More notes on what I’ve learned about writing

Every year or so, I’ve gathered enough of a collection of notes and perspective and general writing about writing that I want to share here. This is especially geared toward creative and fiction writing, which is decidedly not what I am professionally trained in.

But I’ve always thought of myself as professional writer first, and so I routinely invest time in reading about process.

Below find some links and perspective that I share here likely more for me than anyone.

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Thoughts on tax status and journalism

Journalism is the messy art of connecting that which is true with that which can be understood. I’ve defined it in other ways before. However you define it though, practitioners like me tend to assume it is important. We work to maintain it.

In the past few months, I’ve taken a critical look at that assumption, that journalism matters. One way I’ve done that is thinking about the types of organizations that produce whatever it is that journalism is.

In periods of economic change, when institutions or processes or elements of culture are lost, challenging the assumption of importance matters. It’s a crucial step. Are we trying to hold on to this thing because of tradition or because something functionally has import?

Political philosophy is rich with debate over what crucial societal functions should be enshrined into government, or maintained by charitable organizations and what the free market can do best. With the economic disruption confronting how journalism is produced, this question is relevant again.

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Opportunity costs: think of the big but not the small

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Economists love to review our decisions through the lens of opportunity costs. Each decision we make has the added cost of that which we did not do. 

When a big box-store clerk, paid hourly, volunteers to leave her shift early because foot traffic is particularly slow, she’s making a choice. She values what she does with that time more than the wage she would have earned. 

When an influential academic, evaluated by her published research, agrees to take on another young mentee, she’s making a choice. She values that relationship and the person’s development more than what she perceives to be the potential career gains she could have developed with more time in the lab.

I wrestle with this paradigm more often than I might want to admit.

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Notes on ‘The Invention of News’ by Andrew Pettegree

The journey to get to professionally-verified information includes social, economic and political coursework. To share this journey, historian Andrew Pettegree focused in his 2014 book The Invention of the News heavily on the European development.

It is dense and comprehensive, at least in the continental sense. It’s been on my list for a year or so, and I finally dug into it, with pages of notes. Find reviews of the book in the Times and Guardian, and consider buying the book yourself. The book’s focus is between the years of 1400 to 1800, and it’s clearly written by a historian, rather than a contemporary media studies approach—I prefer this more dispassionate and distant view of the origins of an industry.

Knowing that printing had earlier roots in China, the book is decidedly Eurocentric. Still I would strongly recommend it to anyone as interested as I am in the foundation of media, news and journalism. Pettegree’s stance is that the industry of professionalizing information-gathering was a European concept, which is his focus. This was one of several books on early journalism foundations I’ve read in the last year.

Find my notes below.

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My 2020 Resolutions

I have work to do. The progress I made in 2019 on a frustrating year of 2018 is incomplete, slowed by a few steps backward, despite considerable forward progress. So bring on 2020.

As is my custom, I’m publishing here my resolutions for 2020 to get a little bit closer to the person I want to be, and to hold myself accountable to those goals. Find my past resolutions here.

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My 2019 Review

I roared into this year with a plan.

After a 2018 of mixed results, I intended 2019 to be different. In many ways it was. My company had a big Q1. I got personal time back. By the end of summer, though, a key hire that was a major part of my work strategy had their own major life change. My plans had to change. Work taxed me more than expected, and that had ripple effects in personal ways too.

Knowing what I was working toward, I was exhilarated for most of 2019. Yet I still ended the year tired and distracted by reestablishing plans I thought I already had set. This year I was reminded that leadership may start with setting a plan but it’s tested by reacting to inevitable changes to that plan. I did that. I’m at least a year wiser.

Below find both a recap of important milestones in my year, and, farther down, find a review of how I did on my 2019 Resolutions.

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What I did with my two-year term on Philly Startup Leaders

In late summer 2017, Bob Moore asked if I’d join the board of Philly Startup Leaders. I’d spent most of my early reporting career covering the nonprofit, and my organization Technical.ly had launched not long after that one.

Our organizational histories were quite co-mingled.  I had conditions and requests, all of which were in sync with Bob’s own plans in his new role as board chair. I began participating in an advisory role that fall amid considerable change, and I joined the PSL board formally in January 2018 for a two-year term. I came with my own plan and this month my formal term will conclude.

I’ve always found the organization important, a gathering of founders of companies in a city in need of just that. Here’s a review of how I believe I contributed to this nonprofit in my short tenure.

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More Americans are coal miners than local journalists

It helps to understand economic change by comparing stories.

Naturally the visualization of the soot-covered coal miner is an evocative image of blue collar industry. Almost immediately as that image became a tool during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, it became a political football.

To put the size of the coal industry in context, we were reminded that the middling fast food chain Arbys employed more people than the entirety of the coal industry. More journalists have lost their jobs than coal miners. To understand job losses in news-gathering, researchers asked, are journalists today’s coal miners?

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Local and national media: once no difference, and now the central difference of newsrooms

One of the many economic ripple effects of the global scaling of the web has been an enormous rift between place-based and place-less news organizations.

As recent as the early 1990s, the business fundamentals of the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer weren’t all that different. They were all advertising and subscription businesses that used a newspaper model as its strategy, leveraging thick newsrooms to gobble up a high comprehension of readers in its audience segmentation.

The web has transformed this into what seems very obvious to you today. Despite the geography in their names, the Washington Post is read globally for insight into U.S. government affairs; the New York Times is read globally by an affluent tribe that identifies with its brand and the Philadelphia Inquirer is read regionally by those who want to access that geography’s largest and most influential newsroom.

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Media Funders: Value the difference between Creation and Distribution

This post will draw a very bright line between the Creation and Distribution of verified information for communities, and argue for that distinction’s importance for understanding today’s news-gathering and journalism climate.

One of my favorite pieces of business-reporting conventional wisdom is that everything in the economy is cyclical. It just depends on how big the circle is this time.

That goes for business building. As early web entrepreneur Jim Barksdale famously put it, “there’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.”

Information gathering (what we roughly call “journalism” today) has been a strategy for businesses for half a millennia. In its early commercial forms, the act of gathering that information and the act of distributing it were essentially two different businesses. In Barksdale’s parlance, they were “unbundled.”

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