Series A Crunch? Can’t We Call It The Seed-Investment Glut?

Let’s start with what the Series A crunch is.*

For that, turn to how CB Insights defines it in its Seed Investing Report from December: “[The] Series A crunch is nothing more than excessive demand for a limited supply of Series A financings.”

Precisely. Lest we’re confused from the get-go, it’s important to know that the Series A crunch does not refer to any sort of contraction in the overall number of Series A investors doling out stacks of Benjy Franklins to cash-hungry startups.

Rather, the “crunch” represents what will happen as hordes of startups—those that have received seed rounds of financing from angel investors—find themselves chasing too few Series A dollars. Again, turn to CB Insights’ Seed Investing Report: 1,000 startups will be “orphaned” as they’re unable to raise successive rounds of investment capital following their initial seed raises.

Admittedly, this point about what “Series A crunch” means was muddled in the piece I wrote for Technically Baltimore, especially where I scoffed openly at even calling this phenomenon a Series A crunch:

“Series A crunch? Meh. What appears to be happening, rather, is that startups are starting to feel the effects of an excessive amount of poorly executed seed deals undertaken by inexperienced angel investors.”

I promise you I’m not operating under a misapprehension of what the tech world means when it says Series A crunch.

I am, however, being a curmudgeonly fuck. Let me explain.

In financial terms, a crunch is a shortage of cash or credit. We’ve already established that “Series A crunch” is a phrase that does not represent any shrinking in the overall capacity of Series A dollars. It’s not as if Thurston Howell Barnaby the Deuces is dropping dead, and therefore his $50 million in what could have been Series A funding is suddenly gone (with the appropriate amount extracted by the federal government in the form of estate taxes).

So why are we calling this phenomenon the Series A crunch instead of the Seed-Investment Glut? Or, you know, the Angel-Seed Glut? (Don’t laugh.) Or: “EXPLOSION!”

Forgive me for engaging in nothing more than a game of semantics, but I majored in English literature in college. Dissecting words, their meanings, and why certain diction is used in describing specific situations is more appealing to me than a jungle juice-soaked weekend in Vegas.

What I tried doing in my piece for Technically Baltimore was reframe the conversation. If a crunch is a shortage, then I don’t want to call this a Series A crunch. (Insert refutations by reporters/tech big-wigs—with far more experience/talent than a 24-year-old—asserting that all I’m doing is whining.)

Let’s call this something that focuses on the problem, namely: the deleterious effect had on startups when too many angel investors engage in seed deals, inflating companies’ relative worth, and, perhaps, founders’ dreams and aspirations.

Over the last four years or so, we’ve seen the volume of seed deals balloon. This “crunch” is now happening thanks to “pesky angel investors flinging dollar bills harder than Rick Ross out of a Maybach’s front, driver-side window, #LIKEABOSS.”

What that has created is an issue of supply and demand. With so many startups having received smaller rounds of seed financing, that means there are now more startups shooting for a limited amount of Series A funding. A portion of those startups are crappy startups that don’t deserve money, period.

Others, however—ones perhaps worthy of, and in need of, more investment dollars—will garner no attention from Series A investors. Which means those startups will receive no more funding. Which means those startups become subject to fortune (as well as a caffeine drip and the relative worth of whatever they’re selling). Will they make enough money to keep operating, or will they be forced to close shop? (Remember when unemployment was below 7 percent?)

CB Insights’ latest report shows that the volume of Series A deals in Q4 of 2012 increased.** So why the crunch?

Let’s pick a word that shines the spotlight on the problem: far, far too many seed deals.

*Rick Ross GIF unrelated to aforementioned crunch.

**Yes, yes, I KNOW even the smallest increase in Series A deals won’t alleviate the painful money-strapped smackdown many a startup will face as 2013 continues.

