Why the world needs newspapers more than ever

Man with newspaper

Man with newspaper

Today’s world runs on ideas, spread by the Series of Tubes–and those ideas are made of words.

At the foundation of this pyramid of words and ideas sits an endangered species: newspapers.

Television, radio, blogs and half the interwebs wouldn’t function if they couldn’t crib from papers of news, where the whole food web of information starts.

Don’t believe me? Watch this bit from John Oliver, who shows that while it’s easy and amusing to make fun of something for 10 seconds (John Stewart and every late night talk show host), it takes serious skill to dive deep into important issues without losing your audience. The man is brilliant.

I got started at papers, back when they were financially healthy and the web didn’t really exist. So this hits me in the gut. Continue reading “Why the world needs newspapers more than ever”

The past, present and future of news

internet lynchings fact-based reporting

This post is like X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, except with printing presses and the web instead of Hugh Jackman.

We’ll go back in time, return to the present and into the future. Here’s how it started: for eons, news only traveled as fast as you could run, unless you had a horse or an army of trained pigeons. (Yes, this was a thing. Rather brilliant, really.)

Back in the 1700s, newspapers from London and Paris were put on sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic, and people lined up and paid real money to read news that was months old. Didn’t matter. It was new to them. Continue reading “The past, present and future of news”

The killer beside you

knife

The first murderer I ever met was tall and awkward, with curly hair. But this was sixth grade, and we were all a bit awkward. Every one of us.

This kid didn’t grow up to stalk the streets and slay prostitutes until the TV stations gave him a nickname.

He didn’t buy an AR-15 and shoot up a lecture hall or a nightclub.

This boy became a killer that same year.

One day he was in school. The next day he didn’t show up, and the next, and the next, until we finally learned the truth: he’d been charged with murder.
Continue reading “The killer beside you”

Man leads police on 112 mph chase, crashes, then flees with his pet monkey

Monkey chase. Photo courtesy of the Burien Police Department.

Monkey chase. Photo courtesy of the Burien Police Department.

Photo courtesy of the Burien Police Department.

This sounds like an Onion story. But it’s not.

As a reformed journalist and unrepentant fan of weird news, this story is classic. Let’s break it down.

Related post, which WordPress put on the front page: How weird news teaches us great storytelling

Continue reading “Man leads police on 112 mph chase, crashes, then flees with his pet monkey”

Defense against the Dark Arts: Propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric

As the race for the White House gears up, you are being bombarded with stories, 30-second ads, attack tweets and Instagram videos.

Back in the 1970s, the average person got hit with 500 messages a day: ads in the paper to buy Fords, radio spots for Richard Nixon, promos for the latest ABBA album and billboards for Coke.

Today, the average person is buried with 5,000 messages a day.

So how do you tell the difference between propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric?

I did a series of posts about this for about.com, back when it was owned by The New York Times, and it’s a topic worth revisiting. Continue reading “Defense against the Dark Arts: Propaganda vs. journalism and rhetoric”

‘Native advertising’ disguised as news: miracle money or menace to journalism?

media strategy saturday meme

You have to feel for journalists and publishers, since everybody else insists on (a) swiping content from newspapers and magazines, (b) “aggregating” all that content on the Series of Tubes before (c) having your hot startup get bought out by Silicon Valley for $300 million while (d) the journalists who created all that content get pink slips.

So yeah, any form of advertising that’s bringing money to print is a godsend.

HOWEVER: John Oliver is right when he goes off about “native advertising,” a new twist on an old concept. Instead of having news, then ads, why not knock down those walls and make the ads look just like news?

I still believe that real ads in real newspapers and magazine are far more effective than banner ads on the web. Also, this trend can’t last forever. John Oliver is right about somebody having to create all this content, and get paid for it. The trouble is how easy newspapers and magazines made it to either read the stories for free — most paywalls are a joke — or “aggregate” the stories online with no consequences.

Either way, John the Oliver is proving that you can go on deep, 11-minute comedy rants that actually educate people, about serious topics, while making them laugh. Lectures are boring. Mockery is the greatest weapon.

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Oh, if I could go back in time, and whisper in the ear of my younger self during journalism school.

Not that I was busy screwing it up. Editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, graduated No. 1 in my class, won a bunch of awards, blah-blah-blah. (Related: Who is this Guy?)

