Friday, July 23, 2010

rules to write by

From Janet Fitch, author of "White Oleander" via the Los Angeles Times: 10 Rules for Writers. She's talking about fiction, but most of the rules apply to journalism, too, such as using dependent clauses, ditching cliches, writing in scenes, and finding replacements for over-used, anemic verbs.

Here you go. bk

Thursday, July 22, 2010

writing for free. or close to it...

Go here for an inside look at life on the "content farm". It's a look at the uber-creepy underbelly of digital journalism. If only all the underemployed journalists would just say NO...

The MediaShift piece, by Corbin Hier, starts thus:

"We are going to be the largest net hirer of journalists in the world next year," AOL's media and studios division president David Eun said last month in an interview with Michael Learmonth of Ad Age. Eun suggested that AOL could double its existing stable of 500 full-time editorial staffers in addition to expanding its network of 40,000 freelance contributors. Many of the jobs will be added to its hyper-local venture, Patch, while the majority of AOL's freelancers will work for the company's content farms -- Seed and the recently acquired video production operation, StudioNow.

These two areas into which AOL is ambitiously expanding are the fastest growing sectors of the journalism market. Hyper-local networks like and content farms such as Demand Media are flourishing. As Eun's bold prediction indicates, more and more journalists will end up working for new online content producers. What will these new gigs be like? To better understand, I reached out to people who have already worked with some of the big players.

And then gathered stories like this one about the worst -- and the biggest money maker -- of the bunch, Demand Media:

"A lot of my friends did it and we had a lot of fun with it," said one graduate of a top journalism graduate program when asked about her work for Demand Media. "We just made fun of whatever we wrote."

The former "content creator" -- that's what Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt calls his freelance contributors -- asked to be identified only as a working journalist for fear of "embarrassing" her current employer with her content farm-hand past. She began working for Demand in 2008, a year after graduating with honors from a prestigious journalism program. It was simply a way for her to make some easy money. In addition to working as a barista and freelance journalist, she wrote two or three posts a week for Demand on "anything that I could remotely punch out quickly."

The articles she wrote -- all of which were selected from an algorithmically generated list -- included How to Wear a Sweater Vest" and How to Massage a Dog That Is Emotionally Stressed," even though she would never willingly don a sweater vest and has never owned a dog.

As if that weren't demoralizing enough, Demand pays the grand sum of about 15 bucks per piece in order to take advantage of struggling journalists. One free-lancer, who wrote for Demand to supplement his salary as an adjunct professor, only made it worthwhile by writing three pieces an hour for four hours a day. You can imagine the quality of the reporting. Oh, wait.

When the industry appears to be crumbling around us, you do what you gotta do. I'm sure that there are a good number of folks who swallow their pride just because they want to write. But please, let's don't call it journalism. Or kid ourselves that digital outfits like Demand are going to fill the void. bk

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Jay Rosen on objectivity

From Pressthink, NYU prof. Jay Rosen's take on what "objectivity" is all about. What it isn't about is lack of opinion and the I-word. Journalism, after all, is the process of editting and choosing. What you leave in, what you leave out, what questions you ask, what you cover, what you don't.

Objective journalism is a form of persuasion, he writes, and what it is really about is damn good reporting -- and a lot of disclosure:

1. “Grounded in reporting” is far more important than “cured of opinion.” What editors and news executives should worry about is whether the news accounts delivered to users are well grounded in reporting. That’s the value added. That’s the sign of seriousness. That’s the journalism part. Original reporting and the discipline of verification—meaning, the account holds up under scrutiny—should be strict priorities. Whether the composer of the account has a view, comes to a conclusion, speaks with attitude (or declines these things) is far less important. Here, looser rules are better.

