REPORTER: Attention. Attention please. Richard Holbrooke is dead.
REPORTER (Washington Post): As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”
REPORTER 2 (NY Daily News): Richard Holbrooke spent his last breaths pleading for an end to the U.S’s nine year campaign in Afghanistan–
REPORTER 3 (Foreign Policy): Did he oppose the war? Was he–Holbrooke the dove?
REPORTER 4 (New York Post): HOLBROOKE: DEATHBED PEACE PLEA!
SPOKESMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: Oh, fuck.
REPORTER 5 (The Spectator): The “you” refers to Pakistan! The New York surgeon operating on his heart was born in Pakistan! And everyone agrees that Afghanistan can’t be “solved” without Pakistan!
SPOKESMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: Excuse me, gentlemen? It was a joke. Ha-ha.
Imagine you just became the the editor of a weekly magazine. You produce a 16ish-page tab once a week, plus whatever you want on the web. You have no advertisers, no responsibility to earn money, and a bunch of smart, ambitious college students willing to work for free. Your weekly has a tradition of printing old-school longform narrative cover stories, plus embarrassing party photos and snarky columns. But you’re having a bit of an identity crisis. Blogging has taken off, which means many of the stories you used to cover are now blogged first, and in a conversational tone that used to be your distinctive voice.
What do you do?
I had this conversation yesterday with one of the new editors of The Harvard Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Their first reaction to the growth of The Crimson’s news blog is to focus on more and better narrative journalism. Awesome, right? Remember: They don’t have to abase themselves for page views!
My advice for them: 1) Jump into Twitter. Find ideas and readers there 2) Do fewer stories but make them awesome 3) Let your writers find weird, idosyncratic stories they’re passionate about, rather than dutiful “issue” reporting 4) Become a platform for the campus’ smartest student bloggers. They have ideas. You have eyeballs. Make like The Atlantic, and put them together. 5) Take a look at Longshot Magazine, and invent some experiments of your own. 6) Think of yourself as a magazine based at a university, not just a magazine of undergraduate life 7) Try anything. You will never get an opportunity like this again.
What advice would you give them? What would you do if you got to run a magazine for a year–without worrying about profit?
In the cities and towns of Mexico, the main plaza is usually called the
zocalo. It is a marvelous social institution. Along the sides of most such
public squares are the city hall, the central police station, and the
church. There is a often a band shell in the center, surrounded by a park,
with benches under the trees and shoeshine boys and newsdealers.
Last week I wrote a very short play inspired by the myth of Actaeon and the mechanics of vision. It’s a first draft, etc. etc. )
A VOICE OR VOICES
First, make a room like your eye. Completely dark.
Seal up the cracks. A curtain over the door.
It doesn’t have to be a room
A shoebox. Some spare cardboard
It could be a room. It could
The important thing
On Monday, Matt Thompson, Robin Sloan, and Tim Carmody (aka The Snarkmarket) got me thinking about Marc Ambinder’s farewell to the blogging life. I worked out some of these ideas talking about Zadie Smith, but I had more to say about the problem of a consistent persona in journalism in particular. I posted this comment on Matt Thompson’s measured evaluation of whether Ambinder’s take on blogging was really mainly applicable to the shouty, egoful world of political blogging. Afterwards, Robin Sloan did a masterful round-up-sum-up, in grand Discussion Seminar fashion.
Matt, I think you make a great point that Ambinder’s characterization of blogging is in many ways particular to the crowded, ego-heavy DC blog world that he inhabited. But I also think that his criticisms of the demands of an online persona apply more broadly to the different kinds of blogging than you give him credit for.
For the past three years, I’ve heard over and over that journalists must develop a “personal brand” in order to survive in the new world of web journalism. Get a blog, get on Twitter—get an audience, or you’re toast. This idea surfaces regularly in lists of advice for journalism students. I’ve even heard a proposal or two that he journalism of the future will be supported not by advertising or by subscription costs, but by fan club sales: buy a t-shirt from your favorite narrative journalist! Look—a coffee mug with a picture of Susan Orlean’s chicken! I think Ambinder’s essay is important because it’s the first time I’ve heard pushback on this idea from a journalist who was very successful in making himself a personal brand. I read Ambinder’s farewell to blogging as his desire to de-brandify himself, to retreat from the persona he had created.
Over at The Atlantic, I wrote a long response to Alexis Madrigal’s long (and beautiful) take on Zadie Smith’s even longer “Generation Why” NYRB essay on the “stoic,” “sophomoric” world of Facebook. Here’s my initial response . It’s worth noting that there ‘s a certain geneology to our three responses. In 2003, Mark Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard. So was Alexis. Zadie Smith was a visiting fellow there. And I was an hour north of them, at Mark Zuckerberg’s high school, spending Saturday nights flipping through a book of student photographs called “The Facebook” and daring my friends to prank call the cutest boys.
I think Smith’s argument has a lot in common with an essay published earlier today by The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder about why he has decided to leave blogging behind. As media professor Jay Rosen put it, Ambinder concluded that it was “exhausting to articulate and defend an online persona.”
“Blogging is an ego-intensive process,” Ambinder wrote. “Even in straight news stories, the format always requires you to put yourself into narrative… What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called “Marc Ambinder” that people read because it’s “Marc Ambinder,” rather than because it’s good or interesting.”
It seems to me that there’s a lot of overlap in the ways that Ambinder and Zadie Smith are reacting to the social web. As a Facebook user, as a blogger, you are asked to perform a fixed identity. Both the journalist and the novelist balk at this. They do not want to be made coherent. In literature, people with coherent personalities are frowned upon. Social media encourages them. It asks us to make ourselves into flat characters.
Ken Doctor has a smart Newsonomics piece on NiemanLab today about the hiring of “star journalists” by big companies like Yahoo and AOL, and how this suggests an emerging news economy with two very separate tiers of content producers:
The likely result of these moves? By 2015, news companies will pay top dollar, and pound, euro and yen, for top-end talent, and they’ll pay as little as possible for good-enough newsy content that fills many topical and local niches. Over the next several years, the most successful media brands will have mastered better the economics of pro-am journalism.
As a young journalist, my first thought, of course, is: how are would-be journalists going to get the experience to make it into the ” star” league?
Storify bills itself as a way to turn the overwhelming torrent of social media data into compact, lasting stories…More than any program I’ve used, Storify feels like it was built by people who know how journalists work—and, in particular,how web journalists are being taught to work right now. One of Storify’s founders, Burt Herman, spent a decade as an AP reporter, and his insider’s perspective really shows in the final product.
I expect to be using it on this blog in the future–for Tweet conversation roundups, to begin with, and hopefully for text-heavier posts as they refine the program’s text tools.