Thursday, May 24, 2012

Personalized Storytelling: You Can't Do Anything Wrong

My last post for ONA as an MJ Bear Fellow. I had a great time. 

Junot Diaz and Min Jin Lee at the Pageturner Literary Festival
Last fall, I found myself in a blizzard-like storm in New York, fighting my way through a thick wall of snow. I had just left my position at the Wall Street Journal in Asia to be with my husband and to pursue full-time reporting. This weather was a reminder of the fact that I was no longer in the comforting tropical climate of Hong Kong and no longer in a comfortable job at a multinational news organization.
I was on my way to the Pageturner Literary Festival to see Junot Diaz speak. He is an author who bedazzled me with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Coming back to the U.S. had been a bit of an adjustment, and so I was hoping for some advice and counsel — perhaps a shove in the right direction, an uplifting tale of struggle and eventual success from Mr. Diaz.
And he delivered.


“Eleven years is a long time to feel like a loser,” Diaz said at one point in his speech. He was referring to the time it took him to finish his novel about the pudgy Dominican nerd Oscar Wao. Diaz won international acclaim for his book, but it also took him more than a decade to finish it.
He urged the soaking, attentive crowd of aspiring storytellers to be patient with themselves — to give themselves a break.
“When you’re on your sixth year of your novel, and you’ve taught a student how to write a novel in six months, then you start blaming yourself,” he said. “Most of us don’t help ourselves [in those situations]. We tend to double down on the punishment. If the page or the thing [we're] working on is punishing us, we seem to think that that’s somehow a value judgment on ourselves.”
Diaz said we need to give ourselves the same compassion that we do the characters in our stories — in his case they are fictional; in ours they are real.
Ira Glass has a similar plea to young storytellers. Here in this (much-circulated but never old) video, the host and creator of “This American Life” speaks of the need to be patient and continue to produce work — to produce a lot of work and to do so repeatedly, even if the work is not entirely what you want it to be.
It’s not easy to always keep this in mind. We’re young and restless, after all. We want to tell amazing stories. We might go to conflict zones, where we suspect those stories are waiting for us. The falling prices of gadgets and tech gear are on our side, but to be consistently great takes patience with oneself. This is something that I, and perhaps some others in my shoes, lack at times.


Diaz and Min Jin Lee, the author sharing the stage with Diaz, also talked about artistic integrity. They spoke of editors who wanted them to remove parts of their novels that were integral to their stories and characters, such as Korean words or footnotes. Those elements seemed be too “weird” for their audience, according to those editors.
But instead, Diaz and Lee encouraged the audience to listen to their own understanding of what is, and what isn’t, too experimental for their audience.
“They [your editors] are making economic arguments about aesthetic issues,” Diaz said. “The economic argument should not be made because you aren’t going to make much money doing this.”
Their struggles to sell books is perhaps akin to our need to sell our stories to our editors and to the omnivorous Internet. Sometimes the currency we’re dealing with is not the money people will spend on our books, but the traffic, eyeballs and clicks.
But beyond the short-lived, monetary benefits of traffic and the pats on the back you get from your editor, there’s one quality that’s lasting: What is my own definition of personal excellence in my craft, and how can I reach my selected audience? By that, I don’t mean the voiceless masses that makes up the traffic stream to a website, but the audience I choose to move — the people whom I want to reach.
Who knows whether “traditional media” is a platform for bringing the best you can do to your chosen audience? It could be a documentary about an obscure community you send out to selected screenings. It could be an article such as the hauntingly beautiful and absolutely unconventional account of a man in Japan, floating on his roof for days after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed his village.
There’s nothing wrong with striving to find your own voice, both authors urged. For us, this is something that can, and sometimes cannot, be done in the field of journalism.
“There is the idea that there is this right path,” Diaz said. But if you haven’t taken it “you haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Didn’t take an MFA? You didn’t do anything wrong.
Took you 11 years to write your book? You didn’t do anything wrong.
Don’t feel like writing about your family? You didn’t do anything wrong.
You do feel like writing about your family? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Well, I’m not sure whether I’m spreading myself too thin by trying to work with every medium. I’m not sure whether I did the right thing by leaving Asia. But I didn’t do anything wrong, either.

Monday, May 14, 2012

50 Years of U.S. Government Spending

And here's another slope graph, this time on government spending. I think this one works a bit better than the previous one. It's clearer that there's a progression from one point to another. 

You can read a bit more about these numbers here.

Update: Wowsers! People love Tufte's approach to data visualization. This graphic was shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Confessions of a convert: How I came to love blogging

Another post I did for the Online News Association. 
Ugh, the blog format. For a lover of long-form magazine stories and documentaries, I was never the biggest fan.
With blogs came shortened word counts, limited visual capabilities and a curtailed shelf life (although that might be arguable).
But necessity is the mother of invention, and there have been a number of folks who took the format, ran with it and converted me (which is good because I now work on a blog).


Here’s one of the hardest things I had to swallow. The kind of journalism I loved to do, the long-form multimedia projects and the mini-sites for special coverage, aren’t the way people enter a website anymore.
Less of this?
How we get to our reading and viewing material has changed. Big destination sites don’t garner the kind of audiences that a series of or even just one well-done shorter piece get.
Yes, long-form journalism — meaning longer articles — might have caught a second wind from the rise of the iPad, the Kindle and other tablets. But special mini-sites haven’t enjoyed the same renaissance — at least that’s what I gather from anecdotal evidence. These sites might not die, but they certainly are going to be rarer.
But just because my work is being parceled into bite-sized posts on online avenues doesn’t mean I have to compromise quality in reporting and multimedia storytelling, right? Here’s why.


Some of the most interesting developments in our recent news gathering — from real-time coverage to more integrated interplay of multimedia elements and text — are perfect for blogs.
One of the first multi-format bloggers I started noticing was a former Wall Street Journal colleague Zach Seward.
Before starting at The Atlantic, the former WSJ social media editor caught my attention with playful posts like this one, titled “Everything the Internet Knows About Me (Because I Asked It To)” or this one, called “Listen to the Obama Campaign’s Soundtrack”.
Everything the Internet Knows about Zach Seward
Everything the Internet Knows about Zach Seward (The Wall Street Journal)
The beauty of these posts is that they are not necessarily bound to text, and they weigh each element equally. As someone who’s always worked on “art for stories,” it’s nice to see someone practice what we always preach: Treat all media equally and use each according to their strength.
Another great development on blogs that’s now gained enough traction to get the attention of the Pulitzer Prizes is live coverage. The Guardian was one of the first publications to fully embrace and then refine the art of live blogging, a news reporting format that has won more prominence with the rise of twitter.
One of the Guardian’s earliest live products, its soccer (or football) live blogs, is a great example of value-added live coverage. The writers are hilarious, well-informed commentators who offer a different view of the game while delivering basic information.
Sports events, awards ceremonies and other “low-pressure” live events also are a great training ground for live coverage of news. Live blogging later became a central tool for the Guardian’s coverage of the Arab Spring, and transformed it into both a news delivery system and a crowd-sourcing platform.
A more traditional print reporter once told me that blog posts are for reporters to “dump” into whatever didn’t make it into the “actual” story, which reduces blogs to the function of traffic-generating byproducts. But I see a blog as a vehicle for experimentation, integrated, multiple-platform storytelling — a tool with specific strengths, useful for certain stories.


Blogs lack depth, some would say. And while you might not get as much out of a 300-word post as you would a 5,000-word article, blogs do offer room for developing a deeper understanding of a story or subject over time.
Serial coverage of a subject can unravel nicely over a blog, which can provide more flexibility to react to recent developments. When we think of superficial blogs, we think of posts that “recycle” other people’s reporting. And while that is part of the blogosphere, there’s some great original reporting in blogs.
The Atlantic, for instance, is rolling out a series on spending, which combines smart reporting with graphics and guest entries. On some level, this is just a way to parcel out great coverage of a subject.
Maybe my long-form projects don’t have to die. They just have to be repackaged.