Elizabeth Spiers

journalist & digital media expert

No, I won’t be going to The Gutter, but it’s because I’m ambivalent about hipster bowling.

I put this on Facebook for concerned Alabamians related to me, but thought I’d reiterate here:

re: Ebola in NYC: I don’t think anyone’s freaking out over it. NYC has an enormously sophisticated response system (especially post-9/11) and hospitals here are equipped to deal with this sort of thing because the assumption is that eventually it would have to. I don’t think it came as a surprise. And as an acquaintance put it, “I think New York will be fine. Avoiding other people’s bodily secretions is already a big part of riding the subway in NYC.” I also think the city has done a good job of educating people about how Ebola actually gets transmitted and that all of the people who’ve been diagnosed in the US had direct exposure to late-stage Ebola patients who were vomiting and bleeding. (Most of them have been doctors volunteering in West Africa.) So I don’t expect Ebola hysteria any time soon and I’ve been here through 9/11, blackouts, Sandy. It takes a lot to rattle New Yorkers.

KittySitterbot 1.0

We just got James (our 4 month old kitten) one of these:

catlaser

 

It basically shoots a laser around the room in a random pattern for 15 minutes.  James LOVES it and it’s a good distraction for him while we’re trying to eat or do anything where we’d rather not have him immediately underfoot.

But I want somebody to make me a high powered version of this thing that would provide full service kitty entertainment. It should be covered in scratchy material, it should be able to dangle feathery things periodically, and it should dispense treats according to a pre-programmed schedule. And of course it should be mobile, with a camera, and I should be able to control it via app.

So get going, makers! The world of infomercial riches and Skymall purchases beyond your wildest dreams awaits you!

Your Two Jobs as a Manager

Over the years I’ve ended up hiring and training a lot of people in their first jobs as a manager, and I always tell them they have two responsibilities: to set clear expectations and to reduce uncertainty for their teams. (I think this is true of anyone in management, but if you’re a founder / CEO, you’re also responsible for overall vision, strategic direction, etc. but I won’t get into that here.)

I was thinking about this yesterday because I’ve been having the expectations/uncertainty conversation a lot lately with more senior / C-level managers and have had to articulate what I mean, so I figured it might be useful to do it here.

SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS

Nothing sets people up to fail faster than being unclear about what you expect them to achieve in their jobs.  One of the mistakes that I see a lot of first-time managers make is failing to do this from the outset. They worry more about building up a good friendly rapport with the people they’re managing (which is not unimportant*) and many of them try a little too hard to be liked because they have some guilt about being the authority figure in the relationship, which is often a new experience for them. The downside of this is that if expectations are not articulated in the beginning, there’s a good chance that the employees flail because they are trying to please the boss and do the right thing, but don’t know what is actually required, or they lose respect for the manager because they assume the manager doesn’t actually know what their objectives should be.

How do you determine what expectations you should be articulating? Start with what you’d consider success for the individual employee and then outline success for the team/company as a whole. Quantitative goals are the easiest to figure out, but there are probably some qualitative aspects of how the job gets done that are important and the person working for you needs to know what those are. (If you have trouble defining those things in positive terms, think about what would be dealbreakers for you.)

A corollary to this is that you should never massively oversell a job during the hiring process. If there’s a tedious part of the job that’s also an absolute requirement of the job, don’t gloss over it just to land the candidate, or you may end up with a miserable employee you have to replace sooner rather than later.

I personally don’t believe in micromanagement and when I find myself doing it, I always consider it a sign that I hired badly. I like to give people goals that are a bit of a stretch, but not unattainable and let them come up with a plan to get there, which we then review and come to an agreement about what will work and what won’t. I try to keep an eye out for when they’re getting in the weeds and make sure they’re comfortable asking for help, but I give them as much autonomy as they can productively handle because it’s the fastest way to learn.

But it should always be apparent to everyone that the company is moving in a specific direction toward a specific goal, and everyone should be able to articulate their role in getting it there with codified benchmarks for whether they’re succeeding or failing.

