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From The Archives: Can This Profession Be Saved?

Photo courtesy SXC.

Today’s post originally ran in November 2009, but is still just as relevant to the ongoing conversation about the re-invention of American journalism in 2012! Enjoy! – Liz

Can This Profession Be Saved?

I’ve finally read the synopsis of Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson’s report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism, ” in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as a number of reactions to it. I appreciate that CJR let the authors publish such a rich (30-page!) summary of their 100-page report.

Downie, a former executive editor for the Washington Post and currently a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, and Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, provide their take on what has led up to the current sad state of affairs at American newspapers, and to a lesser degree, at television and radio stations. They discuss the approaches of a number of new media operations (and are generous with links to the projects in question) and suggest several possible new business/nonprofit support models for the industry.

Whether you end up thinking the authors are offering sage advice to journalists, or are off in left field, you really should read the CJR synopsis or the report. It’s important that those of us working in the media have a say in what happens to our profession in the future, and the only way to do that is to be aware of where we’re at now and what people are doing NOW to adapt to the challenges and opportunities the Internet Era has brought us.

On the plus side

The report largely accepts that Web 2.0 and the other cultural factors that have disrupted American journalism are here to stay and cannot be magically “rolled back” by industry collusion (think simultaneous content firewalls on all major newspaper sites) or government mandate. I know this sounds mean, but this is a good sign!  I have been concerned about the number of journalists—including professors and veteran editors and writers—talking as if the Internet is something that must be, or even can be, “stopped.”

Downie and Schudson present a variety of options for fixing the current situation from across the business spectrum. They discuss multiple variations on publicly funded media, as well as foundation-endowed news projects and hybrid corporate/nonprofit news operations. By doing this, they are acknowledging that one model will not fit all in the future, and that journalists need to consider the context of their news operation or project when devising a funding plan.

The authors rightly identify local news coverage as one of the biggest casualties of the shifts in journalism over the past two decades, and do propose several ideas for reviving it. While local involvement and participation seems to generally be associated with our “bowling alone” culture, there are plenty of people who do care about it, and who now have fewer mainstream media resources for tapping into news about the community they live in.

On the minus side

I immediately noticed that there is almost NO discussion of the fate of the magazine industry, perhaps because that’s what my degree is in (magazine journalism) and because I have worked for nearly all my career as a journalist for magazines—either as a freelancer or a staff writer/editor. I believe that magazines had to face the decline of the so-called “mass media” far earlier than newspapers, after the death of “general interest” magazines such as Look, Collier’s and LIFE in the 1960s and 1970s.

By the time I was taking j-school classes in the 1980s, we were told that starting a magazine was much like starting a restaurant—if you know what you’re doing (business-wise) and can self-fund for part of the first five years in business, you have a good chance of making it. Notice that in that description there is no mention of whether the content (or the food) was any good, if competitors were using unfair tactics, or whether customers were reading (or going out for sit-down dinners) less and less. The focus was on establishing a niche and a business model first and foremost. Paying attention to the market, as well as knowing your craft well enough to produce a quality product, were also assumed parts of that model.

On a related note, Downie and Schuder make huge assumptions about the audience for news content and how they will, or should, behave. To be fair, this is something I’ve noticed over and over again when I read essays of this nature written by newspaper-based journalists. The report doesn’t focus much at all on what readers/viewers/listeners are telling journalists about how they’d like to receive their news, or what sorts of news they’d consider worthy of paying for online.

The authors even go so far as to proclaim that “American society must take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment,” and wonder out loud in another section whether journalism is a “significant public good whose diminution requires urgent attention.” These are important issues, but this mindset, coupled with a lack of curiosity or genuine connection to one’s audience, comes across as preachy and pedantic—not the sort of vibe one wants to project to attract supporters to an important cause!

Finally, the report points out one of the largest challenges in journalism’s current crisis—we can’t seem to decide if we’re a profession best suited to entrepreneurial or philanthropic support. I like the fact that the authors include both for-profit and nonprofit approaches to new media, but the way in which they are presented serves to highlight the lack of business sense many of us in the field seem to exhibit. What is it that newspapers do? They’re businesses. Wait, no, maybe we should run them as nonprofits? Wait, maybe we can sell ads and get foundation grants, too?

Late in the CJR synopsis, Downie and Schuder use the term “independent news reporting” fairly specifically, and that’s really what they are concerned about, not so much journalism as an industry or business sector. As they note, “it may not be essential to save any particular news medium … What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.” (Emphasis in that passage is mine.)

