Monthly Archives: June 2009

Summer reading suggestions for journalism students #2

WallaceYesterday I suggested journalism students should read Jeffrey Goldberg’s financial feature “Why I fired my broker” from the May issue of The Atlantic magazine.

But I’m well aware that most student journalists aren’t that keen to write insightful business articles. 

Instead, I’m sure a lot of you want to write witty and amusing columns of your clever observations about life. I don’t blame you. It’s a lot easier: there’s much less research and it’s more fun to produce.

But often these kinds of column are not so much fun to read. If you don’t know what you’re doing, they turn out to be self-indulgent and flabbily written. The columnist is often the only one enjoying themself. Although they seem as if they should be easy, writing a humorous and topical column that actually works is very hard indeed

But some writers do it very well. One is Danny Wallace, who writes for London lifestyle freesheet ShortList on a Thursday.

He should be good at this. He writes for radio and TV, as well as turning out books. More importantly, he’s been writing since he was at school. It takes time and practice, after all.

Why is his self-indulgent humour column worth reading? Mainly, timing and structure.

He has a certain formula – pick a social event and bring out the embarrassing misunderstandings. This piece starts with an old schoolfriend inviting him to meet up and asking if he can “suggest a date”.

They meet with an awkward moment as Wallace goes for the handshake and his friend for the hug – then they head out to dinner, only for it to slowly dawn on Wallace that he’s in a gay restaurant. 

Now we are two men in a dimly lit restaurant inches from each other’s faces, our hands almost touching, lit only by flickering candlelight.

“Well, this is unusual,” I think.

If this were the 1970s, that would be the joke. But because we’re in the 21st century, the humour comes from Wallace’s desperate – and futile – attempts not to say anything offensive. 

And he’s getting more and more worried that “suggest a date” means “suggest a date“. How can he let his friend down gently? 

The faux pas come think and fast. Wallace is so desperate not to seem homophobic that he can’t say anything right. Each time he tries to dig himself out, he digs his hole deeper. 

The finale comes with the farewell. This time, Wallace remembers to hug, but his slightly unnerved friend goes for the handshake. 

I ignore this, and just hold him. Tight. 

“I’ll be back in London soon,” he says, looking a little uncomfortable.

“It’s a date,” I say.

The structure works well – by the end of the evening their roles are reversed and therein lies the humour. The timing is good too – he doesn’t labour things and the punchline is really nicely done.

I’m really not keen on the personal column format – it’s so rarely done well. But I actually make a point of picking up ShortList partly to read its Danny Wallace Is A Man page. If you want to write humour, he’s well worth reading – and stealing from in terms of style (before you develop your own unique voice, obviously). 

The ShortList web site is a bit weird, in that it has its archive of back issues in some electronic reader format rather than HTML. But all the back issues are on the site if you want to trawl through them.

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Summer reading suggestions for journalism students #1

A little while ago, I suggested journalism students should read Raymond Chandler instead of just reading journalism. But I also promised some suggestions for really good journalistic writing to read. (Well, it’s summer, so what better way to relax on the beach?)

I’ve got two suggestions – one, which I’ll look at today, is a great example of lively and interesting business/finance writing.

The other, which I’ll post tomorrow, is a consumer-focused humour column. Each in its own way is difficult to do well, so there are lessons to be learned from them.

The first is from the excellent Atlantic magazine. The Atlantic is always worth looking at, as the standard of its writing is consistently high. It also has one of the better old-media web sites around.

From the May issue comes “Why I fired my broker” by Jeffrey Goldberg. It’s a business story that manages to dissect the failures of Wall Street during the whole subprime mortgage debacle, while also being witty and entertaining.

He sets the tone at the beginning:

Even at its top, my investment portfolio was never anything to write home about. Its saving grace was that it was mine. And I imagined that when we did cash out, at 60 or 65, I would pass my time buying my wife semisubstantial pieces of jewelry and going bass fishing like the men in Flomax commercials.

Well, goodbye to all that. I took a random walk down Wall Street and got hit by a bus.

