Why 9/12 also matters

Nineteen years ago today, I was in my second week of classes in college*. I was starting my first day of work-study in the communication department at Loyola College. I had class at 9:25, but I showed up a little early to see what work would be like following the class.

I arrived just as the second plane hit. Welcome to Loyola.

Over the next decade, I wrote a handful of recollections on 9/11, and what our society had done in response, on an old defunct blog.

The response is key for a few reasons. One, we are defined by how we respond to adversity. Two, we culturally tend to remember the big, national and political responses — TSA, the war on terror, the hardening of the red-blue divide.

We can easily forget the immediate, intimate national response of grief and support, especially as time passes and fewer living people clearly remember the day.

My point? We don’t have to forget what happened on 9/11 to also recall the way we responded on 9/12 and in the following days. We saw a human instinct to help, to collectively solve problems that exists before bad habits and old rivalries smother it out. (We’ve seen some of this, but not enough, during this slower-moving, murkier pandemic)

We also saw a lot of bad responses, driven by fear or hate or by bad actors trying to take advantage of a tragedy. We can’t forget those, either.

I don’t want to be naive about the aftermath of 9/11. If fact, I hope the quote below conveys how disillusioned I was in 2007 about our overall societal response. What I do want to convey is that we can still influence the living memory of that time.

The 9/12 of our lives can be how we respond to any adversity, to any attack. Do we let that hurt control us, or do we respond with our best selves, even as we confront the threat before us? The 9/12 of our lives can be shorthand for how we try to pick up the pieces.

Anyways, here’s what I wrote in 2007 about the aftermath — what life was like on 9/12.

9/12 is America at its starkest, its best. Not just the patriotic coming-together, but the realization that life isn’t easy, fair, kind or necessarily long. And the corresponding realization that much good can be accomplished despite, or because of, knowing those cruel facts. Our bubbles, dreams and perceptions can be shattered, yet we can pick up the pieces. We can survive in a world without sports or plane travel, yet again return to them without being overwhelmed by fear or guilt. 9/12 was a day of overcoming paralysis to act, however one could, without a plan but somehow making it work. Those are things to remember. Right now, we too much wish to escape. The celebrity culture is peaking, not in the height of outrageousness, but the width of its reach. Any person can be a star, a public event to cash in and be cashed in on, because it’s like the bar never closes. 24-hour viewings, no charge, no thinking, no lasting judgment brought upon spectator or spectacle. Without the health risks. Physical, that is. Mentally, we suffocate ourselves. Emotionally, we shutter ourselves.

*For many years, I’ve remembered this the other way around — 9/11 being my first day of classes and my second week of work-study. But that paragraph is what I wrote in a separate 2006 post, so I’m guessing that’s more likely to be accurate.

A few thoughts on AP’s capitalization of the “b” in “Black”

I’ve been a professional copy editor for 15 years this month, and the AP Stylebook has grown up and evolved right along with me.

The book itself is still a book, but most of us access it online. “Web site” is now “website,”; “videotape” became “video recording” or just “video”; and “cell phone,” “e-mail” and “smart phone” shifted to “cellphone,” “email” and “smartphone,” respectively.

These changes all make sense, and The Associated Press was usually catching up to other large publications. That’s understandable. AP style is reflected in articles ready by tens of millions of people every day, and hundreds of publications will reflexively change their styles to match. AP can’t screw around.

And yet, in my opinion, AP has too often been haphazard and knee-jerk in the style policies it sets. Many decisions appeared not to think through consistency or second-order effects (“US” in a headline but “U.S.” in text? Really?).

Those official updates weren’t the only problem. The AP’s online-only “Ask the Editor” Q&A supplement often offers contradictory or conflicting guidance, which is then pointed out — but rarely resolved — in later questions.

All of this is to say that I’m pleasantly surprised in the way AP handled the change from “black” to “Black” when used, to quote AP, “as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense.”

(AP’s policy change also calls for capitalizing “Indigenous,” for which I would also apply the reasonings below, with the caveat that I’ve not examined the term as closely)

I was expecting a laborious, contradictory reasoning, but AP’s blog post and the entries themselves are relatively straightforward. To quote a large part of the relevant entry:

Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.

African American is also acceptable for those in the U.S. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow an individual’s preference if known, and be specific when possible and relevant. Minneapolis has a large Somali American population because of refugee resettlement. The author is Senegalese American.

Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.

I don’t think it was wrong to have not done this earlier. The national mood has changed, and many people for the first time are conscious about the significance of using “black” or “Black.” Updating your views on new information is a sound practice, and that’s what that feels like to me — rather that, say, rewriting or redefining the English language.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. This is not a new idea.

Calls to capitalize “Black” because of its specific context and meaning are decades old. John McWhorter made the case in 2004 even while recognizing the reasons why “African-American” emerged. There are earlier examples that I, regrettably, forgot to bookmark.

“Black” is also one of the terms that replaced “Negro,” which clearly deserves capitalization but didn’t receive it in many quarters for decades because of racism. The New York Times took until 1930 to do so.

In the 1930 article announcing the style change, let us note that the Times was still stuck in a vocabulary of paternalism and false race science (praising Maj. Robert R. Morton as “the foremost representative of the race in America”). However, the paper also recognized its error and the disrespect it showed by capitalizing other designations of culture and population but not capitalizing Negro.

The Times article closes by saying: “It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in ‘the lower case.'”

