Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A crime brief

As a writer and a journalist, there's one artist I have always admired: Elmore Leonard.

A journalism teacher once told me to study his knack for brevity and punch. He was right. Leonard delivered tension and snap with every line. No word was wasted. Every noun and verb made a point. Adverbs? For suckers.

A writing instructor once told me to study his dialogue. He was right too. Leonard's characters hit all the right notes. They sounded different. They sounded natural. Their dialects added color without washing it out with caricature.

Famously, he wrote:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
His work made me a better writer (although I routinely violate No. 9), and I never met the guy. I never will, either: he died Tuesday at age 87. But he was prolific, even well into his ninth decade, and that's something to be happy about. Although he chose his words carefully, he ended up leaving quite a few behind to enjoy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A headline week for media sales

First the New York Times Co. sells the Boston Globe for $70 million. (Ostensibly taking a bath on its $1.1 billion investment 20 years ago, but that's mitigated by profits during the heady years.)

Then, today, the Washington Post sells itself to Jeff Bezos, the gazillionaire founder of and space exploration enthusiast, for $250 million.

Like I said, a headline day.

On its face, the second one is a pretty historic move. The Post has been owned by three generations of the Graham family, perhaps most notably Katharine Graham, who was running the show when the Post showed the world how political journalism was done, first with the Pentagon Papers and later with its Watergate coverage.

Bezos, by contrast, is not a media guy. He's a tech guy. But there are some intriguing possibilities with his experience and background. Amazon's Kindle, for instance, may finally provide a media outlet with a dedicated electronic platform (as opposed to an app or a Web page). I remember 20 years ago reading a report that the "future of the newspaper," physically speaking, was a one-page electronic edition that you could carry anywhere and fit in your briefcase or handbag. The Kindle fits the bill, eh?

So it's not necessarily a gloomy thing for the paper. Just a surprising one. As David Carr put it:

In selling to Mr. Bezos, the Grahams left the Sulzbergers, the owners of The New York Times, as the last family standing in a club that once also included the Chandlers (Los Angeles Times), the Copleys (San Diego Tribune), the Cowles (Minneapolis Star Tribune), and the Bancrofts (Wall Street Journal). But even as those other families sold out to moneyed interests, it always seemed a safe assumption that the Grahams would continue to find a way to exercise a certain kind of stewardship over Washington. 


The Grahams’ resolve to retain ownership was wilted by an industrial sea change that laid many newspapers low. And even as the rest of the industry decided that there was an urgent need to begin charging on the Web, The Post held out, only recently deciding to join the rest.

Perhaps  the biggest surprise in the sale is that it happened under the watch of Donald Graham. All scions of industry do their time on the shop-room floor, but Mr. Graham had shown that he didn’t want to just inherit his enterprise, he wanted to earn it. He served in Vietnam and later joined the Washington police force to walk a beat before doing his stations in the Post newsroom and on the business side.

 He was perhaps not the legend that his mother was, but to many he represented a certain kind of stubborn belief that good newspapering was its own end. In the popular imagination, journalism reached its highest and best calling during Watergate, when The Post and its determined owner, Ms. Graham, took on a sitting president. 

The idea that Mr. Graham would sell the paper, whatever merits the sale might entail, seemed as unlikely as Henry V giving up the crown. 

But on Monday, Mr. Graham seemed at peace with what he had done.
As he rode down in the elevator to the newsroom for the announcement, some of the paper’s reporters rode with him. One asked: “Is this bad?” Mr. Graham shook his head, saying that, in the end, he thought it would be good news for the paper. 

“It was clear to me that he wanted to buy the newspaper for the right reasons,” Mr. Graham said of Mr. Bezos, “that he understood what newspapers do and why this newspaper in particular is important and that he would be willing to stand up for it.” 

So we'll see how things shake out. Media companies have had some pretty terrible owners in recent years, but the big problem remains not readership, but monetizing readership. Print advertising revenue is gone forever. Will a guy like Bezos, who literally made his fortune exploiting the Internet, be the one to figure out how to finance a big-time newsgathering operation in the 21st Century? Maybe the next round of headlines will have the answer.