[Insert Title of Another Digital Trends Piece Here]

Speaking about new technologies that have the potential to significantly or irrevocably alter the state of journalism in the twenty-first century is an exercise in both grandstanding and educated speculation—primarily because we don’t exactly know what’s going to alter that state. (Case in point: the exponential growth of the photo-sharing site Pinterest, and the recent move by Flickr to disable pinning of copyrighted images.) This isn’t to say the matter isn’t worth discussing, which is precisely why February’s Carnival of Journalism asks what “emerging technology or digital trend  … will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead?” I’d like to argue that the second, qualifying question—“How do you see it playing out in terms of applications by journalists?”—is the more robust, and tricky, question to answer.

As an example, think back to last week when this story surfaced on Jim Romenesko’s blog: Nick O’Neill accused Forbes writer Kashmir Hill of stealing author Charles Duhigg’s work. An excerpt from Duhigg’s forthcoming book (The Power of Habit will be on bookstore shelves tomorrow) was published in The New York Times Magazine; Hill, according to O’Neill, “cut out the crap and got to the real shocker of the story,” something that grabbed her “a mind boggling 680,000 page views, a number that can literally make a writer’s career.” O’Neill’s fundamental question: “When someone else spends a significant amount of time to research and develop something, is it not them that deserves the majority of the recognition?” (Read Romenesko’s post, linked to in the first sentence of this paragraph. He has responses from all three parties, including Hill’s counter-argument that she provided plenty of in-story recognition of Duhigg and for his work.)

The digital trend here is one that has been around: linking and “repackaging” stories. Nieman Journalism Lab today published a good read by Jonathan Stray on the value of linking to other stories. But the essence of the matter comes down to the nature of journalism itself: sniffing out stories, conducting interviews and research with sources, and publishing a wholly original work. In the digital age, original works can be of the traditional variety or an amalgamation of information collected from previously published articles, which are then linked to, and this is what we call attribution. (By the way, I think both have merit. To be clear, plagiarism—what would have been, in this example, Hill’s taking Duhigg’s words without attributing him by name and without using quotation marks, which she did not do—is blatantly wrong, for professional and ethical reasons.)

How this might impact journalism rests squarely upon our interpretation of the act of reporting itself. Or, in other words, in a digital age, is information free?* What we gain by linking and repackaging are, respectively, more thorough and robust articles and a wider readership for certain stories. Depending upon the subject matter of said stories, we might view repackaging as a necessary function as it relates to our mission as journalists: exposing truths and drawing people’s focus to issues of paramount importance. (Another Nieman article to read: On ProPublica and “aggregation in the people’s interest.”)

But what complicates this interpretation somewhat—and what would complicate such an interpretation of a well known digital trend if the interpretation gained legs, so to speak—is economics. Ideas, and information, are not scarce goods, as economists would say. And if we behave as strict adherents to that rule, then the question of what journalists are worth, monetarily speaking, gets completely exploded. (Refer to last month’s Carnival topic, when we wondered if good journalists can be good capitalists; my sense is that no one wants to admit they are a capitalist, unless, of course, it’s at the risk of not receiving a check for a published article.)

Interesting to consider is a wider-scale, slightly adapted version of something like Spot.Us,** which would take the digital trend here—linking, repackaging—and ensure that compensation went to both the repackaging author and the writer whose material was repackaged. If that were the case, I wonder how many allegations of work-stealing would get thrown around.

*This is the point where some people will probably stop reading, as I always end up taking these Carnival of Journalism topics and turning them into questions better left to brandy-drinking sessions in fireplace-bedecked rooms replete with high-backed leather chairs. (If you have one of these rooms, please, let me know.)

**SHAMELESS PLUG TIME! I am still seeking funding to complete a story about a Mississippi cyclist struck from behind by a car, an accident which put her in the hospital and therapy for months, and has resulted in a frustrating series of events with the state’s legal system, mainly because of the qualifications of Mississippi’s three-feet law.

