Category: Journalism

December 6th, 2012

The strength it takes to let go of everything – and in this case, by “everything” I mean comfort, normalcy and predictability – must be staggering. To say, “Sure, I’m going to leave home and wander around forever, searching for a greater meaning, losing myself in a project so deeply that I could be losing myself completely.”

Pulitzer-winning journalist Paul Salopek is doing just that. He’s leaving on a seven-year reporting assignment, where he’ll walk the path anthropologists believe was the path humans first followed out of Africa on their evolutionary quest to populate the earth.

From the article on Nieman Journalism Lab:

The plan is to embark from the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia in January, tracing the horn of Africa into Israel in 2013. In 2014, he’ll head into central Asia, but not before dealing with one of his bigger obstacles: Iran. If you’re on foot, the best, most direct, route into Asia is through northern Iran on the edges of the Caspian Sea. That, of course, means actually getting through Iran safely.

This is a story of discovery, but it’s also a story of the future. No one knows what life will be like in seven years – if the tools he’s using are going to be viable, or if the borders he’ll cross will even be real. What seems like a journey filled with history is most certainly also going to be a seven-year look into the inevitable shift of journalism. More from the article:

Using his video and audio equipment, Salopek said he wants to create a kind of continuous portrait of the world at this point in time. “I’m calling it a narrative transect: Every 100 miles, I’ll methodically take a series of narrative readings that do not vary along the path of the walk,” he said. The plan, as he envisions it, is to stop to take six samples: Ambient sound, photos of the earth and sky, a panorama of his current location, a minute or so of video, and an interview, all in the same method in each location. He sees it as almost a scientific approach, one that can show the changes and similarities in terrain, but also culture and people. And while these transects will make for good multimedia, Salopek said their real value will be as an archive of what the world looked like from 2013 to 2019.

From Africa to Russia, with a break to get across the now sunk land bridge, and from Anchorage to the southern tip of South America. To think all I’ve planned on doing next year is drive to Idaho.

Category: Journalism

January 13th, 2012

My daughter is four years old. The other day, as I was leaving the house, she asked me why I needed to go to work. “Why can’t you stay home?” she said.

My simple answer was, “Dear, you see, I need to go to work so I can make money, so we can have nice things and eat nice meals.” She accepted that answer as truth.

What I didn’t say was that I enjoy going to work. That there are days when going to work is a break from the kids, as much as I love them, and that while I would certainly rather spend the day with her and her brother, there are times when I need to get out and think at an adult level.

I didn’t mention that I don’t work for the money, but for the challenge – for the drive, for the thrill of making things, for the rush that comes with collaborating with other people.

I just said I was going to make money. It was the easy answer. Because I didn’t have the time – nor did she have the attention – for me to tell her truth: that it’s much much more complicated than that.

Deforestation

If there’s one thing that fuels today’s grab for pageviews, it’s opinions. Hard ones. This or that. Nothing in between. Nothing that veers into the hazy grey field of compromise.

“Summarize that,” they say. “Give me the bullet point version,” they demand. Time is of essence. Boil it down so it no longer needs thought.

So when we talk about whether the New York Times should be more vigilant in their fact checking, or whether yoga will cause you irreparable harm, we’re predisposed to boil it down to the most simple argument. I know I do this. We all do, in some ways.

Maybe it’s not our fault. Maybe we’ve been taught to believe that the ability to create concise descriptions of complicated things is a sign of success when. Really, it’s the opposite. You’ve succeeded when you can explain a complex subject without losing the nuance. I know: that’s hard to do. So we summarize. So we cut corners. We ignore the complexity.

It’s not a matter of missing the forest for the trees – it’s that we’re cutting down all of the trees and wondering where the forest went.

On Argument

A year and a half ago, during the 2010 South Dakota Festival of Books, I watched Michael Hart – the late founder of Project Gutenberg – and Michael Dirda – Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic – present a panel on “Reading in the Digital Age.”

As one might expect, Hart spoke at length about how the printed book was dead, that all writing should be done digitally for the benefit of mass consumption and for those who may not be able to afford a printed tome. Dirda, on the other hand, spoke about the necessity of aesthetics, of the tactile nature of holding a book in your hand, of the feeling of being that you cannot recreate in an e-reader.

Both made some good points. But the title of the panel is misleading. This presentation was no more about reading in the digital age than it was about koala mating habits. Where we expected some sort of solid discourse on where print vs. digital may eventually compromise, we instead received a kind of ribald sniping. It was a battle between two opposing viewpoints, both refusing to admit middle ground, incapable of giving an inch.

