Cartoonist still drawing, even if Rocky Mountain News isn’t printing

March 5, 2009

In 1984, I was a second-grader in love with the Denver Broncos. My dad taught me to read win-loss columns, and Monday mornings after Sunday games I’d devour the sports page. At the time, the Broncos had a baby-faced, barefoot kicker named Rich Karlis.

Late in a game against the Seahawks, Karlis missed a game-winning field goal when he banged the kick off an upright. Karlis missed kicks off uprights two weeks in a row, and Rocky Mountain News cartoonist Drew Litton drew what he calls “a fork with multiple uprights.”  It was one of his early sports cartoons. “If you didn’t see it, someone was going to tell you about it,” Litton says in this 2007 interview. “It solidified my role here at the News. And probably allowed me to keep my job.” Litton’s “Win, Lose and Drew” features even evolved into some animated shorts. The Rocky’s owner, the E.W. Scripps Company, turned the paper from a place that employed one of the world’s best sports cartoonists to a paper that employs nobody.

Drew Litton was just one of the many unique creatives who found a niche at the news. So, as we bid farewell to the Rocky, it’s good to know that Drew’s still plying his craft on his own WordPress site. His art is telling great stories and making fun statements, mocking Jay Cutler, the Yankee payroll and spring training.  So stick with it, Drew. You helped me learn to love storytelling. Don’t let the cartoons stop just because the presses have.


Slate Magazine’s sabbatical: a new model for web storytelling

January 31, 2009

News in the paper is as sad as news about the paper. In 2008, American newspapers cut 15,554 jobs, according to a tally kept by St. Louis Post-Dispatch graphic designer Erica Smith on her “Paper Cuts” blog. Smith tallies more than 2,000 cuts already in 2009. Smith’s effort opened Robert Hodierne’s essay in the American Journalism Review about how journalists are finding work outside the newsroom in PR, liquor stores and even yoga.

This morning, the front page of my local paper  featured a story about painful local layoffs, an LA Times piece about the deepening recession, and a feature about a mother-son funeral. The only psuedo-bright spot? A piece about Rep. Peter Defazio, D-Ore., blasting the stimulus package as too heavy with tax cuts.

We’re riding a broadband connection to hell. Or not.

Maybe these are just unusually difficult growing pains, a sort of economic adolescence, as technology reshapes the way journalists tell stories. The sooner newspapers adopt new models, the better. Case in point? Slate Magazine.  The online pub, owned by the Washington Post, has always been edgy. But now, as the New York Observer reports, Slate editor David Plotz will, one at a time, give staffers  four to six weeks to leave the office and turn out a long-form feature, possibly with multimedia components for the web.

So, while the old-school papers are slicing jobs and whining their way into what they depict as a web-only oblivion, Slate, a web-only pub from its start, is sending journalists out to tell long, important stories in new ways. Maybe there’s a bright spot after all. Maybe not all the news about the news is as sad what’s in the paper.

Share your best moments of 2008

December 28, 2008

Share your action-packed highlights of the year here. Finish a master’s degree? Start a second career in the big city? Witness Obama in person? See yet another side of Africa? Take an awesome showshoe trip? Get married? Love to hear about it in the comments section.

Personally, I had an awesome year, and I could never rank events in my life. Among my highlights, Jamie and I made a quick tour of Argentina, from Buenos Aires all the way down to Tierra del Fuego with Patagonia in between. If I haven’t subjected you to the slideshow, here it is again.

After Peace Corps, it was a little refreshing, a little odd and a little revolting to be abroad as nothing more than a tourist. We bought art, went to tourist markets, rode — cringe — tourist buses and snapped photos every step of the way. Before we left, our elderly neighbor jokingly asked us to bring him some, “bolos.” Just yesterday we wrapped up some boleadoras and listened as he told us how he’d been fascinated by them since third grade when he saw gauchos use them in a school film.

Had another cool moment this summer when I got to stand track side, 20 feet from the finish line at Hayward Field, on a warm night, as three Eugene runners took the 800 meter final the Olympic Trials. They didn’t do much at the Olympics, but fans and athletes will always have Eugene on this night.

