An African-American woman named Sherri, and one of her friends, sat down at a table next to me in a Barnes & Noble coffee shop last night.
“Are you doing homework?” she asked. “We don’t want to bother you.” Her friend was listening to music, but I could barely hear it.
“She’s listening to me,” Sherri said. She went on to tell me she entered a song on a singing competition website and she asked me to vote for her. If she gets enough votes, she will advance in the contest and has a chance to win a $5,000 cruise.
I opened a browser, went to the page she directed me to and placed my vote for her.
“Are you doing homework?” she asked.
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, do you have a card?”
I handed her one.
“Thank you, Mr. Lee.” She handed me her card. The tagline on it says “God Loves Me Too!” She went to my website on her tablet. “Oh, you’re a Christian writer? Do you have any books? We’re in a book club.”
“I do. You can find them all on my website.”
“I’ll check them out!”
After Sherri and her friend left, I went back to the website she sent me to so I could listen to her song. It was a cover of the R&B tune “Mr. Melody” by Natalie Cole. I have never heard Cole’s version, but Sherri’s is quite good – maybe good enough to win. I’m pulling for her. Maybe she’s pulling for me, too.
A journalist friend called me yesterday morning to catch up. Our topics of conversation typically cover the gamut, but invariably, we end up talking about the current state of journalism. That was the case again yesterday.
My friend is a bit disillusioned right now. I feel his pain. He started as a newspaper reporter in a newsroom in the 1980s. He received assignments, called or visited his sources, verified the facts, and then produced his articles on deadline. And he followed the same model every day. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Today, much of the news we read online doesn’t follow that model.
True journalism has a code. Its first obligation is to tell the truth, meaning the journalist assembles and verifies facts and then gives a fair and reliable account. Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens (the public at large), meaning it is accountable to its readers before any other entity, including advertisers or shareholders. And journalists are independent from those they cover. If they aren’t, then they are doing PR work.
You may already be connecting a few dots at this point – wondering if the writers of the news you consume on a daily basis are obligated to tell the truth, are loyal to the public over any other entity and are independent of those they cover. If that is the case, you’ll be interested in visiting the PewResearch Journalism Project page that lists nine principles of journalism.
After reading the list, you might feel like my friend does. He can’t relate to BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post – two websites that are more about getting people to click on and/or share their stories via social media than anything else, for the primary purpose of gaining huge amounts of traffic so they can charge more for advertising. That business model is hardly in line with journalistic principles. Before you say neither site claims to be a news reporting agency, just listen to what they say.
BuzzFeed defines itself as “the social news and entertainment company. BuzzFeed is redefining online advertising with its social, content-driven publishing technology. BuzzFeed provides the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video across the social web to its global audience of more than 150M.”
The Huffington Post contains numerous news sections on its website. And Arianna Huffington made this accurate observation when she was asked about how she sees the news media and blogs evolving in the future: “The distinction between old and new media is becoming obsolete. We see all media having very significant investments in online media, in the blogs and what they are doing online. So I don’t think the distinction is really significant. We’re doing more reporting; they're doing more blogging and social media.”
I don’t fault BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post for their business models. They saw a void after people became accustomed to free news on the web and then capitalized on it. Understand though, that if you as a consumer are no longer willing to pay for journalism, then online news reporting agencies are no longer going to be loyal to you. Instead, they will be loyal to advertisers, or someone else. They have to be. Somebody has to pay the bills.
With that said, offering free print news shifts the focus from informing the citizenry (what it needs) to entertaining the citizenry (what it wants). That’s not to say an online news entity cannot also be entertaining, but in perfect world, entertainment wouldn’t be king.
The web hasn’t killed journalism though.
The Wall Street Journal provides excellent content – some of which can only be viewed if you are a subscriber. The New York Times allows visitors to read ten free articles a month and then charges a monthly subscription fee. Many daily newspapers offer free online content if you subscribe to the print edition. If you don’t, they might make you answer a few questions for their advertisers (which of course is used for future advertising endeavors). You can pay for digital subscriptions to Sports Illustrated or ESPN Insider content. And I’ve already written about a new journalistic model being offered by Beacon Reader in which readers fund freelance journalists directly.
I’m not trying to make you feel guilty for visiting BuzzFeed. I visit it, too. But if true journalism matters to you, consider purchasing an online monthly subscription to the news site of your choice. Or support a freelance journalist directly through a service like Beacon Reader or Patreon. Or, if you are old school, renew your subscription to the print version of your daily metro newspaper.
