Monthly Archives: January 2009

Weekend Video Jam: Kind of Blue

Fifty years after it was recorded, “Kind of Blue” remains the biggest-selling jazz record of all time — we’re talkin’ ’bout vinyl here! — and the subject of endless fascination. This week NPR delved into the subject of the Miles Davis-led project, which featured solos from John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans, among others. Be sure to listen to the audio clips on that link with some of the participants, most of whom have passed on.

Below is a video montage from the “Kind of Blue” sessions with footage, interviews and other goodies. The tracks were laid down at a time during which many jazz critics believe was the start the decline of the great American improvisational art form. It came at the end of the Bebop era and before the free jazz epidemic that claimed Davis. Yet jazz lives on, and not just in the past. This young Russian-born pianist, for example, is a fantastic new addition to the genre.

As so many of us try to improvise second careers — in journalism or beyond — I find the topic quite timely. The death of journalism is being predicted with the decline of print, erroneously so. There’s a lot of life left for what we do, but we journalists, our potential benefactors and our best entrepreneurial and creative energies have to reinvigorate it. Not the media industries that are cutting us loose.

In other words, we can no longer think and act like Freddie Freeloaders. Not an easy task, but nothing to feel blue about at all.

Kvetch of the Week: Jumping the snark

Longtime film critic David Denby is torn between two journalistic worlds, as many of his (and my) generation of ink-stained wretches are, and probably will be, for the rest of their days. Yes, he mourns the loss of authority of the printed form, and yes, the Internet is fabulous. These are the pillar-to-post sentiments that many of us 40-and-ups grapple with, and they can fluctuate wildly from day to day.

In Denby’s case, his agonizing moved him to write about what he thinks is the culprit, and he entitled his polemic simply enough — “Snark.”

In a Q and A posted this week on the business and technology blog at latimes.com, Denby takes aim at snark and its impact on Web journalism. It’s easily Kvetch of the Week material, but there’s also quite a bit of food for thought as so many of us take our journo-gigs online for good:

Snark finds an enemy / rottentomatoes.com
Enemy of snark / rottentomatoes.com

“Everyone I know in journalism is in a panic at all levels. Old media types like me are worried that our beloved publications are going to subside into just electronic versions. And they’ll have much less authority than they do in hard copy. In other words, once they’re only on the Web, they’ll just seem like a point of view rather than an authority.”

Snark wasn’t invented on the Web, of course. But its proliferation there has dovetailed with ease, along with its successful unleashing in at least one very prominent online media conglomeration. Even as its influence may be on the wane:

“The Internet is the greatest revolution in democratic practice since popular suffrage. Everyone knows that, and I am just as dependent on the Internet as anyone else. In the wake of a democratic revolution like that, there’s both an enormous explosion of information and expression, much of it useful or fun, and also an explosion of pent-up rage, social anguish, resentment, bilious, other-annihilating nastiness, prejudice and all the rest of the dark side. If that stuff is destroying conversation threads, screwing up people’s reputations, spreading around unchecked rumor or just snark, it’s worth pointing to it and saying, ‘Stop lousing up my revolution.’ The point of the book is to protect the best kind of humor by criticizing the worst.”

Enough general kvetching about snark. Here’s Denby’s real beef:

“The trouble with snark is that it doesn’t engage. It’s almost bulimic: It takes something into its mouth and then regurgitates it. So that’s something you can ask yourself: Am I really engaging with the subject or am I just trying to show off and be clever?”

Bravo! Readers guffaw, cackle, shake their heads and surf on, amused and only briefly entertained, taking it all as passively as the old media would dish it out. Snark, at its root, has no purpose. (Unlike, say, kvetching!)

Not only is snark not clever, it fails badly in its attempt to be witty. There’s little insight or intellectual stimulation or usefulness, components that new media evangelists — even the snarky ones — insist must be part of the Web ethos.

parkerhat
The original queen of snark? / dorothyparker.com

So it’s good to see Denby, in the middle of some rather polished kvetching, point (indirectly) to one of my favorite literary figures as an antidote to the snark disease. I do think he wrings his hands too much about the Web, as so many baby boomers do, but when he name-drops Dorothy Parker (alas, no relation), it warms my heart. However, I’m wondering if the woman who memorably sassed that “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised also may have served up an invitation to snark with this piece of brilliance:

“In the morning I brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Here’s more Denby kvetching on his favorite new subject. He even admits to being guilty of practicing it himself. Aren’t we all?

Hopeful, but daunting prospects for the post-newspaper tribe

The American Journalism Review spoke with a number displaced journalists in a fascinating piece just published entitled “Is There Life After Newspapers?” and discovered that many of them are relatively pleased and fully engaged in new careers and lives. Even as they shake their heads at what’s happening to the newspaper industry they left behind.

From a crime reporter-turned-yoga instructor:

“I have to say, overwhelmingly and surprisingly, I don’t miss it . . . I’m very happy at what I’m doing.”

And from an investigative reporter and editor laid off in his ’60s:

“My health has never been better. My blood pressure is down 25 points. I exercise.”

