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June 24 2013

13:42

How’d you find that hijacker story, Brendan Koerner?

Brendan Koerner‘s new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, dropped last week to critical acclaim. It tells the story of a pair of unlikely hijackers (a “troubled Vietnam vet;” a “mischievous party girl”) against the backdrop of American air travel in the 1960s and ’70s, when a hijacking occurred nearly once a week. Koerner writes:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 11.29.17 AM

Koerner goes on to hold his readers in thrall. Of the book the New York TimesDwight Garner wrote: “…It’s such pure pop storytelling that reading it is like hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio. Both the author and his subjects are so audacious that they frequently made me laugh out loud.” Garner’s engaging synopsis:

The best move that Mr. Koerner makes…is wrapping all his information around one incredible single story, that of a veteran named Roger Holder and an imposingly beautiful would-be hippie named Cathy Kerkow, who in 1972 hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701, on its way from Los Angeles to Seattle, as a vague protest against the Vietnam War.

bookauthorpageThis event started small. It grew big and shaggy, as if a vision concocted by the director Robert Altman. It became the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. The plane ended up in Algiers.

Along the way, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Paul Sartre became involved. Astrology charts were consulted midflight, and a lot of marijuana was smoked while cruising over the American heartland. Mr. Holder and Ms. Kerkow joined the mile-high club. Did I mention that while they were in the air, a second plane was hijacked over American airspace?

The couple became folk heroes of a sort, Bonnie and Clyde at 33,000 feet. Later they would mingle in Paris with movie stars and the social elite…. 

Koerner, who writes for Wired and others, told Longreads how he came across the idea:

On the morning of October 11, 2009, I encountered the 616-word newspaper story that would change my life. It was a New York Times report about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had helped hijack a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968. After spending the next 41 years living in Fidel Castro’s socialist ‘paradise,’ he had decided that he could no longer bear to remain apart from the wife and daughter he had left behind. So at the age of 66, Soltren had voluntarily returned to the United States. He had been arrested the moment he stepped off his plane at JFK Airport; he now faced a possible life sentence if convicted of air piracy.

I was first struck by how much Soltren’s longing for his family had slowly swelled as the years flew by; it had taken him over four decades to muster the courage to risk his freedom for a chance to see his wife and daughter again. (I’ve always been drawn to tales of fugitives and exiles, who must often pay a steep psychological price in order to reinvent themselves.) But the more I thought about Soltren’s predicament, the more I was intrigued by its historical element—namely, the fact that he and two comrades had actually managed to hijack a Boeing 707 to Cuba in the first place. The New York Times piece gave the impression that such crimes were run-of-the-mill during the Vietnam Era. Given the airport security gauntlets we’re forced to endure these days, that seemed an almost unfathomable notion.

Read the rest here, on Longreads, along with an excerpt from the book.

Further Koerner reading recommendations:

—Koerner dissects Scott Anderson’s “The Hunger Warriors” for “Why’s this so good?”
—”How’d you find that secret-compartments story, Brendan Koerner?” in which he backstories a Wired piece.
Piano Demon: the globe-trotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia, via The Atavist

May 10 2013

15:46

How’s it going with The Big Round Table and other narrative ventures, Michael Shapiro?

As if longtime Columbia J-school professor Michael Shapiro didn’t already have enough to do, with Big Round Table launching in September: Yesterday he put 17 of his students’ stories online in a pay-what-you want experiment. Project Wordsworth runs for the next week. The idea intrigues us* and we’re interested to see what will happen. As of this morning Project Wordsworth had seen 5,000 page views and the writers, Shapiro said, had earned more than $1,000. Excerpts from a few of the stories:

W.125th to 99 Madison Avenue: 30 minutes on the 1 and N trains according to Google, which was five minutes off. Apparently, Google doesn’t account for 4 inch heels in their walking and transfer time estimations. Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 4. Time in transit: 35 minutes. The OpenData NYC meet-up was hosted at ThoughtWorks, one of the many Manhattan tech start-ups indistinguishable from each other with their fridges full of beers and vague mission statements. ThoughtWorks was unusual only in that its offices were in Midtown rather than the downtown corridor of the original “Silicon Alley.” (from “The Little Blue Book: The Worlds of Commuting Obsessives,” by Madeline K.B. Ross)

Sitting on a plastic bed in the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, things were looking up. It was 2008 and I was 28 years old, and due to a recent battery of high-dose chemotherapy that had left me with maybe one white blood cell, which I’d named Melvin, I had to wear one of those surgeon’s masks at all times to keep the world’s germs out of my face. Here I was, if you can imagine, bald and eyebrowless with a paper mask over my mouth, a tube coming out of my chest, the picture of cancer, and things were looking up. Scans showed that the cancer (along with just about every other cell in my body) was disappearing. (from “Healing Me Harshly,” by Keith Collins)

Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space. A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said. (from “Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut,” by Kamakshi Ayyar)

In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body. I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning. (from “The Witness,” by Mary Ann Georgantopoulos)

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 4.51.05 PMShapiro also gave us a status report on his larger project, The Big Round Table, a Kickstarter-funded web-based publisher of longform narrative that attempts to crowd-curate storytelling by bypassing the “gatekeepers” of publishing and posting what readers say they want to read. Stories get greenlighted by a cooperative of journalists “committed to the future of big narrative ambitious nonfiction” based on the first 1,000 words. Writers earn $1 of every sale. We talked to Shapiro last night by email. Here’s some of the discussion:

Storyboard: You went big with the pitch: “There is a revolution taking place in journalism. With it have come possibilities for writers who despaired of ever finding a way to make a living at their craft. Writers are now freed from the constraints of convention in telling their stories and from the commercial needs of editors and publishers, who determine what tales get told. That, in turn, means a new era of creativity for authors of narrative nonfiction—new writers, new stories, new audiences waiting for a friend to say, Here’s a story you’ll want to read. The Big Roundtable is more than a digital publishing platform; it is a movement, one that we believe can expand the possibilities for writers, and readers.” Where’d this idea come from?

Shapiro: It came from, how best to put it, 35 years of writing for a living—in newspapers, magazines, and books, and seeing how the publishing world felt as it were shrinking, while all around it, the world was expanding. Believe me, I felt the pinch. There was ever more pressure, especially when it came to books, to come up with ideas that were sure to sell. Well, how is anyone supposed to know what will sell, other than genre fiction? At the same time, magazines were feeling ever more predictable, and had been for years. For several years I was a judge at the National Magazine Awards, and found ever more that while the stories I was reading while not bad, seldom lifted off the page. The writing had become so formulaic, so safe—anecdotal lede, nut graf, quote from eminent sociologist. It was ever harder to find a story that you sensed a writer needed to tell. And we all know the difference. We know what it is like writing a story that burns inside of us, and a story that is, well, interesting. The result was a landscape of predictability. Why were journalists, smart and eager journalists, constrained, when writers of creative fiction were freer to experiment and push? What happened to the New Journalism revolution? I cannot believe it peaked a generation ago. Where was the surprise?

You had a $5,000 Kickstarter goal and took in nearly $19,219, from 220 backers. Who gave, and why?

People we know—God bless them. And a lot of people we’d never heard of who contributed generously and who sometimes wrote to say, Hey, cool idea. I have a story. Can I send it along? The answer was, and is, always yes. (Pitches should go to TheBRTable@gmail.com.)

“Now everyone can be a writer and a publisher,” you said in your campaign. Please explain. 

I suspect every writer falls asleep and dreams that come the dawn they will become the next Amanda Hocking, that from the acorn of a few sales via Amazon to friends will spring the mighty oak of best-sellerism. Pretty to think so, no? The problem isn’t one of production or dissemination; no one needs a publisher to print and sell. The problem is audience. How do you find one, and make people feel as if their lives will be lessened if they don’t read your work?

But hold on: There’s still a gatekeeper aspect, because BRT ultimately decides which stories move forward. No?

Shapiro

Shapiro

Yes. But. The gatekeeper is not me. Lord knows if it were me there would be a surfeit of baseball stories. Who is to say that my taste, or any other individual’s tastes, is superior? I may be skilled at seeing where a story slips and can be improved. But I enjoy no monopoly on taste, and nor does anyone else. And so, we’re experimenting, yes experimenting because in a venture like the BRT we are in a permanent state of beta, with the idea that if you ask a small group of readers what they think about a story, you improve the chances of achieving that rarest and most sought after quality in a story: surprise. In an early—call it alpha—version of the experiment, we asked people to read full drafts. Huge mistake. Because presented with a story, writers cannot help but take out their red pens and try to fix things. So, we wondered what would happen if we asked those same people to read, say, the first 1,000 words. Takes five minutes. You can do it on your phone waiting for your tall soy latte. All we asked was: Do you want to read more, or no thanks? Quick response, and much more useful. It told us whether the story had an audience. Why 1,000 words? Because—and here, I am drawing more on experience than data—if you can nail the first 1,000 words of a story, the odds are good that you’re on your way.

Curation is the thing right now—Longreads, Longform.org, etc. You describe the project as a platform “through which writers of nonfiction stories too long for most magazines, and too short for most publishers, can find their readers,” but that also describes, sort of, platforms like Byliner and, to some extent, Kindle Singles, which publishes stories too long for a magazine and too short for a book. How does BRT differ from those?

All our content is original. Byliner does some original work, but mostly curated; they’ve been very kind about curating my stuff. I know David Blum, who edits Kindle Singles, and think he is a very smart editor. But in the end, David, talented as he is, is the gatekeeper. We’re trying something different.

The idea is that a happy reader will (and can) share the story with three friends, which is encouraged through the BRT model. The sharing aspect seems central to this concept. Why the sharing? 

Think about it: When you choose what you read for pleasure is on the basis of a) a review, b) something you heard or read about, or c) because a friend, not a Facebook friend but a living breathing want-to-get-dinner-this-week friend, said, You Have to Read This! I’ve asked this question many times to many different groups of people over the past year and the answer always comes up C. It is all about sharing. The question is, How do you replicate that moment at scale? That, in the end, is what this is all about. Again, it is all about increasing the chances of finding under your nose a story that is surprising.

Writers will make $1 per sale. How will you handle the operational transparency aspect with writers? How will writers know precisely how well their work is doing and whether they’re getting their fair share? 

We will do so contractually—no writer should ever for a moment think, Jeez, these guys aren’t being straight with me. That would be bad on so many levels.

You use the term “nonfiction novella,” the kind of language that makes a lot of people nervous. What does that term mean, from BRT’s perspective?

It means too long for most magazines and too short for a conventional book. Say, 5,000 to 30,000 words. Loosely. There are so many times I wished I had more space—and I have written 17,000-word magazine stories. I also can look at my books and think, you know, I think this would have been perfect at 40,000. If my publisher reads this they will not be pleased. Sorry fellas.

Where does this project live? Looks like you’ve got Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter covered.

It lives on the Internet because we live in a world where it is ever clearer that the Internet—and by this I mean the great amorphous amalgam of feeds and inboxes—decides what shall thrive. There is a terrific book by the sociologist Duncan Watts called Six Degrees—as in, yes, six degrees of separation—that captures as well as anything I’ve read the science of social networks. Watts is a pal of Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed and HuffPost fame, and they take different views of network creation. Peretti, a born optimist, believes that it is possible to tweak a budding network into something larger. Duncan takes a less sunny view. I fall someplace in between but veer toward Jonah. The Internet feels to me like a lava lamp, bubbling around, waiting for someone or something to tip it and get all that action flowing a certain way. Does this analogy make me sound like a Dead Head?

Yes. In a good way. The first story runs in August. What’s in the lineup? Can you give us some idea of the first few pieces?

Some great ones, and I will do so as cryptically as I can, so that people might think, “cool:” Inside the Albanian Mob; My Weekend at Adolf’s; How Disco Never Died; The Mother of Creedmoor; Of Inmates, Fire, and Death; The Miracle on Molokai. And those are but a few.

Generally speaking, are BRT stories those that got rejected elsewhere?

Maybe. We look at the stories as stories. We don’t ask them to come with a CV.

It can be hard enough getting phone calls returned when you’re on staff, but when you’re working without an institution attached to your project, how do you represent yourself? How would you advise a prospective BRT author to identify herself?

I am a writer with a story to tell. Here it is. Our promise is that people will read the first 1,000 words.

Will the authors report/write the whole piece on spec and then hope the thing flies with readers? So much of great storytelling depends on the reporting. You need to report enough to write a great top, since readers will green light the piece (or not) based on the first 1,000 words, but that puts writers working without a net. Say you spend three months reporting enough just to get a great opening, but then nobody bites. That’s three months you just spent, for nothing. Or no?

Out there, as I write, I know, just know, that there are all these wonderful writers with stories burning in their notebooks who are thinking, “There is more to this story than 700 words.” Maybe the New Yorker? The Times magazine? Maybe. But the odds aren’t good. I know this because I have been that writer and I wanted to tell that story and yes, I wanted to be paid for it. But I needed to tell it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m working on one now for the BRT. I really need to tell this one. No advance.

Who is your envisioned audience?

Ah, that is the $64,000 question. We have an incredible story in which a woman recounts her banker father slowly drinking himself to death. (Trust me, you cannot put this one down.) Is that only for an audience of children of alcoholics? Or will others, for whom this bears no direct connection to their lives, nonetheless see in the story a quality that speaks to them, that surprises them?

Who will edit the stories? Will there be fact checkers? Copyeditors? How will the actual editorial process work?

We have my all time favorite editor working with us, Mike Hoyt, the longtime editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Best hands, as they say, in the business. If we don’t have terrific stories, and yes fact-checked stories, we are nowhere. But it is not Mike’s job to choose. It is his job to lift those stories, with the author.

You have a stated goal of studying “how people find, read, fall in love with a share stories” and becoming “the research lab of the longform revival” by gathering data that “will at long last illuminate what happens when one friend feels compelled to share a story with another.” There’s a longform revival?

Don’t you think so? Look at all these ventures—Atavist, Longform, Longreads, to say nothing of these heretofore impossible to imagine stories in the Times and elsewhere.

We like “longform” without the hyphen. Looks like you do too.

Cleaner, no?

You’ve said a paid staff will produce BRT. Paid how? Who’s on the masthead?

We have some money from Kickstarter and hope to start getting more—grants, we hope. We have a small staff: Mike, me; our product manager is a journalism school grad, Anna Hiatt. We’re being assisted by Rashmi Raman, who is our engineer, Anna Codrea-Rado, who manages the audiences and our designer, Eleonore Hamelin.

You’ll sell directly from the BRT website rather than through a distributor like Amazon. Why?

Because Amazon does not share all its data. And we want, need, to be able to see and test and iterate.

Whom do you envision as your typical writer?

The writer with a story he or she is burning to tell. Really, it is that simple.

The goal is to understand how readers find, read and fall in love with work, and share it. Assuming you figure that out, what next?

Heaven knows. We’re making this up as we go along. I am learning what it means to be involved in a startup.

 

(*having had some experience with it ourselves) 

August 23 2012

14:17

August 10 2012

14:56

Viewfinder: Video journalism that works

Whenever I go out on an assignment I get a few of the same questions from onlookers who see me with my tripod and my reasonably large video camera: “What channel are you from?” or “When will this air?” But my favorite, and the one I get most often after I explain that the video won’t be on TV and that I work not for a channel but for a newspaper website is, “How are they going to get a video into my newspaper?” It’s an old joke by now. Video has graced the websites and mobile offerings of traditionally text-based outlets for nearly a decade.

Video or film storytelling is more than a century old, and print storytelling has a couple of millennia under its belt, but the last few years have brought the two together in exciting and evolving ways, particularly for journalism. Outlets like The Atavist and The Daily, and many newspaper and magazines’ mobile applications, make it possible to seamlessly pogo between a print narrative and snippets of video or a short documentary production. The form is in its infancy but loaded with possibility.

