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.
The panel, “How to Hit a Home Run: Mastering the Sports Beat,” featured Houston Chronicle columnist Jerome Solomon, sports reporter David Nuño of Houston TV station KTRK and Ted Dunnam, sports editor at Houston Community Newspapers.
Some of the suggestions that came from the panel will sound familiar to regular readers of this blog:
- Make a name for yourself
- Use social media for that, to make connections with potential employers and sources, and more
- Grab opportunities when they arise
- Do whatever you can to get your foot in the door. Show initiative
- Get your facts right
- Better to be right than first
Funny how advice from people have had some success in the business always comes down to these same few points. Makes you think there might just be something to them.
Mary Meeker is an analyst whose annual report on the state of the internet is to people who care about such things kind of like what the first mock draft of the year is to NFL junkies. A former Wall Street securities analyst who now works for the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Meeker presented her report at the first Code Conference Wednesday in Southern California.
As always, there’s a lot to digest. Knock yourself out by reading all 164 slides from her presentation. If you just want highlights, you might want to surf around a bit, because Meeker’s talk is so wide-ranging that different people from different industries are going to focus on different things.
Some highlights for those of us in the media game:
- Smartphone use is still booming. So are tablet sales, with a lot of room yet for growth.
- Mobile monetization is way up, but the dynamics of ad spending are still inefficient, if not out of whack. In the U.S. in 2013, people spent 20 percent of their media time on mobile, but advertisers spent only 4 percent of their money on mobile advertising. Meanwhile, 19 percent of the ad spend was on print, where the audience spent only 5 percent of its time.
- Social sharing happens in a hurry. The average article reaches half of its eventual total of social referrals in the first six and a half hours on Twitter, nine hours on Facebook.
- Video screens are proliferating, and people are spending more total time with their screens because of simultaneous usage of multiple screens. Eighty-four percent of mobile-device owners use one while watching TV.
- Twenty-two percent of online video consumption was on mobile devices in 2013, which was double what it had been the year before.
Here are some more roundups:
The Most Important Technology Trend Of 2014, According to Mary Meeker by Jeff Bercovici, Forbes
Mary Meeker’s 2014 internet trends report: all the slides plus highlights by Dan Frommer, Quartz
Mary Meeker says mobile is keeping tech party roaring by Marguerite Reardon, CNET
I like to say that with the rapid rate of change, or even upheaval, in the journalism business, we’re all journalism students all the time, even gristly old vets like me who last spent significant time in classrooms when there was still chalk in them.
Kids, ask your grandparents why chalk would have been in a classroom.
But we’re not only all students. We’re all constantly contemplating a career change. You might want to stick with the status quo, but the status is likely to have other ideas.
So I think it’s smart to try to keep up with what’s going on in the racket, even if it might not affect what you’re up to at the moment. It’s good to know the features of the ocean we’re all swimming in, and those features change all the time.
Last week there was an interesting exchange sparked by a Facebook rant by Mike Hudack, who is a director of product at Facebook.
Hudack blasted the media for focusing on click-bait content rather than “real, meaningful news.” As several commentators pointed out, it was an interesting move for Hudack not to mention Facebook’s role in that phenomenon. Alexis Madrigal a senior editor at the Atlantic, tweeted at Hudack:
@mhudack We should talk about your take on news. My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified.
— Alexis C. Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) May 22, 2014
@mhudack I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, “They work on Facebook.”
— Alexis C. Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) May 22, 2014
Here are a few other responses:
Facebook product director furious at Facebook’s effect on news by Matthew Yglesias, Vox
Where journalism, Facebook’s algorithm and responsibility lie by Alex Howard, aka Digiphile, personal Tumblr
Facebook Product Guy Slams Buzzfeed And Vox In Rant About The State Of News by Jeff Bercovici, Forbes
How to Start a Blog is a terrific post on Journalists.org, the Online News Association site, that ‘s useful far beyond that headline. The advice, by reporter Kyle Stokes of NPR member station KPLU-Seattle, has the subhead “The Kick In The Pants I Wish I Had In College.”
According to the bio on the piece, Stokes “spent two-and-a-half years reporting on education for StateImpact Indiana, a collaboration of WFIU and Indiana Public Broadcasting.” He writes that before that experience, he thought of blogging as “Journalism Lite,” but having done it, “I can’t imagine a better, more relevant way for a reporter to own a beat. Nor is there any better way for an aspiring beat reporter to learn the trade—I’m looking at you, J-schoolers.”
Remember, I think we’re all students, not just J-schoolers.
Stokes is writing about how to start a niche blog, covering a narrow subject, but much of what he’s talking about carries over even if you’re doing something different, like covering a sports beat. Here are his recommendations, though you should read the post for his explanations:
- Pick a niche
- Figure out who cares
- Curate & converse
- Set your sights on a handful of big stories—and own them
- Post and post often
- Take great pains to explain, explain, explain
That’s a good start for separating yourself from the pack no matter what you’re covering, in what format.
I grew up dreaming of working in sports, and I always thought it would be that easy because I loved nearly every sport. I do love my job, but I was way off with that assumption.
After four years in the business, I’ve never actually enjoyed the perks of sitting in a press box and I don’t know that I will. But I’ve learned that people who work in sports media—in or out of the press box—don’t just work for two or three hours during a game but all day leading up to the game and afterwards as well.
As a content analyst my main job is to create content plans and provide real-time support for our breaking news team and our sport specific editors. I’m responsible for making sure that content published during major events and breaking sports news is optimized properly for search.
Since the launch of B/R UK I’ve also taken on the role of global planning and providing real-time Analytics support for our global iniatives.
It’s more than following the game and providing a recap these days. During major sporting events, I work on my days off. I work 12-hour shifts, and I don’t work a normal Monday-to-Friday schedule. When I say my life revolves around sports, I mean it. Sports media is a 24-hour, 365-day business, and sports don’t take days off. Christmas? NBA games. Thanksgiving? Football. July 4th? We have a hot dog eating contest to worry about covering.
Many of my friends think my job is completely stress-free. They think all I do is sit in a recliner, watching sports. They think it’s crazy when I tell them I have to get up at 7 a.m. for work when there aren’t any games in the morning.
Working in sports media isn’t all fun and games. It’s not the easiest job on the planet. But it is one of the most fun.
Despite the long hours, the workload, the weekend shifts and all that comes with working in sports media, I wouldn’t trade my job for anything.
I’ve worked multiple positions with Bleacher Report over the last four years and each of them requires a strong work ethic and schedule flexibility. If you want to be successful in the sports media world, you have to be prepared for a crazy life.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth the sacrifice.
* * *
If you have a few minutes and love sportswriting, sit down with ‘Still No Cheering In The Press Box’: Jim Murray, Pulitzer Prize Winner by Elia Powers at Yahoo’s the PostGame.
That oddball headline is a clumsy reference to the classic 1974 book “No Cheering in the Press Box,” in which Jerome Holtzman interviewed 18 of his fellow sportswriters. An introductory note says that students at the University of Maryland are working on a new version. “The premise is to profile great sports journalists by allowing them to tell their own stories,” the note says.
Murray died in 1998, so he’s not going to be telling his own story. But of course Murray, one of the founders of Sports Illustrated and a Los Angeles Times columnist for nearly 40 years, left millions of words behind, and Powers does a good job of both showing and telling what made him great.
How great? As Powers notes, he was named “America’s Best Sportswriter” in 14 different years—12 of them in a row—by the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. He won a Pulitzer Prize. Bill Dwyre, the former sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, says, “There was Red Smith and there was Jim Murray and there won’t be any two better.”
I grew up reading Murray. Unlike Smith, who I think slowed down a bit in the 1950s, Murray didn’t have a prime. He got old and sick and had to write less often, but whenever he could get to the keyboard, he brought his best fastball.
Two of his best and most famous columns, about losing an eye to glaucoma and the death of his first wife, were written when he was in his 60s. His obituaries all mentioned his last column, noting that it was vintage Murray. It was about jockey Chris McCarron, who was riding Free House, a horse that had finished third, second and third in the 1997 Triple Crown races but had won at Del Mar that day. “‘The bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet,” Murray wrote. “The bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet. The best friend got the girl in the Warner Brothers movie for a change. The sidekick saves the fort. … It’s nice to know getting older has its flip side.”
As great as Murray was with words and one-liners, as keen an observer as he was, Powers notes that it was when he hit on the idea of poking fun at different cities that he became a household name. He had a rainy-day column to file from Cincinnati, and he wrote about the town, “If it was a human, they’d bury it.”
“When he got the idea and started doing those columns where he wrote about cities, I think that’s where it clicked in his mind that he could do this,” [Murray biographer Ted] Geltner said. “I really thought that was an important part of his career because in the early ’60s there were so many newspapers and dozens and dozens of columnists, and he was just another one until he started doing that.”
Fifty years ago, just like today: Even if you’re clearly the best, you need to find a way to stand out.
According to a blog post at MetaFilter, “A year and a half ago, we woke up one day to see a 40% decrease in revenue and traffic to Ask MetaFilter, likely the result of ongoing Google index updates.”
Google, likely without giving a thought to MetaFilter, changed its algorithms in its ongoing effort to provide better search results, and MetaFilter took a massive hit to its most popular feature. People lost jobs because of it. Facebook plays a similar role of granter and taker-away of traffic. You can be happily publishing away, enjoying massive page views, and someone writing a few lines of code in Menlo Park of Mountain View can change everything.
As Farrell puts it:
A site that doesn’t care about Facebook will nonetheless come to depend on Facebook, and if Facebook changes how Newsfeed works, or how its app works, a large fraction of total traffic could appear or disappear very quickly.
Of course a website’s fortunes can change overnight. That these fortunes are tied to the whims of a very small group of very large companies, whose interests are only somewhat aligned with those of publishers, however, is sort of new. The publishing opportunity may be bigger today than it’s ever been but the publisher’s role is less glamorous: When did the best sites on the internet, giant and small alike, become anonymous subcontractors to tech companies that operate on entirely different scales? This is new psychological territory, working for publishers within publishers within publishers. The ones at the top barely know you exist!
In other words: Don’t ever get too comfortable. I didn’t say the thought for the day would be a pleasant one.
Let’s agree on three things together.
1. Bob Ryan is a great sportswriter. In his prime he was part of an amazing sports department at the Boston Globe, and was in no way a weak link on a team that included Peter Gammons, Leigh Montville, Will McDonough and Bud Collins. He’s a Hall of Fame kind of writer.
2. Everyone is entitled to a bad day once in a while, especially after they retire, which Ryan did two years ago.
3. Finally, let’s agree not to write pieces like Ryan’s latest for the Globe, Do baseball fans care about new breed of stats?
By that I don’t mean we won’t write opinion pieces, or that we won’t criticize the “new breed of stats,” which, full disclosure, I care about. What I mean is let’s agree not to be lazy and incurious, as Ryan unfortunately was here.
Ryan begins with a couple of questions. Alas, he admits in the second paragraph, after posing the first question, that all he’s going to do is ask the questions. He’s not going to try to answer them.
Aside from people who make a living out of disseminating and analyzing said data, who else pays attention? Just asking.
A little later, Ryan elaborates on this question:
My question is, does the average person care? Is the average fan still content with batting average, runs batted in, and earned run average being the Holy Trinity of baseball stats, even though the modern Smart Guys have discredited all three?
And he asks another:
I wonder if the New Breed Stat Guys ever actually enjoy a game, because they are so obsessed with what the manager is or isn’t doing, based on the data in front of them.
Here’s the thing: These are two perfectly reasonable questions. I think the second one’s a little silly: Why would people be interested in diving into the murk of advanced analysis, mostly as a hobby, about something they don’t enjoy? But maybe I’m too close to the subject. And after all, many interesting things have sprung from the asking of silly questions. No one should be afraid or embarrassed to ask a dumb question.
But here’s the other thing: These questions are easy to get the answers to, and isn’t that the job of a writer, not just to ask good questions but to try to find out the answers to them, whenever possible?
I asked a couple of New Breed Stat Guys of my acquaintance if they actually enjoy watching baseball games. “Of course,” said Eno Sarris, who writes for FanGraphs and other sites. “Absolutely,” said Jason Collette, who also writes for FanGraphs, as well as ESPN and Rotowire.com. I have sat next to Baseball-Reference.com founder Sean Forman and Grantland baseball writer Jonah Keri, both advanced-stat guys, at baseball games, and I can say with confidence that they are people who enjoy watching baseball games, even when they’re sitting next to me.
Collette and Sarris, both via G-chat, had some interesting comments about the way New Breed Stat Guys watch and enjoy baseball.
“I guess there are two modes for watching the game, right?” Sarris said. “One is relax, wash it in, don’t think about it, enjoy it as it happens. The other is, get into it. Put your hand in it, argue about who’s best, who’s better, what will happen here. I’ve found way more of the latter than the former, but I also know my space. Doesn’t it seem like if you were the former and you watched enough ball that way, you’d eventually want to get into the minutiae?”
Collette said, “I think the interest in advanced stats makes me more passionate while viewing games rather than apathetic.”
These comments might have made interesting additions to Ryan’s story. Similarly, rather than wondering what “the average fan” thinks, Ryan could have put a little effort into trying to find out. It’s not that hard to find “average” people in the sense Ryan means it here, which is lay people, non-experts. Another way to put what he’s talking about is “the vast majority of people walking around.”
Why not talk to them? Trawl the stands at a Red Sox game. Ask your thousands of readers in the Globe or your 64,000-plus followers on Twitter. Look at the popularity, or lack of popularity, of books, magazines, websites, TV and radio shows that focus on advanced stats. ESPN has experimented with programming around advanced baseball stats. Ryan works at ESPN. Ask how that’s gone.
Good writing moves the conversation forward, adds something new. These questions Ryan asks aren’t particularly new, but the answers he got to them, and his thoughts about those answers, could have been.
Sometimes as a writer you ask questions that you won’t be able to find the answers to. That actually happens a lot. It’s fine. If the questions are too easy to answer, you end up with a boring story. Should the Home Nine try to steal more bases? No, all their runners are slow. End of article. Next question.
But even if we won’t be able to nail down the answers, we owe it to readers to try. Otherwise, what do they need us for?
It got a bit lost in all the real-life drama of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s firing, but the NYT Innovation Report 2014, leaked last week, was an astonishing look inside the most prestigious newsroom in America. Anyone working in media should read it, not just because it’s a snapshot of where media is and where it’s going, but because it offers insights into the organizational hurdles along the way.
The New York Times has as much in the way of “legacy issues” to deal with as anyone, but don’t let that fool you. Legacy problems aren’t reserved for newspapers trying to protect the dying but still revenue-producing print edition. A startup in its second week might have trouble getting something done because of the lingering effects of decisions made in Week 1.
What are legacy issues? Nieman Lab’s detailed reading of the leaked report, by Joshua Benton with an assist from Nieman Lab staffers Justin Ellis, Caroline O’Donovan and Joseph Lichterman, points out a few:
The Times must be willing to experiment more in terms of how it presents its content: “We must push back against our perfectionist impulses. Though our journalism always needs to be polished, our other efforts can have some rough edges as we look for new ways to reach our readers.” (p. 31)
Another way to say “our perfectionist impulses” might be “our old way of thinking.” That might sound terrible, like a loosening of standards. I’m sure that’s how many at the Times read that line. But what I think the report is saying is: “Everything must be perfect before the public can see it” is the right approach for the print newspaper, but it’s not necessarily the right approach for every medium or every project.
The report calls for increased communication and cooperation between the sections of the company they call “Reader Experience” and the newsroom. In the report, Reader Experience refers to R&D, product, technology, analytics and design. (p. 63)
This is as legacy as it gets. In traditional newspaper thinking, there are the people who create the content—itself a post-newspaper word—and everyone else. Everyone else includes the people who create and sell and distribute the actual product, the newspaper, the people who sell and in some cases create advertising, and the various levels of support, which might mean the IT department or the janitorial staff. The idea that people in, say, technology should be collaborating with writers and editors: Well, let’s leave that to those imperfect digital people.
You think I’m making this up?
There have been significant obstacles to this kind of cooperation, however. “People say to me, ‘You can’t let anyone know I’m talking to you about this; it has to be under the radar,’ said a leader in one Reader Experience department. ‘Everyone is a little paranoid about being seen as too close to the business side.’” (p.64)
The report also describes a developer who quit after being denied a request to have developers attend brown bag lunches along with editorial staffers. This sort of rejection can make recruitment of top developers and designers a challenge. (p. 68)
But maybe that’s a uniquely newspaper legacy issue, and if you never work at a newspaper you’ll never have to deal with it. But I bet you’ve worked someplace—maybe you’re working there right now!—where this would sound familiar:
Even the Times, with all its staffing and other resources — its R&D lab, its mobile team, its editors focused on issues around design, digital, or new initiatives — feels like it doesn’t have the time or power to get outside of the day-to-day grind of making a newspaper to think about its future …(p. 72)
“Another [desk head] suggested that the relentless work of assembling the world’s best news report can also be a ‘form of laziness, because it is work that is comfortable and familiar to us, that we know how to do. And it allows us to avoid the truly hard work and bigger questions about our present and our future: What shall we become. How must we change?’” (p. 72)
There’s more. A lot more. I urge you to read the leaked report, or at least the Nieman Lab summary. Then let’s you and I talk in five years, which is about two and a half lifetimes from now in digital innovation time. I bet you’ll say that something you read there helped your thinking.