New CPC Blog
The CPC Blog is moving. You can check out its new home at www.ctpressclub.blogspot.com.
It's official. Tribune has filed for bankruptcy.
Chairman and CEO Sam Zell claimed that "Over the last year, we have made significant progress internally on transitioning Tribune into an entrepreneurial company that pursues innovation and stronger ways of serving our customers. Unfortunately, at the same time, factors beyond our control have created a perfect storm -- a precipitous decline in revenue and a tough economy coupled with a credit crisis that makes it extremely difficult to support our debt."
An entrepreneurial company...factors beyond our control…tough economy…support our debt.
My reaction is that these excuses are empty. Delivery of the news depends on the technology other industries develop (and at their own cost). If anything, the news business should be pretty profitable because there are multiple ways for a media company to deliver the news. In my economics class, they used to call this vertical integration. I also recall that the economy has been tough many times in the past and the news media survived. And that debt should be paid off, not supported. But what do I know? I didn't go to business school after earning my four-year degree. In my simple thinking, most companies go under because of poor management. Either the powers that be don't know how to budget or they have no clue what their customers want.
Will Common Sense Return?
Each weekday I get my Daily Media News Feed from mediabistro.com. For those who are not familiar with it, it's a daily recap of news and commentary about - you guessed it - newspapers, magazines, television and radio news, gossip websites, book publishers, and other forms of media.
Twice during the last week of July I thought I needed either a new prescription or a new monitor because there were links to items on the web which suggested that newspapers charge for online content. Yes, charge, demand payment, get money for reading what's posted on cyberspace. Ted Rall's article in the Maui Time Weekly and Christie Hefner's blog for Portfolio.com honed in on stats that paper news generates far more ad revenue than websites. Rall explained that print readers spend more than 45 minutes looking at the paper than Internet readers, who average 7 minutes. Hefner maintained that online consumers are worth far more than web advertisers think they are, and that newspaper owners should figure out a new business model that includes improved content and tier structure for web content to make their bottom lines healthier.
I've been saying this for years, but my remark was about as welcome as ham on a Seder plate. "The horse is out of the stable," said a friend who recently lost her job at Zell Hell. "There's no going back."
Why not? Why should anyone consider a policy of paid content to be such an alien concept? Every immigrant with a sixth grade education who sold shmattes from a push cart knew that if you give away what you can sell, you won't make any money. And people get costly MBAs from business schools to learn otherwise. Go figure.
With few exceptions, things that are free are not that terrific. Even a free concert in the park may mean having to put up with uncomfortable seating or unbearable mugginess, but that's just occasional. In old movies, people bought their newspapers from a newsboy who called out with enthusiasm, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" Today it is not uncommon in the affluent Tri-State area to see people stand by highway ramps who are selling the newspaper at half price. The price usually isn't the motivator. Many of these people look as if they're homeless and you buy the paper from them because you feel sorry for them. Think about it. Half-price and sold by the downtrodden. What kind of an image does that convey about the newspaper's content?
But even if people want something that's "free," I think newspapers can do more to beef up their image. The real problem with the Internet is that everyone who has a computer thinks he's a writer. That's akin to anyone with a pickup truck and lawn mower who claims to be a landscape designer. Newspapers want every business to advertise, except newspapers. Imagine billboards that proclaim FACTS, NOT WIKIS. EXPERIENCED, CREDIBLE REPORTING. OPINIONS WITH CREDIENTIALS. LOOKING FOR A BARGAIN? BUY A NEWSPAPER (and have images of news, movie listings, comics, Sudoku puzzles, etc.). Or a picture of a newspaper and its price next to paper cups of coffee in three different sizes with prices on, next to, or above them. Then newspapers can give out free appetizers on the web and charge for the main course.
Note: You can sign up for the free Daily Media News Feed at www.mediabistro.com. For more content, you can join AvantGuild on the mediabistro website. Connecticut Press Club members can get a $10.00 discount on AvantGuild membership.
