Archive for April, 2009
The April 26, 2009 New York Times Magazine includes a story by Virginia Heffernan called, “Comment is King: Reader Comments Are A Key Part of Online Journalism. So Why Do They Mostly Disappoint.” I’ve decided to take this article to mean that I am on the cutting edge of the commentary zeitgeist, seeing as I wrote about both Virginia Heffernan and reader comments within the past few weeks.
(By the way, my April 5 letter about Heffernan’s iPhone problem did not get published. That makes Mrs. Dogood - 0, Editors - 4. Grrrr. I’m taking solace in the fact that no one else’s letters about this article were published either.)
Despite her preference for Blackberries, I have to give Heffernan props for pointing out what I see as a major problem with online reader comments: they suck. People are uninformed or they can’t make complete sentences or they’re prejudiced or they’re just plain mean. In theory, I like the idea that everyone is allowed a voice. But in practice, too many voices means that none are heard. It’s like those Malcolm Gladwell-esque experiments they do in supermarkets. Present people with a choice of six flavors of jam and they’re perfectly happy to select their favorite and go buy it. Present people with a choice of 30 flavors of jam and they get brain freeze and leave the store, sans purchase. I don’t have the time or energy to wade through 200 incoherent reader responses to find the three that might really rock my world, or even the world at large. Some are indeed more equal than others; we need editors to find them.
Heffernan does me a great service by giving name to more categories of reader commentary:
- Amens: I agree and THANK YOU for saying what I’ve always known
- Scolding dissent (as opposed to cogent dissent)
- Fact-checking: Long, itemized point by point, deconstructions
- Reiterations: Repeating the points of an article in slightly varied way
These are the comment types that a strong newspaper editor wouldn’t print. Conversely, these are the key letter types that are printed in featurey or specialty magazines. For example, those published in GQ, Shape or Self. (And in those cases, there are at least editors to highlight the letters that are written in complete sentences.) I suppose one way to identify a serious publication from a fluff publication is to count the prevalence of letters published that are Amens, Scolds, Fact-checks, or Reiterations.
Here are two excerpts from the Heffernan article that I’ll be thinking about in the days to come:
This echo-chamber effect is unpleasant, and it makes it hard to keep listening for the clearer, brighter, rarer voices nearly drowned out in the online din. Which is too bad: newspaper journalism benefits from reader comments. Creating registration standards, inventive means of moderating and displaying comments, membership benefits for regular posters and ratings systems for useful comments are just some of the ways that other news outlets like Slate have improved the quality of reader responses.
The pluralistic contention of the 1990s that everyone “deserves a voice” has come to terrifying life in the past 10 years on blogs, message boards and now Twitter. Everyone is published! But please, aim for originality and brevity when you post, and read what has already been posted. For models of the form, Slate’s Fray still can’t be beat (fray.slate.com/discuss).
This is the letter that I sent to the Times Magazine:
Heffernan’s observations are the reason why I read the letters in the New York Times print edition, but not the comments in the online version. When you write to the Times in print, you are required to supply your full name as a way of accountability for your words. But people can, and will, say anything online no matter how vituperative, condescending, or just plain silly, because they are allowed to do so with blind user names and pseudonyms. Requiring writers to properly identify themselves would go a long way to clearing out the clutter in the comments.
To run with a theme a moment here … I bought Shape yesterday. In nearly every regard it is indistinguishable from Self. If I had to identify the niche of each, I’d say that the goal of Self is to get you thin and healthy, whereas Shape aims to get you thin, healthy, and HOT (slightly more emphasis on bikini readiness). The letters sections of the two magazines is identical. Switch the titles in the letters and there is no way to tell which you are reading. As an experiment, I decided to submit the exact same letter to Shape as I did to Self earlier this week (switching the names, of course.) Seems only fair.
