Friday, March 28, 2008

What is Narrative Nonfiction?

Technically, it's a nonfiction that reads like fiction: there are stories, or one overall story. There's tension and release, and a narrative arc.

We're thinking of trying to publish more of it at the Press. But how do you move from academic, professional, and practical nonfiction to this higher art form? Do you just hire a writer and have them work with your author and hope it comes out pretty? My guess is that it's not that easy.

What books should we use as models? Andrew Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon" and Jim Lovell/Jeffrey Kluger's "Lost Moon" are two of my favorites in this category. Chaikin's injects the human into the scientific, military rigor of the space program, but manages to actually maintain and honor that rigor all the while--a remarkable feat. "Lost Moon" is a little more pop and a little less scientific, but an even smoother read and, by the end, a page-turner. There aren't many other non-fiction books that I've picked up again and again.

What elements other than those listed above make up good narrative nonfiction? Have you read any nonfiction lately that you couldn't put down? Why not? What was so riveting?

Crossing the (Foul) Line

Furman Bisher's recent rant about Opening Day in Japan is all over the blogosphere. Everyone seems to be poking fun at it, or at Bisher himself, for being too old-school (or just too old), as he complains that baseball's being played in Tokyo and being played by Japanese people. Ha, ha, isn't it funny.

NO! It's not! It's horribly racist and nationalist. Bisher's comments aren't just backwards; they're appalling. He is upset because Opening Day is being held in a country that once upon a time fought our country (let's not forget that we fought back), and being played by one of its countrymen. He's lumping everyone who shares attributes with the decision-makers of WWII-era Japan together with those decision-makers themselves.

How can we ever envision an end to the national and religious strife we see around the world if we use this kind of logic to defend even our kinder nostalgic musings?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama's Speech

If you haven't watched Obama's race speech yet, please do so.

It's noteworthy, I think, that this speech prompted Jon Stewart to a moment of seriousness reminiscent of his brilliant (I mean it) Crossfire diatribe. There was no joking in his eyes (though the serious irony was pointed) when he summed up the speech as "an American politician speaking to Americans about race as though they were adults." In this speech Obama has done what Stewart pleaded with Crossfire to do: he moved beyond easy partisanship, told some uneasy truths, and has therefore gotten us somewhere* new. In Obama we'd have a president who not only understands and acknowledges the anger on both sides of a major issue, but makes bold to explain each side to the other, and proposes a solution.

But please, whoever your candidate of choice may be, just watch this--for its historical value, if for nothing else.

(It's just under 40 minutes, in 10-minute segments here)

* Yes, I am aware that the term "somewhere" is vague. I am aware that in general Obama gives us hope and visions and inspiration...about something vague. But I think in this race he has to. First, because Hillary so clearly has him beat on being able to talk all wonky-like. He can't hope to compete. Second, because when it comes down to specifics, their platforms are nearly identical. The value-added of Obama, the thing that makes him distinctive, is his ability to inspire and the way in which he does it--through truly thoughtful analysis and the courage to not just "tell truth to power" but to tell truth about power while in a powerful position himself.

The Roundup

- Quirks of the OED

- This post over at Publishing 2.0 touches on the whole digital newspaper thing again, but most interesting is its last paragraph and the conclusion that sites need not fear directing traffic away from themselves straight into the arms of their competitors. Karp calls it "the Google rule": "the better job you do sending people away, the more they will come back."

- A really nice discussion of the leviathan topic "the future of the book" that points out that print is good for some stuff, digital is good for some other stuff, and that there exists a possibility of a happy medium. I'm not sure the medium is so happy (can you say wasted paper?) but it's interesting. (John, you'll like this one.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

More On Newspapers

This post at Publishing 2.0 echoes my earlier diatribe about newspapers, particularly the New York Times, and web publishing.

The post talks about the different ways in which primarily web-native news aggregators' home pages appear: TechCrunch displays the day's constantly updating stories in reverse chronological order, like a blog, and Digg displays them either in chronological order or in order of popularity. The post hails these as digitally integrated and useful formats. The Times*, on the other hand, echoes its print format in many ways. Indeed, much of the page stays static through the course of a day, unless something huge happens. The article links the page's static-ness with its way of arranging articles: by "importance." Because somebody decides once a day that this article or headline is important, it lives on the homepage until tomorrow.

I'm right with this post's call for traditional journalism to really get more web-integrated.

But I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Out goes static boredom (I too have stopped checking the NYT site more than once a day, while I check others frequently--bad news for the Times**). But why must we throw editorially-deemed importance out with it?

I use NYT's "most emailed" list heavily, but I like the homepage too, because there people I trust ("editors") tell me what to read. I don't have time to read the whole paper; I like that they pick stories for me *in addition to* the most-emailed ones. I think editors add value to my content consumption, and I don't want to lose that value.

In other words, I feel like the Times might actually be doing it right in trying to find a combination of these models--including both their printish front page and what Publishing 2.0 calls their "blog ghetto" at the lower-right corner of the page. It's just a matter, now, of finding the right amount of each.

*Yes, I know I italicize the NYT and leave the others in Roman. It's deliberate. I don't know what it means yet, but it does signal the changing ways in which we think about citing different kinds of material, no?

A New Model for Digital Content?

So you really want your content to be available digitally, your audience refuses to pay for it online, but you still want to make money?

The music industry is starting to get interested in a new idea explained on yesterday:

In recent months, some of the major labels have warmed to a pitch by Jim Griffin, one of the idea's chief proponents, to seek an extra fee on broadband connections and to use the money to compensate rights holders for music that's shared online. Griffin, who consults on digital strategy for three of the four majors, will argue his case at what promises to be a heated discussion Friday at South by Southwest.

Why is this just about music? Why aren't the newspapers in on this, and other content publishers?

And, at the end of the day, does this model make sense? Consumers would still be paying for content, but not directly based on how much they consumed. Does it still make sense to pay for this stuff at all? Certainly artists, producers, publishers deserve to get paid for work that they do. But if the market is telling them that their work isn't valued enough to be worth payment, then is a monthly fee really going to work? Should they instead be trying to find other lines of work, or other ways to productize/monetize that work?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I'm Not With Stupid

When you're a fan of something, you run the risk of people assuming you believe all the same things as every other fan out there. Fan stereotyping if you will.

To that point, as an Obama fan, I want to make clear that I do NOT believe, support, or even fathom this article in the Times. It argues, of all things, that Hillary's ubiquitous red-phone ad is racist.

I just don't get it at all. How do you get from "innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger" (which I grant you is super hypey but whatever) to "The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man"?

The only concrete piece of supporting evidence in the piece is that there are no black people in the ad and that the mother is a blonde. And then the author makes the leap that OBVIOUSLY the undefined terror outside the house is therefore BLACK PEOPLE = OBAMA.

It's people like this that give the Obama campaign a bad name.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

So Ready For the Primaries to Be Over

Barack Obama plans to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton’s contention that she has been more thoroughly scrutinized.

- NYT, 3/5/08

The irony here is killing.

Killing my interest in and commitment to politics, that is.

Office Space

A major change that computers have brought into work life, but one that is rarely discussed, is office furniture arrangement.

Before computers, office desks faced out into the room, toward the door. You walked into your colleague's office and she was already facing you. You walked into your boss's office, and he (usually a he then) was already staring at you. If you walk into the big boss's office (hint: it's an oval), he's still staring at you.

That's because he doesn't have a computer. There are no nasty cords to hide. I think it's really all about the cords. Nobody wanted to stare at them or trip over them, so they've been hidden in cube corners and back walls. So now we all find ourselves with our back to our cube "doors" and office doors, and people have to cough or something to get our attention and then we wonder how long they were watching us slouch at our computers and play with our hair and maybe pick that piece of spinach out of our teeth. And it's just not friendly.

But what's going to happen now that we're streamlining the hardware? Are we moving toward a time where there will be no cords? If I had my way, I'd just be doing all my computing on my laptop now. No bundles of cords to hide.

Might we live to see the rebirth of the doorward-facing desk?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Mobile Content

Here's the problem with publishers' and other content providers' initiatives to make more content available on mobile devices: People don't want more fragmentation between their computers and their mobiles; they want less. That's why they want more available on their Blackberrys and iPhones; they want to be able to access the same content from either portal. And so publishers should spend less time trying to come up with all new, exclusive mobile content, and more time trying to make sure that all of their content is accessible just as easily from a hand-held device as from a large screen-with-keyboard.

That's why we love the iPhone and are kind of put off by the Kindle: The iPhone lets you access the web you know and love while riding the T; but you can't get a Kindle book on your computer or your Blackberry, as far as I know. It makes it harder, not easier, to integrate your life digitally.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Newspapers Are Not Dead

An NPR piece* the other morning about the future of newspapers got it wrong. The contributor, a nostalgic newspaperman, was mourning the apparently imminent demise of the medium, retelling his young son's reaction to the latest round of newsroom layoffs. "Why are you surprised, dad," he asked, "Why would I read a newspaper when I can find something on the internet, on Google, on blogs, or in a newspaper online?" So sad, the contributer noted, with this new generation will come the end of the newspaper.

The mistake here matters much because it's one the newspapers themselves are making, the very one that actually threatens their future.

The commentator's son, the commentator, and the newspaper establishment, have conflated the concepts of what a newspaper does, and what a newspaper is. And unlike Jack Sparrow, I'm more interested in the "does" part.

Let's handle "is" first, though. I think that sales (and production) of hard copy newspapers will absolutely plummet in the next five or ten years. I don't know anyone my age who prefers leafing through enormous pieces of dirty paper to try to find the end of that front page article, rather than clicking "Next." And how do you even read the New York Times without the "most emailed" box? That's the first place I go after I read what's above the fold ("above the scroll?"). The only advantage of the printed paper is that you can do the crossword properly. But after reading maybe a third of the articles, if you're being generous, you throw the whole pile of paper away--!! Unacceptable to our green (pun intended) minds. I think many of us will enjoy newspapers in the future the way we enjoy quality, old-school throwback items now. "Oh wow, a record player! Remember those? Let's hook that thing up and find some of my parents' LPs."

For a while there will still be printed papers in corporate lobbies and in the subway and on the steps of staid suburban homes. But yes, Mr. Newspaper Man, this is going away. It's just more convenient to read it all on the iPhone. (Even the newspaperman's son said he was still reading newspapers online!)

Thus, onto what a newspaper does.

A newspaper finds, reports (mostly in writing), and selects the day's news for us, under a particular brand. This, I argue, needs not go away. We actually need it now more than ever.

But by clinging to the hard copy culture of the newspaper--and even though the paper is available online--newspapers as a whole (not just hard copy) risk becoming obsolete in the next decade.

My morning and lunchtime routine consists of checking my personal email, reading the blogs that feed into my Google Reader, and checking out a few articles on the Times. More and more I feel a little impatient with the NYT. Why couldn't it just RSS feed its leading article so I don't have to go to a whole new site to get my branded, edited news?** Bah.***

Okay, okay, so the NYT is catching on. They have blogs. Some good ones, at that. Some, not so good. I've criticized the editorial board's attempts before. Here's why it matters. Blogs can't be the NYT's ancillary material. They need to be its new format.

Every column, every article, every space ("front page," "above the fold," "center column," "Friedman," "Dowd," "Friedman and Brooks, and also Collins but only if it's been posted in the last two hours OR is in the top ten most emailed"), needs to be feedable. I need to be able to choose which feeds I want. I want to be able to get "all the news that's fit to click" without ever going to the NYT's home page.

"All"? But I thought you just said I'd be choosing which feeds I want. So if I only want sports feeds, I'll miss the front-page headline, right?

Well, this is where the "select" part of a newspaper's job comes in.

I have too many feeds coming into my reader as is. If I'm going to be having all of these newspaper feeds in there too, I need someone to pick and choose them for me--still based on my preferences ("Friedman and Brooks"), but with some common human sense thrown in about other stuff I might be interested in and other stuff I should be interested in.

Tah dah! Isn't that in some sense what a newspaper does already? Prove your worth, editors, by editing. Send me, say, five articles a day that you think I should be reading, but that I haven't signed up for. So I can get the top travel story even though I haven't signed up for the travel feed (so that I don't get ALL the travel articles EVERY day), if you think it's worthy. Please do this! I need you to.

This way, the top stories get fed to everyone, regardless of their usual individual preferences, but all the niche audiences still get their niche stories fed to them too. And if you get really procrastinatory on a Friday afternoon at work, there's always more on the site, because then you actually feel like going there. Isn't that sort of the way a newspaper works now, in an analog version?--usually we only read top stories and maybe drill down to some things that interest us individually, and then only read the rest when we have time? Only now it comes to me, I don't have to go to it.

Anyway, this is only one vision of what newspapers could do to not just stay in the game, but to keep owning the game. They need to come up with new ways of getting us their content (the "most emailed" box is a great example of a great success). Their newsrooms, companies, and brands don't need to fall away; they could become stronger. Newspapers aren't dead, my friends. Despite their soon-to-be-archaic name, if they figure out and own this technology shift, they're only just beginning.


* Which I now can't find, hence no link and no way of checking if I remembered the piece accurately--sorry.
** Probably something to do with advertising dollars, which makes sense. You can't see the ads on a feed. But Reader's brilliant new gizmo for your links bar obviates that problem. You just click the link on your browser toolbar and it takes you through your blog posts one by one, at the blog's site--so you see it just as the blogger set it up, ads and all. It could stand to be perfected--for now you can only hit "next" and it would be nice to be able to pick and choose from amongst your unread posts, but it'll get there.
*** Call my generation lazy. I call us obsessed with efficiency.