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Archive for the 'Journalism' Category

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Beyond News and Ezra Klein’s New Venture

The following post is by Mitchell Stephens, author of the forthcoming Beyond News: The Future of Journalism:

“The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news … was an anomaly, and it is now ending.”—Mitchell Stephens

Beyond News: The Future of JournalismEzra Klein has long been complaining that, as he put it in 2011, “the news business is biased toward, well, news.” So it was no surprise when Klein explained recently that the new “publication” he is launching would go beyond presenting “new information”—i.e. news.

Deemphasizing news reporting does not qualify as an outrageous approach to quality journalism in 2014. Indeed, there are definite signs that the American journalist’s obsession with merely recounting what happened yesterday is lessening—even at traditional “news organizations.” “Hard news,” the public editor of the New York Times recently conceded, is now sometimes “hard to find” on that newspaper’s front page.

My forthcoming book, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, makes the case that, with news now so widely available and so often free, such a move away from news is inevitable. And this applies to the best journalists with legacy publications and newscasts as well as the best new, online journalists. The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news, the book maintains, was an anomaly, and it is now ending.

The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is discomfited by this switch away from simply reporting the news: “In my view,” she writes, “The Times’ most prominently displayed stories sometimes go too far in the direction of interpretation, analysis and elaborate writing. The reasonable reader, with only his coffee for assistance, might well wish that the important nugget of news would appear in the second paragraph instead of the seventh.” Most traditional journalists—despite what has been happening to their front pages, newscasts and home pages—would probably agree with Sullivan that stories need to continue to emphasize an account of what happened.

I disagree. That “nugget of news”—some number of people were killed this morning, the president said yesterday—will now be available all over the Web. Our best journalism organizations, like the New York Times or the one Ezra Klein is trying to create, should not, obviously, ignore the details on what happened, but they ought to aspire to a journalism that goes significantly beyond just jotting down what someone—a police chief or a president—said. They need to go beyond what Reuters’ financial blogger Felix Salmon calls “commodity news.” Salmon dismisses such press-conference, big-event, hang-out-with-the-pack stories as: “low-hanging fruit in terms of journalistic effort.”

My new book is a call for more interpretation, analysis and thoughtful writing—more insight. It notes that the journalism out of which the United States was born—the journalism of Ben Franklin, John Dickinson and Thomas Paine—was highly opinionated and conspicuously lacking in nuggets of news. The book celebrates the work of the men and women who have been this country’s most insightful journalists and who, not coincidentally, also been among its most consequential journalists. They include: Lincoln Steffens, the young Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Edward R. Murrow, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and, yes, the young Ezra Klein.

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Friday, January 24th, 2014

Dean Starkman Debates Whether the Business Press Failed the Public Trust

Recently, Columbia Journalism Review and Public Business, organized a panel Has the Business Press Failed the Public Trust?. Among the panelists were Dean Starkman, author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

The discussion, which also included Larry Ingrassia, (New York Times); Felix Salmon (Reuters); Suzanne Kapner (Wall Street Journal) and Jeff Horwitz (American Banker) focused on the the distinction between reporting for investors and the general public, the the press’s ability to shape public debate, and the role of non-business reporters in covering business scoops. As evident in the video below of the event, the discussion often turned heated and revealed some of the challenges journalists face in covering business and financial news and underscored some of the arguments made in Dean Starkman’s book.

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Dean Starkman on How and Why the Business Press Failed

Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

In The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman argues that the business press missed the biggest story of the new century. More specifically,the mainstream business press failed to cover and convey to the public the looming dangers that would profoundly shake up the financial system in 2007.

The following is an excerpt from the opening of the book. A fuller excerpt can be found on the Columbia Journalism Review site.

The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.

And that’s the news about the news.

The watchdog didn’t bark. What happened? How could an entire journalism subculture, understood to be sophisticated and plugged in, miss the central story occurring on its beat? And why was it that some journalists, mostly outside the mainstream, were able to produce work that in fact did reflect the radical changes overtaking the financial system while the vast majority in the mainstream did not?

This book is about journalism watchdogs and what happens when they don’t bark. What happens is the public is left in the dark about, and powerless against, complex problems that overtake important national institutions. Few need reminders, even today, of the costs of the crisis: 10 million Americans uprooted by foreclosure with even more still threatened, 23 million unemployed or underemployed, whole communities set back a generation, shocking bailouts for the perpetrators, political polarization here and instability abroad. And so on and so forth.

Was the brewing crisis really such a secret? Was it all so complex as to be beyond the capacity of conventional journalism and, through it, the public, to understand? Was it all so hidden? In fact, the answer to all those questions is “no.” The problem—distorted incentives corrupting the financial industry—was plain, but not to Wall Street executives, traders, rating agencies, analysts, quants, or other financial insiders. It was plain to the outsiders: state regulators, plaintiffs’ lawyers, community groups, defrauded mortgage borrowers, and, mostly, to former employees of financial institutions, the whistleblowers, who were, in fact, blowing the whistle. A few reporters actually talked to them, understood the metastasizing problem, and wrote about it. Unfortunately, they didn’t work for the mainstream business press.

In the aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy of September 2008, a great fight broke out over the causes of the crisis—a fight that’s more or less resolved at this point. While of course it’s complicated, Wall Street and the mortgage lenders stand front and center in the dock. Meanwhile, a smaller fight broke out over the business press’ role. After all, its central beat—the one over which it claims particular mastery—is the same one that suddenly melted down, to the shock of one and all. For business reporters, the crisis was more than a surprise. There was even something uncanny about it. A generation of professionals had, in effect, grown up with this set of Wall Street firms and had put them on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, the front page of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and the rest, scores of times. The firms were so familiar, the press had even given them anthropomorphized personalities over the years: Morgan Stanley, the white-shoe wasp firm; Merrill Lynch, the scrappy Irish-Catholic firm, often considered the dumb one; Goldman, the elite Jewish firm; Lehman, the scrappy Jewish firm; Bear Stearns, the naughty one, etc. Love them or hate them, there they were, blessed by accounting firms, rating agencies, and regulators, gleaming towers of power. Until one day, they weren’t.

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Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Interview with Dean Starkman, author of “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark”

Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

“Journalism can be the antidote to corruption…. It gives the public a fighting chance to understand complex problems when powerful institutions betray their trust and act against the public interest. It can be a clarifying force, without which democracy in a complex age just can’t work.”—Dean Starkman

The following is an interview with Dean Starkman, author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

Question: Why did you write this book?

Dean Starkman: The short answer is, the financial crisis. Among business reporters, there were basically two broad responses among to the crisis: one group felt that it was a terrible catastrophe and should not be allowed to happen again. The other felt that it was more than that: just unacceptable, beyond the pale. I fall into the latter camp. Really, everyone understands that this was an epic event. But too few of my colleagues, I fear, have really internalized the dimensions of the disaster, the breadth of the corruption, the completeness of the regulatory collapse. This was one of those once-a-century moments when the system cracks open and allowed us all a long look inside and it’s important that this moment not be lost. For me, it all adds up to a story that needs probing from all angles, now and for many years to come. The fact that this disaster was entirely man-made, and occurred on the most high-profile of business-press beats—finance—made scrutiny of the media’s role all the more urgent from my point of view.

Q: But why you?

DS: Besides my journalistic credentials, which can be found here, it was and is actually my job to review and write about business news. I started running the Columbia Journalism Review’s business desk, The Audit, in the spring of 2007—an innocent time in retrospect. As many recall, the debt markets began cracking open not long after that and soon it dawned on us that the U.S. financial system—the envy of the world, powerful beyond imagination, festooned with brand names, blessed by armies of lawyers, accountants, raters, regulators, the crème of our elite educational system—might be a mirage. The crisis had a big impact on my worldview. In essence, it confirmed it.

Q: How so?

DS: In two ways. I spent the first 15 years or so of my career as an investigative reporter at regional papers, then made the transition to being a business reporter at The Wall Street Journal. I always felt an investigative reporter was something of a mini-expert on subcultures—of the police department, the court system, the state house, etc.—whose job it was to learn its mores and idioms, to figure out whether the culture was healthy or not, and to report back to the wider world on how things were going there. When I arrived at the paper, I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it soon became apparent that I had joined a different journalism subculture from the one I had known at regional papers. The Journal was unique in many ways, but it was also certainly part of, if not, the leader of, this business-press subculture, which had its own particular view of what a “story” was—that is, what got into the paper, what we today call “content.”

