While this blog, on paper, has 20,000 followers, fewer and fewer are arriving and commenting.
I could take it personally, (and maybe I should!)
But I think we’re all overloaded: Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, et al are sucking the life out of us and reducing what little attention we have left to give — beyond that for work, family, friends and life.
The New York Times ran two recent stories addressing this.
This is the most important rule of all. After reading newspapers for a few weeks, I began to see it wasn’t newspapers that were so great, but social media that was so bad.
Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today — and every one we will battle tomorrow — is exacerbated by plugging into the social-media herd. The built-in incentives on Twitter and Facebook reward speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over well-meaning analyzers of news.
You don’t have to read a print newspaper to get a better relationship with the news. But, for goodness’ sake, please stop getting your news mainly from Twitter and Facebook. In the long run, you and everyone else will be better off.
And this, admittedly by man with a highly unusual life — no need to work and no need to interact with anyone every day:
Right after the election, Erik Hagerman decided he’d take a break from reading about the hoopla of politics.
Donald Trump’s victory shook him. Badly. And so Mr. Hagerman developed his own eccentric experiment, one that was part silent protest, part coping mechanism, part extreme self-care plan.
He swore that he would avoid learning about anything that happened to America after Nov. 8, 2016.
“It was draconian and complete,” he said. “It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust.”
It was just going to be for a few days. But he is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history. He is as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.
I get it.
I have online subscriptions to The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — and never use them.
I read The New York Times and Financial Times seven days a week, plus about 20 weekly and monthly magazines. Plus Twitter and Facebook and some blogs.
Plus television and radio.
And I feel increasingly angry and powerless by “knowing” about so much I can do little or nothing to change:
— that the U.S. has a President who lies every day and has sex with porn stars (and lies about that)
— that Yemeni citizens are dying of cholera
— that hundreds of Syrian children are being killed as I write these words.
Now we’ve got a Trump senior advisor telling the American media to “keep its mouth shut” and that we are the “opposition party.”
So, in the interests of media literacy, some inside dope.
If you retain some faith in the veracity of media reporting, (and many don’t), it’s also useful to remember — or know — that what you read, see and listen to is heavily filtered, edited and condensed.
Maybe you knew that.
But if you ever work in a newsroom, or as a reporter or editor or photographer, you very quickly appreciate how much of it ends up on the cutting-room floor.
It is not, despite everything you may hear about the “crooked media” and our putative dishonesty, about partisanship.
It can be, but most often is for very different reasons, like:
Length and space
Less an issue with digital stories, where there’s no lack of room, although a shortened attention span from many digital audiences.
In print, whether magazines or newspapers, many stories compete every day for space.
Every newspaper editor has a “budget”, in addition to their monetary one, and daily “budget meetings”, in which every competing story tries to win its spot in that day’s report and what prominence it will get.
Then a talented team of photo editors, art directors, layout experts and graphics editors works to make each page, ideally, look terrific and draw you into each story.
This is my most recent NYT story, which got great play, (on the front page [aka the dress page] of the paper’s very well-read real estate section), the gift of a gorgeous illustration (by someone else from Toronto!) — and even netted me fan mail! It’s about how people, when renovating, sometimes find very weird things in their walls and floors, or place items themselves.
Short is often better — get to the point!
But complex issues demand complex and nuanced reporting for the audience to understand them and why they matter to us, like the NPR report I heard this morning on the Congressional Review Act, which I’d never heard of before.
Probably the biggest ongoing challenge every news journalist faces, especially those who work with images: war, natural disaster, terrorism, murder scenes, airline, train or car crashes. They have to process it emotionally, (or shut it out somehow.) Over the years, let alone decades, it takes a toll.
The day before I took my driving test (!), while a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, I covered a head-on collision between a city bus and a small car. I’ll spare you the details, but — 26 years later — I remember it all too well.
Secondary trauma is a real issue for many of us, and in a business where macho behavior is rewarded and emotional reactions in that moment can hinder our work. My husband covered New Mexico’s worst ever prison riot as a photographer when he was still a college student and spent a month in Bosnia at the end of the war in 1995. Both seared his soul.
I’ve reported stories with gory details I knew, but omitted. They informed my understanding of the issues and the reality of the event, (like a murder trial or 9/11), but civilians — i.e. non-journalists — just aren’t prepared to handle it.
By the time you see or hear it, it’s often heavily sanitized.
This is a big one, especially now.
If you can’t trust media coverage to be factual — and checked before publication or broadcast with multiple, reliable sources — you’re toast.
It doesn’t even matter what the story is, really, because the underlying principles remain the same: when in doubt, leave it out.
We have to make sure we know who’s talking to us, why now and their agenda(s).
Who’s funding them? Who pays their bills? Who do they owe favors to?
Many sources just end up sounding or looking really stupid.
It’s up to us to decide, as gatekeepers, what to reveal.
We’re all human and we all mis-speak.
That question changes when we’re covering a public figure like a politician, who’s chosen to be in the public eye and who has significant responsibility to voters. That’s why they hire spokesmen (and women) to spin everything.
It’s our job to untangle it all.
Far too many press releases!
I get several every day, and delete 99.9% of them unread, unopened and annoyed at the laziness of the people being well paid to send them.
There are three writers in New York City (!) with my name, one of whom covers beauty for a major magazine, so of course I get her email all the time.
Some press releases are useful, but are often full of jargon and of no interest at all.
Most of the best stories you’ll read and hear come from reporters and editors’ own ideas and research, tips from sources and observations of the world and its patterns.
Documents, leaks and FOIAs
If you saw the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, you’ll know that poring over reams of documents can create the most powerful and damning stories of all.
The editor, then, of the Boston Globe, Marty Barron, is now at the Washington Post, which is kicking ass and taking names in covering the Trump administration.
The more Trump shuts down federal agencies and staffers, the more they’re leaking what we need to know.
You need a free press more than ever now.
The big three of news determinants.
The closer an event is to readers, listeners and viewers, the more likely it will get coverage — which is why Americans, certainly, hear just about nothing, ever, from entire parts of the globe: most of Asia and the MidEast, Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Unless it’s seen to have a direct impact on American lives or economic/political interests…crickets.
Which is crazy.
Because the less you know about how the rest of the world operates and behaves, (i.e. differing histories, cultural values and resulting wars, unrest and public policies), the less you understand or care.
(Have you noticed the rise of Marine LePen, running for France’s Presidency? Nice.)
Don’t, please, get me started on celebrity — and how every day someone “reveals” a “secret” and media drool over first dibs on it.
If something happened even a week ago, let alone a few days, it might not be deemed “news” because, no matter how important, it’s not “new.” It’s a lousy way to make decisions, and very common.
The only way to make sense of the “news” is to absorb and process a wide range of it. If all you ever read or pay attention to is American (or your own country’s), the Internet offers you all of it, most of it free — radio, videos, newspapers, blogs, magazines…
I read the Financial Times every day and listen often to BBC. I get French and Canadian news through my Twitter feed.
That’s how the best journalists think: tough-minded, skeptical, dubious, cynical, questioning.
Our job is to challenge authority, in its every guise.
To speak truth to power.
One of the 20th century’s greatest journalists…
In an era of fake news, it’s absolutely essential to know who is supplying you with the information with which you are making key decisions about your future, and that of your town, city, region and nation.
You can’t make intelligent decisions based on garbage and lies.
I’ve been a journalist since my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto, worked as a reporter at three major daily newspapers and have written freelance for dozens of national newspapers, magazines and websites. Here’s my website, with some clips.
Seven ways to consume media critically:
1. Read, watch and listen to a wide variety of news sources, whatever your political leanings.
If the only media you consume keep reassuring you that your world is exactly as you wish to see it, you’ve got a problem. The world is a complex, messy place — comforting simplicity, while seductive, is rarely honest.
2. Get off social media!
If the only news sources you rely on are social media, you’re stuck in an algorithmic echo chamber. You’re doomed! See point one.
That means questioning every single comment, data point, anecdote, story, and “fact” you are given — no matter at what volume and speed. That means your default position isn’t: “Oh, cool. I need to tweet that right now” but “Hmmm. Really? That sounds weird.”
4. Research the news sources you’re relying on.
Google them. Read everything you can about them and their history. Who is funding them? Why? Who is quoting them as authorities or experts? Why?
Every reporter in the world has a track record — if they’re the real deal. Google them. Go to their LinkedIn page. Watch their videos and read their work.
Working journalists are highly protective of their professional reputations as accurate and reliable because without that, we’re useless.