Wry, self-deprecating – this is personal finance journalism meets financial analysis at its best. He weaves his own story in with the dysfunction and self-interest of Wall Street to explain clearly and succinctly how it all went wrong:

It was more than a decade ago that our first Merrill Lynch adviser put us in a company called Boston Chicken. A Merrill analyst described it as “the restaurant concept of the ’90s.” It went bankrupt in 1998. Only later did I learn that Merrill had underwritten the initial public offering for Boston Chicken stock, and so had an interest in selling the company to its customers.

And there’s a wealth of quirky anecdote here as well. In his quest to find out why Wall Street brokers and money men let down retail investors such as him so badly, Goldberg finds himself interviewing survivalist Cody Lundin in a foot of snow in the mountains of Arizona.

Lundin believes the world of Wall Street and consumer capitalism is a con that traps consumers into a life of debt, and that civilisation is a thin film over the underlying chaos.

Lundin was arguing so cogently against the American culture of easy credit, in tones far more thoughtful than one hears on cable television, that I forgot for a moment that he wasn’t wearing shoes, or socks. He was standing in the snow barefoot. Also, in shorts.

The irony is not lost on Goldberg, and he milks it amusingly.

We’re in a strange moment in American history when a mouse-eating barefoot survivalist in the mountains of Arizona makes more sense than the chief investment strategist of Merrill Lynch.

From all this, the lesson is that Goldberg is a master of comic contrast for serious purpose. There are great comedic moments scattered throughout this piece – he is deft at bringing out character, describing hedge fund manager Bill Ackman as “tall, prematurely gray, and immoderately self-assured, the sort of winning figure who could be elected to the Senate one day, if the country ever decides to stop hating hedge-fund managers”.

At a charity fundraiser, Goldberg asks Ackman where an average investor should do with, say, $200,000. He realises his error when he looks around:

The wizards in the room were having difficulty calculating figures of such humble size. I had thought $200,000 sounded like a large and unembarrassing number. But the room reacted as if I had asked, “Bill, I have 75 cents in my pocket. Do you think I should buy Twizzlers or a big red gumball?”

But it’s easy to write for laughs – the key is to convey the serious information. This piece is full of meat about money, investing, Wall Street and the economic cycle.

Making financial writing readable is a tough gig, but this piece does it fantastically well. If any journalism student – or practising journalist, me included – can do it half as well, they should count themselves lucky.

Finally: if anyone wants to delve deeper into the financial side, try  this other very good financial piece from Condé Nast’s sadly defunct Portfolio magazine on last year’s Wall Street meltdown. Written by Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis, it also manages to bring out all the drama and greed that brought the financial world low while explaining tough financial concepts clearly.

Stand by for lighter reading tomorrow…

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Blogs are dying. Great news for bloggers… and journalism graduates

It seems that “the long tail of blogging is dying”. For those who prefer English to techie jargon, the long tail refers to the millions of blogs with few incoming links, compared to a relatively small number of dominant blogs with many thousands of readers and lots of presence in the wider web. 

But this is actually pretty good news for committed bloggers – and for journalism graduates.

According to the Guardian blog post, blog pingbacks to the paper are declining rapidly and many blogs on the author’s RSS feed had not been updated in 60 days. 

Why? Anecdotally, it seems that people prefer the quicker and easier route of Facebook updates and Twitter notes. 

Writing a blog post is a lot harder than posting a status update, putting a funny link on someone’s Wall, or tweeting. 

So why is this good news for bloggers? 

The same reason, actually. The great thing about the web is that it allows anyone to publish globally for very little outlay. But of course the human element can work against this. Not only do you have to actually want to write and post material online regularly, but you have to actually do it.

This is harder than it appears. I’ve run into the blogger’s brick wall, and I’m sure nearly everyone else does. It’s a bit like exercise – easy to start out with good intentions, but much harder to stick to.

Writing is a muscle too, and it needs a regular workout. Luckily, writing is more interesting than going to the gym (OK, I know I’m biased). But even so, there are times you’ll have to force yourself to do it. 

The upside of this is that it puts you in a similar position to the two people in a forest who meet an angry grizzly bear. To escape, you don’t have to outrun the bear – just the other person. 

