This is a few months old, but I just saw it this week: An Open Letter to Young Journalists by Tamara Keith, NPR’s White House correspondent.
The letter, posted on her personal Adventures in Radioland blog, actually started out as a personal note to a young journalist Keith corresponds with, she writes. But she thought the advice in it was “a really important thing they don’t teach in journalism school or intern orientation,” so she posted it on the blog.
The advice: “Don’t be a pain in the ass.”
Specifically, the advice is to be easy to edit. Don’t be a prima donna with your editor:
Edits can be negotiations. But they should never be battles. Resist all urges to be defensive. Treat every editor as a mentor. Sometimes this is hard to do, especially if you don’t actually have a ton of respect for the editor. But realize you can learn something even from a mediocre editor.
Of course, Keith writes, you can push back, and you should fight to resist errors being inserted into your copy or words being put into your story that you would never write. But “there is always a way to push back without being a jerk about it.”
I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the editor-writer relationship, and I think this is pretty good advice, even though I’m an accommodating, writer-friendly editor and a screaming terror of a writer, willing to go to the mattresses over every last golden comma that emits from my keyboard. I’ve had some poor editors, and I’ve had some great editors, not all of whom I’ve treated well. But I think Keith’s right: I either did or should have learned something from every one of them.
On the other hand, I’m not sure about this judgment from Keith. Writing about working with interns on a podcast she used to produce, she says:
The people who were somewhat unpleasant to edit, or fought over every word or came off like they knew it all … I’ve watched their careers derail. Not a single person who I edited who I thought “damn, I didn’t enjoy that and I’d rather not edit them again,” not one of them has had a successful career in public radio or even journalism.
I think that’s a sample size issue. I can think of a few young writers I found unpleasant to edit, uncooperative, not as good as they thought they were, who went on to successful writing careers—sometimes with me as a fond reader. I don’t think being a pain in the ass during the editing process necessarily derails a career.
But it does mean you have to be that much better than writers who aren’t one. And it makes the workday of at least two people more unpleasant than it needs to be. So my advice is to at least try Tamara Keith’s advice. Don’t be a pain in the ass for a while. See how it works.
I might even try it myself.
Butterworth is, as CJR describes him in its headline, “the man who wants to help journalists with numbers.”
As the editor of STATS.org, Butterworth has long facilitated an informal advice-giving process for journalists in need of numerical guidance. But it’s only in the last month that the official advisory board became active, after a collaboration with the British charity Sense About Science and the American Statistical Association allowed the site to expand its reach.
Here’s Butterworth writing on Stats.org’s about page:
Now, everything is becoming a data point, and everything is becoming searchable and analyzable. Instead of hypotheses seeking data, billions of data points seek hypotheses. As we once looked to the stars, we now look to databases to reveal new truths about the universe and our place within it.
Statistics is the only way to hold this new empiricism accountable; statistics is—in our information age—the new journalism. Which is, presently, a problem. If you are a statistician you are unlikely to engage in journalism in a serious way, and if you are a journalist you are unlikely to engage in statistics in a serious way.
He’s talking about covering science and healthcare there, two fields where numbers are thrown around—and manipulated—a lot. But the sentiment applies across journalism, including in sports, where numbers are everywhere, and they’re often manipulated by someone trying to make a point.
The site’s blog offers examples of numerical watchdogging that illustrate ways of getting at the question that forms the basis for all data journalism: “Is this really true?”
As Digiday’s Brian Morrissey notes, Delaney wrote many 800-word pieces during his 12 years with the Wall Street Journal. Now, though, Delaney sees the form as a problem in digital media, because digital media isn’t newspapers:
What people read online, when you look at the data, is shorter stuff that’s focused, creative and social with a really good headline. It doesn’t mean it’s unsubstantial. It just means it’s really clear about what’s interesting and focuses on that. A lot of the 800-word stories have been padded out with the B matter. It’s called B matter because it’s B grade, not A matter, which is the focal point of the story.
Here’s a funny thing: A commenter points out that the Digiday story summarizing the podcast interview is 802 words, though my count was 764. At the moment I saw the piece, the lead story on Quartz, Stop comparing Pamela Geller to the murdered staffers of Charlie Hebdo, clocked in at about 780.
