Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Power of the Pen

Taxi Cab Learning

Last night I had a bit of an awakening, or, you could say, I came to a realization. And it came from a source that always seems to give good advice: a taxi cab driver.

Cab drivers are usually very smart guys: they are in the car all day either listeningto the radio of talking to passengers, hearing other people's stories. Cab drivers--at least in the Washington-area--are also usually immigrants. And being an immigrant, is a life experience that imparts a great deal of knowledge about the world. Not only do immigrants have an experience outside of this country, they also, with few exceptions, come from a country with greater hardships than the United States. They are smarter than you think.

"Where to?" the driver asked me as I sank into the worn back seat of his well-used Ford Crown Vic.

"Tulula," I said. That's the name of a bar and restaurant not too far from my house.

"That's it?" the driver replied. He was hoping for a better fare than the six dollars I'd give him for the one mile trip.

"Sorry, man," I told him. "But that's as far as I can afford to go." I have a habit of telling cab drivers lots of information about myself, so I didn't hesitate to tell him that the economy has me in a vice, and I can't really afford long taxi drives, let alone expensive dinners or high bar tabs.

I then told the driver that I was a writer and I was looking for work. That started a discussion about the power of the pen.

He told me, "It's stronger than the gun. You can do anything with that. Convincing people is a powerful."

I guess I had never thought about writing in that light before, especially with the declining state of the journalism industry, where paying for words has become antique and where newspapers are laying-off journalists by the bucketful.

But hearing it from a cab driver made sense to me. He was right--the pen is a powerful tool. The pen can topple governments, create uprisings, literally change the world. But it has other, less radical, purposes too. Being able to tell a good story has the power to turn ears, to entertain, to attract. Telling a good story with words isn't something that everyone can do, but everyone likes a good story.

I was inspired by that driver.

"Turn around," I told him. "Take me home. I want to write."

"No," he said. "Go out and see the world and see what happens. Then come back and put it on paper."

"OK, I will."

The cab squealed to a halt in front of Tulula and I handed my new friend six dollars.
"Don't Call Attention to it! Or, Let's Tell the Whole World:" Media Coverage of Media Irrelevance.

Jon Hemmerdinger
February 21, 2009

You might think mainstream media outlets would avoid highlighting their own demise. Why call attention to your own dwindling relevance?

But more and more, the media seem to cover the very changes that threaten their lives: the forces of citizen journalism and the decline of city newspapers.

The prevalence of citizen journalism is witnessed every time major news breaks. It happened in the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, when hostages sent twitter messages of the ordeal.
Twitter users are also said to have broken the story of the US Airways flight that glided into the Hudson River.

"There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy," tweeted one witness from a ferry boat on the scene.

Most recently, citizen journalist Anthony Trigilio posted online video on YouTube of the fire and mayhem following the crash of Continental flight 3407, which plummeted from the skies above Buffalo on Feb. 12.

But as citizen journalism has grown, so too has the mainstream media's coverage of the phenomenon.

The twittering Mumbai news breakers were highlighted in the Dec. 2 Los Angeles Times piece, "Mumbai news fished from Twitter’s rapids," by David Sarno. "Once a way for friends to keep each other updated on daily routines," writes Sarno, "Twitter is now looking more like a legitimate medium for short bits of information."

In a Jan. 16 blog called "Can a Tweet be a Scoop?" The New York Times called attention to the twitter-user who was among the first to make known the U.S. Airways crash.

And shortly after the Buffalo crash, the Buffalo News posted a story on it's website called YouTube and the Crash, in which a Buffalo News reporter interviewed Trigilio about his experience as a citizen journalist.

"Everybody seems to have their own little onsite-reporter-thing going on," Trigilio said.
It seems the mainstream media is covering the very forces that have caused the industry so much heartache in recent years.

There are other examples.

In a Feb. 11 article in The Wall Street Journal titled, "Why You Don't Want to Die on a Sunday in Detroit," Jeffery Zaslow examines how Detroit may be affected when the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News reduce home delivery of the newspaper to three days a week next month.

Here's another similar recent example. On Feb. 5, NPR ran a story called, "Imagining a City Without It's Daily Newspaper," which looks at how a city—Hartford, Conn. and the Hartford Courant are the examples used—would be affected if the city's daily newspaper ceases operations altogether.

And though the NPR story makes a good point of telling why newspapers are important to society, the story doesn't hide from the fact that newspapers are in decline. The first graph reads: "Financial analysts say they expect some big dailies to fold, perhaps as soon as this year."

But though it may seem odd for the media to cover it's own problems, maybe this is a good sign for the industry; perhaps these are examples of the media beginning to accept the changing world of the news. Maybe that's first step to adapting.

Or, maybe it's reverse-psychology: stories about dwindling relevance might actually prove that traditions news companies are more relevant than we think.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Path to Becoming a Journalist. Part 1

I just had this wonderful idea that I would catalog the journey that I have taken from a job in human resources sales to that of professional journalist. The only problem is that my journey started over a full year ago, so I have missed-out on reporting all of the interesting and crazy and scary things that have happened to me in the last 14 months. I won't try to recap it all, but i will provide just an outline of the last year, both for the selfish reason that I want a record of it and just in case anyone else might want to read it (though I doubt it).

I've always been a writer. I've always been a writer. I've ALWAYS been a writer. I was a writer when I was barely able to write the entire alphabet. I used to scribble stories in pencil on those wide-ruled pages that they gave kindergartners to teach them how to write letters. I remember one story was about big, mean, dragon-like creature that crept into little boys bedrooms in the dark of night to scare them. Funny a kid's imagination.

I continued to write all through middle school and through high school, where I actually wrote a really good poem called "Evening Watch," which I am still crazy about and which still pretty much expresses most of the emotions that define me.

But that's not what I am writing about. I am writing about writing, and the poem that I wrote in high school was some damn good writing, and for that I was proud.

I wrote all through college, too. Got a degree in history and creative writing, and promptly got a job in sales.

Seven years later I decided it was no use hiding from the fact that I was and always will be a writer. But how does one get into writing? I had barely picked up my pen in years, with the exception of a few brier periods of creativity. I didn't know where to start, and how someone could make a transition from sales to making money at writing. I knew how to write, but the business was just so alien.

I enrolled at Georgetown University in the fall of 2008 at the age of 30. In January of 2009, I started classes, exactly one week since having knee surgery. It was snowing that first day of class, and I was hobbling through slush on crutches, wincing in pain, with a metal brace on my leg. I made my way up to the doors of Walsh Hall, which is just across the street from the basement bar, The Tombs. I took the elavator to the third floor, and found my first class: Covering Other Cultures.