Tag Archives: newspapers

‘State of Play’ and the state of journalism

Author’s Note: This piece originally appeared on my now-defunct blog, The Barren Regions. I wanted to include it here because it brought back memories of when I worked at a newspaper (and when I could still refer to myself as a “twenty-something”).

I recently rented the Russell Crowe suspense flick, State of Play. I wanted to watch it because the title intrigued me. I wish I could say the same for the plot.

State of Play

Just kidding. Actually, the movie was OK, although unrealistic. Crowe plays a hard-nosed newspaper reporter who becomes ensnared in a D.C. murder mystery. He risks his life to uncover the truth — all in the name of getting the full story and informing the public.

That was the part I found unrealistic. I mean, c’mon, a journalist who actually works for a living? Get real. The most hustling you’ll see in a newsroom happens when someone accidentally leaves a box of doughnuts in the break area.

Other parts were all too real. Ben Affleck plays a conniving congressman. Helen Mirren plays a desk-pounding editor who hollers about deadlines and corporate responsibility and sits in a big office. Rachel McAdams plays an underpaid blogger who works at the same paper as Crowe.

In one scene, Crowe and Mirren sneer at how McAdams churns out gobs of copy for little pay while Crowe dawdles on his stories and earns twice as much. As a twenty-something budding journalist, I appreciate the realism (though truth be told, I don’t churn out tons of copy; I’m too busy eating doughnuts in the break room). Keep reading…


Coffee, doughnuts and other tools for writers

In his afterword to “The Big Silence,” the first of three detective novels featuring private eye Jack Ross, writer Bernard Schopen says:

“Rereading something I wrote — be it in the distant past, the recent past, yesterday, an hour ago — is usually an occasion of intense embarrassment. Almost always the gap between the remembered intention and the actual execution looms like The Abyss … I reread, and I squirm and flush and sweat. Because writers — or at least the kind of writer I am — can’t really reread; they can only, as they reread, rewrite. And cringe.”

Schopen needn’t worry; he’s a fine writer. I recommend his books (I’ve read all his novels) to anyone interested in detective fiction and stories about Nevada. His work combines simple storytelling with deeper themes such as region and identity. They’re refreshing in an era when most popular fiction is … well, simple storytelling.

Coffee and Writing

But Schopen’s words resonate. I, too, cringe every time I reread my work. I hate finding a tattered school paper or forgotten short story. It’s disheartening to discover your creations are crap. If my old work is a window to the past, then I’d rather draw the blinds.

During my freshman year in college, I wrote a politically charged humor column for the university’s student newspaper. The problem was that, at the time, my politics were not well-formed, and the only humor was my terrible diction.

I stumbled across some of my columns when rummaging through storage. Here’s an excerpt from one I wrote about exercise:

“The notion of achieving adequate physical fitness is appreciated by many, although the more preferred methods of personal maintenance may differ slightly among individual people … A concept of physical atonement may be quite facile to embrace, but rather difficult to regularly and successfully conduct, which of course ultimately leads to consequent hopelessness, broken resolutions, and an eventual submission to a deleterious lifestyle which includes very little bodily activity but numerous ventures to nearby fast food dining establishments.”

Wow. And Bernard Schopen thinks he should be embarrassed?

I quit the column after my first semester. No one seemed interested in it (including me), and I realized I could be spending my study hours on more productive activities — such as drinking and trying to date women (big emphasis on “trying”).

Later, I enrolled in a Journalism writing course, where I learned I had no idea how to write. Before, I’d always written with my heart and soul. Never before had I considered using my brain.

But clear writing, I learned, stems from clear thinking. Clearing the cobwebs from your mind leads to sharper, more fluid prose.

Therefore, I turned to the strongest fluid I could find — Starbucks Sumatra — and added it to my arsenal. Journalists need several tools to perform their jobs, including notebooks, pens and computers. The more important, but seldom mentioned, are coffee, cigarettes and doughnuts.

Journalism is the craft of effective communication. My Journalism 101 professor effectively communicated this idea by giving me Fs on my first few papers, which he said were wordy and overwrought.

“I want streamlined sentences,” he said. “Shun wordiness. Shed the fat from your prose.”

After a lot of hard work, I finally did shed the fat from my prose. Unfortunately, it all moved to my ass. I gave up the doughnuts and stuck to the cigarettes and coffee.

Prose stylists, who focus on form, might call journalistic writing skeletal, or bare-boned. To which I say, so what? That’s the point. It’s concise and accessible. Expressing an idea in the fewest words possible is the noblest of feats. (A concept I wish my Grandma Helen would learn, especially when she’s had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and starts going off on politics.)

If you want to read bad writing (and you don’t happen to have a copy of The Bridges of Madison County nearby), consult a college textbook. Those are truly examples of muddled, murky, incomprehensible academic gibberish. Scholars might be smart, but their writing sucks. You can scour the pages for a lucid sentence, but you’ll have better luck finding Waldo in the Land of Waldos. (Hint: He’s wearing a sock.)

My journalism texts, however, taught by example. Not only did they dictate how to write, but they themselves were well-written. You can’t learn writing from a bad writer any more than you can learn fitness from a chubby instructor … which calls into question a great many high-school gym teachers.

Academics would rather inflate their egos than impart their wisdom. Their writing is verbose and baffling. They bury their knowledge under clumps and clutters of needless phrases. It’s like sifting through sewage to find a nugget of knowledge. And how can you tell the knowledge-bearing nuggets from the ones that are crap?

What’s worse, many college students duplicate this atrocious style. In order to meet arbitrary word-count requirements — and often working under vague, murky assignment guidelines — students assume the discursive diction of the typical scholar. Being wordy, after all, makes it easier to meet word count.

The effect is many college graduates can’t write. Of course, they can’t do a lot of things, such as locate Iraq on a map or describe the economic theories of Adam Smith.

These days, good writing is scarce — especially on this blog. But I do try. I strive to make my writing readable — and my hope is that people will read it. I’d like to reread my posts and not “squirm and flush and sweat,” as Schopen says — though I’m already doing that from all the Starbucks Sumatra and sugary snacks.

Technology has leapfrogged forward, but good writing is still the key to reaching audiences. The best websites dispense nuggets of knowledge, and not the kind that are less savory.

So as your tour this giant, sprawling blogosphere, keep a lookout for all the informative, insightful and entertaining blogs. Visit them and bookmark them. Let the writers know you appreciate their work.

And when you’re done with all that, don’t forget to visit mine!

Crumpling newsprint and digital journalism

Some say blogging is the new journalism of the 21st century.

If they’re including my blog, then we’re in trouble. My most riveting posts include fart jokes and idiotic insights.

But then again, those topics are more interesting — and certainly more germane — than the reporting newspapers offer.

Digital Journalism

Newspapers everywhere are crumpling (pun not intended, but I’ll roll with it). With the advent of the Internet and the hastened pace of everyday life, print journalism’s no longer feasible. People now are turning to other, more reliable sources for news — including the Onion and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Newsprint’s great for lining bird cages, but bird owners alone can’t support the industry. And besides, when it comes to collecting random bits of crap, the Internet still beats newspapers hands-down.

Some folks are lamenting the bygone days of newspapers. Good grief — that’s like lamenting horses and buggies. I’d rather drive a car than ride a horse. Cars might devour gas and expel exhaust, but at least they don’t crap on the road. Better to leave a carbon footprint than to step in something nasty.

So, no, I’m not mourning newspapers. Technology marches on. And if innovation were a parade, newspapers would be way in the back, struggling to catch up. (Thanks to technology, they’d be breathing exhaust and not sidestepping horse apples.)

The Internet has made news delivery more precise and more timely. I can scan the day’s headlines with a click of the mouse. There are no supplements to fall on the floor, and no newsprint to smudge on my hands.

The Internet doesn’t miss my porch and land in the bushes, and it doesn’t get chewed by the neighbor’s dog. The only downside is I can’t use the Internet to line the bird cage … unless, of course, I print some chapters from The Colane Conundrum.

Many newspapers, in a last-minute effort to join the party (I hope they bring beer), have developed Web sites of their own. The results are interesting … as in, it’s interesting how far off base they are.

By their historical nature, newspapers strive to please everyone. A physical paper is composed of several distinctive sections, including local news, national news, sports, real estate, opinion (which you’ll find in most news stories, anyway), classifieds, life and, certainly the most socially relevant section — and the first one I turn to — the comics page.

Some newspapers think the tried-and-true format of the physical paper translates to the Web. Well, they’ve tried it, and it’s proved untrue.

The one-size-fits-all, something-to-please-everyone approach doesn’t work. The Internet caters to specific audiences who want specific content. And audiences specifically don’t want the information hodgepodge that newspapers offer.

It’s like newspapers take their print content and sling it into cyberspace. The result is an unreadable, impenetrable jumble. Newspapers provide numerous flavors to please multiple palates, but they heap everything onto one plate. The result, frankly, is unpalatable.

Their home pages often are a cluttered, dizzying mess of links, videos, slideshows, photo galleries, news updates, event listings, sports scores, weather forecasts and Flash ads. It’s information overload, and it taxes both your patience and your Internet connection.

You also can’t interact with a newspaper like you can with a Web site. Readers love the Web because they can post an immediate response to a story. Reporters and editors hate the Web because — you might have guessed it — readers can post an immediate response to a story.

In the past, readers had to submit letters to the editor. Editors had the luxury of discriminating against poor writers, lunatics and, most importantly, readers who disagreed with them.

But now there’s no moderator. Within moments of a story’s posting, readers can log in to bash the reporter, insult other readers and articulate their own bizarre views. Occasionally, they even respond to the story. The anonymity of comment forums provides for open, intellectual discussion.

Well, open discussion, anyway. And unfortunately, most of those discussions consist of racist rants, political fist-swinging and lunatic diatribes.

All joking aside, though, I do believe comment forums are a step in the right direction. Free speech is messy, but it’s better than censorship. (Though if you disagree with me, I won’t approve your comment.)

Reader feedback helps to keep journalists on their toes. One factual, grammatical or logical misstep, and the reporter learns of it immediately. He or she then can take that information and do what any sensible journalist would do: ignore it.

Me, I prefer blogging. I’m not sure if it’s the new journalism of the 21st century, but it’s definitely catching on. Where many bloggers once commented on the news, many are now reporting it. They’re seizing the true essence of free speech to introduce ideas and ignite discussion. (Unfortunately, the racist rants and lunatic diatribes drown them out.)

The fate of newspapers lies in the future’s hands. I hope the future washes regularly, because the print-to-digital transition won’t be clean. Journalism’s undergoing a major overhaul, and all the old business models are giving way to new methods of gathering and reporting information.

And I’ll be here, in the heart of the blogosphere, adding my comments between the fart jokes and idiotic insights.