Monday, December 2, 2019

Journalism Update - Content Dump

[Note: this post was completed Dec. 14 and backdated to Dec. 2.]

As we enter December, I'm happy to report it's been another academic quarter of frantic over-achieving.  My neurotic need for validation tends to pay off in the form of straight As, the adult equivalent of a gold star sticker.

I have only two classes left, which is both a relief and an anxiety, as once I've completed the program, I have one less reason to stall monetizing my writing.  According to Andrew, this program is, for me, 30% networking, 30% confidence-building, and 40% stalling.  He's probably right.

With the arrival of our son looming, I've been churning out content like crazy and trying to wrap things up neatly to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.  The problem is, my brain has already turned to pudding and I've lost, by my estimation, about 30 IQ points.

Nonetheless, I've written a fair bit (while neglecting my own blog, as usual), and today I'd like to throw up some articles I've written for school, mostly for posterity.

This quarter was an interesting mixture of classes: entertainment journalism, media law, sociology of communication, and, finally, an internship with the Santa Monica Daily Press newspaper.

I was not expecting to like entertainment journalism as much as I did, but I failed to appreciate that superhero stuff is now part of popular culture.  The class was a series of lectures by big-wigs in the 'biz, including writers and reporters from such media outlets as The Hollywood Reporter and E!.  I don't know if there's an entertainment "nerd" beat but I feel like entertainment journalism is something I could get into.  It's not just Kardashians.

This is truly the dankest timeline. 

On the flip side, my other two classes I did not enjoy despite having high expectations.  The media law class was only six weeks long.  Six lectures is not nearly enough time to go over the legal history of media law, not even with the world's best professor.  And we did not have the world's best professor.  He was a reporter, not a lawyer, and he seemed as lost as the rest of us were as we waded through case study after case study: Tinker v. Des Moines, Whitney v. California, The New York Times v. Sullivan.  It was a brutal gauntlet of memorization that didn't seem to have much real-world applicability, and the short duration of the course meant not much of it stuck longer than it took for me to ace each test.

The other class, sociology, was a massive let-down.  The professor had, to use Andrew's expression, "calcified within her own thought bubble."  Basically the whole class was a giant indoctrination; the instructor was ultra anti-technology and super left-wing and presented all of her incredibly biased opinions as fact for the entire course. The thesis of my final paper was that the class is a perfect demonstration of how an autocracy flourishes through thought control and by quashing dissenting opinions, and that she is herself "The Man." Also, technology is not so bad.

Here's a list of complaints I have about the class:
  • It began with a reading assignment.  Huxley's "Brave New World."  A work of young adult fiction that seemed deep back when we were, oh, about 14 years old.  You've got to be kidding me; Huxley is a lazy, shallow hack whose hypothetical ideas appeal to juveniles.
  • It ended with a "write a letter to a loved one" assignment.  The assignment was to describe the three most important things we learned in the class.  Felt sort of like the instructor was fishing for compliments.  Also, speaking of juvenile appeal, aren't we a bit old for a "write a letter" assignment?
  • The assignment asked us to choose from 20 or so pre-approved things we had "learned."  
  • One of those things was "how moral progress and technological progress are inverses of each other."  This statement isn't based on any evidence or reasoning, unless you count Jerry Mander's argument from the 1970s that television is evil.
  • "Moral progress" was never actually defined.  Also this isn't a goddamn ethics class.  Also if it were you should be teaching us the Society for Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, or something else relevant to journalism, since this class is, you know, part of a journalism program, not a philosophy program.
  • The previous assignment had asked us what the relationship between moral and technological progress was.  I found it offensive that she asked subjective questions like this while actively searching for a "right" answer.  
  • A minor complaint, but the sheer volume of (very outdated) material we were given each week was entirely unreasonable.  One week asked us to watch a three-hour documentary at least three times.  Yes, seriously.
  • The materials we were given were insanely partisan.  For the unit that covered "alternative" media (a term she used interchangeably with "advocate" media, or media for activism) we were given a list of over two dozen publications, but they were all extreme left-leaning.  (I want to emphasize that I don't have an issue with her politics, but with her teaching style.  Extremism and partisanship can be dangerous regardless of what side of the spectrum you side on.)

My final paper was basically "OK, Boomer" with 38 footnotes.

