I don’t know if any of you had a chance to read J.C.’s rant yesterday, on his blog, about the public self-scourging news executives are given to these days. In particular, this passage set him off:
Tom Rosenstiel and others pointed out [that] those journalists and news organizations that don’t drop the pose of lecturer and learn how to genuinely engage the audience will be lost.
The pose of lecturer!? Perhaps you’re confusing that with, uh, reporting the news.
We’ve all known one of those people who’s inclined to be apologetic — takes all the blame, defers all credit to others, calls herself no great beauty, calls himself only half-bright. And sooner or later, we all discover there’s a very fine line between self-effacement and cringing, just as there’s one between bold confidence and Donald Trump. I think John found it in the news executives who fret over “lecture-based journalism.” I can’t remember where I first heard that expression, of “old” reporting as a lecture and “new” reporting as a conversation, but it was a few years ago, and I think it was from none other than Jimmy Lileks, who only took a few more years to allow comments on his own blog. Heh. Indeed.
But that’s not important. The idea is that somehow journalists aren’t really journalists until they engage readers in “the conversation” and stop “lecturing.” Well, OK. I mean, I get it. But I think, in getting it, too many editors and publishers are forgetting about professionalism.
I swear, I don’t think for even a minute that I’m a screenwriter, but of late I’ve been in a screenwriting state of mind, and have rediscovered John August’s fine, fine screenwriting blog. Yesterday he had an item about a startup company called Scripped, prompted by an interview with one of its founders, who seemed to be saying that the problem with screenwriting today is that the people who do it make too much money, and the way to fix this “problem” is to make free screenwriting software available to all, and open it up to real-time “collaboration” with other users who fancy themselves the next Richard LaGravenese. Sunil Rajaraman says:
Two problems are solved with web-based screenwriting software. The first is collaboration. Many of the scripts of the films we see in movie theaters have undergone dozens of rewrites before they make it to the screen. For example, for the original of Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck put the screenplay together with more anecdotal stories about South Boston and friends they grew up with. Characters were eliminated from the screenplay and it underwent a very detailed rewriting process. Who knows how many writers had their hands on that screenplay before it was made — and it eventually won an Oscar. Collaboration is made easier with web-based software…. That goes for people collaborating across different locations. Let’s say you are working with writers in China or India and you are here in the U.S. Scripped makes it easier to share drafts, track real-time changes and so forth.
The second problem online software solves is access to writers. If you give the software away for free — it is very cheap to provide the software — you can attract all sorts of talent that would have otherwise not been interested in screenwriting. All of a sudden, they are looking for free screenwriting software on Google. A plethora of options are available. By creating access to more writers, the software becomes a mechanism to aggregate talent.
I don’t know much about screenwriting. I took two university classes, wrote one feature-length screenplay for one class and rewrote it for the other. I’ve written four short scripts for which no one will ever give me an Oscar. I’m at work on another feature-length piece, which faces the usual overwhelming odds of even being read, much less produced. I’ve never earned a dime from it. It’s strictly a hobby that I do to give me and my friends something to goof around with. But if everything I know can be carried in a very small basket, I must know more than Sunil Rajamaran, who apparently raised venture capital based on the idea that the cost of screenwriting software is somehow a major discouragement to people who might otherwise be inclined to try it. I paid $49 for my copy of Final Draft, the industry-standard software. Granted, that was at steep university discount, with further markdowns for a coming new version, but even today, full retail is only $200. Apple’s word processor, Pages, contains a screenplay template and, as August points out, you can write a script on anything from MS Word to a typewriter.
What’s more, August further points out, the “Good Will Hunting” story is untrue, and even if it were, what’s the revelation? That many people get their hands on a script under consideration? You don’t say. Writing is rewriting? Stop the presses. It’s not uncommon for a script headed for production to be rewritten a dozen times or more. I learned this from reading the New Yorker, not as a secret handed down by the faculty mandarins at the University of Michigan. Sometimes a rewrite improves a script; other times it ruins it. My rewrite professor liked to pass out early drafts of “The Truman Show,” when the story was set in New York City and Truman was a greasy creep who jerked off in public. By the time the cameras rolled, it was set in Seaside, Florida, and starred Jim Carrey as a sunny charmer. Hooray for Hollywood.
But this idea, that collaborating with other Scripped users in China or India is the key to your successful career, touches on something else I found through August’s site, and wraps up with what the news executives are saying, too — the difference between professional and amateur. August posts the text of a lecture he gave three years ago on the subject. It’s long, but it’s worth reading, because he makes a powerful distinction between the two, to wit:
When we say “professional,” I think what we’re really talking about is “professionalism,” which is this whole bundle of expectations about how a person is supposed to act.
Exactly. It’s not about whether you get paid. It’s about whether to take your work seriously enough to hold yourself to a certain set of standards. He points out the key difference between people who care enough to give a crap and those who don’t, in this passage:
When would you choose to be an amateur? Well, probably the moments in which you obviously suck, either because you don’t know what you’re doing, or you’re just not very good at it. Or at least in the moments when people are criticizing you. You’d say, “Hey, what do you expect? I’m only an amateur.”
You’re basically saying, “Don’t judge me.”
And here’s where this indirect proof falls apart: People will always judge you. You can’t control that. You can’t control what scale they’re going to judge you on, or which criteria are most important.
Exactly. For years, journalists who have been following the top “citizen journalists” have noted this difference. Say one screws up, gets pinned to the wall on a mistake or undisclosed conflict or whatever. Sooner or later, they try to wriggle out by throwing up their hands and saying, “Hey, I don’t get paid for this. I’m just a blogger.” They essentially undercut their own status, while at the same time asserting their right to be both outsiders and insiders. Read my reporting, but don’t hold it to your bullshit MSM standards, because I’m an amateur. They can assert whatever they want. But a professional shouldn’t do that. (I say this fully aware that I’ve done it myself.)
So I guess I’d join with J.C. in telling the news executives of the world to stop worrying so much about changing the lecture to a conversation, and just do your damn jobs. Take pride in them. Man up. Listen to feedback, consider it carefully, but stop cowering under it.
I’ve gone on way, way too long on this. This piece could use a rewrite, I see now. But I have to take a shower and get some work done. If you’ve come this far, how about a punchline?
Don’t judge me. I’m an amateur.