And now I’ll prove those three things to you with one word, a word that you will definitely recognize and understand.
Here’s that word: SNOOKI.
Does Snooki (real name: I don’t care) have flaws and quirks? Oh yes. She and every other member of Jersey Shore had a solitary talent: creating constant drama, if not fiery train wrecks.
Conventional wisdom is that talent trumps all. This is America, right? The cream rises to the top. No way will somebody like Snooki get magazine covers.
HOWEVER: Just a few miles from the Jersey Shore are 5.82 bazillion Broadway actresses who have more talent, beauty and brains in their pinky fingers than Snooki and all her castmates combined. Some of these Broadway stars approach perfection, being triple threats who can sing, dance and act while looking like supermodels.
Talent alone, though, doesn’t make them into stars.
Are they hidden gems? You can’t say that. They’re on Broadway, seen by millions of locals and tourists in one of the biggest media markets in the world.
If the people who place all of their faith in the viral power of the Series of Tubes were right, all that overwhelming talent plus a few tweets and YouTube videos would be launching people from Broadway into the stratosphere, week after week.
Except that doesn’t happen.
Instead, we have People covers of Snooki getting pregnant and wall-to-wall coverage about the Kardashians, who really need some alone time before we beg Elon Musk to send them all on his first manned mission to Mars.
Flaws and quirks beat absolute perfection
In the old days, back when we had these things called “papers of news,” some papers ran an interesting contest. Out of a page full of photos of pretty women, the game was picking not your favorite, but the photo you predicted OTHER READERS would choose.
Much more interesting. In the first case, it’s your preference. Maybe you like blondes with short hair. Who knows? Who cares?
The second question — which photo will the most readers choose? — is a lot more fun. It’s the same game played by Hollywood talent scouts, music industry execs, literary agents and model agencies. Put yourself in the shoes of a diverse audience, young and old, city slickers and cowboys. Now bet your career and livelihood by picking not who you like the best, but who you think average people would pay money to like.
With the old newspaper contests, readers went with quirks and flaws. If there was only one redhead on the page, picking her was smart. Because she stood out.
Think about some of the most famous supermodels. Lauren Hutton had a big gap between her teeth. Cindy Crawford had her mole.
When everybody seems equally perfect and wonderful, a little quirk or flaw makes them interesting. Flaws and quirks let them stand out from the crowd and gives the audience somebody to identify with, because average Joe and Jane Sixpack aren’t perfect, either.
A related idea is that quirks and flaws — even train wrecks — attract attention.
If you’re perfectly talented and perfectly balanced and sane, you’ll never make the news for (a) getting married and divorced every 72 days, (b) having spats with other stars, (c) being arrested for being a drunken idiot or (d) going into rehab.
Downey is a supremely talented actor. If he had a perfect personal life, you might hate him. You’d want to see him brought down to earth off his pedestal of perfection. On the other hand, if Downey was drinking Charlie Sheen‘s tiger blood nonsense, you’d dismiss him as an idiot. Instead, people admire Downey for getting clean and sober, because everybody loves a redemption story. He still has an edge — plus flaws and quirky charm — but he’s no Sheen, who’s turned into a punchline.
Contrast also works. If you see somebody who looks great, it raises expectations. Time after time, an ugly duckling has shown up on stage at Britain’s Got Talent, underwhelming anyone watching until they opened their mouths and MADE PEOPLE CRY.
Here is Paul Notts, who definitely played the part of the ugly duckling. And the crowd loves him.
The package matters more than the product
The average person in the 1970s was exposed to about 500 ads per day. Today, it’s up to 5,000 ads per day, all professionally designed by Don Draper to persuade you that yes, you have to buy that widget RIGHT NOW.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a 1 percent response rate isn’t failure at all. That’s pretty dang good.
If the pros are happy to get something like 1 percent, don’t think that you are somehow immune from the mathematics. Your package has to be amazing to break through all that clutter.Because people are more media savvy than ever. They have to be. If people weren’t such hard targets, they’d blow the mortgage money on a garage full of Shamwows.
This is why you can’t think, “I have 15,000 blog readers and 22,000 Twitter follows, so if they all buy my book / album / fingerpainted portraits of dogs dressed like Elvis, I’m home free.” Not after you do the math. 1 percent of 15,000 + 22,000 = 370.
Packaging is so important that it actually subverts true talent.
Malcolm Gladwell tells a great story in BLINK about classical musicians in professional symphonies. Used to be, the conductor watched people try out. Then he picked who’d be first violin and all that. For the sake of fairness, symphonies switched to having musicians play behind a screen. You couldn’t see who it was. What they sound like is all that mattered anyway, right?
