Monday, August 25, 2008

so long sweet summer...and sweet blog

As summer begins to fade into the sun-speckled chasms of our minds, leaving us with only burned foreheads and half-eaten popsicles to remember it by, it comes time for this blog to end as well. Well, for now, at least – who knows if and when I’ll want to strike up again with some banter about the increasing popularity of publishing via skywriting or something?

I have learned many lessons throughout my summer blogging adventure. To name a few: the subway is the fastest way to get around the city, it’s possible to walk from the Lower East Side to Grand Central, and (I reluctantly admit) Starbucks really is the most reliable place to meet someone for an interview.

Of course, my blog was more than just an excuse to guzzle down iced coffees (I promise, Al!). So, in an effort to condense my summer into something resembling comprehensiveness, here’s A List of Stuff I’ve Learned.

#1. People Like Lists
Organized bullet points, summaries, informative blurbs – it’s almost too easy to peruse the Internet for quick, accessible snatches of information. On the one hand, this trend does make a 30-plus-page newspaper seem all the more daunting to anyone who’s either really busy or really lazy. However, short of sticking an IV coursing with political commentary into someone’s arm, I think that any news-receiving method is a good one.

#2. That Being Said, Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Many of my interviewees alluded to the potential for disaster when gullible Internet surfers come face-to-face with completely illegitimate websites. This is an important point to consider for print publishing as well; though websites may require you to be a bit more skeptical, you should always question what you read. It’s part of being an educated, well-informed, curious human being.

#3. The Phrase “Internet Connection” is Almost Too Easy to Pun
I’m not exaggerating when I say that my mother’s favorite sentence in my entire blog is the line “Apparently, signing up for speedy Internet connection can also get you speedy Internet connections” from my post about Marci Alboher. Well, it’s as punny as it is true – the Internet is an amazing place to network. Whether you’re being set up by mutual friends on Facebook or making a name for yourself professionally, there’s nothing better than the Web.

#4. The Power of the Slash
As I continue my small homage to Marci Alboher, the queen of both blogging and slashing, let’s talk about the latter. Working on my project only increased my awareness of this growing professional trend in which one can be a journalist, a poet, and a public speaker (hopefully getting paid for all three). I realized that, as a blogger, I have the potential to be quite slashy myself.

#5. If You’re Trying to Find Yourself, Get a Facebook
How many lost souls would have saved thousands of dollars on therapy had they just made a Facebook? Perhaps I am glorifying the addicting website due to my own obsession, but there is some validity in viewing the Internet as a way to tangibly shape one’s identity (even Obama has one!). As I said, because people like lists and fun, pretty, easy-to-use packaging, there’s no wonder personal websites have become so prevalent.

#6. The Internet Practically Caters to People with Quirky Interests
Want information on the best tank to buy for your sea monkeys? Interested in a pair of purple-and-green checkered hot pants? Not only does the Internet supply the resources for both of those things, but I bet you could find blogs dedicated to them as well. In my interview with Morgan Friedman, he mentioned “niche publishing” as a trend seemingly made for the Internet. Though it certainly exists in print as well (ever heard of ‘Horse & Hound’?), the Web has the resources to convey even more, varied information to the world.

#7. Don’t Let Yourself Drown in Information…
Moderation is important when considering the infinite amount of data available on the Internet. It’s easy to get carried away – Lindsay Palmer mentioned co-workers that literally become imprisoned by their Macs, tirelessly clicking away to read and read and read. Like a rich chocolate cake or a bottle of Absolut, the Internet must be approached with a certain amount of self-control.

#8. …But Take Advantage of the Opportunity!
Don’t be scared of the exciting, endless chances that the Internet provides. Contrary to the belief that the Web is replacing newspapers and T.V as our primary news transmitter, I like to think that it’s just joining the media ranks; it provides more opportunity to expel information than anything else, which is great. There’s no law stating you must get all your news from Google – skim the front page of the Times, check out Perez Hilton for tabloid news (I couldn’t end this blog without mentioning him one more time), peruse AOL News, read NewsWeek. It’s all informative, and it’s all there for us to consume at our leisure.

I think it’s safe to say that this site can finally be titled “the blog of a blogger who now gets blogging.” Confused no more, I am off to bigger and better things – specifically, starting September 1, I’ll be the editor-in-chief of my very own UPenn blog on CollegeOTR.com. Check it out!

Monday, August 18, 2008

back in black(berry)

After spending twelve days in France, I’m finding it hard to re-adjust to home, a world full of crappy bread and BlackBerrys that actually have service. This morning at the disgustingly early hour of 5 a.m. (oh jetlag, we underestimate how bad you really are), my dad joked, “Who’s going to go out and pick up the fresh baguette?” and I almost cried as I poured myself a stupidly low-calorie bowl of Puffins cereal instead.

My BlackBerry is the highly coveted Curve edition, a sleek beauty encased in a rubbery neon-green cover I insisted on buying (“I don’t get it,” my mom said when she saw the mucus-colored defilement). However, as much as I love the Curve, it has no service outside the U.S. This impediment shocked my friends, who wondered aloud if I’d be able to handle almost two weeks of connectionless existence. I wasn’t so sure myself.

Before the CrackBerry entered my life, I had a healthy relationship with my phone, one that entailed average amounts of texting and a few calls a day. Now that my phone also offers Facebook access, email, and BlackBerry Messaging, I’m hooked.

Although I had a mild panic attack at the thought of being BlackBerry-less while in France, it was only about a 3 on the Richter scale of freak-outs. To be honest, the thought of strolling the cobblestone streets of Paris sans cell phone sounded all the more enticing – a real vacation, with no worries, decisions, or phone calls from the McCain campaign (are they trying to reform me or something?).

Armed with the idea that my trip would be like BlackBerry rehab, I used my phone as much as possible while in the airport (think of Lindsay Lohan throwing back shots of vodka the night before her eighth trip to Promises in Malibu). Once on the plane, I gave my phone a quick kiss and shut it off – “see ya in twelve days!”

While in Paris, I always felt like I was missing something as I packed up my bag in the morning; lip-gloss, wallet, sunglasses were all intact, and it would take me a minute to realize that I wouldn’t need my phone.

Whenever I stepped into a taxi or sat down to order a $10 mini bottle of Perrier (blame the exchange rate) at a café, I involuntarily reached to check my messages, only to remember that I wouldn’t be able to. More than that, I realized that I wouldn’t have to.

Having phones with us all the time makes us feel obliged to use them. It’s like having an umbrella on a cloudy day: if it starts to drizzle you automatically use it, but if you are umbrella-less, you realize it’s unnecessary to protect yourself from rain with all the vigor of a leaky faucet.

We all feel like we’ll miss something crucial and life changing if we don’t check our phones and emails constantly – this, of course, is bogus. People have lived for centuries without being so plugged-in and ridiculously connected, and they all turned out fine.

There is definitely a certain allure that comes with being informed, one that is irresistible when you have the means. But being without my BlackBerry, I learned that being hooked-in is not as necessary as we think; in fact, it can be annoying and imposing.

That being said, I did turn my phone back on when our plane landed in New York. It immediately began to buzz as I methodically received 45 emails, 32 Facebook notifications, 6 texts and 2 BlackBerry Messages one after another. Sneakily, I put my phone on silent – no harm in being “on vacation” for a few more hours, right?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

vacation #3...

Dear Readers,

Well, the time has come for my last trip of the summer: twelve days en France avec ma famille (see, endless hours of high school French really paid off). So I will be missing in action for some time, gallivanting around the country of wine, cheese, and fashion (that has been rendered unaffordable thanks to our weak dollar). Au revoir et à bientôt mes amis!

Monday, August 4, 2008

“in [Bob] Dylan’s songs, each word is like a stone or a brick that fits together perfectly.”

After surreptitiously eyeing each other from across the room at 88 Orchard, a pleasantly idyllic café on the Lower East Side, Jessy Ginsberg and I finally realize whom the other is (I really should wear a trucker hat or apron that says “blogger”), so we convene at her table to chat about her blossoming music career.

As we settle down with our drinks, I expect her to tell me that she’s been playing the guitar since she was nine months old and began singing even before that. Au contraire, she picked up the instrument about four years ago while brainstorming ideas for her creative writing senior thesis.

“I thought, ‘this is gonna be fun!’’ Ginsberg says of her foray into a previously un-explored world of string instrumentals. “I really wanted to write songs, because it’s an important media to explore.”

Since then, Ginsberg’s career has moved quite literally at lightning speed. She has put out one folk-y/rock-ish/pop-esque (can’t resist a good suffix every now and then) album every year since 2006 and recently signed with Park the Van Records.

For Ginsberg, everything is and always has been about the writing. “My music came about because of its lyric value,” she explains. Over time, Ginsberg has seen her lyrics evolve from “abstract poem collages” more perplexing than the Times’ Friday crossword puzzle to bodies of art that focus around “storytelling and making sense” (always a plus).

“There’s a difference between interpreting and wanting to understand a song versus not caring what it’s saying because it’s so inaccessible,” Ginsberg has learned. I instantly think of Steve Miller’s ode to the fictional “pompitous of love” and agree with Ginsberg’s hypothesis: just because musicians can get away with coining such perturbing lyrics doesn’t necessarily mean they should.

While time and experience certainly hone artistic skill, Ginsberg believes life changes have affected her work with equal importance. “Love can change you; being with or away from someone can change you…life always seems to get in the way,” she muses. “My new record was written during one period of time, making it a more cohesive body of work. It has allowed me to understand myself and know what I’m going for in my music,” she adds.

Though consumers don’t always consider albums artistic entireties, preferring to pick through them for the catchy singles with irresistible hooks, a record is really just like a novel or painting. Knowing that each song is sewn into a particular place on an album to create a specific auditory arrangement makes downloading singles on iTunes seem like a shame. You wouldn’t dare barge into Barnes and Noble and rip out Chapter 8 of The Grapes of Wrath, satisfied with just a little sip of Steinbeck’s literary cocktail when you should be getting drunk off the whole book.

Now, I am not above denying the blatant hypocrisy of that statement: as I type up this post/mini-rant, I am being musically accompanied by one of the two Radiohead songs in my iTunes library. Yes, just two.

“I do download songs – I fall prey to it too,” Ginsberg admits. “I like that music is so accessible, but I wish people still bought records. There’s so much excitement in playing a record all the way through, but that’s not how people want to digest music today.”

Ginsberg is sometimes amazed that there’s even a music business in the first place (an allusion to her self-proclaimed new age-y tendencies). Though she believes in some sort of payment for her lyrical labors (admitting that sometimes she “works harder than a business man”), monetary rewards aren’t necessarily what she needs. “I could be getting 1,000 kisses or a dozen roses…I just think musicians deserve some kind of compensation…it’s not even about the money.”

One could argue that half of the joy of creating and disseminating music is the knowledge that that you are communicating with so many people so quickly. There are days when a song can make me laugh, cry, dance, scream, and think all at once. Perhaps this kind of emotional A.D.D only occurs at “that time of month,” but I won’t let that undermine the power of song, and Ginsberg agrees.

“I’ve been so healed by certain records, and being able to do that for someone else, or for yourself, is an amazing feeling.”

Now excuse me while I steal my sister’s guitar and beg her to teach me to play (I already learned the order of the strings: EADGBE) – I want that feeling too!

Friday, August 1, 2008

“in college, I never turned in papers on time"

Some people are scared of heights, so they don’t go mountain climbing; others have a debilitating fear snakes and therefore avoid the slithery beasts at all costs. Eric Umansky grew up with the less-common, quirkier fear of…writing. So what did he do? Became an investigative political journalist, of course.

“In college, I never turned in papers on time,” Umansky admits over sandwiches at a Panera Bread across the street from his Wall Street office. “I thought that if I never wrote, no one could say I wasn’t good.”

Despite avoiding term papers with the same fervor as a chronic Atkins dieter steering clear of carbs, after college Umansky worked as a columnist for Slate. The online publication, its name emblazoned across the homepage in a nonchalant Arial font, covers everything from sports to politics in sharp, quippy blurbs.

Umansky’s shtick at the online magazine was to “summarize and criticize printed newspapers,” focusing mainly on the top five papers in the country. Smartly dubbing his column a “protoblog,” he notes that he was able to make jokes and write with attitude and sarcasm, a strategy that is usually quickly altered by the editorial equivalent of a corrective back brace when writing in traditional print.

“Because the Internet is less mediated, there is a structural tendency to be less formal and write with more voice,” Umansky suggests.

There is no doubt that the voice I use for this blog is basically the way I speak in real, non-cyber life (yes, I probably would use an Atkins metaphor in general conversation); there is also no doubt that the aforementioned allusion would hardly be fitting in a Shakespeare term paper or a New York Times article on the presidential election.

I briefly discussed the colloquial nature of blogs during my interview with Leslie Bennetts (see my June 6 post). Umansky only confirmed my belief that there is an appropriate time and place for sarcasm; he believes that though blogs tend to be (furthermore, are allowed to be) more biased and opinionated than printed news, there is room for both sides of the information spectrum in today’s world.

“I think of myself as a ‘tweener,’” Umansky explains, referring to his fluid shift between blog-esque, idiomatic writing and the impartial, fairly informative articles he has written throughout his journalism career.

Today, Umansky works at ProPublica, a non-profit online publication that has only been up and running for a few months. “We are an unusual kind of news organization,” Umansky says, alluding to the fact that ProPublica doesn’t actually publish its own articles but instead teams up with news outlets that lack the “reporting muscle” needed to be efficient and thorough.
Employee lay-offs and company downsizing have rattled the publishing world in all mediums, despite the popular tendency to only cluck our tongues pityingly at the so-called archaic newspapers. This is where ProPublica comes in, a text-driven Superman that provides news organizations with the largest investigative newsroom in the U.S.

“We get an audience, and [the news outlets] get a story,” Umansky says of the symbiotic relationship between ProPublica and the publishing world.

I wonder if, ultimately, ProPublica and its progressive attitude towards reporting will pave the way towards the publishing of tomorrow. Will USA Today and the New York Times outsource all of its reporting? Will the term “staff writer” soon become obsolete?

Freelancing has, of course, always been the protocol of the literary world, a term imbedded in the professional psyche of the average writer. Even if he or she is working for a publication, there is always the option to write for someone else – though it’s preferable to actually be employed, of course.

Economically speaking, freelancing is a bit on the taboo, unimpressive side. But maybe if more companies like ProPublica spring up, freelancing will become even more common and accepted than ever before.

Monday, July 28, 2008

“the building would literally shake when the presses went on…we really felt like we were creating the news.”

Here’s a fun fact for you: Times Square, known as Long Acres Square in the 1800s, was actually named after the New York Times. The gesture was a nominal “thank you for moving to a previously-vacant, now-bustling area of the city” when the prestigious paper relocated in the early 20th century.

Pennington imparted this tidbit as we went about our aforementioned tour (see previous post) of the brand new facilities. Still located in the heart of its namesake (a touristy, neon-lit embodiment of chaos), the year-old Times building is as impressive as the paper itself.

The modernistic building, seemingly made of nothing but steel, bright white paint, and air, is a lifetime away from the paper’s overcrowded abode of old.

“The old building was a classic newsroom, dusty and smoky with low ceilings,” says Pennington. “There were no big T.V screens and there wasn’t Internet connection everywhere. We really needed more space.”

As dumpy as the prototypical 1920s-ish newsroom sounds, Pennington says that the close quarters were conducive to the constant communication necessary at a newspaper. For example, in a room where people are practically sitting on each other’s laps, one editor may overhear changes being made via phone by another editor and put the corresponding edits right onto the page. This is no longer possible in the spacious new building.

“You could throw a football back and forth on the sports floor, whereas in the old building the sports section was the size of a large huddle,” Pennington explains, unable to curb an inevitable dose of athletic imagery.

However, the new building’s spacious atmosphere does not prevent the paper from doing its job. Yes, the office may echo at times, but the openness purposely facilitates inter-section communication.

Though most newspapers are strictly segmented into sections (again, see previous post), Pennington philosophizes that “the paper is a whole, and the office is laid-out in a similarly continuous way.”

One extremely charming, albeit noisy, aspect of the old Times building was the existence of the printing press in the basement. Though the paper has been outsourcing its printing for years now, Pennington recalls the daily rumbling with nostalgia.

“The building would literally shake when the presses went on,” he remembers. “News was being generated beneath us. We really felt like we were creating the news and changing the world’s view of things.”

Since Pennington doesn’t officially have a desk at the office, our nomadic tour is peppered with stops at random flat surfaces on which I lean to jot down notes. Pennington assures me that he could have a workspace – you know, if he really wanted one – but most of the desks belong to city-dwellers who actually find the locale convenient.

Because most writers work from home or on-site, simply submitting stories from their laptops with the click of a button, I presume it would be unnecessary to clutter the office with tons of empty desks.

Which, at 1 p.m. on a Thursday, is pretty much how I’d describe the office: empty. “At night the office will be full and frenetic,” Pennington says, adding that the kinetic peak actually occurs around midnight.

There is something so impressively noble in the image of editors sprinting around in the dead of night, ensuring that millions of clear blue packages land on the doorsteps of the world the very next morning.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

“suddenly I’m in Florida having to act in a Scottish kilt.”

Sportswriter Bill Pennington and I are walking through the 2nd floor of the brand new (and apparently climbable) New York Times building, a bright and airy workspace that serves as the turf for the Times’ sports section. Throughout my unofficial tour, at least three of his coworkers approach to congratulate him on being such a good cheater.

What they are referring to is “On Par: Golfing with Bill Pennington,” a collection of articles and web videos (posted on the New York Times’ website) on recreational golf that Pennington is working on until Labor Day (to answer Laura's comment, the articles are also published in the newspaper). One recent article, “Shaving Strokes and Integrity,” features a video in which Pennington plays that guy – you know, the one who uses his toe more than his club to get the ball closer to the hole (please excuse my rudimentary understanding of both the game and its terminology; I’m the only person in my family who doesn’t play golf).

Pennington came up with the idea to feature recreational, as opposed to competitive, golf about five years ago. At that time, however, the paper didn’t know how to approach this sports/health/arts hybrid.

“The editors weren’t sure where to put [the articles] – we cover competitive games, not recreational sports,” explains Pennington.

Such is the nature of a physical, ink-and-paper publication: its sections are pretty rigidly set, and how could they not be? Newspapers can be messy, what with so many pages folding and crinkling all over the place and ink getting all over your fingers and rubber BlackBerry cover (happened to me yesterday, very unsettling). Sections provide a content-based way to physically organize a newspaper.

However, now that there is a successful, multi-media website supplementing the Times, Pennington’s editors were able to find a medium in which to publish his unique idea.

“The website enables video and interactive comments. When I did an article on the 10 most annoying thing golfers do on the course, I got 266 responses from readers adding to the list – they loved it!” Pennington says.

This blend of text, video, and interaction presents an appealing package to readers and advertisers alike: Pennington finds that he has inadvertently brought in more advertisers from his successful project.

After being a writer for 20 some-odd years, Pennington suddenly finds himself doing voice-overs in a soundproof booth, writing scripts, and acting onscreen in a Scottish kilt (long story…).

Scripts aren’t too hard for Pennington to write because, interestingly, he notes that a lot of the principles of script writing – “words must support images and everything must be succinct to keep the story moving” – are applicable to print journalism as well. Though the end product is a bit different, it appears that writing is writing is writing (unless it’s poetry, in which case all the aforementioned rules go out the window).

However, video journalism differs from print in that the creative process is much more collaborative – think two producers, multiple videographers, and audio editors all bouncing ideas off each other versus Pennington sitting alone in a corner of Yankee Stadium clicking away at his laptop.

“I’m used to working with other people with similar backgrounds in reporting,” Pennington says of this new, eye-opening experience. “The guys and women from Hollywood have very different views about…journalism.”

Though one could argue that too many cooks spoil the broth, it’s also true that opposites attract (when in need, I like to pick clichés out of a hat). Judging from the success of Pennington’s project, it seems opposite ideologies not only attract – they create wildly popular articles on recreational golf.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

“even if you don’t like sports, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in everything about the Olympics.”

I don’t get sports. It’s not even a cutesy “football-is-so-confusing-
can-you-explain-it-to-me-because-you’re-a-cute-boy” ploy; I’m just not really a sweaty fans/confusing stats/sticky arena seats type of gal. Which is why it’s quite surprising that my next two (or three, or four) posts will be semi sports-related.

Partly to thank for my change of heart is Kelly Whiteside, a sportswriter for USA Today who happens to be the only female reporter who covers national college football. As if this alone isn’t an extraordinary feat, Whiteside is headed to Beijing in a few weeks to cover the U.S men’s Olympic basketball team.

Though Whiteside prefers college athletes to the “zillionaires with senses of entitlements” that seem to frequent the professional sports scene, she is thrilled to be a part of the Olympics. “Even if you don’t like sports, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in everything about [the event]: the great stories, the athletes who have waited their whole lives for 30 seconds. It’s just the greatest thing.”

It’s true that even an anti-fan like me can get pumped up when the summer Olympics rolls around (although nothing is quite as amusing as the sequined butts of male figure skaters in the winter games). Whiteside feels lucky to be able to participate at all, noting that many smaller newspapers aren’t even sending reporters this year – a miserable side effect of fewer subscribers and employee cut backs.

Whiteside believes that one result of the Internet’s sudden coup d’état of the publishing world is the rise of its own reputation. To use a middle school metaphor (who doesn’t love those?), the Web, once the awkward wannabe in ill-fitting clogs, has become the queen bee in Juicy Couture.

“Earlier on, you would use your ‘B’ stuff online; we all thought, ‘who’s going to read this anyway?’ Now there’s a mentality shift, because that’s not necessarily the case anymore,” she says.

The Internet has provided stiff competition for print journalism in the past few years, but I realize that sports television provided (and has continued to provide) a similar opponent in the pre-YouTube days of yore.

Though USA Today doesn’t have a T.V component, and Whiteside has never personally been involved in this aspect of the field, she notes an interesting correlation between live broadcasts and female reporters.

“When you turn on ESPN, there are so many women, so there’s this perception that there’s more [female] representation in the field. It has changed – numbers have gotten better, but mostly in T.V and not in print journalism.”


Not to sound at all anti-feminist (I am female too, after all), but I’m wondering if when it comes to watching, not reading, the news, aesthetically-influenced ratings tilt more favorably towards a pretty blonde than a fat balding man with pit stains.

In general, news tends to be broken evenly between the Internet and newspapers. However, in sports there is one uncontrollable factor affecting this trend: absolutely psychotic fans.

“A lot of big stories about a coach leaving or a coach going for interview are broken online in chat message boards. There are these crazy fans doing things like tracking flights…the issue with that is all the misinformation.”

It seems that errors in random, illegitimate websites are an unavoidable bi-product of the freedom that the Web implies; but when do you not question what you read?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“the difference between online and book publishing is like the difference between riding a horse and eating Chinese food.”

Every day when I wake up, the first thing I do is haul my laptop into bed and click along my Firefox bookmark toolbar for the morning staples: Facebook, Gmail, Perez Hilton, and Overheard in New York. The first three are checked out of necessity (yes, Perez is vital – what if Brangelina’s twins popped out while I was asleep? Which, by the way, they apparently did a few days ago.), and the fourth is quite simply the funniest website on the Internet.

As the site’s title suggests, eavesdroppers all over the city send in hilarious snippets of conversations they’ve overheard. The funniest quotes are published on the website under witty, quip-like headlines created by an editorial staff; it’s truly my favorite cyber destination. So when I learned that I was going to interview Morgan Friedman, the mastermind behind the site, my reaction was as unfortunately screechy as that of a star-struck teenybopper at a Jonas Brothers concert.

Like skinny jeans and ironic sunglasses, the idea for OINY was hatched from a hipster – or, more accurately, from Friedman eavesdropping on a hipster at a café in Williamsburg. “If you want to say something privately, you shouldn’t be in a Starbucks,” Friedman pronounces. “I think people kind of want to be overheard – I may be a voyeur, but so many people are exhibitionists.”

The quirky little website that Friedman launched alone in 2003 is now staffed by a handful of editors, read by “maaaany” people daily, has branched off into sister sites like Overheard in the Office, and has become a book.

Friedman loosely attributes his success to two things: luck, and the comedic philosophy behind The Simpsons. “I’m the luckiest person I’ve ever met – I found something that resonated,” he says. Like The Simpsons, OINY employs a winning mix of high culture and low culture that people seem to respond well to. Though some of the overheard content itself is hardly intellectual (think crazy hoboes, overweight tourists, and drunk sorority girls), many of the clever headlines rely on cultural or political allusions for highbrow wit.

Having put out two books and numerous websites, Friedman transcends the now-fluid boundary between online and print publishing. When I ask him to describe how the two differ, he looks at me like I have an extra nose on my forehead and replies, “that’s like asking me the difference between riding a horse and eating Chinese food.”

As illuminating as that statement is, I ask Friedman to clarify. One point of distinction is the amount of power Friedman has over the website as opposed to the book. “Online you control everything – I designed the site, and I know how many people read it and which quotes are most popular. I know how many people buy the book but I don’t know how much people read of it.”

As a viewer of OINY, I find this Big Brother-esque control sort of creepy. But from Friedman’s point of view, it’s more of a helpful marketing mechanism than a way to sketchily cyberspy on unsuspecting readers browsing the site.

However, there is no such thing as a publishing utopia; though people think that websites are a First Amendment free-for-all, Friedman admits that he was thrown off the Google ad network because OINY was “too raunchy and violated their terms and conditions.” But no worries – Friedman’s morals are in check, and he decided to “lose the money and keep it vulgar,” just like Mom and Dad always taught us.

I have explored the supposed demise of print publishing numerous times, and from countless angles, in this blog, but Friedman provides a fresh outlook on the now-turning-trite topic: “print publishing isn’t dead, it’s just becoming more niche.”

My last post dipped into this idea when I discussed Jewish Book World, a specialized magazine that is able to feature obscure books that, say, the New York Times book reviewers don’t have the time or space for.

Friedman uses a television analogy to explain this phenomenon: “There used to be one T.V channel with a million viewers; today, let’s say there are 100 channels with 10,000 viewers each. It’s the same number of people, but now there’s something for everyone.”

This niche strategy, otherwise known as “the long tail,” is becoming more prevalent as new websites pop up and diversify the information we may access. It’s not that people aren’t reading the news anymore – they are just finding different, perhaps more appealing or convenient, ways to receive it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

“publishing is half industry and half art”

After weaving through midtown’s Garment District, I find myself in the strongly air-conditioned vestibule of 520 8th Ave., the home of Jewish Book World. I have traversed fabric stores and sewing shops to meet Carol Kaufman, the editor of the aforementioned publication.

Jewish Book World began as a twelve-page pamphlet dedicated to reviewing Jewish works: Israeli authors, Holocaust memoirs, and other relevant texts. Starting as more recommended-summer-reading than thick-as-a-phonebook-magazine, the non-profit publication has since grown to now cover about 100 books an issue.

“We are always looking to find books of note to review,” says Kaufman. “We have the space and the mission to cover books that deserve to be reviewed but that no other magazines publish.” That’s the beauty of having such a niche-driven magazine: the more specialized it is, the more room there is to scour the back bookshelves of Barnes and Noble (typically used as mere wallpaper) to find those fleeting gems of contemporary literature.

Peggy Fox of New Directions Publishing once told me that the most important thing about publishing is lunch; Marci Alboher, similarly, alluded to the power of personal connections in the industry. Though Kaufman hesitates to exalt lunch to such an extreme, she does admit that her high-position job at Jewish Book World came to her through a friend.

“I had a friend who was a cousin of someone on the magazine’s board, so he knew they needed a new editor and recommended me,” Kaufman says.

Once editor, a position that Kaufman was literally thrown into in a “sink or swim” situation, she made more contacts, found more reviewers, and helped upgrade the status of the magazine. Since reviewers are not paid, the magazine relies on the “we’ll give you a copy of the book and your name will be in a magazine!” type of incentive, which luckily tends to work out well.

“My favorite part of editing is getting a review that blows me away – it’s so exciting to have smart and wonderful reviewers willing to take the time,” she says.

It seems as though Kaufman’s wholesome non-profit magazine is a bit of an anomaly in today’s money-driven publishing industry – the equivalent of a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk in a world of sushi and champagne.

“Publishing is half industry and half art,” Kaufman says with a resigned sigh. “Corporations are taking over and swallowing small companies, which leads to zillions of little houses springing up to publish everything else.” Even though corporate houses may toss the cigarette-scented manuscripts of unknown authors into the dustbin, there are now smaller houses willing to take a chance on that quirky (and hypothetical) love tale about the Cuban ballerina and the man who sews her tutu.

To be honest, I don’t necessarily see a problem with corporate domination in the publishing industry; huge businesses pretty much have a foothold in everything from the coffee we drink to the tissues we wipe our snot with, so why should publishing be exempt from the trend?

Corporate publishing actually seems to be inadvertently making room for those aforementioned independent, alternative publishing houses, which is certainly a positive outlet for both aspiring publishers and authors.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

“the goal of people living in the South is to leave; the goal of New Yorkers is to not leave.”

I’ve just returned home to Connecticut from Canyon Ranch, three pounds lighter (maybe it is just water weight, but still – pretty remarkable) and spiritually centered from daily sun salutations. Not wanting my newly acquired Zen to be shattered by honking city cabs and Park Avenue suits on cell phones, the other afternoon I decided to hold a phone interview with Greg Downs.

Downs grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, two states that are so purely southern as to conjure in me, a Yankee in every sense of the word, images of fried okra and tobacco-chewing hicks in overalls. But Downs is far from a hick: with an impressive set of degrees under his belt (specifically, and in chronological order, from Yale, University of Iowa, Northwestern, and University of Pennsylvania), an award-winning book of short stories entitled Spit Baths, a job as a history and creative writing professor at City College, and two books in the works, he may just be the best thing to come out of the South since the Allman Brothers.

Putting his Ph.D in history to good use, one of the books that Downs is working on is an examination of Americans’ relationship to our government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because most of his historical investigations remain squashed between post-Civil War Reconstruction and the New Deal, the research that he does is mainly on-site archival work.

“I work a lot with university, private, or state archives, as well as with personal letters and diaries,” he explains. Luckily, Downs did not have to camp out in university libraries while working on his book, because many places allow researchers to take digital snapshots of the texts. “Being able to take pictures changes the balance of time; now you can take images quickly and then make notes on your computer at home.”

Though the more personal smatterings of 19th century text, like letters and journals, tend to exist solely in the tangible world, various works have indeed become digitized. Now, a 19th century political pamphlet may be just as accessible to the average Web surfer as a 21st century blog, allowing us to “get much closer to primary sources without having to travel.”

Both Downs’ historical studies and his fiction work have been molded by his southern upbringing. When I ask him what exactly it was about the 19th century South that interests him enough to write a whole book about it, he says it has a lot to do with the fascinating mélange of racial tensions and discovered identities that marked the period.

He’s certainly correct in his belief that many of the “emotionally wrought” issues of this time are also very relevant. As a child, Downs was never presented with a romanticized, Confederate-flag-still-flying vision of his home; instead, he understood that “as a southerner, there’s always a question of guilt…[we deal with a] bleaker view of the story of the human condition.”

Downs grew up in a whose-nephew-are-you type of town, a place where there was rarely a new kid on the block. The emphasis on familial ties was so deep-rooted as to border on archaic, and a certain aspiring writer wanted just one thing: to get out.

“My grandmother’s life was structured by the town,” Downs explains, “and I used to be interested in the concept of maintaining personal ties in a changing world that is training you not to believe in them.” This dichotomous strain between the old and the new, the obsolete and the fresh, is exactly how Downs defines his early works of fiction: “my writing was about leaving hometowns and the relationship between present and past.”

Having moved to a city where the goal of the townsfolk is, contrastingly, to do whatever it takes not to have to leave (except for the occasional trip to the suburbs on a putrid summer day, perhaps), Downs faces a whole new set of questions ripe to be reckoned with. “I’ve learned that the quirks I thought were particular or rooted in personality get reproduced in weird ways all over the place,” he says, his voice crackling due to my BlackBerry’s precarious connection.

For example, perhaps his mother wasn’t really a neurotic nut-job for being simultaneously ecstatic when her son got into Yale and distraught at the thought that he would never return home; her reaction was merely circumstantial. Parent/child relationships in the city have a different dynamic, one that’s less concerned with gain and loss, because “parents don’t think that kids are going to become writers or engineers and leave New York.”

So, will Downs’ next novel relocate from a shack in Appalachian Kentucky to an overpriced brownstone on East 67th St.? Knowing his track record, he’ll have it written and ready for print in a year.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

“on a blog you can publish something that’s not fully baked – a kernel of an idea.”

I’ve been noticing an emerging trend in my blog-bound city escapades: I usually end up shopping somewhere to kill time before my interviews, hence actually losing money from my summer project.

But it’s a small price to pay (specifically, $20 for an H&M top) for the experience of getting to meet people as interesting as Marci Alboher.

I meet Alboher and her intern slash (more on the slash later) errand-running buddy Sara for coffee at Café Henri, a charming nook on Bedford St. with a menu au Français and an oddly decorative instructional sign for the Heimlich maneuver hanging on the wall.

Truly a blogger extraordinaire, in 2007 Alboher wrote One Person/Multiple Careers, coining the term “slash” in reference to anyone with more than one career (as in, “how does he manage to be a doctor slash fireman slash superhero and still have time for the kids?).

The book was a success, and soon the New York Times was knocking on her door. She now has a daily blog, Shifting Careers, on the publication’s website and writes two monthly columns, one published online and one in the paper.