But the traditional things that most journalism students think they SHOULD be doing — well, often those are seven separate kinds of wrong.

And there are other things Serious Journalism Majors scoff at, things that you actually should not only embrace, but hug tightly to your bosom.

So here we go with the Top 10 Myths of Journalism School.

Myth No. 10: Hard news is the only true love of a Serious Journalism Major

Sure, unfiltered Marlboros and Jim Beam come close. But nothing beats a scoop about an amazing scandal. You laugh at people trying to make the words flow for their feature story on dumpster divers, a story packed with all these photos, which are for nancypants who don’t have the stones to write more words.

Here’s the truth: hard news is all about news gathering and using the inverted pyramid, which is a horrible structure for any sort of writing and needs to be taken behind the barn and shot.

Hard news is worthy, and does the public a great service. Yet if all you do is hard news, you won’t truly learn journalism — or how to write.

Myth No. 9: Journalism school will teach you how to write

Once you get that pigskin from j-school, and land your first journalism  gig — at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times — you’ll go home after 12 hours of banging on the keyboard to stay up past midnight, banging on the keyboard some more while smoking Gallouise Blondes and drinking cheap whiskey sours as you write (a) the next Great American Novel, (b) a Broadway play involving a debutant who falls in love with a struggling young reporter or (c) a Hollywood screenplay about a vast government conspiracy unraveled by an intrepid young intern at CBS.

This will be a lot of fun, and you’ll remember this as being the Best Thing Ever until you’ve been doing it for seven months and turning every draft of your extra-curricular writerly fun into three-point attempts. Also, you will miss this thing we call “sleep” and these other things we call “money in the checking account” and “a social life that does not involve typing on a keyboard chatting with a person who may, or may not, actually exist.”

J-school will teach you to be a journalist, but not how to write. You’ll know the AP Stylebook better than the people who wrote it, and your noggin will be stuffed full of the mechanics of writing news stories, how to put out a newspaper or produce a magazine. It may even teach you how to produce radio and TV shows.

Journalism school won’t, however, make you an all-purpose writer. And to truly learn how to write, you need to learn how to edit. I don’t mean copy edit or proof.

Sidenote: I wrote this in a crazy hurry and have not proofed it, or copy edited it, much less edited-edited the sucker. My apologies. God knows what kind of felony crimes against journalism were committed on this silly blog today. 

Myth No. 8: Copy editing is editing

Sure, you sleep with your AP Stylebook, and proof-reading marks are like a second language. But that’s not editing.

There’s proofing, copy editing and true editing. Vastly different things.

Anybody who’s literate can proof. Do I want a great proofer? Sure, I want the best around, because errors are inevitable, and it takes a special person to have the stamina to read page after page. This isn’t rocket science, though.

Copy editing is important. When something is written on deadline, in a huge hurry, the copy editor is a Writing God, saving you from making gigantic factual errors or crimes against the English language.

True editing, though, is different, and you won’t learn it in journalism school. Not unless you seek it out.

Myth No. 7: You should specialize in your special thing while pish-toshing PR, because that’s for cheerleaders

Maybe you’re a sports guy, and all you want to do is write about baseball. It’s your passion. In fact, it’s your dream to cover the San Francisco Giants as a beat reporter. Anything else would be a let-down.

Out in real newsrooms, you’ll switch beats — and newspapers, or TV stations, or whatever — all the time. One month you might be covering politics and the next month it’s a huge murder trial. As a reporter, I covered city council meetings that lasted until midnight, got up the next day and did a flood, a fire or a bumbling serial killer. You never knew what was going to happen, and that’s why journalism is fun. The smaller the paper or media outlet, the more different things you get to cover. The bigger the paper or TV station, the more specialized you get.

So in college, try everything you can. Features, sports, the opinion page. Give radio a shot, and TV if you can. Somebody who can do lots of things, and is interested in many things, is a lot more marketable and fun than a journalist who’s obsessed with one solitary thing.

Also, public relations isn’t something journalism majors should take because it’s a required course. Chances are, you won’t do journalism forever.

Maybe five or ten years after you start working at papers of news, you’ll meet an amazing girl, or a wonderful boy, and the two of you will get married and decide that living on Top Ramen was fun for the first year, and kind of unfun the second year, and if you ever want to have babies and buy a house and send your pookie to college, the job thing may need to get revisited. And instead of selling Toyotas, you want to stick with some kind of writing gig, except one that pays decently and won’t make you worry about the next round of layoffs and such.

