A funny story from the newsroom…when a visitor won’t quit talking

At one newspaper several years ago, I had a visitor show up to discuss with me a story idea. When they summarized, I figured it would be a two-minute conversation.

I was horribly wrong.

They spent 15 minutes talking about their story, basically repeating the same information over and over.

I’d taken some notes and began to smile while thinking of an escape hatch. I didn’t have to use the restroom, and it was nowhere near time for a lunch break.

A few moments later the publisher told me, “Richard, you have a call on Line 2.”

I excused myself, and the visitor left. Once I sat at my desk I picked up the phone and said, “This is Richard.”

My publisher answered. “Nobody. I just figured you needed an escape route.”

Richard Zowie lives in the Texas Hill Country and is a reporter for the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post. The views expressed in this blog posting do not necessarily reflect those of the Standard newspaper staff, editor or publisher. Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

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When writing doesn’t pay the bills

 

A few months ago, a high school girl told me she wanted to become a journalist when she got older and wanted my advice.

“Don’t,” I said, and immediately laughed.

I did give her some honest advice: get a great education. Intern. Get lots of experience. Learn the industry.

Also, be prepared to work a second job; journalism is undergoing a shaky transition from print to online, and many jobs do not pay well. (Try to freelance, and you will see exactly what I mean). And if you ever get married, I told her, make sure your husband makes a good living.

Even if you don’t work in journalism or have a paid writing job, you can still blog. And journal. And write down your thoughts on whatever issues tickle your fancy. Maybe you won’t be published today, this week or this year, but perhaps someday that can happen.

Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

An Australian journalism student interviews me

It’s always exciting to receive e-mail from someone across the ocean, whether it’s in Europe or down under. Recently, I received questions over e-mail from Dianne Denisse Climent, a journalism student at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Dianne came across my Ponderings From Pluto satire blog and had questions about satire and blogging. Here are my answers.

1. What are your passions and credibility’s to date?
I’ve been a professional writer for 10 years. I’ve done news reporting, feature writing, sports writing, copy writing, copy editing, proofreading, columns, and, of course, blogging. My passions are journalism, column writing, blogging and fiction writing. I work 30 hours a week at a weekly newspaper, and in my spare time I like to blog.

I also hope someday to be a fiction writer.

When it comes to blogs, I have four: my writing career, my opinions, my life and thoughts as a Christian, and my satirical news blog.

Here is my most recent satirical blog posting.

2. What does satire mean to you?
To me, satire is the exaggeration or embellishment of news events. If done properly, it can make people laugh as well as think. One classic example is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which he facetiously advocates cannibalism to draw attention to Ireland’s famine. I remember one girl at college was in tears after reading it, convinced that Swift was 100% serious. I got a good laugh out of that and thankfully, she didn’t organize her friends to lynch me. I think explaining to her that it was satire saved my life.

3. What are the different types of satire?
There are two basic types: one type favors humor while the other favors driving a point home. One example I love regarding humor is a United Way parody on Saturday Night Live where Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning spoofs his good-guy image by teaching kids unsavory habits.

I wonder how many anti-Peyton Manning football fans saw this ad and thought it was really true.

Regarding driving a point home, Swift’s essay has stood the test of time.

4. What does that satirical clip on Nintendo Wii fit demonstrate to you about satire?

It’s brilliant–serious enough to be completely convincing. This is an excellent piece of satire.

5. What do you believe are the ethical implications associated with the satire in this clip?
None. It is strictly a harmless parody. I see no problems with this video.

6. What do you believe are the legal implications associated with this clip?
Please see my answer to Number 5.

7. Do you think that satire is a legitimate commentary on society and life? or just ‘taking the piss’ out of everything?
Both. In my recent posting I try to draw attention to how the American media give Joe Biden a free pass of making a fool out of himself while crucifying Dan Quayle for mostly-apocryphal quotes of his. But yet, it is also fun to be satirical strictly to be funny. I still get angry comments from readers who think I’m an inaccurate reporter because of my satire of the American band Green Day releasing American Idiot II as a way of saying the band regrets voting for President Barack Obama.

8. Do you think satire is effectively used for social comment? Or because it draws on assumptions that people have knowledge on the set topic, it is easily misunderstood, or disregarded?
For those who grasp what satire is about, it can effectively be used for social comment. For those who read a satirical story and either believe it is true or believe it is a legitimate news story based on terrible research and reporting, it can easily be misunderstood and disregarded. Still, to me, when someone reads a satirical posting of mine and either believes it is 100% true or tells me what a great laugh they had, I am content I did my job well.

