Awesome Displays of Journalism–My Favorite Stories from the Past Year

We talk a lot about bad writing and the decline of journalism–and that’s important. But sometimes it’s nice to highlight good journalism.  In fact, it’s more than nice, it’s imperative. There are lots of great writers around and we should share their stories. I think it helps to read a lot of good writing that way you know shitty writing when you see it.

Those “better” writers weave the details of stories together seamlessly. They find and get solid sources and excel at choosing when to use a direct quote and when to paraphrase. They choose good stories and present them in an organized manner successfully playing with chronology and expertly using even the trickiest writing techniques (for example, flashback). And most of all, those better writers make you wish the story would never end. And, in many cases, when the story does end it can leave the reader with a sense of longing.

There were four stories that I read over the past year that immediately came to mind when I decided to write this post. Just to note, I do a lot of reading, so there are definitely other stories besides the following four that impressed me. But again, I remembered the four below right away.

I read a lot of sports stories, and the first two articles I want to highlight are from the world of basketball and football. Yahoo sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski’s account of how the Miami Heat came to sign then Cleveland Cavaliers Forward Lebron James is very compelling. Wojnarowski manages to cover and explain the perspective of almost every party involved with the James trade.  And, for ESPN, Tom Friend writes an exciting piece on former football defensive lineman William “Refrigerator Perry.” This piece was so heart-wrenching and smartly written I had to take two breaks before completion.

The other two pieces also share a common link–both are stories about con men. For the NY Times David Segal profiled Vitaly Borker a Russian owner of an online eyewear store. Not only was Borker selling faux products, he bullied and threatened customers who complained. This piece starts out as a simple profile of a bad businessman, but Segal builds the story slowly and by the time he arrives at Borker’s house you are on pins and needles wondering how the conversation will go, or if Segal should even be there. (I should mention that Borker was eventually arrested as a result of this profile.)

The final story is an old one that I just read about three days ago in The Atlanta Magazine. Its title is “The Debtor” and it profiles a man whose murder may go unsolved due to the amount of enemies he made conning an array of people out of money–including the daughter of late soul singer James Brown, a woman he actually married.

If you read any or all of the stories, be sure to let me know what you think. And do not hesitate to share other well-written pieces and why you loved them.


Why ESPN W Will Fail

**This post has been updated to include ESPN’s response at the end.

ESPN is planning to tap into the women’s sports market with its new ESPN Woman’s “online brand” (which I’m pretty sure is fancy way of saying ‘web site’) But this effort, as it is envisioned, will fail miserably for one simple reason—all women sports fans are not the same.

When I first heard about ESPNW I had visions in my head of various muscular male athletes with their shirts off, links to girl-versions of sports paraphernalia, and an emphasis on female writers and on-air personalities. Unfortunately, ESPN has no such thing in mind. Their plan appears to be to have a web site dedicated to women’s sports that specifically caters to the female fans of those sports.

But who watches women’s sports?

The NY Times cited research from various league offices that when it comes to watching men’s sports “women make up 44 percent of football fans, 45 percent of baseball fans and 36 percent of professional men’s basketball fans, according to research conducted by the sports leagues. During the 2009 season, an average of 4.2 million women watched the N.F.L. on ESPN, according to the network.”

The fact that I couldn’t find numbers for how many women (or men) who watch women’s sports is quite telling (if someone has those numbers, please send!).  You’d have to assume the amount of women who watch women’s sports with any regularity is much, much smaller than the amount that watches male sports. Overall, women make up a quarter of ESPN’s viewership—but that doesn’t mean all of those women are committed to the main brand.

With ESPNW, ESPN is targeting a niche within a niche. For this reason, I think ESPNW will—if it stays around at all—end up being a sort of fitness and health centered version of popular women’s online magazine Jezebel all but abandoning the sports angle altogether. In this scenario, they’re more likely attract the Self/Shape magazine trying-to-lose-those-last-10-pounds-and-simultaneously-improve-my-body-image audience rather than the avid female women’s sports fan they claim to be targeting.

To be successful without caving into stereotypical women’s magazine topics, they’d have to be focused on making ESPNW appealing to men as well. I guess ESPN has officially given up on any plan to make women’s sports more appealing to men either by increasing its coverage of the games or focusing a little more on female athlete human interest stories or some other tactic. I think this is sad–with some creativity ESPN could easily incorporate more women’s sports stories and woman-friendly angles for male sports into their programming that would appeal to women without segregating the content or alienating men.

