Tag Archives: book review

Recommended Reading: Mediactive, by Dan Gillmor

Image courtesy of  Mediactive.com.

I was lucky enough to grab an e-copy of Dan Gillmor’s book, Mediactive, on Amazon while it was 99 cents. Although the price has since gone back up to $5.99, the book is well worth it. It’s a great read for anyone who cares about the present and future state of journalism as it’s practiced in America, and works equally well for journalists and other nonfiction writers and those who simply wish to know about the world around them via the media.

Gillmor is the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship and the Kauffman Professor of Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. (And in interest of full disclosure, I’ve interacted with Dan in my day job at ASU, via a podcast on writing today and asking him to judge a writing contest for the magazine I edit.) Before coming to ASU, Gillmor wrote the book We the Media and was a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News from 1994 to 2005.

The main thing that makes the book so good is Gillmor’s ability to parse both the current state of American media and what skills citizens need to cope with the implosion of traditional journalism’s business models. As a consummate participant-observer in the new media landscape (and a veteran of the old-school newspaper industry), he’s well equipped to critique what went wrong with journalism over the past 20 years, why it hasn’t adapted well to the rise of the Internet and digital culture in general, and what exciting experiments are going on along the fringes that are poised to move to the mainstream soon.

Here’s what he says about the promise and the challenge of the media landscape in the early 21st century:

Welcome to 21st century media. Welcome to the era of radically democratized and decentralized creation and distribution, where almost anyone can publish and find almost anything that others have published.

Welcome to the age of information abundance. And welcome to the age of information confusion: For many of us, that abundance feels more like a deluge, drowning us in a torrent of data, much of whose trustworthiness we can’t easily judge. You’re hardly alone if you don’t know what you can trust anymore.

But we aren’t helpless, either. In fact, we’ve never had more ways to sort out the good from the bad: A variety of tools and techniques are emerging from the same collision of technology and media that has created the confusion. And don’t forget the most important tools of all—your brain and curiosity.

Mediactive is useful to both professional journalists and those who care about what happens in our society because he discusses skills needed by both media producers and their so-called consumers. He focuses especially intently on work being produced by those who are not traditional journalists, but who create media that gets into our virtual news feed, including bloggers or YouTube’s amateur broadcasters. While he often notes the shortcomings of such work, he generously praises citizen-journalists and nonprofit organizations for engaging in what he calls “almost journalism,” producing fact-filled background reports that shed light on stories the mainstream media misses.

I’ve read a number of articles and books discussing the state of journalism today, and I have to say that Gillmor surveys the media landscape far more clearly and less defensively than most of his peers. I particularly like his explanations of nuanced concepts. For example, he makes a persuasive case that media outlets should drop the charade of presenting themselves as bias- or viewpoint-free, and suggests reasonable alternatives. Here’s a sample of what he has to say on the issue:

Professional journalists claim independence. They are typically forbidden to have direct or indirect financial conflicts of interest. But conflicts of interest are not always so easy to define. Many prominent Washington journalists, for example, are so blatantly beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent in any real way, and their journalism reflects it.

Mediactive is potentially useful to a wide variety of people who care about journalism and other forms of nonfiction writing – reporters and editors, new media creators such as bloggers and podcasters, and ordinary people who care about what they read in the news and want to ensure they are truly well-informed. Gillmor walks newbie media creators through the essential tenets of trustworthiness (and provides an excellent refresher for the rest of us) without becoming pedantic or stodgy.  The book, like the thinking behind it, is fresh, and Gillmor has used his http://mediactive.com site to make the book a living document, adding examples and continuing the conversation on these topics in his blog.

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Recommended Reading: “Help! For Writers”

The Book: “Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions To The Problems Every Writer Faces,” by Roy Peter Clark.

The Takeaway: This is a great book for nonfiction writers who are looking for specific strategies to combat common writing problems, such as organizing their material, selecting fresh, imaginative language to use in their stories, or how to complete a draft of their work.

The Review: Too many books about writing try to be all things to all people, when they really aren’t capable of the task. The author will cover everything from how to interview celebrities to how to hire a copy editor, lavishing many pages on his or her areas of expertise, while giving everything else a cursory glance. The result is often a lopsided, unsatisfying book.

Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, deftly avoids this trap in “Help! For Writers,” while still managing to cover vexations from across the entire writing process. His secret weapon is his approach – instead of presenting writers with his “master plan” for how to write and expecting them to fit themselves into his paradigm, he organizes his material, as the subtitle suggests, by addressing specific “trouble spots” that are frequently found on the writing journey, such as “my work habits are so disorganized” or “I can’t stop procrastinating.” (He also wins points with me for phrasing the trouble spots in language that clearly has come directly from the mouths of actual writers!)

The beauty of training this lens on the writing process is that it avoids one-size-fits-all solutions and makes the book useful to a broad spectrum of writers. For example, when responding to the problem “I hate writing assignments and other people’s ideas,” Clark suggests the following strategies:

  • Learn to turn an assignment into your story.
  • Treat assignments as story topics rather than story ideas.
  • Make it your own.
  • Send up a flare to express dissatisfaction with an assignment or to suggest something better.
  • Take what you think is a bad assignment and brainstorm with other writers to turn it into something special.
  • Use your favorite search engine to discover surprising connections.
  • If a story assignment points left, don’t be afraid to turn right.

“Help! For Writers” will be very useful to those looking for those looking for tips and tools to move them out of a writing bog caused by an issue that they can articulate and define. Newbie as well as experienced writers will be able to relate to the problems Clark addresses and benefit from his proposed solutions. It’s also a book that will continue to be useful to writers as they advance in their careers, as the situations that Clark pinpoints are ones that can challenge all writers, regardless of their experience level or professional status.

Learn more about the book

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Book Review: Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less”

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Writing is an easy thing to make complicated. Non-fiction writers, in particular, have to juggle ideas, approaches, pitches to competing publications, research leads, interview notes … and that’s just the actual work. Add in para-work activities such as checking e-mail, incessant Googling (how did we do research before Google?), and chatting with writer pals about your assignments on Facebook, and suddenly, it seems like there’s hardly any time left to write.

Author and blogger Leo Babauta offers a common-sense alternative to clutter, both cyber and real-world, with his new book “The Power of Less.” Babauta, who runs the wildly popular Zen Habits blog, offers easy-to-follow advice for getting control of one’s priorities, time and habits, and helps readers achieve more with less effort.

Babauta’s theme throughout the book is very basic: discover what is truly important to you, and let go of the rest. Some of the most important keys from “The Power of Less” for writers are:

Learn how to single-task. Babauta is not a fan of trying to do more than one thing at a time. His approach is do what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, and then go on to the next task. Back in the old days, this was called focus. Whatever you want to call it today, breaking your writing day into a series of things that you work on until they are done can be far more satisfying and efficient than trying to do work on 3 stories simultaneously and getting next to nothing accomplished on all of them.

Learn to multi-project. Staying on-task doesn’t mean you are manacled to one project at a time — which is a good thing, for many freelancers would starve if this were true. Babauta recommends selecting up to three projects to focus on at any one time; that way, if you are single-tasking your way through a project and hit a delay (e.g., a source needs to call you back, you’re waiting to hear if your editor wants revisions), you can go to the next project on your list and hit the most important tasks on that one.

One goal, many actions. This suggestion is a variation of the task vs. project distinction noted above. Babauta recommends having only one major goal at a time, and that it be a fairly ambitious one—one that could take as long as a year to achieve. However, to make it manageable, your “one goal” should be broken down into sub-goals. For example, if you want to be published this year, your first sub-goal might be to research books in the same market as yours and come up with a focus that differentiates your idea. Drilling down even further, Babauta says it’s important to break each sub-goal into daily tasks, so that you are constantly doing something to move toward completing your goal.

Establish a daily routine. I’m a big fan of establishing positive creative habits and it appears Babauta is too. He walks readers through some simple, healthful ways to structure their days. Finding habits and routines that work for you is the first step to building a creative “grid” that grounds you, and allows you to continue writing, even when outside life events create upheaval and drama.

Fans of the 80/20 principle will find some familiar arguments here, but the book is more than just a restatement of that theory. Babauta deals at length with the difficulties of utilizing technology while not being distracted by it and the challenges of making long-term changes and habits “stick.” His book is especially laudable for its simplicity and for not attempting to be a “system” that you have to go to a workshop and buy special equipment to “manage.”

The most useful piece of advice I have taken from “The Power of Less” is continually asking myself as I move through my day “do I want to do X, or do I want to achieve my goals?” The question cuts through all manner of distraction and competing priorities and has helped me, after only a week spent reading Babauta’s book, accomplish several writing tasks in about one-third the amount of time they had taken in the past.

Whether you’re wanting to increase your writing productivity, tackle an intimidating goals such as writing a book, or make some changes to your habits to make your life happier overall, I heartily recommend “The Power of Less.” It’s a quick read that will influence your thinking long after you have set it down.

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