Dog bites man: Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark has some more good writing advice.
Try this exercise: Go back and find a story you wrote three months or three years ago. The older the piece, the “colder” it will feel to you, enabling you to read it more objectively. Ask yourself these questions: What pleases me? What would I now change? How would I describe the voice of this writer? What important lessons about writing have I learned since?
That’s a spoiler. It’s a tag at the end of this piece, in which Clark goes back and reads a profile he wrote of Lauren Bacall in 1979 for the St. Petersburg Times, which is now called the Tampa Bay Times.
Clark’s point is that if you go back and read your old stories, you’re probably going to cringe at some things, or at least notice a few things you might have done differently. What that means is that you must have learned something since you wrote that story. You’re getting smarter, better.
It’s a confidence boost, Clark says:
I know there are writers who never read their old stories. The reluctance, I believe, stems from the impostor syndrome, that all of their insufficiencies and fallibilities will surface in the re-reading. They will look at their old stories the way I look at videos of my golf swing and opine, “Man, I really do suck.”
When I go back to look at an old story, my response is usually different. I may cringe at this phrase or wish I had revised that, but my overwhelming impression goes something like this: “Hmm. This stuff is pretty good. The kid can write.”
The advice is similar to a tip I once heard when I was advising Student Life, the student newspapaer at Washington University at St. Louis. I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly who offered it, but he was an alum of the paper who had become a successful writer for a prominent newspaper. A student journalist had asked him how he dealt with writer’s block, or maybe just self-doubt. I’ll just have to quote him as best as I can from memory, but I’m positive I’m conveying his meaning correctly:
“Go back and read your own stuff,” he said. “Remind yourself that you’re pretty good. You can do this.”
Another high-profile plagiarism case is in the media news this week. Our Bad Media, in a post credited only to the Twitter handles @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, accused foreign policy expert Fareed Zakaria of 12 instances of plagiarism committed before August 2012.
That date is when Zakaria was caught plagiarizing a Jill Lepore article in the New Yorker for his column in Time and a post at CNN.com. Zakaria admitted wrongdoing, said, “I made a terrible mistake,” and apologized. Time and CNN both suspended him.
A week later, both outlets announced that that they had investigated Zakaria’s previous work for plagiarism and not found it. In Time’s words, “We are entirely satisfied that the language in question in his recent column was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized.”
Note: CNN and Bleacher Report share a corporate parent, Time Warner. At the time of Zakaria’s suspension in 2012, Time Magazine was also owned by Time Warner, but is now part of a separate company.
Zakaria also writes a column for the Washington Post, whose editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, has defended him against the new charges. Hiatt also said that the paper had reviewed Zakaria’s earlier work in 2012 and found no plagiarism.
The new Our Bad Media findings call into question those investigations:
In the light of our findings, we have to call bullshit. It took less than an hour and a few Google searches for us at Our Bad Media to find an example of lifting in Zakaria’s columns written before the 2012 plagiarism scandal. So we’re left to wonder: did TIME, CNN, or the Washington Post actually conduct good faith reviews of Zakaria’s work? Have they since?
Emphasis in the original.
Zakaria has defended himself, in a statement he gave to Politico media reporter Dylan Byers, and Our Bad Media shot right back, calling him a liar and rebutting his claims that he had merely used the same facts as others by pointing out long passages in Zakaria’s writing that matched, right down to the punctuation, that of other writers.
In light of this issue that looks like it could ruin the career of one of journalism’s biggest names, you might find two stories about plagiarism interesting. The first is this blog post by Steve Buttry, in which he considers many of the issues around attribution and plagiarism. There are many links to earlier posts on the subject too.
A key takeaway: attribution is the difference between plagiarism and research. That is: Attribute everything. And another, which Buttry calls the bottom line:
Whether you’re a student journalist or a multi-platform star like Zakaria: Readers and viewers want to know how we know what we know. We should attribute and link. Always.
That almost sounds like Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know is true, and tell us how you know it.
The second is a 20-minute interview by CBC Radio with Poynter Institute ethics expert Kelly McBride, who has many interesting things to say about plagiarism, including the idea that checking for a pattern of violations is the first step a news organization should take in any plagiarism case.
If such a pattern isn’t found, McBride says, and it really is an “isolated incident,” then she’s willing to consider the idea that the offense was a “misdemeanor,” and the problem can be solved with better training.
One of my favorite pieces of writing advice—one I thought of myself rather than stealing it from a good writer like I usually do—is to anticipate the questions readers will ask as they read your piece, and then answer them.
That is, imagine your readers are active, inquisitive readers, and stay ahead of them.
The column is aimed at investors. Ritholtz wants to teach his readers how to be active, inquisitive readers so they don’t get suckered by vague, poorly sourced, sloppy financial analysis:
Active reading often leads to the conclusion that the vast majority of news is at best incomplete and uninformative, while a majority of research reports are full of biases and logical errors.
But the piece also offers a kind of roadmap to writers. If you’re wondering what an active, inquisitive reader looks like, follow along with Ritholtz as he conducts a Fire Joe Morgan-style dialog with a Wall Street Journal article. The italicized text comes from the WSJ article:
Stocks have come so far, so fast that investors are getting nervous.
How far have stocks come relative to past market rallies? Where are we relative to the median bull market? Is this consistent with prior cycles, or is this an outlier?
The key to understanding this sort of statement is putting it into historical context: is “too far too fast” based on the data, rather than an unsupported supposition?
All that just from one sentence. Ritholtz is talking about finance here, but think of all the “unsupported supposition” passes for sports analysis, when data would serve the purpose so much better.
I always like to use an example from a baseball broadcast that I wrote about years ago: The Angels had scored several runs with two outs in a game against the White Sox, and ESPN, televising the game, flashed a graphic pointing out that the Angels scored 40 percent of their runs with two outs. Citing that figure, analyst Buck Martinez launched into a rhapsody about how that showed the Angels had heart, they scrapped, they never gave up on an inning and all that.
I was an active, inquisitive listener, so I asked, “Is 40 percent a lot?” Turns out, it wasn’t. It was a little better than league average, and barely better than the White Sox. And there didn’t seem to be much correlation between a team’s reputation for scrappiness and heart and its ability to score runs with two outs. And two-out run-scoring didn’t correlate that well with winning either.
These are the kinds of questions you don’t want to leave readers asking—especially if the answers will destroy your argument.
As Bleacher Report Quality Editor Erica Patton said in this B/R Blog post, “I’m looking for a piece that is comprehensive; something that (while attributing outside sources) is thorough and doesn’t require the reader to find any pertinent details elsewhere. As a reader, I don’t want to have any questions when I’m done with a piece.”
Emphasis mine. You were wondering about that, right?
Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy urges you to Blog Like a Journalist in an excellent post at Medium. Acknowledging that “the revolutionary gleam has worn off” of blogging, Kennedy argues that it “remains at the center of the digital media toolbox.”
So why set up a solo blog?
The reason is that you need an online home that is controlled by you — not by Mark Zuckerberg or Arianna Huffington or some other digital mogul seeking to get rich from your content. Moreover, you need to establish an online identity. If you don’t, others will do it for you. “You can’t allow others to define who you are, or control the way you are perceived. This is especially true today for people in the public eye, but the more we do online the more it’ll be true for the rest of us, too,” writes Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive. “To the extent that it’s possible to do so, you should control the reference point for people who want to know more about you and your ideas.”
Kennedy spells out what he says are the essential elements of a journalistic blog post:
- Call your audience’s attention to something it doesn’t know
- Link to the source of your information
- Bring in other sources of information
- Offer your own perspective and analysis so that your readers take away something of value that goes beyond the sources you’re quoting
That’s a pretty good recipe for any analytical journalistic writing, if you ask me, especially combined with something he writes further down: “Don’t try to read people’s minds”:
Another way of putting it is that you shouldn’t ascribe motives unless you’re willing to pick up the phone and do the reporting. For example, it’s fine to observe that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox is soft (if you think that’s the case and can offer evidence) and that the Globe’s owner, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. But it’s out of bounds to speculate without interviewing the principals that Globe staff members are afraid of angering Henry, or that Henry must have sent out an edict of some sort.
Kennedy further advises to choose a beat that’s narrow, but not too narrow, compile a wide-ranging reading list and “maintain a conversation with the ‘former audience.’” That’s a reference to the phrase coined by journalist and author Dan Gillmor, “the people formerly known as the audience.” Formerly because the audience could be, and often is, blogging and otherwise creating content too.
The reading list of bloggers to pay attention to that Kennedy finishes with is worth the price of admission all by itself.
This is probably going to sound a little funny but I’ve been watching the old miniseries “Hollywood,” a documentary about the silent film industry, and it struck me that the transition to sound movies has some parallels in the media racket today.
I know. Crazy. Usually if you’re going to draw an analogy to the changes in media wrought by today’s technological innovation, the century-old industry you use involves horses.
A B/R writer who is several years my senior and a veteran of a long newspaper career responded to something I’d written about the modern sportswriting biz in an email by comparing old-school sportswriters to “blacksmiths in the era the horse was replaced by the motor car.” A novel-writing friend who’s feeling like his opportunities for making money are getting more and more scarce posted a plea for advice on Facebook and punctuated it with a warning that he would do violence to anyone using the phrase “buggy whip.”
I’ve been guilty of that one myself.
But “Hollywood” showed me an even better parallel. The series was released in 1980, when many stars, directors and crew members from the silent era were still alive. There are contemporary interviews with them sprinkled throughout. As they spoke, they reminded me of people who today lament the death of quality sportswriting, or journalism generally, which, in this view, has been destroyed by hot takes, social media, GIFs and all the rest of that web 2.0 kinda stuff.
Except for a few of us weirdos who seek out silent movies and love them, people today think of them as silly and primitive: “Jerky and flickering,” as narrator James Mason puts it in the opening moments, “a little absurd, moving at the wrong speed, with that tinkling piano.”
But at the time they were considered a fully developed art form, and many of the most important people in the business thought of the advent of sound as a disaster, the ruination of something sublime.
“I think the great disaster that befell the picture business was sound,” says the famous reporter—and silent-film screenwriter—Adela Rogers St. John. “See, we had a high art of pantomime, at its very peak.”
“When sound started, that’s when popcorn began,” says King Vidor, whose career spanned the silent and sound eras, “because they could turn away and look and talk to your girlfriend and unwrap candy bars and all that, and you wouldn’t miss anything. You could hear it at the same time. In silent pictures, you couldn’t eat popcorn and do drinks because you had to watch the screen all the time, and you had to interpret what was going on.”
Before “talkies” came in, the movies were an international language. The same flick could be shown anywhere. “I don’t think film should have married words,” says Lillian Gish, a great star of the period. “It separates the world. Film and music brings the world together again. They all understand it.”
That was a real loss, as was the audience attentiveness and engagement that Vidor talked about. D.W. Griffith said, “It is my arrogant belief that we have lost beauty.” Charlie Chaplin said, “Talkies are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen.”
These people were giants. They knew their business. They were right.
But what they missed, or ignored, was that while some of those great things about silent movies were lost, sound opened up vast opportunities that would have been impossible without it. “The Godfather” wasn’t happening in the silent era, and neither were the Marx Brothers, not to mention, say, “West Side Story.” Or “Toy Story.” But of course, not ALL was lost. Some of the Marx Brothers’ comedy would have worked in the silent era, as would some of the drama in “The Godfather.”
As I told my newspaper-veteran friend, I think those old silent-film artists are a pretty good analogy for old-school sportswriters. They created wonderful work, and found themselves threatened when technological innovation fundamentally changed their industry. Some of their old skills translated, others didn’t, and some new ones were necessary that hadn’t been needed before.
Here’s some good news: You know how all the stars of silent movies had their careers ruined when sound came in? That’s largely a myth. There were casualties—not always attributable to sound coming in—but many of them adapted quite well.
