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Who conceived of an alcohol-smuggling device that doubles as a Wonderbra?

I now realize that if I watched morning TV talk shows, I might have seen Kathie Lee Gifford plug it on her show, but until a catalog arrived at the office this week I would not have believed such a thing as the Wine Rack existed. Inside of it are a couple of plastic bags for holding wine, and attached to them is a plastic tube so you can drink your (body-temperature) wine at “the movies, concerts, ball games – anywhere you can imagine,” the catalog says.

We get a lot of mail at the office that is addressed to people who haven’t worked here in many years. Last year there was one addressed to a man who hasn’t worked here since 1988.

Most of it is public-relations materials, but now and then a catalog comes, usually an office-supply catalog.

But this one was more of a lifestyle catalog. What kind of lifestyle it targets is a little hard to figure out. On the one hand, there are a lot of outdoor-living items, such as a mulcher, an electric chainsaw and some outdoor fireplaces. There are some kitchen items, like a pizza oven, a hot dog cooker and an egg cooker. There are things for the serious tailgater, such as an easy-traveling, three-basket deep fryer. There are hunting and fishing items, household storage items, picnic tables and patio heaters.

Then there is the Wine Rack – but that’s not all.

There is a gun for shooting flies. A gun. You load it with table salt, and allegedly when you fire at the fly, the salt crystals speed through the air like so much miniature buckshot.

There is a thing called a Beer Pager, a koozie for the forgetful drinker who keeps misplacing his beer. The koozie has an electronic base, and there is a companion button you keep in your pocket. When you can’t locate your beer, you pull out the button, press it, and the koozie’s base lights up and “unleashes a satisfying burp” so you can locate the beer – “even through walls!”

Don’t have time to go to a barbershop? There’s Robocut, essentially a vacuum cleaner attached to electric hair clippers. Just run it over your scalp and it will both trim your hair and suck up the clippings.

But perhaps my favorite item is the Off-Road Commode. It’s a camouflage toilet seat that attaches to a trailer hitch, which makes a lot of sense for camping. Dig a hole, back up the truck to it and you have an instant latrine.

But be careful. As the catalog notes, “Not for use when vehicle is in motion.”

Sometimes I just want a big, heavy stick to hit people in the head with. I’d call it my “You didn’t invent this” stick.

I would use it when I heard some (usually younger) person lamenting some condition of humankind that strikes him as a revelation, as though he found the New World, when all he really is doing is describing to you the exact same thing you went through a decade or two earlier – because everyone goes through it.

I felt a need for such a stick when reading what a couple of people who have worked in online media companies recently had to say about how the Internet has really gone downhill since back in the day when it was a simply fabulous way to get information.

“I began my media career about seven years ago as an unabashed internet enthusiast,” David Sessions wrote in an essay in late August on Patrolmag.com that reads like the lament of a late-career curmudgeon (and I won’t even get started on the issue of whether you can describe seven years as a career). “… By then, the internet had already provided me an outlet for various creative pursuits for years, and I saw nothing but the opportunity to escape some of traditional journalism’s worst constraints.”

In an interview in May at a conference called New York Ideas, Choire Sicha – who all of five long years ago co-founded The Awl, a popular current-events and culture blog – was less specific about his “early” Internet use, but the implication of all he said was that once upon a time, the Internet did nothing but bring untold riches of powerful writing to his digital doorstep. There was no end of interesting things to read.

Alas, no more.

“I do not read a lot of things anymore,” Sicha said. “A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that.”

Sessions felt no better, but there’s a funny thing about his description of so much that is wrong with the Internet:

“Where once the internet media landscape was populated with publications that all had unique visual styles, traffic models, and editorial voices, each one has mission-creeped its way into a version of the same thing: everybody has to cover everything, regardless of whether (or) not they can add any value to the story, and has to scream at you to stand out in the avalanche of ‘content’ gushing out of your feeds.”

You could take that description and swap most of it out with what people said back in the ‘80s and ’90s about pack journalism and the push for short news stories and splashy graphics in American newspapers, especially those owned by Gannett or any others influenced by USA Today, which itself was influenced by how information was presented on television.