Help! (…Me Write an Article)

Friends, Americans, Countrywomen and Countrymen:

It has been eight months since I graduated from college and embraced a new life as a poor writer. I’m living a dream that has been romanticized through the years in a number of beautiful ways: expatriate living in France; participation in a Spanish civil war; eating your body weight in Ramen noodles. Believe it or not, though, things are coming together. For those who don’t know, I’ve been employed at Baltimore’s Urbanite magazine since May, writing articles for the print magazine and doing all things digital media (think: The Facebook, and a bunch of technical terms about “unique visitors” that Google itself can’t explain properly). I’ve also been holding my own as a freelance writer. And since October, I’ve been reporting and doing research on my biggest story to date:*

In May 2011, Jan Morgan—wife, retired physician, Florida Ironman competitor—was struck from behind by a vehicle while biking a stretch of Mississippi 50. At the time, the driver was on her cell phone and, before finally being forced from her car, ran over Jan’s head a second time. For nearly a month, Jan was in a sedative-induced coma, after which she spent five weeks in an Atlanta hospital recovering, and then another three months in therapy. By striking Jan with her car, the driver violated Mississippi’s three-foot-law, which mandates that motor vehicles leave three feet of buffer space between them and cyclists. Violating the law results in a misdemeanor charge. However, on the recommendation of Mississippi law enforcement, Jan filed a charge of simple assault with a deadly weapon against the driver, who was found guilty—and was then handed a $50 fine, which she is now appealing. (In other words, the judge knocked down the sentence.)

You can find out more on the story, set to be published in The Oxford American magazine, here. That’s where you come in. Funding for the story is limited; The Oxford American, while a national magazine award winner, operates on a tight budget. I’m using Spot.Us to seek the additional funding needed for a reporting trip to Mississippi.** And I’d like your help. Any amount contribution, even just a dollar, helps out with airline and rental car costs. Think of it as an investment in something exponentially less volatile than a wild housing market.

Here’s how this all works:
1. Go to my pitch at: http://spot.us/pitches/1138-a-sunday-bike-ride-and-then-a-coma
2. Click the large button that says “Free Credits” or “Fund This” on the right. You’ll have to register/login.
3. Take the quick questionnaire or contribute via credit card or PayPal.
4. On the check out page, make sure everything adds up correctly, applying your credits (aka how much it will bill you).
5. Repeat steps 1-4 for another survey, or pass steps 1-4 along to others.

Thank you, thank you.

Yours in community-funded journalism,

Andrew

*Hat tip to Pat Taylor for posting a Reddit link about this to my Facebook wall many months back.

**The due date for an initial draft is in early March, which, depending on how the fundraising goes, might make it difficult to get to Mississippi this month for on-the-ground reporting. I’m now coordinating with sources there (as well as assembling a nice phone bill courtesy of many interviews…) to obtain certain documents I need. Check my Spot.Us page for updates, but I’m currently mulling over using the money to facilitate a trip after the initial draft is finished, with the reporting going toward a series of Web-only articles. More to come soon.

Digital … It Ain’t Dirty

I’m working my way through The Digital Divide, a collection of essays devoted to debating the influence social media and networking has on our 21st-century world, edited by The Dumbest Generation author Mark Bauerlein. Instead of starting from page one, however, I jumped to Clay Shirky’s essay in the back, a piece adapted from his book Cognitive Surplus. Shirky, who teaches in the graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, is something of a digital luminary. His mission, it seems, doesn’t seem to be one of conversion to new media for its own sake; rather, it’s more of a focus on why the digital sphere—and, specifically, social networking and the myriad manifestations of it—radically alters the definition of media in today’s world.

What we’ve experienced over the decade is the democratization of publishing. Actually, it’s something we’ve been experiencing for little more than half a millennium. Shirky’s essay notes how, in the aftermath of Gutenberg’s innovation of moveable type, it became dramatically easier to publish books. In economic parlance, barriers to entry were, and have been ever since, steadily removed from the world of publishing. (Shirky calls it “Gutenberg economics.”) What that meant was a deep shift in how we philosophically understood publishing—and that deep shift, for perhaps the last decade, but especially since 2008, has altered the way we view and do journalism. In short, publishing became easy. In fact, it always was. It just appeared more difficult because of the economic costs incurred. But as the economy of publishing becomes more manageable for “average people” (my term), the conceit that publishing is something best left to professionals—the romanticism of it, if you will—rapidly evaporates. As it relates specifically to mass media, Shirky describes this as a rethinking of media as not just something people consume, but something that everyone uses. One-click publishing, literally, means that society is no longer segmented into people who make content and people who consume it.

For journalism, this breakdown in distinction has become clearer: journalists are no longer the only people who produce news. I touched on this a bit with my post about The Atlantic’s great successes in navigating a digital-first publishing environment, but the broader implications of Shirky’s argument have yet to reverberate across the journalistic spectrum. Generally speaking, we still look at journalism as something only “gatekeepers” can do, regardless of how many people are doing journalism. “Citizen journalists,” “bloggers,” people posting on comment boards—these are dirty words, with equally unflattering connotations. (We’re all guilty of it, regardless of how digitally native we are: I bristle upon hearing people who don’t write professionally pronouncing themselves “writers.”) Indeed, many who make the argument against blogging, for instance, point out that it allows novices, people of no talent—idiots—to share their thoughts almost instantaneously to an Internet environment ready to lap up the tattered scraps from the hallowed Table of Publishing.

But—and let’s just stick with the term—idiots aren’t some new phenomena to the 21st century. What’s new is the ability for anyone to share thoughts easily. And while, yes, that makes it more difficult to sift through content to find the bits most reliable and valuable, what it does on a fundamental level is allow for true participation. People with worthwhile thoughts are no longer relegated to dinner-table conversations. (Just look at The New Inquiry, or Thought Catalog.) Journalists, and the industry as a whole, should embrace this concept. (Joy Mayer calls this news as “a conversation rather than a series of stories.”) At its base, journalism is about making connections with communities of people, sharing information, analyzing what we learn and know, and assisting others in making thoughtful decisions about the world. Why should we be turned off from any technology that makes this easier?

What “Digital-First” Really Means

The Atlantic, reports Mashable, made $1.8 million in 2010, marking that year as the magazine’s first profitable one in decades. The news also represents a marked turnaround from how The Atlantic had been existing—with a generous splash of red ink on its balance sheet—especially in the years preceding James Bennett’s hiring as editor in chief in 2006 and Justin Smith’s hiring in 2007. As the story says, it was Smith, as president of Atlantic Consumer Media, who announced that The Atlantic was going to adopt a digital-first strategy. Mashable staffer Lauren Indvik includes this quote from Smith: “We decided to prioritize digital over everything else. We were no longer going to be ‘The Atlantic, which happens to do digital.’ We were going to be a digital media company that also published The Atlantic magazine.”

Kudos to Indvik for including that quote, because Smith’s determinedly different focus away from print and toward digital—and in October 2007, a full year before the housing market would bottom out and, along with it, the American economy and the print media model—is, as the data suggests, the very thing that saved The Atlantic.

In all likelihood, not shifting to a digital-first mentality wouldn’t have spelled imminent doom for the publication. But let’s be clear about what the convergence of digital media with traditional reporting means for journalism as a whole: the 21st century is the era of true accountability journalism. It used to be that journalists and news organizations acted as arbitrary keepers of information; journalists, by the power they wielded at large metropolitan newspapers or respected national consumer magazines, outlined the agenda for local communities, big cities, and the entire country. No longer is this case. Consider what John Paton, the CEO of the Journal Register Company, says of news reporting today:

“…[W]e no longer see our job as the old-fashioned agenda-setter or gatekeepers of information for our communities. Clearly communities know what they want and can organize themselves around issues and activities.”

This is the type of bottom-up accountability not typically seen in journalism. It’s the very real sense that we—journalists—write for audiences. And we always have, of course. But while journalistic enterprises used to dictate the importance, flow, and type of information that readers received, in today’s age of digitally-charged media, that model no longer exists. Readers will be—and already are—shunning news that doesn’t accurately reflect their concerns or what they consider important. By extension, journalists have suddenly realized that they produce a product, and, as is the case with all products, people don’t buy things they think have little value to them.  The Atlantic, by its actions—creating new verticals with the Atlantic Wire and Atlantic Cities, opening up the editorial process of the Wire to allow readers to pitch stories, removing TheAtlantic.com‘s paywall, curating a Twitter feed, etc.—has recognized this, and that’s what is making that particular publication stronger than ever before.*

