What Makes Writing Sticky?

I’m glad I’m taking feature writing this semester at the same time as I’m completing my concentration in entrepreneurial journalism. Because they draw on such completely different skills that one is always a refreshing break from the other. Rarely do they intersect.

Writing feature stories feels like a right-brained enterprise, intuitive, holistic and creative, while entrepreneurial work, once you’re past the ideation stage, anyway, feels more left-brained: logical, analytical, sequential.

So, imagine my delight this past Monday when Jeremy Caplan introduced our entrepreneurial class to Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, an engaging fun-to-read book that ditches the usual biz-babble to examine the characteristics that make ideas “sticky.”

On the surface, the list seems simple. It forms the acronym SUCCES: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. But the concept is given depth and richness both by the examples the Heaths deploy and by the conversational, storytelling style they use.

As an example, the simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness and narrative quality of any of the best urban folktales – the microwaved poodle, the choking Doberman, the kidney harvest – all explain why these tales, each patently untrue, are so persistent in our culture.

But as I read and listened, my right brain and left brain converged and presented me with an apercu – not to be confused with a stroke. I realized that these attributes could also function as a set of rules for the kind of great writing we’d been studying in feature writing and trying to imitate.:

Simplicity: Whether it’s the plot of Maupassant’s short stories or the leanness of Hemingway’s prose, simple is sticky when it comes to writing.

Unexpectedness: Has anyone who has ever read “The Little Match Girl” or “Gift of the Magi” ever forgotten the final plot twists? They are stickiness defined.

Concreteness: The first lesson every reporter/writer learns or should learn. Details are the soul of good writing. From the Hemingway’s opening scene-setter in A Farewell to Arms to the environmental description that strikes the tone for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, it’s detail that sticks.

Credibility: Whether your narrator is reliable or not, if your story isn’t believable at the gut level, it will not stick.

Emotions: What is it we remember most about a piece of writing? Usually it’s the either the emotions expressed or those we are made to feel. Returning to A Farewell to Arms, who can ever forget the terse yet miserably lonely, rain-soaked concluding paragraph?

Stories: “Stories within stories” is what Charles Leerhsen, our features instructor, is always telling us makes for a good, long-form story. But even on a more basic level, the first question anyone asks about a novel or a movie is, “What’s it about?” There’s a good reason for this: Stories stick.

So, please excuse me. I have to go try to pry the left and right sides of my brain apart.

Marathon bombing leaves cracks in the “new news ecosystem”

When news of the Boston Marathon bombing broke on Monday my reaction was worthy of one of B.F Skinner’s pigeons in a Skinner box: I wanted to press the lever that delivered a newspaper – one of those thrilling extras we used to put out when big news broke in the morning back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But since nobody puts extras out anymore – just 10 or so years after my former employer, the Boston Herald, printed its last, the notion already seems as quaint – and as dead – as the paperboy – I did what I thought was the next best thing: I went to the Boston papers’ websites: bostonherald.com and boston.com. The Herald’s website was accessible, but clearly the staff was scrambling. A half-hour after the first bomb went off at 2:50, a breaking news banner led to a jumbled, four-paragraph story. The Globe’s website had crashed entirely.

As I looked up, stunned, a classmate had jumped onto Twitter, and began reading off posts that unfolded like a series of news bulletins, hundreds pouring in every minute, providing everything that the newspaper sites could not.

I’m afraid I sound like a naïf here, but I’m really not. I’m an old-media guy by training and experience for sure, but I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of years. I understand the role it has played in breaking-news stories since the earthquake in China in 2009 and especially during the Arab spring that bloomed a year later. I could even pick Andy Carvin out of a crowd. But this was the first time I saw its incredible power to report a story in which I was personally invested – and how lame it made big media look moment by moment. For me, things have changed, and for the better.