Truth or Consequences
The recent story about Love and Consequences, the "memoir" by Margaret Selzer (writing as Margaret B. Jones) is another embarrassing gaffe in the publishing industry. Allegedly, Margaret not only fabricated a story about her life, but engaged the help of people to corroborate her story. The names James Frey, Misha Defonseca, and Kaavya Viswanathan are still fresh in our minds as authors who have lied about their work as they were receiving praise for it. They all joined Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair in the Writers' Hall of Shame.
It is mindboggling that anyone, especially a young author, would risk his reputation on a lie. Clifford Irving never redeemed himself after the Howard Hughes book hoax some 30 years ago, even though he had been established as a writer. By coincidence, Irving wrote a very good book called Fake about art forger Elmyr de Hory. Same concept, different art form. In the book, de Hory commented that dealers and auction houses didn't really know what they were buying or selling, and that at least used car dealers knew whether a car was a Ford or a Chevy.
That unflattering comment seems to apply to the publishing bigwigs who tried to justify their lack of due diligence. How difficult or expensive would it have been for Riverhead Press to do a background check on Selzer during the three years she was working with editor Sarah McGrath? They could have hired a real life Kinsey Milhone to verify where she lived and where she went to school. I don't know what private investigators charge, but I'll bet their fees are a lot less than what it cost Riverhead Books to withdraw the book and offer refunds to those who already bought it.
If the writing is so good, why not just sell it as a novel? It's not as if there is no demand for fiction. Lauren Weisberger sold her bestselling book, The Devil Wears Prada, as a roman à clef, not as a memoir of her [verified] experience at Vogue. I don't think it was the issue of a potential libel suit that made Weisberger write her story as a novel. With fiction, she had license to embellish the prosaic aspects of her job and make the characters over the top. She never pretended that her book was a great work of literature, but it was a fun read, made the best seller list, was translated into many languages, and was turned into a hit movie with an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. There's certainly no shame in that, and everyone wins, even the real life equivalent of Miranda Priestly, who is still on top in her field.
Millions of more little pieces
A few years before James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces was exposed as a fraud, Thomas Gibbons wrote an extraordinary play called Bee-Luther-Hatchee about the authorship of an elderly African-American woman's memoir. (The drama, deftly directed by Patricia Floyd, is being shown at Stamford Theatre Works until February 17. Surf to www.stamfordtheatreworks.org for more information.)
The play's main character is Shelita Burns, a brilliant editor who publishes a series of books written by African-Americans because she feels that so many black literary voices have been silenced. One of the books she acquires is an exquisitely written narrative of an elderly woman named Libby Price. The book becomes a best seller which earns Libby a prestigious prize, and Shelita accepts it on her behalf. She travels from New York to Charleston to meet this reclusive author and deliver the prize. It turns out that Libby's whereabouts have been unknown for a long time and that her memoir was written by an unsuccessful white author who remembered Libby from his childhood.
The conflict in the play goes beyond the moral issue of stealing someone else's life story to win literary praise. (Steve Karp, the Producing Director of Stamford Theatre Works, explored this aspect in Donald Margulies' play, Collected Stories, several years ago.) Bee-Luther-Hatchee has a lot of questions and no neat answers about the craft of writing, truth, ownership, race relations, identity, imagination, publishing, acclaim, and crippling disappointment.
At the post-theatre discussion, people talked about black writing in addition to raving about the superb performances and set design. I recalled that in the early 1990s, a cover article in The New York Times Magazine about Terry McMillan mentioned that the readership of most books by black authors were whites and a limited number of black intellectuals. Although the author of the article was a book editor who published McMillan's first manuscript, I was still outraged at his remark. I knew instinctively that the perception that blacks do not read is simply not true, as well as prejudicial. Sure, during the days of slavery, the "lucky" ones who were literate were only allowed to read the Bible. But there is a need to write, and people don't produce creative works in a vacuum. African-Americans have read popular and literary fiction as well as poetry and non-fiction, just as people of other races and ethnic groups have, and their literature dates from the late 18th century. The memorable books written by James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, and others would never have resonated with so many people had these writers not been among many discriminating readers who happen to be African-American. All professional writers know the adage, "If you read junk, you write junk." Obviously, they didn't read junk.