While the answer lie somewhere in the middle of the pitch, these two men fought over which side of the field to enter.

Respecting Complexity

If a single idea has followed me around this year, from politics to art and work to friendships, it’s been this one: “it’s more complicated than that.”

It’s centrally important to seek simplicity, and especially to avoid making things hard to use or understand. But if we want to make things that are usefully simple without being truncated or simplistic, we have to recognize and respect complexity — both in the design problems we address, and in the way we do our work.

Erin Kissane, “What I Learned About the Web in 2011″ via A List Apart

My experience at the South Dakota Festival of Books is no different than any experience one might find watching cable television, or at a political debate, or when discussing which Led Zeppelin album is the best. We’ve been trained to take a side and dig in for battle.

When we go to battle intellectually, we find comfort in absolutes. They afford us a bit of security. There are no holes to be poked in our theories.

Part of the challenge of art and science and rhetoric is in finding the nuances; there is no topic worth discussing that doesn’t hold some grey area, and there is no grey area that is worth ignoring. But grey areas? They’re hard. So we ignore them. And that’s how misinterpretation seeps into our lives.

Naming Things

Take, for example, the industry in which I work: web design, development and strategy. For the past several years, people have tried to put together a simple, concise description of content strategy – what is it, and how do we quickly explain it to our bosses? We understand that there’s a need for that description in a business sense, but our answer is often lacking in nuance. We trade length for clarity; we discard the messy details to gain a certain level of buzzworthiness.

Truth is, content strategy means different things to different people. What’s more, THAT’S OKAY. Just as “web development” means different things to different people, we still have freedom to interpret our work in a way that makes sense to us.

So we stick with “content strategy” – an awkward word that barely captures the extent of what we do. But we’re not alone in this: language is hard, and though we struggle to assign simple words to complex arrangements, and though they may seem trite and inaccurate, oftentimes it’s the best we can do.

Communication isn’t perfect. Again: THAT’S OKAY.

This is not an industry-specific thing, either. Ask someone to explain the scientific method. Depending on their field of expertise, you may hear several variations of the base process. Ask someone to explain something with a clear purpose and structured set of rules – baseball, for instance. Ask a baseball fan. Ask a baseball historian. Ask someone with no connection to the game. To some, it’s a game. To others, it’s a past-time. To the haters, it’s a distraction.

Black. White.

Words allow us to communicate. But they also fail us, in that we’re driven to compress theories that should, in fact, become more robust. We’re taught to say more with less, to edit and edit until there’s nothing left to chance, to push things into a smaller box. So we cut the non-crucial elements. And we lose the nuance. And we wonder why this seemingly complicated theory has been boiled down to a Cliff’s Notes version – all solution, no reasoning.

Sure, most things should be said in fewer words. But there are a lot of things that should be said in more.

We’re challenged to understand the future in as complete a way as possible. To shy away from absolutes, and to embrace the grey area, charging in full speed and making sense of the fray. There are discoveries there. There is truth. There is completeness.

We can’t take one side or the other – not in good faith – without understanding that, regardless of the subject, it’s often more complicated than that.

War is good. War is bad. It’s more complicated than that.

We should be liberal. We should be conservative. It’s more complicated than that.

We should fight to stay neutral, and we should always look at all angles of a subject, and we should stop trying to sum up incredibly complex processes and concepts and feelings into simple, single-serving soundbites. We should run to the middle and be implicit in our embrace.

Except, let’s be honest.

It’s more complicated than that.

June 24th, 2011

There are two distinct ways of dealing with cross-company industry collaboration – specifically, the collaboration of ideas. You either accept it with open arms, gleefully sharing insights and blog posts and other industry-furthering information, or you hold it to your chest, using it as intellectual leverage.

When I worked in the traditional advertising agency world, we held everything to our chest. We couldn’t post extensive portfolios because we didn’t want our competitors to discover the companies we worked with. We were vague in our methodologies because we didn’t want to give up our tricks. We treated industry colleagues with a measure of wariness.

That’s the old way.

The new way is one of collaboration, understanding that as others make breakthroughs and discover new tricks, we are allowed to follow those breakthroughs and discover our own.

I recently threw an email out to content strategists around the nation. Some of them are big-time. Some of them have written books. And I asked for an important chunk of their time in the form of a deep question about one of the discipline’s core tasks.

I asked for a lot and expected a few terse one-line responses.

