Teaching Feature Writing – Ahladeff’s Martin Luther King Article

August 27, 2013

Feature writing is not like news writing. The structures and styles are both different, with rules of their own.

What writing students often don’t realise is that in the feature article the most important parts are the opener and the closer – unlike the classic news article with its inverted triangle structure.  You need a strong hook at beginning and a “pot of gold” ending.  And short sentences help. A lot.

Yesterday’s The Sydney Morning Herald (26 August 2013, p. 19 of the paper edition) included a good example of classic feature writing by Vic Ahladeff, the CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.  In an article entitled “Kings dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson”, he writes about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Others have noted this:  it’s on the cover of this week’s Time magazine.

But Ahladeff’s article takes one angle:  that of African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s role in encouraging King to use the “dream” theme.

So after teaching feature writing to university public relations and journalism students twice in the last 18 months (University of NSW and APM College, North Sydney), I find this article to be an excellent example for students.  Here’s why.

Ahladeff’s opener:

If anyone warrants a footnote in history, it’s Mahalia Jackson. (10 WORDS, CATCHY) If anyone deserves a modicum of recognition for what transpired before 250,000 people crammed at the foot of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering afternoon 50 years ago, it’s surely Mahalia Jackson.

Comment:  First sentence, catchy.  Ten words.  Second sentence 31 words, really too long, however he gets away with it because the sentence is evocative and he uses the repetition technique – mirroring the first sentence – at both the beginning (“If anyone deserves …”) and the end of the sentence – “it’s surely Mahalia Jackson”.

His second paragraph:

Yet her story remains unsung, her involvement in one of the greatest speeches of all time unheralded.

Comment:  One sentence, which runs 17 words, and it is the “real catch”, placed just where the article most needs it.  He throws the reader’s attention to the rest of the article.  Wow, the reader thinks.  Really?  Tell me more.  What was her involvement, they ask?

There’s lots of good stuff in the middle.  His quotations are nicely chosen.  I particularly the following part, because it develops its own pace, leading towards the final payoff of the “dream”:

Mahalia Jackson, one of the supporters clustered near him, spontaneously shouted: ”Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

King droned on. ”Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Jackson again, more urgently: ”Tell them about the dream!”

He paused …”

And then the closer, the “pay-off”:

King was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang Take My Hand, Precious Lord at the funeral. She died four years later, 50,000 people filing past her coffin to honour the queen of gospel whose unforeseen outburst paved the way for an oratorical masterpiece whose eloquence reverberates 50 years later.

Comment:   First sentence of the paragraph is only five words long.  Shocking.  Assassinated.  Yes, we knew.  But still.  This is the first mention of King’s untimely death.  Second sentence – nine words, the connection is made again – she actually sang at the funeral.  Third sentence – she died four years later – oh goodness, she died too.  “The queen of gospel” is a nice phrase.  The final sentence is a little long but it reads very well.  It contains only two real adjectives – “unforeseen” and “oratorical” – both of which work well and do not duplicate their nouns, as so many adjectives and adverbs tend to do.  The “50,000” and “50” numbers also create a parallelism.  The words “eloquence reverberates 50 years later” give us a sense of history.  Overall, the sentence makes us feel good about ourselves in that we are, somehow, a part of that “reverberation” and a part of that “history”.

Convinced?  Read the full article, especially since it is available online free in its entirety (at least as of Tuesday 27 August, morning in Sydney).  It may not be freely accessible for long, given the recent massive changes in newspaper business models.

Here is a copy of the “South Pacific edition of this week’s Time magazine, Volume 128, number 9:

Time magazine cover MLKing 26Aug2013

Want to read the full speech:  go to the US National Archives (note PDF document):


(Declaration:  I know Vic Ahladeff, and he was the editor of The Australian Jewish News for many years while I wrote film reviews for that paper.)

Frances Ha sparkles

August 19, 2013

This film review of “Frances Ha” appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a slightly different form on 16 August 2013, in a review entitled “Elusive search for stardom”.

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

It is one of the most original and delightful films of the year.  It sits within the current popular “moment” as well as bows to film history.  It is autobiographical, of a sort, and shot in black and white.  It arises from a deep creative collaboration between a Jewish male film director and his non-Jewish girlfriend.  The film is “Frances Ha”.

The Jewish director is not Woody Allen, but Noah Baumbach, who comes as close as anyone can to being the true inheritor of Allen’s mantle of New York Jewish comedic angst.  The parallels with Allen are important:  although separated in age by 34 years, both grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Midwood High School.

Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” star, muse and co-creator is Greta Gerwig.  They met on the set of “Greenberg”, an edgy comedy written and directed by Baumbach and starring Ben Stiller in the title role, reportedly based on characters from Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.  The Jewish literary tradition is in Baumbach’s genes:  his father Jonathan is a novelist and film critic.  Gerwig, best-known for her original “mumblecore” film roles, recently starred in “Arthur” and has had her own brush with Woody Allen, appearing as “Sally” in “To Rome with Love”.