Not long ago NPR had a story about the Harlem Book Fair. One of the guests remarked that a lot of black fiction is self-published. Apparently, many mainstream publishers still have a recognition lag about demographics. Tom Campbell of ADI Books, a printer of self-published books, verified this. He said that a lot of novels by African-American writers are self-published and sold in non-conventional venues throughout the United States, not just the Harlem Book Fair. It just goes to prove what many writers suspect - that way too many editors need to get out of their offices more often and see the real world for themselves. If publishing is supposed to be a business, then many publishing houses are run by people who are missing out on millions in sales from the African-American market alone. No doubt there is an undiscovered treasure of books written by people from various other ethnic groups.
A word to those editors: a good story about memorable characters regardless of their race, gender, or ethnicity is universal, whether it is in print or on stage or screen. This is why I can't stop thinking about Bee-Luther-Hatchee. Everyone has a story to tell, but some people know how to tell it better. Thomas Gibbons is one of those people.
Trendspotting on Self-Publishing
Self-publishing is supposed to be vanity publishing, the last resort for someone who cannot get a reputable publisher, right? That seems to becoming a canard.
In March, the Hon. John Hostettler will release his self-published book, Nothing for the Nation: Who Got What Out of Iraq. Hostettler is the former Congressman from Indiana, the maverick Conservative who voted against the war and later lost his seat when the Democrats prevailed in the 2006 election. Here is the scenario: a photogenic Washington insider writes a book about a controversial topic. Shouldn't there be a bidding war for this book? According to conventional wisdom, yes, but obviously that didn't happen. Come to think of it, Donald Trump announced that he was going to team up with author Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad, Poor Dad) to self-publish a book on financial advice. It is hard to imagine that The Donald would even consider the self-publishing route.
Most writers, including yours truly, have mixed feelings about self-publishing, even though it doesn't have the stigma it used to have. Many best-selling books were self-published before enlightened acquisition editors recognized the market for those manuscripts. Some titles which come to mind: What Color is Your Parachute? Who Moved My Cheese? The One-Minute Manager. The Elements of Style. The Celestine Prophesy. The Whole Earth Catalog. 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Life's Little Instruction Book. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. The Artist's Way. My favorite is What to Expect When You're Expecting. Who would have thought that pregnant women were curious about what was happening under their bumps? Not to sound harsh, but one publisher missed the market for that title by approximately 12 million books. It makes that ET & M&M story seem like amateur hour.
About 18 months ago I met Michele Turk when I was assigned to take a photo of her husband, a well-known obstetrician. In the waiting room, I noticed her book, Blood, Sweat, and Tears: An Oral History of the Red Cross. Naturally, I asked her about it and she told me that she self-published it. "Why wouldn't an established publishing house want to acquire it?" I asked. She told me that they wanted a guarantee of the number of copies that Red Cross chapters across the nation would buy. I thought that was ridiculous because it is such a highly visible institution and that many people beyond the organization would be interested in reading about it.
Later I met Stacy Lytwyn Maxwell, who told me that she self-published Consummate Connecticut: Day Trips with Panache. I know that there are lots of books about local excursions, but Stacy's book certainly had an angle that interested me, not to mention a market in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.
It just goes to prove that the publishing world is not filled with people who can see beyond the basics. People who work in publishing houses are no more intuitive than those who work in any other field. A year ago I sent a book proposal to a small publisher whose how-to books are for writers, mostly in the newsroom. My topic is especially timely because it is an issue in the upcoming election. It is also timeless because one of aspect depends on biotechnical changes. It runs the gamut from light articles to white papers, and writers could make a lot of money on this beat. I would include statistics and resources so that people could get information instantly. I know I can sell it at places I lecture and he can sell it online and at writers' conventions along with his other books. He agreed that my topic was timely and said it was interesting, but that he "can barely afford to keep the lights on" and was "reluctant to commit to publishing another book." On his website, the first images that come up not his best known books, but rather obscure dictionaries. At the risk of sounding like sour grapes, I think he adds a new dimension to the term dim-witted.
In early February the Connecticut Press Club will have a program on all that is involved in self-publishing. I am going with an open mind. Much of the discussion will be about book marketing, publicity, and distribution. Whether an author is self-published or gets a nice deal from a mainstream publisher, these aspects of post-publishing are as much an author's responsibility as the content.