5. Assume nothing.
Read every story, if in print, with a highlighter marker handy — and highlight every point you think dubious or unlikely. What conclusions did the reporter draw? Do you agree? Why? What makes you trust them? What did they fail to ask? Why? What assumptions did they make going into that story? Would you have done it differently? How? Why?
6. Talk back to the media!
Not simply on a comments page.
Write letters to the editor. Use their corrections editor or ombudsman to complain when you see lazy or inaccurate work. Email reporters and editors directly to express your concerns about their coverage — or lack of it. Be calm, civil and constructive if you want to be listened to. Thoughtful journalists are in the middle of a period (finally!) of self-examination, so your timing is good. Be an active participant in the flood of information out there, not a passive little nothing nodding your head.
When you start to understand the media ecosystem — and how these businesses are run and why some are succeeding and some struggling — you can’t really grasp how their products are created and distributed. Yes, it matters! Eating “clean”, locally or judiciously should also apply to your media diet.
Content, with the emphasis on the second syllable, is what I used to be to work in journalism.
See also: happy, pleased, satisfied.
Today it’s about content — i.e. kawhn-tent — with the emphasis on the first syllable.
This is where I thump my cane and start shouting “Kids, get off my lawn!”
Or some similar shriek of frustration.
Truth is, of course I’m a “content provider”, in that I write words on demand to specific lengths that I sell to others for their use.
I guess it’s a nice little catch-all. Sadly, though, there’s nothing in that phrase to connote, oh you know, history, ethics, values, quality.
It’s like calling the sun a “light provider” or the ocean a “fish (and many other creatures) provider,” reducing what journalists once offered to a pile ‘o words, delivered as fast and cheaply as humanly possible.
But the irony of an industry in disruption is that there are now many more people working in public relations — trying to sell stuff — than there are journalists. I get pitches every single day for things I couldn’t care less about from people who clearly couldn’t care less that they’re wasting my time deleting them.
Content marketing is currently “in,” and brands are finding it’s surprisingly difficult to create compelling content that actually draws in readers. So they’re opening their pocketbooks and are willing to pay for content creation, and if you’re well-positioned with some decent writing credits, you’ll find that there’s plenty of work to go around. There are several freelancer job sites popping up where brands can advertise for these positions.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely noticed the news industry has struggled in recent years. Newspapers and magazines have endured thousands of layoffs and freelancers have found, in addition to facing shrinking budgets, news organizations are paying significantlyless for digital stories compared to what they paid for print.
And a cheerful piece about why journalism students don’t even want to consider a job doing what the job used to mean — actual reporting.
I have several friends who teach journalism, both undergrad and graduate level, and find a scary trend — students who sit at their desks, Google and think that’s journalism. My friends have to shove them out of the building to actually look at stuff and talk to strangers, some of whom are intimidating as hell and two to three times their age.
It could be funny, perhaps, if all those PR people weren’t being paid to make everything look and sound shiny.
It could be funny if the people being hired to pump this stuff out weren’t really young and utterly inexperienced, like the editor who sent me an email I literally could not understand.
This is the person being paid to edit me, two years after leaving college.
Journalists get paid, (less and less and less), to tell real stories about real people — about crime and poverty and graft and corruption and politics and the environment. The stories are often dark and depressing and often crazy-complicated and have multiple furious gatekeepers insisting: “There’s no story here!”
Which always means there’s a hell of a story to be told — if there’s a place to publish it and someone to pay us to do that.
Are you content being offered a steady diet of content?
A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statement rebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.
Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.
The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.
This is the sort of story that — initially — won thousands of high-fives and re-tweets, from journalists applauding the brave, investigative, nationally-published work that so many of us aspire to.
Those fighting against rape and sexual violence were thrilled to see this issue was getting so much attention.
Then the dominos started tumbling…
Journalism is nothing more, at root, than a very long and sometimes fragile set of interlocking expressions of trust.
Whether the story is being published by a small-town weekly or broadcast by a multinational conglomerate, this is typically how it works:
— A source decides to share their story
Are they lying? What’s in it for them? Why are they telling me? Why now? Is this an exclusive? Why? What conflicts of interest do they have? Do I really believe them? What doesn’t make sense here and who else can confirm or deny it?
— We decide the source is credible and pitch the idea to our editor, whether we’re freelance or staff, newbie or 30-year veteran, working for a website, newspaper, magazine or broadcast.
Is this reporter reliable? What’s their track record of errors or corrections? Do I like them? Do I trust them? How well-trained are they? Do I trust their news judgment? Is there a conflict of interest here between the source and reporter that would compromise our organization’s reputation for judgment? How about our credibility?
— They pitch it in a story meeting, typically attended by other editors competing hard for a limited space for telling stories and tight budgets for paying freelancers and acquiring illustration, (art, photos, graphics, maps) to accompany them. There may be significant travel and fixer or translator expenses to argue for and defend. They also have to persuade the most senior editors, their bosses, that the story (and the reporter and the reliability of the source), is unimpeachable. Their own reputations are on the line every time. And no one, ever, wants to look like a gullible or naive fool.
They think: We’ve done that story a million times already. What’s new? What’s different? Why now? Can it wait? Who else knows about this story — and what are the odds they’ll beat us to it? Do we care?
— The story is assigned and the reporter (and photographer and/or videographer) go out to shoot it and report it. They invest time, energy, skill and limited resources in this decision, leaving other stories undone.
They think: I hope this one gets a lots of clicks. I hope this this one makes front page. I hope this one wins me a major award/promotion/fellowship/book contract. I sure hope this story is solid.
— The story is in and being edited by an array of editors, each of whom is expected to bring their savvy and insight to it, asking every possible question. It must hold up. It must make sense, not merely as an emotionally compelling story but based on a set of facts that are verifiably true.
They think: Does this narrative actually make sense? Has the reporter interviewed enough people? The right people? Who else do they need to talk to and how soon and in what detail? So, why does this piece feel…odd to me? Who should I talk to about my concerns? When and why and how soon? Should I get this piece reviewed by our company’s lawyers?
— The story, if run by a major magazine, may be fact-checked, with staff paid to call sources back and to confirm facts and check to see if quotes are accurate. Copy editors and proofreaders check spelling, grammar and style. The editor in chief and/or publisher (may) read it one more time and sign off on it, knowing their personal reputation — and that of their outlet and parent company — are on the line.
These are the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in the book, whom the narrator finds deep in the heart of Africa; the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando as U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz echoes the book in its themes, setting and use of names.
The book and the film are dark, despairing, exhausting — and powerfully unforgettable.
But these two words are resonating in my head much of the time now, thanks to what often seems a global parade of incompetence, greed, conflict, misery and despair.
— The shelling/retaliation between Israel and Gaza
— The epidemic of Ebola spreading through West Africa
— The shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown (only the latest)
— The beheading of fellow freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS
— The New York Times reports that beheadings are now “routine” in Syria
— The nightly newscasts with images of yet another out-of-control wildfire consuming thousands of acres of Western U.S. forests and many people’s homes and businesses
I am also well aware — and would love some new re-definition of “news” to make misery less compelling somehow — that the mass media are utterly complicit here. By the time you, readers and and viewers, see and hear our/their versions of the world, they have been massaged, edited and sometimes bitterly debated.
Here — H/T to Amber Hargroder — is a terrific 8:45 video of artist Marina Abramovic with her advice to young artists, much of which can equally apply to any ambitious writer.
The original is a series of letters between a young military student, Franz Kappus and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke between 1902 and 1908, when Kappus was deciding whether or not to become a poet.
I’ve been writing journalism and non-fiction books for a living since my third year of university, when I began selling stories to national newspapers and magazines in my native Canada. I’ve since written for dozens of publications in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, with staff reporting jobs at three major dailies. Freelance, I write frequently for The New York Times.
I’ve never studied journalism, but have taught it at several colleges; my class, “Legal and Ethical Issues in Journalism”, which I created in 1995, is still being offered by New York University to its adult students.
Here’s what I think every young/new journalist really needs to know as they enter this chaotic industry:
You’ve decided to enter a profession that actually isn’t one — we like to think of ourselves as professionals, but we have no licensing exams or board certifications or CEU credits.
Today, thanks to the Internet, anyone, anywhere, can call themselves a “journalist” and hit publish.
This is both a great equalizer and a dangerous challenge. It’s great that anyone with ideas and passion and access to the Internet can share them with the world, allowing people with minimal political or economic power to tell their stories directly. It’s a dangerous challenge because the fundamental essentials of journalism, however naive and idealistic they sound, are accuracy and trust. Trust that the information being shared is accurate, has been checked and vetted and is not just some sexy promo for a new product or service disguised as “news.”