This little change turned classical music upside down. Conductors freaked out, because they were picking women for manly instruments like the tuba, things they believed women couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung power to play.
Also, some people looked terrible when they played, but sounded great. Other people were good-looking and looked great when they played, but they actually sounded bad, when you couldn’t see them.
The screen turned off the connection between our eyes, our ears and our brain.
It’s the same thing that happens when you’re sick and can’t smell. Food tastes entirely differently. Taste isn’t all in the tongue.
Here’s the other thing: a conductor can tell the difference between a room packed with world-class violinists, but you and I can’t.
A professional food taster can tell you insane things about packages of Oreos, down to which factory produced the additives and flavorings. You and I can’t do that.
A scout for the New York Jets could talk to you for hours about how Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are totally different quarterbacks, but to you and me, all we know is they’re both really good and that Peyton has a younger brother who looks like he’s still 12 and plays for the New Jersey/A football team. The intricate technical details about how each quarterback handles seven-step drops when facing a corner blitz, well, that’s beyond our ken. Sidenote: I don’t even know if “ken” is a word anymore.
The point is, when we’re talking about the top .01 percent of talented people, doing whatever those talented people do, the package is more important than the product.
That’s because the professionals who pick winners and losers do have strong opinions, often about technical, high-level stuff, yet those opinions actually don’t matter at all to the people who matter most, which is you and me, Joe and Jane Consumer, who actually buy the movie tickets / books about sparkly vampires (please don’t) / and music singles on iTunes.
The only opinions that truly matter are the uneducated ones.
We don’t care that professionals in the music industry say Madonna and sixteen other pop divas have weak voices. Our eyes are hooked up to our brain, which also communicates with our ears. The whole package matters, not just the voice. So the showmanship of Madonna makes her a star when a zillion other singers with better pipes fail.
Unlike the symphony tryouts, there is no screen in real life.
You can take it further. There are all kinds of actresses and professional athletes who put out albums that objectively stink. Yet they sell far more copies than they should simply because their name ID is crazy high. They know how the publicity game works. And so they get more attention, and sales, than musicians with far more talent who will toil in obscurity.
A great package (name ID, flaws, quirks, drama) + poor talent beats the heck out of great talent + poor packaging (no name ID, no flaws or quirks, no drama).
The same is true of actors, writers and artists. This is why obscure artists suddenly sell all kinds of paintings and such when they die. Their name is finally in the news, probably for the first time. There’s all kind of talent hiding around the corner that you never see.
An easy example: go to your county fair in the summer and check out the arts and crafts displays. I shoot photos and know enough to be dangerous and listen, I was really impressed by all the kids who won ribbons for photos. Then I scooted over to the adult photo winners. Mind blown. Great shots, including a bunch people took all over the world. But you’ll never learn their names or see their work.
Without legs, you are dead in the water
Though I kinda sorta hate reality TV, it is the best possible laboratory for testing evil theories about media and publicity.
The structure of different reality shows makes stars out of people like Snooki and Kim Kardashian while denying fame and fortune to other people with more actual talent and potential.
Here’s why: legs.
Survivor is one of the original reality TV hits, and you probably remember the first guy who won it, the naked man, Hatch, right? (I am not certain about his first name, and yes, the Series of Tubes would tell me, but I believe “naked man” and “Hatch” is close enough.) Hatch was an interesting villain, and villains stick in our head better than heroes. But aside from getting in the news for going to prison (train wreck!), Hatch pretty much disappeared.
Same thing with Rupert, a bearded pirate hero who was on Survivor: Some Island Where It is Hot. Great character. Should have been a star. But except for some kind of Survivor All-Star thing, Rupert also disappeared.
Why? Because the structure of Survivor doesn’t give anybody legs. Except for the rare times they bring back people for a second go, you are one-and-done.
Jersey Shore, Basketball Wives and even the crazy stuff on Discovery (Mythbusters,Storage Wars, Southern Men Who Put Their Hands Into Swamps to Catch Man-Eating Catfish) have given us breakout stars not because those people are far more talented. It’s because the structure of those shows gives them legs.
They aren’t one-and-done. The people on those shows are on the Glowing Tube season after season after season.
And it is no mistake that we’re talking entirely about the Glowing Tube so far.
Movies are typically one shots. Unless you’re in a crazy successful series like STAR WARS or HARRY POTTER, a movie doesn’t typically have enough legs to get you even to Snooki status. You’re lucky to get ONE sequel, and that means people see the first movie and see the sequel about two years later. If you’re insanely lucky, there’s a third movie, at least another year or two after that.
