He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked | New Statesman

He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked (newstatesman.com)
The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself. Continue reading “He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked | New Statesman”

The IndieWeb and Journalism

Some thoughts about how journalists could improve their online presences with IndieWeb principles along with a mini-case study of a site that is employing some of these ideas.

I’ve been officially participating in the IndieWeb movement for almost two years–though from a philosophical standpoint it’s much closer to twenty. While I can see lots of value in the IndieWeb for even the average person on the internet, I’ve always felt that there’s also a tremendous amount of specific value for journalists and web-based publishers.

I suspect that a lot of the value of the IndieWeb philosophy is that it encompasses how many people inherently wish the internet worked. As a result I’ve seen a growing number of people discovering the concept de novo either on their own or by borrowing bits and pieces from their friends and colleagues who are practicing parts of it as well. This harkens back to the early days of the web when bloggers incrementally improved their websites based on what they saw others doing and sharing ideas more directly and immediately with their audiences.

An(other) unwitting example in the wild

Recently I came across the personal website of journalist Marina Gerner which is one of the few, but growing number, I’ve come across that is unknowingly practicing some of the primary tenets of the IndieWeb movement that I suspect more journalists will eventually come to embrace to better reach and engage with their audiences.

Another brief example I’ll mention having seen recently that almost explicitly rewrote the IndieWeb philosophy verbatim was on the the website redesign launch of PressThink, the blog of Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU. It’s a great read individually as is the majority of what Mr. Rosen writes.

Though I read many of the publications for which Ms. Gerner is writing and might see most of what she’s writing organically, having all of her work in one primary location is a spectacular convenience! I can quickly and easily subscribe to all her work by email or RSS. For a working journalist, this is a boon, because like musicians in the evolving music business a lot of the value that they bring to the table (and to the venues in which they play) is a result of their individual fan bases.

While her personal website probably doesn’t drive even a tiny fraction of exposure for her work as when it appears in The Economist or the Financial Times, for example, it does allow her fans to easily keep up with what she’s writing and thinking about. Ideally in the future, outlets will make links to writer’s bylines direct to the writer’s own website rather than to archive pages within their own publications (or perhaps both if necessary).

Journalistic Brand & the Sad Case of Leon Wieseltier: The Counter-example

Here I’m reminded of the seemingly sad case of Leon Wieseltier, the long time literary editor of The New Republic, who was ousted by its editor-in-chief and publisher Chris Hughes, a former Facebook executive. Wieseltier’s brand was almost all-too-wrapped up in The New Republic, where he had worked for decades, and when he was pushed out (ostensibly for the puerile desire to get more clicks and eyeballs), his output and influence seemingly disappeared overnight. Suddenly there just wasn’t as much of him to read. While he still has some output, as a fan who enjoyed reading his work, the problematic hurdles of finding his new work were the equivalent of using a cheese grater to file down one’s knee cap. I suspect that if he had his own website or even a semblance of a Twitter presence, he could easily have taken a huge portion of his fans and readership built up over decades along with him almost anywhere.

While there are some major brand names in journalism (examples like James Fallows, Walt Mossberg, or Steven Levy spring to mind), who are either so wrapped up in their outlet’s identities or who can leave major outlets and take massive readerships with them, this isn’t the case for the majority of writers in the game. Slowly building one’s own personal journalistic brand isn’t easy, but having a central repository that also doubles as additional distribution can certainly be beneficial. It can also be an even bigger help when one decides to move from one outlet to another, bridge the gap between outlets, or even strike out entirely on one’s own.

Portfolio

From a work/business perspective, Ms. Gerner’s site naturally acts as a portfolio of her work for perspective editors or outlets who may want to see samples of what she’s written.

Sadly, however, she doesn’t seem to be utilizing the WordPress category or tag functions which she could use to help delineate her work by broad categories or tags to help find specific types of her writing. She appears to have a “featured” category/tag for some of her bigger pieces to appear at the top of her front page, but I can see the benefit of having a “portfolio” or similar tag to give to prospective outlets to encourage them to read her “best of” work. This would also be helpful to new readers and future fans of her work.

