Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Illusion of asymmetrical insight

In journalism on 16 May 2018 at 10:48 am

James and Deborah Fallows in conversation with Lenny Mendonca on May 15, 2018.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a Commonwealth Club of Silicon Valley discussion with authors James and Deborah Fallows. (Commonwealth Club board member Lenny Mendonca invited me and I quickly accepted.) The Fallows have written a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”

Before I say any more, I haven’t yet read the book, which came out last week. The Fallows are thoroughly impressive people with a long list of accomplishments. They are persuasive optimists and it was an uplifting, interesting hour or so of conversation.

The premise of their book is this: Pilot a single-prop airplane into small airports the rest of us fly over. Stop in places like Greenville, S.C., and Sioux Falls, S.D. Look for stories other reporters miss. They admit — as if this is something terrible — they wanted to find stories of success and renewal in the heartland. Consequently, that’s what they found.

James Fallows is a media veteran and the writer of more than a dozen books. When he mentioned an “asymmetrical bias” as a problem for many coastal reporters, he knows of what he speaks. He maintains that “the media” thinks of large coastal cities as places of terrific innovation, dynamic arts, diverse communities — in short, all the good things for which America is known. What does the media leave for flyover country? Racism, addiction, poverty.

His critique is not without merit. Turn on the TV and watch the discussion on cable news. Before long, you’ll hear reference to this dichotomy. Red states and blue states. Us and them. Good and bad. … Read the rest of this entry »


Praising ‘Democracy’s Detectives’

In journalism on 13 Oct 2016 at 1:45 pm


Here is a book that I haven’t read but am willing to suggest is a must-read for people who love journalism and wish for it to endure. It’s Jay Hamilton’s “Democracy’s Detectives.”

Hamilton is a trained economist (which is putting it lightly… Hamilton earned his Ph.D in economics from Harvard) and the director of the Stanford University Journalism Program. (Since I’m recommending a book sight unseen, I should say I know Jay just enough to know he is a terrific gentleman and a fantastic leader of the Stanford program.)

He has written extensively about the intersection of commerce and communications. This book is subtitled, “The Economics of Investigative Journalism.” From what I have read, the book makes the economic case for such difficult work. He uses complicated economic tools and specific examples, like The Raleigh News and Observer’s Pat Stith, to prove that even expensive investigations that take months to wrestle into print can pay massive dividends to society at large. And he notes that doing that work can differentiate a media organization from the din thereby making your enterprise more profitable.

In his post about Hamilton’s book, Poynter contributor Rick Edmonds notes that the ranks of local journalists have thinned by 40 percent in the last decade. My guess is that. as a result, corruption and things in need of investigating have risen by more than 40 percent in that time. Why? Because investigative journalism — and the patience and resources required to do it right — has been the first thing jettisoned by many a short-sighted news corporation and corruption loves a dark vacuum. … Read the rest of this entry »

If No News, Send Rumors

In Books on 7 Jan 2016 at 4:01 pm


The first journalism book I’ve read in 2016 is a hoot. It’s also 30 years old – before online commenters, Facebook and even websites. It’s called, “If No News, Send Rumors.” It will crack you up.

It’s a collection of anecdotes from our trade. Stephen Bates’ book is also evidence that, while change has touched everything we do since the book was published in 1988, some things aren’t much different from 1690 when the continent’s first newspaper, Publick Occurances Both Foreign and Domestick was grappling in its very first edition about whether to report a suicide. (It did.)

Among the tidbits:

  • White House staff are said to have regularly passed out amphetamines to reporters in the press room throughout 1955.
  • Cops in New York gave influential columnist Walter Winchell his own lights and sirens for his car.
  • James Gordon Bennett of The New York Herald is purported to have conducted the first newspaper interview in 1836. His interview subject? A madam at a brothel where a prostitute was brutally murdered.

Taken as a whole, the book provides a sense that journalism – for all it’s pronouncements of professionalism and somber sermonizing – is largely about winging it. Ethical judgments are made on the fly. Walters Cronkite and Winchell had the same travails as you have today. And competition has always been mother’s milk to journalists.

It is also a testament to the literate and profoundly funny people who have practiced the tradition of journalism through the years. Some of the quotes and ledes remembered here are laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll leave you with one, from F.H. Brennan, late of The St. Louis Dispatch:

“One answer to the problem of how to treat reporters is to treat them frequently.”


This week’s missed opportunity

In Ideas on 16 Jul 2015 at 1:07 pm

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Sometimes I worry that this blog comes off smug, as if I have the answer to turning a legacy media outfit into a digital superhero. That I deign to come down from the mount each Friday to present The Word on a self-satisfied platter.

Hardy, har, har. What a laugh.

Truth is, I learn more of what I don’t know every week. And a week doesn’t go by that I don’t think of something we could have done better at Wick generally, or at the Half Moon Bay Review more specifically.

Take this week. A beloved bookstore announced it was closing after 30-something years in town. Where once we had five or six independent bookstores in town, soon we will have only two. The store-closing was the talk of the town. … Read the rest of this entry »

On Writing Well

In Books on 20 Nov 2014 at 4:40 pm

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A Facebook friend reminded me of a gem of a book from the past. Actually, I glance at it every day. It’s on the shelf, right at eye level above my computer, as I type these words. It’s called “On Writing Well,” and it is William Zinsser’s ode to the practice of writing. My copy was assigned reading when I was in J school in the Reagan years.

