You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2009.

An Alexandrian  colleague recently suggested to me that, in this current media crisis, laid-off journalists  are suffering a sea change: transforming themselves into experienced (and in some cases fairly expensive) wordsmiths for hire. 

For as newspaper and magazine staffs shrink and shrivel, hundreds of ex-journalists are of necessity becoming commercial writers: publicists, corporate spokespeople and freelance “communications” specialists who wield the English language for a living.

 

Full disclosure: Occasionally, I do this very thing myself. In a practical sense, I find it very much like what newspapers call ”rewrite”: taking feeds of information, quotes and statistics from other reporters and reweaving the strands into a story. Or in the case of PR, not into a story but a press release, or a pitch letter. I have editing experience, I’m a clean writer, and I’ve always been pretty good at rewrite, and so I’m finding the transition to freelance PR writing is not too difficult. 

Here’s the thing: There are plenty of educated business people in this country who are very good at what they do, but who either don’t have the time to write, don’t like to write, or aren’t particularly gifted in writing clear, persuasive English. I have always known I could not do their jobs as well as they do. Now it turns out they can’t do my job as well as I do, either. And so they’ll pay me to do it for them.

When you’ve been a writer all your life, and especially when you’ve been paid to write plain English for a living, you tend to take your ability for granted. It’s surprising to discover how many people do not take it for granted. 

To me, language is just a skill I was born with, one I honed professionally for 30 years. To those who don’t like to write, or who can’t do it so quickly and easily, such adeptness verges on a sort of voodoo magic, rather the way we mere mortals regard the Warren Buffetts of the world. I can’t imagine how the Oracle of Omaha does what he does, but I can admire how brilliantly he does it, and I would gladly hire him to manage my portfolio, if only I could afford it.

Needless to say, my services do not cost as much as even one share of Berkshire Hathaway. And I doubt I’ll ever turn my rewrite capabilities into a full-time job as a publicist or spokesperson, as a few of my fellow former journos have done.  Still, it’s nice to know that I can still spin the straw of raw information into the gold of a paycheck. Especially since I am qualified to do absolutely nothing else.

My Alexandria colleague wonders if  “something of the wild and unpredictable [must] inevitably be disappearing from the natural history of human information metabolism in favor of something more… domesticated.” I suspect he is right, at least for those of us who weren’t all that wild and unpredictable to begin with. The gonzo madman Hunter S. Thompson was never my role model. I was always more into the witty, genteel subversiveness of Tom Wolfe.  

But then, the newspaper culture has been becoming more domesticated ever since I got into the business, in the post-Watergate era. Once earnest young Woodward-wannabes with journalism degrees began flooding into newsrooms in the 1970s, the business inevitably lost some of that raffish, Front Page charm that made it so dear to romantic Hollywood screenwriters. The old-school newsmen who kept fifths of bourbon in their desks surely considered us youngsters a bunch of wet smacks — and worse, a lot of us were forgodsakes women.

It’s probably just as well that most of those old guys are gone now, and can’t see what their once-booming business has turned into, and what their starry-eyed successors have become. For them, PR was the Dark Side. For us who have been laid off and who will never have another job in a newsroom, well, PR is what pays the bills, and that’s all we’re really interested in these days.

In his satire Gulliver’s Travels, Dean Swift invented the character of Climenole, who was a “Flapper.” These servants of the Laputa society facilitated communication between their eternally distracted masters by means of a well-placed smack from a blown bladder filled with small pease or pebbles and fastened to a short stick. In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Erica Jong suggested that perhaps we have become like the Laputans, so distracted by modern technology that we are living more in the virtual world than in the real one.

If that is indeed the case, it may be that the job of Climenole is one with a bright future for ex-journalists. We’ve always been pretty good, after all, at getting people’s attention.

Advertisements

These days, when newspapers are playing it so very safe, it’s weird, wild and wonderful to see something as wacky as the Louisville Courier-Journal’s front page as rendered by a Turkish conceptual artist.ky_cj

Nicholas Lemann has an interesting piece in The New Yorker, “Paper Tigers,” in which he discusses recent biographies of prominent press barons. He particularly addresses Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch and his likenesses to earlier media moguls such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (as well as the WSJ‘s earlier powerhouse, Barney Kilgore).

(Those who, like me, are devoted fans of Citizen Kane will be unable to read the Hearst passages without thinking of Charles Foster Kane and his fictional New York Inquirer, mercilessly mirroring Hearst and his New York Journal.)

Lemann says that each of these media barons had an individual but uncanny knack for knowing what their readers wanted, and each learned how to build a fortune while providing the supply for that demand.

He concludes:

 These days, we seem to be drifting toward the world that media reformers have dreamed about for half a century, where the press is made up entirely of small players. If we get there, we may find ourselves missing the dinosaurs who once roamed the earth.

Anyone who knows me probably knows about my obsession with Lost (currently airing Wednesdays at 8 on ABC).  There are a number of TV shows I like a lot, but only one to which I am an abject slave. This happens to me every once in a while, pop culture-wise. It’s kind of like how I was hopelessly hooked on Harry Potter from Book 1: I was fixated on Lost from the pilot episode on. As a result, I have spent the past four and a half years either (a) watching Lost or (b) waiting like a lost puppy for Lost’s next season to start. Yeah, it’s utterly pathetic. I know.

The Geronimo Jackson ladies' T
The Geronimo Jackson ladies’ T

There’s no really good way to explain my infatuation with Lost. Well, of course there’s Josh Holloway, who plays James “Sawyer” Ford, and Henry Ian Cusick, who plays Desmond Hume, and Matthew Fox, who plays Dr. Jack Shephard. They’ve got some mighty good-looking men on that show, and they’re good actors too. Among the women characters, my favorite is Dr. Juliet Burke, played by Dallas’ own Elizabeth Mitchell. And then there’s a whole raft of other characters: Kate Austen, the former fleeing felon and freckled femme fatale; Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, the large and lovable slacker and lottery winner who calls everyone “dude”; Sayid Jarrah, an Iraqi who was tinker, torturer, soldier and spy for the Republican Guard in the first Gulf War; John Locke, whose paralyzed legs and broken back are miraculously healed as soon as he lands on the island; and Sun and Jin Kwon, the Korean couple with gorgeous looks and ugly personal secrets. Then there’s Daniel Faraday, the mentally fragile physicist and time-travel expert; Miles Straume, the sarcastic “ghostbuster” who talks to dead people; and Frank Lapidus, the ace pilot who becomes quite the expert at flying to and from a mysterious island that doesn’t show up on any charts or maps.

The premise of Lost is well-known by now: In September 2004, an Oceanic jetliner breaks apart over the South Pacific en route from Sydney to L.A. A few dozen people from the plane’s midsection and tail section wash up on an island and await a rescue that never comes. Three months later a freighter arrives on an ominous mission, bringing the news that the world believes Oceanic 815 to have been lost at sea with no survivors. Eventually six of the Oceanic castaways return to civilization, a media army and worldwide fame — while telling no one about leaving behind a group of friends who must fend for themselves as the island goes skipping through time.

But the rest of the Lost universe is what makes most of us fans so happily mental. “The numbers”: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. The smoke monster. Dead people who don’t seem to stay dead. The island’s unseen ruler, Jacob. The gigantic remains of a statue with four toes. The hippie-era Dharma Initiative and its indigenous opponents on the island, “the Others.”  Richard Alpert, the Others’ shaman, who never ages.

On Lost, even the good guys aren’t all good, and the seeming bad guys aren’t all bad either. Flawed, complicated, devious and ruthless though they can be, Lost‘s villains are some of the series’ most interesting people. Billionaire Charles Widmore, who used to be the Others’ leader, can be appallingly cruel or astoundingly kind, but he’s never predictable. And Benjamin Linus, the rival who ousted Widmore as leader of the Others, is one of TV’s great bad guys. As played by the amazing Michael Emerson, Ben is bug-eyed and shrimpy, but also steely and manipulative. He looks like a complete milquetoast, yet he commands respect, fear, hatred and loathing. Ben can’t be trusted. Ben lies. Ben kills people. Yet the show wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without him.

One of the show’s little in-jokes is Geronimo Jackson, a fictional 1970s-era band whose name keeps popping up throughout the past few seasons. Right now you can find their single “Dharma Lady” on iTunes (they sound a lot like the Grateful Dead), and you can buy Geronimo Jackson T-shirts online at the ABC.com store.

Although I love reading and participating in Lost fansites and blog discussions, I’ve never bought any Lost magazines or action figures, Dharma Initiative-logoed merchandise or other diehard-fan paraphernalia. But for some strange reason, I decided that I wanted a Geronimo Jackson T-shirt, and the other day I got one. Somehow it appeals to me — maybe because I came of age in the ’70s. If Geronimo Jackson had been a real band, I probably would have listened to them back then. Heck, I’d probably still be listening to them: I’ve got early David Bowie in my car’s CD changer right now, and he still sounds good to me after 35 years. 

After this current season, Lost has one more season to go, its sixth, before the series wraps up. I have no idea how the story of the island and its inhabitants will end.

But whatever happens, at least I’ll always have Geronimo Jackson.