Posted tagged ‘journalism’

New Year’s Resolution for 2011

December 28, 2010

Blogging can be as difficult as going to the gym. You know it’s important yet you cannot bring yourself to doing it on a consistent basis.

I’m a journalist. I got my degree in journalism. Shouldn’t writing be not just a hobby, but a way of life? I have often pondered these concepts.

It seems like forever since I’ve last blogged because it indeed has been forever. Since 2010 is soon coming to a close, perhaps I should make it my New Year’s resolution to blog more often; such as three to four times per week.

Some bloggers publish new content every day. That’s almost like a job. If someone paid me to blog, you can darn well guarantee I’d update it every day. But alas, that is not the case. But I should not let that stop me. I’ll find something to write about, even if I don’t get a paycheck to do so.

Finding content should not be difficult. After all, my current internship requires me to manage a blog. If I am supposed to get a group of high school kids to give me good, compelling content on a regular basis, I should hold myself to a similar standard and do the same. That’s only fair, right?

Right. Absolutely. Without a doubt. I will hold myself to a similarly high standard. I’m a grownup, so I should start acting like one. No more excuses.

Look at me, I sound like a football coach.

A journalistic football coach. Whatever that means.

But that is neither here nor there. Starting on January 1, 2011, I promise that I will provide my readers (whom I need to start reestablishing a relationship with as soon as possible) with funny, thoughtful, and useful content on a continuing basis. That is what a journalist should do: give their readers something to read. A writer who does not write is like a professional athlete who does nothing but sit on the bench all day. Why are they even on the team?

Of course, even professional benchwarmers get paid. Some get paid million just sitting down and watching a game. Most fans have to pay money to receive that privilege.

The point to all this is that in 2011 I will try to be an active participant instead of a passive observer.

Wish me luck. And make sure you keep me accountable! Do whatever is necessary. Throw tomatoes at me. Send me vicious e-mails. Pester me on Facebook. Do whatever you think will keep me on track with this goal.

Oh by the way, have a happy New Year.

Go Seahawks.

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The Status of Modern-Day Newspapers

March 15, 2010

It has just occurred to me that I have not blogged anything in what seems like years. I guess that’s the danger of creating a blog that tries to be deep, longer-form, and not a messy set of stream-of-consciousness ramblings. My life has been immensely busy these days, but that is no excuse for not writing.

I have accepted the fact that my readership has dwindled down to nothing. That’s okay. I never really intended this blog to become anything else except for a vehicle for me to showcase my writing. I even got an internship opportunity (which I later resigned from after only a few weeks aboard) because the boss read my blog and was intrigued by what I can do. So that is proof that blogs can be a valuable tool for getting jobs. Unless, of course, your blog is just a glorified daily diary.

What upsets me about the status of today’s journalist is how much we are reducing our profession to just that. Writing whatever comes off the top of our heads and disregarding any respect for fairness, objectivity, and verifiable truth. Consider newspapers who publish the works of “community members” so that readers can read what their next door neighbors have to say. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but consider the subject matter many of these columnists choose to write about:

Shopping choices, opinions about pop culture, their own personal struggles, and their own observations about life and the world around them. There is nothing, like I have said before, wrong about these topics, but is this really the best use of precious publishing space?

These are topics any of us can write about. We don’t have to do any extensive research or thinking to come up with these articles. The News Tribune, the largest newspaper in Tacoma, has a guest columnist who hasn’t even graduated from high school yet. What about people like me, who have a four year degree in journalism? I guess we’re being left out because we’re not “personal” enough.

Today’s editors seem to think people want to read about personal stories more than faceless writers writing about boring stuff like politics and news. If newspapers are supposed to educate, why are we instead trying to entertain them? What enlightenment are we going to achieve by reading about a high school girl’s struggle to apply for colleges? I’m sorry honey, but we’ve all been there. You are not the first person who has stressed over college hunting. Why is her story more important than a journalist embedded in Afghanistan or reporters reporting from the devastation in Haiti and Chile? It makes no sense.

I sound bitter because I am. Television journalism is a whole other monster that I will not even get into. But there is something to be said for professional integrity. I will not go as far as to suggest that editors like those at The News Tribune have sold out, but it does make you wonder if following the “me first” trend in today’s society is healthy for our profession.

Call me old school, but just because you have been published in a newspaper does not automatically make you a journalist. A journalist strives to report other people’s stories, not your own.

But maybe that is what’s missing in today’s journalism. We feel that our opinions are so valuable that being an “objective reporter” would do nothing but diminish our creativity. God gave us opinions, so why shouldn’t we express them, right?

Wrong. A journalist is a different kind of breed. A true journalist should be able to separate personal biases from the story. A true journalist asks credible sources for information, not consult with their own skewed worldview. And when it comes to sources, make sure the sources are knowledgeable and fair in their own right. Try consulting with multiple sources who might come from different perspectives.

Why is this happening? The vilification of the “MSM” (the Mainstream Media) definitely plays a part. Society has some how been convinced that our main sources of news are corrupted for a variety of reasons (sold out to corporate interests, sold out to liberal/conservative focus groups, glosses over real news, relies on celebrity coverage/sensationalism to gain an audience, etc.).

This belief encourages people to turn to alternative sources of news, sources that usually come from a specific ideological/cultural background. We will read “underground” publications because their reporting style is edgier and less bogged down in corporate deadlines and a “rich white man’s point of view.” This is partially why people think anyone can become a journalist. All you need is an idea and a computer. And who doesn’t have those at their disposal?

The solution to this problem is for journalists and editors to return to their roots and become the newspaper reporters they were back in the day. Talking heads on television do not count as reporters. We need more journalists who genuinely want to teach the public, not just entertain them. Let movies and television shows entertain us. We should read a newspaper to learn about what is happening in our world, not what my next door neighbor does in his or her spare time.

Who should lead the charge? I have no clue. This is a collective problem that will require collective action. I should note that the fact that I’m writing this on a blog is irony that is not lost on me.

Walter Cronkite’s Death Reminds Us of What Television Journalism Used to Be

July 21, 2009

I never watched Walter Cronkite when he was on television. I was never really a big TV guy. Sure, I watched some when I was little, but there came a time when I decided that there were better things to do in life other than sit in front of a box.

But with the recent passing of Mr. Cronkite (and really, who isn’t dying these days?), I am reminded of a time when TV journalism wasn’t just confined to 24 hour cable news shows. There once was a time, not too long ago, when basic television programs on stations like NBC, CBS, and ABC provided all the information people needed to get through their day. Today, networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC hog all the spotlight.

Mr. Cronkite was known as “The Most Trusted Man in America” because he delivered the news as straightforward and accurately as people needed it. He told us what we needed to know about our nation, our elected leaders, and the decision makers around the world. He let us know what happened during the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam War, moon landing, the civil rights movement, and other momentous occasions in U.S. history.

I regret that I never watched him in action. I am a little skeptical about TV journalism as it is, but to see someone whom people actually trusted would have been a treat. It would be pointless to talk on and on about all his accomplishments and career highlights. I am not as up-to-speed on Mr. Cronkite’s career as other people are, so I should not attempt to make this blog entry a eulogy.

Instead, it should be worth mentioning how it is a TV journalist can be known as “The Most Trusted Man in America.” Today we think of TV journalists as “reporters” who only think about ratings, making money, and upsetting politicians. Anyone who has seen screaming heads on cable TV or “journalists” using valuable air time to cover useless trash like celebrity gossip probably has a low view of television news. But anyone who has seen a journalist like Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow in action might think differently.

Trust is developed when we know the other person is not trying to deceive, manipulate, or use us for any purpose. We know their intentions are good, right, and honorable. We have no reason to question their motives or think twice about what they’re doing or saying to us. Trust is when we don’t have to doubt what is told us and we can truly believe what we’re hearing. Apparently, Cronkite developed that kind of trust with the American people. And with his passing, we have lost yet another voice that we can have faith in.

A trusted journalist is what we need, not just for today, but for all eternity. We need to trust the people whom we get our news from. We need to trust that they are telling us the truth, are accurate about all their facts, and are not trying to mislead us in any form or fashion. Some of today’s more sell-out reporters care more about ratings than they do about serving the people. I don’t need to name names. We all know who they are.

But then again, journalism is a for-profit business. One cannot deny that fact. Newspapers, magazines, TV programs, radio shows, and websites need money in order to survive. Newspapers are closing because they aren’t making money in an era of Internet news. TV news programs are relying more on covering Michael Jackson’s death than anything else because that’s what people are talking about.

This of course, brings about an interesting question: do TV stations cover stories like celebrity news because they think people want it, or do people want it because it’s given to them? I think this is more of a vicious cycle than anything else. Both parties are to blame. So when we see newscasters giving their opinion on matters, when no journalist should ever do that, we don’t think anything of it. Journalists pandering to our interests have become the norm.

Is anyone bothered that anchors like Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity tell us their opinion when delivering the news? Probably not. But I am. I think it gives people the impression that not only should the media tell us what to think, but they should tell us how to think about it. They should tell us that Obama’s healthcare plan is an ambitious but challenging endeavor, or that Bush’s Afghanistan policies were doomed to fail. They don’t trust us to come up with these conclusions on our own. They need to tell us like the children that they think we are.

And with commentary comes biases, and with biases comes that horrible word “agenda.” The so-called media “agenda” is a concept developed by media watchdogs and critics to put blame on the media for creating a conspiracy to brainwash us to think a certain way. There is supposedly both a right winged and left winged media agenda to turn America into a fascist socialist terrorist nation. Is this true? I’ll let you decide for yourself.

But getting back to the late Walter Cronkite, I don’t think there are too many people who believe he had a preconceived and planned “agenda” to brainwash Americans to buy into government (or anti-government), corporate, or political propaganda. He just told us what was going on without considering what special interest groups would think. He wanted to inform us, not persuade us to think a certain way.

Some say these values are missing in today’s journalism. I think that is true to a certain extent. This is definitely a fair accusation in the mainstream American media, but not in all corners of the news reporting world. There are journalists out there who stand for telling the truth and informing us on what is important in our world. We just need to find them. They’re out there, trust me.

For now, it might be fair to say that a man of Cronkite’s statue might never be seen again in TV news. His death, while tragic and sad in its own right, does not signal an end to an era. His era of straight talk news seemed to have died years ago.

Will Cronkite be sorely missed? Perhaps. But what he stood for will be missed even more.

Words, Words, Words

June 10, 2009
Can a room full of monkeys sitting at typewriters really produce a work of Shakespeare?

Can a room full of monkeys sitting at typewriters really produce a work of Shakespeare?

What’s the difference between us and William Shakespeare? Or Ernest Hemingway? Or Sylvia Plath? Or any other great writer, either of fiction or nonfiction, in human history? Most literary critics consider these individuals to be giants among men. They are gods of the written word whose writing talents have entertained, enthralled, and enlightened readers from generations past and present. They are, for lack of a better word, immortal.

Immortal in the sense that their work will endure for years far beyond their time on earth. We will be reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey for ages to come. No matter how much society changes over time, the stories told by these literary giants will always be relevant and timeless to its audience.

That also applies, to a smaller degree, to great journalists. A journalist’s work is usually read that day and quickly forgotten the following week. Only a selected few journalists will endure in the memories of the general public. Thomas Friedman, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and George F. Will are writers who have changed and influenced American domestic and foreign policy just by the stroke of their keyboards. Whether you agree with their politics or not, you cannot deny that presidents ranging from Richard Nixon (who fell victim to Woodward and Bernstein’s now famous Watergate exposé for the Washington Post) to George W. Bush have had their presidencies directly affected by these journalists.

This brings us back to the first question I posed: what’s the difference between us and William Shakespeare? Why were their writing talents above and beyond the talents of Average Joes like you and me? Not too many people remember Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He did have them. Students today don’t read their works because, for some reason no one might be able to explain, their literary skills don’t match up with that of the Bard.

How hard can writing be? Studies have shown that people, both men and women, speak an average of 16,000 words per day. This might dispel the rumor that women talk more than men. Regardless, talking is no big task for the averagely intelligent human being. We think in words, we communicate in words, we process information in terms of words. Without words, it would be very difficult for people to function in society.

Yet, there are only a select few of us who are truly great writers. It is one thing to speak words. It is quite another thing to put them on paper. And it is definitely another thing to write something that people will want to read.

According to the WordPress.com home page, as of this writing, 57,525,799 new words have been written today by all bloggers. It would be prudent to assume that Blogger and other blog sites probably have similar statistics to boast. The world is not short on writers. There will always be people who want their words to be read by as many people as possible. But how about good writers?

Good writers are not as prevalent as one would think. The inspiration for this blog post comes from a few conversations I’ve had with a couple of people about how difficult the art of writing can be to some folks. There are some people who can speak eloquently and clearly but when you put a piece of paper in front of them and a pen in their hand, they could not write a simple five paragraph essay to save their lives. Or maybe a mere 500 word editorial on any subject of their choosing. Doesn’t sound that hard, but to some people, it’s equivalent of running a marathon. Why start when you don’t have a chance of finishing?

Writing does not come naturally. It is a skill that must be learned, practiced, and critiqued. Good writers need teachers who teach them basic skills like sentence structure, outlining ideas, grammar/punctuation, and making sure concepts flow seamlessly. All writers need an editor, regardless of level of experience, expertise, or age. There is no such thing as a great writer who can reach the level of greatness alone.

However, that does not mean learning how to write will guarantee that you become a good writer. Creative writing is not the only form of writing that requires creative talent. All writing, to a certain extent, requires you to generate content that is not there to begin with. A columnist writer like Leonard Pitts Jr. or Maureen Dowd starts with an idea, but they need content to fill it out. They make connections between ideas, come to conclusions based on those ideas, and explain those conclusions in a cohesive and logical manner in a way that a typical reader would understand. Sounds difficult, but they make it look easy.

