Friday, August 31, 2007

A couple weeks ago, I was annoyed by the expectation that I would submit some articles for consideration in various categories for the upcoming state press association conference. What's the point? I'd go through the minor-to-moderate hassle of pawing through old papers and digging up physical copies, get caught up debating with myself whether the obvious-in-hindsight flaws in something I wrote six months ago outweighed its good points, and be one of probably over a hundred writers competing for the few "best of" categories I was even eligible for. But entering was expected of me (not required, people would just have been disappointed and curious if I didn't), so I did it anyway. I put it off until after 5 p.m. the day before they had to be mailed off and prepared two not-horrible submissions. Oh well.

While getting those ready, though, I kind of had a change of heart. I've had compliments on my work before, it's not like there's nothing good out there. Why not enter? It's not like it'll take all that long, and I win it would look great on my résumé. So rather than just searching through my hard drive in chronological order, I remembered what some of those good stories were and tracked them down.

And they were all outside the time period covered by the award. Crap. The detailed story about the town government in dire straits was published just recently, two weeks after the period allowed; the rural Internet story, which I didn't think much of at first but later on several people said it was interesting, was one week after the period allowed; the heartwarming story about the cool elementary school principal was way back a month or two before the award period... that's not to say I did nothing worth mentioning for a 13-month period, but it was frustrating that the top three or four I could think of were all unsuitable.

I'm reminded of all this today because I just wrote a headline for another story which I think would qualify. It was a pretty good human interest story, and during the interview, the subject said something like "no one's ever asked me that before." Which sounded like a good sign to me. So, well, maybe this post will help me find all these when next year comes around...

Monday, August 27, 2007

Actually, the experience of working without Internet this morning — it came back some time while I was at lunch — was sort of interesting. When the server is inaccessible but not my own computer, it's a pretty minor problem. When my own computer is down, or when the power is out, it's a big problem, but in a boring way. If it happens close to deadline then laptops get pooled and rationed out to the writers who really need them, but other than that, there's just very nearly nothing that can be done.

But when the Internet is down, it seems I can work, but I have to do it differently. I think my job becomes a lot like it would have been 20 years ago or so. There are a few differences of course. I would have been on a typewriter or maybe a really primitive computer back then, and an archive search would work by physically going through a filing cabinet instead of using the "search" window on this Mac. But still — typing, archive searches and calling people on the phone.

The difference I noticed this morning when I talked to someone was in information gathering. I'll often ask people if there is anyone else I should talk to about whatever the subject is, but it's often not worth the trouble to ask for contact information. If I ask some elected official or volunteer at home how to reach a consultant, for example, they'd rely on the phone book just like me. If I can't find them because they aren't in the phone book then the elected official sitting at home probably couldn't either, and if I Google the consultant, not only will I find their number but I'll probably find a fair amount more about them too. (Where is he located? Is he well-known or obscure? Straightforward or cutting-edge or a crank?)

But that doesn't work so well when Google is unavailable and I find myself reduced to the Stone Age practice of asking questions about stuff and knowing things on my own beforehand. Damn. (Yes, I'm kidding.) Well, my current system works fine most of the time, I just have to remember to ask for more details when the Internet is down...
I’m writing this at 9:30 a.m. on Monday in a Word document, which I will have to copy and paste to post because at the office this morning, we’re having a rare kind of technical difficulty: the Internet is down. Apparently some/many/all clients of our ISP are having the same problem.

I have the impression this is pretty rare. We lose power occasionally, which is catastrophic for getting stuff done, or my or someone else’s computer itself goes down, which is bad for that person or for the whole newsroom if it’s the news server, but I don’t think I can remember a time longer than a few minutes when our computers and our internal network were working, but not the Internet.

It seems calculated to make me productive. I still have my phone and Microsoft Word, but I can’t go online to read blogs (although, hah, that’s obviously not stopping me from writing this) with the links and the current events and the long, long comment threads. What else am I going to do with my time? Oh well, I guess I’d better call people for a story or something.

Other news: I saw Jo again on Sunday. It was fun. I hadn’t seen her in like six months, for no really good reason. For like a month on either side of that there was genuinely little or no chance to spend a full afternoon/evening down in Rutland, but still, shame on me.

And, World of Warcraft news: my night elf druid is enjoying the occasional heroic instance and is off-tanking Karazhan, even though it’s not always easy to fit raids with my guild into my schedule. And I finally got my undead warlock to level 60 and into Outland. Yay! She’s my highest-level Horde character (for that matter, my only active one), and I’m liking it. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe I would feel the same way about any toon I got past level 50 or so, but warlocks and druids seem like the fun classes.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I was at the county fair yesterday and I happened to spend quite a bit of time in the children's barn, with all the bunnies and miniature horses and educational exhibits involving chicks hatching. There were two reasons: according to the schedule there was an event going on there that I thought would be worth writing about (although either the schedule was wrong or I was wrong that it was newsworthy; I couldn't find it and no one knew about it), and I just like small cute animals. As I finally get close to the popular pen with a mother pig and a bunch of week-old piglets running around, a woman and three kids were standing next to me. I'd estimate that the oldest was 10 or 12, and there were two others, only six or eight or so.

“They’re cute when they’re small,” said the tallest of the three. “Look, they’re butting their heads together.”
And then, the smallest of the three girls, who happened to be the one standing closest to me, said, “I think they kill the smallest."

Maybe I'm contagious.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

But it's damn annoying when I want to get a few simple facts out of someone for a news story and call it a night, but first I have to figure out how to respond to hearing that she already has heard so much about me, and my parents are so proud, and would I like to go to the party they're having on Saturday?

Hmmm. I feel like I should expand on that from the last post. After all, one might think, what is so hard to figure out there? Well, what I actually wound up doing was being cool but polite. Smiling and stuff, but not as effusive as her, and not ruling Saturday out but not committing to it either. A similar greeting with a few details different might have earned a very different reaction from me. If she had been someone I was interested in getting to know rather than just quote in an article, or if she had acknowledged knowing me but been less personal about it ("Your parents have told me so much about you") or if I had known about it in advance rather than being caught flatfooted, I might have openly, maybe even genuinely, returned the sentiment.

All this kind of ties in to something I've been thinking about for the past week. My job is good overall, yeah, but I'm not doing myself any favors if I imagine it's the best I could hope for, and one thing I've noticed relatively recently is that I can't help taking my work home with me. If I were really disciplined and devoted to it* or if I had natural advantages like a decade of experience or living in my coverage area then this problem would be practically unnoticeable, but I'm not and I don't.

Examples? I have night meetings at varying times that change from week to week; they don't take up much time, but I have to block off certain nights just in case. (For example, I can't commit to raiding with my guild on Tuesdays because the school board meets on Tuesdays and I sometimes have to go to those meetings... now that I think of it, this is dumb; I've been going to that so rarely that I could get into the raiding rotation. Well, let's shoot for next week.) I thought I had to go to a public informational meeting tonight, which would have meant no Drinking Liberally. I get calls back after work or on my lunch break relatively often. I can't just relax when I'm passing through my towns because I have to keep my ears open for anything newsworthy. And, of course, there's all the stuff with meeting people who know my parents.

Yeah, some of this stuff is really minor, and on the whole I have a good job, and night meetings have a flip side in that the job has flexible hours. But this is related to the "my social life sucks" complaint that I make so often: in addition to keeping half an eye open for a job in a larger city, I should also lean towards avoiding a job that follows me home.

* What do I mean by this? Not blogging during work, for example. :)
Argh. Bleh. This happened again last night.

I attended a meeting last night about getting Bristol (the center and largest town of my beat) involved in a certain federal health care program*. I recognized about half a dozen of the 20-30 people in the room. One of those half a dozen was a member of the largest school board in my beat, who also works at the same place as my mother and knows her pretty well. I don't think I've ever complained about that dual relationship because I don't think I've ever had to quote him; fine, I didn't have to here either. Afterwards, though, I went up to one of the women who had led the meeting, and when I introduced myself, she gushed about how great it was to finally meet me. At first I thought, "Someone reads the paper and notices my byline? Wow," but it turned out that she was happy to meet me because she has heard about me from my parents. She's the school board member's wife or something; they don't have the same last name and I didn't pry.

Sure, I know people and they know me. Wow, how horrible. And it's not like there's a genuine danger to professionalism here; it's almost always** a distant relationship. My parents' former co-worker, a kid whose guidance counselor is my mother — as the risk of conflicting loyalties go, compared to working with some bureaucrat or town official for years as a source, this is nothing. It's not like my job gets in the way of my parents talking candidly with me, either. They already took school confidentiality rules pretty seriously; two years ago they would talk to me about what caused the headache of the day at work, but they would be careful to leave out any names or sensitive details, and today the only real difference is that they add reminders that it's not for publication.

But it's damn annoying when I want to get a few simple facts out of someone for a news story and call it a night, but first I have to figure out how to respond to hearing that she already has heard so much about me, and my parents are so proud, and would I like to go to the party they're having on Saturday***?

* Treat this as an example of how idiosyncratic reporting can be: Sen. Bernie Sa/nders was at the meeting, is at least moderately involved with the federal program, and he did most of the talking that night, or at least, more than anyone else. He will probably be the news hook. But all that's worth blogging about is my mother's co-worker's wife.

** Looking back to write this post, though, I was surprised to see I never blogged about the one time I quoted my father in an article. There was a fire at his school, and the reporter who usually covers that region was on vacation that week so it fell into my lap. I got most of the story done by talking to other people, but I still had to quote him on one detail and refer to him on another. That wasn't fun.

*** I probably will, for what it's worth. My parents had invited me last weekend and I had been wavering, and this incident may have been annoying, but reminded me that it probably would be good for me and all that.

Monday, August 06, 2007

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was bombed. It was the first use of an atomic bomb in war, and along with the bombing of Nagasaki three days later it was the only one. 70,000 people died practically instantly, and over 200,000 more died of cancer, burns, or other injuries over the following years.

On August 6, 1982, I was born.

As for more detailed blogging about how I spent the last couple days, consider it outsourced. It's not 100 percent accurate simply because it's from the point of view of someone who isn't me, but it's pretty close. The two posts before that and the two after it are relevant as well. Maybe I should be writing about that myself, but I have a pretty hard time talking about my feelings on a good day, so it would be especially tough today.

Thursday was good, though. Fun and deep thoughts too, and I came this close to doing something good with/for myself. I'll try to write about it some time when I'm more, well, in the mood.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Thursday, August 02, 2007

No, it's just bad
If you were an editor at a publishing company focused on fiction novels for mass markets, how would you react if you received a manuscript from an unknown author that began like this?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

"My dear Mr Barnett," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Weatherfield Manor is let at last?"

I know how I'd react. Based both on the word of a teacher with a blog and on my impression of how I wrote years and years ago, the "history of the world" introduction is a pretty reliable sign of amateurish writing. Next I'd notice the very antiquated prose. Unfortunately for the author, the English language evolves. To be fair, there could easily be a good reason for such a style in quoted speech, and I guess there might be an acceptable reason for it in the author's own voice. What if an author wanted to set a book in the past but deal with themes that got swept under the rug in that period, like class or race issues? Using an old-fashioned style with a modern story, or modern theme, might be a jarring and effective way to do it.

However, the reader needs to have some hint that there's a reason for the unfamiliar style. A brief reversion to modern prose, a quick segue into a plot ripped from the headlines rather than the staid talk about society life which is the only fiction we've read in this style, something. Seeing nothing like that, I'd reject the book with a clear conscience. Very, very few people would read it for fun in its current state, and as fiction from an unknown author it has no apparent cultural or historical significance to pull in readers. Even if there are pearls of insight in there, it would take too much editing to polish them, so it just wouldn't be worth the trouble.

At this point I really don't need to Google phrases from the manuscript to check for plagiarism, but if I decided to for some reason, I would find that first sentence is very well known even though I myself have never read Pride and Prejudice, so that would be another reason to reject it too.

