Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

PNWA: The risky businesses of journalism and publishing

Beaten and battered, but still fighting.

Journalism and publishing are two very different industries, and the differences go far beyond the whole double-spacing-after-a-period thing.

Journalists work in a fast-paced environment and our jargon reflects this: scoops, headlines, cutlines, pull quotes, banners, leads (or leads), deadlines ... see all those verbs? We scoop, we cut, we pull, we lead and then we drop dead.

If journalism’s time reference is quick and human, publishing’s time frame is more … geologic. An epoch can give way to an era between a book’s conception and publication. At last month’s Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s conference, we were “authors” not “reporters” who wrote “manuscripts” not “copy” to be “published” not “printed.” The jargon was more sedate: advance, slush, pitch, royalty, galley.

But despite these differences, the two industries face similar challenges these days, a clash between the old and the new, as traditional professionals fight to be heard above online newcomers. In journalism, these newcomers are called bloggers or “citizen journalists,” the latter embraced by online newspapers as a cheaper, faster way to get content.  In publishing, those new guys and gals are self-published authors.

In traditional journalism not so long ago, a story was pitched to an editor, the editor followed up on the story’s progress,  the story was submitted and edited, then copy edited, then proofed. Then and only then did the story go public. Errors and typos still slipped through, but the process worked to create the most professional result possible. Ideally, the finished result would be a professionally produced work, the product of a group collaboration, not one single mind, no matter how talented.

Similarly in publishing, for a book to hit the shelves, the writer pitches an agent who sells the project to a publisher. A whole table of people vet this acquisition: editors, marketers, production staff, publicists … they all have to sign off on it. Again, the final product, while not perfect, is professionally produced, the result of a group of talented minds.

Furthermore, both journalists and book writers have a formal apprenticeship, years of writing before you get the plum assignments or the book contracts.

The Internet has changed all this, of course. Now traditional newspaper writers compete with bloggers and “citizen journalists.” Traditional book authors compete with self-published authors. These nontraditional writers often display great creativity and talent and are formidable competitors not to be underestimated.

But with the barriers to entry in both industries partly dismantled, readers are flooded with books and articles in various stages of professional development. It can be difficult for readers to distinguish between a professionally sourced news story and an amateur blog post. Book readers surfing on Amazon’s wave of titles may lump together the professionally agented, edited, marketed and designed books and their self-published counterparts.

At the PNWA conference,  I repeatedly heard speakers say today’s books have to “break through the noise.” I hear this phrase in online journalism too. So the question for both journalists and book writers becomes, how do we uphold the traditional standards of  our industry while still innovating and accepting change?

One thing is for sure, looking down our noses at self-published authors and citizen journalists may make us feel better but won’t help anyone. My newspaper recently wrote about San Francisco International Airport’s crackdown on those newfangled ridesharing companies. In an effort to protect the taxi drivers who take passengers to and from the airport, SFO has conducted citizen’s arrests of Lyft and Uber drivers for trespassing.

Well, as a taxi passenger who has waited an hour for a taxi, endured baffling, circuitous routes to my destination or has had to scrape up cash because the taxi driver’s credit card reader was mysteriously broken, I say the traditional taxi industry in San Francisco has left a gaping customer service hole large enough to drive a gleaming, black Uber car through. Ridesharing companies are filling a need, or they wouldn’t be so successful, and taxi companies ignore this at their peril.

Traditional journalists and book writers can’t be like those taxi drivers. We can’t close ranks against the newcomers. They are now part of our culture and our dialogue. I believe in traditional publishing; I choose to prepare my memoir for agents. But I believe in self-publishing too, although it is not for me.

There is one word I don’t hear much of in either the journalism or publishing industries, probably because it was so self-evident. That word is “risk.” My newspaper is currently making enormous changes and taking huge risks. Publishers take big risks every time they acquire a book.

Bloggers, citizen journalists and self-published authors are considered the risk takers these days. But as bookstores and newspaper stands close every day while my own articles and book manuscript inch along the longer path to readers, today’s traditional journalists and book authors remain the biggest risk takers of all.

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