At Least My Mother Isn’t *That* Embarrassing.

Arrivals, Tokyo Haneda

I’ve gotten dozens of excellent responses to my Puta Grande talk. But my favorite was passed along to me from a cousin on the west coast. She sent the video to her friend, a mother of four, and that mom emailed back to say, Oh, this is nothing. When our family picks up someone at the airport, we dress up in full costume for them. We did pilgrims and turkeys when our daughter came back for Thanksgiving. We wore lederhosen when our son came back from study abroad in Germany.

Yes, really.

And there it is: The first time I’ve ever thought, Wow, I’m so glad my mother isn’t that embarrassing. It is a thought I don’t expect to ever think again.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: The Monastery That Kept Us Dry.

Things tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

In 2008, I studied abroad in Spain. It wasn’t necessarily the most challenging academic experience of my life. The school where I took classes had palm trees on campus. I got a month off for spring break. I lived a block away from the beach.

But most damning of all: That semester, I got 4000-level honors credit for walking.

There’s this famous walk in Spain, called the Camino de Santiago. I was given the option of walking four days of the Camino, about 100 miles in all. Complete that, and write a five-page paper — in English, mind you — and I’d get honors credit.

So along with 20 or 30 of my fellow students, I walked.

One of our professors, Armando, was our guide. We’d start the morning in a Camino hostel. He’d tell us where to stop for lunch. We’d have lunch as a group, and he’d tell us where to stop for the night. It was a nice routine: Wake up, eat, walk, eat, hydrate, walk, eat, take shots of strange green liquid by the side of the road, eat, sleep, repeat.

The third day, I was walking with two of my friends, CG and Jamie. We’d stopped for lunch in a field somewhere, and Armando told us we had about 3 or 4 hours of walking to the next town. We started walking. Maybe 90 minutes later, we came to a roundabout in a small town. We kept walking. It started to rain. CG and Jamie wore trashbags as raincoats. We walked through fields, and up and down hills. We walked for a very long time, waiting for our evening destination to appear.

And then: A town. We walked around, looking for the hostel. There was a woman walking outside her home, and we asked her how much further we had to walk until we’d get to the town Armando had talked about.

She told us we’d already passed it. It was six or seven miles the other way. It was the town with the roundabout that we’d just breezed through.

Oh, fuck.

We started trying to call Armando on our cell phones, but it wasn’t easy getting cell phone reception in middle-of-nowhere Spain. CG got a bar, and Armando picked up. We were unhappy and wet. Armando was happy and full and drinking strange green liquid out of shot glasses.

He suggested we walk back, but there was no way we were walking six miles in reverse just to walk it forward again the next day. We told Armando we wanted to go onto the next town.

Okay, he said. There’s a monastery a mile up the road. Keep walking, stay there, and we’ll see you at lunchtime tomorrow.

So we walked, through the fields, through the rain. The monastery appeared. We walked to the front door. It looked like the front door for a dungeon. We knocked.

There was no one there. It was 6 or 7 p.m. by now, and it was almost completely dark, and we were very wet, and there was no one there to show us how to get inside.

So we walked around the building. There was a light in one window. The monastery, it turns out, had a gift shop. We knocked and knocked on the gift shop door. This woman came out, annoyed. We told her we were walking the Camino. We asked where the beds were.

She pointed us toward the front door we’d already seen, and walked back inside. We started to bang on the door again. We pleaded with her. We were tired, and we were wearing trashbags. Please, ma’am, show us where to stay.

And seeing that we weren’t going to leave her alone, she stepped out and pointed the way. She guided us to a small doorway, and opened it up. Inside: A giant room, ceilings 50 or 60 feet high. Several bunk beds. No heat. No hot water.

But for a night: Home. Better than sleeping on the wet grass outside. Better than walking back to the town we’d already missed.

We were cold, but thankful. When I think about how lucky we were to have messed up and still found our way to a bed, it comforts me. I don’t know how we screwed up and found our way to that monastery, but we did. We were dry, and that was comfort enough.

I Cannot Codify Entrepreneurship, And Neither Can You, And Here’s Why.

