Lydia Polgreen is the new Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief

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Lydia Polgreen

Lydia Polgreen, a former New York Times associate masthead editor and editorial director of NYT Global, is succeeding founding editor Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post. In an interview she gave the news and opinion site, Polgreen indicated how she plans to steer the content focus in the wake of the media echo chamber the 2016 election exposed and exacerbated. She said HuffPo has the “potential and the possibility of really meeting this populist moment that we’re living in and meeting people where they actually are.”

Polgreen added, “just as there were moments when the Washington Post or The New York Times or the Times of London during World War II had a huge mission, we, too, have a huge mission. And that is to listen, to report, to tell stories, to seek out the stories and voices that aren’t being heard, even ones that might feel uncomfortable to us.”
lydia-polgreen-is-the-new-huffington-post-editor-in-chief In a 2014 report commissioned by A.G. Sulzberger, son of Polgreen’s former employer New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the Times’ Newsroom Innovation Team acknowledged that HuffPo “in just a few years has eclipsed The Times in total readership.” The report cited advice from “a former leader of The Huffington Post… [who] told us that if we want to improve our reach, we must think differently about what it means to publish a story: ‘At The New York Times, far too often for writers and editors the story is done when you hit publish. At Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish.'”

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Are We Writing for Readers, Ourselves, or Pageviews?

Reader-focused journalism, or pageview-focused journalism? - peoplewhowriteMy newsfeed has been blowing up with reports and thinkpieces about New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s dirty dismissal of Executive Editor Jill Abramson. But buried in all the links and sublinks going out is the report Sulzberger’s son Arthur Gregg put together as part of a “Newsroom Innovation Team”.

Do yourself a favor and read it. It’s peppered with Times Jeopardy answers–“The number of URLs The New York Times produces on an average day.” “What is 300, Alex?”–but more importantly, it’s a window into how this respected behemoth is coping with the challenge of relevancy in the 24-hour news cycle.

As the report points out, the new normal requires agility and flexibility–constantly:

We cannot simply become a web-first newsroom or a mobile-first newsroom. We must become a flexible newsroom that continuously adjusts to the needs of the moment. Changes in technology require us to constantly reimagine what is possible. Changes in reader behavior require us to continually assess what’s working. And these exercises shouldn’t be treated as chores: They can elevate our journalism, extend our reach and enable us to better serve our readers.

Making mention of competitors like The Huffington Post, “which in just a few years has eclipsed The Times in total readership,” The Guardian, and Buzzfeed, the report recommends the paper put as much focus on “audience development” i.e. finding readers and getting them to click, as they do on producing world class journalism. The younger Sulzberger also suggested “creating a permanent strategy team in the newsroom” made up of “a mix of backgrounds in journalism, technology, user experience, and analytics.”

All of the recommendations seem right on, and it’ll be interesting to see how the New York Times will evolve as they implement them, but it brings up the question of how writers, editors, and publishers of digital outlets can navigate the increasingly thin line between “reader-focused journalism” and the misleading pageviews metric. Pageviews are often confused with audience, but they are not one and the same.

Anyone with a blog can see how many pageviews they generate by post, where the traffic is coming from, if there are repeat visitors, etc. And anyone with a blog also knows the pieces that get the most clicks may have nothing to do with the core content offering of site, and that those outlier posts may not be a true reflection of the blog’s audience. For example, now and then, I click over to Buzzfeed for their addictive quizzes, but I don’t consider myself a part of their “audience” because I do not visit the site for anything else.  An advertiser might not care about this semantic because my visit to the site means my potential engagement with their banner ad or sponsorship of a quiz, but it’s an important distinction when it comes to audience loyalty, which I would argue is a more important metric.

But if digital journalism or blogging is your business, audience numbers–no matter how or why they come–are necessary as they keep editors assigning you stories or advertisers paying for eyeballs on your site.

They also set up a tension when it comes to motivation:

Should you write for pageviews (e.g. pen a thinkpiece about The Solange Knowles-Jay Z elevator fight)? Should you write for your reader (e.g. take the time to investigate what really happened on the elevator, interview vetted sources, and write an informed piece about what happened  that adds to the knowledge the reader is amassing clicking around to different stories on the elevator dust-up)? Or should you write for yourself (e.g. about something that may have little or nothing to do with Beyonce’s sister going off on Jay Z in The Standard Hotel’s elevator, that you are passionate enough to invest time and think power into)?

The specifics may be different, but it’s a classic human conundrum. Players in every industry have always had to grapple with working for love, money, or more money; and the resolution has always been far from neat and tidy.

If you choose door number Love, it’ll likely take forever to build an audience sizable enough to be relevant (unless you Love writing about celebrity and scandal), and may require you to invest money and resources you don’t have in abundance. If you go for the money, there’s some real or imagined sense you are bartering some part of your soul. Hence, the steam release of watching, re-watching, pausing, laughing at, pontificating about, emailing, and sharing video of celebrities brawling (sans audio, dammit) in an elevator.

The irony is, the internet has made it possible for readers to discover the most niche forms of content, which means there is some reward for work that may not drive tons of clicks. But the issue is who has the time to create content for these seeking souls?

Interesting times at the Times, and in the times, as we work to figure this all out.

Reality TV to Discover the Next Bestselling Author?

Taiye Selasi, Andrea de Carlo & Giancarlo de Cataldo to judge Italian reality show for writers

Taiye Selasi, Andrea de Carlo & Giancarlo de Cataldo to judge Italian reality show for writers “Masterpiece”

The publishing industry has been needing a shot in the arm, and a new reality TV show set to air on Italy’s Rai 3 channel could be it. The New York Times reports “Masterpiece” will feature aspiring novelists competing for the chance to have their debut novel published by Bompiani. Novelists Taiye Selasi (Ghana Must Go), Andrea de Carlo (Due di Due) and Giancarlo de Cataldo (Romanze Criminale) will judge.

According to the article, the channel’s call for manuscripts yielded 5000 submissions. A team of readers and producers then cut the list down to a total of 72 camera-ready writers.  Selasi, de Carlo and de Cataldo then edited down to 24 contestants based on the manuscripts and interviews.

On each of the six episodes, a group of four writers will be given a writing assignment based on an event curated by a judge. The writers will be given half an hour to complete the assignment, and then read it aloud. Two of the writers will be cut in this literary quick fire, with the remaining two tasked to deliver a 59-second long elevator pitch of their novel in progress. The winner of this round will emerge as a finalist. And so it will go until six finalists, and three fan favorites, meet for the chance to win the publishing deal.

The show will be a compelling test of the producers’ ability to convey the stories that go into crafting a story as well as the public’s appetite for watching writers write. If it does well and/or gets adapted for other markets, it will also test the publishing industry’s comfort level.

Publishing, much like  fashion, is a notoriously elitist and cloistered world so it will be interesting to see how insiders respond to the contestants in particular. Will the writers, like the personalities on Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, struggle to be taken seriously in the industry once the cameras stop rolling?Or will they fare like American Idol’s past competitors–winners and finalists–who have gone on to collect the most coveted industry trophies and enjoy pop-culture acclaim?

Selasi told the Times the show reflects the need for writers to shed the blanket of shyness.  “Shy or not shy…you’re going to have to — if you want to be a published writer — expose yourself in some way.” Fellow judge de Cataldo says “Masterpiece” attempts to answer a more dire need.

“The book is dying, and we must do everything we can to save it. Even a talent show.”

No More Writing for Free

Tim Kreider wrote

Tim Kreider

You’ve probably seen Tim Kreider’s “Slaves of the Internet Unite!” already, either via the New York Times itself or one of the many online venues it was shared. If you haven’t, and haven’t the time to click over and read it now, it’s a rallying cry to creatives to stop working for “exposure”.

Kreider writes from experience:

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

He asserts that the only way to retrain those who think exposure alone is an acceptable mode of payment is simply to say no. “It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless,” he declares before offering up a polite yet firm example of how to dismiss such requests.

Kreider’s admonition touches upon a deeper issue that many creatives wrestle with: that their work is, in fact, worthless. As writers, we’re constantly rejected by prospective agents, editors and publishers; and even when we are given passage through the gilded gates of publication, a host of circumstances in and out of our control conspire to reenforce a feeling of shame that the work we’ve toiled over for days, months, or years is indeed worthless.

There has to be a shift in writers’ collective mindset.

We have to start by understanding–knowing–that our work has incredible value both to the culture, and the agents, publishers, and editors that have created a market for the content we create. Amazon understands this, which is why they’ve done what they can to undermine the existing power structure between publishers, agents and authors. From giving authors on demand access to their book sales via the Author Dashboard, to paying royalties on a monthly basis versus bi-annually, to cozying up to agents / bypassing publishers for new initiatives, to hosting new author contests with heftier than usual advances as the prize, Amazon’s initiatives have been all about destabilizing authors’ dependence on publishers. We have to know this for ourselves, and hold out for a situation that respects our worth rather than say yes to any offer of publication that comes our way.

