Suburban survival

I read that Annie Dillard, when composing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was living in the suburbs and raising a family. Strange, at first, to think that one could compose such solitude in the midst of bland civilization. Or dive that deep into nature among the streets and cul-de-sacs of a small town and all its busy-ness. But then I remember Thoreau, too, sought his solitude in a cabin but placed it close enough to town that he could still bring his laundry back to the landlady once a week, a fact that goes unmentioned in his book. And the Chinese poet-sages, who cultivated an air of reclusiveness such that one might almost think they were hermits: In fact they were bureaucrats working government jobs, raising families, living in the suburbs, and escaping to the hills whenever possible to contemplate, to drink with their literary friends, and to paint the landscape of their ideal world on rice paper scrolls. All that remains today are the scrolls. We chuckle at this hypocrisy until we realize: This too is a strategy of survival. The city has its own nature; why not the suburbs? To find a place of refuge in the exurban sprawl is no mean feat. We should all be able to concentrate our minds so.

Cherry blossoms. San Mateo, April 2017
Suburban survival

The new paternity leave

“Taking paternity leave is so rare that it’s not a question of how much time you’re going to take off, but whether you will be able to take any at all.” That’s pretty sad!

Here’s a great post (and a very funny infographic) from one dad who took 12 weeks off with his newborn. MORE DADS SHOULD DO THIS.

Note: Upwork is one of my clients, but I wasn’t involved in creating this post or infographic. I just think it’s worth sharing.

The New Paternity Leave: Now Dads Can Man Up

The new paternity leave

We are Lent into Each Other’s Keeping

Here’s a lovely turn of phrase from a friend of Tomasz Tunguz:

The entire story reminded me of an old friend who often tells me, “We are lent into each other’s keeping.” Our time with each other is borrowed, its duration is unknown, and that uncertainty makes it precious.

There’s also a moving story about Muhammad Ali’s empathy and his definition of evil.

Source: We are Lent into Each Other’s Keeping (I corrected a couple typos in the quote)

Quote

Talk loudly and carry a big schtick

No matter how you slice it, the media is in trouble.

Fake news. Guest “experts” who don’t tell the truth. Clickbait headlines. A President who calls the media the “enemy of the American people.” No wonder public trust in the media is at an all-time low.

Meanwhile, news organizations are continuing to lay people off, even after decades of cuts. Ad revenues continue to drop, and few publications are able to make up the difference through subscription revenues.

Reporters are required to cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more pageviews than ever before. And everyone hates them.

It’s a stressful job, as I can tell you: I worked in daily online news from 2007 to 2015, and each year the demands on me and my team ratcheted up while the overall media business looked worse and worse.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 54,400 working journalists in the U.S., and the total is declining. If you look at just full-time daily journalists, the count is down to just 33,000, about half of what it was in 2000.

Meanwhile, BLS counts 306,500 public relations specialists and PR managers. That means the people who are paid to get corporate messages across outnumber daily news journalists by nearly 10 to 1.

That’s not even a fair fight.

This imbalance explains why reporters’ inboxes are overflowing with email pitches, and it also explains why it’s so hard to get a reporter to reply to a pitch, even to say “No thanks.”

Understanding that, how should companies and the PR pros who represent them respond? As I see it, there are two main options.


Note: I’ll be discussing this topic onstage at the PR Summit in Austin, Texas on March 8, together with PR entrepreneurs Josh Jones-Dilworth and Conrad Egusa. I’d love to see you there. And if you want discount codes on tickets, let me know!


Option One: Be Like Donald

Ignore the press. Forge your own, direct connections with your target audiences. Create a strong social media presence on Facebook (which will cost you, because Facebook doesn’t promote brands without getting paid) and on Twitter (where anything goes and you can easily reach a targeted, polarized audience at low cost). Your independence from the dying media is directly proportional to the size of the audience you have built. Accordingly, focus on building that audience.

Own your own media. Build a rich website full of interesting things to watch and read, because you don’t want to be totally dependent on Facebook, and you need a way to deliver your message to all comers. Or create a YouTube channel, or a Snapchat channel.

