The iPad's (and Kindle's) One Inherent Flaw

Books behind the bed
Image by zimpenfish via Flickr

Loss of connection.

Not connectivity. Connecting readers.

While many are thrilled at this new world, one in which nasty old paper artifacts like printed books, magazines and newspapers will disappear — and not a moment too soon! — here’s something that bothers me.

How many times, whether you’re 25 or 65, have you discovered a story, an idea, an author or a new friend because you saw what they were reading? Two nights ago, I was getting off the commuter train from Manhattan to my suburban town. I noticed a woman behind me reading “An American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld, a book that’s received rave reviews which I have yet to read.

“What do you think of it?” I asked, without preamble. “I really like it,” she replied.

“Have you read ‘Prep’?” She hadn’t, which led, as we shared the doorway ready to exit, to a brief conversation.

For me, there were multiple pleasures in this: two readers, two Sittenfeld fans trading notes, two neighbors having a quick conversation about work. All of it sparked by the visible physical presence of a book. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done this, and it’s happened to me worldwide, on planes and trains, in waiting rooms and airport lounges, anywhere someone is reading printed matter — or I am — a lively, enjoyable conversation has begun when two strangers realize they love the same thing.

Community.

This may seem trivial. It is deeply important to authors because books become best-sellers in one way: word of mouth. Not ads, not reviews, not book clubs. Word of mouth. And, as someone whose first book has been rendered invisible by its publisher thanks to print-on-demand (i.e. it is not sold any more in bookstores, only available by special order), a book that is not seen is a book that is not heard about, not loved, not argued over, not sold.

Re-play this recent scene with the young woman reading an iPad. There is no point of conversational entry. I can’t see what she’s reading, nor can anyone else. You can’t as we all have done, read over their shoulder, or, subway-typical, read the other side of whatever newspaper page might be held up in front of you.

Is this a loss or a gain?

Privacy. Anonymity. Facelessness. These are becoming the new hallmarks of people who read, thanks to the new ways in which they are reading.

I was given a Kindle for my birthday last June. I love almost every gift I reveive from my partner, but this one failed. I’ve barely looked at it since — and yesterday came home from our local library with half a dozen books, with more on order. As I write my new book, I’m also buying books for research, books I need to dog-ear, underline, Post-it note, photocopy for research. I need, and want, a physical object when I read. I already spend my bloody worklife attached to a screen. I want to flee!

And, as someone who also deeply values design, photography, even typefaces, the loss of the visual beauty of a printed book saddens me; I love the cover of my first book and look forward to seeing what the designers choose for my next one.

As someone who never leaves her home without at least 1-4 forms of printed reading material, who thrives on the pleasure of shared enthusiasm for a great story, idea or writer, these sexy new toys annoy me on another level.

Anyone who deeply values thoughtful reading looks forward, perhaps with some trepidation, to the first time they enter the home of a new friend or someone they have fallen in love with — what do they read? A quick glance (every journo’s trick, which is another reason why about 99% of celebrity interviews are held in restaurants) at someone’s bookshelves often reveals a great deal about their taste level, their ambitions, history, hopes and dreams.

If they don’t even have bookshelves, let alone stacks of magazines, that’s a warning sign for me. Are they addicted to sci-fi? Cookbooks? Self-help? History? Thrillers? An intellectual match, for some of us, is as much as crucial piece of “chemistry” as someone’s smile, smell or sense of humor.

If you’re deeply curious about their reading habits, what are you going to do — grab their iPad or Kindle and sneak a quick peek when they go to the bathroom?

If all books, magazines and newspapers disappear from their printed forms, if all we read is on our private, invisible, unshared electronic machines, have we lost anything valuable?

The New York Times Student Journalism Institute Ends Today; Tomorrow's Journo's

NEW YORK - JULY 23:  Copies of the New York Ti...
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The Institute ends today and the students will soon scatter back to Maryland, New York, Colorado. Every year, the New York Times Student Journalism Institute selects a group of Hispanic or black college students, undergrads and grads, in alternating years, and gives them a crash course in journalism.

