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June 19 2013


In sports writing, the action’s moved away from columns

At Grantland, Bryan Curtis writes about the slow decline of The New York Times’ Sports of the Times column. But more than one column in one newspaper, Curtis is really writing about a broader shift in what content is valuable in an online age.

First, [Times sports editor Jason] Stallman surveyed his own stable of feature writers. “John Branch wrote a column when he was in Fresno,” he said. “Jeré Longman has written commentary and could be dynamite. But these are guys we have fallen in love with doing distinctive enterprise stories and other investigative types of work. We’re disinclined to put them in a box of just commentary.”

It shows how the MVP of the section is no longer the columnist but the longform writer. In olden times, Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Snow Fall” would probably have been assigned at 1,200 words. “I don’t believe the hierarchy of the New York Times values sports,” said Roberts. “Or I don’t think they value it on a regular basis. I think they value the big, vigorous investigative approach to sports. But the everyday is an afterthought.” It was as if those elephantine features were a way to get the paper’s top editors to finally pay attention.

It really is remarkable, for those of us who grew up reading sports columnists in our local daily, how much the institution turned out to be an artifact of what turned out to be a temporary news ecosystem. The broad journalistic conceit of objectivity — which made the owner of forceful opinions stand out that much more. The general pushing down of regular reporters’ individuality — which turned columnists, whether sports or metro or editorial, into stars. The ways in which newspapers’ organization around geography, particularly metro areas, pushed college and pro sports teams to the fore as subjects of journalism.

And, of course, the near monopoly that most U.S. newspapers had on opinionated voices in their cities — which made even the hackiest of sports columnists into giant personalities.

The rise of sports radio helped push back on that monopoly, but the Internet finished the job. I don’t believe there is a class of reporter that has seen its value fall in the past 10 years as much as the hack print sports columnist, who (at least in the major pro and college ranks) faces more competition than ever. (Rick Reilly used to be a god.) Grantland’s been running parodies of hack newspaper sports columns lately, and they’re uncomfortably dead on.

Stallman says there’s nothing wrong with a good column, obviously, but that investigative reporting, aggressive beat reporting, and long-form features are where the action’s at.

“Maybe through the Lance Armstrong saga, we’d like to have had a columnist laying in properly. But I look at it that we have Juliet Macur completely setting the agenda on the story, so I’d much rather have that than a columnist.”

One other line worth noting:

Stallman doesn’t believe “Sports of the Times” is anachronistic. Even with a paltry word limit in a web ocean of “longform”; even with its early print deadline while the rest of us work through the night.

Think about that: “a web ocean of ‘longform.’” Remember that whenever someone says that the web is all about short and quick and 140 characters. Who’d have thought five years ago that “there’s too much longform” would even be conceived of as a competitive factor for journalism online? (It’s noteworthy that Grantland was started within ESPN by Bill Simmons, whose shaggy 12,000-word epics are as responsible as any for shifting the center of what writing about sports looks like.)

November 21 2010


A Viral Video Takedown of Public Radio (in 5 Acts)

mediashift_social publicmedia small.jpg

Why is NPR such an easy target for comedy bits and video parodies? It doesn't take a regular listener of Science Friday to figure it out. They're a bunch of mega-nerds.

With every subtle use of alliteration, every time Robert Siegel says "draconian," and each transitional upright bass interlude, they slap a big fat "kick me" sign in the middle of their own backs.

Want to know the five reasons comedians love to hate public radio? As Ira Glass would say, stay with us.

Act I: Hearing Absurdly Perfect Voices

God do their voices sound good. (Ira Glass is the exception.) If we stopped absorbing the content of their reporting and just listened to their silky baritones and rich tenors, we might mistake them for come-ons. YouTube personality Liam Kyle Sullivan gives us a peek into the people behind the voice.

Act II: Attack of the Pledge Drive

We all dread those never-ending, shame-inducing pleas for our hard earned $20.00. Funny or Die explores how NPR stations use guilt to get us to pay their salaries.

Act III: Inane Topics in Soothing Tones

It seems like public radio hosts could talk about the sleep patterns of box turtles for days if we allowed them, but we all just really want to hear Terry Gross talk dirty. (Right? I'm not alone here am I?) Unless your name is Francis Davis, this classic SNL sketch is as close as we'll ever get.

And we can't forget Betty White's recent contribution.

Act IV: Stop the Music!

