Category: Notables

Online stories are bigger in Texas

snowfallIn 2012, The New York Times published “Snow Fall,” John Branch’s long narrative recounting the avalanche earlier that year at Tunnel Creek in Washington’s Cascade range. The story filled a lot of column inches in the newspaper, but what got everyone’s attention was what the Times did with it online: A digital cover composed of video of windblown snow, plus embedded video interviews, a swooping video fly-over map, a slide show, a motion graphic of the storm system that dumped the snow that roared down Cowboy Mountain, pretty much every trick in the book. The newspaper inadvertently created a new colloquial term for this sort of online treatment. To do what the Times did was to “snowfall” a story.

40acresFor the past year, Alcalde, the magazine of the University of Texas at Austin, has been snowfalling stories. It started with a bit of natural history in the July/August 2013 issue, “A Field Guide to the 40 Acres.” Online, the story was spruced up with photos, video (I could watch that squirrel for hours, the ants for not so long), and graphic art that expanded when moused over.  (And who knew “moused” would become a verb.)

Alcalde followed its field guide with other snowfall productions: “A Classroom at the Edge of the World,” “The Robots Are Coming,” “Notes from the Violin Olympics,” and “Longhorn Rodeo Rides Again,” which begins with a nifty headline that you unfurl by scrolling down.

It’s latest snowfall is “Monday Monday,” an excerpt from a novel by Elizabeth Crook based on the 1966 sniper attack by Charles Whitman. For those of you not from Texas and younger than me—that last group is numerous—Whitman hauled an arsenal up to the top of the tower that is the UT campus landmark and began shooting. His rampage left 16 dead and 32 wounded. (In this case, the piece online only—it is not a digital version of an excerpt from the novel printed in the magazine, because only Texas Monthly had the rights to that.)

alcaldeEditor Tim Taliaferro described his magazine’s progress toward “Monday Monday” in an email exchange we conducted over the last couple of weeks: “Everyone talks about ‘Snow Fall,’ and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that seeing that presentation affected our thinking. That said, we had been moving in this direction for some time. The technology is there, between web video, responsive HTML5 coding and design, and some Javascript you can use now to trigger action on scroll. So we sat in a room, looked at what we had, put together a list of what we wished we could get, and then we went and did it.

“The biggest hurdle to this is the coding. It takes someone who knows what they are doing—who knows or is willing to learn HTML5 and Javascript—to produce one of these. Then there’s a collective learning that has to happen among the team about how the process will work, what sort of design decisions you want to make and the technical implications of them. Like anything else, the best way to learn is to try. There is also a fair amount of browser testing that has to happen and that can be frustrating. Different browsers render things differently, and that can drive designers crazy.”

I asked Taliaferro if anything came as a surprise in producing these pieces. “The biggest surprise has been that, for so long, magazine pros thought the web a limiting space. A web version or online version of a magazine story has always been lesser. Until now. Now you are able for the first time to re-create the kind of reading experience that magazines have owned for so long and do it on the web. Plus, it’s totally freeing. It’s a blank digital canvas. As long as you ask from the outset, How can we best tell this story and with what media? Whatever you come up with for an answer, the web can accommodate it.”

Editors would be advised to keep in mind that something created on a 27-inch monitor may well be read on an iPhone: “My biggest mistake probably has been to forget that the majority of the audience will consume this fancy beautiful thing on their phones or tablets, so that should inform the design from the beginning. Just as the web used to be a lesser version of print, for some time mobile has been lesser than desktop. That is changing, and fast. So now we spend as much time or more on mobile as on desktop. The other mistake I might mention is to succumb to the temptation to put in stuff because you can and not because the story needs it. That’s a good force that print exerts on editors and designers—limited space causes you to be selective, even subtractive. That can be good force. Unchecked, you can stuff your interactive stuff with all kinds of flashy whizzbangs that don’t add to the story, and that does happen a lot.”