Categories/tags could also be beneficial to readers who may want to follow only her book reviews and not her economics related work, or vice-versa. With a bit of massaging, she could easily have an economics-only RSS feed for those who wanted such a thing. I spent a bit of time in December writing about how I customized my own RSS feeds and helping to make them more discoverable.

An IndieWeb mini-case study of Ms. Gerner’s website

Because it might take some a bit of time to delve into and uncover a lot of the spectacular and inherent value in the the massive and growing wiki behind IndieWeb.org, I thought I’d take a minute or two to point out some of the subtle IndieWeb-esque things that Ms. Gerner’s site does well and point out a few places she (or others) could quickly and easily add a lot of additional value.

IndieWeb-forward things that she is doing

She has her own domain name.

If you’re looking for all things Marina Gerner on the web, where better to start than http://www.marinagerner.com?

She owns her own data.

Technically, it looks like her site is hosted on WordPress.com, so they own, backup, and maintain it for her, but there is a very robust export path, so she can easily export it, back it up, or move it if she chooses.

She’s posting her own content on her own site.

I’m not sure if she’s posting on her site first using the concept of Post on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere (POSSE), but even if she’s posting it secondarily (known as PESOS), she’s still managing to capture it on her site and thereby own a full copy of her output. If any of the publications for which she’s published should go out of business or disappear from the internet, she will still own a copy of her work. (See and compare also the commentary at Anywhere but Medium.)

Syndication Links

She’s even got a syndication link (or attribution) at the bottom of each article to indicate alternate locations where the content lives on the internet. Since she’s not using Webmentions to back-port the resulting commentary (see below for more), this is highly useful for finding/reading the potential ensuing commentary on her posts or interacting with it in the communities in which it was originally intended.

Missing IndieWeb pieces that could provide additional value

Syndication Links to Social Media

There are no syndication links to where her content may be living on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media spaces to give an idea of the conversations that are taking place around her work. In addition to the value that these conversations add to her work, they also give an idea of the breadth of the reach of her work, which could be useful not only to her, but to future outlets/employers.

Webmention and back-feed from Brid.gy

She’s clearly not using Webmention (now a W3C Recommendation) or services like Brid.gy which would allow her to have the comments and conversation about her articles from other sites or social media silos come back to live with the original articles on her own site. Given the quality of what she’s writing, I’m sure there are some interesting threads of thought stemming from her work which she’s not capturing back on her own site, but certainly could. As it stands, it’s highly unlikely (and perhaps nearly impossible) that I would go trolling around the thousands or hundreds of thousands of links to try to uncover even a fraction of it myself, but it wouldn’t take much for her to be able to capture all that data and make it easy to consume.

Webmention is a simple protocol that allows one website to indicate to another that it has been mentioned elsewhere on the web–it’s akin to Twitter @mentions, but is something that works internet-wide and not just within Twitter. Brid.gy is a service that bootstraps services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Flickr via API to make them support webmention until they choose to implement it directly themselves.

Given the schedules of many journalists, they may not always have time to pay attention to the commentary on past articles, but if she were aggregating them back to her own site, she could occasionally check back in on them and interact as necessary or appropriate. Even better she could do this herself without necessarily needing to spend the additional time and energy to go to multiple other social websites to do so. I suspect that a lot of the value that journalists get out of Twitter could be better had by aggregating some of it within their own websites instead.

As an example, the reader will note that I also have syndication links (by means of icons) at the bottom of this post, but I’ve enabled Webmentions and have most of the replies and commentary from these social silos coming back to this original post to aggregate as much of the conversation back to this original post. In the event that any of these social media sites are acquired or go out of business for any reason, all of this commentary will be archived here on the site. As an experiment, if you’d like, click on the Twitter icon at the bottom of this post and reply to that post on Twitter, your reply will be sent to me via webmention through Brid.gy and I can choose to display it as a comment under this post.

Owning her replies to others

Naturally if she does interact with her pieces via other social channels (Twitter, for example), she could post those replies on her own site and automatically syndicate them to Twitter. This would also allow her to own all of that subsidiary content and conversation as well.

Search and SEO

Once she owns all of her own writing and subsidiary data, her platform of choice (WordPress along with many others) also provides her with some good internal search tools (for both public-facing and private posts), so that her online hub becomes an online commonplace book of sorts for not only searching her past work, but potentially for creating future work. Naturally this search also extends to the broader web as her online presence gives her some reasonable search engine optimization for making it more discoverable to future fans/followers.

