Some of you might be old enough to remember Radio Caroline, the British pirate radio station that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — it began broadcasting, from an offshore ship, on March 27, 1964. It was the UK’s first commercial station and challenge to the BBC.
My earliest media memories are of lying in bed in the dark, around age seven, listening to — what else? — the Beatles on my transistor radio.
I’m bereft without the radio.
In Nicaragua, in the village with no electricity or running water, there was, even there, a transistor radio hung on a large nail. At night, it played a politician’s speech for hours, and, in the morning — in the native tongue, Miskitu — familiar Christian hymns How Great Thou Art and What A Friend We Have in Jesus.
Long before the Internet or television, radio linked us. It still does.
I listen to a great deal of National Public Radio, especially topic-specific shows like The Moth (story-telling by regular people); The Brian Lehrer show (NY-area politics and economics), the Leonard Lopate show (culture); Studio 360 (ditto), This American Life (three segments on a theme), RadioLab, Fresh Air and The Diane Rehm Show (smart, long-running interview shows hosted by women), and others.
This American Life, with 2.2 million listeners, is now considering handling its own distribution. I was heartened to read here, that I’m not the only fogey still using an actual radio:
While online and mobile listening are growing rapidly, particularly among younger listeners, “there’s still a lot of listening going on in radio,” said David Kansas, chief operating officer for American Public Media, whose other offerings include “Marketplace” and “Prairie Home Companion.” Distributors, he said, do not just provide technical support, they also work with stations to raise the visibility of a show in local markets: bringing in program hosts, creating content related to local issues and helping with live events.
When I have an hour in the morning, I listen to BBC World News and always hear stories I never would know about from American media. You might also try the Canadian evening national news showAs It Happens; when I lived with my father in my teens, every dinner began with its theme music.
I love being able to iron or cook or clean or just lie on the sofa in the dark and focus on the music and words; television tethers me to a specific spot and steals all my attention.
Do you listen to the radio?
What sort of shows or music do you enjoy?
What are some of your favorite shows — and where can we find them (streaming on-line)?
Unless you’re a journalist — or fairly thoughtful consumer of media — you probably don’t think much about where “the news” comes from. Some of it, like elections, natural disasters and mass shootings, are fairly obvious subjects.
But many of the stories you read or hear or see come about through a fairly wide variety of ways, like multiple tributaries feeding into a river.
Here’s my latest New York Times story, out today, one which I suggested — as I do with about 90 percent of my work. The idea came to me because I was getting weary of hearing the usual tales of woe and misery, that being out of work over the age of 50 means you are essentially utterly screwed.
Having watched my own income almost double in the past two years, and I’m 55, working freelance in a lousy economy in a dying industry, I thought, “Nah. There’s more to it than that.”
I decided to flip the script and go find people over 50 who had indeed seen their jobs disappear — often several times — or their incomes plummet, but who had figured out a way to survive, even thrive.
Newspapers traditionally run on a “beat” system; like a policeman’s beat, the area each reporter is individually expected to understand and explain in depth after creating a broad network of sources and acquiring a deep knowledge of the issues. These include cops, courts, city hall, statehouse, health care policy, environment, medicine, etc. Many stories come from beat reporters who hear good stuff from their sources.
Some stories also result from press releases or aggressive courting of reporters by well-paid flacks, i.e. PR experts. Personally, I find much of that “reporting” pretty lazy. You’d be amazed (or not!) to learn how many front-page stories start this way.
As a full-time freelancer, I survive financially by coming up with a steady stream of stories I can sell quickly for decent prices.
Here are some of the ways I find and develop my ideas for blog posts, articles, essays and books:
Bright, knowledgeable sources passionate about their topic may make time for a long (45-60 minute) conversation, and digressions from the interview-at-hand often lead down interesting paths. I find some great story ideas this way. It’s an investment on my part, (unpaid time, since the story might not sell), and theirs (am I credible? worth their energy? have the contacts I say I do?)
Other print media
I read fairly widely, in print and on-line, but rarely find much there for me to work on. By the time the national press is on it, what’s new to add? So local or regional outlets are good, as are sources within others’ stories who might have only rated a mention or a few quotes. One of the best sources is letters to the editor — often written by experts in their field who know a topic but may not have a national platform for their insights or views.