You will need an authentic voice and you’ll need to have something interesting to say on a regular basis: weekly or daily. If you’ve got an outrageous personality, so much the better. People on social media love to be entertained.

If your brand is not outrageous, all hope is not lost. You can still carve out a niche by being dependable, interesting, informative, or useful. Decide what your advantage is and deliver that constantly.

Focus on the metrics. Unless the polls go against you–then forget the metrics and say something that will get people talking.

This isn’t rocket science: It’s storytelling and showmanship. Talk loudly and carry a big schtick.

Option Two: Be More Useful

Double down on the idea that PR and press have a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Too often communications pros give lip service to this idea but don’t actually deliver. Instead, take the role as a facilitator seriously, and figure out how you can help the journalists you talk to, not just your clients.

Prioritize quality engagements and understand how your client fits into bigger-picture stories, rather than just touting the latest big fundraise or the newest product features.

Become a bridge to the business community and be more useful to individual journalists by bringing them context and information they actually want.

Help promote stories that journalists write. You’ve got the ability to help amplify stories. Use it. More page views and more RTs are always welcome.

Develop more thoughtful op-eds and bylines, because most publications are starved for informed perspectives that aren’t horribly written and self promotional. Your goal should be to get your executives recognized as smart, interesting people worth paying attention to, not to promote their brands. This isn’t direct response marketing, it’s indirect response PR.

Support institutions that defend freedom of the press, like the ACLU and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Subscribe to a newspaper. Or three. Seriously, spend money to support quality journalism.

And if you’re wealthy enough, buy the whole paper. Just don’t expect to make a lot of money out of it–owning a publication is more like philanthropy than it is like capitalism.

Remember, if the press goes away, PR people don’t have a job any more either. It’s time for public relations to step up and take responsibility for helping support the fourth estate.

Note: This post first appeared as an op-ed on PRWeek, with the headline “What responsibility does PR have to the dying media?

Top photo: Old news, by David Bleasdale/Flickr

Talk loudly and carry a big schtick

How You Got My Attention

One of today’s top recommended stories in my Medium feed is a piece intriguingly titled “How I Got My Attention Back.”

I clicked through, only to see that Medium estimated it as a 14-minute read. Fourteen minutes! You expect me to spend more than half a pomodoro of my precious attention on a wandering first-person narrative about your monthlong off-grid retreat?

While I’m deeply interested in strategies for focusing one’s attention in an era of hyper-distraction, this is really annoying.

Also annoying: The author’s Medium bio is “probably walking on a mountain.” Seriously, that is the entire bio. Craig Mod is clearly not the kind of guy who spends his time poring over 14-minute longreads on Medium. He’s a writer. The kind of important, literary writer who gets invited to rural writing retreats. He’s got more important things to do.

If he spends his time in 28-day retreats in Virginia and the rest of it walking on a mountain somewhere, I don’t care what wisdom he may have about regaining control of his own attention, it’s not likely to apply to me or to anyone I know. Most of us are too busy trying to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, make sure our kids get to school on time, and have a tiny bit of time and energy left over at the end of the day for ourselves and our partners.

This kind of long-winded, self-important essay is becoming all too common. The reason, I think, is twofold.

One, editing is hard, and good editors are hard to come by. Even good editors are probably too overworked these days to do the difficult work of chopping a good but verbose writer’s work down to a more manageable size. I do think his writing is good, if long. The editors did him a disservice here by not chopping it more.

Two, content platforms like Medium fetishize length. There’s some good evidence that this is because some people use length as a signal of “seriousness,” and they are more likely to share articles that seem serious. As a result, longer articles tend to get shared more, liked more, and clicked on more. That’s why Medium adds the helpful “14-minute read” estimate–it’s an indicator of what you’re in for, but it’s also a proxy for seriousness.

Unfortunately, all this sharing and clicking happens regardless of how much people actually read. It is entirely possible that longer articles get shared, but not fully read: People read the first few paragraphs, notice that it’s extremely long and therefore must be serious, and they click “share” or “like” in order to signal to their social networks that they are the kind of people who read and share serious articles.

Meanwhile, the art of writing concisely gets lost. And the art of reading carefully does, too, since everyone’s too busy skimming through these overly long stories to see what the highlights are.