On the contrary. Nearly everyone responded within hours, each with an intense, thoughtful and impassioned response. Lots of words. Lots of wonderful nuggets of information. Lots of awesome.

There was no shielding of competitive knowledge, no insistence upon vetting the question, no ego, no NOTHING; just great information from great people who want to further the field.

It’s not just in content strategy, either. You see it in small design shops. You see it at un-conferences. Web is an industry fueled by constant change, which makes the ability to share ideas and use those ideas to make cool things one of the most important skills a professional can have.

I’m still amazed at how open things are. The egos are smaller. The ideas are fresher. The cross-pollination is natural and welcome.

We all stand on the backs of those who came before us. The real difference is whether we use this height to pull others up, or if we’re content with kicking them back down.

January 20th, 2011

Welcome, new visitors!

You – like millions of others – are stopping by because you heard about my South Dakota Socies win in the Argus Leader. We’re glad to have you. Take a look around, check out the archives, have some soup, and MORE!

What are the Socies? I’m fantastically glad you asked, new friend.

The Socies are an award given to the most practiced of social media users, presented by the handsome men at Click Rain, with help from our local paper. And while I usually bristle at awards (I know for certain that Black Marks on Wood Pulp is hardly the best blog in the state and it’s difficult to make judgment based on a small sample size of personal taste) I showed up to claim my award with pride. Because I’m not ALWAYS a curmudgeon, regardless of what my coworkers, friends, wife, kids, mother, personal trainer, mother-in-law, etc. say.

I got a medal. And a t-shirt. And some beer things! A lot of beer things. (The message is loud and clear, guys. I’VE STOPPED DRINKING BEER FOR BREAKFAST. But not for lunch.)

So check it all out!

Oh. By the way. If you’re coming from the Argus, disregard the series of five blog posts where I call the Argus a lame excuse for a newspaper. That was a bad couple of days. I must have been pretty crabby.

Oh, and there’s that one where I got cranky about their article pagination. Or the one where I got upset about a word they made up. Also, disregard the time when I called the lead Web guy on the carpet (Cory Myers, a very cool person who I have since met and actually like) for mangling my tweet.

Huh. Are you guys sure the Argus had a hand in these awards? I can’t imagine they’d hand it over to a punk like … hey … wait. Don’t leave.

September 27th, 2010

Let’s take two men on opposing sides of an issue and throw them in front of an audience of casual spectators. Let’s give them what is somewhat of a hot-button issue, at least at this event. Let’s say the event is a book festival. Let’s say the issue is the increasing market share of e-readers and what it means to the landscape of literature, publishing and reading itself.

Let’s say one of these guys is Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, an organization that seeks through the e-book format to make accessible all of the world’s greatest works, including some that – with permission – are still in copyright. While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and say the other guy is Michael Dirda, a Fullbright Fellowship recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post book critic.

(Let’s also say Marilyn Johnson, author and library stalwart, is there, representing the middle ground but unable to get a word in edgewise.)

Now, let’s sit back and wait for an answer we’ll never get.

Because neither of these men is interested in bridging the gap between the promise and accessibility of ebooks and the tangible joy and art of physical binding. Neither of these men is interested in discussing how Project Gutenberg offers limitless preservation of what used to be the fragile and time-consuming practice of book collecting, and neither is interested in discussing how a mix of both physical and e-books helps people rediscover the joys of reading.

Instead, both men want a pissing match.

E-books are awful, a slap in the face of literature, and you water down the process of literary experience by missing out on the feel and texture of the book itself.

Physical books are pointless, archaic, space-hogging and inefficient, and everyone should read books electronically because you can fit 30,000 on one disc.

It’s one or the other. Love it or leave it. If you’re not with ‘em, you’re against ‘em.

Now, let’s vent. Because after seeing the previous example, live, in person, at the Sioux Falls Orpheum, in front of hundreds of interested people attending the South Dakota Festival of Books, I came away feeling disgusted and disappointed, frustrated that the promise of what could have been a great discussion turned out to be a symposium on Michael Hart’s inability to look behind his own project and Michael Dirda’s weak attempts at playing the same game.

The real issue is how we use e-books to further literature and adapt with the times, understanding that even ancient scrolls were pushed out by the more efficient book format, and that was thousands of years ago. Books will never go away – Dirda’s point on the art and tangible feeling that comes with reading a physical book is right on – but we can’t be naive in thinking it’s the only way to read.

