Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Art of Non-fiction

Super smart stuff on literary nonfiction from Tracy Kidder, Pullitzer-winning journalist, who spent an hour with Michael Krasny on KQED-FM's Forum on Wednesday morning.   He touches on everything you need to know about writing -- and reporting -- long-form journalism.  Fantastic tips and insights for (future) magazine writers.  Ahem.

Listen to the interview, or download the podcast, here.  bk

To get it first, to get it right....

... or to get it on camera.  That is the question.

And it all surrounds the bizarre case of Manti Te'o and the reporters who loved him.  Or at least loved his story.

According to the New York Times, ESPN had the story of the inspirational Notre Dame football player who loved, then lost, a girl who didn't exist --  but sat on it.  To get it right?  To get te'o on camera? Or was the decision more complicated?  In any event, while ESPN waited, Deadspin, a sports blog, posted.  Recriminations -- and ethical questions ensued:

For some, the debate within ESPN quickly gave way to regret and reflection. Three ESPN executives interviewed in recent days said they should have published on Jan. 16. The executives, who would not be identified because they did not want to second-guess their organization by name, said that the network’s focus on waiting until getting an interview with Te’o was a mistake. 

“If I had my druthers, we would have run with it,” one executive said. “We’ve had a bunch of discussions internally since then, and I don’t think it will happen this way again. I wonder sometimes if perfection is the enemy of the practical.” 

ESPN has faced considerable skepticism over the years about its ability to aggressively report on potentially embarrassing issues involving the leagues and universities with which it has an array of lucrative broadcast deals. Just days before learning that the Kekua story might be a hoax, ESPN televised Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game before the second-largest audience in cable television history. 

In this instance, there does not seem to be any obvious competing interest that might have blunted ESPN’s vigor in reporting the story. Except, perhaps, the value it attaches to having its subjects on camera. ESPN, as a journalistic matter, said it needed to talk to Te’o. But ESPN, as a competitive broadcaster, also dearly wanted that to happen on camera. Despite its broad expansion into radio, print and digital outlets, ESPN’s greatest strength is built on the power of video.
And so you have to wonder where the ethics play in: Was ESPN trying to get it right?  Trying to stay on the right side of a moneymaking contract?  Or prioritizing the flash -- in this case, an on-camera interview -- instead of the news?  The irony is that Katie Couric rather than ESPN was the one to get Te'o on camera. bk

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Just because you can, should you?

Poynter asks: Do journalists have the right to do whatever they want with public records?

The case in question was the publication by The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y of the names and addresses of local gun owners.  This was in the wake of the Newtown shootings.

The names and addresses were all public record, which is to say -- the information was available for whoever took the time and effort to mine it.  And as with all public records, perfectly legit for reporters to publish.

And yet: just because we have the right to publish something under the First Amendment -- should we?  Where does the ethical reasoning come in?

Many issues to consider, among them the fact that data can be wrong or misleading.  Back to Poynter:

Yes, public records can be obtained by anybody. That’s thanks to public policy decisions that certain government-held knowledge ought to be passively accessible to any individual upon request.
But when a journalist chooses to copy that information, frame it in a certain (inherently subjective) context, and then actively push it in front of thousands of readers and ask them to look at it, he’s taken a distinct action for which he is responsible.
Good data journalists (I talk to some of them below) will tell you that data dumps are not good journalism.
Data can be wrong, misleading, harmful, embarrassing or invasive. Presenting data as a form of journalism requires that we subject the data to a journalistic process.
We should think of data as we think of any source. They give you information, but you don’t just print everything a source tells you, verbatim. You examine the information critically and hold yourself to certain publishing standards — like accuracy, context, clarity and fairness.
There's also the damage that publication can do to an individual.  Thanks to the internet, once you name names, accurate or not, that info never goes away. 

Back to the ethics involved -- should you or shouldn't you? -- Poynter offers a quick checklist down at the bottom of the piece that might help you answer the question.  bk

Friday, January 4, 2013


Legit or not?

Direct from Poynter: The AP recently posted a team photo of Washington's newest class of women lawmakers -- the largest group ever.  The problem:  four of the women were late for the shoot.