The 800-word article is pretty useful. Remember this B/R Blog post from last fall, also based on a Digiday piece? It talked about how Chartbeat data found that when it comes to user engagement, the ideal length for digital stories was around 700 to 800 words. Was it a coincidence that the the classic newspaper story, created without the ability to measure reader behavior, also averaged about that length? Or did the newspaper folks in the old days intuitively understand how people read?
Do you think the 800-word article has got to go? Or is it in our bones?
It’s been fun to watch the rest of the journalism world catch up to sports in its interest in numbers over the last few years. Sportswriters have been working with numbers for more than a century, but only recently have the non-sports types become fascinated with “data journalism.” Some of the splashiest news startups of the last few years, including Vox and FiveThirtyEight, have been centered on numbers and data.
In fact, the non-sports folks may be ahead of the sports folks in the data game.
Martha Kang of PBS Media Shift writes that It’s Time For Every Journalist To Learn Basic Data Skills, and gives several examples of even small news operations doing more interesting things with data than even the most sophisticated sports sites.
Kang offers some advice:
For those who haven’t delved into data, the first step is to simply commit to try. Even if you need additional training, you won’t know what you need until you start.
Pick something small, simple, and silly as your first project; you don’t have to attempt a huge database or a five-part series. A list of names — most popular dog names, baby names, etc. — could be a good place to start.
Or not. But we can translate those silly non-sports suggestions to something sports-related. Kang continues:
Once you’re ready to tell the story, think about how you’ll visualize the numbers to drive home the point. Show too little, and the reader may not see the bigger picture. Conversely, show too much, and you lose focus. Highlight portions. Don’t make the reader dig through the numbers to find the story, but do allow them a chance to engage.
What’s a question you can answer, or a story you can tell, with data?
So now that this blog isn’t daily, I’ve fallen into this bad habit of seeing something interesting, thinking, “That would make a nice quick blog post,” saving it—and then, without the daily deadline, forgetting it.
So I’ve got a backlog of interesting tidbits. I’ll present them as a roundup today, and pledge that I will be more conscientious about heading straight to the blog when I see something interesting.
Felix Salmon’s report on the death of journalism as a career is greatly exaggerated by David Cohn, Digidave.
Remember a couple of months ago when Salmon, the former Reuters business reporter who’s now at Fusion, posted a letter to all the young journalists who ask him for advice? His message was tough, telling young journos it’s “almost impossible to make a decent living at this game.”
That spawned a day of other journalists responding on social media under the hashtag #AdviceForYoungJournalists, which remains intermittently interesting, if you can get past some relentless anti-Dalai Lama spamming.
Cohn, who has worked at Circa and AJPlus since founding the pioneering crowd-sourcing news funding site SpotUs, doesn’t buy Salmon’s premise. I’ll let you read his post to see why, but Cohn argues that building skills and knowledge is valuable even in a world of constant disruption.
“It’s not that we control NewsFeed, you control NewsFeed…” Facebook: please stop with this. by Jay Rosen, PressThink
This is a little wonky, perhaps, but important. Rosen, an NYU journalism professor and prominent media critic, argues that Facebook is being disingenuous with its answers to questions about how it designs its News Feed algorithm. Facebook is a powerful player in the news ecosystem, and seems to want to argue that it’s not. Rosen’s argument is consistent with his view on bias in journalistic writing, which is that there’s no such thing as “We don’t have a point of view.”
If you’re part of the news ecosystem, you have to at least try to understand how the big players work, and there aren’t many players bigger than Facebook. Mathew Ingram of Forbes helps on that score with this story about Facebook changing News Feed.
Millennials Aren’t Buying More Cars, There Are Just More Millennials by Joe Cortright, Jalopnik
Finally, a classic case of “be careful when you do math.” Cortright takes the Atlantic and Bloomberg to task for getting basic stats wrong when writing about how Millennials are just as interested in buying cars as earlier generations. The evidence: Millennials buy more cars. But, as Cortright points out, there are more Millennials. If you do a little simple division, you find out that, per person, Millennials buy fewer cars than previous generations.
Sportswriters work with numbers all the time. Literally. This post is a great reminder of an important lesson: Do the math, yes, and make sure you’re math is correct, but also make sure you’re doing the right math. And if at all possible, have someone who’s pretty good at math check your math, and confirm you’re doing the right math.
The Columbia Journalism Review remembered Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano this week with a piece by Anna Clark headlined 4 things sports writers can learn from Eduardo Galeano.