Maybe writing is a task best left to “left brained” people. According to pseudo-scientific psychological research, people who primarily use the left hemisphere of the brain have a better grasp on linguistic skills like grammar and vocabulary. These same generalizations have concluded that people who are more adept at math and science are “right brained.” Have you ever met a good writer who could also do advanced calculus? If you have, they would be a very valuable asset to a science magazine or in the health section of a newspaper.

If creativity is needed for all forms of writing, then where does creativity come from? Creativity, it seems, comes from the ability to look at the world not just as it is, but what the world can be. Creativity comes from the imagination. Little children have the greatest imagination because there are a lot of activities that they cannot do yet. Kids cannot climb tall mountains, or fight against cowboys and Indians, or travel through space, or play with the dinosaurs. They cannot do these things in the real world, so they do it in the world that they can: the imaginary.

The imagination is a muscle that needs to be continuously toned. When kids get older and they transition into adulthood, they are faced with the need to think linearly and realistically. They need to think about the things of this world, not the things beyond their logistical reach. This is why most people lose their imagination as they get older.

It is also no fluke why famous science fiction/fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman (of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” and “His Dark Materials” fame, respectively) have their main characters be children. As children, they are more likely to fit into the world of fantasy. And perhaps even deeper, these writers hearken back to the days when they were young and played “pretend” with their friends. I’m sure Clive Staples Lewis pretended to live in a “Narnia” inspired world when he was a young lad. Other writers probably experienced similar childhoods.

Adults who maintain their sense of adventure and awe of the world make the best writers. They can incorporate their child-like fascination with the world with their adult understanding and mastery of language. Nonfiction writers like journalists and essayists are inherently teachers. They write to edify their audience. They write to push an idea across a broad spectrum and force people to think about their world. In some respects, nonfiction writers are probably most inspired by the teachers they had as children. In similar fashion, one’s childhood returns as a determining factor of one’s writing abilities.

Technique is something that can be learned. But real good writing is something that must be passionate. You must be passionate not only for the subject that you are writing about, but the desire for people to read and comprehend it. Good writers do not write just for themselves. They want to change the world. Journalists are politicians with a pen. They make change by the written word, not with votes or legislative bills.

A passion for writing would mean you would want good form and technique. You will be open to criticism and hearing other people’s opinion of your ideas, style, and purpose. Good writers have definite purpose. They write for a reason motivated by the love of something deep. F. Scott Fitzgerald loved life prior to his service in World War I and was passionate for people to know about the “Lost Generation.” The disillusionment writers of the 1920s and 30s – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and John Steinbeck included – had something important to say. And they said it with gusto and passion. That is why they are considered great.

Ernest Hemingway: Dont let his short sentence structure fool you.

Ernest Hemingway: Don't let his short sentence structure fool you.

Bad writers often lack direction or a real sense of need. They write because they are forced to (a school assignment, perhaps) or because they have to (a necessity for one’s job). Or maybe they lack formal training. I believe a bad writer with passion can be transformed into a good writer with just a little schooling.

But, at the end of the day, creativity and an open, child-like imagination are the key ingredients for making a great, memorable, and successful writer. They need to be able to formulate concepts in their head, put it into language, and translate them onto paper. Good writers don’t have to think too hard about their craft. It almost comes naturally to them. It has been said that famed songwriter and composer George Gershwin had so many different tunes in his head, it would have taken him one hundred years to write them all down. Gershwin was such a gifted musician that he didn’t have to think about his music; it came naturally to him.

Writing can be a gift. There are writers with a natural knack for language. But that is not a prerequisite for greatness. Great writers get it. They understand what makes human beings tick. They know what drives deep emotional responses out of people. Charles Dickens knew it. So did playwright Arthur Miller. They understood humanity and the human condition. I guess good writing also takes perceptiveness and good observational skills.

But I think what will make you a better writer overnight is to read good writing. Read stories on The New York Times. Read Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Emily Dickinson. They will inspire you to do what is not even humanely possible. They will show you what simple ink on a page can do to entire nations and people groups. They can show you what real change means.

Making change means looking at the world as more than it is. It means knowing your words can move mountains, bring kings to their knees, and inspire legions of people to take action. It means not only holding up a mirror to society, but challenging society to look at itself and see the endless possibilities. “Romeo and Juliet” is a timeless classic because it tells a simple story of how mankind’s selfish and unforgiving nature can get in the way of true love. Love, the beautiful fabric of life, can be destroyed if society puts enough pressure on it to end. What that play did was challenge humanity to look beyond itself and imagine a world that can be better, more compassionate, and free of hate.

See? There’s that word again. Imagine. Imagination is a powerful tool in good writing. That might answer my question. What’s the difference between us and Shakespeare? I think the connection he makes between his words and our deeply held values can give us some insight.