Archive for March, 2006


Breaking news: Jill Carroll is released

The Washington Post is reporting this morning that kidnappers have released 28-year-old American freelance journalist, Jill Carroll.

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Northwest Writers Workshop/Poynter conference

Posted by: Steve Dunkelberger

Since I’m freshly back from the Northwest Writers Workshop/Poynter conference in Portland last weekend, i should share a bit of that experience.

I have long complained that many of these writers conferences have sessions for beginning writers and some for reporters who have months to investigate stories and unlimited space in which to tell their tales. Not many sessions have been offered for middle-of-their-career reporters in the real world deadline and space issues.

The Portland conference finally had something for us folks.
One such session was by Julia Sulek of the San Jose Mercury News who talked about narrative writing on a deadline and with limited space.

The thrust of her talk was that since newspapers are less immediate than radio, television and the Internet, print folks should write articles that are engaging and not just information since they should assume the readers have already a passing knowledge on the issue — courtesy of the faster media.

To do that, print people should pick a detail that encapsulated the story or information. Get to the gut of the story by showing the intestines. That will gain the reader from the start and set up the tone for the rest of the article.

Faced with a standard issue flood, for example, Julia wrote about the effort of a few cowboys to save a herd of cattle. People get lost in the statistics of disasters but are engaged by the tale of a bovine rescue.

Like my old J-prof always said the fact that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust is a statistic. That one of them was a little girl who hid in an attic is a story.

The next big journalism training session in the Pacific Northwest is in Eastern Washington next month. Visit: spj.wash.org.

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Advertorial in The Atlantic?

Can it be???? From an e-mail received today.

The Atlantic is considering an advertorial on the issue of corporate social responsibility, and would benefit greatly from your feedback. Your input, together with that of other panelists, will likely guide the tenor of potential coverage on this important topic, and may be featured within the pages of the magazine.

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Back in action

Well, all, I’ve been horribly absent on these pages for the past couple of weeks. Apologies for letting it lie but deadlines bred the need to “unplug.” I just finished writing a book manuscript on chronic pain and the only it was going to get finished was if I disappeared for a while. I’m going to have to add a chapter on how writing about chronic pain is such a pain.

So if I’ve not responded to your e-mails, I apologize. I wasn’t dissing you personally, only avoiding e-mail and the Internet altogether.

The deadline is done and I find myself in the unusual position of a little breathing room. Wanted to share this comment from Graham Holliday that I thought you’d enjoy.

Hi wendy. I wrote the piece in the Press Gazette. I’ve found blogging on a niche topic unrelated to much of my freelance work (streetfood) has helped increase my visibility. I’m very much of the opinion that the narrower the niche you blog the better it is for your visibility.

On a related point, as an experiment I blogged the entire process of writing a feature for a magazine:

Here

It produced some interesting feedback, led to some interviews, discussion on forums etc. Again increasing visibility.

With some stories and story ideas now I just blog what I’m working on, thinking about, people I’m interviewing etc. I tag everything in Technorati to increase visibility and I bookmark related stories and blogs in del.icio.us. All of which has helped some stories go down a different path from what might have otherwise been the case.

Lastly, as a direct result of editors reading my blog and approaching me I have received commissions from a wide range of mags and papers. I also do consulting work for one company because I reported on them a year ago, they kept reading my blog and offered me the work.

So, you know anything can happen if you put it out there.

Right on, Graham. Thanks for sharing your story. Wonder if you’d be so kind as to share a little of your knowledge about Technorati tags and del.icio.us?

Jill Carroll update
Here’s an interesting piece about blogs taking up the effort to free freelancer Jill Carroll.

U.S. bloggers are linking to public service announcements airing on Iraqi television. They feature an appeal from Carroll’s mother and one from the politician she was trying to meet before kidnappers ambushed her. They also include references to her love for Iraq and show interviews with Iraqis who say they have come to regard Carroll as one of their own daughters.

The Christian Science Monitor is backing hte effort.

And finally…
Because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I’m married to an Irishman and I have three sons — Ryan, Patrick and Michael — I thought I’d share my favorite Irish proverb. Cheers to all!

It’s the merry-hearted boys that make the best men!

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TRD101: The One

by Michael Maynard

March 15, 2006

Now that the Oscars are over, and as of tomorrow morning, you’ll have turned in your “for entertainment purposes only” NCAA college basketball March Madness brackets picks, the collective odds-making punditry will turn its “six will get you five” focus to the quadrennial beauty pageant known as the Presidential elections. We’ve already begun to see the before-conception poll results matching those whom the “Inside the Beltway”self anointed political elite think will be the candidates. The top two names being bandied around and test against each other in the polls are Senators John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Neither will win their party’s nomination, let alone the Presidential election. But, as usual, I’m ahead of myself, so let’s not discuss who will be the candidates at this time, but what is needed in a candidate to be successful in 2008 and in his or her one or two terms in office.

Would I like to be President? Of course! As modest, calm and diplomatic as I am, I’d make a great President and would have wiped out at least 5 countries by this time in the second term. The annexation of Canada and Mexico would be nearing completion. My Vice (ahem) President, Catherine Zeta-Jones-Douglas-Maynard, would have been put in charge of that program to take her mind off of the unfortunate hunting accident loss of her late husband. The House of Representatives, if ever let back in session, would start running smoothly under the direction of
Speaker for Life, William Belichick.

No, I would not like to be President of the United States under any circumstances. It is the ultimate in high responsibility, low direct authority stress-laden job. You don’t have direct control over the purse strings. You can attempt to develop a strategic plan and direction, but have to get two boards of directors totaling 535 members to sign off on it. Forget planagement because by the time the implementation has gone through all the levels of bureaucracy and agencies involved, you probably won’t remember what you wanted to have done. There’s no direct bottom line and you’re accountable to billions of shareholders.

And that’s the easy part of the job. What would drive me most crazy is the 3 years I would have had to spend on the road giving the same stump speech, hitting up people for money and smiling at some lame joke being made by a local factotum in East Podunk after an already 18 hour day. Then there is the 24 hour news organizations who are sitting on every word you say, waiting for you to screw up or say something controversial so you hear it in an endless 72 hour feedback cycle. No, I wouldn’t want to be President that much to go through this process. The joke about anyone wanting to run for President being disqualified for being crazy appears to me to be prima facie accurate.

Who would want to be President of the United States in 2008? The war in Iraq will likely still be in a deadly stalemate. The US economy will be in the dumper because of the disastrous fiscal and monetary policies of the previous administration. The healthcare crisis will remain unsolved and unchecked. Action on global warming will need to be taken immediately and the list of problems and issues is endless. Global relationships will be at an all time low. The red-state/blue-state culture wars will be in full rampage after the election. You face all of this after being elected with no more than 52% of the 40% of those who could have voted and probably facing a split or dual opposition Congress.

Why would anyone want this job now?

Senators Clinton and McCain are very bright and very capable people. Both might be excellent Presidents under different circumstances. Right now, both are so polarizing because of their legislative and personal views and histories, I doubt either would go far in their party’s primaries. Mrs. Clinton, through little fault of her own, is anathema to the Middle American male voter and Mr. McCain, because of his personal believes, is anathema to a majority of women voters.

What is needed now is a healer, a person of charisma, dignity, intelligence, modesty and humor who can start the slow uniting and refocusing of all the country, especially after an unpopular and costly war. Neither Senator McCain nor Senator Clinton are healers. Neither are Senator Kerry nor Senator Biden, good men as they are. Perhaps Senator Hagel is, but his views on social issues will cause many on the left to tune him out completely. Senator Feingold lost me when he didn’t put up a stronger fight against Supreme Court Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination. Now pushing for the censuring of President Bush strikes me very strongly of grandstanding. What does censuring George Bush now do to change the direction of this country and the world? At best, nothing and more likely, nothing good.

Forget Mitt Romney. Perhaps Governor Warner, Kaine of Vilsack will grow on me, but thus far, they appear to be in critical need of personality implants.

Think back to the person who galvanized the 2004 Democratic convention with his speech and subsequent interviews. He’s the one, he’s the healer – Barack Obama.

TRD101 knows this: I’ve worked with top executives. I’ve run companies. You can’t compare being President of the United States with any CEO position because it’s unlike any other job in the world. You have to be destined, you have to be the one to be an excellent President. Very few of us are so destined and fewer of them can do that job well. Only one can at a time.

And that is the Real Deal 101 for today, like it or not.

Send your comments and questions or to be added to TRD101′s distribution list to:
mikemaynard@mindspring.com

© Copyright Michael Maynard, TRD101, March 2006.

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TRD 101: Damage Done

by Michael Maynard

March 6, 2006

“We all damaged”. That line was spoken by The West Wing’s Jimmy Smits’ character, Representative Matthew Santos, in the speech Santos gave at the fictional Democratic convention, to win the Presidential nomination. That line hit home with me because it was unexpected that a politician, even a fictional one, would make that remark.

We are all damaged in varying degrees at various times throughout our lives. We are all damaged. Whether by infirmity, age, genetics, personal misfortune, vagaries and vicissitudes of weather or life, social strata, lack of opportunity due to geographic location, heartbreak, poor judgement, whatever, no one of us is perfect. No one of us is perfect

You may think your invincible. You’re not. You lose your job unexpectedly. Your spouse or child becomes gravely ill. Your parent needs to be placed in a retirement facility. A car runs a red light at an intersection and smashes into you. Your child gets caught with drugs. You become damaged and that damage stays with you the rest of your life.

When one of us is damaged so that their life is endangered or lost, by other than by the grace of God, we are all damaged. We are all damaged. Amongst us, somewhere in the world, could be the next Einstein, the next Pasteur, the next Galileo, the next Mozart, the next Rembrandt. If that person is born in Brookline, Massachusetts, they have a good possibility of reaching that potential. If that person is born in Darfur, they have virtually none.

We are all damaged. In the US, our forefathers ventured forth from across the sea, to free themselves from governmental tyranny, so that they, could reach our potential for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which they stated were unalienable rights. We band together as a community, as a state, as a region, as a nation, because together we are stronger and more capable of fulfilling that potential of those rights, than we would individually. We band together because we are all damaged individually and joined together collectively, we become whole.

What the character Matt Santos said was a brilliant statement because not only does it show the humanity of the man, and it reminds us of the humanity in all of us. It also brings into the question the philosophy of the roles of all levels of government in our lives. What are the individual and joint responsibilities of the federal government, the state government, the local government, and ourselves as individuals? In modern times, we have gone from the New Deal era of Franklin Roosevelt, to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, to slow dismantling of the New Deal and Great Society programs by the Ownership Society of Newt Gingrich, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Should the social safety net held under us from protection against loss of job, loss of health, low income and aging be pulled out completely or only piece by piece, until so many fall through cracks that the net might as well not be in place at all?

The Democrats, in their infinite disarray and befuddlement, still have an opportunity to engage the debate about the role of government in our lives. What the polls do not show is that the real solid base issue holding up George Bush, IMNSHO, is not terrorism, it’s not directly social issues, it’s taxes. In what has become political policy development these days, right-wing (strategist?, crank? wingnut? all of the above?) Grover Norquist has defined the political debate at every level, but especially national – starve the beast. It is Norquist’s goal to cut the federal government out of all programs, except the most fundamental: national security and military spending. While Norquist thinks he is being smart, what he proposes is really class warfare at its worst and it is hateful.

How the math works is easy. There is X dollars needed top ay for all of the government services the country requires, widely ranging from the local filling pot holes in the road to developing the next generation anti-tank warfare system. What the Republicans have done for political, not public policy reasons, is push the tax base from the greatest tax base, the national income tax system, to the state and then down to smallest tax base, the local, resulting in rapidly increasing property and excises taxes and an expanding variety of service use fees. Ask Governor Mike Riley of Alabama how popular support is for raising the state income tax to provide services to those of us most damaged: the sick, the elderly, the needy, the poor. Ask the victims of Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi who are falsely being told there isn’t enough money available to help them rebuild their lives.

The corollary arguments to the ownership society are that what is lost in taxes will be made up by private generosity through non-profit organizations and that by outsourcing public services to the private sector, those services will be done more efficiently and more cost effectively. Both arguments are prima facie absurd. Those with the mean-spirited, gimme first attitude that begrudges every dollar paid in taxes are not about to turn around and give the same tax-relief amount to charity. There have been many studies, including recent ones on garbage collection and prison management, that have shown private sector service providers are no more, and often less, efficient and cost effective than public sector providers. When these private sector companies are faced with reducing profits or cutting services, they usually choose cutting services, even if the public’s welfare is endangered. I’ve worked and consulted in the private sector way too long to buy into the myth of the superior efficiency of the private sector. Halliburton, anyone?

We are damaged, as a people, as of today. We no longer band together because mindless listening to those who profit from our separation have made us forget that our forefathers came to this nation to get away from those who separated them for craven, power-mad reasons. We no longer band together because of silly political ideological and geographic reasons, using those reasons as false shields to protect our damaged underbellies from exposure to the truth. We no longer band together because we hide in our mini-fortresses, bored with life, but unwilling to engage the world outside. We are damaged because no longer recognize the hand being held out to be helped pulled up is not the one being asked for a hand out. Nor do we recognize it as someday being our own hand.

TRD101′s basics know this: Until there is national dialogue about who we are as a people, and what services we want from our governments, gaining control of the damage cannot be done. The question is whether too much damage has been done for that control to be reclaimed.

And that, unfortunately, is the Real Deal 101 for today, like it or not.

Send your comments and questions or to be added to TRD101′s distribution list to:
mikemaynard@mindspring.com

© Copyright Michael Maynard, TRD101, March 2006.

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“Spunk & Bite”

Poynter columnist Chip Scanlon has a great column about a new book by Arthur Plotnik called “Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style.”

One of the challenges of being a freelance writer is convincing well-meaning but short-sighted editors (particularly at newspapers) that breaking the rules sometimes makes for interesting reading.

So much of journalism today is so rigid and boring. I’m glad to see the book is out and I’m going to pick it up and hope for inspiration and affirmation. Plotnik’s from Chicago. Wonder if we can entice him to address the SPJ Convention?

Here’s a taste from Scanlon’s interview. I particularly like the mantra:

What lessons in the book are most important for journalists?

Here are three:

1. Inherent in every lede should be this mantra-like pledge to readers: “I promise that something will stimulate you if you keep reading.” In an era when words are up against HDTV, iPods, IMAX, and Xboxes, that promise had better be there — and be quickly delivered — whether as enlightenment, surprise, shock, amusement, fright, personal gain or even sorrow.
2. Have faith in the power of language to compete with anything. Does language still matter in this supposedly dumbed-down world? You bet it does — and will, until people stop using words to symbolize everything that stimulates them. Nothing has ever stirred juices and roused souls more than well-chosen words. Almost always you will soar above the crowd or be lost in it depending on how you use language.
3. Freshness rules. The surprising locution lights up everything, even the murk associated with adjectives and adverbs. A critic describes someone’s hair as “defiantly limp” — adverb. A writer speaks of “setasideable sex, as setasideable as a floppy disk” — adjective. Whatever the part of speech, if it’s inventive and unexpected, go with it.

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Partnering for the greater good?

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds has a new book out called, “An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths.”

Here’s an excerpt from a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

If Big Media could figure out how to partner with alternative media – putting together, as Reynolds suggests, “a network of freelance journalists” or “knit[ting] together a network of bloggers” – the outcome would be good for all concerned.

But that’s not going to happen as long as corporate journalism continues to insist on ever more bureaucratic protocols, on making articles conform to some goofy packaging concept, and on a top-to-bottom command structure. It’s as though a World War II army were marching through a jungle infested by guerrillas. Just like in Vietnam.

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Musings on writing a column

Writing a column is the prose form of haiku. You have a limited number of words, usually 600 to 1,000, to make your case and your points. Each word in the column is precious and deliberate. It takes a skilled word craftsman to write 2-3 columns per week and make them interesting and informative. The words have to flow, they have to have a rhythm and they have to be in your voice and style I think it is a different, and tougher, art than writing a book.

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TRD101: Noses are like opinions

by Michael Maynard

Even though my home town newspaper, The North Adams Transcript, was not huge in size or circulation, it did have one very good section: the op-ed page. The Transcript picked up in syndication the works of some of the best columnists of all time, such as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Herb Caen and others. I grew up loving to read good columns and secretly harbored a desire to be a columnist myself. A good columnist’s work inform you about topics that you might never have considered, causes you to think about those topics in ways you haven’t thought about them before and the best, columnists motivate you to action.

A good column is an opinion based upon facts tempered by common sense and fueled with the passion of the columnist to tell you why this subject and his/her opinion in it are important. Writing a column is also a very moral act and a civic responsibility; a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. There are a number of top-notch columnists today who combine all of those traits.

Writing a column is the prose form of haiku. You have a limited number of words, usually 600 to 1,000, to make your case and your points. Each word in the column is precious and deliberate. It takes a skilled word craftsman to write 2-3 columns per week and make them interesting and informative. The words have to flow, they have to have a rhythm and they have to be in your voice and style I think it is a different, and tougher, art than writing a book.

The best columnist in the business is Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. Mr. Kristof not just gives his opinion, he takes action upon them. His recent works to raise the level of consciousness and urgency on the massacres in Darfur are brilliant. His adoption of a young women forced into prostitution in Thailand was moving, compassionate and highly moral. I greatly respect Kristof for understanding that he has the great forum in the world, the op-ed page of the New York Times, and he understand how to use it for the world’s good.

Close behind Kristof is his fellow NYT columnist, the underappreciated Bob Hebert. Hebert’s work to bring justice for police killing of blacks in Tulia, Texas, and stopping IBM’s dumping of PBC’ used in manufacturing printed circuit boards in rivers and coverage of the subsequent California trial It was Pulitzer Prize level work and unfortunately, I did not, as I promised to Hebert, send in the paperwork to nominate him.

There is the national treasure, Molly Ivins, who is funny, wry, sharp and insightful. Many right-wingers fault columnists for their criticism of George Bush and the Bush Administration, but given Molly Ivins’ long history with the Bush family from Texas to Washington, these wingnuts have a very hard time doing so. There are many other top notch print columnists that I read: Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, and Maureen Dowd of the NYT; Scott Lehigh and Derrick Z. Jackson of the Boston Globe, Joe Conason of the New York Observer, and Hendrick Hertzberg of the New Yorker Magazine. If I could write with the passion, majesty and moral clarity of the should be nationally syndicated James Carroll, I’d really be dangerous. For my right wing friends, I do read George Will and Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, and occasionally agree with them, as infuriating as they can be at times. The Internet has spawned a few top-notch columnist commentators, such as Josh Marshall of Talking Point Memo (www.talkingpointmemo.com) and Professor Juan Cole of Informed Comment (www.juancole.com).

The commonality of all of the above is not only their commitment and passion for what they do, but the soundness of their opinions. They do their research, they talk with experts and qualified sources, they think through what they write before they write it, and they’re not afraid to push forward or buck public opinion. They’re knowledgeable, credible and likeable. It’s a strong tradition of public instigation of discourse handed down from H.L. Mencken.

But if you look at the list of columnists on the Washington Post Syndicate and Creators Syndicate, there are way too many people claiming to be credible opinionators. It’s isn’t how qualified you are, though qualified experience certainly helps. It isn’t how well you write, though being able to write a declarative sentence is necessary. It’s how well you enjoin the public discourse and writing a column is public discourse. It’s not about which side of the political spectrum you’re on and how you respond to issues of the day by reflex. It’s about how well you’ve thought out what the public ramifications of what you write. People do take action and form opinions based upon what you write. You become a member of the public trust.

Noses are like opinions. Let to run at will uncontrolled for too long, then others become infected by you. Red versus Blue America is really a disease of the public discourse called knee-jerk no-nothingism on both sides. There are too many opinions and opinionators out there, and not enough building understanding through intelligent discourse. Too many noses, not enough opinions.

You may not agree with what I write, and that’s fine. But if I get you to think about why you don’t agree first before your write to me or talk to others, then I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, engage your mind, not inflame it further.

So TRD101′s basics lesson is this: the next time you read a newspaper, magazine or Internet columnist, ask yourself these two questions: do they really know what they’re writing about? Are they telling me what to think or enabling me to think for myself? Opinions are also like noses, everybody has one, and most shouldn’t be blown in public.

That’s the Real Deal 101 for today, like it or not.

mikemaynard@mindspring.com

© Copyright Michael Maynard, TRD101, March 2006.

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