Category Archives: Features

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10 Steps to Maybe Getting Your Nonfiction Book Published

A generation ago we learned that the medium is the message. We segregated ourselves into media categories: TV people or radio people or print people and we perfected our medium with inverted pyramids and driveway moments and close-up, highly emotional footage.

And then, in the late ’90s, Google or Al Gore invented the internet and the media blew up again, mashing together our disciplines and ruining our attention spans. Some of us took to blogging, learned video and audio editing and survived. I dropped out to write a book during the precise two-year period in which “the book,” as we’ve known it for six centuries, ceased to exist.

If the medium is still the message, then this is the message to journalists who want to write books: you are crazy. You are better off getting a massage, as Marshall McLuhan hinted at in his famous 1967 book. But if you are willing to change the image of “the book” that is embedded in your DNA, if you are a media agnostic and know something about ones and zeroes, there is no limit to maybe getting your nonfiction book published if you follow these 10 ridiculously nerve-wracking steps.

  1. Pick a topic now. Find the universal themes in your work: what stories do you like to tell and how are they connected? For me, it was migration. I was fascinated by immigration as a cub reporter in Nampa, through 9/11 and throughout my early career. I eventually found the nugget of my book in a story about an American woman whose Mexican husband got stuck at the border after returning home to visit his sick mother. I wrote the story in 2005, but I knew that I hadn’t done it justice and that I’d come back to it one day. For a few years I knew I’d write an immigration book, then I figured out it would involve bi-national love stories and, boom, I had a topic.
  2. Tell everyone you meet what your book is about. This is counter to our competitive reportorial instincts, but is a key feature of the modern media age. Put it all out on the line. No one is going to steal your book topic and if they do you will do it better. Every conversation you have will increase your number of sources, hone your thesis and establish your expertise and credibility. Watch people’s faces as you tell them about your book. What do your crazy uncle, your best friend, the kid at the cash register, your doctor want to know about your topic? Another benefit of talking about your book all the time is that about 14 months later, all of these people will start asking you when it’s coming out and searching for your name of Amazon and you will be shamed into actually finishing it.
  3. Figure out the social media now. Use your social networks and your blog to connect with people about your book in the same way you are telling everyone around town about it. People are going to be searching for you, so give them something to find. This is your chance to force yourself into the book-writing class by sheer will. You will also need the connections that social media provides because when you write a book, you are utterly alone. You are no longer that guy or gal from the Weekly or the Times. You are not the local media or the national media. You are a lonely intellectual entrepreneur. Own that. Practice putting your name on the cover now by typing it again and again on Facebook and Twitter.
  4. Marry well. I mean this in a few senses. It’s going to cost you to write a book, both emotionally and financially. So it helps if you have a partner—not necessarily a spouse, but someone to support you emotionally and financially through the process and to kick your ass when needed (or at least get all Lysistrata on it). You are going to need to quit your job or take some time off and you are going to need to follow the story wherever it takes you. Get a simple part-time job so you can tell yourself you are helping pay the bills and keep your partner happy.
  5. Forget about grants. If you are good at getting grants, good luck to you. But nobody is going to pay you to write your first book. You may be able to raise some money for specific parts of the project—the Idaho Press Club granted me $500 to travel to Texas on a reporting trip (in exchange for this article). Use crowd-sourced fund raising sites like Kickstarter strategically, but don’t plan on getting paid upfront to write. You are some kind of tenured professor or something. You’re still just a hack.
  6. As soon as you know what the book is about and decide to write it, call all of your friends and their friends who have written books and ask them for advice. There are at dozens of paths to getting a book published and the more people you ask the quicker you will develop your own path. Have your elevator speech ready: what is the book about, why are you qualified to write it and who is going to read it? Don’t take it personally when there are long pauses on the other end of the line but don’t be afraid to ask how they got published and if they can help you in any way?
  7. Ignore all of the advice you get, despite what I wrote in No. 6. Also, ignore all of the laments about the demise of the book, the death of the reader, the end of writing. Those eulogies are not for YOUR book. Don’t join a writing group. You are better off having drinks with your former press colleagues and hearing about their scoops and deadline shenanigans and deep throat sources than hanging out with other people who are trying to write books. You are a journalist, not a novelist. Don’t forget that, even when your crazy uncle asks how your novel is coming along.
  8. Attack publishing from all the angles. Try to get introduced to an agent, preferably through the people you called in No. 6. Put together a non-fiction book proposal because it will force you to organize your ideas, consider your competition and future readership and establish your credentials. Google “self-publishing” once a month or so. Show your draft chapters to people whose opinions you value. But don’t forget to write your book and edit the heck out of it—no one is going to do this for you.
  9. Get organized now. Save your notes and label your notebooks. Archive your own stories so you don’t have to buy them from your old newspaper three years later. Keep track of your sources—that PIO or lawyer or business owner that you call once a week winces every time you write something because he or she knows there is so much more to the story. You are going to tap that when you decide to write the book. When you are on deadline, it’s no big deal to keep the contents of a notebook and 12 scraps of paper in your mind. But it’s going to take you much longer to write this book than you think. You may forget if that interview was from June 8, 2011 or June 8, 2010, so type everything up and keep it organized on your computer and then back it up in multiple places. I use Dropbox to keep all of my notes and drafts, more than 80 separate files at this point, synced between two computers, my iPod and the cloud.
  10. Enjoy the ride. You will bring all of your journalism skills to bear on this project and you will invent new ones. Your relationship with sources, your ideas about writing and deadlines and first-person and objectivity and transparency will all change. The question of what the book of the future looks like is wide open. Really smart, experienced writers and moneyed, old school publishers have no idea what it’s going to be. You will help shape this future with your book. Own it. And don’t get a massage until you are done.

