Mark on December 12th, 2011

2011 has been a year for photography. I’ve been taking a photo a day (well, almost every day; I skipped a couple here and there), and posting the results at my Tumblr blog. It’s been interesting, fun and challenging, and I’ve learned a bunch along the way. More on that later.

Now it’s almost 2012 and time for a new challenge. I’d like to get back to storytelling and make it my year for journalism.

Among the projects I’d like to tackle in 2012:

  • A long-form audio piece, something I’ve wanted to do since the early ’80s and never had the chance to.
  • A longish (5-8 minute) video doc. Up until now I’ve played with video; it’s time to do something serious.
  • At least one piece of long-form narrative journalism.
  • A serious photo-essay, possibly self-published as an iPad “book.”

All of this will take work and energy and, as I repeatedly tell my students, journalism is a young person’s game. I’m out, in part, to prove myself wrong.

Posting this is a way of handing myself a to-do note. Putting out in public may produce the occasional so-how’s-it-going comment during the year to further goad me along.

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Mark on December 10th, 2011

After four frustrating hours of fighting with WordPress, databases and FTP, the blog is back. I haven’t checked all the posts yet, so it’s likely that there are still missing images and files, something I’ll have to see to over the next couple of days.

Note: Any bookmarks you have to any of these pages may be broken as there’s been a small change to the site structure. That’s something else on the list of things to fix. And, I just noticed, it’s also broken any links from Google, which may mean I no longer exist. I hate those who hack blogs with all my heart.

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Mark on November 24th, 2011

I’m in the middle of developing a new Computer Programming for Journalists course for the spring semester. I want to put some of my thoughts on this out there so that people who are smarter than I am can prod it a little, point out the holes, make suggestions, etc.

This is an exposure course. No one will come out of it a fully-fledged programmer. Students will dive into various programming “pools” — and to various depths. The goal is to give students enough understanding of the possibilities to allow them to work effectively, as journalists, with programmers; understand the possibilities that coding brings to journalism; and have a strong enough grasp on some basics, so they can at least modify code. If, in the process, some of them discover that in their journalistic heart of hearts they’d rather write code, they’ll have a pretty good idea about what they have to do next.

Here are my thoughts so far.

The course would have three sections. In the first, students would build a basic portfolio site using HTML and CSS, and then layer in JQuery, using and modifying available script packages. In the second, we’d use HTML, CSS and JQuery (or other libraries) to build an iPhone web app. In the third, we’d move onto using programming for data visualization, using a variety of scripting languages and tools.

That’s barebones. It would be a mostly a doing class, but there’d be some minor lecturing on programming concepts, strengths of various scripting and programming languages, available tools and frameworks, etc.

It sounds a little ambitious but doable, I think.

So, smarter folk: What do you think? What’s missing? What’s not needed? What seems reasonable and what seems unreasonable? Any and all comments are welcome.

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Mark on November 17th, 2011

Lists of books that journalists or journalists-to-be should read aren’t hard to find. Inspired by one of the latest (A Reading List for Future Journalists at the Columbia Journalism Review), I asked second-year students what inspired and informed them. They came up with a great list and solid explanations.

Two things: There is a wide variety of interests, sources and inspiration, and my students — encouragingly — are a well-read bunch.

(Along the way, I discovered that while in high school they were assigned many of the same books I had to read 40+ years ago ‐ Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, etc.)

Here’s the list. I jotted down their explanations on the fly, so they’re telegraphic and short on nuance.

Learning to write

  • Writing With Power, by Peter Elbow — good advice about the writing process that makes sense
  • The Book of Your Voice, by Julie Elizabeth Leto — good writing advice on finding your voice
  • Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark — easy to understand and some uncommon advice

Non-fiction

  • What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell — explains complex stuff vividly
  • New Kings of Nonfiction, edited by Ira Glass — compilation of great long-form writing
  • Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, by David Clay Large — deep, well-researched book on the 1936 Olympics
  • Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler — Not for inspiration, but because you need to read to understand. (This addition to the list provoked, as you can imagine, some great discussion.)
  • Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, by Mark Kriegel — great, deep biography, extensively sourced
  • Punk, compiled by Mojo — read for interest and understanding
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann — Great popular science writing
  • Songbook, by Nick Hornby — Showed me that I could be a journalist and write about music
  • The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison, by Warren Fellows — short and powerful; profound storytelling
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson — inspiring, got me excited about journalism; showed me you can be different.

