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Posts from the ‘writing’ Category

Advice to young people trying to get into journalism

I very frequently get emails from young people, usually studying now at one of my alma maters, asking me for advice on how to enter journalism. Obviously, their hope is that I have an internship or something even better to refer, but I just don’t. And really, I don’t. But I do try to respond honestly with my advice.

Since my replies have over time become more and more similar, I thought I might just publish my most recent one, written a few minutes ago, here:

Dear [OMITTED],

I sympathize very much, because around the time you were born I was writing these letters to journalists in the medium of our time, cuneiform clay tablets.

I have to rain on your parade a little bit, hopefully without drenching you. It was hard to enter journalism back then and it is much harder now. Back then it was merely glamorous (=> too many young people going after too few opportunities). Nowadays the industry is still glamorous (not sure why) but also decimated by the interwebs or whatever that thingy is you people use.

In short: all the mainstream media organisations that you can think of have been laying off people for about a decade or at least not hiring new talent en masse. For every good job, there are now many, many very qualified and experienced journalists lining up. Most of the ones my age have taken to drink, although I would not advise that option for you yet.

The energy has for years, especially in the US, been with the “new” media, by which I don’t mean social media but these start-ups, such as, for example, [OMITTED] or [OMITTED] in [OMITTED] journalism. Those kinds of things are where I would start my search, if I were you now. They hire young and exploit you in ways last seen during the years of Manchester Capitalism. You will burn out within a couple or years and leave disillusioned. And then you will discover that you now have “experience” and can get a real career.

Beyond that, and most urgently, I would advise you to start a blog (not just twitter) and actually put good stuff on it frequently. That can

  1. become your portfolio over time and
  2. actually force you to practice writing and thinking (though not necessarily reporting), thus allowing you to get better. (And even if you’re good, you can always get better.)

I would also advise you to get some real expertise in, well, something. I personally got a Masters in international relations and then joined a bank for a year or so, which was both miserable and educational. You’ll find that journalism is much less about writing stunningly beautiful sentences that obviously (!) deserve a Pulitzer and much more about knowing what the heck you’re talking about when you interview somebody in a suit and then go back to the newsroom to convince an editor that this was remotely interesting.

All that said, don’t get dejected. I think I’m saying: don’t think there is a shortcut. It took me, back in the 90s, about [OMITTED] years from my graduation to the career I’m now in.

Chin up and good luck,

A

The Holocaust in the streets, one brass plate at a time

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Above you see several so-called Stolpersteine — “stumbling stones” — in a sidewalk near my place in Berlin. The flowers and candles are from a neighbor, who regularly looks after the many, many stones in our street. Each one commemorates one victim of National Socialism who lived at the address where the stone is placed.

The Stolpersteine were among the first things I noticed when I moved to Berlin last year. There are about 40,000 of them now, all over Germany and in much of Europe. Every week many more are laid. No governments are involved. All this is a private art project, conceived by an intriguing artist, Gunter Demnig.

One of those now sponsoring such a stone is a friend of mine, Menasheh Fogel, a Jewish American living in Berlin. I tell Menasheh’s story, and a few of the many stories of the people he met, of the victims he learned about, of the artist behind the project, in the current issue of Intelligent Life, a sister publication of The Economist. You would make me happy by reading it.

I will let the piece speak for itself. But I just want to add two strands of thought here:

  1. one about the different style and voice of this piece, compared to my usual fare in The Economist, and 
  2. one about Germany’s style of remembrance generally.

My style in this piece

Way back in 2008, I mused here on this blog about the pros and cons of writing in the first person (which is completely banned at The Economist, but encouraged at Intelligent Life). I also told you about my efforts to find my own natural voice, because I was, of course, writing my book at the time, and was using this blog in part to loosen myself up after writing in my Economist voice during the day.

Well, writing this story transported me back to all that. It necessitated a completely different voice, and I discovered that I loved finding it. I wrote a first draft that was quite good and sent it off.

IMG_1558

Then I had a great chat with the editor, Samantha Weinberg, who told me to “feature it up”. For example, she asked, again and again, for more quote. At The Economist we don’t quote much, and when we do, we use just the choicest bits of a quote, perhaps a single word, for maximum efficiency. But Samantha wanted everything. “Even the uhs and ers, the wrong syntax and dead ends?”, I asked. “Especially the uhs and ers and the wrong syntax,” she said. I went back to my notes and put all of it, or most of it, in. And lo, the piece was better.