I’d love to hear your highlights in the comments section. Happy New Year! –Zack

Snowbound in Scappoose

December 24, 2008

Two feet of snow and rising… Jamie and I had to escape her parents’ house for a little snowshoeing around town. Stir crazy…

Newspapers may re-focus on ‘story,’ but online potential endless

December 12, 2008

Just today we learned that the Oregonian will all but end delivery to many parts of Oregon next month, offering same-day delivery only around the Portland area and a couple of other cities. The print product, apparently, will focus on Portland, but the paper’s online presence will continue to have statewide news coverage. There are also rumors that the paper will soon scale back the print edition to three or four times a week.

These changes could force the print edition to focus on longform narrative and news analysis. It’s a reality that matches almost exactly the kind of publication a deputy managing editor and narrative artist at a major western newspaper recently forecast in an e-mail.

That said, I think the future of storytelling is not on ink and paper but on the Web. Online journalism offers a bunch of options for combining media, not just in ways that complement a text story, but in ways where the media play off each other and actually combine to drive a narrative. For example, a writer might frame a story with words, but when it comes time to describe what or how someone said something, a little video of the subject in context and mid-narrative might be more powerful than a writer simply pounding a quote into a keyboard. Illustrating an action in the story with video or audio in way where it blends with the text might be effective. It might jar readers/viewers for a while because the idea would be that they don’t finish entirely one element in a single medium before changing mediums. The story might create a seamless narrative while stitching together various media.

I don’t have an honest grasp of what I’m suggesting or even a good example, although I am sure people are trying it. I just think that electronic storytelling offers ways to combine text, photos, audio and video in creative and powerful ways — more than simple complementary roles — rather ways that work together to tell a single story. I think we’ll see more of this as technology develops. Then again, I might be crazy.

Could Tribune bankruptcy be a good thing for storytellers?

December 9, 2008

Could the Tribune Co.’s demise – along with the slow slide of traditional papers – actually be a good thing for storytellers and storytelling?

Maybe wounds are too fresh to have this conversation. Still, newspapers and their formulaic style of storytelling have been rapidly flipping toward chapter 11 for a while now. When you’re a reporter, you learn how to write the archetype on deadline. The murder story. The-Sunday-afternoon-re-create-Saturday-night-mayhem story. The election story. The court story. The meeting story. And sadly, the layoff story.

And the layoff story is one you don’t mess around with. When I was a green reporter, I turned in my first layoff story with a lead saying that hundreds of local grocery workers “had been sacked.” I picked up the paper the next day to see that what I thought of as my “masterful” lead had been replaced with a plain old straight news special. When I walked in the newsroom, the managing editor, who aspired to curmudgeon status, stopped me.

“Never get cute about people losing their jobs,” he said. “Sacked is a good verb. But not when you’re talking about City Market workers.”

He was right. Lesson learned.

So excuse me if it seems a little crass to suggest that bankruptcies and layoffs in the newspaper industry might actually be healthy for storytelling in the long run. See, the ever-cheapening corporate newsrooms, with shrinking staffs, shrinking budgets and shrinking coverage — the ones j-school profs love to criticize — might actually fall victim to the bottom line. That would leave us to start from scratch. Lauren Kessler, an accomplished author and professor at the University of Oregon, likes to say that to really write well she had to “unlearn” most everything newspapers taught her.

In other words, when she decided that she really wanted to tell stories, she had to start from scratch. And that’s how the long-heralded demise of newspaper titans might actually be a good thing. It might let real storytellers start from scratch.

Layoffs of any kind hurt. They aren’t funny. Good people losing jobs and pensions is awful. I’m sure the Tribune Co. and its papers will limp along in some form for a few more years. Newspapers have, in general, served us well. Their ultimate demise — if there is one — will leave a huge gap. But think of it not as a gap, rather as a giant cyber news hole for real stories, by real storytellers. It’s a chance to start from scratch.

