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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Nice links for the brewpub travel piece

Had a couple of nice links to the Los Angeles Times travel piece on brewpubs, one from The New York Times (scroll down to the middle of the NYT item), and the other from a beer historian.  Read More 
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Methland: How a drug overwhelmed the heartland

I picked up this book out of a sense of curiosity, and found myself devouring it like, well, an addict.

Journalist Nick Reding spent a few years immersing himself in small-town Iowa, researching a book about the devastating effects of meth in rural America. I grew up in a small town (I can never say that without a John Mellencamp song bursting into my head) so read it with the eye of a familiar.

This is from my review in today's Los Angeles Times:
"In 'Methland,' Reding sets something that is known to most of us -- illicit meth labs and tweakers, violent hallucinations and destroyed families -- against a broad context of the decline of local economies, shattered dreams and a sense of fate-driven helplessness.

"This is a strong book, and it tells a complicated story in comprehensible, human dimensions. Like all good journalism, it's the hand holding up the mirror, the friend telling us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves."

The book's strength lies in the professional distance Reding maintains. He lays out people in full, the heroes with flaws, the tweakers as fully rounded people with crippling addictions. It's a complicated story, and it hasn't gone away, Reding argues. It's just faded from the headlines.  Read More 
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El Camino Real, the beery way

A couple of months ago my friend Steve Dollar emailed from NYC with a proposition. He had a freelance assignment to do a travel piece driving the California coast, following Rte. 1 from around Santa Barbara to where it ends near the redwoods in Humboldt State Park. As an urbanite, he let his driver's license lapse. Steve's at left in the picture here, chatting with my old friend Tony Lioce at Vesuvio bar in San Francisco. Not a brewpub, but a great bar nonetheless.

The began the journey of Driving Mr. Dollar. And here is my travel piece on the trip, which ran in today's Los Angeles Times. It was a fun trip, and I love doing travel writing.

I also used the trip to start experimenting with map mash-ups, this one using Zee Maps, which gives you a sense of the scope of the trip.

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The future of journalism, version X.X

So on one of the legs of my trip home from New York City yesterday, I wound up sitting next to a senior journalism student at Northeastern, in Boston. She was taking a gallows-humor approach to landing in this job market (she will graduate in December) and I was taking a gallows-humor approach to trying to stay alive in the business.

There has been so much windy commentary about the future of journalism that there's little I can add, other than to note that I think we're beginning to see the first bits of clarity, and it comes in the form of dedicated online news outlets, often foundation-funded. There are inherent problems with that model, from the potential of the ubers to twist coverage to the questionable sustainability of running such an enterprise off grants.

But frankly, it's little different from corporate-owned media and the sometimes unsubtle influences over coverage areas (witness all the fashion and style coverage targeting upscale readers). And Lord knows there's nothing stable about the current business model-in-ashes.

So take a look at sites like Kaiser Health News, the politics-focused Politico (a for-profit site) and the invetigative Pro Publica. What do they have in common? They focus on specific subjects, like newspaper sections, or beats, spun off into their own little worlds.

If I was a betting man -- well, I am, but damned if I ever win anything -- I'd put money on these kinds of models as paving the way to the future. As our news-consuming habits continue to fragment, we tend to go to sites that tell us about things we want to know about -- either by subject or by geography, like Voice of San Diego, leaving the general-interest tradition of newspapers behind.

I think readers wind up with a shallower engagement with the world that way, but trying to stop it is like trying to stop the tide. Much more sensible to figure out how to make it more flexible with targeted cross-linking, etc. But I rue a news-consumption approach that leads Americans to focus more inwardly at a time when we need to be more engaged with the world around us.

Now excuse me while I step down from the soap box ... Read More 
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Nieman makes it official, suspends narrative conferences

Well, the Nieman Foundation made it official yesterday (I would have updated sooner but am running ragged here in New York at the Book Expo America). As I reported the other day, this killing economy is claiming another victim -- the nation's best gathering for practitioners of narrative journalism.

Nieman Curator Bob Giles announced that the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism is suspended, as well as its smaller narrative conference for editors:
This will disappoint those who have participated in the conferences in the past and who anticipated attending another narrative gathering in the spring of 2010. This difficult step reflects the foundation's need to make a major reduction in spending for the next fiscal year, beginning in July.

For the time being, it looks like they'll be keeping the Narrative Digest alive -- a thin silver lining, that. As I posted before, this is another blast of bad news for a craft that is getting pummeled from all directions. Let's hope the suspension is really just that, and Nieman will find a way to resurrect the program in 2011. Read More 
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Nieman to suspend* annual narrative journalism confab

Well, here's some distressing news out of the East Coast. Connie Hale, a friend and editor of the Nieman Narrative Digest, tells me the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University is suspending the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism (and, yes, putting her out of work). This is the pre-eminent conference for people interested in using literary devices in journalism -- both short pieces and long-form. (*My initial post phrased this as "shutting down," but Connie says it's being described as a suspension).

So far there's no formal announcement, and it's unclear what the reasoning is -- I've emailed Bob Giles,** the curator of the Nieman Foundation, and will add his comments if I get them. ADDED HERE: "There is nothing to say at the moment. We are still reviewing options relative to budget cuts required by Harvard."

This past March, attendance was relatively light, and few of the name tags listed newspapers under the attendees' names. It's an expensive conference to put on, and given the economic meltdown, my guess is money was the issue. The Nieman Journalism Lab seems to be unaffected, which suggests the Nieman Foundation is putting its eggs in the online basket.

Fair enough. But there is plenty of work to be done to enhance online narrative. The solution isn't to kill the narrative conference, but to broaden it. Lately I've been trying to envision alternative ways of using narrative online, taking advantage of its interactive nature to let readers pursue angles on their own. For example, in a story about a car crash there could be a drop-down box for people who want more details on the life of the victim. It can also be used to track simultaneous actions (the two cars coming together). The potential for experimentation is massive.

I have a personal take on this. I moderated a couple of panels at the most recent conference this past March, and every time I've gone I've come away with a deeper understanding of how to make narrative work, and a broader appreciation for the folks who do it, and teach it, exceedingly well (Adam Hochschild, a friend and regular panelist, comes to mind).

This really is a loss to the art of journalism.

** Full disclosure: I worked for Giles at two newspapers, and he was the editor of The Detroit News when I joined fellow union members to walk out on strike there in 1995.  Read More 
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Road trip -- NYC

I'm in New York City for a few days, staying with a friend in Brooklyn and then moving to a hotel in Manhattan while attending/covering the annual Book Expo America (BEA), the trade show for the publishing industry.

It's a massive gathering of book publishers and book buyers (mostly commercial and for libraries) focusing on books to be published late summer trhough the fall/winter season. This is my fourth or fifth time -- I lose track -- and it's always a lot of fun, if a bit overwhelming. Among the notable authors on tap: Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Pat Conroy, Tracy Kidder and rockers Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) and Clarence Clemons ("The Big Man" sax player from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band).

I'll be posting a bit while here, and will also be contributing to the Los Angeles Times' book blog, Jacket CopyRead More 
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Tall tales, Jared Diamond and The New Yorker

So you travel to a remote corner of the world, one of many trips you've made to the region, and stumble across a man with some bold and self-indicting stories about tribal feuds, vengeance and mass murder. What do you do?

Well, if you're Jared Diamond, you write the story up for The New Yorker. But now Diamond, the UCLA professor and author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, and The New Yorker are being sued by the source for the story -- who says none of it is true.

The New Yorker has taken the story down from its public access layer (we subscribers can still get at it): “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” in the April 21, 2008 issue. And it's a good story about old ways persisting into modern times, with perhaps a bit too much gullibility born of a Western view of the world. Maybe Diamond bought the guy's story because it fit within his view of tribalism in Papua New Guinea, where he has made many trips researching birds. Or maybe it just fit his overarching point about vengeance.

There are many other interesting facets to how the story was handled, and the source's very modern and Western response -- filing a lawsuit. Diamond is a respected researcher, public intellectual and author -- I once profiled him for the Los Angeles Times -- and he can tell a good story. But the vetting of the article seems to have been very weak, both by Diamond and by The New Yorker. Columbia Journalism Review has a nice overview here, and over here you'll find the initial takedown of the piece by

My money would be on an eventual out-of-court settlement with no admission of fault. But that the story was written and published in the first place is troubling, to say the least. As the linked pieces point out, this was essentially a single-source story in which the source implicated himself in heinous criminal acts. I can't count the number of red flags that should have raised. And, if it turns out Diamond was wrong, or was lied to by the source, I wonder if the lure of an intriguing story about savage acts in a third-world jungle blinded him and The New Yorker to their core responsibility to verify the story. Read More 
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Getting crowded here on the outside

For a truly demoralizing look at the state of the newspaper meltdown -- we're all adults here, we can handle a little blood -- check out the Paper Cuts blog. In 2008 their map mashup detailed more than 15,970 jobs lost. So far this year,they count more than 9,564 jobs have been cut.

As bad as that is, the broad retrenchment in readership of the print editions, steep fall off of advertising because of the consumer shift to the internet, and this killing recession, have squeezed the freelance market nearly shut. This afternoon I had a travel piece rejected by a major newspaper, the editor saying his space and budget are shot for the year. In May. Maybe he was fibbing to let me down lightly, but other people are saying similar things. No space, and limited budget.

This is bad news for folks like me, obviously enough, but what the freelance conduit brought to newspapers was the outside set of eyes -- story pitches from people seeing the world a little differently than the set of desk editors running the budget meetings. The result is ever less inclusive news coverage.

I'm feeling more and more like my old autoworker buddies in Detroit, or the steelworkers in Pittsburgh, our industries collapsing around us and there's nothing we can do about it.

Except blog.
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Paper borrows cash from local government

This is not a good idea.
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