Not when so many people are living without access to physical books. Not when you can provide a book in seconds to a willing audience. And especially not when there is already a drop in literacy rates and willingness to let books OF ALL TYPES fall by the wayside.

Traditional books and their texture? They mean nothing unless someone reads them.

30,000 books on a disc, for free? THEY ALSO MEAN NOTHING UNLESS SOMEONE READS THEM.

Let’s pretend that the two sides sat down and discussed the future of reading. The future of publishing. The future of literature and writing and everything that goes along with it, because, let’s face it, the future of reading is also the future of education and the future of our countries and the future of the world.

Let’s pretend the only agenda brought into this panel was one of collaboration and innovation.

Don’t I wish that was the case.

August 18th, 2010

Did you hear the one about when a magazine that makes a living talking about technology and the Web told us all that the Web was dead?

The Web. It’s dead.

Let’s review.

Chivalry is dead. The Queen is dead. Microsoft Kin is dead. Duke Nukem Forever is dead. Michael Jackson is dead. Bill Cosby is dead.

Print is dead. The 30-second spot is dead. Blogs are dead. The record industry is dead (though, surprisingly, analog and vinyl are not). Sitcoms are dead.

Paul is dead.

God is dead.

And now the Web.

We’ll look beyond the argument that, while stand-alone apps and smartphones are rising in popularity, the simple fact is that most apps still depend on Web content and a not-so-small degree of Web promotion to become successful. We’ll also look past the example, which positions a tech-savvy media consumer lucky enough to own an iPad as some kind of technological standard, as if a vast majority of people are suddenly rising to the upper income brackets, running around and buying Apple products and downloading apps as if their status depended upon it.

Instead, we’ll just bask in the cheap journalistic practice of stating [SOMETHING] IS DEAD!, a surefire way to deliver easy traffic, draw considerable ire, and make baseless predictions using flawed data and a minor timeframe.

Because, in the eyes of the claimants, who are we to question?

These headlines are cheap. And so are the stories. The only solace we have is that, five years from now, we’ll be able to look back at this article and laugh at its misguided bluster. That is, if we even remember it – the hidden strength behind these boisterous obituaries is that, five years from now, no one will ever remember.

Listen, Wired may have a point.

But a point isn’t enough to lay claim to predicting a medium’s demise. (One they’ve admittedly already made, 13 years earlier.)

It is, however, enough to throw a hail mary article into the abyss of the magazine industry’s dwindling readers – of which I’m one – in a desperate attempt to regain a little relevancy.

Journalism is dead. Long live journalism.

August 16th, 2010

There’s an underlying belief throughout the non-tech-savvy that computer and Web programmers are a secluded, arrogant group; fiercely loyal to their language, looking out for themselves, unable to share their findings lest they make themselves obsolete. It’s this belief that leads us to stop trusting our company’s IT department and automatically mistrust the kid Web developer signed on to work our church Web sites.

What I’ve Read:

HTML5 for Web Designers by Jeremy Keith

It’s not necessarily true.

In my experience, Web developers aren’t maniacally protective of their knowledge, but simply frustrated that no one else is bothering to commiserate. When you show up with the ultimate in ignorance – like asking a CSS expert to help you get rid of spyware, or expecting a .Net developer to automatically help you purchase a digital SLR camera – you’re not facing arrogance.

You’re facing exhaustion. That expert? He or she is simply tired of being misunderstood.

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered over the past two months in Web development, it’s that Web developers want to talk about Web development. They want to share their secrets, often to the point that your eyes glaze over.

Ask a pointed question, though, and you’ll discover something even greater: the Web developer’s desire to spread knowledge. Which brings us to A List Apart’s first publication, HTML5 for Web Designers – a short and easy to digest primer on the changes being made through HTML’s newest iteration.

As a Web guy whose exposure to HTML and CSS has come exclusively from the routine hacking of free WordPress templates, HTML5 for Web Designers dives into the subject at my level – highlighting the changes and features of code that could change how the Web is organized and developed. Even better, it does so in a way that’s akin to the “spreading the gospel” model of Web talk – 100% devoted to letting the reader understand the code.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not going to make my mom understand Web development.

That being understood, it’s a wonderful look inside the mind of a development evangelist; Keith’s knowledge takes a 900-page slog of a standards guide and boils it down to the 80-some pages you’ll actually need to read.

Because, you see, developers don’t aim to make people feel dumb. At least, not as long as we’re willing to listen and make a concerted effort to understand.

It’s our inability to grasp the nuances of technology that’ll take care of that for us.