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.”

Blogging 101, Day 2: Wrangling Titles & Taglines

Today’s assignment is “take control of your title and tagline.” Mine perhaps needs some help.

My title is:
A Few Reasonable Words
And the tagline is: “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a poem, see a fine picture, and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words.” — Goethe

With my usual tendency to over explain things, I see that I have used up the tagline space to gloss the quotation. Time to dump that (or do the explaining elsewhere). (Oops, already do.)

But, what to use as a tag instead? My blog is probably more often a Commonplace Book than anything else, also sort of a library reference desk display rack–things of (possibly infinitesimal) interest.  “More information than you require” would work, but that has been taken by the droll John Hodgman.

Some bloggy riff on “Books you Don’t Need in Place You Can’t Find” might fit the bill (that’s the motto of the Montague (MA) Bookmill). “Bits and bites you don’t need on a blog you can’t find…”

I think I will go with that for now. The beauty of the interwebs means I can change it tomorrow, of course.

And for good measure, a few famous taglines from a previous content delivery medium, newspapers:

"All the news that's fit to print," "the seven most famous words in American journalism" according to the the BBC. And inspiration for a perhaps legendary sign in the Times compositing room, "All the news that fits, we print."
“All the news that’s fit to print,” “the seven most famous words in American journalism” according to the the BBC. And inspiration for a perhaps legendary sign in the Times compositing room, “All the news that fits, we print.”
“Light for all,” a nice tagline, and the changes in the Sun’s vignette  are a mini-history lesson.
In an era in which newspaper barons were equivalent to the tech giants of today, Robert “Colonel” McCormick loomed large. I’m not sure if he named the Trib “world greatest newspaper,” but that was the motto for many years. It also gave his flagship radio and TV stations, “WGN,” their call letters.

There’s another one I couldn’t find an image for, but I love: the San Francisco Examiner’s motto,  “The Monarch of the Dailies” –the flagship paper of the monarch of the press lords, William Randolph Hearst.

Fact Checking Words: Doing it Diligently

In the 24-hour 360-degree news cycle that is the Web, fact checking seems to be a lost art, but I encountered this interview with an editor at a small Virginia paper that suggests otherwise:

From the American Press Institute site:

Fact checking a sensitive story: 6 good questions with News Leader editor William Ramsey.

I was particularly struck by these bits:

Q: Can you describe how the fact checking was conducted for this series? Did you use a checklist? A spreadsheet? A particular process?

A: We had a multi-pronged approach. We generated a list of every factual statement (not actual copy) from the main stories and sent it to state officials, who used investigators and PIOs to verify the information. This was critical since a portion of our reporting featured narratives rebuilt from disjointed case records. We also sampled a percentage of our hand-built database and determined an error rate, which was really low. We made those error fixes, and re-sampled another portion, which held up. For accuracy in [Borns’]  writing, we extracted facts from her project’s main story and made a Google spreadsheet for the team, using it to log verification of each fact, the source, the person checking and a note when a change was made to the draft.

Q: In the fact checking of this series, were there any lessons learned that will be used at the News Leader in the future, or could be replicated at other news organizations?

A: I hope so. We tried two new ideas I liked: war room Fridays and a black hat review.

For the Friday sessions, we took over a conference room and brought in reporters not connected to the project. On one Friday, for example, our government reporter spent the day checking story drafts against state records.

For the “black hat” review, borrowed from the software development industry, we took turns playing a critic’s role, peppering ourselves in a hostile interview about process, sources and conclusions. It gave us actionable information to improve the content before it published.

There is so much yammer about computational journalism (much of it hype to my old-school ears), but this example of using both old-fashioned and computer approaches to fact check the work of journalism seems to me a lot more valid that trawling the data for “news” and then reporting it even if specious or trivial. I particularly like the image of “black hat” fact checkers. In cybersecurity, it seems you call (at least some of) these Pen Testers.


The Washington Times (a different publication from the current one) as it was 100 years ago. From the Library of Congress’s Historic American Newspapers Collection, which has a display of front pages from 100 years ago each day.