Easy multimedia stories

November 30, 2008

Multimedia stories don’t have to be fancy documentaries filmed with pricey gear and slaved over for hours. They just have to be good stories, with compelling anecdotes and stuff that’s fun to hear and look at. Katie Campbell highlighted this New Yorker slideshow on her blog, “Telling Stories.” I’ve heard that editors at The New Yorker are pretty good at telling stories. Katie writes that the slideshow  is “very simple. But brilliant all the same.” If you ask me, it’s brilliant. Period. Multimedia stuff doesn’t need to be complex, you don’t need a fancy camera or videographers to do your pieces for the web. Audiophiles might wince at the sound in this piece, and I could do with a few more pics, but I’d rather tell a good story than let hang ups on gear and picture and sound quality get in the way. Too many people expect web video to be HD and worldclass. If the story’s good enough for The New Yorker, it’s good enough for most anything.

New Yorker slide show

New Yorker slide show

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Storytelling Barney style

November 28, 2008

My grandpa Barney could tell a story about shooting a deer or ditching his Navy plane over the Pacific. He played football in a leather helmet and later wore a leather pilot’s cap in the war. His face looked like a wrinkled old book, which fit perfectly because Barney told gripping stories about both his own life and the lives of his family members. The last hanging in New Mexico? The day his one-armed father shut his lone hand in a car door? The nights he and a buddy guarded the Portales water tower after Pearl Harbor? Now Barney’s kids tell stories just like their dad. Conflict. Tension. Humor. Timing. Barney’d be real proud of the way his daughter, my aunt Mona Robinson, recounts a family legend about Barney himself in this video that my wife, Jamie, took with a point and shoot camera at a family reunion.

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The web’s “c” word: Five better monikers for web content

November 28, 2008

I hate the term web content.  Hate it.  There are TV shows, book chapters, newspaper articles, symphonic movements, poetry verses, stanzas, lines, couplets, and more. On the web, we throw everything together and call it content. And I am fit to be tied. Sure, execs and administrators love to say, “The web is where it’s at,” without funding it. At the very least, they could dignify the collection of words, pictures, video, audio, blogs, vlogs and microblogs with a better name than content.

Might as well call it hodgepodge. Brochure leftovers? Pasted and “re-purposed” from magazines, memos, and brochures, this static web content boasts no rhyme, no reason and no life.

With that, I’ll offer up a little reason if not rhyme with my top 5 alternatives for the dreaded “c” word:

1)      Web Ingredients: This requires a recipe, for example, combine  a dash of exposition, a touch of anecdote,  and a smattering of bullet points, then pour them not into a 13:9 baking dish but a tidy little 4:3 video and a 250-word feature.

2)      Web Packages: Feature story, video, audio and FAQ all boxed together and gift-wrapped just for you.

3)      Multidimensional web presence: Okay, so corporate it makes me wince, but every office has its king of buzzwords. A multidimensional web presence allows you to “leverage” your “position” combining  elements of narrative.  Some words, some  audio, a video or two and a blog? Instead of always telling people how you are, why not let them tell you how they see you? Word of mouth travels fast. Might as well let them describe the good and bad about you – to you on your blog. Might as well make your case via video and teach people using podcasts. Then you’re “leveraging” your “positions” using several “platforms” and reaching a “cross-section” of your  “demographic.”

4)      Web Masterpieces: Look, the web’s about being fast, cool, edgy, even if you’re selling antibiotic ointment. Could archeologists someday be mining caches of servers trying to decipher and restore aging, yellowing html code? Clean code might never land in the Louvre. But your web site is your canvas. Take care and time to be sure the right lighting, the ideal nuance, the perfect brush strokes tell your story. Treat your site like a self portrait. It might not hang in a museum or get translated by archeologists, but success on the web means telling a gripping story today.

5)      Web Storytelling: A narrative has everything life does. Character, conflict, triumph.  Think of your web site as your story, a personal one or that of a company or organization. What stories can you tell to illustrate your favorite themes or your brand? A few pictures, a few words, some talking pictures? What’s the best way to tell your stories? What conflicts have you triumphantly overcome? Tell those stories… Show the world who you are.

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