The new film, The Great Debaters, has a connection to Connecticut. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Beaunorus Tolson, who coached the debating team of Wiley College to beat more prestigious colleges.
Tolson was more than a professor by day and union organizer by night, as depicted in the film. He was also an acclaimed poet who was "greatly ahead of his times," according to Jacob (Jack) Steinberg, the visionary who founded Twayne Publishers, Inc. in 1949. Jack published Tolson's Harlem Gallery along with other books that were well-received by most critics, but were, in retrospect, also ahead of their time.
Jack is an unostentatious person, but in his book, I Never Had a Best Seller, he tells some interesting stories about how his antennae for finding talent helped his company become well-respected in the book industry. (I Never Had a Best-Seller was published by Hippocrene Books in 1993, and is available through www.amazon.com). Jack now lives with his wife, Claire, at Sterling Glen in Stamford, close to the apartment where they lived for many years.
The Connecticut Press Club follows the membership guidelines of the National Association of Press Women. This means it is the area's only writer's group that understands and accepts the diversity among writers that has developed both naturally and out of necessity. There is nothing wrong with joining a group that is comprised of poets or investigative journalists. However, many writers are capable of writing for more than one genre, which is great for those who want to stretch themselves professionally or don't want to starve for their art. Others have an issue with that.
These people have created lots of rivalries. There is friction between newspaper reporters and people who work at magazines. Magazine writers and editors consider their work nicer-looking and more accurate because they have the time to check the facts and polish stories before they go to print. Book editors believe they have an exclusive on prestige and authority.
Some of the rivalries border on the ridiculous and it seems that newspaper people are the ones who have the most gripes. They grumble that they are underpaid. (As if an entry level assistant at a major publishing house can command a decent salary.) They grouse that television reporters just swoop into the scene already coiffed and made up and ready to roll after they have been standing in the cold, wet weather for hours waiting for the police to get their statements ready. They consider public relations people pests. One newspaper writer I know kvetched that a photographer got her name in bigger print. "She's just a Darien housewife! A monkey can do her job," she said.
What I find amusing are the rivalries within companies. People in the art department are considered superficial and people who write copy for the special sections are considered inferior writers. Just ask the copy editors at any newspaper and you will hear complaints about misspellings and redundant phrases such as "7:00 p.m. in the evening."
The reality is that there is a need for all of us in the greater world of publishing, and rivalries are a waste of time and energy. We need to know about pharmaceutical breakthroughs as well as what merchants are saying about the mayor. If we make friends with the people in the art department, they can help us make our stories look better with eye-catching graphics (and give us a PDF of the piece so we can send it when we pitch a story to bigger, more prestigious publication.)
Outsmarting the Grinch
This is the time of year when the corporate Grinch terminates people's employment. At The New York Times, it was the support staff, the unsung heroes who make it possible for people in more prestigious jobs to get their work done more efficiently. MSLO axed Blueprint, a superfluous magazine in a crowded market on how to create a fabulous home. In Connecticut, the veteran managing editor of a niche publication lost her job with no warning because the publisher finally realized he wasn't making as much money as he hoped he would.
I understand that even a creative endeavor must be run as a business. There must be goals, focus, cost control, and adaptability to the market. What I find disturbing is that human capital or human resources are considered business liabilities. To lay off people in order to save money for a company is like amputating a limb in order to lose weight. The results are that the CEO invariably gets a bigger bonus (so where's the saving?) and the rest of the company has to limp along.
There isn't much employees can do to prevent losing their jobs, but they can get themselves ready for the next phase of their career, whether it's on their existing job or the next one. When one of the Connecticut Press Club Board Members telephoned people to remind them of the panel of editors from The New York Times, someone nearly bit her head off with the remark, "You know I can't write for The New York Times. I'll lose my job." It turns out that person was forced out anyway. It's a shame that it happened, but it's sadder that this person blew an opportunity to learn what it takes to write for The New York Times and the chance to make contacts that might be valuable in the future.
I've never understood writers who are not ready for the next step. Maybe it's because I became a writer after working at practical but unfulfilling conventional corporate jobs and I had minimal formal training in journalism. Writing styles were different from what I was taught in the past. Besides, I was taught the basics in ideal situations. At that point, I couldn't articulate what I needed to know, but I sought out successful journalists to learn.
Learning writing techniques from the pros was totally different from what I learned in journalism class. I would no longer read an article, but analyze its structure and highlight the descriptions that made those stories more memorable. I attended The Poynter Institute's National Writer's Workshop and learned from Pulitzer-prize winning journalists how to write better, how to develop a new beat, how to spot trends, how to handle tough interviewees, and how to navigate unchartered territories. I knew instinctively that one day I would need those skills. I was correct and when the opportunity came, I was ready for it. The assignment was for a magazine article about a land use project. Two other journalists started to write it, but gave up. It was a subject that was rather complicated, didn't interest me, and came when I was inundated with work. Even combined, those issues were not enough to intimidate me. When I saw the final copy and realized that my editor didn't change a word, I knew that my approach to learning was the right one and I was confident that I could parachute into any assignment.
In my corporate life, I was the victim of the Grinch a few times, but it didn't mean much to me because I wasn't doing what I love. As a writer and photographer, rejection is commonplace, but it is not something I take personally. Of course, I get frustrated when my pitches are deleted without being read, but there's always another editor at another publication I can try. The Grinch can't be everywhere at once.
The Writer in The Ring
The year 2007 will be a defining period for the entertainment industry. It should also be the year that writers everywhere should remember and learn to stand their ground on pay.
By coincidence, while the strike was progressing, I gave a presentation called "Get Paid What You're Worth" at CAPA (Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association), which was similar to the one I did for the Connecticut Press Club in 2006. CAPA's programming committee booked me for this program several months ago, and I had my PowerPoint slides ready long before the Hollywood writers' strike began. One of the slides had an image of a writer in the boxing ring with the media business as the main opponent, ready to punch out every claim for pay. The writer defends himself as someone who can sift through massive amounts of research, make it understandable and even entertaining, write it in any voice for any publisher, and do it all on deadline. The media hits back that cost reduction is the name of the game, that any price can be negotiated, and that they are running a business, not a charity. Additional blows come from those outside the ring - scores of spectators who think that writing is not a real job, citizen journalism (i.e., writing and taking photographs without getting paid), and bloggorhea by wannabees who seem to have time for everything but studying the craft of writing in college courses and seminars run by organizations such as The Poynter Institute.
Writers face this fight all the time. To make things worse, many of us tend to be afflicted with the disease to please, something that many editors are willing to exploit. We want them to like us and we want them to give us more assignments, but we are afraid to ask for more money. To make it even harder for ourselves, we like to think that writing is an act of purity, not something to be sullied by commerce.
The reality is that writing is an occupation, like plumbing, cutting lawns, or dentistry. We would never think of telling plumbers that they should fix our leaky pipes for free because it is in the interest of the public, or tell a dentist that the fee we are paying will be good for all work that will ever be done on that same tooth. Many writers work for a fraction of what they're worth and even sign away all rights to future earnings.
Despite my scenario of the writer in the boxing ring, Variety reported on November 14 that more than 60% the public sides with the Hollywood writers in this strike. The writers are asking for higher residuals to get them through lean years. (The average Hollywood writer earns about $60,000 per year.) The public gets it. Even though everyone loves freebies, people realize that the writers are entitled to their share of the profits from sales and Internet advertising that uses their work. The strikers struck a nerve of fairness. Along similar lines, people took advantage of Napster when the songs could be downloaded for free, but have accepted the fact that everyone involved with music is entitled to a share of the profits. And they realize that just because something is on the Internet, it doesn't mean that it doesn't cost anything to produce. There are no elves in cyberspace that write, edit, compose, and design. People do it and they deserve to get paid for it.
