Wednesday, October 28, 2009

et tu, new york times?

Jerry Seinfeld once famously quipped: "Isn't it amazing that everything that happens on a given day just fits the pages of the New York Times?"

Does that mean, in Seinfeld-speak, that come December less and less will be going on? At first fear, yeah. But a quick look at some numbers makes you think, well, maybe not.

We'll start with the backstory. According to a piece in the New York Observer last week, the gray lady is cutting 100 jobs by December 7:

It's the first time the Times has had to cut jobs since 2008, when they also cut 100 jobs. Earlier this year, reporters and editors voted to cut their salaries, in the hope that newsroom cuts could be avoided. Mr. Keller said today's decision "is happening sooner than anyone anticipated."

The paper has a newsroom of approximately 1,250 people.

Buyouts are the first option, and if they don't reach 100 volunteers, the paper will resort to layoffs.

You can read a copy of the letter editor Bill Keller sent to his staff via the link above. The Observer gets the goods.

As it did today, getting its hands on a copy of the entire 61-page buy-out package, which supplies names, numbers -- and a revealing look at the number of folks employed to put out the paper of record. Take a look:

Editors at the Book Review: 14

Reporters at Metro: 50

Size of the Opinion/Editorial Department: 49

Size of Sports Desk: 57

Critics in the Culture
Department: 18

Editors at The Times Magazine: 21

Average age of the Obituaries Desk:
58 years old

Size of Thursday Styles: 7

Size of Business Desk: 85

Size of Washington Bureau: 45

Size of the Dallas Sales/Advertising Staff: 4

Size of Week in Review: 5

Total size of Art Department: 113

Size of Dining: 5

Size of Metro: 103

Number of Pressman Journeymen at the College Point plant: 106

Newsroom layoffs and buyouts are always tragic. But 57 on the sports desk? bk

Monday, October 26, 2009

tweeting 101

Coming soon to a j-school near you: The art of the tweet. And not just for twits.

Okay, getting too cute.

Mashable reports that Australia’s Griffith University has made Twitter-Ed part of the curriculum for j-students. This is true. You gotta love this quote:

According to a senior lecturer at the University, “Some students’ tweets are not as in depth as you might like.” The solution? Make Twitter writing practice a compulsory part of the course curriculum for would-be journalists.

No depth in 140 characters? Imagine that.

According to the report, the university cooked up the class in response to employers who want hires who do social media -- and know how to tweet.

Now we've all heard that Twitter has provided up-to-the-second dispatches during disasters and important global events. But I just can't imagine a job listing that reads: Reporter: Provide resume, clips and tweets.

On the other hand, how stoked would you be if you were a j-kid and were required to write, oh, a 20-word final? bk

Friday, October 23, 2009

Copyedit this! AP Style with a side of silly

Finally. A reason for learning all those tedious AP Style rules: in-jokes. If you are on, you can catch up-to-the-minute antics from the Fake AP Stylebook folks. All of it, tongue-in-cheek.

A favorite:
While it's tempting to call them "baristi" because of the Italian roots, the plural of "barista" is "journalism majors."
HEADLINE WRITERS: Avoid adding LOL and OMG gratuitously.
This is pretty good, too:
If you start a sentence with an action, place the actor immediately after or you will anger Christian Bale.
And this:
Do not use "nonprofit" as an adjective. Use "broke."
Many of the tweets are in response to questions from fellow twits. To play, go here. bk

Monday, October 19, 2009

all the news that fits?

Interesting dish from Baynewser on the San Francisco Bay Area's new non-profit news site -- and the New York Times plan to go local in San Francisco. According to the story, though the NYT"promises that readers will get 'local stories as only The Times can report them,'" there is talk that the actual reporting may be, er, outsourced:

.. Times President and General Manager Scott Heekin-Canedy tells PaidContent that, in fact, the Gray Lady would like to find an outside organization to actually supply the content.

"Our preference is to find a local partner to produce this," Heekin-Canedy said. "This doesn't really fit within our staffing model, our staffing resources for the New York Times newsroom."