This happens. It’s OK, and public relations is a growing field — social media PR is crazy hot right now — while traditional journalism is shrinking before it changes and takes flight again. (I have hope.) Take the PR classes and learn from them. You will not die.

Myth No. 6: All you need is a pen and notebook

These days, it’s a pen, a notebook,  a laptop, a camera and a smart phone, though the phone is a given, and would require a surgical team / SWAT team / NFL team to separate most people from their phones.

A lot of print reporters are taking their own photos these days, with newsroom cutbacks for photo staff. There are far fewer photographers on staff than reporters. Can’t send a shutterbug out on every story, only the biggest ones.

Get a decent SLR and practice. A lot.

That camera will also shoot HD video, and most papers and radio stations are also putting video up on their blogs. Learn how to edit video a little, and to edit photos a whole bunch.

Sidenote: when I say “learn to edit photos,” I don’t mean firing up Instagram and applying the Lux effect.

Myth No. 5: Creative writing and drama people are weird

Yeah, they dress in black and like to quote Sylvia Plath and Oscar Wilde.

Get over it. Instead of taking tons of political science classes and such (I was guilty of this), take all the creative writing and drama that you can. Because you want to be a great journalist and writer instead of a U.S. Senator, right?

If your college has a screenwriting class, take it. If they don’t have screenwriting, buy SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and STORY by Robert McKee. Read them all the way through while taking notes. Then go back and read them again, because those two books are all about structure, which is the secret to great writing. Not pretty words. Structure.

Also: speech and debate — or editing the opinion page of your college paper — are both crazy smart. You need to learn how to (a) speak in public and (b) persuade other human beings to do things, such as (c) getting sources to reveal secrets to you and (d) charming editors to run your story on Page 1 instead of burying it on Page 15 next to the obituaries. I got lucky by doing speech and debate, and being an opinion page editor, along with all the hard news. Those things gave me different ways of writing aside from the inverted pyramid. So hop on the happy train of storytelling and rhetoric. DO IT NOW.

Myth No. 4: Your  resume, GPA and 5-pound stack of clips — those are the ticket to success

They’re important to get into grad school, sure. And yeah, employers are a lot more impressed with somebody who has a 4.0 and a great resume than a loser.

But after your first real job, nobody cares about your grade point average and such. Or even where you went to school, unless it’s something insanely great (Harvard) or wacky beyond belief (French Polynesian College of Scientology and Barber School).

Here’s a secret: people get stacks of resumes that tower over their desk. They spend about two seconds per resume to sort them into three piles: YES, NO and MAYBE. Three-page resume? The NO pile. Weird font? NO. Paper as stiff as cardboard or so flimsy it tears? NO.

Here’s the cat who helps bosses around the world sort through stacks of resumes.

Then they go back into the YES pile and winnow it down until they’ve got enough people to call for interviews. And that’s if they even ask for resumes.

Also: one amazing clip with photos is better than three great clips or 5 pounds of good clips. NOBODY WILL READ ALL YOUR CLIPS. They’ll read the lede of the first graf of your first clip, maybe. I’d throw some more journalism slang in that sentence, but it’d just be piling on.

Myth No. 3: You can apply for any open job

A lot of times, jobs aren’t advertised. You won’t ever know they existed.

Why? Because people off the street are always a risk. Somebody with the Greatest Resume Known to Man could be a sociopath.

This is why the most important thing isn’t “who you know” but “who already knows you.” There’s a difference, and that segues to the next myth.

Myth No. 2: Internships are glorified slavery

You’re not getting paid for this free work. Why dress up, shave (face or legs), fight traffic and work like a dog while this paper of news / TV station / magazine makes all kinds of money from your free labor? Who cares if you’re late by 15 minutes or leave early? Who cares if you play Angry Birds on your phone during meetings?

Here’s the truth: internships mean jobs. Bosses would much rather skip the whole advertising for a job thing, which involves tons of paperwork, sorting through resumes and sitting through weeks of interviews. It’s a royal pain. If there was a couple interns they just had, people who were professional and hardworking, why not call them both up and hire one of them?

This happens far, far more than you think. And not just with internships. I’m ten times more likely to answer an email from somebody who’s chatted with me on Twitter than a total stranger (delete). The same thing is true for freelance jobs.

Myth No. 1: You’ll win the Pulitzer prize and retire to a villa in France

After you work for six months, putting in all-nighters to uncover the Biggest Scoop Journalism Has Ever Seen, and blow the socks off every Pulitzer Prize judge, your hometown will throw a ticker-tape parade, the mayor will give you the keys to the city and The New York Times will fight it out with The Washington Post to see who can give you $1.3 million a year along with your own set of minions.

Oh, that’s a nice dream. It would make a great movie. I know people who’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, and while it’s a great honor, they didn’t get snatched up by the national biggies or have buckets of monies rain upon their noggins. Yeah, it’s a big deal, and the best possible award for journalists, and everybody pronounces it wrong.

Despite all that, winning the Pulitzer Prize is not like holding the winning ticket to MegaMillions.

HOWEVER: Journalism isn’t about getting famous or getting rich. It’s about serving your audience, and giving them news and information. The profession is interesting and fun, and even though it’s changing fast, the need for information — and for people who can write — is only growing.

If you choose journalism, you won’t get rich. You won’t get famous.

What you will get is an interesting life. And that’s something worth more than paper decorated with dead presidents.

Journalists just wanna have fun

media strategy saturday meme

As a reformed journalist, I can tell you secret things.

Number One: Coffee.

If you want to make a reporter smile, or an editor not growl at you, feed them industrial amounts of coffee.

Number Two: Stress requires unstressing.

Journalists do a stressful job for tiny amounts of monies, and they’re under the Most Insane Deadline Pressure Known to Man, which makes them look for ways to unwind.

Here are my favorite journalists finding ways to unstress.

First we’ve got Bob Herzog.

Bob’s a TV reporter from Local 12 in Cincinatti who took the thankless job of “Traffic Reporter, A Job We Sometimes Have Interns Do” and turned it onto a “Dancing King of the Glowing Tube.”

Then we’ve got WGN anchors Robert Jordan and Jackie Bange, who look quite Serious and Somber while delivering the news.

Once they hit the commercial break, they transform into silly nutballs and do a special shebang, which they’ve honed over the years to take up exactly two minutes.

Also, just because I can, the original Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cindi the Lauper.

The Killers once covered Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj covered it EVEN BETTER.

###

This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE

If you are a writer, you know all about the inverted pyramid. It’s one of the first blueprints we get taught: put the most important stuff on top and the least important on the bottom, like an upside-down pyramid.

As a reformed journalist, was I familiar with the inverted pyramid? Nah. I only wrote  5,931 bazillion stories using the damn thing. We were practically married.

Every day, millions of reporters use it to write stories for Papers of News and programs on the radios and the Glowing Tube, so if there was ever a sacred cow in writing and journalism, that cow would be named Inverted Pyramid, and the milk from its udders would contain perfect chocolate-flavored milk decorated with specks of gold.

The technique of journalism writing.

HOWEVER: I want you to know something. Come a little closer so I can whisper it in your ear: “The inverted pyramid MUST DIE.”

As a blueprint, it’s inherently flawed and bores readers. If you wrote novels, screenplays and TV shows using the inverted pyramid, they’d all fail, because all the good stuff would be in the beginning. The middle would be boring and the end would put the entire audience in a coma.

The inverted pyramid is useful for short news bulletins, and there were technical reasons why journalists use it. You want to get the maximum amount of information to the reader in a minimum amount of time, and if a story runs long, you can lop off the end without consequence. These days, however, the inverted pyramid is simply a flashing neon sign that says, “Reader, you can stop reading any time, because it only gets more boring from here on.”

Look at your local Sunday newspaper. I read The Seattle Times here, and they tend to do these big investigative stories that start on page one, jump to page 5, then jump to pages 7, 8, 9 and 12. I mean, these stories never end. Are they important? Sure. Can I finish them? No. Because they’re written using the inverted pyramid, and even a reformed journalist who loves papers — if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint — can’t get through that ocean of words.

However: a 10,000-word newspaper story is nothing compared to a 100,000-word novel, and I have no problem reading novels. Love ’em.

It’s the structure, the blueprint. The inverted pyramid sucks.

Here, I’ll give you proof.