You'd better believe I left a hell of a review when it came time for our course evaluation.  I tried to make my criticism constructive; for example, I suggested she update her materials, most of which hailed from the 1970s and concerned broadcast television, which, in this social media age where no one even owns a television set anymore, seems like it has little relevance on modern journalism.  Also, she needs to ask how any of this shit is relevant.  If she thinks Big Media is controlling our minds and "socializing" us in a Huxlian nightmare dystopia, then my question, as someone who is pursuing a career in journalism, is how to get hired by Big Media.  Which shadowy figure should I contact to submit my resume?  How do I get an interview with Big Media, exactly?

These questions were perhaps better asked of my internship with Big Media.  In this case, it was the Santa Monica Daily Press, a daily print newspaper based in Santa Monica, as the name would suggest. 

My last day was Thursday.  Over the last 11 or 12 weeks, I was able to write 14 stories for the Santa Monica Daily Press.  Ultimately I met the five central goals I outlined to my program director: to have published bylines, to work within deadlines and word counts, to practice interviews and research, to network with seasoned reporters, and to experience the physical environment of a newsroom.  Of the 14 stories I wrote, I had four published in the paper and four published online, which was exciting.  (You can read two of them here and two of them here in their original format.  They are a bit dull: a holiday tree lighting event, a museum exhibit, and some musings on Small Business Saturday and seasonal employment.  Andrew says that the SMDP is basically a periodical of events to attend with your grandkids while day drinking, and he's not wrong.) 
Pictured: the subscribers of the SMDP.
I definitely think my stories got better over time.  Here is the final one I wrote, about the unveiling of a new app.  I received some valuable feedback on writing things AP style from one of the other staff writers.  (I am still in the habit of double-spacing between sentences, which is now an archaic and unused practice.)  As far as practicing writing local news, news on a deadline, and news for a traditional paper, this internship provided excellent experience.

A few drawbacks.  First of all, I learned that this type of writing is not for me.  That's fine; there is value in knowing what you don't want to do. I found this type of writing constraining and a bit of a slog. It's not something I would be interested in doing as a career. The stifling of personal style and tone in newspaper writing just isn't me. That being said, I knew going into this that I was getting out of my wheelhouse, and that was very much intentional, because I like to think that having a broad spectrum of experiences helps me flex my writing muscles as a whole, and makes me better at what I'm doing.

Speaking of what I'm doing, here's my final paper from Entertainment Journalism, below.

Harmontown Podcast Is Ending on a High Note

After seven years of almost-weekly recording, the podcast Harmontown is coming to a close, but it’s ending on a high note. Or at least, it’s trying to - high notes are hard to hit, and despite the name “Harmontown,” the cast of the show is not good at harmonizing.

The fourth of November was the fifth-to-last installment of the seven-year series. All remaining show recordings have been sold out as super-fans try to experience the show’s intimate, improvisational live sessions. Harmontown has never been scripted, and it showed in the bizarre turns taken in the making of the episode “MC Live.” The 356th episode began inauspiciously, with host Dan Harmon getting stuck in an Uber and arriving over a half-hour late, leaving the other cast members (Rob Schrab, Jeff Davis, and Spencer Crittenden) with an impatient, fidgeting audience.

Harmon finally emerged to a thunderous applause and a generic rap instrumental. Egged on by Davis and Schrab, he immediately began trying to rap to the beat… poorly. The strange, impromptu musical intro ended up being the perfect foreshadowing for things to come. Settling in after a stage hand brought a plastic cup and a bottle of vodka on ice for him (to the cheers of the enthusiastic audience), Harmon went on to give his thoughts about tax and estate preparation, and a news story about a cat on a football field.

Despite being recorded at its home base, Dynasty Typewriter - a theater with less than 200 seats on a length of Wilshire that manages to simultaneously smell like fresh laundry and stale urine - the show was sold out, with audience members from Montana, New Jersey, and Australia. In lieu of a celebrity guest, Harmon instead decided to call an audience member up on stage, selecting a 23-yr-old woman from Cambridge, England with a shock of short, bright blue hair. The show didn’t truly find its footing until about 30 minutes (or two plastic cupfuls of vodka) in, which is when Harmon invited the fifth person onstage.

Umnia Neil introduced herself as a long-time fan: “This podcast has been a part of my life since it started. I came specifically [to the United States] for this. I became a fan of the podcast from the moment it started. I go to sleep to this podcast every night. ...It’s a para-social thing. I know you guys, even though I don’t know you guys,” said Neil.

Neil remained onstage for the remaining ninety minutes of the show, which was largely focused on music. Neil, an aspiring musician with a podcast called Nerd U, discussed the difficulty of breaking into “the industry” with Harmon, and her own experiences with running a podcast, producing music, and monetizing online with platforms like YouTube and Spotify.