9. Is it correct for people to use humor in a derogatory manner? explain?
Excellent question, Dianne. I sometimes will do this in satire to make a point. One recent example is Fred Phelps, the Kansas “pastor” who believes American service members are dying because of the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality. In the post I “quoted” Phelps using very derogatory homosexual slurs, such as “fag”. For me, it was part of making a point. The trick is to make it relevant and try to keep in tasteful. I suppose if I did satire on African-American rappers some might expect to read a few “N-words”, but I feel very leery about doing this.

10. Online content is to be quick and eye-catching, as oppose to traditional formats which have more time to meet deadlines. As a blogger what does this mean for you and your blogs?
You have to keep things fresh, updated and remain aware of the times. Computers are constantly changing, and the Internet is changing. “In” is Facebook and Twitter: on its way “out” is Myspace.

When it comes to satire, I like to add images and videos to my posts to help with the visual appeal. Sometimes unflattering photos add to the humor.

11. The  Nintendo Wii fit video is online, therefore it is spread quickly, and is easily accessible- should this be a cause for concern, as traditional media would not have that same exposure?
I don’t see any problems except for those who might be genuinely disappointed when they realize this is false.

12. As a blogger, what are your thoughts on the perception that bloggers are less ‘ethical’ when it comes to their posts?
Bloggers aren’t held to the same type of accountability that newspaper or magazine journalists and columnists are–unless the blogger works for a client who reserves the right to review, edit and delete posts. But bloggers like Perez Hilton can pretty much post what they want as long as long as they are not false or grossly misleading (Hilton famously had to delete a post suggesting Michael Jackson was faking his illness after it was revealed Jackson had died). Other bloggers who have their own blogs on WordPress, Blogspot, Typepad or Live Journal answer to themselves and don’t have to worry about negative ramifications when their blogs are ignored. While there are reporters and columnists who are dirtbags, there are also many bloggers who believe everything they see, hear or read and will post accordingly. Try to write professionally like that, and you will soon be fired.

13. Do you think that the online format enhances the potential for an improvement in ethical or “best practice” publishing over traditional legacy media? explain.
Traditional legacy media will probably someday be a relic in a museum. I think that most–if not all–media sources someday will be online only. As for potential in ethical or “best practice”, I imagine the government in the future will start passing laws designed to hold bloggers more accountable for their actions when they write “news” that is inaccurate.

14. What are the legal and ethical challenges you encounter when posting online content?
If what you posted is factually incorrect and libelous, you face lawsuits. If it is just incorrect, you quickly remove or re-edit and, when necessary, issue a correction. If it is incorrect or misleading, you face a loss of respect for readers who sometimes will tell you in blunt language that your blog isn’t worthy for reading during time on the toilet.

15. Being a blogger, do you enjoy receiving comments, likes and or dislike on your work? What does this type of online interaction do for you?
I love reading comments–whether people agree or disagree with me. Hate mail doesn’t bother me as much anymore, and I seldom respond directly to it. Online interaction is a validation that someone out there is reading your blog. That is wonderful.

16. What do you hope the online world holds in future for bloggers like yourself?
More user-friendly, smaller computers. Perhaps blogs that you can write on or update through mental thought commands. Perhaps even ways for you to blog in ways that disguise you’re away from home.

Richard Zowie is an American writer based in Michigan. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Distancing myself from ‘free’ freelance writing work

For about a year I had been blogging at a sports website. That is coming to an end. The blogging pays nothing. Yes, it’s nice to sometimes hear from readers and receive kudos, but at this stage in my writing career I am narrowing things down to where I write for free only in certain circumstances. That blog was just too much time for no pay. The same goes for another blogging assignment that would take me an hour to write and to format and load–for $2.

Steve, a colleague and friend who writes for a famous magazine and wrote a book about Tiger Woods, once told me to avoid potential clients who say, “We can’t afford to pay you, but what we can do is give you a byline on our website.” I might add that, professionally, you should respond with: “Um, HE-LLO, McFly! [Knock on their noggin] Anybody home? Of course you will publish my name on writing work. But if you want me to take time out of my life to work for you, I expect to get paid.”

Conversely, I wonder what my landlord, internet provider, electric company, cell phone company and other monthly bills would say if I told them instead of paying my bill, I’d blog about them and make sure their name got out on the internet. Somehow, I think they’d threaten to cut off my services after laughing themselves silly.

