A Little Beacon: Interview with Katie Hellmuth Martin

by Julie Chibbaro

Last month, in October, we were lucky to have two journalists join us for Get Lit Beacon. One of them, blogger, public relations expert, and owner of A Little Beacon Blog, Katie Hellmuth Martin, shares her thoughts about finding a good story:

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Katie Hellmuth Martin

GLB: How do you know when you have a story that really works, that you want to pursue?

Katie: When I hear a statement that has bigger implications, my ears perk up. For instance, during a regular yearly budget negotiation for the trash pickup contract, the attorney representing Royal Carting – the trash collector for Beacon – mentioned that Beacon is no longer getting paid for recycling, but rather is paying to have it picked up. I knew from earlier reporting two years ago that this was a big shift. It was a pretty simple statement said in an off-the-cuff way, but I decided to look into it.

If there is a mystery about who did what, or where something came from, then I know I have interest in a story. It could be anything, such as “what is the Spirit of Beacon Day?” even though by now, I myself know what it is. But as long as I remember that others don’t, then that fresh, wondering spirit will stay alive on A Little Beacon Blog.

GLB: Can you talk a little about how you put together a news story?

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Katie: I have a lot of Text Edit documents open. Either I’ll type thoughts into there, and any URLs I’ve found along the way, or I’ll put them straight into a draft at the blog. If I interview someone, they get their own Text Edit document saved into my Notes folder in my blog, called “A Little Beacon Blog” or ALBB on my computer. I only hand write notes if I’m visiting someone in person who might be put off by a laptop or if I don’t have a laptop.

As I marinate, sometimes I stall because I don’t know if it’s timely enough. Sometimes an idea will hit me for the Subject Line in the email that will go out with the article. When and if that happens, the story gets out much faster because I get that much more excited to share it with my readers.

GLB: How do you stay fresh and not get burned out on the glut of information? How do you see a story as important?

Katie: Sometimes, very often, I miss the boat with timeliness. And that makes me sad. I’ll often try hard to fit in an older story. I see a story as important if I feel that a lot of people didn’t know about it, or if they saw misinformation on social media, and if I can get the facts and the links to back something up. Then the story has stronger legs and will seem important to people’s lives.

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Katie Hellmuth Martin is a writer, blogger, designer, business owner, wife and mama. She has been working in the tech space since 2005 as a website producer, digital content strategist, blogger, and small business owner. She is the co-founder of Tin Shingle, the web-based community and resource making buzz-building affordable and accessible to all small business owners. Katie runs A Little Beacon Blog (www.alittlebeaconblog.com), a blog spotlighting her hometown of Beacon, NY and the local businesses that help it thrive.

Fall ’18 2nd Prize Winner: I Am the Symphony of Beacon by Jennifer Rossa

My composer, a what-do-you-call-it – transplanted citiot? – thinks Beacon needs a symphony that showcases its spirit. Now, she might just not know what she’s talking about. But. Aaron Copland lived in Cortland Manor and Ossining. George Gershwin, in Ossining. John Cage, in Stony Point. Ferde Grofe’s The Hudson River Suite makes reference to Albany and, via Rip van Winkle, various other Hudson River towns. As for Beacon, it has an unquestionably strong folk music tradition. But classical music?

Therefore. Think of me as Cage’s 4’33”, but specifically adapted for Beacon.

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Movement One. I start slow, adagio, very quiet, pianissimo. I am the steam of the Hudson River in the summer, fogging up your commute, and the frozen-on-top crackle of the Hudson River in the winter, fogging up your breath. I am the whistle of the approaching Metro-North train, the cry of a circling hawk, the chirp of a cricket lost in your kitchen, the mutterings of a midnight drunk near the VFW.

Now just a little bit louder, but still very slow. I am a bucking deer on 9D who has caused you to slam on your brakes. Yowling neighborhood stray cats who have caused you to slam on your brakes. Slouching raccoons who have just crawled out of the gutter, glared at you and, yes, caused you to slam on your brakes. Tourists jaywalking who, you guessed it.

Sudden emphasis, sforzando! I am the sound of the smell of a skunk. I am not sure what the smell of a skunk sounds like, but nonetheless I am that sound.

