Apologies for being scarce recently — I was hurtling towards deadline on a book. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and write books for Lucasfilm’s licensees. Which is a good introduction to this post.
For the first time in my adult career, I’m a free agent with no immediate plans to take up a permanent position somewhere. I’m trying to make a living by writing, editing, and helping people think through their strategies for journalism and social media. (If I can help you, drop me a line.) As many a freelancer before me has discovered, it’s simultaneously a frightening and exhilarating life.
Am I cut out for this life? I’m not sure yet. But I do know that for more and more journalists and writers, this is the future. I’ve preached and warned as much on this blog. And so it behooves me to figure out how to make my way in that world as best I can, as soon as I can.
If you’re a journalist (or any other kind of writer), the days of being an artist insulated from the business considerations of what you do are over. You can no longer afford that kind of blissful, basic ignorance. And unless you’re a very lucky journalist or writer, the days of being able to make a career doing just one thing are either over or numbered. You can’t afford not to diversify, or at least to think hard about how you’d do so if you had to.
My path to learning both these lessons began accidentally. In late 2004 and early 2005 I found that blogging — then the stuff of revolutionary talk — kept finding its way into Real Time, the technology column I wrote for The Wall Street Journal Online. I realized that my columns would be better if I wrote a blog for a month or so, and so my friend Greg Prince and I started up a blog about the New York Mets, which we christened Faith and Fear in Flushing. My idea was that we’d keep the blog up through spring training — experience enough for making future columns better-informed.
At the time, despite nearly a decade as a Web guy, I had internalized some unfortunate ivory-tower attitudes that more typically afflict print reporters. How many readers read my columns and how they reacted to them was something for people elsewhere in the building to worry about — I was a thinker and a writer, and thinkers and writers didn’t have to dirty their hands with traffic numbers. The first month of co-writing Faith and Fear erased that mindset forever: I saw our numbers every day, and I sifted through them for clues about why one post connected with readers and another one didn’t. Instead of seeing myself as part of a monolithic entity, I was singing for my supper. That taught me the foolishness of being a veal calf about my own business, and immediately made me a better columnist. (As an added bonus, writing without an editor forced me to get a lot better at proofreading my own work and scrutinizing its arguments and structure.)
Now that I’m on my own, I’m learning to take this a step further by crunching numbers and evaluating whether potential projects pay the bills, might lead to other projects that will, or don’t make economic sense. (One of my to-dos is to put ads on the baseball blog, still going strong after nearly five years.) I have a lot to learn, but at least I’m a long way from the veal pen — and I know I’ll never go back into it.
Faith and Fear was also my first real step into diversifying what I do. From there, I began writing Star Wars books for publishers such as DK, Del Rey and Penguin. While working for EidosMedia I began writing this blog — and am keeping it up now that I’m on my own. I accepted an invitation to write a weekly column about sportswriting and new media for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, building on co-writing and editing the Daily Fix for WSJ.com and my experiences as a Mets blogger. I write other articles on a freelance basis. I’m an editor-for-hire. I work as a consultant.
That’s a lot of different things, and makes for busy days and nights. I don’t know which of these various mini-businesses will prove profitable, which new ones I’ll enjoy, or what I’ll do when profit and enjoyment get out of sync. I don’t know what new things I’ll add to the mix. I don’t know if the entirety of what I do will bring in enough money to pay for food and clothes and doctoring and my kid’s schooling and my half of the mortgage and hopefully the occasional Mets game, dinner out and day at the beach. I don’t know that keeping records and crunching numbers and negotiating deals will ever feel natural to me, or get done without gritted teeth.
But I do know that this is the reality for most writers these days. And since for better or worse writing is my calling, I need to learn to get along in that world instead of wasting time in wistful thought about what being a writer used to be. The days of being a veal calf are over, and the one-trick ponies were last seen being herded into the same truck that took away the veal calves.
Over at his editor’s blog for the Greensboro News & Record, John Robinson laments the disconnect between quirky newsrooms and the often-dull news they produce: “One of the great journalism paradoxes is that newspaper people are a whole lot of fun, newspaper Web sites aren’t. Newsrooms are full of prankers, jokers and larger than life characters. Yet, we tend to take our news content seriously…often ponderously so. Too often we squeeze the humorous life out of what we produce.”
I earned my Web-journalist spurs at the Wall Street Journal Online in the mid-1990s, when it was a small, scrappy newsroom-within-a-newsroom, an experiment conducted (and viewed with varying degrees of enthusiasm) within the traditional confines of the print Journal. We dot-commers were serious about our mission, and keenly aware that we were representing the Journal in a new medium then viewed as not generally living up to its standards. Yet for all that we also had an enormous amount of fun. The news desk was populated by characters — bitingly funny, canny journalism veterans and newcomers who were quick studies — and the news cycle was a never-ending, free-spirited conversation and debate about motivation, agendas, spin, market reaction, politics, posturing and everything else. It was cynical and savage, sometimes, but almost always informed and wise. When big news broke and I wasn’t in the newsroom I felt cheated — the conversation was going on without me and I was left out.