In addition to running letters, Shape also gives readers another chance to get published in its “Readers Speak Out” section. Each month, the editors pose a question and ask readers to write in their tip. The question that ran in the May 2009 issue was, “The snack I always have on hand is …” The not-so-shocking answers: “Apples are inexpensive and always tide me over to the next meal.” “Dried apricots and raw almonds are the perfect pre-workout combo of protein and natural sugar.” OK, what American female over the age 10 hasn’t heard those four or five million times. I’m looking for something new, or at least entertaining, folks. How about, “I consume the contents of my change purse every afternoon. I get lots of trace minerals from the coins, but they pass out of my system completely undigested so there’s no calorie intake at all.”
The new question posed to readers is: “What do you do to slow the aging process?” The not-so-shocking response I sent them:
One word: sunscreen. I only buy facial moisturizers and foundations that have an SPF factor of at least 15, that way I make sure that I am always covered.
Earth-shattering, I know.
The May 2009 issue of Self features wonder boy Zac Efron’s on-and-off-screen flame, Vanessa (Anne) Hudgens on its cover. Just a coincidence? Or do you think their publicists are an item too?
I normally only buy Self in airports. I allow myself to feel virtuous for reading about exercise and nutrition, but because I’m stuck there in the airport with no possibility of a workout and only gummi bears and fast food for sustenance, there’s no danger that I might actually have to do something healthy. But I did buy Self in my most recent Borders binge last week because I was earnestly looking for some healthful living motivation. (Shocking, I know.) My hubby has recently gone through a rather radical lifestyle improvement in the health department. It’s getting progressively more difficult to blame him for my slothitude. Must. Get. Moving.
Self, like GQ, publishes plenty of letters in the magazine, but does not post those letters online. You’re going to have to trust me that a Letters Page formula is alive and well here. ALL the letters are heartfelt and inspirational: diet success stories, exercise motivation, lifestyle improvements. Rah, rah, rah. Here’s me sticking to the formula like white on rice. Wait, in the spirit of healthy living, make that brown on rice:
I recently picked up Self for the first time in ages while waiting at the dentist. I can’t get over how motivational it is. Every tip is on-target, inspirational, and best of all, do-able. Self is exactly what I need to jump start my fitness routine. I nearly swiped the entire issue, but instead I just took the subscription card. I can’t wait for my first issue to arrive in the mail.
So no, I did not really read while waiting, though this is another righteous place for reading health mags. Nor did I subscribe. But I did get some OK recipe ideas. Stuffed Tomato Bake sounds like a good dinner. Ah, if only it had more bread, more cheese, and less tomato.
The aforemention GQ prints letters in the magazine, but does not, as far as I can tell, include those letters on its website, so no link to the letters page here. (Coming soon: A list of eeevil magazines that don’t print any letters at all.)
In among the letters printed in the May 2009 issue, is a note from the letters editor, discussing the letters the magazine received in response to a cover story about basketball star LeBron James:
The general formula: world-famous athlete + magazine cover = thumbs-up from fans + hisses from rival fans + radio silence from J.R.R. Tolkien fans. So when LeBron James graced our cover back in February, we were genuinely caught off guard by the letters we received from several Clevelanders thanking us for … not making fun of their city.
Clearly, the editors know there is formula for letter writing, and one would assume also for letter publishing. Maybe they even map out in advance the shape of the letters page. I can almost hear the conversation, “We’ll print two praise letters, one disagreement, one snarky comment, one serious public service comment, and a general you’re-the-best letter.” But it’s good to know that while the formula exists, there are still ways to circumvent it and be heard above it. (But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop pandering to the formula.)
Also, GQ had no Letter-to-the-Editor auto-reply note. Maybe they think men don’t need that kind of reassurance.
Barring unavoidable volunteer commitments, every Friday morning for the past four years, I’ve taken myself on a vacation. I get both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and head to a Starbucks that’s just far enough afield that I won’t run into everyone I know from the PTA. I get a Grande Sugar-Free Vanilla Skim Latte (which they now insist is called a Skinny Vanilla Latte, um, ewww) and an oatmeal with all three toppings. And then I sit there for an hour and do nothing but enjoy my coffee and read the paper. This is the most crazy decadent thing, I know. As my new hero Simon Cowell would say, this is “indulgent nonsense,” but I firmly believe that it is this nonsense alone that has prevented me from driving my car off a cliff or smothering a close family member with a pillow.
My Friday Starbucks happens to be in strip mall that also houses a Borders store. So after my leisurely coffee, I spend a leisurely half hour browsing at the bookstore. While I do like to know what’s going on in the world of fiction publishing (gives me the illusion that getting a degree in English was time well spent), I rarely buy fiction for myself any more. It’s not that I don’t want to curl up with a juicy novel. I simply don’t have the attention span these days. I need to water the plants, get the piano tuned, figure out what’s for dinner, obsess about American Idol, do research for my pseudo-job, make sure we have poster board in the house, remember if this is my car pool day, schedule the exterminator, sew labels on the camp clothing, yadda, yadda, yadda. I know I need breaks from the hamster wheel of Mommy life; thus the Friday vacations, but after an hour or so, the drone of obligations begins to buzz again. My solution is magazines. They provide bite-sized breaks in the buzz. So, I spend my time book browsing, but I spend my money in the magazine section.
And truly, I am the easiest of magazine dates. I’ll take anyone home with me. Oooh, Beadwork, pretty little balls. Popular Mechanics, well why not. Country Living, hey that knotty pine table looks nice. Several times a year I bring home men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ. The writing is always amusing in a hyper-macho, no-we’re-really-heterosexual way and the restaurants they recommend seem like they’d be places you might actually get a decent meal.
The May 2009 cover of GQ features on over-photoshopped Zac Efron with a tiny body, a giant head, and even gianter hair. Inside, there are nine full pages of Zactastic photos and interviews. I like Zac Efron. I really do. And only in a slightly Mrs. Robinson way. (I say this with no hint of irony — I really enjoy High School Musical. I have watched myself when the kids weren’t even home.) While Zac seems like a mensch, the article reads like something out of GQ parody book. Some choice quotes:
- “There are bobcats around, but Efron is not afraid of them.”
- “A guy a worked with recently told me, ‘You have to earn the right to hold a gun.’”
- “It’s Sean Penn, drunk as a slab of tiramisu, dispensing gnomic Sean Penn wisdom.”
Drunk as a slab of tiramisu? And people make fun of High School Musical?
Moving on …
While GQ is aimed at men, they often publish letters written by women readers drooling over their male cover celebs. Here is my attempt:
Thank you GQ for giving this Mrs. Robinson her dignity back at the newsstand. My tweenage daughters can now stop asking me why I’m buying Teen Beat, Pop Star, and J-14 “for them.” Your piece on Zac Efron gives me hope that my crush can now take on a more adult form. That boy is becoming a man.
OK, how INSANELY embarrassing would it be if this got published. Let’s just see
I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled lettering in a bit, but I had to digress a moment here about what has to be the ultimate job in letter editing. The NY Times published a story today about Mike Kelleher, Director of the White House Office of Correspondence. This is the place that sorts through the gagillion letters that get sent to the White House and the President every day. Kelleher is the one that chooses the 10 letters from the general public that Obama gets to see every day. THAT is an editorial job I’d like to have.
On March 30, I wrote about a letter to Times in response to an article about Netflix. I think the window for having this published lapsed at least a week ago, so I’m going to have to call this one a DOA.
That makes it: Editors - 3, Mrs. Dogood - 0. This is not a very auspicious start here, but persevere I must.
Several of the letters I did actually get published in the Times, years ago now, were of the fluffy variety like this one. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve been reading the Times letters more closely. The letter now are not fluffy. They are not fun. They are boring serious letters about boring serious issues. I was wondering what happened and then I remembered: it’s the size thing.
