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Elizabeth Spiers’ case for creative ADD.

February 9, 2011 \am\28 1:35 am

While speaking at The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism yesterday afternoon, Elizabeth Spiers had been Editor In Chief of the New York Observer for a total of two days.

My school schedules its guest speakers far in advance. It was coincidental timing.

It made sense to have Spiers on our campus. The school opened in September, 2006 — with see-through classroom walls that jack-hammer the transparency metaphor into our brains, a small hub in the shadow of the Times building. It opened with its middle finger raised to the notion that journalism is “dying,” and stated its intention to focus on digital media, solid reporting, ethics and entrepreneurial ideas. Spiers is undoubtedly an entrepreneur. She was the founding editor of Gawker. She was the founder of Breaking Media and launched popular media properties like Crushable for other companies. The list goes on encyclopediac-ly.

Now she’s editing the Observer. She says it’s her main focus and “more than a full time job.” (She wouldn’t talk much about her plans for the paper’s future; After 48 hours at the editor’s desk: probably a wise decision.) But she’s still teaching new media at the School of Visual Arts. And editing her book, And They All Die in the End, which will be published by Riverhead.

When the questions opened to the audience, I asked her when she makes the time to write fiction, and whether she compartmentalizes it from journalism and business. I pictured the pages of the novel in her brain, sandwiched between boxes labeled AD REVENUE and EDITORIAL CONTENT scrawled in pink Sharpie, and then wondered if all of it — the business of journalism, the consulting, the teaching, the writing — had no box, and was just free-floating around up in there.

Spiers said she did compartmentalize. Of her novel, she said, “I tend to binge write.” She also said that if she didn’t have an agent or publisher, she’d still be writing fiction.

As someone who claims she “fell backwards into media,” Spiers has worn a lot of hats within that sphere. Fiction is a large step away from journalism while she’s still, perhaps now even more, immersed in it.

“You should understand that if you pursue [a multi-faceted] course, you’re going to get a lot of shit for it,” Spiers said. “We live in a culture that really values specialization now, so if you are pursuing multiple things, you look like a bit of a dilettante, unless you’re really successful at multiple things.”

Spiers has certainly been really successfully wearing the entrepreneur hat. She knew, from a business perspective, what kind of stories and models would work for the sites she launched, even when they weren’t the kind of stories she actually likes to read: her natural media diet includes the Times and The Awl; she said she doesn’t care about beauty or celebrities and prefers business and politics. Whether or not she can successfully write fiction is something time (or really, publication) will tell. She refused to discuss the content of her book while she’s in the editing stage.

Personally, I hope the book is damn good. I’m a champion of multiple hats. A champion, sometimes, of the convergence of hats. (Except those beanie-visor hybrids that  just look awkward and ultimately wrong.) If anything, her success will be reassuring to those who don’t see their career moving in a straight line. (Give me some zig zags. And airplane lifts. I’ll ski, even. I’ll try to ski without falling.)

It’s beyond obvious — overstated– that the media landscape and the publishing world are changing. That’s why journalism schools are teaching narrative film techniques for web, alongside business models. (Or, at least, mine is. There’s an entrepreneurial incubation center. For all I know, there are alien robots in there.) I’d say that writers are required to armor up more than in the past and diverge from the straight line (“I want  to be staffed by the New Yorker by my 30th birthday!”) if they want to be successful. I don’t think Spiers is wrong when she says that specialization is valued. But what about specialization, and also that thing over there, and that one with the app, and I can help you edit that documentary, and hell, why not a novel?

Also, hi, I’m Hannah Miet. I’m new here.

  1. February 9, 2011 \am\28 6:07 am 6:07 am

    sweet. welcome, hannah.

  2. February 9, 2011 \am\28 9:05 am 9:05 am

    Multiple hats are the way of the future. My publisher just told a group of students who were touring our office that, and used me as an example. She said, hybrid jobs are the future, you’ve got to be able to handle a lot of different things, juggle a lot of different ideas. In my opinion it’s the specialization that is killing business, because once your specialization becomes irrelevant where do you go from there?

    Multiple hats, I’m telling you. Like layers in winter, layers for life.

  3. Jenny permalink
    February 9, 2011 \pm\28 8:57 pm 8:57 pm

    Someone posted this on Facebook and the title intrigued me. Glad I clicked through! I’ve been preaching diversity in media — especially journalism and writing — for over a decade now. Glad to see that others are also picking up the mantle and seeing the wisdom in it.

    Great piece of work here!

  4. February 10, 2011 \am\28 1:54 am 1:54 am

    I think you know my position on this topic, Ms. Miet. Fine piece for an excellent blog. Glad to see you’re getting around. WWAATD is a great place to be.

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