I’m gearing up to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – during which authors write 50,000 words in November) again this year. I know, it seems crazy, but it’s a great discipline. And once the month is over, you have a complete first draft.
The NaNoWriMo Facebook page recently dared authors to write a 150-word author manifesto in which we are supposed to “orate grandly about the kind of writer you hope to be, or make just a few promises you want to keep to yourself during November …” and then post it in their Facebook comments.
I’m enough of a contrarian to avoid such a project, but I’m also enough of a realist to know that writing a short author manifesto from time to time is helpful, especially for a freelancer who has to follow the money and therefore isn’t always as focused as I would like. So, here is my 150-words (on the button), as it relates to fiction:
I want to write fiction that touches a reader’s sentimental side, much like Nicholas Sparks does in his love stories or Jan Karon does in her Mitford Series through the eyes of Father Tim.
Sentimentalism does not equal nostalgic, by the way.
A sentimentalist fights back tears as he or she watches a Hallmark Channel original Christmas movie like “A Christmas Wish,” about how the owner of a diner helps a homeless woman and her children during the holidays.
A person who is nostalgic watches “Miracle on 34th Street” on Turner Classic Movies and longs for a simpler time when children could sit on Santa’s lap in Macy’s and you didn’t have to worry about whether he passed a background check.
I’m writing for the audience who watches the Hallmark Channel, not Turner Classic Movies. That’s not a knock against those who are nostalgic. It’s just not who I am.
Janelle caught me off guard. I would even go so far as to say she misled me.
Four years ago, I lost Midnight, my beloved cat of 20 years, and after two weeks of floundering in a cat-free home, I decided to get another one.
When I first saw Janelle curled up in her cage at the Nebraska Humane Society adopt-a-pet drive, she was the picture of serenity. I asked if I could hold her and the attendant placed her into my arms.
Janelle purred and let me scratch her head and belly.
“Is she a lap cat?” I said.
The attendant nodded and handed me an informational sheet. “She is very loving. She loves to snuggle.”
Here’s what the sheet said:
She sounded like she was exactly what I was looking for in a new pet. I thought it over and went back to adopt her the next day. By then, I had chosen a new name for her: Latte – because she had the same coloring as the coffee she was being named after, and because she was as sweet as a latte.
I brought her home, showed her where her litter box was located and allowed her some time to get acclimated. I retired to my recliner and gave her some space. Within minutes, she jumped into my lap, curled up and went to sleep.
How perfect is that?
She finally jumped down a couple of hours later and went exploring in the kitchen. Within minutes, she had jumped on top of the refrigerator and pulled a package of hotdog buns onto the floor. When I walked in, she was biting the package while shredding it with her back paws.
This must be the lively and curious aspects of her personality mentioned on the sheet.
I took the buns away from her, storing them for safe keeping. But it didn’t end there.
In the first couple of weeks, she pulled the dishtowel off its holder – multiple times, hopped inside grocery store bags (and any other bag, including duffle bags, computer bags, suitcases, etc.), snagged pink packets of coffee sweetener from a basket, took a siesta in the kitchen sink, wedged her way inside kitchen cabinets when I opened them, climbed into the refrigerator the second I opened the door, and when I put my recliner back (leaving an opening between the material and the frame), she burrowed her way into the back of the chair.
At this point, I began thinking that the person who wrote the description of Latte at the Humane Society ought to either go into politics, or become a used car salesman. Every word that person wrote was accurate, technically, but it didn’t tell the rest of the story.
Latte’s liveliness really began working itself out at night. She hates being left alone, and if you do it for any length of time, she’ll howl at the walls and freak out when you get home – zooming from the kitchen to the front door in the living room and back again.
She also tends to howl at the walls when she sees shadows – sometimes even her own. And she has all sorts of other idiosyncrasies, including only eating when people are present (so I moved her food and water bowls into the living room, right next to my recliner), covering her food bowl with her toys, sleeping upside down on the floor, and when she crawls into my lap for a nap, she only sleeps on my left leg.
In spite of her naughtiness and odd personality traits, she can also be the most loving animal imaginable. Sometimes, she’ll move from my left leg to my chest – prompting me to put the recliner all the way back. She rests her head against my cheek and purrs so loudly that I can barely hear the television. Seeing it isn’t all that easy either.
I know this cat better than any human probably should, but just because I know what to expect from her doesn’t mean I actually understand why she does the things she does. She’s just wired differently than any cat I’ve ever seen. She’s naughty, odd and sometimes a little crazy.
