Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The past year has been a whirlwind.

I’m three weeks away from the anniversary of my arrival in Lenoir. By Jan. 21 I will have been working here four months longer than I did when this place gave me my first reporting job in 1987-88.

The change in my working life from 2012 to 2013 is reflected in part by what you don’t see. Before, I blogged an average of several times a week about news issues, new media and social media. In large part, that reflected my job at Media General – part of my role to was to track trends on things like that and point our newsrooms to what other news organizations were doing.

During 2013, WordPress tells me, my posting dropped to an average of two or three times a month.

Mostly that’s the result of the time-consuming role of running a small, resource-starved newsroom. At a place this small, the editor is not just the editor; he (or she) is also a reporter, tech support, obit clerk, calendar editor, photo editor, editorial page editor and sometimes handyman. If you want your reporters to be reporters, you have little choice but to sweep up those other roles.

Among my frustrations from my job hunt was that editors and publishers often seemed to think my time in the corporate news division of Media General actually was a detour out of news, that the 11-plus years there could only have dulled my instincts for supervising reporters or my willingness to pull long hours. My publisher here would say otherwise.

But one thing I can credit to my time in Media General is learning, by observing nearly two dozen newsrooms, from weeklies up to metro dailies, that when the resources are cut, you have to let something go. I had seen many examples of editors trying to keep doing the same with less. As busy as I am, I could be busier if I weren’t willing to embrace what’s “good enough” and move on to the next battle.

Which brings me to another change in my blog posts. In general, my posts now most often address what confronts me as the editor of a small-town newspaper, or they are personal observances. I haven’t taken time to rethink the “About” portion of the blog, so I blog less.

My main challenge during 2013 was setting expectations for the staff: The main point isn’t to fulfill a byline count but to make sure what you do is interesting to the reader. That has meant shooting down stories that the paper might have done before and sending others back for more work. It has meant learning to use social media to draw attention to stories since fewer people subscribe. We’ve begun getting a little video in as extras, but the emphasis has stayed on the writing.

The staff is smaller than it was in mid-2012, but this paper is better written now, I think it’s more interesting, and the number of local news items in print is about the same.

I could be wrong about our performance. We didn’t do well in the state press awards, and home subscriptions continue their years-long slide (though the most common reason given for canceling is free news online). But single-copy sales are stronger.

My biggest frustrations are things that are out of my control: the budget, and the ability of a paper this size, in this kind of market, to appeal to young talent.

In those, I am sure, I have plenty of company.

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“Why don’t you have anything nice to say about the governor?”

A reader called our publisher last week to ask that question. She was someone who knew N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory personally and felt that the tide of editorials and opinion columns mentioning him were overwhelmingly negative and didn’t reflect the person she knows. She wanted some balance.

Let me be perfectly clear: I’ve never heard a negative thing about McCrory as a person, husband, father, neighbor, supervisor or co-worker.

He seems like a generally sunny, positive individual, as those who achieve public office tend to be.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of his intentions to improve life in the state overall.

I met McCrory briefly when he came to Lenoir for the ceremonial groundbreaking on Google’s most recent expansion. I will say with no hesitation that he seems like a genuinely likeable guy. He’s a little bit of a close-talker (the term popularized by Jerry Seinfeld for someone who stands uncomfortably close to you while talking to you), but I think he does that with the media because the TV people tend to push right up against him, so he assumes that’s what all media people want. (I’m guessing from watching how the TV crews crushed in around him in a way that, if I were McCrory, would make me highly claustrophic and fear being trampled.) Were we to meet informally on someone’s back deck, drinking beer and just talking sports and guy talk, we’d probably get along just fine.

That McCrory gets little positive press on the opinion page of the News-Topic, whether from local editorials or the editorials and columns we publish from other sources, is entirely a function of what opinion pages do and what has dominated the first seven months of McCrory’s tenure.

Editorials and opinion columns react to what is going on in the world. At the News-Topic, I have kept the opinion page focused mainly on events in North Carolina. And for most of the past seven months, events in North Carolina have been dominated by the General Assembly and McCrory because this is the first time Republicans control both branches of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

The editorials we have run about legislation passed this year have not been all negative – most recently, an editorial from the Winston-Salem Journal that we ran on Friday praised the legislature, and the Senate and House leaders by name, for succeeding where their Democratic predecessors had been all talk and no action on providing a small measure of compensation for surviving victims of the state’s decades-long, brutal and immoral forced-sterilization program.