If, as Technorati found in 2008, just 5% of the blogs it tracked had been updated in the past 120 days, that means 95% of any blogger’s competition is likely to fall by the wayside. Simply to get in the top 5%, all you need to do is not give up

This means that, if you have anything to say at all, and can say it engagingly, you are likely to do reasonably well.

How heartening is this for journalism? The key point of the argument is not that people aren’t consuming the web, just that they aren’t always up to producing it too – at least in a more substantial form. While access to production is wide open, its usage still depends on individual effort. 

Whether this means there will still be money for journalism is another matter. A natural limit like this does temper my argument that the web tends to raise the supply of content to infinity, but the supply of online content is still vast. 

However, it does suggest that perseverance and ability can still help you build an audience – and, with that, influence. 

In fact, this is a pretty good filter for journalism students. I look at the students I teach, and I can spot immediately the ones who seem to have potential. Not by the quality of their polished prose, but simply by whether they bother to update their blogs or other writing more frequently than when tutors tell them to. 

For journalism graduates this goes double. It’s tough in the industry now for employment, and it’s more tough because of the sheer number of journalism graduates coming off the conveyor belt. 

But the 95:5 rule works here, too. The vast majority of the new journalism graduates will give up at the first hurdle of not being handed a job on a plate simply because they are a “qualified journalist”. More will drift away as the pressure grows to find any old work for real money to pay off their student overdraft. 

To boost your own chances, therefore, you simply have to stay in the game.

  • Pick your chosen specialism and cover it
  • Start early (ie before you graduate. Preferably even before you start college)
  • Keep writing. Regularly. (I know it seems like there’s no time – but try doing it when you have a day job)
  • Get better at it 
  • Take the time to learn about blog design – and pick up some tech skills

When you graduate, you should aim to have a two- or three-year blog as part of your portfolio that shows (a) your commitment to journalism and (b) your ability to get your head down and meet deadlines. 

It will also be a very useful grounding in all the stuff about building an audience and driving traffic that will be part of a journalist’s skillset in the coming years.

There’s a certain amount of box-ticking that goes on in media HR departments now that means entry-level staff are required to have some kind of graduate qualification in journalism. I think this is wrong – as do editors of my acquaintance – but, hey, you can’t change everything.

But once you have that piece of paper, your CV and experience count for a hell of a lot more with the editors who will employ you.  They really don’t care whether you got a 2:1 in your degree. Show your mettle and present them with a decent, long-running and interesting blog or web site, and they will be much more likely to give you your break into the industry. 

[HT: Paul Bradshaw – who says he is blogging less these days. Maybe there’s an opening there?]

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Calling new journalism graduates

FleetStreetBlues is offering a fantastic opportunity to blog about your search to find work in the journalism business for no money at all

But you do get, you know, exposure. Go on, give it a go…

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Print versus online journalism – the view from Belgium

Here’s a very interesting post by, of all things, a Belgian linguistic researcher, about the differences between print and online journalism.

I like its academic slant (something which often puts me off), as it actually helps to illuminate the murky way that news journalism is constructed and then passed off as something whole and authoritative. 

Often web content (news, semi-news, rehashed news, comment, vitriol etc) is condemned by “real” journalists for being a mess. But Tom Van Hout points out the hidden intervention that conceals exactly the same process going on in the print newsroom. 

In essence, he is saying that print journalism shares a lot of the so-called failings of web journalism, but is much less transparent about it. Or, more crudely:

The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit-show that is actual news production is hidden away.

[Update: in the spirit of process journalism, Tom Van Hout reminds me that the quote is not directly his, but is from a post by Cody Brown on similar topics. My fault for blurring Tom’s post with his authorship. I was a bit sloppy, in other words…]

I also really liked this quote [which is from Tom]. Comparing the process of journalism with sausage-making, Van Hout says:

Online, ‘readers’ can see how the sausage is being made and promptly start making sausages themselves. This inevitably leads to discussions about sausage making.

In essence, his point is that online journalism is about process, not the perfect finished object. And that authority evolves online – through a kind of peer review of linkage and comments.