Don’t work without getting paid for it. Just don’t — unless it’s your choice, done for strategic reasons and/or a cause you deeply believe in. People still value most what they have to pay for.
There’s no clear career path anymore. Be fun under stress, optimistic, well-groomed, 150 percent reliable, polite and super-helpful. Your emotional inteligence will go a lot further in creating and sustaining the essential professional contacts you’ll need for decades to come than the fanciest degree from the fanciest school(s.) Very few people you’ll work with care much where you went to school. We care what you can do (really well) for us today.
Ask so many questions you risk being annoying.Your job is not to be liked or admired or welcomed at the dinner parties of the powerful but to hold them to account. Your readers expect and deserve it. Journalists, however badly paid and professionally insecure, still hold tremendous power to shape public opinion, a responsibility to take seriously.
Don’t be seduced by your job title or that of your employer.You can lose both tomorrow — 24,000 journalists were canned in 2008. Never assume it makes you better than anyone without it, since you have no idea where they’ve been or what they’ve accomplished.
This is a team sport. You’ll be working with fellow journo’s and editors, some decades older, who bring tremendous knowledge of this game and how it’s played. Don’t dismiss those with gray hair, assuming we have no clue about technology or how to communicate stories effectively in the 21st century. It’s called experience.
Don’t be a diva. See above.
Don’t privilege one medium (OK, on-line/digital) over another (snoozy old print.) The point of what we all do is finding and telling compelling stories, regardless of the way they’re offered to readers. Freelancers who still focus primarily on print are focused on earning a living, something digital journalism has yet to offer anyone without a salary within its ranks.
Break social rules and ignore polite expectations. Women are often socialized to be nice, to get along, to make everyone feel happy and welcome. That’s not your job! Many of the questions you’ll need to ask are going to piss someone off.You’ll get yelled at, thrown out of meetings, receive angry phone calls and emails. People might call you names. None of this matters. It’s part of the territory. Your job is to tell a story well.
And yet, your job is not to be a robotic bulldozer. Interviewing well demands the kind of combined listening skills, empathy, sensitivity and compassion of the best nurse/minister/teacher/bartender. It’s one of our greatest challenges — knowing (and no one teaches you this; it’s an instinct) — when to be ruthlessly tough and when to be gentle and present as someone shares the brutal facts of their story, a rape or their child’s murder or their loss of employment.
You are not the story. Your subject is. Let them tell it in their words, at their speed. Whenever necessary, find a translator or interpreter to make sure you are able to get that story accurately.
The story isn’t only what the PR people tell you it is. Their job is to put their clients in the very best light, whether they’re a PIO for a government agency, head of corporate communications for a Fortune 500 multinational or the spokesman for an NGO. They’ll sit beside you and tape you and limit how much time you get. They might ask to see your story before it appears. Never allow their agenda to intimidate you.
Some assignments will make you cry. Don’t let your emotions rule you on the job or during the interview, but never be ashamed of your feelings. Some assignments will provoke powerful emotions. If they don’t, take a vacation or get a different job. The day you fail to feel compassion for those who struggle is the day you’re headed for burnout.
It’s not “just a story” — often we are hearing and then publicly sharing the most intimate and unforgettable (to them) details of someone’s life. This is a privilege and an honor. Never forget that.
You may experience “secondary trauma” if you do a lot of this kind of work; listening to and witnessing traumatic material can cause a sort of PTSD that is very real. Check into the programs of the Dart Center for help and guidance.
Run away from the pack whenever possible. This is much easier if you’re freelance and not facing hourly or daily deadline pressure to match whatever’s on Twitter. But pack journalism will easily consume your days, and your life, until or unless you can carve out a beat or a way to work that allows you the freedom to (also) pursue deeper, more thoughtful stories.
You will probably burn out.The pace, the stress, the competition, the crummy pay, the job insecurity. It adds up. There are six major components to burnout: work overload; lack of control over the work; insufficient rewards; rude or unhelpful co-workers; unfair treatment and a conflict between your values and the job requirements.
Which is why veterans keep a f**k-you fund, enough savings to allow you to quit a position that’s toxic and unworkable, take a breath and take some time to find a better fit somewhere else.
You may choose instead to freelance, for a while or forever. If you’re in a position to assign them work, treat freelancers as the hard-working small business-owners (and colleagues) they are. Don’t abuse them with no/low pay or endless rewrites or delayed or “forgotten” invoices. It may well be your turn one day.