And this, ultimately, is what is so important about a digital-first approach to journalism today. Not only does it encourage innovation—bridging divides between developers and journalists so that the two groups can come together to figure out how to make journalism profitable—but it also places emphasis on the importance of reader engagement. For a long time, prestigious publications could remain as insulated from and isolated of their readers as they wanted to be. Facebook, Twitter, other forms of social media, blogging, Instagram—these are just some of the myriad ways that no longer allow that sort of isolation to take place. Inclusivity, not exclusivity, is the new journalistic paradigm. Hierarchy, for better or for worse, is out. And while we’ll always need journalists—people who intentionally spend large swaths of time combing through records, conducting interviews, thinking, analyzing, reporting, and writing—readers won’t always necessarily need journalism as we’ve traditionally known it.

Embracing this new paradigm is the way newsrooms must go in 2012 and beyond. To prop up the traditional model will only sow the seeds of failure.

*Lest you think I’m another disrespectful youth, I’m aware that the likes of Mark Twain and Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the damn thing.

Programmers, Here’s What I Want

This month’s Carnival of Journalism has graciously asked for my opinion on what gift I’d most enjoy from a programmer or developer, which is a relief, since Mother has informed me that my no longer being a ward of her home un-entitles me to things like Legos wrapped in reindeer-covered colored paper.

It’s an uncomplicated gift, and one I think many journalists of the digital age would like to find waiting for them underneath their Festivus poles: a design for an online newspaper or magazine site that not only looks great, but makes it easy for editors to categorize and organize stories online while being simple for users to find the latest news first.

Essentially, I’m reiterating the point Joshua Benton made over at Nieman Lab back in July—in response to Andy Rutledge’s proposed redesign of The New York Times’s homepage—which was: “the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems.”

Which, well, sucks. It’s difficult to envision how an aesthetically-pleasing website—something that looks like Rutledge’s proposed redesign, which is now available as the WooTheme “Currents”—would alleviate the main problems still existing on newspaper websites. (For a great primer on some of these problems, check out Lauren Rabaino’s post on the life cycle of a newspaper story on 10,000 Words.) The first is how to give editorial staff ultimate control of which stories are populated to specific sections of the website; the second is how to ensure that readers can view breaking news without burying related articles or other news items; and the third, as I see it, is how you do this automatically so teams of editors don’t need to babysit the back-end of a content management system all day.

On smaller-scale sites, something like a weekly college newspaper, using some sort of CMS that forces editors to drag and drop stories into specific locations on the homepage and section pages (I’m thinking of my experiences with Polopoly’s College Publisher 5) makes sense: the editorial staff has ultimate control of where stories are populated on site (problem one), and because problem one is solved, problem two becomes easy to navigate, since editors can move latest news to the top of the homepage. Of course, performing these tasks manually means problem three still exists.

What makes the overarching problem particularly vexing is that smaller-scale iterations of such a phantom site are in use and mitigate all three issues. So, by way of example a la Benton, let’s stick with the website for The New York Times. That site is updated with lots of stories all day, and stories are accompanied by photos, slideshows, videos, blog posts, and user comments, among other things. Taken individually, it’s easy to point to aesthetically-pleasing sites that solve my aforementioned three problems. Blog posts? Look at Mashable. Photos? How about ThemeForest’s “Classica” or “Gridlocked” themes.

But how do we combine a multitude of elements into a large-scale news operation’s website so that editors can maintain control of where stories populate—in the print world, where stories are placed—without preventing readers from finding the breaking news and frees up editors from finagling with article placement on a site ad nauseum?

Programmers/developers … that’s what I want. I can’t promise lavish pay. I can’t even promise milk and cookies. Bourbon, though, I can do.

