Back in 2002, I attended the Nieman Narrative Writer's Workshop, co-sponsored by the Poynter Institute (a resource tank for journalists) and Harvard University. It was one of the most cost-effective, productive uses of my time and money I ever spent at a industry convention in any industry. The weekend was crammed with seminars, from morning well into the evening , from which I took away real tips I could apply right away to my work. That is always the litmus test of an effective seminar. Was it "well this would be nice at my office, but it'll never happen with current management" theory, or "Here's how you deal with this and make your own work better" tips and ideas? The latter applied to the majority of the sessions at this conference, and pregnancy, postpartum and life with a toddler are the only reasons I haven't been back yet.
Having lavished all this praise, a weekend career seminar isn't a weekend career seminar without at least one dog of a session, and this one's was called "Consider the Alternatives: Placing narrative in alternative weeklies." It was going on at the same time as a session titled "The Storytellers: How to start a narrative writers group in your newsroom." As I wasn't employed in a newsroom, it didn't make sense for me to go to the second one. So I went to the one about Alternatives. I was already (and continue to be) sold on the importance of alternative weeklies in large cities' presscapes, and the alt-prestige of having one's byline in them. I thought it was going to be about how to do it. It started off with the standard "let's get a feel for who's here -- how many of you work for dailies? How many magazine writers? How many freelancers?" The speaker, Mike Lenehan, was clearly disappointed that there weren't any daily newspaper writers in his little session, because he clearly planned to discuss not how, but why you'd want to put your narrative in the alt-press. Well, what did he think was going through the full-time reporters' heads? I can't speak for full-time journos, but I can't imagine (although I've got to bet he was fantasizing) it was something like this:
"Hmmm. I have a full-time job with benefits at my city's daily newspaper. I'm interested in writing narrative, which is why I'm at this conference. Let's see, there's two competing café seminars I could go to. I could go to the one led by a guy who started a narrative writers' group in his newsroom, and he's going to tell us how he did it, how it encouraged more narrative writing at the paper he works at, how his narrative writing improved as a result, and give me tips about how I could start this up back home! Or I could go to this other one, about offering my writing to the alternative weekly in my hometown. Hmmmm. I want to learn how to risk violating my contract's exclusivity, non-competing media, or right-of-first-refusal clauses, thus jeopardizing my full-time union gig with benefits, just so I can get paid 10 cents a word to have my stuff run in the New City Paper Times Alternative. Well, shoot, I think I'll do that."
So Lenehan was stuck with us untrustworthy, untrained, dirtbag freelancers. He spent a good ten or so minutes shuffling his index cards, at a loss for what he was going to tell us about writing narrative for alternative weeklies, since we weren't the audience he wanted/needed to convince. Then came an annoyingly condescending question and answer period ("So do you have some advice on how to pitch our ideas to you or other alt-weekly editors?" "If you have to ask, you haven't read my paper." Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you very frigging much: "Read the publication you're pitching to." Wow, I've never seen that advice in any of the much cheaper than this conference books on the topic. Oh, thank you. That makes it all clear. Whatever. Just go back to wishing we weren't your audience instead of the full-time journos you really wanted to talk to, or, probably, admit it, be.) Then, finally he got to a point of reading a sample of the type of story that works well in an alternative paper, his example was a really good piece that held our attention, and he was a fine reader, somebody who could pick up a few extra $$$ as a voice for audiobooks. I left. I left with a renewed feeling that I didn't like: the reminder that there's a good portion of the underground (whether its music, journalism, art, etc.) that thinks it's too hip for everybody else, that thinks the "masses are asses" and that they are the only arbiters of good anything. It’s a shoot-one's-self-in-the foot attitude, and it doesn't win over the mainstream that it often not-so-secretly wishes it was. Lenehan and his ilk want it both ways: mainstream success with indie cred. You can have both, but not with that attitude.
I was supposed to write about this session for Poynter Online (as I did for about six other sessions at this conference), but I told the editor, "You've been so nice, and this conference has been so wonderful, to give me the chance to jumpstart my writing, that I really feel that at this point I need to follow the old 'if you haven't got anything nice to say….' adage and just not report on this." I told her why, and she agreed. I filed my other six stories, and left the conference energized, putting bitter old Mikey out of my head.
Later, I did what probably every other freelancer (and thus attendee) in that room did -- I started a blog. Granted, it took me about five years later to do so, (yeah, like this post, I'm late for the party but I'm not blaming bloggers). Others have been going on for a few years, and in that time blogging has expanded to the point where now the alternative weeklies have almost become part of the establishment, and bloggers have taken over the role of the hip, irreverent outsiders. Then I saw this little blip in Romenesko the other day:
To prove that bloggers and Google News robots can't do the work of trained reporters, Reader executive editor Michael Lenehan proposes a yearlong journalism strike. "I am urging reporters and editors around the world to put down their notebooks, close their laptops, hang up their phones. Lie down and be counted! Let’s have no reporting, no editing, no application of any human intelligence whatsoever to events public or private till January 1, 2007. I’m calling it the Year Without Journalism. Let’s all relax, let go, and float blissfully in the information-free state (excuse me, I mean free-information state) that our public awaits so eagerly. ... Let’s see if Wonkette can deal with the devious bastards in the executive branch any better than Judith Miller did."
I clicked on the link to the actual article Romanesko referenced, and while I waited forEVER for the PDF file to load, my mind flashed back. Mike Lenehan, Mike Lenehan, where do I know that name from, hmmm…. Oh yeah! He's the guy that was bitter because none of his peers, the "professionals," showed up for his patronizing little seminar! Now he's bitter because we freelancers-turned-bloggers are stealing his media's thunder! Once again, the big party is in a room down the hall, Lenehan's not in on it, and it's Making Him Mad. So now that bloggers hold the higher "indie cred" card, a card he used to jealously hold, Linehan wants to cash in his remaining chips and go home. (Never mind that he still holds some good indie cred cards.)
His idea of the equivalent of a professional journalists' hunger strike makes a great point. I value the professional standards that are taught in j-schools, and part of my plan to get myself back into full-time writing is to practice them. Fact-checking. Source verification. Spelling. Vigorous editing. Full disclosure. (Sentence fragment elimination, too). Of course bloggers aren't beholden to them -- but some are. And, not everybody in "mainstream media" follows these to the T, either. But generally, when a mainstream paper messes up, they fess up: just look at all the genuine apologies on the front pages of America's dailies regarding the West Virginia Mining Disaster's tragic survivor rate (or lack of, as we all learned later). They laid out a plate of Fettucini Crow and ate it up. Bloggers don't do that, by and large -- and they don't have to. Many bloggers make a mistake and either blow it off, or else make excuses, blame it on the great right/left wing media conspiracy, and shut off their open comments settings. Many, not all. That goes for both sides.
But like it or not, Mike, the journalistic landscape is changing, and like daily newspapers have had to adjust to the increasing competition from the 'net, you do too. You can cry and whine that your advertisers are finding that Craig's List is getting the job done for them, (as Mike laments in the full article) or you can give me a reason to download the PDF version of your paper or pick it up when I'm out at the bars or whatever. C'mon, if the only reason people pick up an alternative is to check the personal ads and see what band is playing Friday night, you deserve to fold. In fact, here in Milwaukee, I've learned NOT to trust the club listings -- our weekly, the Shepherd Express, is notorious for messing those up. (It's always worth a call to the club -- or the band themselves to confirm: "Hey, Fly, is it true you guys are headlining at Shank?" "No, actually we're opening for the Reverend Horton Heat." "Wow, better still!") But that's not why I pick up the Shepherd every week -- it's to read MacNally and Doug Hissom (the most criminally overlooked reporter in SE Wisconsin). Give me -- and everybody else -- a reason, and the advertisers will come. And that's where Lenehan gives himself away: it not this lofty journalism reinheitsgebot that has his panties in a bunch. He's ticked off because all his advertisers are joining Craig's Party List, so he's taking potshots at wonkette. As more than a few commeters are saying what I thought back in '02: Get over it, Mike. Maybe I'm late to this blogging thing and this particular issue, but I knew this guy's story four years ago and was too nice to tell it.