Freelance writers are not new to the issue of getting paid for material they wrote that is in a different format. Circa 1990, Jonathan Tasini received a check for an article he wrote for Newsday and noticed that if he endorsed it, he would be signing over all rights to the Newsday electronic archives. Freelance writers who belonged to the National Writers Union were also discovering this on checks they received. They researched it and found out that this practice was illegal. In August 2000, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Authors Guild, the National Writers Union, and 21 freelance writers sued a group of commercial publishers and electronic databases (online, CD-ROM, etc.) for copyright infringement on articles initially printed in periodicals and then licensed to commercial databases without the authors' permission. The defendants included many media titans, including Knight-Ridder, Inc. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., Gannett Co., Inc., Forbes Inc., The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., Lexis-Nexis, and The New York Times Company. It took three years to reach a proposed settlement and the Database Defendants and Participating Publishers had to pay up to $18 million plus legal expenses.
Sadly, in 2007, these same writers still need to fight for more money. Many national magazines are still paying the same rates they paid 10 years ago, even though the cost of living has increased, and many want to buy the work of freelancers with all rights. Some publications pay a paltry 20 cents per word. Additionally, citizen journalism is still being promoted by profitable companies such as Reuters and yahoo.com. I keep getting e-mails from a New England publisher who is offering an "opportunity to hitch a ride" on a start-up newspaper. This ride includes writing, taking digital photos, and selling advertising space for which people would be paid a "stipendium" and sales commissions. The publisher wants these combination writers/photographers/ad reps to build a competitive newspaper, complete with special editions, and concludes his offer with the promise that "This is Bootstrap Journalism #101 at its best." I think it is sheer exploitation.
None of us became writers with the expectation that we would earn a lot of money, but it is still disheartening to learn just how bad the pay can be. We live in one of the most expensive areas in the country, yet a search through journalismjobs.com reveals that many newspapers in other areas of the country, where it costs much less to live, pay better than the ones in Fairfield County.
There is not much we can do about newspaper salaries, but there are things that freelancers can and should do. For starters, make sure that people know that you treat your writing as a business, not as a form of recreation. Turn down assignments that don't pay or that pay next to nothing. If you don't, then you are hurting the rest of us as well as yourself. Spend your time pitching to better paying markets. Know that contracts are negotiable and that you can cross out any clause that is not in your favor. If an editor doesn't have a contract or one that is fair to you, come up with your own. Otherwise, you may find that the other party may suddenly develop amnesia when it comes to the amount of money you will get for your article. Finally, remember that if you do not repurpose your own work for additional money, someone else will.
Usually, I like change. I enjoy the change of seasons. I welcome every new version of any software because I'm optimistic that it will be more user-friendly. I even like to see the new look of periodicals. But when Hearst Corporation bought The Advocate and Greenwich Time and I saw the changes in the masthead, Condé Nast announced that it was closing House and Garden, and the BBC announced it will be covering less news, I found it chilling.
Even though a lot of House and Garden was geared to the trade rather than to retail, I always thought that the homes they featured were more attainable for many people than the ones in the more popular Domino and Architectural Digest, which reach both extremes of the home decorating market. To me, House and Garden featured realistic homes that are as beautiful as they are because a professional decorator took the time to measure the rooms and enhance the house's best features while downplaying the ones that aren't so wonderful. My favorite section was the Domestic Bliss feature, because I loved the informality of its subjects and the homes they lived in. I'll never forget seeing a photo of Nigella Dawson in her cluttered study, or the admission by a couple that they keep silk flowers in their vacation home because they love the look of flowers but are realistic and know that they don't have the time to start arranging fresh flowers each time they come. And Dominique Browning's monthly column was so beautifully written. Most of us could relate to what she wrote about as well as to the people featured in the magazine, even though we're not in their league.
It was easier for me to endure the closing of House and Garden than it was to accept the changes at The Advocate and Greenwich Time. At first glance, nothing looks different. However, I miss the names and faces of people who were there for so long. There was something so comforting for me to see them still featured, especially after I would come home from vacation or from the many trips I took to Michigan last year when my husband was working on a long-term contract job there. I would come home, read the local paper, and feel I was reconnected with the community.
As a newspaper junkie, I buy newspapers on every trip I take. The Classified Ads section gives me a snapshot of the local economy. From the ads, I know salaries, types of jobs in demand, housing costs, and what people are selling (furniture, fur coats, farm equipment, whatever). The rest of the local news takes a while to figure out - issues the local government and schools face. Feature stories about families, merchants, and local athletes help complete the picture of a town that's new to me. Even if I'm there temporarily, as I was in Michigan, having that local newspaper is important to me because it makes me feel that I'm less of an outsider.
BBC News has always had an incredibly high level of respectability, so it was a shock to learn that even this revered institution is also slashing its budget at the expense of delivering the news. Are British investors going the way of American investors by putting higher profits ahead of servicing the public? This is scary because it has always been the news media that has been the guardians of the public. If a company pollutes the water supply or sells irradiated meat that was contaminated, it is the obligation of the news media to report it. If the news company's profits are only 17% instead of 25%, what does it really matter? Just to put things in perspective, if the Big Three auto makers in Michigan were to earn 17% profit collectively, Wall Street analysts would be doing double back flips.
I hope that the powers that be at the Hearst division that runs the Stamford and Greenwich dailies understand how important these newspapers are to these towns. Even though residents and office workers read other papers as well, they are a significant presence in these towns.
Don't Blame the Internet
Here's some good news. A new Harris Poll reported that 80% of adults go online, but they only spend an average of 11 hours per week on the Internet.
A quick analysis indicates that is just slightly more than one hour per day on average to read and answer personal e-mail, compare prices online, pay bills, check and trade investments, view TV and movie trailers, and get the news that they supposedly don't read in traditional print.
Publishers and producers blame the Internet for declining newspaper readership and even declining TV news
viewership. But if you talk to newspaper readers, they can tell you specifically what they like and don't
like about local newspapers. Here are some of the things they say about some Connecticut newspapers:
- The writing isn't very good.
- There isn't enough local news, but they read more than they want to about towns in states far from Connecticut.
- There are a lot of mistakes. One reader offered to proof read a newspaper so that when she got her final copy, there wouldn't be spelling errors in it.
Ouch! Blaming the Internet for declining news readership is similar to the Big Three automakers' blaming the high cost of health care on their anemic sales. It's not as if people are no longer buying cars. They are choosing to buy cars that they think are more reliable, cost less, and get better gas mileage.
Recently, the Connecticut Press Club had a program with four editors from The New York Times. One of the topics that came up was that The New York Times manages to have a relatively good pulse on the suburbs and often prints stories that the local papers don't break. This is puzzling because The New York Times has such a strong focus on New York, national, and international news.
People are seeking news stories. The irony is that the staff members of the Advertising Departments love to wave favorable statistics to lure advertisers. They come up with claims such as 91% of newspaper readers have a college education and 84% earn more than the median income. The flip side is that these well-educated people with responsible jobs can distinguish good writing from bad writing and they know that West Chester [Pennsylvania] is not Westchester [County, New York]. Moreover, they know they have a choice and many choose not to read a local paper that doesn't deliver the news they want.
Out with the Dinosaurs
Old information is usually useless to writers unless, of course, they are writing about history. Don't get me wrong. I love history. But when it comes to my profession, I don't want to know about its history. Unfortunately, there's more of it than anyone in our field cares to admit. Writer's Market is one example. So many freelance writers and aspiring authors buy this book each year, even though they know that they must call the magazine or publisher to verify that So-and-So is still the editor to whom they should address their queries. I have no problem doing that, but I found it distressing to learn that both the book and the website are out of date by about two years. I can understand the hard copy's being so inaccurate, but I think it's unacceptable that there are so many inaccuracies and omissions on the website because there is an extra charge for accessing Writers Market online. Why waste the time and money on something that's of no use? I've been to too many writers' conferences and meetings that featured people who once carved a name for themselves at well-known publishing houses and publications and are now retired, either voluntarily or because they're dinosaurs who refused to adapt to change. That's another waste of time and money. Thus, when I became President of the Connecticut Press Club, I insisted one thing for our programs: Get speakers who are working - present tense a- in their field.