Fiction

  • 1984, by George Orwell — for the storytelling and the writing
  • The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy — finding and telling good stories that haven’t been told
  • Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx — writing for story and emotion
  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy — writing in different prose style, playing with structure and sustaining poetic flow
  • Obasan, by Joy Kogawa — fiction based on reality
  • The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova — writing about different places and customs
  • Schismatrix, by Bruce Sterling — the creativity needed to create new worlds
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams — how to write humour
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov — precise, inventive use of language
  • A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey — a different structure that works
  • The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill — empathetic writing and writing in other voices
  • On the Road, by Jack Kerouac — a peek into the life of a writer of his time; inspirational
  • King Rat, by James Clavell — good storytelling about human nature
  • The Plague, by Albert Camus — a journalistic style that gives it the ring of truth; it reads like it could had been a true story.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde — shows the importance of phrases and sentences that stop you
  • Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts — great writing
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Mark on August 17th, 2011

Most of what follows is pretty close to conventional wisdom, at least among the folks I talk to and read. I don’t have any particular claim to expertise: this is the result of closely following a decade or more worth of news about the news, thinking as deeply as I can, and absorbing what I read, hear and see on the streets. It doesn’t cover everything about newspapers, but it represents a ground floor of sorts and, as always, the chances that I am wrong, in large or small measures, is not insignificant.

Newsprint is with us for a while yet.

Yeah, inevitably, the print format will go away, but it remains a potent method of delivering information quickly and relatively cheaply. Habit plays a role, too, whether it’s the old habit of picking the thing up off the doorstep, or the newer one of grabbing a free daily on the way into the subway. Long term, traditional newsprint economics do not compute; for now, they do, although shakily.

The current newspaper – thinner, lighter staffed, its newsrooms serving print and online masters – appears to be the future newspaper, too.

Creation of large chains by assuming large debt, credit crunches, recession and internet disruption have created current conditions but they mask, to some degree, changes already afoot, including the long downward drift in readership and the slow atomization of mass audience. I remember numbers from the first decade of the century: Advertising revenue was increasing for all Canadian media, but slowest of all for newspapers.

Newspaper chains, most emerging from bankruptcy, still drag around debt and, in some cases, still lose money. It seems inevitable that revenue for newspapers will remain smaller than it was; the “missing” money will continue to be reflected in smaller-staffed, skinnier publications. “We’ll get over this and get back to where we were” is an unsupportable wish. Post-recession recovery will likely not take newspapers back to where they were.

There is no magic bullet.

I’ve heard from people who should know better, that “someone” will figure it out, as though there is a single cure for the manifold and differing illnesses affecting newspapers here and there. (To their credit, those who should know better and are saying this, often have a wistful tone.)

It’s easy to be seduced by the fact that newspapering was, with minor variations, the same everywhere, but that may no longer be the case. Consider paywalls and you run up against issues that range from selling the public one the idea of a paywall for a site run by a newspaper that is distributed free of charge, to the question of who will pay and how much, not universally, but in the local marketplace. (There’s no argument that journalism, and particularly newspapers, are vital to society, but “somebody needs to pay us because we are important” is not a business model.)

The biggest difficulty publishers face, I think, is that, absent the magic bullet, there needs to be a basketful of methods for funding the beast and that they, generally, can’t depend on someone someplace else putting together a single basket that will serve them all.

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Mark on July 18th, 2011

What follows is the first draft of an article I intend to direct students to. It’s not a manifesto, or in-depth teaching philosophy, or anything of that sort: it’s more a collection of observations. Other teachers — and students — are encouraged use the comments to react to these, argue against them or add to the document.

• Why are you here? You need to answer that. It’s not about us making you be here, it’s about why you chose to come here, what you came to learn, whether it’s specific or as general as I want to explore. (Although even at that, you still need to ask why.) What’s driving you, what excites you, where’s the sweet spot for your passion? Let me know; I’ll try to feed it.

• Here’s the deal: I’m responsible for the teaching; you’re responsible for the learning. If you’re not learning, it may be because I’m not holding up my end of the bargain in a way that works for you. You gotta tell me about that, though, so we can work it out.

• The recipe for success remains the same: show up, pay attention and engage, and do the work to the best of your ability at the time.

• Oh, and presume that everything will be on the test.

• They may matter to the scholarship folk and your parents, but once you go looking for work, no one will ask about your grades.

• Individual assignment grades assess how well you’ve done given your abilities, the time you’ve had available, the effort you’ve made. (I don’t grade on curves, by the way. I have no preset ideas about how many of you will excel, or how many will fail.) A low grade means you need to work harder. So does a high grade, because it means my expectations have been upped. A+ is reserved for excellence.

• We all have great days, good days and not-so-good days. Me, too. I expect you to extend the same consideration to my not-so-good days that you expect me to extend to yours.

• When you tell me you can’t come to my class because of an assignment you have to do for someone else’s class, you’re telling me that class is more important than mine. Think about that. If I ever assign something that can only be done during someone else’s class, tell me and I’ll change the assignment. If someone else assigns you something that can only be done during my class, tell them.

• It is considerably odd how many medical professionals only offer appointments for routine matters during the hours I teach.

• The number of things I don’t know would fill a (somewhat large) book, and that includes some aspects of what I’m trying to teach. That means, in some cases, we’ll be learning together, and in some cases that you’ll know more than I do. Feel free to share.

• Assume that some of the things you know are wrong. Be prepared to challenge not only the ideas of others, but your own as well.

• ”I always do my best when I do the work the night before an assignment is due.” Unless you have sincerely tried doing it any other way, how do you know that’s true?

• Journalism assignments can fall apart: Subjects won’t phone or e-mail you back on time, the original idea doesn’t fully pan out, the source you thought was gold turns out to be lead. Start your assignments early, so if they do fall apart, we can work together to salvage them before they’re due.

Update 1: Added at the suggestion of Tim Falconer (@timfalconer on Twitter, for those who indulge): When I criticize your work, I am criticizing your work, not you. Don’t take it personally.

Update 2: You should recognize that progress rarely happens in a smooth, straight line. It happens in fits and starts, greap leaps and stalls. Sometimes, frustratingly, the line seems to run backwards. Don’t fret too much; it’s that way for all of us.

Update 3: Regarding those missing classes. It happens. Life gets in the way. But if you miss a class, I don’t really have time to reteach it. And you’re responsible for knowing what, if any, assignments came out of that class. So find a study buddy you can tap.

Update 4: We all crave certainty, but sometimes the best answer I can come up with for your question is, “Possibly.” If you ask me, “What’s two plus two?” I’ll answer, “Four.” If you ask me, “Is it best to bring this fact into my story this early?”, I’ll answer “Possibly,” and we’ll talk about structure and intent and readers and all the rest and try to come to some sort of understanding. Possibly, that’s the best way because there are as many ways to tell stories as there are storytellers.

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Mark on January 2nd, 2011

Every once in a while, I have the urge to consolidate the scattered pieces of the online me. And every time I try to bring those pieces in, the web keeps dragging me back out again.

The last time I redid this blog, the intent was to consolidate: continue the journalism-related blogging, pull in my Twitter feed, publish photos here… It worked fine for a while, at least until the blogging became sporadic (more on that in another post).

And, meanwhile, the web kept spinning out new socially-driven places to park bits and pieces of me. Without taking into account those services I’ve signed up for and since abandoned (hello, MySpace), my i-addresses include Flickr, Linked In, Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Publish2 and a couple of Yahoo newsgroups.

Over the weekend I added Quora and Tumblr to the mix, Quora because is looks interesting and Tumblr as the platform for my take-a-photo-a-day-in-2011 project.

Being here, there and everywhere, indeed.

I’ll admit to being a follower, jumping in (usually later rather than early) on the newest hot thing. It’s my nature, and part of the nature of the web.

What keeps me out there is the value that I find: each of the services that I stick with adds something. Which is all for the good, but it means, I suspect, that scattered me, online is my norm and any thought I have of consolidation is pretty much a pipe dream.

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Mark on December 22nd, 2010

Sometime next month, a day will slip by that marks the 40th anniversary of my more-or-less continual immersion in journalism.

When I started, the now-dead Terrace Herald was only two years past the end of hot lead typography (and I had enough earlier exposure to that to love the mixed smell of melting lead and printers ink). Earlier today, I was watching a new “newspaper video,” delivered to my phone.

Forty years. Twenty-six of them spent in small newsrooms, five running a home-based design and media company, and now 11 or so in the classroom. (Yeah, those numbers don’t add up; there was some overlap.)

I was both unfortunate and fortunate to come into the game without training. Unfortunate, because it meant a lot of sometimes hard learning and too many failings. Fortunate, because it meant I was constantly learning, trying and stretching. It seems to me, beyond the ability to research, write and verify, those three — learning, trying and stretching — may be the most important skills I ever learned.

Journalism has been good to me. It never made me rich or anything other than somewhat locally famous. But it put me together with a lot of talented, passionate people, and it still does, even if now I’ve never met a lot of them face-to-face. It has allowed me to create, to explore, to express, to help, to celebrate people and accomplishments large and small. It has taken me places I never would have gone.

I wasn’t always passionate about the craft over those 40 years, but I’m as passionate about it now as I ever was, in love with its successes and experiments, in awe of its accomplishments, impatient with its failings.

At 58, I should be benching myself in favour of young folk, of course. They are living the future in ways that I can’t, blazing trails that will take them places I may not see.

I’m not ready for the bench, though, and not only because I can’t afford to retire.

Journalism is still hard work and it’s still fun. Teaching skills and attitudes, exploring storytelling and staying immersed in the flow of innovation and experimentation is invigorating and challenging. I’m still deep into the learning, trying and stretching that has defined my newspaper and classroom work.

After 40 years, I can’t conceive of a life without journalism, then, now or going forward.

(Note: Thanks to everyone who has made the time I have spent wit journalism such an adventure and so enjoyable.)

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I’m no good at predictions. An example: when the video-enabled iPod was released, I raved a little about the thing but noted that I didn’t see much point in adding video.

So, I don’t have predictions for 2011, but here are a few things I’d like to see in the new year.

(1) Media organizations start using Twitter to engage, more than they use it to promote. It’s one thing to rely on a handful of engaged reporters; it’s another to manage an organizational tweet stream that adds personality and the human voice.

(2) Publishers and editors finally fully grok that the web — and apps — are primarily visual and give photojournalism it’s due: bigger images, more storytelling, no more let’s-drive-page views slideshows of dubious nature and content. And proper credit for the visual journalists. There’s no reason to continue to mismatch of nine-point bylines and six-point photo credits.

(3) Someone will write a social media script that will change all instances of “Breaking news” to “WJLT” (we just learned this). The result will be much more accuracy and I will be much less annoyed during the year.

(4) Aggressive experimentation with newspaper pay walls, with something behind them that is worth the money. Asking me to pay for “the usual” won’t cut it, but there is a model. I pay for books, music, magazines and apps that are of deep interest and personal value. Moving past the age of mass, newsrooms can start to explore and discover a myriad of sweet spots.

(5) Publishers paying more attention to the quality and capabilities of their RSS feeds as the success of Flipboard prompts development of other multi-source aggregators.

(6) Finally, a long-standing prediction/wish that may finally come true this year: publishers will finally stop seeing multimedia, video, data visualization, etc. as special. All of it will become a regular part of the storytelling, fully integrated. Silos of “special content,” with their own often hard-to-find menu links, will fade away.

Recently added:

(7) The definition of book begins to waver a little more, as inventive folk turn their attentions to apps, not least because of the media-richness and creative navigation possibilities, and the ability to update as needed. I could see a multimedia journalism “textbook” as an app, for instance, taking advantage of all three of those attributes.

(8) All social media apps and websites adopt the “translate” feature from TweetDeck, further opening up the world.

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Mark on September 24th, 2010

On the newspaper front, it seems there has been more cause for fiscal optimism over the last little while. The mantra that “you need to support us because we are good for you” (which tends to put reading newspapers on par with, say, eating broccoli), has slowly given ground to cautious and understated optimism about coming experiments with paywalls and great dollops of excitement about the emergence of tablet and smartphone apps that people are willing to buy.

When it think this through, though, and read the anaylses and predictions, I keep coming up against the thought that while the financial opportunities for journalism may be changing, one thing isn’t: abundance.

It is an accepted truth that one of the major effects of the internet age, or whatever we are calling this new time, is the end of scarcity, particularly as it applies to the availability of news reporting and journalism.

One implication of abundance is that I’m going to carefully choose the journalism I pay for once we reach the golden age of paywalls and tablet apps. It’s a question of money, certainly. But it’s also a question of time and attention. Back when I subscribed to three daily newspapers, a lot of issues got glanced at and put on the to-be-read pile, which inevitably became the recycle-this-now pile. I don’t want a digital equivalent of that.

The other implication, of course, is that I’m no longer limited to the handful of titles that could have been delivered to my door a decade ago. I have, literally, the world at hand.

And we can add to the paywalled websites and purchase-by-the-month subscription apps the rest of the great, untidy modern world of communications: television, radio, blogs, Facebook status updates, the great sweep of digital did-you-hear-about-this chatter. And the links, always, the links.

Deciding where to spend money on journalism — when that day comes — is going to be complex. How much local, national, international will I really need to pay for to be comfortable that I am informed? What value will any of the dozens of daily publications I might consider really deliver for me that I can’t get elsewhere?

It’s no longer as simple as one from column A (local), one from column B (national).

And, if that’s the case for a news consumer/user/reader (or whichever label we finally land on), it’s even more challenging for the publications that will be after my media dollars: pure presence (on the local scene, for instance) will be no longer enough to convince me that this is media that I have to have.

No matter how good, in their minds, it may be for me.

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