And I put a bit of myself in, in the first person. Discreetly and sparingly, though. And lo, it was better again. (But more of me, and it would have started getting worse.)

I loved this process. For those among you who are editors, there are also lessons for you in Samantha’s style: she didn’t fiddle with my words; she just helped me to understand what changes were necessary. (Thanks, Samantha.)

The German style of remembrance

Yes, there is such a thing as a “German” style of remembrance, as I have concluded since moving back to this country last year.

It is to remember everywhere and all the time, never taking a break, never looking the other way but always at what happened before, and integrating all of it into a new present.

If you ever get the chance, for example, walk through the Bundestag in Berlin, in the old Reichstag building. A British architect, Sir Norman Foster, rebuilt it. As a signal and symbol of the new German political culture, he made it physically transparent on the inside (and it really is, as much as any large building can be). The entire edifice invites all those in it to remember and reflect, every day and all the time. For example, members of parliament, like journalists such as myself, walk every day past walls such as these:

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You see the bullet hole? You see the graffiti? It’s the scrawlings of the young Russian soldiers after they took the building in 1945. Things like “Vladislav was here” and “Fuck all Germans”. The graffiti and bullet holes were not merely kept; they are emphasized.

(One of the staff at the Bundestag is working on a book about these graffiti. She’s found some of the — now old — Russians who wrote them, and they have amazing stories to tell.)

In the weeks since finishing my piece in Intelligent Life, I’ve got deeper into the subject. (This often happens to writers.) And I’m thinking of getting even deeper into it yet.

For example, I met up with Petra Merkel, a member of parliament, the lady in red in the picture below.

(Yes, Germany’s Bundestag has two Mrs Merkel, one named Angela and one named Petra. Both once married and divorced (different) Mr Merkels, but kept their name. Both are wonderfully down-to-earth. Petra says she occasionally gets mail for Angela by mistake. She enjoys being on the parliamentary committee that oversees the federal budget, proposed by the government the other Merkel heads, since “Merkel is watching Merkel.”)

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Well, Mrs Merkel also sponsored a Stolperstein. And then she brought over the descendants of the victim, Paula Dienstag, from Israel to Berlin. In front of Mrs Merkel on the right is Yuval Doron, Mrs Dienstag’s grandson. Next to him are his two sons.

And that’s the other thing about remembrance done right: It never separates human beings, it always connects.

The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

My employer, The Economist, is 170 years old. Another British publication, the Financial Times, turned 125 today.

It turns out that we are

  1. loosely affiliated in some complicated corporate way and
  2. very dearly affiliated in a personal way, because I, for instance, share an office space with them in Berlin.

By pure coincidence, their Berlin Bureau Chief, Quentin Peel, has exactly the same deep, sophisticated British voice and accent that one of our editors in London (Xan Smiley, if you must know) has, so I keep doing double takes whenever Quentin is on the phone, expecting Xan to come waltzing in. I digress.

The first of my points, if this post has any, is that the FT is a spring chicken by our standards. I mean, we were friggin’ middle-aged when they were born. But what’s a half-century or so among friends?

The second point is that it can be strangely revealing to go back in time to what journalism back then was like. And so I indulged myself during my coffee break today by reading their first front page, the one from February 13, 1888.

As was the custom at the time, the articles were listed (no pictures, it goes without saying) in unadorned columns. And so my eyes alit, after the headline on “Russia and Finance” and before the one on “Speculation in Copper,” on an article that began as follows:

The Crown Prince

What is to be the result of the very serious operation which has been performed on the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia? This is not a mere question of ordinary politics, but one which vitally affects the peace and prosperity of Europe. It is not merely that the Crown Prince is the son of our ally, the Emperor of Germany, and the husband of England’s eldest daughter, but he is a Prince of pacific tendencies, though not less a soldier than the rest of the Brandenburgers. The operation only took ten minutes to perform…..

For those among you who are, or are related to, hacks, let’s just savor such themes as:

  • lede
  • context and history
  • grammar (=> passive tense, hyperbole, …)
  • presentation

Is this not a gem? Happy birthday, FT.

___

PS: As far as I can discern, the Crown Prince (never named in the article) is Frederick III, and “England’s eldest daughter” is Victoria Adelaide Mary Lousia.

