Friday, September 30, 2011

Almost putting my foot right in it - why double-checking is soooo important

WATKINS GLEN, New York, USA - There is never a good excuse for being inaccurate, but sometimes columnists, like all journalists, can walk right up to the cliff.

If they are lucky, they catch themselves before they fall over and break their necks.

This week in New York I was precipitously close to the edge, but caught myself - with the help of a friend - before catapulting into the darkness.

The near fall was in a column about a state-sponsored public hearing. At the outset of it, the administrative law judge running the show made a big pronouncement that no local public officials would be testifying. Unfortunately, that bit of info got translated by most of the audience into that there were no public officials present.

And, if true, that would have been a big deal. The public hearing was to get public testimony about a very controversial proposal to store liquid propane gas in salt caverns near a populated area and a beautiful lake.

So if local government types took a pass, well, that would be too good to be true for a columnist looking for an angle.

It was too good to be true, as such things almost always are.

As I sat starting my column, the good angel on my right shoulder said 'check out if there were any public officials there.' The bad angel, resting on my left shoulder, said 'No, no, no... it's too good to pass up.'

Luckily, the good angel won out, and I asked the mayor of Watkins Glen via email if there were any public officials there (him included). There were, he said - lots of folks, actually. He even sent me a list of who he saw. And so instead of lambasting uncaring public servants, I was able to simply comment on the proceeding and include their quiet participation among my other thoughts on the lengthy meeting and what it means for the area.

Had I laid into the same public officials with a snarky 'Why weren't you there?' kind of piece, it would have been just short of disaster.

Actually no, it would have been a disaster, for me.

As it was, the incident and my exchange with my mayoral amigo has given me a couple of good ideas for future columns about public participation, decorum at public meetings, and the role of public hearings in making decisions.

And, because I checked before I published, I can write them without having to withdraw a metaphorical foot from my mouth.

Another lesson re-learned, and lesson now passed on.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Speciality columns on the way, magazine writers do 'how-to' stories

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The first set of columns based on the special areas of interest (chosen by the writers) are coming in by Wednesday noon. A second set will show up by Friday noon.

The specialities are all over the place: music, the arts, sports, cooking and a dozen others that I can't remember.

The first efforts are always interesting while the writers try to find their voices. Monday in class the writers got pretty animated about these columns. The hardest part is the research.

In magazine writing, the writers are starting on how-to stories. We have people writing about travel, tiling a countertop, selling and buying used clothes and even how to make tamales, menudo and a Thai soup. Quite the eclectic group.

One student has steadfastly insisted that he be able to write his how-to story on 'how to get through college with the least amount of work.' And the work he is talking about is college-work and studying. That one should be fascinating, but might require a few rewrites before it passes professional level muster - the class standard.

After the how-to stories, it's on to writing full length features and personality profiles for the magaziners. The column writers are now on task for one column per week for the balance of the semester - about 12 more columns by my count.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Columns come from reading, thinking, and, well, more reading

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Every Friday, right after I read my column in the Finger Lakes Times (Geneva, NY), I experience a sense of satisfaction for a few hours, while I glow over the words that my editor Mike Cutillo chose to print.

Then I start to sweat: What the hell will I write about for next week?

It's not that there is a lack of topics, of course. There's an entire world for me to write about. But exactly what? And for me, exactly how?

My aim is not to write a news column. It would be easy to grab a screaming headline, do a 600-word riff on whatever noodle-headed thing the federal, state, or local government is up to and call it a column. Slam bam. Good God,  newspapers and the internet are full of items that push my blood pressure into the stratosphere.

But I want to offer something a little more on the upscale side of column writing, something that I had to chew on for awhile before I put it up. Something that has not only research, substance, but a definite element that is uniquely mine.

Last week, I wrote about how a Taylor Swift concert affected me - and my sense of time passing. It's already drawn some good comments. I could have written about the glitter of her concert or her music. But that doesn't add anything to the conversation.

