To a friend concerned about my journalistic credibility

Monday, January 16, 2017
Adapted from my reply on Facebook to a friend worried about journalism's "loss of focus on the tenants held so dear by those who used to lived by them" and concerned my commentary — and my sharing of others' commentary — has jeopardized my reputation as a journalist:

I'm touched by your concern about my career and my reputation, but I encourage you not to fear on my behalf.

You seem to have adopted a narrow view of journalism's true role in democracy for much of American history. You seem stuck in the mindset of the relatively brief "Age of Mass Media," characterized by, as Will Oremus noted in Slate last week, "traditional media outlets’ intense desire to be perceived as sober and objective, and thus to be respected by conservatives and liberals alike—a business imperative that has been transmuted into an ethical injunction."

I doubt you really were paying attention to my work, dating back to my time as a graduate student in journalism, when I celebrated the work of reporters who were open about their informed conclusions and didn't hide behind the false equivalence of "he-said-he-said" reporting.

I got into this business partly because I was inspired by journalists like Mike Royko, who did nothing to hide his opinions; and by Woodward and Bernstein, who were committed to seeking the truth but who were condemned at the time by people using rhetoric disturbingly similar to yours.

As I've said many times, I'm far more worried about reporting by journalists who (incredibly and impossibly) pretend to have no opinions than by those who are open about their position and let an audience decide, story by story, which reporting is fair and which isn't.

Journalism's a practice much broader and richer than your pigeonhole allows.

Also, the word you want is "tenets."

Your friend forever,


Some tips for better podcast sound

Sunday, January 15, 2017
Snappy answers to frequently asked questions:

What do great interviews have in common?
(Photo: Sergey Galyonkin)
Your answer’s as good as mine. Probably better. Depends on the interview’s goal. If you’re Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, and your goal is at least partly to entertain, it’s great interplay between the guest and the host, with lots of laughs or emotion along the way. But most of us aren’t Stewart or Colbert; our goal is to connect our audience seamlessly with our guest and his or her insight. To that end, the less of us and the more of the guest and the guest’s wisdom the better. Some of the best interviews I’ve done have been those in which I just ask a little question and let the guests run with it. I get the first words (the words that explain why the guest is interesting or important) and the last words (to say whatever I want); I don’t feel compelled to be anything more than just a low-profile instigator along the way.
(Image: Dave Gandy)
What’s the best way to structure an interview?
Depends on your intent: Do you want a full interview segment, or just soundbites? (I recommend going for the full interview, so you have that option even if you just wind up using soundbites.) Ideally, you script a strong intro and a strong close and insert well-scripted questions in between. Here’s a piece I wrote with four tips for creating a great audio interview. Here’s slightly more basic advice, created mainly for students.

How important is it that I not interrupt someone?
Very important. Makes editing harder. If you’re interviewing someone in person or on Skype, you can prep them in advance to watch for your hand gestures, like the raised finger to indicate you’d like to interrupt; or the “wind it up” motion to indicate you have all you need and it’s almost time to close or move on to the next subject. If you have a sense of how much you need from your guest, or how longwinded she or he is, you can coach them beforehand with guidance like “Hey, we have a lot to cover in a little time. Do me a favor and think in terms of (2-, 3-, 4-, whatever)-sentence answers, OK? If I need more on a subject, I’ll ask a followup question.”
What kind of questions should I avoid?
Yes-or-no questions. And plain statements that aren’t questions. (See my interview tips above.)

I can only interview someone by phone. How do I get great sound?
Each of you can record your voices using a smartphone as you talk over a landline. (Clap a few times at a recording’s start to create marks for syncing.) Then your guest can email or otherwise share with you the audio he or she has recorded at that end for melding with your voice. Key to doing this right: Make sure the phone is about 5-6 inches from the speaker’s mouth, preferably pointed at the corner of the mouth so as to avoid popping Ps and blowing Bs. Note: Some phones (early iPhones, among others; newer ones are more flexible) aren’t able to send long recordings. If you’re not sure, you’ll want to test or record in short increments (8-10 minutes) and so each segment’s not too big. Or give each user software that has no limits. (I use Twisted Wave.) Failing this—for instance, if timeliness is more essential than quality—you can use Google Voice, which records both ends of the conversation at phone-quality.

I’m interviewing someone by Skype. What should I do? Use the best microphone available, ideally a nice USB mic attached to the computer. These don’t have to be expensive; the Blue Snowball, for instance, can be had for under $50 and it works fine. Failing that, an iPhone or other smartphone headset can be better than a computer’s onboard mic. But the onboard mic on most desktop and laptop computers can work reasonably well, too. The key is figuring out where the mic is located on a computer and getting yourself and your guest to sit as close to your computers’ mics as possible. It’s not always intuitive; the mic on some computers is in back of the screen, for instance. On some MacBooks, it’s along the edge—a couple of pinholes next to the headphone jack.

