6.30.2009

Journalism Basics: An important tool


There it is: My business card. Well, one of my business cards. I have several, but this is the one I use for my neighborhood blog, Eastlake Ave.

Not terribly exciting. The design isn't much. Just black type on a white card. Only one line to break up the type.

I know, I know: boring.

But, it's a key part of my equipment as a beat blogger. This is how I introduce myself and the site. It's what I leave with people so they know how to get ahold of me and, more important, how to find Eastlake Ave. And, at this time when self marketing is everything, this card is one of my main promotional tools.

A business card is no secret. I've received them from several bloggers around town. But I wanted to emphasize how simple this is and how effective. I print these at home on my inkjet. The stock is Avery #8871. The cards are prescored so they break apart nicely and look great.

Design? Newer versions of Word have templates for business cards. I did this one in Illustrator but you can do something similar in Word. Tinker with their templates. Go wild and add some art. But get the essentials in there: your name, your site's URL, your e-mail address, a phone number, your Twitter ID. Make sure it's legible.

It's not fancy. It isn't sent digitally. But for promoting yourself and your site, there's not much that can beat it. People love getting a card. They refer back to it. You can leave them at meetings or coffee shops. You can hand them out to businesses (I was doing that the last two days). No one has refused to take one of mine yet.

If you're a beat blogger, you shouldn't be without them.

6.28.2009

Journalism Basics: soon, soon

I've been absent from the Journalism Basics pieces. Promise I will resume this series soon. This week, even. I know you're all waiting!

6.11.2009

'It is what it is, pal'

Kevin Spacey, left, and Denis Leary in "Recount."

Whenever I hear journalism types start into the discussions and arguments about what newspapers did wrong in the face of the internet, I'm reminded of a bit of dialogue from HBO's brilliant film, "Recount."

The movie tells the sad (and funny) story of the contested 2000 presidential election. Near the end, after the Supreme Court has stopped the Florida recount and made Bush the winner, two of the Democratic operatives who were in charge of Gore's efforts to win Florida, Ron Klain (played by Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (played by Denis Leary), are walking to their airplane, preparing to fly home. Klain knows they came soooo close and he just can't let go of the "what might have beens:"

Ron Klain: "We should have asked for a statewide [recount] from the get-go -- that was our biggest mistake."

Michael Whouley: "Mm-hmm, and Ralph Nader should've pulled his head out of his ass. And Elian Gonzalez should've never left Miami. And Gore should've campaigned with Clinton. And Clinton should've got caught getting a blowjob from Sharon Stone instead of Monica Lewinsky 'cause then his approval ratings would have shot through the roof. And Katherine Harris should've thought twice about purging 20,000 voters from the rolls. And George Bush Jr. should have never quit drinking ... but he did. It is what it is, pal. Four years from now we'll come back, gather our information and go right back at 'em."

That's the line: "It is what it is, pal." That's what I think about when I ponder what's happened to the newspaper business. You can debate the mistakes all you want but you're just wasting time and energy. Better to gather your information and go right back at 'em.

6.10.2009

Film openings: 'Angels in America'



Another opening, another show ... this time the opening of Mike Nichols' adaptation of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" on HBO.

This one is here because of the writing. Kushner's take on Roy Cohn, working the phones in his office, is pure genius. Cohn (Joe McCarthy's right-hand man in his infamous communist witch hunts of the 1950s) in Kushner's take is like a shark in a tacky suit. "I wish I was an octopus," he says, pushing buttons on his phone as he wheels and deels. "Eight arms and all those suckers."

Al Pacino is magnificent as Cohn. The scene where he bullies his doctor, who has just told him he has AIDS, is a masterpiece of intimidation. He isn't a homosexual, he says, just a man who has sex with other men:
"A homosexual is somebody who, in 15 years of trying cannot get a pissant anit-discrimination bill through the city council. A homosexual is somebody who knows nobody and who nobody knows. Who has zero clout. Does this sound like me Henry?"
Rent the DVD and watch the whole thing. Yes, it's on your TV but it's really a great play brought vividly to life.

Newsweek profiles Kushner as he's honored in the Twin Cities.

Reporter's notebook

The object in the photo is a staple and icon of American journalism: a reporter's notebook. It's the last one I have from my days at the Seattle P-I and I have filled it up. Which means that another connection to my years in journalism has been broken (yeah, yeah, I can hear DylanW saying: "Cry me a river").

For years, until people starting recording interviews and taking notes on their laptops, the reporter's notebook was a standard item in the journalist's toolkit. It's 4 inches wide by 8 inches deep, spiral bound at the top, with lined note paper inside and a stiff cardboard backing.

Unless you have small hands, it's easy to hold and take notes on. It's particularly handy when you have to interview someone standing up, like at a fire or an accident. And it can be easily stuffed in a back pocket when you need your hands free.