337.365 - December 3, 2010

There was a point not all that long ago when I was pretty sure I could codify entrepreneurship. I’d heard plenty of stories, and talked to plenty of entrepreneurs, and I was seeing a lot of the same themes repeat. I thought that if I could just ID specific points along the way, I could explain how to master this thing.

Then I discovered that this isn’t a board game. There aren’t logical, sequential steps. There are common themes, but there isn’t any sense to how this works. Entrepreneurship is a cross between a Choose Your Own Adventure book and Mad-Libs — it’s weird, and deeply personal, and subject to both non-sequitors and randomness.

I read this fantastic quote from KissMetrics’ Hiten Shah that reminded me of just why that is. It’s in a post about how to find the right mentors. He writes:

“That’s the thing about mentoring that people need to understand: It’s about the strength of the individual to weather the unrelenting storm that is entrepreneurship, not acquiesce to some rigid timeline of entrepreneurial life milestones.”

Spot on. Entrepreneurship is this mix of all the stuff I love about life — it’s risk, and chance, and success, and failure, and this quest to be unrelentingly awesome — just condensed into something tangible. It’s the venue through which I’ve chosen to explore the world, and nobody’s going to be able to tell me what the right path is, or where the milestones are.

The only path is the one I choose, and the people I surround myself with have to be capable of helping me answer the questions I need to answer along the way. I need to find lots of people who can challenge me, and who I can listen to. But ultimately, they’re not going to be able to tell me if I’m doing this thing the right way.

The only way to figure that out is to do it and see what happens.

This Research Is Really Interesting. The Problem Is, It’s Also Really Old.

Flipboard

The PhD with whom I share an office wall at RJI just published a cool study on how readers react when they stumble across news. In it, she makes a number of really interesting points about serendipity and the news. And before I go any further, I want to say this: Many of the points the study makes seem to be universally true. Points like:

-People like checking the Internet for news when they get bored at work.
-People feel guilty when they waste time reading news on the Internet.
-People read news because they want to be well informed.

But the real meat of the research looks at how readers respond when they stumble upon news. I was excited about this. A real look at how certain mediums — print, or social media, or smartphones — affect the way readers experience a story? Yeah, I’m interested!

Then I read the fine print, and it bums me out. The research is based on interviews with readers in Columbia, MO… in April and May of 2009.

Remember how people consumed news 33 months ago? Facebook and Twitter were wildly different(1). There were no tablets. The iPhone and the App Store were less than a year old.

It’s strange to read a story about modern news serendipity and see more mentions of Yahoo.com’s homepage (4) than Facebook (0), smartphones (0) or tablets (0) combined.(2)

I’m not saying the study is worthless. I’m not saying the study is wrong. In fact, just the opposite: A lot of the points made in the study seem universal and worthy of larger discussion.

My frustration is that the study is based largely on media consumption habits that are three years old, and in Internet time, that’s just a step away from forever. I wish it better reflected how readers consumed news today.

  1. Actual sentence I just dug up from a social media site in July 2009: “We’ve all heard the predictions and discussions from those in the blogosphere around MySpace. However, whether or not you believe that Facebook is going to overthrow MySpace, and Twitter is going to rule over all isn’t really important.”
  2. And this research took place long before Yahoo! really got into serious news reporting, too.

The Time MLK Day Changed My Life.

So this is the story about how back in 2004, something happened on Martin Luther King Day that changed my life.

Actually, it wasn’t exactly MLK Day. It was the Friday before. Every year, my synagogue in D.C. holds a big interfaith service. Religious leaders from across the city come, and choirs sing, and there’s always an amazing speaker, someone from the community who reaches back and speaks about Dr. King.

In 2004, the speaker was Herman Boone. You remember him as the coach of T.C. Williams High School’s football team, the team immortalized in the movie “Remember The Titans.” Denzel Washington played Boone.

I was writing for my high school newspaper at the time, and my parents got it into their heads that I should go to the interfaith service and approach Boone and ask for an interview. People who know me now don’t believe me when I say this, but it’s true: Back then, I was almost cripplingly shy around strangers. Calling up a source for a phone interview was an ordeal. I remember having to give myself a pep talk before dialing even a single number.

