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Written By, October/November 2009

Reading Written By, a bimonthly magazine produced by the screenwriters’ union, is, for a journalist, a bit like going to Canada. There are just enough linguistic differences to provide occasional puzzlement—what does a “showrunner” do? What are these things called “Standards and Practices”? But the issues, and the environment, are pretty familiar.

These days, of course, the big issue for anyone under the broad “media” umbrella is the Internet and the changes it has wrought. Written By’s October/November issue is all about “New Media” (the phrase is consistently capitalized, suggesting that the editors may still be getting accustomed to this terrain): how to use it, how to cope with the competitive pressures it brings, how to build an audience and (hopefully) make money through it, and, most of all, how to keep it free.

That last topic relates to net neutrality, an issue that comes up several times, including in separate feature-length articles by F.X. Feeney and Robert Eisele, and a third, shorter piece by Charles B. Slocum. There’s some helpful history and technical explanation here, but the argument is familiar, if persuasive: greedy telecoms want to control Web traffic but we shouldn’t let them; start-ups, entrepreneurialism, and independent actors are good and should be protected. It’s interesting to see that this argument doesn’t always merge with the “content wants to be free” mantra (screenwriters, unsurprisingly, are not fans of digital piracy), and the pieces are generally well done. But for anyone who’s looked into this issue before from either a liberal or libertarian perspective, there’s probably not much new.

Less ambitious, but in a way more interesting, are two pieces about the practice of screenwriting in a new media (or, to use a buzzword employed in one of the articles, “transmedia”) world. A profile of John Fasano, creator of the zombie-themed Web series Woke Up Dead, finds him guessing at the right length for Web videos: Five minutes? Four? Three? It also notes his initial skepticism that Web content, however artistically liberating it may be, can be financially viable—an anxiety that reporters and editors know all too well. (A separate how-to on “5 Ways to Monetize Online” has some suggestions that don’t really translate to journalism: “Create a character-written blog to accompany your web series… Use your show to promote the blog and the blog to promote products that your character endorses. When someone follows the lead and purchases a product, you make a few bucks.”)

The cover story, meanwhile, on “Pioneers of New Media,” focuses on some interesting success stories, including a writer/actor who earned her WGA card based on her Spanglish-language Web series; another online show, Imaginary Bitches, drew 150,000 viewings on its first weekend. To anyone who’s read about similar enterprises in the journalism world, the perilous status of such triumphs will be familiar: How to handle the timesuck of marketing and promotion? How to generate the new material the Web constantly demands? How to actually, you know, make money from all these people who are watching? Still, it makes for a good read.

A pair of non-new media-related items merit mention. Mike Larsen turns in an entertaining and thoughtful first-person piece on leaving Hollywood to work in D.C.
(see? The experiences really are familiar to journalists). Meanwhile, a Q&A with Spike Jonze about of the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is worth reading just for Jonze’s statement that, in casting the role of Max, “we were looking for a nine-year-old Sean Penn.” Unfortunately, interviewer Rob Feld writes in his introduction that Maurice Sendak’s book was “condemned” by “influential psychiatrists” upon its initial publication. Guess he hasn’t read Jack Shafer. - Greg Marx

Liberty, November/December 2009

“In our contemporary battles over the correct separation of church and state,” Liberty editor Lincoln Steed writes in the editorial for the magazine’s current issue, “we need a good sense of perspective.” True. And while ‘perspective’ is not something one can take for granted in a magazine produced by and dedicated to a particular religious institution—in this case, the Seventh Day Adventist Church—this “magazine of religious freedom” delivers, indeed, exactly that. This is religion expressed and discussed in a compellingly theoretical manner—one that is resolutely focused on a topic and tension that has been an intimate aspect of American democracy since the founding of the Republic: the connection, and distinction, between church and state.

CJR Staff is a contributor to CJR.