Then: Nancy Pelosi's office released the same pix, with one difference.  The four latecomers were photo-shopped into the last row of the photo.

Small quibble, maybe.  But it brings up the whole issue of staged photographs or, for that matter, broadcast retakes when, say, the interviewer or the interviewee stumbles.  Still true -- but is it the truth?  bk

Journalism: not about you

Check what Gawker's Hamilton Nolan has to say about I-journalism -- that's "i" as in first-person, not internet.  He takes to task writer Susan Shapiro, who recently penned an Opinionater piece for the New York Times in which she extolled the virtues of sharing your innermost traumas on the page (or the screen) as the ticket to writerville.

She teaches a class in memoir to 20-year-olds.  She herself has written nine of them.  Her signature assigment is the "humiliation" essay.  She advises her students thus:
The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice, I warn my classes. If you want to be popular with your parents and siblings, try cookbooks.
What Nolan wonders is when reporting became tossed aside in favor of, you know writing.  So do I, if you'll excuse the self-reference.  I also wonder when and why journalism became conflated with first person essays.  Granted, there may be a few 20-year-olds out there with the life experiences of a Frank McCourt or Augusten Burroughs, whose stories definitely merit confessional prose.  But probably not a whole lot of them.

Anyway, Nolan begins:
Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation's college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft. What should we tell them? This, first: journalism is not about you.

Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, has a piece in the New York Times in which she explains that her "signature assignment" for her students is to write an essay confessing their "most humiliating secret"—when asked why, she replies "Because they want to publish essays and sell memoirs." This confessional is good practice for launching all of these 20 year-olds on careers as 21 year-old memoirists and "Modern Love" columnists.
It is tempting to stop here and dismiss Shapiro, the author of nine(!) "first-person books" including three(!) memoirs, as a run-of-the-mill narcissist whose unfortunate students are being molded in her own misguided image. (Quoth the professor, "You have to grab the reader by the throat immediately, which is why I launched my second memoir with the line 'In December my husband stopped screwing me.'") But let us more generously interpret Shapiro's attitude as not a cause, but a symptom—her own honest reading of the state of the professional writing market today. In a way, she is not wrong, although she is also part of the problem.
Nolan ends his piece by suggesting that the biggest problem in teaching first-person-essay-as-journalism is that by focussing on one story -- their own -- young and talented journalists neglect the millions of great stories throughout the world that need to be told.

And, when it comes to journalism, isn't that the point?  bk

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Out with the old...

Check this post from Newspaper Death Watch on Newsweek's final print issue:
With Newsweek set to shut down its print operations today after a 79-year run, the magazine is going out with another of its famously provocative covers. This one shows a 1940s-era photo of the magazine’s logo towering over the Manhattan skyline juxtaposed with a hash tag that represents the 21st century forces that undermined it. It brilliantly contrasts the old- and new-media worlds, and it does it without passing judgement on either (Not everyone agrees with our opinion).

Newsweek isn’t going away. It will continue online and on tablets, with a new global edition planned for February. But the passing of the print edition marks the end of an era when millions of people got their perspective on the week’s news from the the troika of Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report. Only Time is still in print today, and who knows how long that will last?
Also check this HuffPost piece on the print edition of the Orange County Register, which rather than dying, is having a small growth spurt:

It feels like a throwback to an earlier era at the Orange County Register, where a first-time newspaper owner is defying conventional wisdom by spending heavily to expand the printed edition and playing down digital formats.

Aaron Kushner added about 75 journalists and, with 25 more coming, will have expanded the newsroom by half since his investment group bought the nation's 20th-largest newspaper by circulation in July.

Changes also include thicker pages with triple the number of colors to produce razor-sharp photos and graphics. By the end of March, the newspaper will have 40 percent more space than under previous owners, Freedom Communications Inc.

Kushner, 39, believes people will pay for high-quality news. His bet is remarkable in an industry where newspapers have shrunk their way to profits for years, slashing costs while seeking clicks on often-free websites to attract online advertising.
 .. in with the, uh, news? bk