So approaching a guy who just had a fairly epic Disney movie made about his life and asking for an interview wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do on a Friday night.

But my parents didn’t budge on this one, so I went. There was a dinner before the service, and my mother prodded me along — think momma deer nudging her child forward — and over to Boone. I introduced myself, told him what high school I went to, and asked if he might have 20 minutes to talk to me over the phone.

Boone waited for me to finish, and then he asked a question I didn’t expect: What was the name of your high school, again?

Walt Whitman, I said.

In Bethesda?

Yes, I said.

I think we played you guys back in 1971.

1971 — As in, the year the Titans won the title.

Whoa.

I got his number and we set up a time. A few other Titans were there that night — I got their numbers, too. And when I went home, I dug up the name of the Whitman coach from 1971. His name’s Bob Milloy, and he’s still coaching in Maryland, at Good Counsel. He’s the winningest active coach in the state. Whitman was his first head coaching job.

I sent him an email and asked him if he remembered anything about playing T.C. Williams.

He shot me back an email. I wish I’d saved it, but I didn’t. I remember the opening line, though. It said, simply: “Yeah, we played ’em.”

And so that’s how that story was born. I interviewed Milloy, and then talked with some of the Titans, and then Boone. The Boone interview I remember best of all. He told me stories about hurt and pain and hate that I can’t even imagine.

I wrote the story, and it turned out well. My journalism teacher suggested I send it in for an award. The Kansas City Star had this award for high school journalists, the Hemingway Award. I’d submitted two stories the year before and had been named a finalist for sports writing. I submitted again.

I won.

And so I went out to Kansas City to receive the award. There were a bunch of Mizzou grads on the Star’s sports staff. They all told me the same thing: Go to Missouri for journalism. They insisted and insisted — it could only be Missouri, they said.

So I went.

Things fall into place like that, sometimes. Looking back, it’s easy to see the path now. Mizzou opened up worlds for me, friendships for me. The fellowship I’m on now doesn’t happen if I had gone elsewhere for college, I don’t think. So much of my adult life has been shaped by this university.

And yet — I don’t get here without those conversations at the Star. And I don’t get those without winning the award. And I don’t get that if I don’t write the story.

And I don’t get the story if I don’t show up, that MLK weekend in 2004, and ask a coach if he’d like to talk, and if he doesn’t remember that 32 years earlier, his school and my school decided to play a football game.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence, or luck, or fate. But it is one hell of a story, and I’m honored to have told it.

Telling it changed my life.

The Thing I Really Wanted During The Days in Biloxi In Which My Diet Was 84 Percent Tuna Fish.

apples 2

Back on Aug. 1, 2010, I officially launched Stry. I was a month into my three-month stay in Biloxi. I wasn’t making any money, and I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen to me. That night, I wrote down this thought about my future. I’m sharing it here on the Interwebs for the first time.

The weird thing about this point in my life is how little I actually want. I do not want to buy a fancy car, or to own a private plane, or to have any sort of extravagance. I’m unemployed, and trying to turn this period into self-employment. I would be happy with enough money to keep the lights on.

The only thing I really want these days is enough money for food. In San Antonio, I bought expensive cheese and frivolous amounts of quesadillas. And I could afford it. At no point did I worry about being able to feed myself. That was nice.

Right now, I’m not in that position. I have no source of income. I think about the quality of the apples I’m buying before I buy them. I see orange juice as a luxury item.

I do not want to be rich. I just want to be able to live without wondering whether or not the apples in my hand are above my economic status.

What the Hell Do I Do Now With Stry? (Part II)

If you missed Part I of “What the Hell Do I Do Now With Stry?”, you might want to read that first.

So the question for me now is, With what I know right now, what the hell do I really want to do with Stry?

Financially, I’m alright. I have +/-$45,000 left to spend on Stry. I have +/- 5 months to spend it.

So here’s what I want to do:

I want to tell one great story. I want it to be about this country in 2012. I want to call it, “Interconnected America.” I want it to tell the story of how we’re all tied up together in this thing, how immigration in Alabama and health care in Iowa and poverty in Detroit are all intertwined. I want to tell the story of where we, The People, are at this very moment, and what is keeping us from being all that we hope to become.