But how to play hardball in real life? In this market? In this economy?

Kreider is right to point to unity. If we all say no, things will have to change. But the reality is, most won’t say no until we feel confident our livelihood will not be lost to others who will say yes. That will take time, or an organized movement. Perhaps the government needs to get involved. Federal and state laws restrict exploitation of unpaid internships. What do you think?

The ideal situation would be a balance of power that respects all the disciplines/players that collaborate to produce and disseminate quality creative work, and remunerates accordingly. Publishers, editors, agents, content distributors et al need us, and we need them–even in the age of self-publishing. As writers, we’re already acutely aware of this. It’s time the other side recognized their need for us too.

Where Did the Concept of the "Summer/Beach Read" Come From?

Sandra Cisneros - peoplewhowrite

“I never feel guilty about reading any kind of book.” — Sandra Cisneros

In a 2009 Chicago Tribune article entitled “‘Beach Read’ Takes on New Meaning“, writer Julia Keller muses the concept may have arisen from the lack of things to do on a beach vacation. “People who don’t enjoy splashing in the ocean or sitting in the sun,” she writes, “but who still want to indulge in a family vacation with those who do, require a diversion.” Following Keller’s line of summer being recess time for kids and the few adults lucky enough to get summer Fridays, it makes sense that the season has become equated with the time of year people have time to read for pleasure. But how did summer/beach read become the euphemism for a throwaway or guilty pleasure read?

Keller writes: “a good beach read… [is] commonly employed to describe a brashly captivating and unashamedly shallow novel” — even as she laments this popular definition, confessing, “I’ve always been slightly disappointed, though, at the so-so books allowed to cluster beneath the ‘beach read’ rubric.” Yet, the idea of a beach read as being disposable or even a guilty pleasure calls into question what we (or an anointed they) think is worthy of reading in our not-so-free time; what we want people to know we’ve read or are reading — and the classism embedded in those notions.

First, there’s the issue of dollars and cents. In a recent Huffington Post piece listing “6 Crazy Compelling Paperbacks“, the writer instructs: “Toss them in your beach bag. Throw them in your bike basket. Read ’em, love ’em and leave ’em by the pool.” In other words, it’s okay to toss/throw/leave these lightweight paperback books lying around to get bleached by the sun, water logged, eaten by the dog, or altogether lose these books because they didn’t cost that much in the first place.

Also implied: If you don’t invest (or don’t have) the extra $10-20 to purchase a hardcover, you’re probably okay with the book falling apart. Either way, you’re probably not considering displaying this book in your bookshelf either because your bookshelf is packed with artfully designed, beautifully bound hardcovers, which leads me to the literature distinction.

Dictionary.com (as legit as Oxford or Websters, no?) defines literature as “writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays” while it explains “literary” as “characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.” The clause in the literature definition — “in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest” — means everything.

Beach Reading_Jeopardy

“Beach Reading” was one of the categories on Double Jeopardy tonight!

Though it’s true that there are certain topics that are permanently and universally interesting to humanity, interest is by nature completely subjective and therefore subject to cultural evaluation. Hence, certain interests are deemed highbrow while others are designated guilty pleasures. We’re all entitled to our opinions as to what falls in which category, but in doing so, we need to acknowledge that classism and many others “isms”, racism and sexism among them, color our estimation.

So, it was interesting to read the recent New York Times piece in which eight acclaimed novelists were asked to share their favorite guilty pleasure beach reads. The Times being as highbrow (my opinion) as they come, the writers surveyed — A.X. Ahmad, NoViolet Buluwayo, Sandra Cisneros, Ben Dolnick, Colum McCann, Nathaniel Rich, Elizabeth Strout, Meg Wolitzer — revealed a diversity of philosophies about the so-called summer read.

For McCann, the boundary is clear. Summer reads are graphic novels, murder mysteries, and “milky-white thigh” stories, and he’ll be reading none of them. “No fifty shades of anything,” he writes, admitting, “Whenever summer rolls around I begin to realize that I’m a complete and utter book snob.”

Meanwhile, Dolnick is all about the murder mystery — a 976-page one based on a true story — which he recommends with this plea to The stereotypical Times reader: “Hear me out.”

