Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category
Tardiness, informal footwear, or talking out of turn will earn students a punishment that they call an “A.P. Style,” which means writing out a section of The Associated Press stylebook by hand. It takes, they say, four hours.
Every year around this time, the subscription to the online Wall Street Journal comes around and I send money that winds up in one of the infinite number of bank accounts controlled by one of the worst men in media. Each year the decision gets harder — the A-heds get shorter and less surprising, the wall between the news and opinion operations gets knocked down a bit more, and the paper continues to let its focus on financial journalism go fuzzy — but in the end I renew my subscription. Even in its reduced state, the paper offers some strong journalism, particularly in those occasional areas where the Murdochs don’t have glaring interests or conflicts of interest. But each year I have less trouble imagining a world in which I don’t need the WSJ to get my job done. Maybe next year?
My daughter, a cult guitarist, and how journalists can become semicompetent programmers, pretty much in that order
Warning: this is a much longer post than what usually shows up on this blog, but it’s an attempt to answer an important question I get asked all too regularly.
I was in the living room, listening to Lydia’s computer in the dining room. She was listening to “Hammond Song,” my favorite performance by the Roches, and I was lost in Robert Fripp’s guitar solo. After that, I was hungry to hear some more Fripp (the only other Roches song I felt like listening to was “Losing True,” which moves me but is damn near the same song as “Hammond Song” so I passed). I’ve enjoyed Fripp’s work with other people (Bowie, Blondie, Talking Heads) although I’ve never owned a King Crimson record. I saw Fripp live twice in the early ’80s, once at Irving Plaza leading his sharp, funky League of Gentlemen, once six months later at a WXPN benefit in Penn’s Houston Hall, when he was in Frippertronics mode. And that joint interview he did with Joe Strummer around the same time had an enormous influence on me as a beginning interviewer of rock stars.
I looked up Fripp on Spotify and was greeted not by music, but a recording of a keynote address he gave to a conference of motivational speakers, among them his sister. I found the talk engaging, adventurous, and practical; if you have Spotify, check it out.
Among many other gifts, the talk offered a great contradictory lesson. Several times during it, Fripp talked about how important it is to work with people who are better than you. True, and I try to do that whenever I can, but Fripp delivered insight after insight during the talk; he wasn’t learning from anyone else there, he was helping everyone else there. It’s a lovely, humble talk about mastery.
As I continue to get not younger, I understand more and more the value of surrounding myself, both in my work life and in my life life, with people who are better than me. But every now and then I get the chance to help someone else — I have learned a few things — and this blog gives me a chance to pass on what I’ve learned publicly. Here’s a question I get asked at least weekly, both by fellow veterans and newcomers to my profession: I’m a journalist and I’d like to continue being employed as a journalist. Everywhere I read that an employable journalist is as competent with 0s and 1s as I am with nouns and verbs. Does that mean I need to become a computer programmer?
Back when I helped out at GNN, O’Reilly’s early online service, and Delphi, the first of many online services that Rupert Murdoch’s ownership ruined, I thought there might be a brief opening for an editorial person who “got” the web. (Fortunately, almost two decades later, that window hasn’t closed yet.) One of the ways I’ve been able to make a go of it has been to learn how to program.
The idea is to make computer programming one of the tools in your journalistic kit, something that makes it easier for employers or clients to work with you. I once pitched a project conducting an online survey for a syndicated research firm and one of the reasons I got the gig was that I was able to do the whole project myself, not just designing the survey and interpreting the results, but also getting a working survey onto the web. These were in the pre-SurveyMonkey days when you needed to be able to do some grunt-level coding (in that case, in Perl) to create an online survey. I did plenty more work with that company in the years that followed; most of it was straight editorial, but knowing I could solve a technology problem independently made my client more comfortable keeping me around.
Although there are particular skills a programming journalist needs, what the ability to code offers a writer more than anything else is a way, an approach, even more than specific, problem-solving skills. To be a competent computer programmer, even for relatively simple web-based programs, you have to be able to break down a complex problem into small, manageable pieces. That’s a career skill, a life skill, and it’s something that programming forces you to do if you want to get any good at it. I’ve never been able to code for hours as if under a spell, which professional programmers can do easily. I can get into that zone as a writer, but not as a programmer. As someone who’s more journalist than programmer, that will likely be the case for you, too, so you will not spend hours under headphones, able to keep disparate parts of a large coding matter in your mind at the same time. You’ll break your pseudocode into small, manageable chunks, and then go from pseudocode to real code.
And chances are you’re not just writing code, you’re editing code someone else has written. Whatever problem you’re trying to solve as a programmer/journalist, there’s a very good chance that you are not the first person who’s had to solve this problem. Any popular language you are working with will have repositories all over the web of publicly available code that can solve at least part of your problem with only minimal customization, and, more important to your development, show you how other people approached the same issues. Curious journalist/programmers don’t just paste in code; they read it over — just like a beginning journalist reads John McPhee or Robert Caro — to learn how the pros do it. Then they make their own way.
That’s how you might want to proceed conceptually. Here are some admittedly idiosyncratic recommendations regarding what particular skills a journalist/programmer could use. (And I mean use practically. My favorite language to work in, the Lisp dialect Scheme, as taught in the beloved wizard book, is a learning language only. I’m more likely to get paid as a theremin roadie than as a Scheme programmer.)
The foundation: HTML/CSS/HTML5. Thanks to visual tools, journalists can work in web publishing with minimal exposure to HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). That’s not a good thing; it prevents journalists from knowing even the rudiments of the platform they’re working on. It’s hard to produce a vivid sound recording without knowing how to work a physical or virtual mixing board; similarly, how can you make your story work best on the web, tablets, and mobile devices if you don’t have a basic understanding of what the formats can do? HTML isn’t even full-fledged coding. It’s more page layout. Understanding HTML is not much harder than understanding how to use early DOS word processors like WordStar and XyWrite, programs that made you explicitly underline, etc.
The two steps after HTML are CSS and HTML5. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) gives more precise layout tools and makes it easier to separate content from layout. HTML5, the latest version of the HTML standard, is still under development, but it’s already being used on many websites and in many web applications, particularly those aiming for tablets and mobile devices. There are an avalanche of useful new commands in HTML5 that make it much easier to integrate multimedia (HTML5′s ability to do this is one of the reasons Adobe’s more cumbersome Flash format is going away).
You don’t have to memorize too much HTML(5)/CSS syntax; there are plenty of online and offline resources. And don’t worry about learning explicitly what every last command parameter can do. The key is to know what tools are available and have a general sense of which one will get you out of which types of problems. You don’t have to know everything; you’ll know when you know enough.
You also need to know how to manage a database. In the late ’90s, when I got serious about educating myself as a journalist who could program, I became a great fan of Philip Greenspun, particularly his book Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing. In addition to being a physically beautiful object (Greenspun is an accomplished and very opinionated photographer), the Guide spelled out what anyone who had aspirations of becoming a web programmer had to know. Greenspun’s knowledge and style placed his book high above the “Teach Yourself TK in 21 Days” books that were popular at the time. He was rigorous, he was funny, and his approach made you want to learn. In particular, he showed why being able to manage a database was the key to building and maintaining any real website. That’s still the case: the fancy content management systems journalists use today, from bare-bones blog-building systems like WordPress to the more bloated “enterprise” systems, are customized databases. Many database systems are built around SQL; Greenspun has a guide to SQL, too, but don’t attempt that before you’ve got a good grounding in web technologies.
Finally, learn one language, any language (parenthetical removed; see why in the comments). There are plenty of arguments for learning plenty of different languages, but I think journalists entering the word of programming are best-served by learning Python. The tools you pick up are reasonably transferable to other languages, Python is built into OS X so you don’t have to install it, and how can you dislike a language with metasyntactic variables (spam and eggs) that clearly came from Monty Python?