I knew I was on the right track about this, but I just didn't realize how much. We followed our first strong program of editors from local and regional magazines with one editors from HarperColiins, GPP (formerly known as The Globe-Pequot Press), and Praeger Security International, a member of Greenwood Publishing Group, which is becoming part of Houghton Mifflin. Those changes alone are new, but they certainly don't warrant the work it takes to run one of our programs. Speakers, Gary Krebs, Heather Ruland Staines, Ph.D., and Jeanette Perez spoke at length about what kind of manuscripts they like and what kind they can't use. Jeannette loves characters more than plots. Heather honed in the fact that libraries, one of Praeger's top markets, are feeling the pinch of both budget cuts and less foot traffic, so they need to make themselves more appealing to patrons. GPP pays attention to Internet sales because much of the book industry follows the patterns on the Barnes & Noble website. (Note to self-published authors. If your book didn't do well in the sales ranking, it's going to work against you if you try to get a mainstream publisher to acquire your book.)
From my own experience in reviewing books and interviewing authors, I knew that the publicity departments of even major publishers are not going to give authors a lot of help. These editors confirmed that and offered suggestions to help writers become more visible and sell more books. Each author should hire an independent publicist and have his own website that includes links to his video and audio clips from television and radio appearances. YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace are other avenues writers should seriously consider. These recommendations are both exciting and disconcerting. Unless someone wanted to become a famous author or anchor, it was better to blend into the woodwork. It's one thing to be able to research a topic and explain it so that readers and viewers can understand it or unearth a finding that a handful of people want hidden, but constantly keeping on top of new technologies and market demands can be draining. On the other hand, those who don't adapt may end up among the dinosaurs at the kind of conferences that are a waste of our time and money.
There are so many ways to tell a story these days, but many writers think only about telling it in print and, perhaps, in text for the web.
Ten years ago I attended a National Writer's Workshop of The Poynter Institute, one of the best resources ever created for journalists. Valerie Hyman ran the seminar on power reporting. Although she knew that her audience was comprised mostly of newspaper writers, she gave us tips from television news stories to emphasize her instruction, "Show me. Don't tell me."
She taught us how to write stories that are more memorable and how to use metaphors to enhance them. One example she gave was how a television reporter explained NAFTA. Most of stories we got about it in periodicals and on television and radio were descriptions and quotes by the elected officials who voted for the bill. It was all dull, dull, dull - not to mention still completely confusing. That reporter used three props to explain the trade agreement: a kitchen table, a large map of North America, and three six-packs of beer to represent the United States, Canada, and Mexico. He moved the beer around the map as he clarified how NAFTA would benefit manufacturers. Even in print journalism, that would work because that's something we can all understand.
In mid-October, the Connecticut Press Club inadvertently gave writers another example of power reporting. It was a preview of Baghdad Diary, a new documentary by Emmy-award winners Joseph and Sandra Consentino. (Baghdad Diary will be shown on The History Channel on November 17.) Baghdad Diary is a completely non-political documentary that chronicles the war in Iraq from the viewpoints of Craig White, an NBC News video journalist, and Fadil Kadom, an Iraqi taxi cab driver who received a personal camcorder from a Norwegian news team. The documentary followed the two men as they captured images of Americans and Iraqis since the beginning of the war. White is as articulate in front of the camera as he is talented when operating one, and Fadil was a real find. Although he had never used a camcorder before, he soon mastered it with a natural flair. He could blend in easily and document Iraqi life as no Westerner with professional equipment could.
The Consentinos' documentary does something that rarely happens much these days. Even with its straightforward style, it evokes deep emotions and makes viewers care. People who saw the documentary felt empathy for the young American soldiers who were visibly scared at the start of their first mission as well as pride because of their professionalism and courage. Viewers felt compassion for the ordinary Iraqi citizens who were pawns during the Hussein era and the chaos that followed. Baghdad Diary is more than just a chronicle of a war. It is an example of how to tell a story by showing us what we didn't see before.
It is very easy for writers to get into a rut and not even try to stretch themselves for their current assignments. The truth is that many writers, even those who have seemingly good situations, have a secret life that interests them more than their current position. They become indolent, and readers and viewers bear the consequences by getting mediocre news coverage. Both the NAFTA story and the documentary were simple, objective, and creative. But the people who gave us these stories weren't being lazy or stingy. They went full throttle from start to finish. When they were done telling those stories, we were still marveling at how they did it.