As any writer who has had to wait for a video journalist to get some b-roll knows – and as any video journalist who has wished she could avoid wading through a traditional print reporter’s interviewing knows – collaboration is a dance. For this, the first installment of Viewfinder, an occasional column on video journalism, I talked to a few friends and colleagues about the pleasures and pains of building video and print packages. It’s a common conversation, one I’ve had over lunch at work and on long car rides with fellow print reporters. It’s fair to say that most agree the product is a richer audience experience, but how we get there is still being worked out. I hope this column will be a place to parse this and other aspects of the burgeoning craft of web and mobile-based nonfiction video reporting.

Let’s start with what works. I’ve seen terrific packages, many of them big blowouts like the L.A. Times’ series about the effects of the recession, or the Detroit Free Press’ Motown retrospective. The Seattle Times did a laudable job with its in-depth look at the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.

How you make all the parts work together is no small challenge. I talked with my New York Times colleague Shayla Harris, who spent a good four months laboring, along with the photographer Marcus Yam and the reporter John Branch, to weave text, video and photos together to tell the story of the life and death of professional hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard. Ten or 15 years ago, the story would have been a terrific package at a paper – exhaustive reporting, stellar photography, maybe some good graphics. A few weeks or months later, a TV station or an independent documentary filmmaker might start in on a video/film project. Harris, who started at NBC News as an assistant/associate producer, confirmed as much: “A lot of our stories would basically be ripped from the pages of the New York Times. So, right now, we’re basically the in-house version of that. Unfortunately, when you’re working alongside a reporter you don’t get the benefit of having a finished story in front of you to work from.”

Harris also didn’t have much footage to work with, but when the team approached the Boogaard family about telling Derek’s story, the “floodgates” as she put it, opened up. The family had handwritten diaries, some from Derek’s earliest bouts, plus scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about Derek, family photo albums and perhaps most valuable, eight DVDs of every fight Derek had been in from his time in the Canadian Junior League until he landed in the NHL.

Though Branch relied on the same fight material to flesh out scenes in his print story (and were included in a pop-up version called a “quick-link” for mobile and web audiences) the videos felt distinct and complementary rather than duplicative. Harris explained that she felt like Branch’s story could handle the contextual aspects of the story and that her job would be to create a visceral experience for the viewer. “The thing that video can do, that words sometimes can’t, is … evoke a mood or feeling on a multisensory level,” she said. “Just hearing the inflection in someone’s voice and the way they say things can convey a lot of information.”

Video can convey emotion with much greater power than a text quote can. You can see this in Harris’s videos, especially in the interviews with Boogaard’s fellow enforcers. They’re big, imposing men whose job is to intimidate and often to bare-knuckle box on the ice, and their recollections of Boogaard are powerful.

That acknowledgment of video’s strengths has also worked well for my friend Erik German and his wife, Solana Pyne. German works for The Daily as a text reporter, but he’s always thinking about ways to make video work. “In our shop, video is just part of the production process, but there are three major areas that are suddenly very different,” he said.

The three areas: planning, execution and assembly.

“Each of those is a lot more complicated if video is involved,” he said. German argues if you’re really going to have video be a part of the story, reporters need to know from the beginning, for the best possible outcome. This entails thinking about everything from the pitch to the questions you ask a source before you leave the office – quite different than if you’re headed out with just a pen and pad. He says, “I find myself now asking TV producer questions like, ‘What does it look like when you do your job? If I followed you around all day, what would I see?’”

Print reporters rarely ask a source they’re going to visit what the inside of someone’s office is like or if it gets good light in the afternoon or if there’s anything noisy going on that might make doing a recorded interview difficult, but those are all concerns for a video journalist. Yet thinking about those challenges as a text-based reporter can help set up a good video collaboration.

