Posts Tagged blogging

Flinching in the face of the future

They used to say “trust no one over 30,” and I guess that means I can’t be trusted. I’m not over 30, but I seem to have the mentality of someone who is beyond their 20s.

Twenty-somethings have run afoul of the New York Times a lot lately. In one post I read recently, the author described the Times as “conservative” and “on the wrong side of history” for criticizing the Millenial lifestyle.

It wasn’t just shocking to hear a paragon of liberalism like the Times being referred to as conservative, it was the thought that modern tech is defining who we are.

I’m a 20-something, but I sometimes feel like I’m on the wrong side of history. I use digital tech to work and communicate, but I often wonder if society isn’t paying a price for all of the convenience it offers.

Of course, everyone gets annoyed by the constant barrage of e-mails and Facebook statuses once in awhile, but what really bothers me is the feeling that, whatever people think about tech, and whatever legitimate evidence of its flaws comes to light, we’ll continue plunging head-first into a wired future. We don’t have a choice.

I love writing this blog, and I love being able to keep in touch with far flung friends with social media. However, I also love print books, and my flip phone. I don’t love the idea of paying my bills online, and risking all sorts of digital skullduggery.

I often read that the Internet and smart devices are creating unheard of opportunities for innovation, that they are tools that can change the world. But for something that can do all of that, it comes with an awful lot of rules.

Living in the Digital World requires a different set of skills; it doesn’t completely level the playing field. As with anything else, some people are better at it. Those who can express themselves in 140 characters, attract followers, and read the data will always succeed. Those who can’t will fail.

I guess this is second nature to some people, but it quickly drains the romance from the digital frontier. Whenever I engage a new medium, it seems like someone’s already figured it out before me. So what’s required is conformity, not innovation.

I’m sure there are others more brilliant and courageous than I who can bend these mediums to their will and truly innovate, but it’s completely false to believe that everyone can automatically do the same because of some inherent quality of the technology.

I sincerely hope that technology leads us to a better future. I hope that someday, our reality is like Star Trek. I just have a hard time seeing how to get from here to there, and I have a hard time imbuing technology with that much significance. Yes, it’s new and popular but at one time, so was the steam engine.

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The infinitely deep gap between writing about something and nothing

In college, I had a writing teacher who said that, if you have a column or blog, you can write about having nothing to write about. But you can only do it once. For this blog, I’m saving that free pass for rainy day. However, I thought it would be interesting to discuss where ideas come from and how original they need to be.

I’ve always thought that the best way to come up with ideas for news and feature stories is to draw on experience. Talking to sources, finding out what’s actually happening, or learning about an important trend are the essence of journalism. That’s why it’s called reporting, after all.

What happens when you can’t be near the source, though? Or if you don’t have a monopoly on it? The Internet has dramatically changed how news is reported, especially when it’s related to industry, politics, or other subjects that don’t have a geographic base.

Here’s an example: If Ford wants to show off a new car, it will probably unveil it at a major auto show in front of the world’s press, but it will simultaneously post all of the vital information on the car on its website.

That means every media outlet, even ones that didn’t send reporters to show, has access to the same information (assuming the bigwigs don’t take questions). Since everyone is online, people don’t need to rely on their local newspaper or magazine to learn about it.

That’s why angles are so important. A writer can explain how a story applies to their specific audience, or add analysis that others might not have thought to include. Other outlets distinguish themselves with style, taking on a more informal or humorous tone to differentiate themselves from “traditional” coverage.

This means readers are essentially getting several different takes on the same event, which can be informative, or confusing if they don’t agree.

It also shows that many stories are worth covering, even if someone else is doing it. The flip side of that is that it’s easy to piggyback off someone else’s work without contributing anything.

This clip from Portlandia illustrates the problem pretty well:

Anyone who thinks print media is dead should take a careful look at the sources of some of the digital articles they’re reading. Someone has to actually do the reporting, but that doesn’t mean the discussion stops there.

The “all access” scenario described above applies to original news too. Sometimes a story is important enough that it deserves coverage of its own, but that makes it every easy to just repeat the findings without adding anything.

Avoiding this requires a similar approach to the omnipresent car unveiling. Work the angles. Tailor the story to a specific audience. Add relevant analysis and insight. Also, don’t plagiarize.

Obviously this could be easier said than done, but hopefully this shows that you can come up with some meaningful stuff without direct access to sources. That doesn’t mean these types of articles can replace original reporting, so keep trying to get out there too.

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What I’ve Learned

For this blog’s 50th post, I decided to write about writing. Since finishing grad school last May, I’ve been trying to get a job as a newspaper journalist; here’s what i’ve learned so far about finding employment as a writer. I have not been terribly successful, so far, so don’t take this as a “How to Be a Writer” guide.

1: Newspapers want clips

My quest to become a journalist began when I started college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, but I did know that I liked to write and argue about politics. In an attempt to be social, I went to a meeting of the school newspaper, The Scarlet, and they assigned me an op-ed piece on gas prices. The rest, as they say, is history.

During senior year, I took a journalism class that included visits from local journalists. The first question they always asked was “Who works for the school paper?” That’s also how I got my first writing job (blogging for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s WorcesterU site): the editor saw that I worked for The Scarlet, and thought I knew what I was doing.

Published writing is a prerequisite for any newspaper or writing job. Editors want to see that a person can write; just telling them that you can without proof is not going to work. If you’re in high school or college, don’t put off writing for your school paper or any other publications.

2: They want more than clips

Good writing skills are the bare minimum for employment, employers won’t even consider someone who misspells things in their cover letter, but landing a job requires more skills. Newspapers want their reporters to have local knowledge, to know everything about the area they cover so said reporter can cultivate sources and stories.

Consequently, the best place to start looking for a job might be the place you’ve lived the longest. Having a working knowledge of the major issues of your hometown shows employers that you already know what to write about.

3: Expand your definition of “writer” and “employed”

If you can’t find steady employment, why not freelance? If you have an idea for a story, pitch it to your local newspaper. If you have a hobby, remember that the majority of content in enthusiast magazines is bought from freelancers. The New York Times also accepts op-ed submissions every week.

The problem with freelancing is that it’s hard to live off the approval of editors. So, like any good superhero, it’s a good idea to get a day job while freelancing. If you get the right job, it can contribute to your ultimate goal. I work at a not-for-profit agency, where I am making a newsletter, and writing press releases and articles for publication in local papers. In other words, I’m writing. It may not be a staff job at the Times, but it’s better than flipping burgers.

4: Work for free

This can feel exploitative and fulfilling at the same time. On the one hand, news organizations from CNN to Patch are broadcasting user-generated content. Aside from not getting paid, accepting a free blogging gig gives you some perks: the public (and potential employers) are viewing your work and your name is attached to a reputable organization. Thanks to the Internet, writing is one of the only professions where people are expected to work for free. Until payment systems catch on, we’ll just have to deal with that.

On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to do some important work. Volunteer organizations are always looking for people to write grant applications or press releases, or edit newsletters and websites. You still don’t get paid, but you do get to show off your skills for a good cause.

5: Keep Writing

No matter what you do, the important thing is to keep writing. It is, after all, a skill that can only be maintained and improved with practice. You may not have a job, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop observing the world and putting words together in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Even if you can’t think of something that’s fit for public consumption, keep a notebook. Write a blog, even if you don’t think anyone will read it. After all, if you really want to be a writer, how could you stop?

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