This post originally published in the Summer 2012 Idaho Press Club Communicator.

Scraping pdfs, Ruby and Idaho elections, or …

… why I am never going to be a programmer. Last week I saw several reporters tweeting about checking the Idaho Secretary of State’s Election’s page throughout the day so as not to miss any new candidate filings during the current Idaho elections filing period.

https://twitter.com/KevinRichert/status/174613454685081600

I feel for Kevin and the rest of the Idaho Capitol Press Corps. While the Secretary of State does make a good effort to provide public information, and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa has been a champion of public records, there has got to be a better way.

See the live map here!
This is what happens now: The Secretary of State updates a .pdf file two or more times a day during the filing period and posts it on his web page. That means that anyone interested in the intrigue of candidate filing in Idaho’s newly refigured legislative districts has to bookmark the page, reload it several times a day and scan it for new entries.

I’ve been reading a lot about data journalism and thought I could follow some of the tutorials out there and create a nice little web scraper to tease out the scoops on candidate registration. I am really inspired by sites like ProPublica, which puts together awesome databases like this one on what influenced support on SOPA/PIPA or one on unequal course offerings in schools across the nation that incorporates maps. I like maps. The Guardian in the UK is also doing amazing things with data journalism and making information public and available and accessible. These guys make it look easy.

Brett Nelson, AKA "The Ruby"
So I took a Boise City Community Education class on Ruby programming last week, thinking I could pick up a few new skills. The only thing I really learned was that I’m going to stick with WordPress as a blog platform and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be a real programmer. But I suggested to the teacher, my friend Brett Nelson, who works at Customated.com, that I had this idea to grab the candidate .pdf from the Secretary of State, convert it into a useful format and post it somewhere automatically so that my reporter friends don’t have to work so hard.

As with anything, it’s harder than it looks, and Brett ended up doing all of the heavy lifting on this.

Here is what (I think) we did:

  1. Wrote a ruby script (a little computer program) that automatically downloads the .pdf from the Secretary of State’s website as often as we like, converts it to text using Xpf, which preserves the spacing, and then uses Regular Expressions to parse the text into fields: District, Office, Party, Name, Address. The program runs remotely, on a server and activates itself. Yeah, it’s a bot.
  2. Use our nicely formated text file to build a Google Fusion table. Again, this is automated, using Google Maps/Fusion API commands. Google Fusion Tables allows us to easily place candidates on a Google Map, though it’s a bit more difficult to actually build the map on a web page, and requires a working knowledge of Javascript, another programming language.
  3. I told Brett I’d take it from there, but again, it was not that simple. First of all, I could not figure out how to embed all the javascript I’d need in a blog post on this blog, so I had to just make a new web page, that looks like it’s on this blog. Also, I really don’t get the details of javascript anyway. So once again, Brett bailed me out.
  4. I found a cool use of fusion tables that I wanted to emulate, allowing the user to select Senate, House A or House B races to display on the map so that they could easily see which districts had contested races. I spent hours trying to customize the Chicago homicide map linked above to my own needs, but gave up in desperation. Brett figured out the right calls we’d need to redraw the map (it’s not really that complicated, but it’s like learning a foreign language).
  5. Finally, after I’d say 25 hours between us, though my hours were much less valuable than his, we had a workable map. I’m still bummed it’s not as pretty and full of functionality as the Propublica projects are, but I think it’s quite useful.

So what can you do with this web app? First of all, I think it’s the first Google map of the newly drawn legislative districts. I converted the .shp file (L93) that the Commission published to a .kml file (which Google Maps reads) using Qgis on my Mac. So now people cal fly around the new districts, find their house, make sure that candidates actually live in their districts, figure out which legislators have the best nearby hunting spots, etc. UPDATE: The locations plotted for candidates are their filing addresses, not necessarily their home addresses, and thus may be located in a different district.

Second of all, you can easily see which races are contested for the May 15 Primary Elections by selecting one of the three Legislative races and looking for red or blue markers on the map. This map is constantly updated with new filing information. Candidate filing closes in a week, on March 9, so we will have to figure out how to make this information useful on an ongoing basis. I’d like to add web links and Twitter feed info for candidates and links to news articles about the races (if anyone wants to help, please speak up)!

Please let us know what you think and feel free to use any of the info you glean from our web app!

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, US State Department reps visit Boise

Last week, I interviewed Vincent Cochetel, the Regional Representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the United States and the Caribbean, and Kelly Gauger, Deputy Director for Refugee Admission at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration for Radio Boise. The two officials spoke at the 4th Annual Idaho Conference on Refugees at Boise State.

I have been working with Radio Boise to set up a news and public affairs department for months now, and wanted to test out my equipment, use the editing room at the studio and try out some different formats for journalism at the station. I’m also quite interested in refugee affairs and had some questions for Cochetel in particular.

Here is the story that ran today on Radio Boise:
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/35801157″ params=”auto_play=false&show_artwork=true&color=ff7700″ width=”100%” iframe=”true” /]

This is a new format for me and I’d love to know what folks think. I know I have a few audio problems that audiophiles will notice. My editor’s hat also tells me it’s way too long, but I also think that community radio provides a good forum to allow interesting sources to speak at length on interesting topics. Both Cochetel and Gauger had a lot to say, and my interviews with three refugees confirmed and illustrated some of their points. At this point, we don’t have a dedicated time slot for reported stories like this at Radio Boise, so we had the freedom to run it long, before the afternoon syndicated newscasts (Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now).

One thing I’d like to follow up on is the point toward the end about the intersection of economic, or voluntary migrants and asylum seekers. Increasingly these two groups are occupying the same space, whether it’s in urban Africa or in rural parts of the United States.

Here is a bonus clip on Vincent Cochetel’s 1998 kidnapping. He was held hostage in the Northern Caucuses for almost a year:

Passing the buck on Paul Ezra Rhoades’ execution

Ezra Paul Rhoades
I am opposed to the death penalty.

As a pacifist, I’m opposed to the state taking people’s lives. I’m also opposed because of the well documented inequities in our application of the death penalty. And, yes, I’m opposed to the death penalty in my role as a journalist—I know first hand that law enforcement, judicial and political officials are not infallible and therefore not qualified to make this ultimate decision.

I am not going to rehash the many arguments for and against the death penalty in this post. But I will focus on that last point, about the fallibility of the people responsible for making the capital punishment calls. The case of Ezra Paul Rhoades in Idaho illustrates this point well—the law has enabled us to pass the buck in deciding and executing death penalty cases.

First, Rhoades was sentenced to death in 1988 by two judges, not by a jury of regular folks who would have had to wrestle with questions of conscience, in addition to questions of law. While I would hope that Judge Larry M. Boyle in Bonneville County, who handed down a death sentence for Rhoades’ murder of Susan Michelbacher and Judge J.C. Herndon who sentenced Rhoades in Bingham County for the murder of Stacy Baldwin, wrestled with their consciences, they were able to lean on state and federal law in making their judgements.