One of my favorite pieces by German, with great videos produced by Pyne, is about a new law in Texas that made it legal to hunt feral hogs from helicopters.  They interviewed game officials, farmers upset by the damage the hogs cause to land, and representatives from the two camps of hog eradication. The hunters and the trappers were all convinced their differing methods were superior.

One aspect of the story they hadn’t counted on was a heat wave that sent the hogs deep into the brush, nowhere to be seen. “You could do a print story about a hog infestation even if you don’t see any hogs,” German said, “but for a video you’ve got to see the pigs.” Yet you’d never know about the missing pigs to read German’s story or to watch Pyne’s videos, in part because they artfully used what footage they could shoot, including material from small-action sports cameras mounted on the stocks of rifles. They bought a bit of stock material from a local shooter and had some great material of very clever hogs working their ways out of traps.

The Daily, which is designed from the ground up every day, elegantly meshes video and text and, like the Boogaard series, uses shorter embedded elements to good effect – “like visual and aural snapshots,” as Pyne puts it. “They conveyed things that would have been hard to get across any other way.”

The effect is, I think, one of the best ways to meld video into a print story. Texan twang and drawl about the difficulty of hog hunting came across in little snippets of video that might not have had a home in the bigger video story, and when transcribed for print might have lost their punch.

Pyne also does a lot of thinking about what makes for good video and print. She’s a senior video producer at GlobalPost, which produces a good deal of video, sometimes as a standalone report. She assigns many of the video journalists; most are freelancers who work on GlobalPost packages, often in tandem with a staff reporter. She often tells video journalists to follow their instincts. “I think it’s important to ensure that the print reporter doesn’t take over the story, because then you get a video that’s just like the print piece,” she said. “It’s useful to have them work together, but I want the videographer to feel comfortable leaving (or staying) to get good video.”

I recommend a deep read and watch on the touching series she helped put together from Japan shortly after the earthquake and the nuclear disaster. Like many of the best collaborations, the text stories anchors the bigger-picture thoughts and the video focuses on characters: everyday Japanese people whose lives were upended.

Sean Patrick Farrell (@spatrickfarrell) is a staff video journalist at the New York Times. He has made videos about tracking wolverines in Montana, dangerous medical radiation and aspiring young opera singers, among many others. He is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied documentary film. Before becoming a journalist, he spent a decade working as a  bicycle mechanic. You can find more of his work at www.seanpatrickfarrell.com. This is his inaugural Viewfinder column for Storyboard.

 

May 03 2012

13:35

September 19 2011

21:16

June 11 2011

12:19

Storytelling - The Atavist: multimedia enriched digital magazine experience

Read Write Web :: The structure for The Atavist is similar to a magazine at first glance: create an assignment for a freelance journalist, who goes out and writes a story. However, The Atavist is much more involved in the creation of a story than a traditional magazine publisher. While the writer goes out and gets the core story, The Atavist gathers other media around it and creates a multimedia package for their apps.

As Co-founder Evan Ratliff explained, "we actually have control over the [publishing] environment. We can build our own way of seeing the story." The result is like a combination of documentary and magazine article.

Continue to read Richard MacManus, www.readwriteweb.com

April 21 2011

15:28

March 15 2011

17:30

A very important matter: Should ebook titles be in quotes or italics?

We’ve been writing quite a bit lately about ebooks and their potential as a distribution mechanism (and maybe even revenue driver) for journalism. Whether it’s Foreign Policy, The New York Times, ProPublica, or N+1, lots of news organizations are interested in the medium as a place for work that sits somewhere between a news article and a full blown traditional book.

But that opens up a question we’ve been debating here today and that I’m hoping you can help me answer. How, visually, do you refer to the titles of these ebooks that fall in between? Do they get italics or “quotation marks”?

(I know — I promised this was a very important matter.)

Here at the Lab, and like many of us were taught in high school English, we use italics for traditional books. It’s Here Comes Everybody, not “Here Comes Everybody.” And that holdover from print still seems reasonable to me. But does it apply in the same way to ebooks, which by their nature can be much more varied — including, when natively digital, often much shorter — than a cloth-and-spine acid-free hardcover?