It takes a narrow scope to believe that some Golden Age of Reading began on the Internet, or that the evolution or devolution of reading habits didn’t begin until the past five years instead of, if you could go back and ask your great-great-grandparents, a hundred years ago, or further back yet.

What Sicha and Sessions said was true, but in a larger sense it has always been true, and there is an old saying for it: The world is going to hell in a handbasket.

You didn’t invent this experience, I want to yell at them, though I would also point out that each of them had a hand in inventing the current, digital incarnation of the handbasket. Neither of them appears to recognize this.

Sessions, in fact, seems to need a double-whack with a stick.

“I never read print newspapers or magazines devotedly,” he wrote in the first paragraph of his lament about how unsettled he is by changes in how people use Internet media, “so I never experienced unsettling changes in habits the way many people have as they transitioned primarily to digital reading in the past decade.”

Let’s be clear about this: The media platforms being discussed here may be different, but the unsettled nature of change is eternal and recognizes no boundaries, whether physical or digital. Before the unsettling change of digital news came the unsettling change of the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable TV news, which came after the unsettling change of the country’s once-dominant afternoon newspapers either switching to morning delivery or going out of business after losing out to morning papers, which coincided with the disappearance of two-newspaper cities, none of which were the first of the unsettling changes.

The problem isn’t that, as Sicha said and Sessions echoed, “something’s wrong” with the Internet. There is something wrong, though: humans. We are the reason we can’t have nice things.

Afternoon papers went away because people’s schedules changed, and morning papers then seemed more convenient. People’s schedules kept changing, and print circulation began declining for decades before the Internet arrived because even morning papers eventually came to be seen by some as not convenient – there was no time to read anymore, and the pile of unread papers was both a bother and a reminder that once upon a time there was a thing called leisure that involved reading. When the Internet came along, and especially when it moved onto phones, that became more convenient still. But what many people have decided they want that mobile Internet for is time-wasting, mindless crap to fill the minutes-long gaps in their day or to relieve their stress, something to distract them, not something to make them think, so that’s the kind of thing that becomes profitable.

“People are coming to news and entertainment content by lazy phone clicking,” Sicha said. “So we’re bored, we’re looking at our phones. We’re lonely, we’re looking at our phones. And so whatever weird portal you’re going through, then you’re clicking through to things from there.”

And this isn’t the first time that happened. In the early days of television, some thought that TV would be the way to bring fine arts to the masses. Go to your TV now and find an opera or Broadway play. I’ll wait.

Think the Internet will get better someday? In 1961, FCC chairman Newton N. Minow called television programming a “vast wasteland” – and that was four years before “My Mother the Car.” Television had yet to sink to the era of the Kardashians and “Fear Factor.”

“Something’s wrong”? Only us. We say we want to eat healthy vegetables, but we’ll go for the candy when no one is looking. Seeing that, the folks who make money off what we like will constantly pivot. If you see something you like, buy it, or tomorrow it may be gone.

“The only thing that is constant is change,” a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus wrote about 2,500 years ago, probably right after someone complained that reading on papyrus just doesn’t deliver the same tactile pleasure as reading from a leather scroll.

Editors do more than edit

Am I necessary?

I am an editor, and the main thing I do every day is change (a little or a lot) what other people have written. That’s not all I do, but that’s the part that other people seem to focus on, such as in discussion of changes like the ones under way in Gannett to reduce the ranks of editors.

Writing for Gawker, Hamilton Nolan seems to make the case that editors do nothing but hurt the writing they touch and make it worse. I’ve heard that before, indirectly. A reporter of mine about 15 years ago was working at the General Assembly in Raleigh, talking casually with other reporters, and the subject of editors came up. One said that he had never written a story that was improved by an editor. Others agreed. My reporter said she didn’t agree, and when talking to me she actually sounded stunned, and saddened, that the sentiment was so widespread.

I wasn’t that surprised.

It’s true that if you are a really good writer, the odds that your editor will improve your writing by much are small.