If I ever see a band billed: "As Featured in NPR Segues," I will run away, fast and far. Here, the always hilarious Patton Oswalt dissects the music of NPR for us (fast forward to minute 2:00 in this clip):

Jokes.comPatton Oswalt - Man Without a Countrycomedians.comedycentral.comRead Patton Oswalt's biographyWatch Patton Live at the New York Comedy FestivalFind more from this comedian in the Shop.

Act V: Those Pretentious Listeners

Public radio fans are the worst. I should know, I am one. From my colleagues at Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy:

House-Sittin': NPR BattleUCBcomedy.comWatch more comedy videos from the twisted minds of the UCB Theatre at UCBcomedy.com


Got a favorite viral public media spoof? Tell us about it in the comments.

Todd Bieber writes and directs videos, mostly comedy and documentary, or some combination of the two. He is currently Director of Content and Production for Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy. Previous to this he worked at the Onion News Networks as Footage Coordinator, occasional Director of Photography, and a freelance Contributing Writer during their Peabody Award Winning year. His work has been featured in a bunch of film festivals including Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and AFI. His various viral videos have been watched over 13 million times and have been featured on the New York Times' website, Entertainment Weekly's website, Huffington Post, and his mom's Facebook Wall.

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November 04 2009


@FakeAPStylebook Editors Explain Their Overnight Success on Twitter

For anyone who has suffered through reading the entire AP Stylebook for a journalism class, there's a cathartic release when reading the dry wit of the @FakeAPStylebook feed on Twitter. It combines parody of the journalism usage bible with funny repartee and the absurd. That mix has brought amazing success to the people behind the feed: more than 40,000 followers in 15 days, plus they've scored a literary agent for a book deal.

Here are some of my favorite recent tweets from @FakeAPStylebook:

> STAR WARS Episodes IV-VI are to be referred to as "The Original Trilogy." Episodes I-III are not to be referred to at all.

> When there's no more room in Hell, omit the final paragraphs to save space.

> When composing a story about strange murders, always refuse to believe the kids until it's too late.

> It is poor newsroom etiquette to throw yourself out of the window to prove that your co-worker is Superman.

While Callie Kimball was touting her sleuthing prowess in uncovering the identities of the folks behind the feed for Wired Epicenter, I simply emailed them and asked them to tell me their story. The two main guys behind @FakeAPStylebook are Ken Lowery, a copy editor at United Methodist Reporter in Dallas, and Mark Hale, an unemployed friend of Lowery's in Louisville, Ky. They work with a motley crew of contributors online called "The Bureau Chiefs." Here's a rundown of who they are:

David Campbell, 40, Seattle, Wash. -- copywriter, ArenaNet
Andrew Otis Weiss, 37, Woburn, Mass. -- communications specialist

David Lartigue, 41, Springfield, Mass. -- database whatzit (not technically a DBA)

Kevin Church, 35, Somerville, Mass. -- online marketing specialist

Dorian Wright, 34, Santa Barbara, Calif. -- currently unemployed

Mike Sterling, 40, Oxnard, Calif. -- manager, Ralph's Comic Corner

Chris Sims, 27, Columbia, S.C. -- freelance writer

Benjamin Birdie, 33, Astoria, NY -- graphic designer

Josh Krach, 35, Las Vegas, Nev. -- freelance designer

John DiBello, New York City -- national Internet account manager, W.W. Norton

Dr. Andrew Kunka, 39, Florence, S.C. -- associate professor of English, USC-Sumter

R.J. White, 34, Philadelphia -- manager of media relations

Matt Wilson, 26, Chattanooga, Tenn. -- reporter

Anna Neatrour, 34, Salt Lake City -- librarian

Eugene Ahn, Washington DC, 29 -- attorney

Shane Michael Bailey, 32, Jacksonville, Fla. -- web designer/developer

Here's an edited transcript of my phone conference call with Lowery and Hale. We spoke about how the feed became an overnight sensation, what a potential book will be like, and their fears of legal trouble with the Associated Press.

How did the idea come about for @FakeAPStylebook?

Ken Lowery.jpg

Ken Lowery: I just became aware of the real @APStylebook Twitter feed, and sent the link to Mark because he was a journalism student at one time, and I thought it might interest him. He had said, "I don't know if I'm sad or relieved that this is not a fake account" because there are so many joke accounts for celebrities. That's when the inspiration struck. We passed back and forth a few jokes, and put them on out Twitter feeds and asked our own followers if they thought it was a good idea. We got a "yes" so we went ahead with it.

Tell me more about the group working on the Twitter joke feeds?