I did a little research to refresh my memory. In the summer of 2007 (those halcyon days), the Times reduced the physical size of the paper, making each page an inch and a half narrower. This, as the story goes, reduced the “news hole” of the paper by about five percent. Some of what was sacrificed was space for letters. This was the statement the paper made:
TO OUR READERS, August 6, 2007
Beginning today, we present a bigger sampling of letters online, to make up for the reduced size of the print edition of The Times. The available space for letters in print has been reduced by about a third. Online, we present a bigger sampling of letters on subjects of greatest reader interest. And we will run other letters that were selected for publication but for which there was no room in the print version. All published letters, whether in the printed paper or on The Times’s Web site, may be edited, for accuracy, clarity, grammar, style and tone. And all letters will be archived and become part of The Times’s permanent record. The full daily package of letters, submissions guidelines and previously published notes to readers from Thomas Feyer, the letters editor, can be found at nytimes.com/opinion.
What’s a gal like me, with a goal of publishing letters, supposed to do? Not comment on human interest stories? But that’s my forte, and I assure that no one wants to read my opinion about the mortgage crisis, Iraq, or global warming. So back to the Netflix issue — while the Times, published no letters about this article in it’s print editions, there were 172 comments about the article posted online. Astute followers of Mrs. Dogood (hello all three of you) will remember that one of my primary rules for this blog is:
Letters to the editor will only count as such if there actually is an editor. Posting random comments on a website doesn’t count. There has to be a human reading the letters and making a selective decision about what to publish.
The Times is publishing fewer letters in print; however, they are actually curating the comments posted online. For the Netflix article, most of the comments were fairly incoherent blather, but an editor did pull out 3 comments from the huddled 172 and marked them as “Editor’s Selections.” The Editor’s Selections are described as such, “The NYTimes editors aim to highlight the most interesting and thoughtful comments that represent a range of views.” I’m going to have to mull over whether I want to change my self-imposed guidelines to allow “Editor’s Selections” to count as published letters.
*** UPDATE WITHIN THE UPDATE ****
I was about to hit the “Publish” button to send this post out into the world. I went back to the Times to double check that I transcribed that bit about the Editor’s Selections correctly and what did I see but this article, uploaded to the Times site about an hour ago:
Published: April 16, 2009
In a bid to save millions of dollars in annual costs, The New York Times plans to eliminate several weekly sections, with other parts of the newspaper absorbing some of the content, Bill Keller, the executive editor, said on Thursday. The affected sections include Escapes, published on Fridays, and Sunday sections that only readers in the New York metropolitan area receive: City and regional sections named for New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and Connecticut.
Those Sunday sections will disappear and The Times will create a new Sunday section combining some elements of them with new features about New York City and the region, and features that formerly appeared in the New York report. Each copy of that section will contain a “zoned” page with material specific to the part of the region where it is sold. The new section, still unnamed, will appear on May 24 at the earliest.
Breaking news from the region will continue to be included in the first section, along with national news. Also, starting May 1, Friday editions will no longer contain an Escapes section. Instead, parts of that section will be absorbed into the Weekend section. Beginning with the issue of May 10, The New York Times Magazine will no longer contain a regular fashion layout; fashion reporting and photography will continue in the T magazines published every few weeks, and in the weekly Sunday and Thursday Styles sections. The guide to each day’s newspaper printed on the second, third and fourth pages of the first section will be consolidated into a single page, much as it was until last year.
In an address to the newsroom three weeks ago, Mr. Keller signaled that some consolidation and belt-tightening were on the way. At that time, the salaries of non-union managers were cut 5 percent for the rest of the year, and members of the Newspaper Guild were asked to accept a similar cut to avoid layoffs.
In a memo to the staff on Thursday, Mr. Keller wrote, “The hope and expectation remain that the pay cuts and the spending cuts outlined above will get us through the year without the need for other significant reductions.” He has said that the paper was cutting its spending on free-lance work by 10 to 15 percent, and the sections being combined or trimmed depend heavily on freelancers. The consolidation will not eliminate any newsroom staff jobs, Mr. Keller said, though some employees will be reassigned to other parts of the paper.