Missing a deadline, getting someone’s name wrong (or several), getting the name of the company you’re covering wrong, losing your press credential, “forgetting” to turn in your official credential(s) after you’re canned or quit because you can’t bear to lose it, missing the bus or train or plane that will get you to the place you need(ed) to be to cover the story, not having enough money to get the next one.
Misunderstanding a foreign-language word or phrase, translating it, and mis-quoting. Having 10 minutes to file. Doing a stakeout, being scared to pee for hours — and being scared to drink anything because then you”ll really have to pee — and possibly missing the exact moment you’ve been waiting 15 hours for.
Fight for the weak and challenge the powerful.
Eschew dogma, (and remember karma).
Find and tell the truth.
Make us proud.
THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE 8-PART SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)
As of tomorrow, it becomes the International New York Times:
Founded on October 4, 1887, by New York Herald publisher Gordon Bennett, the newspaper aimed to provide American expats living in Paris with news from home, from stock prices to the latest baseball scores.
Under several owners and different names, it became a link to home for the rising number of Americans traveling abroad, suspending publication only once for the Nazi occupation of Paris from 1940 to 1944.
It also became a symbol of US expatriates, with actress Jean Seberg playing an American who sells the paper on the streets of Paris in Jean-Luc Godard’s influential 1960 New Wave film “Breathless.”
It settled on its current name in 1967, after the New York Times and Washington Post took stakes in the paper following the collapse of the New York Herald Tribune.
It expanded globally and is now printed at 38 sites and distributed in more than 160 countries, with a circulation of about 226,000 in 2011.
Few news consumers today even read a newspaper in its printed version and journalists are feeling that pinch; in 2008, 24,000 of us lost our jobs and many of us never found another.
Data from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on trends in news consumption released last year suggests people are assembling along separate media streams where they find mostly what they want to hear, and little else.
Fully 78 percent of Sean Hannity’s audience on Fox News identified as conservative, with most of the rest of the audience identifying as moderate and just 5 present as liberal. Over on MSNBC, conservatives make up just 7 percent of Rachel Maddow’s audience.
It isn’t just politicians that are feeding their bases, it is the media outlets, as well. The village common — you know, that place where we all meet to discuss our problems, relying on the same set of facts — has shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, surrounded by the huge gated communities of like minds who never venture into the great beyond. …Another layer of self-reinforcing messages may be having an impact.
As Eli Pariser described in “The Filter Bubble,” search companies rely on algorithms to predict what users want to see based on past clicks, meaning that users are moved farther away from information streams that don’t fit their ideological bent….The skillful custodians of search can produce what Mr. Pariser describes as “personal ecosystems of information.”
To take that one step further, think of your Facebook feed or your Twitter account, if you have either. When you pick people to follow, do you select from all over the map, or mostly from among those whose views
on culture and politics tend to align with your own? Thought so.
I read The New York Times daily; the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times on weekends. I watch almost no television talk shows — I find endless argumentation, punditry, opinionating and spin a waste of my time.
I’d rather (and do) read a really smart, incisive, insightful book — like the three studies of the American economy I recently read: The Price of Inequality by Paul Stiglitz; The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti and The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs.
When I want to try and understand a complex issue, and I often do, I don’t want partisan BS. I want as many useful, quantifiable, objective facts and data points as possible. Yes, I want some analysis and context. But I don’t want a worldview tilted so far to the right or left that I feel misled.
I read, and enjoy WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan, even though her politics differ from mine. She’s just damn smart.
I sometimes read The Guardian (more to the left than I am), and admire its righteous zeal. I listen to National Public Radio and the BBC (both leaning left, I realize) and sometimes watch BBC News. But only on BBC do I hear “news” about corners of the U.S. long before any mainstream media lumber over.
What media sources do you rely on for your understanding of the world?
Radio, television, blogs, newspapers (online? in print?), magazines, books?
Do you consume media from beyond your nation’s borders? What and why?
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!
For those who haven’t yet read my Welcome or About pages, I’m Caitlin Kelly, a journalist since my sophomore year of college, more than 30 years. Like every journalist, it’s my ongoing challenge to make total strangers feel comfortable talking to me within minutes.
The journalist’s job, contrary to popular current belief, is not to yammer on breathlessly about celebrities and their pets/kids/shopping — like a walking press release — but to get out into the world and find people with compelling stories to share.
