Three Good Ledes

It’s been said that “80 percent of success is showing up” (or a closely related “genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration”). In newspaper writing, getting the lede right is sometimes nearly 100% of the job.

Three ledes I’ve encountered recently and enjoyed:

1. Jacob Brogan in Slate on Paul Manafort’s technical maladroitness.

“There are two types of people in this world: those who know how to convert PDFs into Word documents and those who are indicted for money laundering. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is the second kind of person.”

2. A fascinating Times obit by David Margolick of one Alan Gershwin, who might or might not have been the issue of George, a claim he pursued his whole life.

“As Alan Gershwin told the story — often — he was hidden away at his Uncle Ira and Aunt Leonore’s house on North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills in late 1945, right after his discharge from the Navy. Ignoring the orders of his hosts, he headed downstairs to join one of the parties the Gershwins regularly gave. When a guest spotted him on the landing, he dropped his glass of Scotch in shock. Or maybe two guests did.

By then, seven years had passed since the man Alan Gershwin called his father had died. But all anyone eyeing 19-year-old Alan that night saw was George Gershwin, reincarnated.

For 70 years or so, Alan Gershwin insisted he was George Gershwin’s long-lost son. And with his death on Feb. 27 at 91 in a Bronx hospital, the curtain came down on what was surely the Gershwins’ most bizarre show ever, revolving around whether this affable but monomaniacal man was one of the greatest victims in American musical history, or a grifter running a long-term con, or someone suffering decades of delusion.”

3. Finally, Vanity Fair‘s Darryn King catches up with Uwe Boll, a director who was not up for an Academy Award last weekend.

In a small, cold film studio in early 2016, the man known by the Internet as the “worst director in the world” was doing what he does, well, worst.

“O.K., one more time,” said Uwe Boll (his first name is pronounced “OO-vah”), feeding lines to one of the actors in the absence of a script. “Straight in the lens: ‘. . . has been killed. By the law . . . er . . . the law enforcement? Has been shot by law enforcement.’ Yes. O.K., do it. Ready, and . . . Action!”

“This is the worst-looking set,” assistant director Michael Pohorly admitted between takes. “The budget on this set was . . . nothing. Twenty dollars for a lick of paint? It’s a $20 set.”


Facebook News: No News

The dance of FB (and social media) with traditional media companies has been a fraught courtship to say the least.  Media watcher Frederic Filloux dispenses  a postmortem today in his Medium column.

Facebook is done with quality journalism. Deal with it.

One particularly telling passage from Filloux’s piece,

Facebook killed the news media three times

First, it killed the notion of brand. Year after year, the percentage of people able to recall where they got their news, is dwindling. “I read it on Facebook” now applies to half the population of the United States and Europe, and much more in countries where Facebook embodies the Internet.

Second, the notion of authorship has also vanished. Almost nobody has a clue who wrote what. Gradually, the two pillars of the trusting relationship between the media and its customers eroded, before crumbling altogether. Facebook has flattened the news for good.

Third, Facebook annihilated the business model of news by opening the way to a massive, ultra-cheap and ultra-targeted advertising system that brings next to nothing to the publishers. The reality of Facebook’s revenue stream is harsh: a European publisher told me last week that its RPM (Revenue per thousands) for videos on Facebook was about 30 cents of a Euro (that is 37 cents on a dollar). A pittance.

Zuckerberg’s last message has the merit of clarity. It says: “Sorry guys, it didn’t work as expected, go somewhere else or face a slow but inexorable extinction in our ecosystem. Nothing personal, here. Just business.”


NYC’s City Hall and Newspaper Row a century ago–when print media ruled the roost (and New York had something like 8 daily newspapers).

These points seem unarguable to me–channels are now so flooded with content, which comes from every which place, the notion of checking the source–dear to my librarian/newspaperman mind–thinking critically, and trusted journalism brands, have all taken a beating. If I still work that way, it’s probably a artifact of being a mid-life person who has worked on and off in this world most of his adult life. My question is what channels and hierarchies get disrupted next. iTunes did it to music, FB/social media has done it to news…Filloux’s whole piece is worth reading for news-biz mavens, even if there are debatable points (the end of the full piece seems a little unwarranted in its optimism to me, for instance). He’s got a bit of H.L.  in him, namely a style that’s fun to read.

James Fallows on Jimmy Carter

Tipped by a NYTimes piece on the latest Trump book, I read James Fallow’s think piece on Jimmy Carter, written in 1979, after Fallows had serve a stint as a presidential speech writer.

Interesting to read through the lens of current events, and history’s perhaps somewhat less harsh judgment of Carter.  One bit stuck out…the “gatekeeper” role of media, and Carter’s lack of insight into it.

Nor did [Carter] distinguish among the audiences he had to address. For some—but only a few—of his televised appeals, it was important that a speech be understood by every hearer. In most other cases, that was a false goal. In a television interview in 1960, Walter Lippmann said that an effective President “must be articulate. He must be able to talk in language which is not the lowest common denominator, but the best. What you must lead in the country are the best of the country and they will carry it on down. There’s no use of the President trying to talk down to a fellow who can just about read and write. Let somebody else do that. He must talk to the people who teach the man to read and write.” I came to believe very deeply in a hierarchy of information and attitudes. Once an idea took hold in the serious magazines and the editorial pages, it would make its way down through the news columns, the reports in Time and Newsweek, and eventually to the television commentators, who shape most people’s view of public affairs. In many cases, the real audience for a speech should be not the 5000 people who are present for the occasion but the editors, academics, politicians, and columnists who will read the text and adjust their view of the President accordingly. Such speeches are the best, sometimes the only, way a President can show that he understands the complications in his policies, the problems ahead, the hard questions that have been raised about his course. Except for one or two speeches on foreign policy—where he was more willing in general to buy the conventional wisdom than he was in domestic affairs—Carter never consented to such speeches.

Nearly 40 years on, I wonder what has happened to this hierarchy, and  Fallows’ “deep belief” in it. The ones that I grew up with and worked in have surely toppled, or simply melted away in favor of platforms that in theory let everybody talk to everybody with explosively unpredictable results.

The decline in newspaper readership from a Pew study.

Interesting read overall. Fallows’ take on Carter is not mine, but he was there and I was a kid.  And the readership, and related hierarchy, of that 5000 is mostly gone I would think.





Igor Levit and Copy Editors

A couple of things tipped by the NYTimes:

First, pianist Igor Levit’s encore from the first night of the BBC Proms a few days ago:

This is the Ode to Joy, aka the Official Anthem of the European Union, in an arrangement by Franz Liszt. A Russian-German pianist, playing an iconic piece of music by greatest composer in the classical canon, as arranged by perhaps the most cosmopolitan pan-European of composers. Not only a beautiful performance (capping a dazzling take on  Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor) but in London, in July 2017, for a worldwide audience: making an eloquent vote for unity rather than division during fractious times.


On a different note, the Times also has a poignant take on the layoff (and restructuring) of copy editing at “The Grey Lady.”  (This may be behind a paywall–sorry.)



If you don’t work in the scribbling trade or hang with people who do, you may not be aware of copyediting, its storied past, and uncertain future. As the Times piece points out, it is the immune system of any serious publication. Copy readers correct spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and vastly improve writing, often one tiny fix at a time: changes that tighten, clarify, and smooth out prose. They also impose ‘house style’ on a publication, which though derided and often annoying to writers (the diaereses in “reëlect” and “coöperate” that The New Yorker insists on must vex to all concerned), still matters. Style guides save time, e.g,, no ad hoc decision on the serial comma necessary. And they regularize content, be it in print or online and this helps readers, humans or algorithms, parse sentences.

Copyediting is an odd skill (and I certainly can’t do it). You have to read both for content understanding, which provides the context for the piece of writing, but also attend assiduously to the surface level in order to catch those mechanical issues. For a general interest newspaper, you also have to have a sixth sense about working with up wildly varying content. (When my mother was in journalism school in the 1940s, the professors handed out the copy-editing test then in use at the Times. It was a complicated story about auto-racing, and nobody, including my mother who had a sharp pencil, did very well.)

Copyreaders also write headlines and captions for photos (cutlines), an art in itself, and a task that is complicated now that print, web, and social media headlines have to be created. It would seem an odd moment to reduce this workforce, but the challenges papers are up against are mighty.

One unremarked benefit of copy editing, at least in my case, is the education in writing that a really good line editor/copy editor can provide. Although I have had lots of experience in writing and editing in most of my jobs, it was when I worked on book-length manuscripts for websites (ironically for a TV station) and had professional editors from the publishing world scrub my own and other writers’ copy–in those far off days with red ink on manuscript–that I really figured out how to clean up prose. (I was in my late 30s!)  An editorial assistant and I worked through this mark up, discussing each change as we finished the website. These editors fixed the mechanical errors, but more importantly pressed hard on the writing itself, flagging and fixing anything fusty, flabby, or unfocused, and pointing out where the rhythm, sense, or precision was lacking. Their reworks of things were eye-opening, even when I took issue with them.

There is nothing like this for improving your own prose (and your ability to edit others’ work). It wasn’t part of my writing education, now some years back, and I wonder if it is any more frequent today.  (The revered writing teacher Don Murray, a former Boston Globe writer and UHN prof, recommended something very similar in his writing workshops and it’s possible that it is more common.)  As Murray points out, writing is a process, editing and revising being key. And also is much more of a team sport than would seem apparent from high school and college assignments. The grim private penance of slogging through a 500 word theme or term paper, is, for me at least, completely different from writing for a sharp-eyed editor who is out to improve your writing; things go so much better when you are engaged in a process together, and working towards an effective draft.

I’m sure the Times of all places is not turning its back on editing, but still, there is something less than reassuring about the prestige press going public about not needing so many of those squirrelly, superb, and effective people who read copy.

Washington Post 2.0

Great piece at NY Mag about the reinvention of the Washington Post, including some fine-grained reasoning on just what is or isn’t clickbait.

“Some Post journalists worry that the Amazonian values of growing an audience by giving the customers what they want could conflict with journalism’s civic mission to report on unpleasant truths. “There’s gallows humor: Are we selling our soul for traffic?” says one longtime Post staffer. Veteran Post journalists have been spared traffic quotas, but junior employees who blog for the website feel the pressure to produce with great frequency. Baron disputes the criticism that the Post has employed so-called clickbait to juice readership. “The way I would define it is, it has a headline that tries to trick you to read the story and when you get to the story there’s nothing of any substance. I don’t think we have any of that,” he says. “I know what’s generated the traffic here. And it isn’t clickbait.” Clickbait or not, it’s clear that the Post is playing a volume game, publishing a vastly higher number of stories than its competitors. According to a recent analysis, the Post, which has a newsroom of about 700, generates 500 stories per day, compared to 230 at the Times, whose newsroom has about 1,300 employees. That’s also about twice what BuzzFeed publishes daily.”

We could use a “Citizen Bezos” just now…

The whole thing is worth reading; makes the point that in addition to the gee-whiz stuff, there is an old story, namely an immensely rich person buying and retooling a newspaper.


Not Going Quietly: Al Jazeera America

Chris Lehmann, of the soon to be shuttered Al Jazeera America Website and news channel, is going out with a bang and calls the brave new world of content marketing as he sees it. And what he sees sure isn’t journalism. Worth reading if this is your gig.


“The polite euphemism for such rampant self-prostitution in our brave new digital media world is “sponsored content” — i.e., writing that’s made to look, feel and read like actual journalism while promoting a paid-for commercial agenda.”

There were border skirmishes between editorial and advertising in the old days (meaning my own and my parents’ generation as newspaper people). But the importance of the division was honored. In part, as Ira Basen points out, to get away from the frankly commercial world of 19th century journalism which was often indistinguishable from political positions and commercial interests. There was a specific meaning and category denoted by the subhead “An Independent Newspaper” that some carried.

Today I suppose there really isn’t an independent newspaper to be found that is not scared for its life, and what constitutes an “independent news” digital property is a hard nut to crack. Lehmann makes a good case that VOX it isn’t, and BuzzFeed never pretended to be. In fact their business genius seems to be premised on the foundation that there is no difference between the data that drives advertising and the data that drives content. Get them both aligned and  voila! you make money.

Journalists are glum about this, but of course it could be that these developments just chase journalism elsewhere, and atomize it (into blogs for instance, serious ones, not mine, I hasten to add). Perhaps that’s not a bad outcome in some ways, but does raise  questions. Investigative journalism can require a costly collective effort–if nothing else technically and it other ways too. Individual bloggers do get some big wins, but expecting a whole generation of Upton Sinclairs to emerge on WordPress is a shaky (but not impossible) proposition.

More intractable is the problem of editing. Newspaper editorial desks made up of reporters and editors imposed a culture of accountability and collaborative effort (possibly combative, but respected). Somebody else always read and edited what a reporter wrote (at good papers, no story got in, however trivial, if it hadn’t been vetted by three pairs of eyes, one of whom was a often socially deficient copy editor with a brain like a computer for AP Style and native distrust of writers’ orthographic waywardness.

This meant content was checked, questions were asked, fairness and newsworthiness debated, not always and not necessarily to the best conclusion, but there was a mechanism. This also built some time and rhythm into the system. There was time to think about what you were doing. Not just a blinking “publish” button, or the fear that Twitter was running away with your story, or live streaming it.

Again, there are modern ways to respond to the change in editing, and effective approaches may well emerge. It all seems pretty tough, though: crowd sourced editing and sourcing, an understanding of what drafts and breaking news look like in this 24/7 digital world all have a pretty messy profile right now, and would be good to remember what of the old system was worth keeping, while acknowledging that there is no money to pay for it in its epic luxury and size any more. I suppose a copy desk for Tweets sounds like a comedy skit, but putting a little more thinking in the process would not be amiss.


The Massachusetts Spy, a colonial paper, pretty bloggy by modern standards

Data, Data Everywhere…

The news biz how it was…words.

…but any room to think?


Big data has come to the newspaper biz in a big way. London’s Guardian has a data leaderboard in their newsroom with real time metrics for how stories are “performing” but the Financial Times, being the overachievers they are, have a whole integrated data enterprise that is embedded in their news operation.

Digiday has the story. In the excerpt below, the Betts in the quote is Tom Betts, the FT’s chief data officer.

“Tech companies don’t have chief data officers.”
Betts’ appointment also marks the publisher’s evolution to decentralize its analysts. Before last year, engineers and analysts were separate from the rest of the organization. Now, data analysts are embedded in marketing and editorial.

The audience engagement team sits in the newsroom so it can work directly with journalists. It includes data analysts, SEO experts, engagement strategists, social media managers and journalists. Its objectives are to get the FT journalism out to more people and evolve the newsroom with digital readers in mind.

“An analytically mature business is where the vast majority of analysts sit within the other teams,” Betts said. Tech organizations, he added, “don’t have chief data officers.”

The news biz as it is now: numbers.

It goes down so reasonably that you are almost lulled into forgetting to ask what SEO, engagement strategy, social and media actually have to do with journalism. One of these things is not like the other. Still, the FT manages to remain pretty newspapery, certainly compared to many other papers, which seem to be lame print versions of their lame websites.


Now I’m off to check my metrics!

Hey Newspaper, You Might Not Be a Startup!

Great piece by Butch Ward over at Poynter, “Should your newsroom act more like a startup?” pegged to the unsurprising news that Chris Hughes is giving up the ghost at The New Republic. His stormy tenure as publisher has been correlated with its growing irrelevancy.

Hughes and his minions, like many many others, wanted to bring a “start up mentality” to the venerable opinion weekly.  (The editor said he wanted to “break shit” which is apparently how some nerds show their authenticity.)

But leaving aside TNR‘s troubles, Ward makes a point that newspapers–and many other legacy companies–miss when they embark on “act like a start up” path. For one, that starts up usually often end in failure; it’s built into the model. But sort of paper failures, as there is still more money sloshing around in the real tech start up space and it’s not unusual for somebody to go from one to the next with transferable tech skills and industry connections. This isn’t necessarily the story of laid off newspaper reporters. money doesn’t tend to slosh towards them with any reliability. (Last I checked you can’t turn your Pulitzer in for stock options.)

He elaborates.

“Silicon Valley has a no-lose culture: you join a startup, and either it succeeds, in which case you win, or else it doesn’t, in which case you just join another. Failure is victimless, and indeed can be worn as a badge of honor. And precisely because failure is so socially acceptable, it is also extremely common; young companies regularly take crazy existential risks because the downside (another free roll of the dice) is so acceptable, while the upside is unlimited.”

It’s also worth pointing out that even the upside outcome to startup culture is hard to map onto the news business (is there an example of one to point to, what would count as true success) A real startup that grows maybe goes public or gets sold (either to be absorbed or to be raided for its technology), and learns to do new, and seemingly unrelated things (say a retail shipping company that becomes a TV studio).

Perhaps newspapers can morph in such ways, but Ward makes another point, namely that it’s not in their DNA:

You are not a startup.

Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, the online news site in Philadelphia, raises his voice when he makes that point. “You are not a startup!” he repeats. The fact that your organization is an established business means you don’t qualify as an initiative with no history, no customers and no brand.

How do you behave like a start up if you are curating a legacy and a brand that goes back a century? If the “shit” you want to break is who you are, why do you expect a start up that breaks that to succeed? Deep down, do you even want it to?

This “are you my start up?” question also seems applicable to other areas: in my (admittedly musty) worlds of education, performing arts and libraries, the same kind of “startup” mania has been applied and at least to my eyes has been attended by very little success. But that’s a rant for another day.

If you are in the news biz, though, well worth reading Ward’s full piece.


Don’t want to break it to you, guys, but you aren’t all going to finish the race!



Interesting Reads: Rise of the Paywall Press

Fascinating and well done piece at the Washington Monthly about how the trade press has prospered while general interest newspapers have floundered in covering the workings of government. Has the jaw-dropping fact that a publisher of trade economics letters (like the kind I used to shelve when I was a tech at the Library of Congress) sold for multiples of what either the Post or the Boston Globe sold (much less Newsweek).

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 2.22.56 PM
A subscription to Platt’s Oilgram, must read for the energy industry. It will set you back a cool, $21K, and you thought the NYTimes digital subscription was dear.

“Even with all its eyebrow-raising revenue schemes, an ascendant trade press is preferable to the only probable alternative, which is no press coverage at all (an increasingly common situation in many state capitals). And from my own experience and interviews I did for this story, I can say with confidence that trade press reporters are not brainwashed by the industries they cover or blind to the public responsibilities they have to find the truth and report it. No one I spoke to thought that a trade reporter held a distinct disadvantage over any other mainstream reporter to run down a great story and to have it make its way into the public consciousness. But the fact remains that on a day-to-day basis more and more information is flowing to Washington’s elite while less trickles out to the American public. And while trades vie zealously for a larger slice of that Washington Insider market, publications that appeal to a wider audience are either struggling to keep their lights on or leaving traditional reporting about government behind altogether.”

Although casting light on this digital transformation of the DC press as a sideline, the key point here is that general coverage of the workings of government–in the sense of that corny phrase “Who Will Tell The People?” is getting short changed. The trades are written for an audience of elites, they are specialized beyond the point of interest or context to non-insiders, and they are behind paywalls that require subscriptions in the thousands. But what they report on is how our government works, and what that means for policy and society.

I remember years ago something said by some op-ed writer (Frank Rich I think, but I can’t be certain) predicting a baleful era of all opinion all the time. The reason I think it was Rich, is it was pegged to somebody leaving starry heights of the Op-Ed page of the Times to go write for NYMag, and whether that was a “loss” to the Gray Lady.  Baloney, was the response. Opinion is easy, and if we think we are bathed in it 24/7 now just wait a few years. On the whole it’s not even that expensive, easy to cover and often empty. Actual reporting on the other hand, be it local, national or international, costs serious money, requires expertise and context, and takes risks (sometimes at enormous personal cost). That’s the dimension of journalism that nobody has figured out how to pay for generally. Interesting to think–thanks to this story (which has some real reporting in it, by the way)–that the trades have found a way to cover the government corner of this world, and to make it pay. Only rub, it’s just for the few.

Well worth reading the whole piece.

The Reading & Writing Life: Periodicity

Like many, I found term papers in college a grim business. Despite any amount of planning, they were always a rush at the end, and despite my characteristic glibness, and being a fast writer, they were usually a mess and busted as such by faculty.

I assumed the deficits were all on my side, and mostly moral failings at buckling down to do the work, so it was odd to discover a few years later when I was writing for a daily newspaper as a stringer that I never missed a deadline, and mostly enjoyed the experience of getting a piece written and filed. I also thrived in the culture of a daily newsroom, finding a natural place within the shared rhythm that grows out of the collective imperative of getting the paper out on time. (The wonderful term “putting the paper to bed” like muskox, a nice bit of journalistic jargon now lost, gives a sense of how it feels when the paper has finally gone to press.)

In talking with my mother about this phenomena, she reflected on her journalism career in newspapers and magazines, saying, “well, it always seemed that working on a daily was easier than working on a weekly, much less a monthly or quarterly. The deadline shaped the work and you got it done.” A daily deadline means a workflow, helps you make sense of what you have to do that day, creates a system if only by default.

By that measure, annuals, and “occasionals” would be hard, and one-time productions, like a Ph.D. dissertation or magnum opus, would be most difficult of all. In those contexts, external factors likely don’t help, except perhaps to create neurotic and corrosive pressure, “when are you going to finish?” or worse, “when are you really going to start?”

Thus it surprised me then, and still does today, that we expect college students, and to some extent, high school students, to figure out how to cope with these long timelines, pulling together materials for a coherent term paper on their own without the guidance a workflow might give. It certainly was never any fun for me–nor, as nearly as I can tell, particularly edifying. I finally wrote a satisfactory term paper in grad school (no doubt in part because I had the confidence of having written for a newspaper under my belt). Perhaps all the botched attempts earlier did add up to some kind of embedded wisdom, at least of the “here’s what not to do” variety. But it really did seem a waste of writing and reading time all around.

Now of course I write every day, and it makes me pause to wonder if I had committed to writing every day on a term paper whether that would have been the ticket. (I doubt it.) People do sort of write a newspaper every day in their collective FB, Twitter, txt, email and other constant streams of content. This seems to bring up the inverse of the problem with the long lead time for a term paper, the constant deadline of “now,” that is, of no deadline, means that while the means to writing has never been easier–simple as pressing “post”– the rhythm is just a constant beating chaos of “update me” no putting it to bed, not much shared pulling together to get something done, just sort of a “feed me” 24/7 editorial maw. I wonder how newspapers–which I am long out of–even begin to cope.