Years ago, as a cub reporter right out of college, I’d write at least 10 to 20 stories a week. Let’s say  500 a year. And I’d win journalism awards every year. But hey, if I wrote 500 stories, some of those better be good and a few of them better be brilliant, right?

A few years ago, I freelanced a newspaper story, not simply because I still love papers, but because this story happened to a friend of mine.

One story instead of 500. And that story won some journalism award. I went one for one instead of five for 500 or whatever. Hmm.

I wrote this story about 7 years ago. Looking back at this piece, I’m a much better writer today. Parts seem quite clunky. But this piece didn’t win an award because each sentence was poetry. It got an award because I abandoned the inverted pyramid entirely and wrote this piece as narrative non-fiction, which is a fancy way of saying “storytelling.”

If I’d written it using the stupid inverted pyramid, I’d give away the ending in the damn headline, and the last line of the piece — instead of being something you remember — would be something like “The dog was yellow.”

Read this sucker. Look at the structure, the setups and payoffs, instead of the words. And tell me if you think it would be one-tenth as compelling written using the inverted pyramid. Then make a vow to never, never use that obsolete blueprint ever again.

Lost and trapped at 4,500 feet

Special to The Vidette

by Guy Bergstrom

 

MONTESANO – From the top of Colonel Bob Mountain– nearly 4,500 feet high – Adam Pratt and family friend Amy Smith could see the Pacific Ocean to the west, Mount Rainier to the southeast and everything in between.

The one thing they couldn’t see was Lucas, Adam’s golden retriever.

“Luke had been up Colonel Bob four or five times before,” said Adam, a carpentry instructor at Grays Harbor College who lives in Montesano with his wife, Sara.

“He was just there beside me a second ago, and he always stays right next to me on the trail,” Adam said. “So I figured that maybe he went back down toward a stream that we crossed 30 minutes down the mountain.”

Adam and Amy called for Lucas; they whistled and clapped.

“I expected his happy face and wagging tail to come running back, as he always does,” Adam said.

They went back down the trail to the stream and thought maybe Lucas would head back to the car, at the trailhead.

Adam put his sweaty T-shirt and a bowl of water where they’d parked, hoping the familiar smells and fresh water would serve as a homing beacon for Lucas.

The beacon failed; Lucas never showed up.

The search

To prepare for a search of the wilderness, Adam drove back to Montesano for clothes, food and camping gear.

He dropped off Amy, jumped in his wife’s Subaru – which she’d already packed with supplies – and they raced the setting sun back to the trailhead at Pete’s Creek, about 20 miles into the wilderness.

“I strapped on my headlamp and went up the trail by myself about a mile and a half,” he said. “It’s not wise to hike alone in the dark, especially in black bear and cougar country. I was drained and emotional, making bad decisions.”

He returned to the car. He couldn’t eat. He and Sara tried to sleep, but they lay awake most of the night in the Subaru, thinking the worst.

Where was Lucas? Was he wandering the forests? Injured and unable to move? Or a late-night snack for a mountain lion?

To the top again

Just before daybreak, Adam strapped on his backpack, kissed Sara goodbye and headed back up the mountain again.

He decided to reach the top of the Colonel and search. If he didn’t find Lucas, he’d continue down the trail on the other side of the mountain toward Lake Quinault.

Maybe the dog had headed toward the small town near the lake. Since it was Labor Day weekend, there’d be more people and activity.

Sara drove to Lake Quinault and started putting up lost dog posters. She asked people she met if they’d seen a yellow dog. She alerted the park ranger station, in case they’d heard any reports of a lost dog with a collar. No one had seen Lucas.

The cave

Adam clapped, whistled and called for Lucas as he reached the top of the mountain.

Near the top, he heard faint howling.

“I reached the lookout area and looked down,” Adam said. “About seventy-five feet below the summit, there he was, on this tiny ledge a hundred-twenty feet above the next flat spot.”

Lucas looked scared, but he didn’t seem hurt. But how could Adam reach him?

At the summit, Adam’s cell phone had some reception, so he called Sara and left the message that Lucas was alive, but stuck on a cliff.

He pushed through brush and trees on the steep sides of Colonel Bob, traveling through a twenty-foot cave he had to crouch and crawl through. Then he side-shuffled through open-topped crevice and popped out the other side of the mountain.

To reach the ledge, Adam climbed 60 feet up by hanging onto huckleberry roots and scrub brush.

