If you’ve got more than a few months ahead of you in a journalism career, it’s a good idea to stay current on trends in media, especially trends in how people use the media. Because whatever you know to be true now is likely to change quickly, and often.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) has just published its third annual digital news report, which has some insights into what’s going on out there.
Some interesting points from that executive summary by Digital News Report editor Nic Newman:
- The use of smartphones and tablets has jumped significantly in the past year, with fewer people using their computers for news.
- Facebook is by far the most important network for news everywhere. Although Twitter is widely used in the US, Spain, and the UK, it is far less influential in many other European countries. Google+ is emerging as increasingly important for news, along with messaging application WhatsApp.
- European respondents remain strongly committed to news that tries to be neutral (or impartial) but Americans are more interested in hearing from brands and reporters that are open about their own views and biases.
And here’s a key point that Greenslade makes in the Guardian:
Smartphones, which are favoured by young people, are encouraging users to consume news more frequently throughout the day, thereby reducing the dependence on appointment-to-view television and printed newspaper issues.
The readers and viewers of tomorrow prefer to receive news through mobile devices and consequently tend to “snack” more in terms of both the time spent on sites and the type of content they consume.
Bone up on these findings … and be prepared for them to be made obsolete by new findings within a few years.
Some interesting reading for you today:
“How Not to Be Wrong”: What the literary world can learn from math by Laura Miller, Salon.com
Miller reviews Jordan Ellenberg’s book, “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking,” pointing out how the math popularizer can be a useful study for non-mathematicians who have to deal with data. Like, for example, journalists. And can you think of a subject within journalism that deals with numbers and their meaning quite a bit?
Ellenberg’s tone is by turns anecdotal and computational, but this book’s most essential chapters have to do with probability and statistics, the spookier and more counterintuitive precincts of mathematical thinking pertaining to what might happen and how likely something is to be true. In an age of big data and slapdash science reporting, all of us need to be better skilled with these brain-twisting conceptual tools if we want to apply the proper skepticism to everything from drug company claims to mutual fund returns.
I would add: Not to mention dubious statistical arguments made by sportswriters and broadcasters.
I recently wrote a book about the power of short writing, and I say with confidence that whoever designed the back of the 1954 baseball card for Topps would have been a genius in the digital age. The amount of information contained in about six square inches of space is truly phenomenal; not to mention the efficient use of multiple forms of communication. This is, by any definition, a multi-media production, and multi-sensory, if you include the bubble gum.
A larger point that Clark makes: Concision is a powerful tool. The familiar advice is to read a lot, but Clark says read everything. Ads, backs of product packages. Note how, with both language and design, a lot of information can be conveyed in small spaces or short times.
When I met PolicyMic co-founder and CEO Chris Altchek a few years ago, he described the site as “Bleacher Report for politics,” so I’ve kept an eye on it ever since. The site focuses on news for the “millennial” generation, which is also B/R’s core audience, though unlike PolicyMic, we don’t state that as an explicit goal.
Altchek’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Jake Horowitz published a post on the Knight Blog this week headlined PolicyMic offers lessons on delivering compelling news for millennials. It’s packed with smart ideas and good advice.
After dismissing some media stereotypes about millennials as lazy, spoiled and self-obsessed with stats about the generation’s levels of education and political engagement, Horowitz writes:
We started PolicyMic with a desire to empower young people to have smart conversations about important topics. We offer incisive news and analysis to an audience of millennials who are too often ignored and mischaracterized by other media outlets …
Gone are the days of cut-and-dried wire stories reprinted in newspapers around the country. To succeed in the crowded digital space, news outlets need to distinguish themselves with a distinct, consistent voice. A clear understanding of who your audience is, and how to talk to them, sets you apart from the many outlets cluttering readers’ social media feeds.
At PolicyMic, Horowitz writes, that means a “relentless” commitment to young people. “We propel conversations taking place on social media or offline among our peers.”
For a different organization focused on a different subject or audience, the commitment will be to something else. But relentless commitment to a core idea, to creating distinction between a site and “the many outlets cluttering readers’ social media feeds,” is key.
For PolicyMic, Horowitz writes, that means three things:
- Resist the temptation for empty calories
- It’s all about social and mobile
- Experiment: Pivot, shift and adapt strategy as needed
What is it for you?
Yesterday we talked about making a close study of writing you like so you can try to figure out what the author did to make you have a positive reaction.
I tried this type of dissection for the first time in the late ’80s, when I found myself laughing hysterically as I read Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry’s Pulitzer Prize submission package. Barry mostly wrote silly stuff about silly subjects, but somehow I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. And then a column about his mother’s death had me in tears.
Hang on a second, I thought. What’s going on here? I read all the time, and I almost never laugh out loud, never mind uncontrollably, and I almost never tear up. This guy’s got me doing both in the space of five minutes. And by the way, he won that Pulitzer for commentary in 1988, so I wasn’t the only one who thought highly of his writing.
I started reading as many Dave Barry columns as I could get my hands on, and I figured out that whatever silly subject he was writing about—he once wrote a book called “Boogers Are My Beat”—he was a master with the language. I learned how he used vocabulary, word choice, vivid—if sometimes ridiculous—visual imagery and sentence length to lead readers in one direction, then yank them in another. He didn’t use set-ups and punch lines like a comedian, but he created the same effect.
And it was invisible. He did it all without drawing attention to the fact that he was Writing with a capital W. It read like some dope was talking at a party. But in my experience that dope never makes me laugh before I’ve had about five drinks. Barry came off like a dope, but he was flashing big-time skills.
I’ve been studying good writers ever since, looking under the hood, as it were, trying to figure out what’s so good about the good stuff. I do it with sportswriters, other journalists, novelists, anyone. If I find myself liking something, I’ll try to figure out what the writer did that was so effective. Sometimes I realize the writer’s using some method I’m familiar with, but sometimes I learn something I can use in my own writing.
Cultivating that skill is the second best thing I’ve ever done for myself as a writer. The best was working at a radio station and learning how to write for broadcast. That’s a story for another time.
William Faulkner was asked what the best training was for a writer: “Read, read, read,” he said. “Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing.”
Reading is the easy part. The tricky part is in the middle of that quote: “See how they do it.” Pulling useful information about writing from something you’re reading is a skill itself, one that must be learned and practiced.
One of my favorite people in the writing-advice racket is Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, and he showed how it’s done in a post on Poynter.org last week. In The ‘cinematic slow-motion effect’ of Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Seabiscuit,’ Clark examines two climactic paragraphs from Hillenbrand’s classic book, her description of the stretch run of the 1940 Santa Anita Derby.
Clark picks apart Hillenbrand’s use of a writer’s tools, especially punctuation but also sentence length and even italics, to create motion, speed up and slow down the action and create mood:
Consider all the tools of language used–and not used–to create this startling, cinematic slow-motion effect. Not used, for example, are commas to break up what might look like a run-on sentence: “Seabiscuit reached and pushed and Pollard folded and unfolded over his shoulders and they breathed together.”
Clark suggests that Hillenbrand left commas out of that sentence not because the clauses are short enough that the sentence is easy to understand without them, but for a more literary reason: “The sentence describes a continuous flowing action of horse and jockey: first horse, then jockey, then both together. The action, if you will, is running on. And so is the sentence.”
Have you ever looked closely at a great piece of writing and had a light bulb go off? Ever taken that lesson into your own writing? Tell us about it in the comments.
We’ve made some changes in the Writer Program application process. The requirements for approval are the same as they’ve been for a while, but how you get there is a little different.
We no longer ask for a single original writing sample of up to 500 words. Instead, we ask for four things: The URL of your most recent published piece in a newspaper, magazine, blog or website, and three brief original writing samples to demonstrate your knack for taking insightful angles on timely stories.
As the application notes: “If you don’t have any published work to your credit, please explore other options for cutting your teeth before reapplying to Bleacher Report.”
For the three brief writing samples, up to 100 words each, we ask these things:
- Of all the week’s major sports news stories, which would you be most interested in writing about? Why?
- Of all the plausible analytical angles you might take when writing about your selected story, which one would you choose? Why?
- Given the angle described above, how would you write the lede for your selected story?
An earlier B/R Blog post spelled out what the B/R Writer Admissions team looks for when evaluating a writing sample. The team is still looking for pretty much the same things today, but those things must be in your published output and your answers to those questions. Let’s review them here.
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The Writer Admissions team uses an objective scoring system to evaluate writing. That might sound strange because we all know that writing is an art form. But music is an art form too, and just as we can evaluate whether a musician hits the notes correctly, there are some things within the art of writing that we can judge objectively.
That said, writing really is an art form, so the reviewers also use their experience and judgment to evaluate an applicant’s depth of knowledge on the subject of the article, and whether the piece is compelling and fun to read.
For a much more extensive look at how Bleacher Report defines quality sportswriting, you can read our short textbook, Playbook: The Basics of Writing for Bleacher Report, which is available for free download at this link.
In much briefer form, here’s how the objective side of the evaluation works:
Reviewers look at the strength of the analysis as well as the actual mechanics of the writing. In other words, not only do they want to see that you have smart, interesting, creative things to say about sports—the “art form” side of the evaluation mentioned above—they want to see that you have the ability to say them well.
There are 10 metrics the Writer Admissions Team looks at, five each having to do with analysis and mechanics. If your writing goes astray on too many of the metrics, the application will be turned down. In most cases, writers may try again after 30 days.
Here are the five metrics B/R reviewers look at as they evaluate your analysis:
Opinion: The writing we’re looking for offers opinionated analysis rather than merely regurgitating facts. Reviewers look for at least two consecutive paragraphs that contain subjective interpretation of the event or events being covered. The consecutive-paragraph requirement guards against “drive-by” analysis. Reviewers want to see thoughts developed a little bit.
Angle: Bleacher Report readers demand forward-looking analysis. Reviewers look, again, for at least two consecutive paragraphs that contain such analysis. That means making predictions or raising questions about the impact of the article’s topic.