2. If objectivity is persuasion, it’s possible that its power to persuade can fade. This is particularly so because of what I said earlier: every act of journalism is saturated with judgment. By not disclosing such acts, “just the facts” sows the seeds of mistrust. All it takes is an accumulation of users who want to know where these judgments arise from. Ostensibly “objective” accounts will fail that test. Mistrust will rise. As the clamor grows, journalists may misidentify it as a demand for even more objectivity. Now you have something that looks a lot like a death spiral, at least for those users who are no longer persuaded. (In part because audience atomization has been overcome by the Internet.)

3. Disclosure sets the fairness bar higher. James Poniewozik of Time magazine was seeking an escape from that spiral when he said that reporters should disclose their political preferences:

Modern political journalism is based on the bogus concept of neutrality (that people can be steeped in campaigns yet not care who wins) and the legitimate ideal of fairness (that people can place intellectual integrity and rigor over their rooting interests). Voting and disclosing would expose the sham of neutrality—which few believe anyway—and compel opinion and news writers alike to prove, story by story, that fairness is possible anyway. Partisans, bloggers and media critics are toxically obsessed with ferreting out reporters’ preferences; treating them as shameful secrets only makes matters worse.

In this sense neutrality can hamper credibility because it masks the hard work of proving you can be fair despite the fact that you have your views.

4. The View from Nowhere may be harder to trust than “here’s where I’m coming from.” Objectivity is often seen as safer by self-styled traditionalists in the mainstream press. But I like to put the accent on what’s tendentious about it. So I make use of my own term, the View from Nowhere, to describe the ritualized uses of objectivity and suggest that there is something strained about them. Easing that strain is not impossible. It means shifting to a different rhetoric: “Here’s where I’m coming from,” sometimes called transparency. This is a different bid for trust. Instead of viewlessness, “You know where I stand; judge accordingly.”

5. In deciding what the rules should be, the wise newsroom will trade polarity for plurality. Lose the binary! Instead of two rigid poles—neutrality or ideology, news or opinion, reporter or blogger, adults or kids—I recommend a range of approaches that permit journalists to report what they know, say what they think, develop a point of view in interaction with events, and bid for the trust of users who have many more sources available to them. A plurality of permissible styles recognizes that trust is a puzzle unsolvable by a single system of signs.

Monday, July 5, 2010

and more:

Go here for a free guide to paying markets for essayists. Download at no charge for the next 30 days. Last updated, Dec. 2009. Author: Erika Dreifus. bk

looking for freelance love at 35,000 feet?

Go here for a listing of in flight magazines, organized by region. Great gig for freelance travel writers or wannabe freelance travle writers.. Rumor has it, airline magazines still pay. As in livable wages.
Once you get the actual listings (free on the website), you can probably find the contact info via the goog-lay. bk

the power of words: who controls the agenda?

Fierce media critic Glenn Greenwald excoriates the New York Times and other members of the mainstream media for backing down from using the word "torture" to describe water-boarding at the behest of the Bush administration.

This, according to a study by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The Bush administration-dictated euphemism of choice? "harsh interrogation techniques."

What's in a word? Lots. It's a pernicious case of letting the folks with the most vested interest in the outcome control the agenda: the press abdicating its role of watchdog.

There could be any number of reasons why the NYT played the toad in this case. I suspect a lot had to do with access to a very closed an secretive White House. Piss off your limited sources, and what access you had tends to dry up. All of which, it seems to me, seems to me to turn the First Amendment, and all its intent, on its head.

Back to Greenwald:

In response to the Harvard study documenting how newspapers labeled waterboarding as "torture" for almost 100 years until the Bush administration told them not to, The New York Times issued a statement justifying this behavior on the ground that it did not want to take sides in the debate. Andrew Sullivan, Greg Sargent and Adam Serwer all pointed out that "taking a side" is precisely what the NYT did: by dutifully complying with the Bush script and ceasing to use the term (replacing it with cleansing euphemisms), it endorsed the demonstrably false proposition that waterboarding was something other than torture. Yesterday, the NYT's own Brian Stelter examined this controversy and included a justifying quote from the paper's Executive Editor, Bill Keller, that is one of the more demented and reprehensible statements I've seen from a high-level media executive in some time (h/t Jay Rosen):

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the newspaper has written so much about the issue of water-boarding that "I think this Kennedy School study -- by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories -- is somewhat misleading and tendentious."