I wasn't a reporter at the P-I, but I used the occasional reporter's notebook to take notes at meetings or for other work-related projects. This one followed me home. I've been using it in my new job, where I interview people all the time, and for the neighborhood web site I've been working on, Eastlake Ave, where I tend to be interviewing people and covering meetings.

My colleague at work, Sherry, and I are both refugees from the newspaper storm and we've asked to have some of these ordered for the office. I found some for our personal use yesterday at Staples. The brand name is "Evidence," which Sherry and I both thought was funny.

6.09.2009

One of the great movie openings: "Manhattan"



Not sure what made me think of this but ... check out the first five minutes or so of Woody Allen's "Manhattan." This has it all: Woody Allen's words, George Gershwin's music and the gorgeous black and white cinematography of the incomparable Gordon Willis. You really need to see this on DVD or, better yet, in a theater, but for now, YouTube will do.

It doesn't get any better.

6.03.2009

Journalism basics (movie edition)

Dustin Hoffman, left, as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford, right,
as Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men."

And now, a short break from our Journalism Basics for a movie: "All the President's Men." In addition to being a terrific film and a great history lesson, this is an excellent primer on how journalists operate and the difficulties that await even the best of them.

"All the President's Men" (for the few who don't know) is the true story of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two junior reporters at the Washington Post who stumbled into the Watergate scandal and, despite their inexperience, proceeded to report the hell out of it and help bring down President Nixon in the process.

Few films have captured the job of the reporter better than this one. We're there for the glory moments when a big scoop falls into place and Woodward and Bernstein are riding high. We watch them go through the grunt work of reporting (the scene where they manually search thousands of index cards in the Library of Congress should quell any notion of a reporter's life being glamorous). And we see at least one moment when they make a big mistake and struggle to recover from it.

"Woodstein," as they came to be know at the Post, and their editors, including the legendary Ben Bradley, practically wrote the book on how to conduct an investigation like this: Always get things from two sources before publishing. Dig hard and dig everywhere. Don't be afraid to be a pest if it will further the story. Have no life other than the story. Be hungry and stay hungry. Follow the money.

My favorite scene in the film occurs in the evening. Ben Bradley (played by Jason Robards, left,) stops by the newsroom on his way out for the evening. Woodward and Bernstein are excited and anxious about their latest story, confident that it will move their investigation forward.

Bradley takes their typewritten pages (no computers in 1973) and starts to read. And read. "You haven't got it," he finally says. They complain but he won't be budged. He takes out his red editing pen and starts to mark up their copy.

"Stick it inside someplace," he says to another editor. When Bernstein complains this is a "goddamn important story," Bradlee replies: "Get some harder information next time."

Perfect. And a lesson worth learning: Make sure you've really got the "harder information," not the soft stuff, before you publish.

Near the end of the film, Woodward and Bernstein go to Bradlee's house late at night. They made a big mistake in a story and they've been trying to figure out what went wrong. Turns out, a source misunderstood Bernstein's confirmation instructions. The story was right, but not for the reason they said.

They're exhausted and scared (Deep Throat has warned them their lives may be in danger), and they're wanting a break and, probably, a little sympathy. Bradlee isn't having it:
"You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up ... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight."
Terrific stuff. That's what journalism is all about. Go and watch it. The book is worth reading, too.

Also, check out Woodward's book on Mark Felt, the FBI official who was his secret source, Deep Throat.

6.01.2009

Journalism basics, part 3 (in which I quote Tennesse Williams)

Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stanley (Marlon Brando)
in the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire."


The theme for this, my third installment of Journalism Basics for New Media Types, comes to us courtesy Blanche DuBois, one of the central characters in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." In her most famous line, Blanche explains one of the central tenets of her life:

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

What does Blanche's easy virtue have to do with journalism?

It means that journalists are always depending on others to help us get our stories. People tell us things. They give us documents. They guide us when we are lost ("Follow the money," Deep Throat famously told Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation). They invite us to events. They consent to sit for interviews and they take our phone calls. They answer our questions.

And it means that, unlike Blanche, we should always be questioning their motives (this is a corollary to our last installment: If your mother says she loves you, check it out). Why is that person calling to give you a scoop? Why didn't he or she call your competitor? Are they giving you the story because they like you or because they think you're more likely to be easily deceived?

Does the person calling you have a vested interest in the story? What is it? How might it be clouding their motives? Is he or she giving you those documents simply because they like you and they want to see justice done? Or are they trying to get even with someone? Or, maybe, draw attention away from something even more important?

What's the real story here?

While many reporters are skeptical and always dig and ask hard questions, others aren't so tough minded. They happily take a story lead without asking "why me?" And, sometimes, they get used.

Another reason not to depend too closely on the kindness of strangers: If someone offers you money or merchandise or a free trip somewhere, just say no. It's best to stay pure and not even have the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Next installment: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.