I listen to NPR fairly consistently, to political, arts and business programs, all of which offer good stuff. When I have time, BBC World News (an hour) always covers stories that rarely show up in American coverage. Ditto for Canada.
On of my most fun stories came about because I sit through the very end of almost every film’s closing credits. At the end of “The Namesake,” I noticed that the film was shot in a town near where I live, which made for a great little story for my regional edition of the Times when I visited the house and interviewed the production designer and homeowner.
This demands a lot of consistent reading/attention/linking/clipping. Old school journalists call it “saving string”, as we accumulate verything we think useful to future stories on a specific subject. Only when you pay sustained attention to an issue and read/listen widely to sources about it can you begin to see distinct and interesting patters or trends — often overlooked by other journo’s constrained by their beats and/ or by daily or even hourly deadlines.
You never know where you’ll find a story. Two of my best came to me out of the blue. My story about Google’s class in mindfulness, a heavily-read national exclusive for the Times, was a tip I got in July 2011 from someone teaching those classes, and for which I negotiated for six months to ensure it was mine alone.
As I buckled my seatbelt for the descent into Atlanta on my way to speak at the Decatur Literary Festival, I casually asked my seatmate, a woman my age, what she does does for a living. Cha-ching! Great business story.
Sometimes a well-written book sparks an idea or helps me better understand an issue.
Blogs and websites
I don’t carve out a lot of time to roam around on-line, even if I should.
I’m spending tomorrow and Tuesday attending The Big Show, the annual trade show of the National Retail Federation. I know there are all sorts of stories there for me to find.
I sat in a trendy Lower East Side restaurant this week and saw, several hours apart, two young men wearing almost identical outfits — bare-armed (in 40-degree weather!), thick, furry vests and jeans. One more sighting and I have a trend story!
Walk around your neighborhood and look closely at bulletin boards and signs. Watch what people are wearing and eating and buying. Eavesdrop! When you visit your hair stylist/vet/doctor/dentist/accountant/bike repair shop, ask them what’s going on in their world.
Pay close attention and start asking questions. You’ll soon find great stories all around you.
My own life
Too many new writers moan they have “nothing” to write about. When it comes to selling journalism, at least, you likely have plenty! I recently won an award (details to come) from writing about my injured left hip, which became a magazine cover story. I later sold several stories about the injury and surgery as well. Over my writing career, I’ve sold stories and essays about professors having affairs with students (not me!), getting married, getting divorced, my dog’s death, physical therapy, trying to rest in a noisy hospital room, why retail work is better than journalism.
Much as we are all special little snowflakes, our lives do tend to follow fairly regular paths — so if it’s happened to you, it’s likely happened to thousands or millions of others as well. Find them, talk to them and write it up!
In addition to Hoovering up as much information from the world at large — conversations, ads, overheard remarks, keeping my eyes open, looking for trends and patterns — here’s where I get my information. Not a total list, but:
Every morning at 9:00 a.m., I listen to a full hour of BBC World News, on radio; read The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Post, may listening to the local NPR talk shows, The Brian Lehrer Show (call-in) and Leonard Lopate (culture), Soundcheck (music) and their national shows Fresh Air and All Things Considered. On weekends, I enjoy Studio 360 and This American Life, both on PRI. Yes, I am a radio junkie! (Blame it on growing up listening to the excellent programming of the CBC, in Canada; for a good taste of it, try their version of ATC, the nightly new show “As It Happens.”)
I watch much less news television: NBC Nightly News and BBC. I check in a few times a day with mediabistro.com. which has a lot of media-related news and may scan a few other websites I like, quirky, personal ones like Shakesville or huge ones like Arts & Letters Daily and Broadsheet.
I often read British and Canadian newspapers on-line, from TheGuardian to The Globe and Mail. I speak French and Spanish, so sometimes read in those languages, in print or on-line, like Le Point or Liberation from France. I was reading the Washington Post on-line and in print for years – looks like my subscription has lapsed — and also sometimes read The Los Angeles Times.
I read a lot of non-fiction — just finished eight books as background for my own — and try to read fiction when I can squeeze it in. I just bought my first copy of Lapham’s Quarterly and look forward to reading it.
