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Posts Tagged ‘Blogging’

Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj

 

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[The following post appeared June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.

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[The following commentary appeared March 22 on the Christian Science Monitor's Opinion page. It was republished March 24 on The Mantle.]

Slave Labor? I Didn’t Get Paid For This Piece — And I’m OK With That

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of ‘prestige’ and ‘platform.’

BRATISLAVA – AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is … Subscription Required for Premier Content

Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come. But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.

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[The following piece appeared Feb. 10 in The Global Journalist; it was republished Feb. 11 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the relative serenity of Central Europe, I’m following events in Egypt like many of you: scan headlines, surf for more and more voices. To watch history being made in real time is a thrilling, if voyeuristic, experience. Virtual ring-side seats to a title fight between David and Goliath.

But beyond the dominant story-line – that the Egyptian revolution may tip the dominoes across the Arab world – is a significant subplot: the triumphalism of Twitter and Facebook as mighty weapons of war. And democracy. No wonder China is watching so nervously.

First Tunisia, then Egypt. All hail “social media and its entry into the mainstream! (Even if it sometimes makes us sad.)

Now, I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill, but let’s pause to examine the limits of social media. Because, I’ll wager my payment for this piece on one prediction: the dust won’t have settled in Tahrir Square before certain pundits, activists and academics point to Egypt and sing the praises of “citizen journalism.”

The phrase makes my skin crawl for how it blurs the lines of serious reportage.

There’s no doubt that for protesting Cairenes and embattled journalists, social media is a lifeline to the outside world. Behold Mubarak’s forces, bumbling in futile efforts to stifle the Internet and modern communication. Then, in full view of the world, a disgraceful crackdown on Egyptian and foreign journalists – including one killed. We justifiably toast journalists like Egyptian Sarah El Sirgany, a sudden folk hero for relying on Twitter to persist with her reporting.

It’s become faddish for true-believers to tout We are all journalists now. Anyone dexterous enough with an iPhone is a potential photojournalist. Any grassroot netizen blogging solitarily from a café, or from home in their pajamas, can produce actual “journalism.”  Effectively enough to supplant the icky, whorish “MSM.” (The mainstream media, of which I’m a card-carrying member.)

What nonsense.

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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 30 on The Mantle.]

Scene of the Samaritan-sighting. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I didn’t want to blog today. I need to write more of the Double-Secret Probationary Project I started this month. Oops, I’ve already said too much.

But then I witness a great act of stranger-to-stranger kindness, the sort of thing that is so rare in post-Communist, every-man-for-himself Central Europe, I notice when it happens.

It’s always easier for foreign correspondents in remote, off-the-beaten-path locales to highlight the negatives about the host society. Lord knows, I’ve made a career out of it. Our breed tends to have an over-inflated sense of purpose: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. Or maybe it’s just me.

Now, imagine you read that trickle of distasteful stories: inter-ethnic conflict, government corruption, etc. Couple that with the occasional natural or man-made disaster. (See: Hungary, toxic red sludge.) What impression does the international community form about these pipsqueak tribes in the hinterlands?

Nothing too flattering. That’s why I feel the tug to occasionally recognize, and publicize, the brighter side of life out here. It’s also the first prong of my formula for good-bad-and-ugly reportage. Or is a better word “bloggage”? Maybe that’s too disparaging. Man, that Jordan sure has a lot of bloggage on his site.

Bloggage be damned, I must report what just happened in the cold, drizzly streets of Bratislava. First, let me set the scene …

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HONG KONG – Last fall, I whined about how tough it was to deliver essentially the same lecture to four separate classes, over a two-day period.

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

I just staggered through a journalism-training equivalent of the hallowed 26.2, an Athenian marathon of teaching. Over six weeks, I cycled through 77 students, most of them mainland Chinese. Divided into 16 groups. Three times each. Forty-eight tutorials. One or two per day, every day. (Did I mention the six-weeks part?)

Not just to chew the fat about journalism. For four weeks solid, I’ve commented on their brand-new blogs. Two posts each, or close to 150. Only a wicked few plowed past the 400-word limit. Then, I critiqued each one, showing how to do it better.

That’s a lot of talking, even by my windy standards.

What made it particularly torturous – for them, too – is that I needed to cover the same journalistic points and principles for each round of tutorial. The same explanation of reporting strategy, interview technique or story structure. Accessorized with the same profound analogy or mirthful anecdote.

Sixteen times. I got sick of listening to myself. But I couldn’t shut up.

Whatever comment came to mind, tumbled out. When they had questions, even better. Tutorials are 90 minutes, but I consistently rambled on for two, two-and-a-half hours. I had the stamina of Hugo Chavez, with just as captive an audience.

If nothing else, I gained a whole new appreciation for Broadway. Evening performance every night, fine. But three matinees per week, as well? How to get the adrenaline going for each show?

Tricks of the trade, I’ve learned. There’s no business, like teaching business.

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[This piece appeared Sept. 30 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – The Chinese government is mighty successful at muzzling its media, threatening them with everything from censorship to arrest. Recognizing those talents, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks China 168th out of 175 countries world-wide.