Her mother joined at the halfway point of the show. Sarah Neil wore a puffy iridescent coat. A jazz singer and pediatric doctor, she and her daughter sang Dinah Washington songs in harmony, to the delight of Harmon, who tried to harmonize with them - with disastrous results. The other cast members chimed in, earning cheers from the audience when Spencer Critterden, who has been seated silently on stage for the entirety of the recording, began intoning his own name in a drawn-out baritone.

Later, Harmon tried to engage with Sarah Neil in a rap battle. Neither is a rapper, and the stumbling, childish ineptitude of both parties had the audience roaring with laughter.

The show ended with a story about Kanye West. Harmon has been teasing since May, that West might be getting his own episode of Rick and Morty in the upcoming season. This was the first time he’s discussed meeting with West about the fabled episode. He relayed to the audience how, in a private meeting in the writer’s room, West professed his love of hoodies as the greatest clothing item of all time, a “great uniter” of socioeconomic class, then went on to borrow Scrab’s thin H&M hoodie and throw it into the trash. “Like it was a dirty Kleenex,” joked Schrab.

Audience members in attendance overall gave the episode positive reviews. “I think the podcast used to be more about the audience and I missed that about it in the past couple years. It was the best episode I’ve heard in a long while. It made my heart full,” said fan Brandon Chilcoat.

But reviews to the release of the podcast online were mixed.

“We’re down to the last handful of episodes and there’s zero prep and effort going into this. Let’s just have some random audience person up for 40 minutes and try to launch her YouTube career. Dan isn’t about to start actually trying to help people. He’s winging it with the absolute minimum amount of work. The raps were great but, man, [I’m] disappointed to see so much of the last bit squandered,” said Christian Pally on Reddit.

Another fan, Andrew Katz, said, “It’s not personal in any way. She was interesting to listen to for about five minutes, but then I was like ‘OK, I’m here for Dan Harmon and friends, not this random lady who showed up to the show.’”

Kyle Alexander had a different take on his disappointment with the episode: “I wasn’t that into it, but I’m man enough to admit that I’m probably just jealous.”

Although the primary focus of the episode was music, with Harmon and the Neils trying to harmonize and rap with each other, the show’s upcoming ending hung heavy over the entire show and was frequently mentioned. This lent itself to occasional moments of surprising insight between the “yo’ mama” jokes and the sips of vodka.

“You don't know how lost I feel sometimes,” confessed Harmon. “I act like 46 and I don’t suck my thumb about it anymore, that’s part of my struggle, too. I’m like, ‘Dad, you’re 46, you’re not allowed to suck your thumb.’ I’m not allowed to be a baby anymore. That’s not inspiring.”

Davis asked if that was part of the reason for the podcast ending, and Harmon immediately responded, “Yes. Because I don’t think that it’s appropriate to go, ‘nyehh nyehh, it’s hard to be me.’ I don’t find that-- it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong, objectively. That’s not valuable. I don’t feel right doing that anymore. I don’t like it.”

Umnia suggested that Harmon might be too hard on himself, to which Harmon responded: “I think we’re too hard on each other.” (And to which Schrab responded, “I think it’s fair to say that Dan paid Umnia to come tonight.”)

The podcast’s roots were visible in this episode. Originally, the show had started with the idea of Harmon examining social issues and addressing them in an attempt to create a hypothetical Utopia. (This is where the show gets its name, “Harmontown.”) However, its focus has since shifted, and Davis has since described it as “live therapy sessions” for Harmon, who he has called “self-destructive.”

Addressing Harmon’s self-critical attitude, Umnia said, “When you’re talking about these issues, you’re worried about how moral you are, or how woke you are. And I think sometimes you worry too much.” Her gentleness toward Harmon was supported with long, loud applause breaks from the audience.

As for what comes next, Harmon has no answer. “I need to hit the bench and think about it,” he said. But he and the rest of the show’s guests are optimistic about their ability to find material wherever it may come, and their familiar, easy riffing with Umnia and Sarah Neil demonstrated this ability to find comedy and wisdom from any source.

“Nothing has to last forever,” said Davis as the show drew to a close. “Whatever comes after [Harmontown] is going to be amazing.”

Although Harmon shrugged off most of Umnia’s praise and appeals to be less self-critical, he did speak to how he feels that he’s grown in the last seven years, since the show’s creation. “This podcast was founded-- I don’t want to be that guy. I started this podcast from a standpoint of like, the joy of going, I’m a baby, I’m crying out. And the world shifted under my feet. It’s not right and it’s not charismatic to be the baby that I was five years ago,” he said. “And that is a credit to the world that we live in. An absolute credit.”

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