Admittedly, I wasn’t hired as an investigative reporter. Even so, the boundaries—invisible and unspoken yet real enough—struck me as arbitrary and, to my tastes, narrow. Also, they were fungible. They moved over time. In my view, they narrowed. In any case, coming from outside the culture, I spent a lot of time trying to decode it—where did these ideas about business news come from, and how did we decide these were the right ones—and part of that decoding formed the basis for this book.

Q: And the second way?

DS: The second way involves the idea of corruption. I cringe in way to use that word because it has a shrill tenor and yet I saw enough of it in Rhode Island to understand that it actually does happen, at the highest levels, and that its effects are immensely damaging. Unlike the muckrakers, I’m not sure it’s about good or evil on the part of individuals, although there’s that. But normally all it involves is power imbalance or perverse incentives, or both, leading a state where normal regulation, oversight, and law enforcement are subsumed. A great reporter and friend, John Sullivan, had a theory that 10 percent of the people can always be counted on to do the right thing, and 10 percent will always do the wrong thing, but 80 percent will go with the flow. That’s how corruption happens, and how it can become systemic, as it did in the mortgage industry.

The sense that the deck is stacked, that contracts are rigged, or that tax authorities or police act at the behest of a corrupt mayor, undermines the public’s faith in the system itself. Corruption actually threatens democracy. And it was clear to me at the time, just as it was clear to some of the journalists profiled in Watchdog, that the financial system had crossed a line from competition to recklessness and into corruption.

The crisis confirmed that view and reinforced the dangers of corruption to markets and to democracy itself. Clearly, ours was badly shaken, and the subsequent effects in Europe drive the point home even further.

Q: What’s all that got to do with journalism?

DS: Journalism can be the antidote to corruption. It certainly has been in the past, as I demonstrate in Watchdog. But even if it isn’t, it gives the public a fighting chance to understand complex problems when powerful institutions betray their trust and act against the public interest. It can be a clarifying force, without which democracy in a complex age just can’t work. If that sounds like I’m waving a flag with big “J” on it, well, so be it. The great Walter Lippmann despaired of democracy working in a far-flung industrial power and believed elites should be left alone to solve complex problems. I think we’ve learned that doesn’t work. So this is what we’re left with.

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism,” by Dean Starkman

“Journalism was complicit in the predation and corruption that brought down world financial markets and wrecked the lives of millions…. Dean Starkman is the author we have been waiting for to tell this story. He not only puts forward a keen, subtle, and fair account of the journalistic default, he names names.” — Todd Gitlin

The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman

This week we will be featuring The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, by Dean Starkman, on twitter, facebook, and the Columbia University Press blog, .

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, January 24 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

You can also read an excerpt from The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism posted on the Columbia Journalism Review site.

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

New Book Tuesday: Watchdogs, Buddhists, and More!

Our weekly list of new titles:

The Watchdog That Didn't Bark, Dean StarkmanThe Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism
Dean Starkman

Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice (Now available in paper)
B. Alan Wallace

Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life (Now available in paper)
Paul G. Hackett

Sustainability Management: Lessons from and for New York City, America, and the Planet (Now available in paper)

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Salmon, Starkman, and Chittum on Bezos’s Purchase of the Washington Post

Salmon, Starkman, and Chittum on Bezos

What did some of the editors of The Best Business Writing think about Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post, which will surely be one of the biggest business and journalism stories of the year. The Audit, a feature on the Columbia Journalism site, published posts by Felix Salmon, Dean Starkman, and Ryan Chittum:

In his post Jeff Bezos and his journalists, Felix Salmon suggests that Amazon’s model which emphasizes efficiency might not be the best model for producing a great newspaper. While there has been some hand-wringing among journalists (not to mention those in the book industry) regarding Bezos’s purchase, Salmon is an admirer of the founder of Amazon. To his credit, Salmon writes, Bezos has kept his eye on long-term value rather than short-term profits. Has it worked? As Salmon points out, “Amazon is now worth about $140 billion, or more than 500 Washington Posts — more, indeed, than the combined valuation of every single newspaper in the world, put together.”

