Jelly Donuts and Electric Fences: Sort Of Like Blogging

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park Ursu...
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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.

13 thoughts on “Jelly Donuts and Electric Fences: Sort Of Like Blogging

  1. libtree09

    Nice piece.

    As you no doubt know most films are run from bullpens quite similar to newsrooms. People running in and out in whatever outfit they chose to wear, lots of shouting, arguing and sharing, hours determined by the project at hand, all chaos and creativity. It is bliss.

    While blogging must offer freedom it seems to have less glamor and clout. An editorial in the Times commands much more importance than a blog at Huffington Post or HuffPo as it is called because it saves keystrokes on a tiny bluetooth.

    I wonder if Taibbi’s piece on Goldman would have generated as much heat if it wasn’t published by Rolling Stone or RollSto? Or would your piece on the Queen be quite as provocative?

    The press is still an institution and while bloggers strive to be heard, true writers like yourself write because you have to it’s something in the blood. The need to share and inform.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks so much for getting it…writers write like we breathe. It is a bit of a compulsion to share and inform (and to move readers/viewers, when we can, to emotion, insight or action). Finding a place that lets us do so intelligently is a great privilege, in any medium.

    I agree that some old-media outlets, the ones chopping staff every day and cutting freelance budgets to almost nil, still carry serious clout. I’ve been testing the portability of old-media street cred by doing some original reporting for T/S and I identify myself only as a blogger for them — with NYT clips as backup.

    I think it’s going to take some time for exclusively new-media bloggers to acquire the same clout. I think that has to do with: 1) consistency over time — and that means months-years, not weeks; 2) deeply-sourced, checkable accuracy as watertight as the best of old media tries to be [i.e. a corrections box, ombudsman, etc.] 3) breaking real, useful, actionable news not just recycling others’ material with a few new spins. Doing smart, tough original reporting.

    Very, very, very few on-line outlets have the money to pay us to do that. Therein is the essential problem.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    I also have to add a crucial point: lawyers. Old-media org’s generally have attorneys whose job it is to keep their staffers out of court. That allows aggressive reporters to go out to the very limits possible to access information and share it, with some confidence they/we have serious institutional backup. Same for the serious resources needed for translators, airfare, fixers, etc. for foreign reporting.

    It all costs money!

  4. I’ve often wondered about the legal protections for bloggers, either on this site or any other. Because if you are trying to “break useful, actionable new,” then you run the risk of an unintentional inaccuracy which could lead to a liability. And then what?

    I think I saw “King of the Grizzlies” when I was a kid.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    Fun film, eh?

    This is my point. Without the very real safety net of a paid attorney to lawyer my work — as many have done over the years, for my book and for my staff and freelance writing — I’m much less likely to come out swinging on the very toughest of stories. Which to me, IS journalism, not just witty commentary. In a litigious culture, lawyers working with journalists, paid by the media org’s who hire us for our reporting skills, ensure we have back-up.

    This is a real problem. Either we pull our punches for fear of being sued, or the only journo’s who will write tough stuff will continue to be those with staff jobs with lawyers or freelancers with very, very deep pockets and a great attorney on speed-dial.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Um, seriously? You’ve never met a trustafarian? NYC is full of them. The well-lined pockets tend to belong to the corporate-paid hubby or wife who subsidize their partner’s amusing hobby of “writing for a living.” With freelance rates dropping back to 1970s levels, it’s getting sillier and sillier.

  7. I’ve socialized with my fair share of trustafarians, though I never knew if any of them “freelanced” though several talked about “consulting.”

    But to my mind and experience, the term “freelancer” refers to a writer or media professional who derives a significant chunk of income from the effort. It is a working term for working people.

    No trustafarian could ever “freelance” in the true sense of the word.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    Vicki, wish I could claim credit, but I’ve been hearing it around town since I got here. The only genuine reporter jewels I know — and I treasure mine — are my laminated credentials on a chain to cool events. You can’t buy those.

  9. Vickie Karp

    Don’t you love those? I keep all my horrible photo ids. The poet, Elizabeth Bishop, kept all her passport photos, and in the Voices and Visions documentary about her made by Jill Janows years ago, there’s a great sequence in which they show her slowly aging and getting increasingly round and frowny, passport photo by passport photo, as the years go by. I make the mistake of always looking happy in mine, because as you say, when we’re out there covering stories, we’re in journo heaven.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    When I met my sweetie, also a journo with lots of cool experience, his stack ‘o credentials was five times the size of mine. We compared “war stories” of our best/craziest assignments for the first few dates — Air Force One versus the Pope, the Queen versus Bosnia, etc. Very romantic. I still think journalism is the most fun you can have and get paid for it. It’s the pay…

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