I read a lot of colleagues’ non-fiction to blog about it and support other writers. I think it’s important both to share ideas and great work, and to create a sense of community.
I read a ton of women’s magazines, mostly for amusement. I sometimes read Vanity Fair, rarely read The New Yorker (can’t stand its elitist tone and dominance of male writers, a problem for me with many magazines.)
I read all the (remaining) shelter magazines, for pleasure and inspiration. We have subscriptions to: National Geographic, Smithsonian, Fortune, Forbes, SmartMoney, Barron’s, PDN (a photography trade magazine), Bon Appetit (after Gourmet was killed). At the library, when I have time, I’ll add Maclean’s (Canadian newsweekly), New York, maybe Time or Newsweek, but only rarely.
We fight over the weekend Financial Times we love it so much.
The British children were clearly shocked to hear that simply heading off to school every morning, something they dread or fight, might mean facing a bomb blast for their Afghan counterparts:
As the children in Kabul shared their experiences, the atmosphere in the studio changed. The School Reporters from Bristol listened carefully to the harsh realities of every day life in Afghanistan – a life so different to the one they know.
They freely admitted they knew very little about what was going on and hadn’t previously thought much about what it was like to live there. Dom said he had no idea how difficult things were. He asked why they would risk their lives just to go to school.
Speaking from Kabul, Hawaa replied that it was because she felt it was important to have an education. Hawaa and Yasin said they had to try and get the best education they could, so that they could help their country in the future.
I could see how moved all six Bristol students were at the determination and enthusiasm of the children in Kabul to seize any opportunity they could to go to school.
As we came to the end of our time together, a subdued and thoughtful group paid tribute to the young people in Kabul.
Callum found the students from Kabul inspiring and praised them on their ability to cope, admitting he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do the same. Dom didn’t think he’d want to risk dying just to get to lessons and Kavita, Morgan and Eleanor discussed the bravery of young people in Kabul living in such a dangerous place.
My life to this point has been a series of double-quarter-pounders at McDonald’s, history tests and reporting assignments for my campus newspaper about the women’s rifle shooting team (feel free to insert a joke about the fact that my college has a women’s rifle team).
And it’s been a lovely ride. I attended a great high school, I am going to a fine college and – judging by the fate of most in my situation – I will land a moderately satisfying job, go on a cruise to Cancún, take an elderhostel to Dublin and then die.
Thing is, I’m not OK with that. I’m a quarter of the way through my life and still haven’t applied for a passport. As much as I hate it, I have truly done NOTHING on a global scale to make the world better (and no, I don’t put community service at elementary schools and my Eagle Scout project in that category).
But I’d like to think of my life to this point as a preparation for bigger and better things. I have been in love with journalism since picking up the sports page of the Kansas City Star when I was in first grade. I wrote for the teen section of The Star a few years ago and was also editor-in-chief of my high school paper.
But the reason I love journalism isn’t seeing my byline at the top of a story or winning awards. No, I love journalism because nothing else gives you permission to ask questions about the most intimate topics and then entrusts you to tell a person’s life story. It’s this love of telling people’s stories and inspiring action that has me interested in accompanying you on this trip.
In today’s column, Kristof also proposes a new plan to get more young Americans out of their borders and into the world:
Teach for the World also would be an important education initiative for America itself. Fewer than 30 percent of Americans have passports, and only one-quarter can converse in a second language. And the place to learn languages isn’t an American classroom but in the streets of Quito or Dakar or Cairo.
Here’s a one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign country and culture: What’s the word for doorknob? People who have studied a language in a classroom rarely know the answer. But those who have been embedded in a country know. America would be a wiser country if we had more people who knew how to translate “doorknob.” I would bet that those people who know how to say doorknob in Farsi almost invariably oppose a military strike on Iran.
(Just so you don’t drop my column to get a dictionary: pomo de la puerta in some forms of Spanish; poignée de porte in French; and dash gireh ye dar in Farsi.)
American universities are belatedly recognizing how provincial they are and are trying to get more students abroad. Goucher College in Baltimore requires foreign study, and Princeton University has begun a program to help incoming students go abroad for a gap year before college.
The impact of time in the developing world is evident in the work of Abigail Falik, who was transformed by a summer in a Nicaraguan village when she was 16. As a Harvard Business School student two years ago, she won first place in a competition for the best plan for a “social enterprise.” Now she is the chief executive of the resulting nonprofit, Global Citizen Year, which gives high school graduates a gap year working in a developing country.
OK, I speak French and Spanish and no, I didn’t know the word for doorknob in either.
But he is right to be utterly passionate about getting Americans, literally and physically, into the rest of the world, and not just Paris/London/Cancun.
I was 25 when I won an eight-month Paris-based fellowship, along with 28 journalists from 19 nations — Togo, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan, Italy, Brazil. I became close friends with Yasuro, a Japanese man, in French, as I did with Mila, a Brazilian woman. Most of us had never left our homes and families behind for so long, had to work with people with profoundly different ideas of what constitutes a story (let alone what English words to use) and simply get along.
Our work that year meant traveling alone for 10-day reporting trips on politics, social issues, culture and economics. I covered Cruise missiles in Sicily; squatters in London, Paris and Amsterdam; the Royal Danish Ballet and spent eight day in a French truck driving from Perpignan to Istanbul to understand the challenges faced by drivers in the EU. Most fun ever.
No other time in my life so radically changed forever how I thought and felt about my place in the world. True/Slant has writers right now reporting from Russia, Hanoi, Rome, Beijing, Tel Aviv, India, Kabul — even Bhutan. I can’t wait, daily, to see what they’ve got for us.
My passport, (and my green card allowing me back into the States) remains my most treasured possession. Next to my unquenchable sense of curiosity.
I wish everyone had both and could use them frequently. There is no better way to understand the world than to experience it firsthand with someone of another culture — sharing a meal, laughing with someone you’ve just met on a bus or ferry, or (worst case, as I’ve done) waiting together in an ER or doctor’s office, in a place far, far away from anything comforting and familiar to you.
American college students, though, insanely burdened by educational debt, graduate with chains on their ankles, which makes taking off with a backpack for even three months, a bare minimum to start to feel truly (and usefully) disoriented, tough.
In this global economy, where understanding and working effectively with other cultures is more crucial than ever, this remains a cruel irony.
Today’s New York Times runs the result of polling of 708 people who are unemployed. It’s a deeply frightening and depressing read, especially in a nation where job loss and financial struggle also means the loss of health insurance, medical and dental care; this week, BBC World News is running a powerful series of radio interviews with Americans and those in nations with government-supplied health insurance. The contrast is also sadly powerful.
The Times’ poll finds that:
61 percent say their unemployment benefits don’t cover their basic necessities
46 percent say they feel embarrassed or ashamed to be out of work
71 percent say their financial situation is fairly or very bad
Perhaps most telling, 75 percent say they think it likely they’ll run out of unemployment benefits before they find another job:
But the impact on their lives was not limited to the difficulty in paying bills. Almost half said unemployment had led to more conflicts or arguments with family members and friends; 55 percent have suffered from insomnia.
“Everything gets touched,” said Colleen Klemm, 51, of North Lake, Wis., who lost her job as a manager at a landscaping company last November. “All your relationships are touched by it. You’re never your normal happy-go-lucky person. Your countenance, your self-esteem goes. You think, ‘I’m not employable.’ ”
A quarter of those who experienced anxiety or depression said they had gone to see a mental health professional. Women were significantly more likely than men to acknowledge emotional issues.
Tammy Linville, 29, of Louisville, Ky., said she lost her job as a clerical worker for the Census Bureau a year and a half ago. She began seeing a therapist for depression every week through Medicaid but recently has not been able to go because her car broke down and she cannot afford to fix it.
Her partner works at the Ford plant in the area, but his schedule has been sporadic. They have two small children and at this point, she said, they are “saving quarters for diapers.”
“Every time I think about money, I shut down because there is none,” Ms. Linville said. “I get major panic attacks. I just don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Christina Lamb, a 43-year-old veteran correspondent who last month became the U.S., D.C.-based correspondent, for the Sunday Times of London, is finally getting to know some of the American officials making policy in Afghanistan, a country she knows well, having covered it for years. “When were you last there?”, she asked one. “Oh, I’ve never been there,” he replied.
Lamb, who has worked as a journalist in Pakistan and was the West’s first correspondent to cover the rise of the Taliban, joined fellow veteran correspondent David Loyn, Developing World Correspondent, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism last night to discuss what they’ve seen, and covered, in Afghanistan. Between them, they offered more than 30 years’ experience in the region.
The event attracted a crowd of about 100, including professors, fellow journalists, a New York Times and Time freelance photographer who has worked in Afghanistan, a UNICEF worker and SIPA and Columbia J-students.
Loyn, who was last in-country two weeks ago, compared Afghanistan to Moscow in 1987: “They have the same set of options in a country long known as the graveyard of empire. This is a country in which war aims always end up altered.” He reiterated what a hostile terrain soldiers, and journalists, face there: ” a country of deserts and mountains, only five percent irrigable and arable. The mountains are 400 miles long and 200 miles wide, with only three passes. It’s natural guerilla territory.” Anyone hoping for good news in Afghanistan faces what he called “the two F’s — frontier and fundamentalism. What the U.S. forgot is that these were people who did not share American values.”
Loyn feels the war is “still absolutely winnable” although “defeat and victory are starting to look similar.” American aid “has been wasted, however noble.” He derided the creation of an “aid juggernaut” that enriches aid workers while leaving Afghans weak, unemployed and disorganized. “Not only is that aid ineffective, it’s destructive. There’s been great progress in primary education for girls — but what about secondary education? What about employment for men?” The challenges are daunting: 60 percent of police in Helmand province are addicted to heroin; 90 percent of police are illiterate and 1.5 million Afghans gave fled to Pakistan, the journalists said. Police corruption is so endemic, Loyn said, that a new form of banking — using mobile phones — is being tested, now used by 53 policemen, whereby any family member can access the funds using their cellphone.
Loyn deplored the recent firing of Peter Galbraith, the top American official at the U.N. mission in Kabul, who denounced election fraud. “His firing sends all the wrong signals. (Here’s an excerpt from Galbraith’s letter. Interviewed today on BBC World News, Galbraith said he strongly favors the idea of a run-off election. “That would be an extremely good thing.”) Loyn reminded the audience, as did Galbraith today, of one of the many issues in the disputed election, “ghost polling stations” — which reported results even though they never even opened.
Lamb thinks that adding more troops is no longer the answer. “I used to argue passionately, everywhere, that we should send more troops, until September 2008 when I went back. The situation had got much, much worse. I could now travel to many fewer places. Even traveling 90 minutes outside Kabul has become too dangerous. Sending 20,000 or 40,000 more troops will just cause more casualties.”
The war, she said, “is not winnable. We’ve lost the consent of the Afghan people and it’s almost impossible to get back.” Western troops have also lost Afghans’ confidence through repeated, grave cultural faux pas — from male soldiers entering women’s quarters, sending dogs (considered unclean) into homes, even firing upon Afghan wedding parties where firing into the air is a joyful, honored tradition — souring goodwill toward foreign troops, Lamb said. “It’s normal at a wedding to fire gunshots, but people were killed by soldiers in retaliation.” There’s little chance of forgiveness for such errors, she said. “In Afghanistan, revenge is a very important part of life.”
She described visiting a town in Helmand province heavily guarded by 9,000 British soldiers and 11,000 Americans. “There are no people there! They’ve all fled. The only people left there are Taliban, so there is no one to protect. Why are troops there?”
Loyn disagrees, but thinks 300,000 to 400,000 troops are needed to get the job done. “We’re a long way from an effective force.” Germany and France will be pressured by NATO to add more troops, he said. Lamb thinks Obama will have a tough time arguing for additional forces. “His administration doesn’t have a narrative for sending troops into Afghanistan. The unspoken issue is Pakistan, but it’s easier to focus on Afghanistan when the real situation is over the border,” she said. She was last there in June 2009, in Peshawar, and while she clearly loves the country, admitted, “I was scared.”
The one success story both writers agreed on? The growing strength and work of independent Afghan media. Loyn praised them for “trying to hold their government to account,” especially television reporters. “It’s difficult for women journalsts,” said Lamb. “They’ve had lots of threats. Television has been the biggest success.”
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal carried another long piece — some might deride it as one more thumb-sucker — asking how journalism as it has traditionally been defined, i.e. original reporting and analysis, will be paid for in the future. But no one yet has been able to answer the question. Who, next, will step up and take the financial risk? Anyone?