This is why TV is king.
First, because instead of once a year with a movie, people can see you every week.
Second, because unlike all other forms of media, the Glowing Tube automatically generates all kinds of extra coverage in newspapers and magazines, blogs and radio, social media and regular old water cooler BSing.
Not accidentally. Automatically.
Sure, they talk about movies and books on the radio when I drive to work, but mostly, they’re talking about TV shows.
So let’s look at American Idol for a second. Actual talent. Big exposure. But it’s one-and-done, right? That should blow my evil theory out of the water.
Except the producers of American Idol understand that their newborn and freshly hatched stars needed steady exposure. They understand the need for legs. So after the season is over, not only does the winner (and some also-rans) have albums released in a hurry. They also send the winner and runner-ups on a big long concert tour and bring them back, repeatedly, to sing on later seasons and such.
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.
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.)
Movies are all around us. Kind of like the Force, before George Lucas ruined it with all that claptrap about midichloridians or whatever.
Films live inside your TV, your iPhone, your laptop. They’re sitting on shiny metal disks and even being celebrated in these insanely large and dark stadiums where you pay $12 for popcorn and a Diet Coke that costs 20 cents.
And if you’re anything like me, movies are something magical.
So there’s this professional movie critic, David Ehrlich, a man you’d think only takes joy in ripping apart SMURFS 3: ARE WE THERE YET, PAPA SMURF while praising some black-and-white existential French movie where the hero finally kisses the girl and promptly gets hit by a bus–well, you’d think critics like him wouldn’t create something so joyful and beautiful as this.
Except of course he would. Why does anybody become a movie critic, book reviewer or rock journalist? Because they love nothing more than movies, books and making fun of Axl Rose and Vanilla Ice trying to stage a comeback.
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.
I marvel at how people like Snooki and The Situation and the Kardashian sisters are famous, or infamous, though they wouldn’t know the difference if you flew in a Harvard linguist professor to explain it to them every morning.
Snooki has a book deal. The Kardashian sisters have clothing lines and money coming out of their ears.
The joker who calls himself The Situation in on track to earn $5 million this year.
I have witnessed episodes from the first season of Jersey Shore by using the power of the internets, and I have come to an epiphany.
These people are not making scads of money, scoring book deals and dancing badly on “Dancing With A Few Stars and A Bunch of Other Schmucks” in spite of their obvious handicaps in the areas of brains and common sense.
Just up the road from the beaches of New Jersey are thousands of people on Broadway who can sing, dance and act. Many of them are gorgeous. In every way, they are clearly superior to the reality stars picked by producers to invade our lives. So why aren’t they making $5 million a year and getting on the covers of all the tabloids?
Let it be known: These reality stars are not chosen and elevated in spite of their lack of common sense. They are famous precisely BECAUSE OF this very flaw.
Normal, well-adjusted people are boring. They don’t make for exciting television.
If a film crew followed you or me around for 24 hours, they wouldn’t get footage of four random hookups, two screaming matches and a bar fight. They’d get film of us driving to work, doing our jobs and fighting traffic on the way home to have dinner. If you’ve got pookies, maybe you take them to soccer or baseball or whatever. If you’re young and single, maybe you catch Arcade Fire if they’re in town.
You would not spend three hours showering, spray tanning and doing your hair to get ready to go clubbing, then get into a bar fight.
You would not steal your roommates latest girlfriend, as they have been a steady item for at least 48 hours, which is a record. You would not drink all of the booze in the house and call your father at 3 a.m. while you were crying and whining about your boyfriend being pissed about that fact that you slept with a roommate or three.
You would not not order pizza and tell the pizza man that your last name is Situation and your first name is The.
And therefore you do not have, and will never have, a reality show.
It’s two in the morning. Everybody sane is asleep.
But a secret society of British editors was busy sneaking onto my blog, reading my love letter to all who wield the Red Pen of Doom to pay the mortgage.
I know this because a man in a black hood crept inside my secret lair, entered the bigger turret and whispered in my ear, “Me and my mates are dead chuffed.”
He wore a pendant around his neck that looked a lot like a sharp red pen, dripping blood. Also, he smelled like good tea.
I dig the British, and the Australians, so it’s a happy accident that a bunch of Brits and Aussies and New Zealanders read this blog.
The brilliant and beautiful British editors must have told their friends in Canada, who were also up early for some reason, and hitting my silly blog at an ungodly hour despite the fact that I know Canada is only five hours behind Eastern Standard Time, being up north with the sun either shining all but two hours in the summer and that same daystar hiding out for all but two hours in the dead of dark, dark winter.