Friday, March 22, 2013

Circling the Drain

Newspapers, specifically printed weekly newspapers, are living on borrowed time, like death row convicts waiting for their last meals before one final sizzling tango in the electric chair.

Print weeklies cannot keep up with the lightning-fast information glut of the Internet, of 24/7 news sites, of the public’s appetite for instantaneous information. It’s a constant need to put stories out as they happen, when they happen, the frenetic information overload, the rapid delivery times and manifold competition that’s choking weeklies out of existence.

Weeklies failed to be relevant in the 21st Century because the times demand more of reporters and editors. The public, weened on a 24-hour, constant news cycle, must have their up-to-the-nanosecond news with immediate delivery. Weekly reporting used to be a quaint, dilettante profession where scribblers with lackadaisical work ethics file stories at a snail’s pace because the paper only published one day a week.

With the public craving Internet news sites, social media and newsfeeds, weekly reporters have become daily reporters, cranking out stories faster than they’ve done to meet the demands. Despite their added responsibilities and workloads, their pay hasn’t kept up. They’re still underpaid minions of a bloated goblin king, now with double their usual output.

As recently as a decade ago, weeklies were how small communities received their news.  Local papers were either “rags” or sacrosanct watchdogs, depending on who you talk to. Reporters for these publications were fixtures of town meetings and events and held considerable sway. When the Internet added a new dimension to publishing, some smaller newspapers were reticent to climb onboard, and they’re the ones who’ve paid the price of their failure.

Internet news sites like Patch are popular with readers, but haven’t scored well with netting advertising dollars, which steadfastly remain grounded to local print publications (if the businesses can afford to advertise, that is). Meanwhile, print weeklies are circling the drain, losing subscribers and readership to the free Internet sites.

Newspapers who don’t embrace the online models usually end up the redundant dinosaurs they deserve to be. If newspapers are going to survive, they need to get into reader’s hands, whether on a desktop, smartphone or tablet. Migrating their news content to the Internet not only broadens readership, but ensures the publication’s survival.

The times are a-changing, fellow news-slaves. You’re either on the Information Superhighway driving 100 mph in a red Maserati blasting Rammstein, or you’re walking by the side of the road, whistling The Lovin’ Spoonful.

Your fate is your choice.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Evil, Thy Name is Writer's Block

Writer's block, that dreaded feeling you get when the words simply won't flow. When your creative juices run dry and you have imagination constipation. When what once defined you as a writer; the innate ability to pull words out of the ether, slap them around like an obstinate scullery maid and then position them where you want, is gone.




My moral malaise has only grown over these past few months. I'm experiencing a crisis of faith.
Faith in my abilities as a journalist to get stories people want to read. I'm just not engrossed in my profession anymore. Every story seems to blend into the other, like an amorphous blob of raw sewerage. A bulk of what I write professionally is about buildings and structures. It's about zoning and who can put what duplex where. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (I refuse to use that idiotic moniker 'superstorm' anymore because, well, the media's retarded) most of the stories involve advisory base flood elevation maps and building height. Important topics, to be sure, but they don't excite me.

Trying to get a writer to write about something that doesn't excite him is like trying to get a kid to eat his vegetables, except the vegetables are rotten and teeming with plump maggots. 

It takes every ounce of energy for me not to fall asleep at the keyboard anymore.

The competition is writing in-depth stories about building height, zoning ordinances and planning. The ins and outs and nitty-gritty details of why and how homeowners can elevate their homes to lower their flood insurance premiums and not have tidal waves roar through their living rooms.

Maybe I've soured on Sandy coverage because it affected me more than other reporters. I had to move out because of a foot of water in my apartment, a foot of water that obliterated my furniture, books, DVDs, clothes and other possessions.

How can I get excited in a job where I haven't had a pay raise in six years or a promotion in ten?

Where my opinions and concerns go unheard and where my sources are drying up faster than Jane Fonda's tits?