But it’s also true that if you think you are a really good writer whose work is so good it doesn’t need editing at all, you’re probably wrong. You might be right, but the odds are against it, partly because you probably are not as good as you think and partly because even good writers have blind spots and weaknesses – and if they are lucky, they are aware of that and seek someone else’s perspective.

As an editor, working with a good writer is a pleasure not because there is nothing to do at the end of the day but because from morning to evening you get to focus on what can elevate that person’s work. Maybe that’s in the writing or an angle of the reporting, but maybe it’s in the headline, the presentation, the art, a sidebar that can be drawn from a small but interesting element in the story.

One of the best reporters I ever worked with knew he needed an editor for one simple reason: He couldn’t stop himself. He would write 40 inches of copy because he felt the need to write everything he gathered, but he knew the average reader would never plow through it. Some editors couldn’t trim his stories well. He thought I did and that I made them better. He also liked to have a trusted ear to bounce ideas off of, someone who could challenge them or add to them.

Some of the most important work an editor does is editing the idea for a story, which happens in talking with a reporter about the story before or during the reporting process. I would hope this is not the “looking over their shoulder” that Gannett feels its papers no longer need, but it sure sounds like the part that “listening” to readers and data will replace.

In truth, a good editor – like a good reporter – is always listening to readers, whether or not corporate says to, with whatever tools are available. The question isn’t whether listening is good, it’s what do you mean by “listening.” If it’s, “Stories about neglected dogs get a lot of traffic and comments,” and the intention at corporate is to then produce a lot more stories about neglected dogs, then that isn’t a helpful definition of listening. If the intention instead would be to look seriously not only at neglect but at the issues surrounding, contributing to and spinning off of it, that could be a good thing.

And maybe that will be what Gannett’s “content editors” do — Kate Marymont, Gannett’s VP of news, told CJR’s Ryan Chittum: “We certainly are not looking for clickbait. We’re not trying to drive empty clicks. We’re trying to build loyal returning customers by giving content we know they want by following over period of time.” — which would make the elimination of assignment editors just another bit of corporate double-talk to justify cutting the editing ranks.

But whatever you call it, can fewer editors improve more reporters’ storytelling skills across platforms? It doesn’t seem likely.

Coaching is actually more time-consuming than simple editing. That’s why any discussion of coaching usually starts at the assigning stage. If you are going to coach-up someone’s storytelling skills, that person has to enter the reporting process with a sense of what exactly he or she is after; otherwise the coach can only point out after the fact what would have been nice to have so that next time the reporter gets it.

No, by sharply cutting editors to maintain reporting strength the calculation clearly is that content by itself is the main value and that the value-added benefit of most editing is, considering continuing decreases in advertising revenue, expendable; that you have to maintain your content level, but you have to cut expenses, so you keep the content-creators and cut those who enhance it. Then you hope that whatever errors and omissions result don’t undercut too seriously the perceived value of your product.

This line of thinking would be equivalent to a furniture company keeping the factory workers who produce the furniture but no longer selling it stained and finished; it’s still sturdy furniture, just as well made, but more raw. (The thinking is incorrect, because editors do some of the furniture making, not just the polishing, but that would be the equivalent.)

And to some extent, especially in larger markets, that kind of thinking may work out for a while.

But good writers (or content creators) do not just appear in a publication’s newsroom like driftwood carried in on the tide. If they did, no one would need editors at all. Someone hires them. And while some very good writers may truly believe their talent is self-evident to all, that would tell me they haven’t spent enough time around people who don’t know good writing when they see it.

Thinning the ranks of editors necessarily increases the dependence on the talent-evaluation skills of whoever is left.

All the way around, it’s a thinner margin for error.

Ideally, that higher dependence on more talented individuals – each reporter standing more on his or her own, each of the remaining editors or coaches responsible for that much more – should translate into higher pay in order to retain and reward those who are capable of maintaining quality in a more high-stakes environment.

But it won’t. Don’t get me started on that.