Best of all, Python is a strong learning language. MIT uses it to teach people how to think like programmers. You can download the course text, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning With Python, to get a sense of how Python is a useful vehicle for starting programming. Python is also used as the entry language for my alma mater O’Reilly’s useful and entertaining Head First series for new programmers. Python is a powerful scripting language for web apps, but for someone who intends to be a journalist first and a programmer second (or tenth), it’s just a smart way in.
I am far from a professional programmer. Folks hire me because of my editorial and consulting skills, not because I can code kickass regular expressions (I can’t). But learning how to program lets me understand a problem from more sides and makes it more likely that I can help a company figure out how to solve it. Learning how to program has helped me and I hope it helps you too. I also hope this answers the question of how to become a journalist/programmer adequately; I’m going to point people who ask me that here from now on.
Even if you’re a journalist who never wants to write a line of code professionally, you can become a better digital journalist if you understand the technologies without which no one could ever experience your journalism. And the best way to understand is to do. One of the aspects I enjoyed most of the Robert Fripp talk I wrote about at the top of the post is that it captures the joy of learning something, getting better at it, and mastering it. While I was finishing this post, I heard the Roches’ “Hammond Song” coming from another room once again. But my daughter wasn’t listening to the Roches anymore. She had mastered the song and now she was singing it herself.
I don’t want to have any print newspapers dropped onto the sidewalk in front of our house, but I have two of ‘em now waiting for me on Sundays. Turns out it’s less expensive to have Sunday print + digital subscriptions to The New York Times and The Boston Globe than to get digital-only subscriptions, so to save a few bucks I’m doing the ecologically wrong thing by having someone drop yesterday’s news onto the sidewalk.
But I’m not here to complain. I’m here to wonder: Is there an opportunity here for newspapers to use their Sunday papers as something other than necessary add-ons during this transition period when print readers are worth so much more to publishers and advertisers than digital readers? Let’s pay a visit to our most ridiculous 2012 presidential candidate for a hint.
Saturday afternoon I was doing some laundry in the basement and wanted some news to keep me company during the mundane task. It was the hour that the Herman Cain am-I-done-yet? announcement was expected, so I tuned into a livestream and started sorting the clothes. Cain wasn’t onstage yet, but a series of supporters, probably not knowing that he was about to desert them as they dedicated his new campaign headquarters, made the case for him.
One of those speakers got my attention more than I’d expected. He spoke of going on a recent Sunday to a store to pick up a copy of his local paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. There was a sign noting that copies of the AJC were available only behind the counter, which he hadn’t seen before, so he got in line to buy the paper. The woman in front of him in line needed some extra money to complete her transaction, so she went to her car to get more cash and he stepped up to the register. He asked why the newspapers were behind the counter, and the cashier told him that people were stealing the coupons inside the paper and leaving the rest of it. Then the woman who needed extra money returned and completed her transaction: she was buying six copies of the day’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The speaker used this story as a way into an indictment of Obama’s economic policies (it was a reach), but I heard something different: a chance for print newspapers to grab relevance at a time when the few bucks it costs to buy a Sunday paper is a purchase millions of Americans have to think over. I know it’s stupid to suggest action based on a sample size of one, especially if that sample thought Herman Cain was a genuine candidate for president, but think about it. As my pal Scott Kirsner pointed out to me last week, the best newspapers create value for their readers: they uncover corruption, they keep people informed, they save readers from bad restaurants. And in these tough, tough times, newspapers can save readers money. Embrace that! Who in this age wouldn’t spend $3 to save $30? Newspapers could promote the quantity of the savings along with the quality of the coverage. And that gives newspapers more readers to give to more advertisers, who would buy more ads with rmore discounts. Everyone wins, in the short term. It’s no solution to the big issues newspapers have to face, but it’s a short-term fix that does no harm and may bring in new readers. Come for the discounts and we’ll give you the news, too!
P.S. Just as science fiction beats real science to the punch, the newspaper satirists got here before real newspapers: The Chicago Tribune moves to an all-Beyonce-and-coupons format in one of the greatest-ever Onion videos.