There are now 200 of us at True/Slant, and it’s a hell of a team to play on. I routinely tell colleagues and those I want to work with freelance what excellent work I find here every day. But…
As I write this, BBC World News is on the TV and today’s NYT and WSJ lie on the floor, almost all read, and I’ve not yet gotten through the weekend FT. I’ll typically listen to another 2-4 hours of NPR programming over the weekend as well, and 2-3 hours of it on weekdays, plus an hour of BBC World News. During a normal month, I’ll read another 20-30 magazines and probably 4-6 books. Someone paid every single one of those reporters and writers to give me the oxygen in my lungs — original reporting I trust. That’s not even including the many other sources, from Le Monde to The Globe and Mail, The Guardianand others whose hard, paid-for work, I, and others, comment on here. I consume trusted, reliable, sourced media both for personal pleasure and professional necessity. So do many, if not most, of my T/S contributors.
At True/Slant, most of us who bring you original reporting, (which some do), are here because someone else, somewhere, is paying the full costs of what it takes for each of us to survive — and continue to produce most, if not all, of our original work. For the journos among us, that’s usually some dead-tree publisher whose business model, somehow, still functions.
Only my ability to work in old media, right now, supports my ability to work in new media. Surely there is some irony in this?
“Entrepreneurial” sounds a little like what many out-of-staff-work veterans of print and broadcast journalism are now experiencing — penury — as we scrap for every inch of income-producing territory like polar bears on a shrinking ice floe.
This week I’m also applying (as are many tough competitors) for $30,000 in grants and fellowships. One of these fellowships is designed for people whose work is focused on print journalism. These days, that’s like asking a whaling ship captain to step up and commit to a few more circumnavigations.
An idea. If someone wanted to make True/Slant their only source of news, hiring every single one of us here, all 200 contributors, and pay us each a living wage — let’s call it a median of $60,000 (no benefits, no 401k, etc) per year, on a one-year renewable contract — that’s $12 million. For a 23-year-old fresh grad, (albeit burdened by student debt), maybe $25,000 would do it, while the veterans might command $100-120,000 — which is how traditional newsrooms, print and broadcast, now work.
Some might be fine with only $5,000- $10,000 a year, as they are already pulling in a good salary (with benefits) elsewhere, while others might need $80,000 or more to keep the bills paid as this became our only full-time work and we gave you — our readers — our undivided attention. Someone has to pay for the time (and travel and other expenses) it takes to produce original work. Right now, the current Internet model rewards those whose sites (the cutest? funniest? most insightful?) attract the most visitors.
All Ego, All The Time!
Blogging also offers old-school journos (like me, anyway) an additional hurdle to clamber over. It rewards behaviors so immodest as to be anathema. It demands several paradigm shifts in how we work, not technically, but in our values. For us, the damn story itself is it — not us and the fact we just produced it. Very few journalists I know chose this business because it’s all about them. We want to tell stories, not sell them. The shameless, relentless, self-aggrandizing financial necessity of funneling every possible social media-using eyeball toward every syllable we produce can make me feel like a five-year-old in the playground shrieking “Mommymommymommymommy, watch me. Watch me!”
Original reporting that appears on-line is most often heavily subsidized, if not completely paid for, by old-media organizations whose employees, staff or freelance, need or want Internet exposure. It’s rarely the other way around. ProPublica has its own staff and the Huffington Post is now paying freelancers to do investigative work, at rates competitive with national magazines, but 50 percent less than the majors.
Those who have been working as journalists doing original work (and the originality matters, not the medium in which that work appears) have spent years, maybe decades, perfecting their skills and sources and understanding of the world. Once we’ve lost our staff jobs and until we find another one, if we do, we monetize those skills when and where we can. In the past year, more than 35,000 journalists lost their jobs, 24,000 or so of them in print. I highly doubt there are 24,000+ on-line writing, reporting or editing jobs available, now or in the next 12-18 months, paying enough to sop us all up. Journalism schools report enormous interest in their offerings these days. Where exactly are all those eager, additional new grads going to work?
I can’t function, as a human being trying to make sense of my world, without original, sourced, factual work.
As more and more sources of original, reliable, factual news journalism slim down or disappear entirely, where and how will you learn about your world?