Creating fewer sections can cut printing costs significantly, whether or not it reduces the number of pages or the amount of material printed. The changes being made at The Times will mean fewer pages, saving on newsprint and ink. Even after two years of deep cost-cutting, American newspapers are struggling with a sharp drop in ad revenue this year, forcing a wave of hurried, additional cuts in the last few months. The Times Company recently said that without major concessions from unions at The Boston Globe, it may close that paper.
Ironic timing, no?
And truly, I want to cry upon reading this. I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. How do you write letters to the editor of a newspaper when both the editors and the paper are disappearing before your eyes?
Let’s just get this out there — Oprah is the supreme deity. There are no others. It is she who must be worshipped. OK, now that we’re all on the same page, I’ll proceed.
The May 2009 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine features a large section of articles which the cover teases with “The O Sex Survey: Moms Listen Up, Your Daughters Have Something to Tell You.” That’s a tease that worked. You got me, I’m listening. The articles are HERE and they are riveting all. My oldest daughter is nearly 13. Some days I barely recognize her in the morning she is changing so quickly. Even from moment to moment the expressions on her face change from carefree child to wise young woman and back again. I don’t think we’re quite there with the boys-dominating-her-thoughts stage, but then again, you never know.
When those thoughts do become more of a force, I want to be there for her in a supportive, but not-oversharing way. My goal is that she’ll only need therapy for a year or two and not require decades of medication to undo the trauma I’ve caused her. Do you think that’s reasonable? It may be overambitious.
Here’s the letter I sent to Oprah:
As the mother of three preteen daughters, I was transfixed by the May 2009 articles on how mothers and daughters communicate about sex. This is definitely an issue of O that I will keep to refer back to as each of my girls approaches the sexual milestones in their lives. I was, however, a bit disappointed that so little mention was made of the impact of fathers in the context of discussing sex with daughters. I know that my own parents disagreed about discussing sex with me, and it was my father’s wishes that won out. My husband has his own “ewww” reaction when I mention discussing sex with our daughters. Negotiating elements of “the talk” with the men in a girl’s life can be just as challenging as having the actual talk.
A few years ago, I overheard my husband talking on the phone with a male friend of his. I only got his half of the conversation. He sounded despondent and was saying things like, “Oh my God. When did it happen. I’m so sorry. What did you do?” When I asked him what was going on I was braced for a story about an illness or accident. Instead he said, “My friend’s daughter got her first period.” The girl was a perfectly normal, healthy 12 year old, right on schedule. And my husband was acting like she had been stricken with a life-threatening disease. No can do with that attitude, mister.
We’ve had several conversations since then about his attitudes about our daughters’ growth and now imminent transformation into, yes, sexual beings. He’s working on it. Now I think he’s in the don’t-ask-don’t-tell camp about what I share with the girls about sex. I think he’s fine with me being open and honest with them, but he doesn’t want to know what they know, and he doesn’t want to be informed about “a talk” having occurred, because then he might have to look at them differently.
The O articles really are fantastic (I’d expect nothing less) and I will be saving the issue to refer back to. But I really do think that they committed an editorial Sin of Omission by neglecting to even mention the role the men play in influencing the entire family’s experience of discussing these complicated and important issues.
This is the auto-reply letter I got from Family Fun:
Thank you for your recent letter to the editor. We enjoy hearing from our readers and appreciate your comments and suggestions – they often are helpful in planning future issues. We hope you will continue to send your thoughts our way.
It seems so loving and innocent compared to the dominatrixy auto-replies from the Times. They love their readers and want to hear from them. What could be nicer?
Back on March 21, I wrote to People magazine about Natasha Richardson. The lastest issue ran three letters about this story, none mine. In the three that ran, one was had even more of a fluff factor than mine did, merely saying that Richardson was beautiful and it was sad a beautiful person had to die. Um, but when ugly people die that’s not so bad? The other two letters mentioned the importance of wearing helmets and seeking proper medical attention after an injury.
Mrs. Dogood - 0, Editors 2
What I learned:
- People has a letters periodicity of two weeks. The letters in response to an article run two weeks after the article did.
- People likes letters that tell of a reader learning something important. For example, wear your helmet. Will try this route next time with a celebrity magazine.