In this story’s case, I couldn’t make it through two minutes, much less all 14. But I did scroll down to see if there was anything practical and relevant here, or whether it was all just navel-gazing about the state of attention today.

So here, let me extract the takeaway for you, since the editors didn’t:

  1. Turn off your Internet access before bedtime.
  2. Leave it off until lunchtime.

Good advice, actually! You’d probably find yourself even more productive if you kept the Internet off until dinnertime, but even half a day offline is no doubt helpful to your writing.

That is, unless the kind of writing you do requires an Internet connection so you can look up references and read what other people have written. But it’s clear that Craig Mod is not the kind of writer who spends a lot of time reading online. He’s probably on a mountain somewhere.

Top Photo: This book is really long. It must be good. Credit: Michael Pereckas/Flickr 

How You Got My Attention

The difficulty with complexity.

As a society, we are facing a crisis of understanding.

Fake news is just the latest expression of a deeper problem: We have more and more difficulty thinking about (and talking about) complex topics.

In short, it’s hard to convey nuance and multiplicity with the media we have today.

Social networks are built to facilitate transmission of ideas that can be embodied in a catchy meme or 140 characters and a Twitter card. Anything that requires a few paragraphs or more to explain sufficiently runs the risk of being ignored or (at best) misrepresented under a catchy headline.

Online news sites live and die based on how many monthly visitors they get, which means their headlines and story choices are all geared towards generating clicks and shares, not understanding.

Television “news” focuses, as it always has, on the sensational and the provocative, and it has even started catering to the need for short-attention-span entertainment by adding background music and jokes.

Radio, for the most part, is dominated by those who can shout their opinions the loudest and provoke the strongest listener reactions. The exceptions, like NPR and PRI, are somewhat better, but even public radio has a hard time conveying complexity or nuance in a 4 minute segment (or even an hourlong weekly science show), given the imperative of entertaining and engaging the audience.

And even an ostensibly #longread-friendly environment like Medium suffers from human nature’s tendency to focus on the pithy highlight, the tweetable excerpt, the clickable headline.

Yes, in part this is human nature. We are programmed to notice the new, and to respond quickly and viscerally to stimuli that promise food or sex, or that seem to present a threat.

But as Daniel Kahneman has written in Thinking Fast and Slow, that is not the only mode of human thinking. It is also possible to engage a more logical, deliberative mode of thought. This mode of thinking is not as fast at coming to decisions but it is better suited to problem-solving, especially when the problems have many contributing factors, competing stakeholders, and unpredictable outcomes.

We need this kind of slow thinking, especially now. Because while our media leads us to ever-simpler, ever-more-catchy reflexive ways of intuitive thinking, the world itself is incredibly complex. Some examples:

  • What happens when the Arctic warms to 50 degrees above its normal December temperature is the result of an incredibly complicated system of interactions. What will happen next is hard to predict. What to do about it is even harder to figure out. And yet discussion online devolves into simplistic binaries: “the climate crisis is real and we’re fucked,” versus “global warming is a Chinese hoax.”
  • The companies that are working on autonomous vehicles, such as Google and Uber, seem to be getting closer and closer to truly “self-driving cars.” What will this mean for the tens of thousands of people for whom driving a car — or a truck — is their livelihood? How soon will self-driving cars actually be on the road? How autonomous will they be? How should governments respond to ensure the safety of all on the roads? How will insurance companies respond? How do we build a safety net, or alternate employment, for those who may be put out of work? None of these are easy questions to answer, particularly since the technologies themselves are still in development and their future arc is not entirely clear.
  • Health care in the U.S. seems in some ways incredibly advanced and in other ways the system seems complex and opaque and on the verge of collapse. Efforts to improve its functioning, such as Obamacare, are themselves incredibly complex, and that leads to further misunderstandings, errors, unpredictable outcomes, and, yes, political mischaracterizations. A slogan like “repealing Obamacare” might play well politically but practically speaking it’s far from clear how that might work, and how to proceed in a way that doesn’t lay waste to vast numbers of stakeholders, from those in poverty to those who own stock in insurance companies.

