Monday, December 31, 2012

New York Times Snow Fall interactive feature

"Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek" was an amazing feature from the New York Times that stood out on multiple levels. The piece was written by John Branch and in 18,000+ words details the avalanche that claimed the lives of three expert skiers on an out-of-bounds run at Stevens Pass ski area outside Seattle.

Previously written on this tragedy was the piece "Tunnel Vision" by Megan Michelson for Outside Magazine. The writing by Michelson was compelling and I previously linked to it in a post on writers and their writing as she was part of the group skiing that day. 

It's in no way a knock on the Michelson piece, but Branch definitely expands on the story as "Snow Fall" features the following postscript: "The reporting for this article on the Feb. 19 avalanche at Tunnel Creek was done over six months. It involved interviews with every survivor, the families of the deceased, first responders at Tunnel Creek, officials at Stevens Pass and snow-science experts. It also included the examination of reports by the police, the medical examiner and the Stevens Pass Ski Patrol, as well as 40 calls to 911 made in the aftermath of the avalanche. "

This level of reporting done by Branch was reminiscent of what must have gone into his three-part series "Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer" on Derek Boogaard for the Times a year ago. Continuing with this idea of reminiscent parallels, I linked to the Boogard story with it's in-depth level of journalism in the same way that I did the Michelson piece, under the subject of writers and writing.

Not to simply use this post as a vehicle to link to past blog posts done here, but the recent "Snow Fall" story  falls into this same category of being interesting not just as a piece of excellent writing, but in relation to the field of journalism and writing. Along with the aforementioned level of reporting done by Branch, the piece differs from most in that the Times published it as an interactive feature that incorporates extremely well-done graphics, images and video along with the text.

About the concept and construction of the Times feature (incorporating both Branch's text and everything beyond) were a few different pieces from The Atlantic. On December 20th, Rebecca Greenfield wrote "What the New York Times's 'Snow Fall' Means to Online Journalism's Future" which included an interview with two editors from the Times Graphics and Digital departments. Then a day later, Atlantic editor Derek Thompson did "'Snow Fall' Isn't the Future of Journalism" about how as incredible as the feature is, it's likely not going to become a norm in journalism simply because of how much work it required. Finally, Greenfield a week later added "So What if Tons of People Read That 'Snow Fall' Story on the Times Website?" that included mention of how the feature got as many page views for the Times that the entire Outside Magazine site gets in a month.

It was interesting reading these pieces from The Atlantic and to probably generalize a bit on the message conveyed, they echoed what I thought while reading "Snow Fall"; it's a thoroughly reported and well written feature that included lots of additional work outside of writing, but it doesn't seem sustainable for publications to provide this on a regular basis. While it's true that the Times and Byliner collaborated to make "Snow Fall" available for purchase as an e-book, the note "A version of this article, which includes an epilogue, is available as an e-book" doesn't seem as it if would draw in many readers who have just enjoyed the 18,000+ works and numerous interactive features for free on the Times site.

That said, while the field of journalism and how writing should be delivered (and paid) still very much in flux, it's heartening to see the attempt made to figure it out and a great feature (including the writing by Branch and everything else that went into it) provided in the process.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver is a solid book on predictions and probability which at times is a bit weighty, but due more to the subject than anything Silver should have done differently in the writing.

Silver is the creator and still lead writer of the (now New York Times) blog FiveThirtyEight which began in advance of the 2008 Presidential election and has become a go-to place to get political predictions. Silver makes his calls based in probabilities and does so based on looking at a wide variety of poll numbers and factoring in weighting information about those polls. Out of the November 2012 elections, Silver correctly predicted the Presidential winner in each state as well as all but one Senate race (those unpredictable folk in Montana).

 The subtitle to Silver's book is Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't and he notes fairly in reference to his main title that "the signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth." In terms of structure, he lays out in the intro that the first half of the book diagnoses problem with many predictions and the second looks at making predictions better, in large part through the application of something called Baye's theorem.

Some of the prediction areas that Silver notes as having room for improvement are below:

Many people felt the real estate plunge of a few years back couldn't occur because they made predictions based on the idea that home loan defaults were much more independent of each other than was the case. In actuality, what occurred is loan defaults turned out to be very much related as a direct result of home values being tied to one another.