After being alone on the cliff, Lucas was thrilled to see Adam, wagging his tail and licking his face. He checked Lucas for injuries and was amazed to find the dog didn’t have any broken bones from the fall.

Then the thrill of the reunion hit the Cold Wall of Reality.

“I hate heights,” Adam said, “and it was then and there I realized how stupid I had been. My emotions had got the best of me and now I was sitting on a six-foot by three-foot ledge with my buddy, wondering how we were getting of this mountain.”

No help

Adam offered Lucas a dog bone, but he wasn’t interested in eating. After letting Lucas lap some water out of his hands, he knew he had to go before they both were stuck up there another night.

“Without opposable thumbs, he wasn’t able to follow me off the ledge,” Adam said. “I King-Konged it down the cliff, using the shrubs and roots as handholds, like a monkey.”

After making it through the cave again and back to the summit, Adam went down the mountain yet again, his muscles shaking, his mind spinning. He heard voices coming up the trail but had to stop to rest and eat some trail bars.

At the same time, Sara was at the Forest Service headquarters, asking for help. They told her rescue teams were looking for a group of four lost teens, plus another couple of hikers about 150 miles away.

Stranded dogs? Not a priority.

Lost hope

Sara sobbed; they’d worked so hard to find Lucas, and now he’d starve or freeze to death on a cliff.

She left a voice mail with the only person she could think of back in Montesano: Leo Nixon, a 71-year-old retired dentist and they’d met at Friday wine tastings at Savory Faire, a man who shared their love of hiking local mountains.

Adam headed back down the trail toward the voices. He met a father and daughter hiking up Colonel Bob with their chocolate lab. He asked if they had any rope or a cell phone, since his battery was now dead.

“They helped calm me down,” said Adam, “and they actually landed some of their lunch on Luke’s ledge. To them, I must have seemed like a crazy person. It’s good they didn’t have a rope. I wasn’t qualified to use it to climb. Even if I had training, I was in no condition to do it.”

A daring plan

Heading down the trail, Adam saw another couple heading up the hill, and then a face he knew: Leo, who hadn’t gotten Sara’s message.

“He just happened to take that hike, that day,” Adam said.

Leo climbed to the summit to take a look. He said he had all the necessary climbing gear at home in Montesano and that they could rescue Lucas themselves.

They wouldn’t try it from the top of Colonel Bob, but from below, where Adam had reached the ledge in his earlier, impulsive attempt without equipment or backup.

Since it would soon be dark, they needed to wait until Saturday morning, meaning Lucas would spend his second night alone on the freezing ledge.

On the drive back to Montesano, Leo tried to calm the fears of Adam and Sara, to assure them that it wouldn’t rain, that Lucas wouldn’t try to jump, that no bears or cougars roamed the area.

“Lies, but comforting lies,” Adam said.

Leo stopped at Savory Faire, where Adam and Sara would have been that Friday night for wine tasting if they weren’t spending their time climbing and re-climbing the mountain.

Leo walked inside and casually asked the restaurant owner, Randi Bachtel, if he could borrow his climbing equipment. He refused offers of help, saying he’d called two friends of his who were mountaineers.

Randi, a veteran of Vietnam and local high school teacher, said Leo knew what he was doing. If he had to choose anybody to do a rescue, it’d be Leo, 71 years old or not.

The Silver Panther Rescue Team

At 4:30 Saturday morning, Adam and Sara arrived at Leo’s house, where two of his mountain-climbing friends joined them: Mike Riley of Olympia and Rich Irwin of Raymond.

This would be the third climb up to the summit in 36 hours for Adam, who was exhausted and questioning himself. Could he do it again?

On the way to the mountain, they picked up Amy and her husband, Nate, who’d agreed to make the climb with what they’d nicknamed “The Silver Panthers Rescue Team.”

Adam and Sara couldn’t stop thinking about whether Lucas had survived the night, about the cold, the bears, the cougars.

Driving through the rain and the dark, a dark shape – a cougar – leapt in front of the Subaru and Adam jammed both feet on the brakes.

“It was the first time that any of us had ever seen a mountain lion,” Adam said. “Truly an amazing creature. Truly terrible timing. We said nothing to each other, but we all entertained the same thoughts.”

The cougar spun around and sprinted the opposite direction.

