Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Ira Glass's career advice: Amuse yourself

January 12, 2013General

2012 Commencement: Ira Glass, Host, PRI's "This American Life" from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.


Ira Glass, producer of This American Life, describes a very bright colleague he had early in his radio career, in Chicago. She would come back from assignments and tell the funniest stories, he says. Everyone would love listening to her. Then she would go on radio, cut out all of the funny and quirky stuff, and produce a responsible piece of journalism. In Glass's words, she "deprived her audience of the chance to be amused."

This is what I've never liked about practicing or, for that matter, consuming most journalism. Journalists often take themselves too seriously and edit out the fun. I have a feeling that I've blogged about this at one point, but when I was at BusinessWeek I would call my wife on a Wednesday morning and tell her how many of my "jokes" had been squeezed out of a story. In each article, I'd generally have three or four little turns of phrase, allusions or funny quotes that amused me. I called them jokes. And as far as I was concerned, they were the reason I bothered to write the thing. Most of them died in editing. ("We need to get the earnings projection in here... Do we really need this reference to Positively 4th Street?")

This was a big reason I got into blogging and writing books. I could have more fun. And sometimes when I read comments reviews of Numerati and Final Jeopardy, it strikes me that even some of those who appreciate them didn't get the jokes.

Glass's point is much bigger than just having fun. His idea is that journalism used to command our attention by default. If you wanted to hear what was happening in London during the Blitz, you listened to Edward Murrow on CBS. He had great responsibility, and tried his best to be authoritative. And there was nothing wrong with that.

But today we can get our news from thousands of different sources, most of them free and few of them thriving. There's an industry-wide battle for our attention. Naturally, we turn to the stuff that amuses us. It doesn't have to be funny. It can be beautiful, poignent, brilliantly argued, but it has to offer something special to claim control over us for a few minutes--and lead us to share it with others. Journalists who figure out how to create such work will thrive in the coming years. Glass argues that they'll do it by following their own tastes and interests.

(hat tip to Jeff Jarvis, who linked to this)



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