It bothers me that so many of their suggestions rely on government intervention, although I share their opinion that stronger support for radio and televisions stations receiving money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be a good thing. I am a huge fan of public media; however, I also believe that journalistic enterprises can be successful as for-profit businesses. It remains to be seen how that will happen in the future—my feeling is that the “large public” that the authors seek to have journalism’s best work presented to may have already been replaced by a series of balkanized niches, each one hungry for content, but only within a narrow spectrum of interest.

Please use the comment section below to chime in about your reaction to the report, or the state of American journalism in general.

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From the archives: Who Am I This Time? Roles Editors Play

Photo courtesy of Jef Bettens via SXC.

(Note: This is a reprint of one of the first posts I produced for Write Livelihood. I reread it the other day and realized how much I still agree with this essay and how much of it still holds true for me. Enjoy!)

I never set out to be an editor. When I pledged myself to the writer’s life (at age 13, flushed with enthusiasm after reading the fictional exploits of S.E. Hinton’s character Ponyboy Curtis in the young adult novel “The Outsiders”), I had the opinion that the role of editor pretty much boiled down to being a copy editor, the leader of the hazardous “comma patrol” that must be run through most stories before they are published.
This opinion was further burnished in college when I got a B+ in a copy editing course. I actually did pretty well in everything except headline-writing, at which I failed miserably because it required that I master the now-archaic skill of producing titles that fit with in a specified “count,” but the course put a bad taste in my mouth for editing. I decided I really was a writer, and should focus my energies on marketing my prose-crafting skills to the world.
That would have been lovely, except for the fact that the world I encountered after j-school graduation seemed to need editors a lot more acutely than it needed writers. Or if they needed writers, they needed authors who could re-write the prose of executives, line managers, degreed professionals, or volunteer retirees.
Despite working at several jobs with the title “editor,” it wasn’t until 2005 that I realized how much of an editor I was, or had become. I attended a conference hosted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s College and University Editor group, and heard Jacqui Banaszynski describe the story coaching method she used with her writers at the Seattle Times.
Story coach. There was an editorial metaphor I could get behind. I suddenly realized that my view of myself as primarily a proofreader and fact-checker for my publication’s writers had been very, very incomplete.
After my editorial epiphany, I started collecting metaphors for the sort of editing I’ve done, primarily as a managing editor for magazines and other print publications. (I’ve also done quite a bit of multimedia production, but that’s another topic for another day.) Beyond having a good command of language and grammar and style, as a good copy editor does, a managing or assignment editor is also a(n)…
Project Manger. For publications that run more than about 16 pages, and have advertisements, having one person who plans the entire issue’s content, and can monitor its journey from idea to completed draft, is essential. Someone has to be there to work out the kinks in workflow (and even to recognize there is such a thing as workflow!).
Traffic Cop. Knowing where the missing story is for next issue is one thing; having the wherewithal to go find out what’s wrong and how to get if fixed is another. Editors have to advocate for what’s best for their publication—from the quality of the articles to how they are presented in the design to their impact on readers.
Architect. Editors have to be conversant in structure, both on the level of an individual story and the structure of an entire issue of a periodical. They have to be able to help writers construct articles that will withstand reader inspection, and they have to be able to design a space where an entire of “community” of articles can live and play together in a manner appealing to outside visitors (= readers).
Mom. As an editor, I am a professional hand-holder and on occasion, a butt-wiper. I make sure stories have everything they need to thrive, and help clean up the messes that are made along the way. I have to care about my stories and my publication more than almost anyone else on staff. I can never foist responsibility for their development on anyone else.
8th grade English teacher. Ahh, middle school English—in my time, 8th grade was the year everyone drilled on sentence diagramming and the parts of speech. Editors have to care about proper language use—not primarily because we’re the guardians of civilized syntax, but because poorly constructed sentences distract from good thinking and consistency in writing helps the story shine through.
Coach. As I said earlier, this was the metaphor that resonated most deeply for me. I’m thinking of a life coach or voice coach for my parallels, not Vince Lombardi. My job is to help the story—and the writer—be all that he, she or it can be. It’s a collaborative relationship which, if done correctly, provides benefits for everyone.
And while we’re on the subject of roles, there are a few roles I’d rather not be cast in as an editor.
A Sadist. I don’t send stories back for revision to shame or humiliate writers. If you want that sort of relationship with an editor, please find a professional dominant and work out your issues.
A Writer’s Enemy. If the story fails, I fail, too. Period. My aim is to support my writers so that they can provide deliverables that do the job assigned in as few drafts as possible.
A Frustrated, Mediocre Writer. I didn’t become an editor because I couldn’t write. Quite the contrary — and the more I learn about editing, the better able I am to apply it to my own writing. In my mind, an editor who “can’t” write is suspect as an editor.
Miss Priss. I have had some contributors, often less-experienced writers, seem to fear my opinion of their writing, as if I existed as an editor to lacerate their initial efforts at writing. I don’t take joy in marking up poorly written copy (see the I-am-not-an-editorial-sadist statement above); what I enjoy is the challenge of making it better. What I find is that more experienced, confident writers feel the least defensive around editors; they tend to be the most realistic about their writing ability, and trust and appreciate the benefits they receive from collaborating with an editor.

