The Accidental Journalists

Posted on May 16, 2013

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As someone who spends a lot of time consuming information in forms that didn’t exist fifteen years ago, then thinking about how crazy that is, my friends Amos and Jenna loom large in my brain. They are both journalists, both very good writers, and most of their pieces are found online. As a kid, I got my news in exactly two ways: reading the Newark Star Ledger in the morning, and watching Peter Jennings on World News Tonight. And now? There’s the Internet. So I do things a little differently. My daily paper is delivered electronically. I frequent dozens of websites every day, read ten different perspectives on the same news story. And I enthusiastically check out what my friends are writing, on music, sports, culture, and technology. And that, to me, is nuts. And so cool.

So I’m going to try a couple of things here. I want to tell you about my two friends and how remarkable I think they are. In this facet, if you manage to disagree, it can only be due to a failure on my part. They are undeniably rad. I’m also going to wax a bit on the current state of media and information consumption, because that’s a big deal to me. I think about it every day. Jenna will be helping out with that big time. You can’t find seven people on Earth who have a more relevant perspective on this topic than Jenna Wortham. So let’s get to writing this thing. I will try my absolute best to make it awesome. Amos and Jenna deserve it. And, when hundreds of thousands of people worldwide read this very essay, nodding enthusiastically and underlining their favorite lines, laughing at Amos’ moose joke and Jenna’s Twitter imposter, and agreeing that yes, these lovable writers are indeed themselves worth writing about, then well? We will know that we’ve won. This stuff matters. These two talented people are changing the way we perceive our world.

AMOS BARSHAD

  • Born: Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Raised: Netherlands; Israel; Brookline, Massachusetts
  • College: University of Michigan
  • Major: History
  • Reason he majored in History: “Some idiot” told him to study what he loved most.
  • Writing credits: New York Magazine; GQSpinGrantland

ImageNights out with Amos (left), without fail, we will find a karaoke room, put on ‘Born to Run’, rip our shirts off, and go absolutely nuts.

A moment before she introduced me to Amos at a party, my ex-girlfriend whispered to me, “This is the coolest kid I know.” “What about me?” I offered, dejected. But in the first five minutes of our budding friendship, I knew she was right. Amos is waaay cooler than me. He’s terribly funny, and I’m sure he realizes that, but he has this quality in his laugh that convinces you that you’re funnier than he is. He laughs loudly at the stupid things you have to say, eyes closed, shoulders hunched. It’s deeply flattering. In just one night of endless laughter, I felt like we had forged a mighty bond. And at some point, this gorgeous girl he dated while abroad in Florence got too drunk at the party, approached him and muttered, “I can’t believe I got to date you.” She sighed, and then sulked away. Honestly, it kind of made me want to date him.

You’re skeptical. That’s fine. I’ve got plenty more. So Amos also tells this joke about a guy dressed as a moose on Halloween that no one else will ever tell as well as him. I asked him to e-mail me a written version for this piece. Try to read it in his voice (monotonous, a little raspy, and be sure to giggle in a high-pitch several times throughout, well before the punch line). I’ll meet you on the other side, once your life has been irreversibly changed:

So a guy heads to a Halloween party dressed as a moose. He’s having a great time, getting drunk, getting tipsy, but by the time the party winds down he realizes he’s too inebriated to drive home. Luckily, the chick throwing the party knows of this shortcut back to his crib, which means he can walk home and come back tomorrow to get his car – only thing is, the shortcut is through the woods, and, well, it’s nighttime moose-hunting season. The guy hears her warning, says ‘thank you, thank you,’ and heads into the woods anyway – where he’s promptly spotted by a hunter. And as the hunter takes out this big huge double-barreled shotgun and trains it at the guy, the guy shouts out ‘DON’T SHOOT! I’M NOT A MOOSE!’ The hunter hesitates, just for a second, and then cocks back his gun and fires two slugs into the guy’s chest.

And as the guy is lying there, dying, the hunter comes over to inspect his kill, at which point the guy rips off his mask and says, ‘Why’d you shoot? I said I wasn’t a moose.’ And the hunter looks at him and goes, ‘Ohhhhh — I thought you said you were a moose.’

Well I didn’t think it would translate effectively in writing, but hey, I think the man pulls it off! Hell of a joke. In person, “nighttime moose-hunting season” is always where Amos (and subsequently most everyone else) first starts giggling. And admittedly, Amos’ moose joke has bombed in my presence many times before, but every time it does, I put a mark in my mind next to the name of the person not laughing, which reads, “Bad/No sense of humor.” It’s been his fault exactly zero times. So yes, Amos tells the best bad joke in the world, under the pressure of having his friends assure newcomers that it is amazing, and he always delivers. Unless you’re a humorless jerk.

Anyway, come on, let’s get into it. I didn’t name this piece Cool Amos. Let’s put some meat and bones on this drivel before I slide off my chair in full-on swoon mode. So I guess I should say a little something about Amos’ writing. Well, for starters, he has a mostly defunct Twitter handle called @stuffmydanhates. This must seem like a terrible place to start. He created a Twitter handle, you ask, that sounds suspiciously similar to the extremely popular @shitmydadsays, which spawned a book deal and a CBS sitcom starring William Shatner? It probably sounds derivative and cheap. Actually it kind of is, but that’s the point. Because for one thing, our friend Dan really does hate a lot of stuff irrationally, and it is completely worth documenting in this format. Some tweeted examples: Stephen Hawking’s public perception as an ultimate genius / Assholes with babies at farmers’ markets / ‘The Mentalist’ / Live music. And secondly, it is a brilliantly self-aware approach to Twitter to tweet for the sake of trying to obtain a pilot on CBS (or, rather, for the sake of cracking up his friends who are in on the joke, knowing that Amos would be completely unprepared to handle if some TV executive’s socks were knocked off because Dan hates “‘Bachelor’ host Chris Harrison.” Come on. Not exactly material for a riveting twenty-two minutes of television.). But seriously, he has a near-perfect tweeting voice: “Day 2 – still no word from CBS / Wait, let me refresh my inbox / Yeah, still nothing / Does anyone know how to tell if something’s gone viral?” I can’t stress this enough, youhave to visit this Twitter page. Scroll all the way to the bottom and just read the whole stupid thing.

Amos has an incredible story about how he broke into journalism. Just complete dumb luck, really, at his New York Magazine interview. “I remember, I didn’t know much about the magazine, and I said ‘Oh, I love what you guys do every month.’ I found out later that it was a weekly, so I figured I fucked that up. But the girl who interviewed me told me later that she wasn’t really listening to me the whole time because she thought her blouse was undone. She was just worried that I could see in her shirt.” So Amos owes his big break to the world’s most self-conscious Human Resources employee, who apparently didn’t hear a single misinformed word he said.

I asked Amos what experience, if any, in his career was the turning point in which he was assured that he had ‘arrived.’ Man, was he prepared for this question: “Arrived – do we ever truly know such things? But seriously, it was when I was at New York Mag and was gunning for this position, which would finally put me in a writing-only situation, and would mean I didn’t have to produce webpages or edit bar listings or anything else that I didn’t like doing. A guy from the outside ended up getting the job so, in a fit of rage, I put in my two weeks, and New York Mag counter-offered with a raise and by taking away my non-writer duties, so I accepted. It wasn’t exactly a smooth way of going about it, but it meant I got what I wanted, to be paid to write only. I learned that I was valuable. And I learned an important lesson, one of course also delivered by Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘The Departed’ – ‘no one gives it to you. You have to take it.’” I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty awesome. Both the ballsy thing he did and the eloquent way he now talks about it.

In 2011, Amos left New York Magazine to write for the sports and pop culture blog Grantland. His area of expertise is entertainment, mostly music, an area in which he has such impeccable taste that readers both trust him and feel as if they want to go to shows with him. When Adam “MCA” Yauch from the Beastie Boys died in May, many fans, as we do these days, turned to the web to find some solace as they mourned an iconic artist. Amos stepped up big, penning a deeply moving tribute and personal ‘Thank You’ to a member of his favorite band. Thousands of readers shared his tribute on Facebook with their friends. I’ve read this piece at least thirty times; MCA and the Beasties meant a lot to me too. Amos has a lot to say here, but one thing that sits me down and just shuts me up is a line about interviewing the band a year earlier for a New York Magazine piece: “At some point I forgot I was supposed to be asking questions, and just watched, trying to repress my giggles, as they cracked each other up. Thirty years after they first started palling around, they still just wanted to make each other laugh. How insane is that? The basic fundamentals of the Beastie Boys – from day one, they’ve shared verses – represents such an impossible ideal. I was so happy to see that it was real.”

For me, this sums up two key points, both about Amos and about modern journalism. For one, I get choked up when I think of my dear friend chuckling along with his favorite band, and then writing so beautifully about the passing of one of its members a year later. Secondly, it says something about the power and scope of online journalism. Amos’ realization – that the Beastie Boys’ revered ideal actually exists, even thirty years after it conception – is likely the best thing anybody said about Adam Yauch’s band on the day he died. And without the Internet and the multiple voices contained in its infinite folds, no one reads it.

