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October 03 2010


'Groping' tickles

Civic media is serious business. Do we need a little more levity?

New Media can learn a lot from Old Media about taking ourselves too seriously, a trick that YouTube certainly has caught onto and turned into a franchise.

Former newspaper humor columnist Susan Trausch defies her reader to resist laughing aloud in her new book, entitled "Groping Toward Whatever -or- How I Learned to Retire [SORT OF], which is about being thrust into early retirement at age 59 after accepting a buyout from the Boston Globe, where she was a Washington reporter, business reporter and editorial reporter. Serious stuff, eh?

But she also at one stage wrote an award-winning satirical column for the Business Section called "Out to Lunch".Much of her new book is written in the style of the column. One book chapter called, "Present Tense" takes a poke at just about every tech innovation from the cell phone "demanding interaction with the world while I am standing in my underwear" to text messages to online banking to the robotic grocery store voice that shouts out, "SHE BOUGHT THE CHEETOS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. SHE HAS THE WILLPOWER OF A FLEA," to FiOS, bought so her husband can "see the nasal hairs of the football players", etc.

Then there is Facebook. " … I got on Facebook by mistake while trying to send an email to someone who was in there on purpose.Now I get emails from strangers who want to be my friends. Trying to take the name off the site, I found another Susan Trausch pictured with two children. She's not me. Unless she is."

You can count on her for snappy one-liners on just about every page. While grappling with the question of what to do with herself after accepting the buyout, Trausch is advised to print up calling cards. It's an alien notion to her. "My idea of networking was waving to the neighbors on the way into the garage, she writes in the second chapter, "They Paid Me to Leave", in which she uses fast-moving dialogue with co-workers to describe reaching a decision she never contemplated. Typically sprinkling descriptions of her angst with light comments, Trausch is poignant in this chapter's conclusion:

"...on my last day, driving through the Boston Globe parking lot, passing the green and gold newspaper trucks parked in rows like sentries guarding the past, I pulled over and cried."

Trausch then weaves her way through the trauma that so many early retirees face: What to do with your time, crunching numbers, worrying about your physical self (she calls that chapter "Carcass Maintenance"), coping with being called "Mam", slowly shopping for bananas, contemplating senior housing, facing your mortality and dealing with the unexpected.

The unexpected doesn't wait for Trausch to adjust to her new life. Suddenly she and her husband, John Sobierski, are faced with the onset of dementia that strikes his mother at age 86. "Her last year of life was my first year of retirement."

The chapter, simply called "Alice", starts out as a description of the author's bonding with her mother-in-law and soon becomes a love story between a dying woman and her caretaker.

Trausch is a serious thinker. She provides insight into aspects of early retirement that flow not just from her experience but also from her ability to analyze nuances of early retirement issues.

But she also is funny as hell. Each reader will experience laugh-out-loud moments. My favorite was this:

"There I am on my stomach, reaching under the refrigerator with a yardstick to pull out Cheerios, nuts, ossified beans, uncooked elbow macaroni, cooked elbow macaroni, plastic bag fasteners, and grapes that have gone beyond raisins and are on their way to vinegar. I never used to care what was under there, never noticed the grease along the bottom of the stove drawer, or the tea bags that had missed the waste basket under the sink."

The author does well at reminding us that we shoudln't take ourselves too seriously.

(Jack Driscoll was Editor of the Boston Globe when Trausch was a Business Section columnist.)

August 31 2010


Review: Funding Journalism in the Digital Age

For the past few weeks I’ve been casually enjoying Funding Journalism in the Digital Age, a book that surveys the business models underpinning the industry – and those that are being explored for its future. And it’s rather good.

The book has four broad parts: the initial 3 chapters provide the current context: a history of news publishing as a business; and an overview of current business models and commercial tactics, from paywalls and hyperlocal projects to SEO and dayparting.

The bulk of the book then looks in detail at particular types of business models: micropayments and microfunding; sponsorship and philanthropy; family ownership and trusts; niche content; e-paper, and e-commerce.

Alongside this, a number of chapters look at organisational innovation, from pro-am collaboration to institutional partnerships. And finally, two key chapters look at the principles of microeconomic concepts for the industry, and the importance of innovation.

Rather than sit back and paint a neutral picture of things, the book states quite firmly why now is not the time to stick with old models (the economics of both publishing and advertising have changed), while also not pretending to know the answer to the industry’s problems.

Instead, over the course of the book, readers get a good overview of how media organisations are attempting to adapt to the new environment, as well as a sample of the different models being experimented with by innovative startups – the successes, failures, but mostly the wait-and-sees. The result is a valuable insight into the increasingly varied nature of the industry side of ‘the industry’.

The chapters are littered with examples from both mainstream and lesser-known publishing projects, and it’s refreshingly global in its perspective: the usual US and UK stories are complemented with online and print examples from France, Singapore, Norway, Australia and elsewhere. Sadly, like most journalism textbooks, magazines and, to a lesser extent, broadcast, are a little neglected.

Although this is an entry-level book the subject is broad enough – and the industry itself so varied – for most people to find something new here.

For students, this is a book to join the list of must-reads. Too few books address the current commercial realities that students face upon entering the media. It would be nice to see some more.

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