March to Your Own Beat

Lame excuses notwithstanding—like, “The dog ate my computer”—today will be a double-post day, something I must do to get myself back on track after a week’s time of neglect.*

Interesting story from Gigaom on the service Chartbeat, which provides real-time analytics of a webpage’s click statistics (among other nuggets of information). Real-time is the differentiating factor here, as Google Analytics already provides users with statistics referring to pageviews, unique visitors, content clicks, referring sites, and the like; Chartbeat provides a minute-by-minute analysis of how viewers of a website interact with the content: where they click, precisely when they do click, how long they remain on certain pages, and whether they’re commenting or not (provided commenting is a feature provided by said website).

Newsbeat is the newsroom equivalent employed by several reputable publications and television outlets, including Fast Company, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera.**

The service, for those organizations that can afford it—I would add, as an aside, that for smaller media outfits, the monthly cost of Newsbeat probably will not ever justify its overall value, unless online revenues rose in proportion—seems to be the worthwhile alternative to Google Analytics, or at least an additional layer of reader information to garner more precise thoughts about a website’s content that extrapolation from day-to-day data offered by Google’s service can’t always offer (unless you’re a psychic, or that boy wizard who stopped making movies and has now left countless teenagers without a purpose in life).

Of particular note, though, is what Chartbeat general manager Tony Haile called attention to with respect to one news outlet’s experience with Newsbeat. From Gigaom:

“And not only will this data not accelerate a “race to the bottom” with respect to content, Haile says it can actually help do the opposite: the Chartbeat GM says that one of the major publishers the company was working with looked at the data from Newsbeat and saw that two stories were getting large amounts of traffic: one about a case of infanticide in France and the other about Iraq. The number one story on the front page of the site was about season two of The Jersey Shore, and it was getting hardly any traffic at all — and neither of the two most-read stories were above the fold on the home page.”

The fact that a story about the Jersey Shore is getting no traffic isn’t the remarkable thing here—necessarily. What the anecdote argues implicitly against is a crazed obsession with formatting headlines, story summaries, and even the first paragraphs of stories themselves so that they conform to Google’s SEO standards. Journalists decrying such a practice as something that dumbs down news or misleads readers is not new.

But consider, for a moment, how news organizations for a decade have tended to interpret their analytics information. A great emphasis was placed on unique visitors, or, in Google Analytics’ (now rather meaningless) jargon, absolute unique visitors, and rightly so. The thinking, it went, was any increase in unique visitors would enable a news outlet to charge more for their online advertising, since more eyeballs were hitting a site. Yes.

But also consider how such a philosophy could be drastically misleading. What an over-emphasis on SEO-friendly language and counting uniques could do is force a news organization to lose site of its audience (especially those aforementioned smaller news outlets, with limited audiences on the basis of where they publish and who the readership comprises). What becomes paramount is any large number of eyeballs on a site, irrespective of their relative number of pageviews (one million visitors could be looking at just one page) or their relative time spent on your site (one million visitors could be spending five seconds each just looking at the headline). It’s a trend the latest Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s digital media report calls “fly-bys.” From the report:

“[Seattle-based ScoutAnalytics' Matt] Shanahan points to a website for a 90,000-circulation newspaper that serves a medium-sized city on the East Coast. … This site gets around 450,000 unique visitors a month. … The most loyal are the ‘fans,’ who visit at least twice a week. … and finally, the ‘fly-bys,’ who come about once a month. … The most loyal visitors are a very small part of the overall audience: Fans make up about 4 percent of the total number of visitors. … [But] [f]ans, despite their small numbers, were responsible for more than 55 percent of the site’s traffic. Fly-bys—those people most likely to come from a search engine or blog—clicked on barely three pages a month. Overall, each fan generated about 50 times more traffic per person than a fly-by.

As Hamlet would say, there’s the rub. What Newsbeat could effectively do is allow news organizations to better target and tailor their content for their respective audiences—what their readers spend time reading and commenting on, and then work to provide expanded coverage, a weekly blog, several Web-only stories, etc. This is significant for two reasons: one, newsrooms will get away from (I believe is) the misguided practice of throwing keywords (“LADY GAGA!”; “HOT PICS!”; “RAW SEX!!!!”)*** on a story just because; and two, it forces advertisers looking to purchase space online to pay less attention to how many clicks their ads are getting and more attention to how many eyeballs of value see their advertisements. One million readers means nothing if your ad is embedded on a website’s “Food” page and those million readers all sit on one story on the website’s “Culture” page; I’ll take 50,000 loyal eyeballs over that, especially if each one of those pairs of eyeballs is spending upwards of four or five minutes on my webpages.

And if the advertisers don’t buy it, just ask them how many clicks they ever received on print advertisements. Or how many of those print advertisements translated directly into a sale.

*I was busy last week readying the Urbanite website for the online launch of our August print publication. While I’m biased, I recommend giving this issue a read: we have a rather humorous account of the origins of Defenders’ Day, as related by local comedian Jim Meyer; a thoughtful reconsideration of why Maryland still allows for the death penalty, by our Crime & Punishment series author Michael Corbin; and what joys accompany liveaboard life, by assistant editor Rebecca Messner. Oh, and I have a few small bylines as well.

**Yes, I did just call Al Jazeera reputable. Unlike Bill O’Reilly (whom, I should add, I watched regularly when I still chose to have a television), I don’t think they’re fighting a secret media jihad for control of my fanatical instincts. If anything, they, more than other people who profess to uphold it, still support a free marketplace of ideas, as well as the idea that shoddy or fanatical ideas will eventually be shouted down.

***Clearly, I’m being hyperbolic. Newsrooms don’t scream “RAW SEX!!!” They scream, “FIRE THE EDITING STAFF! WE NEED TO SAVE MONEY!!!”

Style, Dammit. F#%@ing Style.

If you’ve ever been prescribed an overly crippling dose of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, then you know how painful it is to read prose about (sometimes dated) grammatical rules written in a stilted, stuffy cadence circa 1918.

Enter, thankfully, The Elements of F*cking Style, published this year and written by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen. While the scope and aim of the work is similar to that of the original Elements of Style—and while a subtle, persnickety insistence on prescriptive practices finds its way into the book, such as the authors’ assertion that “The active voice is the only way to fly”—F*cking Style employs a seemingly age-old trick to cajole, coerce, and even downright convince the most ungrammatical of grammar non-nerds to leaf through its pages: “using sex, drugs, and fucking swearing. . . . Because we’re into that shit.”

A quick glance through the “Table of Fucking Contents” illustrates that the book covers the basics, as it were. Such sections as “Commas are fucking fun,” “A colon is more than an organ that gets cancer,” and “Pronouns are a real bitch” walk readers through the usefulness of, say, using commas “to parenthesize shit,” and a general adherence to grammatical rules that will keep your writing clear and cogent. Subsequent sections delve more deeply into instructions on writing, with pages devoted to using “strong, definite language in your writing”—in an attempt to “Make that sentence your bitch”—parallel construction, organized under the apt (I guess) moniker of “Symmetry is the tits,” and organization of words, thoughts, and paragraphs, under the section “Incest need not stay relegated to European monarchies; keep related words together for clarity.” A real strength of this work is the entire section on “Words Your Bound to Fuck Up,” a helpful guide to its and it’s; they’re, their, and there; and affect and effect—among other words—that we have all fucked up at some point or another.

However, the talent the authors display for vivid imagery and example writing that would make your mother cringe (as well as get her to understand grammar rules) makes the book funnier than a night of shitty Dane Cook stand-up on Comedy Central. For instance:

On symmetry: “All right, remember what we wrote about half a page ago regarding symmetry? About how it sucks big, flaccid penis and stinks of amateurism?”

On the positive form: “It was not that I studied more, but that I smoked pot less.”

On not “fuck[ing] up the coordination of number between subject and verb”: “Everything I loved about her—the pert breasts, the deviant sexuality, the incessant need to videotape our lovemaking—is everything that haunts me.”

As I read my way through F*cking Style, I will no doubt arrive at points where that aforementioned subtle, persnickety insistence on prescriptive practices inspires a bit of blog-mediated rambling and arguing. At which point, I hope, you will join me—for or against—in the fucking comments section, and criticize or applaud the shit out of whatever the fuck it is I’m saying.