I do hope ESPN realizes there’s a difference between content that appeals to women sports fans and content that draws in women athletes and content that appeals to female fans of women’s sports. Though all 3 groups may have overlapping membership, they are three different demographics. To lump them all together makes me think that ESPN doesn’t really understand how difficult it would be to create brand loyalty with all of them successfully.

** From Keri Potts at ESPN:

espnW will serve former and current female athletes as well as female sports fans – as in NFL, NBA, college and women’s sports. It is not a site or singular product for only women’s sports fans, but rather, women sports fans. The NYT writer did a great job explaining both sides, but we said women sports fans, not “women’s sports fans.” espnW’s .com presence will provide coverage of all their favorite sports and teams while offering advice and information unique to female athletes, especially women who just graduated college and are moving on from collegiate athletics.

I definitely want to thank ESPN for reaching out to me and providing a response. Great way to get your message out.


Better Writing Series Vol. 1: Only Mediocre Writing Develops Naturally

A few months ago, someone (a blogger whose twitter name I honestly don’t remember) tweeted that there’s no reason for writers to take writing classes. She said, no one can “tell you” how to write. I saw lots of people agreeing with the tweet and it’s not a sentiment I haven’t heard before.

I’d been wanting to blog about this statement for a while but thought if I covered all my thoughts, it wouldn’t be a blog, it’d be a feature article. I plan to tackle the subject of becoming a better writer using multiple strategies–courses being ONE–in a series of posts over the next few months. This is a sort of introductory post.

You can tell by the headline that I use here that I don’t agree with the blogger who tweeted against taking writing classes. In fact, not only do I disagree, I find anti-writing course rhetoric appalling. I’ve written for lots of people…from lobbyists to political appointees and I’m pretty confident in my writing. But I’m still learning and still taking advanced writing and thinking courses here and there.

This weekend, I went up to Philadelphia to take Joan Detz’s “Business of Writing” Class (will blog effusive praise for it at a later date). Not only am I still learning to write better, I’m also learning how to treat my writing more professionally and to think more fully about its quality.

For most people, solid, reliable, trustworthy, and helpful feedback on their writing is hard to come by.

Even if you write professionally, you’ll find that supervisors and colleagues aren’t always a good source of feedback. Sometimes the reason is because they write badly, other times it’s because companies and organization’s often have a particular style they use for communications materials, and it’s not up for debate–even if it’s really, really bad.

Taking a writing course provides an opportunity for you to get feedback from someone accomplished, further, if it’s a peer review/workshop class, you can get a variety of perspectives on your work. Others will note deficiencies and places of concern you never noted. In particular, places where you’ve failed to prove a point or construct a readable (notice I emphasize readability not understandability) sentence.

These sort of discoveries can mark the difference between a good writer and an effective one. For example, I know lots of scientists, academics, and lawyers who are awesome writers–in their fields. I also know fantastic regulatory writers, policy writers, and ad writers who are only great insofar as that type of writing is concerned. For a lawyer to learn to write like a columnist, or for an academic to start writing speeches, there’s going to be a learning curve. Being effective is meeting the needs of the audience, not simply having good grammar and organization.

Final notes on peer review: when you’re given a set of parameters and specific things to look for when you’re reviewing the work of others, it is an opportunity to see the construction of pieces in a different light. Plus there’s something great about walking into a room and NOT being the best writer there. For me, it’s a thrill, and I immediately want feedback from the person most celebrated.

I’ve emphasized peer review because over the years I’ve found it most beneficial. BUT! That could partly be because my writing has been consistently challenged on the job and I’ve been forced to write in different styles at every stop in my career. For those who’ve not had the benefit of such constant criticism, single-purpose courses can be helpful. Courses on grammar (yes even if you think you have good grammar), writing for _____[insert purpose here], fiction writing are some examples.

Perhaps people are anti-courses because what constitutes becoming a “better writer” can be subjective. But what’s not subjective is bad organization, syntax, grammar, purpose, voice and style. Those are all things that do NOT develop naturally. Or, should I say, do not develop well naturally. Lots of people, through ignorance or overconfidence, develop into solidly bad writers who lack in one or more of the aforementioned areas. It’s sort of like someone who works out using bad form. Sure they do great for a while but injury is imminent.

One last “introductory” thought on this issue. This comes up a lot in the blogosphere, and I assume it’s because if someone’s only “published” writing is on blogs, they’re not familiar with publication standards. It takes a lot more than natural talent to build a chorus of bylines for your work. Further, many times when readers comment on your blog to tell you that you wrote a “great post” what they really mean is they’re glad you brought the subject up so they could comment and agree–not that you’ve put together a great or even coherent piece.

