Regular readers of this blog will get what I hope will be a treat: A lot more posts about what I’m up to. That’s because one of my new classes this term: “Social Media Theory and Practice” means I need to actually practice. And that means more than Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Not that I’ve done much on YouTube although thanks to my video mini-class a year ago, I got more of an idea of how one operates iMovie.
Anyway, this new class requires us to post weekly at the minimum and get a lot more savvy on other media out there like Storify, Instagram, Pinterest, etc., all platforms that I have never used. I’ve been reading articles that quiz you on how much you know about software development (answer: nada) and how to do simple computer programming. I’ve ventured into learning some HTML a few times and the results have been mixed. Or I could learn how to download my Twitter archive – that is, if I thought my tweets were all that historic. They’re not. But I’ll be tweeting a lot more this term.
Also required is commentary on a long list of web links that I must read each week. Even though I spent the most time on this link about clueless journalism students , I got the most out of a WSJ piece about how the Internet is ruining deep thinking. Called “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?“, I can’t paraphrase this better, so will repeat one of the better lines: When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.
The rest of the essay makes a winning case that we’re all turning into a society of ADHD-like idiots, who can’t concentrate on anything more than for 10 minutes if their lives depended on it. I found that piece – in contrast to a piece that took the opposite view – more plausible because of my own experience. After 20 years of pretty constant exposure to the Internet, I find it much harder to sit quietly for anything any more or to quietly meditate or slow down my thoughts. In the BV (Before Veeka) era, I enjoyed going on retreats a few times a year. Now, the thought of all that time for silence and prayer and reflection makes me nervous. That said, if I don’t get a ‘quiet time’ (usually for prayer and to plan my day) each morning, I’m scattered all day. Getting distracted, it said, is the innate bias of the human brain. Way back when, you needed to be distracted be the crunch of a twig that told you a predator was creeping up on you. Even now, when I was hosting a friend of Veeka’s at the house yesterday, I wasn’t able to concentrate on a thing with two little people, ages 8 and 5, continually interrupting me. Books, however, are a human invention that helped fine-tune the mind and increase focus. Alas, I rarely get to read books these days. The best I can do are magazine pieces because they don’t take as long.
I will add, however, that I just finished Tom Bissell’s “Chasing the Sea” about Uzbekistan and the vanishing Aral Sea as I love anything having to do with Central Asia. And I am slowly working my way through George Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series and just finished “A Clash of Kings.” And I just volunteered to review books for an academic journal connected with the AEJMC, the professional organization for journalism professors.
Anyway, back to why I’m taking this class: I want to be proficient at Twitter (am barely functional at this point) and move beyond knowing how to post on Facebook. I have the toughest time with Twitter because of the sheer volume of material that requires a full-time job to read it all. HuffPost is especially bad at this. I guess that 60% of what on my Twitter feed comes from their religion page. I tend to follow groups and pages in my specialty (religion reporting), which is why I check on:
1. Getreligion.org.,which is the best out there in terms of sites that rate religion coverage. Not that there’s that many! GR, which turns 10 years old this year, grades various media outlets on how well they covered a religious topic. Most don’t do well. This is a must-read for religion/media specialists and they have an erudite following that produces plenty of good commentary. The comments are strictly moderated and people who go off on religious arguments are told to stick to talking about journalism. Terry Mattingly and Doug LeBlanc, the founders, have put together a group of critics who take the time to peruse mainly U.S. media to see how they’re covering religion. They’ve come up with the term ‘religion ghost’ to signify stories that have a religion angle, but the reporter was too dense to perceive it. The secular press doesn’t “get religion,” they say, hence the title for the blog. What’s lacking? They still struggle with getting good critics who can critique stories about non-Christian groups. One of their more recent additions, George Conger, peruses the European press, which is quite helpful.
2. Whispers in the Loggia, a blog about the papacy and Curia that is a must for religion reporters. Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based author, breaks a lot of stories therein. I’ve been in the same press room with this guy and it is downright humbling after awhile to see the procession of
high-ranking clergy waiting to talk to him. He’s got better sources than anyone and somewhere in Rome there’s cardinals taking this guy’s calls. No one can compete with Rocco in terms of breaking stories. The site does not have a place where one can leave comments, so there’s no community of like-minded souls who can be identified. What’s lacking? According to him, more money so he could travel more and write better posts. He is constantly having to ask his readers for money. But he’s so well-liked by the press corps that we don’t mind contributing! Things I’d change were I in charge: the long transcripts of speeches by various Catholic prelates. Those can be gotten off other sites IMHO instead of taking up space on Rocco’s blog. Rocco does insert video of every U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings in his posts, which are downright helpful for those of us on deadline who need to replay that quote. I don’t know where Rocco gets half his stuff but if you’re serious about covering Catholics, you follow this man.
3. Rod Dreher’s blog for The American Conservative, which keeps me abreast of what’s hot in the culture war camp. This is the kind of blog I’d like to have if I could work on it full time like Rod gets to do. Rod held the culture writer position at the Washington Times before I took it, which is how I got to know him. He bounced around various newsrooms for the next 15 or so years before deciding to move back to his Louisiana home and work for the TAC guys. Rod has this unusual mix of having very good insights on breaking news and pop culture soaked through with a Christian world view. There’s nothing out there quite like it. In his case, it’s an Eastern Orthodox Christian worldview, as Rod’s a former evangelical who’s crossed the Brosporus. He has fun with it too, such as a feature whereby readers send him photos from around the world of what they’re serving or eating for dinner that night. He got his blogging fame from his column at Beliefnet.com, which alone brought in 17 percent of that site’s traffic. Why Rod hasn’t been snapped up by the New York Times or Washington Post is a good question, as he out-writes anyone at those two publications. It does say something, alas, for the left-leaning bias of such publications that they can’t seem to get around to hiring a brilliant conservative like Rod. Of the blogs I’ve listed, Rod’s has the best army of commentators. He must monitor the comments tightly to fend off the trolls and it shows. There’s really good stuff in the comment sections and the things he writes about – ie the isolation of ghetto populations – is stuff I find nowhere else. Things I’d change? Wish Rod wouldn’t look down on his evangelical background, as what he is today was shaped by his evangelical conversion. Sort of wish he’d peruse media other than stuff published on the eastern seaboard (although I know he just ran something from the Indianapolis Star) and it’d be nice if he’d give a nod to his old stomping grounds at the WTimes.
All three of these blogs offer content I could not hope to get on my own. Also note that the people who run all three of these blogs are men. It depresses me that I’ve yet to find similar blogs overseen by women. Christianity Today’s Hermeneutics blog is closest to intelligent commentary by spiritual women but there’s some major lacks there. I used to write for it, but pulled out partly because I was blogging for WaPo and they asked me to quit writing for other blogs. And partly because every time I wrote something remotely controversial, it was edited out. Two other women I know left it for similar reasons. There’s a different set of editors there now and the essays there are a lot edgier than when I wrote for them so hopefully change is possible there. I also follow FishbowlDC and mediabistro. These are journalist gossip blogs but if you’ve lived in DC as long as I have, you like to know who’s been hired where and who’s been dumped from what.I also follow Poynter.org, I get daily news feeds from the Washington Post and New York Times (which distressingly limits non-paying readers to only 10 reads a month), and I follow IJNet (International Journalists Network) as well as the Religion Newswriters Association and Religion News Service.