Galeano, who died Monday at 74. Here’s how the Guardian described him in its obituary: “Although Galeano wrote novels, he was a radical journalist by trade, a poet and an artist, and a brilliant editor. He was famous for pioneering a form of political essay built on his encyclopedic knowledge of Latin America’s past.”
But, as Clark notes, “He also wrote one of the signature books in all of sports literature: Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
Here are the four lessons sportswriters can learn from Galeano, according to Clark:
1) Longform isn’t the only way to write an epic sports story
2) You don’t have to choose between cynicism and idealism
3) Be transparent about what you don’t know
4) Don’t be afraid of deep history
As this piece by Atlantic editor James Bennet notes, we’ve made a virtue of length in the digital age, with “longform” becoming its own niche in journalism, a category of stories notable for, well, their length. Galeano wrote in short vignettes, which together formed a whole. Readers find themselves jumping rapidly from one point of view to another. Clark writes:
These quick pivots show how a sports story doesn’t need the padding of rhetoric to be about large things. It is a welcome contrast to the legions of journalists who believe that the only way to go more in-depth with a sports story is to write long. No doubt that feature-length work can be extraordinary—Grantland and SB Nation Longform are two of the most welcome additions to the sports media landscape of the last decade. But too often, word count is seen as a shortcut to substance. As Galeano reveals, sports writers should take account of all their storytelling choices before automatically opting for a 4,000-word think piece.
That’s a lesson I learned fairly recently, that there are lots of ways to tell good, and even deep, stories. It doesn’t only have to be a “magazine” piece, a long narrative.
Clark expands on the other three lessons in the piece as well, and those points are worth exploring.
Rolling Stone this week published a report by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on the magazine’s “journalistic failure.” That failure was its story last year “A Rape on Campus,” about a gang rape that allegedly took place during a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia.
I consider the report, which is about 13,000 words, required reading for anyone who will ever write or edit a reported story. It also wouldn’t hurt to read it if you ever plan to read, watch of listen to such a story.
The report was commissioned by Rolling Stone after the Washington Post and others called into question the facts of the University of Virginia story, and even the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, told her editors that she no longer had confidence in the accuracy of the her piece. “A Rape on Campus” relied on a single source, the alleged rape victim, whom Erdely called Jackie in the story.
Rolling Stone has retracted the piece and taken it down, but the Internet Archive hosts an archived version.
The report released this week was created by Steve Coll, the Columbia journalism school’s dean and a Pulitzer-winning reporter; Sheila Coronel, the school’s dean of academic affairs; and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia. Neither the report’s authors nor the school were compensated, they and Rolling Stone say.
The academic trio tried to answer the question posed in the headline of the report as it appears on RollingStone.com: “What Went Wrong?” They succeeded, in very thorough fashion. But media theorist and NYU professor Clay Shirky, writing at NewRepublic.com, suggests that the whole thing should have come down to three sentences:
We investigated the matter thoroughly. We found no extenuating circumstances. The writers, editors, and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone abdicated the skepticism required by their profession.
“The rest,” Shirky writes, “is just an appendix.”
I agree, but I think the report is worth reading anyway, because it describes so clearly how that abdication can happen. Time after time, Erdely and her editors “did not pursue important reporting paths” that would likely have surfaced the massive problems underlying the story:
There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.
I don’t think your reading should stop with the report. Media critic Jay Rosen, who also teaches at NYU, wrote on his PressThink blog that the report failed to identify an even bigger problem with the UVA story.
In an early scene in the story, three friends of Jackie’s dissuade her from reporting the alleged attack for fear of what it might mean for her reputation on campus. Though Erdely describes this scene as an omniscient narrator, it turns out that the information came solely from Jackie, and that Erdely had not been able to find and interview the three friends. The Columbia report describes the decision to go ahead with the story without having interviewed the friends as “the most consequential decision” the magazine made that led to the journalistic failure.
The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. [From the report: "Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it’s like to be on campus now.'"] The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem …
Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.
The story’s omniscient voice placed the reader at the scene of a shocking assault as well as a meeting between the victim and three friends on a Charlottesville street corner. It’s rarely clear in these scenes that everything we’re reading came from a single source Rolling Stone identified only as “Jackie.”
The Columbia report noted that “There is a tension in magazine and narrative editing between crafting a readable story—a story that flows—and providing clear attribution of quotations and facts. It can be clunky and disruptive to write ‘she said’ over and over.”
Beaujon writes, “Rolling Stone’s anti-clunk strategy, though, directly reflected a more basic problem with the story: The article’s fealty to narrative was more important than its commitment to reporting.”
This blog has written often about the questions addressed in the Columbia report. Similar discussions around the revelation that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o's late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed led to the B/R Blog’s invention of a journalism rule called Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know is true, and tell us how you know it.
As is so often the case, following that dictum would have saved Rolling Stone this time. As complex as reporting and writing can be—and it can be as complex as life itself—at bottom it comes down to writers and editors being dogged in that skepticism Shirky wrote about, in constantly asking, “Really? Is that true? How do we know?”
More coverage and analysis:
What was the single point of failure at Rolling Stone? The authors of Columbia’s investigative report answer that and more, Columbia Journalism Review (Interview with Coll and Coronel)
Do scandals like Rolling Stone’s do lasting damage to journalism? Columbia Journalism Review
He began by talking about the troubles last year at The New Republic, which saw mass editorial-staff resignations after new owner Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, announced plans to make the venerable magazine a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” which is the kind of talk that sends old-media types running.
In the [social media] pecking party that ensued, The New Republic was elevated to the status of an American institution, in need of protection from being corrupted by everything smart people were supposed to hate. The problem was that The New Republic stopped being relevant a long time before “snackable content” was mentioned in an editorial staff meeting as something to which they should ascribe …
The reaction to The New Republic’s supposed demise came to represent our faith in good writing. It was the substance of journalism hoped for, but also the unread browser tabs of content unseen. We felt more obligated to mourn the impending changes to its content than we ever did to actually read its reporting.
That’s a lot like something I started saying in the years when the demise of newspapers was hitting warp speed, and pundits were wondering who would keep an eye on our government. I said I’d feel a lot worse about losing newspapers as a government watchdog if they actually did some watchdogging once in a while.
Media formats get romanticized a lot. When I was a kid, the grownups talked about the great old days of radio, before TV ruined it. Yeah, right. There were people in my grandparents’ generation who believed the talkies never quite matched the grandeur of silent films.
Formats change, tastes change, and the content itself changes. In Parkes’ words, “It’s absurd to imagine changes in the production and accessibility of writing not affecting how we read it.” He points out that until very recently, storytelling hadn’t really changed since much since we lived in caves, and what we valued as a culture came out of the oral tradition. That means longer, more poetic, more linear works. “But then,” Parkes writes, “whammo!”
The internet changed the dynamic. Content, in whatever form, used to be scarce. When we found something we liked, we wanted to sit with it for a while. Now, we’re flooded with content:
Content is everywhere, and we can pull it from anywhere. Because there’s so much of it, we’re increasingly likely to pull it in short bursts rather than devote ourselves to long engagements.
These are not new thoughts, but Parkes puts them really well, and then ties them to the plight of us writers. Parkes himself, he writes, wants to tell long, poetic stories. But those are unfashionable. That’s what he was doing at The Score when he and his staff were let go, he writes, because the site wanted to focus on “the kind of content users are increasingly coming to us for.”
After such events, it’s easy to adopt a “woe is me” attitude. My skills don’t match current trends. Pity me, then join me in championing a lost art that the mouth-breathing mitten-stringers have decimated. Together, we can collectively mourn our declining culture on social media. What better way than 140 characters at a time?
It would be the same faux debt we pretended to owe The New Republic.
Rather than wallow in self-pity and lamentations for a possibly romanticized past that isn’t coming back, “We should be seeking new ways to express what we want to say in formats that appeal to readers. We have to embrace the restrictions,” Parkes writes.
That reminds me of a conversation I had with Bleacher Report co-founder Dave Finocchio early in my time here about ways to improve the quality of the writing on B/R, which is what I was hired to help do. To me “improve the quality” meant something like “make it more like the writing in respected publications like Sports Illustrated or the New York Times.” The topic at hand was some initiative that, while interesting, didn’t get us any closer to that goal.
Finocchio said, “We have to change the definition of what ‘quality writing’ is.”
You can read that as “dumb it down” if you want, but I think it was very profound. Dave was right. We were operating in a new and ever-changing medium. In fact, it was just starting to radically transform again, to mobile-first. Of course the standards should change right along with it.
Asking “How can a piece of writing be great if it has tweets and GIFs and videos every few paragraphs?” is like asking “How can ‘The Godfather’ be a great movie when it doesn’t have 575 pages, like the book?”