You can find the above links, a pdf of the Harvard story, and more thru Greenwald's piece. bk

Saturday, July 3, 2010


In which the Onion reports on technology the way we wish, you know, tech beat reporters reported on technology. In this case, it's a new social network called Foursquare. From the infamous Onion:

NEW YORK—While millions of young, tech-savvy professionals already use services like Facebook and Twitter to keep in constant touch with friends, a new social networking platform called Foursquare has recently taken the oh, fucking hell, can't some other desperate news outlet cover this crap instead?

Launched last year, Foursquare is unique in that it not only allows users to broadcast their whereabouts, but also offers a number of built-in incentives, including some innovative new crap The New York Times surely has a throbbing hard-on for.

In fact, why don't we just let them report on this garbage and call it a day?

Compare, if you dare, to the New York Times piece on same. Meanwhile, back to The Onion, which also skewers that handy formula for writing a trend piece in which the expert quote follows close behind the nutgraf:

As you've no doubt guessed from reading a dozen similar articles in The Washington Post, now's the part of our "trend piece" where we quote an industry expert like Leonard Steinberg, a Boston University communications professor and specialist in his field who remarks in a rather defeated tone that Foursquare represents a revolutionary new way for businesses and customers to interact.

"Through its competitive elements like badges and points, Foursquare helps generate brand loyalty," said the Ph.D.-holding individual, whose decades in higher education were basically shit upon by our inane questions about various bits of Foursquare ephemera. "It's a unique and transformative social networking tool."

"Can I go now?" he added.

Love it. In every possible way. bk

Friday, July 2, 2010

... and we're back.

Well, sort of. With a backlog of interesting bits and pieces about the state of journalism these days. First up, a piece from the London Times by Ed Ceasar about the soaring interest in j. schools these days -- despite the dismal state of the industry itself:

A good job in journalism is a licence for nosiness, a soapbox on which to perorate and a backstage pass to the live performance of history. It can make the blood boil and the mind race and the days pass in an arrhythmic heartbeat. A bad job in journalism is like a bad job anywhere. Still, we must look like we’re having fun — almost every week I receive an email from some poor sap wanting to know how to break into the business. I tell them: starting a career in journalism has always been a crap shoot, and becoming successful is like finding Wonka’s golden ticket. There are, however, ways to up your chances.

Nicholas Tomalin — the wonderful, bombastic Sunday Times writer who died in 1973 reporting from the Golan Heights — thought he knew the answer. In 1969, a happier time for the industry, he began a piece in this magazine by asserting: “The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.” But if Tomalin were commissioned now, he would strike out that famous gambit and start again.

Today, you’ll need luck, flair, an alternative source of income, endless patience, an optimistic disposition, sharp elbows and a place to stay in London. But the essential quality for success now is surely tenacity. Look around the thinning newsrooms of the national titles. Look at the number of applicants for journalism courses, at the queue of graduates — qualified in everything except the only thing that matters, experience — who are desperate for unpaid work on newspapers and magazines. Look at the 1,200 people who applied in September for one reporter’s position on the new Sunday Times website. You’d shoot a horse with those odds.

And yet, in the UK as well here in the U.S., more folks appear to have caught the bug. They want in. What do you think is the draw? And why now? The Times' Ceasar gives a hint:

There will be those who could think of nothing worse than meeting poor Afghanis, or hoodwinking politicians, or testing the patience of Scotsmen. Fair enough — sell cars. But there will also be those for whom the idea of such encounters is intoxicating, and the prospect of reporting such experiences more thrilling still. These people, if they are lucky and tenacious enough, become journalists.

Let's hear your take. bk