One of the things that most excited me about blogs’ acceptance in mainstream journalism was the idea that some of that conversation could be captured — that a less formal setting would allow some of that personality to come through instead of being sanded away by caution and copy editing. Sometimes that’s proved true and sometimes it’s hasn’t; these days, Twitter is the vehicle by which you get some sense of journalists as raconteurs and wits and thinkers. Either way, it’s welcome.
My formative experience at WSJ.com — which I hadn’t realized how much I missed until I wrote the paragraph above — came on the heels of another such experience, the last time I really identified myself as part of a community centered around a daily print paper. Living in Bethesda, Md., in the early 1990s I read the Washington Post every day, and the section I loved best (and dreamed of working for) was the Style section. The Style section offered a lot of terrific, finely crafted journalism, but it also felt like the daily minutes of a strange and wonderful club. There was a rollicking glee to the writing, with off-the-wall story ideas turned (usually successfully or at least interestingly) into long-form stories, biting commentary and an enormous amount of humor — from dry, sophisticated fare to lampshade-on-the-head goofiness. The section was full of in-jokes and running gags, but it never felt exclusionary — you could become a member of the club just by continuing to show up.
I haven’t been in WSJ.com’s newsroom in some time, so I don’t know if the news desk is still an entertaining free-for-all. I sure hope it is. But I still love the Style section for Gene Weingarten and Tom Shales and Robin Givhan and its other sharp, smart writers. I love reading what the baseball beat writers I follow on Twitter say when their brains get a little frazzled by the mad spectacle of the winter meetings. I like the twinkle in the eye you can sense when reading the tweets of ColonelTribune, the Chicago Tribune’s Twitter persona.
There’s still fun to be had in journalism — and like Robinson, I’d love to see it given freer rein. And I think within the bounds of responsibility, readers would respond to it as well. The torrent of information generated by countless publishers new and old produces an enormous amount of disorienting noise; within that, personality stands out as welcome signal.
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My latest sportswriting column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at the coverage of Tiger Woods’ travails, and ponders how online news organizations might handle stories they think are beneath their journalistic standards, but are being discussed by an audience that’s read all the gossip.
The New York Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, isn’t one to pull punches, as his thorough hiding of TV critic Alessandra Stanley made more than plain earlier this summer. Over the weekend, he took up the case of tech columnist David Pogue, whom he introduces as “a high-energy, one-man multimedia conglomerate.” (For the record, I’m a fan of Pogue’s.)
Pogue writes a weekly column, blog entries, an email newsletter and produces videos for the Times. He also makes regular TV and radio appearances, gives lectures and is a featured attraction on geek-focused Caribbean cruises. And he writes help books about tech products — often the same products he reviews in the Times. For instance, Pogue recently reviewed Snow Leopard, the new Mac operating system, and has written two “Missing Manuals” for the OS. (Pogue was already writing tech-help books when the Times hired him in 2000.)
Hoyt asked three journalism ethicists if that was a conflict of interest, and they all said it was. But they didn’t agree about how to solve it. Meanwhile, Hoyt polled people inside the building about activities such as Pogue’s (numerous other Times writers make a great deal of money from other interests) and reports — in a typically dry turn of phrase — that “with what seems a mixture of resignation and sensed opportunity, editors say The Times can be enhanced by all the outside activity.”
This isn’t just a dilemma for the New York Times: As David Pogue goes, so will many a journalist who wants to be able to keep paying the bills.
Nobody likes to say it, but lots of papers’ best writers have been “one-man multimedia conglomerates” for years — and like stars everywhere, they got to blur rules and trample guidelines. Back then, though, less-established writers had few outlets for outside work — the rules applied mainly because they were enforced by technological limitations.
Now, things are different: Writers can blog, record podcasts, shoot video on their own — and promote all this through their own efforts. This has spurred the rise of more and more independent contractors like Pogue, for whom a newspaper gig is just one of many writing outlets and ways of making a living. It’s led junior writers to regard the old rules with a mixture of bafflement and disdain: Why spend years covering City Council meetings or high-school sports when you can have your own blog about politics or pro football up and running in minutes?
And to this volatile mix, one more incendiary has been added: the precarious health of newspapers.
Early in my career, I got to tag along at a working lunch with my managing editor and an old friend of his who was starting up a new journalistic venture. They were going over the qualifications one would want from job candidates when my editor’s friend shook his head, smiling. What was more important, he said, was finding “people who are on fire for the Lord.”