Argument for italics: Did you see the word “book,” right there inside “ebook”? Books get italics! Most ebooks published are still digital versions of print books, and if it’s The Sun Also Rises on your shelf, wouldn’t it also be The Sun Also Rises on your Kindle?

Argument for quotation marks: “Ebook” is a flexible catch-all term for lots of different kinds of things. Sure, it can mean Hemingway, but it can also mean a few short pages of tales about Jennifer-Love-Hewitt-as-superhero (seriously, go buy that, three bucks, Kevin Fanning’s great), a single Robin Sloan short story, or a bunch of tweets strung together with a title.

Many traditional style guides say “A Short Story” goes in quotes, while A Real Book goes in itals. But what happens when you publish and sell that short story on its own, outside the confines of the larger book container? Similarly, when Sebastian Rotella writes a story for ProPublica’s website, it’s “Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story.” When it gets shifted to the Kindle, word-for-word, does it somehow become, Transformer-like, Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story? Heck, when you email a Word doc to Amazon to convert it to Kindle format, does it magically become Fred Davis’ Grocery List, March 2011 Edition?

What the experts (or “experts”) say

I note that Yahoo’s style guide comes down on the side of quotation marks — but it’s making a broader argument that isn’t specifically about ebooks. Even a print first edition of “The Sun Also Rises” is denied italics in Yahoo’s eyes.

In contrast, Wikipedia’s style manual says italics for all books. It doesn’t address ebooks directly, but notes that “[t]itles of shorter works should be enclosed in double quotation marks (“text like this”)” and says it “particularly applies to works that exist as a smaller part of a larger work.” (But the same work can now be a smaller part of a larger work and its own freestanding work per se.)

The AP Stylebook doesn’t use italics for anything — but that’s thanks to historic newspaper printing conventions, so it’s not of much relevance here.

The MLA and APA style guides apparently treat ebooks as regular books with italics. Same with Chicago, although all three are really thinking only of the most traditional, book-like ebooks.

The Atavist uses quotation marks for its Kindle-length nonfiction. But Amazon puts those same works in italics. (Except when it doesn’t. But it never uses quotes, far as I can see — it’s either italics or plain roman.) Wired, of all outlets, goes italics.

Or to look at the world of music, which has a similar whole-vs.-part problem: Albums get italics (The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I), songs get quotes (The Dismemberment Plan’s “Memory Machine”). So are these new ebooks more like EPs, which get italics, or more like a 7″ single, which would generally get quotes despite having multiple songs on it?

Or as Megan (a known italics supporter) just suggested, will the usefulness of both go away as the continued hypertexting of everything means you can just link to Emergency & I for anyone who really wants to know more about it, reducing the need for a visual cue for what-this-is?

Italics, “quotes,” “both,” or neither?

My impulse is in the direction of quotation marks. I long ago decided that news outlets would not get silly italics (it’s The New York Times here, not The New York Times), because the italics are all about the physical artifact of a newspaper, not the news organization that backs it — and the Internet era has made it abundantly clear the creating entity is the organization, not the dead tree. I feel similarly about ebooks, that they’re part of a general dragging of books away from being A Separate Holy Thing and toward a world where content of all shapes and sizes sits together on common platforms, whether that’s your web browser, your Kindle, or your iPad.

But does that mean that print books need to be dragged over to quotation marks with their electronic cousins? Or is it okay if it’s The Sun Also Rises in one format and “The Sun Also Rises” in another? Should some ebooks get quotes and others get italics? Is the container, the form, no longer the defining quality — is it a case-by-case question now?

I bring this up not because the world will care one bit which we use, but because it’s a broader sign of the disruptive power of new digital forms. Our rules about titles are largely rules about packages and forms: What kind of a box does something fit into? Books get x, articles get y, films get z. But those containers aren’t as neat as they used to be, and they don’t always tell us the same things about their contents as they used to. So it’s only natural that the way we talk about them — and the way we think about them — will evolve alongside them.

So what do you think? Italics, quotes, or some variant thereof?

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