Pundits making their calls about political winners based on feeling turn out to often be wrong. As evidence of this, Silver notes The McLaughlin Group and how predictions on the television show turned out to be roughly equal parts right, wrong, somewhat right and somewhat wrong.

Forecasting disasters such as terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes, foods and influenza outbreaks.

As Silver gets into the idea of improving prediction, he brings up the aforementioned idea of Bayesian reasoning named after Thomas Bayes, which includes considering the likelihood of events in making predictions. Silver also notes that the concepts behind Baye's theorem fit heavily into principles that guide his FiveThirtyEight blog... (1) think in probabilities of things coming to pass rather than just making predictions, (2) make changes to forecasts as new info arises and (3) look for consensus in forecasts (which sounds to me like a Wisdom of the Crowds-related idea).

All in all, it's a fairly heavy read, but a worthwhile one (or at a minimum, a worthwhile skim of parts that resonate) for somebody interested in predictions, why many of them fall short and how they can be improved.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sports writing from Smith, Chen, Saslow & Carpenter

There's been some remarkable sports writing over the past week from a variety of different sources.

Most profound of the pieces was by Gary Smith for last week's issue of Sports Illustrated. Written about the childhood sex abuse suffered by Cy Young winning pitcher R.A. Dickey and Judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison"Stand Up Speak Out" is a detailed and painful to read story of children being overlooked, manipulated and taken advantage of.

From this same issue of issue was "The Politicization Of Jeremy Lin" by Albert Chen. It was interesting reading that dealt heavily with identity and how enemies China and Taiwan both seek to claim the Rockets point guard (who was born in the U.S.) as their own.

Another piece of noteworthy sports writing lately was by Les Carpenter for Yahoo Sports. "Former NFL QB Jon Kitna finds ‘gold mine’ at his troubled old high school" was a solidly written profile of a remarkable teacher and coach. Contained within the piece was the disconcerting anecdote about the H.S. football team returning back to school at 11:30PM and there being no parents there waiting.

Last piece to mention here was from the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine. Eli Saslow wrote "A trip to the threshing floor" on former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin and his Hall of Fame induction speech. The story features a ton of interesting anecdotes reported on by Saslow and is just very well done.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

NY Times Piece on a mother and father rushing to Sandy Hook Elementary

After avoiding for about a week reading anything in depth on what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, I found from a post on the writing website Gangrey an amazingly well written piece by Jim Dwyer for the New York Times.

"Running and Hoping to Find a Child Safe" is about Michelle and Curtis Urbina, parents of a student at Sandy Hook, and to take a description from Gangrey site creator Ben Montgomery's tweet on the story, the piece was "breathtakingly good".

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fives instances of or about great storytelling

There's been a number of interesting things I've come across on Twitter lately that all fall under the topic of great storytelling. Really, I like to think that most pieces linked to on this blog tell a compelling story, but these five are actually noteworthy because of story.

Additionally of interest to me was the varying form of each, with them being (1) a request for information, (2) letter posted on a wall, (3) website post on newspaper writing that led to another piece and discussion of that writing, (4) newspaper story reported and written quickly and (5) video of a talk about storytelling.

The request for information was titled "Indiana Jones Mystery Package" and posted to the University of Chicago Admissions Office Tumblr page. It's about a package received there that was addressed to fictional archaeology professor and adventurer Henry Walton Jones Jr., otherwise known as Indiana Jones. As the Admissions office posting notes, it's unclear why the package was sent and this lack of context helps make the story even more compelling.

The letter posted to a wall was sent to Edison's, the Manhasset, Long Island bar that under a prior name was the setting for quite a bit of The Tender Bar, the brilliant J.R. Moehringer memoir about growing up to become a writer. Written to Edison's by someone influenced by Moehringer's book and passing on their good wishes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it's simply... a nice story.

The website post on newspaper writing was "Article About Lonely Man Results In Birthday Party" posted by Thomas Lake to the writing site Gangrey. Lake put up a 1972 newspaper piece from The Anniston Star about people rallying on behalf of a stranger and following in the same post was the longer Star piece on Tyko Wilhelm Laine by Frank Denton that led a party being thrown for Lane. Additionally, the post on Gangrey then featured commentary from Denton about writing that piece some 40 years ago and the larger idea of working to produce great newspaper stories.