I loved that line, and it served me well when my tasks came to include assessing job candidates. But I fear it now describes a bygone era — in ours, even the most-devout worshipper may find the church empty and its doors shut. I hate to say it, but it’s no longer realistic to expect new journalists to give everything they have to their newspaper, or to subordinate themselves to the paper and its brand. The compact that once applied has been broken by buyouts and layoffs and papers eliminating all positions and inviting former employees to reapply for new positions that pay much less, and by the technological and business uncertainty of where newspapers are heading and if they can get there. A wise journalist now hedges his or her bets, takes care of his or her own brand, and isn’t inclined to wait patiently for opportunities that may never arrive.
I’ve written before about the possibility of a new compact: one in which journalists are “micro-brands” within the paper, tackling the expanded duties of chatting and shooting video and beatblogging (and thus creating new contexts for attracting and keeping readers) in return for a higher public profile and some portable brand equity. But that’s just half of it: Papers also have to face the reality that not only established but also new writers will want to pursue outside opportunities, whether their goal is to make more money, build their brands or just scratch a creative itch.
Would that have been anathema not so long ago? Sure. But given newspapers’ current situation, not allowing writers such chances will just accelerate their exodus from the industry — or stop them from working for newspapers in the first place.
I think the Times responded to Hoyt’s questions the right way, by improving the disclosures Pogue makes to readers about his outside activities, code of ethics and books he’s writing. This is welcome, but not hugely surprising: The Times’s policy on outside activities is already both progressive and wise, in my opinion.
But what all papers need to realize is how many Pogues they will soon have within their ranks. Forbidding young writers from outside activities will no longer work. Instead, papers have to give them guidance that allows them the freedom they’ll demand, while making sure that freedom neither detracts from the paper’s needs nor hurts its name.
Over at Poynter, Matt Thompson has some interesting thoughts (slightly changed from an earlier appearance at Newsless.org) about the traditional news story and how it fails readers. Thompson argues, using the current health-care furor as his example, that a news story has four key parts: what just happened; the longstanding facts; how journalists know what they know; and the things we don’t know. Unfortunately, most stories appearing in the paper leave out the last three key parts, or stuff the longstanding facts into a single paragraph low in the story. All we get is the wildly spinning weather vane of what just happened.
It’s an approach that touches a lot of issues bubbling beneath the surface. From the perspective Thompson explores, for instance, you can easily see why speechifying and trial balloons and endless spin are so effective: With the underlying story rarely explored, different sides of an issue only have to win the day’s news cycle and keep the weather vane spinning.
So what are Thompson’s proposed solutions? For the question of how we know what we know, he offers up this excellent Atul Gawande story about health care from the New Yorker. Gawande, he notes, structures his story as a quest narrative: He begins the story looking for answers, and lets us follow along with him as he tries to find those answers from Texas doctors and health-care experts. It’s indeed a winning form, for a number of reasons. For one thing it’s transparent. Gawande doesn’t begin claiming to be an expert but gradually reveals his expertise and experiences — he’s a medical doctor himself, and he shares a frightening anecdote about an injury to his infant son that’s not entirely to his credit. The quest narrative also makes us root for him — we want to find out the answers too, so when Gawande runs across a plain-talking cardiac surgeon who helps make things clearer, we share his satisfaction. (On the subject of tackling what we don’t know, Thompson passes along a very fine explainer from Politifact, which neatly lays out what’s yet to be decided in the health-care debate.)
It’s an interesting discussion; my question is how newspapers can put some of the potential answers into practice. Background explainers, topic pages and the like are becoming increasingly common in newspapers, and when they’re done well — which is to say, written and curated by an actual human being — they can be quite effective. The New York Times is particularly good at this — here’s the Times’s topic page on health-care reform. I rarely run across good, clear-eyed explainers about what isn’t known, like the Politifact article, and agree they’d be terrific additions to news coverage. (Martin Langeveld has explored similar territory in calling for a “content cascade” of news.)
But how do we integrate these things with the ephemeral news of the day? In my early days at WSJ.com, I specialized in rewrites of breaking news to add context drawn from the Journal archives — an attempt to address the problem Thompson explores. (Or at least part of it.) But I’m not sure how successful my lovingly detailed rewrites were — they tended to turn every story into a wannabe goat-choker. The Times’s topic page is quite good, but just try and reach it from this health-care story. (Go on. I double-dog dare you.) Topic pages, explainers, wikis and content cascades are excellent tools that could put ephemeral news stories into a larger context, but they won’t work if they’re afterthoughts in the presentation of a story, only reached by the lucky few who find the correct link in a sea of blue type. For me, the key point here is the need to experiment with new ways to use basic news stories to drive readers to the larger narratives that give them more-useful information.
