Alison Garwood Jones

Newby

October 27, 2014

For most of my career, I’ve had this feeling of just starting out.

To wit: grad school took me forever (don’t ask), and no sooner had I earned my degree in art history when I hit the road in search of something beyond the four walls of a museum. Journalism felt vital and risky, so I decided to abandon my Rolodex of contacts in painting and seek out my first new contact in print. I was back to square one. (Hat tip to Stephen Strauss, my first print contact).

Several years later, my Roladex was stuffed anew with the names and numbers of magazine editors, but this time I didn’t change, journalism did. And I was back to square one. Again.

At this stage of my life and career, I should probably be more settled, but I’ve come to realize that I prefer feeling like a newbie. The pressure to master a new skill — especially intense in digital media — means I probably won’t become a veteran in anything. ”Veteran” implies several things: a well-oiled machine, skills on the verge of atrophying, honorary degrees, and paths so well trodden that no new grass or flowers grow. Nor will I be asked to give the same talk again and again to different audiences, what I like to call “The Ted Baxter It All Started in a 5,000 Watt Radio Station in Fresno, California” speech. That’s ok.

Being a newbie is an endless cycle of experimentation and financial risk-taking. And while the latter is sometimes exhausting and  pretty consistently upsetting, experimentation is exactly what I wanted when I set out on this journey two decades ago. I can’t deal with monotony, but I can deal with upsetting.  I got up early this morning to write this, after all. And now I’m not upset anymore.

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You think?

October 10, 2014

20141017-234739-85659418.jpg

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Patterns

October 3, 2014

Trees and sky pattern by Alison Garwood-Jones

Pattern is a way of re-ordering the world and your emotions into something more beautiful and understandable. It’s why we make art.

It’s why standing under a maple tree and looking up feels so good. I’m looking for a blazing red one this weekend.

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Your reading brain ~ part deux

September 28, 2014

Drawing of Marcel Proust

 

Marcel Proust (above) defined deep reading as the moment when,

“That which is the end of [the author's] wisdom appears to us as the beginning of ours.” (1906)

Book editor Peter Dimock took it one step further, calling deep reading,

“A time of internal solitary consciousness.” (2010)

Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust & The Squid, pulled these quotes together in an article for “Nieman Reports” on reading in the digital age.

My friend Jonathan Menon, a fellow writer and loyal reader of this blog, kindly pointed me to this and several key sources I couldn’t find during the writing of my last blog post. Thanks Jonathan!

To recap: in my last blog post, Warp Speed, I tried to describe why I thought a balanced diet of breathless internet search and solitary deep reading (on paper) was essential to my happiness, sanity and the continued good health of my intellectual curiosity. If you feel the same way, I recommend printing out and studying the following articles:

“Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing”

(This article is based on a radio interview by Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor and host of WNYC’s New Tech City, with the Washington Post’s Mike Rosenwald. The podcast is embedded in the article)

“Paper beats computer screens”

“The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens”

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Warp speed

September 24, 2014

My favourite moments in Star Trek, the original series, weren’t the fight scenes where scrums of Beatle-booted characters threw fake punches and ricocheted off walls with a little too much actorly enthusiasm. And it wasn’t when Spock grew a beard and waxed poetic about the universe. And it certainly wasn’t when Kirk fell in love. I got embarrassed every time the lens misted up and the Stratford-trained captain pursued his next interplanetary go-go dancer. No, I liked it best when we looked past the back of Captain Sulu’s head, through the modest windshield of the Starship Enterprise, and experienced the onslaught of an oncoming asteroid field.

“Bring us through, Mr Sulu! / Star Trek fan blender space animation” by Pirogronianus. Creative Commons Attribution Licence: Reuse Only.

I’d say that those Star Trek sequences, plus the opening credits where the ship zooms away at warp speed, were my first experience moving through infinity. Even on a crummy black and white Zenith TV those simulated navigation scenes gave me a mini head rush. Not bad for 1966 special effects! It wasn’t until 1977, and the premiere of Star Wars on the big screenthat I experienced an even stronger white knuckle adrenaline rush through the windshield of the Millennium Falcon, with a young Harrison Ford at the controls.

