Friday, May 08, 2009

A blue moon ago or so, yaller blogger Jeffrey threw up a post that said he might as well shut down his blog, as some of his best posts were comments on another blog.

Well, now I'm hitting one of those stretches, only the place where I've been leaving supposed "gems" behind has been The Gambit's Blog of New Orleans. First it was the swine flu insanity. Currently, it is Nine Lives author Dan Baum's use of Twitter to tell the story of how he was fired from the staff of The New Yorker magazine. From Baum's reply to Kevin Allman's post:

Tweeting this story about my time at the New Yorker is a strange exercise, I’ll grant you that. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t realize the size of the tiger whose tail I was grabbing. I had 25 followers at lunchtime today and watching the number soar is a bit unnerving.

Mr Baum, from one veteran Tweeter Tube wrassler (3,984 tweets to date!) to you, a novice at the use of this medium, I will first tell you that trying to read through your story as it is - from the bottom up and in incomplete sentences - gave me quite a headache. Your tale so far is intriguing, but the format is infuriating.

Having said that, there are ways to turn the limitations of Twitter to your advantage. Consider your sentences and your usage of words much more carefully, and don't shy away from using abbreviations, as it can sometimes be the only way to get things across within a 140 character limit. You're using links to your proposals, which is great. Just keep it all tight so it makes sense without the dyslexic sensation for the readers.

Also, if you are doing this in order to answer the New Yorker questions everybody seems to have for you during interviews and q-&-a's on your book tour, use the interactivity of Twitter to keep the current tweets from having that one-sided conversational feeling. Reach out to your readers a little more, ask them where they might want this tale of yours to go and use it as a guide (possible case in point). Otherwise, take this well-written, highly disjointed story in the making and post it on your website in full.

As for what Baum's motive might be in starting on this Sisyphean endeavor, journalist Nancy Rommelman alerts readers of the Blog of New Orleans post of this post at Bloggasm concerning Baum's ironic use of tweets to tell his story about the business practices of a magazine that has printed "some of the longest articles in the industry." Baum essentially says, over on Bloggasm, that yes, he’s thinking it might sell some books, Rommelman says...and heeeeere's where the fine line between integrity and self-promotion starts to fray.

Motive is always tricky. Motive, when all is said and done, turns an action right back on the person performing it and, depending on the circumstances, can caress or kill.

Baum, again:

It’s a gimmick, yes, and I hope it sells books, sure. But it’s also galled me a bit, as a reporter, that the New Yorker pulls a veil of secrecy over itself to rival the NSA. I mean, it’s a very good magazine, but it’s just a magazine. And as I travel to talk about “Nine Lives,” people express a lot of interest in it. “How does it work over there?” “How do you break in?” “What’s the editing process like?” “Why’d you get fired?” The New Yorker is a national institution, and I have a journalist’s natural urge to inform the public about it.

Without giving too much away, my getting fired was in very large part my own fault, so it’s not a full-on dish by an aggrieved victim. And I hope people will see that I have a lot of good things to say about the place.

So, the motive, according to Baum, is to follow his journalistic impulses, that "natural urge". And that's a good urge, overall. That's an urge that led him to write a great book that hopefully will stand the test of time and stand apart from the unfortunate foot-in-mouth comments he made about the people of New Orleans in the promotion of said book.

What I still question, however, is the use of Twitter for this purpose, which is one hell of a place to try to straddle that fine line between integrity and self-promotion.

Personally, I smell another nonfiction book in all of this on the inner workings of The New Yorker from the perspective of someone who was once an insider of sorts....although there are most certainly even more fine lines to consider when the sad tale of one's firing is in book form, no matter what the circumstances.

Watch your six with this trick, Mr Baum.

Update, 5-9: Another aspect of the tweets that Dana Goldstein picked up on through the use of pronouns:

Reading his tweets, I felt compassion for a fellow magazine journalist, who is obviously heartbroken after being dumped by the magazine he loves. But I also noticed something else: In discussing his work, Baum alternates between use of singular and plural pronouns. “I mailed in the proposal,” he writes about one article pitch. And then, a few minutes later, referring readers to his website: “I’ve posted a lot our successful magazine proposals there.”

A visit to Baum’s personal website illuminates this curiosity. According to the site, “everything that goes out under the byline ‘Dan Baum’ is at least half Margaret’s work.” Margaret is Baum’s wife, Margaret Knox, whom he met in 1986 while both journalists were working at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution...

...there is something troubling to me about the way Dan and Margaret go to pains to portray their working relationship as a partnership of equals…even though Margaret’s name appears nowhere on their work. In the workplace, editors also don’t get byline credit for the work they do, but they do appear on a publication’s masthead, and most importantly, they are paid for their efforts. Margaret Knox’s situation is totally different. Outside of the “Dan Baum” website, her work alongside her husband goes completely unacknowledged by readers. Indeed, the editors of the magazines for which Dan writes undoubtedly consider themselves the most important collaborators on his work, regardless of the labor Margaret puts into Dan’s drafts before he submits them. As an editor myself, I wouldn’t know what to make of a writer who came into the editing process regarding their spouse or significant other as an equal partner in negotiations over a piece. It seems deeply problematic from a professional standpoint.

Maybe this rubs me the wrong way, in part, because I’m a journalist with a history of dating other journalists. Such relationships are often collaborative, and yet I can’t imagine subsuming my individual, professional identity to anyone else’s. There's also a hard truth reflected in the Baum-Knox relationship, as pointed out by my own wonderful editor, Ann Friedman: Many wives in dual-journalist couples assume the "editor" role because editing jobs often have better hours, are more stable and flexible, and allow women to take on the lion's share of child rearing responsibilities.

A comment on the Goldstein post:

On a related note, I once heard David Rawlings say that he plays in a two-person band named Gillian Welch.

Anudder update, 5-11: Sasha Frere-Jones on who is on Twitter.

One mo' time, 5-12: Only one way to illustrate the conclusion of Dan Baum's New Yorker saga:

To see why, go read. A sampling:

To me, listening to a man carp about making $90,000 a year by writing for The New Yorker is like listening to an NBA star carp about his measly $15 million contract. It’s unseemly. It’s infuriating. And it’s particularly maddening when that journalist is making his 90K by living among and reporting on folks who have just gone through a major collective tragedy, many of whom have lost everything they ever worked for. (What would’ve been sufficient recompense for Baum’s mandatory 576 words a week, I wonder? $150,000? $500,000? A 5-year contract? A 50-year contract?)


Dan Baum said...

I appreciate this, especially the advice about abbreviations and syntax, and eventually posting the whole thing on the website. Let me assure you, though, there's no new non-fiction book in the offing about the insides of the New Yorker.
This is new ground for me, that's for sure. There doesn't seem to be any alternative, though, but to continue the exercise until it's finished, which shouldn't take very long.
Thank you for your interest.

Kevin Allman said...

I'm glad you're leaving your gems at the BONO, but it's no substitute for the rest of us being able to read your own blog, which we enjoy (and to which we link!).

And I agree with everything you've said here about about the use of Twitter. It's also a conversation in tiny text microbursts, and I'm not sure Dan Baum gets that part of it.