Of course, no good in the new-media world is unalloyed. As usual, Twitter was distinguished in part by the amount of bad information it put out along the way. As Slate’s Jeremy Stahl later said, if newspapers provide what Washington Post Publisher Philip L. Graham called “the first rough draft of history,” then Twitter “is the first rough draft of journalism.” And, as anyone who has ever produced one knows, first drafts are messy.

But so what? In this, Twitter and other social media outlets were hardly alone. Perhaps in an effort to keep up with the speed of developments on social media, old-media outlets, ranging from CNN to Fox, from the Globe itself to the New York Post, made egregious errors along the way that they were forced to walk back, often grudgingly. Some of the mistakes were never corrected. As radio and TV reporters have known for decades, the immediacy/accuracy ratio is thornier than any quadratic equation.

But here’s where it gets weird. Not content merely to provide breaking-news developments, social media denizens began to dabble in press criticism, pointing out the mainstream media’s mistakes with all the gleeful high-school snark we have come to expect from the medium. One commentator went so far as to celebrate social media’s new role as ombudsman. Excuse me, but it’s hard to imagine the Times’ Margaret Sullivan pointing out other outlets’ mistakes without taking note of those made by her own. The other way around is more often the case, in fact.

This phenomenon reached the Everest of absurdity on Reddit, where would-be critics of mainstream journalism raged about the New York Post’s decision to splash with a photo of two men (not the brothers later ID’d as the bombers) allegedly sought for questioning by investigators, charging that the paper had unfairly stigmatized, and possibly even libeled, the pair. Flash forward a day, and posters to Reddit named as a suspect a Brown University student who almost assuredly had nothing to do with the blast. What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture is that both social media and the mainstream media need to understand their new roles in this part of what Jeff Jarvis has called the “new news ecosystem.” Social media gives us a speedy, crowdsourced first draft of breaking news. As such, errors are to be expected, although restraint and discretion about what to post and re-post should be exercised, as Carvin does so well.

The mainstream media provides the context, analysis, depth and breadth that social media by definition cannot provide. If it wishes to retain the credibility that is one of its natural advantages, the mainstream media needs to be far more careful about competing with social media for immediacy, because errors are more apparent when they’re frozen in print or on tape, making it tougher for the mainstream to walk back an error.

For their part, social media natives need to understand that they are part of an ecosystem that includes mainstream media. Where would social media be, for example, without the reporting of the mainstream to post? Instead of behaving like a high-school clique bent on ridiculing the errors of old-media outlets, they need to grow up, put aside the snark and self-righteousness, and strive to improve at doing what they do best. To do otherwise is to display all the intelligence of a pigeon in a Skinner box.

This post brought to you by… me

Our spirited discussion about advertising with Lewis D’Vorkin yesterday reminded me that I’ve wanted to scratch the itch of sponsored content for a few weeks. Happily, the New York Times sanctioned such discussions the week before last, when it discovered – in much the same way Columbus discovered America, I guess – the controversy over this growing form of advertising.

In truth, the controversy’s been simmering for more than a year. And that’s as it should be. Because, done improperly, sponsored content threatens the only thing that old and new media alike really have to sell – and that’s credibility.

First, let’s define the terms: sponsored content is exactly what it sounds like – a story, a photo, a chart, a video directly sponsored by an advertiser. They can be written and edited by the sponsor or by the outlet’s staff on behalf of the sponsor. On this everyone agrees. It’s not much different from the concept of “advertorial” in the old media world: a piece of print content, often an insert, sometimes a page or two of ROP, prepared by or in cooperation with the advertiser and clearly marked as such.

Notice I’ve italicized “clearly marked as such.” That’s because this is where the agreement on sponsored content begins to break down these days. In the old media world, the marking would take the form of a narrow banner at the top of the page that said “advertorial” or “advertising.” Papers took pains to insure that readers were further tipped off by fonts, headline and layout styles that differed visibly from those employed in the news pages.

