Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
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Tag Archives: Writing
The Ventura County Star‘s Scott Hadly is reporting from Iraq. I haven’t been following his coverage, but I met none of it matches the intimacy and immediacy of this letter he wrote to a fellow reporter.
In one short letter, I got a better idea of what’s going on in Iraq from 1,000 New York Times stories.
This is how you write for the modern reader. Journalists need to learn the lesson.
I’m not saying profanity is required, but if you’re writing about something like what Scott went through and some profanity doesn’t at least cross your mind, then you’re probably not putting enough of yourself into the story.
FWIW: I don’t know Scott. He joined the staff after I left Ventura. Continue reading
But here’s the thing: journalists have always been far more entranced by ‘the story’ than audiences. Less than a quarter of newspaper readers claim to read to the end of a story, even one they’re interested in … and of those, over two thirds don’t read every word.*
Word people — and this seems to apply to many visual people, too — love a good story. But news isn’t always about story.
We get into this business because we want to tell a good story.
The readers — or viewers — don’t always want that.
Storytelling, whether written or visual, then becomes something that is more about serving your own ego than serving your readers.
So check your ego, whether writing or shooting, and give people useful or entertaining information in an accessible package. Save the storytelling for when you really have a story to tell.
*(A note about video — I find on long video that hasn’t totally engaged me, I tend to skip ahead in the player looking for a bit to interest me … sort of the same way I read mediocre stories.) Continue reading
In a piece about data portability, John Battelle shifts into a discussion about the difference between a business that competes on price vs. a business that competes on service. He says:
An example. My local market charges far more for a good bottle of wine than many shops that are nearby. But there’s a wine guy who works at that market who knows wine cold, and who I trust. Also, the market is close to my home, and I have a personal relationship with the fellow (OK, here’s the reference to the book I’m working on – I have a “conversation” going with this merchant). Those factors, combined with a certain ambiance at the store that I really like, all lead to one result: I buy my wine at the more expensive store. Why? Because the store competes on more than price.
Ironically, I just found a booze store near my house that not only has great prices, but also great service — an owner who knows his booze (not just wine) cold. But that’s beside the point.
Battelle is absolutely right. He’s talking about differentiation. He’s talking about competitive advantage.
The newspaper industry is awash in talk about disruption and innovation. I do it, too. It’s important. We’ve had API do NewspaperNext. But there’s more to saving this industry than coming up with new ideas. I want to know when API is going to do NewspaperBetter.
All of the evidence suggest that ever since the Woodstein era began, readership and circulation have been in decline. Now, there are lots of reasons for that (subject of a future post), but there’s also little doubt that there is something about American newspaper journalism since the 1970s that is turning people off.
We’re not even winning the content battle on the web, so it isn’t just about delivery, convenience or changing lifestyles. It’s also about something that we’re doing or not doing.
Through all of the debates we’ve had about video, there is a “quality crowd” that seems to think the only thing I care about is slapping up a bunch of crappy videos just to make video.
That totally misses the point.
The point is about reinventing newspaper journalism, and I believe video is going to be a big part of newspaper journalism from here on out, and reinvention is all about doing it better.
The quality crowd doesn’t seem to understand, or doesn’t seem to care, that quality isn’t about the camera you carry, the software you use or how much time you spend in an editing bay (if you’re using an editing bay, by the way, you’re in overkill mode). Quality is about the skill, knowledge, experience, understanding, talent and intuition that helps you get bits of interesting stuff — the stuff people really care about, want to read about, or want to see and hear.
It’s the content, not the presentation, that matters most.
Again, I point you to Ira Glass on getting good.
Getting good at any creative endeavor is hard work. It takes time. I don’t care how smart you are, it takes time. Getting good isn’t about equipment. It’s about heart and soul.
So the best thing to do to get good is to do it. Get started. Explore and discover and feel free to fail. You must make yourself create things and not be afraid of some of the crap you will create along the way.
That’s also what my posts encouraging journalists to dive deep into the online social life and conversation are all about.
To be a great modern journalist, you MUST be a wired journalist. You must GET online. That doesn’t mean you just know how to do a Google search, read a few blogs and send a few e-mails. It means you get the culture, the attitudes and the expectations of the online crowd.
Until you do it, you’ll never understand that there is a difference. That’s why I don’t take very seriously the critics who say this call to action is a lot of bunk. They haven’t done it. They don’t know what they’re talking about, or what we’re talking about.
During one of the football games I watched last week, the announcer referred to an interview he did that week with a first-year NFL coach. When asked what was different about the NFL than he expected, the coach said that what he expected to find in the NFL was a group of professional football players, and he was shocked to find just how few professionals there were in the league. Very few players in the NFL, he said, are professionals. They don’t go about their jobs and their routines the way a professional would.
I submit that if you’re a professional journalist, you’ve already done most of what I put in my suggested MBO plan. And if you don’t think you need to do those things, than I question whether you’re really a professional.
It is time for newspaper journalists to set up and start creating the competitive advantage that will help us win. Current newspaper journalism is pretty much a commodity. When what you produce becomes a commodity, you can no longer win on price (and some journalists think we should be charging a fee for what people are already telling us doesn’t much interest them). You can only win on a competitive advantage. For journalists that should be doing a better job of story selection, presentation and interaction with the people in their communities.
How do we teach, explore and learn to use online tools and techniques properly?
One thing I see happening a lot in online journalism is we do stuff just because we can. That is fine for experimentation, but at some point you need to get beyond the mere ability and delve deep into art of when and why.
We do a lot of stuff, just because we can.
There’s a lot of blogging going on at newspapers — the majority of it bad blogging — because we can. We’re doing a lot of video with uneven results because we can (and hey, I acknowledge my role in this, and contrary to anything I say here, I am not going to stop pushing that approach, because we still have a lot of learning to do).
The flip side is, and also a contradictory truth, is that not enough journalists are doing any of these things. There are still way too many journalists sitting on the side lines thinking, “This web stuff isn’t important. Let me just cover my stories and meet my print deadlines.”
Let’s be clear, we should do a lot of blogging, and a lot of video, and a lot of slideshows/photo galleries, and multimedia packages, and so on.
But we also need to start doing a better job of learning how to do each of these things well and appropriately.
Print journalists need to start thinking like web journalists.
Web journalists, I believe, have an instinct for blogging, the tools and craft to explore informing the public through words, sound and moving pictures, and the deft skill of a pro to know what to use when.
For anybody who has ever tried to master a craft, such as writing, you know there is a process by which you begin with a very elemental understanding of how to put pieces together. What comes out at first is often clunky. In writing, maybe you’ve used too many short sentences when one long one would have worked better, or maybe that really gorgeous five-syllable word bogged down a sentence that wold have been improved with four-fewer beats.
Just as there is subtly of craft in writing, or computer programming, or cabinet making, there is a subtly of craft in being a web journalist.
I’m not sure there are many journalists out there trying to learn that craft the way a Hunter Thompson or a Tom Wolfe or a Gay Talese worked at theirs.
Those who are doing that very important thing now have a blog, they engage in conversation with sources and readers online, they carry with them 24/7 a video-capable camera (of any sort), they can dabble in Flash or mash ups and long ago stopped trying to filter how they approach news through a prism of what they learned in J-school. They are working at their craft, not just doing it because some boss told them to, or they’re worried about becoming irrelevant, or even because it’s fun — they’re doing it to help create a new vocabulary for 21st Century journalism. Continue reading
Ten years after his death, Charles Bukowski has a new book of poems hitting the market. And according to this review, it’s better than some of the work released while he was alive. Unlike the reviewer, however, I prefer his prose to his poetry.
If there’s any romance about Los Angeles at all, it was largely created by Raymond Chandler.
No wonder — he lived all over — 30 different homes and appartments in 30 years.
This is a tour just waiting to happen. Continue reading
Real writers write because they enjoy the process, the exploration, the way words sound when strung together, and the chance to memorialize their own ideas. If anybody reads their words, great. If not, that’s fine, too. Real writers write with an audience in mind, and love to know their words connect with other people, but they write first for themselves. Let’s get this straight: Real writers love to write. Hack writers think “writing is tiresome.” (via Instapundit). Continue reading