Where I do hit my stride is reporting local history. Pouring through moldering tomes of newspapers, researching historic events and personages long dead is, for me, engaging and fun. So far, I've chronicled Prohibition, World War II and World War I and a northeast storm of 1962. I'm currently working on the 19th Amendment and how the local fight for women's suffrage.

Part of me (the logical, rational cardigan-wearing egghead in my brain) tells me it's only a job, just a way to snag a paycheck and earn a living. When we distill our daily activities as only a way to accumulate wealth, we're missing a vast part of the human experience.

America has a massive Viagra-chugging hard-on for money and acquiring riches. Sure, we all want to get paid for working, but when the quest is focused only on that and not using your talents to give something back, we transform into the stereotypical monocle-wearing misers sitting behind a pyramid of stacked gold coins.

I'm not saying my writing will cure cancer or even be remembered or read a century from now, but I just want that chance to create something that stands out, that's wholly unique.

Writing about height elevation or building codes isn't wowing anybody except the people who are directly affected.

For reporting to matter, it has to affect more than just an immediate audience. It should broaden its scope and be relevant to a wider readership. Why my career has stalled and fell into a torpid mire is this: I've retread the same ground before, and endless loop of interviewing the same officials about the same topics.

I need to unlearn all of the slothful and slipshod habits and liberate myself from the conventional bonds tethering me to the dungeon floor. Reporters should be obstinate assholes who make officials nervous. They should be prodding, annoying gadflies buzzing around the bloated corpses of government, sinking their malaria-filled stingers into jaundiced flesh and tearing open the festering wounds of a teetering oligarchy.

We should be revealing uncomfortable truths and not just informing the public like some community center corkboard thumbtacked with messages. We should be bold and take risks, not dwell in fear and timidity.

Fact is, this city spends way too much money on settling lawsuits. They've made an art of the pay-off instead of challenging lawsuits in court, which would generate bad publicity. The last thing the administration needs is bad publicity, probably because they're not too adroit at defending the entrenched cronyism so prevalent in this town.  

The reason for my lapse in devoting every waking moment to good ol' fashioned journalism is I've been distracted.

I've been working on other projects in my spare time, writings I hope I'll be known for instead of the mundane weekly newspaper articles. Writers tell stories, and I have many to share. I'm reticent in detailing exactly what I'm working on, but it's big and crosses a few media platforms.

It's writing I can be proud of. My unique perspective. My energy, talents and hard work birthed this 800-pound juggernaut baby squirming like a happy pink squid, tentacles wiggling.

So I live two lives, inhabiting two distinct personas. One, the daylight me, the Clark Kent moping around the office and conducting daily interviews and pounding out columns like a Vicodin zombie, is who the world sees. The second, Superman persona, the crazed, angst-ridden comedian wrangling with hippogriffs and spitting out fiction, is what I'm doing when nobody's watching. It's the true me, the writer I want to be, the wordsmith whose Herculean efforts and persistence will one day undoubtedly pay off.

Writing is hard.

Whoever doesn't believe that has never struggled with writer's block.

My best material comes at inopportune times, late at night or early in the morning. I began writing this at 5:30 a.m. It's now 6:30 a.m. It took an hour to write 1,000 words. Think of what a full day of doing this would bring? I'd hit 8,000 words in eight hours. After a week, I'd have a novelette. Two to three weeks, a novel. I'd be an unstoppable writing machine, an Optimus Prime of scribes.

Yet I'm a mere mortal, struggling with the words, living two independently different writing lives. Mild-mannered reporter by day, tortured genius by night. I see myself in some laboratory, hunched over a keyboard, an array of bubbling flasks and a Jacob's ladder, complete with a rising arc of high voltage in the background. A spark of ingenuity, the insane writer completes his work, his back sore and stiff, his vision blurred from the computer monitor's glare.

Triumphantly, he cackles, raises one arm, his hand forming into a crooked claw and bellows, "It's alive! It's aliiiivvveeee!"