These days my screen has shrunk back down to 15 inches, but the feeling of infinity I get looking out on cyber space is part joy ride/part mournful bargain. Here’s what’s fun: my cockpit has an external drive hooked up to Time Machine, a backup mechanism that unfolds like a sci-fi episode I like to call, Found In Space!
Time Machine

Moving your cursor over the Time Machine screen takes you through an accordion file of past desktops (above). There they are, floating in zero gravity against a gassy, star-studded universe. I get my “star fix” from that.

But even with my knowledge of space travel limited to the imaginative outpourings of Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas and the engineers at Apple, I’ve come to a few conclusions about navigating cyber space vs. the cinematic presentation of space:

• In cyber space, the endless expansion of ideas and junk, year over year, feels like a smaller version of the Big Bang that created the universe. The latter posits that a galactic “explosion” took all matter from one place then flung it outwards in every direction, never to stop moving. But here’s the thing: watching fake asteroids whoosh by on a movie screen is way more fun than the head rush/ache I get watching books explode and words and letters zoom past at warp speed across my screen.

• The idea that pixels unsteady us, visually, is accepted as fact. Web developers, like John McWade, will tell you that this elusive physical sensation is due, largely, to the fact of there being no reliable print to web pixel per inch (ppi) conversion. When you take something from print to digital, says McWade, you need to take into consideration multiple ppi’s, screen responses and even screen colour temperatures. All too often, developers never get it right, especially when they are trying to configure the same thing across desktop, tablet and mobile screens. These limitations are making our heads and eyes swirl. But I also think our emotions are getting sucked into the optical black hole .

• We still need to understand the psychological effect of shaky visuals and bottomless speed reading that’s loaded down with multiple side routes to social media. The only way to steady ourselves may be to reintroduce a healthy balance of paper back into our lives at the same time we continue to delve deeper into technology. When we do, books will become intellectual havens and sandboxes instead of medieval word delivery systems. This argument runs parallel to those calling for a reintroduction of solitude and absence in our lives. “You can’t think of a new or game-changing thought if you’re living in an echo chamber,” Michael Harris, author of the book The End of Absence, told Nora Young in a recent episode of Spark. “You have to remove yourself and carve room for absence.”

So, despite the endless possibilities available to me from my keyboard, including the entire Library of Congress (I haven’t touched it, have you?), I keep coming back to the emotional significance of words designed to be at one with a surface they’re on. Words are the not only thing at one with the page, so am I. What’s more, pages corralled between two covers don’t fence in my imagination, they offer a platform on which to leverage my imagination even further afield.

This is only a guess, but I’m thinking that when our eyes and brain detect the physicality of ink on paper, it sends a different message to our brain’s emotional core, one that tells us we are standing on solid ground. That physicality, combined with the absence of social media sharing buttons, sets me up to relax, absorb and really think. There must be studies published that say this. Maybe I’ve read them? I just haven’t found them in time for this blog post. Please share if you know of any.

Finally, I love the feeling of being at one with a writer. I’ve had it reading Alice Munro, Daniel Boorstin, Billy Collins, Robert Fulford and many others. I’m a better person because of that. But this breathless rush of digital culture is shrinking my sense of self, as far as I can tell. It’s certainly shrunk my memory muscle. I’m re-engineering my life to fix that. It starts with holding a book.

Captain Kirk

Captain Kirk left these behind.

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Take that!

September 12, 2014

Spam Super Hero

I had a great summer. My blog? Not so much. For three months, it was bombarded by a spam attack so thick and persistent that a team of developers had to put down their swords so they could scratch their heads.

We ended up having to switch commenting platforms (the source of my woes) and settling on Livefyre. Intense Debate is toast.

My thanks to Graham Scott and Danny Brown for their advice. And a very special thank you to Kathryn Barlow of KBarlow Design for clearing out and deflecting all future spam. She was as tenacious as Wonder Woman.

I’ve really missed using this space to write and draw. LinkedIn Publisher is good, but nothing beats posting on real estate you own.

Here’s to a great fall!