A few years ago, I had a Christian information website called the Alpha Omega Chronicle (I say that name freely because if I ever do the site again, it’ll be under a different name). Every few weeks I’d pose a question and solicit responses from various Christians. I had people writing opinions on issues for me but I began to grow very convicted about not having the money to pay them for their services. I’ve come to this conclusion: if I ever re-launch the website, I will pay each person a fee for their opinion. No free writing. Likewise, I recommend to others who want to start a website requiring the services of writers and other professionals: don’t do so until you can afford to pay them.

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Are websites and blogs the future of journalism?

My gut response would be yes.

When I began my career as a writer back in 2000, we did our writing on PCs and our layout on Macs. We took photos which then had to be processed at a local lab. The pictures would then be scanned and laid out. Once we published the print edition, a gentleman would put out the website edition. Sure, there were lots of websites in 2000, but it seemed amazing for me that our newspaper could also be read online. After all, isn’t it called a newspaper? To me, it seemed a little like science fiction.

My, how things change.

These days, more advanced computer programs are used for writing and laying out a newspaper. Photos are taken with digital cameras, meaning the photos can be instantly viewed and downloaded instead of waiting an hour or so for the lab to have them. After the print edition is completed, then the web edition is put out.

Some newspapers that have websites are extremely reluctant about putting their news online while some newspapers (such as the one where my sister works) don’t have a website at all. Here’s the concern of many newspaper owners: if we put the news online and let people read it for free, what motivation will they have to buy the print edition?

Can a publication have both a newspaper and a website? Yes. I think the best way to do the website is to make it accessible by username and password for subscribers only (perhaps two types of subscriptions: one for those who want a subscription to the print edition but access also to the web edition and another for those who want access to the web edition only). Everyone else can read a teaser of each story but then is prompted to become a paid subscriber to read the rest of the story. Whether or not this business model will actually work remains to be seen.

Having a news publication online is especially convenient for people who live hundreds or thousands of miles from home and would like to find out what’s going on in their hometown. True, they can always wait for the print edition to be mailed to them, but some don’t like having to wait for the paper arrived and see that it was what happened two weeks ago. They want to know what’s going on right now.

Some news publications are choosing to go more towards web editions and less on print. The Christian Science Monitor is online only while some daily metros, like the San Antonio Express-News, are available in print form inside the city only. This past summer, the Flint Journal dwindled down to become published only a few times a week in print. That is only bound to increase with newspapers finding it more and more difficult to make money off their print versions.

More recently, while getting photos at a high school basketball game, I encountered a man sitting and observing the game while typing at a laptop. He told me he was with the Saginaw News and was doing doing live blogging of the game. Others who don’t even work at newspapers (such as Matt Drudge) have their own websites where they can write about things going on and upload links where people can read about a story posted in another paper.

I suspect that in about 50 years there will be few, if any, print-edition newspapers around. Perhaps they’ll cease from being called newspaper and will instead be called newsblog or newssite or newsnet. With the cell phones that now have internet access, this is becoming more and more likely. It’s easier to access a website than it is to go out and buy a paper and sort through a bunch of sections to get to where you want.

A colleague (more like a mentor) tells me he hopes that blogs don’t become the future of journalism since they are merely opinion gathering and not journalism. For some, blogs are popular because they have on faith that when they read in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, Kansas City Star or other mainstream newspaper is really accurate, fair or balanced. They figure someone who’s a decent writer but not a professional reporter couldn’t do any worse. Sometimes that might be true, other times it is not.

Besides that, some argue that with blogs there’s no way to really regulate what they post. The day could very well come where laws will be passed stating that any news website must pay some sort of fee and be licensed in a way where they are expected to follow rules for fairness and accuracy, and where they can be held liable for publishing libelous comments or stories.

That’s a great point, but these days it’s far easier to start a web news site than it is a newspaper. To start up a newspaper requires a huge investment of capital, followed by securing advertising and hiring the right people. Most recently, the Detroit Daily Press tried this and failed miserably; some former workers allege they were never paid for their work. To start up a website costs only the fee to buy the domain name and to hire someone to make it look nice online while you have the task of uploading news. Blogs, such as the ones here at WordPress, cost nothing unless you want to upgrade. It’s far easier to run web-based news than it is print.

It’s 2010, and it’ll be fascinating to observe this decade whether or not newspapers will make a comeback. My guess is that as the older generation passes on and the computer generation becomes more rampant, we may very well see the day where printed newspapers become as archaic as typewriters.

