The Mail

Reviewing recent issues of Written By, the Washington City Paper, and Liberty

People send us their newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, we review them.

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.

To wit, the magazine’s Declaration of Principles:

- The God-given right of religious liberty is best exercised when church and state are separate.
- Government is God’s agency to protect individual rights and to conduct civil affairs; in exercising these responsibilities, officials are entitled to respect and cooperation.
- Religious liberty entails freedom of conscience: to worship or not to worship; to profess, practice and promulgate religious beliefs or to change them. In exercising these rights, however, one must respect the equivalent rights of all others.
- Attempts to unite church and state are opposed to the interests of each, subversive of human rights and potentially persecuting in character; to oppose union, lawfully and honorably, is not only the citizen’s duty but the essence of the Golden Rule–to treat others as one wishes to be treated.

The journalism that springs from that declaration—work that self-consciously focuses on The Big Questions of faith as they relate to The Big Questions of American democracy—is rigorous and compelling. A consideration of Sonia Sotomayor’s record on religious liberty. A meditation—supplemented with twelve footnotes for further reading—on the religious aspects of the U.S. torture debates. A consideration of intolerance toward Muslims in America, written by…a Washington (state) ninth-grader. Even “A Clash of Millennialisms on Capitol Hill”—part of “Explaining Liberty,” a series devoted to exploring the magazine’s own history—manages to distill, in narrating the saga of the American Sentinel’s fight against a 19th century movement to declare the U.S. a Christian nation, the story of America’s battle with itself when it comes to its fraught relationship between religion and politics.

Magazines like Liberty—defined not merely as magazines of ideas, but as magazines of specific ideas—can easily slide into self-serving, self-interested polemic. The magazine that is Liberty, however, manages to embrace its roots and its mission in a way that is engaging even to this non-Seventh Day Adventist. It is, to be sure, distinctly Christian—both in its promotion of Judeo-Christian beliefs, and in its assumption that its audience shares them. And yet it battles past the traps—which is to say, the trappings—of one-dimensionality. It republishes the speech, for example, of the Rabbi—yes, Rabbi—David Saperstein, delivered on the occasion of the law professor’s and religious-freedom advocate’s winning of the Liberty-sponsored 2009 Religious Liberty Award.) Yes, the many references to Seventh Day Adventism sprinkled throughout the magazine come to feel, after a while, to be precisely what they are: redundant. But in an age of catch-all journalism—magazines-of-ideas trying to serve as many gods as will buy their products—there is something immensely refreshing about a magazine that wears its heart, and its faith, on its sleeve. - Megan Garber

Washington City Paper, November 6-12, 2009

John Kennedy once said that Washington, D.C. is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. D.C.’s City Paper, however, is a well-reputed source of new-media snark and old-media shoeleather.

This week’s issue opens with the Mayor Adrian M. “Fenty scandal du jour,” which is a “parks contracting scheme [that] eschewed standard procurement rules” in awarding $120 million worth of city development money. The mayor’s ostensible motivation is efficiency. Procurement: Who has time anymore?

Strangely, though, this supposed need for speed does not apply to the Fenty administration’s handling of FOIA requests, which has prompted City Paper “Loose Lips” columnist Mike DeBonis to compare his administration to that of George W. Bush. (He details other similarities, too.) If you speak alt-weekly, you know that the invocation of George W. Bush translates to: “It’s on.”

The paper prints some online comments weighing in on a blog post from last week about an internal WaPo Style Section dispute over a charticle—which ended with sixty-eight-year-old Style Section assignment editor Henry Allen slugging coworker Manuel Roig-Franzia. One correspondent reveals that: “[N]ewsrooms are tense places and Post editors take a lot of flak from arrogant and unseasoned hires;” another declares that if Henry Allen had hit him, he’d designate his bruise a place on the National Journalism Historic Register. “We should all be lucky enough to be walloped by such talent,” he concludes. (City Paper’s website has a video reenactment of the contretemps here.)

Christine MacDonald’s cover story investigates whether D.C. recyclers’ plastics, glass, and corrugated cardboard actually end up at the dump with coffee grounds and potato peelings. The answer is: sometimes. Because: “In a blur of asses and elbows, workers throw stuff from green containers, black containers, and blue containers in the same truck, creating a jumble of trash and recycling that can never be de-mingled.”

Bummer. On a lighter note, the “Young & Hungry” column looks at a D.C. steakhouse’s awesome-sounding “butter-poaching” method of meat preparation—which, you’ll be surprised to find, leaves the author with conflicted feelings as to the resulting steak products. The article also features an unforgettable cameo from duck-fat fries. The accompanying “Beerspotter” sidebar – whose Twitter feed seems essential for D.C. living – documents the discovery of a rye ale with a “rich, toasty malt backbone” at Rodman’s on 5100 Wisconsin Avenue NW.

Don’t stop there, though: read ads and support an alt-weekly journalist. The classifieds have the details on some shows by artists you may be surprised to find are still touring and/or alive, including Devo, Public Enemy, and Rob Thomas. It also turns out that there is a Neil Diamond tribute band. Its name? “Super Diamond.” - Kathy Gilsinan

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CJR Staff is a contributor to CJR.