In other words, she’s a lot like you and me.
But I love her to pieces.
In spite of all her behavioral problems and personality quirks, I believe God views our relationship with him in a similar manner. He looks at our disobedience, self-focus, and personality quirks – all of which keep us from connecting with him and others the way we should, and he loves us to pieces anyway.
I find great comfort in that.
The last time I visited this coffee shop, I was with two friends and we ended up giving the barista quite a scare.
We ordered some coffee and noticed that the coffee shop offered a different sweetener than we were accustomed to, so my friends opened a couple of packets and spread the powdery contents onto their pointer fingers to give it taste.
The barista, who was just beginning to clean tables, glanced over in time to see one of them leaning toward the line of white powder on his finger. She raised her eyebrows. “You guys aren’t doing drugs, are you?”
The thought of three 40-something-year-old Christian dudes doing a line of coke in a coffee shop, combined with her reaction cracked us up.
“No, no,” one of them said. “We are taste testing the sweetener. We’ve never had this one before.”
She put her hand to her chest. “Oh, thank God. I can’t have people doing drugs in here.”
It’s a funny memory, but this could be the last time I visit. It’s 80 degrees outside and it’s probably 85 in here. I don’ t do 85 degrees. Call me soft if you want, but I prefer not to sweat while I write. I explained myself to the barista, named Taylor, on the way out the door. He apologized and said the manager won’t allow them to turn the thermostat any lower. I’m polite, but tell him they just lost a customer.
I arrive at a nearby cupcake store/coffee shop and while I’m in line, the gentle breeze coming from the AC satisfies me. A mom and her four children are in line behind me, and then in front of me, and then around me, pressing their noses into the glass case. They scream for cake. They scream for something else I can’t understand. And thirty seconds after rolling my eyes, I realize I’m just like them. I wanted AC, so I threw a polite fit and then found a place to accommodate my wants.
I grab a table and fire up my laptop.
A tall man in tan khakis and an untucked long-sleeve light blue dress shirt (apparently he doesn’t share my affinity toward air conditioning) sits down at a table behind me and glances over my shoulder a time or two while waiting for his order. Untucked is the style now, but I don’t get it. Then again, I don’t understand modern day shorts that nearly touch a person’s ankles.
Color me old – peculiar even. I’ll own it.
We’re all peculiar though, aren’t we? Most of us are walking contradictions, which makes us even more peculiar.
We live by codes – some ancient, some modern. Often though, we live by a mixture of the two. Some of us dress to blend in, all the while hoping somebody will notice us. Others dress to standout, wanting nothing more than to be considered normal. Our iPods are full of music from nearly every genre, no matter which one we say we prefer. I heard a comedian confess recently that one of the worst things imaginable would be for someone to find her iPod after she dies.
That reminds me, I need to delete that 98 Degrees song from my iPod. It was part of a song track I downloaded. Honest!
The barista who is cleaning tables across the room from me seems to be a walking contradiction. She has on red tennis shoes that look like Chuck Taylors, and black and white polka-dot socks. That combination screams, “Notice me,” right? But she also has on a pair of rolled up jorts that might say more about her desire for comfort than anything else. But what do I know about fashion?
“Check one, two. Check one, two. Check, check, check.”
What in the world? Live music on a Friday at 6:00 p.m., in a cupcake shop? Why not?
It’s another dude, maybe 40-something, in a long-sleeve shirt. Next to him is a man in his sixties. As the older man begins to tune his guitar and adjust his microphone, I’m already going through song possibilities in my mind.
Please no John Denver, or Puff the Magic Dragon, or Janis Joplin. How about an ‘80s rock ballad? I’d love to hear “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” by Poison, or “Heaven” by Warrant.
That’s not a knock against the older man. But him singing a Warrant song would be like me ripping into an Arcade Fire song. Not going to happen – partially because I haven’t played guitar in at least 20 years and partially because I couldn’t name a single Arcade Fire song.
The older man begins to sing. “Baby, I just can’t understand …”
“Broken Wings,” by Mr. Mister, from 1985 – the same era as “Heaven” by Warrant. I shouldn’t be surprised.
We’re all peculiar, walking contradictions.
And that's a beautiful thing.
Lee Warren is a freelance writer and editor who has written twelve non-fiction books, one novella and hundreds of articles for various newspapers and magazines as well as edited more than 50 books that currently appear in print. He's a fan of NASCAR, baseball, tennis, books, movies and coffee shops.