This view of the web as mutable and living very much chimes with how I see journalism (content/services) evolving to meet technological, and social, change. 

There’s a link to a very good account of process journalism here, which is referred to in the Tom Van Hout blog. In it, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington outlines how the site often uncovers the truth of a story by an iterative process that sees foggy rumour crystallise into hard news over time – something that print media outlets are often loath to allow. 

Crucially, for all the critics who say that underfunded or volunteer web journalism can never compete with the professionalism of the print newsroom, the process of process journalism also drives the uncovering of truth. 

The fact is that we sometimes can’t get to the end story without going through this process. CEOs don’t always take our calls when we’re asking about speculative rumors. But when a story is up and posted, it’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to give us additional information.

It’s a new environment, and I’m sure there are kinks to be ironed out. But while the new world of web journalism will be fragmented and lack the instant authority of old-style media, it has a real future – despite, or perhaps because of, the web’s perceived limitations.

[HT: Bill Bennett]

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Handy guide to better writing

Bill Bennett’s Knowledge Workers blog is running an ongoing series of posts on better writing. Today’s offering suggests why short sentences are only best up to a point, and why you need variation in your writing to help it develop an engaging rhythm.

It follows others that cover journalistic staples such as the inverted pyramid, writing for the web and other worthwhile advice on style and substance.

This is the kind of thing that is always worth checking out, especially for journalism students and graduates.

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Bloggers and anonymity

Shocking though it is to say, as I’m not a huge Guardian fan, The Guardian‘s comment on the unmasking of a police blogger by The Times is spot on.

Crucially, Guardian digital content director Emily Bell recognised The Times‘s move was:

No surprise given that old publishing models benefit from restriction rather than spread of information.

Here is the core of the issue. Newspapers – those great bastions of democracy and human rights – are elitist at best and repressive at worst. 

The whole drive of digital publishing is towards free access to global media for almost everyone (at least in the industrialised world).

You don’t have to have money or influence in order to report or comment on your corner of the world – or anyone else’s. You can fire up a blog, or upload video, or simply Twitter what you want to whatever audience you can develop.

And the old-style media hates it. 

I was taken to task by journalism professor Tim Luckhurst for commenting “anonymously” on his university journalism site (ie in my web identity as Freelance Unbound).

Yet if I had come to him with a whistleblowing story, I would have relied on him to protect my anonymity as a source. 

But of course, the problem with the new digital media model is that people are increasingly both the source of stories and those who report them. 

So how do old-style newspapers respond?

In unmasking police blogger Nightjack, The Times caused two things to happen. First, his blog has been pulled. And, second, Nightjack himself was disciplined by his employer. That’s great – thanks old media. I’m really glad you’re on my side.

This isn’t a popular stance, of course. Even some fellow members of the blogging community seem to agree that blogging anonymously shouldn’t be protected by law. The good folk at FleetStreetBlues argued that “it is a decision which is good for journalism”, for example – though they blog anonymously themselves.

But the problem is that journalism is in the midst of dramatic technological change that is changing the relationship between the media, its consumers (let’s call them citizens) and government. 

The old idea that it’s the role of crusading newspapers to expose corruption and wrongdoing is largely a fantasy. MPs’ expenses aside, papers are mostly full of celebrities and entertainment. 

But now whistleblowing citizens can publish direct to the web, bypassing the media gatekeepers. And I think that’s great. 

Yes – you’ll get a whole load of prejudice, ill-informed ranting and bad writing. But you don’t have to go far in what used to be Fleet Street to find that, too.

The flip side is that, in a society that is increasingly watched, recorded, monitored and controlled by the government and its various agencies, the right to privacy is increasingly bound up with civil liberty. 

It’s a tough issue. One of the things that ubiquitous digital communication brings with it is ubiquitous exposure online. Just ask the people who live their lives on Facebook and Flickr. 

Which is why newspapers, rather than pursuing their old-style self-interest in exposing information for their own gain, might serve the public interest better by protecting our privacy – and our ability to publish anonymously – a bit more. 

[Hat tip: Bristol Editor]

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