All this is a long-winded way of saying to Austen enthusiast David Lassman, and to Andrew Sullivan as well, "no shit." I don't dispute the accuracy of Sullivan's recent anecdotes about the horrible state of the publishing industry, but seriously, it reflects badly on modern publishers that they wouldn't buy a 200-year-old book? Really? No, sorry, they suck because the editors didn't recognize the classic novel. Well, one did, but only one. Well, only one made a point to say so in the rejection letter, but other publishers say they recognized it and simply sent form letters. (And how much time, exactly, do you expect them to waste on what they have already decided is definitely not publishable?) But the publishing industry sucks because of all those, um, other editors.

There's a very interesting discussion to have about how and why language evolves. Is it really the result of a "dumbing down" of culture? Just for starters, I read somewhere or other that 200-year-old prose may seem incredibly dense to you or me but actually makes perfect sense if you read it out loud, or have it read to you; is that really true? I almost feel obligated to go to grad school, lest the subject receive no more serious commentary than Sullivan's version of "Hey! You kids get off my lawn!"

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

In other thoughts about work, I've been meaning to write a post about what it's like to write "annual" stories for the second time. I talked about this a little bit back here, but it's happened here and there since March.

It's an interesting contrast. Sometimes, like in the links above, I can see noticeable improvements in my writing style. Other times over the past few months, though, I've approached an event and when I looked back at last year's story on it, it seemed that I was phoning this version in. Maybe it's because of a change in my mood or motivation or getting complacent now that I know what the "real" boundaries are and when I can push them. Or maybe it's a first-year thing, and anyone would take a very detailed look at their first stories about local culture even though it's not really needed. For example, I remember getting talked to by my boss once about a business story that was unnecessarily wordy and explained too much, mostly because even though I had been here for a while, I hadn't done it before and that exposition would have been needed for me; maybe the same thing went on with local interest stories. I think my interviewing has got better, although that's a much harder thing to examine.

And on the strictly positive side, something I noticed when I went back to find early posts about work, we have one aspect of the first month: deadlines. On March 15, did I seriously struggle to get one and a half stories done on a Wednesday, and not finish until 2:30? Wow. Well, by the numbers I guess I didn't do too much better than that today, and I don't know what Monday and Tuesday were like that week more than a year ago, but that sounds pretty bad. "Don't compare yourself to other people, compare yourself to yourself" — this week, I was indeed much better about planning and managing articles and juggling interviews than I was two weeks after I started at the place. Faint praise and all that, but still, yay me.
I often give myself a hard time about my French-speaking ability. In the summer of 2001 I was fluent and could hold down a casual conversation, albeit with a noticeable American accent, or read a book or newspaper article only slightly more slowly than I would in English. I found Le Mariage de Figaro easier than I remembered Shakespeare was. Six years later, after no practice other than two easy college classes and one or two American movies dubbed into French as I channel surfed past the Canadian cable channels*, I'm worse. My accent would be more noticeable, my vocabulary more limited, my slang outdated, and my reading comprehension at a less advanced level.

But today I was amused to find that maybe I've been underestimating myself. This morning I was stuck for a word in an article, to contrast one looming problem at a local institution with some renovation projects recently completed. How to describe them all? "Changes"? Way too generic. "Improvements"? Too biased, and besides, it only really applies to half of the stuff I'm talking about. "Restructuring"? Too much of a business buzzword, and anyways, it's also not all that accurate. I finally came up with another word: "bouleversement"? Perfect even though it sounds kinda formal, exactly what I mean, applicable to both the recently-passed examples and the future one, it's just in the wrong damn language! So I went over to and typed in "bouleversement" and it gave me back "upheaval." Huh. Sure enough, it fits the context fine. There it goes, into the article.

For whatever reason this happened, I thought it was funny that the only appropriate word I could think of for a story was in the wrong language, and I needed help to translate it to English.

Maybe I should have asked the other French-speaking reporter instead of looking it up, though. I would have earned a quality funny look.

* And being roped into helping my sister with her French homework for both high school and college classes. And talking to people in my guild in World of Warcraft whose first language is French. So, not as out of practice as I normally think of it. And to be clear, this is just something that kinda bugs me. There are some things I really beat myself up about, and this is not one. I've tended to think that I could get back to my peak of French fluency with just, say, two weeks really immersed in a French-speaking environment.