Editors fly in from the paper and its affiliates — The Lakeland (FL) Journal and The Boston Globe — and fill a classroom, teaching the students how to conceptualize, report, write, photograph and produce a print newspaper within 10 days of arrival in a city most of the students have never seen. They also produce Web and video reports.

A standard journalism classroom at the University of Arizona becomes a newsroom, buzzing with adrenaline, laughter and the usual detritus of coffee cups and doughnut boxes. Students sit side by side with seasoned newspaper veterans, a little stunned at first-naming Pulitzer prize winners, but quickly appreciating the chance to pick their brains.

The program is run by Don Hecker, an avuncular Times veteran; my partner works with the student photographers, whom I met. Talent!

Two of the students were military veterans. One was a female chess champion from Peru. Another had already interned for the New York Post, and we traded horror stories of stake-outs and Manhattan’s tab-world brand of madness.

Check out their work, and their videos. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Newspaper Reporters' Job Ranked 16th From The Bottom Of 200 Jobs List

In this image released by the New York Times, ...
NYT reporter David Rhode, at work.Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Woodward and Bernstein — no, that’s not a law firm — were nuts!

According to a new list ranking 200 careers, being a newspaper reporter is almost the worst choice you can make, according to their judgment, which looked at the physical and emotional environment, income, physical demands, outlook, and stress of 200 jobs.

Economists (26), parole officers (29)  dental hygienists (10) and bank tellers (68) easily beat out pounding the pavement with a notebook. Even nuclear plant decontamination technicians (165) have it better.

Fascinating to see that jobs like choreographer (hello, Twyla) and police officer were ranked almost as poorly. Ask 90 percent of cops and choreographers — and newspaper reporters — and passion informs a huge part, if not all, of their vocational decision. I’ve yet to meet a reporter who values a pretty office and cuddly co-workers and a calm, mellow environment. It sure ain’t for the job security. A very fortunate few will, and do, surpass this list’s top salary ranking of $77,000; The New York Times union-set minimum is higher than that.

Newspaper reporters — I’ve worked for three major dailies — groove on stress. I think it’s actually a form of fuel. They send us out in freezing cold, pouring rain, 100 degree heat, into wars and refugee camps, and we love it. When they asked us for volunteers, post-Katrina, at the Daily News, a number of hands went up. Every ambitious reporter knows the more unpleasant the environment, physical demands and stress the greater the chances it’s a fantastic story.

Emotional environment? Hah. Editors, some of them, are so insane they need to be medicated, (one of mine proudly displayed his on his desk), and most wouldn’t last 20 minutes in a tidy, polite, corporate environment. Neither would we.

After one guy shouted at me in front of the entire newsroom and I went to my boss, he calmly replied, “He threw a radio at me once.”

The “outlook” piece of the ranking — i.e. will those of us now wandering the world newsroom-less ever find another place another newspaper — is the killer, with 24,000 print writers canned last year. That part, without argument, is sadly true.

Here’s the full list.

Deborah Howell, Journalism Pioneer, Aka 'The Dragon Lady' Dead At 68

From The New York Times:

At age 34, she became city editor of The Minneapolis Star, which later became The Star Tribune after a merger. Four years later she jumped to a rival paper, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she served as managing editor and then executive editor. At The Pioneer Press, she oversaw two projects that led the paper to win the first Pulitzer Prizes in the paper’s history, in 1986 and 1988.

Ms. Howell left The Pioneer Press in 1990 to become the chief of the Washington bureau for the Newhouse newspaper chain, a post she held for 15 years. Her staff at Newhouse News Service also won a Pulitzer while she was there.

From 2005 to 2008, she was the ombudsman of The Washington Post, winning friends and admirers despite having a job that meant publicly criticizing her colleagues.

“She was great fun to be around, and she had a reputation which she relished of being a great gossip,” said Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Post. “And it was true, but she was a gossip not in the mean-spirited sense, but simply because she was wildly interested in everything and everybody, and in people’s stories.”

Ms. Howell made a point of mentoring her reporters, helping them develop into book writers and often advising them years after they no longer worked for her. Among the authors she helped were John Sandford, Chuck Logan and H. G. Bissinger.

H.G. Bissinger is better known as Buzz, author of, among other books, “Friday Night Lights”, since made into a television series and film.

Though she had asthma, she seemed anything but frail — she was loud, blunt, funny, fiercely competitive and floridly profane. The contrasting sides of her personality earned her two nicknames in the Twin Cities: Mother Mary Deborah and the Dragon Lady.

Stop Lying About Your Journalism 'Credentials'!

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...
Ride that pony, kids...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Today’s New York Times carries the weekly column on ethics and standards by the paper’s columnist, Clark Hoyt.

Last week, The Times parted company with Joshua Robinson, a prolific young freelancer who represented himself as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer…

Robinson, two years out of college and highly regarded by Times editors for whom he has freelanced, said that he never connected his Times work with the approach he made to airline magazines seeking free international travel in exchange for articles and photos. He said he called himself “a reporter for The New York Times” — which he is not — only to establish his “street cred” with those he was soliciting, and not to imply he was on the newspaper staff.

“It was an honest mistake,” he told me. “To me, this was so far removed from anything I do for The Times, it didn’t seem applicable.”

Get a grip, kid. Really. There are dozens, likely hundreds of freelance writers who produce copy for the Times who refrain from using the paper as an artificial crutch. Yes, it’s a nice clip and gives us street cred. But not because we lie about our relationship to the paper; we’re a “freelancer for the Times” or “a regular contributor”.

Using the word “reporter”, as anyone knows, implies something else, better and more prestigious. Very few journalists will ever get an interview at the Times, let alone a job offer. Those who do get hired — contrary to many fantasies — tend to keep their noses very, very clean. They like their job, the salary, the prestige and access it affords, their colleagues. Some are also still protective of the larger organization, loyal to larger notions of what a newspaper still is or should be or can be. Or just to the Times itself.

I’ve twice in 20 years made errors that had an editor there call me, demanding an answer and a correction — now. I know the pressures that editors are under and how incredibly difficult it  can be to gain and keep their trust. I’d already written many, many pieces for the paper when I approached a new-to-me editor a few years ago who said, “Well, it’s a bit of a risk.” I’ve gone on to write a lot for this person and we’ve enjoyed a collegial relationship. I didn’t like the apprehensiveness about my skills, but I understood it.

That’s how they think. That’s how a freelancer needs to think about working freelance with anyone there, as a writer, illustrator, photographer. It’s not all about you.

This crap gives freelancers a bad name, one we already have with many people who just assume “You’re too lousy to get a real job.”

We all know that Times‘ clips can open some terrific new doors, inside and outside of the paper; I got yet another email yesterday from a younger writer desperate to write for them and eager for my contacts there. I’m proud of my work for the paper — and stupid and unethical behavior, by any writer, makes me nuts.

It will also make my life with them a lot more annoying as every editor will now feel compelled to climb up my rear with a flashlight to make sure I’m not being deceptive with them and my sources.

When outright lying about your affiliations — which you know full well adds deceptive value to your brand — doesn’t “seem applicable”, it’s time to think about what “applicable” means.

Everyone but you?

Why You Should Read This, And Everything, More Slowly

A visitor takes a book off a shelf at the The ...
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How much do you read every day? How quickly?

One writer makes an interesting, and I think, cogent argument for reading less, slowly. He links it to the slow food movement, the notion being that less is more, a life that is consumed with thoughtful, selective pleasure rather than enormous gulping bites and swallows, is one worth living.

I agree.

The only blogs are a a few I read here. I read three papers every day and about 20+ magazines a month. But if I am not also reading a book, or several, (let alone looking at art, listening to music, watching a performance), my brain is going dead. I see a large and crucial difference between being informed (news) and entertained/instructed/forced into reflection.

It does me, and many others, little good to just know a lot of stuff. When was the last time, regardless of medium, you read something that left you sitting there in awe at its power and beauty? What was it you read?