Richard Zowie has been a professional writer for almost 10 years and has been published in the San Antonio Express-News, Recreation Management magazine, Flint Journal’s Flint Community Newspapers and various web-only sites. His opinions are not necessarily reflected by his past and current clients. Post comments or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Journalism today and possibly tomorrow

I recently had lunch with a colleague. I use the term “colleague” loosely since this gent has accomplished far more in the journalism world than what I have (or probably ever will have). As we ate, we discussed a few things about our industry.

Some newspapers are very reluctant to web-publish their stories. Their reasoning is readers will start to ask, “Why should I spend x amount of money on the print edition when I can read the online issue for free?” While it’s important to maintain a presence on the web, perhaps a compromise is to “tease” articles every week and let the online readers know they can read the rest of the story if they buy the print issue. Or perhaps they can read the rest of the story if they become an online subscriber. (This would work great for residents in another state or country who still want to keep up with what’s going on).

Writer’s Digest My Story #20: Journalism is Dead

This is the 1,200-word or so version of the 730-ish version I sent to Writer’s Digest. In a few weeks, I’ll post the shorter one.

Journalism is Dead

By Richard Zowie

Kevin Ballard loved his job.

For the past six months he’d worked as a reporter for the Los Patos Star, a weekly publication in Los Patos, Texas (a town of about 15,000 and an hour’s drive south of San Antonio). Kevin carried two beats: the local schools and their sporting activities. That meant sitting in on school board meetings, talking to teachers, students and coaches and digging to discover what happens behind the scenes. Armed with his digital audio recorder, pens, notebook and modest digital camera (the paper was too small to afford the thousands of dollars needed to buy a camera that took great pictures that would’ve made Annie Leibovitz widen her eyes in professional admiration), Kevin did his best to write 10 or so stories a week. Sometimes he even got to write a column.

At first, he was nervous. Kevin wasn’t from Los Patos, and it was one of those Lone Star State towns where most of the longtime locals’ families went back not only to before the Civil War but even before 1836, when Texas gained its independence from Mexico. It could take years, if ever, for an outsider to gain trust and respect. Especially if it was someone like Kevin, who had subtly tried to shake his Michigan accent by changing his pronuncation of vowels, going from saying byalance to balance. When he wrote, he made sure he did so fairly and accurately. He always got both sides of the story.

There was that tense moment when the Los Patos School Board held an issue of teaching both evolution and intelligent design in the classroom. Representatives of the Texas State Board of Education were against it, as was the lawyer of the ACLU threatening lawsuit. Many parents and, of course, the local Christian clergy, supported it. The science teachers at the high school, the ones who would speak on the record, told Kevin they did not support the measure. The others supported it but wanted nothing to do with the debate, fearing it would cost them their jobs.

Wanting an intelligent design quote from a professional instead of just parents and clergy and pushing against the demands of his editor Joseph (who loved H.L. Mencken and the endless muckraking he did during the 1925 Scopes Trial), Kevin found a science professor at the local college, the University of South Texas, who was a proponent of intelligent design. Dr. Ellington, who always wore a white lab coat even when eating breakfast tacos in his office, flatly told Kevin that in his field of neurology, he couldn’t understand how anyone could blindly swallow Darwinism and believe the human body evolved out of “pure, dumb luck.”

Another Dr. Ellington quote became the article’s secondary headline: “‘The human body screams of intelligent design’, local science professor says.”

Kevin expected the worst, wondering what the editor and the public would say. When the calls came in, he was surprised. For the most part, even the state board rep and the ACLU lawyer thanked him for being impartial in his reporting.

That had been three months ago, and Kevin was preparing to send that story to the Texas Press Assocation in hopes of winning a prize that would look great on his resume.

At 3 p.m., he returned back to the Star office after having spent much of the day at the high school. A math teacher was resigning to open his own engineering firm, the football team’s star quarterback was about to break the town’s heart by signing a letter of intent with the University of Oklahoma and two sources told Kevin the high school was planning to start teaching Mandarin Chinese to go with its Spanish and German classes. Many parents, especially those who despise “Made in China” products, will not be happy, they warned him.

He sat, ready to scribe his notes and then call it a day when Joseph, the editor, called him into his office.

Kevin sat in the editor’s office and noticed Joseph closed the door, something he didn’t do unless there was something very private to be discussed.

Joseph sighed deeply and sat in his chair. Kevin could never tell what color Joe’s eyes were because Joe always had a strange habit of never making eye contact. He especially seemed evasive now, glancing at his desk, at the ceiling and at Kevin’s breast pocket. Opening up a drawer, Joe reached in and pulled out a long, folded rectangular piece of paper.