And much more…

Naturally the IndieWeb encompasses far more than what I’ve written above, but for journalists, some of these highlighted pieces are likely the most immediately valuable.

I’ll refer those interested in learning more to browse the wiki available at IndieWeb or join the incredibly helpful community of developers who are almost always in the online chatroom which is accessible via multiple methods (online chat, Slack, IRC, etc.) Major portions of the IndieWeb have become easily attainable to the average person, particularly on ubiquitous platforms like WordPress which have simple configurable plugins to add a lot of this simple functionality quickly and easily.

Another IndieWeb Journalism Example

While I was writing this piece, I heard Mathew Ingram, who currently writes for Fortune, say on This Week in Google that he’s been posting his work to his own website for several years and “syndicating” copies to his employers’ sites. This means he’s got a great archive of all of his own work, though I suspect, based on his website, that much of is posted privately, which is also an option, though it doesn’t help me much as a fan.

Thoughts/Questions/Comments

I’d love to hear thoughts, comments, or questions journalists have about any of the above. Are there other online tools or features journalists would like to see on their own websites for improved workflow?

Please post them below, on your own website along with a permalink back to the original article (see “Ping Me” below), via webmention, or even by responding/replying on/to one of the social media silos listed just below in the syndication links, or natively on the social platform on which you’re currently reading.

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The Real Theme of Charlotte’s Web

It's a story about the vagaries of the writing process and not about the cycle of life, but then again writing is life...

E.B. White’s backstory

Elements of Style Elwyn Brooks “E. B.” White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) was an acclaimed American writer who contributed to The New Yorker magazine and co-authored the quintessential English language style guide The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as “Strunk & White” ostensibly making him the writer’s writer.

He is probably best known by most as the author of children’s books Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970).

While re-reading Charlotte’s Web and then watching the movie version of Charlotte’s Web (Paramount, 2006) while thinking about the struggling writer in White (and all of us really), I’ve found a completely different theme in the piece as an adult that I certainly didn’t consider as a child when I viewed it simply as a maudlin, coming-of-age, commentary on the cycle of life.

An Alternate Theme

One can think of the characters Charlotte, the heroine spider, and Templeton, the despicable rat, as the two polar opposite personalities of almost any (good) writer. Charlotte represents the fastidious, creative, thinking, and erudite writer that writers aspire to be–which White espouses in The Elements of Style.

The rat was swollen to twice his normal size, Charlotte's Web, page 147 illustration, 1952, GM Williams
The rat was swollen to twice his normal size, Charlotte’s Web, page 147 illustration, 1952, GM Williams

Templeton is a grubbing, greedy, and not-so-discerning writer who takes almost any word to get the story written so he can feast on his next meal of left-over slop.

Wilbur, the runt Spring pig desperately wanting to live to see the first snow, represents the nascent story. It too starts out stunted and scrawny, and it’s not really quite clear that it will live long enough to get published.

Wilbur summersaults like any developing story
Wilbur summersaults like any developing story
The writers struggle represented by Charlottes Web
The writer’s struggle represented by Charlotte’s Web

And so the struggle begins between the “Templeton” in the writer, and the “Charlotte” that the writer wants to become.

Charlotte represents care, devotion, creation, and even life (she not only desperately tries to creatively save Wilbur’s life, but dies to give birth to hundreds), while Templeton is a scavenger, doing the least he can to get by and generally taking advantage of others. Charlotte is crafting art while Templeton represents the writer churning out dreck in hopes of making a buck.

Alas, once the written work emerges to finally see its first “Spring”, one finds that Charlotte has died the death we knew was coming, while Templeton remains–as selfish and dreadful as before–ready to gorge himself once more.

There’s also the bleak and looming fact that Charlotte is now gone and only the vague hope that one of her few progeny will survive to live up to even a fraction of her good name. (Will my next book be as good as the first??)

