Archive for the ‘writing’ Tag

On Mark Bowden’s NYT takedown

The so-called crisis in the news industry sure has generated some sensational stories of late. “American journalism is in a period of terror,” announces Mark Bowden in a tome of an article appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Mostly a deft hatchet job on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, Bowden’s piece sent the media cognoscenti into a tizzy, although nobody seems to have noticed its one truly illuminating segment.

Photo illustration by Vanity Fair.

Photo illustration from Vanity Fair.

Even the mighty Times is facing financial peril these days, and Bowden’s premise is that the newspaper scion “has steered his inheritance into a ditch.” He abuses tools of the trade to help suggest his case. As one unnamed “industry analyst” tells us, “Arthur has made some bad decisions, but so has everyone else in the business. Nobody has figured out what to do.” Earth shattering. Perhaps Bowden should pick up a copy of the Times and read Clark Hoyt on the suitable use of anonymous sources. For a substantive take on contemporary debacles across the business, check out this recent piece by Daniel Gross.

In fact, I’m a big fan of Bowden’s. Right now I happen to be reading his 2006 book “Guests of the Ayatollah,” a riveting account of the Iran hostage crisis. Particularly in the realm of national security, few reporters are as exhaustive, persuasive — and downright exciting to read — as him.

On the media, not so much. There he has tended toward the self-involved, maybe a particular pitfall for great reporters covering their own vocation. (See the opening line of the Sulzberger article, which zooms in directly on… Bowden himself, as he receives a phone call from Sulzberger: “I was in a taxi on a wet winter day in Manhattan three years ago…” Especially telling, I think, given that in another recent piece orbiting the news business, a profile of David Simon, Bowden also wrote himself prominently into the narrative.) The Vanity Fair article is exquisitely timed with the accelerating upheaval in the newspaper industry, and reads mostly like, well, a salacious, insider-y Vanity Fair article.

And yet, buried deep in the 11,500 words is one of the best analogies I’ve encountered anywhere conveying the potential for digital journalism:

When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling.

Bowden uses the comparison in the service of whacking Sulzberger — but it also points directly to a broader stagnation in media companies’ use of the digital platform. There is experimentation going on, but often without much imagination: Digital video clips are all the rage? OK, we’ll put reporters on camera describing the stories they’ve just published! Online communities and reader interactivity are the latest buzz? OK, we’ll feature the shouting matches in our comments threads as actual news!

The rising multimedia and publishing capabilities of the digital realm are charged with promise, and demand deeper thinking about their optimal use. With any given subject, which digital tools are most effective for gathering information and telling the story? How can the information-rich ecosystem of the Web enhance the knowledge gained? What new ways are there to produce reliable, authoritative and compelling content, taking maximum advantage of a decentralized and participatory technology like no other we’ve ever known?

Soon enough we may all be getting our news on a kind of flexible digital paper. The possibilities for what it could contain are big, and they’re just beginning.

UPDATE: Mark Bowden responds.

The month the news broke

It may be that we’ll look back at March 2009 as a pivotal time in the erratic but inexorable transition from print to digital news. In some ways it’s very much a slow-motion revolution, beginning perhaps as long ago as 1981, and far from over. But this month has been striking both for the destruction in the newspaper industry and the hum of activity focused on the digital future.

breakingnewsIt’s the latter that matters more. NYU media maven Jay Rosen has pulled together an essential roundup for anyone interested in diving deep into the discussion. Rosen credits a March 13 essay by Clay Shirky with triggering a flurry of writing; he summarizes a dozen recent pieces that build out the picture. I haven’t read them all yet, but in addition to Shirky’s piece I highly recommend Steven Berlin Johnson’s Old Growth Media and the Future of News, which he presented at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. His use of ecosystems as a metaphor for the digital transformation is enlightening in multiple ways, while smartly avoiding utopianism:

Now there’s one objection to this ecosystems view of news that I take very seriously. It is far more complicated to navigate this new world than it is to sit down with your morning paper. There are vastly more options to choose from, and of course, there’s more noise now. For every Ars Technica there are a dozen lame rumor sites that just make things up with no accountability whatsoever. I’m confident that I get far more useful information from the new ecosystem than I did from traditional media a long fifteen years ago, but I pride myself on being a very savvy information navigator. Can we expect the general public to navigate the new ecosystem with the same skill and discretion?