Recognition is not the only argument to make in capitalizing “Black,” but it’s certainly one that helps distinguish it from, say, “white” or “brown,” and aligns it with terms such as “Hispanic.”

2. English capitalizes proper nouns and nouns of social/human categories.

Here’s a simple example: Prince and “The Prince” are proper nouns, “the prince” is not.

As NYU professor Kwame Anthony Appiah writes for The Atlantic:

We routinely name and capitalize entities (the Middle Ages, January, the Pacific Ocean, Copenhagen) that reflect human interests or actions. On the other hand, we tend not to capitalize “natural kinds”—that is, categories that track with inherent features of the world, independent of our interests or doings. Einstein, the physicist, is capitalized; einsteinium, the element, is not.

A good reason to capitalize the racial designation “black,” then, is precisely that black, in this sense, is not a natural category but a social one—a collective identity—with a particular history. (“Race is psychology, not biology” is a formulation Du Bois once offered.) What’s more, the very label “black” plays a role in generating that identity.

Appiah correctly notes the tension over how we go about rationalizing the case of “black” and how we then treat “white.”

For instance, I’m sympathetic to the logic and consistency in APA’s style entry that calls for “Black” and “White,” but I’m not sure that academic style conveys the same nuance in the news articles that AP style is geared toward. What to do about capitalizing “white” remains unfinished business, whether as grammarians or people using the language.

One other thing Appiah notes brings me to my final point.

3. Language is what’s used, not what’s decreed.

Language has rules and conventions, but it does not have laws. Language evolves over time — most of us don’t worry about “thou” or “thee,” “whom or “shall,” and certainly not about whether you can use “collision” with only one object in motion.

Even the meanings of once straightforward writing can become muddled, both within a language and when trying to translate to another. Why else would we still be debating phrases in the Constitution, arguing how to best translate the Bible or “Beowulf,” or striving to create a dictionary out of Latin scribblings?

As Appiah writes:

There’s no objectively correct answer to the question of whether to capitalize black and white in advance of such a consensus. … It’s not exactly grassroots democracy; some voices count more than others, and people usually leave typographical niceties to the expert associations concerned with them. What vox populi retains is veto power.

What are the strong arguments against? I don’t think concern and uncertainty about capitalizing “white” is a reason to foreclose the discussion altogether. Not wanting to change, obviously, is a common trait among “hold the line” editors but not sufficiently a valid defense.

I understand the argument that this change is political. But once it became a public issue, not changing it also became political. And I don’t think it’s solely a political issue, especially when we consider the historical and grammatical precedents.

There’s also the unscientific issue of popular opinion to consider. Like it or not, once enough news organizations sign onto something — “email” or “website” in the last decade, “Black” in this one — the fluid pressure of consistency becomes a factor. Being consistent has less to do with being correct than with picking your battles.

It’s not just the momentum of newsroom policies, of course. Popular usage carries the day. Right now, all the usage and momentum are going in the same direction, and there are also decent historical and grammatical arguments for the change.

In the end, I’m satisfied with the reasoning, and I’ve got bigger battles to fight, like getting writers to learn how commas work or to spell people’s names correctly.

Work is the easy part of life (for me)

I didn’t plan to come to D.C. I didn’t plan to stay a decade, much less at the same workplace. I didn’t plan on anything in 2009 other than moving to a populated area for an editing job that wasn’t print-dependent. I got lucky — in the recession I found a place that needed copy editors, would pay more and had a growing, profitable revenue stream.

Today is 10 years since I started that job right after moving to D.C. We were in a different building, but still on 11th St. NW, and my co-worker and fellow copy editor El (for Eleanor) took me to the Potbelly down the street that’s still there. I’d barely spent time in D.C. before, much less been to a Potbelly, and it was exciting! Potbelly is just another lunch place today, but I hope I haven’t lost my joy at being in this awe-inspiring, busy and ridiculous city.

I have had a full decade. Many accomplishments, many mistakes. Met many people, built relationships with a lot, screwed up a few of those and even got burned by a couple of them. Lived in a few apartments, and somehow pay $1,000 a month more than I did for like an extra 200 square feet. Metro is always simultaneously a godsend and a functional disaster. I had a car, and now I haven’t driven one for 3.5 years. I was single. Now I’m not.

The constant has been having this job where I help put together emails for people in random niches — emails that seem to be popular with readers and advertisers even though no one would ever mistake them for literature.

The less constant part has been figuring out what exactly I was supposed to doing with my life as an adult. And by “figuring out,” I also mean I didn’t or couldn’t address this for a long time.

When I was 7 years old, I wanted to work in newspapers (I had two other goals; we’ll get there). I had some kind of software program for my Commodore 64 or whatever we replaced that with where I would mock up news pages. For fun. I wrote a paper about the 1993 Mississippi River floods, and it wasn’t even for school! I just wanted to dig as much into this ongoing, huge yet distant story as I could. This was what I was excited about.

Then I spent a lot of years getting really lucky. Despite the disintegration of seemingly everything around me in high school, I was able to hang in there in class, do well enough with sports to compete in college and get my Eagle Award despite switching troops halfway through.

In college, I was fortunate enough to find people who got me, belatedly, into the school paper and a class just so taught by one of the pre-eminent copy editors in the US. That got me a great internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune right before the newspaper bubble burst (seriously, summer 2005 was, I believe, the 20th consecutive year of circulation growth there) and then a full-time copy editing and pagination job at a daily newspaper that fall.

Was I really just running out the clock, as I like to joke?