They kept driving.

All seven climbed the trail to Colonel Bob’s summit while it was still dark. The Silver Panthers didn’t lose one step to the younger hikers.

As they reached the top, the sun showed up.

Leo led the way as they bushwhacked through the brush and trees on the side of the mountain. On a semi-flat spot, they gathered their gear and prepared for the rescue attempt.

Leo, Mike, Rich and Adam put on climbing harnesses and helmets.

They walked a narrow ledge to the start of the route Leo had picked out.

And then they started climbing.

Do or die

There’s no half-way in mountain climbing. You make it safely or fail spectacularly.

Rich and Leo set a bottom anchor in the cliff to belay Mike as he climbed toward Lucas.

Mike set a second anchor at twenty feet up, then another at forty feet before making the final climb to the tiny ledge and Lucas.

After taking a minute to calm the dog, Mike set up a rope to top-belay Adam up sixty feet to the ledge.

“I have very little climbing experience,” Adam said, “but I had the best chance to calm down Lucas and bring him down.”

Adam made it up. They attached a harness to Lucas, then hooked that harness to Adam, who pulled the dog tight against his chest.

They would make it down – the slow way or a much speedier one – together.

Home

“I stepped off the cliff,” Adam said, “and the guys lowered us down. Then Mike rappelled down and we all made our way to flat ground and safety.”

After giving Lucas some water and food, the seven-member team celebrated and decompressed. They still had four miles to hike out, downhill, but Adam barely felt it.

“We couldn’t feel anything,” he said, “but relief.”

Leo, Rich and Mike peeled away to climb a nearby peak.

Lucas rode home with his friends. And his family.

Epilogue

Sunday afternoon: Lucas is sprinting around the playground at Crait Field, playing with a three-year-old boy who can’t stop laughing. Lucas leaps off the retaining walls as if he’s weightless and happily picks up his leash to get Adam to play tug-of-war with him.

Adam and Sara talk about their ordeal being unreal, a waking nightmare with a fairy tale ending.

“Retired dentist extracts canine from Colonel Bob,” Adam jokes.

Behind the kidding around, there’s a deep sense of gratitude and community. The couple moved here from Michigan and have only lived in Montesano since last November, so they’re amazed and grateful at how people stepped forward to offer their help.

“We couldn’t have possibly rescued him without the help of our friends,” Adam said, “and the kindness of strangers.”

But there’s also an undercurrent of resolve. Of loyalty.

“We couldn’t just leave our little buddy,” said Adam, “on a mountain cliff to die.”

Writers: social media is a tool — not a magic bullet

Every novelist, journalist and aspiring writer I know is all over social media. They’ve got a blog and a Twitter account, or a Tumblr and a Facebook page.

Or they have all four, plus three things that are so bleeding edge, I haven’t heard of them yet.

HOWEVER: you could spend all day banging out blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates. It could suck up all your free time. And you might not get that much out of it.

I see people doing it wrong all the time, and it kills me.

So let’s get some things straight:

  • It’s not about how many friends you have on Facebook.
  • It’s not about how many hits you get on your blog.
  • It’s not about how many people follow you on Twitter.

If you want to make more money writing for a living — or quit your day job to write full-time — then you need to look inside the media toolbox and see each type of social media for what it is: a tool.

Not a magic bullet. Not a sure-fire path to fame and fortune.

You also need to realize that social media can’t be your entire media plan. And no, you are not the exception, Internet Boy.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty look at each tool:

Twitter

This whole Twitter thing is for meeting people.

The social barrier is incredibly low, because tweets are by definition super-short.

Nobody is going to send you a rambling five-page email about their feelings. There’s a lot of freedom in 140 characters.

Want to BS with other writers? Look up the right hashtag for the kind of writing you do. I bet #poems will get you in touch with poets around the world.

Movies, romance, thrillers, journalism, whatever you’re into, you can find people with the same interests on Twitter, and it’s non-threatening.

It’s like a big bar that’s always open where the drinks are always free and the people are friendly, because they’re drunk. I said THE DRINKS ARE FREE.

Facebook

The Book of Face is nothing like Twitter, nothing at all. It’s a closed system.

If Twitter is a big bar where anybody can talk to anybody, then Facebook is a giant hotel with 500 million rooms where you’ve got to know the right hotel room number, knock on the door and have the person behind the peephole look at you and say OK before they open the door and let you in the private party.