UPDATE 8/25/14: From a related post by Ken Doctor:

“Sure, we can add in coaching — mentoring has always been a key ingredient in the best newsroom cultures. Coaching and editing, though, don’t equate, especially in newsrooms increasingly populated by underpaid, relatively inexperienced younger journalists. Even as we recognize the value of the more amorphous community intelligence, and attempt to add it to the news report, greatly diminishing editorial intelligence is a recipe for disaster — and business failure.

Perusing news of yesteryear

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That became evident to me recently as I examined, out of curiosity, some of the earliest news reports in the Caldwell County Public Library’s collection that you can find from the Lenoir, N.C., area, from the weekly Caldwell Messenger, which began publication in September 1875.

For instance, an item in the Dec. 2, 1875, edition reported on “a slight runaway” of a horse team on Main Street in downtown Lenoir:

“Cause – too many fire crackers in the rear. No damage. Moral – don’t leave your team standing without someone to look after the horses when the school boys have holiday. They will celebrate.”

We all can recall our father’s warning, if your father was like mine, about firecrackers in the rear, and while you won’t find any teams of horses downtown anymore, visit and you might find a fair share of horse’s rears, or you might at least run into me.

An item in the Nov. 18, 1875, edition commented, “It is well that our hog law has been repealed, or our town dogs would be immensely idle, nowadays. As it is, it keeps them pretty busy between meals playing with friend Johnson’s pigs on the public square.”

This was followed a week later by Mr. Johnson’s objection to that commentary:

“Friend Johnson says it isn’t his hogs that afford so much amusement for the town dogs. The hogs, he says, belong to various other parties, principal among whom are the Town Commissioners.”

I have not researched it, but the hog law must have been reinstated at some point, for hogs seldom are seen around the public square anymore. Perhaps Mr. Johnson shamed the commissioners into keeping their hogs penned and re-enacting the ban.

And then, as now, one of the chief functions of the local newspaper has been to shine a spotlight on local residents, particularly those who are active in civil affairs, such as this resident noted in the Nov. 25, 1875, edition:

“The most vigilant and persevering inhabitant of Lenoir is a certain cow we know of. She seems to regard herself as the miller of the town, from the way she takes toll of every wagon that is stopped on the square – or anywhere in smelling distance. She would have made a capital collector of tithes during the war. She has a determined energy unequaled by Grant himself.”

One thing that has changed is in the advertising. Newspapers have always been vehicles for local merchants to get their messages out to the public through advertisements, but many of the ones in those old papers would baffle young people now, selling such things as “tinware,” turbine water wheels and “dry goods.” (I have not yet seen an old ad for “wet goods,” but one presumes such things must have existed.)

But one that local pharmacist W.W. Gaither ran repeatedly in late 1875 and early 1876 is as relevant now as the day he penned it:

Drugs! Drugs!

I cannot afford to sell any more of them without pay. All who owe me are invited to settle without further notice. No more credit.

All kinds of country produce received.

From the day that Robyn Tomlin described to me what Digital First Media’s Thunderdome was going to be, I thought it sounded like a much bigger, broader, better-planned and better-financed version of what Media General (the pre-2012 version of the company, which still owned newspapers) had tried to do through Newsbank (the company’s intranet for sharing all of the company’s newspaper stories and photos) and its Interactive Media Division. We didn’t try to be a national news desk for the company’s newspapers, but we produced specialty pages, had a Washington bureau that tried to tailor stories to our markets, encouraged sharing of stories and reporting resources, and offered video, interactives and help with live chats and other online projects.

In Jim Brady’s Lessons learned from Project Thunderdome, the successes and problems he cites were, naturally, of a much larger scale, but they were parallel to Media General’s experiences. One paragraph in particular resonates with me:

One inadvertent lesson learned from Thunderdome was its service as a bellwether in surfacing who inside DFM was truly interested in culture change. Many DFM journalists worked collaboratively with Thunderdome to support DFM’s strategy and secure its future; others focused only on preserving their own futures. Centralization, in that regard, is an effective mousetrap in identifying who doesn’t want his cheese moved.

Every newsroom I worked with varied this way. At some, the top editor bought into what we were trying to do and encouraged the staff to work with us. At others, the top editor was at best indifferent, and there might be individuals in the newsroom who were enthusiastic while others would rather MG just go away and leave them alone. (The top editor at one newspaper literally never returned a single phone call from me. Not one.)

One of the lessons I learned early on in my time at Media General is no one seeks to become an editor at any level because they think someone else is better at what they do than they are. Making an argument about the time they will save that could be better devoted to better local coverage won’t fly with everyone because in the eyes of some editors, whatever is being done centrally is making the paper worse and they just can’t stand it — there were times that I sent out to MG’s papers a specialty features page using a design lifted straight from an award-winning designer in Tampa, and the features editors at some papers that used the package changed the design, often radically. Some editors even will argue in favor of duplicating reporting effort in order for their readers to see that the local paper “owns” the topic.

Brady also writes, “Never underestimate the technical challenges of centralization.” He means it in Thunderdome’s case in terms of producing online packages that will need to run across multiple content management systems, but in a broader sense it applies to anything you try to do across multiple newsrooms. The most-cited reason editors gave me for why they used an AP version of a story instead of the much better version produced by another MG paper was that AP stories flowed into their computer system at the press of a button, but the stories on MG’s own network had to be copied and pasted in (a system that itself was the lowest-common-denominator solution to creating the network in the late ’90s after MG had bought dozens of papers that all had different computer systems — some PCs, some Macs, some new, some old). And I see something similar in my current company, where the editors in North Carolina have talked about ways to work together more or at least share more, but there is no easy way to share plans or see what everyone else is doing. If your technology and workflow are developed for a silo, everyone then is stuck working in a silo.

You don’t have to be working at a national organization to gain useful insights from Brady’s piece. Anywhere you are trying to change the work culture, you’ll find parallels.

7/29/14 UPDATE: Steve Buttry offers tips for changing company culture in a post for INMA, and I think they relate directly to the kinds of situations described above. As the subhead for the post sums up, “To make true changes in the workplace culture, actual adjustments in work activities are required.” Brady didn’t elaborate on the newsrooms where he found resistance to what DFM was trying to do, but I’d be willing to bet the difference between those newsrooms and the ones where he found collaboration was the latter changed what they were doing to mesh with what DFM was doing from Thunderdome. I saw something like it in MG where, if a newsroom’s responsibilities for sharing news and photos were assigned to a single assistant editor, whose other duties didn’t change, there wasn’t a lot of sharing done, because it was an add-on to the editor’s “real” work, not a change in what that person was doing.

I have seen the principal at work in even a much more small-scale way when a newsroom gained a graphic artist (this was all the way back in the day when adding staff was possible). The newsroom hadn’t had one before, and the managers didn’t rework what editors and reporters were doing, so the result was the graphic artist was getting thrown assignments as an afterthought late in the workflow.

July 16, 2014, wreck in Lenoir
I’ve mentioned before that when I am coaching writers one of the main things I focus on is derived from advice that Ernest Hemingway gave to a young writer and described in a portion of “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” which he wrote in 1935 for Esquire. It involves making use of what you observe wherever you are reporting.

A few days ago I had a perfect example of the difference this can make in even routine reporting. There was a very bad head-on collision here in Lenoir, and the only reporter who was in the office at the time was our sports reporter. He and our photographer rushed out to the scene, got what was available and came back to the office. The reporter had not done news before and was nervous, which accounted for a few holes in what he first turned in, but he had the basics:

A two-car, head-on collision in front of the Gamewell fire department on Morganton Blvd. resulted in three fatalities on Wednesday evening.

According to Sgt. Dawson of the Highway Patrol, a witness stated that the vehicle traveling southwest on Morganton Blvd. was “driving at high speeds and recklessly.” The vehicle then collided head-on with a silver Lexus traveling northeast in the left lane of the two-lane road. The unidentified vehicle rolled down a hill into a ravine and was not visible due to tall bushes and weeds. The driver and two other passengers of the unidentified vehicle were pronounced dead on the scene.

The silver Lexus was left in the turning lane with the front end being unrecognizable. The street was littered with pieces from both cars as first responders investigated the scene. Police officers secured the area and directed traffic as about 10 citizens stood outside watching the horrific scene.

No further details of the incident were available at press time.

From here, we needed to draw out the rest of what he saw there. What is described above is a collision, then one car “rolled down a hill.” That’s not what happened. When cars collide at high speed, what happens? Use words that describe it. This is what we ended up with:

The Toyota caromed off and went down a steep bank roughly 20 feet deep and into a field of weeds so tall that the car couldn’t be seen from the road.

As for the car that didn’t go down the hill, we start with “the front end being unrecognizable.” What does that mean? How will the reader see “unrecognizable” in his or her head? It’s an abstract term, not a concrete one. You need to be concrete and visual. We also have the street “littered with pieces from both cars,” but listening to the photographer and reporter talk about it, and seeing a photo of the wrecked Lexus, made clear that we could do better:

The wreckage of the silver Lexus sat in the turning lane of Morganton Boulevard, the front end destroyed, the hood looking like a piece of crumpled paper. So much debris littered the street that Dawson and rescue crews could scarcely take a step without it crunching underfoot.

Finally, no official information was released on the occupants of the other car, but the reporter saw the rescue effort, so we had that to add:

At least two passengers were removed from the Lexus and taken away in ambulances, but no information was released about how many people were in the car or how badly they were hurt.

Outside the lines set up by Caldwell County sheriff’s deputies and Lenoir police, about 10 people stood watching the horrific scene.

Just making use of the details the reporter observed, not relying solely on what official sources had to say, turned a 5-inch news brief into a much more vivid, 9- or 10-inch story. It won’t win awards, but it surely engaged the readers’ imaginations much better than the original, and that’s the daily battle we face.

Over a year ago I wrote that I soon would be posting about my experiences with a paywall. Sixteen months later, the paywall finally went up on the News-Topic’s site, so this is my first postcard.

This actually is the site’s second experience with a paywall. I was not here for the first, but I am told all hell broke loose from people angered that they could no longer get the site for free. There were about 200 paying subscribers (paid print circulation at the time was about 6,000) by the time the company switched website vendors in 2012 and the site became free again because the new vendor was not quite ready to handle a paywall. How unready it was apparently was a surprise.

Given that previous experience, folks were bracing for a similar round of trouble when the paywall went up again in mid-June, but there was barely a ripple of trouble, mostly questions from people wanting help registering online. We have eight or nine new online subscriptions so far. Our Web traffic has taken a slight dip, but nothing so far that looks significant, and it could be attributed to the slow news of the past few weeks, the pre- and post-July 4 summer holiday period. We’ll have to keep watching.

The talk this week focused on how to drive the traffic we have past the home page headlines so they have to pay. In other words, how much information beyond the headline goes on the home page. Whether the slow pace of new subscriptions is due to that is, to me, an open question, but what we put on the home page is a valid issue for us because our site’s analytics show that the home page remains the first stop for most of our users. It’s a local audience.

A proposal raised at another paper in the company is that there should be only headlines and photos because people see enough of the story on the home page and don’t dive in to read. That analysis may be correct, but the solution that was chosen seems wrong to me. First, it puts a heavy premium on good Web headlines, and newsrooms our size don’t have reliably good headline writers. Second, the behavior that practice seeks to stop is not limited to the website. At any newspaper rack, some people walk up, look in the window, read what they want and walk away. Worse, at a newspaper stack inside a convenience store, they pick up the paper, turn it over, read a lot more and then don’t buy it. There always will be window-shoppers who don’t become buyers.

No, the trick as always is figuring out how much information is needed to make a person want to read more. A headline alone — or headline and photo alone — usually won’t do it, especially with a feature. You need some text from the story. How much might vary, but it shouldn’t give away so much information that clicking on the link to read the whole story will leave the person feeling that he/she wasted time because all the really important information was on the home page.

This is not a question unique to the Web. The same basic issues apply to writing teasers on A1 for stories appearing inside the paper. That’s all you’re doing on a website homepage if your goal is to drive readers past that page. Entice the reader with factual information, but leave questions hanging. Don’t overpromise or mislead. This is a writing skill. Use your writer’s instincts.

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