However, what Bezos lacks, according to Salmon is “personal talent-management skills”. While Amazon’s focus on efficiency has made it one of the most successful companies in the world, it has not led to particularly good treatment of employees. Salmon writes, “[Amazon's] employees are cogs in the corporate machine, and they are expected to work as efficiently as possible.” This attitude, Salmon suggests, is the wrong model for a great newspaper, which requires a publisher who will indulge his writers, spend money to find the best journalists, and reap the rewards of excellent reporting. Salmon concludes by writing:

To put it another way: the best proprietors are only happy when their journalists are happy. They throw resources at those journalists, and then the journalists smile, in their grumbly way, and waste a bunch of what they’ve been given, and ultimately produce wonderful content, which the proprietor can then turn around and monetize in one way or another. Bezos isn’t going to be like that, or at least I don’t think he will be. Still, I hope I’m wrong. Because if he does take an avuncular interest in whatever makes his journalists happy, then a man with his skills, and his resources, could yet turn out to be one of the most interesting and successful newspaper proprietors of all time.

As his the title of his post suggests, Independent Media, Dependent Media: Bezos, The Washington Post, and billionaires buying the press, Dean Starkman, who is also the author of the forthcoming The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, cites the recent trend of wealthy, very wealthy, individuals buying up newspapers. Jeff Bezos joins John Henry, who just bought The Boston Globe. Meanwhile, the Koch brothers are circling around The Los Angeles Times and there are rumors that soon-to-be-ex-Mayor Bloomberg has his eyes on the New York Times.

As Starkman and others have pointed out, the titan as newspaper publisher is nothing new. The history of journalism is littered with names like Hearst. However, these barons of old derived their wealth and influence from the newspapers themselves and the power of the press. Today, it’s a different story. Starkman writes:

In the new model, on the other hand, the press is not powerful in its own right. The titans’ power flows from elsewhere. The press is, in an economic sense, incidental to their wealth. Journalism under this new model is enveloped by, and dependent upon, interests far larger and quite different from its own.

The press, as we know, can be powerful, as Bezos himself has learned over the years.

But, under this new model, can it be really called independent?

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Friday, June 14th, 2013

“I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” by Mac McClelland — Best Busines Writing 2013

In “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” originally published in Mother Jones and included in The Best Business Writing 2013, Mac McClelland describes her experiences working at a warehouse for an Internet company. She describes conditions in which workers are tightly monitored and work under difficult, even painful conditions as they are pressured to pick items as quickly as possible so they can get out to customers. Given the scarcity of jobs, the workers have little choice but to endure the difficult, frequently unreasonable demands.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

The Trouble is the Banks — Best Business Writing 2013

“I always believed getting an education was the only way to succeed in life. Now I regret it every single day.”—Donna DeNaro, from The Trouble is the Banks excerpted in The Best Business Writing 2013

Best Business Writing 2013The Trouble is the Banks comes from a volume published by n+1 which includes letters from Occupy the Boardroom, a site that collects letters to banks and financial institution in the wake of the 2008 collapse. A portion of The Trouble is the Banks is included in The Best Business Writing 2013. Here’s an excerpt:

Please Don’t Harass My Father Any Further

Deena DeNaro

To: Lloyd H. Dean, Wells Fargo

Dear Lloyd,

In May 2007, I became the first person in my immediate family to get a degree, at age 38. I graduated owing more than $100,000 in private student loans. Payments were more than $1,100 per month. My 74-year-old retired father is the cosigner for most of these loans, but in September 2008, my dad lost $70,000 of his pension with the banks’ collapse.

In December 2009, after just one year in the workforce, I was laid off due to cut-backs. For most of 2010, I wasn’t able to find steady employment. In January 2011, I ran out of defer­ment with my private student loans. The banks began chasing my father as the cosigner. They have wrecked his line of credit and called in his home equity loan on which he never missed any payments.

In June 2011, my father saw a lawyer to try to get the pay­ments reduced to something proportionate to his fixed in­come. In October 2011, he got word that the lawyer failed to get payments reduced enough. My dad wrote me a letter say­ing he had to sell his life insurance and rearrange his will to protect my sister and stepmom.

The letter arrived last Saturday.

He had a stroke on Sunday.

Now Wells Fargo is harassing him for payment of another student loan.

I am asking you to please suspend collection actions against my father until I have a job that will pay me enough to make the payments myself.

I always believed getting an education was the only way to succeed in life. Now I regret it every single day.

Sincerely,
Deena DeNaro
Durham, NC 27701

(more…)

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Gusher by Steve Coll — The Best Business Writing 2013

The Best Business Writing 2013Steve Coll’s “Gusher,” published in The Best Business Writing 2013 offers a behind-the-scenes look at the tremendous influence ExxonMobil has in Washington and in shaping environmental and climate policy. In this excerpt, Steve Coll documents some of the early battles between ExxonMobil and the Obama administration and how the company and its CEO, Rex Tillerson, helped to kill the cap-and trade bill:

ExxonMobil’s initial efforts to reach out to the Obama adminis­tration gave way, during 2009 and 2010, to a succession of legis­lative and policy battles in which the corporation and the new president found themselves on opposite sides. Tillerson sought meetings with Treasury and White House officials to explain ExxonMobil’s views on energy markets, domestic drilling, cli­mate legislation, and the recession. On one occasion, Tillerson joined a group of chief executives at dinner with Obama. In general, however, wary administration officials saw no reason to favor ExxonMobil with access. There was little basis for trust on either side. ExxonMobil lobbying sessions with Obama’s team at the Treasury Department or the Department of Energy could be stiff, with Fariello and other lobbyists enunciating ExxonMo­bil’s advocacy positions, sometimes just by reading from notes and prepared materials. During the first three years of Obama’s presidency, the corporation spent more than fifty-two million dollars on lobbying in Washington, about 50 percent more per year than during the Bush presidency.

The most important challenge that ExxonMobil faced was the climate bill, known as “cap-and-trade,” which Obama and congressional Democrats introduced early in 2009. The House of Representatives passed a version of the law in June and moved it to the Senate, where the most difficult negotia­tions were expected. The proposed law would have established a new regulatory system under which polluting corporations could buy and sell permits to emit greenhouse gases, under an overall “cap” that would seek to reduce the rate of global warming.

ExxonMobil denounced the cap-and-trade system as un­wieldy and bureaucratic. It did, however, announce that it would support a straight “carbon tax,” which would create incentives for reductions in coal and oil use.

The proposal was a major policy shift for the corporation, which had come to it aft er years of isolated, deliberative policy analysis. But there was little support for the idea among Demo­crats. They knew that Republicans—many of whom had signed pledges never to raise taxes—wouldn’t go for it. And they had determined that cap-and-trade was the climate-change policy they would try to pass. Exxon’s support for a carbon tax would have been welcome in, say, the early nineties, when Al Gore was pushing the idea. But the debate had moved on.

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Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

How Companies Learn Your Secrets from The Best Business Writing 2013

“There is a calculus, it turns out, for mastering our subcon­scious urges. For companies like Target, the exhaustive render­ing of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.”—Charles Duhigg, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”

The Best Business Writing 2013As we learn about the extent to which the United States government monitored its citizens phone calls and online activity, Charles Duhigg’s article “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” from the New York Times Magazine, reminds us that corporations are also keeping a close eye on our activities in the name of trying to sell us more stuff. The following excerpt is from Duhigg’s article, which is included in The Best Business Writing 2013:

The desire to collect information on customers is not new for Target or any other large retailer, of course. For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code—known internally as the Guest ID number—that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon or fill out a survey or mail in a refund or call the customer help line or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our website, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet, and what websites you visit. Tar­get can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal, or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving, and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Ana­lytics department come in.

Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to invest­ment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analyt­ics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits so as to more effi­ciently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”

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Monday, June 10th, 2013

Book Giveaway: The Best Business Writing 2013

The Best Business Writing 2013

The declining middle-class, foreclosures, pharmaceutical companies behaving badly, the corporate misdeeds of Wal-Mart and Apple, are some of the stories that have been in the news in the past few months and are the ones that reveal the changing economic, political, and social aspects of our lives. These issues have been uncovered and analyzed by some of the excellent journalism and investigative reporting included in The Best Business Writing 2013, edited by Dean Starkman, Martha M. Hamilton, Ryan Chittum, and Felix Salmon

Throughout the week, we will be featuring The Best Business Writing 2013 Twitter feed, and on our Facebook page. For more on the book you can also read the Table of Contents and the Introduction by Dean Starkman.

We are also offering a FREE copy of the book to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on June 14 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Poetry: The News that Stays News — Stephen Burt

“So where did this idea come about that poems are the opposite of journalism, that poets do what reporters cannot, and vice versa?”—Stephen Burt

The following post by Stephen Burt was originally published on Nieman Reports. In the post Stephen Burt, author of The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence, explores how familiar stories are made fresh again by the way we put them into words:

The most famous statements about poetry and journalism hide an equation inside an opposition: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack// of what is found there” (William Carlos Williams). Or else they hide an opposition inside an equation: “Poetry is news that stays news” (Ezra Pound).

Reported stories, poets might have it, confine themselves to what’s going on right now, and then go away, replaced by other reportage. Journalism considers external, verifiable facts, which stay the same no matter who speaks about them, while poets consider the inward, the private, the potentially eternal, the claims which are different in each poet’s heart, mind or words. Jahan Ramazani, a critic at the University of Virginia, has written about how poets imitate, and use, and transform, the news: “By contrast with the seemingly passive mediation of current events by the reporter,” Ramazani explains, “the poet’s use of language and form must actively re-create … an imaginative event that recurs perpetually in the sustained present of poetry’s inventiveness.”

There is something to that opposition; otherwise, it would not persist as it does. And yet you can find poems that report news, or poems that react to news, from any period you care to name. Some of them even count as what we call “lyric,” the supposedly timeless or private kind of poetry that is sometimes opposed to the news: They embody strong feeling and they resemble song. Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional,” whatever you think of its politics, is both a compressed songlike work, whose word choices embody complex feeling, and a comment on current events (Queen Victoria’s Jubilee). So are Williams’s own poems about Sacco and Vanzetti and about the death of FDR. So—often at a lower level of craft—are many short, songlike poems from the late 1960s about the war in Vietnam.

You can have—you can attempt to embody in verse, to compress, to make eloquent—feelings or complicated inward responses, responses that reveal your character, to almost anything: to a twig or a fallen leaf or a sexual overture but also to what we now call headline news. The form of the sonnet, so often associated with erotic love, has become so prominent in English in part because poets use it to react to the news: Milton in the English Civil War, Wordsworth on the fall of the Venetian Republic and the capture of Toussaint L’Overture, several now-forgotten Victorian poets on dispatches from the Crimean War, Gwendolyn Brooks on poverty, race, Chicago, and World War II. Many of the supposed oppositions between poems and news just dissolve on scrutiny: Poetry often reacts to public events; poetry can be pellucid (as in Louise Glück or Christina Rossetti) as well as opaque; and journalists can take on complicated ideas with specialized vocabulary (collateralized mortgage obligations, for example, or mitochondrial DNA).

So where did this idea come about that poems are the opposite of journalism, that poets do what reporters cannot, and vice versa?

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Friday, December 7th, 2012

Terry McDonell on the Importance of Long Form Journalism

The Best American Magazine Writing 2012We conclude our week-long feature on The Best American Magazine Writing 2012 where we probably should have started, namely Terry McDonell’s introduction. Terry McDonell has been an editor for many magazines and is currently editor of Time Inc. Sports.

In the introduction he discusses the excitement an editor feels when he receives a piece by a favorite author. He then tells the story behind the story of Chris Ballard’s article, Dwayne Dedmon’s Leap of Faith, published in Sports Illustrated and included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2012.

For all top editors there are many private and sublime thrills that no one else can borrow, such as opening a new piece by a favorite writer. You crack the file and you know, just reading the lede, that it will absolutely make your mix and give your entire issue a subtext that will echo how smart you want the magazine to be. I first heard this articulated by Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books when he was explaining the joys of editing Zadie Smith. Graydon Carter no doubt felt the same way opening a piece from Hitchens. For me it has become a long list, especially where I work now at Sports Illustrated, which received a nomination for SI senior writer Chris Ballard’s profile of Dewayne Dedmon, a naturally gifted basketball player on his way to being seven feet tall.

Like every piece in this collection, “Dewayne Dedmon’s Leap of Faith” has a publishing story behind it. This is where to look for additional understanding of the author of a particular story and also the workings of the magazine. The idea for the Dedmon piece came, like many do, from the margins of the news. Ballard read an item, maybe one hundred words or so, noting that a seventeen-year-old from Antelope Valley, northeast of L.A., had signed to play basketball at USC but that he hadn’t played at all in high school “because of religious reasons.” Bingo.

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Thursday, December 6th, 2012

The Best American Magazine Writing 2012: “Joplin,” by Luke Dittrich

Luke Dittrich, Joplin

“The windows spider. The windows explode.

Lacey’s boys start screaming.

It is a terrible sound.”—from “Joplin!,” by Luke Dittrich

Continuing our week-long focus on The Best American Magazine Writing: 2012, we are featuring Luke Dittrich’s extraordinary Joplin!, which recounts the horrific tornado which hit the Missouri town and killed 160.

Dittrich’s piece focuses on the stories of two dozen strangers, who found shelter in the walk-in cooler of a gas station. He recounts elements of their lives and how they ended up finding refuge in the cooler. The article won the National Magazine Award for featuring writing and was cited for its “brilliant and restrained evocation of desperation and bravery”.

In an discussion with the Nieman Storyboard, Dittrich gives a fascinating account of how he wrote the story, including discussing how he decided to focus on the cooler:

I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.

In a followup to the article, Dittrich returned to Joplin and created this video with the people who were in the cooler:

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Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

From The Best American Magazine Writing 2012: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the OWS Protests by Matt Taibbi

“People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world.”—Matt Taibbi

The Best American Magazine Writing 2012One of the more inspiring and effective relief efforts to emerge in the wake of Hurricane Sandy has been Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Undoubtedly, they’ve changed some skeptics’ minds who were wary of the movement’s seeming lack of specific demands.

One such skeptic was noted journalist Matt Taibbi. However, as he explains in How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the OWS Protests, included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2012, Taibbi saw the value in the movement’s desire for something different than the current corrupt economic system even if this was not articulated in a 10-point-plan.

In the following excerpt, Taibbi describes how he came to see the police, who had been deployed to monitor the protestors, as a symbol for larger problems:

The police in their own way are symbols of the problem. All over the country, thousands of armed cops have been deployed to stand around and surveil and even assault the polite crowds of Occupy protesters. This deployment of law-enforcement resources already dwarfs the amount of money and manpower that the government “committed” to fighting crime and corruption during the financial crisis. One OWS protester steps in the wrong place, and she immediately has police roping her off like wayward cattle. But in the skyscrapers above the protests, anything goes.

This is a profound statement about who law enforcement works for in this country. What happened on Wall Street over the past decade was an unparalleled crime wave. Yet at most, maybe 1,500 federal agents were policing that beat – and that little group of financial cops barely made any cases at all. Yet when thousands of ordinary people hit the streets with the express purpose of obeying the law and demonstrating their patriotism through peaceful protest, the police response is immediate and massive. There have already been hundreds of arrests, which is hundreds more than we ever saw during the years when Wall Street bankers were stealing billions of dollars from retirees and mutual-fund holders and carpenters unions through the mass sales of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities.

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Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Best American Magazine Writing 2012 — John Jeremiah Sullivan on David Foster Wallace

“Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That’s what Wallace’s suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn’t just a sad thing, it was a blow.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan

David Foster Wallace, The Best American Magazine Writing

This week we will be highlighting some of the pieces selected for The Best American Magazine Writing 2012, edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors. First up is John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Too Much Information published in GQ.