Here is where my intellectual dilemma began: I’d done the three things I wanted to do at 7, and I was 22 with nothing left to accomplish. Not really true, and a bit silly, but this was the shock to the system. Luckily, I had this job to learn and grow in and a daily battle against the recession and fading print interest and every other challenge the evening shift at a paper presents.

So what have I done with the last 10 years? Work. A lot. But I’ve also had to learn to figure out what else I wanted in life. Was I really just running out the clock, as I like to joke? Should I really be bouncing between apathy and aggravation so frequently? Why was I being different versions of myself for different people and situations?

I haven’t quite figured all this out. But over the past few years I had to start reconstructing my values system, if only for my own clarity. The most obvious realization was that I was running away from those early life goals, even if it was for a good reason. Those childhood aspirations hinted at a few things that do bring out the best in me:

  • Getting people information they need: I like talking and I like sharing things. But, having facts and things inside my head isn’t that rewarding. It’s the sharing that I enjoy. At its best, this is an act of service. Sure, I might like being the person informing people, but ultimately I only succeed if they do. (Also, this isn’t the same as information they want — I’m sometimes nudging them past their comfort or existing knowledge) Luckily, working in journalism and then email has been a natural conduit for this passion.
  • Being a college athlete. This is more selfish, sure. But it also was a laser focus for figuring out what I could be good enough at, setting a goal, working hard and learning everything I could about it. I never loved running, but I was pretty good at it, trusted and learned from my coaches, had great teammates and found an excellent community. By working hard I could test my limits, be part of a group and give back. Finding something to devote myself to has been more challenging — there’s a lot of investment and risk involved.
  • Being an Eagle Scout. The Scouts have had problems, I know. But I greatly benefited from the Scouting value system. I needed its close-knit group of support, its emphasis on thinking through values and acting on them, and the reminder that those choices and values were never in isolation from others. Additionally, I was usually one of the older Scouts those last few years, and it was a great and wonderful responsibility to help the younger kids find their way. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever abandoned those values, but I didn’t always put the work in (or have the mental energy to do so).

So, if I’m having a good day at work, I’m helping others be informed. I’m practicing my craft the best I can so I can contribute toward my goals and aid my co-workers and our clients/customers. In doing that, I can also get to know them, and them to know me. We can build trust and maybe friendship that can help us weather when things don’t go well or when hard decisions have to be made.

And, hopefully, in doing all of this, I’m thinking beyond myself in what I say, think and do. I’m not shying away from the right thing because it’s difficult, awkward or inconvenient. I don’t feel the need to jump in just to have an opinion. And when I don’t know something, I can be OK with that (and, in most cases, learning more).

If I can live those values at work, then I’m being the best I can be, and I can live with the results. And if I can live those values at work, then for damn sure I can strive to live those values outside of work. I don’t have to partition those two worlds, or pretend that I have to be two personalities (or want to be). And — and! — then I’m not just running out the clock.

How am I doing? Ask me each day, the answer might change! But I do think that I’ve been slowly trudging in the right direction.

If nothing else, I’ve learned that, for me, work’s the relatively easy part! It’s the other 16 hours a day, give or take, that are the challenge.

Work lessons from a decade at the same job

Today is 10 years since I started at SmartBrief. I like to have a home base, a touch point, even as I challenge myself, and working here has largely given me that balance over the past decade.

Most importantly, I’m incredibly grateful for the hundreds of people I’ve gotten to work with — smart, thoughtful, curious, funny and fun people. And through this work, I’ve met and enjoyed learning from hundreds of clients and readers. Those are the best days, when I’ve helped them in some way and we get to share with each other.

Here are a few other things I hope I’ve learned over this decade. I hope they’ll help a few of you:

1. Curiosity counts. What SmartBrief does is simple enough, but it’s easy to be confused by if all you see is “news digests and advertising.” Building up largely through external talent wasn’t possible — there just aren’t enough B2B media experts, email marketing mavens or people with tons of experience selling B2B ads in email form. But we hire a lot of people are smart, curious, willing to learn and eager to connect the dots of what they know with what they encounter. I am pretty sure that curiosity is a good trait in most workplaces.

2. Know your work culture. Some companies are siloed or extremely roles-oriented. I’ve work organizations of friendly people who are so worried about turf wars that they hesitate to even introduce colleagues in a different function. Breaking the rules or going off-book might be hazardous there.

My experience has been the opposite. I’ve long told new hires: “We will let you experiment, try things, even change jobs, roles and departments if you are curious and bold enough (and get the right backing). But if you want to sit in a corner and wait for someone to pluck you, you’ll be waiting a long time.” Now that SmartBrief’s been acquired, it’s time to learn this again. That’s great – it’s a worthy challenge.

3. Give trust even as you verify it. I’ve struggled with this over the years. I’m an editor, a former copy editor, and someone who, in my little world, can quickly tell whether someone is up to the job and curious enough to improve. But it’s easy for that sensibility to become unfounded suspicion.

Don’t be naïve, don’t think trust means “I’m not paying attention” or “here’s all the work, new person. Good luck!” But assume good intentions whenever you can. That leads into …

4. Forgive even if you can’t forget. I’m lucky in that I’ve been burned or betrayed only on rare occasions. And, you know, even those people are usually not malevolent. You can’t always leave them behind, either. Maybe you still work with them. Maybe the situation is a recurring one. Maybe you need to change some things.

