Tuesday, February 22, 2011

for the mag class: the science of solid pitchery

Some wise words -- and good linx -- on crafting killer pitches, courtesy of my online writers' group:

Example 1: Here's a pitch that landed David Hochman an assignment from O (Oprah's magazine):
How are you? XXX has been saying such nice things about you lately, and it prompted me to get back in touch with an idea for the magazine. Please take a look at my website to see clips going back to good ol’ E.W. I’ve also written for O before. http://www.davidhochman.com.
As a prelude, let me say that today was a fairly typical Monday around here. I drove my son to school, squeezed in time at the gym, reacted to a thousand digital beeps and dings, and at 5:30, sighed lovingly to my wife as we stood over a box of organic mac & cheese explaining to our six-year-old that, no, he can’t have his own iPod.
To be fair, I have a very rich and satisfying life. My wife and I are deeply in love after twelve years together. Sebastian is an adorable joy, even when he’s pouting (well, sort of). And I’ve had enough positive, engaging experiences and friendships to rank as high as any other T-ball dad on the subjective happiness scale. Not that it’s a competition.
But some days, I do wish there was more. My wife and I talk about it all the time, and that’s the reason for my pitch: How can we bring more awe into our life?
Many people talk about “practicing” gratitude and slowing down for what really matters (three of my efforts on those fronts are here -- http://ow.ly/1JlyL http://ow.ly/1JlwV and http://ow.ly/1Jlzr), but true awe is pretty rare. The scientific research says if you’re lucky, you experience it once or twice a month. But those experiences are likely to make the emotional highlights reel of your year and, eventually, of your lifetime. By awe, I mean that elusive and overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration and amazement in the face of something beautiful, brilliant or otherworldy, and it’s territory I’d love to explore for the magazine.
I was struck by the findings of some Penn researchers earlier this who intensely studied and analyzed the most emailed articles published in The New York Times. The results http://ow.ly/1Jln8 were surprising, and, in fact, awe-inspiring. What topped the list were articles that stirred an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” In short, articles brimming with awe.
My idea is to explore awe as an unsung emotion and investigate the latest research, the coolest science, and perhaps note some key moments in awe history, while also finding opportunities to up the awe quotient in my own life.
It’s hard to say exactly what awe is, but it’s easy to say what it’s not: the boredom of tracking Twitter feeds, the meanness of anonymous comments online, the fake thrall of too much television and texting.
Maybe this is too much information but I once experienced a moment so awe-filled (I can’t bring myself to say awesome), I still remember every nuance of it. I was a sophomore in college and after staying up nearly all night studying for both an art history and English lit exam, the synapses in my brain suddenly exploded with wide-eyed understanding. The moment was initially sparked by the sight of a button on a garment in an early Leonardo painting and ended five hours later with me truly hearing the music of John Coltrane for the first time. Regardless of the specific prompts, the experience created the sort of connectedness-to-all-things feeling I’d only read about in, well, the lives of the great artists and poets.
I quietly dubbed this powerful and mysterious moment my “epiphany” and it changed everything for me, and still resonates all these years later. My grade point average shot up from 2.8 to 3.9 and it awakened an awareness about what makes great art great, what Whitman and Frost were really talking about, and what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.”
I’m not saying I need every day to be a moment in a William Blake painting. But it would be interesting to consciously harness a little of that spirit. A month of awe is what I’m proposing, and I’d start with researchers like Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman at Penn, who conducted the Times survey. I’d talk to architects of cathedrals, choir conductors, a Dan Gilbert or Robert Emmons type or two, and maybe a few connoisseurs of awe like this young man http://ow.ly/1JlgJ, who climbs to ungodly heights without rope, gear or safety net. All in an effort to see what I, my family and your readers can do to bring greater awe into all our lives.
It’s a topic that fascinates me more than almost any other and I’d love to write about it for O.
All the best,
David Hochman
Example #2: Same writer, entirely different approach, which resulted in a story for the New York Times.

Have you heard about Nathan Mhyrvold and his crazy new cookbook? "Modernist Cuisine: The Art & Science of Cooking" Comes out in December. 2200 pages. Retails for $625. The talk of the chef universe, apparently. Some early reactions:

"This book will change the way we understand the kitchen." --Ferran AdriĆ ," '
“The most important book in the culinary arts since Escoffier.” --Tim Zagat
“The cookbook to end all cookbooks.” --David Chang
"A fascinating overview of the techniques of modern gastronomy." --Heston Blumenthal
"Amazing! Unparalleled in its breadth and depth." --Wylie Dufresne

I think Mhyrvold would be a great profile for the section or for the Times magazine even. He's the former Chief Technology Officer from Microsoft who cashed out to focus on the zillion other interests he has, including cooking. He has finished first and second in the world championship of barbecue in Memphis. He holds more than 18 patents, he's a paleontologist and wildlife photographer and has degrees from Princeton and UCLA and worked under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. For the book, he created a 20-person team at The Cooking Lab to invent new food flavors and textures by using tools such as water baths, homogenizers, centrifuges, and ingredients like hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes.