Beautiful Picture: Diagram of A Newspaper Office, 1922

Check out this fascinating 1922 diagram of the long gone Washington Star‘s building on Penn. Ave in DC. Linked from “Ghosts of DC” where you can find the full file with amazing detail. Quite a sizable library! But the noise from the linotype room, just above the writers, must have been intense–and I assume the whole building shook when the presses were running. Not something that happens with a blog, alas.


Thoughtful Words: Can Journalism Survive on a Non-Profit Basis

As traditional journalism (meaning: newspapers) fade away, one rescue scheme is to convert them into non-profits. Oops, they are already “non-profits” under an ordinary definition of that term, I guess I mean “not for profits,” that is, charities.

There’s been some interesting research (by foundations) about what’s going on and whether it’s viable. Reporting out of NPQ, Ruth McCambridge gives a thoughtful round up, with links to reports from Pew and Knight, two foundations who have been involved with this issue.

“…[An] excellent recent Pew study, “Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System,” looked at 172 nonprofit news sites and found that many of these organizations still relied to a fairly significant extent on only a few sources, including grant funding from a foundation or major donor.

Now, the Knight Foundation is preparing to publish another study, titled “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability.” This report, scheduled for release in October, has made a bit of a breakthrough in that it shows patterns of revenue by type of operation, along with other comparative data. As one participant in the roundtable said, this type of information is like gold to those struggling to make sense of an emerging enterprise model.

The journalism groups that attended and were under discussion had annual budgets that were as small as $165,000 (Oakland Local) and as large as $10 million (ProPublica and Center for Investigative Reporting). They were divided generally into three categories—national, statewide, and local—with a few outliers, like NPQ, that addressed particular communities of interest, and more established groups, like NPR. But most were fairly new, and primarily online, publishers. Some engaged heavily in investigative work, but these seemed to be organizations with larger capital investments from individuals or foundations. A number of foundations were also represented, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Later in the same piece, an interesting observation on how the results of investigative journalism might now be “chunked.”

So, the traditional method of doing an investigative project is to work, work, work, work, work, gestate, gestate, gestate, give birth to this big thing when it comes out, and then go take a nap, right? That’s fine, but what you’re seeing more and more of, and partly out of the same necessity, is the rolling investigation kind of thing. The work is not less important, and you don’t do less. The impact isn’t different in the end. But you’re breaking this into pieces as you go along, and there’s a sustained constant hit.

Crudely put, the Internet makes what once were “scoops” into a “beat.” (Although Watergate was surely a “beat” and a rolling investigation.) Still, does point out (the obvious) that the rhythm of reporting is changed wholesale by digital media, print newsrooms no longer scale in the “supply chain” as the chunks aren’t daily, but instantaneous. And the “desks” that have to be staffed, are feeding twitter streams, not the next day’s first print edition.

McCambridge quotes Michael Maness, Knight’s Foundation (big funder of new journalism) saying (journalists at least) not become “addicted to the continuous now.” That horse has left the stable, however.

Tombstone Daily Epitaph
The now very apt title of an Arizona paper (scan of an 1889 front page).

Philanthropic Biz Opportunity?

The Times reports today on tech gazillionaires’ “helping hand” towards print media. Sort of the journalism equivalent of underwriting a hospital for sick children, I guess. Except these children are not going to get any better.

From the story:

“So ironic,” Les Hinton, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, wrote in a Twitter post last week about Mr. Bezos, that The Washington Post “should be consumed by a pioneer of the industry that almost destroyed it.”

The same story has a quote so audacious from Craig’s list founder Craig Newmark, I had to read it twice:

Mr. Newmark declined to comment on why newspaper officials blamed him. He said he supported journalism initiatives — media ethics and fact-checking are two pet causes — because he valued news he could trust. He said he was not even convinced that Craigslist had hurt newspaper classified advertising.

“I’m still waiting to see any hard evidence for cause-and-effect,” Mr. Newmark said. “I’ve been paying attention for a long time.”

