Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

On writing

Posted on | August 19, 2007 | No Comments

There is a sad irony in the newspaper business these days, at least at the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper is cutting staff to save money and changing the way it covers its world in ways supposedly catered to a busy, attention-deficit generation. Yet the more they do this (and de-emphasize writing) the worse the flight of the readers. (I’m not the only one to figure this out, not surprisingly). This is not confined to The Chronicle. At the same time the Chron pulls out “classic” columns and plops them into the Datebook section, especially on Sundays. The paper, while it has never been a paragon of high-class journalism, has had some of the finest writers over the years. Stanton Delaplane, Charlie McCabe, Art Hoppe and while he wasn’t a great writer he had a unique style, Herb Caen. They’re all dead and they’re all resurrected from time to time in a paper that, outside of the Sporting Green and a few occasional gems from Mark Morford, has (or at least showcases) very little good writing. Penelope Trunk (I don’t know if she’s on staff) tried to make a point today in the Insight section. She could be 11 years old for all I know, that’s how poorly written her piece was.
Flip over to the Datebook, there’s Charlie McCabe, hale and hearty and appearing to be filing a dispatch from Sam’s or Tiburon Tommy’s or one of those Tiburon bars to which he purportedly had a key.

“A lot of people think I am decidedly peculiar because I do the reading necessary for my work in a saloon. But there really is a good reason for this, in addition to the fact that I like to drink ale when I finish work.”

The art of writing is poised for a comeback. There is no possible alternative. The tsunami of information that awaits us every morning and the jittery jolt of television have broken the communications of ideas. And the communication of ideas is what makes the world go around. Ideas are more than a televised image, an email blast or an IM. Thoughtful, careful writing is the foundation on which the communications of ideas rest. It is the reflection, meditation and choice of precise words that germinates and cultivates ideas. And if we want to improve everything from world affairs to tactical business strategy, we need to pay heed.
The Economist, New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly are all well-written, well edited publications. Perhaps that’s why their circulations are rising.

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No Responses to “On writing”

  1. Lou Covey
    August 19th, 2007 @ 2:06 pm

    The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” is coming true in news papers. There was a time that the great writers of our country (e.g., Clemens, Harte, White, Mencken) got their start as newsmen and many of them made a good living at it. The economic trends of the time, however, are lowering the wages and increasing the workload on today’s journalists and pushing them out of the business altogether. You’re a perfect example of that.

    What we need is anew paradigm that restores the value of good writing. The internet might be the means, but the quality of writing on the Net is just about as good as it is in today’s papers.

  2. Kerri
    August 21st, 2007 @ 6:23 am

    I wrote about a similar issue last week — there’s a great deal of controversy in the blogosphere about who is a journalist and who isn’t. While there is the rare writer who can write good stories and write well, most of us require a hand with something, whether it’s topical oversight, turns of phrase, perspective, vocabulary choices, mechanics, or something else. And that’s where a good editor comes in — she’s as important as anyone else in the editorial food chain — but so many editors these days are tenderfoots. Pay for writing experience? Feh, can she run a spell-checker? Hire her.

    Rare is the grouchy old guy in the green eyeshade who plays scrabble forteen hours straight every Sunday after church. Gone is the cigar-chomping corn-fed grouch who has no problem telling the entire newsroom — magna voce — that your copy is crap.

    So we blog, with no one to teach us, no one to guide us, as though writing is like walking. It’s NOT. I know you made me a better writer than I was (OK, that’s not saying much, but still), while I cleaned up typos to make your copy shine. Yes, blogging, and citizen journalism, is here to stay. But they should be learning skills and techniques from us, and not the other way around.

    When I heard an NPR ‘journalist’ talk about the horrible earthquake in Peru, I actually gnashed my teeth. Sure, we all probably think it’s horrible, but who are you to tell me what horrible is? Show me that it’s horrible, you lazy git. Watching ‘journalists’ give Steve Jobs several rounds of applause at a press conference actually sent me into the kitchen for a glass of scotch. (Well, I didn’t much need to be dragooned, but you get the idea.)

    The Providence Journal was two sections last Monday (or was it Wednesday?) — each I think three signatures. A twenty-four page daily newspaper. But hey, Patinkin’s still got a job!

  3. Loring
    August 21st, 2007 @ 3:18 pm

    Penelope Trunk’s writing certainly isn’t the greatest I’ve seen, but her point seemed relatively clear. The characteristics we choose for our CEOs, military commanders, presidents, etc. are not ones that make for very upstanding people in personal-habit categories. Some would say it’s meant to be that way, but I say that a Type-A, gazillion-girlfriend, stock-option-backdating kinda guy is a creepy person under any circumstance. Glad that the Valley learned that about Reyes, sure wish Chrysler would learn that about Nardelli. Of course, the fact that we don’t want persons of integrity as celebrities or CEOs tells us how sick we are as a culture…

  4. heidi
    August 22nd, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

    The problem with blog journalism isn’t the writing, it’s the reporting. It doesn’t. It opines and reflects, which are valuable journalism services. But blog journalism doesn’t news. Anyone can learn to write, and yes, anyone writing something for publication, even on a blog, is accountable for grammar, style, composition. But good journalism is a talent, a honed craft, a passion, a gift even. Yesterday, I listened to Thomas Ricks discuss our presence in Iraq and his reporting on the pentagon. I agreed and disagreed, but most of all, I learned a helluva lot in that radio interview. It occurred to me that when bloggers co-opt news, the windows on our world flung open by excellent reporting will close. Instead, we’ll be viewing the world on our computer screens through the eyes of people who view the world mostly on their computer screens, gathering their facts from rumors and gossip and conjecture on other blogs. Ok, some of them, not all. Bloggers, by their nature, don’t spend hours, days, weeks, or years researching a topic and reporting in-depth through educated experience, travel, observation, and first-person interviews on issues that make and break worlds. They go to their computers after a cocktail party or after Google-ing some research or after reading the morning paper or maybe the morning website, and they react. The good ones react with intellectual strengths sharpened by skills and experience adopted outside of the Internet, but what percentage are those and how long are they going to last? Writing is important, yes. And so are blogs. But not for journalism. I hope there is a place of value in the new paradigm for good journalists. In the meantime, the Internet needs a good journalism schooling to replace print. And maybe that starts with good writing.

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