Introducing Acta Magazine

ACTA2

For a long time, I wanted desperately to work in the media industry. I briefly tasted what success might look like and I wanted more.

To my dismay, I quickly discovered that while everyone loved snarky bloggers (especially people in media), no one was looking to hire one. That sounds amusing now, but it was true as recently as five years ago and personally I think we still have a long way to go in integrating blogging into the mainstream media DNA.

Then, the seemingly impossible happened. I got a job. I was, to put it mildly, THRILLED. Unfortunately things quickly went awry and I was unceremoniously fired approximately 4 1/2 months later. Three days prior to being fired, I had found out I was pregnant for the first time.

I studiously kept looking for any sort of editorial job before I started showing when, I assumed, the jig would be up at interviews. Nothing materialized before my son was born. After, it became impossible even to shower or change into clean clothes for a very, very long time. He’s 2 1/2 in three days and I’ve only marginally improved on that track record.

I did go to work for the Sun-Times Media Group/Pioneer Press when my boy was about a year old. That didn’t work out. Four months into a job where my words and my reporting appeared in actual newsprint on a printed page, I felt ambivalent about the work. This was supposed to be my dream come true, but it felt hollow and unsatisfying. I wrote that I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. So I started to think bigger. If I couldn’t find a media company where I actually wanted to work, maybe I needed to start one of my own.

Something that always irritated me to no end is that good journalism only goes halfway to where it needs to go. It reports on a problem or corruption or a terrible injustice and…. that’s it. That’s where it ends. The rest of the distance to measurable change is often traversed by activists. Non-profits. Interest groups. PACs. Etc.

As a reader, I have too often experienced the frustration of reading an amazing story and at the end, saying to no one in particular: now what? If I want to do something about this, what exactly should I do? Where should I start? The journalist or her news organization will not help me with this. That would be considered activist journalism and thus very baaaaaad and possibly unethical. Journalists are supposed to be like clouds floating above it all. Seeing all and reporting it, but going no further. On the one hand, I see the value in this approach. On the other, I wholly reject it.

What do we get in the absence of clear-cut ideas and suggestions of where to invest money or time to solve a problem? We get Facebook petitions. Tweets. You-Tube videos you share with your friends. Slacktivism, as its been dubbed. Or we get shrugs and inaction. The problems seem so big and so nebulous that even a motivated reader wouldn’t know where to begin.

With Acta Magazine, I want to put a stop to all of that frustration. I want readers and those who want to reach a specific sort of reader to fund important journalism. I want to actually change the world, not just talk about doing it. Most of all, I want to write my own story instead of hoping that one day I can maybe get the sort of ending I want.

Will you join me? I’m doing a live chat soon about Acta, media and anything else people want to ask. Think of it like Reddit’s IamAs but for regular people. It will be on Wednesday, April 2 at 3pm CST and will take place here. I hope you’ll stop by.

If you love something, set it free: a lesson for old media

I woke up this morning to news that Ezra Klein is pulling a Nate Silver and likely leaving The Washington Post.

If you want all the details plus smart takes on what this means, I recommend reading Dan Kennedy’s piece and also Mathew Ingram’s.

For my part, I’m going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, I wrote a blog called The Daily Daley on a now defunct site called The Windy Citizen. It was about Richard M. Daley, the iconic mayor of Chicago, son of the arguably even more iconic Richard J. Daley who was mayor before him.

It was 2008 and this was my first foray into media, a pivotal moment in my life. I had not gone to journalism school. I had not studied it as an undergrad either. I had never written a blog before. I didn’t know anything about how online publishing worked. Brad, Windy Citizen’s founder, had to walk me through everything. He introduced me to the fundamentals of blogging, gaining an audience, how online traffic worked and so much more. From then on, I learned on my own. I read everything I could about media and journalism and eventually became a small, but vocal voice in the “future of news” crowd, online and off.

As for the Daily Daley, though I worked on it for only slightly more than a year and although it never reached a mass audience, it was read by nearly everyone in the local media. It was snarky and funny and politically informed and I liked to believe that journalists read it because I said the things they couldn’t. I remember that years later, I was at an interview for a job at the Chicago Tribune and my interviewer turned out to be a reader of the blog (this happened more than once). I remember him saying he was sad to see it stop. By then, I just shrugged, smiled and didn’t say much. There was a time though, when similar interest from a person employed by a major media organization gave me palpitations and delusions of grandeur.

