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.