McCrory and the Republican leadership also have routinely won praise in columns we have run by writers for the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute. (We run those columnists on Wednesdays and Fridays; on Tuesdays and Thursdays we run the left-leaning columnists; on Saturdays we have a column from publisher Terese Almquist; and on Sundays we have a column either from me or from someone taking a moderate or non-partisan stance.)

That most of the editorials and columns have been negative has far less to do with partisan politics than the nature of editorials and columns: Those who write opinion are far more likely to react strongly to changes with which they disagree than ones with which they agree, and nowadays Republicans are driving the change.

I was not writing editorials or opinion columns when Democrats such as Liston Ramsey, Marc Basnight and Jim Black ran the General Assembly, but I well remember the strong, negative editorial reactions that their actions and legislative shenanigans often prompted. And former Govs. Mike Easley and Bev Perdue likely do not get the warm fuzzies when thinking about how the state’s editorial writers and opinion columnists treated their administrations.

Now that the 2013 session of the General Assembly has adjourned, I expect you’ll see the editorials – our own as well as guest editorials from other publications – and opinion columns shifting their focus.

The governor does not adjourn, however, so he probably will keep popping up. But whether those items treat him positively or negatively, as the popular saying from “The Godfather” goes, it isn’t personal. It’s strictly business.

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I want to thank writer Julian Turner for helping not just me but any Lenoir-area work supervisor who sometimes has to place help-wanted ads.

It can be agonizing to come up with the correct wording that both sounds enticing and doesn’t oversell the job or the community.

But Turner, in a business story he wrote for the New Statesman magazine, “How Google is changing small-town America,” provided the perfect words to form the heart of a pitch.

For instance: “Nestled in the shadow of the iconic Blue Ridge mountains is the unassuming backwater of Lenoir, North Carolina.”

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. It sounds a little condescending. But if you analyze the language, it changes your perspective.

Take “backwater.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “water backed up in its course by an obstruction, an opposing current, or the tide,” or else, “a body of water (as an inlet or tributary) that is out of the main current of a larger body.”

Symbolically, Lenoir is a little backed up by an obstruction, otherwise known as the economy. And if you have ever had to bring a job candidate here, it’s hard to deny that we’re a little “out of the main current” of travel.

Besides, backwaters are quiet and tranquil. They gurgle instead of rush. Their gentleness eases your mind. Backwaters are where you find the great blue heron slowly hunting in the grasses. They are where you paddle a canoe lazily and watch for red-shouldered blackbirds stirring in the otherwise still brush nearby.

So “backwater,” though usually used as a pejorative, has some positive connotations, properly defined.

And look on the bright side: He didn’t say “jerkwater,” a term for a place that’s remote and unimportant or trivial. To not be unimportant implies that in some ways you must be important.

Worse still would have been a word such as used in the overwrought opening of Turner’s story, which referred to a fictional Texas town as “flyblown,” a word meaning covered in fly eggs (or maggots).

Not only could backwater be taken as an accurate if sometimes uncomfortable description, he modified that noun with “unassuming,” which the dictionary says is a fancier term for “modest.” That’s a compliment. To be unassuming or modest means the town doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, the people are polite and welcoming, not prideful and off-putting.

To be “assuming” or immodest would mean we’re putting on airs, getting above our raising or being boastful, even brazen. “Immodest” used to be one of the euphemisms used in polite company for a young woman who bared too much of her body as though it were for sale; in impolite company the word used might have been “trollop.” A trollop of a town would be showy, shiny, brassy, loud, painted up and dressed down, in a hurry for action and with a lust for money.

No, if I have a complaint with Mr. Turner’s phrasing, it’s that it’s hackneyed, redundant and cliché. If you tell me a place is a backwater, am I going to envision a mini Las Vegas strip? A downtown filled with gilded 20-story buildings? No. I’m going to assume it’s unassuming. That’s why it’s a backwater.

The article essentially is an over-intellectualized journal entry about the pace of change and what that is doing to small towns. In his very first sentence, Turner uses “elegiac,” meaning “expressing sorrow, often for something now past.” It’s a word I would rather writers not use if they want to be understood, since most folks have to look it up, but it certainly applies to how many residents feel about what the economy has done to this area’s major employers.

Turner concludes: “Google is … transforming the town of Lenoir into a living monument to the accelerated pace of technological change that has characterized post-war American life and industry.”

Well, maybe.

That change is happening everywhere, backwaters and main currents alike. I saw it in Richmond too – it even took my job.

Maybe it’s just more noticeable here because the waters are still enough that you can see what’s changing.

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In his address to the Arizona Newspapers Association, Steve Buttry summed up the argument against newspaper websites setting paywalls or pay meters (and it is just newspapers; you never hear of TV stations debating whether to charge for access to their sites). I’ll quote the part that sums up his summation:

“Most of the forward-looking paths to prosperity work better with a larger audience, and paywalls (or meters or whatever you want to call them) limit your audience. Most of the paths to prosperity demand that we reach a younger audience, and paywalls continue a model in the comfort zone of newspapers’ aging and dying audience.”

There is an argument to be made in favor of paywalls, and Warren Buffett has summed it up – become indispensable:

“Make the paper so good that I get the shakes if I don’t have it.”

This is not an outrageous theory or one new to newspapers. I have pointed before to a slimmed-down version of a Newspaper Next presentation about creating an “experience” in the news pages, the argument being that people pay all the time for an experience rather than the actual product being sold. Under the experience theory, people will seek out and buy a news product online if it gives them a good emotional jolt or something to talk about. It becomes a valuable part of the day by the effect it has on their day.

Where this theory falls apart is the way that real-world newspaper publishers are trying to keep their businesses afloat.

You cannot create indispensable stories “so good that I get the shakes if I don’t have it” if you are paying the story-creators so little that they make as little – or less – money than first-year teachers. Good stories come only from good minds, and good minds may take a first job paying that little, but they also will soon find a way to something better, and then your flash-in-the-pan indispensability departs with them.

But low pay has been built into newspapers’ current cost structure. It was the way that publishers dealt with, first, the demand for maintaining profit margins and, in the recession and crash of advertising revenue, the need simply to stay afloat. Newsrooms across the country – not all of them, but many – tried to maintain as many staff positions as they could by squeezing pay. Now they are stuck.

If you are stuck with a revenue level that won’t support filling your staff with indispensable storytellers, you need to rethink your staff and content model, slim down the staff size and build up the pay. Otherwise you resign yourself to forever being completely dispensable.

You can’t be indispensable and poorly written at the same time. In that case, Steve’s point is completely correct: You will get online subscriptions from current newspaper addicts, the people who are so used to reading you that they just can’t do without. But they will die off, and you will have nothing that non-subscribers find worthwhile, so you also will die off.

Paywall defenders could argue that there is no “prosperity” to be found in unpaid models so far, but Steve is absolutely correct that in order to survive you need to bring in new consumers, new readers, new audiences.

The most recent real example I’ve seen of this is here in Richmond, where Bill’s Barbecue recently went out of business. Bill’s was a Richmond institution. When I moved here in 2001, I saw Bill’s everywhere. I figured it had to have really good barbecue for it to be so widespread. Then I went into one near home and bought some. Lord, that was some awful barbecue. It was soupy. It smelled funny. I started asking around, and to date no one I have met in Richmond thinks Bill’s had good barbecue (everyone praises the pies, but you don’t build a big barbecue restaurant chain based on the dessert). It was skating on a decades-old reputation, frequented apparently by old-Richmonders who fondly clung to memories (although not many of them; there were two Bill’s within a mile of my house, and neither was ever busy, at any time of day). Finally, the family that owns the business decided to stop.

This is where many newspapers are. There is a base of loyal customers who are willing to pay, though they lament what has been lost in the past 10 years. But there is less and less reason for any new customers to come through the door, and to the extent there is any at all, tighter and tighter paywall restrictions cut off the potential new-customer base. At some point, publishers will feel it necessary to open the walls, but by then their product may be an afterthought, a niche publication in a universe of alternative news sources.

With or without a paywall, you can’t attract an audience when you have little worth reading.

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Last week I traveled to Danville, Va., for a part of the job that disappeared in recent years because of the economy (no travel budget means no travel), meeting one-on-one with reporters to critique their writing and talk about what they can do to become better writers. When I meet with a reporter who honestly wants advice and will discuss his or her writing, it recharges me, and it had been a long time since I was able to have any meetings like this, so I was overdue for a charge. When I started doing these in 2002, I took a kitchen sink approach, addressing everything from style and grammar to storytelling. It didn’t take long for me to realize that was not a good approach. Being nitpicky helped no one and swamped the more worthwhile parts of the discussion. Since then, what I focus on is more or less what Ernest Hemingway described in a portion of “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” which he wrote in 1935 for Esquire. (I read it in “Byline: Ernest Hemingway,” a collection of Hemingway’s journalism.) “Monologue” recounts a conversation between Hemingway (Y.C., for “your correspondent”) and a young writer he called Maestro (Mice) during a fishing trip. The relevant portion:

Mice: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

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Gail Tabor at Lockbourne Air Force Base
My mother told me not to go into journalism. She made herself crystal clear. I remember when I told her I thought I wanted to study journalism in college. She fixed me with the kind of look teenagers usually get for breaking the news they are gay, and she said something like, “You don’t want to do that. You’ll never have any money.” She was a divorced mother of two boys, working for the Arizona Republic, so she knew her subject matter well.

She started her career at the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal, where in 1961 her job as society editor took her to cover an “Officers’ Wives” luncheon at Lockbourne Air Force Base, and during her visit she was given a tour of the restricted area where all the planes were kept, and she got the idea to ask for a ride in one of the planes — a supersonic F-101B. Her account of her exchange with Lt. Don Fullerton, the assistant information officer at the base, sums up her life:

Gail Tabor in flight helmet“Ha,” said Fullerton, “you’d faint on takeoff.”

That did it. I just had to get that flight.

She got the flight, becoming the first woman to fly in an F-101 and the fifth woman to break the sound barrier. The experience so exhilarated her that she kept damn near everything about it — from her typed draft, covered with edit marks, to copies of the three first-person stories she wrote about the experience (bearing the two-column logo, featuring fancy cursive-style type, of “Women’s Features”) — in a folder the rest of her life.

She interrupted her career to raise two boys. One had the sense to go into sales and other business-oriented pursuits. The other liked to write and felt the same sort of exhilaration that led to that folder of yellowing paper, so when she said, “You don’t want to do that,” he thought, “Yes I do.” He has second thoughts nowadays, but when it comes down to it, he still hasn’t been able to follow her advice.

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Read all about it
A frequently heard complaint about news online and the use of web metrics is that they might dumb down the news and reward sensational and short pieces over serious journalism. The Longform Blog would seem to be made specifically to fly in the face of any tendency toward short, unserious news: Every day it recommends four stories — non-fiction only, each 2,000 words or more. As explained in a second-anniversary post:

“There’s no Most Popular box to keep the numbers churning for particular stories, we don’t SEO the hell out of posts, and every piece we recommend spends roughly the same amount of time at the top of the homepage. In deciding what to click, all readers have to go on is who wrote an article, where it was published, when it came out, and what it’s very basically about.”

And so, out of the 2,805 articles recommended since the site went up two years, the editors have looked back and drawn conclusions about what really interests people who go out specifically in search of longform journalism:

“So, turns out that it doesn’t really matter what kind of content you’re talking about—video, pics, 5,000-word features—sex on the internet is still sex on the internet. Stories in the sex category were nine times as likely to end up among the year’s most read. Looking for an even more sure-fire way to make the list? Write a story about porn.”

Murder also rates very high.

On a much more encouraging note, the stats show that truly compelling narrative non-fiction has legs — or, in webspeak, I guess it has a long tail:

“Readers on Longform are more likely to send an older story to the most-read list than they are a new one…”

The moral? Maybe it’s pay attention to web metrics or don’t, it doesn’t seem to change what people want to read.

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Most journalists seem to take it as a given that what is accurate and fair is true. But whether you agree apparently depends on what you mean by “true,” which became clear after several items in the news in the past month.

First came reports – such as this one from NPR – about “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a story drawn from the experience of John D’Agata, a writer, and Jim Fingal, who had been assigned to fact-check an essay by D’Agata. From NPR’s description:

“Ten years ago, D’Agata was in Las Vegas when a 16-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. D’Agata wrote an essay about the tragedy — but in the telling, he took a generous amount of artistic license.”

D’Agata fudged or fabricated details large and small, and distorted timelines and sequences of events. He defended his departures from accuracy by saying his version was “more dramatic” and that his essay was written in pursuit of a greater truth, an artistic truth.

Next came the horrifying (for journalists), full-show-length retraction by public radio’s “This American Life” for running a report by writer/performer Mike Daisey about Apple’s factories in China, which, similar to D’Agata’s essay, mixed and matched facts, locations, times and events without much regard to accuracy. Although clearly remorseful in the retraction episode, he remained stubbornly insistent that his error was only one of labeling, that ultimately he conveyed a larger truth that was important for people to feel connected to.