I’m going to set up a home base somewhere. I’m not sure for how long — maybe just a few months. I’m going to bring out some reporters. And we’re going to get to work.

I promise this much: Stry is going to dig deeply into the problems that Americans are facing in 2012, and Stry is going to bring you stories about the issues that are at the heart of this upcoming election. I promise great reporting and great storytelling. I promise to make you think.

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For me, personally, I also want to prove a few things:

-That I can put together a band of reporters.
-That this team can tell some amazing stories.
-That I can lead this team.

I also want to prove three additional things:

1. That I can syndicate Stry content to publishers. I want to prove that great content deserves a wider audience in print. I want to find the two, three, five publishers who’d like bring Stry to their readers. I want to get my content in their pages.

2. That I can produce an independent print product. I’m not sure if this is a book, or a Kindle Single, or a Stry Magazine. But I want this reporting to find a forever home beyond the web.

3. That I can build a community around these stories. The thing I really want is to put on a live event. I’m thinking of calling them StrySessions. It’d be an evening of discussion about a topic. Stry presents some of our stories — live — and brings in experts to discuss these topics. I want to see the community that Stry builds around this reporting.

So that’s the goal going forward: Tell a great story. Syndicate the content. Produce a printed product. Host a live event.

That’s what I want to do with the money I have left. All I ever really cared about is the storytelling. I want to prove how amazing stories can be, and I want these stories to help others understand our world, and if this doesn’t make me a cent, it won’t bother me at all.

The value is in the doing, and it’s time for this company to step up and do what it was built to do:

Tell great stories.

What the Hell Do I Do Now With Stry? (Part I)

This is Part I of II. Skip ahead to Part II if you’d like using this very link.

18 months ago, I was working at a TV station in San Antonio. I saw that journalism was changing, and I knew I wasn’t a part of the conversation. Every time I saw an interview with a news CEO who said, “There’s a 25 year old out there with the answers for our industry,” I wanted to pull my hair out.

Because I was only 22.

I knew I wanted to be a part of these conversations about the future of journalism, and I sensed that the only way to get there was by doing something big.

So I started Stry.

Above everything else, that’s why I started Stry: To be a part of the conversation about the future of journalism. In the 18 months since, I’ve gotten into those discussions. I’ve been invited to conferences. I’ve spoken at an event where my lead-in was the managing editor of the Washington Post. I’ve talked with people who have more zeros in their bank accounts than I have letters in my last name, and they’ve given me the time to discuss Stry and my ambitions.

Am I a big name in the room? No. But I’ve taken some huge steps from San Antonio to get myself into the conversation.

I’m proud of that. And if that’s all Stry did for me — get me a foot in the door — it would be enough.

❡❡❡

But Stry’s done more for me than just that. It’s also given me amazing opportunities to prove myself.

For one, I wanted to prove myself as a reporter. 18 months ago, I asked myself: If I showed up in a place where nobody knew my name, and nobody knew who I worked for, could I still tell great stories?

Biloxi answered that question for me.

Hell yes, I can.

I also didn’t know jack about business 18 months ago. I’m not sure that I could’ve told you the difference between profits and revenues. I thought QuickBooks was something you could read on your Kindle. I didn’t have the skills, let alone the vocabulary, to work in this world. I didn’t really understand the business behind journalism.

Today, I’m miles ahead of 2010 me. I actually understand this stuff. I’m not an MBA or anything, but the basic underpinnings of business are no longer a total mystery to me.

And biggest yet, as far as I’m concerned:

I learned how to take on risk. I mean, actually shoulder risk. I learned how to take responsibility for my actions, and I learned that I don’t really care if something I do doesn’t work out. Just the simple action of doing — of coming up with an idea, of putting it into motion, of sending it out into the world — is an amazing thing.

Take BooksAround. For that project to get off the ground, I had learn to code. I had to build a website. I had to attempt a Kickstarter campaign, and fail. I had to get back up off the mat, find some money, find some books, buy some books, create a system to document and process all the relevant data, find the people to read the books, and ship off the books. The day that the first books went out was a proud, proud day for me.

