Local news and mastery of the press

When people ask me what Twitter is for I always say, “Twitter is great for following individual reporters, not just the publication they work for.” I’m reminded of this as these local reporters are telling people they need to pay for local news.

I agree people should pay for local news and anything else they consume. But like any rational person, I’m only interested in paying for a product that meets my needs. If I wanted to pay for the promise of something, I’d visit Kickstarter.

With local news we have options between the Indy Star, the Indianapolis Business Journal, Indy Monthly, Nuvo, four local TV stations, WFYI, and probably more I’m forgetting.

I have significant problems with all of them.

Television news is terrible and designed for the least common denominator. I don’t care what random people on the street think about something they’ve never thought about. I don’t care about the crime and fire stories because there are always gangs fighting over drugs and buildings catching on fire. A cursory glance at FOX59.com right now shows 28 stories. Nine of them are stock photos of IMPD cruisers or police tape and are about crime. One is about potato chips, one about pie, one about grilled cheese, a state police lip sync video, the death of two children, four about the Colts, and a couple business stories.

The Indy Star isn’t much better. More about Colts, the VMAs, a crappy pizza place in Carmel opining about road construction, something about a guy named Adam Driver who I’ve never heard of talking about the KKK, and more still about the Colts and IU sports.

Nuvo focuses on a niche I don’t care about — local music and arts isn’t something I care to read much about. But they have their audience and seem to do well. Indy Monthly has great pieces from time to time, but appears more as a place for foodies, wine lovers, and the sort. That’s fine, but I don’t live to eat all the time.

I’m guessing these outlets have viewership data that tells them crime n’ grime sells. That anything with Colts attached gets clicks.

I can’t justify paying for that. You are selling a product I do not care about.

What I care about is rare. A legitimate news story about corruption in the City-County Building, the Mayor’s race, and sharp reporting on what large organizations around Central Indiana are doing.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want more smart coverage that shows a mastery of a segment of news. But that costs money, and without it, I get less. I hear that argument. But publications like the Star seem to relish the endless sports coverage and junk like random pizza joints closing in Carmel because they have their reporters chasing stories for the sake of stories at times when there just is no news.

The Star’s coverage on USA Gymnastics is stellar investigative reporting. But if I pay for all the Colts and Carmel fluff, I’m never guaranteed the Star will put the money into more USA Gymnastics stories. It’s like going to a restaurant where it’s sometimes good, sometimes terrible. Eventually, you stop going altogether.

As the election rolls around, there’s almost no coverage of township races or school board races. Something else I’m sure outlets have viewership data on that says no one reads those stories. Or, they’re so hyper-local and resource-intensive they can’t be produced no matter how much we pay. In things like school board action, we’re almost at the mercy of local bloggers.

The IBJ for its part demonstrates mastery of a segment of news by focussing on matters of importance to business. I think the sustainability and mastery of a news cycle that comes with that focus is in their favor. WFYI’s partnership with Chalkbeat is a good example on the education coverage front. More news outlets would do well to devote their attention to specific areas.

 

Winston Churchill

Hitting the Mark

Before he was Sir Winston Churchill, a young Winston was a writer for the The Daily Graphic. Working as a war correspondent for much of his reporting career, he became one of Britain’s most admired and sought-after writers. His reporting would lead the Boers to capture him in Africa in 1893. The daring late-night escape he undertook by himself from a Boer POW camp would catapult Churchill as a hero of the Empire.

That experience gave Churchill a lot to write about, too. It also shaped his views on war, duty, and what it was like to be a prisoner. That would come in handy later in life when he would be a prison warden adamant that prisoners deserved fresh air and books.

But it was his writing that made the man. Without it he never would have found himself in the situations that made him who he was. That was true in 1893, during WWI, and later in WWII.

46 years after the Boer war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stared down Nazis. In desperate need of help, he reached for his pen. Late one evening by candlelight, Churchill wrote a letter to the new President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Churchill wrote what he thought was a great letter. He congratulated the new president on his campaign victory. He told him Britons stood alongside him and the Americans. And more to the point asked for Roosevelt to send Britain as many decommissioned, old, and otherwise serviceable but unused planes, tanks, and other equipment America had lying around. He knew America had 50 destroyers we weren’t using and Churchill needed them.

Churchill sealed his letter and sent it to Washington. Then he waited.

Weeks passed with no reply from Roosevelt. Not even a telegram.