A last word on Amos. I asked him if he remembered actually looking down the New York Magazine interviewer’s blouse. “Probably,” he laughed. “Giving that creeper vibe. Hey, whatever, it worked out.” Ha! Take a bow, friend. Amos is a state of mind. And the world is just a bit richer because of that creeper vibe. It’s classic Amos.

JENNA WORTHAM

  • Born: Fort Belvior, Alexandria, VA
  • Raised: Alexandria, VA
  • College: University of Virginia
  • Major: Medical Anthropology (Interdisciplinary)
  • How she describes her major now: Meaningless
  • Writing Credits: WiredThe New York Times

ImageJenna keeps a suitcase filled with notebooks of her writing under her bed.

Within an hour of meeting Jenna on New Year’s Eve, she rang in 2012 by pouring bubbly down my throat. I begin with this, not to satisfy a connection between fun-loving Amos and our second subject, but because it provides hard evidence that Jenna is not a robot. Reading about Jenna’s relationship with the Internet may prove stressful, and this paragraph may have to serve as a totem that returns us to an analog reality.

Understanding Jenna’s job takes a little time. You might even find it easy to dismiss a lot of the stuff she is reporting as trivial. But that would be lazy, I assure you, and completely missing the point. In a New York Times blog post from October 2011, Jenna writes about her rediscovering of the world of zines, “mini-magazines that are generally made by hand and are available only in small quantities.” As a kid, Jenna would make one or two zines and give them to her “riot grrrl” friends. And when she began college as a pre-Med at UVA, she hated the competitive, cookie-cutter culture, and began craving a more creative environment. Luckily, she both studied and interned abroad in London, and a visit to an independent bookstore, stumbling upon a world of zines, reinvigorated her passion for creating. This moment likely explains why she’s a writer and not a doctor. But we’re getting there.

OK, so something happens in this blog piece. The rest of it is about how zines are coming back in popularity “among the Web-savvy, partly in reaction to the ubiquity of the Internet.” Much of the current writing in zines offers a response to much more popular writing found online, and a desire to achieve a more tangible feeling, some ink on the fingers. And, what do you know, Jenna is writing about that feeling online, for a ubiquitous newspaper’s website. Jenna, who makes zines herself, and craves some ink on her own fingers. Please process all of this for a moment. You must understand that Jenna is essentially writing online in response to writing offline that responds to writing online. And that’s one way to begin describing Jenna Wortham.

Jenna claims to have a boyfriend. “This may sound ridiculous, but sometimes I feel like the Internet is my best friend boyfriend only friend. I honestly feel real emotions from the interactions and content I consume online and since I’m doing it all day, it seems like a real palpable entity to me. But that love has also really made me value real human interactions offline, so much more than I did before. There’s no substitute for it.” The Internet was unavailable for comment, but I imagine it would say, “I work so hard, and every day I keep getting bigger, and that’s stressful, you know, so it’s nice sometimes to talk to someone who appreciates me.” I don’t know anyone who has a more complicated relationship with the Internet, and I don’t really think anyone else could be more equipped to handle her exact job. Plenty of writers are driven. Jenna is just wired differently.

In a piece on The Atlantic Wire website titled “Jenna Wortham: What I Read”, she speaks a little bit about this. No, she speaks a lot about it; it opens with five densely detailed paragraphs describing her mornings of heavy consumption (Jenna apologizes constantly for being long-winded. She is filled to capacity with information and articulates at breakneck speed like no one I’ve ever known.). The piece illustrates how she handles receiving the incredible torrent of information that writing on the Internet about the Internet will offer, but, just as importantly, how she can shut it down: “At the end of the day, I crave time away from the screen. I’ll go on a run, or to a show, or a tech event or a drinks thing to catch up with friends – and although we mostly wind up talking about the things we’ve seen or read online, it feels better to actually discuss the content we’re consuming and creating all day in a group than try to digest it on your own.” Whoops! Constantly talking about her boyfriend, that Jenna.

So is Jenna in an abusive digital relationship? Is she so impossibly wired that she can’tturn it off? That’s not how I see it. She’s still that girl with the suitcase of notebooks under her bed. Jenna’s a writer, and this is how you get to write these days. In high school, Jenna developed a passion for the sciences, so she took every science class offered at the International Baccalaureate level, participated in every science fair. So she’s an omnivore, the ultimate consumer of knowledge, and like our favorite Girls character Adam,once she commits to something, she really fucking commits. So Jenna is in a committed relationship with the Internet, and this is to the benefit of a lot of readers (Jenna has a ton of fans, but we’ll get to that.) She’s a technology reporter, so most of the time, her medium and her subject matter are just about the same. She’s uniquely positioned, being about my age. I’ll make you do the math, but we’re officially of the very last generation that remembers what our lives were like before the Internet. We remember when the latest advancement in communications technology was three-way calling on a landline phone. We remember how jarring but thrilling that dial-up modem sound was. So the novelty of the Internet will never be lost on us. I suppose we should worry about those poor souls born in the 90’s, but that’s for another essay.

Like many, Jenna struggled after college to find steady work. Her and her then-boyfriend (a human) moved to San Francisco, where she began interning for now-defunct Girlfriends Magazine, a publication that, according to Wikipedia, “provided critical coverage of culture, entertainment and world events from a lesbian perspective.” Happy just to have a job, Jenna “never said that she wasn’t gay, and never used the word ‘boyfriend.’” It also required that she work a second job, so she would “leave at 4:45, change in a cab, and wait tables til 11.” Regardless, it was inspiring for her to be surrounded by so many women writers, even when she found herself in uncomfortable conversations comparing the benefits of all the best dildos.

From here, Jenna moved to Wired Magazine as a freelance fact checker and researcher. She wrote a few pieces too, about Twitter and new social media platforms, and among those to take notice was her current New York Times editor. “I actually initially turned down the interview with the Times. I didn’t feel experienced enough, was looking to go to Berkeley for journalism school. So yeah, I turned down the New York Times (laughs). I didn’t see myself as a journalist, just someone who writes sometimes about cool shit.” Jenna was also worried about leaving her freelance job for a few days to fly to New York and coming back to no job. But the editor was persistent, and months later, Jenna finally made up an excuse and left to interview in New York.

It did not go well. “The day I got to New York, the Dow fell like 1000 points, and the city was just crazy, everyone was just so distracted. The Times said ‘We’re sorry, we can’t just hire you, we’re entering a recession.’ Because they’d have to relocate me and everything.” She was stunned. The timing couldn’t have been worse. She was staying with a college roommate, a filmmaker, who was interning for a production company and cleaning the offices at night for a little extra money. So at least she had someone who could relate. Jenna met her friend during her cleaning shift, two 40-ounce beers in hand, and the two sad girls sat in an office and proceeded to get wasted.

Another three months went by before the New York Times offered her the job, and she accepted. Timing again is the theme of her story. “All in the same week, I turned 26, my ‘late’ twenties, Obama got elected, and I got on a plane and left for New York. My whole life just changed.” It’s an appropriate time to mention that our President and our story’s hero both identify as half black. This was the biggest moment of her life for multiple reasons. There is just no way to downplay the impact of these coinciding events for Jenna.

Her work has earned her legions of fans. As is suitable for the measuring of fandom for a technology reporter, I should mention that Jenna has over 400,000 Facebook subscribers and almost 500,000 Twitter followers. She, of course, brushes this distinction off. “That’s meaningless, not relevant. Like I said, when I got to the Times, no one was using Twitter. Half of my interview questions were about social media platforms. So they would show my Twitter account everywhere. I was practically the default New York Times option. Honestly, it probably says something that I don’t have more followers.” Well, whatever she says, the level of fandom is not just quantifiable. She is popular enough to have fake Twitter accounts using her name and stock photo, like @jennawortham1 from “Los Angles, CA.” This sort of thing, Jenna can get behind. We crack up about counterfeit Jenna over the phone. “That’s my indicator that I have anything resembling success. I love this person. I wanna meet them.”

For our journalist friends, ours is a curious time. Like I said, fifteen years ago, none of this stuff was here. And now it is, and it’s infinite. And the most motivated among them have embraced this new and infinite universe, while never forgetting to make time to get outside and tell bad jokes to friends.

But I’d say accidents are the most essential theme of this story. Neither Amos nor Jenna entered college with journalism in mind, nor did they attend a journalism school. Also, Amos has a wandering eye. That’s fine, it got him the job. Jenna just may have crashed the stock market. She bounced back after her hangover wore off. Most of the time, the timing isn’t right. What’s important is still being prepared when it is.

I had a feeling I was going to make my own way in here somehow. My motivation for taking a Creative Non-Fiction class this summer was to learn to write like Amos and Jenna. Writing should be personal and fun, and for me it wasn’t yet. I had always loved reading, so why did I hate writing? I need to challenge myself in order to figure out how to write non-academic pieces like my friends can. Interviewing Amos and Jenna for this piece was an essential step towards facing this challenge. So from Amos, I’m learning that writing should always be entertaining. Find your voice, make it relatable. Thanks big boy, I think I’m getting better at that. Jenna has taught me to keep writing, constantly, to have a notepad in your pocket all the time. She even told me which ones she likes; I bought a handful of them a few days ago. I hope to need a suitcase for them soon.

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Posted in: Long Form