Editor picks up articles that were too hot to handle
By Erica Stein
David Wallis thinks that objectivity in journalism is overrated.
Media magazines have taken this he said / she said balance to an extreme, said Wallis, editor of Featurewell.com, in a recent interview near his Greenwich Village home. Not every article has to be balanced. I prefer brilliant, more informed opinion thats not afraid to call something wrong. Then maybe the next week you run something from the other side.
Having applied his theories as a freelance journalist and founder of a successful dot.com, Wallis now implements them as the creator and editor of a new book, Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print (Nation Books, $16.95).
Wallis, 37, has written for The New York Times Magazine and The Washington Post. An outspoken advocate for the rights of freelance writers and constant decrier of their abuse, Wallis has since 2000 run Featurewell.com, an online company that supplies articles to registered editors. Since its creation, Featurewell has sold over $200,000 in articles from over 1,000 writers to 900 editors.
I think it was easy for me to make the transition to editor, because Ive edited 40 articles a week since 2000, Wallis said. Featurewell has a new roster of articles each week. Mostly political, but art and sports, too.
The sites contributors are a select group that includes Christopher Hitchens, Andrei Codrescu and Susan Cheever. In interviews with The San Francisco Chronicle and Online Journalism Review, Wallis has attributed the sites success to its dependence on quality rather than quantity. Wallis followed the same policy with Killed, which he describes in the introduction as a literary orphanage for articles that were commissioned and then disposed of because, in Walliss words, they disturbed the commissioning editor or the magazines lawyer or the publisher or perhaps the publishers pals. This book grant[s] readers a look at the sometimes sordid process that determines what you read and what you cant.
He initially considered 200 pieces for inclusion, eventually selecting 24. I looked for things that made me think or made me laugh. I looked for quality. There were stories that deserved to be killed, but I didnt include them in the book. His five favorite stories from the collection Jon Entines investigation of the Body Shop, Neil Steinbergs parody of trade conventions, Erik Hedegaard on rock stars and cigarettes, Larry Doyles biting depiction of publicists and Mike Sagers subtly wrenching piece on Palestinian refugee camps represent a cross section of every kind of good story that never sees the light of day.
Wallis presents mostly contemporary pieces, but begins with four older articles by authors including George Orwell and Betty Friedan that place the book in a historical context. Among of these is Terry Southerns profile of Stanley Kubrick and preview of Dr. Strangelove. This feature included, according to Wallis, as a favor to film fans, besides, how often do you get to read an unpublished piece by Southern? was rejected by Esquire, because it didnt convey Kubricks thoughts on Sue Lyon and Liz Taylor. It wasnt a puff piece, so they dropped it, marveled Wallis, who noted that the piece instead gave a brilliant insiders view of a set and a director along with Southerns thoughts about the nuclear policy of pre-emption. Thats pretty amazing stuff for 1963, Wallis said.
According to Wallis, the heart of the book is Hitchenss introduction to an Orwell book review of a book that detailed the excesses of British aristocrats in Singapore and Burma which Wallis characterizes as more subversive than Orwells review itself. Listen to this, said Wallis, None of Orwells would-be censors ever alleged that what he was saying was not true. They asserted that the time was not right for such things to be said
[the editors] note is a demonstration case of the fatuity of the censorial mind. That sums up the book.
Wallis argues, in this book and on his Web site, that the need for the facts, for the story, is whats missing from journalism today. Too often editors overstep by stifling the story in rewrites or by not printing it at all, he said. Wallis blames the situation partly on editors being shareholders in the newspaper, more concerned with the bottom line than the public service aspect of journalism. Its also due, said Wallis, to the increasing ability of the advertising department to dictate content, and the incestuous nature of the industry everyone is afraid to offend someone they may need later on. Self-censorship and timidity before power are much of a muchness, said Wallis, making it difficult for pieces capable of provoking serious controversy to compete in a market geared toward celebrity gossip.
Not that there isnt hope: If you present readers with a powerful, well-reasoned, edgy, sometimes risky product, you can excite, anger or move them, said Wallis. And circulation will rise. While Wallis admitted he doesnt have any solutions, he hopes the book will educate readers to think about what were being fed. A forum to discuss Killed is live at www.killedstories.com, where Wallis will accept and run letters to the editor about the book.