Media observers and pixel-stained wretches quickly formed a consensus after “Snow Fall” appeared in the Times: The project was shiny and cool and attention grabbing, but who actually read the story? The whole story? Show of hands? Anybody? Anybody? “I think the conventional wisdom about ‘Snow Fall’ is right,” Taliaferro said. “Its impact was maybe more on the industry than on the readers. And we have struggled a bit to get traffic numbers we think our ‘Snow Fall’ type stories deserve. But that didn’t stop us at the beginning and it doesn’t stop us now. What we try to do is marshal this technology in service of stories that deserve it. When we first started this we were more taken with the flash than we are now. It’s like a young writer who is amazed and thrilled at first by her ability to turn rhetorical cartwheels. As we have matured, like young writers tend to do, we try to move the reader back into the center of every decision. Is this feature necessary? Does it add something to the story? You can see the Times backing off the flash, as well. And that’s natural and OK. Doesn’t change the fact that the power is still there to tell stories better. It’s just about how you use it.”

The Sibley

bulletin2013springAs most of you know, the 2014 Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year award went to Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin. This is the third time in the last six years that Kenyon garnered the top prize in the CASE awards. There is particular poignancy to this year’s award, as Kenyon editor Shawn Presley died on April 1, a massive shock to all who knew him. From the judges’ report, which was written by Jeff Lott, editor emeritus at Swarthmore:

Most of the Sibley judges were unaware of Presley’s death as they deliberated this year’s magazines, learning of it only after the decision was made to honor Kenyon. The community of alumni editors of which Presley was a vital part will feel the tender significance of this award. Shawn Presley was beloved force among his fellow editors not only for the high bar he set through his work, but also for his humor, friendship, teaching, and mentoring. His passing leaves a void at the heart of the profession.

The report makes some observations that should be of interest to university editors everywhere.

Kenyon never brags or gushes over the school’s achievements. With its light touch, wry humor, and skeptic’s eye for the foibles and failings of campus life, the Kenyon Alumni Bulletin never takes its subject too seriously.

… To the casual reader, Kenyon‘s features also seem effortless, but clearly they are not. This easy relationship with the reader is difficult to pull off, making the average alumni magazine story seem like a chore. (You think you ought to read it, but do you really want to?) Not so with Kenyon, which offers an eye-popping, socially engaging, and intellectually hefty choice of features in each finely crafted issue. Yes, there are the obligatory pieces—summing up a departing president’s achievements and introducing the new guy on the block—but even these are insightful and well written. And when you turn the next page, there’s a portfolio of great photos of hip-hop stars by a Kenyon alumnus. (A full spread is devoted to a masterful portrait of Eminem.)

That is, the bosses at Kenyon leave the magazine alone to have an editorial personality and leave the editorial staff alone to produce an actual magazine, not a torpid branding piece devoid of life.

This was an interesting paragraph from the report:

Then there’s David Foster Wallace, who did not go to Kenyon, but whose 2005 commencement address there has risen to the pantheon of great American speeches. It would have been easy to merely capitalize on Wallace’s fame by reprinting the speech, but Kenyon goes a step further with an incisive literary detective story about how various versions of the speech came to public attention on the Internet and what effect it has had on Kenyon’s reputation.

Yes. Instead of the unimaginative course of reprinting Wallace’s remarks, the odds-on favorite for the idea most likely to be suggested by a vice president, Kenyon had the intelligence, wit, and creative flair to do something you would not find in any other magazine.

There was one last incisive compliment for Presley:

As editor, Shawn Presley orchestrated all this talent—writers, photographers, illustrators, and designers—with a deft touch. He seemed to see everything and know everyone at Kenyon. In the two issues that the Sibley judges reviewed, most of the features were professionally written by alumni, always a good sign that the editor is connected to the community of writers and artists that knows Kenyon best.

Indeed.

Cal’s Big Data

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Catherine Pierre, my boss, likes to tell the story of a conversation she and I had with an astrophysicist a few years ago. I have forgotten most of the details, but at one point he mentioned how much information one group of scientists was gathering about the universe, and I spontaneously exclaimed, “Man, talk about a data set!” Pierre takes undue delight in offering this up to appreciative listeners as an example of my nerdiness.

So there was no chance of my passing up California‘sRiding the iBomb: Life in the Age of Exploding Information.” Written by executive editor Pat Joseph, it’s an 11-page spread in the feature well plus a jump, and Joseph had me the whole way.

When you write about something with the potential for aridity of Big Data, you are well advised to pull some wit from your toolbox. Joseph has a smooth way with droll allusion:

Futurist Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in the 1970s, but the lament is as old as the Bible. I hear it echoing in my ears whenever I walk into Moe’s Books or the Doe Library: “Of making many books there is no end.” That goes more than double for blog posts and tweets and—God help us—Buzzfeed lists, the dreaded “listicles.” With apologies to Ecclesiastes, the current info glut really is something new under the Sun.

Joseph offers the most astute explanation of Moore’s Law that I have come across recently:

The engine of this acceleration is described by Moore’s Law, which is not really a law so much as an astoundingly accurate prediction. Intel cofounder and Berkeley alum Gordon Moore made the offhand observation in 1965 that the number of transistors on integrated circuits was doubling every two years and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And so it has (growing even faster, doubling every 18 months or so), with the concomitant effect that computing has become not only faster but cheaper. In that way, Moore’s Law also helps to explain why most of our electronic gadgets seem to obsolesce overnight.

I was arrested by Joseph’s use of “obsolesce.” Write “obsolesce” instead of the common “become obsolete” and you reveal yourself as a writer attentive to language, which Joseph is, and not just in his prose but in his reporting. Joseph confirms this a bit later in the piece:

The watchword around campus now, much favored over Big Data, which is looked upon as hype-fueled and faddish, is “data-driven discovery.” Faculty members also speak of bringing a “computational lens” to research problems.

There’s a lot of righteous prose here. Joseph has a knack for clarification:

In an interview before he died, Peter Lyman drove home a similar distinction, between information and meaning. Referring to the aforementioned study he conducted with I-school colleague Hal Varian, Lyman said: “All we tried to measure in figuring out how much information is produced was how much storage it would take to hold it all. What we didn’t address is what makes information valuable…. There’s a real gap between the amount of information we store and the amount of information we know how to use.… So in a sense, most of it is noise.”

Filtering the signal from the noise is the principle challenge for all Big Data enterprises, whether it’s astronomers searching for supernovae in raster scans of the night sky, or agents at the NSA listening for whispered hints of terror plots in the vastness of global communications. Big Data is just the haystack; we still have to find the needle. Scratch that. Increasingly, it’s our computers, running what are called inferential algorithms, that have to find it. Our job now is to verify that what is found is, in fact, a needle and not, say, a pin, or a nail, or a piece of hay.

Nice.

I could go on, but go read the piece yourself. You’ll be rewarded. Last thing: California makes clever use of footnotes in the story. Yeah, footnotes. Joseph scatters them throughout his piece—they are contained in boxes on the pages—and they provide one more opportunity for lively writing. For example:

I should confess here that I’ve assembled much of the information for this article in precisely this way and, that, often as not, my starting point was Wikipedia. No doubt this admission will arouse suspicions, maybe even disdain, in some readers. Perhaps that’s as it should be. As George Dyson’s father, Freeman Dyson, wrote: “Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.”

All right, that’s enough. Go read it.

ridingtheibomb

Film Festival

california_fall2013_promoThe current issue of California goes to the movies with a special issue devoted to film. My favorite piece was written as a journal by documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss. It narrates the making of a film, The Overnighters, that documents the lives of men and women drawn to the oil fields of North Dakota by the promise of work in that empty but burgeoning state. Moss begins on Day 425 with a confrontation:

“Get off my property or I’ll shoot you.”

I’m in Wheelock, a tiny, crumbling town in Western North Dakota, making a documentary film about broken, desperate men chasing opportunity and redemption in the booming oil fields here.

It’s not an idle threat. The woman making it is brandishing a bolt-action rifle with a scope, and says that North Dakota law is on her side. It’s the first time I’ve had a gun pulled on me. I’m not sure what to do. I’m holding a camera, pointed at my main character, a local Pastor, whose involvement in the lives of some of these men has triggered the current standoff. I keep rolling and wait for a gunshot. Hopefully she’ll fire a warning. That’s what people do, right?

Moss then wheels back to Day 1, and explains the chance nature of his project. He originally traveled to North Dakota on the dime of a television network that needed to cast a documentary series. After the network kills the project—”too soulful” in the words of a TV executive—Moss’ wife challenges him to go back and shoot his own film. (Now that’s a wife.) So he does.

Moss is a smart, literate, capable storyteller. I love his introduction to the town of Williston:

Frederick Jackson Turner famously described the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” It’s an apt description for Williston, once a small town of 16,000 that has tripped in size in just two years, becoming the fastest-growing small town in America. The roads are crumbling from truck traffic, and gruesome car accidents are a daily occurrence. The saloons and strip clubs are packed. Local law enforcement is outmatched. The cold-blooded murder of a local woman by two drugged-out men who’d travelled to North Dakota to find work has stirred fear and suspicion of outsiders. One church member, a long-time resident, tells the Pastor she fears these men are here to “rape, pillage, and burn.”

Good stuff. Moss describes spending nights in a local church along with other workers who have nowhere else to sleep, forking over $15 to take a shower in a laundromat, and scrounging for money to keep filming.

Home in San Francisco, where the summer air is clear and cold, I’ve edited a few scenes together and applied for a grant. I need the money. Shooting a film is a constant, low-grade cash hemorrhage, like owning a sailboat. Might as well just tear up hundred-dollar bills.

I do my best to outline the potential of the film, grandiosely invoking Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which, in truth, I’ve never read. I only have a few roughly sketched characters, and the barest contours of a story.

Moss pretty much goes broke, but carries on, filming people more desperate than himself.

The men I’m following here are having a very hard time. They are unable to outrun their demons, their pathologies, their criminal records, and their plain bad luck.

One of my film subjects—Keegan, a big, handsome nineteen-year-old kid with Buddy Holly glasses—breaks his neck in an accident. He was one of the ones who was supposed to succeed. Keegan’s parents come from Antigo, Wisconsin, to pick up their broken boy and take him home.

There are no dead spots in Moss’ story. Go read it.

What are the odds?

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LUNCHTIME. POURING RAIN HAS TURNED my vertical office window into a water sculpture. I’m working my way through some cafeteria beef chili and a backstack of university magazines. The chili is a bit generic, but not bad, especially with a bag of pita chips. The magazines are numbingly mundane. By luck of the draw I’ve pulled a selection that features one uninspired, predictable issue after another. Lead paragraphs flat and uninviting. Pallid attempts to brag about negligible sports triumphs. (“We finished 20th! Best ever!”) Stories that tell me nothing beyond what I already know, in lifeless prose. Boring photography. Design cliches.

Just a bad stack.

Then, on pg. 54 of the Sept/Oct ’13 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine, a two-pager by associate editor Jason Kelly. (Associate editors make the best writers. It’s a rule.) Every issue of Chicago contains a “legacy” piece about some alum and his or her lasting contribution. Kelly’s legacy piece is about Charles K. McNeil, and it’s a beauty. McNeil was a gambler. Not the sort of gambler who is revered for taking the big chance on an entrepreneurial venture or going for it on fourth down in the Rose Bowl or pinning his whole career on a scientific theory that seemed to make no sense at the time. No, McNeil was the gambling sort of gambler. He bet on sports. For a living and really well. So well that one of Chicago’s biggest sports books limited how much he could wager and McNeil attracted unwanted attention from mobsters. He may or may not have invented the points spread; whoever did should have gotten the Nobel.

The story is great for several reasons. First, there’s its unlikelihood as an alumni magazine story. Our magazines brag about all those dedicated scholars and earnest undergraduates and winning coaches (“20th place!”) and benefactors who just want to pay it forward. They don’t often brag about bookies from the Class of 1925. But McNeil’s a great story, and let’s give Chicago a round of applause for recognizing that.

Then there’s Kelly’s prose. Man can write. I love the lead graphs:

Charles K. McNeil, PhB’25, would bet on anything. An afternoon at Wrigley Field involved not only a wager on the outcome but an array of side bets about the game and beyond, like whether a stumbling drunk in the bleachers would fall down. During the depths of the Depression, McNeil even laid odds on the next person to be fired at the bank where he worked as a securities analyst.

Successful beyond the wildest dreams of most gamblers, McNeil lost on that one. He put the bank president at 3 to 1 to be ousted, but the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead. “I had myself at 8 to 1,” he told William Barry Furlong in a 1977 New York Times Magazine story that recounted McNeil’s influence on the pastime that became his profession: sports gambling.

My that’s good. Just the right selection of details. Just the right diction: “the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead.” The dry wit. The great quote: “I had myself at 8 to 1.” The rest of the piece works just as well. (So does the clever illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.) Two pages in the magazine that light it up. Good stuff.