Alison 

 

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Think like a newsroom

July 31, 2014

When my story pitches for magazines or newspapers tank, it’s usually because:

1. My story idea is lame.

2. The story is good, but my pitch sucks.

3. My editorial connections are too thin.

4. It’s already been done (and, tut tut, I should have known that).

5. It’s a good pitch, but the wrong magazine (and shame on me again for not studying more back issues)

I’m starting to think that none of the above applies to a story idea I’ve been sitting on for months. A producer/documentarian I was introduced to last fall is working on the first ever interactive documentary specifically formatted for the iPad and she wanted some coverage in legacy media. The story is cool, she’s cool, and the whole package has tons of “Now” and “Wow.” But every Canadian and U.S. magazine I pitched either said, “Yeah, maybe” (and never got back to me), or they said nothing at all. Even when I pitched it as an online news feature.

While I was waiting for editors to bite, I followed how the documentary was coming along on social media — it’s debuting in October both on TVO and via a an app — and I think I finally know what’s wrong with my pitch: this story doesn’t need me.

At the same time I was interviewing this talented documentarian in coffee shops and at her home office, she was overseeing a campaign of regular and highly engaging tweets, blogs, video teasers and Facebook posts, leaving no stone unturned about her challenges and incremental victories. I tried to find angles that she hadn’t covered, but the moment I thought of one she wrote about it. So here I was competing with my subject for scoops! Did I resent her? How could I? I loved what she was doing. Showing your progress online is how you gain support, traction and publicity for a project. Holding your cards to your chest and being all secretive until the big reveal is so old school.

Exclusive publishing rights

What I’ve learned from this experience is that the challenges facing legacy media aren’t just about advertising and switching to new distribution channels, they’re also about accepting the changing nature of exclusives and the rise of DIY storytelling. For the first time in my career, I knew what it felt like to be the “middleman” between a subject and her work. And we all know the fate of middlemen in the internet age (just ask the music industry). Even PR people have slowed down brokering relationships between journalists and clients. Now they are spending more time coaching brands and startups on how to become the hubs for their own storytelling. Martin Waxman, one of the smartest people I know in communications strategy, said it best,

“These days it’s not enough to be in the news, [startups and brands] need to create, produce and share it. And in order to do that you need to think like a newsroom and amplify stories via social and digital channels.” 

I’m still hovering over the “think like a newsroom” part. I met Martin when I was an editor at Elle and he was the head of a PR agency that handled many big-name beauty accounts. I wrote a lot of service-style journalism based on the stories Martin and his team shared with me. Martin abandoned old-style PR, however, the moment he clued in to the power of social media. He adapted to the new landscape way, wa-a-y earlier than most of his colleagues, many of whom were still stubbornly advising clients to stick to a broadcast model of communication — you know, the old “spray and pray” approach. Now Martin is showing brands how to ditch the press release and be their own storytellers. “Start on the inside with a publishing strategy, an approach to content that’s based on what you do better than anyone else,” he told a crowd in Las Vegas last week at the SXSWV2V conference for startups and innovators.

After I left Elle, I my output of service journalism — what today we call “sponsored content” or “brand journalism” — slowed down to nothing as I set my sights on writing more stories about culture, technology, design and human nature. The thrill of writing advertising copy was short-lived for me. That’s why I’ve never had a problem with brands taking over their own storytelling or pulling former journalists into the fold to push out their content, so long as those former journalists only write sponsored content and don’t straddle between that and covering hard news (another post entirely).

But sponsored content isn’t the only storytelling switching hands. Now the stories that are really worth telling, stories of human innovation and stories about people’s struggles and triumphs, are becoming harder to place in magazines as the number of voices telling those stories multiplies. 

The predictions were long in coming and I’m finally bumping up against legacy media’s stipulations about lead times, breaking news and exclusives, all of which are totally at odds with the sharing, slicing, dicing, repurposing, in-progress (“Open File”) spirit of online storytelling. I mean, here’s the definition of exclusive publishing rights: “Not to be divided or shared with others.” How long can that work? And are magazines going to keep turning down stories just because the people at the centre of the story have been blogging and tweeting about their work from its inception?

The internet has changed our relationship to the history of ideas. I don’t know how magazines will adapt to that. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m in another headspace now: the open, freeform world of blogging and updating.

 

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Don’t act above social

July 22, 2014

Social media is offensive to a lot of intelligent people. Or rather, it’s offensive to people who need you to know they’re intelligent.