Part of Alboher’s success can be attributed to the remarkable fluidity with which she approaches various textual mediums. “I’m very comfortable online and in print,” she says. “We don’t know the future of journalism, so it’s important to say yes to everything and be nimble.”

In the end, she thinks, it’s all about the ability to tell stories, regardless of the medium. It’s true – stories can be told over campfires or inscribed into stone tablets, printed as books or typed into an email. Journalists are storytellers, and they must adjust to the popular storytelling method of the day.

Having been a lawyer for nine years before making her own career switch to journalism, Alboher is personally familiar with being a slash. Her theory on slashing favors the idea that everyone can be a Renaissance person: “I like to think of it as layering multiple careers as opposed to abandoning one for another,” she says while sipping mango tea.

Just as the art world is geographically ahead of the curve (when SoHo became too homogenized the artists moved to Williamsburg, which then became the new SoHo and pushed them all the way to New Jersey, which I guess will inexplicably become hip now), artists have employed “a certain amount of slashing by necessity” for years. Simply because of the not-so-lucrative nature of the craft, artists tend to wear multiple hats and lead project-based work (as in, “Now that I finished that book, what’s next?”).

“The rest of the word follows writers and artists,” Alboher believes. “Because of our tough economy, companies are downsizing and turning employees into consultants. So they are starting to use the concept of project-based work, where each client becomes like a project.”

One of the most important ways the Internet can help the average one-job Joe become a slash is through networking. Apparently, signing up for speedy Internet connection can also get you speedy Internet connections. “Its easy to meet people online who can become critical in your career,” says Alboher, probably thinking of her own stroke of cyberluck when editors from the Times read not only her book but also various online articles.

The process of professional networking has accelerated with the Internet; it is, indeed, a small cyberworld. Alboher says that she finds herself interviewing people who she’s met simply by reading their blogs, and vice versa. Depending on the day she’s either the interviewer or the expert, the blogger or the public speaker, the author or the dog walker.

Monday, June 30, 2008

vacation #2...


Dear Readers,

Just a heads up to let everyone know that until July 4th I will by hiking, spinning, stretching, and yoga-ing up at Canyon Ranch with my mom – a bit of maternal bonding over sore thighs and foot cramps. So wish me luck on my detox/spa/fat camp getaway; I’ll be back next week!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

“I felt like an alien at Penn.”

“Don’t write that I took you to a Starbucks!” Melissa Duclos says with a laugh at the end of our interview at, uh, an anonymous coffee shop on the corner of 2nd Ave. and 9th St.. The place was actually lovely – there was even a waiter walking around with bits of sugar cookies, something that I have never seen at other S*****ucks in the city but that Duclos says is common in China, where she once taught English for six months (and learned that the Chinese are fond of cookie samples).

Duclos’ résumé also includes waitressing in Philadelphia and Atlanta, a job that prompted customers to ask, “What are you doing here??” after they found out she had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

“I felt like an alien at Penn,” Duclos admits, referring to her disregard of the “investment-banking-or-die” track popular with many a Whartonite. After graduating as a creative writing major, Duclos dabbled in the aforementioned waitressing, went to China, and moved back east to Brooklyn to tutor. She now attends graduate school at Columbia, tutors privately at a center on the Upper East Side, and teaches a writing class at Columbia for freshmen undergrads.

All the while, Duclos has been working on her first novel – well, technically it’s a second draft of her first book, which she describes as being an “awful young adult novel.” She has perspective though, and realizes that the nature of the writing industry requires tough skin.

“For a while, I had rejection letters from agents taped up to my wall. I understand that you have to be rejected before getting published…it’s just something you have to go through,” she says.

While in Atlanta and China, Duclos hardly worked on her novel at all. However, living in Brooklyn and being surrounded by artists and writers has really helped keep Duclos focused on her writing. “Knowing so many other writers really keeps me on track – they are people to talk to, and it makes it easier to be self-disciplined. Sometimes non-writers don’t realize that writing a novel is a job, even though I don’t get paid for it.”

Being an unpaid writer myself, I know exactly what she means. If I had a nickel for every time one of my Wharton friends poked fun at me with a snide, “So what exactly are you doing all summer – blogging?”, I’d surely have as much money as they are making at their internships.

Duclos feels that writing doesn’t get as much artistic street cred as, say, oil painting, because it is so much more accessible to the common person. “When people hear I’m writing a novel, they are like, ‘Oh, I’ve been meaning to do that!’” she says.

We both agree that relying on Word’s built-in thesaurus application is hardly an acceptable way to write a novel – Duclos actually thinks it’s awful because people are so inclined to replace simple words with longer ones that make no sense in their contexts (this reminds me of the “Friends” episode when Joey uses the Word thesaurus and it replaces his name with “baby kangaroo.”).

However, as a writing teacher, Duclos uses the accessibility of the craft as an encouragement mechanism for her students – as in, everyone can write, it’s just a matter of learning and honing the right skills.

Teaching has also educated Duclos on the email etiquette, or lack thereof, that students use when addressing one another and their professors. Duclos realizes that, as a grad student, she’s younger than your average balding professor and has her students call her “Melissa.” However, that’s no excuse for the absurdly casual way they address her via email. “They’ll send me an email at 3 a.m. that’s like, ‘hey what was the homework’ – that’s what their classmates are for!”

Colloquial discourse has become much more textual with new technological mediums: texting, IMing, Facebook messaging, and emailing are the new protocol. Duclos believes that students are so used to being informal in their email conversations that they think it’s acceptable to basically say “yo whattup” to their superiors.

It’s not as if my generation is totally void of written manners; most of us have been taught how to compose a charming thank you note or a professional cover letter. We just have to learn how to meld the familiar world of emailing with the formal world of handwriting.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

“I had to figure out a way to present myself as a single identity for people who don’t spend all day in my imagination.”

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say, if you’re a Facebook junkie, a picture is worth a thousand friend requests. Or if you’re a writer trying to summarize your identity into a pretty little package called a website, a picture is worth a thousand dollars – or a book deal.

While lunching at L’Express on 20th and Park, Michael Hyde and I discussed the ways in which the Internet has changed one’s understanding of self-presentation. A pretty profound conversation to be having over goat cheese salads and fries (I think the waiter kept re-filling our water glasses to eavesdrop), but very relevant to Hyde – and anyone with a published book, a website, or a Facebook account.

In December 2005, Hyde published a book of short stories called What Are You Afraid Of?, a compilation of older and newer tales that all share the “darker themes” typical of his writing. The book was extremely well-received, winning the 2005 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.

“My stories are American gothic – not English gothic with castles, but stories with broken houses and dysfunctional families, as well as some supernatural stuff,” Hyde explains.

After the book came out, Hyde decided to set up a website with the help of his friend Margaret Penney. “I wanted it to represent the themes of the book visually and textually…it sort of shows what I’m all about,” he says. He also wanted the site to be long-lasting – perhaps speak to future books and projects he would be working on.

While creating the website, Hyde realized he would have to think about self-presentation: how did he want to package himself on his website? In a way, we are all self-made and self-serving brands, and websites or profiles are like personal advertisements. Should we appear intelligent and introspective? Cute and quirky? Sarcastic and cynical? How do we condense our multi-faceted selves onto screen-sized pages?

“I had to figure out a way to present myself as a single identity for people who don’t spend all day in my imagination,” Hyde explains. Well, that would pretty much be everyone.

Along with trying to snag a spot on the Internet between innuendo-ed eHarmony profiles, weirdly artistic Myspace pages, and formal resumes on Linkedin, Hyde had to consider how his book would fit in with the rest of contemporary literature.

“You have to think about how your work will be perceived…everyone fits in a certain way, but you have to have a realistic sense of what is marketable to the public,” he says.

Just as we critique our friends for their choice of Facebook profile pictures (as in, “Cindy’s hair looks so stupidly trendy, someone should tell her she’s not making a statement” or “Linda would flash a peace-sign in that photo – who does she think she is, Ashley Olsen?”), even books are not exempt from the shallow scrutiny of the public eye. We do, of course, judge them by their covers, which is especially interesting in the case of Hyde’s collection.

He says that he didn’t initially write the stories with horror in mind – they are more like paranormal psychological investigations. However, with dark silhouettes of tree limbs and purple text that looks like it’s dripping down the page (à la the Word font “Thriller”), What Are You Afraid Of?’s cover begs to differ.

“The press marketed it as a horror book…although I did have a problem with the font choice, it was sort of out of my hands at that point. I just don’t want to confuse or mislead readers into thinking the book is like ‘Carrie’ or ‘The Shining’ when it really isn’t.”

If perhaps Hyde’s book sends mixed messages of what it’s all about, I think that his website strikes the perfect balance of creativity, eeriness, and organization that evoke just what he is: a very talented, clearly professional writer who happens to write about a young girl obsessed with her dead classmate’s murder (buy the book to find out more!) and diseased tomatoes that make people sick (strikingly relevant in the wake of our salmonella scare).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

“all the superhero stuff is from my real life; the roommate stuff I had to imagine.”

“My roommate is the most evil man that ever lived.” That thought (probably amidst a fight over toilet paper or spoiled milk) is what sparked the idea for Drew Melbourne’s comic book, Archenemies. The graphic novel is about two roommates, Ethan Baxter and Vincent Darko, living in New York City. As if they don’t have enough problems already what with the skyrocketing rent and shrinking square footage of New York apartments, they have yet to learn that Ethan’s alter ego is a superhero and Vincent’s is a supervillain.

“All the superhero stuff is from my real life; the roommate stuff I had to imagine,” Melbourne says with smug grin that almost makes me believe him. We are sitting at a quaint diner on Hudson Street, complete with red-and-white checkered table clothes and sticky banquettes. This is the first time I’ve talked to a comic book aficionado, and I’m fascinated to learn about how they are made.

Because the multi-step process requires a variety of skill sets (a writer, a penciler, an inker, a colorer, a letterer, an editor), there is a big emphasis on collaboration. The Internet has become a crucial way through which comic bookies can connect and communicate with one another. Using the Internet both increases production efficiency and expands one’s professional contacts. You could even work with someone living in Australia, as Melbourne did, and complete a book without ever meeting face-to-face.

Of course, this can be a negative aspect of an online community: “Superman was created by two teenagers, an artist and a writer, who were friends from down the block…now, there’s sort of a pitfall when you can’t work with someone right in front of you,” Melbourne says.

Besides using the Internet to turn his comic book dream into a colorfully kitschy reality (supervillains and all), Melbourne started an Archenemies website to supplement to the actual book.

“The website is a way to expand the experience of reading the comic,” Melbourne says. He thinks that novels are enough entertainment in and of themselves, what with their length, density, and complicated content (not that the riffs between Ethan and Vincent are not complicated in their own ways – talk about hating your roommate with a vengeance.). However, comics can only offer their readers so much, which is where the website comes in.

“I used the site to publish ‘special features,’ like extra content and stories, as well as to build buzz before the book came out,” Melbourne says mid-chew.

Internet comic book societies form virtual niches akin to those created in video games like EverQuest (only without the avatars and animated ogres). Because these two pastimes have a largely overlapping fan base, it’s understandable that an EverQuest player, who loves the feeling of community he gets when battling an oversized rat with a new avatar friend, would want to recreate a similar sentiment for his new favorite comic book.

However, just as Vincent’s alter ego seeks to destroy mankind, the Internet has its own evil side: piracy. “Comic books feel the same bite as the music industry,” Melbourne says in reference to the dark trend that always makes me think of Jack Sparrow pillaging wooden barrels of iTunes files. Internet communities only increase accessibility to these pirated items, such as downloadable PDFs of a comic that have been scanned into someone’s computer.

“Who does this?” Melbourne wonders aloud, and I agree – why would someone go through the trouble of scanning pages and putting them online without the incentive of monetary rewards or even a cookie?

“It’s hard to quantify people’s individual ethics,” Melbourne decides. “People steal without even thinking about it.”

Even in this situation, there is a silver lining. One man’s questionable morals (and questionable motives – seriously, what pleasure does one receive from pirating comics? I don’t get it) can actually be another man’s free marketing.

“I actually felt a certain level of pride when my book was pirated online,” Melbourne admits without an ounce of his usual sarcasm.

I guess knowing a guy likes your book enough to want to illegally publish it online is almost as fulfilling as if he had actually plagiarized it!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

“access to more information allows the individual readers to think for themselves.”

After an hour of wandering around the edge of Alphabet City looking for chic boutiques, only to find myself in an Urban Outfitters identical to the one on Penn’s campus, I met Tahneer Oksman at the charming Gramstand on Avenue A. I ordered a deliciously spicy iced chai and sat with Oksman in a cozy albeit dimly-lit corner (some guy actually accidentally shut off our lamp at one point) of the coffee shop.

Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Oksman received her master’s degree in humanities from the University of Chicago, reading “a lot of really long novels” in the process, and tutored for a year before moving back east to Brooklyn. She now attends CUNY Graduate School and teaches English at Brooklyn Community College, a job that she says has actually helped shape her own writing.

“I didn’t really understand grammar until I had to correct it,” she admits with a laugh, “and now syntax is more important to me in my writing than it was before.”

Teaching has also forced Oksman to deal with the “what-do-you-mean-I-can’t-use-Wikipedia” type of research that college students are so fond of. However, she is undaunted by the questionable validity of online information. “There are always things you can do to check accuracy,” she says confidently. “I tell my students, ‘dot-org is okay, dot-edu is okay, dot-gov is okay, no dot-coms.’”

I think that’s a pretty good place to start – “dot-gov” certainly has a nice political ring to it. Oksman actually thinks that learning to question what you read online, or anywhere, is a fundamental part of being an educated and intelligent person. As she puts it, “the Internet levels off all info, and everyone starts from scratch.”

Whether we’re perusing The Times or a celebrity tabloid, we should always read with active, doubtful minds.

Having an active mind works in tandem with having the ability to choose what you read. Some feel that the tremendous amount of information online can be overwhelming and physically restricting. A perfect example: Last night I spent about 45 minutes browsing through old JuicyCampus posts, only to then question my sanity and wonder why I hadn’t gone to sleep yet. Reams of pixilated gossip can be quite hypnotically enticing.

However, there’s a lot of printed text available today as well; I’m not running out and buying More (I hold nothing against the magazine, but it’s mainly for the post-menopausal crew of which I am not yet a part) just because it’s there. We always have a choice, and I can’t really blame the entirety of the Internet for the fact that I imprisoned myself on JuicyCampus last night.

Likewise, Oksman thinks, “access to more information allows the individual readers to think for themselves.” There’s a certain feeling of power, which sometimes needs to be counteracted by willpower, I suppose, knowing that there’s a whole world of interesting stuff out there – and YOU can decide what to read and what to ignore.

Oksman takes a similarly optimistic viewpoint on blogs: “If anything, they give people a chance to speak,” she says.

Part of Oksman’s work for her graduate school dissertation focuses on photography and memory. She loves the dichotomy between the two: “do photos stifle memory? Can they help you mourn? Are photos just about information, or emotions too? What’s captured in a frame versus what isn’t?”

One of her favorite photo-related books is Jeff Batchen’s Forget Me Not, a text that deals with “vernacular photography” and examines the hierarchy of high art vs. low art. Batchen argues that snapshots are held to a lower standard than “artistic” pictures, when really all photos are beautiful and have unique messages to convey to their audiences.

Breaking down hierarchies tends to be a positive, progressive thing. Today’s society has a definite stratification that involves relegating blogs and personal websites to the bottom of the publishing barrel and glorifying more legitimate magazines and newspapers.

This is like saying that a Polaroid snapshot of your best friend mid-laugh has no artistic value compared to a Richard Prince photograph of a topless woman on a motorcycle (did anyone see that exhibit at the Guggenheim last year?). Is this the right way to think about art?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

“print has been under terrible pressure since 2000.”

To an outsider, Mary Kuntz’s recent career switch might seem quite intrepid: she went from BusinessWeek, where she was employed for thirteen years as an editor with “significant responsibility,” to McKinsey & Company where she now deals with client consulting and management of the McKinsey Quarterly. Two equally impressive yet very different jobs.

But to Kuntz, the move was necessary. “Print has been under terrible pressure since 2000,” she tells me at yet another Starbucks (they should give me free coffee or something.). “I had to handle a lot of painful lay-offs at BusinessWeek, and it was becoming harder and harder to achieve our goals when so many people no longer worked there.”

To be honest, this disclosure depressed me immensely. While I’m not always a glass-is-half-full kind of gal, I have tried to remain optimistic in the face of what Leslie Bennetts referred to as the “imploding profession” of journalism. But if someone as successful as Kuntz felt the need to, in a sense, hop a lifeboat off of this hopeless Titanic, what does that say for the rest of us?

However, for the sake of our collective sanity, I will try to fill that metaphorical glass back up. Because let’s face it – we can’t ignore the Internet. We can’t ignore how much it has affected print, and we can’t ignore how amazing it truly is. So we can all give up and lament, between shots of whiskey, about the tragic downfall of journalism (seemingly akin to the fall of the Roman Empire), or we can roll with the changes like normal, well-adjusted human beings.