Having exhausted his appeals, Rhoades sued the Idaho Department of Correction in September, arguing that the method of execution in Idaho could potentially cause cruel and unusual punishment. What has followed has been a highly clinical discussion of the death penalty—is a three drug cocktail better than a single lethal drug—that has distracted us from the case at hand. Tomorrow, Idaho will execute a man.

The practical effect of this legal wrangling has been a passing of the buck at all levels. U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush considered the issue quite rationally in his Nov. 14 decision not to halt the execution, but concluded that the execution of the three-time murderer was in the best interest of the state, even though society has not resolved the uncertainty, expense and impact of the death penalty.

However, the citizens of the State of Idaho and the families of the individual victims in this case have a compelling interest in seeing that Idaho’s lawful judgments for the kidnappings and murders of Susan Michelbacher and Stacy Baldwin are enforced. Those judgments have been pending now for well over two decades while Rhoades challenged his convictions and sentences in state and federal court. There is much that has been said and written about the uncertainties and expense of death-penalty cases, and the impact that the length of time such cases place upon the families and communities of the victims, as well as the impact of such delay upon the ratio decidendi underpinning the death penalty in our society. Continued delay compounds those uncertainties, expenses, and impacts, and therefore is not in the public interest.

Then the 9th Circuit Court of appeals ruled yesterday, in clinical legalese, that Rhoades can be executed because he can’t prove his point that IDOC is not prepared to carry out the execution in a proper manner:

We conclude that Rhoades has not shown that he is entitled to injunctive relief on the merits of his claims. Because Rhoades has not shown that he is likely to succeed on the merits, which is required by Winter for injunctive relief, we need not and do not consider the district court’s remaining conclusions.

The November 15, 2011 emergency motion for a stay of execution is denied.

AFFIRMED.

But the real passing the buck comes from the politicians—the ultimate conscience in death penalty cases. The Governor, and in this case, since Governor Butch Otter has been at a posh resort in Hawaii all week, the Lieutenant Governor, are not beholden to legalistic or clinical reasons for granting clemency: they can do so because a higher power tells them to, because data on the death penalty demands it, because they feel like it. But they do not feel like it.

From the Spokesman-Review:

“It’s tough, it’s tough,” said Otter, a conservative Republican, when asked about balancing his faith and the death penalty. He’s been reluctant to discuss the matter as Idaho approaches its first execution since 1994, when murderer Keith Eugene Wells dropped his appeals and requested to be put to death…

… Otter told The Spokesman-Review this week, “I support the death penalty,” adding that it’s an issue he’s given a lot of thought to “all my life.”

“I think that as our criminal justice system … suggests, people have to be held responsible, and sometimes it’s to the max, and this is one of those cases,” Otter said. “They have to be held accountable for their actions.”

And Lt. Gov. Brad Little is not engaged, despite his deputization to become engaged:

Little said he hasn’t even read the letters and emails that continued to come in to the Capitol regarding the execution this week, leaving them instead for Otter on his return. “I guess I could go ask for ‘em if I wanted to, but I have chosen not to do that,” Little said.

The lieutenant governor cited two reasons for not wading into the issue: His role as lieutenant governor, and the circumstances of the Rhoades case.

“I mean, the Constitution says you have all the rights and powers of the governor when the governor’s out of state, but you know what? The governor comes back,” Little said.

But the worst part is that now the state is enabling us, the Idaho public and indeed American public to pass the buck, by banning witnesses at part of the execution:

Prison officials say to maintain Rhoades’ dignity, they won’t allow witnesses to view him being restrained or having the IVs inserted. They also said changing the procedure now could be disruptive.
But a group of Idaho news organizations say that policy conflicts with a 2002 federal court ruling that found the public, through the media, must be allowed to view executions in their entirety. The news organizations have asked the state to reconsider.

In the end, we all empowered the police, the judges, the governor and the lieutenant governor to make the decisions they made and we must take responsiblity tomorrow when Rhoades is executed. The only way most of us will do that is through a public witness like a brave reporter who is willing to document the event for us. I plan to be present at the execution as well, standing outside the prison gates while a man is put to death inside. I’m not reporting on it; I just feel a need to be there. I suggest that everyone—whether you support of oppose the death penalty, whether you feel it is justified in this case or not—be present tomorrow morning in some way. The bucks stops with each of us tomorrow morning.

One Way: A Tuareg Journey

I saw the film One Way: A Tuareg Journey Friday night at Boise State University, at a special screening with director Fabio Caramaschi. The film is a beautifully rendered portrait of a nomadic/semi-nomadic Tuareg family from Niger that emigrates to Italy, seeking work and western education for their children.

Caramaschi, a photographer and elementary school teacher, first encountered the family when he met the mother during a trip to Niger to build a school. He explained during a Q&A following the film that he was able to call the father in Italy with a satellite phone, allowing them to speak for the first time in a year. Caramaschi then filmed the family over the course of eight years as the mother and two older kids moved to Italy. Caramaschi eventually returned with them to bring the youngest boy, who had stayed in the Sahara with his grandfather, “home” to Italy.

The film captures the family’s transition from the desert to the city, from Africa to Europe, from subsistence to “modernity” from the family’s point of view. Caramaschi gave a camera to the eldest son, Sidi, who shot hundreds of hours of footage in his neighborhood, interviewing kids in the park and shopkeepers and his own father and uncle. As the director, Caramaschi skillfully keeps himself and his views out of the film, allowing the characters to speak for themselves. While he is clearly the director, taking over for Sidi when questions fail and filming Sidi filming others, Sidi actually helped him edit the film in Rome, adding to the authenticity of the narrative.

Caramaschi also captures the anti-immigrant politics of the Liga Nord, the anti-immigrant party that is dominant in northern Italy and is part of Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition. But he does it in a very subtle way, without hitting viewers over the head with politics. The story remains one of transition, journey, evolution.

While I agree with Caramaschi that it’s unlikely that Tuaregs who spend much time in Italy—or in any settled, urban environment—will ever go back to their nomadic lifestyle, trading salt and dates and millet by camel train in northwest Africa, I’m not sure it’s ever a one-way journey, or that that is inherently melancholic. The titile of the film is the one blatant instance of editorializing that appears, and Caramaschi, whom we joined for dinner after the screening, explained that the family was also surprised at the title.

I don’t think there are any one-way journeys in this day and age (or that nomadic people recognize the concept of a one-way journey). The Tuaregs are already active globally through migrant networks across North Africa and Southern Europe, through Twitter and through the natural inclination for travel—as Caramaschi explained, Agadez is remote, but is not really that far from Libya and Italy and beyond. It’s not far fetched to think that Niger and the Saharan region will one day in the near future see a political and economic resurgence (as is occurring in the nations to the north) and who better to lead that resurgence than the educated sons and daughters of the Tuareg diaspora?

The film has garnered many awards thus far including best script at the 2007 Siena documentary festival, best documentary at the 2011 Arcipelago film festival in Rome and the audience award at the 2011 Goshort festival in Holland, but I’m not sure where it’s possible to see it. I’d like to watch it again.

Trailer park rights battle launched

Phylis King wants to protect mobile home residents from losing the land under their homes. Boise Democrat teamed up with Emmett Republican Carlos Bilbao to write laws protecting mobile home park residents. King: “It seems like a really good cause. We need to preserve work force housing. In this economy, this is like basic work force housing. Let’s protect, preserve and encourage it.” Double wide makers cry foul. Kreller in the Idaho Statesman
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Risch, Minnick take office

Risch nearly forgets family bible, Minnick joins Simpson to introduce CIEDRA. First day for new Idaho Sen, Rep in D.C. Minnick finds toughest thing is, “informal decision-making, social and unwritten rules of how things work.” Votes for Pelosi, against her rule changes and gets seat on Financial Services Committee. Bolstad in the Statesman. Crapo: “Idaho will have a delegation that will be known for an open door, bipartisan approach to the issues facing Idaho and the nation.” Daly, AP in the Seattle P-I. Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts on Boulder-Whiteclouds: “I think what’s exciting this time is we have the support of both members of the Idaho delegation in the House.” AP in the Spokesman.

Texas considers review of private prisons

Texas lawmakers are considering a review of private prisons, following the pullout of Idaho DOC. Family of two Idaho inmates who killed themselves at the private GEO Group Bill Clayton Detention Center testified at the Texas Legislature. Texas lawmaker on the “little state of Idaho”: “Should we be following their lead?” Well, no Texas prisoners are held at Bill Clayton… Jackson in the Times-News.