@nytkeller #missesthepoint on Facebook/Twitter (Like this post)

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote a column on Wednesday discussing what he feels are the shortcomings of social media like Facebook and Twitter.

To be fair, Keller wasn’t completely anti-social media, like most critics of such come across as. He just views them more as aggregators of information than mediums of real conversation. But his key argument is a concept of “trade-off.” For every new technology that comes along, society trades off a way of thinking and living. He goes so far as to argue it changes how our minds work.

Here’s the passages I felt were the crux of his arguments:

My mistrust of social media is intensified by the ephemeral nature of these communications. They are the epitome of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, which was my mother’s trope for a failure to connect…

…The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.

What is this really going to boil down to is a social media version of a gun control debate. Instead of saying “Guns don’t kill people, people do” it’s “Facebook doesn’t kill real conversation, people do.”

Keller’s argument does not hold up, for a few reasons.

No man lives by Twitter alone: Humans primarily communicate three ways – reading, hearing, seeing. (Provided you were born with the ability of the latter two and learned the former) But just because the printing press was invented didn’t automatically mean everybody learned how to read. Just because the television was invented meant people forgot how to hear without seeing. Just because Twitter and Facebook becomes popular doesn’t mean everybody abandons other forms of conversation and just tweets the rest of their lives.

“140 characters are a novel when you’re being shot at”: This was a tweet that came out during the post-election uprising in Iran two years ago. It touches on something Mr. Keller should know as a newspaper editor and something way too many people in newspapers have forgotten: The importance of tight writing. You can fit a lot into 140 characters if you really try. It just takes practice, like good writing in general.

It’s not a one-and-done: Just because you only fit 140 characters in a tweet doesn’t mean you only get one tweet to say what you have to say. If you link together, say, five tweets, you’re getting 700 characters, or around 100 words. That should be enough to form a salient point. For example, let’s take my last point and make it a string of tweets:

Re: @nytkeller, Twitter and “real conversation” Keller should recall that good writing is tight, and tweets should be also. (123 characters)

You can fit a lot into 140 characters with practice @nytkeller. But like all types of writing, it takes practice. (113 characters)

I’m sure @nytkeller is aware of journalism concept of tight writing. Hard to get much tighter with writing than Twitter. (120 characters)

Ta-da. Post those one right after the other, and it’s a multi-facted argument, and each tweet is an individual part of the argument.

Displacement of conversation is dictated by the individual, not the medium: Sure, a person could spend their entire life posting on Facebook to the detriment of other forms of conversation. But a person could just as easily lock themselves in a library, read books all day, and never say a word about them to anyone else. Or put themselves in a radio booth, talk into a microphone all day, and never listen to what anyone else has to say (cynicism alert – maybe that’s talk radio now!) A person ultimately controls how they choose to communicate and they control its depth and complexity, no matter how many characters or Like buttons they have along the way. It also feeds a myth that conversation was greater in the past. Really? By whose standards? I’m not willing to assume it actually was better before.

Keller’s not wrong in saying Twitter and Facebook are great aggregators. They are. But to abandon them as genuine conversation and discussion mediums because you’re not getting to type as much as you would like to isn’t correct. A single device or invention does not automatically create a trade-off. Society isn’t the same as economics. Sometimes there really can be a free lunch.

Now, how to conclude my argument, Hey, I got it…

@nytkeller Social media won’t displace real conversation if users choose not to abandon it. Life doesn’t always have to have a trade-off.

137 characters.

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Two great things I read this week

Here’s a couple of items I read this week that I highly recommend:

NO. – Son of Bold Venture

“Do you know how many snowflakes fall in a single blizzard? And do you know how many blizzards there have been? If the same snowflake hasn’t fallen twice on Buffalo, let alone on the entire planet, in the whole of its meteorological history, I’ll eat one of each of Asia’s three species of wild ass.”

This is from Son of Bold Venture, a blog on writing by Chris Jones, a writer for Esquire magazine. This post lists 20 things you should avoid having in your writing. I break numbers 1, 5, 7 and 17.

Lips Gets Smacked

“Four losses turn into eight. He avoids Player like the plague. He is betting five thou a pop now. He is not winning. He is walking more and cursing louder and slamming the table. As if to make certain these hexed cards will not be used again, he bends them, tosses them, launches them like Frisbees. The casino is only too happy to pass him more cards for mutilation.”

This was written in 1993 for Philadelphia Magazine by Bruce Buschel, who now primarly writes a restauranteur blog for the New York Times. It was recently posted in full on Deadspin due to the focus of the piece, former big leaguer Lenny Dykstra, who has hit some serious trouble with his finances. There’s something really great about the way it flows between Dykstra’s on-field playing style to his playing style in a Atlantic City casino burning through $40,000 at a baccarat table. Since some of my friends aren’t keen on sailor-style language, you’re warned it has a lot of f-bombs.

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Whitlock’s baseless comparison, and the myth of the noble poor reporter

Jason Whitlock’s really forgotten about being a small-time journalist. Guess a few years at ESPN will do that to you.

Last night, Whitlock tweeted that he’s looking to hire an intern down in Los Angeles. OK, people do that all the time, and a guy as busy as Whitlock is/wants people to think he is should probably have one.

But he also included in the tweet what he expected to pay said intern/assistant: $8-$10 an hour.

Those who have much more familiarity with the cost of living in southern California than Whitlock replied to him that such a wage is essentially ridiculous. Whitlock didn’t take it well, by this string of tweets:

I started at $5 an hour. I’m looking for someone passionate who wants it. I started at the bottom.

You can see what’s wrong w/America by some of the responses. People think this shit is easy and should be handed to them.

I lived in a 1-room efficiency w/roaches my first year out of college…. Keep watching MTV and VH1 and the un-reality shows.

I was one who fired a retort tweet. No surprise, Whitlock didn’t respond. But I think I’ll embellish on my thoughts here.

It’s obvious I have a problem with Whitlock’s attitude. He’s also comparing apples and oranges.

Whitlock boasts about making a mere $5 an hour and living in a one-bedroom apartment with roaches at his first writing job out of college.

Two important details to note: Assuming his first job was after he graduated from Ball State, Whitlock started in the early 90′s. He also started out in Indiana.

In 1990, the federal minimum wage (which is also the minimum wage in Indiana) was raised from $3.35 an hour to $3.80 an hour. So Whitlock was making somewhere between 31.6 percent to 49.3 percent over minimum wage in his state.

Federal minimum wage now is $7.25, but in California it’s $8.00 even. So if Whitlock really wanted to replicate his experience, he would have to offer $10.50 an hour to $12 and hour at least. (Although if he acts like most media employers, the $10 is a carrot and he’s really not going to go over $8.50.)

Also, an important comparison in real estate should be considered. All things considered, Indiana is dirt-cheap to live in. One-bedroom apartments in Bloomington, a city Whitlock once worked in, can be found for well under $500 a month. You could make a go of that at $8 an hour.

In L.A., however? Whitlock’s rate wouldn’t even get a “one-bedroom efficiency with roaches.” More like the standing-room closet.

But forget a cost-of-living comparison. My annoyance at Whitlock’s statement really comes down to one of attitude.

Whitlock’s statements are an example of a too-frequent attitude among “old-school” journalists or anybody who started in the business before the start of this century: Your first media job should put you in a crappy living and money situation to toughen you up, and make you “earn your keep” in the business.

What a load of crap.

Yes, I have my battle story too, Mr. Whitlock. My first internship was for $500 a month. My first writing gig out of college, a good 15 years after yours, I made $9 an hour. I also had a falling out with my college roommates so I had to move into that one-bedroom roach place you so think everybody should have to live in. But in California, you can’t afford that on $9 an hour, so I was having to get $100 a month from my parents to make ends meet.

I now, of course, make more, but still less per week than Whitlock made when he left the Charlotte Observer and went to the Ann Arbor News 20 years ago. But I don’t look back on it fondly and say “That’s when I became a real journalist, by starting at the bottom” like Jason Whitlock does. I don’t think I grew from that. I don’t look back now on those times fondly.

I only view it as a miserable part of my life. I felt like I was failing myself, failing my parents who had saved for 20 years for college funds (I didn’t have a football scholarship unlike Whitlock) only to have me still needing money from them and failing anybody who thought that weird, quiet kid with a lot of random knowledge in his head was going to be successful.

No, there’s not anything good about that, nothing redeeming to take away from it. When I was there, I told myself “I wouldn’t wish these thoughts and worries on anybody.” I’m sticking to that.

Unlike Jason Whitlock, if I were to ever land a columnist gig with a large Midwest metro paper for 16 years plus ink large-figure writing deals with ESPN, AOL and Fox Sports and then launch out on my own brand, I will not voluntarily put somebody in that same misery-inducing position I found myself in five years ago. Then I won’t have the smug, idiotic attitude to tweet I’m doing them a favor by doing so.

I’m not interested in continuing a semi-hazing culture in the media world that’s already robbed it of too many young, talented writers. Leave that junk in the locker room at Ball State.

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Why Matt Barrows should jump to the Chronicle

I’m a 49ers fan. Yes, still willing to admit that publicly.

So I’ll read the 49ers coverage in the larger northern California papers on a regular basis. I’ve always thought, hands-down, the best 49ers beat writer is Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. He was regularly on top of things and was just a better writer than his counterpart beat writers in the Bay Area.

Well, this past week, an opening came up writing about the 49ers for the San Francisco Chronicle, as beat writer David White left the paper to become a full-time minister in Porterville.

Presuming the Chronicle will continue to have two 49ers writers and not have Kevin Lynch do it all on his own, I would think that Barrows jumping from the Bee to the Chronicle would be a fantastic career move for him right now.

My reasoning behind it comes down to two main reasons – exposure and finances.

Exposure: The Bee and Chronicle aren’t necessarily worlds apart circulation-wise anymore. But the Chronicle is still a much more widely-regarded paper than the Bee, and working there would raise Barrows’ profile to the more casual sports reader as an NFL authority. And why shouldn’t the San Francisco newspaper want the best writer about the San Francisco 49ers working for them?

Finances: More in regard to the papers than himself, personally. Yeah, the Chronicle is still leaking red ink like a Martian octopus. But McClatchy isn’t doing too hot these days either and the Bee has, as I’ve said before, absolutely obliterated its sports staff. While Barrows still covers the 49ers full-time for the Bee, Raiders duty has fallen to Jason Jones after Paul Gutierrez left to go to Comcast, but Jones is also a Kings writer, so it’s hard to see him being able to swing both realistically. I can’t honestly see the Bee still keeping Barrows around covering the 49ers full-time when they’re devoting fewer writers to preps coverage than my paper one-tenth the size does.

Honestly, if Barrows isn’t looking to jump to the Chronicle, he should just be looking to jump, period, before the suits in Sacramento push him out.


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Shot through the foot, and the Chronicle can blame itself…

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great story today on Dr. Richard Olney, a UCSF neurologist and Lou Gehrig’s disease expert who is in the late stages of the disease himself and working to finish a research project before he succumbs to the illness.

Back in December, there was a fascinating Chronicle feature on the last hotel in The City that washes its incoming coins.

Both stories had slideshows of still photos to accompany them online. But both these stories missed an opportunity to become true multimedia packages because the Chronicle no longer does video stories.

I have gripes about most of the large papers in Northern California. I think the San Jose Mercury-News likes to get drive-by web hits too much. It’s really painful seeing that the Sacramento Bee didn’t just cut its sports staff to the bone, but cut its limbs off completely to the point that my >20k circ newspaper (read: less than one-tenth the Bee’s size) covers more Friday night football games than they do.

But it’s especially aggravating seeing a newspaper that can and should be a leader in multimedia journalism, but they’re failing at it. By not pushing video news features, the Chronicle and its website SFGate is doing just that.
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