Why did papers go to the trouble? First, because they aware of the eternal tension between advertisers and news organizations. Advertisers, naturally, want to get their messages across to consumers with the least possible amount of mediation. And, if they can, they also seek to appropriate some of the news organization’s credibility by making their message resemble news content as much as possible.

This is undeniable. Some of most brutal battles I had with my colleagues in advertising were over their requests that advertorial be made to look a little less like what it was, and a little more like news content. The nadir of this approach was the infamous grapefruit diet ad and others like it that some newspapers, including mine at the time, published in the ‘90s and 2000s. That was one fight I lost.

Forbes handles sponsored content well. If the banner designating it isn’t entirely intelligible, it is large, and there’s a clickable “what’s this?” link that explains it all very clearly. But I can’t say the same for Mashable, Buzzfeed and some other websites, where the game seems to be to cater to advertisers by giving them what they so badly wanted from newspaper advertorial back in the day – as little distinction between it and news content as possible.

Yes, it’s a new digital day, and a much more challenging environment than in the glory days of old media. But one thing hasn’t changed. Readers still value credibility highly when it comes to news websites. And advertisers want to be part of a site in part because it’s credible. For online news executives to squander this with vague justifications such as “content is content” and “readers don’t care where content comes from” is to sell, like Esau, their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Can you hear me now…?

When the blog posts and tweets started cresting last week celebrating the 40th anniversary of the cell phone, I didn’t know whether to sing a chorus of “Happy Birthday” or pitch my iPhone off the roof and then run it over with my car.

Cell phones have had that sort of affect on me almost from the start.

Though most writers were quick to offer the ritual top tens – worst handset, best handset – or the hoary foundational story of the first call from a Motorola Dyna-TAC (a brick-like appliance that made Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone look sleek) -from a Manhattan streetcorner in 1973, – few dug beneath the surface to examine the impact of the cellphone on our lives.

Though it can hardly be understated – cellphones, it could be reasonably argued, are the sina qua non of the modern world — that impact, I would suggest, is decidedly mixed. In truth, like Antony, I bury my cellphone much more often than I praise it.

It wasn’t always this way. Unlike many of my youthful classmates, I not only remember the early cell phones, but I carried one of the first models to make a commercial splash in the late ‘80s – the unbelievably ungainly Motorola Micro-TAC, which despite its optimistic nomenclature was about the size and weight of half a brick, available in any color as long as it was it was death-pallor-gray and with its whip antenna looked more like a walkie-talkie than the walkies it was replacing in the newsroom. When you loaded one of those babies into your inside breast pocket, it made your jacket sag so one-sidedly it looked like it had had a stroke.

But we loved them. Call anyone, anywhere, anytime. Reporters in the field. Wow. “Can you hear me now?” Your wife from the train. “I’m calling from a cellphone.” To repeat, wow.

Of course, that was before we realized that cellphones made you reachable at any time as well. Like while you were driving your car, formerly an inviolable oasis of solitude, or traveling, or in the grocery or during a hundred other formerly solitary activities that once defined daily life in the era of the landline. And once those boundaries of solitude were erased by the cellphone, it was only a matter of time until the appliance leveled the wall between work and play as well. Like the appliance to which they were increasingly tethered, workers were soon considered always on.

Thus, the era cell-phone serfdom had begun. And, remember, this was well before email, broadband, mobile internet access, text messaging and social media made the cellphone even more essential, not just a communications tool but the device through which we have, for better or worse, come to access much of our world. Need evidence of the cell’s centrality to our lives? Just watch the next time someone you know almost leaves the house without his or her cell phone but catches himself. You would think they had almost left the house without pants.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Much of what I do for a living, as well as much of what I do for pleasure, would be infinitely more difficult without a cell phone, and sometimes I even appreciate mine. But you’ll forgive me if I sit out the candles and the birthday cake.

But I do have a birthday present for you, my little cell phone. Come with me. It’s up on the roof.