Maybe Craiglist advertising (and web advertising in general) didn’t kill the cash cow that was newspaper classifieds;  if so, it would certainly seem to be one of Mark Twain’s “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” I have a hard time imagining a different scenario, although Phil Weiss in New York magazine makes this provocative point,

From a business standpoint, this may be the most revolutionary aspect of the Craigslist model: It took what had long been defined as a profitable industry—classifieds—and demonstrated that it is not much of a business at all, but is rather what open-source advocates call “a commons,” a public service where people can find one another with minimal intervention from their minders. Even so, the revenues from the tiny portion of ads Craigslist charges for are so considerable that Microsoft and Google and eBay have all come up with competitors or have announced plans to do so.

Sort of interesting considering the inflection point as a discovery that something really isn’t a business “after all,” or at least “any more.” What else is on that conveyor belt?

Today’s Times also has a piece on bookstores turning to donations to survive.

Crowdfunding is sweeping through the bookstore business, the latest tactic for survival in a market that is dominated by Amazon, with its rock-bottom prices, and Barnes & Noble, with its dizzying in-store selection. It’s hardly a sustainable business model; but it buys some time, and gives customers a feeling of helping a favorite cause and even preserving a civic treasure.

So you can’t buy WaPo, maybe you can underwrite a shelf at Politics and Prose?

Surely some consultant (perhaps the guy who got canned from NPR?) could work up a service organizing this market, putting millionaires or small fry in touch with their favorite (needy) purveyors of print. Getting your very own printing press sure beats a tote bag, right?

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 9.49.55 AM
Printing press for the Boston Globe. Definitely space for an elegant “name plate”–“The operation of this press underwritten by Dandelion and Albrecht Goldenrod of Newton, MA.” Or maybe just skip that step, turn it off, and make it a museum!

Digital Newspapers and their Affordances

An interesting bit by Australian writer, Anne Summers who gives up her three a day print newspaper habit for digital subscriptions is today’s Library Link of the Day. The deciding factor: the nuisance of getting and then disposing of the papers themselves. (She doesn’t mention the environmental issue per se, but I’ve always thought that will finally be what finishes off hard copy subscriptions for me.)

Screen Shot 2013-01-14 at 9.00.16 AM
Version 1.0 of the NYTimes–the first front page from 1851. Had to wait awhile for version 2.0 enhancements, like photos.

Not quite there yet though: my NYTimes came to my door this morning. And like my parents (newspaper people and later journalism teachers), I sat with my coffee and scanned, read, page turned, enjoyed the feel of the thing in my hand and the look of it on the table.

No question that the digital format offers lots that this batch of inky atoms doesn’t. (Summers in her Sydney Sunday Morning essay describes the digital presentation as a library, true enough and doesn’t even reach the multimedia or social elements digital offers.) But as she notes, this bonanza comes with a learning curve, different enough in each of the three papers she subscribes to require a little futzing. In web/media/education speak these different formats all have their affordances. A term connected to usability, and a little pompous, I grant you. “Affordance, please bring the Benz to the door. Cyril and Daria are going for a spin!” For me, affordance mostly refers to question, “what does a format let you do?” One newspaper format affords you the chance to play video or search, another affords you the chance to clean your BBQ or pick up cat poop. (So far, no Firefox plug-ins for those activities).

The thing about the printed newspaper page is that it affords—or just offers—such a well-designed and evolved interface. The graphic display is the result of centuries of development of graphic design, and user testing. You understand hierarchy, you get how to use it, you scan, read, scribble, clip, and know what is contained in that day’s helping. I like being able to understand what the writers and editors intended, and I like the organization of content, which presents this intention pretty transparently. I say this fully realizing that for a one-year-old a print publication is just an iPad that doesn’t quite work. But for me, for a little while longer, a digital edition is just a piece of print that doesn’t quite work.

Screen Shot 2013-01-14 at 9.05.32 AM
The Globe’s epaper version. A lot of interface to find out who won the game or the Golden Globes. I think they are solving the wrong problem.

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