Support: Every single statement of opinion must be supported with at least one persuasive fact.
Aggregation: Good analysis makes note of other coverage. Reviewers want to see at least one attributed reference to a third-party source.
Structure: Reviewers look for three basic elements in a good piece of writing: The first is a lede that introduces the article’s major themes. The second is a logical progression that develops the themes that were introduced in the lede. The third is a conclusion that substantively summarizes those themes as they’ve been developed. An oversimplification: Beginning, middle and end.
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There are also five metrics that reviewers look at while evaluating the mechanics of your writing.
Textual Correctness: Spell everything correctly. It’s as simple as that. Even one misspelled word will be held against you. Any more than two grammatical errors or typographical errors combined will also have you on your way to an invitation to try again in 30 days.
Sentence and Paragraph Structure: Readers like concision and so does the Writer Admissions team. We like to see an average of fewer than 20 words per sentence and four sentences per paragraph.
Language Variation: Word repetition is the big issue the team is looking for here. Using the same word two times in one sentence or three times in one paragraph, other than for rhetorical effect, will raise a red flag. Reviewers also look for subject-predicate repetition, which is the non-rhetorical use of identical subjects and/or predicates in consecutive sentences.
Verb Choice: Avoid passive verb constructions. Too many, and the Writer Admissions team will stop reading. “Too many” is not very many.
Authorial Voice: More than two instances of first-person voice will dramatically reduce your chances of approval.
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Don’t have a published piece that fits those criteria? That’s OK. Go write and publish one.
But keep this in mind: We wanted to tell you how the B/R application review system works not so you can game the system and score points with reviewers, but because we believe that if you understand the concepts behind the scoring, you’ll be able to write the kind of compelling stories that will help you build a loyal audience for your writing.
Again, you can download and read our free textbook, Playbook: The Basics of Writing for Bleacher Report for a more complete review of B/R’s editorial requirements.
When you feel like you’re ready, here’s the Writer Program application.
Your readers are great editors. But only if you listen to them.
Not every writer likes to jump into the comments and mix it up with readers. You’ve heard the advice about engaging with the community and encouraging debate, and if it’s not your style, it’s not your style.
But look at the comments anyway. And don’t wait too long. If there are errors in your piece, your readers are likely to point them out in the comments. If you can easily fix a mistake, why let it linger in your story, especially when—just in case other readers missed it—your friend the commenter helpfully points it out?
It’s tempting to publish and walk away. Job well done! But give it a few minutes, then check the comments. Then give it an hour or so and check again. Then don’t be a stranger over the next few hours. There have been mistakes getting past editors and copy editors for as long as there have been editors and copy editors.
You have millions of potential copy editors. Don’t ignore them.
Ingram covers the tech business for GigaOm, and in that role is a keen observer of changes in media. A longtime writer, editor and blogger for the Financial Times of Canada and, the Globe and Mail, he’s interested in both the rise of new media and the death of the newspaper. Hillel Fuld interviewed Ingram for Tech ‘n’ Marketing.
A couple of interesting points. First, Fuld notes that Ingram is not only interesting but also prolific on Twitter, and when Fuld asks him how he can tweet, analyze and write so much while also carrying on a life, Ingram’s answer sounds familiar. It’s what people who seem to produce a lot or do a lot of things always seem to say when someone asks them how they do it:
I think the secret, if I have one, is that I don’t watch TV.
That’s a little hard to pull off for sportswriters, or even sports fans—when we dined together, it was in the thick of the Richie Incognito scandal, and when I mentioned it Ingram joked, “Pretend I don’t know who Richie Incognito is.” But it’s worth thinking about. If you find yourself wishing you had more time, think about whether you need to watch every awesome new HBO series that everyone’s talking about.
Or, if you’re like me, every episode of Jerry Springer. Don’t judge.
Fuld asks Ingram what tips he’d give to a startup founder after having covered so many over the years:
I would never claim to have any secrets about starting or running companies, but I know that the entrepreneurs I have admired over the years are always the ones who are passionate about what they are doing for some reason other than just making money—someone once said that passion will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no passion. And they are almost always honest, even about their flaws and mistakes, which is difficult to do.
Putting aside the good advice that journalists should be entrepreneurial, that sounds like a good formula for success in a lot of fields, including this one.
Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic is good at finding good writing. He runs the Best of Journalism E-mail Newsletter, with which you get two emails a week highlighting exceptional nonfiction for $1.99 a month.
Last month Friedersdorf published his annual “Best Of Journalism Awards,” which is to say a list of, as the headline says, Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism.
Bookmark it or Instapaper or it or whatever you do, and over the next few months, when you have a few minutes, instead of one more trawl through Facebook or Instagram, read one of these pieces. You won’t agree with Friedersdorf that all of them are “fantastic pieces.” I don’t either. But we can all learn from the ones that are fantastic, and maybe even from those we think fall short.
They’re split into categories, including “Sports & Leisure,” but also War & Peace, Arts, Letters & Entertainment, food, business, personal essays and more. I’ve only read a few myself, so I’ve got some Instapapering to do. And some reading and learning and improving as a writer.