What I said at Davidson

Yesterday at an event on campus marking 100 years of the Davidsonian I was on a panel of journalism-doing alums. My kind of afternoon. In my introductory remarks I ended up not going into the part about the dots and the ruts — it felt like time to let somebody else start talking — but here is more or less the text of what I had prepared:

"Enterprise team" just means I'm a generalist. I don't have a beat. My specialty, I guess, is that I don't have a specialty. And my stories tend to take longer and run longer. I've had this job for five-plus years. Typically I might write 12 to 20 stories a year. Last year I spent most of the year on just one, a three-part series that ran at more than 21,000 words. So I sit in a really good seat, not only at the Tampa Bay Times, but I think in American newspapers overall, and at a time when these sorts of seats are disappearing.

Journalism is not an easy way to make a living. It never has been. It probably is even harder now. But for me, to this point, it's been a purposeful, decent, sustaining way to make a LIFE.

I should say this, considering the setting: I approach my work in a way I'd describe as very DAVIDSON.

Journalism, at least the kind of journalism I do, or try to do, is in essence a continuation of the liberal arts education I got here. The liberal arts education that I started here. The most important thing I learned at Davidson was HOW to learn, and to KEEP learning, and I treat the reporting for my stories almost as self-administered seminars. I create the syllabi on the fly. I don't mean willy-nilly. I mean quickly. Fluidly.

Reading is a HUGE part of my reporting. In the last year, for stories, I've bought and read — and I scanned my shelves and checked my orders — among others, Sailing — Philosophy For Everyone: Catching the Drift of Why We Sail; Mountain Sheep: A Study in Behavior and Evolution; New World Coming: The 1920s And The Making Of Modern America; Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance; and Thomas Wolfe's Letters to His Mother.

I work smarter and smarter, hopefully, and more efficiently, the more experienced I get, and the older I get, and I'm 36 — but I also just work … a lot. I always have at least one freelance piece going — side gigs I work on before my family gets up, or after my family goes to bed, or on weekends, or all of the above. It's not that after Davidson the "real world" is easy. It's that you're that much more ready for it to be what it actually is. Hard.

But what Davidson ultimately taught me — teaches everybody, if they're willing — is the value of reading widely and the ability to think critically and communicate clearly. Davidson doesn't stop at who, what, when, why, how. No. Who says? What for? How come?

And so Davidson — with no journalism school, no journalism major, barely any journalism classes — prepared me for journalism. Prepared me to be a journalist. And prepared me well. For any time. But maybe especially for THIS time. For the early 21st century. For this period of ongoing tectonic transformation of ALL businesses that have ANYTHING to do with the dissemination of information or entertainment or (increasingly of course) some combination of the two.

What I see today is a world of dots and ruts.

Dots like so many digital bits and scraps, infinite digital bits and scraps — overwhelming, at times, and overwhelming for sure for those who are less disciplined, less capable, less trained to parse the glut.

And ruts. Here's what I mean by ruts. The Amazon robots, the Facebook robots, the Google robots — these omniscient algorithms — they watch you and watch you and watch you, and they tell you, "Here's what you've liked and here's what you've bought, and so here's what you WILL like and here's what you WILL buy." And the worst part is that they keep doing that until they're RIGHT. Until that IS all you like. Until that IS all you buy. The robots make you an easier mark. They make you a more pliant consumer. And they make you less interestING and less interestED.

And Davidson — I didn't think about this when I was a student here, but I certainly think about it now — Davidson prepared me to spot the ruts, and to stay out of the ruts, which means my mind can stay more nimble. More malleable. Which means the robots have a tougher time with me. The robots can't quite figure me out. Does this guy like history? Nature? Ships? Sheep? All of which gives me a chance — a CHANCE — to better CONNECT the dots. Which helps me be a better journalist, and hopefully a better, more well-rounded person, too.

And so I'm grateful to Davidson.

And I always love coming back.

And I'm glad to be here today.


Genevieve Smith on life coaching

In the new Harper's:

If there is one thing that became clear in all this coaching it's that our problems are mostly the same. We are unhappy at work, or if we're happy at work, we're working too much and missing exercise or our hobbies or time with our kids. Our parents are sick or dying, or not sick but their minds are going, or at least they're driving us crazy. Or if not our parents, then our spouses, our friends, our children. We feel disconnected from the ones we love. We feel listless and uninspired. We never follow our passions. We know we'd be happier if we ate right, if we meditated, if we called our mothers, but we don't. We never do.


This month's Harper's Findings

Six things I underlined in the latest edition of one of my favorite regular features in magazines:

1. ... African elephants can distinguish the gender, age, and ethnicity of a human speaker from voice alone.

2. The women of São Paulo tilt their heads 16.9° in selfies, whereas the women of New York City tilt 7.6°.

3. ... whites as young as seven perceive blacks to experience less pain than fellow whites.

4. A study of the five-second rule found that British women are likelier than British men to eat food that has fallen on the floor ...

5. Education was found to mitigate the fattening effects of wealth among women in the developing world.

6. The increasing tendency of Americans over the past five decades to marry their socioeconomic equals has contributed to unequal overall income distribution.


Heather Kirkorian in the new Wired

The assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin to Mat Honan: "Researchers know almost nothing about the impact of touchscreen technology on young children. Our society is running a large-scale experiment with real children in the real world, and we won't know the impact, if any, for many years to come."


Talking with Jim Sheeler's class

Set to Skype up to Case Western Reserve later today. Evidently, and this is awesome, because it's necessary, Jim has his students read and read. Here's the assigned list to prep for our upcoming discussion: Bounty (plus the essay), monkey, Kathryn Norris, the python hunt, the Generator Society, Oren's obit, Frank and Mia, Redneck Yacht Club and JumboTron.


That time of year here


John McPhee on reporting

Five things I underlined in his piece in the current New Yorker:

1. In the way that a documentary-film crew can, by its very presence, alter a scene it is filming, a tape recorder can affect the milieu of an interview. Some interviewees will shift their gaze and talk to the recorder rather than to you. Moreover, you may find yourself not listening to the answer to a question you have asked. Use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice — more like a relief pitcher.

2. Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.

3. If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb.

4. Writing is selection. When you are making notes, you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.

5. I have no technique for asking questions. I just stay there and fade away as I watch people do what they do.


The real lesson of Stephen Curry

Something I wrote in January of 2009:

The suggestion here is that perhaps a gift can be what's not there.

That it's up to us how we choose to respond.

What David Fleming wrote in the new ESPN The Magazine in his story on Stephen's shot — sports' perfect 0.4 seconds:

All the best parts of his motion evolved from his alleged shortcomings.