The newspaper piece written on deadline was "Are You John Lennon?" by Jimmy Breslin for the New York Daily News and copied a few years back to a blog called Ralrika. It's ridiculously good writing from Breslin that very much fits into the idea of going beyond simply reporting what happened to telling a compelling story. Making the piece even more amazing is the last three paragraphs tagged onto the end, with  Breslin noting being in bed at 11:20, getting word of Lennon being shot, going out and reporting, writing and filing the piece by 1:30 in the morning.

Final thing to note on the topic of story is what both provided the idea of writing this post and serves as almost an umbrella for the story concept attributed to the above pieces. Tampa Bay Times newspaper writer Michael Kruse gave a TEDx talk about stories that included a number of interesting points, but three that stood out for me. The first related to the Breslin piece in that Kruse talks about how newspapers should be about stories not articles, the second how if something introduced in a story, it has to be played out and third had to do with the work that goes into producing stories. An acclaimed Times feature from Kruse was "A Brevard woman disappeared, but never left home" about Cape Canaveral resident Katherine Norris who died in her home and was found there 16 months later. Kruse in his TEDx speech talks about having set out to create a story of her life and the amount of work he put into reporting to gather information before actually writing. It was solid stuff that showed how lyrical prose oft needs to be proceeded by meticulous research.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Esquire Features on Elon Musk & John Hickenlooper

There was excellent writing throughout the December '12 Esquire Americans of the Year issue and two profiles that struck me as particularly great were on John Hickenlooper and Elon Musk respectively.

"John Hickenlooper's Long, Hot Summer" is a relatively short piece on the Colorado governor and in it, Robert Sanchez portrays someone who's faced very difficult events and seems to do about as good of a job as possible. The writing by Sanchez feels almost quiet in it's portrayal and very fitting with much of the piece centered around Hickenlooper's actions after the Aurora movie theater shooting. Again, short piece, but pretty darn riveting.

The second profile that stood out to me was on Elon Musk, founder of both Space X and Tesla and who I've earlier this year written on and linked to profiles on him from Fast Company, Time and Businessweek. This latest piece done for Esquire was "Triumph of His Will" by Tom Junod and it's really well done writing on a fascinating individual. Junod starts off the profile with a great hook alluding to Musk's audaciousness and then in the piece shows the drive Musk has in looking forward, and often past what others want from him. The character trait comes out in writing on Musk from other magazines as well, but just a remarkable willingness to place huge bets.

Also in this issue of Esquire and related to Musk's goal of going to Mars was a solid Mike Sager profile of NASA Mars Curiosity rover engineer Tom Rivellini. The Sager piece isn't online at this point, but in it he makes reference to the NASA video "Seven Minutes of Terror" about the landing of Curiosity on Mars.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lee Jenkins Feature on LeBron James

The latest issue of Sports Illustrated had an excellent cover story by Lee Jenkins on SI's 2012 Sportsman of the Year, LeBron James.

Most of the stories I'm writing on and linking to here are grouped together with other related pieces, but this James profile seemed to lend itself to an entire post as I was struck by the subject, the quality of the writing and probably most importantly, the construction of the piece.

In terms of James himself, I love the idea of someone who has been through different experiences than others as well as someone with great talent who also works harder than others. From a quality of writing perspective, Jenkins combines together excellent prose with what feels to be an exceptionally well organized and developed piece. To this end, below was how the structure seemed to lay out:

Section 1 (by opening photograph of James) - Jenkins creates a form of suspense by making reference to James having a goal, but not stating what that goal actually is.

Section 2 (the actual start of the piece) - Open question around the goal is resolved with an anecdote about James chasing the "best of all time" distinction. Section then went to cover how James has always been a great athlete, and especially in recent years has put in the work to improve upon that natural ability.

Section 3 - Jenkins follows up on the prior section with detail around how James through the years has both matured and improved as a player.

Section 4 - Additional detail is provided on the level James has reached through his work and mental preparation.

Section 5 - Jenkins goes back to James outside of the game and covers what he's done through his foundation and the impact on kids in Akron.

Section 6 - More detail provided on what James has both contributed to the community and provided in terms of leadership on the court. Related to this is in mention of the friendly rivalry between James and Kevin Durant (with Durant chasing James).

Section 7 - Jenkins closes off the profile with detail around the obligation James feels in each game played.

Just an excellent overall piece by Jenkins that provides some great anecdotes (an indicator of in-depth reporting) with stellar organization. Again, just my take on the writing, but short-version structure would be (A) hook, (B) hook payoff, (C) James as someone different than others... and who maximizes his ability, (D) more on James the player, (E) James the person, (F) James the player and person brought together.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Reading & writing - along with Stephen Marche essay

Over the past four years of writing this blog, I've intermittently thought about and occasionally written on (usually with a post tag of "blogging") the process of doing the posts and the point of the effort.

Source of writing posted on

In terms of the content and where it comes from, there's simply a heck of a lot of reading. This comes in the form of books (mostly non-fiction), magazines (have seven subscriptions now) and more recently, Twitter and story links I get from the people I follow.

Selecting writing to post on

Reading something with an eye towards writing on it makes the process more interesting in that I'm evaluating whether something interesting and why. I'm reading to find great writing and ascertain what it is about a given piece that makes it exemplary... whether it be lyrical prose, deep reporting (and potentially off the beaten path anecdotes provided) or simply a topic of interest that's covered well. Where something becomes great is oftentimes in the combination of factors. A piece of writing on an interesting subject that entertains as well as informs... that there is the good stuff, and requires reading a lot of writing that may be decent, but doesn't stand out enough to write on and link to.

Process of writing blog posts

Most all of the posts that aren't book reviews note and link to multiple pieces of excellent writing so each given post usually has a coherent theme I'm trying to write about and have the different pieces feed into. Once I've set aside in some fashion several notable pieces, the writing of the blog posts is then the attempt to convey in fairly short form what in the writing made it stand out. Additionally, the goal is often to make connections not only between the pieces linked to in a given post, but also between a given post and others posts done in the past.

Outcome of writing blog posts

It can certainly be quibbled with whether the effort and time put into this blog post writing and the reading that happens first is worthwhile, but it comes down to worthwhile being in the eye of the beholder.

From the reading I've learned a lot of interesting things and been exposed to some great writing. From the blog posting, I've gotten my thoughts out as to what made something great and done so on a consistent basis. At times the writing has been a slog to be sure, but efforts have resulted in 11+ posts being done each month of writing the blog. Out of these blog posts, there's come two self-published books, a repository of great writing on interesting subjects and connections with people who write professionally.

Point of the writing

Going forward, I'm sure there's ideas and themes that could be culled out from posts done and serve as the basis for future writing and maybe it'll all lead somewhere as more than an avocation. The statement could be made that "even if not, it's fine because...", but really the more salient point is the key thing is the process. The process of the reading and the considering and the writing and then the working with the writing is the thing I like to do. When you get down to it, this doing of the thing you like to do... there's a lot to be said for that.

With my diatribe now spelled out, there's an essay from the latest issue of Esquire that very much relates. "The Golden Age for Writers... is right now" was by Stephen Marche and his piece reinforces for me this idea of focusing on the process of doing the thing you like to do.

Ironic I suppose that the thing I like to do is being done through each word I write about it. Here's to there being much more to follow...

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Solid Sports Writing - by Tomlinson, Ballard, Layden, Davis, Price & Miklasz

It may be a lot to include in one post, but I've recently read six pieces of really good sports writing that group into three different reasons for standing out.

The first set of pieces was excellent in that each story more what might typically be expected given the type of writing. "Shattered Dreams" was by Tommy Tomlinson for Sports on Earth and took the concept of a game writeup and went way beyond it. Rather than simply reporting on the Alabama-Georgia SEC title game events and outcome, Tomlinson went into the emotions of the game and included the tremendously insightful quote "Why do sports hold so much power? Not because they’re life and death -- they’re not. But they make us feel life and death, in all its messy glory, in all its numbing agony." These two sentences struck me as a great encapsulation of being a player or passionate fan of a sport.

The second piece that had this same type of unexpected payoff was from Chris Ballard in last week's Sports Illustrated. "Moneyballsy" is a profile of Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, but goes beyond a typical profile piece in a few different ways. There's how Ballard shows Morey's analytic approach to assembling a team roster as part of a larger trend towards data analysis in sports and outside (see: political predictions and Nate Silver) as well as a number of interesting anecdotes provided about Morey and his interests. It's just a very revealing look at the guy.

If the first set of stories noted here had more than the type of piece would generally provide, the second set to mention included simply very well written in-depth feature stories. From the same SI issue that had the Morey profile was "Tinker To Evers To Chance ... ... To Me" by Tim Layden. It's a fascinating and detailed look at Johnny Evers, one third of the famous (to baseball enthusiasts) Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combination and also the great uncle of Layden. The story of Evers is an interesting one and combined with the connection to Layden it becomes all the better of a read.

Another feature profile I've seen recently that did an excellent job telling the story of a compelling individual was "Still Richard: Richard Simmons Keeps Grooving at 64" by David Davis. Written for the Longform section on SB Nation, it's a great profile of the extremely emotionally invested in his work fitness advocate.

Final two pieces to mention here are both on college basketball coach Rick Majerus who recently passed away from heart disease. The more personal of the two stories was "Majerus lived his life to help others" from friend and St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, but the 2008 Sports Illustrated feature "The Life and Times of Rick Majerus" by S.L. Price is also great writing on an interesting individual.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Businessweek & Fast Company Features

There were a few pieces that stood out from recent issues of Businessweek and Fast Company.

The latest BW had two feature stories of note including "A Pet Food Store Fights to Survive Sandy" by Karl Taro Greenfeld. He's one of those writers whose work I look for (along with Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone as other frequent Businessweek contributors) and provides in this piece a thorough and compelling view into the storm aftermath for one wiped out Staten Island business and it's owners.

Also from this issue was the interesting Devin Leonard piece "Is Concierge Medicine the Future of Health Care?" about doctors taking on patients on a monthly fee basis rather than billing insurance carriers for exams and basic services. Very interesting notion with lots of different service derivations and costs ranging from extremely high to quite affordable.

From Fast Company recently a feature that particularly stood out was "IBM's Watson Is Learning Its Way To Saving Lives" by Jon Gertner. Fascinating look at the ever-improving supercomputer (of winning at Jeopardy fame) and it's potential applications in any number of fields including finance and medicine. Interesting in the piece was the description of Watson (with it's computing power coming from software as much as hardware) being positioned for medical diagnosing purposes as a tool providing possibilities and %s of likely success rather than end all be all intelligence. While information from Watson may wind up being better than from a doctor, it could speed adoption of the computer to understate how it might replace a doctor's evaluation.

Two other things of particular interest from Fast Company lately were mention of of a Social Media expert (a nebulous phrase to be sure) and feature story on a well known website and it's founder. The Social Media expert mentioned was Clara Shih and seeing her in the "Leadership in a Time of Chaos" Dec/Jan cover story reminded me of a March 2012 Businessweek piece that referenced her book The Facebook Era. The website and it's founder Fast Company feature was "Not Just Another Web 2.0 Company, Yelp Basks In Its Star Power" by Max Chafkin. I'm fascinated by Social Media companies and how some seem to make much more sense than others... with Jeremy Stoppleman's Yelp appearing to have a lot of staying power.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Excellent sports writing - on Ricky Rubio, Jack Jablonski & Pat Schiller

Three pieces of sports writing I've come across recently from three very different sources stood out as compelling.

Published on The Classical, "The Ricky Rubio Experience" was an example of great writing that might not  find an outlet if not for the web. It's written by ex-pro basketball player Flinder Boyd and the bulk of the piece covers Boyd's experience playing against a Rubio in his mid-teens who dominated against men. What's striking from the story was the description of Rubio's creativity and it brought to mind stories like this by S.L. Price for Sports Illustrated on soccer icon Lionel Messi.

If the Rubio piece trafficked in the lyrical, two other excellent stories of late were grounded in a much more stark reality. "After the Hit" was a long profile in the Star Tribune newspaper on Minneapolis area high school player Jack Jablonski who was paralyzed a year ago during a game. I previously wrote about an SI piece on Jablonski and this lengthy recent profile by Pam Louwagie is excellent in it's combination of uplift and tragedy. In that regard, Louwagie's work reminds me of how I wrote a month ago about a Chris Ballard story for SI having such a balance.

The third piece to note here was similar to Louwagie's in that it has a definite element of inspiration and opportunity, but is also rooted in long odds still to be overcome. For the New York Times Magazine"The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot" was by Charles Siebert on his nephew Pat Schiller's attempt to make a team after being undrafted out of college. Schiller certainly has gotten further in in his sport than the large majority of others to play the game, but Siebert meticulously details the difficulty of him going beyond this to a career playing football.