Deadspin, Dead Sources, the Most-Emailed Times Story Ever and the TechCrunch Loop

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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A.J. Daulerio
A.J. Daulerio
You only need to read any reeking New York Times feature on the next hot crop of bloggers to know that the world needed another profile of a CMS slave about as much as it needs another blog. Which is to say, not much at all. The world will have to make an exception for Gabriel Sherman's GQ article on A.J. Daulerio, under whose reign the Gawker-owned Deadspin has published (alleged) pics of Brett Favre's junk and broken any number of other scandals, helping traffic surge and remaking the site, once a domain of smart, snarky commentary, into a news-breaking machine that often becomes the story itself. Mr. Sherman captures his "brash, boozy, self-mythologizing" subject in full: the dark glory of a born reporter both blessed and cursed with the freedom to do that which he was born to do. Like Batman, if the Dark Knight was a blogger with a penchant for publishing dong shots.

You can read Mr. Daulerio's ambivalence as woe-is-me, attention-craving self-pity. Or you can see it as a necessary outcome of an always-on publishing world that demands the elision of the boundary between writer and subject:

He tells me he has no plans to leave Deadspin. He wants to continue to grow the site and has expanded beyond sports with a general-interest offshoot called Deadspin XY. Several weeks from now, in mid-December, he'll have another huge surge in traffic when Deadspin links to a series of foot-fetish videos starring a woman who looks exactly like Rex Ryan's wife, narrated by a man who sounds exactly like Rex. And yet, for all his success, Daulerio seems down. Last fall, he started seeing a shrink for the first time. In fact, he'd just come from an appointment. I ask what's been troubling him. "You're just kind of tethered to the machine," he says. "Socially, there's no separation whatsoever. It's like I needed somebody to kind of tell me just, okay, this is what you can do to not do that, to not be this person."

I dipped into Tim Radford's "25 Commandments for Journalism," published in The Guardian, with some trepidation. So much news writing reads like crap partly because journalism education concentrates so much on ethics, objectivity and other elements that have more to do with journalists' code than with readers. But Mr. Radford's list turns out to be valuable precisely because its main focus is readability in journalism:

11. Here is an observation. Don't even start writing till you have decided what the one big thing is going to be, and then say it to yourself in just one sentence. Then ask yourself whether you could imagine your mother listening to this sentence for longer than a microsecond before she reaches for the ironing. Should you try to sell an editor an idea for an article, you will get about the same level of attention, so pay attention to this sentence. It is often -- not always, but often -- the first sentence of your article anyway.

Speaking of journalistic codes, the question was raised this week: Is it OK to burn a source when he or she dies? I would reckon that even in the most lax understanding of the journalist-source relationship this would be a no-no. While the law may not recognize it, reputations still exist post-mortem and I would expect that most people don't want theirs tarnished by a thoughtless reporter who suddenly decides that anonymity no longer works for them. Yet both Fortune and The Wall Street Journal recently decided to attribute information to a deceased Apple director who gave up the goods on Steve Jobs' medical history. Then a New York Times reporter said in a tweet she wouldn't do such a thing, only to, um, do it in the process. What a mess! The Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum unpacked it for us.

When you agree to go off the record, that doesn't mean "off the record unti I die" -- unless you negotiated it that way. Another way to put it: an off-the-record agreement is an oral contract between the source and the journalist. That contract isn't voided by one party's death. Further, these news organizations use anonymous sources all the time. So if you're going to burn a dead guy to invade a barely-hanging-on-guy's medical privacy (and let me be clear, I don't think you should!), why not have the respect to just call him a "person familiar with the matter"? Or maybe, more precisely: "a person who was familiar with the matter."

Over at The Awl, David Parker imagined what the most-emailed story ever to run in The New York Times would look like. Over-explanation will kill the joke, but, in brief, he assembles the kinds of headlines and topics that are particularly popular with readers into a sort-of narrative. Here are the first two grafs:

It's a week before the biggest day of her life, and Anna Williams is multitasking. While waiting to hear back from the Ivy League colleges she's hoping to attend, the seventeen-year-old senior at one of Manhattan's most exclusive private schools is doing research for a paper about organic farming in the West Bank, whipping up a batch of vegan brownies, and, like an increasing number of American teenagers, teaching her dog to use an iPad.

For the last two weeks, Anna has been spending more time than usual with José de Sousa Saramago, the Portuguese water dog she named after her favorite writer. (If José Saramago bears an uncanny resemblance to Bo Obama, the first pet, it's no coincidence: the two dogs are brothers. Anna's father was an early fundraiser for Barack Obama; José Saramago was a gift from the president.)

Finally, we have a package that could be filed under the best media writing or the worst. It's a pair of pieces by Techcrunch's Alexia Tsotsis, the first of which consists of one line, identical to the headline: "This article is a must read." The article it referred to via hyperlink was Ms. Tsotsis' self-same post, fashioning a self-referential loop of nothingness that still managed to garner over 38,000 page views and a lot of comments. A later blog post that tried to explain all this leaned a bit on Chomsky, which is never a good sign if your mission is comprehension. In any event:

The idea of an infinite loop is so integral to the way we conceive of the world that linguist Noam Chomsky at some point thought that understanding and being able to proliferate recursive concepts was what separated us from the animals. Just Google "recursion" if you want more proof (and to be delighted).

News writing, because of the nature of aggregation and content farming, is trending toward blog posts with provactive [sic] headlines, little actual content and endless arguments in the comments section.

I'm not sure whether the misspelled "provactive" was intentional to prove a point of the meaningless of it all. Click here to find out!

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Update: Ms. Tsotsis has pointed out that "provactive" has been a word, according to UrbanDictionary.com, since September 2009; Urban Dictionary defines it as "an action which is both provactive and proactive."

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