You don’t have to pretend the harmful thing never happened, but you can say, “How can I do my best going forward?” (I’m talking about slights or disappointments more than actual crimes here, to be clear)

5. Help where you can. I don’t like to calculate how much or whether I’ve helped people, whether they be co-workers, clients or others. That’s an easy way to overestimate your impact and importance. So instead I try to remind myself to look for opportunities to try . Can I help someone know they’re appreciated? That their work – and the effort and thought put into it – was stellar? That they have a skill or philosophy that I admire?

All this takes relatively little time or effort and you can build trust and companionship. Hopefully the recipient of your words and actions feels more confident and supported. Certainly, with networking and office politics, you need some recognition. But supporting others isn’t about that. Do the work, the recognition will come. As always, I can do a lot better in this area.

6. The most important people are rarely the top-ranking. This isn’t to knock executives. I’ve worked with many, and I edit a newsletter for leaders, after all. But as we all should know, your subject-matter experts will save you time after time. Your connectors will bring ideas and people together even when it’s not their job to do so. Your “common sense” committee will be full of voices who can propose unsurfaced ideas and calmly and respectfully question the really stupid ideas.

Don’t forget: Your admins, support staff and executive assistants do the hardest work, know everyone and set the tone.

7. People leave. It’s normal. I can’t emphasize this enough. Just because I’ve been at one place for a long time doesn’t mean I mind at all when co-workers leave! (Maybe they think I’m the one staying too long?) People want a new challenge or are bored. Maybe they’re blocked from the promotion, salary or responsibility they want. Maybe they want to travel or move closer to a loved one. And maybe they really did have a terrible experience. All of those reasons are equally valid. People are more than their jobs.

8. Do something outside of work. I know, I know, we all say this and don’t necessarily follow through. The world is nearly endless. Go explore it. And you’re really that worried about work, the experiences, insights, people and learning you gather in “real life” will ultimately help you at your job.

Like when I moved here a decade ago, I don’t know what’s next. But I’m really lucky to be a great city, employed, in good health and with great people around me. As long as I remember everything I preached about above, I’ll find my way forward and hopefully help a lot of people do so, too.

A year later

Today is a year since my co-worker Amanda died, shockingly and unexpectedly. I’ve been thinking about this day for a while, probably for a few reasons.

I don’t want to pretend like I have anything profound to say. Literally hundreds and hundreds of people knew her better than I did, and today is a day for them. But I’ve thought about her a lot in this past year, so here’s a pile of words on of how I’m trying to remember her.

The one-year anniversary of something like this is powerful, especially when I’ve never experienced that (any co-worker death, much less someone only 7 years old than me). I have felt grateful to have known her — such a bright spirit and someone whose presence was always felt on our team even though she was a remote employee — and have felt bad, in some unexplainable way, for not knowing her even better.

And, while I sort of appreciated it, Facebook has insisted on highlighting her as the first person who “liked” any post that came up in my daily Memories (formerly “On This Day”). So, I’ve been watching the clock wind down on that, too — Monday was the last first anniversary of her “liking” any of my dumb status updates and check-ins. She was an active Facebooker!

While her death has been only one of several things that have shaken up my world in the past 15-18 months, I feel like I’ve been able to still learn from her in this past year — not only from what I knew of her, but what I heard from at her service, from co-workers, and by thinking about why we miss her.

We can all be nicer and more generous of ourselves and our time without being pushovers. We can always do more to get to know the people in our lives, even if it’s short or occasional conversations. We can look toward the future without forgetting to appreciate what we have, what we’ve done and who is around us. We can be proud of our work and pursuits without letting them be the only things that define us. These are all things I think about as qualities she lived.

I’m excruciatingly slow to change, but there are two things I think I’ve learned in the past year. One is from Seth Godin’s altMBA program, which was (paraphrasing) that “not everyone is ready to take the journey with you.” I might have to move past deliberate barriers, or remove negative, destructive or toxic influences — without malice — to get to where I need to be.

The second is from knowing Amanda for just a few short years: Kind and generous people are indispensable, and you should do everything you can to surround yourself with them. To choose between talent and goodness is a false choice.

Of course, we miss you, Amanda. But I’m grateful so much of you is still here with us.

Everyone has a last day at work

I realized last year that I’m in the top 10% in terms of longevity at my company. I literally was able to name every person who has been there longer (that list has since shrunk by one).

I think about that fairly often. I was also reminded recently about how many people have come through the doors since I started nearly nine years ago — roughly 200, and probably more than that now.

This isn’t a post about retention or lack thereof. It’s a post about how no matter what you do, the best possible outcome is that people stay at an organization for as long as it makes sense. and then they leave.

People leave. It’s just what happens. You hope that they don’t leave because they’re terrible, or that they are treated terribly, or that they could have thrived but weren’t allowed to, but even when you do all that, people get a better offer or move away or change careers or start their own company. Or they retire. The awful truth is that, occasionally, they die.

I’ve stayed so long, I hope, because I’ve found something that is the best fit for me and where I can do the most good, with a decent wage, and where the inevitable problems of the workplace aren’t overwhelming. But that’s my story, and not everyone else’s.

I write or edit about leadership every day. One underrated component of leadership is that you are helping people succeed. Ideally, that’s in conjunction with your goals or your organization’s aims, but that’s not a requirement. Sometimes, you help by helping them move on.

I’ve had to learn this lesson, starting more than a decade ago when a co-worker left for what I thought was a poor reason. I’m glad I’ve grown up a bit since then, realizing that I could sulk or I could be supportive.

Being supportive can be a quiet, passive action — shutting your mouth other than wishing good luck — or it can be active. Maybe it’s listening to a co-worker talk about their career path. It could be making an introduction or providing a reference, but not always. Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding someone you know that you value them as a person, and that value also makes them a good hire.

My advice or insight might not affect their decision, but what if it does? How can I not take that responsibility seriously?

This doesn’t mean you try to get people to leave or that you try to wedge yourself into their lives. Helping people find the career for them isn’t an opportunity for you to feel like a kingmaker.

I try to not get involved — I am there to help, but I don’t want to presume I have the answers. If anything, I want to ask questions, like, “What do you want to be doing?” “What does your ideal job look like?” (I’m not sure I am great at asking these, but I want to) Being helpful here is helping someone discover the answers, not providing them.

Over the years, I think I’ve helped a number of people grow and advance at my company (and stay when they might not have). I think I’ve helped people outside work find new and better jobs. I’ve also tried to make sure co-workers who’ve left know they are still important to me, that working together isn’t the only measure of a relationship.

After all, someday I’ll be gone, one way or another, and I’ll need people outside work to talk to.


Do you know where your most important readers are?

I’m trying to write more in February, and besides what I’ll write for work, I’ll also be writing about one of the few things I know about: digital media.

What do I do? In short, I get the right information, at the right time, to the right audiences. And I’d like to help media, in particular, be better at this. (here’s the longer version)

Like this? Hate it? Did I miss something? Email me or @ me.

News organizations are historically lazy when it comes to their customers. Journalists refer to themselves as “gatekeepers,” talk about the public interest in terms of how they’ll shape and inform it (and not in that it has its own agency) and will report endlessly on other industries’ layoffs and customer nightmares while hiding all of that coming from inside their walls.

The shift from ad-revenue models to direct-transaction models will make this problem more urgent. First, a little background refresher.

Now, there are understandable reasons for why media is traditionally not good at customer service. Journalists do uncover and report on things that matter to most or all of us, and that makes them a gateway through which (hopefully, vetted) information is transmitted. They deal constantly with people who want to suppress this, as well as the unwell. A lot of these customers are not individuals but advertisers, who somehow forget that they are adjacent to the news, not entwined.

Newsrooms were generally walled off from not just advertising, but from any other department. That wall was helpful to prevent undue influence, but it was often taken by journalists as a reason to be antisocial or hostile to outside co-workers (and vice versa).

Unfortunately, these types of problems didn’t end with the newspaper industry’s decline. We’ll look at one recent holdover example from print media and then the larger digital problem:

Meredith lays off customer service reps. “Let’s have an outside center, not near our regular offices, handle our customer service for our magazine titles and, oh yeah, a few other magazines. But that’s too expensive now because we bought Time Inc. So let’s give that work to another company. Surely, this won’t be a problem.”

Not every customer service problem is intentional. That’s why it’s not an easy thing to get right, and having fewer people farther away, physically and philosophically, from the main operation makes it less likely customers will be served.

For instance, when I worked in newspapers, we would have delivery problems go unresolved because of simple timing: The people who answered the phones left at 5, and our delivery folks didn’t arrive until at least 8, and many of those folks didn’t have email accounts, so notes weren’t being passed along. Simply setting up a system to do this (a process!) made this better and prevented the news side (me) from getting calls at 10 p.m. with cancellation threats.

Outside my few years in newspapers, I’ve lost count of how many people I know who tried to support their local paper but found that it could not be delivered reliably.

I’ve had multiple magazines, including a Time Inc. title, fail to deliver the bonuses they promised for subscribing. Now, is that lack of a tote or umbrella the end of the world? No. But they told a customer, pay us and you get X, not 75% of X.

Worse still, my mom once tried to get a gift subscription for me. It never arrived. About 18 months later, and continuing till the present day, she’s received occasional issues she didn’t pay for — but to her address, not mine.

Our big digital outlets struggle to serve users. Ever had a problem with Google services, Facebook or Twitter? Try to get a hold of a human. Try to file a complaint about content that’s inappropriate or worse. Good luck.

Are you on a news site and would like to weigh in? Have fun with the comments section. Oh, there isn’t a comments section? How about emailing the writer or the publication? You might find an email, but that’s no guarantee.

The saying “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold,” however cliche it’s become, still applies, even if it’s a dumb idea for digital media outlets to think this way.

Revenue models that are dependent on transactions, not ads, will make this problem worse

If you enact a paywall, or a membership model or some kind of tiered version (you pay more, you get more), these bring costs of time and resources in terms of how you serve, engage with and respond to these paying customers. As a recent report notes:

“The two-way engagement between publication and audience required to sustain a successful membership strategy can initially feel uncomfortable for those who expect a clear boundary between newsroom staff and audience members. But culture change is possible.”

Know who your audience is, and serve them first

I am not the best at returning emails promptly, I’ll admit. But I do have a priority list.

Subscribers are a priority. So are my co-workers and our partners. People who don’t subscribe and are just randomly pitching me? Not so much. Now, email newsletters are a controlled distribution process. I can generally have an educated guess at the value of the correspondent.

But what if you’re a free, ad-supported websites? Is every (or any?) commenter or emailer or social media complainer someone who can affect the publication’s viability? It’s understandable why these sites are turning off comments — they can’t sustainably wade through all the comments to find the real humans who actually care.

