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Friday, September 26, 2014

19th Century Newspaper Editors Imagine Newspapers of the Future

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post that discussed how people in the past predicted the future and I promised a sequel. Here it is with another sequel to follow.

Back in 1895 several prominent newspaper editors were asked to speculate on what newspapers would look like in the 20th Century. Some of their predictions were quite uncanny, and some were, well, a bit off the mark.

Here are a couple of examples:

·       Felix Agnus, Editor of the Baltimore American:  “Today I saw a new invention that distributes written messages to its customers, the matter clearly printed on convenient sheets. The inventor tells me he can afford to place these at a very moderate cost in offices or in homes. All it needs is a long roll of paper. It does the rest. Now what is to prevent the people of the next century from having their news continuously? As soon as an event occurs it is broadcast over the wires and is immediately printed by the automatic machine. How will a newspaper published once a day compete with a scheme such as that?”

Sounds a lot like something we used to call a telex machine. They never made it into homes, at least not on a large scale, but they were in just about every newsroom in the world.

·       Then there was this prediction from A.G. Boynton, editor of the Detroit Free Press: Keeping...with the limits of the possible, this much is safe to forecast….there will be great and marked progress in independence—that the newspaper of the twentieth century will not be tied, as the newspaper of the nineteenth century is far too often, to a party, a sect or a creed."

Sadly, Mr. Boynton's vision of today's newspaper has proven to be more aspiration than reality. News today is too often skewed by reporters, editors, producers and publishers to fit their own political agendas or world views. I should acknowledge, however, that for a while in the 20th Century the concept of trying to achieve some form of objectivity and fairness in reporting was rigidly adhered to in the best newspapers. At least it was at the newspapers I worked at.

Mr. Boynton's predictions and others appeared in an article that appeared in the Tacoma Daily News March 30, 1895.

We are able to enjoy this 120-year-old article because of Readex, a company that for seven decades has specialized in providing access to primary source research materials such as early American Newspapers. Here is a link to the Readex blog: http://www.readex.com/blog and a link to the actual article: 
http://www.readex.com/sites/default/files/Notable%20Forecasts%20Tacoma%20Daily%20News%2003.30.1895.pdf

Many of these editors had already personally witnessed amazing advancements in newspaper publishing, the Readex article pointed out.  They had seen newspapers progress from the old Washington hand press to enormous printing presses capable of producing tens of thousands of newspapers in just a few hours; from the Pony Express and stage coach to the telephone and telegraph; from hand-setting type to typesetting linotype machines and the halftone photo reproduction process.

And while some of the predictions may seem a little quaint, given The Internet and today's 24-hour news cycles, I am amazed at how prescient these editors were.

Here is James Elverson, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

·       “The chief characteristic of the twentieth century newspaper must necessarily be correlated with the twentieth century scientific inventions….If the flying machine is perfected, every first class reporter will have one. If the air ship is a success, they will distribute tons of newspapers daily. If telegraphy becomes an exact science, the inmost heart of man will be revealed daily to the public. If Esoteric Buddhism gathers the world to its bosom and Mahatmas drops messages about the present, past and the future through newspaper roofs from the desert of Gobi, then every first-class newspaper will have its staff of Mahatmas to preach ethics to its readers. Pneumatic tubes may distance trains; photo scopes may reproduce pictures 10,000 miles away, and possibly the kinescope may be so adapted that every reader may have one in his house in which to view the scenes of which he reads in his favorite newspaper, the photographic strips therefore being issued as supplements. Possibly we shall not use type any more, but by some complex arrangement issue rolls that shall run through phonographs. Then, as the twentieth century man sits down to breakfast he can have the news read to him while he sees every event in the kinescope, and at the same time he can swallow his morning meal.”
Sounds a lot like watching CNN or FOX while eating your oatmeal. And don't forget, this was BEFORE the invention of radio or television.

Percy S. Heath, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette may have foreseen the ubiquitous "Op Ed" page of today's newspaper
:
·       “A forum, where the people may go with ideas and grievances, and appeal to public opinion. This to my mind will be the feature and the characteristic of the future newspaper. I believe the forceful utterances of the press will come direct from the people; that the intelligent reader is becoming every day a man or woman of opinion, of fixed ideas, and that sentiment will be expressed more and more freely through the press by those not directly connected with it. There will be less arbitrary editorial expression. The ‘fourth page’ will contain that thought of the reader which up to this time the editor has sought to forestall or anticipate.”

            Charles W. Knapp, editor of the St. Louis Republic seems here to presage the way many of us customize the news we get from our online newspapers.
·       To fulfill its mission perfectly, (the newspaper) will be issued not once, or twice, but half a dozen times every day. Perhaps also the great fin de siècle newspaper of the twentieth century will be issued in several different editions varying radically in the character of their contents, so as to meet the varying wants of different classes of subscribers and at the same time obviate the undue enlargement of its size. It is bound to be more comprehensive in the exhaustive completeness of its information than the newspaper of today, but it will not be necessary for every reader to take the whole daily encyclopedia. Those who wish will have the opportunity to designate certain classes of news to be sent to them, and in some degree every subscriber will have the privilege of ordering his newspaper made to fit his own individual and particular wants."
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George A. Robertson, editor of the Cleveland World sees newspapers using several "new" inventions to collect and disseminate news faster. He also sees the use of more photography.  However, his vision falls a little short when it comes to his altruistic view of the 20th Century newspaper.

·       “Already within sight are numerous remarkable inventions that will be made use of to improve the newspaper of the future. A machine is already patented and in limited use that sends messages by wire ten times as fast as the present telegraphic code and these messages are automatically written out as they arrive. This will be employed by the coming newspaper in improving its news facilities. A machine for transforming pictures by wire will be fully perfected within the near future and there will be such a cheapening of engraving processes that newspapers will be much more fully and beautifully illustrated than at present. Telegraphic accounts of happenings in all parts of the world will be accompanied, as received, with engravings ready to be dropped into the forms….Sensationalism is on the wane and the time will come early in the next century when the newspaper that lies will be considered as despicable as the man who does the same thing now. The twentieth century newspaper will not be entirely composed of the record of the ‘evil that men do,’ but some the good things will be mentioned also.”
 Finally here is Frank A. Richardson, editor of the Baltimore Sun. While I applaud his optimism concerning the human condition and his laudable vision of scrupulous and truthful editors, there are far too few of these trustworthy souls toiling in today's newsrooms.

·       “As mankind with the march of time becomes more noble and elevated, the newspaper, which is at once the leader and the follower of public sentiment, must share in this. Therefore I should say the newspaper of the twentieth century must be conducted on a higher plane. Its great aim must be to instruct and purify, rather than merely amuse for an idle hour and increase its circulation by pandering to the baser instincts of humanity. There are a few striking instances among the leading newspapers of this day where the desire for gain is not made the paramount consideration. In the twentieth century this will become more and more apparent, for incentives to the contrary course which exist now will disappear. The newspaper of the next century will be guided by the hand of strictest truth and honor, for policy, if not conscience, will make it so.”
Perhaps the most troubling part of this story is the fact that of the 13 newspapers polled in this 1895 exercise, only four are still being published today. That none of the editors could foresee the demise of their own newspapers is not surprising to me.

The 1890s were an optimistic decade in American history with a young nation just beginning to flex its political and economic muscles on the world stage.  

 Given the gloomy, often deplorable world we live in today with its poverty and wars waged by religious fanatics like ISIL with its beheadings and mutilation of innocents; its pervasive drug use; the decline of the traditional family; the inexorable secularization of society and with it the relentless obliteration of morality, integrity and civility; I wonder how today's 21st Century editors would foretell the world of the 22d Century.

With much less optimism I would wager.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Who Writes Better? Women or Men?

I recently received the results of a poll asking that very question. It was produced by a company called Grammarly, a leading automated proofreader.

The results are sure to set off some interesting (read: heated & intense) discussions among writers of both genders.

I won't keep you in suspense. The result of the poll of some 3,000 men and women world-wide is that women are better writers than men by a margin of 59% to 41%.

Ahem. I am sure there are plenty of male colleagues who beg to differ. And I am sure there are plenty of female scribblers who are saying: "See, I told you so!"

So just how did Grammarly arrive at this staggering conclusion?

Women, the poll said, tend to be more descriptive in their writing, and spend more time developing a greater variety of characters than men.

Perhaps as a result, women are generally regarded to be superior writers, the survey concluded.
Note the qualifiers in that sentence: "perhaps" and "generally."

On the other hand, male writers get to the point faster, and both sexes are more likely than not to write about people like themselves, the poll added.
OK, now let's do a little parsing here.

First, let's not forget that the poll was highly subjective and I have no idea if the 3,000 men and women polled were split equally between the sexes.

Having said that there were some interesting results.

For example, one question asked which of the sexes are likely to spend more time developing characters and which will get to the point faster.

The answer? 83 percent of the respondents said that women were likely to spend more time developing characters and just 17 per cent said they would get to the point faster.

As for men, 44 percent of respondents said that men would spend significant time developing character and 56 per cent said men would get to the point of the story faster.

Before going on, I should explain just what Grammarly is. According to the company, the software program uses elite natural language processing technology to check writing for more than 250 types of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. It delivers a passive learning experience that identifies writing patterns and sends users personal recommendations to help understand their most common mistakes and opportunities to develop their writing skills. 

Grammarly is also the creator of GrammoWriMo, a collaborative writing project to celebrate National Novel Writing Month (November). Last year the project brought together more than 300 writers from 27 countries and 44 U.S. states to create a group novel, which was then sold as an e-book on Amazon and benefitted the Make-A-Wish Foundation

Now, back to the poll. Another question asked if men are more likely to write about people (using pronouns such as "she," "me," "hers," or "we") or things (using determiners such as "the," "a," "some," or "more").

Fifty-six percent said men were more likely to write about people and 44 percent they were more likely to write about things.

On the other hand, 68 percent said women were more likely to write about people and just 32 percent said they were more likely to write about things.

I am not sure what that means. I have never seen a successful novel yet that focuses entirely on "people" or entirely on "things."  I would assume that any good story would give sufficient attention to both.

The results of one question seemed to run counter to what I would regard as crisp and clear writing. That had to do with sentence length.

The question asked which, men or women, were more likely to write long, descriptive sentences, or simple, straightforward sentences.

The answer: 34 percent of men wrote long sentences and 66 percent wrote short sentences. For women the percentages were quite different. The poll revealed that 76 percent of women wrote long, descriptive sentences while just 24 percent wrote short, snappy sentences.

Once again, I am not sure why those results indicate that women are superior writers. I prefer, like Ernest Hemingway, to write shorter, crisper sentences--though if William Faulkner were queried I am sure he would say just the opposite.

Is the Grammarly poll conclusive? Hardly. But I am sure it will make for some interesting conversation at book fairs, writing conferences and in college literature classes.

Conclusive or not, I give Grammarly props for tackling a potentially fractious topic.

Check out this link to Grammarly:  http://www.grammarly.com/grammarcheck



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Festivals: A Great Way to Meet Readers and Fellow Authors

I just returned from the Kansas Book Festival, where I was one of 30 writers from a variety of genres invited to be "presenting authors" at the day-long event.

The state of Kansas doesn't mess around when it comes to supporting the festival.

It is held in the venerable 149-year-old State Capitol building in Topeka with authors making 50-minute presentations followed by Q & A sessions throughout the day in the hallowed Senate and House Chambers as well as the courtroom of the Kansas Supreme Court.

State Capitol Building: Venue of the Kansas Book Festival


Spectators sit at the original 1885 handmade Kansas wild cherry wood desks in the Senate and House surrounded by ornate bronze columns plated with copper and silver; and carved white Italian marble walls inlaid with silver panels.

Not a bad venue for a bunch of scribblers to perform in.

This was the fourth year of the festival which was started by Kansas First Lady Mary Brownback in 2011.

The criteria used by the Selection Committee to choose presenting authors for the festival were these: The author was either a Kansas writer, a former Kansas author, an author who wrote a book that dealt with Kansas in some way, or a native Kansan.

However, ultimately the selection committee made its selections based on the quality of the work--which is the way it should be.

"We want to have quality books by quality authors at the Festival," Mary Brownback told me. "We think we have achieved that."

Here is a link to this year's Kansas Book Festival Presenting Authors:



The mission of the Kansas Book Festival is to promote literacy and a life-long love of reading among people of all ages.  In addition to the annual book festival, the festival also sponsors  a children’s writing contest, and awards more than $10,000 annually in grants to public and school libraries across the state.  More information about the festival is available at www.kansasbookfestival.com.


This was the second book festival I have attended in the past four months. The first was the L. A. Times Festival of Books held on the campus of the University of Southern California.

I found both festivals useful and rewarding. At the L.A. Times event I signed more than 100 of my books (Book #1 in my Finding Billy Battles Trilogy) for readers. Because it was so large with something like 50,000 people in attendance each of its two days, I didn't get an opportunity to talk with many fellow authors.

The Kansas Book Festival, which attracts about 4,000 for the one-day event provided greater opportunities to talk with other authors, but the book signings were less fruitful. Nevertheless authors should always take advantage of any opportunity to talk with  readers, no matter how few show up for a book signing.

Without readers authors are nothing. Readers provide critical feedback, often ask questions we may never have thought to ask ourselves, and most of all, they provide validation for what we produce.

If you are an author and you have never attended a book festival to sign your books or to interact with the reading public and other writers, you are missing a valuable opportunity.

Talking about my book at the Kansas Book Festival
It is one thing to sit in the solitude of one's home or office and pound away on your computer (or typewriter for those who still do that). It is quite another to leave that sanctuary and actually meet people who read books--perhaps even some that you write.

Some may think participating in an online "virtual book tour" or perhaps writing a blog  is all you need to do.

It is not. There is no substitute for face to face, person to person communication. And where better to do that than at an event geared to bring authors and readers together.

There are hundreds of these events throughout the United States every year. Find one near you and go. It may be the best marketing tool you will ever use.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Journalists at Risk: It's Part of the Job

Nobody ever said doing good journalism is easy--or safe.
In fact, reporters and photographers who have spent any significant time covering war, revolution, political upheaval, and natural disaster are keenly aware that when they arrive in war ravaged places like Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria, they may not return home in one piece or even alive.
That is the hard reality of the job. It is one that every correspondent and photographer must grapple with before he or she accepts a dangerous assignment.
There is little doubt that James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the two freelance American journalists who were beheaded by their Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captors, knew the risks they were taking in going to places like Iraq and Syria.
Since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,074 reporters and photographers have been killed world-wide covering the news.
"Why do you guys do it." a friend asked me recently, "when you obviously know how dangerous it is in those places?"
Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times correspondent killed in Syria in 2012 may have answered that question as well as anyone:
“Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.”
Most correspondents and photographers I have known would answer the question in a similar way.
Marie Colvin Killed in 2012
My answer, when asked why I used to jump on a plane and head for a war torn country, was that I was doing it to bear witness.
If reporters and photographers aren't there to cover the carnage, atrocities and suffering caused by war then how will the world know what is happening? Who will speak for those ground up by the violence, displaced from their homes, murdered for their political or religious beliefs?
In my case, during a 25 year career with the Chicago Tribune in Asia and Latin America, I often found myself wondering why I was putting myself in danger in order to write a story that was likely to wind up in the bottom of somebody's bird cage.
Once again, Marie Colvin was right on the money back in 2010 when she said:

""We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado? Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price."
In the case of correspondents of my generation the countries where the ultimate price was paid were places like Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, and the Balkans.
During the 20 or so years that I toiled abroad six of my friends were killed covering war, revolution and coups d'état.
Each time that happened, I questioned why I was exposing myself to a similar fate.
Yates Covering Cambodia & Vietnam
And each time my answer was the same: I felt a responsibility to tell the world what I was witnessing. Only then could enough pressure be brought to bear to end the carnage or help the brutalized civilian non-combatants with the basics of life: food, water, shelter and medical care.
That's no doubt what motivated Foley and Sotloff to expose themselves to the dangers they faced in Syria.
The barbarians who brutally took the lives of these two men are the very reasons why reporters and photographers feel compelled to cover war. These savages need to be exposed for what they are and what they represent.
Look back at World War II. What if there had been courageous reporters able to write about the Nazi death camps or the horrendous atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army against millions of Chinese, Filipinos and allied POWs?
There is no way of knowing if stories appearing in newspapers or on radio networks of the time would have stopped what the Nazis and the Japanese were doing. It was total war, after all.
But something tells me that by bearing witness some lives would have been saved.
I can recall an incident in El Salvador when a government officer was about to execute an anti-government guerrilla captured after a battle near a ramshackle village. He pointed a German made G-3 rifle at the back of the kneeling guerrilla's head and seemed about ready to pull the trigger, when he noticed me standing nearby watching him.
He quickly pointed his rifle to the ground and instead of shooting the guerrilla, kicked him in the back and sent him sprawling to the ground.
"Put him in the prisoner compound," he barked. Then he smiled at me and walked away.
Did my presence save that man's life? I have no idea. But at least, for that one brief moment, a life was spared.
Can journalists stop wars and other forms of violence and mayhem?
No, and anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. But what journalists can do is make readers, viewers and listeners aware of what is happening in places like Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is our job. We are the messengers. The job of those we bring the message to is to use that information to inhibit and impede the kind of barbarism and brutality we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria.
Here is my rule when it comes to dangerous assignments.
When the risks associated with reporting a story are weighed against whatever benefits might be derived from the story and the risks outweigh the benefits, my rule is simple: leave and live to report another day.
No story is worth your life.