And many of the best stories haven’t been told before, at least not to a stranger wielding a notebook, camera or tape recorder. Unlike public figures, like politicians or celebrities, trained and skilled at media manipulation, these people don’t even know the rules.
I’ve recently been writing features for The New York Times business section, like this one about Google. Many of the people I’m interviewing for these have never spoken to a reporter before. They’re “virgins.”
Several admitted to me beforehand how nervous they were at speaking “on the record” , knowing their words might end up in TheNew York Times; for those of you living outside the U.S., it’s hard to to overstate its power and prestige. I’ve been writing freelance for the Times since 1990.
There’s such an imbalance between how I feel walking into those rooms — excited, curious — and how they feel — often wary, anxious, unsure, wondering what willhappen next.
It boils down to trust. How much can they trust me to get it right? To tease out what they might not be able to fully articulate? Will they, as they fear, end up sounding stupid?
These “virgins” sometimes forget, or don’t know, that my every word is read and re-read by several editors who can question or challenge what I’ve written.
During my visit to Google, which lasted two days, two public relations reps tapped away madly on their computers and Blackberries, noisily noting everything I asked and what their staff said. Typically, only very senior executives and officials receive this much protectiveness.
It might have reassured the people I spoke to. But once you’re “on the record” that’s it. Two people — days after the interviews were finished — emailed to tell me “You can’t use that” about a few comments. Technically, I can. (But I didn’t, a judgment call on my part.)
I’ve felt that visceral oh shitmoment when you create an official and frighteningly permanent representation of how (at that moment, perhaps) you think.
And none of us really knows what will happen to your story after you’ve shared it. The reporter might be stupid, lazy, disorganized, deceptive — or get it absolutely right.
It’s rare to hear a journalist admit how they feel when dealing with civilians….Here’s a blog interview with New York Times freelancer Devan Sipher:
The brides and grooms I talk to confide in me, and I take extraordinary time and effort to make sure what what goes in my articles doesn’t violate that trust. It’s not always easy, because the best quotes are often things they would regret having said if they saw them in print. One could argue that if they said it, I can use it. But the people I’m writing about aren’t running for public office (usually) and they didn’t steal anyone’s retirement funds. They don’t deserve to be embarrassed by an article celebrating their marriage. I feel I have a responsibility to protect them in addition to my responsibility as a journalist to write the best and most accurate story for my editor and readers. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.
Here are a few tips, if you’re facing a first-time media interview:
— Find out the reporter’s name and media outlet as far in advance as possible. Google them and carefully read check their LinkedIn page for any mutual connections, like the same hometown, college or people in common. Find out as much about them, and how they write, as you can.
— Read a few of their stories and tell them you did. It’s both a compliment and a warning.
— Ideally, find out: which section of the paper or magazine it’s for, what the angle is and who else they’re speaking to. Some reporters are fine with this, others not. The more you know what they need from you, the better it’s likely to go.
— Try for more time, rather than less; i.e. 20-30 minutes instead of five or ten. Very few people with no media training are great at offering quick, pithy sound bites. But be ready to answer succinctly.
— Make notes of your three most essential talking points before the interview. Keep them in front of you, with all relevant facts and figures as necessary.
— If you’re not 100 percent sure of the accuracy of your answer, say so! Offer to get right back to them, (within minutes if possible), with the correct data, and a checkable source for them (like a report, study, poll or government statistic.) Never guess. Never lie!
— Get the interviewer’s name, phone numbers and email address so you can follow up or add something later. Be sure they get yours as well.
— Be very clear, before you say a word, if you want the interview attributed to you by name, on background or off the record. Be sure you and the interviewer have both agreed, and that you both agree on what these terms mean.
— Do not monologue! Take a breath, for heaven’s sake. Let the reporter ask their questions as well. Some people do this out of nervousness, but it’s also (perceived as) a way to control the interaction, and therefore annoying.
— Give the interview your full and undivided attention. That means carving out some time to do it and placing yourself in a quiet, private room with no background noises (dogs, kids) or interruptions (cellphones, assistants, etc.) We can work around these, but unless it’s an emergency situation, why make things harder on both of us?
— You can ask to see their story before it appears, but most won’t do it. Magazines usually use fact-checkers, who will contact you before the story appears to make sure the basic facts are accurate.