My friend Brian Johnson, the only human (as opposed to corporation) who regularly sends me physical mail, sent me the “A” sections of the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle the day after Steve Jobs did something simultaneously unthinkable and inevitable. If you’ve been away and off the grid: Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple, the company he founded, was fired from, and returned to at its near-death nadir to make it one of the most successful and influential companies of the past half-century. Both sections gave Jobs all their above-the-fold space, and the saturation coverage continues everywhere (including on the HBR Blog Network, where I hang my hat).
It seems like every media outlet on the planet is considering Jobs and his legacy. There is overload already, but that’s because there are almost as many ways to look at Steve Jobs as there are apps for his devices. There’s the entrepreneur, the visionary, the Bob Dylan fan, the competitor, the Microsoft taunter, the Disney tamer, the control freak, the presenter, the user advocate, the cranky communicator, the media tycoon, the media manipulator, the difficult negotiator, the design obsessive, the executive, the aphorist, the … well, you get the idea. We’ll read all these stories because there are so many different ways of considering this complex, damn-near-iconic character.
I don’t get to the west coast much these days and Jobs hasn’t appeared on the east coast in many years, so the last time I saw him in person was at a joint appearance with Bill Gates at the D Conference in Carlsbad in May 2007. The Microsoft-taunting Steve was on display during that exclusive meeting of technology and media bigwigs — the night before the joint appearance he likened iTunes software on the Windows platform to “a drink of ice water in Hell.” (Which makes Gates the Devil?) During the session with Gates, Jobs spoke of what happened at Apple while he was exiled at NeXT. When he said in-between CEO Gil Amelio thought Apple was a ship with a hole in the bottom and sought to fix it by turning the ship in a different direction, the unhappiness of decades ago seemed raw and very present. Unlike his many perfected product presentations, Jobs came across like a real, unmediated, complicated human being. As we consider the lessons we can derive from his work, let’s not lose that human being.
There are 22 stories on the front page of NYTimes.com right now (Sunday night, March 13, 2011, 815pm). None of them are about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are 64 links on the front page of NYTimes.com right now, not counting navigational tools or administrivia. None of them lead to stories about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This morning, on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Comm. Ave., I saw a Globe delivery truck. On the side of that truck was an ad for one of the many things that will make such delivery trucks disappear. (It won’t be the anemic Globe Reader that kills the physical-newspapers-to-your-home service, but it will be something delivered in a similar manner.)
Twenty or 30 years from now, when I tell my grandchildren that news from the day before used to be dumped by a truck at the end of a driveway, they’ll roll their eyes. Old news? By truck? There goes the crazy old man again…
Good morning. For much of yesterday, the top two stories on business websites were the latest twists in antitrust cases against Microsoft (dropped) and Intel (doubled down). It sent me back to a time when I would wake up around 5 a.m. and one of the first things I had to think about was what was happening with various Microsoft and Intel legal actions. I had to think about that because of what I did for a living. For a few years I was editor of Media Grok, a daily email newsletter published by The Industry Standard; after The Standard went under, we secured independent funding and I was editor and publisher of Media Unspun. (We had to change the name because we were unwilling to pay the extortion fee IDG wanted to use the “Grok” name.)
The mission of Grok and Unspun was pretty specific: identify the two or three most important Internet economy stories of the day, summarize them, summarize the media coverage of them, present it to readers with both humor and context, do it briefly, and get it all to them by 9 a.m. Until the dot-com bubble popped, there were plenty of people who wanted their tech news served with attitude and there was a good business there. After 2001, it was hard to find anything funny in yet another layoff or bankruptcy story. Eventually, we went under as well. If you’d like to see what Media Unspun was about all those years ago, I just found our archive.
I loved the work, both for The Standard and on our own dime. Our year-and-change as a startup was particularly exciting and all-encompassing. Aside from writing and editing, I learned a great deal about selling advertising, getting paid for advertising (and not getting paid for advertising), circulation, spam filters, primitive search engine optimization, and, most of all, customer service. We were a rare early-in-the-decade non-porn-or-WSJ content play that people had to pay for, and when people sent us their credit card number many of them felt they were joining a club. When you join a club, you want to talk to the people in it. Those hundreds of conversations, sometimes about what we were doing wrong, improved the product on a daily basis and kept us connected.
I’m happy right now, but when I saw the headlines about Microsoft and Intel yesterday it hit me how I miss the project, the people I was lucky enough to work with on it, and the people we did it for. Microsoft and Intel are in court; someone has to crack a smart, telling joke about it.
(Your best bet nowadays for well-informed snark: John Paczkowski, ex of Good Morning Silicon Valley, who continues to illuminate and crack up the industry with his Digital Daily at All Things Digital.)
Over on PaidContent, Staci Kramer, ace reporter and Jill Sobule fan, reports AP Launching Newspaper Industry Campaign To ‘Protect’ News Content. Oy vey. If the people running newspapers and wire services (both now antiquated terms) think that aggregators stealing their content, rather than their own inability to navigate the dynastic shift I mention here, is their biggest problem, maybe they do deserve to go away. Those aggregators are giving the newspapers new customers. Why don’t the newspapers welcome (and focus on monetizing) their new customers rather than hope to sue away new technologies and business models? I’m having a how-the-record-industry-treated-Napster-in-a-way-that-hastened-its-own-demise flashback.
UPDATE: Staci has a super analysis follow-up today. I reproduce the lede in full: “Those of you who have never owned a mercury thermometer and a tiled floor at the same time probably won’t get this but the Associated Press campaign to “protect” news content is the online equivalent of trying to pick up mercury after you drop the glass thermometer. It’s virtually impossible to pick it all up and maddening to try. The AP and the news industry won’t be able to pick up all of the ways news content is used, even with the most sophisticated tagging or other technologies. And even if they manage to do so, they won’t be able to stop it all.”
By the time The Boston Globe arrived Saturday morning with the ominous headline Times Co. Threatens To Shut Globe, it was old news and that’s the problem. The story had been broken the day before by Adam Reilly at The Boston Phoenix and Monica Brady-Myerov at WBUR, both via electronic media; by the time the newspaper landed with a very light thud at homes and newsstands, the story had moved along. On Saturday morning, the initial shock had moved on to questions about management’s negotiation tactics and other meta-issues. The bloggers and microbloggers had taken over the story.
The Boston Globe is an inconsistent newspaper. Some sections, particularly Washington and Metro, are strong; others, like Sports, are driven by personality and trivia; still others, like Living/Arts, are so full of factual and conceptual errors that they rise to mediocrity only on a very good day. But none of that may matter when considering the survival of the newspaper. The life-threatening problem facing The Boston Globe is not, primarily, a content problem. The Boston Globe is middling and The New York Times may be the best in the English language, but they both face the same problem: a combination technology and business problem that adds up to a dynastic problem.
It’s the end of the print dynasty as the primary delivery mechanism for the content typically housed in a newspaper. Although papers as different in quality as The Boston Globe and The New York Times have shrinking print readerships, they have strong and, in many cases, growing online readerships. People want their product — just not in the wrapper that the newspapers currently offer as their primary product. Indeed, the costs associated with delivering the newspapers on paper are so extraordinary that one enterprising reporter has imagined a dramatically different and provocative way to spend that money.
If I’m right that this is a dynastic problem, not a content problem, then better content — although always desirable — will not solve the profound problems facing newspapers. The businesspeople charged with saving the Globe, whether it be the current ownership or a new team, must confront the truth that cutting down trees, printing tree-based products on large machines, and delivering smaller packages via trucks, is a dead business model for the delivery of timely news.