Facebook is for friends and family.

It’s for people you’ve had dinner with, or would have dinner with, and want to share baby photos and wedding photos and private things you don’t want to share with the world.

Maybe you think a Facebook fan page is the best thing ever, and you swear by it, and it’s the reason why you went from reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper to editor of Vanity Fair.

I don’t recommend it. Facebook’s niche is friends and family. There are better tools.

Also: don’t play Farmville, or Bejeweled, or whatever on Facebook, for doing so a Sin, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster DOES NOT FORGET.

He doesn’t forgive, either. Not his thing.

Blogs

Blogs are a bit like Twitter, in that everybody can see them. It’s not a private party like Facebook.

With a blog, you can write a helluva lot longer than 140 characters and put in silly photos of zombies and movie clips about hair bands from the 1980s. IT IS GLORIOUS.

Blogs are where the people you meet on Twitter can come to hang out. You can have literary flame wars in the comment sections about whether the Spork should be sent along with Snooki and the Situation on a one-way mission to Mars.

Different tools for different jobs

Think about those three tools — Twitter, Facebook and blogs — compared to a face-to-face meeting, a phone call and an e-mail.

  • Asking for a face-to-face meeting with an important and powerful stranger is the highest possible hurdle, right? A six-foot brick wall to climb over.
  • A cold call is chain-link fence. A little easier.
  • E-mailing that same VIP is three-foot wall.
  • Posting a comment on their blog is a little hop over decorative plants.
  • Tweeting is like hopping over a crack in the sidewalk. It’s nothing. Go give Yoko Ono a tweet. DO IT NOW.

It’s not about getting hits

Social media is not a games of Tetris, where you’re trying to get the high score.

Having 500,000 hits to your blog or 20,000 followers on Twitter doesn’t do anything, by itself.

Social media is about meeting people and learning things. It’s about a dialogue, not a monologue.

Fame and fortune still comes from old-fashioned mass media.

Do people like Charlie Sheen start Twitter accounts and instantly get 6.8 bazillion followers? Yes.

And there is a reason for that. That reason is simple: he was already a famous movie and TV star.

Also, he is an infamously insane train wreck, which is hard not to watch.

Want to reach a mass audience? Use the mass media

If you want national success, you need to reach a national audience.

To sell a million movie tickets, or novels, you’ve got to reach tens of millions of people with the mass media — and if you’re lucky, advertising. National success means trying to reach 330 million people. International success means reaching out to all 7 billion on this rock.

You can’t do that with Facebook and Twitter and a blog. Not everybody uses it. The only real way to reach a mass audiences is by using the mass media. TV. Newspapers. Radio.

A big chunk of the population only gets their news and entertainment from the idiot box. A different chunk only listens to the radio. A smaller bit rely on newspapers and magazines.

If you’re not on all of those channels, you don’t exist to those different audiences.

Social media isn’t a magic bullet

Old-fashioned mass media still has the biggest bullets and the biggest guns.

Is this heresy to the fanatics of the web? Yes. Too bad, so sad, tell your dad. Journalists and public relations pros will tell you this is the truth. Suck it up, internet boy. Sometimes, you have to get up from behind the keyboard and talk to real reporters, live and in person.

Someday, you have to go on a radio show. Eventually, you need to get on TV shows — not once, repeatedly — to reach all those people who only watch TV, even if you’re just trying to reach a local or statewide audience.

Say you’re a playwright in Seattle trying to make your debut play a success. Are you gonna sell out the season by having a blog and a Facebook fan page and tweeting twice a day? No.

Don’t waste your time dreaming that lightning will strike via the internets.

Get on the local TV stations, on radio, in the newspapers, on local blogs that are already popular. Your own blog and whatnot is gravy. It’s not a serious media plan.

Take solace from the fact that with 5.84 bazillion people trying to do via the series of tubes, there’s less competition for serious, hard-working people who know how to work the mass media. By “work” I don’t mean “annoy.” You need to do it right.

It isn’t easy. It isn’t simple. But it’s a lot more effective for reaching a mass audience than hoping hits on your blog will turn into magic, like lead into gold.

There are gold mines out there. That’s where you should take your pick and your axe and your mighty pen to look for the shiny yellow stuff. Because that’s where it lives.