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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.