In her response, Strout notes the lit-shaming that elicits the plea cum disclaimer cum caveat:

…many years ago when my in-laws took me to a swanky resort and I sat by the pool reading War and Peace. “You’re not really,” said Cousin Harold. “Not really what?” I asked. “Not really going to sit there reading that.” In my memory he seemed genuinely piqued, as though I would spoil the reading pleasure of those around me. I half considered putting a brown bag cover over its flap, but I didn’t have any brown bag, and I sat there for the week engrossed in the book.

Of course, Strout’s shaming was coming from the other direction. She was reading Tolstoy, after all.

But still it’s there, this feeling of being judged by others for the reading material you enjoy and this idea that some reading should be proudly proclaimed while others should make you feel guilty for enjoying. I don’t agree with that notion.

Like Keller, I feel that “once a novel is classified as ‘literature,’ something awful seems to happen; people start revering it and stop reading it. The book is placed on a high shelf, maybe even tucked inside a glass-fronted cabinet, and there it sits — admired to death, in effect. If Woolf still had a say in the matter, I think she’d much prefer glimpsing a copy of To the Lighthouse with a smear of suntan lotion on its crinkled cover or with a bug crushed between pages 101 and 102.”

Which is why I loved Cisneros’ response in the Times’ beach read piece most of all: “I never feel guilty about reading any kind of book. Books are medicine, each one a specific prescription for whatever ails us.” She recommends Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir by the way.

Writing & Mothering Guilt Have An Awful Lot in Common

Mother's & Writer's Guilt - peoplewhowriteEvery year, on the anniversary of my book’s April 6th release, I post a Facebook status/tweet a “birthday” wish to my “firstborn book” (had to link to my baby!). I partially cringe when I do this because I want actual children one day, and something about comparing a trade paperback to a human being seems hammy and sacrilegious. I also do this because, as I “like” pic after pic of my friends’ gorgeous little bambinos, the book is my reminder that I too have “birthed” something in my thirty-something years on this earth. Not a human yet, no, but the book certainly gestated longer than nine months and required daily, weekly, yearly check-ups and sonograms for delivery.

A recent piece in the New York Times shows one actual mother, novelist Amy Shearn, relating the writing process to mothering in another way. In “A Writer’s Mommy Guilt,” she writes:

Writing is so much about the work of noticing. Fiction writing in particular demands intense noticing — studying how the emotional scaffolding of a human is built. When we’re not ignoring our loved ones in order to go write, we are living like watchmakers — picking apart conversations, analyzing recurring arguments, holding up to the light the wheels and cogs of our people so that we may understand them, yes, but also so we can learn how to create new people from scratch. You know, like mothers do.

Perhaps more intriguing to me is Shearn’s guilt analogy. Just as many mothers confess feeling they could be doing more for/better by their children, she expresses the analogous feeling of spending too little time with your work. “’Do you think I’m going to write myself?’ the new novel whines, hypothetically, I assume, from inside my desk,” Shearn explains.

With all the mommy debates swirling in the zeitgeist–Lauren Sandler’s “…Have Just One Kid”, Anne Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, Sheryl Sandberg’s position that women “lean back” on the job when they begin planning to start a family, and Tanya Selvaratnam’s forthcoming book The Big Lie about delayed motherhood, to name a few–Shearn’s direct link between the creator’s guilt and the mother’s guilt presents an interesting tangent. What do you think? Too dramatic to compare childbirth and mothering a human being to alternately staring at a computer screen and spawning characters and ideas? Or not dramatic enough?

Former NYT Art Director Pushed Past Lawyer & Spooked Publisher to Release Book

Jerelle Kraus, author of All the Art That's Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn't) - peoplewhowrite

Jerelle Kraus

For 13 years, Jerelle Kraus worked as the Art Director of the NY Times Op-Ed page, and, naturally, she collected some pretty amazing stories. In her book All the Art That’s Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t), Kraus dishes about the characters, concepts, and behind the scenes battles that determined which images were approved to illustrate Times Opinions.

The book’s cover image (pictured below), for example, was to accompany a piece by foreign policy advisor William Pfaff that sharply critiqued former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s war crimes record. Artist David Levine created the caricature of Kissinger which was ultimately killed for “…the excessive midsection flesh.”

Equally as interesting is the story behind the making of this book. A lawyer, and a spooked publisher are just a few of the hurdles that threatened to kill the project, not to mention exorbitant out-of-pocket costs.