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From the archives: In Praise of Zero Drafts

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Photo courtesy SXC.

Today’s post is a repeat of a popular post from last August related to the joys of drafts that precede the actual structuring of a nonfiction story. Enjoy!

In Praise of Zero Drafts

I’ve been told by freelance writers, when I describe to them my approach to writing, that I write like an editor. Perhaps I do.

One time I was comparing notes with one of my writers, and she told me that producing copy is never an issue for her—but she chokes on editing her own work, to the point that she hires an editor friend to polish her work before she submits it for publication. I, on the other hand, typically have to squeeze out my first draft. But once I have something out on paper, I can edit, rearrange and manipulate the content to my heart’s content—with my own writing, I feel that everything is negotiable once I have a draft to play with.

If you tend to choke on producing early drafts, learning how to write a “zero draft” may be a path out of writer’s block. A zero draft is what you write before you write the rough draft. It’s a no-structure, no-holds-barred, no-one-is-gonna-see-this brain-dump that lets you exorcise the demons (or angels) of this particular story, so you can see what you have and begin structuring your material. It’s the functional equivalent to dumping a box of Legos out on a table to see how many pieces (and what kind) you have before you begin building something.

In their amazing work, “Coaching Writers,” Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry recommend that newsroom editors working with writers who can’t figure out where to begin their stories to write a zero draft in the form of a short note to the editor, describing what information they gathered during their field reporting. The technique gets the focus off wrestling with the structure of the story, and pours it into a format that everyone understands—the personal letter.

For example,

“Dear Liz,

I went to report at the Democratic National Convention, but got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam. I stepped out of my car and talked to Denver commuters about how the convention is impacting their city. Some people loved it and the money it was bringing in, some people hated how it brought the traffic and city services to a screeching halt, but everyone had an opinion about what a mega-event like this one does to a city the size of Denver. By the time I got to the convention, I felt as if this was the story, and not what was going on at the convention center.

Sincerely, A. Writer.”

In just a few sentences, our writer has identified a story line, key points of interest (perhaps useful in the lead or nut graph) and even a bit of a tentative structure (perhaps point-counterpoint, or issue-by-issue debates on the impact of the event?). If he or she had been trying to cook up a great first-person sight-and-sound lead, he/she might have lost track of the other details, or how they would support the flow of the story once their lead anecdote was over.

Another zero draft technique, as I alluded to earlier, is the brain-dump. This could be a list of anecdotes, facts, quotes, descriptions, etc., that you found gripping or which you can’t get out of your head in relation to your story. Do not try to write a lead, a nut graph or transitions that will survive into the rough draft. Just get what you know on paper.

Put your zero draft away long enough to do a load of laundry, mow the yard, drink a beer—whatever—then come back to it. You need time away to let your brain work on the structural part subconsciously. When you’re ready, review your draft, circling repeating patterns, good bits of description or exposition, information that naturally works as a transition, belongs in the lead, etc. You can use your notes on the zero draft to create an outline/mindmap/storyboard for the piece, or you can just refer to it as you do your first real draft—since now have now made your thinking visible, you can sculpt it to serve the needs of your assignment.

Another technique that can get you over the what-to-write hump is known as “scaffolding.” This is useful when you have a pretty good idea what to say but you’re not as sure where to jump into the story. Roy Peter Clark discussed how he used the scaffolding technique recently to write an article about the late Tim Russert; it’s a great way to acknowledge that your story will change from draft to draft, and to write your way into the story.

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Writing Crap & Shitty First Drafts

English professor and writing teacher Elizabeth Kleinfeld holds forth about the benefits of a zero draft on her revisionspiral blog.

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing

Another take on zero drafts, from the perspective of academic writing.

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft

This brief article, posted at uliveandlearn.com, shows some ways you can use analog paper-based methods to repurpose your zero draft as a story map or visual outline of your work.

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