And roll is exactly what BusinessWeek has done in the past few years. One of Kuntz’s proudest professional accomplishments, she says, is having helped during the magazine’s major redesign project. “If you take a BusinessWeek from a few years ago and one from today,” she claims, “the two will look completely different.”

Some changes were aesthetic, such as using smaller photos and “quieter” graphics to make pages look more “serious, thoughtful, and elegant.” The stories, photos, and graphics were all changed to be more conceptual than literal.

Other changes allude to the fact that the Internet has changed the way we acquire information. BusinessWeek added a summary section meant to recap longer, heftier stories and essays. Additionally, the letters to the editors have been relocated to a spread in the back of the magazine called “Feedback.” In this newly developed section, if a particular story receives a lot of reader attention, all the comments will be laid-out and the author will have a chance to respond.

Sound familiar? The aggregation of the publication, this act of condensing long pieces into pretty little blurb-like packages, is an obvious reflection of the Internet, which is so fond of recapping and summarizing for the convenience of its overly informed readers. The magazine’s “Feedback” section is very blog-like itself, facilitating a textual dialogue between authors and readers. With people being newly accustomed to speaking their minds on the Internet, wouldn’t the inability to respond to printed articles seem repressive and confining?

Monday, June 16, 2008

“spending all day long reading blogs can be so paralyzing.”

As Lindsey Palmer enters the Starbucks at which I’m stationed for most of the aforementioned sweltering day, she asks me if I'd like a drink. I decline, being sufficiently caffeinated from my previous meeting with Suzanne Maynard Miller, so we bask in the air-conditioning sans coffee.

Palmer is employed as an assistant editor at Redbook, a job that she thoroughly describes as being “50% writing, 25% research, stats, and idea generation, 15% administrative, and 10% managing interns and teaching.”

With such a full plate, it took Palmer a while to figure out how to incorporate writing fiction, the seductive not-quite career that she loves, into her bustling New York City life. “I love fiction because it’s not relevant in the way that magazine writing is… not to sound ‘new age-y’ or anything, but it’s a very grounding way to be with yourself.”

Today, an enormous amount of relevant information (assuming that everything from Lindsay Lohan’s questionable sexuality to the presidential election can be deemed “relevant”) reaches the general public. We are all swimming, or drowning, in an info-saturated ocean. It can be a relief to read and write about things simply because they interest you, not because you are trying to win the “Who Can Be The Most Informed” race. Palmer actually thinks it’s unfortunate that we have access to so much information, observing that some of her coworkers “spend all day long reading blogs – [doing this] can be so paralyzing.”

In the few years that Palmer has worked at Redbook, she has witnessed many changes in the publication, all of which are like blinking neon arrows pointing towards the Internet. Redbook’s first web editor was hired in January of 2006, and since then the publication has hired two more, making the site a “huge part” of the magazine.

However, while many journalists and editors equate the rise of the Internet to the demise of printed publications, Palmer doesn’t think that the Web could ever replace magazines entirely – “they are two different activities,” she says. “Shorter amounts of time are spent online, so online material is more like ‘snippets’ as opposed to long essays [in magazines].”

Palmer cleverly labels the key difference between the two as the difference between “bathtub” reading and “desk” reading. Chronic bath-takers such as myself (much to the amusement of my friends, who either call me a grandma or a five-year-old) enjoy reading longer magazine articles while soaking in the tub. Of course, that whole no-electronics-in-water thing affects this trend as well.

On the other hand, short blurbs are much more conducive to sitting at a desk at work, when you can only afford to steal glances at your favorite blogs

Internet reading and magazine reading are like cricket and baseball – they’re in the same family and look sort of similar from the outside, but they are completely different activities in actuality.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

“sometimes I force my kids to be bored.”

As I trudged down 5th Avenue in a dress and sandals, my purse seemed to be approximately seventy pounds and each breeze that blew through the steaming, roiling, 100˚ city felt like a blast from a blow-drier. When I finally saw the promising green corner of an “S” peering from behind a building, I literally thought the Starbucks was a mirage; luckily, it was real, and it was the place where I was to meet playwright-cum-mother Suzanne Maynard Miller.

Miller kindly made the pilgrimage towards this coffee Mecca on the subway, all the way from Brooklyn and with a sick child in tow. A playwright who claims to have once “had an affair with essay writing” but eventually returned to her “original love,” Miller writes realistic comedic dramas that focus on what she believes to be the most vital ingredient in theater: honest human-to-human connections.

Which is ironic, I muse, considering the fact that I am asking her about the state of questionable human-to-machine connections. Ironic still is the fact that in grad school, Miller actually did write about humans and their relationships to machines in the half-completed play called “The Utility Place.” The piece was a series of three vignettes that each revolve around a different household utility (such as the telephone, gas, and television). One of the characters was a female telephone operator who mystically hooked-up telephone-users from 1976 to 1776, a link that transcends both the human-to-human and the human-to-machine connections we know and love.

“Technology is great and important,” she allows, “but in the end I worry about the wires and chatter that constantly surround us – there is no longer any sacred time for thinking. The cell phone is a double-edged sword.”

Miller values the concept of both a physical and metaphorical “empty desk” when writing, a sort of Lockonian tabula rasa that works in tandem with the calisthenics necessary to hone creativity’s erratic wings. When she taught writing at her alma mater, Brown University, and at the Rhode Island School of Design, Miller encouraged students to leave their physically confining computer screens and get off their lazy butts (my words, not hers) when researching for papers.

“There’s something exciting about searching the stacks for books – though there is so much available online, leaving your chair and getting the blood pumping is important. I always connect physical motion with creativity,” she says.

Miller seems to have adopted a similar parenting philosophy. “Sometimes I force my kids to be bored, just to give them the space to make up their own games,” she says. I wholeheartedly agree with this notion, recalling that my own childhood consisted of make-believe camping, hairdressing, homemaking, and teaching – none of which would have materialized had my boredom been constantly subdued with T.V shows and mind-numbing electronic games.

The concept of being bored has become almost obsolete, a quaint notion that reminds us of 19th century ladies sitting primly in their parlors doing absolutely nothing. Such a situation would never occur today – if you have nothing to do, turn on the T.V! Search the Web! Stalk your friends on Facebook! Technology and boredom are like oil and water or country clubs and hippies – they just don’t mix.

On occasion, Miller has used the Internet professionally. She was recently working on a project for which she needed to learn modern teenage slang – or, in other words, “how the heck kids talk these days.” Rather than interviewing a bunch of teenagers (who, quite frankly, probably would have answered in monosyllabic grunts), someone directed her to SlangSite.com.

As the name suggests, the website offers thousands of slang words and their definitions, one of my favorites being, “megan: to laugh until liquid comes out of one's nose.” On my planet, Megan was still just a girl’s name…and I am one of the aforementioned teens who supposedly speak this way.

So now it’s back to the central theme in theater and, I suppose, in life: human connection. Did SlangSite allow Miller to be temporally efficient (and to discover a hilarious new website), or did her lack of face-to-face interaction devalue her “research” experience?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

“I felt like I was a blind squirrel finding an acorn.”

Ivan Maisel’s interest in writing began slowly, meandering its way from a vague idea to a full-fledged career once he experienced the “little thrill you get when the rhythm in your head matches what you type on your screen.”

When he was younger, Maisel aspired to be the next big radio announcer for the Atlanta Braves; with his extraordinarily deep Alabaman twang, he wasn’t entirely off base. However, after attending Stanford University – and proudly being the last guy in his class to declare his major – Maisel fused his love of sports with his knack for the written word and began covering college football for the Atlanta Constitution.

His claim towards his initial academic lack of direction (“my major ended up being American Studies,” he chuckles, “the most generic major there is.”) is undermined by the fact that he found his professional calling during those first few months at the Atlanta Constitution – he has covered college football ever since, reporting on the sport for the Dallas Morning News, Newsday, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN.

Maisel was the first college football writer hired by ESPN.com in November 2002, a move that was extremely strategic from a professional standpoint – it seems as though he foresaw the imminent turn journalism would take on its bumpy ride towards Internet domination.

At the time, he “felt like [he] was a blind squirrel finding an acorn,” the proverbial acorn being the question, “Where is journalism headed?” or “What is the state of my profession today,” or “Will I be ruining my career or heightening it if I begin working for a website?” – something like that.

Ultimately, Maisel had a sense that the Internet was “where things were going,” an inkling that was only confirmed when he did some research. “I called three or four sports information directors (the people in charge of media) in different regions of the country and asked them the same questions: did they take web journalism seriously? What do athletes and university students read? All the answers pointed towards the Internet.”