The Writer takes on the Editor

The other two voices a writer often hears in her head are those represented by the characters of Fern, the doe-eyed youngster, and John Arable, the pragmatic farmer whose sir name is literally defined as “suitable for farming”, but not too coincidentally similar to parable, but without the ‘p.’ The sensible farmer (editor) says kill the runt pig (read: story) before you fall in love with it, while Fern (the creative writer) advocates to let it live a while longer–naively perhaps–wanting to know what results.

Dont Kill Wilbur! John Arable fights with his daughter Fern over an axe as he intends to kill the runt Wilbur.
A visualization of the struggle between the creative author and the sensible and pragmatic editor.

Who will you be?

So as you work on your own writing process, who will you be? Templeton, Charlotte, Fern, or John Arable? Whichever you choose for the moment, remember that all of them are ultimately necessary for the best story seeing the proverbial Spring.

Though your story may not win the “blue ribbon at the fair”, the fact that it has a life that extends the winter is a special prize all on its own to the team that created it.

On Why E.B. White Actually Wrote Charlotte’s Web

E.B. White, author (September 29, 1952)
in a letter to his editor Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, who asked him why he wrote Charlotte’s Web

 

Now that I’ve sketched out the argument, I suspect that most writers will now know, as I do, why E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web.

–Achoo!

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Git and Version Control for Novelists, Screenwriters, Academics, and the General Public

Revision (or version) control is used in tracking changes in computer programs, but it can easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation.

Marginalia and Revision Control

At the end of April, I read an article entitled “In the Margins” in the Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences magazine.  I was particularly struck by the comments of eminent scholar Jacques Neefs on page thirteen (or paragraph 20) about computers making marginalia a thing of the past:

Neefs believes contemporary literature is losing a valuable component in an age when technology often precludes and trumps the need to save manuscripts or rough drafts. But it is not something that keeps him up at night. ‘The modern technique of computers and everything makes [marginalia] a thing of the past,’ he says. ‘There’s a new way of creation. Some would say it’s tragic, but something new has been invented. I don’t consider it tragic. There are still great writers who write and continue to have a way to keep the process.’

Photo looking over the shoulder of Jacques Neefs onto the paper he's been studing on the table in front of him.
Jacques Neefs (Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

I actually think that he may be completely wrong and that current technology actually allows us to keep far more marginalia! (Has anyone heard of digital exhaust?) The bigger issue may be that many writers just don’t know how to keep a better running log of their work to maintain all the relevant marginalia they’re actually producing. (Of course there’s also the subsequent broader librarian’s “digital dilemma” of maintaining formats for the future. As an example, thing about how easy or hard it might be for you to read that ubiquitous 3.5 inch floppy disk you used in 1995.)

A a technologist who has spent many years in the entertainment industry, I feel compelled to point everyone towards the concept of revision control (or version control) within the realm of computer science.  Though it’s primarily used in tracking changes in computer programs and is often a tool used by large teams of programmers, it can very easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation of nearly any sort.

Example Use Cases for Revision Control

Publishing

As a direct example, I’m using what is known as a Git repository to track every change I make in a textbook I’m currently writing.  I can literally go back and view every change I’ve made since beginning the project, so though I’m directly revising one (or more) text files, all of my “marginalia” and revisions are saved and available.  Currently I’m only doing it for my own reference and for additional backup not supposing that anyone other than myself or an editor possibly may want to ever peruse it.  If I was working in conjunction with otheres, there are ways for me to track the changes, edits, or notes that others (perhaps an editor or collaborator) might make.

In addition to the general back-up of the project (in case of catastrophic computer failure), I also have the ability to go back and find that paragraph (or multiple pages) I deleted last week in haste, but realize that I desperately want them back now instead of having to recreate them de n0vo.

Because it’s all digital, future scholars also won’t have problems parsing my handwriting issues as has occasionally come up in differentiating Mary Shelley’s writing from that of her husband in digital projects like the Shelley Godwin Archive. The fact that all changes are tracked and placed in a tree-like structure will indicate who wrote what and when and will indicate which changes were ultimately accepted and merged into the final version.

Screenplays in Hollywood

One particular use case I can easily see for such technology is tracking changes in screenplays over time.  I’m honestly shocked that every production company or even more likely studios don’t use such technology to follow changes in drafts over time. In the end, doing such tracking will certainly make Writers Guild of America (WGA) arbitrations much easier as literally every contribution to a script can be tracked to give screenwriters appropriate credit. The end results with the easy ability to time-machine one’s way back into older drafts is truly lovely, and the outputs give so much more information about changes in the script compared to the traditional and all-too-simple (*) which screenwriters use to indicate that something/anything changed on a specific line or the different colored pages which are used on scripts during production.