Of course the flip side is a frightening one — the prospect of losing health coverage, or being unable to afford a COBRA extension, and a dismal job market and economy that shows few signs of improving for months. A young laid-off journalist could say only that “I guess it was the wrong time to get into the newspaper industry.”

An outplacement company executive interviewed by AJR naturally suggested that journalists are well-suited for jobs involving writing, but they also tend to be “internally focused” and could become even more isolated without an office to inhabit. Stay in touch with fellow members of your tribe, and expand your professional circle. Even more importantly, don’t sit around and wait for the light bulb of inspiration to switch on. You’ve got to make it happen:

“Challenger advises out-of-work newspaper people to ‘get a fast start. Don’t think about it too long. A lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about what they want to do next instead of getting started. They’re waiting for an epiphany about what to do next.’ “

Former New York Times entertainment reporter Sharon Waxman is diving into the murky waters of entrepreneurial journalism — perhaps the best career bet for displaced journalists to stay in the profession — by starting a Hollywood industry-oriented Web site. (Yes, I know, but it’s the example of what she’s attempting, rather than the nature of the content, that’s important to keep in mind here.) It helps that she’s managed to get her hands on some rare loose venture capital change, but admits that the success of her project is far from guaranteed:

“The allure of being your own boss and making a difference has inspired many journalists-turned-entrepreneurs to launch Web sites and leave behind the relative safety of writing articles and publishing books.

“The failure rate is very high. Journalists are often woefully unprepared for the challenges of raising money, managing a business and building a reliable staff. I asked Waxman pointedly why she is jumping into the deep end of journalism.

” ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” she answered with a laugh. ” ‘I see an opportunity. If I don’t do it, someone else will. It’s a challenge to create a vehicle where professional journalists can thrive at a time when professional journalism is imperiled.’ “

There are plenty other examples of what post-newspaper journalists are doing that are quite a bit more stable than that, and some interesting stats about us, in the AJR story. So go read the whole thing.

A ‘Plan B’ guide for journalists — before they need it

I heard this often, somewhat skeptically, before I left my job and have truly come to believe it since then. And now I’m hearing others who who have stepped out of the newsroom say the same thing.

Not only is there a great “Life After Newspapers,” as the panel title expresses rather clearly, but the skills journalists possess, especially editors and reporters, are in tremendous demand in what I regard as other knowledge industries.

That was the main thrust that I and several other former print types discussed Sunday with attendees at a one-day workshop of the Southeast Chapter of the American Copy Editors Society in Charleston.

The other three panel members and I, as well as moderator Andy Bechtel, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina — all former reporters or copy editors — stressed thinking beyond the confines of a newsroom existence. The other participants have gone on to public relations and publications editing at medical schools and another is earning a master’s degree to become a high school guidance counselor.

Yet I understand how difficult this is to digest for journalists still working in newsrooms, who’ve never wanted to do anything more than that, and who now face the prospect of having to leave them behind, probably for good, and in a rotten economy. A few months ago I was one of them.

Said one of the panelists: “Journalism still runs in my veins.”

I’m the lone wolf in the group in trying to recraft a working career in journalism outside the newsroom, and explained that I was quite aware how Promethean a climb this was going to be.

My advice, whether journalism is a final career destination or not: Naturally, getting digital skills and in a big way. And of course, my standard line, which I believe more and more every day: “If I can do this, you can do this.”

The primary highlight:

“Don’t wait to start your Plan B.”

Please, please, please think about what you might do should you be laid off or leave voluntarily — before that happens. Certainly don’t do what I did, which is not to update my résumé and lay out some concrete steps to take after my departure. I’ve been blessed with plenty of freelance work that came my way and I am building some good relationships with people on the cutting edge of online journalism. I revel in the more free-wheeling nature of all this. But I recognize that copy editors and other journalists used to a more predictable routine might be overwhelmed by my example.

Judy Stark, a former homes and gardens editor at the St. Petersburg Times and my classmate from the Poynter Institute’s first “Standing Up for Journalism” workshop, has compiled a terrific guide to prepare for the Great Beyond. Here’s Part I of her Journalists’ Survival Guide on what to do before the ax falls. Part II is devoted to what happens after the fact.

There are tremendous ideas and nut-and-bolts offering here — from dealing with your benefits package to setting up freelance opportunities to developing an online presence. Please read and take heed. And I love Judy’s parting thought:

“Oh, let’s don’t get maudlin.

“You can yank a plant out of the ground, and if you do it roughly and rudely, it’s called uprooting, and the plant seldom survives. Or you can remove a plant from where it’s currently growing, carefully transplant it, fertilize and water it –- and it thrives and grows in ways it never could in its former too-small pot with too little nourishment. We’d like your job change –- and ours -– to feel more like a transplant than an uprooting. May we all thrive and blossom.”

At lunch, Queens University School of Communications dean Van King, a former reporter, editor and publisher of the Greensboro News & Record, underscored to the ACES attendees the importance of thinking, and acting, in advance:

“If you want to get out you can get out and you need to prepare. What you have is valuable but it is going to be different. I don’t think in my lifetime newspapers are dead, but get ready to do something else.”