And, of course, not every news story can be a quest narrative: Gawande’s Texas adventures are compelling, but your City Council reporter doesn’t have the time or space for a quest narrative, and readers would probably want to kill him if he tried it. I think the lesson here is to let reporters and writers be real people. Let readers see them through video and hear them through podcasts. Have them interact with readers through discussions and social media. Get them to offer further expertise and background through beatblogging. Be transparent and real, and perhaps their larger beats can become quest narratives, with the reader along for the ride.
A while back, I touched on my belief that greater transparency in newsroom processes (within responsible boundaries) would make readers think more highly of their newspapers, not less.
This can be a hard sell in journalism, where transparency can run counter to deeply held ideas about how the craft ought to be practiced: Fair, accurate and professional work emerges from a rigorous process of interviews, research, testing hypotheses, fact-checking and editing, with false starts and dead ends and mistakes excised before publication. From a more-practical perspective, there’s the old saw that if you want to keep eating sausage, you’re better off not seeing how it’s made.
But by keeping the workings of the sausage factory secret, we allow readers to fill in the blanks in ways that are inaccurate, unfair and unhelpful to our profession. Take the question of motive. Talking to newspaper readers or getting their opinions through comments or other forums, I was often disturbed by their certainty that reporters and columnists approached every story with a preset agenda, and that agenda had been dictated by the paper. To be sure, I worked for the Wall Street Journal Online, and a lot of people incorrectly assumed (sometimes approvingly, sometimes not) that the Journal’s legendarily conservative editorial page also dictated the paper’s news coverage. But it wasn’t just politics at work: Many a story was viewed as part of some larger campaign waged by press barons.
A few years ago, I wrote a “Real Time” column wondering how booksellers on Amazon made money selling books for a penny. It was a fun column to research and write, and it left me simultaneously impressed by the doggedness of booksellers who actually made money this way and struck by the irony that for many of them, penny books weren’t a business model but an unintended and unwelcome consequence of a business model.
After the column ran, I was directed to a raging discussion of the article and the larger issue on a message board reserved for Amazon sellers. “It now seems the WSJ is placing blame on AMAZON and ebay for this problem of USED books causing a final depression in overall book market for publishers and authors,” one seller wrote, adding that “they must be getting letters from Authors, etc. claiming foul play. Industry conventions must have this problem of depressing prices by self motivated book sellers as a number one topic.”
Wrote another poster: “The WSJ can be very sneaky, and is probably exposiing these sellers motivation by letting these less than humble people dig their own graves. This is better than Desperate Housewifes. Now I have to go to the library everyday to catch the next WSJ -vs- the used book business episode. The future of the USED book business is being played out in the WSJ – how fun is that.”
It was briefly a thrill to imagine myself as a secret agent in a clandestine war within the publishing industry, except I knew what my agenda for the column had been, and it wasn’t quite so lofty. In fact, it was the same one that motivated me every week: to have a column. Sure, I was happy that the story had turned out to be intriguing and proud that the column was pretty good, but mostly I was relieved that I had a couple of days to recharge before looking for the next column. And that was it. I hadn’t been summoned to some Dow Jones star chamber and given marching orders, or briefed by a shadowy cabal of publishing titans. My life wasn’t that interesting; I’d sat and typed and emailed and talked on the phone and tried not to procrastinate too horribly and hoped the story would work.
This isn’t to say reporters and papers can’t have agendas, of course — our most-dangerous biases are the ones we can’t see. But in this case the agenda and the motive were figments of paranoid booksellers’ imaginations. Mostly that was because they saw everything through their own narrow lens. But part of the problem was that news organizations were so closed. My column, like nearly all newspaper stories, “stood for itself.” And that helped imaginations run wild.
So how would a more-transparent process have changed things? Before the column came out, perhaps not much — for competitive reasons, I doubt I would have announced what I was working on. But later, a lively give-and-take with readers in a variety of settings might have made things different. (My co-writer and I offered a weekly roundup of edited emails called “Real Time Exchange,” and I did write a follow-up column after hearing from a bookseller who made a lot of money selling penny books. But the dialogue was a lot closer to letters to the editor than to a true discussion.)
If I wrote the Amazon column today, I certainly would have tweeted it, shared it on Facebook and hoped that it sparked an interesting debate among readers — readers whom I’d try to make part of a community around my column. Today, I’d figure out a way to post to the Amazon seller boards — in 2005 I was still caught up in the mentality that journalism was something orated from the mountain to readers, instead of a conversation. And I hope I’d see the column as part of an ongoing story, one that had begun long before I offered my take on it, and would need to be chronicled afterwards.
As part of those efforts, readers would have got a sense of me as a person and not just a mysterious byline. They would have learned what stories interested me and what topics I like to explore. And they probably would have guessed that no self-respecting star chamber would admit me.