It’s a lot like the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style. It’s pretty sleek and terrifically readable. It’s preachy in the same way the Declaration of Independence is preachy: We hold these truths about writing to be self-evident.

Zinsser offers advice like this, in a chapter on punctuation:

There is not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough. … There is no minimum length for a sentence that is acceptable in the eyes of man and God. …
Read the rest of this entry »

Finding your elusive style

In Books on 28 Jun 2013 at 7:34 am


If you are reading this, you know that The Elements of Style is the bible of American journalists. E.B. White (famed as a children’s author) and William Strunk (a long-dead English professor) penned a rational, readable and brief outline for anyone wishing to be a better writer.

If you haven’t read it lately, you should.

I’m particularly fond of the final chapter, called “An Approach to Style.” It begins with the authors’ acknowledgement that they are stepping off of firm grammatical ground and into the squishy turf of subjective sentence structure.

The advice is simple, obvious and ignored by writers everywhere. Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that comes naturally. Work from a suitable design. Use nouns and verbs. Revise and rewrite. Do not overwrite. Do not overstate. Avoid the use of qualifiers. Do not affect a breezy manner. Use orthodox spelling. Do not explain too much. Do not construct awkward adverbs. Make sure the reader knows who is talking. Don’t use fancy words. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good. Be clear. Do not inject opinion. Use figures of speech sparingly. Do not take shortcuts at the expense of clarity. Avoid foreign languages. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

While we hold these truths to be self-evident, there is ample evidence that we don’t think much of the truth. We ignore clarity and overwrite. We seek to impress with adverbs, of all things. We try to write like our heroes though we know we can no more write like Henry James than dunk a basketball like LeBron James. … Read the rest of this entry »

Reading is fundamental

In Books on 19 Jul 2012 at 4:00 pm

From the just-sharing-an-idea department, I thought I would pass along a successful campaign we’ve been helping to facilitate at the Half Moon Bay Review. Who knows, something similar might work for you.

We have a twice-monthly “Books” page in the paper. It’s a nod to the fact that, at the time we launched it, there were five independent book stores in town. We figured we could intrigue advertisers (and appeal to our literate readership) by featuring local authors, book events, library things, etc., in a regular way.

Anyway, about a month ago a local reader called to say he had a garage full of brand-new children’s books. He used to be a book reviewer and the books were piling up. He asked if the Review would help distribute them to eager young readers. … Read the rest of this entry »

‘Sports led me to everything’

In sports on 13 Oct 2011 at 3:12 pm

I hadn’t yet figured out that sports led me to everything and everything led me back to sports.

That’s a line from the middle of a wonderful book by Robert Lipsyte, called, “An Accidental Sportswriter.” Lipsyte is now 70ish, I think, and one of the most prolific writers I know. After a very successful career as a New York Times sportswriter, Lipsyte quit to write books. He’s also done some TV along the way. He’s written about a dozen young adult novels and several nonfiction books. The latest is his look back at sportswriting for the Times. Half Moon Bay Review sportswriter Mark Foyer got the book signed for me, as you can see, and I’m grateful for the good read.

Lipsyte fawns over Gay Talese. Talese, of course, was one of the greatest of the New Journalists of the 1960s and ’70s, men (they were mostly men, with the notable exception of Joan Didion) who inserted themselves in the stories or otherwise didn’t pretend to be entirely objective. Talese led Lipsyte away from standard game stories in the sports department, where both men worked.

I just wanted to talk about that quote for a minute. Sports is life distilled into a game, or a never-ending series of games. There are heroic moments, boring times, failure, defeat, shame. All of that is true, to a point, but that’s not entirely what Lipsyte is talking about, if I may be so bold. … Read the rest of this entry »

Bringing the dead to life

In Obituaries on 4 Nov 2010 at 4:27 pm

Halloween is over, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about dead people. The obituary page was once one of the most literary stops on the journey through any newspaper. Those beautiful remembrances have largely succumbed to pablum written off of templates by mortuary clerks on behalf of grieving families or less-than articulate rambles written by the grieving relatives themselves.

They still can be terrific. Sometimes we at the Half Moon Bay Review get amazing memorials from the families.

Anyway, as a Kicker exclusive, former journalism professor Garrett Ray offered a trio of great books about obit writing.

  • “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries,” by Marilyn Johnson;
  • “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers,” by Alana Baranick, Jim Sheeler, and Stephen Miller; and … Read the rest of this entry »

Two authors at one time

In Writing techniques on 15 Jul 2010 at 2:50 pm

This week I’m finishing two books, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and New Orleans Sketches, which is really a collection of early word doodles William Faulkner sold to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the 1920s.

Reading them both simultaneously is actually dizzying. Faulkner is a dervish, twisting spirals of words upon themselves. If he were a painter, I’d call him an impressionist. Melville is comparatively sparse. He’s a reporter. I know more about 19th century whaling than I ever thought possible.

So what? Well, as I said before, better reading is the key to better writing. With that in mind, I wanted to discuss a couple tricks of the masters.

Melville bangs his drum with a rhythm all his own. Everyone knows the opening line of Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” It’s easy to forget that the same paragraph includes an 86-word sentence. Talk about a whale! One of his tricks is the juxtaposition of short and long sentence structures. To my mind’s ear it creates an effect much like skipping down the road – long, short, long, short… Read the rest of this entry »