I sometimes wish that silent movies were still a thing, because I love them. But mostly I’m happy to have all of the magnificent work that’s come along since the sound era began. I think future generations will hear early-21st century lamentations over how the internet is killing high-quality writing the way we hear Adela Rogers St. John and Lillian Gish.
The last two posts on the B/R Blog have been a little downbeat, so here’s a more optimistic takes on the future of journalism and sportswriting.
Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing asks, Is Sports on Earth’s Demise Another Nail in the Coffin of Quality Sportswriting? The good news here is that Bucholtz follows Betteridge’s Law, which states that the answer to any question asked in a headline is “no.”
Bucholtz takes off from a post by Eric Goldschein on Sportsgrid.com that argued that Sports on Earth failed because it lacked scandal and cheesecake photos. “Plenty of media entities and websites (including this one) have managed to do quite well without regularly checking in on Paulina Gretzky,” Bucholtz writes.
But there is some truth to Goldschein’s argument, Bucholtz admits, pointing to the Robert Littal essay mentioned here yesterday, in which the BlackSportsOnline founder wrote about mixing the two approaches, low- and high-brow. As Littal put it, “You ever consider all those one paragraph posts were done so I’d have an audience to post a 2000 word one and have people pay attention on a serious subject?”
I would argue that this has always been true, and isn’t new with the internet. A lot of the commentary about the difficulty of making online media business models work seems to imagine some time in the foggy, pre-digital past when sophisticated, high-quality journalism paid for itself. It never did. It was always subsidized by less serious content, and by the happy technological accident of the scarcity of distribution. Just about everybody in town read one of the local newspapers, so advertisers paid dearly to get in front of them, whatever was in between the ads.
I worked at newspapers before the internet. We could have called one of the City Council members Daisy Duck in the third paragraph of an important story and we might have gotten a couple of letters a day or two later. But a typo in a crossword puzzle clue, or “McHale’s Navy” coming on at 6 when the TV listings had said it would be “I Love Lucy,” and the switchboards would light up like the aurora borealis. If you paid attention, you knew what sold papers.
Here’s Bucholtz’s conclusion:
The restructuring of Sports on Earth is far from a death knell for the internet media world, and it’s far from an indication that we’re about to descend into a hellscape of “tits, asses and scandal.” However, it does illustrate the difficulties of competing in a crowded media landscape, and the particular difficulties of trying to do so with longform and/or highly original content. Perhaps the solution is to do so in a new way, as sites like The Cauldron and Vice are trying. Perhaps the solution is to change the way longform content is marketed and advertised. Perhaps the solution is to have longform as part of a larger media empire. We don’t really know right now. All we know is that while the old Sports on Earth is dead, the report of longform’s death and the death of quality sportswriting was an exaggeration.
As we discussed Friday, last week was a tough one in the sportswriting biz, with Sports on Earth reportedly laying off most of its staff. If your Twitter feed was anything like mine, it was filled with good sportswriters letting everyone know they were looking for work.
Sports media is a rough, ever-changing business, and the effective end of a site where so many high-level sportswriters had apparently been flourishing was a sobering reminder that even those who seem to be thriving can never get too comfortable.
I found BlackSportsOnline founder Robert Littal’s response, a post headlined Layoffs, Firings & Sites Closing; What is the Future of Sports Blogging? a compelling one.
Littal gives a history of sports blogging through the lens of his own experience. It’s very long, but a great read, all the way to the conclusion, when Littal gets around to answering the titular question. At the risk of spoiling it for you, here it is (the first ellipsis is Littal’s, the second mine):
I think there won’t be much of a future unless…….
Well, I think Triple H said it best, you better adapt or perish and have a Plan B, C and D. People believe you just write a post and everything will just fall in your lap. It is so much more to it than that …
Don’t get buried in the Evolution or drown when the next flood comes.
We are in an era of rapid change, and as my former boss Richard Gingras, now the head of news and social products at Google, has said, don’t wait for that rate of change to slow down. In fact, it’s increasing.
It’s not enough to adapt today. We’re probably going to have to adapt again tomorrow.