Monday, February 22, 2010

Response to concept of Publishing/Journalism dichotomy

Chris Brogan recently posted about the differences between "journalism" and "publishing" in the wake of an article about AOL hiring up lots of discarded journalists to help propel its and other efforts.

First, let’s be clear: the pursuits of journalism and the pursuits of publishing aren’t the same.

Journalists seek to create compelling information that is helpful and news-worthy.

Publishing seeks to push more product, deliver higher circulation value, and create more value for sponsors/advertisers/money-holders.

Publishers need content creators of some stripe to do what they do. Journalists don’t need publishers, but publishers pay, so that’s a decent place to connect with an audience and be paid.

But never confuse the two.

The move by AOL is both smart for business and helpful for journalists who’ve lost their jobs.

I have to disagree with some major points here. I would submit that journalism at its heart isn't about delivering compelling content. Journalism is about delivering useful information that sheds light on a difficult or under-the-radar topic. If the content is "compelling," all the better.

I make this distinction very carefully because of the mindset that each demands. If the concept of "compelling" content is foremost in a writer's mind, the basic tenets of journalism (fairness, thoroughness, accuracy) can fall by the wayside. It's more important for the writer who purports to be a journalist to think first about basic journalism skills.

While I like the ideas that engendered the and Your Town initiatives, there is a danger inherent in mixing the ideas of publishing and journalism. See also: That one pays "journalists" based on the clicks they get. Since the pay is based not per-article or per-week, the incentive is for writers to pick incendiary topics that will draw traffic.

If there is going to be a courtship between these two concepts, it needs to allow for journalistic orthodoxy and independence.

My point is it is near impossible to not "confuse the two" when in many of these initiatives, a writer is expected to do both.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wayland Town Meeting

Just a quick post to note that I wrote an article about potential changes to the format of Town Meeting in Wayland for the Globe today. The means of change I discussed are being spearheaded by a a few conservative folks in Wayland, including a former selectman, and would effectively move TM from an open vote on issues to a secret ballot.

The alternatives being considered are the Australian ballot (making day one of TM discussion-only and day two voting-only), representative Town Meeting, or to make no change at all to the format.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Let the wild rumpus start!

Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. - Maurice Sendak
Last night I finished The Wild Things, which is Dave Eggers' adaptation of Spike Jonze's adaptation of Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are. And while I found the book itself a little bit flawed (the ending seemed rushed and inconclusive, some characters were never given more than one dimension, and Max was caught between being 9 years old and being 45 years old), it did remind me of why I have an immense respect for effective children's literature.

It's no big secret that my favorite author is Dr. Seuss. Not just because the man was an incredible artist who was never truly recognized in his field (incredibly, Seuss never won a Caldecott or a Newbery), but because he had the unique capability to engage children through his writing while challenging their reading abilities and subtly addressing social issues. And let me not forget to note that he did all of this in specific meters.

Think about that for a second - Dr. Seuss wrote about the King of the Turtles in the same way Shakespeare wrote about the King of Denmark 400 years ago.
I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees,
Which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please;
But I also speak for the brown Barbaloots,
Who frolicked and played in their Barbaloot suits,
Happily eating Truffula fruits.
Now, since you've chopped the trees to the ground
There's not enough Truffula fruit to go 'round!
And my poor Barbaloots are all feeling the crummies
Because they have gas, and no food, in their tummies. - The Lorax
I've bolded anything that's not a real word. But when kids read Seuss, they can feel the rhythm of his meter and predict what the word sounds like. Even if it's a word they've never seen before and will never see again, kids can pick out exactly what it will sound like based on the cadence of the line leading up to it and because Seuss picked easy syllables to manage.

What kind of mastery of language must it take to teach people meter and rhythm a decade before they'll understand it?

How often do you hear of precocious 3 and 4 year-olds who've memorized The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham? They can't yet read every word in front of them, but they're so engaged in the content and so caught in the meter that they want nothing more than to emulate the people who can read every word. You don't hear those stories about Harry Potter, you don't hear those stories about Artemis Fowl, you don't hear those stories about The Velveteen Rabbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, even Where the Wild Things Are. I don't deny the importance of each of those works, far from it, but I would argue they're not as significant as Seuss.

Without looking it up on Wikipedia, give me a brief synopsis of C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Now try Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. Maybe you can do it, maybe you can't. Now try Green Eggs and Ham. See the difference? Seuss, in no small part because of the meter and because of the illustration, has a greater staying power and a greater recall than more "substantial" literature.

And that's what makes it effective. You remember the story of Green Eggs and Ham even though you may not have held the book for decades. And that's what reading is about - learning and remembering. How much more effective can a book be than to make you remember the plot, the characters, hell, even lines from it years and years later?

I submit to you that Dr. Seuss was the most important children's author of the last 150 years.

Certainly not an original assertion, I acknowledge. But I thought the point needed to be made - as I worked through The Wild Things, I remembered only how this book differed from the movie, and that it was certainly different from the original book. That said, I couldn't remember much of how it was different from the original - Where the Wild Things Are didn't stick with me the same way.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Vim and Vigor

I swear, I need to put signs with these words on the wall behind my computer. Just thinking about that little mantra is enough to refocus my energies and get me excited to write again. Simply, nothing gets me out of a rut faster than thinking about the potential I have in my fingers to write something that affects people, that could change somebody's world.

In that spirit, I want to apply the phoenix treatment to this blog. Out of the ashes of a less-than-full-throated effort in the past year, I want to put a better stamp on things. I have the privilege of writing for the Boston Globe on a regular basis, and the freedom to write for Blast Magazine whenever I choose.

So perhaps the wisest choice for me is to make this a clearinghouse of sorts, where much of my content is reposted/shared.

At any rate, for lack of a current article (although that will change in the not-so-distant future), I can chronicle my goal of reading 30 books in 2010.

Thus far, I've read:

Batman: Year One - This was a Christmas gift from the boy. I'm not a comic book devotee, as he is, but the idea of Batman always intrigued me. No superpowers, just an incredible intellect and training. Year One was put together by Frank Miller, of 300 and Sin City fame. It was an interesting take on the origins of the Dark Knight, one not in keeping with the recent movies. But as I read it only after I'd seen the movies, it felt strange to read an "obsolete" version of events.

Finlater - Grabbed this from the free-for-all book table at the Globe. I don't even really know what drew me to this one. It wasn't a bad book, it just resolved very quickly and with picture-perfect tied ends. It felt a little cliched in that regard.

In Defense of Our America - Another pickup from the Globe (I haven't paid for any of the books I've read this year). An interesting chronicle of several major cases the ACLU advocated for since 9/11. Predictably, the "good guys" came out on top in each of them, with an awful lot of exposition leading to anticlimactic resolutions. Look, I understand that there's only so much that a Supreme Court decision can be considered exciting, but let's not just gloss over the drama of the presentation.

And I'm currently reading The Wild Things. First Eggers book for me, and thus far I'm not sold on his stardom. It might be because it's from the viewpoint of a 9 year old (although not written entirely as such), but it feels a little overdescribed and overinternalized.