How do I get the best sound when I’m not recording in a studio?
Regardless of the tech you use to record, minimizing echoes is the biggest key to a professional sound. (Clap and listen carefully and you’ll get a sense of how much echo a space has. It’s often a lot more than we realize in everyday life.) For someone using a smartphone to record, simply draping a coat over one’s head can (look stupid, yes; but also) improve the professional sound of the recording tremendously, eliminating the sound of one’s voice bouncing off a nearby wall, mirror or computer screen. Another option: Unmake the bed and get under some pillows or a blanket. Or make a fort out of couch cushions.

How can I make the interview more conversational and casual to get good information?
If you're aiming for a talk-show vibe, you can achieve a lot by constructing and ordering your questions thoughtfully. As I explain here, it’s not an easy thing to write a script (or questions) so that, when read, they don’t sound like they were written and they don’t sound like they’re being read. Note: This isn't so important when you're in the hunt mainly for soundbites or quotes; in that case, your goal is to get your listeners useful, actionable information as frictionlessly as possible. They’re not listening for small talk. Either way, reduce the noise: The “uh-huhs” and the statements that repeat or foreshadow exactly the things your guests have said or will say.

Bonus tips:
  • Avoid the urge to make statements, like, “So, that works pretty well for you, then.”
  • Avoid the old reporter’s trick of seeming to agree with your interviewee to get him or her to keep talking. This is fine if you’re just taking notes, but it makes lame (momentum-killing) listening and difficult editing if you punctuate interviewees’ answers with things like “Huh” or “That’s great” or “Yeah.”
  • Bite your tongue. Your job is to be a question-asking machine. Ask questions and then get out of the way. The easiest way to do that is to write out your questions in advance. You can always ad-lib, but do so knowingly. If you have nothing substantial to say or add, just move on efficiently to the next question.
More questions? Drop me an email.

[Adapted from advice to a Meyerson Strategy client.]

The gang that used to rule cyberspace

Saturday, January 14, 2017
As digital lawlessness holds center stage in the national political drama, doesn't this seem like a good time to revisit the first generation of internet outlaws?

So let's set the WABAC machine for Feb. 5, 1995, original airdate for my interview with Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quittner — authors of the seminal hacking story Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace.

(Quittner, by the way, also holds the historic distinction of being the person who first bought the domain What he demanded from McDonald's Corp. in exchange for giving it up is a tale he shares at the end of this interview.)

Enjoy this? You'll want to hear my 1993 interview with the man who coined the phrase "cyberspace," science fiction author William Gibson. And many more tech-oriented interviews here.

An apology to email subscribers

Saturday, January 7, 2017
Through some sort of inadvertent recursive programming glitch, people who get this blog by email may have received a highly redundant list of recent posts.

I think I've fixed it. If I haven't, please let me know by email.

Thanks for reading.

Belated farewell to a consumer champion

Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Clarence Ditlow championed auto safety for decades.

From my 1980s-era Rolodex
(Yeah, yeah, I know 'safety' is misspelled.)
I missed word of his death several weeks ago, but he was (as demonstrated by this yellowed Rolodex card from my days at WXRT, 1979-1989) a frequent, reliable and straightforward interview many times for this young reporter.

As noted in the latest issue of Consumer Reportswhose parent, Consumers Union, cofounded the Center for Auto Safety, for which he served as longtime executive director—Ditlow's "fearlessness and tenacity prompted critical safety recalls that reduced traffic deaths and made a profound difference in the lives of millions—families spared from untold tragedies because of his determination and the many victories he won on their behalf."

Rest in peace, Mr. Ditlow. And thanks for the interviews.

Dave Barry in review

Friday, December 30, 2016
Miami Herald illustration
One of my favorite end-of-year rituals is reading Pulitzer winner Dave Barry's annual year-in-review roundup.

The 2016 version doesn't disappoint:
"If years were relatives, 2016 would be the uncle who shows up at your Thanksgiving dinner wearing his underpants on the outside."
If you missed it, check out his 2016 Holiday Gift Guide, too.

While we're looking back, you might also enjoy listening to my encounters with Dave Barry over the years—including the time he told my boss to fire me (something that came to pass less than two years later, for completely non-Dave-Barry-related reasons).

Stan Lee interviewed in 1998 (raw audio)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Stan Lee in 2014
Photo: Gage Skidmore
CC BY-SA 3.0
It's a tradition on the birthday of Marvel Comics' fearless leader, Stan Lee, for me to revisit one of my favorite encounters with him: A 1998 sitdown at the Wizard World pop-culture convention in Rosemont, Ill.

This time, though, something different: Raw, unedited (stereo; he's in the right channel, I'm in the left) audio of the session we recorded—followed by the sound of a Merry Marvel Marching Society membership perk, a record featuring Stan and many of the old Marvel Bullpen team.

As you'll hear by comparing the session below to the finished product, not much wound up on the cutting room floor, but you'll get a sense of Stan's off-air demeanor by listening to the banter before and after the "official" session.

Enjoy this? Check out my 1997 list of 10 things I learned from Marvel Comics written by Stan Lee, an interview with Howard the Duck co-creator Steve Gerber and Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud.