Translating Personal to Universal Language

As an online media outlet, Too Shy to Stop competes with blogs and online newspapers/magazines. We don’t really fit into a genre, and we’re kind of tough to define. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but we do want to offer a unique product with content that readers can’t find anywhere else.

humancannonballPersonal essays are probably our most popular offerings. Though I was initially against featuring only personal essays, I am beginning to embrace them. My biggest concern is that the personal essay can be very self-absorbed.

(Pictured at left: That would make a cool story, by Brent and MariLynn)

“Why would anyone want to read about my life/experience?” is a question the writer must constantly ask.

However, we have had some serious success with compelling personal essays run on a weekly basis: Ana Is an Intern, Niko’s College Counsel, Mermaid in Manhattan, and Japan Jargon have all been recurring features on Too Shy to Stop. Peter has also written some great personal essays that involve music, books, and film.

I keep asking myself how each of these columns is different from a blog, though. Blogs usually contain spur-of-the-moment thoughts. Our personal essays are heavily edited and revised. How are they different from the content found in online literary magazines? I’m not sure yet.

Recently, I was actually inspired by a job advertisement posted by NonSociety, the blog founded by Julia Allison. She is a proponent of “lifecasting“, which is basically an extended personal essay told through various forms of digital media.

“What is a lifecast? It’s our experts creatively opining on their area of expertise while also giving the audience a glimpse into their lives. It’s really just the next step in multi-media art and expression. It’s part memoir, part scrapbook, part like a tattered notebook in which the personality jots thoughts and ideas and pictures about their subject matter. Ultimately, it exists to tell a story – but one which could only be told through the tools of technology…”

Unfortunately, many of the people lifecasting today don’t offer the most exciting content. With Too Shy to Stop, I find it extremely important to show that young people can be intelligent, ambitious, and creative. I am completely sick of the way that mainstream media portrays the typical American 2o-something, and I want to demonstrate the alternative.

I really don’t want to compete with online newspapers, which are experts at handling and reporting breaking content. The New York Times does a great job with it arts and culture section, and I will not claim that our work even compares. However, I do want our work to inspire and inform our audience.

If I Can Make It There…

A few days ago, Bill Wasik, op-ed contributor to The New York Times, wrote a thought-provoking piece about the Internet’s role in creative pursuit and ambition. Today, when living in New York City is basically a financial joke, many ambitious young artists and writers are finding new ways to market and promote themselves.

enoughalienationWho better to try a hand at innovation than those with creativity and energy?

(Pictured: In case you didn’t feel alienated already, by fergusonphotography)

Wasik writes, “In their scope, both the Internet and New York are profoundly humbling: young people accustomed to feeling special about their gifts are inevitably jarred, upon arrival, to discover just how many others are trying to do precisely the same, with equal or greater success.”

New York City is home to the gatekeepers, people who scout and promote talent for a living. These professionals include publishers, music industry executives, and directors. However, so many people have big dreams, and so few get noticed by the gatekeepers. Making it is mostly a matter of luck.

Now, everyone has a Firstnamelastname.com, an Etsy store, a MySpace music page, or a Twitter. Who needs a gatekeeper when you’re resourceful and connected? Millions of young people are resourceful, talented, and connected.

The Internet is a tease. We think we are speaking to an audience of many, but really we don’t know who’s listening. The real problem with the web is that you probably won’t ever know if you’ve profoundly touched someone with a song on MySpace or a poem in an online literary magazine.

Of course, the same problem exists with more traditional forms of media (an author can’t watch her readers, and a musician can’t see who’s listening to his album), but the Internet perpetuates anonymity and distance.

Don’t be discouraged. Just love what you do and believe that it matters.

The Worst of “Best of…” Magazine Issues

This evening, I flipped through the latest issue of NJ Monthly, which features what critics believe to be the best 25 restaurants in New Jersey. Since I grew up in New Jersey, I am very familiar with most of the restaurants in northern Jersey, and I disagreed with many of the choices for top restaurants in various categories.

punchdrunkI kept thinking about Yelp.com and how I could access hundreds of opinions about restaurants not even mentioned in the magazine. Websites like Chowhound.com attract devoted users who offer directed recommendations for anyone seeking a certain cuisine, atmosphere, or location.

(Pictured at left: When you drink the punch, you like the punch, by vsqz)

For every restaurant listing in the magazine, I wanted to write a letter to the editors about why I agreed or disagreed with the choice. Did the magazine want to start a dialogue? Printed magazines cannot begin dialogues. Sure, letters to the editor mimic a dialogue, but these letters are printed a month later, when no one cares anymore.

On the other hand, I did appreciate the restaurant listings for other parts of the state because I’m less familiar with them. Perhaps this guide would be good for someone visiting New Jersey for the first time. At the same time, I assume that most of the people who read NJ Monthly are from New Jersey.

Case in point? Magazines need to be more “niche” to survive by attracting advertisers. NJ Monthly is “niche”, but you can’t tell a “niche” audience what’s best for them because they already know. Readers from New Jersey selected some of these top restaurant picks, but these readers only represent a small percentage of the “niche” audience.

A “niche” audience is a community that needs a real-time method of communication. Printed magazines fail them.

Storytelling and Serious News Stories

harrypotterTake a moment to consider the Harry Potter series.  Before Harry Potter, young people rarely became excited about books.  Can you remember the last time one book made such an impact on an international level?

(Pictured at left: Media is cool again, by Noël Zia Lee)

Everyone, young and old, had to read Harry Potter, and everyone anticipated J.K. Rowling’s next installment.  The characters are compelling, the story is imaginative, the writing is clear and easy to read, and the imagery is vivid.

Harry Potter is a series of fantasy books.  I understand that many people read fantasy books to escape reality, but we need to remember that reality is often times much more interesting than fantasy.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up.”?

How can newspapers and magazines inspire the same enthusiasm as Rowling did in her readers?  I am trying to think about how reporters can tell their stories in new and interesting ways.  How can news outlets excite and capture the imagination of their readers without compromising factual content and the serious nature of the news?

escapeThe Daily Show gets viewers excited about news, even if the show is meant to be satirical.  The New York Times is trying to retain readers by updating the design of its print edition.  Journalists have launched their own blogs with the hopes of telling their stories in new ways, without the constraints of a news organization limiting their output.

(Pictured at right: Why escape?, by Sam Judson)

News media should exist in order to inspire citizens to take action and make change.  How will you inspire anyone if your message does not engage someone’s imagination?

Somehow, the news media needs to focus more on titillating creativity and thought; reality should be such a commanding presence that no one feels the need to escape it.

Appreciating Creative Professionals in Your Neighborhood

I spend almost as much time seeking new clients as I do working with them.  Any small business owner or consultant will tell you that finding the next client, customer, or project involves effort and time.

jobsandgates_editedI frequently search Craigslist for business owners seeking writing and/or marketing services, and I respond to them in a professional manner, explaining who I am and offering a free customized proposal.

(Pictured at left: Two of the most influential business owners meet in a professional manner, by Joi)

The problem with Craigslist is that some posters try to take advantage of people that respond to their ads.

Yesterday, I contacted Sue, who runs Powerplaygaming.net, the website for a family-owned gaming center in New Jersey.  In her ad, which you can read on Craigslist, Sue seeks “unique sales ideas – lower the cost the better!”.  She is “willing to pay for your time and the idea”, is an “honest salesperson and business owner”, and “will pay an appropriate amount based on the idea”.

I actually live really close to Sue’s business, and I offered to meet with her so that we could discuss her business in person.  I told her that I would create a free proposal that addresses her specific needs.

“If I could afford to hire a consultant I wouldn’t be posting an ad on craigslist,” wrote Sue, in response to my initial e-mail. “If you want to present an idea to me here is my website: www.powerplaygaming.net.”

Of course, I would love to offer her my ideas, which would including registering for a Twitter account, creating a Facebook fan page, blogging about all the fun events that take place at Power Play Gaming, drafting a press release and sending it to local newspaper editors and bloggers, connecting with online gaming forums, and building a fan base by offering free teaser events at her location.  None of these ideas would cost her any money.