Gerwig brings an assured sense to Frances’ ungainly physical style; there are almost no moments when she is not on screen, and the performance delightful.  This actor has truly “arrived”.  Most of Frances’ autobiography is Gerwig’s.  Frances is a wanna-be dancer who lurches from one mini-personal disaster to another.  She works on the fringes of a professional dance company as an apprentice who never quite makes it, and slowly but surely runs out of money, unlike her unstressed “trust fund”-supported friends.  “The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich”, Frances wisely observes.  She even falls out with her room-mate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  Her one attempt at competing in this world of money and privilege – an impulsive weekend spent in a luxury flat in Paris – is disastrous, as she sleeps most of the time and cannot connect with her only friends there.

Eventually Frances can no longer pay rent, and resorts to visiting her parents at “home” in Sacramento, California (Gerwig actually grew up there).  These touching scenes are all the more poignant because Gerwig’s actual parents – Gordon and Christine Gerwig – play her movie parents.  One of Frances’ last residences is a dormitory at Vassar College (which Baumbach attended), where she works a summer job serving food at alumni reunions.

“Frances Ha” has de facto “chapter” headings – simple white font on black backgrounds, Woody Allen-style, each identifying one of France’s residences. It’s not surprising that “Time” magazine calls “Frances Ha” a “Millennial ‘Annie Hall’”.  But it does have a complex set of antecedents:  Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (romantic New York also shot in black and white), the “Gen Y” television series “Girls” (the film includes Adam Driver from that series, here as “Lev Shapiro”) and splashed with a touch of “Greenberg”.  If you think other actors look familiar, you are right:  Grace Gummer – one of Meryl Streep’s daughters and like Streep, a Vassar graduate – also appears as Rachel, one of Frances’ friends.

As enjoyable as it is, “Frances Ha” is unlikely to have to same impact as “Annie Hall”.  Like Frances herself, the film’s story “arc” drifts.  It’s too “small” and too particular to a certain demographic – modern urban twentysomethings in life transition.  It also glides lightly over its Jewish roots.  In “Annie Hall” Woody Allen’s character complained about antisemites calling him “Jew” under their breath, and Diane Keaton’s character referred to him as “What Grammy Hall would call ‘a real Jew’”.  But “Frances Ha” exists in a more frictionless world.  Sure, you’re Jewish – excepting Frances, most of the main characters are.  But so what?  There’s no tension.

As for the film’s title “Frances Ha” – wait to the final scene for an explanation.

You can watch the film’s trailer here:

Cyberterrorism – the new digital scourge

August 14, 2013

Suddenly it’s everywhere.

Cyberterrorism, it’s the new digital scourge.

Is it just an accident that in the last day I, (a) finished an article in The New Yorker (of May 20, 2013) by John Seabrook entitled “Network Insecurity: Are we losing the battle against cyber crime?”, and (b) listened to a lecture on the Australian ABC Radio National’s “Big Ideas” program, entitled “Cyber attacks: How war and economics are being transformed by computerisation”, given by Scott Borg.

Seabrook reports (in part) on an interview with Eric Grosse, a Google software engineer who heads up that company’s security team. Grosse’s comments on passwords:

He hopes to get rid of passwords, or at least reduce their importance in the “line of defense”. In the short term, however, the answer is more of them and not less, including the “two step verification” (including a mobile phone text message) that is becoming popular with Australian banks when making transfers to someone else’s account.

“The biggest problem is people can’t be expected to remember two hundred passwords. I mean, I have two hundred passwords, and they’re all different and they’re all strong.”

“How do you remember them?”

“I have to write them down.”

“But then that piece of paper could be stolen.”

“Yeah, but if your adversary is somebody on the other side of the ocean he can’t get the piece of paper you have in a safe at home. If you’re trying to guard against your roommate, then you need a new roommate.”

Wise words, those.

And Scott Borg? He is the Director and Chief Economist of the non-profit (501c3) U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU). His lecture, downloadable (at least for a few weeks) reviews the economic impacts of cyberterrorism, which he – frighteningly describes as having greater potential impacts than a nuclear bomb. He describes in great detail the implications of what would happen if all of the electrical power plants in a country (say, Australia) were to be remotely disabled.

Don’t believe me; listen to the lecture to find out.

Brad Pitt and World War Z – a great hit – who wudda thought?

August 14, 2013

Today’s email brought a fascinating press release from the publicity department of Paramount Pictures Australia.  Here’s the title:  “’World War Z’ becomes Brad Pitt’s highest grossing worldwide release and his biggest domestic grossing film of all time”.

Dated yesterday (August 11, 2013) in Hollywood, CA, the release announces that,  “Brad Pitt’s ‘World War Z’ has now earned over $500 million at worldwide box office, making it the actor’s highest grossing worldwide release, surpassing the star’s ‘Troy’ which grossed $497.3 million globally”.  Of this amount, $197.4 million is in the USA (ed note: perhaps they mean North America, which includes Canada?) and $305.2 million outside of North America.  This has now outstripped Pitt’s previous best US box office – “Mr and Mrs Smith”, which has a total box office domestic gross of $186.3 million.

Who wudda thought?

There is much to “unpack” here.  First, I place “Troy” – with its confusing mix of accents – and “Mr and Mrs Smith” – with its nasty edge on domestic life, as two my LEAST favourite Brad Pitt movies.  (Okay, add “Tree of Life” to that too.)  So clearly I am in a minority.  But also remember that “Troy” was released in 2004 – nine years ago, and its approximate box office figure of $500 million – what with ticket price inflation – would be worth at least $657 million (say, 31% more) now.  (Click here for Brad Pitt’s Box Office Mojo page – all details in one place!)  Yet again, the public relations people ignore the reality of history and the facts of economics ….

And note how “World War Z” has earned a good 60% of its box office OUTSIDE of North America.

In “World War Z”, Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations public health specialist (hooray for the public health professionals) who saves the world – as a matter of speaking – from a zombie plague.  Yeah, that plague.

“World War Z”, to its credit, takes the whole premise seriously (no “winks” at the audience here).  And part of the film is set in Israel (although apparently filmed in Malta), as the Pitt character travels there because the Israelis reportedly had predicted the pandemic and took precautions in advance.  There has been much online discussion about the positive portrayal of Israel in the film.  (Yeah, watch the film and see exactly what happens at the end of the Israel section.  Positive?)  Israeli actress Daniella Kartesz has a starring role opposite Pitt, playing an Israeli soldier – not a love interest, but a brave one.

Here’s an interesting video story from “Jewish News One” about Kartesz, who is likely to have quite a career.

Don’t get me wrong; I liked “World War Z” a lot.  The opening scenes were genuinely some of the most chilling I have seen in a movie in a long time – the slow dawning of realisation that life as they know it has disappeared forever.  It’s just the misplaced box office hype that bothers me.

California – unappreciated by all

August 7, 2013

I have “waxed lyrical” about California in my posts, so here’s a short description from the University of California at Berkeley alumni series that took place last October (2012), just prior to the Presidential election:

California is the 9th largest economy in the world, supplies the nation with much of its food, resources and innovation, and has the finest public university system ever conceived. It is also buried under a mountain of debt and gets little respect from the federal government. Democrats treat the state like an ATM at election time, and then largely write it off for four years. Republicans scorn it as an incorrigible bastion of liberalism.

An interesting view.

However I will put it that California exists independently from politics, and no matter which party occupies the White House, California will do just fine.  It is too big, too diverse, and too powerful, with too many breaking-the-edge 21st century (and 20th century, for that matter) industries.

California Bear

Cautious Optimism for the Future of Newspapers

August 4, 2013

For those of us who care about newspapers and the business of journalism – or, shall I say, the reporting of news, because the word “newspaper” seems soon to be outmoded – the news is mixed.

I must be a child of another age.  I love opening my copy of The Sydney Morning Herald every morning and scanning the pages.  I don’t particularly like the new “tabloid” format, but I better get used to it: the “paper” version of the “paper” is likely to get even thinner.  And when will the “paper” disappear entirely?

Well, the news from New York City is not all bad for those of us who believe in quality commercial media organisations.  Ken Doctor (neat name, huh?) reports that The New York Times actually GAINED 0.3 percent of revenue in 2012, the first time that revenue grew in six years.  At least there’s some good news for The Times.  The also paper sold its ownership of The Boston Globe this past week.  For US$70million.  Fair enough.  Except that The Times paid US$1.1billion for it in 1993.

According to the BBC, “The New York Times company has sought to get rid of assets it sees as non-core to focus more closely on its most high-profile brand.  The newspaper plans to expand its global audience and change the name of the International Herald Tribune to the International New York Times.”

All of this sounds good. I guess.  Will The Times avoid the fate of The Oregonian (and countless other American papers), which in June announced that it would drop its printed publication to only four days per week.

Ken Doctor suggests cautious optimism, in what he calls “the newsonomics of zero”, in which “the zero math is simple: offset declining ad revenues with increasing all-access/digital-circulation revenues”.  He presents the following table of The New York Times Co. revenues from 2007 to 2012:

Ad revenues Circulation
Change in
total revenue
























(Numbers are in thousands.  And note that the 2009 decline was worsened by the recession.)

In other words, The New York Times appears to have stopped the drift and – primarily through strong cost-cutting – seems headed towards profitability (of a sort) again.

But if newspapers are increasingly being delivered digitally, what do we call them, if “paper” is no longer the right word?

The New York Times logo