Here’s the interesting argument in Forbes, by writer Trevor Butterworth:

If the moral of this story is that media commentary is like navigating in fog, the crisis of journalism is, at this point, sufficiently real to be seen as part of a wider conceptual crisis brought about by new-media technology: a crisis that is located, primarily, in the cognitive effects of acceleration and its cultural backwash. In short, a relentless, endless free diet of fast media is bad for your brain. Generation Google ( GOOG news people )–those who have never known a world without the Internet–it turns out, not only cannot use Google effectively, they don’t even know enough about how to search for information to know they can’t use Google effectively. The idea that the kids are whizzes at multimedia tasking is a platitude confected by middle-aged techno gurus to peddle their expertise as explainers of generational difference. In fact, relentless multitasking erodes executive function. And while the brain may not be overloaded by 34 gigabytes of brute information a day, it appears that too many of these mental quanta are the equivalent of empty calories. PlayStation and texting need to be balanced out by reading novels, handwriting (for old-fashioned digital dexterity) and playing with other live people if you want your child to develop to be an effective, skill-acquiring, empathetic adult….

The idea of consuming less, but better, media–of a “slow word” or “slow media” movement–is a strategy journalism should adopt. It will be painful, as it involves thinking about media as something sustainable, local and (hardest of all for hard-bitten hacks) pleasurable. But as the historian Michael Schudson has argued, it’s simply unrealistic to expect the public to read newspapers as a daily personal moral commitment to democracy. Instead, look to what Dave Eggers has brilliantly shown with the San Francisco Panorama, namely that the physical quality of a newspaper and the aesthetic pleasure of reading can make people so excited about journalism that they’ll buy it–not just conceptually, but in terms of parting with cash.

Eggers could well be the Alice Waters (queen of American slow foodies) of the news media, McSweeny’s its Chez Panisse. But even more explicit in advocating principles of slow media is Monocle, a luxuriously bound and produced monthly by Tyler Brule, a journalist turned creative guru and, crossing Jane Jacobs with John Ruskin, an apostle of a 21st-century, globally aware aestheticism in everything from a cup of espresso to urban planning and airline uniforms.

More Bad News For Publishing: Kirkus Reviews and Editor & Publisher Closed

A picture from the top of the Geoman Press at ...
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As if anyone still working with print needed even more bad news — more than 24,000 of us canned in the past year alone — today brings the news that Kirkus Reviews, which reviews 500 books pre-publication, and Editor & Publisher, the industry bible of newspapering are being shut down. No word whether their digital counterparts will live, although it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t.

No matter how much their insider information seems old-school to some, it’s essential to others. Any author hoping for decent sales liked to get a nod from Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal, which tended, back when there were book reviewers for…oh, yeah, newspapers…to drive their reviewers’ decisions about what to pluck from the annual 200,000 books pumped out every year. With fewer and fewer places to even get a book reviewed, at least in print, anything that narrows a new book’s, or author’s, chances of being discovered, sold and read is a sad thing.

E& P, whose website bills it as “the oldest journal covering the newspaper industry” is only the latest casualty in the past few months, as trades and consumer glossies alike, such as Gourmet, have been closed for good.

Who’s next?

NYC Tabloid News: The Post Sells Madoff's Polo Shirts, Daily News Spends $150 Million For New Presses

Dead Sea newspaper
Whatever it takes to stay afloat...Image by inju via Flickr

Journos normally don’t participate in the events they cover, but the New York Post — which sent at least three staffers to the first Madoff auction Saturday — bought Madoff’s three white polo shirts and is now using them as prizes in a contest; the shirts sold for a grand total of $1,300.

The Daily News, owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, has invested $150 million in new printing presses, with enough power and excess capacity to print papers for others as well.

The question is whether the investment makes business sense; the answer may never be made public because the privately held paper does not disclose its financial performance. Mr. Zuckerman signed the deal for the equipment almost two years ago, before the drop in advertising turned into a free fall, and before the weekday circulation of The Daily News fell to less than 550,000, from more than 700,000. He conceded that the paper, which had been marginally profitable for years, is at “worse than break-even.”

“I’ve been a contrarian for my entire business career,” said Mr. Zuckerman, a real estate mogul who also owns the magazine U.S. News & World Report. He said he understood skepticism about his Daily News investment, but “my commitment here is to the long term.”

The two tabs continue to compete for New York City newspaper readers with the Times, The Wall Street Journal (now adding a new city news staff) and the Observer, a weekly. The New York Sun died in September 2008 after six years.

I read the Post, Times and Journal every day, in hard copy. A former Daily News staffer, I skip it now. I invest my news-consumption time in BBC World News, BBC television and on-line Canadian and British newspapers instead.

A Dead Baby's Photo Lands A Female Editor In Court

* (en) Zambia Location * (he) מיקום זמביה
Zambia, image via Wikipedia

When is a powerful photo condemning lousy government-run healthcare care obscene — or news? A female Zambian newspaper editor faced trial for her decision to publish a graphic photo of a dead baby in a hospital parking lot, the photo taken in childbirth, taboo in Zambia. She was acquitted today.

Chansa Kabwela, news editor of Zambia’s largest independent newspaper was on trial for distributing obscene material, a graphic photo of a woman whose baby is still stuck halfway inside her vagina, dead, after being turned away by several clinics and during a nursing strike.

It’s a fascinating story  — getting almost no mainstream American press coverage — of competing ideologies, political control of the press, and one brave woman’s fight to make an important story known.

Infant mortality is a serious problem worldwide, and it’s often not considered terribly interesting to many reporters; the U.S. also comes in shockingly low on the list of countries whose babies are born alive.

Why Being A Dinosaur Is A Good Thing

Reconstruction of a Stegosaurus skeleton in th...
Post-diet...Image via Wikipedia

Called the Toronto Star today with a kick-ass idea, wanting to pitch it to the new foreign editor, whoever it was these days. Used to be a woman I worked with in Toronto at the Globe and Mail. “It’s Colin McKenzie,” the operator told me. “Of course it is,” I said. “Can you please connect me?”

And there was my city editor from my very first days in journalism, back when I was hired at a national newspaper without one minute’s experience at any newspaper and was quite terrified of Colin, a funny, tough, fast-talking proto-journo. How lovely and how unlikely, as almost all the newspaper people we know are being fired or bought out or sitting around scared shitless it’s about to happen to them, too, that we’re working together again.

We caught up, commiserated over health issues and the tattered remains of the Globe, a paper we both once loved a lot and where he most recently was one of its top editors — then negotiated a news story I’ll cover for them this weekend (and blog here, of course once it’s up.) Thank heaven Toronto still has four viable newspapers, which is three more than many American cities these days (OK, one, The National Post is in deep trouble right now.) Many of my newsroom colleagues from 20 years ago there still have jobs. The New York Times will bump 100 people within the next month.

It’s one reason many journos feel so deeply ill at the current chaos of our business. People inside journalism get it and those outside it think we’re a little nuts, clinging to the shards of splintered wood that still float amidst the icy waters — aka our careers in newspapers and the people with whom we’ve broken national stories. One of the reasons I stick around, still thrilling when I can write for a real, dead-trees paper to the adrenaline rush of writing and filing to deadline, is the equally intense pleasure of working with people I’ve known, worked with and appreciated for decades. And vice versa.

Will the new(est) generation of journos, the ones in J-school now piling up mega-debt to join what’s left of our ranks, be as collegial with all their peers after 10, 20 or 30 years? What will their tribe look like? I suspect by then, we’ll get our news directly through embedded brain-chips wired to pre-selected channels, reported and “written” and “edited” by robots — no vacation! no overtime! no pee breaks!

Will today’s junior journo’s enjoy this specific pleasure of long, deep association with smart, demanding bosses? I wonder. Whatever the medium, we all need a Colin who scares the hell out of us while pushing us to standards we didn’t even know were possible.

I am Stegosaurus. Hear me roar. (Colin gets to be T. Rex)