I did not want to offer Sue my ideas because I knew that she was trying to take advantage of creative hopefuls.  “How is any professional supposed to know that you will compensate them for their ideas?” I asked. “Creativity doesn’t come cheap!”

How did Sue respond?

safetypins_edited“Just so you know, creativity actually CAN come cheap – I have used ideas from 10 and 12 yr olds and they have increased my business and I have used ideas in the past from College students and HS students and paid them in time to play, WOW!

(Pictured at right: Children have great ideas, by Pink Sherbet Photography)

That’s the reason I am posting again because I am ready to get more ideas.  Last night I received about 15 ideas and will put 3 into place and will actually pay them.  OMG, I actually am keeping my word!

If you had responded with something more positive than ‘creativity doesn’t come cheap’ you might have piqued my interest. Have a great day and if you want to increase your business I have a suggestion…stop emailing me and spend time on someone that is actually interested in what you have to offer.”

If you want to succeed in the business world, you can use Sue’s strategy and take advantage of 10-year-old children.  Or, you can value services provided by creative professionals, keeping an open mind when they offer to meet with you and draft a personalized proposal for you free of charge, without any obligation.

Q&A with Alyssa Royse of Just Cause Magazine

Alyssa Royse, President and Editor-in-Chief of Just Cause, a magazine available online and in print on-demand, contacted me because she noticed a reporter query from Too Shy to Stop writer Eui-jo on Help a Reporter Out (HARO).

Alyssa was intrigued by our model, and I was intrigued by her magazine, especially since I have immersed myself in everything print on demand for the past week!  I asked her a few questions about her magazine, her ideas about print media, and her business model, and you can read her answers below.

Me: What’s the story behind Just Cause?

AR: You could come at this from several different angles – life is a series of twisted paths that seem totally disparate until they deliver you where you’re going. But after working in PR, journalism and doing a lot of volunteering, it became very clear to me that people can be (and are) united by the causes that matter to them. That seems to transcend race, age, socioeconomic status and everything else. Further, that by looking at solutions and fostering actual dialog about the issues, we can make progress. I had an “ah-ha moment” in a planning meeting for a fundraiser, and the whole thing really presented itself to me.

Beyond that, I was just sick to death of the overwhelmingly dogmatic, negative and divisive nature of media. What good is done by focusing on problems rather than solutions, failures rather than successes, or people’s basest behavior rather than their achievements? I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that the way to encourage positive behavior is to celebrate it and create a media that that looks at our potential in an instructive and inspirational way rather than focusing on the misguided notion that we are interminably screwed. I still think I’m right – we’ll see!

Continue reading “Q&A with Alyssa Royse of Just Cause Magazine”

Custom v. Modified WordPress Themes

I recently came across a post on ProBlogger about designing a custom WordPress theme for your blog. If you don’t already know how much I admire and appreciate WordPress as a blogging tool and content management system, then let me tell you now. I love WordPress!

designIn September, when I was in the process of looking for someone to redesign Too Shy to Stop, I had to decide if I wanted a designer who would modify an already-existing theme or someone who would create something completely custom.

(Pictured at left: Design is the part that you don’t notice, by anikki6)

Obviously, a custom theme is more expensive, but it’s worth the cost if you want your blog/website to look memorable and unique.

If you need a starting point, Revolution2 and Thesis (mentioned in the ProBlogger post) are basic themes that allow for a lot of customization. You will probably be very inspired if you spend some time looking at websites that use these themes.

For Too Shy to Stop, I decided to go with a completely custom theme, designed by Always Creative and programmed by Bill Erickson. I’m not going to lie; communicating my vision and needs to them was not an easy task. If you’re not completely sure what you want, a custom theme may not be the best option for you. However, I was able to point them to some websites (i.e. Slate and Salon) that I admire, and they found the common design denominators.

If you do decide to hire a designer to create a custom theme, don’t worry if it’s not perfect at first. You and your designer will probably go through several revisions before you are happy. Don’t settle for any design that doesn’t represent you as an individual or a brand. It’s part of the process!