I think that’s part of the reason The New York Times wasn’t using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn like they could have or should have to distribute their content. Still, they’re aware of their missteps and are working with shrinks to turn things around (see: New York Times Innovation Report, 2014).

As all newspapers retire their news trucks, street boxes and home delivery teams, their greatest reach will be across social avenues. When done properly, social doesn’t lead with substantive reporting, it leads with dessert. For good writers covering important subjects, that’s a hard pill to swallow. They don’t want to dumb down their work or trivialize their subjects. But writers are learning that they don’t have to; they only have to sex up their calls to action on social to lead people back to their websites. It’s a small price to pay in service of much more important end goal.

A deep understanding of the mechanics of social teaches us that if you want to be read, if you want to educate people, and if you want to change the world, you need to respond to the quirky demands of the medium.

Sometimes that means using sugar and empty carbs to lure people into eating meat.

 

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More on loving your job

June 17, 2014

He was all shiny and aquiline when he walked up to the lectern.* His face was pulled tighter than a drum. Jeff Koons, Julian Assange and Andy Warhol stood backstage and watched. Meanwhile, a team of caterers behind some swinging doors at the back were preparing to serve us His Menu of grilled salmon and blueberries. But we couldn’t eat until he had spoken. Our bosses told us to take detailed notes. The PR team putting him up was treating him like a Nobel Laureate. Everything about this felt wrong. Like, 911-wrong. Smart people I liked were pointing to him and nodding. My eyes bore into them as if to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They kept silent while the down payments on their mortgages accumulated. He laughed and snarked from the lectern, making us feel bad about ourselves while purporting to make us feel good. This man and his wares belonged in a museum of discarded scams, next to the butt-shaking exercise belts (but not the Victorian vibrators because they may have sorta worked). He kept us there for way longer than 15 minutes. And during question period, this Warlock of Syringes told us: “I’ll tell you what women want: only a beautiful woman is a satisfied woman.” He was bringing his promises to the Provinces. But we weren’t the land of Trophy Wives and Supermodels. Celebrities were as rare here as alligators in bathtubs. Still, he was determined to capitalize on time’s passage and expand his reach to librarians, streetcar drivers and tired moms for he too had a mortgage. Actually three: New York, Miami and Gstaad. He finished with a campy joke, and the PR team led the room in a thank you clap. He left the stage to lacklustre applause and promptly had a hissy fit behind the curtain. Jeff and Julian went “there, there,” and gave him a punch in the arm and a playful knee to the groin. Andy just stood there with his arms crossed, shaking his silver wig. Just then, the caterers came bounding through the swinging doors carrying trays loaded up with our identical lunches. The tension subsided a bit as the clank of the dishes took over. “Tighty whitey” — that’s what I was calling him — had returned to the room wearing a tiara and was now ignoring everyone at the head table, including the PR people doing figure eights around him. For the next twenty minutes, he stabbed the blueberries on his plate and checked his phone. After that he left. So did I.

*Parts of this are true. The rest was a dream.

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Upcoming Workshop: 2 weeks today!

June 4, 2014

My next Digital Strategy Workshop is exactly two weeks today: Wednesday, June 18, from 1-4 pm. If you are an independent business owner, like me, I think you’ll find the tips and discussions very helpful. Email me at alison.garwoodjones@gmail.com for the location details.

*I plan to be at the beach and other people’s cottages over the next three months, so this is the only workshop I’m holding all summer.

Now What Final Final poster

The workshop is 3 hours for the low price of $100 (Plus 13% HST), and includes a helpful handout and coffee and tea service.

The workshop is designed for independent entrepreneurs who want tips on how to market their products/services/specialities on the Social Web.

I profile five business, including my own, and show how each business owner has had to figure out which platforms best help them reach their goals. For some, it’s WordPress. For others it’s Twitter. Many female entrepreneurs swear by Pinterest, calling it “solid gold.” Recent algorithm changes, however, have thrown a curve ball on many people’s marketing strategies. I’ll address this too.

If you want the latest on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterst, Instagram, WordPress, and LinkedIn, I hope you’ll join me.

See you in class!

Alison 2

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