Link to his book here:

To see the sort of interview subject he would be, watch the first three minutes of his TED talk here (I dare you not to continue beyond the first three minutes):

Must. write. about. him.

Example 3: a pitch from another writer for a story that ended up in Discover magazine not long ago:

I'm still waiting for some information regarding that other pitch (Chinese fungi repatriation). But here's another article I'm eager to write.

In 1884, after months of a dead-end strike, a group of pissed-off Ohio coal miners decided to sabotage the mine owned by the New Straitsville Mining Company. They loaded coal cars with logs, soaked them in oil, set them ablaze and pushed them into the mine. The mine caught fire, effectively ending coal mining in that part of Ohio. The New Straitsville fire has burned an estimated two hundred square miles of coal, and it still burns today. A few years ago, smoke began rising from the ground in the nearby Wayne National Forest, but the underground fire hasn't set any of the forest on fire, as mine fires in other areas have.

No one is quite sure how many coal fires are underway around the world—either by human activity or natural causes-- but most estimates are in the high thousands. There are hundreds in the United States, thousands in India and China, over a thousand in Indonesia. Australia's Burning Mountain is the world's oldest coal fire, at more than 5000 years old. In China, the world's largest coal producer, it's estimated that up to 200 million metric tons--ten percent of the all the coal burned there--are lost to coal fires. While there are far fewer coal fires in the US, it's possible that the amount of coal burned in mine fires is roughly equivalent to the amount burned for power generation.

In the past, mine fires have been viewed as disasters for their impact on nearby communities –anecdotal reports of higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases, ruined landscapes, and the risk of mercury and arsenic poisoning –as well as the loss of a natural resource. But with growing concerns about global warming, experts want to know how much coal fires contribute to greenhouse gases. By one estimate, carbon dioxide emissions from China's coal fires may be as much as 1,120 million metric tons, about as much as US carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline.

The United States Geological Survey has recently launched an ambitious effort to measure the gases from the world's coal fires, beginning with the Welch Ranch Fire in Wyoming. There, a team of scientists found that this one mine emitted 12 tons of carbon dioxide and 270 milligrams of mercury every day. The USGS and its collaborators plan to combine the kind of ground testing used in Wyoming with airborne thermal imaging to develop a more precise estimate of global emissions.

Putting out mine fires hasn't been a huge priority in the past. Sometimes people dig down and try to remove the burning material; sometimes they dump in water or dirt or inject chemicals. These methods are rarely successful; most are also so costly that they are abandoned. In the last few years, though, a pair of firefighter entrepreneurs have developed a patented compressed foam that successfully fills the mine, starves the fire of oxygen, and then biodegrades. "That foam is earth friendly," says Lisa LaFosse', one of the partners in Texas-based CAFSCO. "I let my daughter play in that foam."

With new attention to mine fires' contribution to global warming, putting them out might become a higher priority around the world. But mine fires are complicated to understand and complicated to put out, says Glenn B. Stracher, a geology professor at East Georgia College in Swainsboro, Georgia, editor of Geology of Coal Fires: Case Studies from Around the World, and a member of the USGS team. "The work on these fires is highly interdisciplinary," he says. "You need geology, chemistry, biology, physics, math—there's something for everyone."

My article will discuss the ways that coal fires start, the complications of putting them out and the new methods that seem to be working, and the work of the USGS in measuring emissions and determining the urgency of putting them out. I'll interview Stracher and other members of the USGS team, LaFosse' and her partner, and people who live near one of the coal fires. And I'll visit at least one of the fires with Stracher or another member of the USGS team to get a firsthand look at these underground, ongoing conflagrations.


And finally, for a couple of good articles on the science of query writing, go here and here. bk

Thursday, February 10, 2011

And then there's this...

Speaking of the demise of journalism: President Obama granted FOX bloviator Bill O'Reilly an interview on SuperBowl Sunday. O'Reilly interrupted him FORTY-EIGHT times. And while chatting briefly about how people perceive him, O'Reilly spelled it out for Obama thus: "They hate you."

Go here to see all 48 of the interruptions. Or here, to watch the whole debacle. A case study in how not to do it. Especially if the president ever grants you an interview. bk

AOL + HuffPo? Good for Ariana, Bad for journalism

And with that, we all suffer: those of us who report the news. And those of us who believe in -- and rely on -- its relevance.

Among all the words spent ruminating on the merger, among the best come from the Los Angeles Times' Tim Ruttan, who suggests that when journalism becomes content, we all lose. He also compares the merger of one site -- AOL -- that pays very little with one -- HuffPo -- that doesn't pay at all to "a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates." Here's a taste:

The media-saturated environment in which we live has been called "the information age" when, in fact, it's the data age. Information is data arranged in an intelligible order. Journalism is information collected and analyzed in ways people actually can use. Though AOL and the Huffington Post claim to have staked their future on giving visitors to their sites online journalism, what they actually provide is "content," which is what journalism becomes when it's adulterated into a mere commodity.

Consider first AOL's pre-merger efforts, which centered on a handful of commentators and a national network of intensely local news sites called Patch. The quality of those efforts varies widely, but the best ones are edited by journalists who lost their jobs in the layoffs and buyouts that have beset traditional news organizations over the last decade. These editor-reporters are given reasonable benefits and salaries that are about what beginning reporters at major newspapers were paid three decades ago. Their contributors, by contrast, are paid a maximum of $50 an article, often less.

The results pretty much conform to the old maxim that you get what you pay for; the best Patch journalism almost invariably is being done by experienced journalists who do the work out of idealism or desperation. What happens when that pool of exploitable surplus labor dries up — as it will with time — is anybody's guess, but the smart money would bet on something that isn't pretty.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

the great middle east disconnect

While we in the West have extolled the virtues of our very American (ahem, San Francisco Bay Area grown) social media in spreading pro-democracy revolutions in the Middle East, and giving those of us in our comfortable homes access to real-time tweets and status updates, NYTimes columnist Frank Rich points out the uncomfortable fact that our digital emperor may be only partially clothed.

For one thing, one 20 percent of the population in Egypt has internet access. For another, the revolution only grew stronger when the government shut down the internet. But the more important question he addresses is this: One reason we in the West were obsessed with the social media hype was because we had no context for the real story: the grinding poverty in Egypt that fostered the demonstrations in the first place:

The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote on The New Yorker’s Web site last week, “surely the least interesting fact” about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them “may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.” What’s important is “why they were driven to do it in the first place” — starting with the issues of human dignity and crushing poverty that Engel was trying to shove back to center stage.

Exactly. But why was the story about social media in the first place? Because we had no other story to tell. No context. No backstory. No reporters. Back to Rich:

That we often don’t know as much about the people in these countries as we do about their Tweets is a testament to the cutbacks in foreign coverage at many news organizations — and perhaps also to our own desire to escape a war zone that has for so long sapped American energy, resources and patience. We see the Middle East on television only when it flares up and then generally in medium or long shot. But there actually is an English-language cable channel — Al Jazeera English — that blankets the region with bureaus and that could have been illuminating Arab life and politics for American audiences since 2006, when it was established as an editorially separate sister channel to its Qatar-based namesake.

Al Jazeera English, run by a 35-year veteran of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, is routinely available in Israel and Canada. It provided coverage of the 2009 Gaza war and this year’s Tunisian revolt when no other television networks would or could. Yet in America, it can be found only in Washington, D.C., and on small cable systems in Ohio and Vermont. None of the biggest American cable and satellite companies — Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner — offer it.

The effect of this disconnect -- by not supporting our own foreign correspondents or allowing access to news orgs that do -- means we often just don't get it. Political upheavals take us by surprise. We demonize what we don't know. And we end up trivializing important political events as "twitter revolutions."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

the Fox in the newsroom

I don't particularly mind that Fox News has a decidedly right-wing bias. What I do mind is that they have camoflauged that bias as "fair and balanced." Which I think has led to a widespread lack of faith in the news media in general, wherein viewers (and readers) who can clearly discern that fair and balanced, Fox is not -- go looking for bias in every other news org. And distrust them all.

And for that, we have Rupert Murdoch to thank. On that subject, Politico reports what NYTimes Executive Editor Bill Keller told the National Press Club on Monday:

I think the effect of Fox News on American public life has been to create a level of cynicism about the news in general. It has contributed to the sense that they are all just out there with a political agenda, but Fox is just more overt about it. And I think that’s unhealthy.
We have had a lot of talk since the Gabby Giffords attempted murder about civility in our national discourse, and I make no connection between the guy who shot those people in Tucson and the national discourse. But it is true that the national discourse is more polarized and strident than it has been in the past, and to some extent, I would lay that at the feet of Rupert Murdoch.