I have a pretty direct management style. This is not a euphemism for “I’m a giant asshole”, it just means that if there are problems, I try to confront them head-on and I don’t couch an urgent message in qualified language that undermines the urgency of the message. If someone’s not meeting expectations, we talk about it as soon as I realize that it’s a problem. If I’ve done a good job of setting expectations in the first place, he or she is never surprised by that conversation.

I also don’t believe in qualifying praise. I’ve had two bosses myself who after I hit a positive hard-to-reach milestone would qualify the acknowledgement with something underminery about how maybe the goal was too easy or I had too many resources. These people were famously bad managers to everyone, so I didn’t take it too personally, but it made them seem small and petty, and I don’t think that attempting to instill insecurity in your employees in order to motivate them is a good management strategy. If your employees are actually competent and know they’re doing a good job, they just lose respect for you. Don’t exaggerate praise to the point of suggesting that mediocre work is good work, but err on the side of generosity.

REDUCE UNCERTAINTY

This is something that’s a little harder for a lot of people to learn and / or accept.  Talented hardworking people become unproductive and demoralized in environments where they don’t know what’s going on. It makes them feel insecure about their work, even when it’s good, and it makes them feel that their jobs are at risk.

In small companies and start ups, there’s inherently a lot of uncertainty. Pivots happen all the time in small and big ways. But it’s always surprising to me how frequently managers neglect to communicate those changes, or clam up when employees rightly want to know what’s going on. Generally, people don’t need answers to everything, but when things seem overly opaque or they’re getting conflicting messages, managers have to be able to articulate a) what’s happening in the moment, and b) give people a reasonable idea of where the company is going. If specific questions can’t be answered because decisions haven’t been made yet, or there are dependent variables that haven’t been determined, “I don’t know yet,” is a perfectly acceptable answer. But sometimes hard to get senior managers to learn to say “we haven’t decided yet, but here’s the timeline for the decision and we’ll let you know when we decide.” This is not weakness; it’s honesty. (That said, too much I don’t know for too long is also a problem, and probably indicative of an indecisive management team.)

You can’t be transparent about absolutely everything, but erring on the side of transparency even when the news is negative builds trust, which is what will take your company through any unexpected rough spots. If your employees think you’re withholding information or being cagey, they’ll generally assume it’s because you’re hiding something bad. Your employees aren’t looking for a perfect story with a fairy tale ending; they’re looking for certainty–about what’s happening, the stability of their jobs, and what management thinks about their performance. And they’d rather have someone who gives them hard news in a way that treats them like the adults they are, rather than patronizing them with misdirection and rosy assurances that everything is fine when they can see that it plainly isn’t. Trust is more important than likability–though certainly if everyone hates you, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to trust you. But you can’t tell people falsehoods that they want to hear on the basis that they’ll have more benevolent feelings toward you with the idea that it’ll make it easier for you to lead. It won’t. Your team probably already has an inkling of the truth and if they don’t, they’ll find out sooner or later. Do not lie to them.**

But uncertainty can also be a problem when things are going extremely well. Anxiety can be a reaction to both very positive and very negative events.  If you’re expanding and scaling rapidly, the process is going to introduce a lot of chaos and anxiety about how the process is going to be managed. If your employees are getting significant promotions or benefiting in material ways from the company’s success (i.e., big windfalls), those things create anxiety too. It’s not your job to be anyone’s therapist, but you should understand that with all the changes, where the company’s going and how you’re getting there is an ever-shifting thing.  Which means you have to articulate what’s happening now and what you anticipate will happen as urgently as you do when things are going badly.

In companies that are small enough, there may be a sense that these things don’t need to be articulated because “everyone knows”. It’s better to assume they do not. I see founders and CEOs do this a lot when mid-level and junior employees don’t feel comfortable asking them those questions directly, or they may feel like they’re imposing on the senior manager’s time. Then they quietly become stressed out, demoralized and unproductive. Communicate iteratively, and often.

* Likability can be an important asset as a manager, but it shouldn’t be conflated with respect or trust. We understand this implicitly in our personal relationships–there are people we enjoy being around, but we wouldn’t trust with anything we care about, and there are people we think are trustworthy but find personally irritating sometimes. Ideally, all of these things go together, but in messy, complex real life they often don’t.

** This may seem obvious, but apparently it isn’t: DO NOT LIE TO YOUR EMPLOYEES. I had a job–I won’t say which one–where I gave a mid-level manager reporting to me a heads up that I had to deliver a piece of bad news to the staff. He suggested I lie about it since there it wouldn’t have been easy for the staff to verify one way or the other. I told him that if I ever caught him doing that I’d fire him. I have no idea if he makes a practice of doing that, but if so, I’d imagine it’s going to bite him in the ass sooner or later. And more importantly, it’s just the wrong thing to do.

The List

I’m not going to attempt to make The List a consistent feature, because that would be too much like obligatory blogging, which sucks the fun out of it for me. So here’s a new one, and the next one will be published … whenever.

DISGRACED on Broadway

We don’t see a lot of theater–not as much as we’d like, anyway–but we saw the 2013 Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar a couple of weeks ago. Hari Dhillon and Gretchen Mol are the leads, and Karen Pittman is ridiculously good. The Times review of the off-Broadway run describes it thusly:

…a continuously engaging, vitally engaged play about thorny questions of identity and religion in the contemporary world, with an accent on the incendiary topic of how radical Islam and the terrorism it inspires have affected the public discourse. In dialogue that bristles with wit and intelligence, Mr. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, puts contemporary attitudes toward religion under a microscope, revealing how tenuous self-image can be for people born into one way of being who have embraced another.

It’s intensely provocative and there are some scenes that are difficult to watch because the playwright didn’t back off from touchy material. Jotham and I walked out of it speechless because it was so dense and packed with difficult questions that we were both trying to process how we felt about it. And once we got our bearings, we couldn’t stop talking about it–rehashing specific arguments the characters made, talking about scenes that floored the whole audience, ideas that were introduced. Great art does that.

LE PETIT OVEN

If there is a good restaurant in or anywhere near Bay Ridge, we’ll probably find it eventually, because we’re both shameless hedonists when it comes to food and drink. When we go on vacation, the central question is not where we’re going to stay; it’s what we’re going to eat.

So we were happy to find Le Petit Oven, which is a teeny tiny French restaurant on Bay Ridge avenue with a really thoughtful and well-executed seasonal menu, and a $35 prix fixe that, were it in Manhattan or a yuppie-er part of Brooklyn, would be twice that and worth it. It’s also cozy, kind of romantic–perfect date spot.*

A LATE QUARTET 

This small film came out in 2012 and stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir, with a cameo by Wallace Shawn. It’s about the dissolution of a string quartet whose relationships had become more complicated and intertwined over the years and the drama that results when those bonds disintegrate. Dominant themes: ego, competition, lust, mortality. (So exactly what you’d expect from a movie about a screen quartet.)

It feels really novelistic and it’s a credit to the actors that you see so much of the interiority in their performances. If you’re a Hoffman fan, I think it really has to be on your must-see list. And it’s streaming on Netflix now.

THE PLANTS…

are still alive and appear to be thriving, though I’m not at my home desk and can’t provide proof of life at the moment. But their newest enemy is not my negligence or ignorance of gardening. It’s our cat, James, whose philosophy in life at the moment is Everything Must Be Bitten At Least Once, Or I Will Tragically Miss Out On Something Delicious.** So far, they have survived.

BOOKS EVERY MAN SHOULD READ

Esquire recently published a list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read” that contained exactly one female author. This is probably indicative of the reading habits of the male editors–many people in publishing will tell you that although women buy more books than men, there’s a not insignificant cross section of men who won’t read books with female bylines. And not because they’re consciously boycotting them, either–they just make a lot of assumptions about the quality, topic, tone and style of the book based on the gender of the author. (A speculation: I wonder if this explains why so many successful female mystery writers go by their non-gender specific initials.) Nonetheless, it’s still mind-blowing that the editors of Esquire can put together a list of high-quality books of any sort and only one female author comes to mind. This also speaks to their literacy, and it’s not saying anything good.

So Flavorwire responded with a list of Books Every Man Should Read*** As Recommended by 28 Feminist Writers. It’s not a conventional Best Books list, and it’s not a ‘Basics of Feminism” one either. But for symmetry: there’s one male author!

THE ANTI-LIST?

I’m also thinking of doing a periodic Anti-List because, hey, it’s in my nature. I can’t be all rainbows and unicorns and fluffy sugary cheeriness all the time.  The overriding theme would be Things to Avoid/Things That Irritate Me. I will even limit myself to < 100 of them. But here’s a good candidate: Michael Wolff’s lamentation that today’s journalism is tarnished by the media’s insistence on making the subject’s say, 13 allegations of sexual assault, part of the story when it should really be focusing on the subject’s strengths. Ah, the good ole days, when craven hagiography was the norm!

* I am not actually trying to sell all of you on relocating to Bay Ridge. (Okay, maybe I’m trying to sell some of you.)

** Second only to, But Human Hands and Feet Should Be Chew Toys!

*** Or at the very least, the editors of Esquire should read.

What Women Deserve

If you read nothing else this week, please go read Kathy Sierra’s extensive detailing of the nightmare she’s endured since she was doxxed by weev years ago. (Sierra, if you’re not familiar with her, is the co-founder of the Head First series of programming books and a former game developer.)

In it, she gets at the root of what makes these men so angry:

From the hater’s POV, you… do not “deserve” that attention. You are “stealing” an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you don’t have readers you have cult followers. That just can’t be allowed.

You must be stopped. And if they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life. A standard goal, in troll culture, I soon learned, is to cause “personal ruin”. They aren’t alltrolls, though. Some of those who seek to stop and/or ruin you are misguided/misinformed but well-intended. They actually believe in a cause, and they believe you (or rather the Koolaid you’re serving) threatens that cause.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t just happen in the technology industry. When I read those two paragraphs, I immediately thought of Ed Champion and Emily Gould, wherein Champion’s “cause” was what he perceived to good literature and Emily did not deserve to have readers.

But sadly, it’s a dynamic that any woman who works in public is probably familiar with. As these things go, I haven’t had it too badly. And by that, I mean I’ve been on the receiving end of emails telling me to shut the fuck up or anonymous troll would make me, that I was an enormous whore or completely unfuckable (or both, despite the contradiction), and one stalker-y dude who emailed me constantly for nearly a decade, insisting that he knew the “real me” and that I was a worthless piece of shit who’d never amount to anything and oh by the way, here’s your home address, just to remind you that you don’t know who I am, but I know where you live.  (That guy finally disappeared, maybe because after ten years it was clear that I was probably not going to just go kill myself.) Frankly, if you write in public for long enough without the magical protection of a penis, it’s generally not an issue of whether you’ve received threats–rape, death, or otherwise–it’s a matter of how many you’ve received, how serious they were and whether they escalated into offline contact or actual violence.

And the responses I got were payback for my having the temerity to have opinions about things like hedonic pricing and inflation or new media business models. So just imagine what happens to women who actually write about cultural politics or godforbid, their own lives. I’ve been on the receiving end of about 5% of what those women get. And let’s be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with confessional writing by women no matter how many Ed Champions believe otherwise. But the women who do it seem to get hit the hardest with threats and harassment because the implication is that what happens in their lives is not important and their stories do not deserve to be out there.

In Sierra’s case, the horrible offense that started all of this insanity was that she suggested that comment moderation on a blog might be a good idea–and that escalated to charges of censorship and outright fabrications about what she’d done. Then eventually, death and rape threats, doxxing, and a litany of things that put her life in danger. I love the Internet for many reasons, but there are pockets of it that are toxic, malice-filled cesspools full of people who apparently have no empathy for other human beings and think that women exist entirely to be silenced and put in their place, or used as sexual objects. And given the overwhelming volume and frequency with which it happens, you probably know someone who’s sending those messages secretly.

I didn’t grow up with the Internet and didn’t even have email until college, though I loved the idea of it as a kid, and some of my favorite movies then (Wargames, Jumpin’ Jack Flash) involved people having adventures with strangers they met over a network. The promise of it was exciting to me. But as a result, I only have a loose concept of how children learn about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior online.

And I wonder about the grown men who do this. How do they justify it? Are there just far more sociopaths out there than we’d like to think, and we only see it now that they have a platform? Or is it something more systemic and nebulous, rooted in the ways young men are taught to think about women? Even in households that would self-identify as being liberal and progressive, a lot of people are teaching their sons very traditional things about the role of women in the workplace and at home, that early sexual conquests are some sort of achievement (but not for their sisters who will only be damaged by them and branded sluts), and women who are hurt by malicious comments are hurt because they’re over-sensitive or not as tough as men are, and not because they’re simply hurtful.

When I was still writing Gawker in 2003, there was a blogger who decided that his site was more deserving of the media attention that Gawker was getting, and the fact that it wasn’t getting any press was somehow my fault. If I had an audience and he didn’t, that was unfair, and it meant that I was stealing attention from him. I had never even had an extended conversation with the guy, and barely knew him, but he was a giant asshole to me online and offline during that time. And it culminated in this guy taking an upskirt photo of me while I was standing on an elevated landing at a web party and threatening to put it on the Internet. (Worth noting, this guy IDs as a liberal progressive, lives in NYC, yet sees nothing wrong with this sort of behavior.) He was bragging about the idea to some other guys at the party who thankfully told him he was being creepy and abusive, and warned me about what he was up to. Apparently the criticism was enough to convince him to refrain from actually doing it, and he backed off a bit after that.

I would not have wanted this guy to go after Nick Denton, but I think it’s relevant to point out that somehow this guy’s lack of success in his own mind was perceived as being distinctly my fault. He never threatened Nick. It didn’t bother him that the media spotlight was on Nick, but it reeeeeally chapped his ass that it was on me. Why? Because in his mind, I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t deserve it, not because he knew anything about who I was or whether I’d worked for it, but because I was younger and female and that was enough.

Thankfully, I haven’t really thought about that guy in a long time, but I still see his name occasionally here and there, and when I do, I wonder who taught him that it was okay to treat women that way. What gave him the arrogance, the hubris, to decide that he could be the arbiter of what I, a total stranger, did or didn’t deserve? I don’t know.

I imagine that at some point, probably in the near future, we might have a kid, or kids–and that specifically, we might have a son. And every time I read something like Kathy Sierra’s post, I think about conversations my husband and I will have with him about these things, especially given how early bullying starts and how social media has unfortunately abetted it. And part of that will be a conversation about what women actually do deserve–the same respect, rewards for hard work, and godforbid, attention, that men get.

p.s. A little coda: a few months ago someone pointed out to me that my wikipedia page is wildly outdated, which it is, but I didn’t create it, and am not inclined to edit it, and there’s a bio on my site if anyone wants to know what I’m up to now. But I checked it out of curiosity and found this in the “talk” section:

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 6.03.23 PM

I laughed when I saw it, but in light of the above, it’s a tiny bit creepy. The assumption of both for the posters is that I have a wikipedia page [I don't deserve] and that I made it myself because I’m an attention whore. I can certainly live without professional validation from this guy, but it’s just more of the same bullshit.

Bad Writing by Smart People

I just stumbled across an excerpt from Steven Pinker’s book, Why Academics Stink at Writing, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (via Jason Hirschhorn’s Media Redefined newsletter) and it provides an epic analysis of why academic writing is so bad–mostly hinging on the notion that academic writing is often more concerned with self-presentation than clarity in communication. Pinker offers a litany of horrifying examples that will be painfully familiar to anyone who remembers having to read this stuff in volume.

When I was in college, nearly everything I was assigned to read was a badly written university press book. Of course, there are some academic press books that aren’t terrible*, but almost all of the texts I had to read in public policy, political science and economics were. (I was not an English major, and perhaps naively, I think that department probably placed a higher premium on appropriate use of the language.) At one point, I felt like the bad writing was filtering into my own work and that I had somehow internalized it by reading so much of it. So I tried to supplement with what I thought of as “corrective reading”–re-reading things that I knew were well-written to cleanse my subconscious of all the convoluted, needlessly verbose, wishy-washy prose I had to cram in there in order to graduate.