Not every reader is important — and you need to know how to figure that out

This is often looked at as a negative, and it can be. For instance, this mindset can be looked at as a reason to exclude the poor and unpowerful because they don’t lead to revenue. Media outlets that break relatively little news continue to concentrate in two boroughs of New York City, Washington, D.C., and a couple of other cities.

I don’t want to downplay the cultural challenges of audience (and hiring) segmentation. But at its basic level, everyone segments their audience. Print newspapers limited themselves to a geographical area, partly because of logistics and partly because that audience best matched the ability to deliver news and make money.

B2B publications limit themselves to an industry, or a subsector, because that’s the best way to focus on issues only a core reader (and advertiser) audience desires.

This can be reader-driven, too! People are willing to pay for one person’s unique work in a way they wouldn’t for a broad-based publication for which that person was just one employee.

Websites that have tried to be everything to everyone (Mashable) have found difficulty. And now the trend has swung back to the niche and, inevitably, personalization.

Remember when I decried the lack of interest and investment in customer service? That mindset leads too many outlets, in print and digital media, to not invest properly in understanding their audience — the audience they have and the audience they want.

People have been mourning the end of The Awl, and for good reason, but it never should have lasted nine years! The fact that it did was because of two things: Choire Sicha and Alex Balk made a site for a specific type of audience (and writer), and because they hired someone to sell against that. As Sicha says:

“And the other secret to that place existing for nine years is that we have a third business partner named David Cho, who, later, was the publisher of Grantland, who was responsible for the business end, so we weren’t just two editorial idiots in a room blogging into the void. We had someone whose full-time job was saying, ‘How do we make this into a business? What should this company become? How are we going to make money?'”

What’s the short version of this post?

I bounced around a lot of topics in this post. But if nothing else, please take away these things:

  1. Digital media is about niches, especially in pay models. The New York Times is less likely to be your role model than the Voice of San Diego or Stratechery or Skift.
  2. If you want to be directly supported, you need to own a subject, you need expertise, and you need to spend more time with your supporters, not less.
  3. Editorial cannot pay for itself through passive ad-supported revenue, outside of maybe some brief period in the 20th century and a few years in the mid-2000s for a few bloggers. You need people who support your editorial mission but can give you the best data, sell and fundraise, help you engage with your audience and help you identify and attract your next audience.

Paywalls are fine, but let’s make them more shareable

I’m trying to write more in February, and besides thing I’ll write for work, I’ll also be writing about one of the few things I know about: digital media.

What do I do? In short, I get the right information, at the right time, to the right audiences. And I’d like to help media, in particular, be better at this. (here’s the longer version)

Like this? Hate it? Did I miss something? Email me or @ me.

Wired is adopting a paywall. Good for them.

Now, I’m exactly that type of casual fan Wired will lose because I like the articles, and occasionally will drift to the site on my own, not solely through referrals, but I also don’t think it’s essential enough to my life to subscribe. That’s OK! They don’t really benefit from me now.

So, that’s the bet: Wired believes it has enough people who want to make a habit of the magazine to offset the loss of eyeballs and (superficial?) buzz that a free website creates.

Wired, for me, is not essential enough. I do think this is worth a shot, however, as Nicholas Thompson did great work with New Yorker’s website, where he astutely built a bench of online writers without antagonizing the print side and while dealing with limited free pageviews.

Here’s what I don’t understand, however: Why isn’t there a better mechanism beyond paywalls and micropayments to enable the sharing of newspapers and magazines — the “readership per copy” phenomenon that circulation departments relied upon for decades?

Wired’s paywall structure is fine: You pay, you get stuff, including the content. But it doesn’t replicate the old days of a Wired subscriber, where you might have the magazine arrive to a household, to be read by all, or to an office or library or some other public/semi-public place where the actual readership is some difficult-to-quantify multiple of the subscriber total.

The closest I’ve experienced personally is with the New York Times and The New Yorker, where I’ve been able to give a free gift subscription to someone, essentially doubling my buy (for the first year, at least).

At my job, without giving away anything, we’ve had past and ongoing partnerships with publishers where our readers — people clicking through the encoded links in our newsletters — can bypass paywalls one way or another because they’re known to the publisher as SmartBrief readers (disclaimer: I’m writing this post as a private individual and not as a representative of SmartBrief or the company’s views/opinions/actions, etc.)

So, this isn’t purely a technical hurdle. One example that came to mind while thinking through this post was The Wall Street Journal, which was known for making freely available any clicks on WSJ stories that came from its reporters’ social accounts. Even closer to what I’m envisioning is another item in that link:

It’s now testing 24-hour guest passes for non-subscribers, an offer that pops up when readers access a story shared by a subscriber or a Journal staffer. (If you don’t enter your email address, you just get to read the one story.) Down the line, the Journal may also be testing other time increments for the guest passes.

I don’t know the status of that test, unfortunately. But I do think there’s something worth exploring in the idea of re-creating the shared document that is the newspaper and magazine.

The Financial Times, that scrappy and tech-savvy UK publication, is way ahead of me, I discovered. Here’s a description of their test from 2015 — again, I haven’t yet found out whether there’s new information: https://labs.ft.com/2015/11/url-sharing/

A key passage:

We decided to build a fully-working proof of concept to enable a subscriber (who we’ll call a sharer) to ‘spend’ their gift article credits (10 per month, by default) by copying the URL of the article they are viewing into an email (or IM, Tweet, blog post, presentation slide, PDF etc). Any recipients (up to a limit), whether subscribed, signed in, or anonymous, would be able to click on that link and immediately get to see the article in full with no further nagging or obstruction from the site. Perhaps there might be a nice little message saying “with compliments from Person X or Company Y”. The sharer’s article credits would be checked for and decremented only when a recipient attempted to view the article.

If a second person (or more than the number allowed by that share action) was to click on the shared link, they would be greeted with a polite message informing them that the share credit for that article has already been used up, or possibly just the regular paywall barrier message.

Taking it further, we would give the sharer flexibility to control how many recipients they wanted to allow on a share-by-share basis, allowing a specified or unlimited number of recipients. ‘Unlimited’ in this case, would be constrained by the number of gift credits held by the sharer which they could top up, for a fee, or wait for the next month’s free allocation.

So, there you go. This isn’t a choice between just free and just paywalls. Your paywall people have taken up the habit of your publication. That’s great. But what about those people who just might adopt you as a habit but have no way in — no open house, as it might be.

I think most publications could do worse than testing, a la the FT and WSJ, the idea of shareable, permeable paywalls in the fashion of the old magazine/newspaper laying around. Protect the value of the subscription while letting the outside world know how great life can be behind the wall.

Make my work a habit, please

I’m trying to write more in February, and besides thing I’ll write for work, I’ll also be writing about one of the few things I know about: digital media.

What do I do? In short, I get the right information, at the right time, to the right audiences. And I’d like to help media, in particular, be better at this. (here’s the longer version)

Like this? Hate it? Did I miss something? Email me or @ me.

When the print habit died

I started in newspapers in 2005, which was both the peak and the beginning of the end for newspapers, at least in terms of advertising (and total) revenue.

The other thing that peaked by 2005, and probably much earlier, was the daily habit of taking the newspaper (and the nightly TV news, etc.) as the primary consumption of news and other information. Recapturing that habit is not simply a matter of redirecting advertisers or moving print subs onto the web or (as unfortunately happened) cutting costs, raising circulation prices and trying to guilt-trip people into resubscribing.

What happened was people removing a chunk of their day dedicated to local and national news organizations and redirecting to literally anything else. The challenge for media is somewhat like taking a piece of paper, running it through a shredder, and then trying to piece the paper back together.

So, here’s what I think is particularly underrated and underdiscussed today: When media companies say, “Read our work, visit our site/app/Facebook page/Snap channel, subscribe to our service, etc.” they too often think they are asking for eyeballs, or attention, or even an immediate influx of money. Yes, those things are important, and worth asking for. But all of those things are, by default, one-time actions.

The ideal ask is something that, yes, generates enthusiasm and eyeballs and money, but is also a commitment to form a habit. This habit must also be measurable, in one way or another, by the organization, its backers/advertisers and the reader (acknowledging that the reader’s measurement might be less analytical).

When I recommend that people sign up for one of my newsletters, I’m not just asking them to receive yet another email or to be a “fan” in a passive sense. I’m asking them to add me to their day. Moreover, I’m indirectly asking people to subtract something less important — and I’m competing against every single moment of their day, not just other media.

I want people to make my newsletters a habit, something they invest in by subscribing (volunteering their email and maybe other key demographic information), opening and reading the emails and, hopefully, clicking on some of the links. I ask them to commit, and I must deliver something worthy of this time and commitment. I must be consistent in delivery and in what I deliver (as TheSkimm has realized).

When I recommend that people sign up for one of my newsletters … I’m indirectly asking people to subtract something less important — and I’m competing against every single moment of their day, not just other media.

This is not an ask that should be taken lightly. Let’s say your organization produces serious journalism. If it isn’t compelling, important or relevant enough (all vague terms, I know, but their definitions vary depending on your aim and the desired audience), that’s a problem. If you don’t have a specific enough ask, that’s a problem. You could be undercut by an organization that delivers better or hyperfocused content. Maybe your competitors are more frequent or accessible or multfaceted or engaging in their journalism.

If your content is more of the free-and-entertaining variety, you might be reaching a wider audience, but you’re going to have trouble finding the specific advertisers you need, and they’ll always want a bigger audience than whatever you’re providing (increase that audience, and their ask will undoubtedly go up).

Maybe you’re going super-niche, in the form of a subscription product (think Stratechery, The Information or high-end research firms). Now, you’ve established a financial habit, but your content is going to be judged even more directly and critically. Can you match the expectations of your customers? Can you sustain the output, especially if you’re a small or one-person shop? You’ll have superfans, but you’ll also have people who find your information isn’t vital enough to remain a habit, and thus not worth the money or time.

Everything is your competition

In any of these models, unfortunately, you’re competing against everything else in the world. Is your fun meme factory a better use of your desired users’ time than Instagram, Netflix, Twitch, texting, or a million other forms of passing the time? What of those will they give up for your offering?

Is serious news, even high-quality news, worth it for people to set aside the time to think critically? Is that subscription information service better than what they could get from other sources? On a technological level, are your offerings seamless to access, or is your product just difficult enough to access that many people switch to literally any other app or distraction?

This isn’t just journalism’s problem. Broadcast TV has learned that people have discovered better habits than blindly watching hourslong blocks of their programming. Cable is learning that even live sports aren’t enough for millions to continue the habit of paying extraordinary monthly charges to subscribe to a couple dozen channels they’ll watch and hundreds they won’t.

Even Netflix appears to be deciding that they’d rather be the habit for people who like watching original programming they can binge (and also standup specials), increasingly leaving current network seasons and nostalgia TV to the Hulus of the world.

This problem extends to other industries. The childhood toy habits of my generation and our parents’ weren’t the same as today’s children. This isn’t good or bad; it just is, but being a traditional toymaker is suddenly a more difficult proposition.

Any activity that requires leaving the house is in danger when there’s an alternative that requires no movement or replaces pickup with delivery. Convenience is an easy habit for humans to adopt, and truly valuable news is often an inconvenient jarring of people’s preconceived notions.

Who are you for?

You can’t be all things to all people — this lesson media seems to have finally learned. But you must be something important to some people in an increasingly finicky world. It’s hard to ask the question “Why should people make us a habit?” when the answer is often going to be, “They shouldn’t.”

But asking this question is better than the yearslong media habit of saying, “How can we glom on to the latest fad or meme or platform and grab some quick [unsustainable] cash?”

I know, I’m being cliche here, but it’s still a necessary philosophical starting point: Decide who and what you are, be damn good and reliable at that, and go out to the people who want that in their lives. You’ll serve all your audiences better, those who generate revenue and those who don’t, even if you have to “settle” for being a niche.

One last thing: None of this necessarily dictates your business model. Maybe you’re still a website with display ads. Maybe you’re subscription-only, or an events-driven business, or some combination of revenue and grant sources. Maybe you focus on apps, or a website, or something else. You can be hyperlocal or vertical or horizontal in your approach. It’s all in the details of your reality and dream (I’d make a lousy consultant, I know).

I say the above because I don’t want to discourage creativity, experimentation or the value of serendipity. That short golden age of blogging where people could write about anything (i.e. a million Kottkes and Awls and Toasts and countless Web 1.0 sites I’ve forgotten) was a great thing we cannot give up on.

But strictly from a standpoint of survival, habit is what matters. If people make your offering part of their world, it goes on living in new forms. Fans lead to advocates lead to patrons, each one more tightly integrating your journalism or content into their lives. That might not be enough (see, The Awl), but it’s a necessary first step.

How Bill Walsh influenced me from afar

I didn’t know Bill Walsh personally. I didn’t even know he was sick until I saw his obituary from his employer, The Washington Post. But he was and is a critical influence on how I edit and, importantly, how I think about editing.

I think I’m unlike a lot of copy editors (if I can still call myself one after being more of a line and story editor for the past 6 years) in that I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of grammar rules and constructs. I couldn’t teach a workshop on the background of tenses, or participles, or singular-plural.

What I do know is how to use these things, how to read sentences with a reader’s perspective and how to edit and rewrite, when necessary, with consideration for the audience’s expectations and the writer’s voice. Grammar and style rules matter to me, but only to the point in which they serve the outcomes. Little annoys me more as an editor than a change made because of blind adherence to style that results in bad or stupid copy.

Anyways, there are a number of key influencers to my approach. The first, I suppose, is my mother, who encouraged me to read, and read nearly everything. Reading, as many writers and editors will tell you, is how you learn about words and language.

In college, I was tremendously fortunate to take a copy-editing class with John McIntyre, then and now (with a hiatus) of The Sun in Baltimore. In the following years, I benefited from the guidance of the incredible and robust copy staff of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the editor and managing editors at The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y., and the fellow who hired me at SmartBrief, Steve Masters.

All of them are strong technical editors, and that was helpful. But what I believe I learned most from them, and why I’m eventually getting to Bill Walsh, is that each of those editors took time to say why something was as it was. Or, why an error or oversight was a problem. Or, why something was really good or smart. In short, they were teaching critical thinking and contextual thinking as much as spelling, grammar and style.

Walsh’s “Lapsing Into A Comma” was the best print distillation of all that advice that I’ve come across, and while I hadn’t read it in years until this past week, it has never left me. Right in Chapter 1:

What I’m saying is that it’s relatively easy to pick a stylebook, any stylebook, and learn the rules it imposes. It’s harder still to truly understand the reasons behind the rules — and therefore know when they should be ignored.

Walsh’s influence on me was more than just philosophical. He’s why I hyphenate so much (albeit a bit less these days), because of his insistence on the importance of hyphenations to sentence logic and structure. The famous “orange-juice salesman” example has never left my mind.

To hyphenate well is to think deeply about the words as they are individually and how they work collectively, to think about whether the sentence structure works and whether it really works as a readable sentence people want to deal with. And this mindset, used well, helps others be better, too. As Linda Holmes wrote:

What a great copy editor is instead, and what Bill Walsh was to me, is both that exacting crafter of print at the atomic level and a final eye for good sense. He says in Lapsing Into a Comma that every newsroom needs someone juvenile enough to know which headlines shouldn’t have words like “blow” and “stiff” in them.

Not everything Walsh wrote was gospel. He was losing the argument about “email” versus “e-mail” even as “Lapsing Into A Comma” was being published, and a re-read of it today shows people don’t even consider the debate anymore, even if he was correct on style guides’ remarkable inconsistency (hello, AP). But do revisit the chapter, if for nothing else that the reference to “an AltaVista search of the Web” from before AltaVista was a “Parks & Recreation” gag.

Of course, I cannot forget that I’m writing this because Walsh died, and that he died at only 55. Those of us merely influenced from afar can only decry the years taken away from him; I can only imagine what this has been like for those close to him.

One small comfort is that Walsh has left us a legacy in his writing and in the people he’s influenced. These people are, in small and large ways, helping us communicate better with each other. If we can understand each other, then we can start to work and build together — to leave something better than what we found. Every thoughtful edit along the way matters.

Walsh did all he could, and now the rest is up to us.