So this week what's up to write about? Well, the column is still very much in the thinking-researchr-reading stage. My tornado outline is a mess and barely readable with scribblings all over a page, in the margins and now on the backside of my legal notepad, too.

I read a half-dozen pieces about my possible theme by noon, though even that shifts the focus from article to article.

But the idea is forming like a hurricane in the south Atlantic. And with luck it will hit me squarely by Tuesday a.m. when I have to start the first draft to make my deadline.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Column writers heading toward the noon deadline

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - A handful of column writers in J-131 at CSU, Sacramento are finishing up their second columns as I write this.

The majority turned their columns in way before the deadline.

And, for the most part, they were very interesting reading. I commented on almost all of them. A few had glitches that didn't allow columns.

That will get fixed soon.

Next week these columns will be the focus of in-class discussions and critiques Monday and Wednesday - at least for those columnistas who made the noon deadline.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Column writers take on 2nd piece, mag writers work on 'how to'

SACRAMENTO, Calif. USA - The columnistas in the column writing class are scrambling to get their second columns in by a noon Friday deadline. You can find their latest efforts listed with links to the right.

And feel free to comment, by the way. They need to know that it's not just me scanning their efforts.

The topic for this week was either a college-related piece, or if they so chose, they could write about the GOP debate Wednesday night.

Newt Gingrich
Kee-rist it was awful. I fell asleep when Newt Gingrich started foaming at the mouth about the media.

I like Golden Oldies, but in music, not in politics.

The magazine writers are working on How-To stories. We have some how-to-make pizza kind of stories, of course, but a few people are getting daring.

I turned down a couple of sex-related story ideas. I don't care if it is my last semester of teaching.

In the basic newswriting classes, the students next week will start writing in the lab, most getting the shock of their lives when they have to be (to them) unnaturally accurate and clear.

I just love reading those first news stories.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

7 a.m. writing deadlines are just plain cruel

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The deadline for the review of Saturday night's Taylor Swift concert was 7 a.m., which would have been fine, had the concert been over, at, oh, say 9 p.m?

Taylor Swift
But by the time I rolled in from Power Balance Pavilion it was midnight. And that late, writing anything except for snarky emails and bombastic political screeds is out of the question.

Except when that's what the deadline is when you accept the assignment.

Que lastima!

So after pounding out 600 words by 1 a.m., I slept on the review, then checked it at 6 a.m., more than a little groggy after only 5 hours of relatively restless sleep. (Taylor Swift dreams most of the night, go figure that.)

But the review is in, just waiting for the editor's workover and blessing before it goes up on The Sacramento Bee's website.

The review is a web-only piece, thus the early morning deadline. Have to catch people before they head out to Sunday breakfast.

Me? A nap is probably in order before launching the rest of the day.

Here is the link to The Bee review: Review of Taylor Swift's concert

And here is the cover from The Bee's home page Sunday:

Thursday, September 01, 2011

And they are off! 100 student writers begin the semester at CSUS

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - With more whimper than bang, this week 100 journalism students at CSU, Sacramento were launched in my four classes, a flood of stories and columns and story ideas about to engulf everyone and everything.

The first group reporting in, with missives about the first week of school, will be the 25 students in Column Writing, an upper-division elective class in the major. A few have a little writing experience. Some already have their own web pages. The majority are realizing that they have been thrown into the deep end of the pool with precious little instruction on how to swim.

I reminded them on the first day of school that they have all volunteered for the class. And in coming weeks, I will likely remind them again,

The weekly column deadlines are not horrific - provided the students do some prep work and push their way through early enough.

But if history is any indicator, the majority of the class will wait until Friday morning to start any part of the project, with a noon drop-dead deadline facing them.

Such deadlines are the exception around most of the academic classes at my university, but not in my classrooms.

As soon as the columns trickle in, I will post them on this page (to the right) as I have in past semesters.

And as it is the last semester I will be teaching - at least at California State University, Sacramento - it should be a real sleigh ride.

Here's a brief video about deadlines that pretty amusing: