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.

1 comment:

dgold911 said...

It seems to me that freelancing is very compatible with the "slash" type jobs that marci alboher sees as the wave of the future. and for whatever its worth, I agree.