What sparked you to start All the Art That’s Fit to Print?
[I] wanted to record a miraculous, historically, and culturally hugely significant phenomenon that would otherwise be lost to history, and to do so with my personal voice.

Did you let the images lead the story or did you let the stories behind the images lead?
Both. I first chose the images to include (extremely lengthy process, since choosing from 50,000) based on the ones that told the most fascinating stories and were also visually compelling. By far the most important, however, was that their stories be the ones I badly wanted to turn readers onto.

Did you consult any of the editors and artists you worked with to fill in memory gaps?
On a few occasions, I consulted them to fill in gaps. I also conducted long videotaped interviews with 10 of the major artists and derived some of the book’s material from these sessions.

All the Art That's Fit to Print by Jerelle Kraus - peoplewhowrite

 

How long did it take from the initial idea to holding the book in your hand?
I realized in 1983 that there should be a book on the subject but didn’t begin working on it ’til 1993. It was completely finished and ready to be shipped to Hong Kong for printing when the publisher, scared of a NY Times lawyer’s warning to me, dropped the book. Idiotically, instead of suing him for breach of contract, my entire advance, and damages, I gave him back the third of the advance he’d already paid me. It took me years to warm to the project again and, once I got an agent, one year to sell the book. After signing a (terrible for then-naïve me) publishing contract, I quit the Times to write it and finished in about two years (including the mammoth task of gathering and preparing all artwork). The writing took 18 months, but I made my second publishing deadline, and held the hardcover first edition in my hand the day Obama was elected in November 2008.

How did you stay motivated past the euphoria of getting those first words on the page/screen?
‘Twas tough. Very tough. Wrote at night. Relied on gobs of sugarless gum, some wine, [and] emergency assistance, toward the end, from a friend. Did nothing but write. Forced myself to write. Nearly gave up several times.

The book was published in a second softcover edition with a new, much more thrilling cover and review blurbs on the back cover, in fall 2012. Despite receiving annual royalties, if I live six million years, it would impossible for me to come anywhere near recovering the well over $100,000 I’ve personally spent on promotion, since [the] publisher [didn’t] publicize. My intention has been just to get the word out that the book — which I did for love, not money — exists.

New Blog Crush: "The Fiction Advocate"

The Fiction Advocate blog created a found poem out of Kanye West's New York Times interview - peoplewhowrite

Kanye West to the New York Times: “You know, if Michael Jordan can scream at the refs, me as the Michael Jordan of music, can go and say, ‘This is wrong.'”

The New York Times ran an interview with Kanye West this week that was chockablock with quotables from the artist including “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things” and “I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump.”

I am incredibly inspired by the man’s full and assured confidence in himself, but I’m even more titillated by the found poem The Fiction Advocate composed from the interview.  I’ve pasted the first stanza below. You can read the full piece here.

 

It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times.

I.

I think you got to make your case.
I was on the junior team when
I was a freshman,
That’s how good I was.
I’m letting it out on everybody
Who doesn’t want to give me my credit.

Anytime I’ve had a big thing that’s ever pierced
And cut across the Internet, it was a fight for justice.
You know, if Michael Jordan can scream at the refs, me
As the Michael Jordan of music, can go and say, “This is wrong.”

I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.
“Did this person have the biggest thing of the year?”
That thing is more fair because I was there.
Respect my trendsetting abilities.
Once that happens, everyone wins.

It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times.

Cover Love: William H. Gass' "Middle C"

Middle G_cover_William H Gass_nytimes_peoplewhowrite

The New York Times has a slide show up called “Book Covers: Before and After” in which designers explain how they arrived at final book covers. For William H. Gass’ book Middle C, designer Gabriele Wilson says she wanted the cover image to illustrate the protagonist’s “middle” existence, hence the choice to use “the key of C, which is in the middle.” It was not, however, easy to get a C key. Wilson told the Times:

I asked piano-playing friends and piano repair shops in New York for a C key, to no avail. I called Steinway & Sons on 57th Street, and they connected me with Anthony Gilroy at their Queens factory. He was perplexed but entertained by the idea of shipping a single key to Manhattan. The next day I received a beautifully hand-carved ivory key, but I discovered that a full-size key is nearly two feet long. I called Anthony again to see if the factory could cut it shorter and add a black C sharp key. I photographed them from above on a giant turquoise Pantone swatch, aiming to give the ensemble a menacing, lonely mood. Once in the jacket layout, I paired it with the elegant, slightly traditional Sackers Roman typeface so as not to distract from the image. 

Check out the full slideshow here.