Frederick III Vicky

The review in Strategy + Business

A huge Thank You to David Hurst, who reviewed Hannibal and Me in strategy + business, a management magazine published Booz & Company. It’s in the fall edition of the print magazine, but the web link is already up. An excerpt:

… The effect of this meticulously crafted structure on the reader is sometimes revelatory. You are riding along, enjoying the stories, when suddenly, in the shock of recognition that the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis, you realize that the story is about you and your organization, and a meaningful pattern emerges in what seemed like a series of inexplicable actions and random events. …

Getting ready for the paperback

Even as reviews are still dribbling out — such as this one from South Africa — my publisher is preparing to launch Hannibal and Me in paperback.

I got an email with the two cover-jacket designs above that they’re choosing between. All that takes me back a year or so, when I first saw the hardcover jacket.

Your aesthetic opinions are welcome, as ever.

Some of the titles that could have been

One of my habits is, sporadically, to go through old stuff in order to throw most of it away and be reminded of the few nuggets worth preserving.

As I was doing that, I came across a little Post-it note on which I seem to have scribbled, at some point over the past four years, ideas for titles and subtitles for my book, to be discussed with my editor. (As you can see from the older posts with the tag “titles“, it was on my mind for a long time.)

Here are the ones just on that particular Post-it note:

Hannibal and You: Uncovering the mysteries of success and failure in our lives

Reversal: Triumph and disaster in life, from ancient times to today

The two impostors: Tracing the mystery of triumph and disaster from antiquity to our own lives

The Hannibal Archetype: The eternal mystery of triumph and disaster in life

Hannibal’s riddle: The mystery of success and failure in life

When Hannibal met Scipio: The mystery of success and failure in our lives

The Hannibal Challenge

In the end, of course, the publisher chose the title and subtitle you see on the jacket on the right, and at the top of this blog. What would you have chosen?

Slowing down to save time

Pascal

“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” So Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher, allegedly excused himself once. Or perhaps it was Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw.

It’s witty, it’s ironic, it’s true: that’s why any of them might have said it.

Here is how I know that: I write for The Economist, and most of our articles are short. I’ve opined on the subject of optimal length in writing before, but in this context, let’s just say that it is the shortening that takes all of the time.

Because I have so little time, I got into the bad habit of not shortening, and not cleaning up, my emails. You see, there were too many emails, and I was too busy to take time for any one of them. (Bear with me. You’re supposed to find an irony building.)

But why were there so many emails in the first place? Oh yes, because all sorts of people (mainly PR people, but also others) are writing me emails. And those are all busy, busy, busy people, with very little time. So their emails are long and sloppy. They refer to an attachment that is missing. They invite me to an event on the wrong date, or omit the date, or the place, even as they somehow find paragraphs of other things to say.

So then, since we are all so very, very busy, we shoot the emails back and forth to clarify this and rectify that, and the threads grow and take more of our time, making us even busier and requiring us to write even faster, thus making our emails longer and sloppier….

So, for a few months, I’ve been trying an experiment. I respond less fast, and often not at all. When I do email, I take more time. I actually read through emails before I push Send. I check that phone numbers and dates are correct, and that all the information is there. I think about what is extraneous and what I can cut.

Lo, the threads are getting ever so slightly shorter, the iterations fewer, the decisions more decisive.

Fewer words → more meaning
Less activity → more action

To my surprise, I am finding that, by slowing down, I have more time. If, like Pascal, I need to write a letter, I might now be able to make it … shorter. I hope I can keep this up.

‘Drinks with’ me on Zocalo Public Square

Andres Martinez

Andres Martinez is a great journalist, writer and now think-tanker. And he’s had a career of Sophoclean ups and downs that could have been a storyline in my book.

He and I had drinks the other day. Now Andres has penned a “Drinks With” column about me on Zocalo Public Square, an intellectual gathering point for the Los Angeles area.

It’s more about me than about the book. But Andres does use a phrase I will steal from now on when telling people what type of book it is:

genre-bending

Thank you, Andres!!

Hannibal & Me: The excerpt in Salon.com

What a very, very strange experience it is to see an excerpt of my own book on a famous website.

Salon.com has just posted exactly that.

Thank you, Salon!

The books we (at The Economist) wrote this year

I’m not the only one at The Economist to launch a book “this” year.

(As you know, my launch is technically on January 5th, but Hannibal and Me is already available for pre-order, so that counts as 2011.)

Here is a list of the books my colleagues and I wrote this year. A pretty broad range of genres and topics, wouldn’t you say?

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