I’m not arguing that print as a general medium is dead. I am arguing what should be self-evident, but isn’t to many in newspaper management: that print as a way to deliver timely news will soon be over. Smart folks at the Globe and the Times may well dream up tough-minded, profitable print products, but those print products will be expensive, low-volume, premium entries, not mass-market ones. There is a small but sustainable audience that will pay a premium price for a high-quality physical item, so long as it plays to the strength of a physical item, such as permanence, portability, and higher, more controllable production values. But that print product will be secondary to its electronically published siblings. Once publishers stop wrestling with that, they can focus entirely on building the future rather than resuscitating the past. Even those of us who see the Globe as far from perfect want it to survive — but the powers that be on Morrissey Avenue and across the street from Port Authority had better understand that the only way it can survive is in a far different form. Newspapers: you wanna live? Give us new products. Now.
(Disclosure: Between 1998 and 2006, I served on and off as a consultant to boston.com, The Boston Globe‘s website, and over the past 15 or so years I have written a grand total of one book review and two op-eds for The Globe, none more recent than 2005. )
Only in the seventh paragraph do we learn:
Mr. Bush will also announce a decision to increase American force levels in Afghanistan by about 4,500 troops, according to the draft of the speech.
It’s not a troop reduction. It’s a redeployment.
Just read about Lily Allen on Billboard. It’s the same piece, with similar sources, that was on Idolator yesterday. Indeed, in recent months, I’ve noticed that plenty of music-industry news stories in Billboard appeared one or two days earlier, with much the same sources and a lot more attitude and context, on Idolator. So why is there still Billboard?
I’m a student of magazine covers. I’m a hardcore Loisite, and I’ve spent decades exploring the best way to mix words and images so people cannot ignore the cover and must grab the magazine.
I’ve had the great pleasure of spending much of my career editing and writing for magazines. Those reading this who know me know that I love magazines. As a reader, I spend way too much time at newsstands. I love the immediacy of magazines. As an editor, I love getting words and pictures to tell stories together. I love trying to fill infinite content into a severely finite space. I even love the disposability of magazines: after this issue is done, I get to work on another one!
Some disclosure: I voted for Barack Obama in the Massachusetts primary and intend to vote for him in November, but I am not among his more enthusiastic supporters. I wrote more than 100 reviews and articles for Rolling Stone during the ’80s, but I lost interest with it during the ’90s and receive it now only because it came as a free offer when I bought a DVD earlier this year. The text of the recent issue is full of both cliches and factual errors (sample of the latter: the Kinman Brothers will be surprised to learn that Alejandro Escovedo “fronted” Rank and File), so I’ll stop receiving the magazine as soon as they stop sending me free copies. That noted, I believe the cover of the new issue of the magazine, featuring Obama, is the most arresting magazine cover I’ve seen in years.
Magazines are about words and images working together, although sometimes words can detract from an image. Is there anything that the cover image of Obama doesn’t say to the reader? It tells you who it’s about and what Rolling Stone thinks about him: everything about content and approach is embedded in the bold image. The smile is 1,000-watt, the (digitally enhanced?) wrinkles coming out of his eyes convey that this guy isn’t too young for the job he wants, and the American flag lapel pin wouldn’t pop more unless the cover was 3-D. And how important does Rolling Stone think Obama is? Important enough to cover half the words in the name of the magazine. That’s an old trick, but it’s especially powerful here.
This cover is particularly powerful when you compare it to this recent one that tried to accomplish something similar with its design (although, of course, the politicians and their predicaments are far different):
The Rolling Stone cover makes a starker impact because the designer went 100% of the way: no words. The New York cover cheats. The “<-Brain” thing works because it’s as much a pure graphic element as a word with an arrow, but the words in the top left of the page are a waste. They distract. “The Governor’s Fall” reads the headline. Please. When that cover appeared, mere days after Spitzer and his power evaporated, did anyone in the New York reading public not know who Eliot Spitzer was or what he had done? (The subhead, with its pointless navigation, adds to the offense.) The cover, a step away from brilliant, loses its way because the committee that vetted it didn’t trust the arresting image at its core. Words are important. But sometimes words get in the way, too.
I think the reasoning goes something like this:
If it happens to three people, it’s a trend.
If it happens to two people and I know one of them, it’s a trend.
If it happens to me, it’s a trend.