Movement Two. A little faster now, andante please, a walking pace. I am the crunching of glass underfoot in abandoned hat factories, the hushed tones of visitors at Dia:Beacon, gravel dislodged by grunting hikers in sensible shoes on Mount Beacon. I am the dudes hanging out behind Kennedy’s shooting the breeze. I would be the sound of you mowing your rain forest of a Hudson Valley yard, but you haven’t mowed because it’s too rainy. I am the united grumbling of all of Beacon as a light breeze shuts down the power grid.

Movement Three, allegro now, quickly, louder. I am the drill of construction all day long but at least it’s only four-story buildings amIright? I am the scrape of steel plates and road work and the braaap of dirt bikes on Mount Beacon. I am the inappropriately late blare of Billy Joe’s Ribworks from across the river. (While actually that is part of the Symphony of Newburgh, we decided to collaborate for one movement, sort of like the local breweries. Speaking of which, I am dogs panting in the 100% summer humidity outside a certain brewery that has banned them.)

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Movement Four. Presto, very, very, fast, fortissimo, very loud. I am strife and dissonance. I am trolls in the Beacon Facebook group. I am large groups of people yucking it up in the quiet car. I am Jeep owners and hikers fighting over the right of way on Mount Beacon. I am people who want a gun shop on Main Street versus people who want a zero-waste food store. I am the Trump hot dog stand across the street from the Islamic teaching center. I am local kids joyriding their bikes on Main Street and adults yelling at them. And repeat, and repeat, and…wait.

Coda. Back to andante, walking pace, gradually quieter, diminuendo. Now, I know I’m just a symphony and I’m not supposed to have opinions, but look here. At least these kids are outside and not playing video games or hacking the government or whatever it is kids do online these days. And while I’m at this common sense stuff, I am a Jeep owner offering a hiker with a sprained ankle a ride down the mountain. I am gun owners shopping at a zero-waste food store. I am the Trump hot dog guy bothering to learn a little about Islam. I am commuters giving other commuters a ride home after a storm grounds Metro-North. I am an echo of a memory of Pete Seeger, singing “This land is made for you and me.”

I am new Beacon. I am old Beacon. I am the Symphony of Beacon.

 

Lee McIntyre: Post-Truth & the Perfect Fraud of Deepfake Video

By Flora Stadler

I remember once, back when I was a Very Serious Poet recently graduated from liberal arts college, I was talking to my mother about graduate school and she asked if I would consider journalism.

“That’s also writing,” she’d said.

“It’s not the same thing at all,” I replied, all righteous.

But 10 years later—after falling into a job as an editor at a local magazine and becoming a true believer in the connection between news and democracy—I did go to graduate school for journalism. There, I got an unexpected education in media literacy: I learned not only hsow to report news, but how to consume it—how to understand the sometimes subtle difference between fact and implication, the importance of source, the way language and even statistics can be manipulated.

But nothing could’ve prepared me for where we are now. News media, social media—it’s overwhelming and, honestly, discouraging.

In this bloody election cycle, I’m going to fall back on reporting and bring some nonfiction focus into the Get Lit online salon. I need truth to counter this confusing, divisive and downright Orwellian time, as we learn to consume new forms of media responsibly in the age of post-truth politics.

In my quest to separate facts from alternative facts, I found the refreshingly straightforward Lee McIntyre, Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and author of Post-Truth, a very good (and kind of scary) book examining the path that led us here, and how we can tread carefully on it.

McIntyre isn’t just a nonfiction author. He also had interesting things to say about his fiction writing, a genre he described as “ethical thriller,” and how it impacted his work on this book: “Quite a number of philosophers read mysteries, all the way back to Wittgenstein. And one day, I was reading [John] Grisham and I thought, ‘I can do this, how hard can it be?’ It’s very hard, very hard indeed. But it’s made me better at writing nonfiction because some of the techniques used in fiction, like show don’t tell, really work in nonfiction. Sometimes what’s the most persuasive is to tell somebody a story. So Post-Truth would’ve been a very different book if I hadn’t written fiction… I had to tell a story that made sense in the overall arc of the argument.”

But let’s get to the juicy nonfiction, and to the root of my question:

Since you’ve written the book Post-Truth, what’s the one thing you’re seeing now that worries you most, and what should we be doing as news/social media producers and consumers to mitigate it?

“The most common question I get is, ‘Where do we go now? What can we do next?’ In order to answer the question, you have to play the ball where it lies, and it’s a slightly different place right now than it was when I turned in the manuscript for the book [in May 2017].

By far, the thing that I’m the most worried about is the extent to which post-truth is a precursor for an authoritarian government. We’re seeing more and more that lying by public officials—not just in the U.S., but in other countries—is a precursor for oppression and silencing of journalists and, in some cases, violence against journalists. Political leaders do that when they’re getting ready to take over, getting ready to accrete more power, and they want to shut up the truth-tellers.

The reason I’m more worried about this than I was a year-and-a-half ago is not only that political events have changed, but fake news has changed. At the time I wrote Post-Truth, the main kind of fake news we were concerned with was the type that was being produced in Russian troll farms and other places, that were these naked attempts to try to insert false stories into the news stream and get us to believe them. That still exists, but now Trump is making false accusations of fake news against legitimate news organizations, which can have a kind of ricochet effect.

And with the technological advances, it’s now possible to produce audio and audiovisual fake news. There’s a company called Lyrebird that has a very legitimate business: What they try to do is take a one-minute audio sample and use that to create a vocal dictionary. So they put it through a speech synthesizer and get you to say anything you need to say. Now, if you’re Stephen Hawking, that’s a good thing. But if you’re someone trying to produce fake news, that’s a terrible thing, because you can use someone’s voice to try to get them to say whatever you need to say.

There’s another project out of Stanford, a video project called Face2Face. What they can do, which is straight out of Orwell, is take a person who’s being videotaped on a screen, put a mask on a person who’s standing just offstage, and through a technology called ‘face capture’ make the image that’s being projected on the screen conform to the facial expressions of the person wearing the face mask, rather than the person in the screen. In real time, they’ll be able to digitally alter the facial expression of the person who is giving the speech. When that happens, I don’t know what happens next. At that point, it may be that people are so cynical and demoralized that they think everything is fake. And that puts us at enormous risk for authoritarian rule.

I think the only thing that we can do is be aware that it exists. We were enormously behind the curve on text- and picture-based fake news, and it’s taken us two years to get to the level of public education and literacy where people are beginning to be skeptical about news. I think it will take that long or longer for people to get to a similar level of skepticism about the new technology, which is called Deepfake tech. It is so compelling that even if you know it’s fake, it appeals to a certain cognitive bias that we have in our brain, where we might enjoy watching it. I remember after the Parkland tragedy, there was a fake photo that went around of Emma González ripping the Constitution in half. It was completely Photoshopped and fake. The sad part of it is that even people who knew it was fake shared it and loved it. So just imagine what will happen when we can share audio and video. Even if it’s fake, it’s still going to appeal to that cognitive bias that we have.”

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and ethics instructor at Harvard Extension School. His many wonderful books on truth, science and philosophy can be ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: How is a book cover created?

By Ruta Rimas

The cover of a book is by far its most valuable marketing tool, and many ideas (and opinions) factor into the final design. Publishers want unique, eye-catching book covers. Ask yourself what makes you pick up a book, and that is the very question publishers ponder at every stage of the design process.

Well over a year in advance of a book’s on-sale date, the cover design process begins. There’s good reason for the early start: we need the image and a printed jacket for the sell-in process, which occurs about six months prior to a book’s on-sale. A book has a stronger chance of being ordered by booksellers if they can visualize it. No book cover? Many booksellers will skip an order, especially if the book is by an unknown or unproven author.

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This is the final cover for a book that goes on sale in June 2019.

The process of book cover design looks something like below, though it varies from publisher to publisher.

Editor presents the book to design: The editor shares what the book is about, who the audience may be, what  comparative and competitive books are already on the shelves, and then offers some ideas to the design department. To give you some perspective, for my Fall 2019 books, I started talking covers with my designers in… August 2018.

Designer is assigned: The creative director assigns a designer who they feel is the best fit for the project. The designer and editor begin bouncing ideas around. The designer often reads the manuscript at this stage, if one is available.

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This was the first cover direction for the book pictured above, scrapped after input from sales and marketing.