As a writer, a former journalist, and person who currently makes a living helping companies communicate better, I think about this constantly. Those of us in the “content business,” broadly speaking, have a responsibility to find ways of matching what we produce with the complexity of the world around us.

It is not just a matter of raging against the publication platforms and the social media available to us. Likewise I think it is useless to rant about the stupidity of the public (though that is often a satisfying outlet for the frustration of attempting to communicate). And we certainly can’t accomplish this by lecturing to people about how they need to pay closer attention and read that 10,000-word essay by Elizabeth Kolbert more closely.

No, I think we need to use our skills as communicators to engage readers and draw them in to stories that convey complexity and nuance. There is some hope here: As Nicholas Thompson has written, long-form storytelling is a thriving niche. There is demand for longer, more complicated stories, especially those that are well-told.

But length alone is not enough. I’ve read too many #longreads that seemed to be long for the sake of length, as if writing more words conveyed an impression of seriousness and depth. Actually, it does, but that’s just another example of how our intuitive brains can be easily fooled by superficial things. If you take the time to read these long stories closely, you’ll quickly realize which ones are long because they need to be long, and which ones really just need more editing.

So that brings me to the question I’m asking myself — and anyone who cares to join me — in 2017:

How can writers, journalists, designers, filmmakers, and artists work to convey complex, important ideas more accurately, completely, and engagingly?

That’s the question that motivates me this year. What about you? If you have good answers to this question, or — even better — some questions of your own, I’d love to hear from you.

Also published on Medium.

Illustration by Daniel Friedman on Flickr.

The difficulty with complexity.

Santa is real.

This year I took the kids shopping with me on Christmas Eve. I gave them $60 each: A twenty to buy a present for their mom, a twenty to buy a present for their sibling, and a twenty to buy some stocking stuffers for the other three members of the family. “You’re going to help play Santa this year,” I told them.

The fifteen year old went off and got a single stocking stuffer for each of us, a nice pair of pie pans for her mom, and two big bags of taffy for her brother. Done! And everyone was happy.

The ten year old spent an hour combing Cost Plus for a huge pile of stocking stuffers, and went slightly over his limit. (I bailed him out.) He got some nice mittens for his sister and a Downton Abbey calendar for mom. Also good.

On Christmas, after we’d opened all our presents, the 10 year old started talking about how he learned the truth about Santa. “C told me that Santa isn’t real two years ago. I like to pretend that he is real, but I know he’s not.”

“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Santa’s not real? What about your mom over there? Do you think she’s not your real mom?”

“No,” he said. He knows that he has a birth mother and an adoptive mother, just like he has a birth father and an adoptive father. But we’re not “unreal” … we actually do the work of taking care of him, feeding him, buying him clothes, driving him to soccer practice. We’re pretty real, I reminded him.

“And guess what,” I added. “Santa is real, too. Who do you think Santa really is?”

“You guys?” he said, pointing at me and KJ.

“And you,” I said, pointing right at him. “You helped buy all those stocking stuffers, and you put them in the stockings. So you were Santa, too.”

His eyes lit up. “Yeah!” he said. Then, in a very deep, Santa voice, while posing like a bodybuilder: “I’m Santa Claus! I’m Santa Claus!”

Photo: One of the not entirely appropriate stocking stuffers the little dude got me.

Santa is real.

Signing off Facebook for awhile.

I’m done with Facebook for now, so I am signing off for awhile.

Partly I am annoyed with the company for not taking a stand against the Trump administration and its elected leader’s comments about making lists of Muslims and immigrants. For the company’s COO to attend a meeting with Trump yesterday and say absolutely nothing about that is not what I would hope for.

But mostly I’m fed up with the addictive design of the service. I don’t like myself when I use Facebook too much. It feeds me too much crap that just reinforces whatever cynical political mood that I’m in. I have had some useful conversations and event debates, but it takes an effort to get past the depressing crap. And it keeps encouraging me to click, and scroll, and click, and scroll, in a way that I dislike.

So for now I’m signing off, and will try to stay off through the end of the year. I may even deactivate my account. For now you can find me on Twitter @dylan20, and of course I’ll always be here on this site.

Photo source: Jolie O’Dell/VentureBeat

 

Signing off Facebook for awhile.