I can also picture future screenwriters using services like GitHub as platforms for storing and distributing their screenplays to potential agents, managers, and producers.

Redlining Legal Documents

Having seen thousands of legal agreements go back and forth over the years, revision control is a natural tool for tracking the redlining and changes of legal documents as they change over time before they are finally (or even never) executed. I have to imagine that being able to abstract out the appropriate metadata in the long run may actually help attorneys, agents, etc. to become better negotiators, but something like this is a project for another day.

Academia

In addition to direct research for projects being undertaken by academics like Neefs, academics should look into using revision control in their own daily work and writings.  While writing a book, paper, journal article, essay, monograph, etc. (or graduate students writing theses) one could use their own Git repository to not only save but to back up all of their own work not only for themselves primarily, but also future scholars who come later who would not otherwise have access to the “marginalia” one creates while manufacturing their written thoughts in digital form.

I can easily picture Git as a very simple “next step” in furthering the concept of the digital humanities as well as in helping to bridge the gap between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” (I’d also suggest that revision control is a relatively simple step one could take before learning a particular programming language, which I think should be a mandatory tool in everyone’s daily toolbox regardless of their field(s) of interest.)

Git Logo 

Start Using Revision Control

“But how do I get started?” you ask.

Know going in that it may take parts of a day to get things set up and running, but once you’ve started with the basics, things are actually pretty easy and you can continue to learn the more advanced subtleties as you progress.  Once things are working smoothly, the additional overhead you’ll be expending won’t be too much more than the old method of hitting Alt-S to save one of your old Word documents in the time before auto-save became ubiquitous.

First one should start by choosing one of the myriad revision control systems that exist.  For the sake of brevity in this short introductory post, I’ll simply suggest that users take a very close look at Git because of its ubiquity and popularity in the computer science world and the fact that it includes a tremendously large amount of free information and support from a variety of sites on the internet. Git also has the benefit of having versions for all major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux). Git also has the benefit of a relatively long and robust life within the computer science community meaning that it’s very stable and has many more resources for the uninitiated to draw upon.

Once one has Git installed on their computer and has begun using it, I’d then recommending linking one’s local copy of the repository to a cloud storage solution like either GitHub or BitBucket.  While GitHub is certainly one of the most popular Git-related services out there (because it acts, in part, as the hub for a large portion of the open internet and thus promotes sharing), I often recommend using BitBucket as it allows free unlimited private but still share-able repositories while GitHub requires a small subscription fee for keeping one’s work private. Having a repository in the cloud will help tremendously in that your work will be available and downloadable from almost anywhere and because it also serves as a de-facto back-up solution for your work.

I’ve recently been playing around with version control to help streamline the writing/editing process for a book I’ve been writing. Though Git and it’s variants probably seem more daunting than they should to the everyday user, they really represent a very powerful tool. I’ve spent less than two days learning the basics of both Git and hosted repositories (GitHub and Bitbucket), and it has been more than well worth the minor effort.

There is a huge wealth of information on revision control in general and on installing and using Git available on the internet, including full textbooks. For the complete beginners, I’d recommend starting with The Chronicle’s “A Gentle Introduction to Version Control.” Keep in mind that though some of these resources look highly technical, it’s because many are trying to enumerate every function one could potentially desire, when even just the basic core functionality is more than enough to begin with. (I could analogize it to learning to drive a car versus actually reading the full manual so that you know how to take the engine apart and put it back together from scratch. To start with revision control, you only need to learn to “drive.”) Professors might also avail themselves of the use of their local institutional libraries which may host small sessions on learning such tools, or they might avail themselves of the help of their colleagues or students in the computer science department. For others, I’d recommend taking a look at Git’s primary website. BitBucket has an excellent step-by-step tutorial (and troubleshooting) for setting up the requisite software and using it.

What do you use for revision control?

I’ll welcome any thoughts, experiences, or additional resources one might want to share with others in the comments.
 

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