Sunday, May 13, 2007

'Creative' Nonfiction at Its Best:
Esquire Profile of Halle Berry Ingenious

Celebrity profiles are ubiquitous—as much as, if not more than, the celebrities themselves. I do not envy the journalist assigned such a piece. I know, I know...I should dream of being assigned such a piece. But interviewing some Hollywood star, to be sure, isn't always the plum assignment it may first appear.

For a writer, the potential pitfalls are plentiful. First of all, there's usually an agenda: promoting a movie, a television show, an album, or just themselves (otherwise they sure wouldn't waste their time sipping cocktails with a lowly, prodding reporter). Getting past the publicist-produced soundbites is no small chore, but it's perhaps the most important step in the profile-writing process. Then there's the issue of originality. More likely than not, the celebrity has been written about a few times before. From Vanity Fair and The New Yorker (both excellent publications that regularly feature high-quality profiles) to the likes of People and Entertainment Weekly (both...well, no comment), celebrity profiles are a staple ingredient of the periodical press. Add to that the dozens of broadcast outlets and hundreds of Web sites that deal the popular drug of celebrity news, and finding a piece with a fresh approach is as likely as finding Angelina Jolie's number in the phone book.

Then Esquire published its May issue. (Disclaimer: Esquire is one of the few magazines—other than People and Entertainment Weekly, but not for the same reasons—that doesn't arrive in my mailbox, but fortunately my writing colleague suggested I give this month's cover story a read.) So there's Halle Berry, posed—and dressed—provocatively. I had my doubts. But then I read this:

A writer sat across the table from an actress. She told him most writers screw up the story. He told her writing isn't easy. She asked to give it a shot. This is what happened.

I was intrigued. Then this "Note":

Halle Berry wrote the story. Tom Chiarella added his thoughts in the form of footnotes. Click the footnote to read his annotations.

What ensues is sheer genius. Granted, Halle Berry's work alone would not exactly warrant a Pulitzer nomination (it's not the worst thing I've ever read either). Rather, it is Tom Chiarella's inventive approach and befitting delivery that makes the piece not simply serviceable, but remarkable. With the pen in the hands of Berry, she and "the writer" have essentially switched roles. But Chiarella wasn't going quietly, footnoting annotations—witty, smart, self-deprecating, and, most importantly, well written—throughout Berry's piece.

The result is rewarding for the reader: a inside peek at the dance that is done between writer and subject, subject and writer. "Halle Berry wrote this. Every word. Like all writers, she got a lot of things wrong, and she should be held responsible for the content," Chiarella chimed in with his first annotation after only Berry's first clause, echoing her sentiments about writers and warning of barbs to come. "Not sure what this means. But she's the writer," he adds later in the story. But rather than continue to quote great lines from his annotations (all of them qualify), I highly recommend reading the piece. Through humor and a thoroughly enjoyable approach, the writer not only accomplished the assignment—a profile of Halle Berry (and the reader does get a sense of who she is, even if it is, partly, in her own hand)—but also opened himself up to his audience with a rare honesty without taking himself too seriously and allowed readers to see the "process."

But this wholly original style was not without risk, as Chiarella explained in one of his footnotes:

What I was thinking at that moment, with the pastrami in my fingertips, was: I might be in a lot of trouble. I'd just conducted an interview for a cover story without getting one quote on record, all on the faith that she would actually do what she said she wanted to: write the thing herself. I was thinking, That's never going to happen. Every movie star thinks writing is easy. I was thinking, Fuck me, I am in so much trouble.

I, just like any other professional writer, would be thinking the same thing. But the risk, in the end, paid off. In the hands of another writer, it might have flopped. And it would be difficult for another writer to replicate. That's what makes this profile so stunning—effectiveness and great writing mixed with originality.

P.S.: Good for Esquire for taking the risk with its writer. It is, remember, the magazine that published arguably the best magazine profile ever wrought: Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." (Maybe I should subscribe, after all.)

Your Thoughts
Post your comments about Chiarella's Esquire cover story this month. What is the best magazine profile you've ever read?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

NY Times' publisher does care after all,
but about what exactly?

I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care either. —Arthur Sulzberger Jr., as quoted in Haaretz on Feb. 8, 2007.

Well, it now seems as if Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, does care — or has at least realized that he ought to look like he does.

Sulzberger planned to speak to his employees today about the future of the newspaper, according to the New York Observer, which received a portion of his remarks on Monday and posted them on The Media Mob blog.

The text includes Sulzberger saying that "newspapers will be around—in print—for a long time," adding that the company continues to invest in its newspapers. But here's the catch: his attempt to "clear the air" about his I-don't-care-if-the-newspaper-is-printed-in-five-years moment only clouds it even more. "My five-year timeframe," Sulzberger says according to the advance text, "is about being ready to support our news, advertising and other critical operations on digital revenue alone ... whenever that time comes." Whenever that time comes! Well, that's exactly the attitude plaguing the newspaper industry: it's not "if" but "when." So, seeing the change from the printing press to a digital medium as inevitable, newspaper publishers are essentially waving the white flag in defeat. While such a complete transformation is anything but inevitable, subscribing to such a philosophy might just bring it to fruition — sooner rather than later. Too many with the power to reinvent, reimagine, and reinvigorate the printed newspaper are focused instead on making sure they can survive solely on a digital product "whenever that time comes."

So yes, Sulzberger, like so many other industry insiders, cares — not about whether the Times is still printing a newspaper in five years but that the company is prepared not to print it (while surviving and profiting). For those of us concerned with his original comments earlier this month, his clarification doesn't offer much comfort.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Portrait of the Newspaper as a Dying Art

If he wasn't already, Johannes Gutenberg might just be rolling in his grave now.

In January, as the Associated Press reported on Monday, the world's oldest newspaper still in circulation ceased printing in favor of an online-only edition. While the Swedish newspaper — Post-och Inrikes Tidningar, which in English means "mail and domestic tidings" — is unlike many newspapers most Americans are accustomed to reading (it is published by a government agency and "runs legal announcements by corporations, courts and certain government agencies"), the decision to publish it only on the Internet is no less disturbing. Especially given its status as the oldest newspaper in the world, the move hints at an ugly future, if one at all, for the printed press. As AP writer Karl Ritter put it, "It's a fate, many ink-stained writers and readers fear, that may await many of the world's most venerable journals."

As if confirming that statement, the publisher of arguably the best and most important newspaper in the world offered some similar, and equally startling, sentiments of his own in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care either."

Though Eytan Avriel, the article's author, gives no indication of his tone (other than to call him a "stressed man"), one can only hope that Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times spoke those words with at least a touch of sarcasm. But overall, it's obvious he is leading the Times in a clear direction — to the Internet. "Sulzberger says the New York Times is on a journey that will conclude the day the company decides to stop printing the paper," writes Avriel. "That will mark the end of the transition."

Publishers like Sulzberger (those who should be fighting for the survival of newspapers, rather than be willing to abandon them), however, are headed down the wrong path. With the advent of radio came warnings of the imminent death of newspapers. They survived. So to with the arrival of television, and again newspapers survived. Now the threat comes from the Internet, but newspaper publishers seemed to forget the lessons of the past: a new medium does not automatically mean the end of older ones. Newspapers can certainly survive, but only if those who print them want them to — which seems less and less the case. It is unclear what the Internet will even look like or how it will be used or even if it will still exist in five, 10, 15 years. And yet, publishers are — some enthusiastically, others reluctantly — dumping most of their eggs into this medium riddled with questions and uncertainty. Instead, while using the popularity of the Web and its additional tools to help increase their readership and to help them tell better stories in more ways, publishers should also be searching for innovative and imaginative ways to make their newspapers relevant again — financially and otherwise.

But most are not. Most seem content with defeat, content that the Internet will supplant the need for the printed press. In fact, the World Association of Newspapers, which ranks the oldest newspapers in circulation, still has Post-och Inrikes Tidningar atop its list despite the publication's complete transformation from print to online. "An online newspaper is still a newspaper, so we'll leave it on the list," said Larry Kilman, a spokesman for the Paris-based association. In many ways, this is an attitude that has so endangered the print medium. While the online world affords many benefits to news providers and consumers, by no means are the two synonymous. Hans Holm, who served as the chief editor of the aforementioned Swedish newspaper for 20 years, had it right when he said, "We think it's a cultural disaster."

Your Thoughts
Will newspapers survive the threat from the Internet (if so, how?), or will we see more and more of them publish online-only versions in lieu of print editions? What do you think the Web will be in the next five, 10, 15 years?

Friday, January 19, 2007

A World Tour — Via Its Front Pages

Throughout the last several years, as news outlets have struggled at times to find their place in the online world, many newspapers have experimented with "electronic editions" — fully downloadable versions (often in PDF format) of their newsstand product. While some function better than others, many are infused with a slough of useful navigating tools, from search features to zooming capabilities, making the process of reading a newspaper on a computer screen quite similar to holding it in your hands. Minus, of course, the gray stains on your fingertips, the somewhat cumbersome task of folding the paper just right, and the lack of portability (to the bathroom, for instance).

Many newspapers continue to offer some form of an electronic edition on their Web sites — usually accessible only if your willing to pay subscription costs — but this style of presenting a newspaper online has never really caught on ... for several reasons (namely, some require additional software on your hard drive and many are far from user friendly).

Slate's Jack Shafer expounded on the drawbacks of electronic editions in a PRESS BOX piece several years ago headlined "Honey, They Shrunk the Newspaper, Part 2," saying that "reading electronic editions of newspapers makes you feel like a fat man trapped inside a size-too-small iron suit."

Shafer went on, however, to extol the practices of two electronic editions (Florida Today and the Guardian) — simplifying the navigation and including both a PDF newspaper page and HTML copy side-by-side. And I couldn't agree more with Shafer about the benefits of being able to view the actual newspaper on screen:

...displaying the newsprint page next to enlarged stories makes a huge contextual difference. Habitual newspapers readers generally read their newspapers as a total unit, or at least one section at a time, and the placement and size of an article provides a wealth of useful information: Is it a column, a news story, a feature, an editorial, etc.? Is it from the "Science" section or the "Home" section? Is it above the fold, and therefore the biggest news, or is it below the fold, therefore not as urgent? Much of this contextual information is lost on straight Web versions.

Perhaps none of those reasons persuade you to open your wallet and subscribe to the electronic editions of individual newspapers, especially when their Web sites are free. Understandable. But if you love newspapers and are curious about how the news plays in various parts of the country or world, check out Newseum's site. Here you'll find nearly 600 PDF versions of Today's Front Pages from newspapers across the globe. (There's also more than a dozen online exhibits worth visiting, from Pulitzer Prize Photographs to Stories of the Century to War Stories.)

The collection is searchable in two ways: 1. Scroll through several pages of small, tiled images (four dozen per page) that appear larger and in color to the right of the screen as you roll the cursor over them. Click on one of the tiny front-page images and up pops another window with a larger display with links to the paper's Web site and to a PDF file that enables viewers to actually read the text of the stories. 2. Use the "Map View" to search the world. Click on a "location dot" and the aforementioned window appears with the newspaper from that locale.

Despite not being able to look past the front pages and deeper into the newspapers (it does, however, provide links to their Web sites if you see a story you'd like to read in its entirety), logging on regularly to this site is a wonderful way of viewing the news of the day — anywhere and everywhere. It also allows, as mentioned above, users to see what is making news where and how different newspapers treat the same stories. If you were a fan of the "Morning Papers" segment during CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown — which was disturbingly cancelled in November 2005 (this will definitely be discussed in more depth in a future entry) — then you'll enjoy browsing Newseum's virtual, worldwide newsstand.

Your Thoughts
Do you subscribe to any electronic editions? What do you like and dislike about them? If not, would you ever consider subscribing to and reading one? What do you think of the Newseum feature, "Today's Front Pages"?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

'I Just Died': The future of obits has arrived

The death of columnist and humorist Art Buchwald at the age of 81 was big news on Thursday — in newspapers, on television and on the Internet. But perhaps the bigger news is how one media outlet presented it. While obituaries have long been a staple feature in newspapers, the New York Times reinvented the obit today through the smart use of its Web site. "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald and I just died," announced the humor columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner in an innovative obit video produced from Tim Weiner's interview with Buchwald in July 2006 but not posted until after his death Wednesday night.

The Times, as Weiner points out in his introduction of the video obit, has "a long tradition of interviewing some of the world's most interesting people about their lives for their own obituaries." While that is true, it's an entirely different experience to hear someone say "I just died" as you watch that person on screen. According to the Times, the Buchwald video obit was the first in a series called "The Last Word." As the piece's producer David Rummel told Editor & Publisher: "It is an oral history project. ...It is a chance to give them the last word." Weiner added that 10 other people, including a former president, have been interviewed for the project, and he hopes to conduct three to four new interviews each month. Some, including another former president, have declined his requests, he told E&P, adding that the identities of both those who have agreed to participate and those who have refused would remain secret.

In the Buchwald obituary package posted on its site Thursday, the Times has provided yet another example of the remarkable value of online journalism (which, by the way, is completely different than "citizen journalism"), without abandoning the traditions of the print medium. Those yet to view the unusual but compelling obit might wonder how it is different than what one might see on, say, CNN. Weiner aptly articulated the clear distinction to E&P: "It is the guy talking about his life in a way that television would never take the time to do, but that holds to our standards." By utilizing both the print-edition obituary and the technologically advanced version on its site, the Times has shown that the Web can function the way it once seemed it would for the periodical press — not as a fierce competitor but as a invaluable, supplemental storytelling tool.

Perhaps this rethinking of the obituary will stick and forever alter the way obits are produced and received — not just by the Times for its readers, but for all media and its consumers. Perhaps it is a major step forward for the printed press in realizing the weaponry available to it on the Web. Either way, one columnist's death and the way in which one news outlet covered it is likely to be a landmark event in the history — and future — of journalism.

Your Thoughts
What do you think of the Times video obit of Buchwald and the idea of "The Last Word" series? Will it have lasting impact on obituaries or online journalism in general? Or is it merely good work by the Times with no real influence on how other media will craft obits in the future? Is it simply a trend that will cease when "The Last Word" series does? Post your comments.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

'Got Milk?'; Newspaper Industry Needs Some

If you haven't heard, newspapers are in trouble. For print journalists and lovers of newspapers alike, the future looks bleak. Thanks to strong competition from the ever-expanding list of reliable online news sites, 2006 was a year of decreasing circulation figures, declining advertising dollars and, as a result, newsroom downsizing.

Will things get any better in 2007? Well, the answer little more than a week into the new year is a resounding NO! After reading a couple of articles in the New York Times on Monday, 2007 holds little promise for reversing the startling trends that have the Grim Reaper knocking harder than ever on the newspaper industry's door.

In For Journalists, Politics Not as Usual, Katharine Q. Seelye detailed how several traditional, and talented, print journalists — from such reputable institutions as the Washington Post and Time — are jumping the print ship to the cyberspaceship for sites like The Politico, which plans to focus exclusively on national politics and will go live on January 23. Seelye, quoting Ben Smith of the New York Daily News, hammers a nail into the print world's coffin: "It seems riskier to stay in print than to go to something new." Ouch! But wait, there's more bad news. In a dizzying cycle of events, the reason those behind The Politico think it can exist and succeed is that many newspapers are eliminating/downsizing their bureaus in Washington, thus limiting their original reporting there (read Seelye's piece, In Trying Times, Papers Retreat From Washington), which is in the first place a direct result of the pressure applied to the newspaper industry by the online world.

For several years now, newspapers have been on the receiving end of punch after punch, resulting in readers rapidly dropping their print editions. When is the industry going to pick itself up off the canvas and throw a few swings of its own? As newspapers fail to fight for their survival, it's becoming harder and harder to stand in their corner.

But the newspaper industry haven't been KO'd just yet. That scenario, however, seems inevitable if action isn't taken — and soon. Studying the real estate industry's playbook is an appropriate place to start. As the bubble was supposedly bursting around them, with the media taking a doom-and-gloom approach to the story, the National Association of Realtors decided to fight back, as reported by Vikas Bijaj of the New York Times in a November article headlined Realtors Say the Stars Are Aligned for Housing (TimesSelect subscription required):

It may go down as the 'Got milk?' moment for the housing sector.

Just as dairy associations, with their widespread ads, have tried to convince Americans of the many benefits of milk, the National Association of Realtors will begin promoting the notion that buying a home is an unalloyed good in a $40 million campaign that boldly declares: 'It's a great time to buy or sell a home.'

Where, then, are the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Newspaper Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and so on? For the most part, they've been playing intellectual parlor games at their conferences and within their own membership. But inside baseball is no way to capture the public and increase newspaper readership.

What the newspaper industry needs now is a "Got Milk?" style marketing campaign. When is the last time you were channel surfing and saw a spot promoting the vital need to read newspapers regularly — and the rewards that come from doing so? If real estate professionals can dump $40 million into an effort to convince the public to dump a few hundred-thousand dollars into buying a home, the newspaper industry can certainly throw a few advertising dollars into a campaign to persuade people to throw a few quarters into their newspaper's vending machine. If dairy associations can make drinking milk cool, than newspaper associations can certainly make reading a product that naturally caters to a bevy of diverse interests (with local, national and international news, opinion, business, sports, arts, entertainment, comics, and even games) hip once again.

But the time for such a marketing blitz is now — before the death of newspapers evolves from a frightening threat into a sobering reality.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Welcome to Taking Notes

Thanks for logging on to Taking Notes, where I'll help you keep tabs on what's happening in the world of media. Throughout 2007, I'll keep you posted on all things media. I'll cover a broad range of topics, from threats facing the newspaper industry to thoughts on infotainment, from providing opinions on specific news and sports broadcasts to pointing out examples of outstanding journalism. And a whole lot more. I certainly hope you find what you read here informative, engaging and thought-provoking. I look forward to your comments and suggestions. Be sure to check in with The Reporters' Well as well. For those wanting to subscribe to feeds of Taking Notes, you'll find various ways to do so at the bottom right of this page.