For those who lament the winnowing away of book reviews and serious literary criticism will be impressed and even moved by Sullivan’s extraordinary review of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. However, what Sullivan also offers is a careful, thoughtful, and at times, personal assessment of Wallace’s place in American fiction.

Here’s an excerpt from “Too Much Information”:

Here’s a thing that is hard to imagine: being so inventive a writer that when you die, the language is impoverished. That’s what Wallace’s suicide did, two and a half years ago. It wasn’t just a sad thing, it was a blow.

It’s hard to do the traditional bio-style paragraph about Wallace for readers who, in this oversaturated mediascape, don’t know who he was or why he mattered, because you keep flashing on his story “Death Is Not the End,” in which he parodies the practice of writing the traditional bio-style paragraph about writers, listing all their honors and whatnot, his list becoming inexplicably ridiculous as he keeps naming the prizes, and you get that he’s digging into the frequent self-congratulating silliness of the American literary world, “a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, [...] a Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters…a poet two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation.” Wallace himself had many of the awards on the list, including “a ‘Genius Grant’ from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation.” Three novels, three story collections, two books of essays, the Roy E. Disney Professorship of Creative Writing at Pomona College…

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

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Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Book Giveaway! The Best American Magazine Writing 2012

The Best American Magazine Writing 2012

Interested in the most compelling, informative, and entertaining journalism, reporting, and feature-writing? If so, you are in luck. This week we our featured book and giveaway is: The Best American Magazine Writing , Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors; with an introduction by Terry McDonell.

Throughout the week we will highlight aspects of The Best American Magazine Writing 2012 and we are offering a FREE copy of the book to one winner.

To enter our book giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday at 1:00 pm. Good luck and spread the word!

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Friday, September 21st, 2012

Victor Navasky to Discuss The Art of Making Magazines at the Brooklyn Book Festival

The Art of Making Magazines, Victor Navasky and Evan Cornog

This week we’ve been featuring The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry and this Sunday, you can hear Victor Navasky talk more about the book at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Navasky will participate on a panel entitled “Ink and Pressure: The Delicate Art, History and Future of Publishing,” which will also include Sean Howe author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. The panelists will take take a look at the nuts and bolts construction of a comic book empire and the intricacies of what it really takes to make magazines.

The panel will be at 11 am at St. Francis McArdle (180 Remsen Street)

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Robert Gottlieb on Editing at Knopf Versus The New Yorker

The Art of Making Magazines, Robert Gottlieb

“When you’re the editor-in-chief of a magazine, as I was of The New Yorker … You are the living god.”—Robert Gottlieb, “Editing Books Versus Editing Magazines”

In his essay, “Editing Books Versus Editing Magazines,” from The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry, Robert Gottlieb compares his experiences of working as an editor at Knopf and as editor-in-chief at The New Yorker. Here’s an excerpt:

Editors do different things in different places. To start with, being the editor-in-chief of a book publishing house is a vastly different matter from being the editor-in-chief of a magazine. When you’re in a publishing house, you are in a strictly service job as an editor. Your job is to serve the book and the writer. You may think you’re the star, particularly if various newspapers are writing feature journalism about where you have lunch, but that is not the point.

The point is that book publishing houses only exist with the goodwill of their writers and only exist if the books they publish are any good. To keep your good authors and to attract other good authors, you have to serve them. They have to feel protected, which means they have to believe that their editor, a specific personal editor, understands their work, sympathizes with their work, and is on their wavelength. They must believe that the editor can help them make the book not other than what it is, but better than what it is. And that’s a complicated job, and it’s a job that can’t be taught and can’t be learned. I’ve always thought I was as good or even better as an editor my first day on the job—when I had a lot of energy—as I am now, forty-six years later or so.

You are there to keep the writer happy and feeling that he or she is protected both in terms of writing and in terms of publishing, and publishing and editing are very different matters. I, who would rather do a lot of things pretty well than one thing very well, published as well as edited, and that was fun for me. At that time, you could still be the chief editor and the publisher of a major publishing house. That is much harder to do today because it is a more bottom-line business and accountants and lawyers are far more involved than they used to be.

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