Neither of the above episodes would have caused a ripple of alarm if either had simply been labeled fiction. Much fiction is largely based is fact. You don’t have to watch very many movies or TV shows to understand that “based on a true story” has a wide variety of meanings, from “this is nearly entirely what really happened” to (more often) “there’s a nugget of reality here, but not a lot.”

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine summed up what I feel about the two stories:

“You need not take a journalist’s oath to tell the truth. You need only be born to a mother such as mine, who told me and my sister often–very often–that ‘there’s nothing worse than a liar.’ It worked on us. My sister became a minister and I became a journalist.”

Then a third item entered the news, giving a twist to the idea of “truth vs. accuracy.” It turned out that the season-opening scene in AMC’s “Mad Men” last month, in which men in a New York advertising firm drop paper bags filled with water onto black civil rights protesters below, was drawn directly from the facts in a 1966 New York Times story – right down to one of the protesters, after coming up to the agency to find out who was dropping water bombs on them, saying, “And they call us savages.” That line of dialog, as it turned out, came in for harsh treatment from some TV critics. Said one, “When she said that, it just rings so false.”

How much truer can you get than reality? Must you fabricate to discover truth?

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I supposed it’s appropriate that the meaning of those lines by John Keats “is disputed by everyone,” as englishhistory.net put it.

If only a journalist had been there to document what Keats intended.

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Journalists need reminders now and then to pay closer attention to the lazy language they pick up from official sources – especially police, bureaucrats and businesspeople, to name three very large groups that like words that are not perhaps what you would call conversational English. Let this from Bob Ingrassia at The Fast Horse Blog be your reminder for this month that when it comes to the language in your stories, in the words of Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley (in the clip above), “It should be more natural, brother, it should flow out.” If you wouldn’t say it in normal conversation with a friend, you might need to rethink what you’re writing or saying. Bob’s list of words or phrases to be banished and their conversational equivalents (and more are offered in the comments on his post):

fled on foot = ran away
high rate of speed = speeding
physical altercation = fight
verbal altercation = argument
reduce expenditures = cut costs
terminate employment = fire
reduction in service = layoff
blunt force trauma = injury
discharged the weapon = shot
transport the victim = take him/her
lower extremities = legs
officers observed = police saw
at this point in time = now
express concerns = complain
incendiary device = bomb
obtain information = ask or interview
deceased = dead
sexual relations = sex
roadway = road
fail to negotiate a curve = missed a curve
determine a course of action = consider options
vehicle = car or truck
citizen = person
individual = man or woman
commence = begin
emergency personnel = police, firefighters
utilize = use
complainant = victim
fatally injured = killed
motorist = driver
juvenile male/female = teen boy or girl
respond to the scene = arrive
precipitation = rain, snow
purchase = buy
intoxicated = drunk
controlled substances = drugs
appendages = arms, legs
contusion = bruise
head trauma = head injury
laceration = cut
provide leadership = lead
obstruct = block, get in the way
came to the conclusion that = decided, figured out
arrived at a decision = decided
reside = live

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Really Big Words toy for kids
Writers often are told never to use a big word when a small one will do. We’re told to aim for an eighth-grade reading level (that’s middle school, not even high school). But that’s a guideline or rule, not a law, so you will see and hear big words in news stories fairly regularly. Each year the New York Times prints a list of the words that its online readers have had the most trouble with, as measured by their use of the site’s dictionary function, and the 2011 version of the list provides, as usual, some examples of why you can’t always tell what the typical reader is going to consider to be a word beyond his or her everyday understanding. For instance, at No. 10 is “recognizance.” Really, recognizance? One would think many of those who didn’t learn the word in school at least had heard it used in a sentence by the judge explaining that they were being released on their own. (Along those same lines: “incarcerated” appears at No. 42.) And at No. 22: “cronyism.” Cronyism?! I cannot, as an editor, ask a writer to avoid using “cronyism” when confronted with a case of someone important surrounding himself with unqualified friends and supporters instead of people who know what they are doing. What would you say instead that takes less fewer than 16 words? And No. 49: “juggernaut.” What, did people think this was like a space program to send explorers into the jugger?

Sometimes I have sympathy — just a little — for the point of view of one writer years ago who opined (verb, meaning he expressed an opinion) that God forbid readers should have to grab a dictionary. “A what?” Exactly.

The Nieman Journalism Lab has loaded the words and stats into a spreadsheet, if you want to take a closer look at them in a different order than the Times presented them.

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