“Just as technology led to writing’s decrease in value,” Parkes writes, “it also offers us the tools to return, accept the changing environment and move forward.”
In response to Parkes, Hardball Talk writer Craig Calcaterra posted How does a writer survive in the era of snackable content? on his personal blog. Calcaterra sums Parkes up this way:
Adapt or perish, Mr. or Ms. Writer Person, because this is a business.
It’s a sentiment with which I completely agree. As I found in my previous career, if you think you’re part of some greater noble calling which should be immune to commercial considerations, you’re gonna find yourself on the unemployment line eventually.
Calcaterra’s previous career was the law. He now makes his living writing short takes about baseball, 15 to 20 a day, which is perhaps not ideal for a writer who is “quite comfortable with more in-depth analysis.” But they all add up to a body of work, Calcaterra writes, that he can be proud of. “Yes, my readers come for laughs and videos and little snacks,” he writes, “but they also know that I stand for some things and that I can be trusted to offer some wisdom or insight on the things that are more or less in my wheelhouse.”
And you know what? In 50 years or so the people who are teenagers now will be wistful about the days of 250-word quick takes with tweets and GIFs. Those were the days, they’ll say, when there was some real writing.
Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant? is a look into the Thunder locker room and what it’s like for the beat writers who work there.
It isn’t pretty.
It’s also nothing I haven’t seen before in various locker rooms around various sports. The athletes find the media an intrusive annoyance, the beat writers, wanting to get on with their jobs, wish the athletes would answer a few questions, preferably without being ridiculously rude. Nobody’s particularly happy.
The situation in Oklahoma City seems a bit more tense than most, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind. Curtis attributes it to the team’s fierce lockdown on access:
It was a gripe I heard again and again from the Thunder press corps. Nobody held a grudge against Durant or Westbrook. They knew the locker-room scrums would produce a poor harvest. What frustrated the press corps was that the players—especially Durant and Westbrook—remained largely out of reach. While complying with the league’s minimum standards for access, the Thunder carefully proscribed their availability …
In the Thunder locker room, there’s a watchfulness that prevents all but the most formal interactions. Reporters said that nearly every time they approach a player, even with tape recorders holstered, a Thunder PR rep sidles up to listen. “If you have a conversation with a player about parenting, someone is going to be standing right there hovering and trying to steer it whichever way they think it should go,” [Oklahoman reporter Darnell] Mayberry said. “That’s the kind of culture they’ve created here. No one has a personal relationship with any of these guys.”
I might have used the headline “So you want to be a beat writer.”
Curtis writes that Berry Tramel, the Oklahoman columnist Russell Westbrook barked at in January, stands “feet away yet miles apart from” the star 30-plus nights a year. “It’s not going to be any kind of relationship-based situation,” Tramel tells Curtis. “I’m just going to be writing about how great he is. I’m never going to be writing about who he is.”
Which makes me wonder: Why bother? Why does the world, or at least the sports readership, need a talented, trained journalist to stand next to the locker of an athlete and write down the banalities he reluctantly utters?
Curtis writes that after Marshawn Lynch’s anti-media routine at the Super Bowl, “One common response was: Why bother players after a game? I don’t care what they say, anyway … ‘Yes, you do,’ said [ESPN writer Royce] Young. ‘There’s a reason NBA TV runs every playoff postgame press conference.’”
That reason is that coaches and players tend to answer questions at those press conferences, so they can be worth watching. They know they’re in front of the public, and they generally cooperate and don’t act like jerks. It’s completely different than a locker-room situation.
I wonder if The Oklahoman, and lots of other media outlets, could learn some things from The New York Times, which, according to Poynter.org’s Ed Sherman learned some things when it pulled its Knicks beat writer.
That happened, Sherman writes, not because locker-room interviews were going badly, but because the Knicks were so bad and uninteresting that sports editor Jason Stallman decided to liberate Scott Cacciola from having to write about them, assigning him instead to more interesting basketball stories around the world. Those included the tales of a powerful fifth-grade girls team in Springfield, Ill., and a New Zealand team in Australia’s National Basketball League.
The Times’ name for Cacciola’s series of articles: Not the Knicks.
I wonder what stories all those reporters are not covering when they’re standing around clubhouses, locker rooms and dressing rooms, waiting for some star player to deliberately go through his post-shower routine before reluctantly agreeing to mumble a few clichés.