Weekend Video Jam: One Note Samba

One of the masters of Bossa Nova was Antonio Carlos Jobim, who popularized the Brazilian sound throughout the world with such classics as “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Corcovado” and “Desafinado.” Jobim, who would have turned 82 on Sunday (he died in 1994) also sealed his legend by appearing with some of the superstars of American popular music, including Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and others. Here he gives jazz clarinet great Gerry Mulligan a lesson in the “One Note Samba:”

Kvetch of the Week: A sportswriter does it best

As a member (honorary, now?) of the jocko-journo tribe, I can attest that my people have been terribly disappointing at kvetching since this modest blog launched its weekly honor for outstanding performance in said category.

Then the kvetchiest sportswriter of them all launched a fulminating tirade against his former colleagues, and when that perfect storm arises there is no choice but to stop weighing other candidates and give the man his due hands-down.

Kvetching becomes him / Chicago Sun-Times
Kvetching becomes him / Chicago Sun-Times

So it is for new AOL Fanhouse columnist Jay Mariotti, who when not making rather perceptive comments about the fate of newspapers and online journalism (“If a writer thinks his paper is in trouble, it probably is. And by all means, get your butt out of Dodge . . . “) issues a most robust broadside against Chicago Sun-Times columnists who barely waited for him to get his butt out of their Dodge before having at him. Including a very famous film critic.

So it must have been with great satisfaction for an unrepentant Mariotti to reel off this little sequence aimed at his former employer — in a Q and A with Real Clear Sports — that is a runaway winner for this week’s Kvetch of the Week:

“Have some pride. Don’t seem so hideously desperate that you’re hung up on a sports columnist leaving and handing back about a million bucks. Don’t trot out writers to disparage me when, frankly, they should have been directing that fire toward a newspaper war that was lost years ago.

“It’s my life, not theirs. I wrote 5,000 columns for them in 17 years. I wrote on holidays, spent massive amounts of time away from home. Roger Ebert, whom I’ve met once, can kiss my ass. No one gave more blood to that place than I did, and if I decide it’s going to die an imminent death, it’s my call. And based on events of the last four months, I couldn’t have been more accurate. The place is dead.”

Not exactly a thumbs-up from Jay, eh? / Deadspin
Not exactly a thumbs-up from Jay, eh? / Deadspin

There’s so much more classic ranting that you’d expect from a sports print hack-turned-multimedia-pundit. Mariotti really, really rubs it in:

“RCS: You’re now at AOL. Why does it have the future that the Chicago Sun-Times – and perhaps the newspaper industry more generally – does not?

“Mariotti: Oh, 54 million unique visitors to its content sites in November alone — and no costs for a printing press, newsprint, ink, truck drivers, overtime, delivery, etc.

“If Hunter Thompson envisioned a newspaper during his worst drug trip, it would be the Sun-Times. It’s a nuthouse. By comparison, the environments at AOL and ESPN are a joy — and much more conducive to having fun and doing good work.”

I won’t spoil the rest, but if you’re a kvetching aficionado this one’s worth the whole, self-indulgent read.

And so are the responses from an anti-Mariotti lobby that only figures to increase now that he’s bloviating all over the Web. The tribal boards feel the same way.

No, Mariotti’s not my cup of tea, not close to it. In a word, he’s obnoxious, and knows that’s what works for him. But if you can cut through the noise his thoughts on where journalism is headed — and sports journalism in particular — are pretty sharp. Sometimes too sharp.

The fortitude of a freelance journalist

For the last few months, as I’ve been casually picking up freelance assignments and enjoying the variety and renewed energy of it all, I’ve been oblivious to the cold reality that those far more immersed in this way of work have been facing. Until now.

Someone I freelance for has lost a very nice gig of his own at espn.com, which has initiated sweeping cuts to its coverage of college sports. After being told in advance that his assignment might be curtailed, he responded on his own blog with a nice piece about the joys and struggles of carving out his ideal freelance/entrepreneurial niche. It’s very instructive, and sobering, for all of us trying to latch on to new ways of continuing in our careers.

What I love is his continued determination that journalists who have a burning desire to pursue their passions can still do that, but it’s going to require even more resourcefulness. He is asking for donations from his readers:

“If you can’t afford or are unwilling to give, here’s some free advice: it’s time for all of us to ratchet back our reliance on corporations, and fly or die on our own. I’ve been living off the Sports Bubble for so long that I’ve lost touch with the actual value of what I do, and I have no tangible idea if this operation would survive with a lessened subsidy. Nobody asked me to start covering mid-majors this way, nobody demanded it at any point, and the market didn’t require a smartass traveling reporter who talks as much about losing as winning, who posts more about philosophy than basketball. It seemed like the right way to do it, so that’s the way I do it.”

With this reality hanging over his head, he still wrote a marvelous story about a coach’s novel way of raising money for impoverished children that was featured prominently on espn.com’s college basketball channel.

Here’s a sports media blog’s take on the matter. While I’m gutted about what happened, I enjoy working with people like him. Whether you freelance or not, or end up staying in journalism or not, you should surround yourself with people like this.