Around that time, a religion professor named Dale Martin wrote a column for the school’s newspaper on systemic reasons for poor teaching** and took a funny pot shot at the way this stuff gets produced:

Afternoon [schedule]: Sit in front of computer and think up titles for articles (worry about content later) (make sure each has a colon). My favorites: “St. Sebastian and the Masturbating Boy: Apologies to Eve Sedgwick,” “Deontologizing Eschatological Priapism: The apocalypse of Peter Lives Up to its Name.” Go to the Perk for a double mocha latte. Go to Academic Council meeting. Read Chronicle.

Sadly for Martin, humor is generally not appreciated in academic writing, either.

To be fair, mainstream publishing has its fair share of terrible writing as well, but now when I encounter a dud of a book, I have the luxury of just putting it down and not continuing to read it. (I’m not a complete-ist and feel no guilt about this.) I’m tempted to do a list of all the books I’ve not finished in the last six months and why. But that would mean I’d have to partially re-read them.

P.S. If you failed to click that last link, here is a very important research paper you should read.

*Piketty’s Capital is a Harvard University Press book, and flawed but not unreadable.

** The column is tongue-in-cheek, but with a heavy sprinkling of the truth, and begins thusly: “It is unreasonable for students to expect professors to be good teachers for several reasons…”

Thanks, Ryan!

A quick but very big thank you to Ryan Frew of Orien Creative who’s been helping me clean up this site while working on his own. (There will be some design changes shortly.)

Ryan describes Orien thusly: “The goal of this little hobby startup is to build nice inexpensive websites for people who can’t afford to go all out with a bigger, fancier design firm. There are so many small businesses that would see transformational change with an updated web presence.” So if you need a site for purposes of Minimum Viable Personal Branding, Ryan is your man.

Also: I found Ryan in the comments section of Fred Wilson’s blog in a thread about my appalling failure to implement to Disqus. (Thanks, Fred!)

“I am not a charity. I run one.”

nancylublinNancy Lublin runs DoSomething.org and was the founder of Dress for Success. I met her a couple of years ago via The National Committee on US/China Relations where we’re both YLF fellows, and she’s smart, funny and very direct, which I particularly appreciate because I like to work with people who are, and I think women generally get penalized for not couching tough messages in qualified language that makes everyone feel comfortable.

She gave a speech at a fundraiser in Nantucket last week that was pretty remarkable in its honesty about how donors typically view nonprofits and nonprofit leadership. She took a few shots at the practice of “donor cultivation” projects where wealthy donors jet off to Africa to take selfies with children in orphanages or incompetently build houses for a few days before going on safari instead of contributing in meaningful ways that make the organizations sustainable. She admitted that she hated planning their annual gala event because it was like wedding planning with all of the attendant pettiness about who was sitting at what table and donors making decisions about whether to attend based on the celebrity wattage of the scheduled performer. She also encouraged donors to hold nonprofit executives accountable in the same way that they do executives in the private sector, noting that when she sees badly performing non-profit CEOs, they’re usually being enabled by a complacent board with low expectations. In typical Nancy fashion, it was a no-bullshit appeal for contributions to the organization that are actually effective and not merely those that offer cosmetic benefits to the donors and orgs.

If you’re involved with nonprofits in any way, it’s worth watching the video, which you can view here. It’s about 17 minutes long and she lays down the law about halfway in. You can tell it made a few of the people in the room uncomfortable. But sometimes that’s needed, and I’m glad there are people like Nancy willing to do it.

Minimum Viable Personal Branding for Writers and Journalists

I think I’ve articulated how I feel about conscious efforts at “personal branding” before–if you have to put a lot of effort into it, your work may be lacking–but the question of whether it’s important generally has come up a couple of times in the MFA class I teach, and in talks to j-school students, so below are some thoughts. I don’t think you need to spend a lot of time and energy on cultivating your “personal brand”, which in my experience, means everything from the way people perceive you socially to whether you have every available eponymous social media handle on the Internet to what sort of name recognition you get in your chosen field. But I think there’s a minimum amount of work you have to do to make sure that people looking to recruit you get a sense of your best work and what you’re aiming to do in the long term.

1) If you’re just starting out and don’t have a big body of work yet, or a recognizable name, you probably need something on the Internet that articulates what your skills are and provides samples of your work. 

Hiring managers will Google you. The first thing they find should be what you actively want to present. It doesn’t have to be a big deal–a website on your own domain with existing clips and some sort of statement about your work history and what you’re interested in doing professionally is fine. (No, you don’t have to start a goddamned blog.) If you don’t have that, you’re somewhat at the mercy of what third party sites on the Internet say about you–which, best case, will be a scattershot cross-section of your work, and worst case, it’ll include pics of that trip to Ibiza that one time when you were a sophomore in college and oh god, let’s just not go there.

2) You should be on Facebook and Twitter, at the very least, and not because anyone expects you to be a prolific Tweeter or poster to Facebook. 

You should be on those platforms because they are a crucial component of how news–and ultimately your writing–gets delivered to readers. If you staunchly refuse to participate in social media, for whatever reason, you’re telegraphing that you either don’t understand that, or don’t care. Both of those platforms can also be valuable journalistic tools when used properly, and not availing yourself of them handicaps you. This doesn’t mean you have to Tweet all the time or post to Facebook regularly, but you need to know what’s going on there.

3) If you don’t have clips that are representative of what you think you want to be writing, then assign yourself a handful of those stories and just go do them. Then post them to your personal site. This is especially useful if you want to switch beats.

If you write a good story and post it to your personal site, you’re giving me an idea of what you’re capable of, even if your clips don’t reflect that. And I’m not going to discount a really good story on the basis that you published it on YourName.com and not TheNewYorker.com. Incidentally, this sort of thing is not what people mean when they talk disdainfully about writing for free. You are writing for yourself in this case, and you are the only one who benefits.

Writing the kind of stories, or critical pieces, or essays that you want to be writing ultimately is a way of signaling that you’re interested and you can do it. This is particularly important if you’re already covering a beat and want to switch to another. I’ve had a lot of good journalists and writers apply for a totally different beat and get knocked out of the process because there’s no indication in their work history or anywhere else that they actually have an interest in the new beat and have done anything to cultivate it. If you want to go from writing about molecular gastronomy to national politics, I need to see somewhere that your interest in politics is serious. I can’t just take your word for it.

You don’t need an extensive body of work, but you do need two or three things you can highlight that establish your interests and ability.

4) If you’re looking to be a critic or opinion writer, you need public work that showcases your point of view, your style and your ability to make an argument.

It’s unlikely at the entry level that you’re going to find very many paid outlets that will publish you on spec solely for the promise of your potentially brilliant analysis. Positions as columnists and critics tend to be awarded to people who’ve already established some sort of expertise in their field. But one way around that–again!–is to just start doing it. It establishes that you’re capable of producing that kind of work, and that you’re good at it. (In that case, you may actually want to start a goddamned blog, but any representative body of work will do.)

5) If you’re an established writer or journalist, you can get away with not doing any of those things. That doesn’t mean that your less experienced colleagues can.

I am not writing this for you.  However, I would ask that you not imply to journos-of-lesser-experience that all of these things are stupid and needless just because you think the Internet is destroying journalism and the work will speak for itself and so on. You are speaking from a point of privilege. The media environment was not as competitive when you started out (the number of j-school and MFA grads has exploded in the last 10 years and the number of jobs has not grown commensurately) and “Google” existed only as the misspelling of a very large number. If you dismiss these things, you are doing them a disservice.

 

 

Wednesday’s List of Random Things

Per my promise to shamelessly rip off Lock’s Tuesday List:

BEN LERNER’S 10:04

1004lernerI read Ben Lerner’s new novel in Miami, while escaping New York, which I probably failed to do in any real mental sense because the book is set firmly in the New York that is most familiar to me: yuppie creative class progressive, post-Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg administration New York. There are scenes at the Park Slope Food Co-op, Christian Marclay’s The Clock installation, the Union Square Whole Foods, an unnamed bar in Brooklyn that sounds a lot like Henry Public. (The specificity reminds me a bit of Bruce Wagner’s hyperrealistic novels.) But it’s not a novel about New York. Not one of those. It’s about the protagonist’s attempt to write a second novel, the conflicts between commerce and art and the line between fiction and non-fiction. It’s meandering, smart, and has a deadpan sort of humor that I’m a total sucker for. (His agent asks the author/protagonist to describe the audience for his book, and the protagonist/author responds, “I think of my audience as a second-person plural on the perennial verge of existence.”) One reviewer calls it “a book about writers that even civilians can enjoy”.

Hazlitt has a good podcast with the author here.

TANOREEN

If you’re going to trek to Bay Ridge for food (and I know that’s a tall order), the one place you shouldn’t miss is Tanoreen. Palestinian chef Rawia Bishara makes the best Middle Eastern food I’ve had in New York and I’d say her cooking sealed the deal on our decision to move into a new place two blocks away. She doesn’t skimp on spices, lemon or garlic, so if your palate is on the milder side, be forewarned.  I had the Musakhan last night–and I’ll admit it, for breakfast this morning.

THE BITTER SOUTHERNER

The Bitter Southerner is like a more literary, online-only Garden & Gun. For an intro, check out “Weapons Grade Elvis“, the story of “Graceland Too” and one man’s enormous Elvis memorabilia collection.

MARK KOZELEK, MUSIC CRITIC

This will surprise no one familiar with the former, but Mark Kozelek and the War on Drugs got into a War of Words after a recent show. Kozalek’s take on WOD:War On Drugs. Due to all of the fuss, I checked out your live track on Pitchfork, and I called it right. You sound like Don Henley meets John Cougar meets Dire Straits meets “Born In The USA” era Bruce Springsteen. It’s not a criticism, it’s an observation.” It’s sort of true–and I like WOD. I would like to see this as a recurring feature where Kozelek reviews, excuse me, “observes” his various peers.

Also, from a Pitchfork interview in February: “I can see how some of these incidents would sound odd, to say, a British journalist, or someone who is very young, or sheltered, but yes, a few of my relatives died from aerosol can explosions.” (If you’re unfamiliar with Kozelek, Jason Diamond put together a “Where to start” guide a while back for Flavorwire.)

SEASONALLY APPROPRIATE CAT ACQUISITION

We acquired a cat over the weekend. His name is James, after my favorite fictional spy. Here he is prematurely dressed as a black cat for Halloween. Clichéd and unoriginal idea, but the authenticity is truly impressive:

james

 

James was a stray and the vet guesses he’s about two months old. His favorite activities are hiding and then strategically pouncing, much like his namesake.

SPICY OKRA, GENERALLY

Okra is still in season and it seems to be on everyone’s menu. It’s a staple in the Deep South, but I hated it as a kid because the typical preparation involves boiling it until it’s slimy yet still oddly fibrous, and seasoning with nothing. (I just googled “slimy fibrous” to find something comparable, and I’m not going to tell you what the first result was, except that it wasn’t okra. Try it yourself.)  But my favorite foods tend to be spicy things, garlicky things and vinegary things, in that order, so what finally won me over was spicy pickled okra, which brilliantly combines the three. Pa Spiers makes them in vast quantities nearly every year, and they’re excellent. He uses chili peppers, but Rick’s Picks makes a version with smoked paprika that’s a close second. But the best okra I’ve had recently was a couple of nights ago at Mary’s Fish Camp in the West Village–grilled okra with what was described as a red curry sauce, but tasted a bit more like harissa. Some of the chili paste hit the wrong part of my throat and precipitated a violent coughing fit that I’m sure led fellow diners to believe I was having a cardiac event, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay to feed my chili pepper addiction. Speaking of which…

POK POK NY GETS A MICHELIN STAR

I have mixed feelings about this. When we lived in downtown Brooklyn, we ate at Pok Pok three or four times a month, and they don’t take reservations so we had an entire ritual around putting our names on the list, disappearing for an hour and then coming back and stuffing ourselves with delicious spicy food and waddling home somehow afterward. (Favorite dishes: flank steak salad, duck leg soup, Chang Mai sausage.) I’m happy that Michelin recognizes the quality of the place, but selfishly annoyed because it will be even harder to get into now. The good news is that they’re apparently opening up a Pok Pok Pad Thai in the old Pok Pok space down the street on Columbia. The bad news is, they’re not opening up a Pok Pok anything anytime soon in Bay Ridge. But that’s my own personal heartbreak.

GRATUITOUS CAT PHOTOS

More James, just because:

catinthebag