Mark Hale: A lot of us have joke Twitter feeds: Ken has two or three, one of our other contributors has at least three, and I had one I abandoned a couple months ago because I couldn't sustain it. This was in that same vein, but it hit a nerve with more people than anything we had done.

Ken Lowery: I've done some before... with some success. @Zombiehorde has about 600 followers, and is the articulate thoughts of a bunch of zombies. Then there is @ThisReallyHurts, which has 200 followers and is just a guy describing extreme pain, which is a dumb gag but it seems to work for some people. The same group latching onto this new joke [of @FakeAPStylebook] really took off.

How do you guys operate as a group? Do you use instant messaging?

Hale: It's basically an email list through Google Groups. It's funny to me how popular email lists have become again. They were pretty popular in the mid-'90s and tapered off, but they serve us quite well. We always have our instant messaging windows open, so people are always saying, 'how about this?' or 'how about that?'

Lowery: We have the Google Group going and we have a few threads established. [There's] one for the open submissions thread, one for open questions when people ask the Fake AP questions. We link to the question and all throw out answers, and we're able to suggest responses, tweak them, and fine-tune them. Mark and I are basically the editors but as far as the actual creative part goes, it's a roundtable.

What happened after you launched the feed, and how fast did you get a big following?

Lowery: The first day we got upwards of 1,000 followers, which was explosive and way more than we expected. Then, Wednesday morning, the next day, Newsweek's Twitter feed mentioned it, and it just boomed completely out of control after that. A few blogs like the Chicago Tribune's [Eric Zorn] have basically been quoting stuff because it makes them laugh. That's how it's gone since then. By Saturday, four days in, we had about 9,000 followers.

Mark Hale.JPG

Hale: By that Sunday, after being live for about a week, we passed the real @APStylebook feed. We don't want to be egomaniacal, but...

Lowery: We were just looking for a metric at that point because it seemed so crazy and out of control. 'How do we measure our success here?' And that was it. Late last week, we hit a terminal velocity and it slowed down a little bit. But got a fresh round of [sign-ups] after the Wired article and a couple other articles. It's begun anew.

Hale: We've officially passed the population of my small hometown, New Albany, Ind., according to the 2000 census figures. It's across the river from Louisville.

When did you first hear from literary agents?

Lowery: I think it was day two. It was Thursday, which is when we heard from the first one, who we eventually went with. Then we heard from another on Friday, and since then, we've heard from five or six more. Kate McKean at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency was the one we chose.

Hear them talk about their excitement when they heard that comedian Michael McKean liked their feed:

Why do you think out of all the things you've done that this one has resonated with so many people

Lowery: Initially, the first popularity came from journalists who said, "I needed this" or "this made my week" or "this is very cathartic." My own highfalutin theory is that journalists have taken a pretty bad beating the past few years in public perception and job security, and this is a way to goof off without being mean or cynical. It's been journalists, salespeople, marketing people, English teachers, students, and fans of word humor [following us].

Did all the contributors meet online?

Hale: I think some of us know each other in real life. I've never met any of them in person.


Lowery: Same here. We're pretty well scattered all over the country. We initially hooked up because we're all big nerds. At one point we all ran comic book blogs just goofing on comic books. We did all our own blogs, but commented on each other's blogs over the years. Through that we developed a friendship, a writer's workshop, whatever you want to call it.

How will the book be formatted? Will it contain tweets and some original material as well? Will it look like the actual AP Stylebook?

Hale: It won't look so much like the official book. It will take a subject, say entertainment, and then it will tell you how to cover obituaries of celebrities, how to approach closeted gay celebrities, how to review a fine art piece, and a glossary, which will be more like the actual guide.

Lowery: The way we have it mapped out now is there will be a sections like sports, entertainment, medicine, etc., with tips on writing up front, and then a glossary of terms that looks more like the Stylebook and the Twitter feed. The stuff we've put together so far for the entertainment chapter is about 75 percent or 85 percent original material that hasn't gone live.

Hear Lowery talk about the tone of the @FakeAPStylebook feed as a faceless voice of authority:

Have you heard from people at the AP about what you're doing, and do you have a fear that they might come after you?

Lowery: We have fans who are AP reporters. We were approached early on by an AP reporter to do a story about us, but nothing came of it. We are talking about changing the name if and when the book becomes a reality. Part of the bind is that this is how people know us now. If we change it too much, then we could potentially lose everyone... We're already thinking about it and tossing around ideas, but some of this might be up to the agent or publisher.


What do you think about @FakeAPStylebook? What are your favorite tweets from them? Share your thoughts and favorites in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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