In the course I took over the weekend, one of my classmates said to me of her quest to be published more often, “How I do know if the rejection letters I’ve received from publications are because the odds aren’t in my favor or because I’m a bad writer?”

This was a woman who has written for many years for prominent people and been published a few times in the past. However, after years of working in the government her perception of her writing was in limbo. My recommendation? Peer review.


How the Media Should Have Covered the Book Burner and the Mosque Movers

In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t posted in a while. I was sick and bogged down with crap for the past two weeks. But even in the midst of that haze, I simply could not avoid all the stories about the one guy who wanted to burn some korans on September 11th, and the people who are all upset over a recreational facility, called Park 51, complete with mosque, being built at Ground Zero.

The greatest thing about these two stories is that ignorance knows no region. The book burners are in Florida, but the mosque protestors are all over the country with many in New York.

The second greatest thing about these controversies is that many in the media, belatedly, acknowledged that it bears some responsibility for fanning the flames of the story about the book burner–and, by proxy, endangering the troops. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any in the media talk about how they should have covered these stories. Sure, saying that perhaps the shouldn’t have covered the stories at all, or given them as much attention, is great. But in this world of 24 hour news where we are constantly aiming to scoop a scoop, not covering something becomes more difficult each second another network gains viewers by feeding the mob. And giving a story that is growing in popularity “moderate coverage” is way too much to expect.

Rather than talk about whether or the the media should have covered the stories, I’d rather focus on HOW they should have covered them. Or, shall I say, how they shouldn’t have covered them. And that is, with legitimacy.

Sure there are some who’d say that treating a Preacher, like Rev. Terry Jones, who has a congregation of less than 100 like an influential figure as he plans to do something clearly bigoted is warranted. But there’s really not much to back that up. I can only assume that this story was covered for ratings purposes–but there’s a way to do that fairly responsibly as well. All you have to remember is this:

Just because there are two ways of thinking about something, doesn’t mean you have to treat both opinions with legitimacy.

This is the mistake the media made.

In conversation after conversation, pundits, talk show hosts, etc. asked their guests “What do you think of Rev. Jones’ plan to burn korans on September 11?”

Huh? Is there more than ONE way to intelligently think about this? No? Then why pose the question as though there is?

Of course most people opposed Rev. Jones plan–almost no one could be found to defend it — that alone should tell you how silly the whole thing is.

The best thing to do in a situation like this is to assume that there’s only one reasonable opinion to have and proceed to elevate the conversation.  A better question to ask a guest would be “How can we begin to help everyone in America understand that we are in a war with terrorists, not Islam?” with the Jones story as the umbrella.

Same thing with the people who want to move Park 51. The question is not “Should the mosque be moved?” rather, “If we focus our anger and resentment on a “religion” how does that jeopardize our efforts to combat terrorism?” This is a method by which the media could actually elevate a conversation rather than leaving it in the slums where it began.

Additionally, in my research of the Park 51 story, I didn’t see any one articulate any reason NOT to put a mosque near Ground Zero that wasn’t bigoted or rooted in emotion. Asking people “Do you believe there should be a mosque near ground zero?” is something very different from asking “Should it be illegal to build a mosque near ground zero? If not, how should building owners decide when its tasteful to build and when not? How do we reconcile such opinions within the idea of capitalism?”

The latter form of questioning forces the responder to think about how you would structure such language that would prohibit the mosque from being built or in what circumstances would you ask a builder not to build something based on matters of taste. There’s really no way to answer that question in favor of prohibiting a building containing a mosque without sounding bigoted or uninformed e.g. not realizing or acknowledging that all Muslims aren’t terrorists.

One last note, in terms of responding to questions about the mosque, I felt influential Americans should have responded by dismissing Rev. Jones as the rare small scale bigot, pointing out that his following is near nil and in no way reflects the feelings of most Americans nor the values we hold dear in this country. Unfortunately, many of the statements I read droned on and on and elevated Rev. Jones’ status rather than briefly putting his existence into perspective and moving on to more important matters.

Perspective on these stories was grossly lacking on all sides.

I think that if the media concerned itself a little more with talent, it could probably elevate conversations and still make them interesting enough to get ratings. Either way, to cover two very low brow stories with such vigor and to then critique your coverage of it with no serious analysis of or attention toward better ways to cover such stories in the future is disingenuous.


Don’t Follow Jason Whitlock’s Example and Publicly Bash Your Old Bosses

I’m the first to admit that I’m not a fan of former Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock. I think he’s popular not because he’s a good writer or because his analysis of sports is on point, but because he’s controversial. And in today’s environment, whatever gets page views, ad clicks, or attention wins the day. On Friday, Whitlock took to the airwaves to talk for over an hour about why he was leaving the Kansas City Star for the Fox network.

Whitlock accused the Kansas City Star of all sorts of improprieties, but what his problem boiled down to was that he asked for something from his bosses and didn’t get it.

Join the club.

Obviously, Whitlock didn’t just notice the ethical issues at the Star just prior to quitting his job. The reality is, he was more than happy to overlook those flaws as long as he was getting what he wanted. But when he went to his bosses and asked for them to “maximize” their use of him (he wasn’t specific during the portion of the interview I heard, but I take that to mean giving him a lot more attention and money) suddenly everything he’d witnessed at the paper became an issue of concern.

Much like Lebron James’ silly “Decision” special, Whitlocks “Explanation” episode was just as lengthy, tired and narcissistic. And while such a stunt may go over fine in the world of entertainment (notice, I didn’t say journalism), for the rest of you 9 to 5ers and freelancers and other people who care about whether or not you ever work again, making a point of publicly dissing your former employer isn’t the right call.

Continue Reading…


Quick Friday Thoughts on the (Un)Professional Left

The firestorm Press Secretary Robert Gibbs created when he brutally rebuffed the criticism of the administration levied by what he referred to as the “professional left” begs some questions about what it means to be the left, what it means to be progressive, what it means to be liberal, and, quite frankly, what it means to be a Democrat.

I fairly certain that all of these terms mean something different yet I’m hard pressed to strictly define them. I’ve long considered myself a Democrat, not because I’m not a conservative and not because I’m a liberal, but because I believe in what is (or at least what once was) the Democratic party platform.  That probably automatically qualifies me as a leftie, but that says nothing as to how progressive I am and doesn’t speak to the degree of liberalness my policy views entail.

Where I am going with this? Oh yes…

President Obama.

Throughout the primaries and most certainly during the actual Presidential election cycle, the right painted a scarlet “L” across the President’s chest in an effort to make the then-candidate less appealing. But that “L” really had not much to do with Obama’s vision for the country or actual views on policy in America.

Since the right has all but been co-opted by Neo-cons who are more neo than con and Tea Partiers who are dissatisfied but have only a vague notion of why and what they want to do about it, the ideas coming from the right side of the pendulum for at least 10 years have largely been either too extreme or nonexistent.  This phenomenon has created a lot of default liberals (and even default Democrats like Arlen Specter) and I would argue that the President is one.

Who doesn’t look liberal next to the party of Glenn Beck? Having no other option, the lefty media and the as-yet-undefined presidential candidate settled into a willing political arranged marriage.  The environment seemed prime for Obama to have the type of relationship with the left cohort that Bush had with the right.

But that hasn’t happened. And that’s why the leftist media is in a tizzy and the administration is frustrated. The left media is defined not by who they are but who they’re not. There are degrees of the left–not every outlet is the same. Politico seems more akin to the The Daily Caller when you compare it to The Nation.  Salon’s bipolar coverage of politics and Keith Olbermann’s predictable histrionics is enough to make you long for Maddow’s steady hand. Yet the perception of sameness remains, and it matters more to the deliverer of the message (an administration) than it does to the distributor (the media). Quite frankly, it’s confusing on the left. The right has it easy in this regard.

Consequently, Gibbs’ frustration with the left’s criticism isn’t just about what being said, it’s also about finding a home for what he wants to say.  And currently, the administration’s messages are homeless.

The question is did the media on the left abandon the messages or did the administration run away from home?


Will Desiree Rogers Expand Jet and Ebony by Exploiting Black Women?

I know that any Desiree Rogers post is supposed to be about whether or not she’s qualified to be the person to take Jet and Ebony magazines to the next level, then you should insert the obligatory mention of the White House state dinner crashers and her subsequent resignation as White House Social Secretary, and definitely don’t forget to introduce speculation as to whether Rogers is a diva.

But you know I can never follow the script :)

Now that we’ve got all the basics out of the way. While reading a Chicago Sun-Times article on Rogers’ new position as CEO of Johnson Publishing Co. I was very concerned about this quote:

Rogers said she intends to expand Ebony and JET magazines’ popular features online and create communities around them. One idea: To highlight JET magazine’s “Beauty of the Week” online, post a video, host an advertising sponsor, publish a question-and-answer column, ask readers to vote on whether this week’s beauty is more exciting than last week’s, and hold online contests around the theme.

To that I say two things: No and hell no.

Continue Reading…




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