Designer drafts ideas and presents to editor: The designer whips up several different directions using inspiration art, stock photos, unique lettering, even illustrations. The editor offers input and sends the designer back to work until finally, an idea is agreed on. This stage has a lot of back and forth and is often the longest. Once everyone is on the same page, it’s time to set up a photo shoot or to hire an artist. Sometimes, we use stock photos for book covers, too. It all depends on the need of the book, our budget, and where we see the book shelves at stores.

Editor shares with author and Editor shares with sales/marketing: This step can happen simultaneously or sequentially or flip-flopped. Editors want their authors to be happy and proud of the book cover. Most editors take their author’s feedback into consideration and will share that feedback with the designer. Sometimes if an author is very unhappy with the cover, the cover is scrapped and a new idea pursued. We also take our sales and marketing feedback very seriously. Sometimes sales and marketing might even ask us to rethink a cover. And then we start all over again, until…

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Take two! The author saw this version and provided feedback, which was incorporated for the final cover.

BOOK COVER IS DONE! Then…

The cover feeds out digitally to retailers: About six to nine months prior to on-sale, just in time for sales calls, the book cover posts online at Amazon, B&N, and IndieBound.

Jacket proofs are printed and mailed: Once a final image is agreed upon by everyone, and as the sales force continues their sell-in process, the production department creates jacket proofs for the sales team to show accounts. The proofs may not be the final jacket that wraps around the final book, but generally they are very close and will include things like special effects (embossing, spot gloss, a unique finish like “soft touch,” for example).

The above steps are a general overview of the process, but talk to your author friends and you’ll find exceptions to every stage. Sometimes books don’t have manuscripts available early enough for the editor — let alone the designer! — to read and publishers have to create covers based on a synopsis or sample pages. Some books are crashed onto a season after the sell-in process begins, and so the cover has to be whipped together immediately. And sometimes, books change cover design from the hardcover to the paperback.

But one thing is certain. All book covers are tailor-made and with a common goal: encouraging readers to buy the book.

Empathy for the Reader

by Kristen Holt Browning

I’ve never been a fan of the “books are good for you” school of thought. Books are not broccoli, and poems won’t make you virtuous.

Plenty of social scientists disagree with me. Recent studies found that readers of literary fiction do better at recognizing, understanding, and inferring others’ feelings and emotions, while children who read a lot display higher levels of emotional intelligence, and increased empathy (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377; https://readingpartners.org/blog/reading-improves-kids-emotional-intelligence-increases-empathy/).

This is all good news, but literature shouldn’t be the vegetable of the arts. Must everything improve us? Can’t a novel, or a short story, or a poem simply be enjoyed, absorbed, and lingered over? Isn’t it enough to notice and admire the suspenseful plot, the gorgeous language, the finely depicted protagonist?

Then I read Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, and it convinced me that there might be something to this books-make-you-a-better-person thing.

Half of the chapters take place in Chicago in 1985, and feature Yale, Nico, Richard, and the rest of their group of friends, all young gay men, as well as Fiona, Nico’s sister. Nearly all of these men are struggling with or affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. It was a sad shock to read The Great Believers and be reminded of how common, and commonly devastating, death was for this cohort just a few decades ago.

downloadFiona plays the central role in the alternating chapters. She is searching for her estranged daughter, Claire, in Paris in 2015. As we flash back and forth between young Fiona in the 80s—standing by her dying brother even as their family disowns him, nursing her friends throughout their illnesses—and contemporary Fiona, we gradually understand  the trauma of being the one left alive, and left behind. How do you live in a world populated by ghosts?

Makkai’s language isn’t particularly elevated or notable. It’s a fairly long book, and at first I didn’t want to read it: another overstuffed, earnest, well-meaning novel.

But as I read over the course of several days, I felt myself expanding, in my pity and despair and tenderness for these people. I  started to open to the terrible possibility of living during a plague, of dying pointlessly—or, of trying to make a life in the aftermath of devastation. I slid into the lives of these suffering, loving, laughing, crying people. In other words, I empathized with them.

So, while I distrust empathy as a reason to read, I value it as a side effect of reading. If a book can entertain us and bring us into the world of another, that’s only all to the good. At a time like this, marked by so much rage and distrust, anything that grows empathy is necessary, and welcome. We could all use a little more broccoli on our plates.