Tag Archives: journalism

Journalism in the movies (Whitey Bulger edition)

By Christopher B. Daly 

A tip of the old scally cap to Dick Lehr — my colleague at Boston University and an old friend. He has a front-page piece today in his old employer, The Boston Globe, about his experiences visiting the film sets for the shooting of the feature film being made based on his book Black Mass. That excellent book, which Dick co-wrote with his former Globe colleague Gerry O’Neill, is the basis for a film being made with Johnny Depp, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, and Julianne Nicholson (who should not need any Boston-accent coaching, since she is a native of my hometown — nearby Medford, which was a stronghold of the Italian mafia that Whitey helped to bring down.) Personally, I am looking forward to the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother, Billy — the former state Senate president, whom I covered from 1983-1989. 

BM-Cooper-Lehr-02563

Director Scott Cooper (l.) and writer Dick Lehr confer.

Dick told me yesterday that he has been spending a fair amount of time on the set, consulting about details for director Scott Cooper. The Globe says Dick will also have a cameo role in the film.

 

 

 

 

In his piece today, Dick struggles to describe his feelings as an author seeing specifics from his own reporting rendered into scenes and dialogue. Most compelling is the performance of Johnny Depp, who has occupied the role of the gangster and murderer Whitey Bulger. According to Lehr:

Whitey is fully in command, cold and calculating. In a close-up, there’s that terrifying look in his eyes. When the director yells, “Cut,’’ the filmmaking spell may be broken, but everyone viewing in the video tent stays quiet, still mesmerized, as a big chill lingers from the scene just finished a few yards away.

He compares his own experience as a journalist/writer to the reaction recorded by Truman Capote on the set of the filming of the movie “In Cold Blood,” based on his true-crime story. In Dick’s version:

Truman Capote once wrote an essay about visiting the set during the 1967 filming of his book “In Cold Blood,” and I wish I could compose lines as artful as his to describe the experience of seeing an actor who has brought an antagonist you know to life.

“I thought a ghost had sauntered in out of the sunshine,’’ he wrote about seeing Robert Blake for the first time portraying the killer Perry Smith. Capote said he had trouble processing the “mesmerizing reality’’ of the actor cast as Perry, because he was Perry, and that’s how it was with Johnny: He was Whitey. It was disorienting, “like a free fall down an elevator shaft,’’ as Capote put it. “The familiar eyes, placed in a familiar face, examining me with the detachment of a stranger.”

Perfect_storm_posterAll of which brings to mind the larger trend of works of journalism in the hands of filmmakers — either Hollywood feature 200px-Guadalcanal_Diary_1943_posterfilm directors or documentarians. Over the decades, plenty of true stories have been told first by journalists and then by filmmakers. From Guadalcanal Diary (book by Richard Tregaskis, film by Lewis Seiler) to The Perfect Storm (book by Sebastian Junger, film by Wolfgang Petersen) and on to the current filming of Black Mass, it has been a long and productive alliance.

 

What are your favorite examples of works of journalism providing the basis for films? Let’s get a list going.

 

 

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Plagiarism is back (Did it ever really go away?)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Jeez, I hope that headline’s original. (I have this haunting feeling that it seems familiar — I better google myself to make sure. Phew. No direct hits. Now, where was I?)

Amidst this recent outbreak of plagiarism charges (the Montana senator, the Times arts writer, some guy at BuzzFeed, and others), it’s worth reviewing what plagiarism is and why it plagues us.

Plagiarism is at once easier to do and easier to catch. Thanks to computers and the internet, it’s very easy to copy things — even things that a journalist, a speechwriter, or any other sincere person intends to use as source material or as quoted matter. On the other hand, thanks to those same computers and the internet, it’s also very easy to catch someone who plagiarizes — whether deliberately or inadvertently.

That’s why I welcome today’s comment by Margaret Sullivan, the NYTimes‘ public editor. Here’s the nub of her (presumably original) comment:

Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link.

Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.

 

That could go up on the walls of every classroom at Boston University, where I teach basic reporting classes in our Journalism program. In fact, I may do just that this fall — with proper attribution, of course.

Personally, I think the heart of the matter is in those first four words: WRITE YOUR OWN STUFF. If you are any kind of a writer who cares about words, you will know instantly whether a phrase or sentence or paragraph in some chunk of prose that has your name at the top was written by you or by somebody else. If you didn’t write it, give credit where it’s due. Any questions?

Class dismissed.

 

 

 

 

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News comes from far away. . .

By Christopher B. Daly

Do we get too much information about distant conflicts, or too little?

The New York Times offers two very different answers.

One comes from Anjan Sundaram, a former stringer for The Associated Press in Congo. So, he should know. He laments the withdrawal of American correspondents from many countries, the shuttering of overseas bureaus, and a general decline in the coverage of wars, violence, and the politics of many nations.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves.

The other view comes from my Boston University colleague David Carr, the Times‘ media columnist. In his Media Equation piece today, Carr describes the sensation of information-overload that he has been experiencing lately as social media bring him a flood of data about a rocket war in Gaza, plane crashes, and the other disasters.

Geopolitics and the ubiquity of social media have made the world a smaller, seemingly gorier place. If Vietnam brought war into the living room, the last few weeks have put it at our fingertips. On our phones, news alerts full of body counts bubble into our inbox, Facebook feeds are populated by appeals for help or action on behalf of victims, while Twitter boils with up-to-the-second reporting, some by professionals and some by citizens, from scenes of disaster and chaos.

In my view, they are both right, at least to a degree. Sundaram is correct that many U.S. news organizations have retreated (usually for economic reasons) from their commitment to covering international news. In particular, they have lost the budgets to pay for keeping full-time staffers in locations around the world that are not boiling over. I’m talking here about trained journalists who have the time to become multi-lingual, to learn about other cultures and societies, to develop good sources, and to roam about developing a good first-hand sense of the place they are covering. These are the kind of people you want to be able to in a crisis, to explain a self-immolation in Tibet, or a riot in Indonesia, or a drug war in Central America. And, yes, there are too few of those.

But that’s not the same issue David Carr was identifying. He is describing the flood of images, information, and opinions that come streaming at Americans from the hotspot of the week. And yes, he’s right about. In a country or region that America is paying attention to, the flow of news is usually pretty abundant. That doesn’t mean that it’s always very useful, only that there is a lot of it.

This general problem was identified almost a century ago by Walter Lippmann — journalist, author, and media theorist — in his landmark book about journalism, propaganda, and politics, Public Opinion.

News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable imgresconfusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them.

That is, for passive news consumers, the picture of the rest of the world is fragmentary, random, and often blurred or blacked out. I dare say that I am not the only avid consumer of U.S. news reporting who could not tell you a single meaningful thing about Indonesia (the fourth most populous country on Earth and the largest Muslim-majority nation). I don’t know anything about it, because no U.S. news organization has a single full-time correspondent there. I cannot say I am bombarded by social media (or any other kind) about Indonesia. But if something should happen there that draws the attention of the United States, we can be sure the firehose will be turned on, and we will start to absorb a torrent of images, facts, and opinions. Until our attention shifts.

Thurber-Lippmann screenshot

by James Thurber

 

 

 

 

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“Into the Wild” : A journalism classic revisited

By Christopher B. Daly 

As usual, I’m using the summer to catch up on my reading. Here’s a look back by Jon Krakauer, revisiting his break-out work on the death of Christopher McCandless, which became the basis for Krakauer’s best-seller Into the Wild. Krakauer makes a good case about the scientific validity of his original hypothesis — that McCandless died from ingesting wild foods that poisoned him.

This piece points up the importance of something we do too rarely in journalism — that is, stop chasing the next thing for a moment and go back over the ground we have already plowed. We should test and validate our work more often than we do.

So, kudos to Krakauer for both the original and the look-back.

Chris McCandless, the subject of "Into the Wild"

Chris McCandless, the subject of “Into the Wild”

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NY Times: a bridge to a digital future

By Christopher B. Daly 

Most people who care about journalism share a concern: can the New York Times survive the transition from a print past to a digital future? And can the newspaper carry forward its unparalleled standards, staffing level, and values into a future where the Times flourishes in the news business gets out of the paper business and emerges as a truly online news operation?

Increasingly, it appears the answer will be yes.

A big hint landed softly this week in a column by the Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan. In her column, she indicated that the budget for the Times newsroom is “more than $240 million” a year. That’s how much it costs for the care and feeding of some 1,250 journalists in New York and around the world — salaries (which are at the top of our field), benefits, travel, rent on foreign and domestic bureaus, and on and on. It does not include other costs, such as printing and distribution.

That figure, which I had not seen broken out that way before now, is important.

It confirms, of course, that journalism is not cheap — especially journalism that is predicated on original reporting on a global scale. It represents the paper’s “journalistic nut” — the hard core of spending that must be met, just like your rent or mortgage and utility payments.

The challenge is: how to make the nut?

The good news is that it seems more and more do-able to make the nut into the indefinite future, despite the severe contraction in print advertising.

Here’s one scenario:

–Begin by reducing the nut. Let’s just assume that there is some inefficiency in there, some feather-bedding, some wasted effort (like the still extensive time and energy put into the laying out of each next day’s print “front page.”) For the hell of it, say you could cut that budget by 8% and still survive essentially intact. (That’s one-12th of the total, or $220 million instead of $240 million.)

–That means you need to come up with $55 million per quarter.

–Already, the Times is bringing in $38 million, from digital advertising only, according to the Public Editor.

–She did not say how much money is coming in every quarter from digital subscriptions, but she did note that “digital-only” subscriptions have risen (from zero) to about 800,000.

–It would not be unrealistic to think that if the Times went digital-only, it would pick up another 200,000 out of the base of subscribers who now get the print edition.

–So, there’s a hypothetical base of 1 million digital subscribers.

–If those 1 million people would pay $20 per quarter, you would have more than your $55 million nut.

Of course, there are problems. Maybe the Times can’t find 1 million customers. Maybe those readers won’t pony up enough in subscription. And these revenue figures are all net figures: someone still has to go to work at the Times every day to sell those ads and handle those digital subscriptions. Just because those operations are digital, they are not free.

My point is that the trend of rising revenues from digital ads and digital subscriptions is approaching the point at which they could carry the newsroom. They are not there yet, which may point to another partial, temporary answer: just print on Sundays. Print advertising brings in something like four times the amount of digital ads, but that print-based is declining and will not carry the paper into the future. So, during the transition, why not keep the big fat Sunday edition? It has the largest number of readers (1.2 million), pages, ads, and revenue. No need to say goodbye to all those full-page Style-section ads from Ralph Lauren and Chanel. At least not yet.

NYTCo homepage

NYTCo homepage

 

 

 

 

 

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Iraq: Why journalists should study history

By Christopher B. Daly 

As I like to say: History keeps happening.

The events of recent days in the part of the world known as Iraq cannot be understood or explained without mastering a lot of history, going back well before the U.S. invasion and occupation. A good starting point for journalists covering the region (or merely pontificating about it) and for news consumers would be this map, drawn up in secret by the Great Powers who won World War I. In this historical map from 1919, British and French diplomats literally drew lines across the sand and decided how to divvy up the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

(Don’t miss: the notation “secret” on the upper left.)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.  (British Library)

Map of British and French plans for dividing the Ottoman Empire.
(British Library)

This map shows how the European powers essentially created Syria (A) and Iraq (B) without regard for traditional ethnic, religious, tribal, or commercial interests. There was no plebiscite, no consultation with local leaders. That’s the fundamental (modern) problem in the region.

To zero in on Iraq at present, here’s a valuable recent map from the Washington Post, showing a much-needed degree of granularity that goes beyond the artificial “national” boundaries. At a glance, the grey area suggests the need for an independent Kurdistan. The green area from Baghdad to the Gulf suggests the contours of a smaller country populated by Shiites. The yellow areas may well make more sense as a new Sunni country that includes parts of Syria.

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.  Washington Post

An ethno-religious map of Iraq.
Washington Post

 

My suggestion: Don’t listen to any journalist, analyst, or U.S. politician who could not intelligently discuss these maps for at least an hour in an informed way.

[My personal view: these are not real countries with genuine borders, so they cannot be effectively governed by anyone until borders are brought in line with social reality. In any case, this is not a U.S. problem. This region belongs to the people who live there. If they want to have a civil war or a religious war, they are entitled to have one. If any outside parties bear any responsibility, it would be the British and the French.]

 

 

 

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Must-read article about Brazil and the World Cup

By Christopher B. Daly

If you read only one article about Brazil as the country starts to host the World Cup, here is the one to read. It is written by one of my star former B.U. students, Matt Negrin (who would be my first choice in a pick-up game that involved reporting, initiative, imagination, and writing).

Matt is an intrepid explorer, as this piece amply demonstrates. (“Not killed” is a recurring theme. .  .). He is also a graceful, often playful, writer. In this piece about play, I enjoyed his many references to the games of his own childhood (from the Sims to adult-driven, trophies-for-everyone American soccer). At

The beautiful game Getty

The beautiful game
Getty

the same time, he’s deadly serious about the life he is seeing in the favelas, and he brings a measure of respect and gravitas to people who don’t have much of either.

This piece is part of a bigger project Matt is working on — a book about the insanity of soccer fans worldwide. He has made stops in Asia and Europe (that I know of), and he is naturally in Brazil now for the Copa.

His work makes me happy to read, and it makes me optimistic about the future of storytelling.

[BTW, Matt's Brazil piece was published (if that's still the right word), by SB Nation. (They did a beautiful job on it, but I personally would like to see a much blacker typeface; if you are going to go long, you can't ask people to read that faint gray type all day. Sheesh.) If you think "sports writing" is all about who won a game or about how some young millionaire's groin feels, this is the piece for you. SB Nation (short for Sports Blog Nation) is part of the growing Vox Media online empire, and I hope they are making gobs of money. H/t to Glenn Stout for acquiring Matt's piece.]

 

"That's just the way it is" Getty

“That’s just the way it is”
Getty

 

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