Indeed, as Johnson suggests, information consumers may yet crave the guidance of authoritative institutions, including… newspapers. Some of which now command some of the largest online audiences. But many of them have been failing in the vision department, as Alan Mutter pointed out early this month:

As a direct consequence of the breakdown in the traditional media business model, publishers today are cutting the quality and quantity of the content they produce at the very moment they should be investing more aggressively than ever … As the most challenged of all the distressed media companies, newspapers are so strapped today that they are producing ever less original reporting … This is not merely a step in the wrong direction. It is a leap into the abyss.

As the fresh experiment with The P-I in Seattle seems to indicate so far, taking a newspaper all-digital while cutting its news gathering capacity by roughly 80 percent is not a great way to proceed.

While there is still plenty of handwringing going on, in my view the essays gathered by Rosen evoke daybreak far more than twilight. And March 2009 is ending on a bright note, at least symbolically. Ever since its election-year rise, the opinion-laden Huffington Post has been touted as a model for future journalism — never mind that it doesn’t pay most contributors and produces almost zero original reporting. Late yesterday the publication announced a new turn: the launch of a $1.75 million investigative reporting initiative.

Light in the darkness of David Foster Wallace

A prodigious amount has been written about David Foster Wallace since the heart-rending news of his suicide last September. The outpouring continues. This week, a humorous essay that keyed off Wallace’s hyper-baroque writing has seen a viral revival on the Web. Earlier this month, the New Yorker published a lengthy epilogue along with an excerpt from Wallace’s unfinished novel, “The Pale King.” His much-admired speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College in Ohio will come out in book form in April.

I finally had time to read the long New Yorker piece, and it made me realize that the world also deserves a published collection of Wallace’s correspondence, with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others. The varied bits of it appearing in the New Yorker cast additional light on his humanity and highly emotive lexicon.

Steve Liss/Getty/Time Life

Steve Liss/Getty/Time Life

There is much insight and lyricism to be found in Wallace’s fiction, but it can be hard to track down and enjoy amid all the dense, cerebral text. He played language not as an instrument but as a postmodern orchestra, and it could get too cacophonous. (I remember when Bob Watts gave me his hardcover copy of “Oblivion,” barely cracked into. “Couldn’t really do it,” he said.) Although I much admired some of Wallace’s earlier short stories, I’ve always thought that he was at his best with essays and literary journalism. It seems the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too, however painful. While in a deep rut in May 1990 he wrote to Franzen:

Right now, I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28 who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and [William] Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David fuckwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of conviction about the enterprise’s meaning and end.

There was also a vivid kind of humor: In another correspondence with Franzen about 15 years later, this time regarding his struggles with “The Pale King,” Wallace wrote, “The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t … I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore.”

One of his former editors recalls Wallace also comparing the writing of the novel with “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.”

For me, one of Wallace’s most memorable essays was published in August 2006 in the magazine Play, in which he profiled tennis titan Roger Federer.

A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

It remains a memorable passage because it illumes not only Wallace’s profound talent, but also, in some sense, the linguistic-spiritual puzzle he died still trying to solve. He tells you it can’t be done and then he nearly does it, brilliantly. A deeper look at his personal correspondences — when presumably he was writing more free of the crushing performance pressures he put on himself — could only add to the picture.

Precisely the poet we needed

Kay Ryan was in town for a reading on Friday night at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was packed. It occurred to me it was absolutely right she’d become our U.S. Poet Laureate in a time of so much turmoil near and far. The universe has a way of balancing itself, even when it seems barely to be standing on one foot. Some comic concision to cut through all the gloomy cacophony—just the thing.

jamjarI’ve been an admirer for years of Ryan’s pithy assessments. They seem even more necessary right now, and not just for their luminous resuscitation of dead language and reanimation of cliché. As she put it on Friday, one of her interests has been considering extremity and trying to “cool things down” a bit. Claims found in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” became the source for her latest collection The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed. The poem “Murder at Midnight” departs from Ripley’s assertion that “If everyone who was told about it told two other people within 12 minutes, everybody on earth would know about it before morning.” Determines Ryan:

But people would begin getting it
a little bit wrong. Long before daylight,
the ‘murder at midnight’ would be
‘sugar stolen outright.’ The fate
of the dead man would not extend
beyond his gate. Only those
right now missing his little habits,
his footfall, his sleeping noises,
will know, and they can’t really tell;
news doesn’t really travel very well.

Whether Ripley’s math quite holds up under scrutiny I can’t say, but no matter. This morning a friend from a group of old high school buddies emailed to suggest that we all start using the trendy messaging service Twitter to banter and keep in touch on a more frequent basis. With three email accounts, IM, Facebook and a blog already running me apace on the digital information wheel, I’m thinking I’ll gently decline for now, and refer him to Sasha Cagen’s fine essay posted yesterday, This Is Your Brain on Twitter.

Truth and fantasy among the Slumdogs

Not surprisingly, “Slumdog Millionaire,” director Danny Boyle’s frenetic tale springing from the vast underbelly of Mumbai, swept the Academy Awards last night. The film was suited to the national mood, with its combustible mix of corruption and class warfare, despair and materialistic hope. The Academy has done worse in years past; on the whole “Slumdog” is an engaging ride, and at times an extraordinary visual postcard from a world mostly unseen by those in the West. The film’s biggest problem is a narrative one, as it struggles to reconcile competing forces of hard-hitting realism and romantic fantasia.

mumbaislumslumdogmillionaire

The same might be said of Katherine Boo’s timely feature story in the Feb. 23 issue of the New Yorker, “Opening Night.” Boo reports from Gautum Nagar, one of numerous large slums squeezed around Mumbai’s international airport. Set on the night of the Indian premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire,” her story traces the fortunes of a 13-year-old boy named Sunil, who has turned from airport garbage scavenger (a primary trade in the slum) to scrap metal thief after the global economic crisis has pummeled the local recycling business.

Boo is an award-winning journalist who has reported extensively from poverty-stricken front lines, and “Opening Night” is a compelling read dotted with insights about the effects of globalization. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder about certain passages in which Boo ascribes intellectual and lyrical qualities to Sunil’s thinking that seem to strain belief. In several scenes she takes us deep inside his mind:

Sunil still did not feel much like a thief. When he took a bath in an abandoned pit at the concrete-mixing plant, he pushed away the algae to inspect his reflection. The change in his profession didn’t yet show on his face: same big mouth, wide nose, problem torso. He was too small all over.

And when recounting Sunil’s thievery at a newly constructed airport parking garage:

The roof had two kinds of space, really. One kind was what a boy got when he stood exactly in the middle and knew that even if his arms were ten times longer he’d touch nothing if he spun around. But that kind of space would be gone when the garage was open and filled with cars. The space that would last was the kind he leaned into, over the guardrails.

From a writing standpoint this is the recognizable stuff of fiction, prose concerned foremost with thematic imagery and character depicted in the service of narrative. That’s not to say that it isn’t truthful to what Boo may have learned during what clearly was a devoted and exhaustive journey into India’s underclass. (According to the magazine’s contributor notes, she has spent the past 14 months reporting from the Mumbai slums for a forthcoming book.) But particularly in an era when the blurring of nonfiction and fiction has turned up some serious stinkers, Boo takes some intriguing risks with her reportage in this respect. We do learn late in the piece that Sunil was to some degree “privileged,” having been taken in for a period by a Catholic charity for private schooling outside the city. Still, given his age and background it seems unlikely that he would have thought or been able to express himself in such sophisticated terms, even to a highly talented journalist who apparently spent much time in his company.

The New Yorker has also posted a video montage from Boo’s trip, a rather striking contrast to the high-gloss footage that just scored eight golden statues.

Reports of its own death are greatly exaggerated

Today my friend and former Salon colleague Gary Kamiya joins the debate about the imperiled newspaper industry. With passion he points out that the gravest danger at hand isn’t the potential death of newsprint but of news reporting itself.

Quality reporting — made of tireless, independent investigation and clear-eyed, vivid storytelling — is essential to cultural progress and a healthy democracy. (I say this as much as a citizen as someone who works in the trade.) Indeed it seems deeply troubling when a once mighty institution like the Los Angeles Times kills its own section devoted to covering California. That’s just one of many convulsions in the industry of late. The future of the fourth estate is, in one unsettling sense, very much unwritten.

But there is also a tendency in the whole ongoing debate to overplay concerns about impending calamity. “If newspapers die, so does reporting,” Gary writes. Of that I’m not so sure — the present crisis is also an immense opportunity of necessity. If the technological change recasting the newspaper industry is synonymous with its traditional medium (and business model) fast losing viability, then it’s prime time for further innovation in how news can be gathered, produced and delivered digitally.

It’s not at all clear yet how to succeed in terms of a business model. (I have my doubts that it will be “tip jars” or “micropayments,” or even philanthropy.) But the number of talented people tackling the challenge is growing, and the ferment is giving rise to some very interesting experimentation. One example is the open-source approach to generating reporting at Spot.us. Another is the convergent foreign coverage at GlobalPost.com.

Given the bad economy in general, now may seem an unlikely moment for optimism. But the rising connectivity and capability of the Web holds much further promise for quality journalism. As the newspaper industry’s old analog houses burn down, I’m most interested in thinking about what more could go inside the digital ones that inevitably will replace them.

Against the gratuitous cheeseburger

I’m a fan of cheeseburgers. I’m also a fan of the singer Neko Case. I haven’t the faintest idea, however, as to how the two are connected.

And yet, here they are, dished up together in the lead paragraph of a long profile of Case published in Sunday’s Times Magazine:

“I wish I had a tremolo,” Neko Case said. She looked at the Samburger she was wolfing down — Samburgers and Zinburgers being the specialties of a restaurant called Zinburger, in downtown Tucson, where Case lives, for now. With their maple bacon, American cheese and Thousand Island dressing, Samburgers are a cardiothoracic surgeon’s dream. Case had been talking about singers whose music and voices she admired — Iris DeMent and Roy Orbison prominent among them. She now banged her hand on the table, flounced her bright-red hair, leaned over and said, “I want a tremolo!” Then she looked up and laughed at herself.

Why do so many journalists insist on reporting what their subjects (or they themselves) were eating at the time of an interview? What do such cheeseburgers, delectable as they sound, have to do with the price of peanuts in Paducah? (Note that the reference to cardiothoracic surgery lends no real relevance to the cheeseburger, as the article gives no reason to think Case has suffered physical impediments to her singing.) What follows is a serviceable if somewhat overwrought 4,300-word portrait of the indie rock vocalist from the Pacific Northwest.

The above cheeseburger moment exemplifies one of the laziest tics in journalism, about as ubiquitous as In-N-Out Burger is along the California interstate. This may seem an esoteric criticism of the writer-editor sort, but I bring it up foremost in defense of the attentive reader. Describe to me the details of a cheeseburger, particularly at the outset, and I’m inclined to think that’s one rather important cheeseburger. Until I’m left only half-wondering, “Can I get some fries with that?”

innout2

Veteran journalist and author Sam Freedman contends with the problem in his incisive book, Letters to a Young Journalist. If an article begins with an appropriate anecdotal scene, he writes, it should lead inexorably into the broader themes and content. “I’ve read far too many leads over the years that described someone sitting back in a chair and taking a pensive drag on a cigarette. That scene only matters if you’re writing about lung cancer or tobacco litigation.”

Great journalism can be drizzled with evocative details. But its essence is still focused and lean. It gets to the point. Anything else in the mix is just indulgent calories, perhaps tasteful only to the person who served them up.

What this blog is about

Hard to say, precisely, and that’s the idea, at least for now. I plan to traverse a wide range of interests in this space. For more of a sense of where I’m coming from and where I may be headed, read this.