “Sweetheart, this sucks!”? Popular opinion, which essentially rules this medium, isn’t always the best judge of taste or quality. One old-media artifact, whose use lives on as a verb, was a tall, sharp metal spike that sat on the desk of your editor(s). If your story was appalling, and, then, it was written and read in the newsroom on a piece of paper, it got spiked. Killed. Boom! Go do something better, a lot better. Or else. Here, we can post again seconds later, if we dare, optimistic enough to think we’ll get another grab for that most valuable commodity in the world — attention.

I loved working with editors who sat in the same room with me,  some of them — OK, many of them — eccentrics who, thank God, wouldn’t last a day in a more formal environment. One kept an enormous cardboard cutout of comedian Mike Myers in the window of his office. Another strode through the newsroom every afternoon, bow-tied, carrying his teapot. Several loved the freedom to shout out whenever they wanted you, their command audible the entire length of an open newsroom. By example, it gave us explicit permission to be unconventional, even weird, sometimes deeply weird, (which is where some of the smartest thinking comes from), and sometimes so anti-social we’re almost feral and forget to wear clothes that match. Working alone at home can do that to you.

Great editors, and they are rare, are intellectual anatomists, able to discern the bones of the best stuff you may not have even imagined in your own work, even when your notebooks and tapes are full. On the really tough, frightening, high-stakes stories — the ones that matter most — they’re our cut-men, taping us back together when we stagger back, bloodied and scared, into our corners, wiping us down and sending us right back in there to finish the job. I firmly believe the very best and bravest journalism will always demand cut-men, whatever the new-media equivalent is.

Here, I’m a grizzly bear, looking out for the donuts.  As all of us do, I’ll also keep running into the wires. It’s a fascinating, odd, sometimes confusing way to communicate. Please feel free to email me with ideas for stories, comments, people you think worth looking into.

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