Publicly Churchill demurred that Roosevelt “must be busy” and that his letter “got lost amongst all the new mail and shuffling around in the White House”. FDR, after all, was battling a depression domestically and more mail was coming into the White House at a rate never seen. The White House hired the first significant and modern mail staff to just handle all the letters.

But quietly, aides said the lack of response hurt Churchill. Not because he needed to know he had a new friend, but because as Churchill mused, “A writer always wants to know his writing hit the mark. And this did not.”

Churchill penned what he thought was a perfect piece. And it never accomplished its goal. It never hit the mark.

Later when Churchill and FDR would meet and form one of the best bromances in western civilization, Churchill learned FDR had read that inaugural letter but did nothing with it. Politically, involvement in the “European war” was still too touchy. FDR had too many other things to do. So, his response was to not respond at all.

I think about this a lot when I write emails. I think about it more when I write blog posts because while I see posts do well in Google search results, few get more than several dozen readers when first published.

I write and design and build things for clients and know thousands and hundreds of thousands of people will see it. Meanwhile, I can only hope it hits the mark.

And frequently I do not. In fact, 99% of the time I do not. I do not entice people to buy, or share, or read, or watch, or take a survey, or even click a link.

I’m working on a book, which is nearly finished and will release later this year. I can only hope it hits the mark, too, but realize it probably will not.

This is the creator’s ultimate demon. For people who don’t fancy themselves “creators”, but do sometimes produce a presentation or document, or stand by while someone like me does so for them, they aren’t accustomed to the sting of not hitting the mark. And it hurts.

The best we can do is trudge on, try to get better, and remember that even lions like Churchill missed the mark.

Inside the workspace and routine of Jobs, Twain, Vonnegut, and me

I love seeing people’s workspace. I think it reveals a lot about them and has enamored me ever since I saw this photo of Steve Jobs in his home (photo by Diana Walker. I think it originally appeared in Time).

I just love that he had a bunch of computers sitting on the floor, stacks of paper sitting around, and lots of books. It doesn’t seem at all unlike my office today.

Justin's Office

What’s interesting to me is while I outwardly love and prefer a clean workspace, I don’t have one. Neither did Jobs. Things just land on my desk too quickly and need to stay top-of-mind or else I know I’m going to forget about them.

So when I ran across this gem from Getty of Kurt Vonnegut writing at his typewriter, I had to share it here and plunk it in my gallery of workspaces.

Embed from Getty Images_

Yes, I have a folder. It includes others like this of an animator inside Pixar:

This is also where I save random nuggets I find about writers and other professionals. Like this from a 1955 letter Vonnegut wrote to his wife (it appeared in the Vonnegut book, Letters):

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.

I do push ups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

Also included are Henry Miller’s “11 commandments” from a 1932 interview:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

See if you notice a trend on this piece about Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer of War and Peace:

“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” … Then he, too came up to have his breakfast, for which he usually ate two boiled eggs in a glass. He did not eat anything after that until five in the afternoon. Later, at the end of 1880, he began to take luncheon at two or three. He was not talkative at breakfast and soon retired to his study with a glass of tea. We hardly saw him after that until dinner.”

Tolstoy reportedly worked in isolation. No one was allowed to enter his study, the doors were always locked, and he removed interruptions.

On Mark Twain:

His routine was simple: he would go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, and since his family would not venture near the study – they would blow a horn if they needed him – he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours.

“On hot days” he wrote to a friend, “I spread the study wide open, anchor my papers down with brickbats, and write in the midst of the hurricane, clothed in the same linen we make shirts of.”

Charles Dickens:

Dickens’s working hours were invariable. His eldest son recalled that “no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.”

He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk.

On an ordinary day he could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling and staring out the window to pass the time.

Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.” Dickens’s nights, however, were relaxed: he dined at 6:00, then spent the evening with family or friends before retiring at midnight.

All of these people had something in common: they did things even when they didn’t want to, they isolated themselves, they focused on one thing, and everyone knew not to disturb them or their process. They built their lives to set them up for success in their creative endeavors.

In other words, you can’t do anything useful for anyone if all you do is clack away at emails and text messages all day.

My routine has a similar cadence: I wake up at 5 or 5:30, usually without much or any help from the alarm. I cook a breakfast of one sausage patty, two strips of bacon, two eggs over-medium until they’re just not runny anymore, and 5-6 strawberries with a glass of iced tea. While eating I review some of my more urgent-looking emails and news.

I’m out the door on my bike by 6, at the office by 6:30, and drinking a cup of coffee by 7. I start by writing posts for clients or doing design work. I prefer to work uninterupted until 10:30 by leaving my phone and emails off.

I walk for lunch at 11, come back and tackle administrative tasks and typically schedule phone calls for after lunch.

I’m out the door by 3:45 for a workout at 4, bike back home at 5:15, and then it’s time for a shower, dinner, and more personal writing for the evening.

If only I could see the same success as Vonnegut or Jobs.

My earliest memory

There are a series of three or four photo albums at my dad’s house in Salem. There are not as many photos in those albums as I imagine other families have. For one, we didn’t take photos very often just “around the house”. When my mother was dying, somewhere between her final diagnosis and final surgery, she tore up all the photos with her in them. In a time before digital anything, she deleted herself.

I came home one evening after school and found her sitting in her bedroom floor. Shoeboxes were strewn around and the albums were out. She had a pile of little photo pieces.

“What are you doing?” I asked. I don’t remember my tone, but I feel it must have been one of confusion and seriousness.

She never replied. This was at a time when her speech was clear, but words were hard to come by. I still don’t know if she was silent because she didn’t know what to say, or if she just didn’t want to say anything. Whatever the case, she knew what she was doing. I assume this was just her way of forcing us — me specifically — to move on.

As I get older I find I don’t remember as much of anything. I don’t remember what her voice sounded like. I don’t remember what her last words were to me. I don’t remember the people who attended her funeral. I just remember random flashes of scenes of phrases.

This is all to say I want to start writing things down. I’ve been journaling more lately. From time to time it might be worth sharing on my site.

And that is all to say what is my first, earliest memory:

Somewhere in those photo albums is a picture of a young me, probably barely old enough to walk. My grandfather is holding me up as he sits in his rocking chair. His ever-constant toothpick was in his mouth. He was a big, strong man with a bald head. One I evidently saw fit to stick a suction cup toy on to.

I remember looking at him, placing this toy on top of his head and watching it jiggle back and forth. It stuck on his head so perfectly, like a hood ornament for pop.

Someone, presumably my mom, snapped a photo. When I saw the photo many years later I could remember it. That is my earliest known memory.

Facebook is to community like porn is to sex

Antonio Garcia Martinez, writing for Wired:

Ultimately, nobody really cares about privacy, except media elites, under-employed Eurocrats, and zealots who’ve made it a career. Everyone else would sext you their privates for a fleeting feeling of human connection. And they do.

[Zuckerberg] very immodestly proposes that Facebook occupy the social nexus vacated by the disappearance of churches, unions, lodges, and other local associations that once served as core of American civil life. This resurrected public forum would be as abstract and mobile as a Facebook group, and would no longer be restricted by the pesky limits of distance or national origin.

Facebook is to real community as porn is to real sex: a cheap, digital knockoff for those who can’t do better. Unfortunately, in both instances use of the simulacrum fries your brain in ways that prevent you from ever experiencing the real version again. But we’ll take what we can get.

 

I don’t think anthropologists or historians will look back on western society or American culture and say, “Ah, the Internet was where people started becoming lonely, depressed, and sad”. Institutions like churches and other parts of civil society started collapsing around the time television was in every home, sometime around the 60’s and 70’s.

Was it television that drove us away from other people? Maybe. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam makes the argument television news scared the heck out of us all and made us distrustful.

I wrote in a paper recently there may be an upshot to Facebook for democracy: it serves as an antiseptic. It lets people show themselves in a way they may not have before. If they’re racist, homophobic, or genuinely a bad person, you’re likely to see it on Facebook. The medicine stings for society, but ultimately it is good for the patient.

As Martinez points out, teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma organized a teacher’s strike more effectively than unions ever have.

There are bits and pieces of the “Facebook is to porn” metaphor I agree and disagree with. I get the point, however, that Facebook serves as a weak proxy for building meaningful connections. I just think it’s unfair to blame Facebook for it. Poor community organization and construction patterns, reliance on welfare, the drug war, and a clear market demand for a moment of simple relaxation are bigger factors. If anything, Facebook (like porn) is the last thing some people have to work with.

I suspect our cultural issues surrounding health and depression come more from other cultural changes. Facebook just amplifies them a bit, letting us see what’s happening faster and close-up.

I just don’t think people can afford to be in most social organizations anymore. They cost thousands of dollars a year and require hundreds of hours of time. Ask a college graduate with a $400/mo. car payment, a government-mandated health insurance bill, hefty rents despite splitting it three ways and a car payment of $250 a month because your city is huge and you can’t plunk down $5,000 for a used car all at once to join Rotary, Kiwanis, an industry association, or go bowling for $3,000 a year and see how far that goes.