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Okay, so a question that’s worth asking:

18 months ago, Dan, you promised to deliver Stry, a nimble news syndicate. You promise to build an editorial team, outfit them with the right tools, send them out on the road, syndicate that content to news organizations, and get those news organizations to pay you for that content.

Did you actually think you could pull that off then? And can you pull it off now?

The answers, one at a time:

Yes.

And maybe.

When I left Texas, I really did think I could pull this off. I saw an industry crumbling. I saw publishers who were angry about how much they were paying the Associated Press for the same content that everybody else has. I thought I could do it better.

I still do.

But everything I was doing was kind of rooted in this one core belief: I really thought I could save news publishers.

I’ve stopped thinking that. Publishers were handed the Internet, the greatest distribution channel in human history, and that hasn’t saved them. They were handed social media, and new ways to engage audiences, and that hasn’t saved them. They were handed the most advanced technology we’ve ever created — DSLR cameras and smartphones and iPads and Final Cut — and that hasn’t saved them.

Point is, me and my merry band of reporters weren’t going to save journalism.

Really, the idea of “saving” this industry is wildly misguided. The deeper I get into this world, the more I see two big conversations happening about journalism.

The first is the big conversation. They’re the 90-whatever percent of journalists who are kind of love with their own demise. They’re the ones who can’t stop talking about how screwed they are. I used to be one of these people.

I’ve realized that I can’t help them. Or more specifically: I can’t fix them.

But then there’s this second conversation. It’s just a little undercurrent. But it’s a room full of people looking at all the amazing tools we have at our disposal, and we’re asking: How can we make journalism more awesome? How can we tell great stories? Let’s shut up for a second about the state of journalism and talk instead about the state of storytelling, because there’s never been a better time to tell stories. So let’s do it!

The secret among this second group is that we know if we do an amazing job telling stories now, in the long run, we’ll be able to build successful businesses around that reporting. So let’s tell some great stories right now, and remind the public of why they love and need what we do.

We have to do that now so that in 10, 20, 50 years, we can have a healthy industry. It’ll take time, but we’ll get there. I really believe that. We’re a society built on narrative. At the root of everything we do, we have stories — stories about who we are, and why we do what we do, and where we’re going. Great storytelling isn’t going away.

So the question for me now is, With all the things I’ve learned, and all that I’m seeing, what the hell do I really want to do about Stry? Those answers in Part II of “What the Hell Do I Do Now With Stry?”

The Puta Grande Story, Told Live.

Back in December, I went out to Phoenix for NewsFoo, a conference for 150 of the brightest minds in news. I’m not sure why I was invited; my guess is that I was there to keep the group’s average IQ from skewing too high.

Regardless: I was there, and at the conference, I got to give a five-minute Ignite talk. The gist of Ignite: Presenters get five minutes and 20 slides. The slides automatically rotate every 15 seconds. So it’s a whole song and dance type of presentation.

My talk was on sources. Screw ups.

And, of course: My mother.

Enjoy.

Introducing Smartphoneless (a Dan Oshinsky blog venture).

Back in July, I decided to defend my choice of telephonic device with a blog post, titled, “Why I Do Not Have a Smartphone.” Many people read this post, said they appreciated my opinion and then told me that I was a moron.

The questions about my phone persist. Every week, a handful of people offer to buy me a nicer phone. Many still ask me how I can live without a phone that checks email. The very sight of me flipping open my phone to take a call gets chuckles.

So I’ve decided to take a formal stand. This week, I launched Smartphoneless.com, a destination for me to post thoughts about and defense of my very phone. There are others like me out there, bravely venturing into a world where needing directions requires asking a live human for help, where taking a picture requires an independent photographic device, where playing Words With Friends is limited to the other fifteen Internet-connected devices we carry around in our bags. Smartphoneless is for the rest of us, the quasi-untethered who walk among the masses.

I may be an idiot by birth, but I use a flip phone by choice.

Follow along with my smartphoneless life, if you wish.