There is no confirmation that the partner will be the forementioned Bay Area News Project -- though that's the word on the street. If so, does that mean that local stories as only the Times can report them -- is reporting done by interns?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

on the other hand: consider the non-profit

By now you have clearly heard of the plan to save journalism hatched by wealthy investor F. Warren Hellman, KQED-FM, San Francsico's NPR station, and UC Berkeley's journalism school. (If not, read about it in this piece by Richard Perez-Pena in The New York Times last month.)

Funded by a $5 million grant from Hellman, the project will combine the labors of the j. school interns and KQED-FM's staff to produce the kind of Bay Area news that has begun to disappear with the shrinking of the local daily newspapers.

Innovative, yes. Especially at a time when the news industry is desperate for solutions to keep it on life support. But still: Do we really want to turn investigative news-gathering over to interns? Or will their contributions be more like the stuff we read in the free weeklies that used to sit in our driveway for days? Does KQED-FM have the staff to adequately vet their stories and supervise their work? And what kind of credibility problems could arise when the whole project is funded by one donor. Will he keep his hands off?

In the words of one of my esteemed colleagues:
It's great to see people thinking of new ways to fund news
organizations, but I'm not sure this combination offers long-term
financial stability...a wealthy investor whose wealth fluctuates with
a troubled stock market, a cash-strapped public university, and an NPR
station that has had numerous funding problems over the years despite
being in one of the country's wealthiest areas. (See the stories on
KQED's financial problems related to its headquarters.) And while
corporate owners present all kinds of accountability issues, this
combination presents a whole different set of potential accountability
In a less serious vein, but kind of not, the SF Weekly posts this somewhat snarky list of how Hellman's approach is likely to save journalism. No.5 reads as follows:

• Bank on the fact that college interns and former journalists will do anything to look important

one case for a public press

Two of the most talked about proposals for saving journalism are going not-for profit -- either supporting news orgs with philanthropic donations or with tax dollars. For each proposal, there are pros and cons, not the least of which is whether or not such support might constrain the credibility of the news-gathering process. (More on this to come.)

In this week's The Nation, William F. Baker, former president of WNET in New York, our largest PBS station, makes his case for a government-supported public media, making a comparison to Britain's BBC:

Total federal support for American public broadcast media in 2007 was about $480 million. That might seem sufficient or even impressive until you compare it with the BBC, which serves a nation with one-fifth the US population but which received the equivalent of $5.6 billion in government money in 2007. When it comes to public media, the United States is decisively outspent by the governments of most other major democracies. Japan, whose population is less than half the size of the United States', spent the equivalent of $6.8 billion for public broadcasting in 2007; Germany, with one-third the size, spent about $11 billion; and Canada, a tenth the size, spent $898 million. Even Denmark and Ireland, with populations smaller than New York City, far outspent the United States per capita, with respective budgets equivalent to $673 million and $296 million.

The amount the government now sets aside for public broadcast media is about what it costs the military to occupy Iraq for two and a half days. Taking into account the hundreds of billions lavished on the interim survival of our elite financial institutions, funding our news infrastructure won't be a hardship. Just a small fraction of the $45 billion--that's billion with a "b"--Citigroup alone has received since October 2008 would give NPR and PBS all the money they need.

Unlike the benefits that come from bailing out investment banks and insurance conglomerates, a stronger investment in public media would give all citizens a concrete and valuable service. Turn on cable TV news to find out about an event overseas, and you are likely to see a panel of well-coiffed pundits sitting in a studio in New York, Washington or Los Angeles debating what might be happening on the other side of the world. Switch to the same story on the BBC, and you are likely to see a correspondent on the ground where the event is actually taking place. The BBC's forty-one permanent foreign bureaus are more than twice the number maintained by ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS each. This isn't a difference of national character; it's simply a matter of money. For commercial TV, paying pundits is a lot cheaper than doing the real work of reporting. And for public media, chronically small budgets often make extensive original reporting too expensive, even for respected shows like NewsHour.

Interesting. bk

Monday, October 12, 2009

narrative journalism at its best

Or, why the desire to be a reporter -- even these days -- still burns brightly.

Former student Melissa Segura (SCU 2001), a reporter for Sports Illustrated, sent me a link to this recent New Yorker piece about the execution of a possibly innocent man in Texas. As she wrote in her email:

You may have already read this, but, for me, was the best story I've read in
years. Not only is the subject matter gripping, but the reporting and
structure, nearly perfect. Get comfy. It's long but worth it.

Couldn't agree more. There are so many layers to this story, all of which required a rich tapestry of detail and background. Because we come to know the characters so well, and because the writer, David Grann, did such a compelling job explaining both the science and the law, we are engaged every step of the way. bk

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Want to be a novelist? Start as a journalist.

I just came across this old post from popular fiction writer Jennifer Weiner ("Good in Bed", "In Her Shoes"), who offers 10 tips for aspiring novelists. I especially liked tip No. 4, which advises would-be writers to try the real world first:

4. Get a Job (not an MFA)

This is pretty controversial, and will most likely earn me the enmity of writing professors, students, and MFA graduates everywhere. But I think if you want to be a writer, you're probably going to be better served by going to work (or by traveling, if you've got the financial wherewithal to do so), instead of spending two years and tens of thousands of dollars getting a degree that announces to the world that you are an official, academe-sanctioned, card-carrying practitioner of fiction.

When I was finishing up with college, lo these many years ago, I had an English degree, which meant that I was qualified to do precisely nothing, except compose lovely paragraphs, and speak knowledgably about French feminist literary theory (don't laugh. I'm going to kick ass on Jeopardy! Someday. Maybe). I was lucky enough to have John McPhee as a professor, and he was generous enough to give me the best piece of advice ever - go into journalism. "You'll see a different part of the world. You'll meet all kinds of people. You'll be writing every day, on deadline" - which, of course, turned out to be invaluable when it came time to write fiction. Best of all, you'll be getting paid to write, instead of paying someone to tell you that you can.

So off I went to Central Pennsylvania, where I spent two and a half extremely instructive, occasionally frustrating, desperately underpaid years at a small newspaper called The Centre Daily Times, where I covered five local school districts, plus the occasional car crash, fire, zoning board meeting, and wild-bear-on-the-loose story. Looking back, I think I was a fair-to-middling news reporter. It just didn't interest me, the numbers in the budget stories confounded me, and I always wanted to be way more descriptive than the space, or my editors, would permit. But I was a darn good features writer, because in my years at the paper, I learned how things looked, how people talked, how people interacted with each other, how they looked when they lied (cover politics, even in the micro level, and you'll get to see plenty of that).

I'm now a convert. I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It's not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it's great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don't grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses. And writer's block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn't done yet because your Muse hasn't spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer's block is a luxury no working journalist can afford - which will help you avoid it when you're a working novelist. Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates - myself included - could use. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited - of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you've written even stronger. Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines - you'll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter's dragging and your title's ill-conceived - you'll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Your editor will adore you.

And if you can't be a journalist, or aren't inclined, or can't get hired? Go do something that's going to take you out of your comfort zone, putting you in contact with different kinds of people, perhaps in a different part of the world. Be a waitress at the snootiest boite in town, and pay attention to how your customers look, how they talk, how they tip. Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny. Just do something that takes you out into the world. If at all possible, avoid working in a bookstore, or in publishing. Remember, the point of this exercise is to take you out of your comfort zone, out of the comfortable life you've made inside your own head, out of a workplace full of people Just Like You. You're looking for challenges, for adventure, for new faces and new places. Plus, if you've followed Part Two of this plan, you're most likely single, and will want to get out of town anyhow.

"But if I got an MFA, I'd get to spend two years just concentrating on my writing!" True. But remember: a writer writes, whether or not she's in school for writing.

And I think that in the end, staying out of writing school gives you more to write about. Saves you money, too.