The Internet, though, is proving much more stubborn to rein in.

Indeed, the Chinese blogosphere – now said to number about 70,000 bloggers – is where journalists and commentators enjoy the most elbow room to speak out. And, even the opportunity to shape Chinese policies.

There’s no stopping those who taste the liberation of writing freely, as one Chinese blogger told Time magazine: “It is like a water flow – if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows.”

This is why I’m thrilled to be training a small battalion of China’s future bloggers. Here in Hong Kong, the country’s one haven for freedom of expression, a Hong Kong Baptist University colleague and I at are now showing more than 70 mainland Chinese graduate students – a large majority of whom are women – how to launch a blog of their own.

And we’re not talking “silly” blogs, as I told them: Nothing about your walk in the park, with birds singing and sun shining. Nothing about where you ate dinner last night, or what movie you went to see.

No, we’re talking journalistic blogs. (more…)

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The historic Central wet market after light rain this morning. (Photo: mjj)

Tomorrow, my workshop begins. The department has kindly been flexible to create a shorter but more intensive role for me, with a nifty title: “Super Tutor.”

What’s that? Beats me: you won’t find “Super Tutor” among faculty job descriptions. Even Google yields a paltry 7,370 hits. And I didn’t see any with journalism in mind.

So, my visionary boss at HKBU, Huang Yu, is allowing me to carve my own path. What a challenge it will be: 77 graduate students. My assignment is to provide journalistic guidance to each student. Three times. Over a six-week period. Not individually, mind you. That schedule would drive a man batty.

Instead, they’re broken into 16 groups of five, with a few quartets. For the mathematically oriented, that works out to meeting eight different teams one week, for 90 minutes a pop, then the second eight the next week. Rotate weeks until Oct. 25. With a couple of lectures for the entire community mixed in. (Then, back to my family in Slovakia.)

I could do what I did last year, when I was one of many tutors. I met with two slightly larger groups – with 6-7 students each – three times apiece. Total: 6 tutorials. This time, 48 tutorials.

Last year, the tutorial criteria: discuss whatever they want to, as long as it’s journalism-related. Lots of latitude, but limited to conversation. After all, each of the students already had me every week for my foreign-reporting course, for the whole semester. Tutorials were just something “extra.”

This time, I want more. This is the only chance I have to get to know them. So, I’ll fashion myself into a “Journalism Coach.” What better way to connect with them than through their work, nudging them in the right direction with their reporting and writing?

Tomorrow, I hold my first two tutorials. My game plan is … (more…)

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The vibe of Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (Photo: mjj)

In the spirit of LeBron James, I’m taking my talents to Hong Kong

I thought the semester spent last year in Hong Kong, teaching journalism, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (To read those posts, scroll upward from the Sept. 2, 2009, item “Land Ho“). But here I am, for a second tour in Hong Kong: a city once British, now Chinese. This time, for a six-week workshop as journalism coach to 77 students at Hong Kong Baptist University and its Master of Arts in International Journalism Studies program. (more…)

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[For introduction of the "Book-Writing Blog," please see post below.]

BRATISLAVA – Where to start writing my book, but the Foreword. (Which, um, I embarrassingly first typed onto the page as Forward. Get me re-write!)

I dove right in, from the top. Oh, what zeal! My fingers were fluttering. Until I got a few hundred words down. Then, I began “spaghettiing.” Yes, spaghetti as a verb. I first saw the term used by Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer, in his how-to guide, “Writing for Story.”

As Franklin wrote, “Writing also involves the processing and integration of large masses of individually trivial bits of data. If you begin your story without knowing precisely where you’re going, any mistakes you make at first, any small omissions, take on added significance as you proceed. As length grows linearly, complexity expands exponentially … A story is not a line of dominoes, it is a web, and tugging on any filament causes the whole thing to vibrate.”

He’s right, of course. After 20 years in journalism, I’d committed a rookie error. It’s something I even exhort my students to do: start with an outline. Early in my career, I myself stubbornly resisted. Then, mysteriously, I’d struggle with the writing. I didn’t appreciate how an outline helps organize your material, especially to organize your thoughts – even my rather disorganized mind.

That said, I do have an outline of how this entire book will look. One thing I learned last year in approaching a few publishers is that they insist on a chapter-by-chapter description. This is too serious an industry to take the word of an “aspiring first-time author” like me: Don’t worry, I have enough for a book.

What I gleaned was this: think the whole thing through first, then show them you’ve thought it all the way through. What I failed to consider last week, though, was the necessity to outline each chapter, too.

Frustrated with my first day, I griped to my wife. She tried to help, thinking the hurdle was the Foreward itself. How to summarize a book until you’ve written it? Why not hold off with it until the end, and start now with Chapter One?

A reasonable suggestion. But I knew better. The Foreward is where my story begins. I always find it easier – and more logical – to start a story from the top. Instead, I needed to outline the Foreward: a skeleton of the beginning, the middle, the end … and how to get from one point to the next.

My fingers were again a-flutter. Now 13 pages in – and counting.

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BRATISLAVA – Last week, I began writing a book. My first book.

Since I’ve diagnosed myself as suffering the “Narcissism of Blog-Love” [see May 27 post], I can’t help but blog about my entire book-writing journey.

OK, it’s more than narcissism. When I teach journalism, I try to de-mystify the process for others, to make it more accessible. This blog may do the same for book-writing, for the millions of folks who day-dream about writing a book of their own. Yet, like me, have no sense for what it really takes.

I don’t have a literary agent. Nor a publisher. But I have a book idea, one I think is pretty good. I pitched it to a few places last year, but no nibbles. So, in this tough book-publishing climate, I put my money where my mouth is: I start writing. A few chapters to begin with, something meatier for potential agents and publishers to sink their teeth into. Most important: my wife’s on board.

I won’t divulge the topic, yet. Let me make a serious dent first. Why? I may be paranoid, but I’m not so naïve to just throw my non-fiction idea out there, assuming it won’t be swiped. Rationally, I know it’d be tough for anyone to replicate my passion for this project, or the energy it’ll require to see it through. But still! Better safe than sorry.

Moreover, for this blog, the idea is secondary to the process itself.

I love those guinea-pig columns, where a writer volunteers to sample, say, various teeth-whiteners or anti-smoking patches, then describes which is most effective, which wastes your money.

Consider me the book-writing guinea pig. In occasional Book-Writing Blog (or “the BWB“) posts, I’ll document the good, the bad, the ugly. Or, as ABC Sports once rhapsodized, “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

Learn from my mistakes! Learn from my successes!

Finally, I admit this blog was inspired by the film “Julie & Julia,” the true story of a woman who plows through 500 Julie Child recipes, then blogs about each experience. The blog was discovered, her tale turned into a Hollywood film.

Will I be discovered? Stay tuned. But if so, I see Ben Stiller as the romantic lead.

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BRATISLAVA – When a titan of American story-telling criticizes, you listen.

Narcissus, by Caravaggio

Which is why I read, and re-read, Garrison Keillor’s May 25 column, “When everyone’s a writer, no one is.” Gulp. Just yesterday, I Skyped an esteemed colleague – a journalist and author – seeking a voice of sanity: Am I going a little overboard with this whole blog thing?

You see, I’ve gazed at my blog … and fallen in love. I dub this “The Narcissism of Blog-Love.”

I’ve succumbed to the personality disorder infecting millions around the world, through blogs, Facebook and other social-network sites: like Narcissus, we delude ourselves to believe that others will marvel at the beauty of our thoughts or actions. Or at least, find them interesting enough to read about.

Hey, I have something to say about Central Europe! Read me! Look, I took nice snapshots! Click on me! Yet what if no one answers our Facebook post with a “So-and-so likes this” thumbs-up? Devastation. (That’s one of the symptoms!)

Not only do I contribute to the blog-blather, I prod my journalism students to do so as well. [See post below.]

Even if we assume that lots and lots of us do have something interesting to say, there’s too much of it. As my colleague Skyped back, “I am overwhelmed with stuff that I am actually interested in.”

This extends to the growing phenomenon of self-publishing.

“The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside,” writes Keillor. “You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.”

Perhaps Keillor isn’t referring to me. Only the others. After all, I’m writing about really interesting stuff. Would a real Narcissist of Blog-Love be deterred? Heck, no. On to my next post!

[For posterity’s sake, I'm flowing Garrison Keillor’s entire column …]

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BRATISLAVA – My blog-servations notwithstanding [see post above], I see several compelling reasons for why young or aspiring journalists should join the blogosphere.

It’s not only “practice makes perfect”: the more you write, the more it improves.

First, I consider my blog as a diary of sorts. But not the kind you stuff under your pillow. It’s a public diary. In a for-your-eyes-only diary, you can write as sloppily as you want. No worries about spelling, grammar, structure, transitions, etc. If you prefer stream of consciousness to actual story-telling, fine.

This public diary, though, requires greater discipline and higher standards. If your name is attached to any piece of writing, for anyone to read, you want it in the best possible condition. That forces you to take the writing more seriously, choose more selectively which topics may be of interest to readers, smoothe the edges, clean it up, post only what you can be proud of.

In other words, treat the Internet as editor.

Second, blogging offers you an opportunity to hone specific writing and reportorial skills. Sitting in a café? Capture color, describe the scene. Want to dabble in opinion-writing, feature-writing, travel-writing, humor? Your nine-to-five existence may not afford you such opportunities. But your blog can. I myself use mine to venture into writing styles new to me, as a career newspaper guy.

Which leads to a third benefit to blogging: a showcase for your work. Plenty of people are trying to impress editors with ideas for what they’d like to do. You, though, can show them you’re doing it. Direct them to the relevant links on your site. Journalistically, we call this “show, don’t tell.” There’s not a more persuasive way to make your case.

Lastly, if you’re out there, toiling in obscurity like me, blogs enable you to “build your brand”: This is who I am, this is what I do.

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