3 GREAT STORIES: Starring veterans, sad-vertising, and Weezer

Many media outlets seem to be investing in dressing up their online content.

When I check out the links that get most frequently Tweeted or sent my way, I typically see in-depth articles that have been jazzed up for the web. Publishers now use full-screen headline images, embedded links and graphics, and just about every other trick in the book to make web stories feel different.

Here are two examples from this past week … and one article about the band Weezer:

Still paying for the Civil War (5/9/14, Wall Street Journal): Example #1 comes from an unexpected place: the Wall Street Journal.

But look at how a seemingly “old guard” company dolls up this story by Michael M. Phillips. Beyond the full-screen headline, a different photo appears after every few paragraphs. It makes for a unique — and pleasing — presentation.

The article itself is fascinating. Phillips looks into a rarely reported fact: how the U.S. government pays billions annually to military veterans, their spouses, and their children. He focuses on the head-turning story of Irene Triplett. Her father married so late in life to a woman so young that their daughter Irene is today 84 years old—and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls.”

That’s right: Irene’s father fought in the Civil War. Because of that, Irene still receives $73.13 a month.

Phillips puts together a compelling story about how the cost of a given war extends far beyond the war itself. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Gmail, NY pizza, & the Trix bunny

Frivolity can be a beautiful thing.

And the Internet loves frivolity.

Think of how it has changed journalism and online content. Think of how many articles now are devoted to nostalgia, pop culture, and the highbrow interpretation of seemingly lowbrow material.

Storytellers occasionally get these stories right, and when they do, they succeed with either a detailed behind-the-scenes look, a thorough guide, or a scientific slant. (Sometimes they use a combination of all three.)

Here are three stories from last week that tackle such topics with unquestionable rigor:

How Gmail happened: the inside story of its launch 10 years ago (4/1/14, Time): Mark this one under “detailed behind-the-scenes look”.

And boy, is it detailed. Time writer Harry McCracken travels back a decade to when leaders at Google wanted to invest in an e-mail service.

That service, otherwise known as Gmail, changed our culture.

What’s more remarkable, it did so largely in the same ways its creators predicted.

McCracken shows a screengrab of Gmail at its inception, and it actually looks relatively similar to the product in 2014. More impressively, McCracken identifies the hurdles Google’s programmers faced in creating Gmail, and then he neatly explains how they solved those issues.

This is a long read but a great one.


3 GREAT STORIES: The “riding the wave of long-form writing” edition

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Seems like the pendulum, in the written world, is heading back towards long-form journalism.

Major web sites — including ones that generally traffic in web clicks, like Slate and BuzzFeed — have devoted entire sections to long reads. One web site even calls itself “LongReads” and commits itself strictly to long-form work.

This excites me. I have made plain my love for this brand of storytelling.

But I especially appreciate its current, if brief, resurgence, because it comes at a time of quick hits, snippets, and an overall overload of online content.

Here now, three great long-form stories from this past week:

Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet (1/6/14, Pacific Standard): This article has been getting a lot of attention this week … and rightly so.

Amanda Hess dives into the topic of Internet abuse, specifically as it relates to women, who receive a disproportionately high amount of it. She mixes her own experience with those of countless other female journalists and bloggers; she exposes the potential logistical issues in reporting abuse and counteracting it; and she buttresses everything with sobering statistics.

Consider this paragraph, where Hess breaks down what one might experience should she bring her claims of abuse to the police:

The Internet is a global network, but when you pick up the phone to report an online threat, whether you are in London or Palm Springs, you end up face-to-face with a cop who patrols a comparatively puny jurisdiction. And your cop will probably be a man: According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, only 6.5 percent of state police officers and 19 percent of FBI agents were women. The numbers get smaller in smaller agencies. And in many locales, police work is still a largely analog affair: 911 calls are immediately routed to the local police force; the closest officer is dispatched to respond; he takes notes with pen and paper.


The death of Nelson Mandela, and the speeding cycle of news

At around 5:00 EST on Thursday, my news feed on Facebook filled up about the same topic.

Nelson Mandela had passed away.

For the next hour or so, friends shared the news of the civil rights leader’s passing; several of them posted a favorite quote or moment from Mandela’s life.

And then, a few hours later, my news feed was virtually Mandela-free.

Everybody seemed to have moved on — mostly to Carrie Underwood and NBC’s live production of The Sound of Music. Nelson Mandela may not have been the last thing on people’s minds, but, it seemed, he was no longer the first.

The next morning, Mandela was no longer the top story when I checked various news updates and home pages.

At that moment, I wondered: Does the news world — heck, the world itself — move too quickly? I was not sure, but I found it hard to believe that the death of an international legend could so swiftly lose its power and impact.

But then, something else arrived.


Stories with perspective.

Stories like the pieces I mentioned in my “3 Great Stories” column earlier this week. Stories like the long-form obituaries and personal memories that perhaps got lost in the shuffle when they were initially released.


10 turn-of-the-century predictions, and 10 lessons learned

As we all attempt to predict the future, we probably should remember that we generally do not predict the future very well.

I received a reminder of this last month.

I spent a long weekend at my childhood home and, amidst catching up with friends and family, was also asked to do some overdue cleaning. As a child I saved virtually every magazine I received, but now those magazines were simply taking up space in my parents’ basement. My parents kindly encouraged me to examine the magazines and throw out which ones I no longer wanted.

(By “kindly encouraged”, I mean that my parents basically said, “Throw out the magazines, or we’ll throw ’em out for you.”)

As I combed through the magazines, most of which went straight to the trash, I noticed a stray section of an old Entertainment Weekly that, for some reason, I had ripped out of the magazine and saved separately. The section was titled “EWinternet: 10 for 2000” and consisted of a Top Ten list of “companies and visionaries leading the electronic charge” at the turn of the millennium.

I was intrigued. I felt as if I had just unearthed a time capsule.

But, like most time capsules, this one wound up being painfully outdated.

As I read this list, I remembered the various 21st-century predictions made about the world of journalism. Some have come true, but some have become laughable — massive misjudgments about a landscape that constantly evolves.


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring sports, maps, and bratwurst

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

When I first started this blog, I felt nervous about this particular segment.

Would I be able to find “3 Great Stories” every week? Stories that would offer me a new perspective on a familiar subject? Stories that would hit me emotionally as well as informationally? Stories that I would want to share even if I did not write a weekly column about them?

(In the first installment of this segment, you may recall, I only found two great stories.)

As this blog rolls into its seventh month, I am no longer nervous.

In fact, writing this segment is now one of my favorite parts of the week.

I have developed a process and rhythm for finding and absorbing great content. I subscribe to various RSS feeds and bookmark stories that pique my interest. I try to read and watch whatever I can during the week, but knowing how busy I often feel, I typically wind up waiting until the weekend to look at the bulk of the stories.

I love that part.

I love sitting down at my computer, clicking on story after story — print, video, audio, and otherwise — and taking them all in.

Between our busy schedules, our dwindling attention spans, and our penchant for the quick and brief over the measured and deep, we often now have to work to find great storytelling. But amidst the flood of information bombarding our minds, I am constantly flooded by powerful stories.

And I appreciate that such storytelling is still out there, in abundance, waiting to be seen.

Man and Superman (9/6/13, The New Yorker): For all the attention Malcolm Gladwell gets for his books, I still tend to prefer him in small doses.

At least, doses smaller than books.

In this case, Gladwell submits another powerful thinker about the blurred lines of athletic doping. He examines our castigation of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong amidst our reverence for Kenyan runners, who Gladwell finds are genetically predisposed to succeeding at the sport, and Tommy John, who thrived in Major League baseball largely thanks to bionics. At what point does science end and cheating begin?

I, for one, believe cheating begins once somebody breaks a rule. But Gladwell takes on the rules themselves. In doing so, he offers a beautiful example of how to cover a current news story with in-depth, well researched perspective.


3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Mike Bloomberg, SNL, and Finland

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Some weeks, I have a hard time finding three great stories to profile in this segment.

Not this week.

Perhaps I just found myself reading a lot more, but I continually found absorbing work on the print side. Beyond that, I also found occasions where traditional media enhanced their content for an online audience.

In a week stacked with memorable content, here were the three pieces that stood out to me:

After Bloomberg (8/20/13, The New Yorker): He is routinely mocked for being bland and boring, but New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is sneakily candid. He regularly weighs in on national topics and critiques the President, among other leaders, and yet he does not get the notoriety for outspokenness that a Chris Christie might receive.

In his final year of office, one would expect, his candidness will lead to numerous in-depth retrospectives — hopefully as memorable as this one.

Ken Auletta of the New Yorker produces this 8,000-word gem about Bloomberg, and it is special because it blends the mayor’s own words with the appropriate context and commentary. Auletta writes with an obvious point of view, but he generally uses it to color Bloomberg’s words, not overpower them. This paragraph is a perfect example:

I asked Bloomberg if he could imagine joining the President’s Cabinet. In theory, he said, “it would be fascinating to be Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, jobs like that. Secretary of the Treasury, you want someone who’s a real economist”—and someone “who is maybe less opinionated.” Bloomberg thinks of himself as a team player, as long as it’s his team.