“Joe, I already received my paycheck today,” Kevin said.

“I know,” Joe replied, quietly. “This is your severance check.”

For what seemed like 10 minutes neither spoke. Kevin didn’t know what to say, and Joe twitched in his chair and constantly refolded his hands as he waited for Kevin to talk.

“I’m being fired?” Kevin finally asked, his voice hoarse. He’d already been laid off from four newspapers in the past two years .

“No. Laid off. We’re having to make cutbacks, and since you’ve been here the shortest, they’re letting you go. With two weeks of severance.”

“But…I thought I did a good job. In the six months I’ve been here, I’ve only had one error in my reporting and I get calls from people all the time saying they like my work.”

Joe nodded. “I know, Kevin, and I fought like hell to keep you here. I don’t like this either.” He paused and sighed again. “What I’m about to tell you stays between us. If you tell anyone I said it, I’ll deny it and won’t give you a letter of recommendation for your next job. Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Truth is, Kevin,” Joe said, still glancing at the walls, the door and at Kevin’s folded hands, “the company has this bullshit new business model where they save money by getting rid of higher-priced help and bringing in younger, cheaper talent. They’re looking to hire some kid straight out of college who will work for about five dollars an hour cheaper than what you will. I’ve seen this kid’s work, and, to be honest, he can’t write worth shit.”

Kevin Ballard cleaned out his desk, deleted any unnecessary files, e-mailed his best photos and stories to a private e-mail account and drove home. Before he left the driveway of the newspaper, he called his wife and told her the news. She sounded too shocked to be angry. He deposited the check and drove, wondering how they’d pay the rent, their utilities and where the next job would come from. He’d been laid off three times in the past five years, all for the same reason: cutbacks.

Half an hour later, when he arrived home, he expected his wife to give him a hug and tell him everything was going to be fine, as she’d done before. This time, she handed him a sheet of paper that contained the names of institutes with medical professional careers like pharmacy assistant, front office assistant and x-ray technician.

“All of these jobs pay great, and the medical field’s in high demand,” Sarah told her husband. “Sweetie, I know you love to write, but let’s face it: journalism’s dead. We can’t live like this anymore.”

As Kevin called, he knew his writing career for the time being would consist of one thing: blogging.

Back in the saddle of journalism

This past week, I made the rounds to different places that are my beats for the newspaper. Got to meet a few people and chat with them. I also met a few police officers. One thing I’ve learned in civilian journalism and one thing I’ve been told by veterans in the business: it can take a long time to cultivate law enforcement sources and only one badly-written, factually-challenged article to tear it all down.

I look forward to going to township meetings. They can be a great place to meet people, find out what’s going on and develop sources, but I also like to try to kill two proverbial birds with one stone. There’s little sense going if there’s nothing on the agenda that’s out of the ordinary.

Is journalism ‘dead’?

A few months ago, I lunched with a friend and professional colleague. We discussed journalism–particularly the present and future. This friend, who was once a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, told me three disturbing words:

“Journalism is dead.”

He encouraged me to apply for government public affair positions. You know, military and government publications.

So far, I’ve been doing that and have been surprised at the pay rates of many jobs. Some that are writer/editor positions pay a minimum $50,000 per year.

Zowie! I thought, hoping my parents wouldn’t be bothered by my taking my surname in vain.

Try getting that kind of pay as a real-world journalist these days, even though writing is a skilled job that few do well.

If I had to describe the future of journalism in one word, it would be Internet. Someday, virtually all newspapers will not only be online, but they’ll be online only.

Another word: blogs.

One venture I’m looking into would require me to travel a lot. I’ve told my wife that what would be cool to do is to spend time each day or so blogging about where I’ve been and what’s been going on. You know, a travel blog. Perhaps even toss into there local events of interest.

I know some are reluctant about blogs because of they’re unchecked and can be inaccurate. (I’ve even had to make corrections on my From A to Zowie blog). Believe me, in the nine years I’ve been a writer, I’ve observed newspapers can be inaccurate also. One acquaintance told me he stopped giving quotes to a local paper while a sports coach because he was tired of being misquoted. A colleague told me a major New York newspaper once got a glaring detail very wrong regarding a celebrity (if I said their name, you’d know instantly who they were) supposedly entering the adult film business. I remember e-mailing an editor once regarding a historical film review printed, and asking her why they’d print a review that contained historically-inaccurate information.