Working for a website, Maisel says, has actually been relatively similar to working for a newspaper – especially compared to working for a magazine, the glittery diva of this journalistic triumvirate. “Magazines belong to editors – newspapers and websites belong more to the writers,” is how Maisel sums up the difference. Because newspapers and websites are published much more frequently than magazines, which have weeks to edit and groom and tweak articles, Maisel feels that reporters “own” their newspaper and website articles in a more substantial way.

I ask him if his affinity towards ESPN.com over ESPN the Magazine could be explained through the professional/social/sartorial/culinary mantra that I follow loyally: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” He laughs and explains that his philosophy is similar, but slightly tweaked: “I don’t play well with others. Let me do what I think I know how to do well and I’ll be nice.”

Perhaps it’s this confident attitude that landed him a spot as the only journalist on a recent six-day trip to the Gulf with five college football coaches from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Georgia, Yale University, the University of Miami, and Auburn University. Maisel recorded the trip, which consisted of visits to three air force bases and the navy ship U.S.S Nassau, by writing blog-esque diary entries to be posted on ESPN.com each day.

“It was incredible to see the tasks those men and women undertake, and the pride and efficiency they showed. They had such joy in their eyes knowing that these coaches came 8,000 miles to see them,” says Maisel of the trip, during which the coaches held sessions to sign autographs for the troops and participate in panel discussions moderated by Maisel.

If his Internet journal entries in and of themselves are not enough to demonstrate the remarkable progressiveness (due to remarkable wireless connection) of online journalism, perhaps the fact that Maisel was able to type an entire 700 word article into his BlackBerry (due to not-so-remarkable wireless connection) truly conveys how much publishing has changed.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

“my dinky piece on Jimmy Buffet was replaced with a news feed about Myanmar.”

I held my interview with Nate Chinen in the middle of a traffic jam on the corner of 14th and 9th. We sat at a small cluster of café tables that conjured an adequate facsimile of a park, though Chinen hesitated to describe it as such. The corner turned out to be an appropriate place to meet: book-ended by a three-story Apple store and Google’s New York City headquarters, what was once a playground for “transvestites and hookers” has been transformed by the arrival of technology.

Chinen, a jazz critic for The New York Times, was once a creative writing major slash drummer slash jazz aficionado at the University of Pennsylvania who blindly moved to the city upon graduating. In other words, he did “the typical thing people do with an English major.”

His aimlessness was soon quelled when he was discovered by famous jazz festival producer George Wein. Wein was looking for someone with whom to co-write his memoir, Myself Among Others, and Chinen made the cut. After completing the book, a process that Chinen describes as a “monastic immersion” in the legend’s life, he worked for AOL City Guide and wrote for The Village Voice for about three years. His work was soon noticed by The New York Times, where he has now been writing music reviews for two and a half years.

Chinen believes that The New York Times has taken full advantage of the perks provided by the Internet. Using the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality, the paper did not fight the omnipotent forces of Google and Blogspot but instead created its own website.

Not only does the website demonstrate a “clear investment in web extras and features in the music department” such as interview and music clips, but they have also developed multiple blogs, which Chinen thinks provides an excellent way to “augment coverage” on a variety of beats. Just last month Chinen attended the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and though he wasn’t the critic assigned to review the event, he was able to send mini blurbs to The Times’ ArtsBeat blog at 3 a.m in the middle of a concert.

“People are really into blogs because they are so instantaneous,” Chinen says. He discusses one particularly interesting instance in which he wrote a “dinky” blurb about Jimmy Buffet that ended up on the website’s front page, only to be later replaced by a much heavier piece about the Myanmar cyclones.

Chinen could hardly believe that his relatively inconsequential Buffet bit could hold the same place in cyberspace as one of the world’s most devastating natural disasters. But such is the fluidity of the blogosphere, allowing a breadth of varied content to be conveyed to the public twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I ask Chinen what he thinks of our culture’s comfortable acceptance of technology’s overwhelming impact on music – the first thing that comes to mind is the clearly synthesized, electronically robotic voice of Britney Spears blasting through the speakers of innocent listeners. However, Chinen prefers to discuss the aesthetic implications that technology, and the way in which it expands musical accessibility, has brought about.

“Music used to be shaped by localities: Memphis blues and Louisiana blues sounded different,” Chinen explains. “Though there is still an element of that in today’s music, intrepid listeners can be influenced by a lot.”

This smorgasbord of musical influences has the potential to blur previously stalwart boundaries separating pop from R&B and classical music from African tribal chants, a development that Chinen “has to think is a good thing, although there are always ways to take technological freedom too far.”

The arrival of the iThings in our technological canon (i.e. iPod, iTunes, iPhone) has allowed people to customize their musical palettes in a way that, prior to the iThings, had never been possible. As recently as five years ago, the radio and MTV still controlled the tunes that reached the easily manipulated ears of the public; today, however, I can avoid the aforementioned Spears by simply creating personalized playlists on my iTunes.

The result? “Taste has become slippery,” says Chinen. “We are no longer in the era of ‘inescapable pop music’ when everyone listened to the same songs – musical taste is less uniform, more fragmented.” It’s true – I don’t even know what’s being played on the radio these days because I plug my iPod into my radio when I drive and listen to my iTunes when I’m in the house.

Again, it’s hard to say whether or not this new “slipperiness” is a stride forward or backwards on the treadmill of pop culture. All I know is that finding a so-wrong-it’s-right YouTube mash-up combining Kanye West’s “Goldigger” with Beethoven’s 5th could not have happened in the Carson Daly-run regime of yesteryear.

Friday, June 6, 2008

"the internet is full of nut jobs."

“The [controversy over the] title was the first red flag,” admits Leslie Bennetts of her best-selling-yet-contentious book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? “It was just a play on words off The Feminine Mystique, but women thought I was claiming that their whole lives were mistakes.”

The many debates over Bennetts’ book, which discusses the economic, emotional, and psychological repercussions that potentially occur when married women leave the workforce, mirror the extent to which the issue has been argued historically – it almost seems like an unsolvable puzzle. Bennetts, however, approached the topic in a methodical, fact-based manner that opposed the emotional standpoint from which it had previously been viewed.

Though one may think that The Feminine Mistake was one of the biggest accomplishments of Bennetts’ renowned career (which boasts five years at The Philadelphia Bulletin, ten at The New York Times, and twenty at Vanity Fair), she claims that merely “surviving as a journalist” has been her proudest endeavor, especially in the face of what she refers to as the “imploding” nature of journalism as a career.

Journalism has faced profound changes within the past thirty years, some so overwhelming that they have rendered the field “scarcely recognizable” to Bennetts. First and foremost, she believes that my generation is so caught up in the glamour of magazine jobs that we sometimes forego the necessary training one acquires by working at a legitimate newspaper.

“Kids don’t realize that you have to learn the basics of the job first…many people start their careers at magazines and screw up because they don’t have a strong skill base,” she says.

Many of the changes in journalism have, inevitably, come about due to the Internet, an “information delivery system” that Bennetts believes has little to no authority. Whereas esteemed papers such as The New York Times employ professional hierarchies to ensure that only the most qualified journalists convey information to the public, “the Internet is full of a lot of nut jobs” writing without validity or even skill.

Bennetts thinks that when you combine frivolous writing with the fact that “people would rather scour the Internet for news about Paris Hilton than actually pay attention to what’s going on in the world,” legitimate concerns arise about the “quality of the information that’s reaching people these days.”

This issue is only underscored by the fact that the Internet provides numerous venues used to comment on the news rather than actually convey it. Whereas The New York Times notoriously finds writers with strong literary voices and “bludgeons that voice right out of them,” the world of blogging has opened up a whole other can of worms in which “attitude, snarkiness, and snobbery [are what sells].”

Having been both a reporter and an editor myself (albeit for a high school paper – but at my age that’s how the resume tends to read), my question is whether a fresh voice is necessarily a bad thing. It can certainly go awry on many occasions – it’s hardly appropriate to use frivolous or sarcastic diction when reporting on Rwandan genocides – but I think there is some wiggle room when writing in a venue as casual as blogging.

No one would argue that blogs could possibly trump The New York Times in terms of validity, professionalism, or thoroughness. However, as long as blogs don’t replace their more the more legitimate counterparts, I think the two can coexist peacefully in their respective cyber-schools of thought. Maybe they shouldn’t even be compared because they are so fundamentally different. Readers must simply remember to take blogs’ content with a grain of salt – or perhaps an entire saltshaker.