In February of 2009, the Chicago Journalism Town Hall took place. The reason it was convened was this:

Ken Davis, former Chicago Public Radio guy, realized talking to his peers that, as he said, “People are freaked out” by the shift from traditional to online journalism.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that people were “freaked out” about the shift to online media in 2009. It was a great event and although nothing substantive was accomplished, decided or agreed upon, I believe it was a turning point. It drew attention to the fact that there were definitely two sides in this big sea change that was happening. There were the traditionalists who would cling to the bitter end to the old ways of doing things and there were the futurists who wanted to change everything. Since then, some people have changed sides but the sides remain and they remain obviously not only in Chicago, but all over the country and the world.

But back to my brush with grandeur.

In the ladies’ room at the event, I ran into a woman who worked for the local CBS affiliate, let’s call her Sue. She too was a fan of the blog. She was enthusiastic and gushed about how she loved my take on politcs. To my delight, she said she had been talking to her boss about putting blogs on their station’s website. She said maybe I could blog for them about the impending Rod Blagojevich trial. My eyes must have widened to the size of saucers. An actual media outlet might employ ME? At that point, I hadn’t even done the freelancing that would eventually start me down the path to doing actual journalism and getting paid for it.

Sue and I would bump into each other at future events and I would often email her to ask whether I could come in and meet with her boss to talk about the blog. She always said she was working on it. I was naive then and just starting down my path of self-education about how media worked. I actually thought that just because I was good at something, I could get a paid job doing it. Eventually Sue broke the news to me. “He just isn’t going for it,” she said with genuine regret.

Fast forward back to today and the news about Klein and I find myself crestfallen that things haven’t changed significantly. Sure, every old media site has blogs now. They’re all on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else. So much has changed. Except that what is most important has not. What hasn’t changed inside the majority of media organizations is the attitude, the culture, or whatever you want to call it. And what else hasn’t changed is the rigid hierarchical structure of most news shops. This was the lede of Kennedy’s piece for good reason:

What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?

Unquestionably it has to be the latter. It must. There is no other way forward, because while it seems right now like the status quo can endure, this won’t be the case forever. There are a number of reasons why this is so, but for today I will make the case that someday very soon, news shops that still function like a corporation from the 80′s won’t be able to attract the best and the brightest. Oh, they might work there for a while, like Silver and Klein and others have done, but they will invariably leave for one simple reason: freedom. The freedom to do what they want. To test new things, to fail and start over, to iterate, to reach new audiences, launch new products and create the future of news. People will say they left for more money. And that might be true to an extent, but it cannot be the full story. It cannot because people like these don’t do a job for the money. I know this because I am one of them.

Now, I am hardly a wunderkind on the order of Klein or Silver. I’ve nowhere near their accomplishments or reach. But I have been fired from one media job and willingly left another, because I cannot work in an environment hostile to innovation. I feel suffocated, frustrated, chained. I am horrified by the inefficiencies and the lack of a will to embrace new things and new ideas, regardless of where they come from.

A company where people do as they are told and don’t feel free to suggest changes or, even if they do, know that they have no hope of being heard or implemented,,, this is not a company that can succeed in the 21st century. A company that doesn’t embrace their star performers and give them every means to become better is not a company that has a bright future.

I have no doubt that the higher-ups at every major media organization would say, if asked what their mission is, that they want to deliver the news, inform the public, uncover important stories and of course (for many) make a profit while doing so. If that were really true though, there wouldn’t be an apparent need to tightly control all aspects of that mission. If you love something, in other words, you have to set it free. I hope it’s a lesson old media can learn before they become totally obsolete.

On being a news junkie

“I’ve never understood people who watch CNN all day long.”

This was said by someone in a discussion I saw happening on App.net recently. Later on, the same person diagnosed the types of people who do this. News junkies, he called them.

I smiled when I saw it. Hello, my name is Anna Tarkov and I am a recovering news junkie. Though I’ve long shunned TV news as a means of getting my fix (as is fashionable for all news snobs), I abused Twitter and various websites for years. Given my chosen career path, it’s hardly surprising.

In the world of journalism and media in general, it is assumed that you are a news junkie. Reporters, broadcasters, web editors, etc work with news all day long so if you weren’t a news junkie when you got into the business, you’re very likely to become one. Everyone who has worked in the industry knows the feeling. The rush of a fresh, new story is intoxicating. SOMETHING IS HAPPENING, your mind screams and you have to find out all the facts and report them.

Being a passive consumer of news is very similar. A story breaks and suddenly you want to know everything about it and follow all the developments.

For many, news is not a recreational drug. It is highly addictive. And like any addiction, it takes increasingly higher doses to get high. So you start out innocently enough, checking news sites, blogs or Twitter a few times a day or turning on the TV here and there. But pretty soon you’re glued to the computer and/or TV screen, terrified of missing something. The symptoms of your addiction are both predictable and strange all at once. For instance, you begin to delight in being the first to know about a story.

“Did you hear about the earthquake in Indonesia?” you ask your coworker. They reply that they haven’t and you proceed to smugly give them all the details. In essense, you are reporting the story to them, the same as a journalist would report it to their audience. You are telling them something new, something they don’t already know. It’s exhilarating, isn’t it, being the first to tell someone something? This is precisely what gets many people into the news business. That feeling of telling people what they don’t already know is so satisfying that we accept pathetic salaries, crazy work hours and all sorts of indignities in order to keep doing it.

These days of course, you don’t have to be employed by a news organization to feel like you have a captive audience who needs and wants to hear from you. If you have a popular blog or Tumblr or lots of followers on Twitter (or all of the above and more), you can be a one-woman newsroom. You know what your audience wants and you enjoy giving it to them. They look to YOU for information, perspective and context.  It’s a dizzying feeling of power. You have become something greater than a junkie. You are now the dealer.

I still remember the moments when people said they were paying attention to MY Twitter feed for curation on an important story that was then developing. It felt like I was holding the world in the palm of my hand.

Having now gained some distance from those days, I can categorically say my life is better this way. I don’t know about every story, I don’t know what the latest Twitter war is about, I don’t know about the controversy du jour and I don’t care.

Like all former addicts, I may always have to watch myself to make sure I don’t backslide, but I’m fairly certain I won’t. The reason is that I have gained so much by kicking my addiction. I have gained focus for the things that really matter. I now have deep, nuanced conversations about important topics that go beyond the headlines. I have time to work on things I truly care about. More than anything, I have much greater peace of mind. You didn’t think it was a coincidence that journalists drink, did you?

So if you’re reading this while feverishly scanning Twitter or glazed over from five straight hours of cable news, I have a message for you. There is a life beyond your addiction. Come live it with me.

Stop saying App.net is a Twitter clone

ADN

When I sat down to write this, I thought about doing it all professional-like, pretending it would be something that would appear in Wired or some such. But I decided to opt against that. Why should I pretend that I don’t have strong feelings on something? That would be very unlike me. So here goes.

Last night I saw some posts on ADN (that’s what users call App.net btw) from someone I have followed on Twitter for years and someone I respect, Patrick LaForge. Editor of News Presentation at the New York Times. Patrick’s posts expressed, among other things, a desire for ADN to become distinct from Twitter and Facebook. Reading this, I became compelled to finally write down what I’ve been wanting to say for a long time.

ADN is not like Twitter. Let me repeat that. ADN is not like Twitter. One more time with feeling. ADN IS NOT LIKE TWITTER.

Allow me to explain the way I know best, by using a metaphor. Think of Twitter as a hammer. It’s made of metal, but the metal has been fashioned into a hammer. A hammer is mostly only good for one thing: hammering in nails. I suppose you can misuse it to bash someone’s head in, but most people just use it to hammer in nails. So outside of a few edge cases, it has a discrete and finite purpose.

Now think of ADN as metal. It can be shaped into a hammer, but it can also be shaped into anything else metal can be used to make. Currently, ADN looks like a hammer to many people, because that’s the most prominent thing that has been made from it. Also, it’s recognizable. After seven years of Twitter i.e. the hammer, people see another hammer and say aha! I know exactly what this is. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing ADN is even right now and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s the only thing it will ever be.

I actually don’t understand why the concept is so difficult for people to grasp. All of you reading this probably use Facebook, right? You can use your Facebook account to post updates, photos, share links, etc., but you can also use it to play games and do lots of other things via applications that developers build for Facebook. The same is true of ADN, It’s just early still and no one seems to knows about the non-Twitter like applications that have already been built. Many more will surely follow.

Does everyone get it now? I really hope so. If you still don’t, why not try it out and see for yourself. You can also sign up for free via the iPhone app or the Android one. And please find me if you have questions.

In my next post, I will talk further about what makes ADN so special and why it is more than worthy of your time and attention. But for now at least, I hope we have the idiotic Twitter comparison resolved.

True beauty means #nomakeup

nomakeup

Until somewhat recently, I’ve always worn makeup. Like many girls, I started in my teens and never looked back. Why wouldn’t I wear makeup? It’s what the grown-ups do, right?

As I got older, I learned that less is more, but I continued to put on makeup to go to work, go out (even if just to the grocery store :-)) and practically every other life situation. Very, very faintly, somewhere in the background, I heard men saying that they like when women don’t wear makeup. Ha, I thought. That’s just because they haven’t seen us first thing in the morning. And everybody knows that after a certain age, women don’t primp to impress men. They do it to impress other women.

Though never a heavy user, I nonetheless felt naked and unkempt if I left the house without any makeup whatsoever. I felt like everyone was looking at me thinking how ugly I looked (I’ve thought that plenty even while wearing makeup, but that’s a story for another day). I felt self-conscious. I felt judged, mostly by myself as it turns out. Putting on makeup to me meant a woman cared about her appearance and took the time to make it a priority. The alternative was obviously a lazy slob who couldn’t take even 5 minutes to powder her shiny nose.

Everything changed after the birth of my son in the Fall of 2011. I suddenly had no time and no perceived need for makeup. With a newborn, especially one like mine, you don’t leave the house much.

At first, I thought I’ll go back to my old makeup routine eventually. And I still did it occasionally. A wedding. A job interview. The seven months that I went back to full-time work. But then something started to happen.

The more I saw myself without makeup, the more I realized I actually liked how I looked. So I stopped putting on anything to leave the house, not even concealer or powder which is makeup that is somewhat undetectable as such.

It felt kind of exhilarating. Freed from the fear that people were staring at me and thinking I looked terrible, I felt so much more comfortable in my own skin. It radiated to other things too, like body image. No one loves their body after having a baby and I still want to make changes for my health, but I’ve accepted myself for now and it feels fantastic.

I’m hardly the first to the no makeup party of course. The image atop this post is from a Twitter account promoting natural beauty and the #nomakeup hashtag on Twitter is always fairly active.

So I decided recently to ask women on my new favorite online place, ADN, for pictures of them without any makeup. I was surprised at how many readily shared them and I want to share them here so that we can all see what true, unadulterated beauty looks like. Some of these came from Twitter as well and you’ll find a link to the lady’s ADN or Twitter profile next to each photo.

Please enjoy and if you’re a woman who always, always wears makeup, I’m not judging you. You should do whatever you like to feel beautiful. But maybe you could try this sometime.

JenniJenni

YvonneYvonne

CaitlynCaitlyn

CrumpetCrumpet

JessicaJessica

JulieJulie

KatKat

M.C.M.C.

MorganMorgan

NicoleNicole

SaraSara

SarahSarah

ShawnaShawna

ThelmaThelma

TriciaTricia

TrineTrine

WifeJessica, wife of Jeff

ZalaryZalary

Teena   Teena

And finally me.

ME

I hope this helps give some of you the courage to try going without makeup. And if you do, I hope you’ll find it as liberating as I have.

Oy vey, I am sick of this

Russians in a Skokie Panera are discussing Rahm Emanuel in a way that makes me very, very tired. Allow me to explain.

It’s an older woman and an older man. The man lives in Florida and is here visiting. The woman fills him in on local current events. Let’s call her “Irene” and let’s call him “Boris.”

Irene: There was a demonstration yesterday about the school closings. You know, on the south side.

Boris: Oh yeah?

Irene: Do you know what one of the placards said? “Jewish Decision.” Why did he [Rahm] have to get into this office? Why be in a position of political power at all? As soon as someone gets in, they hate all of us.

To many Jews, this will sound familiar. I have heard this all my life growing up. My father used to say that at the manufacturing plant where he worked, people blamed everything that was wrong with the economy on Alan Greenspan, another Jew in power. And that’s just here in the U.S. You can imagine what they said in the Soviet Union.

The thinking then goes that Jews should stay out powerful positions, lest all other Jews suffer for decisions they make that could foment Jew hatred.

When I hear things like this, I think are you freaking kidding me? Who cares if Rahm Emanuel is Jewish? 

Then I think Christ (ha!), are there really people who blame Jews in this way?

I guess I live in echelons of society where this is not the norm, but I’ve always been warned it exists elsewhere. I don’t know to what extent it exists. It’s almost like a Jewish urban legend, but it strikes into my chest a visceral fear nonetheless. The Jews who lived in Hitler’s Germany also thought they were so deeply integrated into society than no one saw them as different, as “other.”

But now “Irene” and “Boris” have turned to discussing something else I’m very familiar with; the unfortunate situation of someone’s grand-daughter. The poor girl is 25 and unmarried.

Goodbye Sun-Times Media, hello journalism

 

Today I submitted my resignation. My last day as a Pioneer Press/Sun-Times Media Group employee will be April 9. 

There, I think I’ve finally learned how not to bury the lede :-)

Before we get any further, I want to clarify something about the title of this post.

It doesn’t mean that I’ve not been doing journalism in my job at STMG. In fact, as many of you know, I bristle at the “big J” journalism definiton of the same. 

This post’s title just means that, in leaving this job, I’m not leaving the media business. So you’re not through with me yet. I will always be a reporter, even if I don’t always report. It should go without saying that I will always be a blogger.

I now plan to freelance, work on things I am passionate about and spend more time with my family, especially my almost-18-month-old son (suck it, Sheryl Sandberg). I am open to any and all opportunities though. If you have something you want to talk about, let me know. I also might be lauching an online publication/business of my own. Stay tuned.

Especially to those whom I haven’t spoken much recently, it may seem odd that a person who wrote this is now willingly leaving a full-time staff editorial job at an actual print newspaper. A lot can change in the space of a just few years though.

As I just told my editors, this was not an easy decision. I worked for nearly five years to become a journalist. I didn’t study it as an undergrad. I didn’t edit my college or high school paper; I didn’t even write for either paper. I didn’t go to journalism school. I just shoved my way into it by sheer force of will. Maybe one day I’ll tell this story in greater detail. 

Given all that, it wasn’t easy to walk away from this opportunity. I want to thank everyone who has advised me. You know who you are.

There is a great deal more to say, but I something else I’ve learned in recent years is the value of not putting everything out there. Yes, in a world of sharing everything and constant TMI, some things should still remain unsaid. 

I still believe every word of this though.

So… if you have questions, you know where to find me. In the meantime, I have a bunch of stories to work on. 

 

Calling all journalists: share your PR horror stories

I’m doing a panel tomorrow for these folks‘ annual conference. I’m repping community/local media i.e. the little guys :-) We also have someone on the panel from the Chicago Tribune, a public radio station, etc.

The topic? What is ALWAYS the topic when a bunch of journalists and PR people get into a room together? How to pitch us, that’s what they want to know.

They want to know how to not be annoying, what are the best ways to pitch and what are the ways that make us slam our heads on our desks.

They want to know how to cold-call a reporter they’ve never interacted with. 

They want to hear horror stories about what NOT to do and good stories about when a PR person was extremely helpful.

I have my own, but please share yours in the comments so I have more fodder for the panel. 

While I don’t know if they’ll all be in the room for our panel, there are over 400 people registered for this conference so here’s your chance to tell a TON of PR people something that will hopefully ripple throughout the industry. 

Thanks in advance!

 

 

I still don’t know what to do with my life

Journalism, right?

I’m doing it, but I’m still not sure.

The trouble is, I want to do so much more. I want to do things that are so much grander, so much bigger. 

I want to help solve the business problems in the media industry. How to still do good work and make money to sustain it?

I want to break down the “old” rules of media production. I want to create new types of content, not just stories. And by new types of content, I don’t mean videos and live tweets.

I want to help reimagine journalism as a service, not a product.

I want to teach people media literacy.

I want to make media more participatory, more open, more responsive, not so dominated by large corporations (in short, I would love to work here).

I want to do a million other things besides those.

Does anyone know where I can do any of this? Let me know.

 

David Simon on writing

He was talking about writing for television, more specifically Treme, his series about New Orleans, but David Simon still expressed exactly how I feel about the writing process:

I’m not one of those people who likes writing. I just have to do it. I can write in a coffee shop, in an office, on an airplane. I’ll use whatever I can find to write on. I can’t write with music on. My mind follows the music and doesn’t concentrate on what I’m doing. Sometimes I can write if the music is classical or jazz, but if it has vocals, I have to turn it off.

I tend to pace around and think about scenes, I tend to take a nap in the middle of the day. I tend to struggle to stay at the computer. Or I’ll stay at the computer and research a point heavily. I’ll be Googling some history of some rhythm-and-blues artist, trying to find out something that I can use in dialogue. I’ll flail around for an hour and a half to get two small phrases that I’ll end up cutting anyway. It’s not really dawdling, because all that time thinking about it, worrying about it, is me coming up with better ideas or throwing out bad ideas. And then when the script is finally due I’ll be spitting it out as fast as I can.

I can’t listen to music either and I have no idea how others can. I need near total silence in fact, or just a dull roar of background noise. If too many people are talking, I get distracted eavesdropping, getting involved in their conversations, etc. So, I wear earplugs.

Googling things for interminable periods of time: yes, yes and YES. 

Spitting it out as fast as you can when you’re on deadline: I think all reporters can heartily nod their heads to this one.

And here’s Simon on writer’s block:

That fear is probably latent in every writer. You stare at the page for the first time and if you’re honest at all, you know there’s a little part of you screaming, “But what if I can’t do it anymore?” And then you start writing, and usually the first things are not great, and then you try again and eventually you’re off and running. But every time, there’s that first moment of vague terror.

Amen, brother. I will now go stare at some blank pages before somehow willing myself to start writing.