Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Publishers: Don't Just Lay Off Journalists—Execute Them

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

Here's my new favorite quote about the media revolution:
One of the problems is newspapers fired so many journalists and turned them loose to start so many blogs.... They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.”
This sardonic valentine to print publishers comes from Alan Mutter, an ex-newspaper editor and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur.

He's quoted this week in a New York Times business story, "Adding Fees and Fences on Media Sites." Mutter's dig about executing journalist-bloggers is at the end of the article, but I think it's the lead.

While magazine publishers dither about selling digital content, blogs are running away with the readers, and it's not clear that the brand-name glossies will ever recover. Partly it's because blogging is becoming a legitimate outlet for writers in desperate times. But it's also about vision—or more pointedly, the lack of vision demonstrated by big magazine publishers.

What is an online magazine, anyway? Does it really matter if it no longer resembles a print tome packed with slick ad spreads? Publishers are understandably obsessed by the money question, but focusing on pay schemes rather than content keeps them stuck in the visionless mud.

Times reporters Richard Perez-Pena and Tim Arango open with an evocative lead of their own:
Over more than a decade, consumers became accustomed to the sweet, steady flow of free news, pictures, videos and music on the Internet. Paying was for suckers and old fogeys. Content, like wild horses, wanted to be free.
They go on to say this sweet spot for readers will likely change in the coming year with various new pay models online for magazines and newspapers ("including this one," they write). But publishers are afraid to take the plunge.

The Times piece is well worth a read as a snap shot of an industry caught short and terrified. It evokes shivering publishers on an icy cliff, decked in nothing but polka-dot shorts, waiting for the first brave soul to dive into paid online content. It includes the requisite nod to the Wall Street Journal's payment model and fighting words from Rupert "quality content is not free" Murdoch.

Maybe magazine consumers will start paying, if forced. Part of me wants to believe that a new joint venture of publishing power players—Murdoch's News Corp., Time Inc., Hearst, Conde Nast, and Meredith—really will build a new "digital storefront" that entices readers to become electronic subscribers.

If only these publishers weren't so cynically out of step. I love magazines, and I want to see at least some of the big slicks thrive online. But watching publishers creep instead of fly into a new medium—then come on with belligerent business talk—is more than depressing.

It makes me root for the bloggers with nothing to lose. To paraphrase the management mags of the '90s, the world belongs to those nimble, entrepreneurial souls who aren't hypnotized by their own brand image.

This yet-to-be-named joint venture has been called Hulu or iTunes for magazines. By banding together, the publishing partners will supposedly hang tough on paid content and force the online world their way.

Yet the publishers seem far too wedded to online editions that are essentially digital analogues of print journals. The real innovation for magazines may come in consumers purchasing individual features or specialized content rather than entire journals.

Here's a wacky idea: What about subscribers at various payment levels, creating personalized versions of, say, the New Yorker? You, the consumer, choose which New Yorker content in a given issue you like and how you want it packaged (a digital version, print-on-demand, or both).

At level A, for example, you might get one feature of your choice, all the reviews, and no cartoons; at level B, you get three features, all the reviews, and cartoons + "Talk of the Town"; at level C, you get everything.

Or perhaps you can specify which channels you'd like (health, style, literary, politics) or which writers you want to read. Or maybe you can opt out of ads, going for text-only editions on electronic readers. The point is the freedom to choose is part of what you pay for. Rather than providing more content—more blogs, more lists of most popular articles, more podcasts and other online blips that clutter the screen—you get a manageable chunk of stuff you want.

I'm just riffing. I don't know how much of this is possible or feasible. Yet I do know that the New Yorker's experimental digital edition—click here for an opening shot—was simply an online version of the print magazine, a pain to navigate, and not the answer to magazine publishing's woes. It's an argument for the wonders of print magazines, not a new vision of how online magazines might make our reading lives better.

A glance at the Atlantic Wire, Atlantic Consumer Media's new aggregation of pundits and political commentary indicates another approach. According to editorial director Bob Cohn, as quoted in FishbowlNY:
"As readers face an overload of information and a deficit of free time, they can now visit one site to easily follow the topics they care about and the opinion-makers who fascinate them."
Will such online features get readers to pony up for the Atlantic proper? Possibly. The blogosphere is so crammed with political and social commentary, my eyes glaze at the notion of a site devoted to "opinion-makers." But I salute the effort to jump out of the print box.

For "newsosaur" Alan Mutter, producing good unique content is key. That could favor magazines like the New Yorker or the Atlantic, if their money people ever pay attention to who's actually reading the gold they already have. In a post titled "How to Charge for Online Content," Mutter writes:
The lesson here is not that free content trumps pay (though, all things being equal, it will) but that there has to be much more to a pay strategy than a publisher’s desire to want to be paid.
Which brings us back to all those journalists who are now blogging on their own dime and producing the kind of quality content that just might, possibly, I hope, net them, not Rupert Murdoch, an audience and financial support. Wouldn't it be nice if they had the last laugh?

This piece has been cross-posted on Open Salon.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Jingle, Jingle! Holiday Wishes for Writers

To ring in the winter holidays, I've compiled some wishes from TW contributors. May the coming year bring inspiration and empowerment to all pens—and computers!

My other wish? That Talking Writing continues to thrive and grow and connect with the terrific community of writers online. Thank you all for stopping by—Martha Nichols

"I wish for every writer an ever-increasing love for people," Paula Silici says, "so they may tell their stories from a heart of goodwill, respect, honesty, and compassion."

"More than a room of one's own," Carol Dorf says, "a writer needs time. My wish is that writers are able to make use of the fragments of time they find flapping on the line above the other demands in their lives."

"I wish for everyone what I wish for myself," Laurie Weisz says. "A chance to step outside the cyclone of distractions, bills, work, all the pissy details of life, and step into my fiction. As composite an exit as Narnia delivered in the third grade. A place way over the rainbow, where the privacy of writing, somehow, resurfaces. I’m cheering for anyone reading this article."

"My hope for our profession is that it remains professional," Judith Ross says. "It’s one thing to post unedited ramblings and pass them off as 'literature.' It’s another to post opinions, rumors, and made-up accusations as facts. In 2010, writers like us—who have been trained and mentored by skilled editors—can’t keep quiet. We must insist that a clear, coherent, and above all accurate message is more important than whatever fancy new technology it might be packaged in."

"My wish is for the clear thinking that enables us to coherently and effectively pull together the fragments of experience, impression, and knowledge that form our stories," Elizabeth Langosy says.

"Here are my wishes for 2010," David Biddle says:
1. Google realizes that information still wants to be free, but good writing is something they believe people should be paid a living wage for—and then does something about it in order to get the real content providers on their side.

2. Kindles come down in price to $39.95.

3. The Association of Author's Representatives adopts a single standard for online submissions only: the first 50, a two-page synopsis, and a half-page bio. Any deviation from this standard will be deemed by AAR a first indicator that an agency is still lost in the 20th century, where writers needed to be kept in their place because people were so afraid that they'd muck things up. Writers should not be forced to support the U.S. Postal Service anymore.

4. We learn that David Foster Wallace is actually alive and well, living on the lam in Andre Agassi's basement, working on a mystery about God and his frustrations with Van Morrison, and secretly teaching Andre and Steffi's kids how to play tennis while being intellectuals at the same time.

5. Annie Dillard publishes another novel with writing that is more meaty and pure than what she already gave us in The Maytrees.
Karen Ohlson says, "May the new year bring you the time and circumstances to write what matters to you. (Virginia Woolf's 'room of one's own,' or its modern equivalent—a laptop of one's own.) And may your writing not be just 'content,' as you are much more than a 'content provider.' May it, literally, not be contained. May it spread forth and reach untold others. May your writing bring joy, holy or unholy, to the world. To paraphrase..."
Let earth receive its sound
And every heart
Prepare it room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


"The Butterfly Field at Night" by Zoe Langosy

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

Talking Writing’s holiday image comes to us from local artist Zoe Langosy. “The Butterfly Field at Night” is mixed-media that includes ink, paint, pencil, collage – and butterfly wings! (Click on image to enlarge.)

According to Zoe,

“Over the past decade I've become increasingly interested in collage. In particular, I love to work with the patterns and colors we find in our natural world. Butterfly wings offer the most intoxicating array of possibilities, and have become a staple for each new piece I create.

‘The Butterfly Field at Night’ shows a woman in a field. As her dress blows in the moonlight, you see that the lining is made from dozens of butterfly wings combined with canopies of trees beneath the autumn sun.”

Do you have an image you’d like to share or an artist you’d like to recommend? Talking Writing is building its portfolio of artists. We’d love to hear from you. Please submit your suggestions to

Friday, December 11, 2009

So…You Want To Be a Writer?

Guest Post by Ken Hertz for Talking Writing

Ken originally wrote this piece in one of my journalism classes at Harvard. It’s such a terrific satire of all the advice flung at writers that I thought it would be a funny follow-on to the posts we’ve been running at TW about style rules. So toss out your Strunk and White for a vicarious moment or three—and relax! Martha

A few years back, I enrolled in journalism school to pursue my long-deferred dream of becoming a writer. From that experience, I can confidently say to others who harbor similar aspirations: you can do it.

Yes—you can become a writer. You just need to follow a few simple guidelines.

I’ve taken to heart my professors’ admonishments on the importance of journalistic values such as honesty, integrity, verification, and so forth—along with some other very important principles that I’m pretty sure I wrote down in my notes during class but can’t seem to locate at the moment.

Fortunately, in my quest to become a writer I’ve acquired some useful rules-of-thumb myself. So, from one aspiring writer to another, I humbly offer these five hard-earned nuggets of wisdom that may help you in your own pursuit of literary stardom:

1. Learn the fine art of procrastination
It’s inevitably part of being a writer, so you might as well embrace the reality. 

For example, when you finally clear your schedule and sit down with great resolve to begin your new life as a writer, don’t become alarmed if you suddenly feel the pressing need to clean out your garage that very moment. Or if you are certain that this is exactly the right time, at long last, to get around to organizing the thousands of digital photos stored somewhere on your old hard drive. 

When you have these urges, immediately discontinue any attempt to produce actual written work and give into them wholeheartedly. They’re a good sign that you’re well on your way to becoming a successful writer.

2. Stay uninformed
Despite what your professors might say, you should avoid reading newspapers at all costs. Too many depressing stories about the imminent demise of the newspaper industry. And since you want to be a writer, you’re likely to be genetically prone to bouts of depression anyway. Why exacerbate the problem?

3. Strive for rejection
According to Wikipedia (pssst…here’s a bonus tip: Wikipedia is awesome, and it’s the only source you’ll ever really need as a journalist—just don’t tell anyone you heard it from me, OK?) it was Albert Einstein who once said “If you want to increase your chances of success, then increase your failure rate.”

I’ve made this my highest priority and am personally trying to accumulate as many rejection letters as possible. I’ve purchased a new file cabinet to hold the thousands I anticipate receiving. You can also make a chart to post on the refrigerator and give yourself a gold star when hitting certain milestones—the 10th, 100th, 1000th.   

(I do admit I may have a slight problem with this one, though. I’ve gotten so addicted to receiving rejections that each time I submit a finished piece, I pray that it won’t be accepted for publication. That would blow my streak of failures, and I’d have to start all over again.)

4. Practice being completely alone
To prepare for life as a writer, spend as much time alone as possible, so you can train yourself for the day when you can finally spend all your time engaged in the solitary pursuit of stringing words together.

Before attempting the actual process of writing, I recommend sitting by yourself for hours at a stretch with nothing other than a desk and chair to see what it’s like. 

(Just be sure it is in a windowless room. You need to cut down on the time that would inevitably be wasted by gazing outside into the distance. Serious writers must constantly guard against the temptation to engage in idle daydreaming, which is the sure mark of an amateur.)

5. Ignore the so-called “experts”
Don’t trouble yourself with those prim little know-it-all books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which was written like a hundred years ago anyway. They’re full of high-minded rules about ensuring that participial phrases are preceded by proper prepositions, and using the “active” rather than the “passive” voice, whatever that means.

(Believe you me, the fact of the matter is that there can be no doubt whatsoever that by learning to ignore these self-proclaimed authorities and instinctively trust your own writerly instincts, that will surely be the most important idea I can convey to you, so to speak, which will allow you to climb through the great wilderness that is the golden highway to becoming a writer, and, as luck would have it, from the very first time that you first hear about this particular piece of advice with your own eyes, that I am telling you, you will just know for sure, without any doubt, that it is exactly the very type of the sort of this kind of information that will not be forgotten by you, without any doubt whatsoever in your mind.)

Speaking of The Elements of Style, have you seen their “Rule 17”? It says: “Omit needless words.”  This makes no sense—don’t they realize that most magazines pay by the word? That Rule 17 is proof Strunk and White had no idea what they were talking about.

Ken Hertz is a Boston-based airline pilot who has written for several aviation magazines. You can read an article he wrote for Flying Magazine here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Should Blog Posts Be Edited? The New Style Rules

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

The mainstream media loves to snipe about bloggers who offer transcripts of therapy sessions or discourses on their favorite lunch meat. Bloggers themselves may have no use for grammar nazis who cramp their style.

But this year I've discovered just how much editing matters to blogging. Obviously, many people blog for personal reasons. But for the professional writers now migrating online—and all those who want to build readership and get noticed—editing is a crucial tool, even if we're only self-editing.

With this post, I'd like to continue discussing what makes blog writing effective. It's a follow-on to Paula's Silici's piece about manuscript preparation, and I offer ten editorial guidelines for blogging that aren't your granddad's Elements of Style. When I'm evaluating a piece for posting, these are the things I focus on as an editor.

All right, some of the rules will be familiar to professional writers and journalism students. (Go to How to Make My for a list of what bloggers can learn from Strunk and White's classic.) But other guidelines here may surprise even seasoned print writers. That's because blogging really does play by different rules.

When I began Talking Writing, I didn't expect to take on a traditional editorial role—and I haven't, exactly. That's the fun of it, as this blogazine evolves. However, I have found myself consulting with other contributors about ideas and how to frame them, and I line-edit all guest posts. Meanwhile, at WOMEN = BOOKS, the blog I run for the Women's Review of Books, I help non-bloggers and academics with how to shape their ideas online.

So maybe the question is actually this: How much should blog posts be edited? You decide, and let us know.

The New Style Rules for Blogging

1. Use an Effective Title
It's important to make clear what your post will be about, even if the title sounds less punchy than you'd like. The "cute" or pun-laden headlines of print magazines are not the best for blog posts. Questions often work well. If you want to say more, you can always insert a subtitle at the top of your post text. Click here for a TW example.

2. Make Your Post Short
This rule gets broken all the time (including by me), but more than ever, readers like short, focused posts—from 400 to 800 words. The more complicated a topic, of course, the longer it can be. But even in a 20,000-word investigative epic, the famous Elements of Style "omit needless words" rule rules.

3. Keep Your Paragraphs Short
Within your post, break the text into paragraphs, and make those no more than a few sentences long. In a blog, big chunks of dense text are even more off-putting than in a magazine column.

4. Use a Good Lead
This may seem obvious to professional writers, but tight leads (or the traditional spelling "lede") are crucial for blogs. The lead refers to your first sentence or short paragraph; it's how you hook readers. What may not be obvious is that the venerable anecdotal lead rarely works unless it's brief. Otherwise, the anecdote itself might as well be the post.

5. Be Provocative
Good ideas and questions matter. The goal is to get readers arguing. There's probably nothing more important to the quality of a post (except fixing atrocious grammar), so I'll keep this section short.

6. But Don't Just React—Illuminate
It's fun to read somebody railing at a bad movie or political figure. However, if you just react with a thumb's up or down, your post will be less effective than one that grapples with why you feel the way you do.

7. Check Your Facts and Links
As Ellen Goodman puts it in a recent Boston Globe column, "Facts—along with their enforcers, editors—have long been the guides and saviors of my career..."

Checking your facts is one basic way to create a trustworthy voice as a writer. It's also the ethical thing to do. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin may run roughshod over the truth—and seem to get away with it—but writers should hold themselves to higher standards.

Here's where the discipline of journalism has something important to teach the blogosphere, as Goodman and others have argued.

You may be writing about your own experience, but any time you cite a fact that's easily verifiable—such as the title of a movie—you should check it. A quick google of names to verify spellings and other details often does the trick.

You should also link to the source of statistics or other research you cite. If you quote another writer, blogger, or website, doublecheck the wording and link to the source. Attribute quotes or ideas to the right people and name them. (See my attribution of Goodman's piece above.) When you insert links, check to make sure they work.

8. Create a Strong Personal Voice
Blog posts are a chance to relate anecdotes from your own life and to state your own opinions strongly. Blogging is a very subjective medium, driven by the personality of the writer, rather than the omniscient tone of third-person journalism.

When it comes to the voice of a post, my editorial touch is much lighter than with print pieces. Most glossy print magazines have what's called a "house style" or voice—and are edited accordingly—but blog writers are supposed to let their freak flags fly.

The subjectivity of blogging can be freeing, but you still need to keep readers interested—that is, avoid too much detail about toenail clipping or "now I'm sitting down at the computer, thinking about what to write." Instead, think about the kind of person you want to project in your writing: are you likable? are you funny? are you too insulting?

9. Use Links, Images, Video Clips
These are the tools of a new medium, and the ability to link to other information is one of the great advantages of blogs. Don't forget to include links where appropriate, although too many can be distracting. Rather than listing a long URL like, insert your link like this.

Images and video clips, especially at the top of your post, are also a draw for readers. A number of web services provide stock photos for free. (In other cases, you may need to get permission or pay.) Whenever reasonable, include a photo or art credit line with the image.

10. Spark a Conversation and Respond to Commenters
A good title, a good lead, a provocative idea—these will help draw responses to your posts. But one of the transformative things about blogging is the participation of others. So don't hang back! Join the conversation by responding to your commenters.

Concluding Thoughts: Revise and Keep Revising
After I've written a post, I go back over it several times. I often cut whole sentences and paragraphs, as well as "needless words." Even after a post is published, I sometimes makes cuts and changes—and it's OK to keep editing your post once it's public.

Really. Nobody's perfect, including editors. For example, I'm adding this concluding section after I published the post last night.

And if you discover factual errors after you've published a post—or a reader points them out—go back and correct the mistake. Most important, explain to readers that you're making the correction. Click here to read a post of mine that contains such a correction note.

Do your part to fight misinformation in the blogosphere. Otherwise, Ellen Goodman may be right about our falling standards for professionalism and truth. "When the reporters go, so do the facts," she writes. "And their checkers."