Archives for posts with tag: journalism

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. — A. J. Liebling

Press critic A. J. Liebling

I was once talking to a publisher of very fancy books and he was complaining how his edition of Gary Snyder’s latest, I think it was, had sold only 12,000 copies.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

Virginia Woolf, to whom I keep referring because she is the one thing I know almost everything about, having realized, when I set out to be a reporter, 43 years ago, that it would be a state of being one mile wide and one inch deep, and if I wanted any self-respect at all, I needed to know everything about one thing, and it was she, was her own publisher.

Famously, she said it gave her the freedom to write some of 20th century modernity’s earliest works. This includes experimental novels like The Waves, which goes up blow-for-blow against Ulysses. In fact the Hogarth Press which she founded with her husband, for which she was both typesetter and  reader, turned down the opportunity to publish Ulysses in 1919.

Much has been made of what Virginia, who may be the finest literary critic of the 20th century, did not like and what she stole from Ulysses.

But as a matter of fact her husband, Leonard, who did the heavy lifting as publisher, writes that they decided to print it if they could find a printer willing to risk it. He showed Ulysses to two printers, and they “said no respectable printer would have anything to do with it, for the publisher and the printer of it would certainly be prosecuted.” [Beginning Again, 247]

Virginia’s ownership of her own means of production, her sales, her “platform” as the daughter of England’s foremost literary journalist, who herself made a living writing book reviews, have always been a part of my thinking about book sales and newspaper circulation. Her masterpiece, well-reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, had two print runs, the first of 7,000 and the second, in the same year, of 5,000.[The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, 48, Note 3.]

The Waves will be read as long as people have eyes. Gary Snyder won’t be. To sell 12,000 copies of a truly arcane novel, in 1931, or late 20th century beatnik poetry, in 1996, is an fn miracle of literacy and good fortune.

To think that there are 12,000 people who can read arcana, and have the money to buy the book — last I checked fancy editions of Snyder are selling for $41 — is unprecedented in history. Snyder’s publisher was certainly thinking about the Dan Brown ball park, or maybe Tupac’s, and I made him pay for lunch because a.) he made fun of the waitress’ pronunciation and b.) he was so clearly delusional.

The paradigm is this: nobody goes into the quality writing business to make money. If you want to be Dan Brown, be Dan Brown. If you’re a poet, or a journalist, or the 20th century’s best writer of fiction, repeat after me. You’re not in this for the money, and you’re not going to make any, and 12,000 in sales is a miracle in the history of mankind.

If you’re a newspaper publisher, you’re not in it for the money. If you’re a rich Silicon Valley start up entrepeneur, and like nouveaux riches throughout the history of money, you find yourself mesmerized by the prospect of being a “newspaper” “publisher”, for lack of a better term, because of the supposed political entree, clout and social cachet that entails — oh! what fun we’ll have eating with Gwen Ifill and Ram Emmanuel in our kewel Watergate offices overlooking the Potomac! — you need to do four things.

Prepare to lose all your money, to have a separate income stream, to reinvent online journalism so as to monetize itself, or if you’re to produce real online journalism, suffer the circulation/advertising/monetizing consequences. Or else.

Finance is not my bailiwick. I don’t need to know the multiplication tables to see which way the wind and the invention of fiduciary instruments like sending college kids credit cards or bundling mortgages, blows. Craigslist has gutted newspaper revenues.  Newspaper advertising sales people are the slowest on the digital uptake.  Next?

Harvard’s Nieman people and the Columbia Journalism Review and the Project for Excellence in Journalism are among the serious players on the case. PEJ to be most trusted because they actually talk to working journalists about revenues and circulation.

Here we have Nieman, who are fanboyz, interviewing Ben Huh, the progenitor of I Can Haz Cheezburger. Huh, like every plutocrat since the beginning of time, is being sucked into the glamourous world, as he sees it, of “newspaper” “publication”. He is going to take his Cheez revenues and reinvent the news.

Ben Huh reinvents the news with his I Can Haz Cheezburger pelf.

Let me say, first of all, I dote on I Can Haz Cheezburger.  Because I am and always have been, despite certain bluestocking tastes, a Downtown Girl, and what I think of as the Digital Watercooler Journalism — we all hang around cyberspace looking at LOL cats and reading aggregated Gawker riffs about John Travolta’s private parts as we trudge through our digi day — is a true benison of socially redeeming importance to all us cyberdrones.

As for Ben Huh’s ideas about journalism, keep your knees together and your hands on your wallet.

Next up:


monetize with conferences or salons or kaplan

PEJ — it’s reconforming truth: kickstart journalism, pro publica

Thursdays are always a big day in the journalism world. It is the day of the week when the femme edition of the New York Times comes out, with both Styles and Home sections full of ads for weekend shoppers.

I started out in life writing for one of the so-called soft news sections of a great metropolitan daily newspaper. Not only was it not soft news, it was the only way to cover what was happening, the only real news written in the hard-fought style of the New Journalism. Tracking the permutations of the so-called soft news sections of the newspaper since the halcyon days when we invented rock ‘n’ roll, ended racial ‘n’ sexual discrimination ‘n’ The War, and invented the dear departed New Journalism, is the way of the ice floe.

Roz Russell and Cary Grant face off as reporters, His Girl Friday, 1940.

Oddly enough, I’ve been a fan of the derriere garde ladymags all these years, and when the Times femme section editors decide to be exciting and cover something New, like how to talk to your children about internet porn,  in the way of Home or Styles, something butch, like — I can’t remember the specific piece that made my heart sink recently. It wasn’t DIY wi-fi installation, wiring, real estate resale, asphalting your own driveway — all those things are femme these days, with my beloved house blogger chicks each and all wielding big bad power tools with enviable Born This Way girly muscles. Watching Ana White measure out roof trusses for the duplex she is building for her mother and mother-in-law, in Alaska, people, gives me the same thrill I felt forty years ago, first reading the famous Click essay by Jane O’Reilly in the incendiary, premier Ms. preview insert of New York magazine. Click. Yeah, I’m a feminist. You are too.

The NYT Home story that made my heart sink would have been in the soul-murdering R.W. Apple tradition of the Grey Lady, when she gets one of her very fast writers to churn out 5,000 words on such a re-re-rendering of received wisdom squeezed from a 500-year-old turnip, that you wonder if they’d know what news is if it bit them on the big grey booty. And there are real news stories out there in the Home and Styles world — how the one per cent live: techno MacMansions, the brutalist masculinist Playboy philosophy homes of the software moguls at the top of the Home list, and — well, there’s a million story ideas for Styles. Blatant elbows-out plagiarism among the MILF-porn house blogger bitches seeking monetization, for one thing.(What’s up with Heather Armstrong? Penelope Trunk? Yipes.) That whole suburban MILF-porn tube-top-‘n’-chandelier-earrings-SUV-devil-spawn-train-wreck phenom that kept my eyes glued to the nanny shows. Cheese with that? Yes, please.

Why it is I still look forward to the Thursday femme edition when it so seldom delivers news I’m far ahead of them on can only be attributed to nosiness. Glimpses of what other people are doing with their houses — the guy and his girlfriend with separate Caribbean Boho bungalows on a small tropical property, ohhh! — is pretty much all I care about, and it extends to Katherine Boo’s shacks in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi. How do you build and decorate one? All us survivalists, headed into 40 years of old age with no Social Security, need to know.

So today I open the femme edition. On page one, there’s a mysterious non-story about what didn’t happen when the Chinese dissident was forced out? — of the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

There was, as the lede of the Home section, a tour of the White House. Been there, done that. How about an interview with Michele’s mother, who didn’t want to move in because it was a museum? How did she deal? How about a story on the massive bunker/”Visitor Center”/green zone that has been built around the White House and under the Washington Monument since 9/11? In what way would the billions spent ward off either an airplane attack — was the Pennsylvania plane really headed for the White House? — or a handheld missile launcher attack by a pedestrian on 16th Street? You can buy one with your credit card in Alexandria. For realz. That’s a nice Home Land Security story, the closing by George W. Bush of the White House and Pennsylvania Avenue to the public. Where is it?

In Styles, a completely unreadable story by the wonderful Guy Trebay flogging something nobody gives a spit about — another ratfark art show, billed as possibly New York’s version of Art Basel Miami Beach. My eyes glaze over. Cover the cruising story, yes. The predatory collecting habits of the one per cent — the world-record shattering $120 million for a bad version of “The Scream”? — yes. The ratfark? The art? Is not the story. Sorry, Guy. It feels like the sports reporters who won’t cover the NFL brain injury/Junior Seau story. They fear, by covering the cruising/collecting stories, losing their access.

Give me Ana White and her pink power drill any day. And git ‘er done.

Don't call me.

Nearly 50 new civil claims for phone hacking against News International are surfacing in the UK, as a lawyer here in the states claims he has four clients with substantial and substantiated evidence of phone hacking by NI on US soil. Other American complainants of various things against various NI fronts, including Fox News, are coming forward, he says, without their cases yet being substantiated.

Rupert and James Murdoch both are to testify before the UK inquiry panel next week.

The 12th Murdoch-owned Sun journalist was arrested, this one for bribing police.

The retool of the Chicago News Cooperative, if not its demise, will be interesting to watch. It’s a group of Chicago newspaper journoes, of the big public interest story type that newspapers and wire services themselves now seem unwilling to fund. They covered Chicago, with a large grant from the MacArthur Foundation and a commitment from the NYT to publish two pages of news twice a week in the NYT Chicago edition. They were, in short, sustained by their commitment to be the NYT Chicago bureau, and the idea that a charity-supported news organization would the the outsource of news for the nation’s newspaper of record has a number of shitty ideas attached.

Before the NYT lept in and agreed to fund the coop, the coop had other ideas for supporting the gathering of big public interest news stories, one being the cultivation on the website of discussion groups the CJR piece below is calling “social media” groups, of people interested enough in particular issues — and stimulated in said interest by communication online with editors and reporters — to pay, as individuals, for coverage of said issues. Ie., flashmob or Kickstart-supported artistic projects. The story with the most votes would be crowned Homecoming Queen and literally monetized. The problem is that internet culture is notoriously self-policing, libertarian, male, predatory and bullying.

Flashmob-supported news isn’t so very different from the current model newsroom at the Washington Post, where the number of hits your piece is getting, in real time, is apparently posted on a scoreboard in the newsroom. Nor would it be different from the robust business model of the wire services, where purchase and play by clients is literally the bread and butter of the news. At least their clients are newspapers, and not lobbyists. Or Grover-Norquist-list-serv flashmobs and CPAC-funded dirty trix by James O’Keefe. Put on your pimp hat, baby. ‘Cause we’re goin’ out tonight.

Well you see where this is going. I like a closed system for journalism. I don’t like your having a micro-loan interest, or a macro advertiser or lobbyist interest in what topics are covered. You should not be able to buy a dinner with Katharine Weymouth and the reporters and editors of the Washington Post who cover your beat at Weymouth’s house. Nor should you be paying even a micro-slice of Woodward and Bernstein’s salary. Public interest journalism is not about popular, or populist, values. Often it is about injustice meted out by the majority to minorities. Ethics and not the number of reader hits are the essence of public journalism, and the question is how the only redeeming social importance for journalism is now to be monetized.

I’m always up for a good tip, but an enormous part of journalism is the two or three editorial meetings a day in which story ideas are argued, their newsworthiness attacked, with the survivors being what you see on page one. My experience of them is that icons can be smashed, to a certain degree; with war always taking precedence over allegedly “softer” news about causes and trends. That’s an argument that’s been going on for 40 years to my knowledge and certainly still is . The maudlin encomia for (the very untimely and totally unnecessary death of ) Anthony Shadid (asthma attack sneaking into Syria) make the point that his coverage of war was, as it was, in truth, extra special because he spoke Arabic, could eavesdrop and observe actions and nuance for example in the crowds and tumult of Tahrir Square to which Lara Logan was, to her serious detriment, tonedeaf. His coverage featured the vignettes of individuals doing things which contain answers about causes and trends, and tipped me off, early on, in paragraph 47 on page C98, that the Muslim Brotherhood was at the heart, large and in charge of the soccer thugs, and would prevail.

You read it here first:

Sameh Saber, another anti-government protester, started running toward the battle line [in Tahrir Square] with a tree branch.
“Put it down,” an older man implored.
“Three of my friends are bleeding inside,” Mr. Saber yelled back, “and my friend lost an eye!” But he put down the branch.”

I don’t see a flash mob being expert enough in knowing what the news is to support that kind of career. Learning Arabic and having it pay off 20 years later.

The other big trend in the news today is how the millenial males consider humor — Youtube shorts — more important to their “self-definition” than music. This demographic is the one advertisers want. If you want them to be part of your successful Chicago News Cooperative, you need to be making Jon Stewart your model and not newspaper reporters. And then you’d need to be in a different business.

But the channel also realizes that comedy is popping up on alternate screens, and the men Comedy Central wants to reach are spending more time downloading funny videos. As one buddy group participant put it, “Tosh.0, he does what I like to do: watch YouTube videos and make fun of them all day.”

I have read the paper every day since I started working for one, in August of 1969. It was a way of seeing how your story had been edited and played, and what your colleagues were up to. Somebody once pointed out that if you don’t learn from how you’re edited, you don’t have a job in six months.

It was, in addition, to some degree about the news, which in those days and in that place was pretty interesting. I don’t love politics or the game of reporting. One seminal event I tend to forget is going to the Coke machine in the Nixon White House press room — allegedly built over JFK’s swimming pool, the one in which he seduced Fifi or whatever her name is. I put a quarter in the machine and turned to look at the pictures, like class pictures, of the White House press corps along the walls. The one by the Coca Cola machine was the class of 1943, guys in fedoras sitting on bleachers squinting into the sunshine in front of the Capitol. Their names were written by hand in tiny print underneath. Being a wonk for names and people, I read them carefully.

The only name I recognized, some 30 years after the picture was taken, was that of Merriman Smith. He was a young guy in the picture, and had covered the White House for UPI ever since. He had recently, after being the senior wire service reporter who said, ending every press conference, Thank you, Mr. President, after inventing the phrase “grassy knoll”, and enjoying a career many in the newspaper business would consider at the top of his field, committed suicide.

Merriman Smith

I had never heard of the names of any of the other 50 guys in the picture. Watergate was just beginning, and that, with the Martin Luther King assassination riots of 1968, was the final death knell, as far as I was concerned, for the idea that anything like news was coming out of the White House. The White House was where the news wasn’t. What was at the White House was lies. I remember staring at Dan Rather’s mutton chop sideburns and thinking, this is who this beat is good for — getting on the nightly TV news every night. I still wonder how [Redacted], who replaced me at the Great Metropolitan Daily, can get it up after all these years. How can she possibly care? What’s wrong with her?

Now I read a long story in the NYT today about how the Washington Post is changing from a print medium to the website, with a 24/7 news cycle driven by immediate feedback chronicled on a big fat scoreboard in the news room. Recently Brauchli, who seems, in fact, to be a journo, convened the old bulls of the newspaper — curiously not including Bradlee — to ask them about how to keep the paper viable as the source of fine journalism. I think he’s right to do that; one thing I took away from the long piece is that the website is driven by blogs. I think news blogs are bullshit; it keeps reporters tethered to updating Twitter logs — “news” — instead of covering enterprise stories. One of the great things about not being in the White House press room was wandering around the city looking at stuff. Like how it was a city of black people, not politicians.

Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. riots, April, 1968

While I subscribe to the Macondo Manana [TILDE!!!] as a matter of principle, I do not read it. Which is a shame, because it’s a good paper and does a good job.

I am feeling more and more decathected from what people call news, not least as the result of the news blackout I imposed on myself after I started foaming at the mouth around the invasion of Iraq and the downfall of [Redacted]. [Redacted] who, I may have pointed out in this space, I last heard of like 40 years ago on her hands and knees in front of my old editor’s house, pounding the sidewalk with her fists and saying something like, Why won’t you love me? Dude.

My other great epiphanies about the News — I went into the business to write, not to be a reporter — were the day I spent six hours trying to break the back of the NYT Sunday crossword, and which I did do. And the Sunday I spent two hours reading the Sunday Times and not realizing that it was the previous Sunday’s paper, delivered by mistake, and apparently not recalled in any detail by me.

I observe with a sinking heart what all my contemporaries have come to; at best, a Pulitzer prize for work on a beat tactically invented to garner said prize, in a field full of charlatans and not showing any inclination to stem the tsunami of bullshit. [Redacted.] Colleague #2: honorably teaching the craft to undergraduates [Redacted]. Colleague #3, at worst, editing for the wangers, anti-feminist tirades because — well, [Redacted]. Colleague #4, one book, fantastically well-reported, about people whose media-insider story was a.) of little interest outside the Metroliner chattering classes and b.) over when the contract was signed — [Redacted]. And #5? Writing a book about [Redacted]? He’s been itching to write this very, very bad idea for 15 years, basically because he is the star of the movie.

I can’t even talk about my own productivity. I’ve written five unpublished books since I quit the newspaper business. I have to do something about that.

So what is it all about, all these years of reading and writing for the paper? A sea of facts, rhetorics, narrative arcs that break free from the Aristotelian heroic canon and are not (!) predicated on the values of dead white men, always heavenly to dive into. The hookah cafe on Steinway Street in little Egypt, Astoria, Queens, page A29. The rattle of the paper, the smell of the ink and the coffee, the freedom to throw away the A section and find out what’s really going on in Tahrir Square by reading the reporter’s eyewitness account in paragraph #47 on page C48. My fellow humans. People watching. Still interested.

%d bloggers like this: